My Strong-willed Child Comes Into His Own

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Nicholas parachute 1

Nicholas helping one of the “Black Daggers” paratroopers pack up his parachute at the local Memorial Day air show.

It’s a beautiful thing to see your child getting his bearings in his own life, getting his feet set solidly on firm ground, and begin to explore.

Nicholas has always been a child with a really strong desire to be close to his parents—close in a physical way. He always wants to be touching me, holding my hand, having my arm around him, kneading my arm with his hands.

It can be overwhelming sometimes, especially during those times when we were entrenched in pitched battles over strong-willed behavior. One of the first revelations I had in the long prayer and discernment over how best to parent this particular child was that the more “strong-willed” battles we had with him, the more he craved affirmation through cuddling, hand-holding, and so on. I knew there was a path forward in there somewhere, but it took a really long time to find it.

A year or two ago, we were at my in-laws’ house, and he woke up before everyone else. I had him snuggle up in bed with me to talk about what it was he needed. I had been thinking about the potential repercussions that excessive neediness could cause in adulthood for him, and I didn’t like what I saw. I knew I wasn’t on track to raise a holy, happy, healthy adult to do good things for God in the world. Emotional health is a really big part of that.

So we snuggled and talked about it. We talked about behaviors, and Christian’s and my frustrations as well as the things I saw in him that had the potential to be really amazing character traits, and I asked him to tell me what it was that most made him feel loved.

He had to think for a minute, and the answer he gave was not the one I expected. It was “time.”

We turned over a new page that morning, although it took a while to recognize that we were, indeed, on a new and better path.

Nicholas Parachute 2At eight years old, Nicholas is interested in many, many things, and his attitude is can-do. He’s been on a three-year rotation trying sports, and he loves them all. Now he’s trying to discern which one to stick with. He’s sounding out tunes on the piano. Some days, he comes home from school with some little note or gift or letter he made for someone he cares about.

He’s really interested in food and cooking, and also in all things Catholic. That latter may just be a side effect of this being his sacramental year—Reconciliation in November, First Communion in April—but I’m encouraging it as much as I can. Same with the cooking. He’s my standard kitchen helper these days. Sometimes I really would rather be left alone to cook in solitude, but generally I invite him in and put him to work. It’s fun to teach him. He’s really willing to try new foods, and he likes most things.

He likes to help me pick flowers from the nursery every spring, and he likes to take Michael outside and play baseball in the back yard. With Christian, he likes to go hit golf balls, or just go run errands.

Most of the time, in fact, he’s a thoroughly delightful child. Which is not to say we don’t have our moments, but there aren’t so many anymore. He still asks incessant questions and they can still be exhausting, but mostly we’re starting to have deeper, more thoughtful conversations about the things he hears about on the news and the choices we’ve made in structuring our family’s life.

And it’s so fun to watch him come into his own.

(Note: Nicholas approved this post for publication.  🙂 )

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Nicholas: Sous-Chef

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n-sous-chefLast Monday, I had a great plan for dinner. It was quite relaxing. It involved leftovers and a microwave. And bar cookies made from a box cake mix. (Totally not my normal modus operandi for cooking, but y’know.)

At 4:20, Nicholas arrived home from Chess Club and came into the kitchen. “Did you make the mousse?” he asked.

And suddenly I remembered: he had a book of French cooking, which included three recipes he wanted to make with me: ham and cheese crepes, macaroni and cheese with Béchamel, and chocolate mousse.

And the book was due back at the library the next morning.

So at 4:20 p.m., I launched into an entirely new, not-so-relaxing dinner plan, involving cleaning the beaters twice (because we had to beat egg yolks, then egg whites, then whipping cream); allowing crepe batter to rest in the refrigerator; and babysitting the stove while we cooked said crepes. All with the help of my sous-chef, Nicholas.

It was pretty intense, but worth it. It was a yummy meal, of course, but more than that, Nicholas is really invested in the process. He really likes to cook, and I’m trying to encourage that interest.

n-basketballA couple of weeks ago, he wanted to make pancakes. I was doing something else intensive in the kitchen—I can’t even remember what, now—so I told him to do it on his own. I answered questions and gave instructions and explanations as necessary. It was the easy pancake recipe, not the fiddly “cloud cakes” that require beating egg whites and so on—but they turned out quite tasty, and he got a healthy shot of pride at cooking for the family all by himself.

He seems to be maturing nicely these days. We still have some strong-willed moments, but they’re getting fewer and farther between. We’ve reached a point where he can stop to think and process things instead of going into rational-mind-shut-down mode. Where we can give him instructions and it’s not a full-on war to get him to comply. He gets distracted easily, but that’s a different issue.

