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.

Why My Rising Middle-Schooler Doesn’t Have a Cell Phone—And Won’t

There’s a revolution happening and it’s connecting our kids more than ever. Cell phone usage has edged younger and younger, as has cell phone ownership. A 2012 study found that nearly six out of 10 parents surveyed that had tweens bought a cell phone for those children. The study revealed that between 10 and 11 seems to be the “sweet spot” for tweens to get a cell phone, too.

“Before the training wheels are coming off their bikes, many children are getting their first cell phones,” said John Breyault, NCL vice president of public policy, telecommunications and fraud, in a press release. The National Consumers League conducted the study.

Of course, my older tween has asked for a cell phone, but by her tone of voice, I could tell she had little hope of receiving one (especially given the fact that her father and I have only “dumb” flip-phones). We have no intention of giving her a cell phone even as she enters middle school next year. We’re well aware that especially in the NoVa area, we are in the minority of not wanting our children to have technology by its very nature that is disconnecting, rather than bringing together. Here’s what I mean.

Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  1. Cell phone usage encourages rude behavior. Give a kid a cell phone, and you’ll notice that he will immediately start ignoring the people he’s physically present with in favor of the ones on the other end of the phone. This isn’t just rude to those around him—it’s also cultivates an overall antisocial behavior.
  2. Cell phone usage encourages instant gratification. When that call comes in or that text buzzes the phone, it’s nearly impossible for the cell phone owner to ignore it. The need to know who is calling/texting can be overwhelming and the owner is soon hooked on the addictive nature.
  3. Cell phone usage encourages less sleep. Studies have shown that screen time in the evenings can mess up a person’s cicada rhythms, and thus their sleep patterns. Giving kids cell phones younger and younger is a recipe for sleep deprivation.
  4. Cell phone usage encourages stupidity. There’s something about having a device small enough to fit into your hand that can make you not think twice about doing something you otherwise wouldn’t do, such as taking inappropriate photographs, filming friends or situations without permission, posting offensive comments. Cell phones in the hands of kids not remotely mature enough to handle the ramifications of such mistakes is a recipe for disaster.
  5. Cell phone usage encourages disconnectedness. You’ve all seen people walk around with their attention riveted on the device in their hand more than the world around them. More than ignoring the people in front of you, cell phones create an individual world that encapsulates the user, making her miss the wonders of a beautiful spring day or the sadness of her little brother or the silly antics of a puppy.

Of course, these can be true of any cell phone user, not just a tweenager. We must all be careful not to let technology take the place of people, or allow what might be take the place of what’s right 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!

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.

Lovely Expressions–February 2015 Issue of Practical Parenting

We love our kids, even when they drive us crazy. Even when we’re tired after being up all night with the baby. Even when they upchuck all over us right before we leave for a business meeting. Even when they squabble and nitpick with each other. Even when they leave the front door open on a cold winter’s day for the hundredth time.

While most of us verbally tell our kids how much we love them, we also need to show them through our actions that we love them. If life has shown us anything, it should be that a person can’t be loved too much.

During this month of celebrations of love, here are 8 simple ways you can express love to your children.

Image courtesy of atibodyphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Image courtesy of atibodyphoto/FreeDigitalPhotos.net
  1. Love them differently. Let’s face it, we don’t love our kids the same. And we shouldn’t because each one is unique. We should love our children because they are our kids but more importantly, for who they are. So tell them, “I love you because….” Be specific. Let them know what you see in them that floods your heart with love.
  1. Express it without words. Hugs, kisses, touches, looks—all of the nonverbal things we do to show love we should do with our kids. Let them feel the warmth of our affection in the ways that we interact with them, such as snuggling together while reading a book, holding a hand while walking down the sidewalk, tucking a note into their lunch box or backpack and initiating a tickle fight. Don’t let a child’s age stop you from showing affection, even if the teen doesn’t seem to appreciate it at the time.
  1. Schedule regular one-on-one time. From a book at night to a breakfast out, spending time individually with our children can be a wonderful way to show them we love them. Make a point to do this on a regular basis with each of your children. For example, we have a rotating schedule of “Breakfast With Mom or Dad” for our one-on-one time. The calendar listing the dates and who goes with who is posted on the fridge to help remind all of us of those special times.
  1. Tell your story. Know what makes children feel safe and secure? The knowledge that their parents love each other. So from time-to-time, share with the kids how you met, what you love about your spouse. Show affection for your husband and wife in front of the kids.
  1. Share “their” story with them. All kids love to hear how they arrived in the world, what their first words were, what life was like for them as a baby or young child. Part of how we show our love to them is to telling them their “own” story. You can augment with photos or home movies, but the important thing is to make sure each one has a chance to be the “star” of our family history.
  1. Go on dates with your spouse. Wait a minute, how does this show love to our kids? By instilling in them the importance of your relationship with your husband and wife—which helps to underscore the love you have for each other and for your children.
  1. Show up at events, games, activities, etc. Be part of their life. This doesn’t mean you have to go to every practice, but it does mean you make an effort. For example, I don’t volunteer for every opportunity at school, but I do make a point to do so a few times a year, and that helps the kids know I think they are important—and loved.
  1. Ask them about their lives. Give your kids a chance to tell you about their day, about their passions, about their dreams or fears or concerns or fun stuff. This involves listening, asking questions, and paying attention—without consulting your computer, smartphone, tablet, etc. Knowing you care enough to give them your full attention can be priceless to a child.