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In 1994, my dad introduced me to a friend of his and mentioned that I was engaged. My dad’s friend, with humor and kindness, told me, “Ah, yes. Marriage. There’s nothing like marriage to show you who you really are. Smokes you right out.” All these years, I’ve retained the image of a small frenzied mammal running back and forth in his tunnel until he finally pops out of his back door–heaving, exposed, and vulnerable–to gulp the fresh air. Except in my case, it was not marriage, but parenthood that really smoked me out.
Christian blogger and author Tim Challies expressed it best when he described some challenges of being a parent as “muddling through.” Yes–we can read all the books, survey parents we admire, attend Love and Logic conferences, determine to be kinder and gentler, ask for help on Facebook. Yet, few children arrive as a neat, predictable package. Each comes as a unique little creature, a complete person, yet pre-loaded with potential to be nurtured and developed over years.
So they’ll catch us unaware. We’ll stumble over the unexpected, get triggered by their thoughtlessness, or say something unkind to our child in front of an acquaintance. The circumstances force us out of hiding, leaving us blinking, gasping, and begrimed before an audience of one or more startled onlookers. Yet, we do our best to keep going, and our kids might end up just fine. The late-night fussing, the potty training, the sibling bickering, the socks on the floor, the calls from teachers, the iffy report cards, the chores put off–they were all for a season, and now we can enjoy these engaging grown-ups whose trajectory looks pretty good, considering how Mom and Dad navigated by the seat of their pants, for good or ill.
Hindsight provides the clearest view of one’s worst and best parenting moments. My daughters, now 19 and 21, share a studio apartment more or less contentedly while they attend college. They pay their bills, try to be self-disciplined, drive themselves to work hard when necessary, and are interesting to talk to. My younger one is double majoring in flute and oboe, and the elder has just been accepted to grad school in pursuit of a speech therapy career. Although we’re not always completely aligned in politics, both are thoughtful, funny, and kind. My biggest job these days is learning the trick of being supportive while simultaneously minding my own business. This satisfactory state of affairs came about, in spite of the negatives, from a combination of serendipitous circumstances (or rather, kind Providences), some of our natural strengths as parents, and a few good conscious choices. From my vantage point of twenty-plus years as a mom, I can now see the bad, the good, (and the ugly). I’ll start with the bad, so we can end on a happy note . . .
Expecting Too Much Too Soon: As I said above, our tiny, dependent charges come to us as miraculous bundles of potential. This takes years to sprout, unfurl, and bud. I was impatient at times, wondering why my thirteen-month-old was taking so long to walk, why it was taking ages even though she’d been pulling herself to a standing position on her chubby legs for weeks already. And why was the path to a potty-trained child so beset with bumps and messes? Or (fast forward several years), why was my six-year-old still painfully sounding out words over weeks of reading practice–it should have clicked by now. When were they going to do chores without so many reminders, and when were they going to not have any more homework issues? Eventually, they would grow out of these things–when the kids were ready, when their brains had matured, with time and warm encouragement.
Not Viewing Challenges as Mere Bumps in the Road: In a related note, it was easy for me as a parent to get discouraged and impatient by the messy rooms and school problems when I viewed them as pitfalls instead of bumps in a long journey. As a counselor told me: “Don’t project into the future problems that your children are having in the present.”
Not Being More Comforting with Childhood Fears at Night: I worked hard to foster night as a time of rest for kids–and parents–so I did not encourage nocturnal visits from children. I took this too far, however, when my younger daughter, at three, was very disturbed at a claymation Halloween movie she saw and she’d come to our room upset at all hours. I would tell her to go back to bed and one of us would be with her soon, but I feel like I could have been more lovingly available at the time–at that bump in the road. My lack of generosity here is a keen regret.
Being a Tad Lazy in Things That Didn’t Come Easily to Me: Oh, I was great when it came to enriching my kids in what I was good at. But in things that took consistency and a bit of extra discipline–well, not so much. I remember visiting a friend who showed me the index cards she was using to faithfully drill her son in his math facts when he was in first or second grade and struggling with them. I realized my kids were struggling with their math facts, too, and I hadn’t done a whole lot about it. The school provided some math facts practice, but not enough. The shortfalls in math instruction still affect one of my kids. And it could have been remedied if I’d applied myself to playing more “math games” with them, even when I didn’t feel like it.
