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.

Let’s be Honest: We Have Favorites March 2015 Practical Parenting

Who’s your favorite among your children? Is it the one most like you? Or the oldest? The youngest with her sunny smile or the serious middle child? Most parents will not point to one child or another as their favorite, but if you ask their children, you can bet that one of them will wear the favorite label.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we all play the favorites game. We have our favorite restaurants, and our favorite sports teams. We have our favorite TV show and our favorite app. We live our lives with what we favor the most, so why do we think when we’re parents we magically will not have favorites?

There’s nothing wrong with having favorites most of the time—after all, it’s okay that your favorite baseball team is the Nationals but your father’s a Cardinal fan. Where it gets tricky is when we bring that favoritism into our families and kids become labeled with being the favored one—or the undesired one(s). And as we all know, parental favoritism wrecks families and creates bad blood between siblings that can take a lifetime to heal.

While our natural tendency might be to have a favorite child (whether it’s conscious or unconscious), here are 5 ways parents can overcome that and minimize favoritism in their home.

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

Admit the favoritism. Sometimes, simply acknowledging that we are treating one child with favor over another can help us not continue that favoritism long term. We all compare our kids—it’s in our human nature and it’s extremely hard to be completely unbiased toward our offspring. Recognizing our own frailty when it comes to picking favorites can help us be on guard against that inclination.

Admit the prejudice. We like what we like, and sometimes that “liking” is based on culture or societal values that are so ingrained in our very fabric, we miss seeing it. For example, numerous cultures place high value on the firstborn male child. Some families show preference for the youngest. Some fathers prefer sons, while some mothers prefer daughters. Narcissism plays a key role in preferences by parents, as we often smile upon the kid who is most like us, either in appearance, manner or actions. By admitting that we have certain prejudices, we can work to overcome those in our dealings with our kids.

Admit the comparison. As parents, we often slip into comparing one child with a sibling almost without thinking about it. We compare our kids to one another by commenting on behavior, schoolwork, chores, abilities, sports, talents, etc. One way to break that habit is to think in terms of the child in front of you. For example, if one kid brings home an A on a test, we focus exclusively on that child and not on the fact that his older sister brought home three A’s this week. Modifying our language to weed out comparisons can be difficult but well worth the effort.

Admit the differences. Avoid lumping all the kids together as one. Instead, consider carefully what makes each unique and yet connected. Sports teams are united by the game, but often very diverse as to temperaments, abilities and appearances. Families are much the same way. Thinking more about the differences between our kids will help us not choose favorites so easily.

One way to do this is to think about what we love about each child as an individual. When you’re interacting with each child, pay attention to what makes that child tick, what makes that child smile, and what makes that child laugh. That will help us relate to our children as individuals within the family and also help us temper our frustrations at misbehavior with love and compassion.

Admit our reactions. Our facial expressions and body language, as well as our words, can convey whether or not we are pleased or disappointed. We should be very careful not to fall into the habit of always grimacing or sighing when a particular child does something but not reacting in that way when his sibling does a similar thing. Being aware of our own nonverbal cues can be extremely helpful in rooting out favoritism.

These simple ways can help us alleviate most of the favoritism in our homes and hearts.

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,


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.”