Saturday, June 6, 2015

Making Life Easier, Part I

So, maybe you noticed that we have seven children now. And honestly, a lot of the time, I'm thinking to myself, "You'd think after seven I'd be more of a pro at this." There are so many parenting things I just don't know how to do right. Or things know I should do, but I can't actually muster up the energy/perseverance/skill/patience to do them. Or things I do out of habit or desperation, but I'm pretty sure there's a better way out there somewhere.

And then there are other things that work really well for our family, but I'm afraid if I talk about them, they will seem like criticisms of other families who do things differently. It's understandable. If you spend weeks pouring your heart and soul into amazing birthday parties because you feel like those memories are one of the most precious and personal gifts you can give to your kids—and then I'm like, "eh, birthday parties are overrated"—you might feel kind of hurt.

The other reason I hold back is because what I do as a parent is constantly changing. I'll be totally convinced about something being "the best way," and then a few years later I realize I've found a better way. I assume this will keep happening, and that makes me reluctant to give advice at all if I'm just going to to go back later and contradict it. 

So: when someone asks me for parenting advice, I usually just say, "Haha, your guess is as good as mine!"

But then again, I also think that's sort of unfair, because as parents how are we supposed to improve if no one ever gives us the benefit of their experience? I'm not the MOST experienced parent—(and what makes The Most Experienced Parent anyway? Years? Kids? Hardships? I don't have "the most" of any of those, really)—but with so many chances for experimentation I'm sure to have figured out SOME things that make life easier for us. Sometimes I talk to people who seem so…just overwhelmed by family life. I feel that way too, sometimes, but I feel sad when people think that has to be the permanent condition of a parent, because I'm pretty sure it doesn't.

And I decided, that just because I don't know everything, doesn't mean I don't know anything! I really, really like my kids, and I like being a mother, and while some of that is maybe a personality thing, I think it's mostly a function of how we've set up our family culture. We don't stress out about the stuff we don't really care about and we're pretty vigilant about following up on the stuff we do. And for young kids, I think that's basically all you need to keep things running fairly smoothly. That and a large helping of laid-back-ness. (Who knows about how this will change when we've got a bunch of young adults running around. I hope some of the same principles will apply, but maybe it will be a whole new ballgame!)

Anyway, I read this excellent post about "Always Mean What You Say" (Go read it! It's awesome!), and it resonated so completely with me. I thought, that's it. That's our parenting philosophy in a nutshell. We start it early, before our kids are even one (I agree with the essentials in this post—same blogger as above—about disciplining kids even when they are very young)—and they really do, mostly, figure it out and become genuinely enjoyable little people to have around quite early.

And that's key for me: I know parenthood requires sacrifice, and it's not always going to be fun, but I think people underestimate how fun it can be. You have so much control over the family culture when your kids are young! You don't have to just resign yourself to chaos and despair and helplessness. I've always been good at working hard at something if I know it's going to pay off, and that's what's happening every time I take control of something that will improve our family environment: every time I remind my kids to speak in a polite voice, or make them stay and sweep the floor after dinner, or pick them up and take them away from playing in the bathroom, or whatever it is. It may take 1000 repetitions, but they WILL get it and my life WILL improve. There are times Sam and I get sloppy about following through with what we say, because it seems like too much work. But mostly we've learned that we'd rather do the work of following through than the much more exhausting (to us, anyway) work of dealing with undisciplined children. (Trade-offs! They're everywhere!)

It doesn't even really matter what the things are that you decide to make your stand on. What matters is that you pick those things that seem to make life best for your family, and then pursue those goals relentlessly. And always mean what you say. I'm going to list a few of the things that make life easier for us. Some of them may seem kind of silly to you. Hey, they may seem kind of silly to ME in ten years! But I would like to remind you, Me-From-Ten-Years-in-the-Future, that what I'm talking about is pursuing what makes life feel liveable to me NOW. I'm fully aware that not all of these behaviors are moral issues that will Matter in the Eternities. But right now, they make the difference between "Self-Sacrificing-Life-Full-of-Drudgery" and "Fulfilling-Life-Full-of-Little-Joys."

I'm sure you're going to read some of these and think, "But that would never work for my son…" or "But my kids need more than that for…" Of course that's true! That's why it's so great to set your parenting "rules" based on what you can handle in your own home. There are lots of things that seem nice in theory, but you just aren't willing to enforce them, or they're too much work, or you'd rather live with it than fight about it. That's fine. We have plenty of things that fall into that category: daily baths (once or twice a week works for us, sorry if that seems disgusting to you), making beds (I'd love it, but it just…doesn't happen), having a spotless…well, a spotless anything. We don't really keep track of what our kids are eating (pretty sure Goldie has eaten stuff out of the garbage more than any decent kid ought to), we don't really do "playdates," we respond to a lot of sibling fighting with an all-purpose, "well…just go in different rooms then…." You might be horrified at what sorts of things seem okay to us, and I guess large family life in general sounds to some people like one of the nine levels of hell. But if there are things that drive you crazy about your OWN family life, what you DON'T have to do is decide that everything is futile and give up in despair. I hate the sort of popular assumption that kids always mean chaos and a decrease in quality-of-life. Sometimes, maybe, but definitely not always! I'm sure I've mentioned that when I was young one of my favorite books was The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes (short summary: bunny mama trains her 21 children to take care of things at home for her so she can be the Easter Bunny)—and I still believe life with children can be like that. With a little investment in the things that matter to you, and a willingness to let the rest of the things go (no matter what other families are doing), life can be really good. Even when it's sort of crazy too.

