January Parenting Thought of the Month: Kids Do Weird Things

As we start a fresh year with no mistakes (yet!), it’s good for parents to remember that their children are perfectly capable on any given day to do something totally off the wall, mean or downright illegal. Parents can do everything right and their kids can still choose to do the wrong thing.

For example, one of our kids used to walk down the hallway with tongue out, licking the wall. Another child spit at a classmate in anger during lunch (the classmate then stabbed my child in the hand with a plastic fork—yikes, good thing they were both first graders at the time, so no harm done). This is just a sampling of how strange our kids can be…and how unpredictable their behavior, even when said kids “know” the right thing to do or not to do.

Many times, a child acting in an unpredictable way can trigger a corresponding paralysis in the parent, especially the mother. The parent tries to decipher why the child did what he or she did, often wondering if the behavior was the result of some parenting misstep. More time and energy is spent on trying to figure out the why behind the behavior than addressing the behavior, and confusion often reigns in the wake of such incidents.

Since every parent will encounter something strange, weird, despicable or downright bad behavior in their child at some point along their parenting journey, what should a parent do in these situations? Here’s what I keep in mind when my kids go off the rails—or simply act according to their kid-nature.

  • Ignore the kid stuff. From licking a wall to drawing with spit on a window, we should learn to let go of the weird things kids do without overreacting. Sure, tell them to stop if it’s really annoying you, but if it’s simply that you find it strange that they want to do that (like jumping in mud puddles after a rain or only wanting to wear a princess crown instead of hair bows), you should probably let them enjoy being a kid. After all, there’s enough time for them to adhere to adult conventions.
  • Remind the child that you still love her despite her actions, but that there are consequences for what she did. Be prepared to level appropriate punishments so that there’s hopefully not a repeat of the behavior. In other words, love the child but still punish her if appropriate (or follow through if a school suggests consequences at home in addition to school).
  • Help the child take responsibility. This means the parent doesn’t step in and shield the child from his actions, but step alongside the child and, depending on the age of the kid, show him what he needs to do to make it right. This should include sincere apologies, preferably both written and verbal, and an offer of restitution.
  • Make the child assume full restitution for any damage. For a teenager, this could mean you front the money to pay for the broken window or defaced property, then he works odd jobs or a part-time job until the debt is paid. For a younger child who has little earning potential, this could mean that he pays on a sliding scale and perhaps does extra work for the person or place (such as weeding a garden at school or helping to clean up after an event) until the debt has been paid. In both cases, be clear what it will take to wipe the slate clean, such as a specific dollar amount for older kids or a certain number of extra chores that specifically benefit the person or place that was harmed (such as a school that the child defaced with graffiti, for example).

Five Parenting Hacks

I’m often asked what are some easy ways to make raising kids more enjoyable and less stressful. Here are my top five in no particular order. If you adopt even one of these in the coming year, I think you’ll find yourself more calm and confident as a parent.

  1. Develop a parental vision. How would you describe your child at age 30? How you answer that question tells about your parenting vision for your children. Think about the vision you have for your children, then think about how you are parenting. Do your decisions as a parent reflect the vision you have for your kids? Do the things you encourage your children to accomplish build toward the vision you have for them as adults?
  2. Parent with open hands by encouraging independence. Let the child solve his own problems first before stepping in immediately. Refrain from doing things the child is capable of doing for himself. Recently, I saw a parent take off his second or third grader’s shoes for no other reason than because she demanded it. That parent needed to stop doing for his daughter what she was perfectly able to do for herself. Stop being your child’s social director—let him initiate playdates, especially as the child inches into upper elementary school age. Finally, develop interests of your own apart from your kids, as it gives you perspective and, well, a life of your own.
  3. Disconnect to reconnect. The ability to be “in touch” with others 24/7 has created an environment totally different from that of a mere 20 years ago. An unintentional side effect of being so connected is that parents—and children—have become worn out. We’re warned about what we—and our children—are looking at on our screens, but rarely are we cautioned about what the mere fact that what we’re so linked is doing to our relationships. Have technology free zones (like at dinner, overnight, etc.). Get out and do things as a family without technology.
  4. Stop playing Parent Detective. Don’t spend so much effort worrying about trying to understand why your child does the things she does. It doesn’t make you a better parent if you understand everything about your child—it makes you an ineffective parent because you’re constantly assessing the why and forgetting about the what. The what is what’s most important. We should be more concerned with the what of our children’s behavior than the why. Sure, we need to point out the heart issues, but that doesn’t mean we give them a pass on the misbehaviors because we know the reasons. So many times, parents are so laser-focused on finding out the why that they forget to address the what.
  5. Use Alpha Speech. Moms especially use way too many words when communicating with our children, and this opens up the door for arguments and pushback. Instead of saying, “Mrs. Smith is coming over today and the living room is a mess. I need you to pick up your toys so Mrs. Smith doesn’t step on them, okay?” Alpha Moms say, “Pick up the toys in the living room.” This cuts down on arguments tremendously and it also allows the child to more clearly hear the directive.

