A Manifesto on Parenting

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When I was newly married, I spent one year substitute teaching in the local schools. That was a very educational experience. There was the elementary school that was universally viewed as the worst in the district (it has since been closed and reopened as a Title One/gifted/Early Childhood location), which started requesting me after I worked there once, and I couldn’t figure out why. There was the first grader in a different school who dropped the f-bomb and I was so appalled, I said, “No. Not ever” in a tone of voice I’d never felt within or heard from myself before, as if some other, more authoritative, human being had momentarily possessed me. (I use that voice regularly now.)

Most importantly, there was the day I was assigned to be the second teacher supervising last-period suspension at a middle school. After the kids left, I got into a conversation with the other teacher about these troubled kids. She was telling me about research showing the damage that had been done to many kids in young childhood. It wasn’t that they were abused—it was that they were ignored, stuck in front of a TV or whatever so the parents didn’t have to be bothered. These kids had problems forming attachments and trusting authority, and for that reason they struggle with behavior and human interaction for the rest of their lives.

Her takeaway has stayed with me word for word: “By the time these kids get to kindergarten, it’s 100% unfixable, and it was 100% percent preventable.”

I did not realize it then, but these experiences were shaping me as a parent as much as anything I learned growing up. And having to wait three years to become a parent gave me an excruciatingly long time to think and process what I saw unfolding around me. I often struggled not to judge, but that’s a different topic. From then until now, I have always taken a very intentional approach to parenthood. It goes like this:

My children will know they’re loved. They’ll know it in their bodies, in their minds, in their souls, so completely at such a deep, visceral level that they won’t ever have to question it.

They will know there is right and wrong. It won’t always be simple to identify; it will usually involve shades of gray and require mercy as well as sound judgment; and more often it will be harder to do than to identify. But they will know it exists.

They will know being part of a family involves responsibility. They are valued and important, but they are not the center of the universe. This means chores and looking out for each other, even when they don’t particularly like each other. The boys, especially, are being formed in the knowledge that they have to be responsible for their sister.

I will honor their unique interests and gifts. It’s not about having them reproduce my formative experiences—or, for that matter, fulfilling my unfulfilled childhood dreams. It’s about finding who they are called to be.

Luxuries and privileges are just that—luxuries and privileges. Privileges are earned and luxuries can be enjoyed more if they’re not experienced all the time.

They will know you can’t have it all. Sometimes you have to choose between good things, and just because “everybody else” does two sports and, and, and, doesn’t mean it’s a healthy lifestyle. Because…

Family and faith are #1. Being involved with church is non-negotiable, and family dinner is the rule, not the exception. Family game nights, family outings, building a community centered around the real-world practice of the faith—these are the things that keep us grounded and give us the emotional and moral strength to be good—and no less important, happy—people.

My job is to raise holy, happy adults who have the mental and physical discipline to do good things in the world. And everything I do as a parent is done with that central principle in mind.

On My Mind…

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As I write this blog post on a Sunday afternoon, I’m sitting at adaptive gymnastics and chuckling, because somehow my daughter managed to get herself appointed Demonstrator, Boss Lady and Chooser-Of-The-Next-Activity. There are fifty people, between kids, siblings, and volunteer “coaches,” gathered in a huge circle following her every instruction. And she’s so ebullient, so eminently comfortable. How does she do that? She didn’t get that from either of us.

Image by MissCaraReads, via Pixabay

I start with that because I have so much on my mind today, and a lot of it is troubling. Some of it involves self-flagellation. But I like to focus on the good, partly because I don’t think anyone wants to read wailing and gnashing of teeth, and partly because the more I focus on what’s wrong, the more it becomes the only thing I see.

I’ve always been opinionatedpassionate, but I also really, really, really hate conflict. So I tend to sit and stew in my own pot of frustration and resentment. For years, sometimes.

Yet recently I’m discovering within myself a nearly irresistible pull to do something. To engage with others or to approach the relevant authorities when I find something troubling.

Not everything. I mean, I find the sheer amount of time people spend on smart devices at the expense of real human interaction tremendously troubling, but it’s clear I’m not going to affect that. (You can sit there reading this on your smart devices and shake your head with pity for my husband, who is caught between a job that requires him to be available 24-7 and his wife, who bares her teeth if he pulls the phone out at dinner or during conversations.) I find the dependence on pharmaceuticals for family planning extremely troubling and birth control in general bad for the earth and for women–especially when there’s a really good alternative–but at the same time I am coming to recognize that many of the things that have made life better for women simply wouldn’t have happened without it.

Generally, wrestling with irreconcilable realities is not something I do in public.

Plus, sometimes it’s not appropriate to get on a soapbox. If there’s a relevant authority responsible for what’s troubling me, complaining about it on a blog or Facebook is passive-aggressive at best; at worst, it’s a deliberate choice to be angry rather than try to improve a situation. (Can you tell I’m contemplating one of those right now?)

