Glimpsing The Future

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Alex with Michael newborn

Older images, same sentiment

Two sixth graders in black T-shirts, in a garage on a warm, windy Sunday afternoon. Their friends and their mothers (except for me, because every time I sit up I feel like throwing up) are out in the driveway, cutting and Gorilla gluing and holding pieces of cardboard together until the glue sets, to make a boat for the Food Bank race in two weeks.

 

But these two boys, in their slim black jeans and their black t-shirts advertising basketball and Marvel heroes, the utterly ordinary stuff that preoccupies preteens, have been called into the shady, cool garage by a single noise from the 6-month-old baby sister of Alex’s friend. She’s in a bouncer amusing herself while the crowd works.

Alex goes down on his knees and starts going, “Hi! Hi!” with a big smile. The baby stares at him–let’s face it, probably his glasses. Alex glances up as his friend comes in and tries to wave him off. “I got this,” he says.

“No you don’t!” says Big Brother. “I’ve been dealing with this for, like, ten months!” And because unlike Alex, he has no fear of looking like a fool, he makes truly crazy faces and noises, and thus wins the Make The Baby Smile Challenge.

Two preteen boys, on their hands and knees on a concrete floor, utterly powerless against the charms of a baby.

Alex with Michael changing table

Despite my general not-feeling-good, I enjoy a private chuckle and a big warm fuzzy, and I think, I am glimpsing the distant future.

And it is beautiful.

Parenthood: A Series of Un-Winnable Battles

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Photo by quinn.anya, via Flickr

It’s happening more and more often these days. I find myself frustrated with something my kids are doing (or not doing), saying (or not saying), and I think: Did we act like this when I was a kid? How did my parents deal with this?

There are long stretches of life when you sort of glide through life and you feel like you’re basically doing okay. There are bumps in the road, but they’re just that. Not crises. Just little bumps.

And then there are times when you see what your kids are doing and you think, Did I cause this? Is this my fault? Am I somehow teaching them this appalling behavior without realizing it?

Those days, it’s really easy to feel like a failure as a parent, and not even really know why.

My kids fight a lot in general, but it seems much worse lately. They’re all in each other’s business. The mantra of my early-childhood-parenting years– “You take care of you” –seems to have lost its effectiveness. My entire life seems to consist of statements like, “It is NOT your business to tell your brother to eat his vegetables!” and “Did I ask you, or did I ask your sister?”

It goes without saying that they are calling out their siblings’ misdeeds while blissfully (or willfully) ignoring their own transgressions.

Worst of all is yelling at one of them for being a bossy busybody, and then having to turn to the victim of the bossing and tell them the bossy busybody was right. I mean, that’s a no-win situation! I have to choose between affirming Busybody’s busybody-ness or letting Lazy child get away with Laziness!

And it all escalates, and parental tempers short out, sometimes in public, and it’s embarrassing and potentially relationship-damaging, and I circle back to this question:

How did we get here? What did I do to make it happen? Because it surely has to be something I did!

My middle- and high-school journals are filled with the word “lecture.” As in, complaints about parental lectures. Remembering this, I’ve tried really hard to keep my own parental lectures compact. I don’t want them to tune me out; if all I’m doing is flinging verbiage at a reflective surface, I’ll only increase my own frustration.

But it’s hard, because I’m so sick of giving the same instructions over and over and over and over. How many times have I told children to flush the toilet and wash their hands? Why do they still need to be told this every time they exit the bathroom?

How many times have I said, “Put your shoes IN THE CUBBIES”? or “Put the toy/book AWAY,” and the first response is crickets, the second is to pick up said item and lay it on the stairs, the third is to carry it up or down the stairs and drop it on the floor?

I often feel like my parenting consists of a) instructions followed by b) the need for consequences. This is not okay. I mean, how many times a day can you take away screen time, which is the only thing they actually care about?

