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.

scan0022

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.

wp_20150531_18_19_36_pro__highres

a

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 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!