And in almost every situation, there’s a need to stop, to think, to go looking for actual facts to back up–or negate–my adverse reaction. The last four months have been particularly fraught in my circles; as I said on Facebook one morning last week, I’d gotten into three arguments–two on one side of the political spectrum and one on the other. “Clearly,” I said, “today I’m feeling like planting a flag on the Centrist hill and dying there.”

The thing is, people are going off half-cocked a lot these days. I mean, is TrumpCare actually going to cut 24 million people’s health care, or are a bunch of people just going to decide to forgo health care?

The fact that both these claims are being splattered across my Facebook feed, without anyone there or in any news report I’ve heard saying, “Hey, maybe we should do some critical analysis of this, because these two claims simply can’t both be true”?—that fact is probably the thing that troubles me most right now. I mean, why doesn’t somebody ask the left-leaning Congressman to directly address the right’s claim, and the right-leaning Congressman to address the left’s claim? I think those two answers would illuminate an awful lot. This business of firing message points past past our opponents’ shoulders is only making everyone rattle sabers.

Recent conversations have caused me to evaluate my own reactions. On the spectrum of online activism, I lean heavily toward “control thy trigger finger.” And yet, I develop opinions as quickly as anyone else. The fact that I don’t fling them around Facebook doesn’t mean I’m actually properly informed. And that’s not okay. I have to do better.

So I guess, after wandering for 700 words, I have finally identified my point. I want to beg everyone I know, regardless of your political, religious, or philosophical bias:

Think before reacting.

Research before sharing.

If what you’re reading has exclamation points in the headline, go find a less biased source.

If it has obscenities in the headline, the text, or the URL, go looking for a more credible, less emotional source. Because there’s no way it’s giving you a clear picture. It’s just not.

If you get angry reading something, take a deep breath and analyze why—what fact or words caused that reaction—and then go do some due diligence to see if there’s more to the story. (Usually, the answer is “yes.” It might not change your opinion, but it will often clarify that it’s not Armegeddon.)

Spreading propaganda—left- or right-leaning, either one (I’ve seen plenty of both recently)—is inherently disrespectful not only to the system we all depend upon in this country—it’s disrespectful of human dignity.

We can do better.

We should do better.

A Conversation In The Car With Julianna

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Sporting a stylin’ bun courtesy of Auntie A.

On the way to adaptive gymnastics, Julianna sets out to challenge Nicholas’ claim on the “how much can I talk in one car ride” record. Although the subject matter is quite different.

J: Mom, you are so sweet.

Me: Thank you, honey. You’re sweet too.

J: Mom, you’re such a good driver.

Me: Thank you, sweetheart.

J: Da-because (random random random) it’s time for Friday fun!

Me: What?

J: Da-because we do ipad, or extra recess, or..

Me: I understood Friday Fun. I didn’t understand everything that came before.

J: Do they have a pool?

Me (starting to feel tired, and we’ve only just left the subdivision): Um…lots of people have pools, who are you talking about?

J: Da-because Miss Dolores said no pool because it-it-it-it is too cold!

Me: Yes, when we went to her house in December it was too cold to get in the pool.

J: Mom I like you.

Me: I like you too, honey.

J: Da-because he has a motorcycle!

Me (glancing at the man speeding away from us): Yes, he has a motorcycle.

J: Why does he have a motorcycle?

Me: I don’ t know, he just does.

J: Mommy, (random random random while I’m trying to find the turn into the gymnastics facility)???????

Me: …..

J: Mom!

Me: Honey, I’m trying to be a good driver right now, can you be quiet?

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How We Taught Our Kids To Be Good Eaters

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Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr

My kids are really good eaters. I’m kind of surprised at this, frankly, because I am and always have been a pretty picky eater.

And the thing is, we approach food all “wrong,” according to all the parenting advice I ever read. We’ve almost always forced our children to finish what they’re given—unless it’s starch, because starch is filler and nobody needs to fill up on that. We’ve been very clear that you don’t get dessert until you finish all the healthy stuff. We’re “no garlic bread until you finish your vegetables” parents. Or, in Michael’s case (he’s still a work in progress, actually), the meat before the garlic bread, because he eats his vegetables like a pro.

Given my own history of pickiness, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to puzzle out why my kids eat vegetables so well. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

1. I used the book Super Baby Foods to introduce foods, and I was always very cognizant of alternating sweet foods and not-sweet foods. (Sweet potato, avocado, banana were always the first three, in order. Notice I didn’t start with the super-sweet one. And notice I didn’t start with cereals, either.)

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We don’t eat a lot of this, for one thing. (Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr.)

2. I made virtually all our baby food from real food, chopped up fine but not cooked beyond recognition and made into a paste. Which meant they got accustomed to the coarser texture of vegetables and meats from the beginning.

3. Kids have to eat everything they’re given, with a few exceptions. When Alex was three and gagged on mashed potatoes, for instance, I decided mashed potatoes are wasted calories anyway, I’m not going to force that. Another key is starting them on very doable portion sizes. (Vegetable portion sizes increase over time, but starting them with a couple of bites got them in the habit.)

4. For a couple of years, we served the vegetables first and everyone had to eat those before we moved on to the pasta or the steak. Christian told me he was “not fond” of this, but it worked. We haven’t had to do it in a while now.

