Sunday, July 31, 2011

Letting Go Little By Little, So Our Kids Can Mature

Most of my writing and blogging is done when my muse calls and when I have something to say. As a result some of my published early blog posts and emails from discussion groups were more reactionary and rant-ish in nature. At some point I got sick of that type of infamed writing. I also began to realize it sometimes represented spirited opinions in the heat of the moment but what was on my mind most of the time was not that stuff; once I wrote about it and got the anger out of my system it was gone.

It is odd having a blog with who-knows-who reading it and having no idea what they think of who I am based on what I've chosen to reveal. At some point in time I realized that maybe I've been giving a certain impression of myself that isn't entirely accurate. For example I feel strongly that young children need to be protected and cushioned from certain mature issues in life and that American media is fairly corruptive. I still believe that but things change as kids grow older.

I recall one time my sons wanted to hear more read alouds about knights but at the time, of I did not let my kids play with toy weapons and I discouraged exposure to violence (we didn't even watch the news within the kid's earshot). In looking for stories to read aloud which had an appeal to my boys, I had the same issue with pirates, weapons, and stealing. I started having trouble finding stories that didn't include violence and use of weapons. (You are probably saying "duh" right now.)

At that point, I posted a note to a chat group about books for children and got a private response that was long and thoughtful and brave. The mom said that once upon a time she was like me trying to shelter her kids from violence and weapons but over time as the kids grow up more and more of the real world (and history) is exposed to the kids. Like me, she also had been on a kick to have no violence even when talking about knights, who did have weapons and used them sometimes. Her email was nice in tone but there was something about it that was basically telling me I was being unreasonable and unrealistic in my expectations.

I did arrive at the same place that the brave mother arrived at. Little by little over the years my kids have been exposed to things that I knew someday they'd know about. You can't plan this stuff, it just happens. One day a kid tells your kid something that you didn't want them to know about for a couple more years. Another time a movie is watched at a friend's house with a sex scene. Your son hangs with kids at sleepover camp who use profanity often while away from adult's ears and slips up a lot when he gets home.

My husband and I know what we believe and we have raised our kids with those values. Some things are topics that are not discussed until the kids are a certain age. Other things can be said at younger ages but the kids don't get it until later. We talk about things with our kids. When things happen sooner than is ideal, we choose to address it (rather than to ignore it). I may not like that my child was exposed to it, but reality is what it is, and then the present is the "right time".

The parenting style we have used is called attachment parenting. I don't know what the label is for the other important thing that describes our communication style. We have kept the door of communication open and I have forced myself to learn to be a good listener, first in my former job where I took training in active listening, and later when I was doing volunteer work with La Leche League as a lay breastfeeding counselor and took the training that they require (very similar to active listening).

I am pretty much always available to listen to my kids (although I don't always have eloquent replies to their sometimes surprising revelations). They can tell me anything and they do. I hear all kinds of things from them. My kids tell me stuff that my friends say their kids would never tell them. My thirteen year old told me who he has a crush on, for example. That surprised me, as most teens don't reveal that personal information to their parents. I'm sure there will be more that he is not telling me. In the teen years kids should be growing apart from their parents and becoming more independent. Some things are private and should remain so.

I speak honestly from the heart to my kids. I share things with them. When I make an error I apologize. If I realize my tongue was too sharp when they pushed my buttons I address it later with an apology.

I am trying to teach my kids not just to share their thoughts but how to do it sensitively and kindly and with certain communication etiquette rules. Thus, sharing about being angry is okay for everyone to do but what we say and how we say it matters just as much. It is always good to discuss one's anger but it is not acceptable to use name calling let alone physical pain infliction or physical property damaging to express one's anger. My husband and I don't encourage the use of profanity, instead, we are trying to stretch their word choice ability through the use of other words in the English language.

While it is true that in American culture certain explicatives have no equal and sometimes they are indeed the perfect word choice, the fact is that far too often Americans rely on profane words as adjectives or adverbs, to the point where more effective communication is avoided. A person who drops the f-bomb constantly or uses sh** nonstop seems to have a limited vocabulary whose communication is less effective and less interesting. I can't stop my kids from swearing when they're alone with their peers but I wish at least in certain circles they'd train their mind to stop and think about a better word choice (saying that cake "was flavorless" instead of "sh***y").
I started my parenting journey with having my babies in a protective bubble of safety and provided them with nourishing food and drink and surrounded with love. I tried teaching them to have a positive attitude and to look at the world with a certain rosy outlook. As they got older and wiser their eyes opened and they began to really see more of the real world as it happened around us. World events and events close to home (i.e. 9/11, an earthquake near the home of our Japanese foreign exchange student) showed my kids that things happen that are out of our control. All we can do is choose how we react to those things.

