Talk to Me

How would you rate your communication between you and your child?

Growing up, I would have told you I had good communication with my parents. I openly shared with them what was going on in school and with me personally. It wasn’t until I was a parent myself that I realized my communication with my parents was probably closer to okay than good. I never felt comfortable talking in any great depth to my parents about the important stuff–kids being mean at school, my body, feelings of insecurity, the opposite sex, the act of sex, and more. I held back sharing information out of embarrassment or feeling foolish (shouldn’t I know how this works?). I don’t think I was much different than my peers, I think that’s how many of us grew up.

My husband and I have been committed to having better communication with our kids then we had with our parents. We try to talk more openly about the body and sex and allow our kids to ask questions about anything. We’ve told our boys on a number of occasions that in some areas mom and dad are new talking about these things with kids. Our parents weren’t comfortable or never offered to talk to us somethings and we are navigating new ground. We might mess up, but we’re going to try our best.

My oldest is becoming a young man, and my youngest isn’t far behind. Having our kids talk to us about the uncomfortable stuff makes me grateful (uncomfortable, but grateful). I can see how they could easily decide to only share only the good information, what they think we want to hear, instead of sharing good, not so good, ask questions, and reach out when they are confused or don’t understand how something works, why something happened, etc.. I particularly enjoy when we have a conversation and one of my boys will say, “I’m so dumb, I should know this” and I get to respond, “how in the world could you have already known this? What do you think growing up is all about? If you knew everything already, there would be no point in parenting, we could just birth you and turn you loose in the world.” That always makes them smile. The movie Boss Baby gives them a mental picture of what that would look like, and they find that hilarious.

Navigating parenthood is challenging. As a parent, feeling like you are doing a good job can be fleeting. My barometer is set to how openly my sons feel they can talk to me. If they want to keep talking, hopefully that means my husband and I are doing something right.

How is your communication with your child? How are you helping them feel comfortable to talk to you about uncomfortable things?

Change the Label

How were you labeled as a child? Smart? Sweet? Athletic? Witty? Creative? Different? Etc.?

We’ve all experienced others putting labels on us at some point in our life. A positive label is easy to accept as truth. A negative one can be confusing, embarrassing, and make you sad or mad. I’ve yet to meet someone who is happy to be labeled a ‘bad’ person or kids who’s excited to be seen a ‘problem’ or ‘troublemaker.’ Labels can shape who people become and the choices they make, particularly when they don’t feel like they can overcome the label put upon them.

My oldest is experiencing being associated with a negative label first hand. He has struggled with emotional regulation. He can be as sweet as can be, empathetic and compassionate, but if he feels something is unfair or unjust (against him or someone he cares about) his anger rises, quickly. He loves playing football on the playground with some newer friends. These friends, who come from more challenging backgrounds than my son, exhibit behavioral issues (largely in the form of lack of respect to teachers regardless of the consequences) and have gotten themselves labeled the troublemakers. My son is experiencing guilt by association as a result. From my son’s perspective there is nothing wrong with these kids. He likes them and enjoys spending time with them. A teacher, who knows my son and his emotional strengths and weaknesses, has recently being coming down hard on my son for what he believes are trivial things — sliding down a banister at school and having to miss some of recess (my son claims he only slide down the banister two steps; and acknowledges that other kids who slide down the bannister also had to sit out); and asking to go to the bathroom only to go half-way down the hall and turn back around (never using the restroom). This seemed to make the teacher particularly mad. I was unable to understand from my son why, but believe it may be that some of his other friends have done the same thing and the teacher had had it.

