Parenting According to Vicki Hoefle, Part One

I recently spoke with Vicki Hoefle, professional parent educator, author of Duct Tape Parenting, and national speaker, about parenting. Her new book, The Straight Talk on Parenting; A No-Nonsense Approach on How to Grow a Grown-Up is available now.

VHoefle-1What surprised you the most in raising your own six kids?

Vicki: How much I didn’t know and how often I let personal prestige (what others thought of me as a mother) guide my parenting decisions.

For the most part, American parents 50 or 60 years ago knew they weren’t raising kids—they were raising adults. What happened to change that mindset in today’s parents?

Vicki: In the not-so-distant past, parents understood that their future depended on children who were ready to leave home and start working their own plot of land. The sooner their kids were prepared, the sooner they could strike out on their own.

Think about it. Parents spent time teaching their kids how to make bread, wash clothes by hand, repair socks, cut and stack wood for winter, repair roofs, till soil and care for livestock. No parent back then was thinking that their 5-year-old or 9-year-old was going to make it big in the NBA or be the next senator. They were preparing them for a life that would mimic their own. Simple.

Fast forward a few dozen years. The choice is still simple: attend college in order to secure a good job to support yourself and your family, or enter the workforce right out of high school to support yourself and your family. Again, no one was thinking that their child would be the next superstar or millionaire.

And then Baby Einstein came along, and parents were fed the idea that if they played Mozart while the child was in utero, hung the right mobiles, read to the child, and taught the child his numbers, letters and colors all before the age of 3, he would have a better chance of getting into a great college, hence securing his future. So, we all went along with the story and began spending hours and hours with our kids “preparing” them for the future. At some point, this idea morphed into the idea that if a parent could stack the deck for their child educationally, why not in other areas? What if I invested my time and resourced into preparing my kid to be the best possible soccer player so they could get a million dollar contract, etc. Suddenly, we stopped helping our kids learn real life skills and started focusing on the elite career they might have.

Today almost every parent I speak with thinks that their child is exceptional, the special one—and so they spend their time preparing the child for a career that will, in all likelihood, never arrive. That is why they send a 5-year-old to a summer-long soccer camp or a 9-year-old to a science camp at MIT.

Add to this the technological revolution and things intensified. Parents are sharing their children’s accomplishments with the world so there is a lot of comparing going on. Once your personal prestige is activated, it’s easy to see why parents are focusing their attention on the here and now and not on the future.

What prompted you to write this book?

Vicki: I know as a mother who has raised kids, that paying too much attention to toddlerhood can derail our attempts at raising emotionally healthy, high functioning adults. Finding that sweet spot of living with a toddler while raising an adult became a passion of mine and I wanted to share what I learned with parents everywhere.Straight Talk on Parenting FINAL

Stop by next Tuesday, April 28, to read what Vicki thinks are some of the most common parenting missteps we make today and why character is so important to a child’s growth.

Boys Being Boys—and Why That’s Okay

Q:I have three boys: 3, 7 and 10 years old. The oldest loves to wrestle and play with his siblings, but he’s also much more aggressive than they are—but not to the point of hurting them. For example, he has smothered them with pillows, put a headlock on them, etc. Those actions sometimes leads to crying. I’ve been disciplining the oldest one when that happens. However, I’m not sure that’s the right thing to do. And will it escalate into serious harming?

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: A long time ago in America, most parents recognized that boys were, well, boisterous and loud and aggressive, as well as kind and generous and courageous. We’ve forgotten that wrestling, mock-fighting and other rough-and-tumble “games” are part and parcel with the very boyness of most young males (and some older ones, for that matter!).

With our two oldest children as girls, I was a bit unprepared for the fighting—not mean or vindictive, but for fun—that our two younger boys engaged in on a daily basis. But then I remembered their gender and heaved a sigh of relief. They were, after all, just being boys, giving into the rougher nature that God has given the male species.

So today, we have our fair share of incidents where the rough play of pretend choking, smothering, and other wrestling triggers a crying response from the younger sibling. And we gently guide our boys to learn how to play fight in a way that’s fun for both of them (much like we guided our two girls to learn how to get along when things got out of hand).

