How Not to Disappear Completely

In the great film Winter’s Bone, a girl (played by a pre-Katniss Jennifer Lawrence), is desperately trying to pass on her knowledge of hunting, food preparation and other basic survival skills to her siblings. She is feeling the pressure because, having lost both of their parents, she suspects that her investigation into the disappearance of her criminal father may well get her killed.

I am mostly telling you about this movie because you really need to see it (seriously). But it also paints in bold dramatic terms an example of parentification, which can be defined as “the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent.”

A recent article in The Atlantic highlights in similarly stark terms the long term negative effects of parentification on children: “a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many […] experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.”

Put simply, the experience of having to step into a caretaking role as a child can disrupt and even displace the normal course of development. In our culture we have terms for this: a child may have “grown up too fast.” We should therefore “let kids be kids.” Right?

But the situations described above are extreme. As with most things, there is a large middle ground from which we can still see the line no matter which side of it we’re on right now. Parentification happens when a child undertakes a role for which she is not yet ready, specifically taking on responsibility for another’s care or well-being.

Hold on there, cowboy. Isn’t there an appropriate time and place for kids to take on responsibility for others?

Of course! There are ways to know when they are ready. Though laws vary from place to place, generally speaking your child is ready to babysit his siblings around the age of 12. This is assuming that they have willingly, and successfully, practiced this with your proximity and/or partial supervision. Does the child know what to do in case of emergency? How to contact you if you’re not home? How to call emergency services? Who is a safe neighbor? Where are the band aids?

The key, I think, is that you and the child are both confident in their readiness to care for others. Be sure that you give clear parameters regarding where you are and for how long; what is expected of them and what is not. If this is a regular situation, or something that comes up repeatedly without warning, it is probably time to involve another adult (family or a trusted professional).

In the meantime, try not to disappear.

 

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Sick Days Revisited

We have managed to make it nearly two years without a major bout of illness: you know, the kind that circles the family like a brush fire, touching off some of us maybe more than once before it’s spent. My lovely wife claims it was the strictness of our vitamin regimen that did it.

Those vitamins had been notably absent this year, which is maybe partial but certainly not adequate explanation for Coldfest 2017, which currently has its tents and vendors set up in our house, evidently for an extended run.

I have written before about the generous and enlightened illness policy at my work, so I will just say that gosh do I appreciate it. Sick kids + sick parents = one big bubbling pot ‘0’ sickness. As for me, I had been staggering along for a couple of weeks already, going to work and pretending that my cough was actually someone else in the next room. Now, after having ruled out pneumonia and the alarming (but kind of awesomely Victorian-sounding) pleurisy, I understand that I just have a cold. Possibly the biggest, baddest beast of a cold I’ve ever hosted, but still. Nothing to be done.

A sick house still has to function, so even if the normal routines are disrupted we still have to function somehow. Meals mean that we prepare a lot of one thing and eat it all day. Laundry, vacuuming and other pretty important jobs happen when I’ve stored up enough energy from leaning against a wall and moaning (it’s the new sleep).

Having everyone at home all day, with no plans to go anywhere and no energy to do so, can be strangely liberating. “What are we doing today, Daddy?” “Let’s sit around in scarves and drink broth and watch movies.” “Again? Yaaay!”

We did get to watch Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, so it hasn’t been all bad. Who knew that it was, like, about something?

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The Big Reshuffle

I never did believe it, not really: that rearranging your space can help you to rejigger the rest of your life. Sure, I thought, it’s nice to see things looking a little neater and more symmetrical, but with four kids in a two-and-a-half bedroom house one can’t expect this new state to last more than a day or so.

So when I volunteered (after about six months of “mulling it over”) to take a full day to tackle our “spare room” (there is no room to spare in our house; the term refers to its former life as a garage), my wife undertook to remove herself and the girls from the premises for the duration. I had thought this was a little extreme, but appreciated the lack of distraction and the chance to queue up several of my Spotify playlists and crank them at unsettling volume.

After an indeterminate period that passed like a drugged dream in which I was forced to play Tetris with boulders attached to my limbs, I emerged covered with sweat to find that a vast, unmanageable pile of objects had been assembled into something approaching order.