My son was very frustrated and shared with me why the teacher was wrong and he was right. While I empathized with my son’s feelings of being wrongly targeted, I had to remind him that he had a role to play. “You shouldn’t be sliding down the banister even if it’s one step. Your teacher’s job is just like mine. Teach you things and keep you safe. If you slide down the banister and they don’t say anything or give you a consequence then other kids may think they can do it and get away with it too. What if a younger kid tries it and gets hurt?” I asked. My son tried to defend himself, “but I was barely on the railing.” “My point,” I continued, “is if you don’t want to sit out during recess, stay away from the banister. Period. There is no upside to sliding down even one part of it.” I went on, “You have to pick your battles and this one isn’t worth it.” He thought about what I said. We sat for a minute or so quietly. Then I added, “I want to go back and talk about labels. I don’t like them. People, particularly young people, can accept the labels they are given and let them define who they are or become. You are not a bad kid or a troublemaker. Do you do things that are wrong sometimes? Sure, but that’s part of growing up. I don’t know that your friends are either, but I do think you all are frustrating your teacher with your behavior. You don’t want to be labeled as troublemaker, because if you are, people will pay closer attention to what you are doing and will be looking for you to ’cause trouble.’ Someone who isn’t considered a troublemaker will be able to do the same thing and they won’t get in trouble, but you will. You don’t want that?” I paused, “You are going to be going to middle school in the fall and are going to have the opportunity to start over — a clean slate. You can get to decide how you come across to others. You can change the label.” He thought for a moment, as if he was thinking, and quietly said, “Okay. Thanks.”

I’m not sure if I got through, but am hopeful he’ll take what I said to heart. I don’t like labels. They generalize people too easily and can divert us from really getting to know someone, their story, and what redeeming qualities they have (because most of us do have some).

Has your child been labeled? How are you helping your child navigate labels?

Kids and War

How do you explain war to your child?

My knee jerk reaction is to try to shield them from the horror. There is nothing pretty about war. What is going on in Syria is unbelievably sad, and angering. To see people suffer, lose there homes and have to flee their countries in order to survive is unfathomable. Seeing innocent people killed, particularly the children by chemical weapons is devastating.

My boys have been wondering what is going on in Syria and why. It’s hard to explain. It’s ultimately about people not being able to get along and resorting to violence instead of finding peaceful solutions. I get that solving these types of problems aren’t easy, but I really want my boys to know that war is not the answer and never will be.

My youngest son got some exposure to war recently in his social studies class.  The class was studying Native Americans and their struggle to maintain control of their native land from the settlers.  Each class member was assigned a position — you either were a Native American tribe member or a member of the American military. My son was part of a tribe. The class was given different situations and asked how they wanted to handle it. In one situation, both groups wanted a piece of land and neither was willing to give the land to the other. Their choice was to 1) sign a treaty that allowed them to share the land, or 2) decide to fight the other for the land. My son said, “Mom, I signed the treaty, but others kids in the tribe decided they wanted to fight.” “What happened? ” I asked. “Well, I lived,” said my son, “those who fought died.” Wow, I thought, this is a pretty good lesson he’s learning. The next challenge the class was faced with was 1) stay on the Reservation and be safe, or 2) fight and have to get your land back. “What did you choose?” I asked my son. “Well, I was going to go back to the Reservation because I wanted to be safe, but got accidentally shot by one of my classmates who thought I was trying to leave the Reservation,” he said. The idea that my son got ‘shot’ by friendly fire didn’t go unnoticed. Seems  this class activity was a little more realistic than I would have thought. “What did the lesson teach you?” I inquired. “Well, fighting almost always results in death. You might as well find a way to make peace.” Wow. Nine years old and he’s already figured this out. I wish some of our world leaders could.

How do you talk to your child about war? How do you help them understand unexplainable things?

No Sugar Coating

When I sat down to write this, I intended to write something light-hearted, maybe even something inspired by the newly released Beauty and the Beast movie, but I couldn’t after my son shared a story about his friend experiencing racism.

It’s not an easy topic to discuss, but the conversation I’ve had with my son has stayed with me since we had it, and I need to get this out.

Have you talked to your child about racism?

I’ve never felt equipped to talk about racism to my children because I’ve experienced very little racism myself.  Gender inequality and sexism I can speak volumes to, but I’m no expert on racism. I can remember when my oldest son first learned about Rosa Parks in kindergarten and became obsessed with understanding why African-Americans were treated so unfairly. “Why did black people have to sit in the back of the bus in the first place?” he asked. I’d respond with something along the lines of “People were small minded”, “People were ignorant”, or “It’s complicated, but know that it was wrong and horribly unfair.”