What’s important to remember is that while your oldest has some responsibility to set the tone of the fighting—not too hard or aggressive, because of his bigger body—the tears from the younger two are not your son’s fault. You describe him as holding back and not allowing himself to be too rough with them to the point that he actually hurts his younger brothers. That shows you right there that he cares for his younger siblings enough to temper his own actions in order to keep them from harm. Because he’s already shown this tendency, there’s no evidence things will escalate into serious harm territory (of course, there’s always the unforeseen accident, but that can happen anytime!).

However, your younger two have gotten off scot-free in these interactions. They were full participants in the game until suddenly it wasn’t fun for them anymore—let’s face it, it’s really not his fault if his younger sibs participate in a game of wrestling only to cry foul when it doesn’t go their way). Tears do not always mean someone’s to blame, so please keep that in mind when comforting the crying kid.

For your oldest son, ask him to walk away when his brothers start crying, that the game needs to end at that moment. Not as a punishment but as a way for him to not get frustrated with his younger brothers.

Overall, Remember, the younger two cry because that’s the weapon most younger sibs employ when they are not getting their way or losing the game or being shown they are the youngest and the oldest is stronger–really typical boy stuff here.

Online Safety Not Guaranteed

Q: I’m trying very hard to keep my two elementary school age kids (boy and girl) safe online. At home, we have a parental block on our devices, and restrict access to the Internet.

However, with so many kids these days having cellphones, tablets, etc., I’m worried that my kids will come in contact with pornography or other bad stuff when they are with their friends. We talk about the dangers online, and they know to walk away if shown anything of a sexual nature and to tell us immediately.

But as they are getting older, they have more freedom to play and visit friends’ houses. If they have a sleepover, I inform the parents that my kids are not allowed online without adult supervision. I can’t be with them every minute of every day—how do I protect them?

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: When our children are babies, we tuck them into car seats equipped with lots of straps and cushions to protect them from automobile crashes. When our children are toddlers, we remove objects and household products (think drain cleaners, paint thinner, etc.) that could seriously harm them if used in an unsafe manner (which, of course, is what toddlers love to do the most). When our children are preschoolers, we talk with them about the dangers of strangers. When our children enter school, we talk with them about how to say no to drugs and alcohol, etc.

In short, we spend an awful lot of time working hard as parents to protect our children. But the fact of the matter is, we cannot keep our children 100% safe, 100% of the time. It’s simply not possible. That doesn’t mean we throw up our hands and do nothing.

What we should do is equip them to handle those scary situations that will come up when we’re not around—the video they shouldn’t watch, the drink they shouldn’t take, the party they shouldn’t attend. We help them by modeling good behavior when it comes to our electronic devices. We put in boundaries where we can (and enforce those boundaries on a consistent basis).

And we talk with our children, not lecture style but about the world. We watch TV shows with them and discuss clothing choices. We listen to music with them and ask about lyrics. We get to know their friends. We spend time observing so we can pick up when something’s wrong or troubling them.

One of our main jobs as parents is to do all we can to create an environment that allows them to bring their concerns to us immediately, rather than later. We create an environment that has us listening more than talking about the issues that concern them. We offer guidance in those circumstances our children need to address on their own—and step in and take them out of sticky situations when they can’t do so themselves so that we can listen and offer guidance.

Mostly, though, we send them off into the world on a wing and a prayer, as the old saying goes, knowing that sometimes, they will do the right thing, and sometimes they will do the wrong them. Our hope is that when they do the wrong thing, they notice that and take steps on their own to get back on the right path.

The Angst of a Good Mother

What makes a good mother? Contemplating the answer to that is something that can keep us women with children awake at night. I think we look at the answer backwards. We shouldn’t be thinking what make a good mother but rather what do we do that’s good enough for our children.

There’s a world of difference between those two points of view. The good mother camp worries incessantly about how their actions and decisions impact their children for good or bad. The “good enough for our kids” camp realize that we do the best we can and the rest is up to the child.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Here’s one example of a mother who is suffering from trying to be a good mother—and feeling like a failure. She and her husband adopted two, 3-year-old boys from Russia, who are now 15 years old. The boys are struggling some in school and reading at a fifth-grade level even though they are in ninth grade.

