Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Stand Off, or How to Have Likable Children

I'm not an accomplished homeschool mom. None of my children have gone to college, none have been married off (and against much homeschool lore, I do think that's what college is for), none have written tomes decrying post-graduate degrees or primetime TV or two-piece bathing suits.

So, you know, just be aware of my shortcomings as I rant.

I have a bone to pick with parents. This time, it's not just with homeschooling parents but also with Christian school parents and public school parents. I've got my boxing gloves on, and I'm picking a fight.

My extreme frustration is with this: the tendency to defend your child at every turn to every upright being and then have the nerve to call it the "Mama Bear" in you.

You're not raising a cub. You're raising a weenie.

You're raising a child who is very quickly becoming used to seeing himself as a victim. You're raising a bratty member of society who thinks that the way to advance is to complain to his superior. You're raising a whiny, fussy wimp who is tiresome and inept.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, Ethan and I walked into a grocery store. In the entryway, a man with several middle-school children was looking at the newspaper stands. I pulled a cart from the corral and then noticed that the man's sweatshirt bore the name of the small Christian college that is my sister's alma mater.

"I'm sorry," I said, "but I just have to ask about your sweatshirt! That is the school my sister went to!"

"Oh, really?" he replied. "My daughter went there, but only for one year. She just had such a hard time." He went on to explain how she just couldn't fit in, how everyone had the standard so high, how it was terrible that a good homeschooled girl like her couldn't make any friends. He talked on. And on. I think it really turned into more of a whine. In front of his other children, he whined to me about how his daughter couldn't thrive in college because no one would bend over backwards for her.

My lip *may* have actually started curling. It was definitely twitching. As he continued, it became clear why no one wanted to be her friend, why no one would talk to her. I wanted him to stop talking to me!

She had never learned to fight for herself. She had never learned to assess a situation, scout out the battleground, and plan her position.

She had only learned to call Daddy and lick her wounds.

I'm sure it all begins innocently enough. They are babies, they are helpless, they can do nothing. We must do everything.

(Gideon and Salem, almost three years ago on my friend Sue's phone. The crossed eyes! The curled toes!)

But then, all of the sudden, they can do something. They can say, "NO!," they can run away from instead of to when summoned, they can stomp their toddler feet and put their arms akimbo and refuse.

 And here our parenting strategy must change. We must stop doing everything for them. 

We must stop excusing what is a very natural, predictable display of human sin. In the baby stage, we must clearly demonstrate that there is a necessary double standard between adults and children. Adults get to be the decision-makers. Adults get to be the stay-up-laters. Adults get to drink coffee, and eat dark chocolate at will, and turn on the TV without asking.

But it only starts here.

Then, when they are older and come home crying because "Ellie said my dress isn't pretty!" (and she did, too, in the first grade), we say with a gentle smile, "Pretty is as pretty does." Then we explain what that means. But we don't deride Ellie or call her mother or even give it too much thought.

Do you see what's subtly happening? We are teaching them that some battles are not worth being battles. Sometimes they won't even get to fight (you wave your fist at me and I, the adult, will swiftly end this battle), and sometimes they will have a choice to not fight. And sometimes they will have to figure out how to fight responsibly.

As a teacher, I certainly saw parents excusing their children. Time and time again, in conference after conference after conference with parents, we heard why Dick feels he needs to cheat and why Sally is a "chronic forgetter" and how Jane can't really be expected to tell the truth all of the time.

It was a Christian school, and "sinner" was spelled V-I-C-T-I-M.

Well, yes, they are victims: victims to their own parents' ignorance of the rules of engagement.

It is our job as parents to equip our children. It is our job to make sure they have the know-how and the weapons to fight. It is our job to NOT excuse them, to NOT jump into the fight unless it is absolutely necessary, to NOT "Mama Bear" our children into the Wusses' Hall of Lame.

When our children come to a standoff, sometimes we need to do just that: stand off. Close your mouth. Listen. Assess. Guide. Pray.