What are some of your favorite child-rearing hacks?

Teachable Moments

By Carol Kinsey         

Over the years, my husband and I have looked for teachable moments in parenting. Teachable moments give us an opportunity to drive home an important principle to our children. One memorable teachable moment happened while we were in the process of repairing the electrical switches in our hallway. Halfway through the repair, my husband realized he needed to run to the hardware store. Rather than putting it all back together, he kept the electric circuit turned off, but left the wires exposed.

Our girls were 4 and 6 at the time and even though the fuse was off, we didn’t want them to touch it. We stood beside the light switch, explained the risk of electric shock and told them not to touch it.

Later that day, we noticed the switch had been rotated. Calling both our children to the hallway, we pointed at the wall. “Did one of you touch the light switch?”

After an awkward silence, Autumn spoke up. “It was Breanna. I saw her touch it. I told her not to.”

I’m not sure Breanna remembered if she did or didn’t touch the switch, but she shrugged and said, “Sorry.”

After another lecture on the dangers of an exposed electric outlet, a talk on obedience and a time-out, Breanna’s punishment was served.

Hours later, we got the girls ready for bed and prayed with them.

That’s when Autumn burst into tears. “It was me! I touched the light switch—not Breanna!”

My husband and I listened while she confessed. As parents, we felt terrible. We’d punished Breanna for a crime her sister committed.

In that moment, we had a teaching opportunity.

We reminded our girls that we are all sinners, but Jesus took our punishment by dying on the cross for our sins.

We looked at Breanna. “What you did tonight was kind of like what Jesus did for us. Autumn deserved the time-out because she touched the light switch—but you paid your sister’s penalty.”

Breanna nodded.

“Don’t I get punished?” Autumn asked.

“No, Autumn.” My husband shook his head. “Your sister already took the punishment. Now it’s up to you to accept the gift she gave you.”

We showed them Bible verses that explained how Christ’s death on the cross was the punishment for our sins.

Autumn hugged her sister. She apologized for lying and thanked Breanna for taking her punishment.

Breanna was happy for the hug and let the whole thing go.

Autumn asked God to forgive her for lying and disobeying.

That special teaching moment has stayed with me over the years. Not only was it a great lesson in what Christ did for us, but it was also a special moment in parenting. Parenting is an awesome opportunity to love, teach, nurture, witness and build into the life of another person. In the process, we grow in our own relationship with Christ, learn patience, humility, selflessness and more. What an honor God has given us in allowing us to raise little lives created in His image.

Look for those teachable moments.

About Carol Kinsey
Carol Kinsey lives with her husband and their two daughters on a farm in rural Ohio. She and her husband have been involved in youth ministry for more than 20 years and currently serve at a small country church, which inspired her first published novel, Under the Shadow of a Steeple (2013). She has also published Witness Protection (2017), Greater Love (2015), and Until Proven Innocent (2014), and a writing curriculum, Creative Writing Through Literature, which launched in 2016. Carol has been a member of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2016. Along with her fiction, Carol is also published in several nonfiction venues. She has a passion for writing exciting, Christ-centered fiction that uplifts, encourages, and gives glory to God. For more information, visit carolkinsey.net.

