Children Have Feelings. Just Like Grownups.

girl-person-human-femaleMy eight-year old curled up under my arm and sighed an old-soul sigh. “You know, mom, grown ups sometimes think that kids don’t feel things like they do. But we do.”

I was about to correct her: of course I know that kids have feelings. That day had seen no less than three full-blown wailing fits of our youngest Feeling All The Feels about being told no/having to share/not being allowed (another) snack. What is the preschooler life if not Full of Drama?

But that’s not what she was saying. Or maybe, that’s exactly what she was saying. Because I, like other grownups, have a tendency to dismiss the drama and in doing so, sometimes invalidate the real emotion underneath there. “Tantrums get you nothing,” we’ve been telling our kids since they were little. “Whining doesn’t work.”

But my eldest kid has a point: she feels anger. She feels grief. She feels loneliness, and injustice, and jealousy. She feels joy, and compassion, and generosity. Kids may not have language for all those feelings (many adults don’t either), and they may not express them appropriately (again, many adults don’t either) – but I’m making a mistake if I treat my kids as if their responses are attention-getting-behaviors without acknowledging the real emotions that underlie them.

I’ve been trying to pay attention to what my daughter said—that little truth that everyone, no matter how small, has feelings—and the strangest thing has been happening: I’m growing in empathy. My whining preschooler is whining, and the whining is not okay, but somehow it has helped me to think that he might be lonely or frustrated or feeling invisible. My kids are fighting and doors get slammed, and somehow it helps to remember that I also feel irritated and frustrated when I have to share space with others all day long and that this squabble is not just about our kids forgetting polite manners or the house-rules about slamming doors. And, later in the day, when a telemarketer calls just in the middle of the dinner rush, it helps to remember that this person’s sole goal in life is not to sell me a product, but that they have a life and that they have feelings, too. “No, thank you, I’m hanging up now” are better words than what I was tempted to say…

Kids have feelings. Just like grownups. I feel like I should know that, but as with so many things in life – I’m learning it afresh in the real-world of child-raising. And just in case you find the reminder as helpful as I did, I’m sharing it with you.

We’re Done Having Kids… (Touch Wood)

We're done having kids... (touch wood)

This week our youngest child turned four and the last of the baby-gear items left our house. The item in question was our trusty Ergo baby carrier which we had kept in our minivan (aka the rolling jail), for just-in-case occasions.  But this last week we also said goodbye to the a/c-less minivan (and hello to a blissfully cool SUV), and when cleaning out the minivan I realized it had been months since we’d used the carrier. It was time to bequeath it to a new family. In so many ways, it’s the end of an era.

We are officially a house where no bicycles have training wheels, no-one except Mommy needs to nap, all seat belts can be buckled by their occupants, and everyone can wipe their own butts. (<< note I said can, not does. There’s yet work to be done.) It’s been a long nearly-nine-years but we have made the transition from being the parents of babies and “little people” to being the parents of articulate, opinionated, growing-in-competence, medium-sized people.

There are some really beautiful things about this change. We all usually sleep through the night. They can tell me where it hurts, and they laugh at jokes. Sometimes, when the planets align and all my mommy-mojo is at work, they play nicely together and I can read a book while the children are awake and occupying themselves. I mean WHAT?! Really?!! There were a couple years there that I didn’t think that kind of daytime luxury would ever be mine again. For these changes in season, my primary emotion is one of gratitude.

There are also moments of unmitigated sentimentality. Like the day we dismantled our youngest’s crib and left it to rest in pieces, and there was something so sudden and unexpected about that change that I cried on and off for several days about it. Every now and then one of my kids will climb into my lap and ask me to read them a story, and I know that one day it will be the last time and the thought catches in my throat. But that time isn’t today, and so I read and try to keep the schmaltz at bay.

But between the gratitude and the sentiment, I just wanted to confess one more feeling: fear. For I know a handful of people who were just settling into this sweet post-toddler zone I’ve been describing, who had just given away the last of their baby gear, only to discover that—surprise! surprise!—they were pregnant again. And lest you think we only keep company with Natural Family Planners who rely on calendars to keep them child-free; let me say we’ve heard this story from people who’ve taken permanent steps to stop them brooding breeding.