He still asks more questions than any child I have ever met—and they’re not easy questions. It takes brain work to go on a car ride with him, I’m telling you. It wears you out. He frequently asks the next question before you’ve finished answering the first, and it’s often the same question worded a different way, indicating either a break in communication or that he’s not really listening (more likely). I think he’s a Child-Without-filter. He says everything that comes into his head.

Occasionally I will invoke the “only three questions in this fifteen-minute block” rule. (When he gets on a question binge, it’s more like three questions in two minutes, and not ones that can be answered “yes” or “no”.)

He’s not the dreamer in the family—he’s the one who seems to want to hang around the adults and ask what they’re doing and learn about it. This applies across the spectrum—from church questions to home repair. It’s fun to see how wide-ranging his curiosity is, and I look forward to seeing where his interests lead him.

Seeking the Best (instead of expecting the worst)

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Mercy Monday smallI was on the hunt for little boy dress shoes when I discovered the tight bundle of clothes wadded up and shoved behind a storage bin in the boys’ closet. In that bundle I found a pair of khakis and a school uniform fleece that I had given to Nicholas less than twenty-four hours before with instructions to put them away.

This is not the first time we’ve faced dishonesty coupled with lack of compliance from this particular child. It’s not even the second. Or the third. Or the fourth.

But it had been months since the last episode, and I had really hoped the lesson about honesty and obedience had finally sunk in.

Parenting Nicholas has stretched my creativity so far that it’s taken on a whole new shape. Trying to discipline using “natural consequences,” when there aren’t any natural consequences that matter to him one whit, frequently leaves me feeling completely helpless.

I do not react well to feeling helpless. I firmly believe that the greatest tantrums and rages we fly into are caused by feeling powerless.

But yesterday—call it grace, call it personal growth—I did not lose my temper. True, for a change I did have a consequence I could apply: he’d been promised a play date, and losing that mattered to him very much.

Nicholas blog 2But it’s also because I’ve spent a lot of time in the last several months making a concerted effort to seek out the best in this child. To open my heart to him, to love him better. But especially to look for the best in him instead of the worst.

To put it simply, yesterday was different because I was able to approach discipline with mercy.

Now, if you’d put those two words together a few months ago, I would have turned my nose up. I would have equated mercy with clemency–like a child is getting away with bad behavior. Like, I’m not disciplining them at all.

But that, like most of our thought processes about mercy, is far too small. The thing is, when a kid pushes your buttons time and time again (you’ve all got one of these, right?), your heart starts hardening toward them. If you’re not careful, you start expecting the worst from them—and worse, looking for it. And then, when it’s time to discipline, you’ve got all that baggage, and it’s impossible to discipline in love.

In the past months, because I’ve made a focused and ongoing effort to seek out positive interactions with Nicholas, I have laughed much more with him. Been able to take advantage of his eagerness to be useful. Had thoughtful conversations with him. Learned to recognize the sensitive soul beneath the demon named “strong-willed.” And (most importantly!) I’ve learned that he’s far and away the best kisser of all my children. 😉

Nicholas Good Friday 2

The upshot is that our relationship has become far less contentious, and when we did have an episode yesterday, I was better equipped to handle it.

And all because I have begun to seek out the best in him instead of expecting the worst.

To me, that is the essence of an attitude of mercy, and it is the attitude of mercy that underlies what Jesus lays out in today’s Gospel, the actions that became the corporal works of mercy.

There’s a clear parallel here to all our attitudes toward others, but for today I’ll leave it at the level of home and family. There are plenty of Mercy Mondays left to spin out the implications for the rest of life.

For other Mercy on a Monday posts, click here.

The Hazards of Living In A Musical Family, and other Updates on my Babies

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Alex

Alex Blog 1After the LEGO movie a couple of years ago, Alex started singing “Everything is awesome” all.the.time. Woe was me. Then, knowing I loathed the song even more than I loathed the movie, he started teasing me by singing “Percy Jackson ro-ocks!” on the same tune. Then he got tired of Julianna’s obsession with Frozen, and he converted “Let it go” to “Let it blow, let it blow, and frozen goes kaboom!” Funny guy.

Last night, I decided two can play this game. I was washing dishes, he was watching Star Wars, and I heard Luke say, “I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”

I went into the living room and leaned down. “Hey, Alex,” I said, and started singing to the tune of “Do you want to build a snowman”: “Do you want to be a Jedi? Come on, let’s learn the Force!”

Julianna

Glamourazzi blog 3I had Julianna’s IEP meeting yesterday. Apparently a lot of people dread IEP meetings (individualized educational program, for the inquiring mind). Well, I dread them too, but not for the same reason. Conventional wisdom is “never go by yourself. It’s overwhelming, all those people in the room.” I have no doubt that many people have found their opinions overwhelmed, but I’ve never had a bad experience at an IEP meeting. I’ve been very happy with Julianna’s team and I’ve always thought we’re on the same page. I just dread them because it’s yet another appointment for which I have to figure out logistics.