Letting Teen Make Own Decisions

Q: I feel like I am in a quandary of sorts. My youngest child, who will be 17 next month, wants desperately to go with her best friend to a haunted castle. My oldest went to this when he turned 18 because we felt he should start making those decisions on his own. What is your opinion on this regarding older teens?

I hate anything remotely dark or evil and have always despised anything like it, but I also don’t want to be one of those over-the-top helicopter moms who shelter their child so much that they rebel when they are on their own. Can you give any advice for us teen parents on this topic? Is it time for me to let go and just start letting her make these decisions?

A: This fall, we allowed our 15-year-old 9th grader go to a haunted walk with a friend (and the friend’s dad). Not something I ever wanted to do (and her younger sister—who’s the same age as the friend—didn’t want to go either), but sometimes, it is time to let them make those decisions as teens. What we ended up doing with my daughter was to tell her that she had to pay for half the ticket price herself. That meant if she really wanted to go, she’d part with some of her cash.

What we did was talk about it ahead of time, making sure they understood what they were getting into. And we regularly discuss evil/good, what we should watch, what God says we should or shouldn’t do, pray together, etc. It’s our job as parents to impart our family values to them as they grow up so that when they reach the teen years, they have a firm foundation upon which to make their own decisions.

When kids are teens, it’s time to start letting them make these low-impact decisions. It’s a haunted castle, so things will be gory and scary and, well, kind of fun if you like to be scared (which some kids do), but in a controlled environment.

I also find that my husband is a good counterpoint to my own inclinations, because I’m with you on avoiding that sort of stuff because of how it impacts me. But it doesn’t affect my husband nearly as much, nor does it my oldest daughter. It’s important to offer guidance but to let them make their own decisions in these types of things.

Yes, it’s hard sometimes to let go and let them experience the joys and trials of making their own decisions, but for teens to be ready to make those decisions in the real world, they need practice in situations like these. Will they make bad decisions? Of course they will (didn’t you as a teen? I know I did), but from the safety of the family, we’re there to help them recover and move on.

 

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is inspired by Jennifer Rossmiller of Grand Rapids, Mich. Jennifer’s then 10-year-old daughter Annabelle Leigh paid for a $2 ice cream with a twenty, but told the ice cream driver to keep the change.

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

A “Death” Wish?

Q: I have a 7 year old son who just happily started second grade. He is extremely bright and normal in every way. No major discipline problems, no unexplained behavior. Maybe a year or so ago he started occasionally say to me “I’ve lived too long” or “Life feels like a dream to me” completely out of the blue. I passed it off as an immature way of explaining a feeling of déjà vu or something like that.

But recently, he came home from school with a writing worksheet where he was to fill in sentences starting with things like “I am…”, “I want…”, etc.  He had written “I dream to die,” “I try to die” and “I wish to die.” When I (as calmly as possible) asked him to explain he first looked abashed, and then said “I’ve lived too long.”

He got extremely frustrated when I asked him to explain a different way because I didn’t understand. He said he didn’t know how else to explain it, and he stormed off to his room. Later he came back out and said he doesn’t like his life. Again I asked for clarification and eventually he told me that his brother talks too much and I ask too many questions. 

I told him that we all love him and don’t want him to die, and left it alone for the rest of the night. I have sent the teacher a note asking her to take a look and give me her opinion but I am wondering if I need to seek counseling. His normal behavior is incongruous with these kind of statements, but there’s always that nagging feeling that the “I’ve lived too long” comments are not quite normal either.   

A: My youngest son (we’ll call him “Sam”), now 9, went through a phase around your son’s age where Sam said on a daily basis that he “wanted to die at age 19.” We quickly realized that he didn’t have an explanation as to why he said this—by all other accounts, he was a happy, well-adjusted child—he just had this “thing” about dying when he reached 19.

We decided the best course of action (as it is with most child obsessions) was to monitor his behavior from afar and ignore the “dying talk.” We did impose one restriction: He was not to talk about death or dying at school, because it freaked out his teachers (who have been trained to notice when any kid mentions death/dying as a suicide prevention method). We told Sam this because he had written something like “I want to die” on a class assignment.

The funny thing about kids is that they often don’t know why certain thoughts pop into their minds—and at this age, they rarely have the maturity to delve deeper into their subconscious to figure out what they mean by death or dying.