(Joke from my husband: What do you call people who practice the rhythm method? Answer: Parents. Crazy voice in my head taunting the “what if” scenarios: What do you call people who’ve had vasectomies? Answer: Very surprised parents??)

So this week, as my children buckled themselves into their seats and I drove across town to drop off that last baby item to a new foster family… I’ll confess I felt a little fear. Because what if this is our story, too? Just when we feel we survived the baby-years and are settling into the sweet season of the elementary years?

Well, I guess we’ll cross that bridge should we come to it. We had been hemming and hawing about if and when to have a third kid when God short-circuited our decision-making with a surprise pregnancy… and he was possibly the best surprise ever. We have laughed more and loved more every single day on account of that unexpected little boy. And I suppose that even if we were to have a (VERY!) surprise fourth, we would look back with gratitude and a “we couldn’t imagine life without them” testimony.

But for now, as I look at my baby-gear-free house, what I feel mostly is a quiet gratitude for the years past and the season we’re in. We have three kids and that seems a good number to us. The bakery is closed: no more buns will be baked in this oven… that we know of.

That’s our plan, but I know from experience that God pays little attention to my plans. So I’m giving away that baby gear, but—as with all things—leaving room in my soul for some divine mischief and mystery.

Better Than a Rolling Jail

minivan

My kids say some pretty-dang-hilarious things, and I was reminded yesterday of one of the funniest quips yet.

We had spent the afternoon with fun friends on their farm (the same friends who took a mislaid stripey sweater on the adventure of its life), and it was time to leave. Of course, the kids didn’t want to go, and the effort of corralling them to the car felt a bit like trying to catch that one piece of egg shell that slipped into the cake mix. After several kind requests, I upped my Mom-game: “GET. INTO. THE. CAR.” I hissed as I strong-armed him into his buckles.

My son didn’t miss a beat: “This isn’t a car,” he yelled, “It’s a ROLLING JAIL!”

I laughed the whole drive home.

****

I’ve been slowly making my way through the one year devotional based on Dallas Willard’s Hearing God. Yesterday’s entry was based on Colossians 3:16: Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in your heart to God.

As if often the case when reading in the morning, my eldest had slipped under my arm and was reading the Bible with me. I read the verse out loud and thought a moment, before saying to her: “I think we do this most regularly in the car, don’t you think? I think that’s the place we most often talk about what we’re learning, and it’s definitely the place where we do the most singing.” (Note to the reader: we’ve had Seeds Family Worship albums playing on repeat for pretty much five years continually now. And I’m still not sick of them.) My daughter agreed: yes, the minivan probably was the place where we heard and sang Scripture most regularly, and after more than five hundred repeats of those CD’s… the words are carved deep into our subconscious… which sounds like letting it “dwell in us richly”, don’t you think?

And all of a sudden my son’s hilarious words from the farm flew back into my memory, and I thought a new thought about our minivan and its unexpectedly prominent role in our spiritual formation:

It isn’t a car… it’s a Rolling Church.

And that thought kept me laughing the rest of the day.

Why I won’t paint my son’s toenails (or let him wear a dress in public)

Lenci boy and girl

My kids have always wanted to take part in the things I do. From toddlerhood they wanted to help crack the eggs, apply their own sunscreen, and climb into the narrow space between my body and my cello whenever I took it out to play. “Me too, Mommy,” they have said, “I want to do it also.”

Each of them has also wanted me to paint their toenails. Every time I pull out my selection of miniature rainbowed pots, my kids huddle around to watch. From time to time, I paint my daughter’s nails, but my eldest son was fairly young when my husband asked if we could please not paint the boys’ nails. Even in culturally-masculine blue tones. My then-one-year-old had just poured half the bottle of blue paint all over our bed, which made it all the easier to agree.

So, the first reason I don’t paint my boys’ toes is out of respect for their Dad.

