Archives for July 2015

Respect My Authority

This week’s guest post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Esther.

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A friend commented on my post about being friends with your children (“Why Can’t We Be Friends?”). She was concerned that friendship might undermine the “ability to be authoritative and a disciplinarian within the parent-child relationship.“

Her comment got me thinking about authority. Like most words, authority can mean several things: having power, being in charge, being an expert, and/or being a reliable source of information. Our own experiences with authority have a big effect on how we use–or don’t use–authority in parenting our children. We may have experienced authority that was used in an appropriate, fair, beneficial way. Or we may have experienced authority that was used in an unjust, arbitrary, or abusive way.

What does beneficial authority look like? Beneficial authority is reasonable, respectful, and responsible.

Reasonable: Reasonable authority is based on rules and there are clear reasons for the rules.

Most of us have an internal set of rules based on safety, social customs, and family values. Often we aren’t consciously aware of what those rules are or why they exist. So it’s useful to examine our internal rules and decide if we want to keep them, add new ones, or discard some. Examining the rules on a regular basis, with your partner, and as a family, will help to keep the rules reasonable and make them easier to enforce.

It’s easier to enforce rules when you yourself believe them to be important and fair. When children have agreed to and even helped come up with the rules, it is even easier. Easier—but still not easy. Remember that no matter how fair and reasonable rules are, sometimes it is extremely difficult to follow them.

Respectful: Respectful authority enforces the rules in a way that preserves the child’s dignity and physical and emotional safety. Parent educator Jody McVittie describes this as being kind and firm at the same time. Kind and firm means that parents can empathize with the child’s distress while still enforcing the rule: “It’s hard to stop playing when you are having so much fun. Now it’s time to say goodbye to the slide and go home for lunch.”

It’s upsetting when a child cries or says, “I hate you!” Like many parents, I often gave in, tried to placate, or got angry with my children. It was (and sometimes still is) difficult to accept their emotional reactions without trying to suppress or dismiss them. But acknowledging an emotion is actually more respectful, both to the child and to the adult, and often makes it easier to enforce the rule.

Being respectful to our children, even when we are angry or disappointed with them, also shows them how to be respectful to us and to others.

Responsible: Parental authority is valuable because it helps parents to protect and guide their children. Children need protection and guidance, and parents are responsible for providing it. But children also need opportunities to do things for themselves and to learn from the consequences of their actions—both positive and negative. Sometimes the responsible parent stands back.

Determining exactly how much protection and guidance is needed in a given situation can be tricky. Different cultures and families (and individuals within those families) have different standards. Children have unique temperaments requiring more or less use of authority. Responsible use of authority requires frequent assessments of a child’s needs and abilities and of the environment surrounding the child and the family.

Staying reasonable and respectful helps parents to determine whether standing back or stepping in is more responsible when challenges occur.

Authority that is reasonable, respectful, and responsible is effective. It helps children grow and parents stay sane. It’s authority we can both respect.

A House Full of Music

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We listen to a lot of music in our family. Thanks to our Spotify playlists, we have suitable music for mealtime (The Meatball Monday mix, which is heavy on Sinatra; the Sushi Night collection with its Japanese flute), for chores (mostly folk songs about doing things), and for transitioning into rest time (various ambient and nature sounds). And they each have their favorites, from the eight year-old knowing the lyrics to Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” to the ten year-old’s devotion to Enya.

As much as I love a huge swath of genres, periods and styles, I try to be careful what I play around my small children. So as much as I would like them to appreciate Iron Maiden as much as I do—songs about history and literature!—I just don’t think they’re ready for it yet. I have many friends with a different approach: they are reassured, they tell me, by their kids finding the same things cool that they do. I disagree, preferring them to figure these things out for themselves (for the same reason, they have not yet seen a Star Wars film). As far as I remember, though, all four children were born to Kind of Blue by Miles Davis in the background. Mozart, Bach and Vivaldi visit just about every morning. And barely a week has gone by in our house without Bob Marley.

So as eager as I am for my kids to partake of the full breadth and depth of recorded music, and introduce them to free jazz, minimal techno and Viking war metal, I don’t think there’s any way to force it. Kids respond to what they will, and this is often based on age and development. At what age did you discover the Beatles and wonder where they’ve been all your life? And what seven year-old boy’s day would not be absolutely made by the one-two punch of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions?” We recently played Toto’s “Africa,” my favorite childhood song by a fair distance, and my ten year-old latched right onto it.

That’s not to say that current pop music does not infiltrate our fortress of parenting. I am an active champion of Taylor Swift, but for whatever reason she has not caught on with the children. They were baffled by Daft Punk: “Why would you stay up all night to get lucky? That doesn’t sound like fun.” But the recent heat wave has cemented “Uptown Funk” as a referent. Daughter: “I’m so hot!” Parent: “Make a dragon want to retire?”

Once we hit the teen years, music tends to hit us hard (and as Bob Marley sang, “when it hits you, you feel no pain”). At that time I intend to start the mixtapes flowing. And then the indoctrination will begin.

