Embrace the ‘Meanie’ Label

Q: My six-year-old son has started back-talking, mostly calling me a “meanie” when I tell him to do something he doesn’t like, such as chores, homework, no snack right now, etc. What’s frustrating is that his three-year-old sister now copies him when she’s upset with something I, my wife or her brothers do.

What can we do to get rid of this disrespect? I’ve repeatedly told him that it’s rude and he’s lost privileges for saying that. As for his sister, I tell her firmly no and that it’s not respectful. I do sometimes point out to her brother that he has taught her to be not respectful, which he, naturally, denies!

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

A: This is probably going to shock you, but I think you’re over-reacting about the “meanie” comments, thus making a mountain out of a molehill. Since you didn’t mention that your son disobeyed the instruction given, I’m going to assume that he’s obedient but grumbly about it.

Your beef is one that plagues many parents today but that didn’t phase your grandparents’ generation. Parents of the 1950s and earlier knew to expect a certain amount of grumbling from their children in the form of eye rolls, “you meanie” comments, and other such nonsense. As long as the child in question did as he was told, those parents rightly ignored such comments as part of the “junk” that comes from raising an immature person to adulthood.

What’s happened is that today’s parents are hyper-focused on managing all aspects of a child’s life, from his actions to his reactions. Sometimes that’s appropriate, in that a child needs correcting if he’s having a temper tantrum, for example. But most of the time, we can safely ignore the shrugs, sighs and expressions of disappointment that accompany obedience to the task at hand.

Why this frustrates us today can be boiled down to the simple fact that we want our children to understand the whys behind our edicts. In short, we want our kids to say something like this: “Gee, Dad, of course it’s time to do my homework. Thanks for reminding me” or “Now that you’ve explained why the bathroom needs cleaning, I’ll get right on that job, Mom.”

That’s not going to happen until the child is grown up and probably has kids of his own. Then, and only then, will he understand why you did and said the things you did and said when he was a child.

Many parents make this mistake in thinking that obedience has to be both inward and outward all of the time. Yes, we’re concerned about our children’s hearts, but we have to remember that we’re the same way about chores we don’t particularly like to do, only we’re adults, so we’ve learned to hide those grumbles inside. Kids haven’t–they let their grumbles show on their face (eye rolls, sighs, etc.) and words (calling a parent a “meanie” really isn’t disrespectful; calling a parent a four-letter word is).

As for your situation in particular, here’s what you can do. Tell your son that you are no longer going to punish him when he calls you a meanie (or other similar words). If he wishes to do so, he may shout it or sing it or whisper it as much as he likes in the downstairs powder room (or guest room). That’s his special “meanie” room. That gives the child the freedom to say those words, but also parameters in which to do so. You can send your daughter to that room as well if she wishes to have her own “meanie” session.

Then stop worrying about his expressions when told to do or not to do something–instead, correct him when he doesn’t do the thing requested or does the forbidden thing. You should certainly have conversations at other times (not in the midst of a “meanie” episode) about what’s going on in his heart when he gets upset about directives.

Above all, remember that we shouldn’t expect a perfect response from our kids all of the time. Wear that “meanie” label proudly—it generally means you’re doing a good job being a parent.

Keeping It Real

One of my daughters really loves to write. She reminds me of myself at that age—always penning bits and pieces of stories on scraps of paper or in notebooks. She’s told me many times that she wants to be a writer when she grows up—“Just like you, Mom.”

While I must admit to having a certain amount of pride that at least one of my children has a similar dream that I have, I also want to be realistic in my guidance and encouragement of those dreams. So I’ve told this daughter that writing can be a lifelong passion, but that she should realize it’s difficult to make a living out of writing.

I don’t want to crush her dream, but allow her to think about writing in the context of what’s probable versus what’s fantasy. It’s probable that she can find outlets for her writing, but fantasy that she’ll be able to pay all of her bills as a writer. (And yes, it pains me to write that. Unfortunately, journalistic and writing jobs are becoming more scarce as full time opportunities these days.)

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

I think that’s a large part of our goal as parents—not to dish our children’s dreams, but to help our kids to temper them in light of the world in which we live. That means not telling our kids they can become superstars just because they want to win American Idol. That means not encouraging our kids to hyper-focus on a particular sport in the hopes that they will make it in a national league when they’re older.

What it does mean is that we allow them freedom to try things—not necessarily by giving them lessons or signing them up for classes—but by providing enough free time for them to dream those dreams, and to figure out for themselves what they really like about something.

All to often, at the first hint of an interest in something, we’re all in as parents. We immediately buy whatever tools needed for that interest, such as sports equipment or art supplies. We search out extracurricular classes or activities to learn more about that interest. We hunt out coaches to hone their skills in private lessons. We research the interest and possible college scholarship opportunities.

In other words, we go overboard, way beyond simple encouragement in their interest. When we think we’re helping them to enhance their skills in that area, what we more often than not do is smother that interest or pigeonhole a child into a sport or activity that the child might not love as much as we think he does.