Kids Choose How to Act and React

I'm trying to teach my kids to realize they do have control of certain things in their lives. They control their values and attitudes and the perspective that they view the world through. They control how they act and react to other people in living their daily lives. They control their words as well as their body language's non-verbal communication. How they respond to a rude comment a peer makes to them, how they act when they're around the girl who has a crush on them, and how they respond to a rude comment made on Facebook are all things they control. They are (hopefully) learning with each thing they do that how they choose to respond and react matters and will negatively or positively affect their lives. They have the choice to react this way or that way and they will influence others with their decision which will impact their own lives.

I am trying to make my kids see that although at times it can seem that they have little control of their lives they really do control a lot, and as they mature and grow older they gain more and more responsibility and control. I want them to realize they are liked or disliked for who they are as a person and part of who they are is how they act, interact, and react with others. The act of relating to others defines in part who they are as people. People judge others all the time, and not all judging is bad. People judge others based on how a person behaves which includes what they say and how they relate to other people. If a person is rude and selfish people will think they are unfriendly and not easy to be around or that they are not someone they'd want to befriend for pleasure or work alongside (on a school project or on something in Scouts or when adults, as co-workers in the workplace). Kids and teens need to ask themselves if they want to be the person who everyone dislikes or hates, avoids and dreads being around or do they want to be treated with respect, liked, and sought after as an acquaintence or friend?

Giving Kids Choices from the First Birthday and Up

I have given my children small decisions to make starting when they were babies. Kids really do learn if you let them. I let them eat with their hands until they had the fine motor skills to start to handle the fork and spoon then I banned the eating with the hands. Thus, my kids were skilled with using those before they were two years old. I see kids who are well over three being fed by their parents. Why do they do that? Do they think that keeping a child reliant on them and dependent is good for the child's development? Do they think that doing that is an expression of their love? 

When my kids were not yet one year old they began using a sippy cup and then moved to an open topped cup and regular drinking and also sometimes with straw use (in restaurants) in the first year. Why? Because the real world is not filled with sippy cups and I was not going to haul one around with me everywhere I went. I also had read that over-use of sippy cups and pacifiers caused delayed speech and malformation of the soft palate with speech impediments and the necessity of speech therapy. What informed parent would create those problems for their kids? This thinking mother put the time in to teach the kid to drink correctly and we used plastic cups and yes, some of them got knocked over by accident, which I cleaned up. I also realized that there are many ways to express love to my children and keeping them ignorant and incapable is not what I would define as being a loving and caring mother.

When to quit the sippy cup seemed like a big deal back when I had only one toddler to raise. Now my oldest is just about 14 and my younger is 11 and it's a whole new world. My kids have learned a lot from their friends and peers they know through various extracurricular activities. They have learned some negative things from other (supposed) sheltered homeschooled kids, even the kids who are in very religious families.

Now my kids are older, more than ever I realize that I cannot and should not control every single thing or try to prevent my kids from being exposed to certain things. Trying to keep them in a bubble is a ridiculous thing to attempt. I can only do so much, such as when my son's friend asked that I take them to see Friends with Benefits , a romantic comedy which I knew was rated R. I hadn't even looked to see what it contained that I may object to, I said no, that due to their ages (14) they could see Transformers 3 (PG-13) or Captain America (PG-13).  Twice I had to shoot down that teen's request (my own son has no interest in romantic comedies so he was not asking to see it). What that family does and what they let their 14 year old watch is something that is none of my business but I won't let kids who are even temporarly under my supervision do things that I don't want my own kids doing.

Once kids and teens see or hear things, whether it is a news event, something about drug use, or something relating to sex or relationships, the only thing they can do is choose how to react to it. They need to try to make sense of it and they form an opinion. As a parent I have been setting a foundation for my kids.

General teachings about our value system have been discussed and expanded upon later after they hear something they can start to fit reality into their worldview and see what picture forms which may be different than what their peers or others in their circle of influence think.

We taught our kids for a long time that we felt that children are meant to be loved and they take responsibility to raise so adults should have children when they are ready. Part of our ideal situation is that a child would be raised by two loving parents in a committed relationship and to us the ideal situation is after the couple has made a legal and spiritual committment through marriage. It was quite some time before my kids realized that some adults in the real world bear children out of wedlock. Later they found out that some single teens accidentially get pregnant when a child was not desired.
Later they found out that even adults sometimes wind up pregnant with an unwanted baby.