Resist the temptation to run to so-and-so with your concerns about how little Johnny is so misunderstood and ate too much of the one thing and not enough of the other and really, how can we expect him to do any differently?

Well, we start by...expecting him to do differently.

We start by leading Johnny to the Scriptures and to what God says about the situation. We freely give what they as children often lack: perspective and insight. We give this to Johnny. But we do not fight his battles for him. We do not tell his teachers that really, they don't understand, and really, our home life is currently so complicated, and really, he wasn't meaning to say that.

Give him the tools. In these matters that involve other adults  ("Teacher made me sit next to So-and-So!" or "Mrs. Minniver never calls on me on purpose!" or "Mr. Kramer told me I was interrupting!"), remind him that always adults warrant respect. Always. There is no negotiating this. And then help him figure out how to identify the real problem and deal with it. 

And remember that you are the parent, and it is your job to inject perspective and insight. Perhaps the real problem is that Johnny doesn't want to sit next to So-and-So and needs to learn to be gracious to those who are difficult. But you let him struggle with it. Don't you dare go talking and complaining to Teacher or Mrs. Minniver or Mr. Kramer.

When did parents turn into the saps instead of the sages? I know things have not always been so. I remember being in the third grade and complaining to my mother about K.D. and how I had to sit near her and she was fat and she wore blue eyeshadow and clothes fat people shouldn't wear and she lived with her single father (one of only two children I knew from a single-parent home) and nobody liked her and you know what? I talked myself right into having to invite her over for a sleepover. Can you imagine? My mother made me have her over, just her, to spend the night.

And that night, when I had to talk to her and couldn't sit away from her and couldn't avoid her, I learned a very important lesson.

I learned empathy.

I listened to her talk about my wild family and how it was so wonderful. I listened to her wish her mother was around to show her how to put on makeup and go shopping with her. I listened to her laugh at my stories and say I was funny and she wished she were funny.

For the first time, I stopped being jealous of her makeup and her skirts and the chocolate that was always in her lunchbox.

We were never best friends, but I learned to stand her. I learned to hold my tongue when everyone else was wagging theirs about her lunch or her clothes or her dad.

A lesson that I *never* would have learned had my mother sympathized with my plight, permanently etched itself on my psyche that night.

What would I say to the father of the miserable college student? I would say to do what my father did when I called and said I was DONE and would transfer or just leave but NO WAY could I stay in this hellhole called University.

He typed me a letter and stuck it in the mailbox. Four days later, I received fatherly wisdom, folded in thirds and encased in an envelope, that said this: "Your complaints are normal. Every college student has felt this way at some time or another. Stick it out. Nowhere is perfect. Do your work, carry on, and remember we love you."

And that was enough. That jolted me back to reality, out of my pity party and self-doubt. Stay the course! Finish strong! Keep on! And remember we love you.


That's it. We need to fortify our children, not fight their battles for them. We need to offer them perspective and insight. We need to drag them from their selfish, limited view and point them to the truth.

And we need to be there to cheer them on in doing right. But in order to do that, we need to give them the chance to do right and not hide under their mother's apron.

Stand strong! Stand back! Stand off!

And leave Mama Bear out of it.

Friday, January 4, 2013

A Whiff of the Past

The other night, I opened a new bottle of face wash (bought mostly because I am a total Burt's Bee's addict and had not yet tried this product) and was instantly taken back about thirty-something years. I'm not sure what the fragrance officially is, but I can tell you it smells exactly like the Lemon Meringue doll I used to own, the one that was Strawberry Shortcake's friend. The one that when you squeezed its belly, it blew a kiss, a puff of lemon plastic air. The one that lost its hair that one fateful summer when my neighbor's granddaughter came to visit her. We ended up playing and she told me that my doll was one of those that after you cut its hair, you could pull on the ends and it would grow long again.

It was not that kind of doll.

