Keep the End in Mind (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part X)

We don’t have long to raise our kids. In my experience, most of my actual hours with my kids were before they were ten or eleven. They are increasingly out in the world and involved in after- school activities as they get older. So it makes sense to decide what’s important to do with our kids, and what to teach them, as early in their lives as possible.

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I’m so grateful now for every hour I had with them. I don’t regret not earning more money, I do regret the times my own anxieties and preoccupations kept me from being more in-the-moment with them, more playful. I don’t regret putting my career on the back burner, I do regret sometimes being so task-oriented at home that I didn’t take more time to be alone with each child.

This series of ten posts on what I’m glad we did for them has only scratched the surface, but I hope the posts can help parents think through what matters and how they want to work that into their family life. It’s good to ask ourselves questions like:scan0023

  • What world-view do I want my kids to have and what institutions will help me in forming that?
  • What educational setting is right for my child?
  • What books do I want to make sure I have read to them, or they read to themselves?
  • What vacation and service experiences do I want them to have?
  • What kind of relationships do I want them to have with their parents and with each other?
  • What kind of relationships do I want them to have with extended family?
  • What pace of life is right for us, and how do we protect ourselves from too much activity outside our home, or not enough involvement outside our home?
  • What kind of habits do we need to practice to protect their health – physical, emotional and spiritual?
  • What family patterns have come down to us from previous generations that we want to continue, and which ones will we need help breaking?
  • What destructive forces threaten us, and how do we fight them?

It’s such a joy to see our grown kids thrive, such a heartbreak when they don’t.  I know people who were very intentional about how they raised their kids, yet their children are not doing well, not thriving or happy.

Parents can’t take the whole rap for that. There are aspects of our culture that are hostile to family life, and our kids make their own choices. There aren’t any guarantees in this parenting business. But keeping the end in mind – that time when they leave home for good – can help us make the most of each precious day.

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We Were the Grownups (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part IX)

 

Have you ever noticed how often the kids are smarter than the adults in many comedies? I get that it’s a humorous device – reversal– but on many shows, it’s the norm. With monotonous regularity, clueless parents are outwitted and talked down to by their precocious, mouthy kids.Image result for disrespectful kids I find this beyond annoying because this barrage of parental ineptitude undermines respect.

Kids need to respect their parents to develop to maturity without a string of developmental hitches too numerous to count. It’s terrifying for a child to constantly feel smarter than his parents, to have no one to look up to or receive limits from.

I’m not saying we need to be smarter than our kids in all areas of life – my kids have been more tech savvy than me for years. I’m talking about respect. Kids are emotionally, spiritually and physically safer when they have parents who are morally worthy of respect and willing to maintain authority.

I’m glad that for most of the time at least, my husband and I were the grownups in our family. I recall one of my boys, in middle school at the time, saying, “You and Dad aren’t as cool as some parents. If I get sarcastic and joke around you won’t put up with it.” I considered that a good sign that we were holding our own.Image result for disrespectful kids

Of course we’re not going to get respect if we’re not living respectable lives. But there’s more to it than that. I think maintaining our children’s respect includes:

  1. Making expectations clear. In a culture where there is widespread incivility, we can’t assume our kids know how to behave. We need to spell it out: “I expect you to say hello to us when you come in the door,” for example.
  2. Pulling consequences when kids don’t follow instructions. For example, “You kept the car out past curfew last night so you can’t drive it for the rest of this month.”
  3. Letting them know they have an emotional impact on you. Sometimes kids are so self-absorbed, or feel so powerless, they don’t know that their words have an effect. “When you tell me you hate me that really hurts. I need you to rephrase that.”
  4. Making it clear from the start that you are in charge. I recall my five-year-old trying to organize our home schooling schedule every Monday morning for months. After a weekend of relative freedom, he would resist instructions, and soon be put in a time out until he was willing to correctly answer who was in charge. It wasn’t a great start to the week, but if I hadn’t toughed it out, the rest of the week would have been a lot harder.
  5. Addressing it immediately when kids speak disrespectfully. Rarely is an activity so important that it cannot be stopped to show zero tolerance for bad behavior. Pulling the car over, turning the TV off, ending a game in the middle – that’s what it takes. Kids will treat their future families the way we let them treat us.
  6. Refusing to let ourselves need our kids. Parents who need their kids to be pleased with them cannot guide them. Parents who use their kids for friendship, for ammunition against a spouse, or to fulfill some unmet ambition of their own, cannot make the unpopular choices that a good parent needs to make.

It can be exhausting to be the grown up, but it is so important for our kids’ development, and our own self-respect, that it is well worth the effort.

 

Making Time for Extended Family (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part VIII)

My kids always loved big family gatherings.  All the cousins ran around in a screaming pack, several generations of adults conversed happily past normal bedtime, and food was on low tables for unsupervised grazing.

My kids seemed to experience a wild joy at these holiday and birthday get-togethers. I recall, for example, a time in a restaurant with my in-laws when our normally well behaved kids started running, squealing, around the table.  They had the exuberance and oblivion of puppies.scan0021

For years, my sister and I couldn’t get our kids separated to go home without two or three of them dissolving into fits of tears and having to be carried. We would try to say goodbye to one another over the racket, squinting through the flailing arms of our heartbroken toddlers. They didn’t see why we couldn’t all live together. (Maybe we should!)

