What Works.

Alright, ladies! Over the last few months, my blog has been an outlet for the things that weigh heavy on my heart or put pressure on my sense of justice. In perusing my series of blog posts, I realized that an outsider would probably think me to be a fairly angry, sad, lost human being. They would not be wrong. I am ALL of those things. Aren’t we all?

But, I am also quite joyous, passionate, fulfilled, well-loved, productive, and quick to laugh. To honor a more complete picture of my life, I thought for this month, I would turn the tables a bit. Like most single moms, and parents in general, I do struggle and worry - and even suffer. But like others, I have found many patterns, approaches, and tools that work really well to bring peace to my life! So, this month, let’s continue the conversation and community-building by sharing some tools for surviving and thriving in parenthood. Here are my top 8 parenting moves (in my humble opinion):

  1. Meal prep. I spend hours on Sundays prepping ALL of our meals for the week. You heard that right! I prep breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. This may sound arduous, but we’ve gotten it down to quite a science. My girls and I turn on some music and get to work. It is some of our most enjoyable time together and, during the week, it makes life infinitely easier. As much as I’d love to be the family that always sits down to dinner together, we cannot always make room for that ritual. But, with prepped meals, I know I won’t have to run to fast food or lose my mind making last-minute store trips. It is a HUGE stress and time saver during the week.

  2. Early bedtimes. My girls are 9 and 11. I put them to bed by 8pm. Many of my mom friends scoff at this, but for us, it is essential. All 3 of us have busy days. Getting them in bed by 8 pm ensures that their bodies are at least at rest, even if they don’t knock out right at 8 pm, for 8-10 hours. This level of attention to their sleep makes for much smoother days for them and gives me some time at the end of the day to spend in much-needed solitude.

  3. Being active. Being a parent, let alone a single parent, is stressful by nature. Stress breeds sickness in the body, so we try to guard against that with healthy bodies (and minds). My girls play sports year-round, and I make it a point to be active with them. We are not gym rats, and we don’t ever talk about things like weight or physical appearance, we simply prioritize an active lifestyle. This facilitates better sleep, builds confidence, and creates an organic social network. More importantly, it keeps the kids interested in pursuits that do not require a screen.

  4. Open and honest conversations. This is the most controversial of my perspectives on parenting. But here’s the thing, I’ve only ever yelled at my kids twice in nearly 12 years (once when I had a concussion and once when my youngest drank the last of the milk I needed for my coffee – both totally ridiculous). I think a big part of why my kids are so well behaved is the fact that we talk so often and so openly that they know they will have a chance to productively plead their side of any disagreement. I’ve also never played the “because I said so” card. Being honest means explaining my own reasoning which makes them feel more respected and considered than like a cog in an authoritative machine. Honestly, I also think that my incessant talking is likely more tortuous than a few moments being yelled at would be.

  5. Healthy eating. Along with activity, expressing my love for my kids through the way that I nourish them has become a preventative regimen in our household. When I was married, there was much less emphasis on nutrition, and that made the entire schedule more difficult to stick to. Finding the right balance of nutrients for their individual needs (growth, sleep, digestion, activity type, and level) really has been life-changing. When they spend time away from me with a different diet, the change in them is visible. They come home with bags under their eyes, their fuses are a bit shorter, they are more inclined to gravitate towards television, and less inclined to fall asleep peacefully.

  6. Community. Parenting is exhausting in every way imaginable and in ways you never could have imagined. While it is important to know that we are capable of doing things alone, it is even more important to remember that we don’t always have to. Community is the tool that I struggle with the most. It is hard for me to ask for help. I still sometimes ask and then curl up into a little ball of shame. It is true that asking for help parenting can cost you some “friends.” But, the network that is built when you invite people into your vulnerability is worth losing the ones who only want to be around when it is easy. The nagging pain of an absent parent or a broken family will never truly go away, but it can be eased by new people who will love your kids in their own ways. I am working hard to build love where there is pain. So far, I have to say that it is a pretty beautiful thing to watch. The more people to love our kids, the better, right?