Why You Should Get Off My Lawn

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You know who needs boundaries? Kids. Of all ages. Don’t tell them I said this, but teenagers need boundaries too. They need them as much, at least, as they did when they were younger. In fact, they probably recognize this. They might even say so. Not to their parents, probably, but there you go. They’re too busy differentiating themselves from their families and exploring their identities and all those teenaged things that keep them up late at night.

What’s more, even parenting sites that some would consider to occupy opposite ends of the ideological spectrum come together on this point.

According to Planned Parenthood, “Knowing where our teens are, who they are with, and setting boundaries for their behavior are important parts of helping our teens stay healthy — especially when it comes to sex. Sometimes people refer to this part of parenting as monitoring and supervision. Monitoring means knowing where our children are, who they’re with, and whether or not there is an adult present. Supervision means setting clear boundaries and expectations and getting our teens to agree to them. It also means following through consistently with agreed upon and ‘fair’ consequences when rules and expectations are not met.”

Focus on the Family agrees: “Boundaries include saying yes and no, just as doors are made to be opened and closed. Teens need the life lessons of success and failure to mature. When we open the door to appropriate levels of freedom, we give our teens a chance to make their own decisions, and to learn from them. When your daughter messes up by getting a speeding ticket, support her. Why? Because you can comfort and guide her through her mistake. If you feel like trust was broken, a lock down may be necessary. If the door has been wide open, it’s okay to shut it, a little, a lot, or completely. You can reopen it later.”

There are a lot of sources out there, and I found that a few clear points are emphasized again and again.

  • Teenagers are pushing for independence. If they don’t know exactly what our expectations are, and where we draw the line for behavior, they will keep going until something happens; either provoking the parents to react (and often in panic, pulling back on a teen’s freedom in a way that may provoke or upset them) or falling into a consequence of their own behavior that could be unhealthy, dangerous, or include legal ramifications.
  • Teenagers are at a stage in their development in which they are driven to engage in risky behaviors. They might believe that they can’t be hurt, or that consequences will not be serious or permanent, or that their decisions do not affect other people.

The combination of these factors, as well as the simple fact that their brains are still developing—and will continue doing so for years to come—make clear expectations and boundaries more important than ever.

There are some differences in how parents can effectively present these boundaries with teenaged kids as opposed to younger ones. For one thing, there need to be reasons behind it. “Because I said so,” “Because we know what’s best for you” or even “Because we need to keep you safe” are no longer going to cut it.

Teens need to know the context behind the rules. This can be complicated, but on the other hand it can also be easier, because we can involve them in formulating the rules and the consequences that will arise from them. They are able to understand and to help make decisions around boundaries. Given the responsibility to do this, they will be much more likely to abide by them. They will also feel more respected, and will be more likely to communicate with adults about what is happening in their lives.

All this can be tricky for parents because it’s new territory. It requires us to delegate some of the responsibility and decision-making to our kids. That can be scary, and it can also be painful to our pesky adult egos.

It’s the same job, and it’s just as important as it ever was. They may not thank us for it, but then…who knows about kids these days?

Out of the Ordinary

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I’ve written a lot on this blog about the importance of routines. We try to make the events of the day—meals and snack times, transitions, chores, bedtimes—as regular and predictable as possible. The more things kids can rely on, the more secure they will feel when things happen that are out of the ordinary. After all, the best way to tell if routines are working is when something happens to disrupt them.

A lot of things are different this week. My wife is away at a weeklong homeschooling conference. The four girls are with my mother-in-law in Newport for a few days; I will be home with them for the rest of the week. This is kind of a big deal for all of us. I am especially a stickler about bedtimes, if only because it’s such a cornerstone of our home life and because we have put so much time and effort into finding a way to do it that works most of the time (though I’m sure there are some control issues at play in there as well).

We sent along a rough schedule of a typical day’s events and hoped that the spirit of it, if not the letter, would be followed. Here are some excerpts:

  • Morning activity: We usually stay close to home during this time, go for walks or do arts and crafts. They will need a morning snack.
  • Afternoon activity: This is usually our going out time. They will need a snack!

As you can see, there is emphasis on regular feeding. At home we have breakfast, then a morning “tea” (sometimes known, hobbit-style, as “second breakfast”), lunch, afternoon “tea” and dinner. That’s food being offered just about every 2-3 hours, with quick snacks in between if needed. I am pretty sure that if my mother-in-law varies the rhythm of the day—with periods of activity followed by periods of rest—then any other problems can be solved by throwing food at them.

They are going to have fun. They will take trips to the beach, the lighthouse and the aquarium. They will go to the park and the toy store (they enjoy hanging out in toy stores, and don’t expect to walk out with anything. If I knew how this was accomplished, believe me, I would tell you). They will sleep as well as they will sleep, and I understand that I have no control over this. I never do. Working on letting it go.

What I do know is that when I bring them back home, they will have had several days of new and unfamiliar rhythms, and they will be…off. And though there are some things we will need to get done, including swim lessons and grocery shopping, we will be spending the next few days just trying to get back into those familiar routines. I expect anything, up to and including tantrums, large-scale meltdowns, and general low-level crankiness. What they need is a slow and gentle shifting of gears. Luckily we will have some time to do that.

Also, snacks. Lots of snacks.