We Scheduled Listening (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part VII)

I’ve had some fabulous experiences of the power of listening and being listened to. They convinced me to make it a priority to listen well to my kids:

  • There was this class at church, “Listening for Heaven’s Sake,” where we worked in groups of four to practice new skills. ie. Person 1 shares something personal with Person 2, Person 2 listens and summarizes what she heard, including any feelings she picked up. 3 and 4 then give feedback to 2. Then everyone switches. I’ve never had a more effective learning experience, or realized how much I needed to improve at listening.
  • I was hired to teach, “Magic Circle,” a program where young kids go around a circle, taking turns saying something in response to a prompt, such as, “A time I felt happy.” Only the kid holding the stuffed animal gets to speak. After everyone has had a turn, they go around again, and each kid says something they heard another kid say. It was so powerful for the children to experience being heard that I started using a similar approach with older groups.  One teenage guy, super attractive and popular, told me that our weekly check-in was the only time all week when he felt that someone really listened to him.
  • I got a Masters’ in Counseling from the University of Cincinnati, and the program had an excellent emphasis on empathy, warmth and respect. We practiced listening, and making only,  empathetic responses for twenty minutes at a time. It’s amazing how deep people will go when you only listen and reflect back what you’re hearing.

After all that, I’ve had no excuse as a mom not to listen well to my kids. But even after those great experiences, I find that two things can get in the way:

  1. Being too busy: You’re not going to listen well when you are task driven. And kids, especially teenagers, don’t spill their guts on your schedule. It’s on theirs, when they’re sensing a good connection. So I make sure to sit down with them at dinner most nights, ask a few questions, and mostly listen. Even if they’re eating at different times, I try for a few minutes a day with each one, when they have put down their devices and taken a break from homework. If they seem troubled and don’t talk about it, I’ll try again later when they’re alone, ask for five minutes and say something like, “Tell me about your life.” If they still don’t have much to say, I try not to push. They’ll come  when they’re ready, but we have to keep giving them windows.
  2. Giving too much advice: Nothing kills disclosure faster than unwanted advice. So, for example, if a kid admits they have fallen behind in their school work, it’s hard not to say, “Have you asked for help/communicated with your teacher/ stopped watching four episodes of ‘The Flash’ in a row?” When I bite my tongue though, and listen, then say something like, “Sounds like you’re feeling trapped under the load,” then I usually end up hearing them come up with their own plan for how they’ll climb out. Of course, younger kids will need more direction, but they still need to be listened to first.

It is so painful when communication between parents and kids breaks down. It’s not always the parents’ fault. Sometimes kids are hiding something, or pulling away in clumsy reaches toward maturity. But there is an incredibly strong bond between parents and kids; that’s how God made us. So careful, patient listening is going to lead to a good connection in most situations. Eventually!

 

 

We Raised our Kids in Church (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part IV)

chpc exteriorWhen our first baby was three months old, we moved around the corner from our church. That big stone building with its bell tower crowning the hilltop has been our rock, our main institution.

School involvement comes and goes. Jobs end. Kids age out of sports leagues and bands. All those relationships connected to those things fade, but church goes on, because no one outgrows their deep need for God.

I can’t begin to describe how our church has enriched the lives of our family.

As a person who grew up without the church, it was a constant surprise to me to discover people ready to pour out their time, talent and love on my kids. It began as soon as they were born. We had three babies in 20 months – mathematically impossible unless you have premature twins before your toddler turns two!  In the crazy days following the twins’ homecoming, people from the church whom we barely knew were cleaning the house, bringing us meals, even doing our laundry.

That was just the beginning. There was a nursery where we could leave them all safe in the arms of one-on-one caregivers while we sank exhausted into a pew and enjoyed the stillness of undisturbed worship.

As our babies grew, church became their comfortable second home. That was where they had big rooms to run around, cool toys to play with, crowds to charm.  They were introduced to good music.  I recall taking my one-year-old to his first concert.  We wondered if he was old enough to behave, and were delighted when he sat attentive through song after song.  Then, during the first break in the music, he pulled his thumb out of his mouth and shouted, “More songs!”

For children as young as three, there were age-appropriate worship experiences in their Sunday School classes. They used to love when their teacher rang a triangle, one on each side, three times while they all said, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” There was also a cooperative preschool which stressed the development of the whole child and required parents to help in the classroom. I learned volumes about patience and the value of structure from those gentle teachers.

During the grade school years, every season offered something to look forward to at church, from the joys of summer camps to the wonder of candle-lit Christmas services.  On Palm Sunday they danced down the aisles with palm branches, and in August there was a block party where the whole neighborhood showed up for free food, music and face painting.

The milestones of their growth were marked with careful ceremonies – baptism, the presentation of Bibles at the beginning of fourth grade, the transition from children’s ministry to youth group after grade six, with its whole new world of wild games and pool parties and mission trips.

In the demanding high school years, church was a refuge for our boys, where they knew they were loved apart from their performance. Small discipleship groups grounded them in truth and gave them structure for practicing their faith after leaving home.