She writes, “I feel I haven’t been a good mother and am wondering what suggestions you might have to fix my mistakes. I guess I didn’t spend enough time with them reading and learning. I fear they will just be completely lost when they are 18 and older as the world moves so fast. I feel like I’ve really failed them.”

This mother had given her children the best possible life: good schools, tutors when necessary, and above all, love and affection. Yet she still feels like she failed them because they are not top of their class and are not performing as well as their peers on some levels.

The fact of the matter is we all “could” have done things differently in raising our kids–all parents think that one time or another—but most of us (with the exception being truly abusive parents) have done the best we could. What we forget is that we only plan a part in our children’s upbringing. An important part, but only a part. Our children have the majority of the responsibility for how they turn out, i.e., by taking full advantage of the opportunities given to them, by applying themselves to school, etc.

We can’t make our children better people—we can only provide the opportunities and incentives (read: consequences for bad behavior) to motivate them to become a good person. We give them the environment most conducive to academic success (in other words, a good school, good teachers, a place to do their homework at home, etc.), then we step back and let them sink or swim on their own.

Our focus should be less on being a good mother but more on raising kids who are good, kind, compassionate, thoughtful, honest, hardworking, empathetic, and other positive characteristics. Instead of worrying overmuch about their academic or intellectual success of our kids, we should enjoy them for who they are–not for who you want them to be because of some arbitrary social standard. Let’s keep your eyes on the kind of men and women we want our children to be at age 30 and we’ll stop being so concerned about whether or not we’re good mothers.

I’d much rather been a mother raising her kids the best she can than a good mother.

The Problem With Words

Q: My 12-year-old daughter has a friend who began saying things like, “That’s really gay,” when my daughter made a face or put forth an idea. Naturally, this friend said that phrase in front of other kids. My daughter knows what gay means, but her friend’s usage of that term in relation to my daughter is confusing to my daughter. It’s hard for my daughter to ignore the comments because my daughter sees this girl on a regular business because of shared after-school activities. How should we handle this?

A: When I was a young teen, I had a fair-weather friend, a girl my age who sometimes was my friend and sometimes not. Nothing I did seemed to make a difference in whether or not she was friendly to me. Needless to say, this on-again, off-again relationship was at turns hurtful and hopeful. Being friends with her was akin to riding a roller-coaster with its ups and downs.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

My mother offered this excellent advice when I asked how to handle the situation: “You know how Susie (not her real name) is. It’s up to you to decide if you want to take a break from the friendship or continue with it, knowing that it’s likely to cause you pain and hurt feelings.”

I think having a similar conversation with your daughter could be empowering for her. Acknowledging that you know she’s hurting because of her friend’s comments, but that it’s up to your daughter to decide whether or not to continue hanging around with this friend. At this age, we can suggest alternatives, but phrasing it in a way that gives the ultimate decision to your daughter is better than telling her daughter not to see this friend. Now if this was a case of drugs or alcohol–or any other truly unsafe situation–then you can intervene a bit more strongly. But this is more nebulous, and so I would gently suggest, then back off.

Follow-up response from parent: Thanks, Sarah (and your mother) for the advice. We used it almost word for word. Our daughter decided to take a break and was almost grateful for the “permission” to do so. She relaxed immediately and was still comfortable with the idea this morning on the way to school. Wish we had thought of it earlier!

8 Ways to Love Your Unrepentant Child

What can we do when our child keeps choosing the wrong path in life? Check out my article on  “8 Ways to Love Your Unrepentant Child” on Crosswalk.com.

“Through it all, we hope our children will see the wrongness of their actions, but in the end, it’s not up to us to convict their hearts—that’s the province of God—so we tell them we love them, we levy appropriate consequences when necessary, and we make the way to repentance not steep or rocky, but paved with love and forgiveness.”