On the other hand, it’s a good check-in on her academic performance, because Heaven knows we never get any sense from her about what she’s learning in school. The news is that she’s still reading at grade level, even with comprehension factored in, although her ability to read words is much higher. But her math assessments show zero improvement. Interesting, because we’re still doing the regular homework all the other second graders are. The difference is that in order for Julianna to do that homework, I have to sit at the table with her and take her step by step through it.

Nicholas

Nicholas blog 2You know those family stories? The ones everybody knows, even if they were too young to remember them? One of those stories in our house is about Nicholas. He was three, and I decided it would be a special mommy-little boy memory if we went to Kohl’s to pick out Jerry Garcia ties for Christmas for his daddy. “These are a surprise,” I said. “These are Christmas gifts. We don’t tell Daddy about them.”

When Christian walked in that night, Nicholas went running toward him. “Daddy, Daddy, guess what? We got you TIES!”

I turned around from the stove and said, “Nicholas, you are FIRED!”

Last night, I took Nicholas—now 6 1/2, shopping for a new (that is, “gently used”) coat. In the bins at Once Upon A Time I saw a bunch of boots and sparkly shoes that I thought might make good Christmas gifts for Julianna. “Now, Nicholas,” I said, “this is a *secret. Because it’s probably for Christmas gifts. So you do NOT go home and tell Julianna.”

“The way I told Daddy about the ties?” he said, giggling.

“Exactly.”

“But I can tell her we have a Christmas present, right?”

“No, you may not. You have been entrusted with a secret. That is a responsibility. That means you don’t tell anybody.”

We came home and found Alex in the kitchen while the others were upstairs taking baths. “Alex! Guess what!” Nicholas yelled. “I have a SECRET!”

(Face palm.)

Michael

Michael Blog 3Michael came down from his bath while I was doing dishes and asked me to button his snowman PJs. I told him the price was nibbling on his belly, and he giggled a little and said okay. He was so darned cute. I mean, He generally is cute, but it was particularly concentrated cuteness last night. I sat down on the floor and buttoned his shirt, and he started to run away. “Wait a minute!” I said. “Get back here!”

He careened to a stop. “But I want to watch Star Wars!”

I gave him the over-dramatic sigh. “Oh, all right. But first give me a kiss.”

So he did. I lllllllloooooove little boy kisses, so I always make a big deal of it and act like his kisses knock me over. It makes him giggle, but last night he was in too big a hurry. He kissed and ran, and didn’t even notice my big dramatic flop on the floor. I called after him. “You’ve SLAIN me, Michael!”

Blue PJs paused. You could practically see his heart torn. Then he came padding back in, giggling, to kiss me on the other cheek. It was so sweet, I took mercy on him after that and let him go watch Darth Vader.

Obligatory paragraph about my Book Baby

Book Baby is misbehaving. I got a pretty rough critique a couple of weeks ago, and I lost all will to live for a while. But I think Book Baby and I came to a tentative understanding the other day and I can move forward. However, I now have a month full of weekly columns and two religious education presentations at the top of my docket, so my blissful weeks of no deadlines have passed, and now I re-enter the real world of slicing bits of time out of everything else to write a novel. I had hoped to be querying by the first of the year. One of my critique partners counseled me to let it take the time it needs.

Halloween this weekend. This year we get to trick or treat with cousins! Photos next week. Alex outdid himself again this year.

Parents, Kids, and the Other R-word: “Respect”

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Photo by pullip_junk, via Flickr

You know that thing about kids? That thing where they act like angelic beings, floating above a river of serenity and sweetness, any time they’re in public, and then as soon as the rest of the world turns its back, they grow horns and a forked tail?

Yeah, that. Six people watched my children while we were gone, and every one of them said the kids were cooperative, helpful, and conflicts were minor and resolved easily. And then we came home, and Nicholas did his Strong-Willed thing.

I haven’t talked about Nicholas in a while, because he’s getting older and I want to be more sensitive to the way people perceive him. Besides, things have been better. We’re hitting a stride. It’s not that we’re conflict-free, but he’s growing and we’re growing, and we haven’t had one of those epic battles of wills in quite a while.

At least, we hadn’t, until last week.

I will spare you the details that led up to this point; suffice it to say Nicholas had lost his screen privileges. I knew it was going to be excruciatingly difficult for him to resist the draw if his siblings were watching out in the open areas of the house. So, out of respect for him, for his innate dignity, to lessen his temptation and make it easier for him to comply, I set Julianna up with the portable DVD player in her bedroom, out of the way, out of sight.

A bit later, I came down the hall and found her bedroom door shut. When I opened it, I found Nicholas watching Tinker Bell with Julianna.

It was dinnertime before it finally clicked:

It was about respect.