No one but God knows how many dozens of people have loved our kids, how many beautiful images connected with God are wired into the structure of their brains, how much truth has taken root in their hearts.

I have not always felt like getting my kids up and ready for church, but every time, I’ve been glad I did. It took the whole village to get them where they are, and as adults, I know they will need it just as much.

Zero Tolerance for Unkindness (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part III)

In the last post in this series on parenting, we probably came across as pretty laissez-faire parents, what with the old mattress in the middle of the bedroom, and the house overtaken by nerf gun battles.

There were, however, some things we were strict about. We were especially intolerant of unkindness.

3 bros laughing (2)

When I see parents standing near their kids on a playground and letting them say awful things to one another, without interfering, it really grieves me. There is a common belief that kids learn to function in relationships by being left to themselves. I think leaving kids to themselves allows them to grow into bullies, victims, martyrs and drama queens.

Most of us would not throw our kid into a contact sport and say, “Figure it out.” We teach them strategy, we make sure they know defensive moves, we give them feedback on how to improve.

They need the same coaching in relationships. Decent human beings don’t just emerge, even with parents who are good role models. They need coaches who are right in there with them, communicating on their level, observing them enough to know what they can and can’t handle, and what they’re ready for next.

If I heard my kids saying things that were insulting, domineering, manipulative or dishonest, I would call them on it right away, and coach the one on the receiving end about how to respond.

If they didn’t stop, I would pull a consequence suited to their age and situation, usually some version of time out or missing out on the next activity. The bottom line was, “If you don’t treat your brothers well, you don’t get to be with your brothers.”

I think when we see a pattern, like one kid repeatedly monopolizing the conversation and interrupting, we need to gently point that out to them, probably out of earshot of the other siblings. Likewise, a child who is withdrawing too often needs encouragement to speak up.

As they got older, I would be less directive, encouraging each child to think for themselves. So, “Say sorry,” became “What do you need to say?”

“Tell him to keep his hands to himself,” became, “What do you need to do to take care of yourself?”

Now that our three sons are almost grown, my interference is down to the occasional, “You’re not listening to each other,” or “Dude-respect.”

I’m glad that my husband and I worked with our kids on how to speak to one another respectfully and how to resolve conflict.  It serves them well in many areas of life. Best of all, at 20, 18 and 18, they still really enjoy spending time together.

Sometimes when I hear them joking around together or talking until late into the night, I think of that verse from Psalm 133, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.”

I know that as parents we can’t force our kids to be close, or guarantee that they won’t be divided by conflict. A lot of that is up to them. But we can certainly coach them in how to get along and how to deal with conflict in a way that keeps the relationship intact.

 

We Let Our Kids Make Messes (10 Things I’m Glad we did for our Kids, Part II)

Creativity looks like chaos before you see anything worthwhile. Anything from a cake to a newly paved road involves muck, mess, noise and displacement. I think if we want creative kids, we have to let them mess stuff up.

As soon as our twins had learned to walk, they would climb out of their cribs, slither down the stairs on hands, knees and bellies, and toddle into the dining room, where they would purposefully tip over two or three chairs and each dump out a basket of toys. They would survey their work with satisfied expressions, as though they had righted many wrongs.

I had an instinct not to correct them. They were too proud of the accomplishment. I’d let them play in the derbris and picked it up when they had moved on. They eventually grew out of it.

Some of my best memories, the times of most intense joy, took place in a heck of a mess. One time we had another family over, and while the adults grabbed a few minutes of conversation around the table, the kids filled the living room, entry and half the dining room with about 20 of those three-foot nylon pop-up cubes, gifts from a doting grandma.

An old friend from my single days happened to be campaigning for an election in the neighborhood. When I opened the door to his knock, his jaw dropped at the sight of the wall to wall pop-up cubes and the hoard of swarming kids slithering through them. He backed out of the doorway, at a loss for words.

That was nothing. When my nephews came over, I would let them turn my living room into a fort. Furniture would be rearranged and upended, cushions piled high and beds stripped to make roofs and walls out of the blankets. Anyone who entered was caught in the crossfire of countless nerf gun darts. The passion and joy of the battle warranted the inconvenience, and they were so grateful for the freedom that the kids did a pretty good job of cleaning up.

dan leaping (2)

Probably the tackiest thing we ever allowed was an old mattress in the middle of the boys’ bedroom, for three years. My husband put it in their room when we bought a new one for our bed, so our three little boys could have fun ‘for a few days’. They had so much fun, leaping from their beds onto it, rolling around wrestling in its softness, doing flips – we couldn’t bring ourselves to get rid of it until they needed bigger beds.

I could go on and on. The loft of our old barn in the backyard was turned into a bunker, the lower area into a work-out space complete with punching bag suspended from the rafters. The backyard is dominated by a trampoline, the basement by an arsenal of nerf guns, the attic by enough Legos to build a small nation.

I think kids who are given territory upon which to make their mark become confident, creative adults. They can take risks and imagine new realities. They can tolerate the disarray of change. Our house may never be featured in “Better Homes and Gardens”, but I’m still glad we let our kids make messes.

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.