Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Don't "We" On Your Kids

I try not to invite Andy Rooney to speak through me when I write this column. Maybe I’m grumpy because it’s raining. Or because I didn’t get enough coffee, or because I ate too many Reese’s putter butter cups yesterday and am slowly being poisoned by whatever kind of crack they secretly put in there. Whatever the reason, Get Off My Lawn Guy is in the house today, so I’m just going to say it.

Didja ever notice how parents refer to things their kids did as things “we” did? What’s up with that?

You know what I’m talking about here. The most obvious example is when “we” won the game, even though the parental part of that “we” maybe hasn’t run the length of a field or hit a three-pointer since 1986.  “We” parents might have coached, written out giant checks, washed disgusting uniforms, and driven the kids all over the earth to practices and tournaments, but “they,” the kids, won the game.  They practiced, they trained, they conditioned, they worked, they won.

Here’s another good one – ya know how some parents say “we” have homework?  Allow me to advocate for a different pronoun choice here. “They” have homework.  Since kids can’t drive, “we” might have to go to Michael’s and get the Styrofoam cubes and purple feathers, but that doesn’t make it “our” project.  The homework is theirs and learning is theirs and the results – you guessed it, theirs. Unless “we” re-enroll in school ourselves, “we” never have homework.

Taken to its extreme (thankfully rarely seen here in the Midwest, but I’ve seen it out East), “we” might even get into Harvard. It’s sure gonna be awkward sitting in the same seat together during final exams.

Even in my curmudgeon state, I can see that some of this parental “we”-ing is pretty understandable, not that far off from how "we" win the Superbowl when the Vikings do.  It’s great to celebrate achievements and parents do put in a lot of time to help their kids. At the same time though, I’m serious about stopping with the “we.”  Our kids’ tasks and triumphs need to be theirs, not ours.

We parents would never think of saying “we” learned to walk when our kids take their first steps. The glow of achievement on toddlers’ faces when they master that skill is one of the best things you could ever hope to see. They worked like crazy, they know they are totally rocking it, and they feel the power!  That human drive to make things happen never ends.  When “we” take charge of, or take credit for, “their” tasks, we steal all that power away from them. Some kids will fight to get it back; others figure they’re just not good enough to do anything on their own--but either way, we’ve taken something they need at the soul level.

Didja ever notice how parents say, “You did it!”  Or, “Why do you think the team won?” Or, “What are you thinking you’ll do to avoid your project becoming stressful this time?” Or, “I admire how you put yourself out there and tried something new.” All of us parents sometimes “we” on our children, but we have equal capability to let their tasks and triumphs be theirs. Just like that toddler joyfully wobbling for the first time, that fully owned accomplishment is what they need, again and again and again.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

The Coat Conundrum

We have an annual fall tradition here in the Sweeney house.  I’d like to give it some kind of catchy name, like they have for bullfighting, something like The Running of the Coats.  Except, it’s more like, The Running from the Coats.  The children flee around the yard pursued by the threat of wearing a light jacket or one of Grandma’s hand-knit sweaters in temperatures of 36 degrees plus I-don’t-wanna-know-yet windchill, their sockless feet stuffed into sneakers that make footprints in the actual frost on the ground. 

This whole scenario is completely absurd to anyone who knows me, as I am famous for wearing shorts into December.  And I don’t even have the excuse that I grew up on the Iron Range, or I have a hyperthyroid disorder or anything like that.  It is just a choice that I don’t like to be hot. Ever. Consequently, I feel like I do provide a lot of power to my kids to decide how much outerwear is necessary.  Still, last week it just seemed like it was getting ridiculous.  I fear the judgment of the school and the other parents.  I imagine Child Protection dropping by.  I feel I must at least at least do something to encourage coat-wearing.  But here I have a kid actually weeping frustrated tears and curling into a ball, so strong is his determination to wear shorts, a tee shirt and no coat.  I was not relishing the idea of either a) losing this battle or b) physically jamming his wee little arms into a jacket and sending him weeping onto the bus.

So what did I do?  I charged him. 