In the toilet training years, people are always saying, “Oh, don’t stress about it, no kid goes to kindergarten in diapers. It’ll happen.” I’ve always wanted to shake people for saying that, because kids don’t just magically do it on their own. They have to be taught—even Michael, who did sort of magically train himself, needed several months’ worth of parent-led practice first. If the parent has to lead, it’s the parent’s JOB to stress out about it.

That’s the way this feels, too. Part of me whispers, Chill, Kate. They’ll grow out of it. And then I think of families I know in which the adults really still don’t get along all that well, and I think, Um, I’m not so sure I can count on them“growing out of it.”

So Sunday morning, I did the only thing I could think of. I stopped everyone at breakfast before church—before anyone had a chance to get in someone else’s business, before there was time for an escalation, before there was time for a parental explosion—and I re-instituted the “screen time depends upon getting along with each other” rule.

On Monday, one child lost his privileges.

Tuesday is a no-screen-time day, anyway.

We shall see what happens today.

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.

The Gift I Have To Give Is Me

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We just came through parent-teacher conference season again, and what we learned in Julianna’s home visit was that although she can read a page that looks like this:

genesis

her comprehension is stuck on pages that look like this:

corduroy

For anything more complicated than Corduroy, I have to sit with her, read with her, and stop her at the end of every page to ask comprehension questions. Which is soul-killing work, I’m telling you. If I harbored any lingering guilt for never feeling the slightest attraction to home schooling (which I don’t), this would have done away with it. This is not my charism.

And yet…after only doing it 3 times—over the course of a week, mind you—her assessment score went up, ummmm, 100 points.

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Yesterday I decided to take advantage of the hour we sit at piano lessons to catch Julianna up on her “church school” homework, which has been sitting in a growing pile on the table for weeks. Here’s a small slice:

“Telling our sins to the priest is called…what?”

Julianna: “I don’t know.”

Me: “God is willing to forgive us when we are truly sorry…never, sometimes, or always?”

Julianna: “Never.”

Me: “Um…Does God forgive us?”

Julianna: “No.”

Me: “Um…yes, sweetie, he does.” Pause to regroup.

Me: “When we pray an act of WHAT, we tell God we are sorry for our sins?”

Julianna, pointing triumphantly at the second of three options: “CONFESSION!”

Me: “No, honey. Contrition.”

Clear throat to regroup. Let’s try a different page. Oh, that one has pictures! There’s a lady at the ambo in one picture and a priest with a paten and a chalice in the other. This will be successful.

Me: “What do we call this part of the Mass? The liturgy of the…?”

Julianna: “Hours!”

Me: (befuddled that she even knows that term.)

All this has made me realize two things:

1. I have to sacrifice my time to work more with Julianna. But not just Julianna–the other kids, too. Most of my recent negativity was due to the stress of being overcommitted, but some of it was also because the kids are just ignoring the most basic lessons, spacing them out. Like “take your shoes off and put them int he cubbies when you walk inside.” Or “rinse your breakfast dishes and put them in the dishwasher.” I shouldn’t have to tell every person to do this at every single meal and every single house entrance—but apparently they’ve learned bad habits, and if I expect them to change, I’m going to have to grit my teeth and put some self-sacrifice into it.

2. I have to accept that Julianna’s understanding of the faith is probably going to be even farther behind her age than her reading and math skills…and it’s not the end of the world. Because she participates in the liturgy with gusto, and mystery can do its work even if she never in her life gets the finer points.

I’ve been puzzling for several weeks about what to “do” for Lent. I know I need to take time every day to “be still,” but I’ve also toyed with a Facebook fast and even a writing fast (fleetingly). In writing this post, I realize at last what my “alms” are to be this year: a gift of myself, to my children.

The Minor Frustrations Involved In Raising My Chromosomally-Gifted Girl

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julianna-120When the phone rang during my oh-so-precious work time the other day, I almost decided to ignore it without even checking the caller ID. But there’s always the chance it’s somebody’s school. Which in this case, it was–Julianna’s.

It turned out there had been a minor altercation on the bus. Julianna kept touching a boy’s backpack, even after he told her to stop, and eventually some ugly things were said…involving the word “ugly,” for one…and Julianna’s feelings were hurt.

