Friday, August 31, 2012

The Art of Siblings

On the Himself album, the comedian Bill Cosby tells us, “A person with one child does not have to deal with ‘Willyoustoptouchingme?’” With only one child, you don’t have to referee arguments, and you don’t have to judge who is to blame for breaking things.  With multiple children you’re going to deal with sibling rivalry.  With more than one, you get regressive behaviors, teasing, fighting, accusations, property rights, and even issues of favoritism and fairness.  Once when our daughter was a pre-schooler, she came to us in secret, and reported that her brother was being bad, because he’d accused her of being a “tattle tale.”  Because we value positive relationships, conflict resolution skills, and having a purposeful family, we’ve trained our kids how to have functional relationships with their siblings, mostly through conflict resolution.
     From the beginning, we worked hard to discipline destructive behaviors, and reward positive behaviors between the children.  Any form of negative physical behavior, including hitting, kicking, pinching, biting, shoving, poking and hair pulling would earn an immediate time-out.  When our toddlers struggled with biting, we did change tactics, and started administrating a squirt of spicy Tabasco sauce instead of a time-out.  It shut down the biting much faster, and all of our kids enjoy spicy foods now, so we must not have damaged them with this approach.  As they got older we also would not tolerate damaging verbal behavior, such as name calling and teasing.  Sharing, helping each other, compromise, communication and words of encouragement were rewarded with a treat or extra privileges.
With that said, it’s important to recognize that conflict is messy.  It is emotional, and sometimes loud, and rarely occurs at a convenient time.  Conflict resolution requires the patience of a saint, the creativity of a genius, and the time commitment of a monk. Above all things, good conflict resolution requires time for communication and understanding.  While we didn’t allow destructive verbal statements, we often had loud, heated, tearful, and chaotic conversations.  Some parents are afraid of the volume, emotion, and disorganization inherent in a conflict.  To the detriment of their family, these parents will do anything to avoid conflicts, including avoiding an obvious problem, distracting a conversation, or disciplining children for having a heated discussion.  On the other side of the spectrum, other parents let the kids go too far into name calling and other damaging behaviors, because they don’t have clear rules around “clean” fighting, or are too tired.  Parents may even yell at their kids out of frustration, instead of resolving the problem.  When we facilitate discussions over a conflict, we try to strike a balance by cutting off damaging behaviors, but allowing a certain level of rudeness (like interruptions) to get out all of the emotion and discover the root problems.  It may seem chaotic, but if one child’s statements are perceived as inaccurate or inciting by the other, you may have to allow an interruption to vent emotion.  They may even have to talk over top of each other, which adds to the chaos.  Because we value people in our family, we don’t allow talk that degrades or demeans others, like name calling or threats. 
As much as possible, we try to give everyone their turn to speak uninterrupted in the heat of the argument, but sometimes we have to let one child have a long turn speaking, then ask the other for their side.  After everyone’s said their piece, we ask a few questions of our own to clarify, and do our best to repeat each child’s position, to make sure we truly understand what’s going on. Only then do we start making suggestions for resolution, or at the last resort, make judgments and give out discipline as needed.  Since we value the successful resolution of conflict, we take the time to learn what the conflict is really about, and that is messy, time consuming, and emotional.
Understanding is the key to conflict resolution.  If you clearly understand why someone is having a conflict with you, then you are half way toward finding a resolution to the conflict.  If, instead, you are inciting emotional responses with name calling, hurtful accusations, or ultimatums, you’ll shut down the flow of information, and worsen the conflict.  For this reason, we taught our children to make “When you…, it makes me feel like…” statements, which lead to the real issue, instead of statements like “you are…” or “you always…,” which add fuel to the argument instead of moving toward better understanding.  They might say, “When you tap on the table, it makes me feel nervous and uncomfortable,” which makes the offending activity emotionally neutral, but shares information about the effect it’s having, and leads toward a positive discussion.  If, however, they were to say, “You are always tapping on the table,” they would only get an emotional response, without conveying any useful information.  If one child can verbalize what the other is feeling, then all that is needed to close the conflict are some creative ideas around how to share something or stop a behavior.
A phrase that we often use around our house is, “Is this important to you?” which means, “Are you willing to put up a big fight for this, because it really matters to you, or is it really a small issue?”  When two of our kids are in conflict, we’ll often ask, “Is this important to you,” to see if one of the kids is really heavily invested in their position.  If one of the kids is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal, and the other is more lackadaisical, then the first child gets their way, because we know how important it is to them.  We limit the number of things that can be “important” to each child, so they don’t abuse this method, and find that often neither child is too heavily vested in their side of the argument.  One of our boys is very laid back, and doesn’t have many opinions or passions.  Very few things are truly important to him, so he only insists something is important to him about twice each year.  But when he states that something is truly important to him, he almost always gets his way, because he makes so few demands the rest of the time.