But the other funny thing about kids is that the more a grownup talks to a child about an obsession (or fear), the more that child clings to that obsession or fear. In other words, we adults—as well-meaning as we are—can escalate these things when ignoring and not trying to get a child to explain or “get talked out of” or see “reason” allows the fear or obsession to die a natural death.

Already, you’re feeding the obsession by asking him lots of questions—to which, he doesn’t have any answers (or, probably more accurately, any answers that will make sense to you, as an adult). Children are illogical beings and what goes on in their minds often won’t make a lick of sense to us.

So what to do? As long as your son appears to be behaving as usual—no deviants from his usual demeanor, etc.—then don’t worry about his dying talk. In fact, just ignore it completely. When Sam would say, “I’m going to die in my sleep when I’m 19,” we all shrugged and changed the subject.

Remember, kids get weird thoughts and are strange creatures! It sounds like your son is just in a dying phase and I suspect he will outgrow it as he gets focused on other things and matures some more.

As for my Sam? He hasn’t uttered those words about dying in a very long time.

Taming the Christmas Gimmees

From the commercials on TV to the displays in stores, everything this time of year is designed to create a green-eyed monster of envy in our kids. Today, with the holiday season starting either before or immediately after Halloween, there is more opportunities for children to get wound up about the December holidays. With so much focus in stores, in commercials, in product catalogs, etc., on getting what you want for Christmas, kids become overly focused on themselves, and thus become more stressed or bratty because of that mindset.

We live in a culture that encourages children to get all they can. Kids are bombarded with the message that they should have—and deserve to have—anything they want. Children compile wish lists that run to pages and pages of often high-priced toys and gadgets, and many kids demand gifts that are not practical (like a pony) or not affordable (like the entire American Girl doll collection).

For parents, helping kids develop a more giving, rather than getting, attitude towards Christmas is to manage holiday Christmas expectations in themselves and their children by thinking and discussing the holidays now. Keep in mind that if you ask adults today what they most remember about Christmas, it’s usually not the presents but the time spent doing something with their family and friends.

How can you guide your child toward more reasonable gift expectations?

Get to the why behind the want. What is it about this present that appeals to your child? Figuring that out will help guide you in what to get your child.

Reign in the wish lists. Set a dollar limit (we do $30 or under for most gifts), plus a number of items. We also didn’t allow kids to send grandparents or relatives a list of items that individually cost more than $20 each.

Think about less costly or more practical alternatives. Maybe instead of a pony, you could offer a child riding lessons or take them to see a horse show.

Quality verses quantity. There’s a time in a child’s life when more gifts is important. One year, I bought lots of little gifts, mostly under $5, for my four kids and wrapped each separately. They will thrilled, it was affordable and fun. But as the kids get older, you can talk about the fact that sometimes the price tag of one gift means that’s basically it.

Experiences versus tangible gifts. Sometimes, you might consider offering a child an experience over a present he could hold. For example, last Christmas, my two girls wanted to see the musical Wicked, which was coming to a local theater near Christmas. Given the price of the performance tickets, we opted to make that their big gift and only gave them a few smaller presents to open on Christmas. Some families opt to go on a special vacation together around the holidays rather than open a lot of gifts.

Communicate expectations ahead of time. If it will be a tighter holiday financially, let them know that but in a way that doesn’t cause additional worry. Instead of saying, “We can’t afford a big Christmas,” try, “This year, we’re scaling back on actual presents, but we’re going to do more family things to celebrate.”

Involve them in giving. This time of year especially, it’s important to direct kids’ outward rather than inward. Adopt a family, Toys for Tots, Operation Christmas Child, and other ways to get a child excited about helping others.

Above all, remember what it is you enjoy as a family around Christmas, and try to make that your focal point, rather than run yourself ragged with piling up gifts.

A Teen and Her Five Year Old Brother

Q: My question is about sibling conflict between my 13-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. They are constantly fighting! And they are basically just rude and disrespectful towards each other so much of the time. I have read articles that say to let them work it out, but the hard part for me is the age gap between them. I feel frustrated when my 13-year-old gets rude to my five-year-old because I feel like she should know better and she should teach him better.