5. I’ve also gotten into the habit of putting vegetables in almost everything. But I don’t call it “sneaking” because I’m very up front about it. “Does that have onions in it?” they ask, and I answer, “Yes. Eat them.” And they do. Likewise, “what is that red stuff?” I’ll say, “Red pepper. Eat it.”

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Trying to be cognizant of this. (Image by Michael Stern, via Flickr.)

6. What do I mean by vegetables in everything? Processed kale and spinach and Brussels sprouts and occasionally avocado in chili, in soups, in zucchini muffins. Spinach in smoothies. If I can figure out how to add super veggies to it without significantly changing the taste or texture, I do. And I’m very up front about it, and always have been, which means the kids take it in stride.

7. We eat a huge variety of foods, because I like to cook. We’re always trying new recipes. One of our favorite stories is that Alex once asked a friend’s mom to make him quiche. (Did I ever mention that kembalay—creme brulee—was one of his first words?) (Hmm. I haven’t made creme brulee in quite a while…)

8. We make them try almost everything, even the funky salads and stuffed mushrooms I make primarily for myself and for Christian. But these trials don’t fit into the category of “must finish.” That’s a balance of trust: they will try new things because they know if they don’t like it, they only have to eat one bite.

9. Between the ages of 3-5, we “picked” the food battles. It was unpleasant and again, we’re still fighting it with Michael, whose most common words at dinner are “I don’t like _____!” But it’s definitely paid off—even for him, because although he resists protein, he’s a terrific vegetable eater.

10. We talk about food groups a lot, so even the youngest kids are learning what constitutes a protein and knows protein and fruit/vegetables are most important, and everything else is filler. We talk about portion sizes and moderation, and when they want seconds or—especially—thirds, we ask them to think about whether they’re really hungry or not.

So far, they seem to be learning the lessons I most want them to learn.

So that’s my best guess at why my kids eat well. What’s worked for you?

If I Had A Lasso Of Truth…

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Image by Tom Simpson, via Flickr

It occurred to me today that if I were Wonder Woman, I wouldn’t bother going around beating up bad guys. I would just round them up in my lasso of truth and put them in front of a Facebook live stream and make them tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

And I wouldn’t stop with the obvious “bad guys,” either. I’d lasso every politician and every sensationalist website author and put them in opposing pairs until they were forced to address each other’s concerns…respectfully. Without message points, half-truths, and distortions. The whole truth and nothing but.

I’d be the best superhero ever.

Don’t you agree?

The Orthopedic Surgeon Who Rocked My World (or: The Saga That Isn’t)

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bubblesYou all remember, I’m sure, the saga of the orthotics. I’ve been talking about it periodically for years, both here and on Facebook.

After Julianna broke her second brace in January, the orthotist sent us back to the PT.

The PT told me she really wasn’t sure what to say except she’d like to see an X ray of Julianna’s bone structure so we have a baseline and know for real what we’re dealing with here. We know she walks with all her weight on the navicular bone instead of the heel, but what’s going on inside?

So I called the pediatric orthopedic surgeon, and on Friday, I took Julianna out of school yet again to go see him.

Basically, he rocked my world.

Her feet are not going to deteriorate.

Her feet are never going to get “fixed” no matter how what kind of orthotics we put her in. These are her feet. They will always be her feet. It’s okay. Don’t freak out about it.

Her hips and her knees are fairly normal, it’s really just the feet, and the feet are not going to get worse. They are what they are.

Unless she’s in pain, there’s no reason to consider surgical correction (not that I went in expecting surgery).

Unless it significantly improves her gait, there’s really not even a reason to have her wear orthotics.

We do think the orthotics improve her gait, so we haven’t taken her out of them. But I cannot tell you how freeing this news is. We don’t need to fight the huge fight to keep her in them 90% of her waking hours, with the knee-high socks and the question of which pants will fit over or under them and oh Lordy getting those suckers INTO the shoes! (You have no idea. Seriously. It gets my heart rate up, muscling her into them some days.)

We can back off to ankle-high orthotics, if we decide to do so.

We can buy a pair of premade flat inserts that will allow her to wear boots and normal tennis shoes.

We can even let her go without them altogether so she can wear sandals and sparkly shoes with bows on them.

We no longer have to worry about what to get her for birthday and Christmas, because pretty shoes will make her soooooo happy.

So maybe the lesson in all this is the same one I apply whenever I am fighting the same sentence or story element for half an hour: if you’re not making progress, there’s a good chance you’re trying to force something that isn’t supposed to be there at all–trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

Hulk Update

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Julianna, standing in the jewelry store while they’re cleaning Daddy’s ring: “I need a strong man to hold me.”

Of all the random things Julianna has said in her life, that one takes the cake. It was so random, I looked around the store for a sign to that effect. (Because that’s what she does. She goes around reading signs.)

Nutt’n. It was all her.

Then again, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, there’s this…

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…and this…

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A strong man, indeed…

(In case you’re new to “Hulk updates,” most of which have been on Facebook, here’s the gist of it.)

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