Letting the Kids Ride the Bus to School for Too Many Years (See “Lazy” Item Above): The bus system started out helpful, since it saved me nearly an hour of driving each day, but my kids’ cohort were picked up first, taken past the school since it was still early, and driven on a forty-minute route before being dropped off. In the afternoon, they were the last stop. They were on the road for nearly an hour and a half each day when a straightforward round trip would have taken twenty-five minutes. It was fun at first, and the upside was that my daughters befriended and took care of the younger kids. But especially once my older daughter went to high school, I should have done what was and still is hard for me–started my job earlier, stayed focused, and gotten off my rear end to drop off and pick up my younger daughter. Because a bunch of minimally supervised children are not going to spend their time in the best ways. My daughter has scars on her hands from playing a scratching game, to name one foolish pursuit.
Being Hesitant to Advocate for My Kids’ Well Being: Yeah, I can be really awkward when I try to say hard things. I am getting better at it. But when, for example, one daughter was in an unstructured elementary class in a system where she would have the same teacher two years in a row, I could barely bring myself to tell the teacher that I wanted my kid in a different class. I knew how hard it would be for the teacher to hear that. But I should have confidently gone to the principal and ask that my child be moved to a different classroom right in the middle of the year. Because leaving her in that situation affected her education for years after that.
Not Being More Systematic in Teaching Them Christianity: Early on, I didn’t push hard with explicit instruction. We had a lot of informal conversations over the years, but I didn’t provide anything systematic. It turns out, they had gaps in their understanding–sometimes big ones. It says a lot that they got most of their earlier Bible knowledge from browsing a preschool book of illustrated Bible stories that I’d bought for four dollars at the swap meet. I don’t know–I thought they’d get it by osmosis or something.
Being a Bit Lecture-y on Saturday Mornings: I’d have my coffee on Saturday, and then the mess in their room and their inertia about cleaning it would really, really get to me. So, I’d go up there and start talking with increasing intensity. When Mom started writing and posting signs with cleaning steps around the room, my kids knew it was shaping up to be a pleasant weekend. Sometimes I come across signs that I made to make sure the children understood what was expected. There would be a whole page filled up with Sharpie. Once, when the kids’ friends were over, I noticed with fresh eyes a sign with all my tech guidelines next to the computer. It had been there so long we had ceased to notice it. But reading it again, it came across like a shrill letter from Ron’s mother in the Harry Potter series. I was a little embarrassed and quickly took it down.
Using a Thousand Words Where Twenty Would Do: Once I got riffing on a topic that bothered me, I’d get momentum and just keep talking. Whereas I could have quietly made a statement and let it go. This made drives when the children were unprepared and late getting to the car, along with the aforementioned Saturday mornings, memorable for the wrong reasons.
Not Consistently and Calmly Naming the Consequence While Controlling My Own Behavior: Love and Logic offers sound advice for productive discipline that, while not making our Saturdays perfect, would surely have kept me toned down a notch or two. In a nutshell, parents can’t control their kids–but they can set loving boundaries, give kids choices and natural consequences, and tell kids what they, the parents will do (e.g., “I will talk to you when you’re less upset.”) Although living this advice would not have made things perfect, it surely would have smoothed our way and reminded me that when I get upset, I’m no longer in control of myself, but ceding control to the child.
Getting Stressed Out Every Time We Were Getting Ready to Leave the House: I always cranked up my expectations when we were leaving home, whether it be for errands, church, a weekend away, or a long trip. I’d decide I wanted to leave behind a fairly clean, neat house, chores done, while still leaving time to get dressed and gather items for the car. Then I’d mismanage my time, and/or not have a realistic idea of how long things would take. I’d leave ten minutes after I’d planned to, always having to rush, only having accomplished a fraction of what I’d planned. The girls felt the impact of this when we’d end up having long discussions in the car about what went wrong and who was to blame. An especially low point was when I screamed at my younger daughter for not cleaning out the litter box just as we were leaving to go to a church picnic on the Fourth of July. (My kids don’t seem to have a complex–why do you ask?)
Never Being Certain How to Discipline Them: I’m not sure how I would have changed this. It was hard–very hard–to figure out what discipline was needed and in what amounts. If I let them off the hook, I was being permissive. If I gave them consequences, I was being harsh. For years, I’d have the same, frequent dream of failed efforts to discipline them–that’s how deeply the feeling of fruitlessness rooted into my psyche.
Moving to Montana: This wasn’t really my decision, but I went along with it, and living on a dirt road in the country seems to have worked out for the good. I loved San Diego, but I think if we’d stayed there, our lives would have been much busier with the school I work for, and we’d have freeway commuting and lots more daily stress. We’d have missed out on the ways of laid-back country folk, on quiet wilderness, and possibly on our connection as a family.
Finding a Church Home: There is nothing like a solid church family with hard-working, sincere leadership and members to call home and grow with over fifteen years. Although they had difficulty connecting with the other kids, who were mostly homeschooled, my daughters saw up close what it means to be a Christian and what a caring community looks like.
