Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

bella bearIsabel came running into the kitchen yesterday, crying and deeply offended.

“What’s wrong,” I asked, to which she replied “Henry hit me in the nuts!”

She didn’t reply so much as sob the words, the statement of horrific indignity trailing out from deep within her soul.

“Honey,” I told her, “ummm….” and I wasn’t even sure where to begin. We don’t talk like that? You don’t have those? Henry shouldn’t ever hit you, but he definitely didn’t hit you there…

As it was, she was sort of pushed in the upper stomach by her brother, and the crimes again humanity didn’t stop there. I believe it was all over some kind of YouTube video of someone making flowers out of play-doh and if this isn’t starting to sound like a dream sequence straight out of a Disney cartoon (circa 1941) then I don’t know what is.

I’ve been reflecting on Isabel’s Strange Life (the title of my next book?) and all I can say is, “Lord, have mercy.” And I mean it in all of the ways.

On the way to school one morning this week, for some reason I let her use my phone to watch something (not that I’m against screen time, but I try to avoid the habit of my phone being part of the deal, etc etc) and she asked me to help her find [insert uber-girly themed video with singing]. When I was able to get the video she wanted, she leaned forward from her seat behind mine in the van. “Thanks,” she said, “gimme five.” And I looked in the rear-view to see her hand extended toward my arm-rest, waiting for the slap.

All girl. With lots of boy influences.

This weekend was Isabel’s turn to bring home the class “mascot” to spend some time with us. Bella the Bear will report back Monday morning with a write-up of her time with the Family Balducci, and I’m trying to decide just how honest we are willing to be. Bella might not be free to share about everything that went on this weekend, but then again, maybe she should.

The previous two entries in the notebook include fun-times with other classmates, things like “riding in a golf cart!” and “going to church to sing songs about Jesus.” I think we will be sure to include some spirituality and fun as well, but I’m musing on how much Bella might want to just keep to herself. We might need to have a chat.

For starters, she had been home with our entire family less than an hour before I caught Bella on the ROOF OF THE VAN with Isabel’s seven-year-old brother. The brother who is going through a phase right now of “let’s climb on the roof of the van. In our socks.”

Last night I bet I woke up about five times with the image of Henry up on the van and I spent the evening trying to shake it (change the mental channel! Change it!). Mostly because at ten o’clock last night our neighbor Arlene called us because she forgot to say anything earlier.

“Paul,” I could hear her thick New England accent through the phone, “I looked out and Henry was jumping up and down like it was a MATTRESS!”

Yes, that image. It haunted me (I made a comment on someone’s instagram yesterday, as she noted how scary it was to watch her very young boys be daring at the park, that I’m getting worse about a spirit of adventure as I get older; you can see why). It haunted me the whole rest of the night. We don’t condone that sort of behavior, it won’t (Lord, please) happen again.

But out there in the midst of all that was Bella, the Class Bear, playing possum on the roof of the van. And Isabel, fiercely protective of her weekend charge, stuck on the windshield unable to climb higher.

“Bella!” she cried, “BELLA!!!” Henry jumped and Bella lay lifeless and Isabel cried and Arlene watched (from across the street) and I walked out to find this whole display of drama played out in my driveway and all I could think was “if Bella tells the teacher, we are in trouble.”

Later that evening, I found Henry and Isabel and Bella in our other driveway, the one with the basketball court. This time they had fashioned a piñata using a bungee cord and… (wait for it) a metal Razor scooter. Henry had connected the scooter to the bungee cord, lifted the basketball goal to its highest setting and watched as the scooter lifted off the ground and was swinging in the air. He proceeded to whack at the scooter like we were at a real, live birthday party. Except we were in the driveway, hitting a scooter dangling wildly from the basketball goal.

Bella just sat there in Isabel’s arms, silently judging my parenting skills.

Tomorrow we are taking Bella on a hike and we will get some photographic proof that her entire stay with us wasn’t something out of a prison-break movie. We hope.

In the meantime, I know the world is filled with girls who have lots of older brothers. It’s gonna be okay. Isabel will go out into life with a very unique skill set, which we hope (in the near future) will include a proper grasp of anatomy.

Greatest Day Never

Does God Care?

Simon Says

Simon Says is a cute game but not a realistic parenting approach

I made an impressive feast for our family the other night, a roast chicken recipe that I’ve finally perfected. I like to serve the meal with glazed carrots and onions, red potatoes and a delicious salad that rounds out the plate in perfection.