We’ve forgotten that children like to try on personalities and activities like playing dress up. One day it’s dragons, while the next it’s dinosaurs. One day it’s soccer, while the next it’s biking. One day it’s art, while the next it’s sewing.

We need to give our children the freedom to figure out these things on their own without rushing into it headlong. So instead of signing up for an art class, give a child some supplies and let her tinker a bit on her own. Rather than joining a baseball team, get out in the backyard and toss a few balls with your son for a time.

Above all, give them the free time to dream, to think, to imagine a host of things. And when they come to you with their ideas, listen, offer a bit of realistic advice, then step aside. Most of the time, the child will figure out what he wants to do on his own with just a little help from others.

Until next time,

Sarah

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.”

A Bully of a Label

“You’re ugly.” Those words pierced my heart as a gawky 13-year-old seventh grader. It was hard enough to be the new kid at a private school where my classmates had been together since elementary school. What made things even harder was the near-constant teasing from both boys and girls. Over and over and over again, they told me how ugly I was.

The trouble with going to a small private school was that there was no escape from my tormentors—not many places to hide in a grade with a mere 17 kids. All that seventh-grade year, I went to school knowing that chances were pretty high I would hear that phrase at some point during the day. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was an almost everyday occurrence. Many nights, I cried myself to sleep because of the hurt and anguish caused by those kids. I used to beg God to make me pretty, not in a vain request for good looks but because I figured that if I wasn’t ugly, then the taunting would stop.

Yes, I told my mother about it, and she tried to help with coping mechanisms (not showing that the words hurt, etc.). But with little information out there on bullying, it was something those of us who were targets had to simply live with the abuse. I think I asked my parents not to say anything to the school administrators, because instinctively I knew that wouldn’t solve anything. The kids would get a “talking to” and the abuse would continue, albeit more under cover. Back then, no one thought that kind of verbal abuse was anything to get worked up about.

Today, we would call their actions bullying, but a few decades ago, there wasn’t a fancy name for that kind of shaming. Fast-forward to 2015, where anti-bullying messages are the drumbeat of every elementary school, junior high and high school curriculum. From kindergarten to seniors, children learn about the devastating impact of bullying, and are encouraged to report any incident of bullying to teachers, parents and administrators.

This is a good thing in many ways. It empowers those who have long had no voice. It brings much needed awareness of the harm verbal and physical abuse has on the weak and the different. It has helped to produce a more accepting attitude among our children for those who are not like us.

But all this attention to bullying has also blurred the line between abusive behavior and kids being kids. We have perhaps let the pendulum swing too far in the other direction, slapping a bullying label on situations or events that are nothing more than misunderstandings or misperceptions.

Image courtesy of prawny/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of prawny/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

For example, one message each of my children has brought home after hearing an anti-bullying presentation in first or second grade has been that someone who hurts your feelings is being a bully. Yes, bullying hurts feelings. But the very definition of bullying is a pattern of abuse, not one isolated incident.

Handling a Bullying Situation
So what’s a parent to do? How can we help our children understand the very real dangers bullying is yet temper that with a kind heart willing to overlook the mistakes of friends and classmates? Here are three ways to provide guidance to our kids.

  1. Overlook a first offense. Children especially are all too quick to take offense at anything or anyone who rubs them the wrong way or hurts their feelings. We should help our children to see that most of the time, friends and classmates and siblings are not out to hurt us. Reminding our kids of times when they hurt someone else’s feelings accidentally will guide them in having a spirit that overlooks random offenses.
  1. Talk to a trusted adult. We absolutely should listen to our children when they come home with tales of woe from school or play. But we should do more than provide a listening ear—we should help them sort out what happened and what it means before throwing on the bullying label. Questions we can ask include
  • Is it part of an overall pattern?
  • Did our child contribute to the situation by his own actions?
  • Is it something the child can handle on her own?
  1. Formulate a plan. When faced with a potential bullying situation, we need to assist our children in developing a plan. Whether it’s personal or happening to a friend, role playing different scenarios can help a kid figure out what to say or do. Try a variety of responses with the child until he’s comfortable. This will help the child be able to execute the plan more easily when confronted with the bullying child.

These three steps are only the foundation for handling a bullying situation. This is where we should start with our children. Some situations may call for interventions on a higher level, such as with teachers or school administrators. Some may call for discussions with the parents of the other children involved. All should be done with thoughtfulness and compassion, without rushing to judgment.

Beyond Bullying
What happens after the situation has been addressed? That’s a crucial part of ending this cycle of bullying that we too often see continuing in our schools, homes and communities. We need to think beyond the bullying to helping our children grow together, both bully and victim. Here are a couple of ways to get started.

Do little acts of kindness. Being kind to someone who has treated us ill—whether accidentally or on-purpose—can diffuse a potentially damaging situation. Help our kids to see that being nice in the face of unkindness can be freeing to their own hearts—and could have a huge impact on the other person. Your small act of kindness can touch the heart of another, and that’s a good thing to remember.