Listening to this story, I found myself torn between rolling my eyes–because this sounded exactly like a conversation that would go down in my own house–being irritated with Julianna for persisting in annoying behavior despite being told appropriately to cease and desist…and wanting to laugh.

I told the school counselor, “See, here’s the thing. It doesn’t sound like it was entirely unprovoked. I mean, I’m Julianna’s mom and I can’t tell when she really doesn’t get it, as opposed to when she’s pretending not to get it.”

She truly is a darling child, but it’s far too easy to let things slide, because with four of them, it’s hard to do it all. It seems more efficient to focus on the ones you know “get it.” We have a weekly rotation of chores, and whenever it’s Julianna’s turn to do…well, anything, but particularly sweep or mop the kitchen, I just groan, because it’s such a chore for me to make sure she does it even remotely right. And usually I’m trying to make dinner or clean or fold laundry or, rarely, write (I have to be pretty desperate, like riding a deadline, to try to write while supervising chores), and I think, Oh, we’ll get it done later, after… and it doesn’t happen at all.

bubblesIt’s the same thing when I say, “Julianna, put away these two books.” Or “Julianna, put THAT bag on the bathroom counter and THAT strap on my bed.” Or just “Julianna, go get your pajamas on.” I’m running around trying to get household things done, and she simply ignores me.

She’s learned this about me: I’m frequently juggling multiple jobs, and she can slide by without complying because I’m distracted.

Whether she knows she’s being dishonest or not is an entirely different question, and one that gives me fits. Is it a discipline issue, or not?

Then there are the orthotics. Those who follow me on Facebook know she has recently broken yet another uber-expensive brace. Fortunately, they’re covered, but I’m starting to feel very bad for the orthotist and her staff. The orthotist’s best theory is that Julianna’s heel cord is super-tight and, because the braces prevent that tightness from expressing itself, she’s putting exceptional pressure on them. So now we have two to three more orthotist appointments and regular PT to work into the schedule again.

And finally, there are the academics. Her reading assessment score went down for the first time recently. Given that reading has always been her academic strength, this was a tough thing to see. Her teachers said it was because of difficulty in comprehension–the ability to answer questions about what she had read. And the solution is for us to just practice with her more. But this means her homework, which has been independent all year, is no longer. Now I have to read with her and stop her to ask questions every page.

I’ll spare you talking about math.

Life cycles through times when things seem very smooth and times when it seems harder. And of course, usually some things are clicking along nicely while others seem very high-maintenance. I find myself second-guessing our family planning choices lately, now that the kids are all older and I really see how much more I “should” be giving to Julianna. Perhaps we should have left more space before the third child. Or cut it at three. Of course, I can’t imagine my family any way other than it is–raucous, superhero-filled, overwhelmed by togetherness and richness–but I can’t help wondering if Julianna, at least, would be better served if we were a smaller family in which her parents spent more time with intervention.

And then I shake my head and remember that having three brothers will only be good for her in adulthood, and that no matter how much intervention we did she’d still never make valedictorian and start designing rocket ships or doing brain surgery, so why am I stressing the levels of delay? Let her be who she is and let us be who we are and let us together be who we were called to be.

Kate’s Universal Laws Of Parenting

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Boys Pinnacles

Give them rocks to climb and they won’t fight. Oh wait. They had that fight over the walking stick, didn’t they? Never mind…

  1. Ear infections always and only come up after the doctor’s office has closed for the night.
  2. Or during a 20-inch snow storm.
  3. The child who gets chronic ear infections is inevitably the one who’s also allergic to penicillin.
  4. Paperwork is evil.
  5. Where children, there noise.
  6. If no noise, beware.
  7. Just because they don’t react doesn’t mean they didn’t hear you.
  8. Paperwork is evil.
  9. Boys are just different.
  10. 1 boy= destruction. 2 boys = mayhem. 3 boys = total annihilation.
  11. Did I mention paperwork is evil?

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