Both my boys have questioned racism over the years, particularly anytime they’ve overheard a news report. “Why did the police officer shoot that man who was running away from him?” “What’s going on in Ferguson?” “Why don’t some people like Obama?” Each time, my husband and I have attempted to answer their questions, but I’ve never felt like we gave adequate responses. For me, the hardest thing I’ve had to try to explain to my children as their parent is why adults behave badly. And when I hear (or see) another adult being visibly racist its the epitome of adults behaving badly in my book. Children learn from adults, so as teachers of our children we are all responsible for racism continuing (whether we are the ones perpetrating it or standing by and letting it happen). Now, I know there are many reasons why many of us aren’t more vocal or willing to take action when we see it: we fear retaliation, we think it’s none of our business, or because we’re complacent and/or complicit; but what does that teach our kids?

Earlier this week, my son came home from school and asked “why are people still so racist?” I asked him what he was talking about, as he was clearly upset. “Shawn (who is a black friend of his) told me he was playing outside with his brothers over the weekend and a neighbor called the cops of them. They weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just playing. Why would someone do that?” he asked, then added, “He was pretty scared, but thankfully the cop told him that he wasn’t doing anything wrong and he wasn’t going to be arrested and not to worry about it.” I was stunned, and saddened. The only “crime” Shawn was guilty of was being black in a predominantly white part of town. I live in a liberal-minded, highly diverse city, and foolishly thought things like this didn’t still happen here. But it did. If my son had been doing the same thing his friend had, no one would have called the cops on him. I moved from sad to mad. I wanted to do something about it, but was at a loss. I had no idea who called the police. I couldn’t confront them. All I knew to do was talk to my son about what happened. I shared his anger in what happened, we talked about what Shawn must have gone through and how scary that must have been; and that what happened wasn’t right. I felt good that we acknowledged the injustice, but felt helpless to right this wrong.

I’m hate racism (the irony of this statement is not lost on me).  There’s no way to sugar coat this. It’s ugly. I don’t see the benefit in breaking each other down and holding each other back. How do we get through the hate (or fear or whatever is allowing this to continue) and get to the other side of understanding and acceptance? How do we become a culture that wants to help each other not hurt each other. I feel ill-equipped to address this beyond my family. But starting at home is exactly where it should begin, right? It starts with me as my kids’ parent. It starts with you.

How are you teaching your child to accept and care for others that are different from them?

Sing

Getting your child to do something they don’t want to is hard.

While reading the elementary school’s weekly newsletter we noticed our oldest son’s class was participating in a school concert on Friday night. When we asked our son about the concert happening, (because he hadn’t said a word about it), he shrugged his shoulders and say, “yea?” It was clear he wasn’t excited about the upcoming event.

As Friday approached, he started to voice his desire of not wanting to participate. “I don’t want to sing in the concert. None of my classmates are going to be there. It’s just going to be me!” he said. Because the concert was more of a showcase of what the kids had been learning in music class than a formal recital we honestly didn’t know how many of his classmates would be there. We didn’t want to stress him out, but we thought it was important he participate. It would be easy to sit out and not be there, but what message would that send our son?  That you can skip things that are uncomfortable in life? Or it’s okay to not show up even though others have put in time to help you learn? It felt too important, like we were going to be missing teaching him an life lesson (e.g. sometimes you have to do things in life you don’t want to do) if we didn’t make him go.

As we got closer to the concert, he became more vocal. “I don’t want to go. This is going to be so embarrassing!” I was preparing myself to have to threaten him with privileges he’d lose if he didn’t, but offered this alternative instead. “If you sing in the show, maybe even enjoy it, we might do something fun after the show. Or you can sing in the show, not enjoy yourself and show how unhappy you are about having to participate, and we can just go home. It’s your choice.” He grimaced. He had a decision to make.

The concert went fine. He had classmates there, with two that unexpectedly did dance moves during each of the songs that made for a fairly entertaining show. It loosened most of the kids up and by the third song, they seemed relaxed and enjoying themselves, even joining in with the other kids moves.  Even my son joined in. I’m pretty sure I may have even seen him smile.

At the end of the show he joined us. I asked, “So, how was it?” “Not so bad,” he responded, “can we go to the pie place?” I couldn’t help but smile myself. “Sure,” I said. We headed out and from his body language my son appeared to be both proud of himself (for doing the show), and surprised (that he actually enjoyed it). Funny how that works.

How do you handle situations where you child is reluctant to participate?

I Have a Dream

What are your dreams for your child?