So, just to give you an idea of what I mean, here's a list of stuff we think is worth taking a stand about:

• Our kids have to ask for everything with "May I please . . . ." I remind them every. single. time. Even the babies can learn to say "Milk please" instead of just "MORE!" or worse, shrieking for it. If they are too young to talk, I say it for them (Baby: "AAAAAA!" Me: "Oh, you want more, please? More, please! Here you go!"). The next 20 years or so are going to be a constant chorus of children asking me for things. Might as well have it be polite, at least.

• And speaking of shrieking: our kids talk in "inside voices" in the house. I don't care how cute it is that the 3-year-old is yelling "JESUS WANTS ME FOR A SUN-BEAM!" during Family Night—after I laugh at her, I say, "Inside voice, please." I don't function well if there's a lot of chaos, and there are just too many of us in an enclosed area to allow any room for loud exuberance. (Quiet exuberance is fine.) Kids laughing and playing together is great. It makes me happy. But when it gets loud, even if it's not antagonistic, I always stop them, and follow through with a consequence.

• Running in the house or jumping on furniture—same thing. I have a low tolerance for "wildness" in any form. They can wrestle and climb on things and twirl and yodel and leap over each other. Just—quietly. Or go outside or in the basement where I can't hear them.

• We don't really have snacks between meals. I'm not against the idea in principle, and I know some parents insist that their kids' behavior is tied to blood sugar or whatever, but for us, it's just one more thing for me to worry about, so I don't. Getting out, preparing, and putting away food three times a day is quite enough, thanks! (My ideal day, incidentally, contains just two meals: Brunch and Dinner. Maybe I'll write more about that sometime.) The older kids can ask for a snack, and if they get it out and put it away themselves I'm fine with that, but they generally don't even think of it because it's not part of our daily rhythm. This means I'm not constantly having to deal with whining kids asking to eat, when they are actually just bored. (Although I have no problem saying no, it does get tiresome being asked all the time.) It also means we are all nicely hungry when mealtime comes around, and that makes everything taste better! :)

• Speaking of mealtime, I like it and it's important to me that it's pleasant ("inside voices" help. See above). We eat together at the table. I like to cook and I like for people to appreciate what I make, so no one is allowed to complain about the food. They don't have to eat it, but they must be polite (try it, and then refrain from negative comments if they don't like it. They can just say, "No thank you, I don't want any more.")—and they don't get to eat something different. I just don't think it's a big deal if you have to eat something you don't like, or if you miss a meal. Those are Life Skills. So many people in the world have it so much worse. If someone says "I don't like this" or "Awww, we have to eat THIS again?" they are excused from the table and they don't get to eat until the next meal. Sometimes they feel hungry in the interim. Oh well. I just don't really stress about "hunger" in general. I had a nutrition teacher at BYU who used to tell her kids, "It takes over 30 days without food for the average human to starve," and I've lived by that mantra ever since. They learn pretty fast. And now everyone says "Thank you for this good dinner, Mommy!" and if it's not always 100% sincere—well, I don't care, it makes me a happier cook anyway. :) The kids take turns helping me cook dinner, and that helps with general appreciativeness too.

• Everyone stays afterward after a meal and helps with cleanup until it's done. Usually it's crazy and crowded and we have to give multiple reminders for everyone to stay on task. But they all know it's expected, and I'm trading "it's quiet, but I feel like a scullery maid" for "it's loud, but at least I can pretend I'm a CEO directing a team of semi-intelligent midgets."

• We don't consider discipline and consequences "being mean," so we enforce them all the time. No lowered expectations for being in public or on vacation or for special days. If we are at Disneyland and the kids complain, they sit out the next ride or two. If it's Christmas Dinner at grandma's and they fight, they sit in the car. If the Birthday Boy won't help clean up dinner, he gets extra jobs. I'm just…over being embarrassed about it. I don't care if people see me disciplining the kids, or what they think. It means that our kids don't suddenly become fearsome little hooligans every time we're trying to have a special day and make memories together. (They just keep being regular everyday little hooligans.)