At the same time, my son gets extremely ugly in his behavior towards her, which also frustrates me because he’s not like that with other people. I feel like he’s still learning and she should already know not to say or do certain things to a little kid. The truth is she does. She is great with everybody else’s kids. She’s super-sweet and patient and loving. But to her brother, she’s not at all. She’s quick to get angry with him, and super dramatic about everything that he does. He will just go up and do certain things to her like grab something from her, and he’s even lied to get her in trouble.

Like I said, I know the articles say that I need to let them work it out, but there just seems to be so much tension between them and the age difference is what makes it really hard for me to know what to do. How do you suggest handling conflict of all types between children who are so far apart in age and development? A teenager and a preschool age child are so far apart!

A: I know how much this must hurt your mommy heart! But don’t despair—this can be turned around. A few things come to mind to help this situation.

  1. For now, don’t expect your teen to babysit her younger brother. I know, we rejoiced when our oldest hit 13 and we could leave her in charge of her three younger siblings and didn’t have to pay a sitter. But the dynamic here has gotten out of whack, so stop leaving her in charge (if you did before) until things resolve into more pleasantness between them.
  2. Be careful you’re not asking the teen to do too much to help her brother. Sometimes, we slip into the habit of relying on the older sib to help the younger one, and we do it too often—that can breed resentment and contempt on the part of the older sib.
  3. Separate them as much as possible for a while. In other words, they should interact as few times as possible while you help them work on a reset to their relationship.
  4. Make sure you’re spending one-on-one time with each of them, talking about the child in front of you, not the child at home. Kids act out when they don’t feel a connection with their parents. We take turns taking our kids to breakfast, for example.
  5. Take each one aside (not during your one-on-one special time) to check in with them about the sibling. Ask what’s going on, that you’ve noticed their relationship is frayed. Don’t accuse the child of doing something—your goal is fact-finding. Listen more than you talk. Empathize with the older one that her little brother can be annoying, and with the younger one that his sister can be snarky to him. Don’t try to fix it, don’t tell them what to do, just listen to get the tenor of what’s going on. Do this a few times over a week or so.

6.Then ask each one separately what would make their relationship better. Again, don’t jump in and defend one child to another, or don’t immediately dismiss the solution. Then ask the child/teen what they could do to make the relationship better.

  1. Call a family meeting. Say that you’ve noticed how each of them treat the other (they should be less likely to jump in defensive since you’ve already talked to them separately) and that’s not the way families act. Say the new rule is that for every put down, name calling, rude or disrespectful thing they say about the other sibling, they have to say at least three things they like or appreciate about that sibling. Tell them they each have to do at least two nice things for that sibling (like make lunch or hang up their coat, or bring them a pen because they asked for one and the cat is on their lap) each day before dinner, and that you’ll ask them at dinner what those things are.
  2. Do things together as a family, play games, read a book, start with small increments of time (like 15 minutes) so that you can end on a happy, rather than fighting, note.
  3. And don’t expect too much of your young teen. Sure, she should know better, but in many ways, she’s just a kid too.

More Tips on Staying Sane During December

I asked for advice on Facebook about how to not be overwhelmed during the holidays. Here’s what friends had to say:

Teresa Danner Kander says, “I try to do most of the stressful stuff, like the shopping, before Thanksgiving, so that the time from Thanksgiving to New Years is filled with fun stuff, family time, and occasional me time. And I don’t let myself build up unreachable expectations for get-togethers.”

Trinity Jensen cuts back on her expectations in regards to things like shopping, baking and decorating. Dianna Francis suggests treating Christmas as just another day to value.

Laura Ferratt echoes that thought by encouraging us to “stop in the middle of the craziness and ask yourself if today was my last day on earth, what would be important? Keep your focus on those few things and let the rest go, at least in your mind, if not in your schedule. I’ve been forced to think this way throughout my husband, Brion’s, illness, and it has been freeing and a blessing amidst pain and suffering.”

Carol Miller Huttar recommends doing ahead as much as possible. “I get everything done early, before Thanksgiving. Then I enjoy lots of fires in the fireplace, cups of hot cider, and carols.” Erin Unger is also a fan of shopping early. She even wraps all the presents by December 10. “That takes a huge weight off my shoulders during the holidays.”