Walk in their shoes. When my oldest was in kindergarten, she came home with tales of “Teddy” being mean to her. Teddy bumped into her and knocked the book out of her hand. Teddy stepped on her toes. I checked with her teacher, who said that Teddy liked my daughter, but that he was rather clumsy because of his larger size than most of his classmates. I explained that to my daughter. The teacher worked with Teddy on boundaries, while my daughter had a new understanding of what her classmate was going through.

Sometimes, if we try to understand where the other person is coming from, we can find common ground—and compassion. We might not always know the full story of why a child acts the way he or she does, but by helping our children think about the other person’s story, we can help them develop empathy for their fellow classmates—a good thing to develop.

Bullying is an issue that we should continue to dialogue about with our children and in our schools. But we must balance that with thoughtful discussions about embracing our differences, developing a kindness towards others, and helping both bullies and victims to overcome their past.

The Myth of Free Time

In the fall, all four of my children will be in school, albeit not all full-time (my youngest will be in a three-day preschool program). Whenever this comes up in conversation, the enviable response is, “What will you do with all of your free time?”
Ah, free time—that mythical land to which every mother longs to go. As someone who currently works part-time from home, I rarely have free time now, and I don’t anticipate that changing once the children are in school.
I think the bigger question is what does this say about the current view of mothering. My mother stayed at home, but her time wasn’t consumed by doing for—or entertaining—me. Sure, household chores ate up some time, but once we were older than three, time spent in childcare dropped considerably for women of my mother’s generation.
That kind of mothering has fallen out of favor, and with it the rise of no time, free or otherwise. I am grateful for my mother’s example, for it gives me the fortitude to follow in her footsteps. Direct care of my children has lessened as they age; correspondingly, time I spend taking care of the household has also dropped as the children have picked up more of the cleaning chores.
In turn, that has allowed me to pick up some of the things that I put on hold when the children first arrived: reading, writing, knitting and sewing, for example.
While I’m looking forward to a quieter house next fall, I won’t have to worry about how to fill my suddenly “free time” since my time has always been mine to fill. I’ll take the 24 hours given to us each day and try to use it wisely—just like I do now.

Sarah Hamaker is a freelance writer and editor, and author of Hired@Home, a guide to unlocking women’s work-from-home potential now available on Kindle. Her stories have appeared in previous Chicken Soup for the Soul books. Sarah lives in Virginia with her husband and four children. Visit her online at www.sarahhamaker.com, where she blogs about working from home.

The Good Mother

I’m a terrible mother.
Before you call social services and report me, no, I don’t beat or starve my children, but there are days when I fall way short of today’s definition of a good mother. I don’t spend a lot of time with my children (and often think that’s okay). I don’t correct their homework (and have no intention of doing so). At times, I get annoyed when they interrupt me. I sometimes yell at them when they frustrate me (like spilling milk on the table I just cleaned).
How many times have I not paid attention to what a child was saying because my attention was on my email? How many times do I pack my day with too much work and end up too tired to play a game or read a story to them before bed?
We as mothers and women have a tendency to set the bar so high, it’s nigh on impossible to reach. We tell ourselves that if we don’t bake the cookies from scratch, or don’t pay close enough attention to the babblings of the 2-year-old, or don’t fill-in-the-blank, our children will not be happy, healthy, or have a good life.
Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? But how many of us have had similar thoughts dance through our minds, along with the accompanying guilt at not being a good enough mother? I sure have, even though I try very hard not to.
Then there’s the inevitable comparisons with other mothers. Even when we’re not consciously thinking about how other women parent, it can seep into our minds in the blink of an eye.
Here’s an example of what I mean: When my oldest was a toddler, we went to the park on one of the first warm spring days. She had on a short-sleeved shirt probably for the first time that year. As we walked to the playground, I looked around at the other mothers who were arriving with their children. Nearly every one of them had whipped out a tube of sunscreen and was slathering their child’s face and arms with the stuff. My daughter looked at me and asked if she needed sunscreen. I told her no and to go play, but in that moment, I felt like a bad mother, one who sends her defenseless child out into the sunny world with no sunscreen.
Other times this feeling has cropped up for me includes being the mom without the first aid kit at the playground and another mom has to lend you a Band-aid to bandage your child’s bloody knee. Or giving my kids a non-organic, not-too-healthy snack when other moms have artfully arranged carrot sticks and hummus.
If we fall into this mindset that we are not good enough mothers, that our parenting styles and family life is not up to par with the rest of the world—and as a result our children will not be able to fulfill their great destinies— then we will miss out on a lot of the joys of childhood.
We also will miss out on the laughter and the pain, the joys and the sorrows, the average grades and the missed goals. And those lessons learned from not being perfect, from seeing how we as mothers handle life’s disappointments, and from enjoying life to its fullest whatever our circumstances, are priceless.
It’s not being the perfect mother that our children will love us for—it’s being the best mother we can be for them. That won’t look good some days, but if we turn our backs on measuring ourselves to an impossible standard, we can have more good days than bad.
It took me several years to come to terms that I wasn’t a great mother by certain standards. And there are times when I slip and start to obsess about how I’m not a good mother. But most of the time, I aim to be a good enough mother, and so far, it’s been a good one for my four children.