But there’s another reason, which has become increasingly significant as the years have gone by. That second reason is this: we don’t want the unhelpful and unhealthy constant commentary that comes with things like having boys wearing nail polish or other such “counter-stereotyped” choices.

This became incredibly clear to me two years ago, one spring morning when my youngest son and I went out to run errands. In the way of many younger-brothers-of-older-girls, our son spent a lot of time being “dressed up” by his older sister. At home, under the creative direction of his Adored Older Sister, he wore fairy wings, princess dresses, feathered boas and sparkly crowns… and loved it. (And yes, we are okay with that. Just like we are okay with our daughter dressing up as a pirate and a ninja and a bear. And with all our kids playing with LEGO. And with all our kids playing Avengers. Or enacting Frozen. Or wielding swords. I am ALL FOR kids playing with whatever toys they like according to their interest, not their gender.)

On that particular morning our youngest was wearing a princess dress and loving it. It was a Cinderella dress: “a BLUE dress, Mommy, just like my eyes!” he pointed out. Since we generally don’t leave the house in costume on Days-That-Are-Not-Halloween, I asked him to take it off before we went out, but he was having none of it… so my blue-bell prince and I hit the town to run our errands. Friends, this is no exaggeration: I have never had so much attention from people IN MY LIFE as the day I took a boy out wearing a dress. Every single adult we passed that morning—from the fellow Christian parents are pre-school drop-off, to the complete strangers in our very liberal city—commented on his dress. Not one of them said something mean, but everyone said SOMETHING: each one of them variations of “oh, look at your dress!” and “today is a fun day for dress up!”

Each of the comments was benign and banal, but by the twentieth, and thirtieth and fortieth comment, the message to my son was loud and clear: LOOK HOW MUCH ATTENTION YOU WILL GET IF YOU DRESS DIFFERENTLY! EVERYONE WILL SEE YOU. EVERYONE WILL NOTICE! And on that day, I realized that I wouldn’t let my sons go out in “girl” dress-up again: not because I’m afraid of them being shamed or confused about being boys… but because I couldn’t help feeling that there was damage being done by how much attention was focused on something that should have just been child’s play.

I know that there is such a thing as gender dysphoria, and my heart goes out to boys and girls struggling with their sense of sexual identity. I don’t have neat answers for how to parent in those situations. But this I do know: for a kid who might be craving adult attention and affirmation, one sure way to get it is to dress “opposite” at a young age.

I believe that what adults say, and focus on, in talking with children does much to script the way kids view themselves when they are older. I want my daughter to know that her body is more than beautiful: it’s strong, and useful, and hers – and so I work hard to focus my words in that direction. And I want my boys to feel free to show interest in all sorts of things – in sports and LEGO and science and in dress-up – without every single passer-by commenting (and thus reinforcing) the message that dressing-like-a-girl (or painting your nails) is the Most Important Thing To Say About You.

And so, we keep our boys’ nails color-free, and we keep the princess dresses at home. Because I want the people we meet to talk about school, and play, and books, and the smile on their faces… and not what they wear. There are more important things to say to kids than “look at what you’re wearing!” Let’s say those things instead.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment!

Photo credit: Museum of Childhood, London – Lenci Boy and Girl/Suzanne Gerber (Flickr Creative Commons)

Why I Don’t Want My Kids To Be Fearless

Fearless kids

There are many things I want for my children: Kindness. Gentleness. Courage. Love. But one thing I don’t want for my kids is for them to be fearless.

I’ve been listening to a bunch of platitudes that we Older People offer scared kids: “there’s nothing to be afraid of”, “this won’t hurt”, “it’ll be okay”… and you know what? Sometimes we’re wrong. Sometimes there is something to be afraid of. Sometimes it will hurt. And sometimes, it won’t be okay.

Not that I want our kids to be quivering bundles of anxiety, afraid to stick out their neck and look at the world – but I want my kids to be appropriately fearful: fearful of things that are, in fact, dangerous. I want them to be afraid of fast cars, drunk friends, and the things you could find on the internet. I want them to be afraid of playing with the supernatural. I want them to keep their distance from the ledge, from drugs, from cavalier attitudes to sex and death.

