A few days after I returned from Hearts at Home, it was time to pack up four of my children (and all their stuff) and head out to the Indiana Home Educators Association (IAHE) conference in Indianapolis, IN. I had the privilege of speaking four times at IAHE this year. I spoke about language arts, motherhood, lifelong learning and our curriculum, A Year of Playing Skillfully. It is not unusual to have moms and dads come up and speak to me after my talks, but one particular group of parents grabbed my heart last Saturday afternoon.
Our conversation started with some general questions about potty training and first time obedience. It didn’t take long for me to notice a theme developing. These parents were all struggling with the same thing… FEAR! I just wanted to give them giant hugs and tell them that THEY HAD THIS… they were the perfect ones to parent their children. Parenting is a process, a journey; it does not require following an exact method or formula. In fact, I think many parents have been paralyzed by well meaning books consisting of “guaranteed” parenting methods and formulas. There is no guarantee that any of our children will grow up without pain and struggles. We can only do our best and trust that God has them, in His hands.
As a child development specialist, I am fortunate that I knew some basic things about children and expectations before I was thrown into motherhood. However, I still have made many, many mistakes over the years. We all desire to raise up children who become the adults they were meant to be. The question is, how do we, as imperfect people dealing with young lives that are often very different from us (or sometimes, exactly like us) accomplish such a goal? I don’t have all the answers and will never pretend to have all the answers. As I have said in every post and every talk, I am just a hot mess trying to live out this life with passion and purpose and this totally applies to my parenting.
After talking with this lovely group of couples, I thought I would share some thoughts that will hopefully calm the fears that might be swirling around in your heart and mind.
1. Disobedient children does not equal a disrespectful heart and failed parenting.
Oh, this is a touchy one… Many parenting books are telling young moms and dads that young children MUST learn to obey authority at a young age and the first time or they will not turn out well. Here are my thoughts on the subject. When I am perfect and obey in every way, the first time is when I will expect perfect children, who obey the first time. Until then, we will work out this concept of obedience together. One of the most effective ways I believe you can parent young children is to help them understand that their actions have an impact on others and come with natural consequences. For example, when a child hits another child… it hurts. I suggest parents show the aggressor that their actions hurt someone else and together figure out a way to make the situation better. Often the child who hit will offer a hug or an I’m sorry. When they can recognize the direct consequences of their behavior, both good and bad, they often choose another path the next time around. If we simply teach children that they should make good choices because “I said so”, what happens when you are no longer there to “say so”. I have seen over and over, outwardly obedient children grow up to rebel from authority the minute they are free from it. I believe that if we focus more on teaching children that their behavior is a heart issue, we set them up to be able to make better choices when we are not around. I want my children to be motivated to do the right thing out of a love for God and people, not to simply please their parents.
As children grow, they are becoming autonomous and we want them to do just that. One way to help them on this journey is by giving them REAL choices at a young age. For example, would you like to wear the blue shirt or red shirt today or do you want carrots or an apple for snack? This encourages them to be an individual and still be obedient. They will be making choices for the rest of their lives and by teaching them at a young age that they have a choice to make is empowering.
Perfect obedience will never be mastered on this earth, but children who are kind and loving and want to do the right thing can be taught and grown over time. Give them grace in the process. Give yourself grace, too.
2. Children go through developmental stages; emotionally, physically, and cognitively.
Most parents understand that children crawl before they walk and babble before they talk. However, many parents have been told that their two year-old should share, their three year-old should sit quietly in a church service and their four-year old should be reading and writing. Often parents believe that if their children are behind on these types of milestones, they as parents have failed. YOU have not failed. Every child is different and develops at a different pace. In the world of child development we often talk about ages and stages, that’s the average time a child can be expected to develop in a certain area. For example, most two year-olds cannot cognitively understand sharing. They are incredibly egocentric during this time and no amount of discipline or bribery can tell their brain otherwise. When I speak to two year-old preschool teachers, I suggest that they have more than one of the same toy during this egocentric phase. Children do move through this stage around the age of three and begin to understand the concept of yours and mine and sharing. It is at this time, that is appropriate to teach and expect your children to share some of their things. Trying to teach this concept before their brain is ready will just lead to temper tantrums and frustration for your both.