I’m inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr’s dream for his:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

As a teenager I questioned my parents on why they had had kids — the world is a tough place, why would you want to bring someone into it?  My dad said, “To leave the world a better place. You want your children to do better than you did.” I got it.  Wanting your child to be a better person, a better contributor to the world than you are is a lofty goal.  It is my dad’s dream for his own children, and I’m hoping to achieve it with my own.

It got me thinking about what my dreams are for my own children. I want them to be a better person than I am. I want them to contribute in a more meaningful way. But my dreams going even further. I too want them to live in a country where they are not judged by their outward appearance (and not judge others by their’s), but by the content of their character. I want them to appreciate the beauty all around them, even in the most common places; to care for others, to be empathic, understanding and giving; and to experience as much joy in their life as possible.

As a parent, I have to evaluate what I’m doing to make the dreams I have for my boys a reality. I can be open about my dreams with my children, and try to get them to see the benefit of the dreams I have for them, but ultimately they will have to decide which of my dreams they want adopt and make their reality.

What dreams to you have for your child?

Thank you, Martin Luther King, Jr., for your inspiring words.

Mom in the Mirror

Has your child ever done anything that reminds you of you?

My oldest son is entering puberty and his mood swings are becoming slightly more pronounced. He is a sweet and caring kid, but it doesn’t take much to set him off. He will lash out moving from being fine to not fine relatively quickly. Moments that are most likely to trigger this — someone cheating in a game (playground or soccer field), someone embarrassing him (this one’s tricky, because you’re never sure what’s going to embarrass him), or him not knowing how to do something right the first time (it doesn’t matter if he’s had instruction on what to do or not, he has this expectation he’s supposed to know everything and be good at everything).

Thankfully, we’ve had some amazing and caring adults (teachers, coaches, professionals) who have provided us with resources (their time, talent, books, etc.) to help him, but it’s still difficult to see your child struggle.

On a recent morning, I had a time table to get my son where he needed to be, and myself to work. My son, while aware we needed to get to various places, didn’t understand my urgency. He wanted to play a game for a few minutes longer and I couldn’t wait, I needed him to stop playing the game so I could get where I needed to go. I told him as much and he proceeded to express his dissatisfaction with me and how I was negatively impacting him and his day. It was an explosive burst of energy directed straight at me. I was not in the mood to receive it. I promptly shut the conversation down, shared my dislike for his tone of voice and took away his gaming privileges. Immediately following I realized I had to calm myself down.  I was going to have my own explosive outburst if I didn’t.

We rode in silence until we got to our destination. When we got out of the car, I didn’t want the silence to continue, so I said, “Hey, buddy, you know that I love you. I just don’t like how you talked to me back there. That wasn’t okay. I understand you are upset you couldn’t finish your game, but you can’t use that tone, or say those kinds of things to me.” He started to defend himself and his actions, I could have defended my position, but I’m his parent and I wasn’t interested in letting the direction of the conversation continue. “You had something you wanted to do. Mom has something she needs to do. I have to get to work. I couldn’t wait for you to finish your game.” He wasn’t happy but didn’t seem quite as angry as he was earlier. We parted ways, but I couldn’t help thinking about what happened. What was my role in all this? How could I help my son and I avoid this in the future?

It occurred to me that my son and I had something in common. As much as I’d like to think I’m a good communicator, my son reminded me that I’ve still got room to grow. And my son does too. Our situation happened because were weren’t communicating — our wants or our needs proactively. Because I’m the adult (and his parent) I could easily believe my needs always trump his — and while in many cases they do, that’s not always the case. My son should be able to voice his needs and wants. It’s not my job to cave to him, or give him what he wants, but to listen to him, allow him to be heard, and then make a decision. It would be easy to say my son has the issue, but this one goes both ways, and as the adult and parent, it’s my job to model behaviors I want to see from him. My hope is my son will continue to get me to revisit my interactions with him. Am I doing right be him as his parent? What can I work on to be better, and what can I help him getting better at?

My son forced me to look in the mirror, has your child forced you? If so, how did you handle it?

Better Than Gold

Have you ever struggled to do something you thought should be easy?