There’s another word that comes to mind when I think about some of the “fearless” people I’ve met: foolish. People who live as if leap without looking, believing that “it couldn’t happen to them”. They believe they are invincible. Bulletproof. They think there is little, if any, correlation between their choices and consequent events. That they’ll “be just fine”, because after all, haven’t they been hearing that “there was nothing to be afraid of” since they were itty-bitty little ones?

This thought came to me as I was talking with a friend about why I’m uncomfortable with some of the TV shows my kids want to watch. One in particular has increasingly included themes with ghosts and the forces of evil, and it shows in my boys’ play. That particular show is no longer allowed. I hadn’t quite nailed down why until I found myself blurting it to a friend: “It would be one thing if I could just pooh-pooh the show and say ‘oh, that’s not real’, but the danger for me here is that this show flirts with things that are really real and from which I want my kids to keep a healthy distance. It blurs the lines, and I feel like they’re becoming flippant about the existence of evil, as if you can flirt with really dark things and simply dispel them with a quick change into a brightly colored lycra suit and a ninja-move.”

In short, I want my kids to be a little afraid of evil, and many “hero shows” don’t respect that. For all the debacle about Harry Potter, I at least feel that it teaches a healthy respect for the dark side, whatever that may look like.

So yes, I want my kids to be a little fearful. Appropriately fearful. I want them to fear the spirit world enough to not mess around with Ouija boards when they are teens. I want them to fear my wrath enough not to play in the street… at least until they’re old enough to develop a fear of the injuries that car accidents can cause. I want them to fear death enough to not text while they drive. I want them to fear the sea enough to not try and swim against a rip tide.

A failure to fear things that really can hurt us is actually foolishness. And fearing—in the sense of a healthy-respect-for-our-vulnerability-to-powers-beyond-our-control —is the path to wisdom. I think that’s what the Bible means by the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom: not that we quake and cower before a mean and capricious God (for he is not like that), but we take it seriously that he is not to be trifled with. God–like fire, and the ocean—can be engaged with, and a source of joy and delight, but only if there’s a healthy respect… or fear… of how very vulnerable we are.

I’m not saying I want to raise fearful kids, where fear of loss or rejection or whatever becomes their anthem. Remember our friend Disgust from Inside Out? Disgust does important work in protecting us from poisonous snacks or scenarios (“eeeew. Eat THAT? No thank you.”) And Sadness? She is vital to our learning empathy and connection with people. As uncomfortable as anger, disgust, sadness, and fear may be – they serve an important purpose in teaching us to relate wisely to the world inside and the world out there.

So no, I don’t want fearless kids. I want kids just a little afraid of the really scary things out there, with the courage and wisdom to make better choices in the face of fear.

 

Image Credit: Fear/Juan Julbe (Flickr Creative Commons), edited by Bronwyn Lea

“Help, I’m jealous of my husband’s job”

I'm Jealous of my husband's job. Now what?

Dear Bronwyn,

I’m struggling with resentment about my husband’s frequent work trips. They’re often a week or more long, with mixed genders, and I struggle to keep my imagination under control. He is a loving husband and doesn’t seek out female colleagues as friends. He has told me this – and I trust him. Yet, when he is away, and I am left to normal life with young children, I can’t help but think he is off having a jolly time, making memories with everyone but me, and confiding in other people – I struggle with the idea of him having a “separate life” – a life where I, unless otherwise told, have no part of.

My husband does work hard to include me in his work life: I know more than many wives about what he does, who he works with, and he includes me where he can. It’s just when he goes away I become jaded and go into some kind of survival mode: I push away, resent, and think the worst. My husband is doing everything he can think of to help. My question is this: what can I do to combat these feelings?