It’s such a simple meal and one of the boys’ favorites.

So when I made it recently, imagine my surprise when I realized that besides the chicken, I’d forgotten just about every other detail of the meal. No potatoes, no onions. No salad in sight. Just a platter of meat and a small side of orange veg.

“Oh my gosh what was I thinking,” I fretted. How did I manage to forget almost the entire meal? I knew I was going lighter on this weekday evening, but I didn’t mean to make it a fast!

“I can’t believe I did this,” I must have said to Paul about five times. I looked across our vast dinner table and saw…very little. Cups with water, plates with chicken. One measly carrot chunk on the plates of those children with an aversion to nutrition.

“Honey,” assured Paul, “it’s perfect.”

And somehow, it was.

We sat and feasted and enjoyed each other’s company. And I managed to let go of this ideal meal, the one I prefer to serve, and celebrate being together. And really, my menfolk are pretty simple; they don’t need a variety of sides to be happy. They just want to be fed.

I was talking to a trusted friend recently about some ways that I make life hard for myself. In my efforts to do The Right Thing and be a good momma, I set standards for myself that are silly and exhausting. But they aren’t impossible, which is also part of the problem. Because they are attainable, I think these standards are worth the effort.

One recent Sunday at Mass I was in a small battle with one of the younger children who desperately wanted a drink. And I kept saying “no, you may not leave for a drink” and felt if I backed down on this issue I’d be sending a message I didn’t want to send.

But finally, after a few minutes, I just didn’t feel like battling any more. “You may go,” I relented, “but come right back.”

And a minute later, that boy came back and he was like a different child. He was thirsty; he got a drink. We made it through that epic stand-off by me getting a grip.

“Does God really care,” was my friend’s question when I recently relayed this story. I felt exhausted and wimpy, like I’d thrown out every bit of sound parenting advice I’d ever read and what I needed to hear was maybe I was fighting battles that were not worth winning. Does God care? Yes and no.

God cares about what’s important — about us loving our children and teaching them to love each other and to love Him. But maybe a list of never-miss rules is not where I need to put too much energy.

Yes I’m The Boss, yes Paul and I are in charge of this family. But sometimes I need to step back and ask myself which battles are worth fighting. And then do another round of that again.

I know it’s important to have high standards and ideals, to be the best we can be, but in the midst of that I need to always be asking God what HE wants that to look like. Having rules and regulations for the sake of them bears fruit, but not necessarily the fruit God has for our family.

Perfection in Christ is a different thing entirely from just Perfection. I can serve the right meal and have my kids sit perfectly still and never mess up from my list of ideals. But if I have not love, I am a clanging cymbal.

A friend recently shared with me that in scripture, the word “perfect” has its roots in a word better interpreted as “being thoroughly well-made.” That’s who God wants us to be. That’s the freedom he has in store for all who seek his voice.

This originally appeared in The Southern Cross.

Thoughts on a Strong-Willed Child

boy familyThis afternoon, Henry had his seven-year well-baby check-up. Seven years ago we had our fifth son and maybe I figured I had an idea, way back when, of what I was getting myself into.

Not so much.

Five boys in a row. From the same DNA. From the same momma and daddy and you might be inclined to think “been there done that” and is life really all that interesting with so much repetition?

But of course parents of children everywhere know that I’m being silly, and especially mothers of a few boys in a row are giggling right now at the idea that any two sons are exactly alike.

When our second son Elliott came along I remember thinking, “well this should be easy, I just did all of this 21 months ago…” and of course it was not like hitting a rewind button, not at all. Ethan and Elliott are about as different as two boys can be and I had to come up with a whole new set of How To’s to deal with Elliott’s own unique needs and preferences. Some of my methods worked for most of the kids, but the truth is there is never a One Size Fit All in parenting.

Of all the boys, Henry is the one I’ll peg as “strong-willed.” I’ve hesitated to come out and brand him (though you’ve no doubt picked up on this over the years) but lately I’ve been thinking how very special and yes, challenging it is to have a strong-willed child (and I’m thinking each one of us parents could easily say who we’d give that honor, if we were inclined to share…). And so I’m willing to just claim it. My name is Rachel. I have a Strong-Willed Son.