Working Part-Time from the House: This is one of those serendipitous things that really worked out. I started out hanging on to my long-distance job because the kids, at four and six, were too little for me to be consumed in a teaching job. However, if a flattering full-time job offer had come in, would I have been less idealistic? Although working from home has its own trade-offs, I’m thankful the offer never came, and I was present–at breakfast, after school, at dinner. I cooked our meal in the evenings and we talked all the time. The girls no longer live here, but we still talk all the time.
Sharing Our Time and Energy with Friends: With the girls, I visited neighbors on our walking routes and developed some long-lasting friendships. It started with Trick-or-Treats when they were babies and toddlers. As they got older, we’d walk up our dirt road to visit a couple who always gave out ice cream bars and Kern’s fruit drinks for the girls to enjoy during our chats. Once the kids were all sugared up, they’d bade us to come back soon, and we would. This turned out to be a long-term friendship that endured through widowhood and a move out of state.
Raising the Kids with Books and Reading: Besides plenty of verbal interaction and walks in the fresh air, books and reading are the most important enrichment parents can offer kids. My kids were up to their necks in books, read-alouds, and audio versions of classic stories. These spurred their mental and social development and awareness of the world.
Walks, Swings, Bikes, and Trampolines: One of my kids, in particular, thrived on physical movement. It helped her concentrate in school and provided a place where she could express verbally whatever she was thinking about. So we had a kind friend sell collectible dolls that had been gifted to us and used the money to buy small bicycles and helmets. We took walks together on our dirt roads. We had a rough (and somewhat dangerous) rope swing under the porch that got a lot of use. And then our mother-in-law decided that what her grandchildren needed was a large trampoline, and you know what–they did. Those girls jumped on their “tramp” pretty much every day when the weather was nice, for hours. They perfected flips, talked, and told stories. Neighbors would comment–hey, I always see your kid out there when I pass the house. I don’t think all that jumping hurt them and may have helped, a little.
Limiting Screen Time: We tried to be really conscious of limiting television and screen time. This got trickier as the kids got older, and would be more challenging these days, but we managed to help the kids spend time offline with chickens, trampoline, and other human beings.
Encouraging Productive Online Activity: My pre-teen older daughter found Backyard Chickens when learning to care for her hens, and spent months on that huge forum writing (lots of imaginary hen conversations), forming relationships, and getting an education in all the things that could ail a chicken. After that, she joined a writing site and then participated in novel-writing month. On the whole, time well-used, I would say.
Teaching Skills: My husband and I each brought our own skill sets to the kids, sharing with them what came naturally to us. I taught them to enjoy books and discussions. We decided that they would take turns cooking meals when they were teenagers. From my husband, they learned to check their oil, to show up to an appointment ten minutes early, to use a log-splitter, care for livestock, light a fire. My younger one was taught to shoot a gun, drive an ATV, and hunt. Then we hosted a friend’s tutorial on skinning and dressing deer.
Taking Advantage of Local Resources: Our town offers a lot of opportunities, and we made sure the girls benefited. They both attended the Driver’s Ed program at school, got their licenses early, and drove themselves to school at what–fifteen? To my consternation, since we have a lot of narrow roads, icy conditions, and high-speed traffic out here. I also had to listen to a lot of driving advice from my teen daughters–apparently, I make some maneuvers that are technically not allowed. Our younger daughter went to Hunter’s Ed, a course that took several weeks and emphasized principles as well as practice. She also spent a year enrolled in our high school Ag program, where she got hands-on experience with livestock, woodworking, and shop. She had a brief career with ballet, which was valuable, too. The girls were in high school band, which we encouraged by various means, including attending concerts (this seems a given, but considering my propensities, I’m glad I didn’t just sit at home twiddling my thumbs).
Eating Dinner Together: This is a meaningful ritual that can’t be taken for granted. The conversation over food strengthens relationships, gives opportunity to model manners and social interaction, encourages thinking, and solidifies the day’s events into longer-term memory.
Asking Them Questions, Every Day: Beyond “How was school?” I asked things like: “What was your favorite part of the day?” “Who did you play with?” “What books did you read?” This daily interaction ensured that I knew what was going on in their world.
Giving the Gift of a Primitive Flip Phone: This was one of our best deliberate parenting decisions. I mentally laugh wickedly when I think of it. It was my husband’s idea. He had brought home a stack of flip phones his work was getting rid of, and we decided that for the time being, that’s what our girls were getting once they reached junior high or so. This device, which was amazing in 2005, had lost its luster after 2010. It was terrible for texting and Internet, but perfect for calling Mom and Dad when they needed something. The girls were both drawn to newer technologies, but the bestowal of a flip phone put off their acquisition of Apple products for a few years, leaving them free to concentrate on other things.
What were some of your best choices as a parent?Published in