Sincerely,

FOMO-Mama

Dear FOMama,
It sounds like there are a number of issues potentially at play here: wanting assurance about your husband’s affections, as well as some struggle with contentment and jealousy.
First: it sounds like you and your husband have a healthy marriage – you’re able to talk and are working hard to stay supportive and engaged in the other ones’ flourishing. That’s fantastic.
Having said that – travel for any extended period does put strains on a marriage. There are horrifying statistics about “the things that people get up to” on business trips, and so fears about sexual temptation and other excesses are not unwarranted. We have friends where the husband travels frequently and he requests that there be no TV in his hotel room wherever he travels (I’m sure the hotel staff *really* love this)… but it’s something he does for the sake of making sure there is no temptation there for him. If travel is a regular part of your husband’s job, I’m sure he has to think about ways to proactively protect your marriage while he’s away. That you can talk openly about this is important.
But I think this is really a deeper issue than a “can I trust my husband?” thing, since it seems you are more struggling with feeling left out/jealous of his opportunities, than really struggling with worry about his fidelity. I think that speaks more to a frustration about your current phase in life than specific jealousy about your husband. It’s his “freedom to go”, to stay out late if he wants to, to be ANYWHERE OTHER THAN HOME, to make friends etc, that shines a very bright light on some of the hardest things about motherhood… that being that life is just so. darn. continuous.
Remember when Fridays meant the end of the week? Ha, not so with moms.
Remember when weekends meant sleeping in? Not so with little ones.
Remember when eating out meant a meal free of issues? Not so with moms: either you’re wrangling people to just-sit-still at the table, or you’re bleeding from the nose with how much it costs to pay a babysitter. Tick tock. How long do we have?
Remember when someone asked you if you wanted to catch a movie, and you could say YES? Not anymore.
Remember when you had hobbies you liked to do after work? Not anymore: now there’s the carnage of cheerios and drool that comes after the kids are finally, finally asleep.
Remember when you used to do something and feel a sense of accomplishment that it was actually DONE? And sometimes people PAID you for it? Ha.
The life of a mom of small people is exhausting in physical and profoundly personal ways: for you work ALL DAY and it just gets undone by small people. What you tidy gets dumped out. What you clean gets smeared. What you fold gets worn. What you cook gets consumed, or worse yet – complained about and dumped on the floor.
Before I went on maternity leave, I supervised two interns. They came to visit me a few weeks after my eldest was born, and I was stunned to find I was insanely jealous of them describing the hum drum of making thousands of copies. I used to hate making copies, but all of a sudden I was crazy jealous of the fact that they had something to do which, at the end of their effort, would yield a VISIBLE PILE OF SOMETHING THAT HADN’T BEEN THERE BEFORE. Like real, genuine evidence of productivity. I was beside myself with jealousy. About stacks of colored paper.
And I felt SO pathetic realizing it. Because while my head told me *of course* it was worthwhile to be a Mom, I was still really grieving the loss of choices and efficiencies of my kid-free life, and when my husband worked late or went to a conference or my former intern made copies… I felt really crappy about my choice-less-ness and income-less-ness by comparison.
So how to get over that? Well, knowing what you’re dealing with helps… because maybe it means that what you need is not for your husband to travel less or have less fun when he does… but for you two to talk about what you might need to make space for you to have friends, or to take up a project that is not related to your kids. Would joining a book club help? Or an exercise class? When he’s home, would it help to have some “me time” scheduled in when you can take a couple of hours and go and enjoy brunch with a friend? I know these seem like small things, but I realized that adding few little things like that made the world of difference to me over time. I had become resentful that I could never take a nap. That I never got to eat hot food. That I wanted to talk to a friend somewhere other than in my house and holding a baby.
I hope I am not projecting my own experiences too much into your question here, but it does sound like you have two things going on:
1) wanting to be assured that you are your husband’s priority (and he’s working hard to show you that you are more important than his career), and
2) needing to be affirmed that you are still a PERSON, not just a domestic placeholder, and you need a work/rest/recreation balance, too. With the healthy sounding conversation that it sounds like you and your husband are able to have – maybe you could talk with him not so much about “how can I quash the feelings of jealousy?”, but “what is my jealousy telling me here?” Listen to what your jealousy is telling you about what you are needing to change in your own life, and maybe that will help you both to figure out some next steps.