Now you can go two ways when describing your strong-willed child. You could go the route of Willful — which in some ways has a negative vibe. Willful disobedience, willful rebellion. Lots of terms that make willful sound like a very negative character trait indeed. And there is plenty of truth to that, that a strong-willed child can steamroll the scene if not properly managed.

But lately, for some reason, I’ve had this grace to look at Henry and really relish in the absolute joy and beauty of this kind of child (of which I have a few, but he’s The Mostest). And to recognize and acknowledge that with our children, we don’t manage or control, we train, which means we do our work in light of who God made each one of these children to be.

It is hard mothering a strong-willed child because he doesn’t necessarily want to go with the flow. This child will never utter the words “we can’t do that, we are not allowed…” and rules were definitely invented to be challenged, not blindly obeyed.

Now I can hear some people tsk’ing, maybe even shaking a head in solemn judgement. “I’ll tell you how a child gets like that,” you are inclined to think, “and we should all blame the parents.”

And the reason I’m willing to write about this now is because I have finally, FINALLY!, broken free from those lies. The lies the devil has been telling me, that somehow when our children make bad choices it is because of our own poor parenting. When a child can’t behave the way I want it’s because I haven’t concocted the magic obedience solution. I mean, can we do better? Always. We can work hard and communicate clear and have a plan in place for our expectations and consequences. But can we create robot-babies who robo-leap on command? Not really… not me and Paul anyway.

What we can do, we parents of a strong-willed child, is have a plan that involves patience, discipline, prayer and patience. We need to step back and assess the situation with this child — what is the problem, what can we realistically tackle — and then come up with a way to get the job done.

But we also, in the midst of this, need to embrace the nature of our child, this beautiful gift — and the nature of ourselves as parents. I found an interesting chart recently about the four parenting quadrants, how different personalities parent. And I realized that parents can only operate out of who they are. We can’t be someone we are not, we will never expect things from our children that are outside of who we are and the values we hold. Freedom of expression, free will, perfect behavior, perfect table manners — these are all options in parenting and each mother and father will have a list of things that they decide is worth their energy — whether this is a conscious decision or not. We all put effort into the things we value, that is where we are willing to expend our energy.

And so, in light of that, what we have to ask ourselves when dealing with a particularly spirited child, is whether we are doing everything we can to meet that child’s needs. And what I’ve realized lately, where true freedom has come for me, is that the answer to that question is: yes and no.

So often in parenting, laziness can creep in. Certain children just don’t require the same amounts of energy or demand the same level of attention. And then you wake up and realize you’ve gotten in the habit of saying one child’s name repeatedly until they are good and ready to obey. This is (in case you didn’t know it) lazy parenting. And it’s ugly. Ask me how I know.

The good news is with a plan and a little caffeine, you can turn these habits around. Your own bad habits and that of your child are not doomed to be here forever. (In this case, the key is to wait until you really need the child to do what you are asking and then [light-bulb!] follow through on making that happen.) What joy and freedom in proactive parenting!

But at the heart of all these thoughts and revelations is a message of love and a reminder not to compare. Don’t look at other children who seem to tow the line beautifully; ask God to show you the wonder and beauty of YOUR child. Don’t forget that God loved you so much that he sent this creature to your care, and because of that you will have what you need to get the job done. Enjoy your child, who he is, who God made him to be; not a vision of who you think he could possibly be if you work hard enough at it. Love your child and pray for wisdom and strength to bring out his best.

For the longest time I’ve referred to our strong-willed child as a bear cub, but lately my image is changing. He seems more like a William Wallace, barreling down at anything that stands in his path. And Paul and I are tasked with the incredible responsibility of helping our boy determine what is worth tackling and plowing down and when he should practice sensibility and manners. What a mission we have!

And yet, on those days when I wish my boy would go with the flow and sit there and be quiet and just do what I said already, God seems to give me the grace to see Henry through His eyes — through the eyes of The Creator. He has given us these strong-willed creatures because he needs strong people — strong men and women to be His hands and feet. God needs a man who will stand up for righteousness — who will speak from the heart and stand fearless and true. What a gift it will be to know that man!

And in the meantime, the challenge is to do right by this child. To embrace who God made him to be, but to train up in the way he should go. To teach him to use that strength (“He’s really more like a baby rhinoceros,” I told Dr. Newton today) in the way he should. And then rest in the knowledge that God loves this boy more than Paul and I ever could, and he wants every good thing for this creature who delights him so.