One notable conflict that took several weeks to discuss and resolve was over the kid’s bedroom arrangements.  We had purchased our house specifically because it had a large bedroom that they boys could share until they left for college or a career.  However, our introverted son decided that he needed more space, and asked to move into his own room.  The younger, extroverted son didn’t want to sleep alone, and our daughter wanted the queen size bed from the guest room, since she was nearly six feet tall.  All of their desires and motivations were clouded with emotion, and took several chaotic and tearful discussions over the dinner table to finally identify. In the end, we moved the queen sized bed out of the very small guest room, and moved the introvert in, so he could have the space that he needed to be healthy.  We moved our daughter and the queen sized bed into the large bedroom, with the agreement that whenever we had overnight guests, she would give up her bed and sleep on one of the boy’s floors.  For our extroverted son, we remodeled the girl’s old room to be more masculine, had a discussion about his need to sacrifice for his brother’s need for privacy, and put some new family routines in place to make sure he wasn’t feeling lonely in his new room.
We tried to use each new conflict to teach conflict resolution skills.  When one child clearly wins, and the other clearly looses, that’s not a positive resolution.  We didn’t want to teach our kids to always win, because that’s not fair, and isn’t what they’ll face in the real world as adults.  We also didn’t want them to always acquiesce just to keep the peace or avoid other consequences, because caving in leads to dangerously suppressed emotions, and sometimes you have to fight for what’s important, regardless of the cost.  Instead, we taught them how to find creative solutions to their conflicts. Most conflicts over possessions and privileges can be resolved by either taking turns, or setting boundaries.  If the younger child keeps “touching my stuff,” then the older one needs a special, protected place to keep a few precious items from the younger sibling.  If the toy or opportunity should be shared, like rides down the slide, then they should take turns.  During the grade school years, we had to keep several lists and schedules of whose turn it was to pick out the week’s flavor of ice cream at the store, sitting in the best car seat, and other special privileges and choices.  Sometimes, conflicts are a good way to teach character to children.  When resolving arguments, we often taught our children about generosity, kindness, or patience by telling them that we expected them to exercise a new character quality instead of “winning” the argument.  Many arguments ended by clarifying that one child was demonstrating bad character; such as being mean, rude, or selfish, and insisting that they apologize.  More often than not, everyone in the argument ended out owing someone else an apology, and a hug.
We wanted our kids to practice their conflict resolution skills, so we made our parental judgments much worse than what the kids could come up with on their own.  Whenever we broke up a simple argument, we didn’t work too hard to judge the situation accurately, assign blame, and discipline the instigator.  Instead, we just disciplined both of them.  We’d always make suggestions about how they might resolve it themselves, but if they didn’t like our suggestions, we’d just go ahead and discipline both of them.  If the conflict was over sharing a toy, we’d just take it away from both of them.  If it was over a place like a blanket fort or “touching me,” we’d send them to separate time-out corners. This seemed to work even better as they aged, and we could restrict them from electronics like video games.  The only exception we made was when an older child was clearly taking advantage of their situation, by bluffing, knowing they had less to lose if both were disciplined, or using advanced logic and verbal jabs to goad the younger sibling into reacting physically.  In that case, we would discipline the older child because it was clear that they were instigating the fight, even if they didn’t throw the first punch.  We find that our boys are now masterful negotiators over video game sharing, because if they involve us, we just restrict them from the games for a week. When our teens and pre-teens brought us a conflict, we would make several suggestions for resolving it, and follow up with, “you’ll want to work this out by yourselves, because if I have to resolve it, you won’t like my solution.”  In the teen years, we often suggested solutions, but rarely had to force a resolution on the kids.  They work through their issues as a team, and have come up with some surprisingly creative ideas on their own. 
At one point, we discovered that our laundry was being overwhelmed with dirty towels, and after doing some detective work, discovered that the kids were using a fresh towel every day or bathing, instead of hanging them up to dry and re-use.  It turned out that the kid’s bathroom only had enough towel bar space for two bath towels, and there were three children, who had grown into the need for using full sized towels.  Apparently there was also some deep requirement that the towels not touch each other while hanging in the bathroom.  While this was a creative solution on the kid’s part, it wasn’t practical, so we gave them a new guideline about towel reuse, and let them work through the conflict over their scarce towel bar resources.  We made a few suggestions, like letting the towels overlap (eew!), let them know that they probably wouldn’t like any solution we came up with as parents, and turned them loose on the problem.  Eventually, they asked for us to install a towel hook on the back of the boy’s bedroom door, where one of the boys hung his towel to dry, safe from inter-towel contact.  We installed an inexpensive hook on the back of the door, which probably paid for itself in a couple of week’s worth of laundry detergent, electricity, and water.
     For especially bitter conflicts, we would take the time to reinforce our family values, and the importance of being able to resolve conflicts with other people.  We’d review the need for our family to work as a team, and how much we valued the family’s ability to achieve goals together, and have a shared purpose.  In the pre-teen years, we also introduced the idea that they would need each other as adults.  We spoke about the need to have reliable family to lean on, the fact that we parents would eventually leave them alone in the world, and that when we were gone, they would only have each other.  In preparation for that time, they needed to learn how to work out differences between them in fair and sustainable ways.  This was always a sobering conversation, but it gave them a vision for maintaining functional sibling relationships as adults.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Art of Hosting Children