• We don't do really do reward/chore charts (though we have, in the past). In fact we've sort of been scaling back the "special reward for good behavior!" thing in general. Not that we don't appreciate and praise them when they do good things, but I realized awhile ago that I really want my kids to feel the intrinsic satisfaction that comes when they work together to accomplish a needed task, and sometimes external rewards were getting in the way of that. We work together because families do that. We help each other because we love each other. Sometimes someone will do something that seems extra special and nice (like Abe will decide to clean the stove for me, or Daisy will quietly sneak down and set the table for breakfast) and my first impulse is to give them some reward to show how happy I am—but I don't. Because it seems like in a way, that's taking those wonderful spiritual promptings they feel toward serving others, and making them lesser. I always praise and thank them, and I tell other people (when the kids are in earshot) how helpful and good the kids are, and I might even reward them—but not every time, and I don't usually tie those rewards to specific tasks. I'll say something more like, "Things went so smoothly today! We should have a picnic!" or "I love seeing you two getting along so well! Maybe you can help me make cookies this afternoon!" or "I'm so happy that I can always count on you to help get the little ones into nap. That frees up time for us to go to the library this afternoon!" If no one is breaking a specific rule, but people are just being…difficult, sometimes it's the opposite: "I'm exhausted from all the fighting during Cleanup Time. Let's have early bedtimes tonight." I figure they might as well see the natural good that comes from working together (happier parents! more free time! etc.) instead of me trying to make up some artificial reward that will stop happening once they get to college or the Real World.

• Naptime is strictly enforced until age 6 or so. I can't function well without it. I am willing to pay the price of sitting outside someone's door and telling them one hundred times to be quiet, or letting them cry for two hours every day for weeks on end, in exchange for the blissful, blissful quiet afternoons that result once they figure out that I am more determined to make them nap than they are determined not to. Of course four and five year olds don't want to nap! Fine, they can lie and "rest" for a couple hours (but in my experience they benefit from even that). When they realize it's non-negotiable (and I WILL sit outside their bedroom and enforce it if necessary) they usually end up sleeping after all, and when they want to get up, they have to come and ask me first. Yes, they wake each other and play sometimes (there are three in the same room) and even though I make them stay in their room, I often get SO frustrated and feel like I will NEVER get anything done, but still, the Expectation of Nap produces more naps than the Expectation of No Nap. The older kids read or play quietly inside, go outside, or feel my wrath.

• Bedtime, on the other hand? As long as they stay in their beds (for the little ones) or in their rooms and quiet (the bigger ones), I don't really care. Sometimes I hear the boys talking and giggling till 11:30 p.m., and I kind of feel like I ought to do something about it, but I just can't get myself to feel like it matters. In fact I sort of secretly love it, because they are getting along so well. They tell each other stories and make up all sorts of elaborate games and who even knows what. They aren't interfering with Sam's and my time to be together and get things done, which is what matters to me most in the evenings. We yell out a kind of half-hearted "Kids! Quiet down!" every so often, but our hearts aren't very strongly in it, and the kids can tell. If we noticed they were having a hard time waking up, I guess we'd do something different, but so far it's been fine.

This is getting long. Who knew I would have so much to say? We will continue in Part II.

8 comments:

  1. This is just perfect! I have very similar triggers and needs in my home. Just working on not caring that I always am the "mean" mom (you know, the one with limits :))

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  2. Jacqueline: thank you! I agree, it's always hard not to be intimidated by the opinions of other people…even other kids! I remember being kind of scared of some of my friends' parents when I was a kid, and now I realize I'm more like those parents than I ever thought I would be. :)

    And random fact: if my mom hadn't named me Marilyn, her second choice was "Jacqueline". I think it's a lovely name. :)

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  3. Thank you for this! I found your blog through a FB link from catholicallyear.com. I followed you on Bloglovin so I can be sure to read more of your writing. I've got 9 kids (6 mos to 20 yo) and in the past couple years with illnesses and a tough pregnancy, a lot of the structure that was working for us in the past has fallen apart and we need to double down on restoring enough order to reduce the chaos a bit. I would be interested in hearing more about how you manage meals. How do they not snack, do you lock up the food? LOL Thanks!

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  4. Zina, thank you! What a nice thing to say. 9 kids, good for you! And illness and pregnancy to boot. You must be a strong person to cope with it all! You could probably give ME a lot of good advice! Re:snacking, "Lock up the food" made me laugh…yeah, you're right, if the kids are getting food themselves it's probably hard to control (except requiring they clean it up, I guess). I think my no snacking thing is more of a mindset than a set rule? I'm not _opposed_ to eating something between meals now and then if it's easy and we think of it, but since it's not a set thing (and I'm not handing out snacks at the park or between meals) the kids just don't think of it or plan on it, i guess. But I do expect the kids to ask me before getting anything to eat, and generally I would just say no between meals. I use the "you're not hungry, you're just bored" line my mom used on me a lot :). Maybe that will change when I have teenagers? My boys are already getting to be pretty hungry eaters…!

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  5. Sorry Zita, it autocorrected you to "Zina" :)

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  6. I totally enjoyed this post. I was sent here through Montse's Cranial Hiccups site and just had to click on this post because the title was engaging. We have four (17 - 5) and get that wow what a big family type comment. That's funny because I don't think four is big. Thanks for your humor and perspective. I'll be back to read more.

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    1. I grew up in a family of four, too. It didn't seem big to me at the time--my friend down the street had 14 kids in her family!! You don't see many families that big now! :) I liked being one of four. I had three brothers and did sort of want a sister, but I also enjoyed being the only girl. Thanks for commenting and I'm happy to "meet" you! :)

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  7. I knew I would find awesome parenting tips and ideas on your blog. :) Thank you!!

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