Emancipation and the Older Teen

Q: A little more than a year ago, our 18-year-old daughter moved to Nashville, Tenn., (completely at our expense) to be a member of a ballet company. After a year of that, she decided to go to school full time, but stay in Nashville at our expense (we pay the rent for her apartment). Then she wanted to move to a more expensive apartment, to which we said no. She ended up going to my brother-in-law for a co-signer (and we don’t have a good relationship with this person, which she well knows).

Topping it off, this past weekend when we were visiting her in Nashville, she said some very hurtful things (and this after we gave her a smartphone!). We ended the visit by giving her the option of coming home and going to school with our financial help or staying in Nashville on her own. She handed us our car keys and walked away. I feel we did the right thing, but it has almost literally broken my heart. How do we proceed?

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A: I’m sorry you’re hurting because of her choices and words. Knowing you did the right thing is cold comfort but sometimes, that’s what we have to deal with when making tough parenting decisions. Unfortunately, kids of all ages aren’t known for saying, “Gee, thanks, Mom and Dad. You’re right.”

As to proceeding, she’s made it clear that she’s going to do what she’s going to do–without your assistance. So you’re left with two choices: continue financially supporting her (and taking her attitude as she bites the hand that feeds her) OR cut off financial assistance (and be prepared for her attitude to worsen). Either way, you are not going to change her heart attitude towards you. That’s only something she can do. All you can do is decide what you’re willing to pay (literally) for her choices.

If you do decide to slash the financial apron strings, tell her that you heard her loud and clear and that from now on, you will not be paying her bills. Inform her that she must figure out what to do about her smartphone because in 30 days, you will remove her from your plan and her phone will be due to you (unless she ponies up the cost of the phone. Ditto on car insurance and any other bill you are currently paying. If your brother-in-law chooses to help her out by co-signing her lease, that’s his affair–and you shouldn’t let that influence your relationship with him.

Then simply love her. Call her, text her, write her. Let her know you care without harping on her choices. She’s a grown woman now and wanting to live independently—and that’s a good thing. While you would rather she choose a less difficult path, she has picked her own way. It’s up to you as her parents to be available yet silent (for the most part) as she makes her way alone in the world. To me, that’s the hardest thing a parent does but it also can be the most rewarding at times, especially when we see our children rise to the occasion. She might just surprise you and turn out all right despite a rocky beginning.

Dating When Married

Remember those heady days of early dating with your now-husband? The dinners, movies and outings that just the two of you went on as you discussed everything from favorite bands to politics to religious beliefs. How many times in the past year have you been on a date with your husband?

I do realize that there are seasons of life when it becomes necesssary to hunker down and stay in, such as a newborn baby in the house, sickness (let’s not talk about the chicken pox quaratine in our house earlier this year!), or the like. But I sometimes think we have a funny way of letting life overtake our marriages, too, and before we know it, we haven’t been on a date with our husbands for way too long.

Finding the time for just the two of you–and I’m not sure falling asleep in front of a DVD in the family room really counts–is as essential to your family as putting food on the table. I’m a firm believer that a happy marriage is the best thing we can give our children, that the relationship between husband and wife is even more important than the parent-child one.

To that end, dating your husband should be a top priority, and finding reliable babysitters is paramount. If you don’t have any regular babysitters, check with the teens in your church to see if they babysit. Try the local MOPS or other playgroups for leads, and ask other neighborhood moms at the bus stop or park. Start a babysitting co-op with friends.

Once you have a pool of babysitters, go put some dates on the calendar. Spend a few hours one afternoon making a list of things you could do together–them pencil those ideas in every month or so. Your ideas could be expensive, such a dinner at a fancy restaurant for your anniversary, or free, such as a summer concert at an outdoor mall.

I’ve tried to be diligant about doing this every few months, because our calendar will fill up with things to do, but not necessarily dates with my spouse. This summer, we will go out to dinner with friends; see a movie together, not separately; get away to celebrate our anniversary at a B&B (my parents will help out with childcare for this one); see a musical play; and hear a band at an outdoor venue.

Now that you’re jealous of my good fortune, go make your own plans and enjoy reconnecting with your spouse in a new way.