All the best,

Bronwyn

 

Image Credit: Mish Sukharev – Revtank (Flickr Creative Commons), edited using Canva by moi.

Ask Me: How Can I Celebrate Easter With My Kids When I’m Away From Christian Community?

easter eggs

Dear Bronwyn,

We will be spending Easter with my husband’s family this year, and they are not believers. I usually go to church by myself with my child, but feel like this year it would be downright antisocial to leave the family on the first day we are there to try and find a suitable church service. I love them, but the thought of Easter just being about chocolate eggs, easter bunnies, and chicks makes me despair a little. Do you have any thoughts on how I might mark Good Friday and Easter away from my home and church in a way that is meaningful both for myself and my child?

Lenten-Mama

 

Dear LM,

If all of our children’s theological education rested on how well we celebrated the “holidays”, I think I would despair. I feel like I fight this practice all the time: decluttering the incarnation from Christmas-themed gift wrap, trying to remember death and hope in Easter amidst the chocolate. Even Thanksgiving feels like it has to fight its own battles to not become “Turkey-Day”. As a believer, I think much more of our theology is taught during the rest of the year as we read bible stories, attend church, and talk about the holidays than the actual days themselves. We wouldn’t want to put all our eggs in just one holiday basket, now would we?

That being said: those days do matter, and while you may not be able to attend a Maundy Thursday service, or take communion on Easter weekend, as you might like to, I would want a way to celebrate the season, too.

Here are a few thoughts:

We usually travel with one of our children’s bibles, and the Jesus Storybook Bible is one of our favorites. There are a selection of stories which you could space over Easter weekend, which might allow both you and your child to carry on your “regular bedtime routine” but include specific focus on Easter. Erin at Home With the Boys put together one Reading Plan for Easter Week from the JSBB which might work 🙂

Depending on your child’s specific age and interests, maybe there are activities you could do for each of the stories: draw a picture for Good Friday of the three crosses, a picture of the empty tomb for Sunday? Or, as one friend with LEGO enthusiast kids did, take enough LEGO to do a craft each day (build a series of crosses, a golgotha, have mini-figures tell the story, build a house where the disciples hide away in the upper room etc)? Play-Doh is another easily transportable option for you while traveling. Drawing, LEGO, or play doh are three things which wouldn’t raise eyebrows as being super-weird if you were visiting relatives, but you could probably have some good conversation over it. Here is a pic of the Easter montage we made out of Duplo last year: including Jesus (the figurine with the paper-towel outfit) being betrayed and arrested in the garden, the cross (lego plus playdoh) and the tomb. (I found a piece of gray cloth and took a few garden pebbles and we made Jesus “disappear” behind the shroud so that they found an empty tomb. It was SUPER cheesy but the kids loved it:

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VeggieTales has some really great Easter movies available on Amazon and Google Play. My husband and I both enjoy the silly sense of humor, and the real message of Easter is clear in each of them. Here are links to a few of them.

I reached out to Sarah Arthur, editor of the wonderful new Lenten reading guide Between Midnight and Dawn , and asked if she had any ideas for you. She suggested that you and your little one might enjoy the annual tradition of adding Resurrection Eggs to the egg hunt (if your husband was open to it). This would include one dozen plastic eggs (numbered 1-12), each of which includes 1 item that helps tell the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Sarah kindly offered a downloadable pdf with scriptures and instructions for our use: click to download Sarah Arthur’s  Resurrection Eggs guide.

Sarah also suggested that for your solo Lenten journey you might enjoy the app Pray as You Go. (Aside note: I think this is very modest of Sarah to suggest this, given that she’s the author of Lenten reading material herself! But if Sarah Arthur recommends it as a devotional guide, that’s a serious stamp of approval!)

I’ve written more about our approach to Easter with our kids here and here, although I haven’t quite faced the situation you’ve been in. I hope that with Sarah’s awesome download and some of the creativity and love I know you bring to your son, God will meet you and your child in a special way as you seek him this easter.

All the best,

Bronwyn