Image by twicepix, via Flickr

I had acted in his best interest, out of respect for his innate dignity as a child of God, and his dishonesty was a slap in the face.

It hurt me.

I wasn’t angry. I was hurt. Because I try so damn hard: to give them a childhood full of great experiences, to balance that privilege with a sense of responsibility, and especially, to be fair both in my expectations and in disciplining them. It is freaking exhausting work, and it never stops, even when I go to bed at night.

Don’t get me wrong; this is my calling, and I feel honored to have been blessed by these little people who are capable of such goodness…when they want to be.

But when they throw all that effort back in my face, it hurts. A day after that interaction, I gave Nicholas a clear instruction: Take these cards downstairs and put them away. I mean put them in the Apples to Apples and Spot It boxes. I do not want see these on the floor.

Three hours later when I went downstairs to practice flute, I found the cards…lying on the floor. I kind of lost it. Sour-faced, Nicholas got up on the chair to put the cards…not in the box, but on top of the box. While looking at me to see what I was going to do.

(Incidentally, if you have ever wondered if you have a strong-willed child, ask yourself if your kid has ever done something like THAT. Because THAT is the hallmark, right there.)

Respect: to take the responsibility on myself to make sure I don’t set my kids up for failure by expecting them to read my mind and know what I mean without me bothering to say it clearly.

Lack of respect: to deliberately and repeatedly fling noncompliance in my face.

This kind of behavior is so foreign to me, I don’t even understand it. I’ve seen it in action before, in other people, but I find it completely unfathomable. Why would you choose to act this way?

This was quite the revelation. I remember as a child being admonished…frequently…that I owed my parents respect. As a teenager I had some nasty hurtful things to say on the subject, although most of it is safely buried in a Journal in the basement where it can do no damage. As a parent, though, respect has never hit my radar—until now.

But it’s on my radar now. I’m not going to demand blind respect. I want my kids to understand that everything I do is motivated by respect for their dignity as children of God—which is why I’ve made it a point to apologize whenever I fail to live up to that ideal. And that the respect I expect from them is due to me for the same reason.

I can only hope and pray that it makes a difference—later, if not sooner—and that if it’s later, I can cultivate the patience to wait for it.

Family Business, Round 2: Julianna, Nicholas, Michael

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More family tidbits today, to hold my place until we get back from the Adirondacks. Up today: Julianna, Nicholas, and Michael.

Julianna

J-DanceAbility-3Oh, Julianna. She has been showing interest in Barbie dolls and imaginative play at last. But it’s causing me a little trouble, because I can’t figure out how much she understands about reality versus fantasy. It’s kind of disconcerting to have your eight-year-old come to you and whimper, “Mommy, I miss my Frozen friends. When can I see my Frozen friends?”

And it’s not Anna she wants, either.

“Mom.” She leans on the door frame. “I need Kristoph to snugga me.”

And:

“Mom, when it, gets, snowing, outside, can I, can I go sledding with, with Anna and Kristoph?”

And:

“Mommy, can Kristoph, can Kristoph, dance with me?”

And:

“Mommy, can you drive on the way to Frozen of Arandelle?”

Julianna’s eye appointment last week was also disconcerting. She could not read any of the lines on the projection screen. She was just tossing out random letters. You know how G and O and Q can get mixed up…but this wasn’t like that. Disturbed, I got up and started pointing to specific letters. I pointed to A. “What is that letter?”

“T.”

I pointed to R. “And that one?”

“L!”

I exchanged glances with the assistants, who scrolled up a couple of lines…but it didn’t help. The letters were enormous before she started getting them right. The eye doctor told us to bring her back next week with her eyes dilated so they could get an accurate reading. But this makes me wonder if this is why she always wants to have screens and books three inches from her face.

Nicholas:

Mascot

Charming the world as mascot for Alex’s baseball team

Nicholas has spent this summer growing…out as well as up—this kid really is turning into a linebacker. Mostly, though, his feet are getting huge. He asks the most random questions, like: “Mom, is there gravel on the gravel strips at the side of the road?” I had to explain that it’s growl, not gravel, so no. And then he said, “Would it hurt to walk on them with your bare feet?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ve never walked barefoot on growl strips.”

Never even thought about walking barefoot on growl strips, if you want to know the truth. Shall I just refer back to that “boys are just different” post?

His real claim to fame this summer, though, is how hard and well he’s worked at swim. I told him at the beginning of the summer that I wanted him to push himself so he could be safe in the pool by the end of swim lessons this year—and I do believe we’re just about there. He’s justifiably proud of himself, and so am I.

Michael got his own post the other day, so maybe I’ll just share this little gem:—standing on a chair, out of nowhere, he says: “Mom, I think Jesus DID carry a sword.”

Well…okay, then.

Did I mention boys are just different?