We have a constant flood of children through our house, day and night.  They come over after school to work on school projects or just play, they eat meals with us, they come over on the weekends to hang out, and they stay overnight to enjoy late nights with our kids.  Sometimes they even go on trips and vacations with us.  Despite the chaos it brings to our home, we welcome our kid’s friends and acquaintances into our house with open arms.  Because our family values people over possessions, we’re constantly investing into our kids’ friends by hosting them for school projects, play dates, and parties.  By hosting, we’re able to reach out to new or lonely kids, provide positive adult and family role models, monitor our kids’ friendships, and influence both our kids and their friends during teachable moments.  We keep getting more visitors all the time, so our approach is attracting children to our home, despite our insistence that guests pitch in a help a little around the house.  Here are the techniques we’re using to intentionally make our home attractive to our kids’ friends.

Visitors are members of the family

When children visit our house, they are considered members of the family for the duration of the visit.  This means both that we love them as if they were our own, and also that we have the same expectations of them that we do of our own children. 
Children visiting our house get equal time in conversations and sharing toys and games.  When they enter, they are recognized and greeted the same as our children.  If they’re coming from school, they tell us how their day went. Pre-school children are expected to break things occasionally, and grade school children get tutoring when they need it. Teenage visitors are granted “refrigerator rights” to raid the refrigerator or pantry when they’re hungry.
We also expect visiting children to follow the house rules and carry the same responsibilities as our children.  After-school visitors sit down at the kitchen table and complete their homework before playing.  Dinner guests help set the table, cook, and clean up afterward.  Even if they’ve already eaten, guests sit at the table and talk with us while we have dinner. Overnight guests clean up the bedding in the morning.  When Mom or Dad arrives with a carload of groceries, everyone over 8 years old helps carry groceries into the kitchen.  If our family has planned yard work on a Saturday morning, guests pitch in before heading off to play video games.
Visiting guests are also expected to follow all the family rules.  Visitors must be respectful, without screaming or name calling. Homework must be completed before playing.  Telephone use is not allowed at the dinner table.  Kids who stay up all night at their own sleepovers are in bed at a reasonable hour at our house.  Guests staying over Saturday night attend church with us on Sunday mornings.  As hosting parents, we feel complete freedom to discipline visiting children.  Preschoolers get timeouts, grade-schoolers and teenagers are restricted from video games and cell phones, or get their evening cut off early. When guests accidentally break things, they help (in age appropriate ways) to repair the item.
You would think that sharing the chores and enforcing rules would drive guests away from our house, but the opposite is true.  Children enjoy being a member of a family with a purpose and established boundaries.  They observe the mechanics of how our family operates with great interest. They don’t mind contributing to a functional family, because they feel like they’re part of something important.  When scheduling visits, we’ll often tell the kid’s friends that they won’t want to come over too early on a Saturday, because we have work planned for that morning.  Most of the time, they will choose to come over early to help, even if it means shoveling and hauling materials in the yard, or cleaning the house, because they enjoy accomplishing a goal as a part of a family.  When we plan a social event for the kids, many of their friends come over early, because they enjoy cleaning and setting up the house to prepare for the party.