April Six Wise says “no” to more things than she says “yes” to this time of year. “For example, if I’m stressed, I buy store bought cookies for the party instead of making them myself (this one is hard for me to be okay with!) and make easy meals for dinner the whole holiday season. I have to say ‘no’ to events if it messes with kiddo bedtime—or my bedtime. I’m also limiting the kids’ Christmas lists this year to one thing they want, one thing they need, something to wear, and something to read. And I’m going minimalist for decor and kid crafts. Clutter makes me super, super stressed!

John Chase agrees with April, adding “by ‘things,’ I mean anything that is contrary to the message of Christmas. Christmas to me is celebrating the advent of Emmanuel through all the music written over the centuries and the sacred events that occur in local churches and by spending time with family. All the rest can be chucked.”

Cheryl D. Hammond reminds us to slow down. “One of the biggest changes I made was to have Christmas Eve and Day sacred. We attend a candlelight service together as a family, then go home together and wake up the next morning to unwrap presents together. Christmas can be celebrated on any day, so extended family get-togethers are scheduled after Christmas Day. I used to wake up at my house, do Christmas there, then drive to my parents’ house to do it again with my side of the family. That was too crazy.”

Above all, keep in mind why you enjoy this season of the year: Family, friends and fellowship. Everything else isn’t as important as holding onto those things.

Adjusting to the Arrival of a Second Child

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After our firstborn arrived, my wife, Maryam, refused to leave her alone with anyone. On rare occasions, I might watch her, but almost no one else. As she drew closer to delivering our second child, Maryam’s attachment to her firstborn became a concern.

The night before the new baby arrived, Maryam had trouble sleeping. She went into irregular labor early in the morning, but her labor did not move towards regular contractions every 10 minutes, as parents are told to expect. We had not taken a child-birth class and did not know how to respond. After having labor pains all night, by five o’clock in the morning I became concerned. We debated calling my sister-in-law to watch our child, but Maryam refused to call. By five-thirty, I called my sister-in-law.

My sister-in-law came over right away. Maryam and I called ahead to Inova Fairfax Hospital, then drove there. On arrival, we checked into the natal unit and we settled in for a long wait, expecting a lengthy delivery as with our first child. However, the doctors examined Maryam briefly, announced that she needed an emergency Cesarean delivery, and whisked us immediately into the delivery room. The delivery went fine and our second child was born—a beautiful baby girl—but Maryam had to stay longer in the hospital than planned.

When our oldest and I arrived at the hospital the next day to visit, she held onto me rather than running immediately to her mother. Maryam was not happy!

In the following months, the family division of labor changed dramatically. Maryam could manage one child by herself, but having two required teamwork. A single child gets a lot of attention that cannot be sustained with two, because one of them always moves around or needs something. When our first arrived, I bought a new 35 mm, single lens reflect camera and filmed her every move, but when our second arrived, we seldom had time to photograph.

Adding to our adjustments, our second child experienced more colic than her sister, which left us tired all the time. No one wants a crying baby around. I remember being told undiplomatically one Sunday morning to move to the back of the church, because our firstborn was making too much noise. Unlike the 1950s, churches today mostly lack a cry room and expect parents either to disappear during worship or to delegate care to someone else, which we never did.

Instead, we learned to cope and adjust, as all new parents do.

This blog post was abstracted and edited from Called Along the Way: A Spiritual Memoir by Stephen Hiemstra. (T2Pneuma Publishers LLC, 2017). Used with permission.

About Stephen W. Hiemstra

Stephen Hiemstra lives in Centreville, Va., with Maryam, his wife of more than 30 years. Together, they have three grown children.

Stephen worked as an economist for 27 years in more than five federal agencies, where he published numerous government studies, magazine articles, and book reviews. He wrote his first book, A Christian Guide to Spirituality in 2014. In 2015, he translated and published a Spanish edition, Una Guía Cristiana a la Espiritualidad. His second book, Life in Tension, focuses on Christian spirituality. This year, he published a memoir, Called Along the Way. Correspond with Stephen at T2Pneuma@gmail.com or follow his blog at http://www.T2Pneuma.net.