I call it a Decision Fee and it’s a nice little “out” for these kinds of situations where you decide you don’t have to win, but you still want to make a statement.  I told the three younger kids they needed to wear a sweater, and if they didn’t want to wear a sweater that badly, it would cost them three bucks.  One took the deal, was relieved and stopped crying.  The other two thought he was insane.  Three bucks?  They’d wear a sweater, thanks.  But he felt empowered by being able to choose that.

The next cold day? I don’t know if it was that Kid suffered the natural consequence of getting uncomfortably cold, or if Teacher laid down the law, or if Kid realized that he couldn’t afford $3 every day, but wearing a sweater was okay. Nor did I feel like it was my job to make him wear one. We just needed that little side step of the Decision Fee to defuse the power struggle and make it feel like everyone had some ability to steer the outcome.  

There are a lot of times as parents where the Decision Fee can be a handy tool.  Rather than anyone using nagging, crying, or acting unpleasant to manipulate the situation, make a transaction.  To create an effective one, follow these two guidelines:

·       Real choice.  It is okay to pay the fee, and it’s okay to avoid the fee by complying.  There is no nagging, blame, or shame either way.  The fee is the consequence, not the blast of negativity.  It’s not unlike a cop giving a speeding ticket.  You don’t get shamed. You just get the ticket, and hopefully you start thinking a little differently about your choices over time.  Be sure to deduct fees calmly from their account without a lot of fanfare.

·      Correct amount.  The fee should be small enough to be freely spendable on occasion, but big enough to hurt if your child paid it every day. This will depend on how much money they have. Again, it needs to be a real, viable choice once in a while-- just one that costs somewhat.

The Coat Conundrum isn’t all that serious, but by trying out a decision fee, you can use it and similar situations to help your growing child balance sensible compliance and personal freedom. It’s a nice third option to letting either Dictator Mom or frostbite be their teacher. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Always Play Candyland

I’ll admit it, I wasn’t the always the most enthusiastic about playing with my kids when they were tiny humans. I cringe at children’s shows with syrupy songs. My Barbie never knew what to say to the other Barbies:  “So, how’s the weather . . .  Um, nice shoes?”  And the worst of all?  Candyland.

Candyland is not just a game for me. It’s a symbol of supreme parental sacrifice: the kind of sacrifice that says, yes, child, I love you so much that I will play this potentially never-ending, mind-numbing game with you.  I will go back to the Gumdrop Swamp even though we were practically done. Holy cats, I played a lot of Candyland. Sometimes I felt like I wanted to put pins in my eyes, but I played it just the same. Because the kids loved it and that’s what parents do.

It gets easier as your kids grow older. It’s really delightful to discover there are shared things that you both genuinely love. I love reading novels to them. I love going for walks. I love taking the nature lovers out in the woods, marsh and prairies and telling them about plants and bugs. To the degree that genetics and nurture form a child’s interests, you have at least a decent chance of genuinely sharing some interests with your kid. For sure, nurture those.

Still, never underestimate the importance of continuing to “play Candyland.” 
When you sit on the sidelines in the rain when you don’t actually like sports - when you drive your kids all over so they can do what they love – you’re playing Candyland. You’re showing them you care about their love of team and competition and creating something great together.

When you run downstairs to their room to see the “elegant code” they just wrote, when you take their social cues to say, “Dude! That’s ridiculous that the school’s server is set up like that” even though your barely know what a server is, when you listen to them talk about field programmable gate arrays or whatever the heck it is for hours on end, you’re playing Candyland. You’re showing them you value their achievements and that they are even allowed to be more expert than you.

When you watch the most inane YouTube videos that make your kid bust a gusset laughing, when you ask about what they’re learning about an instrument you don’t play, when you ask about the strange music they listen to and why they like it – you’re playing Candyland. 

Candyland is things you probably wouldn’t get into but for your kids. The fun of it, though, isn’t in the topic or activity. It’s seeing their glow as they enjoy it. It’s just sitting back and watching as enthusiasm bubbles through. It’s celebrating the uniqueness of who they are and the passions of another emerging person. There’s nothing more beautiful. 

As a bonus, you’re helping create a person who freely expresses joy and who thinks of you when they want to share something they love.  Hopefully, when you’re old and in the home, your kids will hold your hand and enjoy the glow on your face when you talk about people and experiences long gone, knowing how much you value being heard and loved for what you love.  

At the core of playing Candyland is love, and love is always worth the time to savor.