Hosting parties and other social events

Every time we throw a party, people tell us we’re crazy.  Our parties are usually large and very novel, but guests come out feeling special and loved, and asking when we’ll host again.  We let our kids get very creative with the themes and activities, and since we value people, we invite lots of guests.  We had 12 boys overnight once for a flour war in the front yard (battling with nylons filled with flour).  We pushed all of the furniture out of the family room one year, and had a dance for over 30 teenagers, including foreign exchange students (“we never have dance parties in Japan!”). Our pool parties typically run over 20 teenagers.  We had 12 pre-teen girls for a formal ball, including full princess garb.  When we host our annual Halloween parties, we have to split the group in two, sending half out to trick-or-treat the neighbors, because they won’t all fit in the house.  Here are a few of our tips for throwing a successful party:
Household rules still apply.  All of our household rules apply at parties: no alcohol, drugs, or inappropriate physical contact. Guests must respect each other.
It’s all about showing children love.  There are always a couple of kids who are socially awkward, and will need a little encouragement to get engaged.  We work hard to spot the kid who is getting left out, and get them engaged.  We rarely force them to do what everyone else is doing, but we want to make sure they are either relating to someone, or doing some kind of activity.
No child gets left behind.  Children come in all different personalities and interests, so you’ll need a range of activities to meet the range of kids.  No matter what the primary activity is, we always set out board games and other activities for the quiet kids.  When we’re clearly hosting a swim party, we’ll still get kids who show up without a swim suit, and will play games, make crafts, or play the piano, and have a great time.
Structured activities must be planned. We always plan more than enough formal, structured activities to fill the time. These might be party games, opening presents and eating cake, dancing, competitions and relays, or a host of other activities, but we always have a list of activities to launch in case the guests get too rowdy, or too many children are getting disengaged.
Our children own the success of the party.  They plan activities to keep everyone involved, and they look over the crowd to make sure everyone is engaged and feels loved. When someone is misbehaving, they deal with the problem, with parental backup where necessary.
There’s going to be some chaos.  Children at parties are loud and scattered, especially if you give them sugar.  You can set them down for a few minutes to focus on an activity, but most of the time you’ll be either herding them, or trying to stay out of the way.  You can’t be a control freak and still throw a great children’s party.
Things are going to get used up, worn out, and broken.  Social activities are hard on houses and furniture.  Things get worn down and broken.  You can’t always choose what gets sacrificed, so you have to put away anything fragile or valuable, and expect that each party will cost you some physical sacrifice.
One boy has come to our parties consistently for years, because he has a great 1 on 1 relationship with our son.  He doesn’t talk much with others at parties, and rarely participates in the organized activities.  Toward the end of the evening, he sits alone playing the piano, whether anyone is listening or not.  Then he goes home, and tells his parents how much he loves coming to our parties.  It’s not because he’s the life of the party, it’s because we love him for who he is, as if he were our son.  We understand that he’s an introvert and a musician, and we provide a forum where he can be himself, and also a member of the household.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Art of Sex Education

