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.

A Bowling We Will Go…In a Boy-Girl Group?

Q: What should I do about a nearly 12-year-old girl who wants to go bowling with another female friend and a couple of boys in their grade? Some friends and family members are advising us that once we start allowing boy-girl “outings,” we will be inundated with such requests. But others have said this isn’t really that type of gathering. General guidance on dating would be appreciated too.

A: A few weeks ago, my 12-year-old, sixth grade daughter went bowling with a group of sixth to eighth graders, boy-girl mixed, from our church. She had a wonderful time with the group. Frankly, the thought that this might create something date-like because boys AND girls would be present didn’t even cross my mind (or the minds of the kids at the event, either).

Sometimes, we over-think things as parents and borrow trouble. I recommend letting your daughter guide these types of discussions.

  • Is she talking about being interested in boys?
  • What does your daughter think this outing is?
  • Do her friends talk about boys?

Has she started paying more attention to her appearance or wanting to wear makeup? Those are better barometers as to where she is regarding boys than is an “concern” as to what might or might be meant by a mixed gender gathering.

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

As to the bowling, it sounds very innocent and fun. If your daughter is eager to go and is excited about being with her friends, then let her have fun. The only thing I would make sure is a grownup your daughter (and you) trusts will be present the entire outing—even at this age, an adult should loosely supervise such gatherings to ensure the safety of all attending.

For general dating, you and your husband should discuss what you think this should look like in your home. I guarantee your husband will have different concerns than you do. After all, he was once a hormonal teenage boy! Questions to consider include:

  • Do you have a certain age before one-on-one dating can take place?
  • Will you allow group “dating” before one-on-one dates?
  • Will you personally meet any young men coming to take your daughter out?

This will probably not be a single conversation, but an organic one as your daughter grows up and expresses her own opinion and interest in boys. Remember that you want to create an atmosphere of openness.

Overall, I wouldn’t recommend a lot of dating rules, per se, but instead cultivate an overall attitude toward the opposite sex that would incorporate your family values. The teenage years can be an exciting time of growth and personal exploration for our children.

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.

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.

Educating a Child’s Palate

For years, I thought I didn’t like salad or yellow squash in particular. Frankly, most vegetables left me cold, but since eating them was required, I ate them. Rarely did I ask for seconds of green beans, cauliflower or broccoli, though.

Fast forward to college, when I left my relatively small hometown and ventured to first Georgia and then Missouri—not exactly hotbeds of culinary delights, but each place boasted a unique introduction to new foods, along with vegetables prepared in different ways. The first salad I had that didn’t contain mostly iceberg lettuce smothered in Thousand Island dressing was an eye-opening experience. Hey, this green stuff tasted great!

Nothing against my mother’s cooking (when I reminiscence with anyone who grew up when I did, and our stories of vegetables cooked within an inch of its life are nearly identical), but there was a whole, wide world out there that prepared and ate vegetables much different than I had—and I liked it. A lot.

As parents, it can be a challenge to get kids to eat their vegetables—and sometimes, even like them. We know the importance of establishing healthy eating habits when they’re young because we want them to have good eating habits when they are on their own.

We can—and should—have a hand in helping our kids cultivate a wide palate when it comes to vegetables. Thankfully, we live in a day and age where we can offer a good variety of vegetables and can easily find many recipes incorporating those veggies.

Image courtesy of marin/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of marin/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

For some concrete ways to help your child overcome her picky-eater tendencies, try these five ideas.

The one-bite rule. At dinner (as this is the most likely time a picky eater balks), give the child literally a tablespoon or less of each dish on the table. Once the child has eaten that, he may have seconds of anything on the table.

  1. Have the child help prepare at least one meal per week (planning it, shopping, cooking). Stipulations should be that it has to be a well-balanced meal (i.e., not pizza and hotdogs, but pizza and a fresh salad or hot dogs and two veggie dishes), but other than that, let the child guide the menu.
  1. Offer a “no-thank-you” clause. Once a year, let the child pick a vegetable that the child doesn’t have to eat that entire year. For example, New Year’s Day is the time when my kids choose their “no-thank-you” veggie (selections this year include potatoes, sweet potatoes, eggplant and tomatoes). When the chosen veggie is served, the child who picked it doesn’t have to eat that one food item. But the catch is that the child must eat at least a bite of any other veggie or food served—or the picked veggie is back on her menu.
  1. Connect to the source. Community supported agriculture (farm shares), farmer’s market, a vegetable garden out back—all of these ways bring veggies directly to the child from the ground level. Visit the farm, stop by the farmer’s market and rope the kids into planting their own “patch” of ground to get them interested in seeing how things grow. Vegetables grown this way are not as uniform or clean as the ones in the store, which can really spur interest. Also, when a child grows an eggplant from a tiny seed, he’s much more likely to want to taste the fruits of his labor.
  1. Fix each vegetable a few different ways. Your kid might not like steamed zucchini, but perhaps sautéed with a yogurt sauce might taste better. Remember, kids need more than one exposure to a new item before they start to consider whether they like it or not. They might say they don’t like X veggie, but served in a different way, they might just find they’ve acquired a taste for it after all.

While there’s no magic bullet for getting kids to like veggies, these ideas will help ensure they at least eat them most of the time.

Until next time,

Sarah

 

 

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.