I rested on my laurels for as long as it took for my family to return home, convinced that I would not have to do any more of this kind of work for months (providing I could spend a few minutes each day assuring that my arrangement of the spare room remained intact). I soon learned, though, that my efforts, greatly appreciated they may be, were only the beginning. It would be a new, glorious era of rearranging in our land.

Now that the spare room–our primary storage space–was in order, my wife could shift all the furniture everywhere else. We could clean the girls’ rooms and wash all the bedding. And then the real work could start: changing out the hundreds of books that double as the interior walls of our living room.

I dreaded the prospect, and asked if we could save the book wrangling for the next weekend. I continued, to say the least, to not look forward to the work. I had boxed and meticulously sealed all the books in the spare room, and they were stacked just the way I wanted them. To bring them out again would erase the sense of order I was holding in my mind like a fragile egg. Why did one good deed have to lead to a deluxe economy pack of new ones?

You know what? It was fine. In fact, it was really, really great. The bookshelves are pristine with room to grow and the spare room looks better than ever. The peace of mind we have gained is no mean thing.

For a close, largish, homeschooling family, this kind of organization amounts to a total reset. I have undertaken projects like this before. But finally I think that I get it, and can genuinely enjoy the results.

Also, I should mention that no one is allowed to touch anything from now on. Wish us luck!

 

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Three Scenes

Sullen tee w/dad

Here’s a specific problem that has been coming up for me lately, at work and at home. I thought I’d find out more about it and share it with you.

Close your eyes and take a journey with me. You are in a room. A clean, well-lighted place. You are calm and relaxed. Take a few breaths in and out. Good. Now, open your eyes.

Before you is a child. Your child. The child is rolling her eyes in disbelief that you have just expected her to do something that you regard as perfectly reasonable. She intends to ignore you and go on with what she was doing before.

Close your eyes. Take another breath. Now open them.

Now your child is throwing his younger brother’s half-constructed Attack of the Clones Lego playset down the stairs. When you ask him why he has done this, he explains that his brother was being, and in fact is, a “butt.”

Close your eyes. Feel around for the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Take two and be sure to drink a whole glass of water. Open your eyes.

Now your child, as you watch, is saying “$@%#.” You are positive that you have heard the word crisply and clearly and have watched the precise mouth movements required to form the word. When you ask the child to repeat the word, she insists that she was using the euphemistic spelling employed by Norman Mailer in his WWII novel The Naked and the Dead.  You do not believe her (though I also made a Hemingway reference in this post. Can you spot it?).

Oh, boy. We’re done. Come back to your body and shake yourself out.

These children are engaging in what is known by scientists as disrespectful behavior. Now, you might be asking, “Where did they learn this kind of thing?” The answer is a.) You, b.) Their peers, c.) Their uncle Steve, d.) YouTube, e.) It doesn’t matter. The answer is e.)

There are some definite do’s and don’ts in common to these scenes:

  • Stay calm. Do not respond with the kind of words or behavior they are presenting to you.
  • Ignore provocation. Do not be drawn into a power struggle, which is exactly what will happen if you attempt to assert your power right now. Walk away if you have to.
  • Speak your expectations clearly. “I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” “I expect you to listen when I give you a direction.” Stick to it but don’t feel you need to explain or defend it. Don’t negotiate.
  • Give encouragement when you see or hear things you like.
  • Spend some time with them. Let the relationship do the repairing.

Now. What was the child feeling? Probably frustration and a need for power. Now that everyone is calm, you can work with your child on ways to have (age-appropriate) input into rules and routines in order to feel more in control. Can you arrange for he and his brother to have separate play time? Can she choose when she does her chores, with the promise of an activity she enjoys at the end (or even while she does the work; music, an audiobook)? Can she practice deep breathing with you so she can learn to express her feelings appropriately?

Alright. Now close your eyes again. And have a nice long nap.

 

 

 

 

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On Chores, Revisited

A couple years ago I wrote about our first attempt to institute chores for the family. In that article, I described how my wife and I had decided to approach chores and how they aligned with the values of our family. I wrote, “In my house chores are presented simply as expectations: they are what need to happen in order for the home to run smoothly. There is a place for everyone to chip in, and we emphasize the importance of each chore in our day-to-day home life.”