We have a strong value system around sex and sexuality, so we didn’t want our kids learning about sex from either their friends or the schools.  For this reason, we introduced sex education to our children earlier, and more graphically, than other parents we know.  We used the medical terms from the very beginning, always answered all questions openly and directly, and actively taught our children about sexual concepts and issues.  We didn’t give body parts childish names, and we didn’t use euphemisms like “The stork brought you.” This approach may seem radical, but it seems that other parents were always coming to us for advice when their children began asking “awkward questions.”
We never had the painful crisis so often portrayed by Hollywood, where the boy asks where babies come from, and dad spends days rehearsing his lines in a dead panic.  We also didn’t introduce graphic details about copulation to our toddlers.  We gave them just enough information to satisfy their curiosity, and no more.  We were usually surprised at how little they really needed or wanted to know.
We started as soon as our toddlers could talk, by practicing naming all the body parts in the bathtub.  If a nipple, penis, or vagina is named just as often as an elbow or toe, there is no mystery, and the parts covered by clothing didn’t seem to come up very often in public conversations.  When young children start asking about where babies come from, they aren’t asking about intercourse, they’re just asking for very basic information, so we gave simple answers.  When we gave them simple answers, they usually didn’t ask for more, so we eased our way into the details.  Here are some examples of simple answers to questions from young children:

Where do babies come from?
Babies come from their mommy’s abdomen.
How does the baby get inside the mommy?
The daddy puts it there to grow until it is ready to come out.
How does the baby get out of the mommy?
The mommy goes to the hospital, where the doctor takes it out for her.

At the same time, we would introduce age-appropriate books on sex education.  These books begin for children as early as 3 years old by talking about body parts, then move to discussions of puppies and chickens with babies inside them.  They eventually move on to eggs and sperm, then copulation, and finally to tougher issues like menstruation and sexually transmitted disease.  Age appropriate books worked very well for us, because we could sit down and read them to younger children, without having to design our own “birds and bees” discussions, and once the kids could read, they could read the books themselves, and we only had to define a few terms.
This still left us with an occasional surprise question at the dinner table, which we answered honestly, and which often launched us into a deep discussion about our family value systems on sexuality.  There were a few times when we had to delay the discussion to shield the younger children from topics they weren’t emotionally ready for, but we generally answered all the questions at the time with the simplest answers.  Because of the books we’d used, we didn’t have trouble answering questions on basic biology, but did struggle more to find simple answers for questions like, “What is sexual violence?” “What is prostitution?” “What is AIDS?” “What is an orgy?” “What is homosexuality?” and “What is sexual slavery?” 
One of our favorite family stories happened when Rick was staying out of town with his brother-in-law, and our son called to ask a question.  Our brother-in-law answered the phone, and was kidding around with our son.  Since our brother-in-law is a biologist, he is used to getting school questions from the nieces and nephews, so he lightly offered to answer our son’s question.  When our son asked him to define masturbation, our brother-in-law tossed the telephone to Rick like it had given him an electric shock.
We owe much to the authors of books we’ve used over the years, and many parents have come to us for recommendations. There are a wealth of books for young children, but appropriate books for grade school and middle school audiences are difficult to find.  If you have a daughter, we highly recommend the American Girls book, Care & Keeping of You.  For teenagers, we recommend the Every Young Man’s Battle and Every Young Woman’s Battle books.  For all parents, we recommend the series of books that have a book for each age range.  Here are the details on these books:
God’s Design for Sex Series, Stan & Brenna Jones, NAV Press
The New Learning About Sex Series, Concordia Publishing House
Care & Keeping of You: The Body Book for Girls, Valerie Schaefer, American Girl Publishing
Every Young Man's Battle : Strategies for Victory in the Real World of Sexual Temptation, Stephen Arterburn, Fred Stoeker, Mike Yorkey, Random House, Inc
Every Young Woman's Battle: Guarding Your Mind, Heart, and Body in a Sex-Saturated World, Shannon Ethridge, Stephen Arterburn, Random House, Inc