At some point my kids found out that there are infertility medical procedures that adults can pay to access to help them get pregnant when the natural way doesn't work. Later they found out about that it is legal in America to get an elective abortion if the pregnant woman decides she doesn't want to bear the child. To complicate matters even more, they learned about homosexuality and that there was a movement to legalize same gender marriage and that some gay people want to raise children too, so they either adopt or seek services with a fertility doctor. Last week my eleven year old found out about sperm banks, after watching a drama on TV that showed a lesbian woman who sought to become pregnant through a fertility clinic. (When we started watching the series I had no idea that one of the characters was a lesbian let alone that she'd seek to become pregnant as a fair amount of the storyline.)

So, we parents can set a foundation of values. We choose to live with a policy of open communication. Then we live real life and as things happen or are learned we discuss them and we frame them in our family's worldview and then we let go and let our kids decide how they feel about it.

My husband and I hope our kids see things our way but we know we can't control their every thought and that sometimes they will disagree with us. In the teen years especially, when they are trying to form their own identity they will sometimes take on viewpoints or ideas that are not the same as their parents. Although I don't like that idea I know that sometimes kids and teens must try on various views. Sometimes after testing out a viewpoint they may change their stance when they consider other views which they'd never seen before, or when they learn more information. (I have seen this in my home with my kids and when teaching and discussing things in current events classes at homeschool co-op. It is amazing to witness the opening of a mind and when kids or teens suddenly can see things through different perspectives and realize life is more complicated than they'd realized.)

Natural Consequences
I have not ever been a parent ruling with an authortarian parenting style. I have used parental authority and have exercised my parental responsibility though. I give my kids choices and let them see the natural consequence of their actions.

I show tmy kids that if they want to have that goal they must take that path and do X, Y, and Z.

To outsiders what I do and how I do it may seem like I'm dictating or controlling my kid's every move but I am not. I'm being realistic and providing options. If my son says he wants to do Plan B but Plan B will not get him to his goal I explain that. I won't let him go on with Plan B thinking he will succeed at his goal, as Plan B will fail to achieve his goal.

"You want that merit badge? The deadline to submit your personal fitness plan is tomorrow. If you don't get it in, you will have to wait until we move to Texas, get hooked up with a new Troop and then find a new merit badge counselor. Your work on the badge will be at least two months longer to start, if not three, then after that fitness plan is approved you will have to do the three months of exercise, so now you're looking at finishing six months out not finishing in three months if you get that plan in by this deadline." That's an example of how I talk to my kids. Does it seem too blunt to speak that way? I've heard that boys and adult men actually do much better with direct communication. I'm looking for successful communication so if some flowery language loving women don't like my direct and clear communication, that is their problem, not mine, because the boys and men and even some of the women in my life appreciate it, prefer it, or need it.

I love my kids deeply and I care about them very much. I express my emotions. I speak from the heart. I also talk directly and clearly to them so maybe some women think my communication method is not flowery enough. Let me tell you, boys usually don't like a lot of flowery talk. It annoys some people, did you know that? Do you know that some beat around the bush or kiss-butt language or obviously phony and fake talk, or the passive aggressive style bothers and maybe infuriates some people so that they shut out what you are trying to say and may even dislike or hate you and may seek to avoid you? So is doing that "good communication"? If that kind of talk worked well on your daughter, your son probably won't respond to it as well. You can speak plainly about things and still have your kids know you love them to death and that you have unconditional love for them. An adult in an authority role can speak directly yet still be considered kind and worthy of respect. Being rude and mean is not a requirement as part of clear and direct communication.

Letting Kids Grow Up

As my kids grow up and get older I let go of trying to control their lives little by little. Small things led to bigger things, like dropping them off to take a class led to letting them sleep at a trusted friend's house which led to my twelve year old going on a twelve night Boy Scout Jamboree camping trip a day's drive away from our home.

I want my kids to learn to be independent. I want them to be able to handle appropriate indpendent activities as they go along in their childhood, I do not want to shelter them and keep them too dependent until the day they go off to college. The things I taught my kids when they were children will hopefully help them navigate life as teenagers. What they learn as teens will hopefully help them when they are away at college. What they've learned at college and from my husband and I when they are in their college years will hopefully help them in their young adult lives.