Reading back on this, I see that this theory still holds up. In the article, I also detailed the chores chart I had made, with chores listed on a whiteboard and movable magnets for each child, to be rotated according to age level and need. This means that each child would have different chores from day to day. I can only imagine, when designing this system, what I was thinking: that the variety would keep them from being bored, or the novelty would be exciting, or something.

Well, that just didn’t work.

It wasn’t a disaster or anything. It was just too complicated for the kids (the little ones especially), and too much homework for the adults (ie: me). We gave it a go. But soon the kids were complaining about their own assigned chores or coveting those of their sisters (or just refusing to participate in my rigged game). At the same time, the magnets started falling apart and wouldn’t, you know, magnetize anymore. So after a few weeks, my brilliant chores chart fell by the wayside. Okay, it actually just fell off.

I don’t remember how much time went by in the interim, but eventually my wife struck upon a way to make the chores list work within the structure of her homeschooling day. Instead of rotating chores, each child now had their own laminated sheet with a list of duties. They could mark them off as they went with a pen, or draw pictures around them, or pull them down and lose them under the sofa. Their choice!

Anyway, having a stable and routine set of chores turned out to be just the ticket. My wife divided them into two sections: morning, before school, and after lunch, before “rest time” (that period of one to two hours where the kids can have downtime with an audiobook, a DVD, or some reading). It took a while to get it going, but by now it is almost in their muscle memory. They know the expectations and, though they sometimes just don’t want to do it (who doesn’t), it had made chores into what we intended: they’re just what we do to help the household work.

My favorite part is that the list makes it easy to succeed: “wake up” is an item; as is “eat breakfast.” Amazing how the points add up.

 

 

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The Parent as Coach

Baldhill kids

I mentioned that I’m managing a softball team, and that this is a completely new thing for me. In this post, I wrote in pretty vague terms about how a family can work as a team. This week, I have some thoughts about that, from the other side of the fence.

One of my duties as manager is to place the players in the most effective positions on the field. In softball, this will ideally be based upon each team member’s talents, limitations, and dynamics when playing with others. Let me just say that there has been a steep learning curve for me. But it got me to thinking about how the creation of a team relates to the shape of a family.

In debriefing with my coach about our last game, I came across some examples.

  • One of the first rules of coaching a sport is to always use positive language. To exhort a player to, say, “stop twisting the bat at the end of the swing,” is not nearly as respectful, or effective, as giving the positive direction to “swing level.” In the same way, reminding our children to put their “feet on the floor” is preferable to “don’t you lean back in that chair!”
  • Some players have more knowledge of the game and its workings than others. Sometimes this knowledge will lead a player to take on the role of “micro-coach” and tell other players what to do. When we talked about this, I immediately thought of my oldest daughter, who often takes on the responsibility, usually unasked and without—to put it lightly—the appreciation of her younger siblings, to impart the Family Rules to them. I try to remind her gently that this is not her job, and that there are already two parents here to take care of it. It’s a matter of appropriate roles in the family. When her mom or dad, as coaches, ask her to watch her sisters or put her in charge of a task, this is an appropriate role. When she takes it upon herself to do so, not so much.
  • Finally, trying to figure out what is not working with a player might be a matter of determining what their unmet need might be. Does the infielder who misses a grounder need glasses? Or maybe to switch corners so the sun is not in her eyes? Does the third place hitter need more time in the inning to prepare? Could he go to bat further down the lineup? Did the manager (ahem) decide to eat a heavy dinner before the game, thus giving him a poor chance to run bases today? Similarly, when our children are not doing what we expect, or what we know they’re capable of, are they tired, hungry, feeling unappreciated? Have they outgrown their shoes?

My interest in the ball game started as a way to teach family dynamics to fathers. This father, at least, has already learned a lot more than he bargained for. And there are still eight games to go.

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Extra Inning (Family Rules, Part 3)

Miriam kicking it

I’ve been writing about the process of coming up with Family Rules. Last week I was stuck with the consequences of my family’s Values as they showed up in my actions, whether or not I intended to model them. This time I want to pull back and tell you what I’ve been doing lately.