Another example is potty training. Children will potty train at different times. In our home, some children have decided to potty train in one day, never having an accident. Other children needed to wear pull-ups at night for several years. Does this mean I was a better parent to one over the other? NO. Does this mean one child was more obedient than the other? NO. It simply means that every child develops differently. Children will often master peeing in the potty well before pooping. Yes, sometimes this is about control but more often it is about your child being fearful of seeing this brown thing come out of their body and being flushed away forever. Take a deep breath and be lighthearted about the subject. If your child is fearful, take a break. Read a silly book together, such as Everybody Poops. It helps to take the fear away. Children pick up on our energy. If we get freaked out, they get freaked out. Don’t freak out. You are not going to send your kid off to college in diapers.
If you don’t haven’t already have one, I suggest you pick up a good book on developmental milestones. One of my favorites is Ages and Stages by Karen Miller.
WARNING: Don’t get hung up if your child develops at a slower pace than the book says. Focus more on the process of growing in every area than the meeting the mark at exactly the said time.
3. Children are meant to be seen and heard.What What??? YES!
Everyone deserves to be seen and heard. We are all worthy of that. If we do not allow children to be seen and heard, what message are we conveying to them? We wonder why adults don’t feel worthy of belonging. I fear it is because we teach them at a young age to sit quietly and stay out of the way. We teach them to become invisible. They grow up to be invisible.
During childhood is when we learn that we have a voice. So many studies have been done on children in orphanages who completely stop crying and making noise because no one answers them in those early months. Do we want to raise children who believe that no one hears them? We need to give children permission to express that they are angry and sad and scared. If we are always demanding that they sit quietly, they will stuff those feelings deep inside and will most likely explode at some point. I want to teach my children that their voice matters, that I am listening to their cries, their anguishes and their fears. I want them to know that they are seen and heard. I want them to hear and see others. I believe this is how we will raise adults who become aware of other’s needs and are able to clearly communicate their own needs to a spouse, a co-worker, etc.
4. Children learn more by what we show them than what we say to them.OUCH! This one is convicting. When I first heard my son be sarcastic, I thought to myself… I never taught him to be sarcastic. Unfortunately, I did teach him, by often modeling sarcasm in my responses to him and others. I realized that sarcasm didn’t look so cute on an eight year-old and honestly probably wasn’t that cute on me either. I began to be realize that I was teaching all types of unwanted behavior to my children. When my children saw me lose my patience with the cashier at a store, I was teaching them to be impatient. When my children saw me making a meal for someone, but yelling at them in the process, I was teaching them that others are more important than them. YUCK. I don’t want those moments to be their teacher. I want to teach them by showing them that their mother goes after her dreams, dares to love big, and lives fearlessly in grace. I want them to grow up and do the same.
5. YOUR children… YOUR convictions.I want to encourage you to focus on the majors in life, not the minor details. Ask yourself, is this a hill worth dying on? Can you #sayyes to this or is it one that really requires a hard NO. Will it matter in one year? Five years? Ten? Only you can answer this question, based on your family’s convictions. Don’t compare convictions, that never ends well. If you want to feed your child only organic food, do it! However, be careful not to shame your friend who is picking up a Happy Meal on their way to play group. If I am being honest, I have done that and it wasn’t kind. Shaming another for their decisions only hurts, never helps. We are all on this journey of parenting, trying to do the best we can. None of us set out to screw up our kids. Let’s be supportive of one another on this crazy ride and give grace to yourselves and others. We are all going to make mistakes. Be willing to ask for forgiveness, whether it is your children, your friends, or your family. **
I sure didn’t know how hard this parenting thing was going to be before I signed up, did you?
Hang in there. You are the perfect person for the job and you are growing your children into beautiful adults.
You’ve got this!