Active Parenting

Parenting is a process and it is a verb. It starts the day the baby is conceived. Parents build a foundation for their kids and even from the first year the baby is working at moving away from the parent to try to become independent. Safe parameters and guidelines and limits help the child stay safe. Strong communication between parent and child (and siblings) helps teach as it allows for some looking back in retrospect and allows to think about how to handle that next time or where to take the situation from here.

Parents cannot keep the real world away from their children forever, nor should they. What they should be doing is preparing their kids to realize how in control they are of some parts of their own lives and that they can and do control their own outlook on situations that are beyond their direct control. No, they could not control the fact that Grandpa got Cancer which caused him to die but they chose to spend time with him and to not avoid seeing him when he was suffering in pain and when his physical appearance began to change. My kids had to adjust to seeing him suffer in pain because we explained that the thing that would bring the most happiness to their grandfather was being around his grandchildren as he knew his days were limited. We told our kids it hurt them to see him suffer but that it should help them feel grateful for their own good health and that they should look forward to every day they are alive and that hopefully they will have a long life like their grandfather did.

The sooner that kids realize they do have some control in their lives and when their parents let them utilize their power (even something as small as choosing what they want to wear or what movie they want to watch from the options I approve) the more capable and the more empowered they will feel. Self-confident kids who know they are prepared to handle whatever life throws at them are kids well on the way to maturity and independence.

Our world needs more independent, capable, responsible and mature people. Keeping kids in a bubble and not revealing the real world to them prevents the parent from communicating with their children about those important topics which stunts their development and keeps kids immature and naive.

Sheltering kids too much and for too long is like not teaching a kid to swim and then throwing them into deep water and expecting them to know, without instruction or practice, how to swim. Exposing kids gently to things and teaching them how to handle them creates independence and helps train their mind to evaluating things logically and exercises their thinking process. By exposing kids to various people and situations they sometimes wind up having to deal with problems or they learn new things that maybe parents would rather not have their kids know or experience yet but they must handle it. The ability of being able to take whatever life throws at you and to know you have a choice as to what to do with those lemons is important: will you make lemonade or just stare at them in confusion?

Parenting is not easy nor is it predictable. Parents have little control over what happens in the world outside the walls of our home, but we can influence and teach our kids how to respond and react to things that come their way from any direction or any source. We have to let go a little to let things reveal themselves and then tackle the challenges as they come. We need to have open communication and close bonds with our children so they are open minded to hearing what we say and and so they know they can come to us to seek our counsel.

What parents can control is the foundation that is established with the family's value system, we can control the parenting style used which helps create the parent-child relationship (whether it is trusting and strong or distrusting and weak) and we can control how we communicate with each other.

Rather than rally against the ills of the world and try to shut it out forever, I think parents should expend energy developing their family's value system, setting a strong foundation for the relationships within the family and establishing a communication system that is open so that as our kids grow older they continue to feel safe discussing things with us. Kids with strong foundations and who know what their values are can and will view the world through that perspective. Those kids will be on their way to being able to think logically and critically about what they see and hear in the media and in the real world. They will form their own opinions and will use their point of view to try to make order out of our complicated world.

As kids begin to realize  how they can affect change within their own sphere of influence they will feel more in control in a seemingly out of control world. They will feel empowered and strong, capable, able and independent. That's what our world needs more of.

Are you preparing your kids to be independent, strong, empowered people or are you keeping your kids sheltered, dependent and reliant on you to do their thinking and doing for them? I hope you have thought about the big picture and I hope you know what your end goal is, then work backward from there. It seems clear to me that in order to have thinking, responsible, self-reliant young adults, they need to have practiced by having made some decisions on their own (which includes making some mistakes based on their choices and learning from those mistakes). Letting even a toddler make seemingly small decisions is a first important step in teaching a child to be a thinking, independent minded, empowered, self-confident person.

1 comment:

K said...

***Are you preparing your kids to be independent, strong, empowered people or are you keeping your kids sheltered, dependent and reliant on you to do their thinking and doing for them?***

Certainly the former. I am constantly amazed at the challenges and experiences my teens and tweens voluntarily take on and conquer.
Nursing babies on demand, wearing them, breastfeeding for longer than most, homeschooling....people love to say the children will be big babies, they are too sheltered/coddled, they don't know 'the real world'. IME, these kids are the opposite. Their needs for security have been met. They know their parents have their back so they feel confident going out into 'the real world'.

If you are rock climbing will you go higher if the person holding your rope is strong and you know that you can rely on them or weak and may leave you on your own at any moment?