But the memories that came back so strongly when I smelled that lemon plastic air! Memories of a summer spent playing with a little girl I hardly knew, hiding with her in her grandmother's attic four houses down from mine as we ate an entire package of Girl Scout Samoa cookies. I felt so uneasy, and she kept reassuring that "Grandma bought this for us to eat!" So why were we hiding, and why did I go home and have a nightmare? I dreamt that she and I were hiding in her grandmother's attic, the box of cookies between us, and The Incredible Hulk (the Lou-Ferrigno-as-the-monster one, not the Bill-Bixby-as-David-Banner one) was coming after us.

All from a face wash bottle.

I started thinking about smells. I don't usually. I mean, I'm thankful for the sense of smell sometimes and not-so-thankful at others, but I really don't think about smelling that often.

But I do believe it is this mostly-ignored sense that brings back the strongest memories. Memories that I don't even always know I have until I'm having them, and then "Oh, my goodness. I had totally forgotten. How could I have forgotten?"

You can't willingly tie scents to memories, at least I can't. If I could, then the scent that would be Grandma Hoeldtke would be chocolate chip cookies. There was a big crock (or two? I remember two) on our counter, and for the seven years she lived with us, she kept them full of chocolate chip cookies.

But chocolate chip cookies don't remind me of Grandma. Oatmeal raisin cookies do. We didn't even like oatmeal raisin cookies. And I'm not even sure she was the one who made them. It might have been Mom. But whoever it was, they made them very occasionally for Charlie Geoffrion. They were his favorite. They made them huge, with sugar crystals on the top. 

And every time I smell an oatmeal raisin cookie, I remember Grandma and her apron and her nursing shoes, a holdover from her RN days.

And then there are those smells that you can't even identify, but they bring a rush of nostalgia. As newlyweds, Ethan and I took over my sister's cat-sitting job one night while she went to baby-sit elsewhere. We walked into the cat's owner's house, and I stopped. "That smell! What is that smell? I love that smell! That smell reminds me of my Grandma and Grandpa Easterling! What is that?"

"That smell," said Ethan, his nose wrinkled, "is mothballs."


And my mother. My mother, who has always cooked like she's serving a crowd and usually is. My mother, who knows the secret that most sickness can be healed through the stomach and can always fix the perfect delicious concoction for whatever ails you. My mother, who spends long hours at the computer and the printer and near Scotch tape and White-out and copy paper. It's not the smell of office supplies nor pastries nor even her own homemade eggnog (perfect for throats that won't swallow) that reminds me of her.

It's onions.

And I bet she wouldn't pick onions to remind me of her. Only I'm really glad they do, because I often find my hands smelling of onions and all of the sudden I'm reminded of getting tucked into the bed my sister and I shared, Mom at the side reading Heidi or The Chronicles of Narnia and singing "The birdies in the treetops Sing their songs, The angels chant their chorus All day long, The flowers in the garden Lend their hue, So why shouldn't I, Why shouldn't you, Praise Him, too?" and then that "Just one more" song we always got from her. I remember her leaning over to kiss us, and me complaining, "Oh, you stink! Your hands smell like ONIONS!"

I can't name the smell that is my dad. It's a very manly smell, a combination of shaving cream and aftershave and Ivory soap. He doesn't smell like that anymore. He still smells pleasant, but I think the brands and the soaps have changed. But very rarely, I will smell something that reminds me of when I was little and he was so big. Oddly enough, one of the strongest memories I have with this vague smell is one night when my mother was working at Pizza Hut, and he took me to the park. I remember swinging, him pushing and it growing dark and him saying it was time to go. I cried, and we still had to leave.

I don't even know if I was three yet.

And I am so curious. What will my smell be? In the future, what smell will make my children's eyes glaze over while they are taken back to the days I call the present and they will call the past?

It better not be mothballs. There is no reason for it to be mothballs.

That's it, really. I've just been musing over the wonder of the whole olfactory system and how it unlocks these pieces of history that would otherwise remain long gone.

I know, no pictures. My camera went missing and then it showed up with dead batteries and there you have it.

But maybe that's fitting. I don't have pictures of these memories, except for these very strong ones in my mind.

And I like them there.

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