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Art of Role Modeling

Over the years we’ve crammed a lifetime of intentional training into our children, which we’re eager to shrae in this blog.  But despite our best efforts, the most valuable life skills our kids learned from us haven’t been a result of our brilliantly planned, scheduled, and structured teaching. Instead, they’ve absorbed both good and bad skills by osmosis. Whether it’s the noble and courageous act of reaching out to someone who’s suffering, or leaving the empty milk containers in the refrigerator, they learned it without our direct instruction.  As they interact with us, watching and learning from our examples, they begin to emulate us.  In times of crisis or uncertainty, they’ll draw on those household experiences and examples they’ve had growing up, and then use them to make critical and life changing decisions.  For better or worse, we’re their role models. 
Because our actions have so much influence in our kid’s lives, our lifestyles are critical to raising successful children. When we want our children to be kind, moral, generous, responsible, healthy, and purposeful, we need to first display those characteristics in our own lives.  No amount of lecturing on healthy eating and exercise is going to sink into them if we mumble it from the couch through handfuls of potato chips.  Every time the two of us talk about the changes we want to see in our children’s behavior, we have to re-evaluate our own lives.  Are we parents living the lifestyle we want to pass on to our children?  While our kids were preschoolers, we would casually throw around the phrase, “I hate it when that happens.” Eventually, our children began to tell us that they hated objects, activities, and even people, which is pretty strong language for preschoolers.  When we asked them if their feelings were really that strong, they told us that they didn’t truly hate anything or anyone, but were just using words that they’d heard us using.  We decided that “hate” would be a “bad word” in our house for a while, and shortly after we stopped using it, the kids did too.
Are we kind and generous in our interactions with ourselves and other people, or are we self-serving?  Are we exercising and eating right, or are we stuffing ourselves with junk food in front of the television?  Do we establish goals and pursue them with discipline, or do we wander through life without purpose?  Is our language wholesome, and our communication free from deception? Do we take responsibility for our actions?  Do we love each other unconditionally and selflessly? Do we put in the work to stay married for the rest of our lives? Do we fight without shouting, calling each other names, or using other hurtful tactics?  Do we honor our agreements? Do we have our addictions and anger under control? 
These are the aspects of successful childrearing that we can’t teach to our children through lectures.  We have to live the way we want our kids to live, and not just when we think they can see and hear us. If we want our children to have admirable character, we have to become adults of good character.  Kids are too smart, and will see through our ingenuous attempts to fake good character. Some friends of ours had a toddler who was tightly bonded to his purple dinosaur plush toy, which they misplaced right before an airplane trip.  In exasperation, the mother exclaimed, “Where is that little purple s**t?”  Do you know what that toddler called his plush toy for months afterward, including every time he saw the character on television?  You guessed it, everywhere he went, he called it “Purple s**t.”
Rick has been through several breakfast “phases” since the kids have been old enough to prepare their own breakfasts.  For a while, he was eating peanut butter on toast for breakfast, and we suddenly noticed we weren’t going through any cold cereal, but were using a lot of peanut butter and bread. Then Rick began microwaving an egg in a bowl for breakfast, and suddenly all the kids were microwaving eggs for breakfast.  The same thing happened when he started eating yogurt for breakfast, and again when he returned to cold cereal.  For a while, we had extra leftovers, so Rick started re-heating leftovers for breakfast, until the kids started cleaning them out for their own breakfasts.  Lately, we’d returned to cold cereal and milk again, but Rick started pouring yogurt over his cereal instead of milk.  The other day, we discovered that a gallon of milk had gone bad, but we were out of yogurt again.  It seems that the older two kids were pouring yogurt on their breakfast cereal. 
Once the kids were old enough to serve themselves breakfast, we began stocking cold breakfast cereal in the pantry, and gallons of milk in the refrigerator, under the assumption that they would eat cereal and milk for breakfast.  We never told them to eat toast, or eggs, or yogurt, or leftovers. They just picked it up from Rick on their own.  If they are imitating us in such trivial things as breakfast foods, what truly good and bad habits are they catching from us?  We parents need to have good character, so our children can catch it from us.  We need to be the kind of people we want our children to become.  We need to take a deep look at our own motivations, thoughts, and actions, and Rick needs to start eating vegetables for breakfast.