  7. Chucking it all out the window sometimes! Rules are great. Tools are helpful. But dealing with humans is not formulaic and sometimes approaches that have worked for years will fail us when we most need them. So, the most important thing is to remember that it is ok to make it up as you are going along. Forgive yourself and your kid for deviations from the charted course. Be flexible when it is needed without having a parental identity crisis. And remember, if you are leading with #8, grace is waiting to catch you when you stumble.

  8. Putting God first. I know, I know. This should obviously be number one. I chose to put it near the end because I thought it made sense to progress from the least important to the most. Life is brutal. Our kids will experience loss, disappointment, and pain. They will inhabit a world that prescribes many different sets of rules, from school to friend groups to jobs. It is so hard to make sense of it all. For me, giving my girls something as unfailing and never changing as the love of Jesus is the way to make sure that they always see their own value and the value of others.  I want them to make decisions based upon what is right, not what is cool. I want them to strive to be like Jesus, not some celebrity. I want them to treat others with love because we are all God’s children, not fear others because of the (mis)perceptions and prejudices surrounding earthly bodies. Proverbs 22:6 tell us to “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” This, for my family, is everything.

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I know that every family is unique and that what works for me may not work for others. I do, however, think it is important that we share with each other when we find tools that works for us. So often, out of necessity, conversations between single mothers are about the ways in which we are struggling. Those conversations are so important. But, what if we could be intentional about having more of the conversations about what is making our lives easier and more joy-filled? Maybe if we (really, I am looking at myself here) took the time to have these conversations more often, we would ward off just a little bit of the need for those heavier conversations. We are, truly, in this together. So, please share with me! What works in your life?

A. Smith

We’ve Got to Start Talking

Recently, I realized something about my kids that I was only able to realize after prolonged exposure to a multitude of other kids in a school setting: My kids are incredibly well-behaved. I’ve received this sentiment as a compliment many times over the years – “Your kids are so respectful,” “Your girls are so nice,” “Seriously, your kids never misbehave.” The last sentiment is not entirely accurate, they are only human. But, the truth is, their behavior is top notch, and it is something I take pride in as a busy, working, single mother.

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After stumbling into this new level of awareness, I started to ask myself why my kids are so well behaved. I am not a perfect mom. I don’t really do discipline well at all. I once tried to spank my youngest and I ended up laying on the floor, a giant wad of regret and tears…before I could even spank her. I just don’t have it in me to do much more than the oft-criticized “time out.” Am I just lucky? Is it just grace-filled happenstance that my kids did not prove true the commonplace that you will see your own childhood behavior revisited upon you in your children? These questions swirled in my head for days, before my youngest provided the answer.

As one component of my job, I teach argument and advocacy to elementary school students after school. Last week, I looked over and saw my youngest (who really struggles with academics) mentoring a young boy (one of the sharpest in the program) on constructive language. “How do you know all of this stuff?,” he asked. “I’ve been around this my whole life. It is all we do,” she replied. Ding! Ding! Ding! This was my light bulb moment! My kids are not extra eager to show respect, follow rules, or talk things out because they are amazing Superchildren. Nope, they do it because it is the only way they know.

This interaction, in addition to bringing me a new understanding of their behavioral choices, brought to mind discussions with other parents regarding the role of talk in their families. So often, I hear, “They are too young to talk about that,” “That is not an appropriate topic,” or “That is too political for them at this age.” My girls used to hear that too. Thankfully, they are too young to remember.  I, being foolishly assured of my own open-mindedness since birth, used to be in the camp of parents who put off topics like racism, sexism, problems with our government, and violence for the later years, when they could, you know, “really understand.”