My youngest son has been struggling to learn to ride his bike. He got his bike last year, but we realized soon after getting it, that it was too big for him, and he’d have to grow into it. We were excited to teach him this year. We took him out and followed the same steps we’d done with his older brother. We removed the pedals, and had him work on coasting and balancing first. Then we put the pedals back on in hopes he could balance and get his feet up on the bike. He learned to coast, and even get his feet up on the pedals momentarily,  but without pedaling, the bike would tilt to one side and he would put his foot down. We kept trying to explain to him that the bike wouldn’t fall over if he started pedaling, but he didn’t believe us. He got frustrated and very upset. We even reminded him that he’d get a reward once he finally learned to ride his bike. That just seemed to make his disappointment in himself for not being able to do it worse. We abandoned bike riding that day and decided we’d try again the following, but the results were the same. He could coast, and get his feet up on the pedals, but would ultimately put a foot down without getting the bike going.  He then let out a cry of frustration, disappointment and anger. “I’ll never learn to ride my bike!” he exclaimed and broke down in tears.

My husband and I were at a loss as to what to do; did we need to get him into a biking class, get him private instruction, or get him a different bike?  I thought about how I learned. I didn’t appreciate how quickly I picked it up as a kid. I learned within an hour of my father and sister teaching me. I hadn’t struggled for long, and here was my son struggling for days on end. He desperately wanted to be successful, and was getting down on himself. We could tell that we had to figure out how to help him, or risk having him decide that there are some things in life he just can’t do (and that was *not* acceptable to my husband or I).

After two weeks of daily practice without success, I had an idea. What if one of us held the back wheel steady and gave him a push so he could pedal and get the feel of the bike in motion?  We got our son up on the bike and he could push for a rotation or two, but when the bike leaned, he would put his foot down. He was frustrated, but we could tell he understood now what we’d been trying to explain. He tried again and again. Sometimes going a couple of rotations, sometimes not making it even one. We encouraged him not to give up, that he was very close. He got up on the bike again, holding the back wheel steady, he started to turn the pedals. One rotation, two rotations, three, four, five, and the bike kept going. He rode across the lot away from us. He got to a place where the pavement started to go back up and stopped himself. He turned back and shouted, “I did it!” It was a mixture of relief and pride. He continued his joy for the next minute saying so all could hear (and I’m guessing folks from a few blocks around could), “I did it! I didn’t think that I could but I did. I really did it!” By the time I caught up to him, he was happily shouting and crying. It made me cry. I knew how hard he had been trying, and how frustrated he had been. It was one of those moments where I felt I’d had some success as a parent. Those moments don’t come often, but when they do, they feel better than gold.

I think my son felt his achievement was better than gold too.

How have you helped your child succeed?  How have you helped them when they struggled?

I will be taking some time off to enjoy the rest of summer break and will be back in September.

Guns: What Do I Tell My Kids?

Orlando. Sandy Hook. Dallas. And so many more. Did you know there’s a site that lists mass shootings in the US? http://www.gunviolencearchive.org/reports/mass-shooting

I’ve told my children since they were born that Mom and Dad’s job is to keep them safe and teach them things. I feel like I have a great ability to teach them things, and a much more limited ability to keep them safe, particularly with our country’s struggle to protect it’s citizens against gun violence.

When one of my son’s asks me how something works or how they can navigate a situation (particularly avoiding harm, or making the best decision to keep them safe), I usually have an answer. When my oldest son asked what was being done to stop gun violence I didn’t have one. Is my answer: Our politicians are fighting amongst each other and more concerned with staying in office than fixing this issue (mind you, they’ll hide behind the Second Amendment claiming that’s the main thing they are trying to protect), or that a small minority of people with big influence continue to keep enough people scared where they think they need guns? I’m honestly at a loss. It feels like grown-ups acting irresponsibly, and how do I explain that to my kids, when I’m trying so hard to teach them to act responsibly?

As a parent, it really bothers me that I don’t have an answer for this. It bothers me that I don’t have a greater ability to influence this or change what’s going on. Of course, I will continue to vote for candidates that believe we need regulation and oversight, and will continue to contact my senators and representatives, but it doesn’t feel like my efforts (and many others) has had much of an impact. I believe a majority of our country wants to feel safe and doesn’t think more guns, or few gun laws is the answer.