The genesis of this was in a post I wrote I few weeks ago about how I haven’t introduced my girls to sports. As a consequence, they can’t throw or catch a ball, and I had a bit of an existential Daddy crisis about this. I got over it, sort of. But in preparation for the upcoming Nurturing Fathers training, which uses sports as a metaphor that runs throughout the program, I started thinking about this again. If I’m going to teach this program, I thought, I need to set aside my lifelong lack of interest in sports and, basically, pick one and become interested.

I grew up in a house of football fans, but for a variety of reasons this never clicked with me (to be honest, the game just makes no sense to my brain. Don’t be offended; it’s not you, it’s me). I’ve learned in recent years, in my work with children, how to lob a basketball into a hoop, but again, not much about the sport resonates with me. Soccer is fine, hockey is fun, and I’ve always enjoyed the Winter Olympics. Whatever.

But then there’s baseball. Still the National Pastime, at least in name, and a sport with a long and hallowed place in American history and culture. The rules make sense; the gameplay is elegant and aesthetically pleasing. There’s no clock. It’s a nice way to enjoy an idyllic Summer day. It’s full of unwritten rules, superstitions, traditions, stories and lore, and plus I’ve seen The Sandlot more times than I can count. The more I thought about it the more I realized I was ready to become a baseball fan.

Somehow in the midst of this newfound hobby I volunteered to organize a softball team at work. I just kind of pitched the idea (see what I did there?) and to my surprise was met with overwhelming interest. Suddenly I am occupied with putting together a team roster, ordering t-shirts, commissioning artwork for the mascot, and cramming to learn the rules of the game. I’ll let you know how we do this year.

What does all this have to do with Family Rules? If we accept the premise that a family is a team, we understand that everyone’s contribution is essential. Everyone’s efforts are needed and valued. This is as true in setting up a regimen of chores as it is in the routines of getting ready for school, taking a bath, visiting grandparents, playing with siblings. Everyone has different talents and abilities (especially if they’re all different ages) and we have to figure out, as a team, how best to use them, and how to support each other in areas in which we’re not so proficient.

And just like in baseball (or softball), everyone has to go up to bat eventually.

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Deliciousness

 

iStock_000013096434XSmall

I’m going to let you in on a secret family recipe. We call it cheesy egg toast, or egg and cheese toast, or sometimes just deliciousness (as in, “What’s for breakfast?” “Deliciousness.” “I know what that is,” etc).

There are a variety of reasons why it is so successful. For one thing, it’s incredible fast and easy. For another, it’s a great way for me to get a certain daughter to eat eggs without complaining (she knows who she is).

But most of all, it’s the perfect meal in whose preparation everyone can take part. The little ones can do the toasting and buttering; the eight year-old can grate the cheese (generally, they all taste some to make sure it’s okay); the eldest can scramble the eggs and take it out of the oven. Sometimes keeping the kids occupied during this time is of paramount importance. Am I right?

 

Deliciousness

Some bread

Some butter

Some eggs

Some cheese

 

  • Toast bread. Butter it.
  • Turn broiler on low.
  • Scramble eggs. Grate cheese.
  • Place toast on a cookie sheet. Scoop a portion of eggs onto each piece (we use an ice cream scoop because why not). Sprinkle cheese on top.
  • Place cookie sheet under broiler until cheese melts. Serve.
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Don’t Dream it, Be it

Gabe first day

Here’s something. Research indicates that children are much more likely to learn skills and thrive if parents praise them for “being” rather than “doing.” What does this mean? Basically, if you want to encourage your kids to help around the house, then instead of telling them, “It was so helpful when you cleared your dishes” or “You did such a good job with that,” you can say, “You are such a helper.” The difference here is that you are focusing not on what they did but on what they are: a helper. Sounds simple, right?

But wait a minute. Isn’t that “labeling?” And aren’t we supposed to avoid doing that? I have to admit that for this reason I have had a hard time getting my head around this. Especially since, as a new parent, I had read psychologist Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, in which he insists that while criticizing our children is clearly not helpful, neither is praising them. According to Kohn, the best kind of discipline is intrinsic (coming from within) rather than from others. This stuck with me. So when in recent years I have learned more about what works with kids, I have had to adjust my thinking on this.