Then, something happened. It is something that I share often with my students in discussions of privilege. My 4 year old daughter (who is biracial) had an acute and aggressive interaction with a racist preschool teacher that was so harmful that the woman was fired. That incident changed my thinking about talking to kids, forever. It was the day I realized that neither my comfort nor my arbitrarily assigned age-appropriate designation were relevant to the lives my girls were leading. It was because of that incident that I stopped isolating my debate skills to use in competitions for self-edification or the approval of peers. On that day, I realized that everything I taught to students about debate, dialogue, and advocacy was near-meaningless when confined to academia. Having the tools to talk to others and really listen changes the way that children feel about themselves and others. It builds self-respect. It humanizes. It is uncomfortable. It is necessary, if for no other reason than to give children the confidence to put themselves in uncomfortable situations, to surround themselves with difference, and feel equipped to navigate the seemingly intractable without resorting to violence or isolation.

Most parents realize pretty quickly that children learn more from our behavior than from our instructions. If we want to create a world in which people talk to each other, like really talk with respect and honesty, then we have to model that. We cannot cordon off honest dialogue and critical thinking to “adult only spaces,” because that means we are not modeling the behavior for our kids and we are not giving them the respect they need to receive in order to establish a baseline of respect that they must demand for themselves throughout their lives.

In my home, there is no topic that is off-limits. Seriously. Because this issue of failure to talk is not just about what we do with one another as adults, it is about how we engage our children. Need to ask about sex? Ok, let’s do it. Want to ask what an “inappropriate” word means? No fake stories here. Do you feel like asking about school shootings? Yes, let’s have that conversation. There is only one guideline: a shared understanding that we will listen to one another and respond in a way that values one another as human beings, even if we disagree.

I think we really need to reframe the way that so many of us think about talking to kids and specifically when it comes to talking to them about uncomfortable subjects. Instead of thinking about it as ruining their childhood, we need to think about it as giving them the strength, tools and information to navigate their childhood. Because the reality is, these “adult” issues affect them. As parents, we hate that. We want to the world to be perfect. It is not. Our job is help our kids make sense of the real world, the one they actually live in, where bad things do happen. The way the scary parts/people/systems of this world interact with kids in particular demands several discussions that allow them to develop the proper lexicon to explain the way that these things impact them.

And, if the first thought that pops into your head is, “X issue doesn’t affect my kid so it can be off limits for now,” I encourage you to take a moment to be deeply introspective about what that says to your kids. I’ll be clear: What it says is that the topic is not relevant to their lives because it is someone else’s problem. If you make the decision to create that bubble around your child, please keep in mind that empathy is modeled before it is induced. It may be easier now, but when kids have a hard time seeing their classmates (or even their teachers) as worthy of respect and kindness later, remember that those walls were not built overnight.

How can children find the real beauty amidst the chaos of life, in God’s masterpiece, in a deep and genuine way, if they are not existing in the real world? God did not ask us to raise our children up in comforting lies. No, He asked us to please him through righteous lips that speak honestly (Proverbs 16:13).

Here is where I started. Whenever I am hesitant to talk to my children about something, I pause and ask myself the following questions:

Does my discomfort stem from my privilege? (It doesn’t affect me directly so, I can put it off or ignore it all together.)

Does my discomfort come from a lack of knowledge on the subject?

Is my discomfort born of fear?

If the answer to ANY of those questions is “yes,” then I know I must talk about it with my kids. Of course, from a place of respect for who they are, their cognitive capabilities, and their needs.

We cannot concoct a fairy tale world for our kids and then lament their inability to cope, to be resilient, to behave in ways that are both socially appropriate and kind, to listen to authority (or anyone for that matter), or to trust us to help them navigate their paths. The thing is, we should absolutely be uncomfortable talking about important topics. We should engage in reflection before certainty, and then more reflection.

We have to be willing to take the time think about our words, to have difficult discussions even if that means sacrificing some of the schedule, and to stop shutting our kids down in the name of our own comfort. Our kids are watching, listening, and reproducing our behaviors. When we shut them down, they learn it is ok to be shut down and to shut down others. When we refuse to talk about important subjects because they don’t matter yet or don’t affect us, they learn that the problems of others don’t matter until their comfort level is met. If we want kids to show respect and to embody self-respect, we have to remember that the foundation for that is how we communicate with them.

 

-A. Smith