I think that being with extended family is when many of our kids feel happiest, safest and most loved. Even in conflicted families, bonds are ancient and powerful, and being together shuts out the other stresses of life for a while.

Not that it’s always easy to get together. My husband’s family is six hours away in Chicago, and even with my family here in Cincinnati it’s a logistic miracle when we get everyone together. Nevertheless, it’s always worth the effort.scan0020

When our kids were little, it took heroic efforts to get them to Chicago. We could cram three kids, three car seats, strollers, portable cribs, suitcases, diapers and baby food, into our van and head north several times a year, alternating families for Christmas and Thanksgiving. So every second Christmas, the load was doubled with huge opaque bags of stockings and gifts that Santa wanted them to open in Chicago on Christmas morning. Watching the joy of reunion between our kids and their grandparents, aunties, uncles and cousins, was more than enough payoff for all the work of getting there.

I feared that our children would have less desire to get together as they got older, but now that they’re young adults, they seem to enjoy the sense of belonging more than ever. I’m surprised at how rarely they have ever missed a gathering. Short of being overseas or unable to get off work, they have made it a priority.img_20160408_190559646

I’m aware that many people have family so far away they can’t get together as often as they would like. Many more have families they just don’t enjoy being with. Some families are so toxic that the most responsible thing people can do is keep their kids away. I think in these cases, it’s well worth the effort to cultivate an ‘alternative’ family, a group of people you devote yourself to over time, who are close enough and available enough to spend holidays with.

I’ve noticed that at the best of these gatherings, there is not a lot of talk about how anyone is performing at work or at school. It’s a blessed break to be with a group of people who accept you because of who you are, and don’t measure you for your achievements. That, ideally, is the greatest gift of extended family –  it’s the crowd that loves us no matter what.

We Had Fun on Vacation (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part VI)

Nothing connects a family more than having a good time together. I am wholly indebted to my husband, Bill, for being a great vacation planner. He is far less cheap than me, and much more fun. Our lives are the richer for it.

He grew up taking two week vacations every summer, when his teacher parents crammed five kids in a station wagon and took to the highway on some really ambitious treks. They covered every corner of the United States and have wonderful stories of close calls with bears, writing limericks in cramped cabins together on rainy days, and stuffing the littlest kid between the two back seats, which came to be known as ‘the laughing place.’

scanArmed with these bracing experiences, Bill was downright heroic about getting kids out to experience the world. When two of them were tiny babies and the other a slippery toddler, he announced, “We’re going somewhere, even if it’s only an hour away.”

It was about an hour away, but it was still an epic journey, outnumbered as we were by needy little creatures and swamped with the equipment of baby survival: a double stroller, a single stroller, a huge diaper bag, portable cribs.  General Butler State Park Lodge didn’t know what hit it when we showed up for dinner with all three babies, requesting several highchairs and a large corner for a Pack-and-Play, the holding tank that enabled the adults to eat too.

There’s nothing relaxing about a vacation like that. I’ve cynically observed that a vacation with little kids means doing the same thing you always do in less convenient settings, but it’s still worth it. The scene is changed, there’s a break from routine, and even if the fun activities aren’t always all that fun, your kids are learning to behave out in the world. They learn that disciplines like sitting still, standing in line, or waiting for your food, generally have some pretty good payoffs.

By the time they were four and six, our boys were more or less keeping up with adults all day long. I’ll never forget seeing them all with their little Sesame Street backpacks and roller suitcases, striding through the San Francisco Airport when Uncle Bob brought us all to the west coast on his frequent flyer points.

When they were nine and eleven we did our tour of dazzling western National Parks, and I was really pleased to see how well they kept up on a guided five-mile hike up a mountain at Glacier Peace Park. They loved the waterfalls, the changing terrain, the walls of ice when we reached a glacier. That was a time that is etched in memory, one of those iconic family experiences.vacjul07 135

So was going on a mission trip together to put solar panels on schools in Honduran Villages when they were fourteen and twelve. That was a wonderful time of all working together to help someone else, while navigating a difficult culture and some hardships. I’m so glad we had that experience of serving together and depending on each other.

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Carrying solar equipment up a hill to a school on an island in Honduras.

Not everyone has the luxury of traveling far, but even camping in a local campground for a few days, or exploring a different city while staying with family or friends for a weekend, can be a great adventure for kids. It isn’t how expensive or exotic the vacation is that matters, it’s the magic that happens when you are exploring and having fun together.

 

Just Read the Bible (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part V)

I could write a long list of things I wish I’d done for our kids, but if I had to pick one thing I’m glad I did do, I would have no trouble choosing: I read to them from the Bible each morning.

Pekka Halonen, Children Reading

When our oldest was two, we got a little red toddler Bible, (The First Step Bible, Mack Thomas, Gold’n’Honey Books.)  It was the simplest, most pre-school friendly Bible story book I’ve ever found.  It’s falling apart now; but it’s still the first thing I read to any little visitor who comes over.