In addition, I have always been disturbed by what I saw as an overuse of the phrase “Good job.” As in, the child has climbed the steps of the play structure at the park and the parent calls out, “Good job!” The child goes down the slide and the parent says, “Good job!” Etc. Too much of this, I thought, would give the child an inflated sense that everything they did was valuable, special, amazing. Is this good for the child’s sense of self? I don’t think so.

Is there a place for “Good job?” Sure! When a child is working on a developmental milestone, such as reading or potty training, or even learning algebra, it is good and appropriate to acknowledge this.

The best way to do this, however, is to praise them for who they are, for being. “You’re such a good helper.” “You’re always so thoughtful.” “You’re such a good brother.” The research indicates that a child is much more likely to do helpful, or thoughtful, or brotherly things if they understand that it is part of who they are. This quality is not contingent upon their having accomplished a task well (how frustrating, then, when they are not able to do the good thing, or when something else—tiredness, hunger, a feeling of hurt, an unmet need—gets in the way). Rather, if doing these things is a quality they possess, the default setting, they will do it when they can. It’s simply who they are.

There is a practical side to this for parents. We don’t have to coax, or bribe, or cajole, or coerce, a child to do their chores if the chore is what they do because they are helpful, and helpful people do chores. The expectation takes care of itself. When I realized this, I was able to align it with Kohn’s ideal of intrinsic motivation: they will desire, on their own, to do the good thing if it is simply what they do. How cool is that?

Of course, there is always room for a well-placed “Good job.” Or just a hug.

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A Day in Homeschool

becerraphotography-5

I called in sick to work today, which means that I was granted the rare opportunity to experience a day of homeschool with my family. I wanted to report on what I saw there.

My wife Kyrie has been homeschooling the kids for a few years now. She has been switching things up as she goes, as new and better ideas come to her. Kyrie is trained as a Montessori teacher, and taught for several years in both Montessori and public preschool. She recently attended a weeklong Waldorf homeschooling conference in Portland. And now she is integrating elements of the Charlotte Mason curriculum. Honestly, I don’t know how she does it. But what she’s doing now is what she has determined is best for the needs of each child (remember, we have four girls, aged 4, 6, 8 and ten).

We got up and made breakfast (pancakes) and the girls worked on their chores, got dressed and made their beds. School started promptly at 9:00. Kyrie had everything on a timer, so each subject or activity went on for the scheduled time and then we switched to the next. My times are approximate, as they are from memory. Be patient with me.

9:00 Circle time; greetings, prayer and Scripture reading.

9:20 Math for the 8 and ten-year old; worksheets at different levels with Kyrie available to help. The 6 year-old took this time to draw while I helped the 4 year-old occupy herself in the play kitchen in her bedroom.

9:35 Read Aloud. Kyrie read from Mary Pope Osborne’s retellings of American Tall Tales: today was Davy Crocket, and all the kids found this highly amusing.

10:00 Copywork. Girls took out their notebooks, whose pages have space for both drawing and handwriting. They copied out a short passage and illustrated it.

10:15 Morning Tea. Tea with milk and honey, and cookies!

10:30 Play time. We’re big on play time.

10:50 Nursery Rhymes. Kyrie read some assorted nursery rhymes and we ran outside to play “London Bridges.”

11:00 History. I was recruited to read from Ingri & Edgar Parin d’Aulaire’s illustrated biography of Benjamin Franklin. It was a hit.

11:50 Science. Kyrie read the excellent children’s book Tiny Creatures: The World of Microbes by Nicola Davies. Girls did an exercise in which they took a sheet of paper and cut it into increasingly smaller pieces to simulate the rapid division of microbes. We discussed the importance of air and sunlight in keeping microbes at bay.

12:45 Lunch.

This ended the school day proper. After lunch girls have “rest time,” which usually consists of dividing into older and younger pairs and playing or drawing while listening to an audiobook. On special days they watch a movie.

In the afternoon they took a trip to the library in Corvallis, and played at Central Park.

It was a breakneck day! I was surprised by a couple of things. One was how engaged all the kids were in each activity. Kyrie reports that keeping everything to the timer helps to prevent burnout. They packed up whatever they were doing when it was time to move on to the next thing (that was the other thing that surprised me).

So, that’s what I’ve been missing out on. I kind of wish I could be going to homeschool every day. But I’m glad to let Kyrie run it.

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