I pray my son’s never encounter gun violence. I pray we don’t encounter someone whose decided to randomly shoot innocent people, but I have to tell you I feel like our chance of avoiding this is as good as anyone else’s. 26 lost their lives at Sandy Hook. 49 in Orlando. 5 in Dallas. Enough. Enough. Enough.

What do you tell your kids? What do I tell mine?

 

Mom, please!

Have you ever embarrassed your child in public? When did your parent embarrass you as a child? How did it affect you?

My parents are loving people. Growing up they were strict, but loving. Spanking was used to discipline in our house. The threat of a possible spanking typically kept me in line, so thankfully, I cannot remember my parents embarrassing me in a your-going-to-get-a-spanking kind of way in public. Instead, they would let me know a spanking was coming in more private settings (away from others, in the car or house). It was a warning and I had a choice to make—straighten up or get spanked. My decision was easy to make (I would do just about anything to avoid being spanked). I noticed other parents weren’t as considerate and would embarrass their children in front of others. While I hated getting spanked, I was grateful my parents were different. I realized my parents could embarrass me in a different way as I grew older—when they’d brag about me in front of others. I hated it because 1) as a teen I was very self-conscious (aren’t we all?) and I was mortified when attention was put on me, 2) I didn’t feel like the things my parents were sharing were worth bragging about, and 3) I felt utterly unable to stop my parents from what they were doing in fear of embarrassing them (I knew how much I didn’t like it, and assumed they wouldn’t like it either). I definitely didn’t just stand there and take what was happening in these situations. I would attempt to stop my parents mid-sentence. “Mom, please.” “Mom, really. Please stop.” I’d even try the eye roll, and try to make eye contact with my parents friend in an attempt to communicate I’m so sorry, but it never seemed to work.

Now that I have my own children, I’ve been faced with the same challenges my parent went through. We don’t spank in our house, so my boys have never had to fear that as a punishment, however, it makes motivating them to behave that much more challenging. Taking away privileges or a stern talking to works sometimes, but sometimes it doesn’t. I feel very challenged in these moments. There is a part of me that would like to vent my frustration at their resistance to adhere to what I’m asking them to do, and I have to catch myself sometimes from not doing this in public (it’s not easy) when they’re acting out around others. A “get in the car NOW” seems to do the trick, they know I’m unhappy with their behavior and it will be better for them to get into the car than not. Still, it’s a challenge.

My boys were in a concert at school. They would be singing a few songs with their classmates. My youngest was eager to participate. My oldest was mortified. “I’m not going,” he said, “and you can’t make me.” At first, my husband and I responded, “Oh yes we can. Don’t you tell us what you are or are not going to do.” That just seemed to make my son dig his heels in deeper. “Nope, I’m not going to do it.” My husband tried reasoning with him. “You’re part of your class…a team. You’re going to let your classmates down if you don’t participate, and that’s going to be embarrassing.” My son simply replied, “No it won’t. Half of them aren’t here anyway, no one is going to notice.” He was right, it was a volunteer concert (not mandatory) so many of his classmates weren’t there. Ugh. The show was going to start soon, and we were nearing the end of our attempts to prompt our son to participate. My husband and I felt strongly he couldn’t “opt-out” of participating, because often in life you can’t do that–you’ll lose a job, or a friend, or an opportunity. My mind was spinning, what else could we do?  And then it occurred to me. “You are going to go up and sing with your class. We are only asking you to go up there to try your best. No one expects perfection.” My son was getting ready to say, “No again” when I cut him off. “If you don’t go, I was pull you up there kicking and screaming if I have to, and that will be embarrassing not only for you, but for me. No one is going to forget that.” He gave me a ‘you wouldn’t’ and then a ‘how could you!’ face, then got up and went with his classmates calmly to the stage. I hated that it had resorted to this, but was glad he was motivated to participate. As his class sang, we could see that our son was enjoying it, he even gave us a ‘thumbs up’ from the stage at one point. Afterwards, he came back to us and in a ‘you-were-right-but-I-hate-admitting-it’ tone shared, “I was so nervous, but I think I did pretty good.”  My husband and I smiled, “You did great.” I shared, “I loved that one song, can we sing it now?” My son looked at me and said, “Mom, please!” I didn’t, of course, (though I was tempted to) but it was fun to see the moment come full circle.

How do you prompt your child to action without embarrassing them?