It was easy to read the Bible to our three boys during their early school years because we home-schooled them.  Before academic work started, we settled on the couch and I read to them from an NIV simplified to a third grade reading level, (NIV Kids’ Study Bible, Zonderkidz.) Sometimes I would have them retell the story to me, or act it out during a second reading.

Most people I knew who were homeschooling seemed to be teaching the Bible in the same way they taught academic subjects, with workbooks and lesson plans.   I recall asking a wise lady who home-schooled all five of her kids, what curriculum she used.  She answered, “I don’t use curriculum.  I just read them the Bible.  And after I read a passage, I ask them three questions, “Who is wise?”, “Who is foolish?” and, “What do you learn about God?”  That seemed a lot more appealing and sustainable.

When we stopped homeschooling after the primary years, and the boys went to grade school, finding time to read the Bible in the morning was a lot more challenging.  There was no peaceful time when everyone was together in the same room.  I ended up settling into a pattern of reading to them as they ate breakfast.  Sometimes this meant reading the same passage three different times, but we stuck with it.

It got even tougher when they became teenagers.  One liked to sleep in until the very last minute and grab something to eat on his way out the door.  Another was resistant to having to listen to anything in in the morning.  Another  just didn’t want to be told that he had to do anything at all.

My response to all their attitude was some version of, “This book is the story of how God saves people and how he wants us to live, so it’s really important to read it.  Either you read it yourself, or you listen to me read it”.  I didn’t require comment or discussion from them, and I kept commentary to a bare minimum.  I didn’t want to come in between them and their experience of Scripture.

I think this has been a good approach for teenagers.  I let the Bible speak for itself, and if their eyes were glazed and far away as I read, that was their business.  You can only lead the horse to water!

In high school, two of the three boys preferred to read by themselves in the morning, which is the habit I always hoped would form.  The other guy said, “You better keep reading it to me because I know if it’s up to me I won’t make time for it.”  So I read on.

Recently I asked one boy – the one who most resents being told what to do, if he thinks it has been good for him to have the Bible read to him for all these years.  After thinking a moment, he answered, “Yeah.  I think it kept me from doing a lot of stupid stuff.”

 

We Stayed in our Starter Home (10 Things I’m Glad We Did for our Kids Part I)

Anyone who has raised kids can quickly think of the things we wish we had done differently. That can be instructive to younger parents, but what I think is more helpful is to hear what people think they did right. In the next 10 posts, I’ll have a shot at that – what I’m glad we did for our three boys, Daniel, Joshua and Ian, now that they’re all officially adults. (Sort of.) To start with, some thoughts on the location of it all:

Our three-gabled Victorian house was built in 1880, long before this was an urban neighborhood troubled with drug dealers and break-ins. I fell in love with the carved staircase, tiled fireplace and grand old trees.

But by middle class standards it’s small; a fifteen foot square living room, the same sized dining room, a smaller kitchen, three bedrooms. There’s no finished basement with giant-screen TV and sectional couch like our friends in the suburbs have. No second living space, no mudroom. I have dreams of discovering hidden storage closets.

It’s not an investment to have a home in a struggling city neighborhood; we’ve poured money into the place but it’s not worth much more than we paid for it.

Nevertheless, I’m glad we stayed here. We chose it twenty years ago because we wanted the diversity of city life, a short drive downtown for my husband, proximity to our church, and a mortgage that would not require two large salaries. If we had followed the normal pattern of young professionals, we would have moved when we had kids – for more space, more safety, better schools.

Here’s why we’ve decided to stay here:

  1. We’ve had less debt than we would have if we had moved up, which has freed us to give to causes we care about and take some wonderful vacations.
  2. Our kids have had friends who are both rich and poor, black and white, which has been invaluable for them and prepared them well for diverse workplaces.
  3. Less-than-ideal neighborhood schools led us to really examine our values and weigh our options. I ended up home schooling our three boys through the primary years, then we put them in Catholic schools, even though we aren’t Catholic. Both choices have kept our kids in educational settings where our values were taught and they were in caring communities.
  4. A smaller property has freed us up to spend less time on maintenance and more on visiting family and being involved in church and kids’ activities. In other words, we’ve had less time needed for stuff, and more for people. I’m grateful for that.
  5. While I’ve wished for more spaces for guests and holiday meals, I’ve never felt crowded as a family. I like the forced closeness. I’ve known what my kids were up to, what they were watching and how they were speaking to one another. I think we’ve had more conversation than if we had been spread over a bigger house. I think my boys are closer for having shared a bedroom all these years. I’ve offered the oldest our third bedroom, which we use as a study, but he’s always said, “Nope, we’re good.” When we’ve wanted to host more people than we can fit in our house, we put them up in a bed and breakfast about a mile away.
  6. We’ve grown deep roots by staying in one place. We’ve walked to church for 20 years, our kids growing up in its close community of over 300 people. We really know our neighbors, and greet many we see on walks.
  7. There are several families we know who’ve made this conscious decision to stay in the neighborhood, and I think our presence makes a difference. Stressed urban neighborhoods need stable families.

For all these reasons, I think staying in a “starter” home is an option worth considering.