Sunday, September 28, 2014

Why My Boys Play with Guns

Front Yard Defensive Positions
O.k., clearly I mean toy guns. I do not have small children running around with loaded firearms. Not even I'm that distracted of a parent.

No, I'm talking about how we let our boys use imaginary/toy weapons in their pretend play. When our only child was a daughter, this was a non-issue. I'm not prepared to argue nature vs. nurture on the topic, but our reality was that our girl was the princess-iest princess you ever saw at the age of 4 and each one of our boys has turned a wrapping paper roll into a sword suddenly and without warning.

I am not all that girly of a girl and my husband, while a sports fanatic, is a pretty mild-mannered software consultant. I am not traipsing around in heels and pearls and he isn't walking through the living room with a rifle thrown over a shoulder. And yet our kids, especially between the ages of 3 and 6, have been some of the most sexist people on the planet. Everything is about what "boys" or "girls" do. Even when we explain that boys can wear whatever color they want or that girls can also be President (theoretically, thus far), they are still really interested in what they perceive to be boy or girl activities. In little boy world, that includes a lot of fighting bad guys.

At first I was kind of horrified. My sweet, lovable oldest boy began shooting at random things with his fingers. We did not own any kind of toy weapons (not even water guns) and the only TV he watched was on PBS. Where in the world did finger guns come from? I still don't know, but that really didn't turn out to be the point.

I had a few fears. I was worried that if they had toy guns they might mistake a real gun for a toy somewhere (a relative or friend's house) and think that seemed like a just another toy. I was worried that all this sword fighting and shooting bad guys might lead them to be overly aggressive or angry or...I don't know, mass-murder-y. I was worried that they would get in trouble at school for pretending to shoot someone.

After a while, and the addition of a couple more boys, I began to realize some answers to my fears. Weapons are going to be interesting to little boys whether or not I have any toy ones in the house. They imagine weapons out of everything.  If you look closely at the picture above you can see that the boys are armed with binoculars, a wiffle bat, and a lavender Little Tykes golf club. I needed to talk about gun safety even if I have no intention of ever owning a weapon because things that shoot projectiles are just inherently cool to most guys. Hence potato cannon competitions.

I became a lot less worried about raising crazy anti-social leaders of a private militia when I listened to how they play. They are always going after "bad guys." They pretend to be policemen or soldiers or "good pirates" (although I have explained that there is no such thing, they are brainwashed by Jake and the Neverland Pirates). I know that there are complex geo-political issues that prevent all soldiers from doing "good" work. I know that there are bad cops and systemic socio-economic disparities that are reinforced by some current methods of police work. But my boys don't know any of that.

They believe that "good" countries fight "good" wars and that because policemen are supposed to be the good guys, they are good men who do not make mistakes.  They will learn shades of gray as they age, but for now they are playing heroes. Just like they pretend to be the Green Lantern and the Flash, they pretend to rid the world of evildoers by arresting them or invading with tanks made out of cardboard boxes. Do I really want to discourage their desire to pursue justice?

Fortunately, my school fear has, so far, turned out to be not as big of a deal as I thought. My boys have been told not to play pretend guns at school. They don't really understand why, but they don't understand a lot of grown-up rules and so they accept it.

Policeman Self Portrait
One of my guys wants to be a policeman when he grows up (doesn't really suit his temperament, but I don't have the heart to tell him). His Kindergarten art project was to make a picture of himself dressed as his future career. You can see in his picture that he has handcuffs (green blob on the left), a nightstick (brown hot-dog thing), a walkie-talkie (green rectangle with dots on the right) and a jaunty hat. He did not paint a gun because "you can't have guns at school."  You also can't have toys at school, gum at school, or flip-flops at school. He just goes with it.

I realized that the bigger deal was how I respond to the "violence" they use in their play. I don't let them shoot at me, each other, or other random bystanders. I tell them that good guys should not shoot first (obviously that's an oversimplification, but they are little). Mostly, I tell them that we only use force to protect ourselves or someone who needs our help.

That's really the key and the reason I let them play like this at all--they are always pretending that they are protecting others. I don't want them starting fights or glorifying violence, but I absolutely want them to feel a responsibility to defend the weak and take care of those who cannot do it themselves.

These little boys will be men with resources and influence in our society. While most men don't use physical force in their daily lives, they do have opportunities to be heroes with their time, money, and political motives. They will have the chance to do justice often and I want them to believe that that's what heroes fight for.

I want my boys to believe they can BE those heroes with whatever tools they have in their arsenals--their votes, their dollars, and maybe even a wiffle bat.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Stay on Your Horse

My parents apparently watched a lot of Westerns growing up because their advice frequently took the form of sage wisdom you might get from a cowboy. In fact, my mother's favorite movie line is from a 1970 Western/comedy mash-up called The Ballad of Cable Hogue. It goes like this:

Reverend Joshua Sloane: Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord.
Cable Hogue: Well, that's fair enough with me... just as long as he don't take too long and I can watch.

It's amazing I'm as well adjusted as I am. 

So I got advice like "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink" and "if you fall off your horse, you get right back on." I have ridden a horse maybe...twice? my life. Why so many horse-related sayings?  I have no idea. I guess it worked, though, because not only do I remember them, I've been thinking a lot about this next one lately.

You can't change horses mid-stream.

Honestly, I don't know if you can change horses mid-stream or not. It seems difficult, but not totally impossible.  There might be swimming involved.  But I get the idea--if you start out on a journey with one mode of transportation it is going to be incredibly difficult to change your mind without getting really, really wet. 

I try to keep this in mind in my parenting. Sure, I have the freedom to change my mind or course-correct if I discover a particular tactic not working with my kids, but it is a lot easier to start out as I mean to go on. Excuse my dorky history self, but it reminds me of a little-known period of African history that has been all but forgotten in modern curricula.

In the 1800s, after several European nations had conquered almost all of the continent of Africa, there was a period of uprisings of native groups of people. These groups managed to re-take their land and rule themselves freely, for however brief a time. When taken together, these successful rebellions are called the "Reclamation."  People groups who had fought against each other for generations came together to throw off their English, Dutch, German, Italian, and French oppressors.  

The Reclamation was a time of increased national identity for Africans that reflected the nationalistic fervor being experienced in Europe, particularly in what would become the modern nations of Germany and Italy. So why didn't it last? It didn't last because the newly formed nations that centered themselves around a sense of national unity couldn't hold fast to that course of action. They decided, mid-stream, to separate into a loose and fragmented confederation of sorts which allowed the Europeans to reassert their dominance. You can't change your horse mid-stream.

O.k., that was a lie. That whole thing about the Reclamation. That's not a thing. It didn't happen and is totally made up. I have to give props to Dave Boyd, a former co-worker and fellow World History teacher, for that entire spurious history lesson. A decade or so ago, Dave mentioned to me that so few people knew anything about history that we could make up an entire unit of study and not only convince our students, but probably quite a few teachers as well. 

And not to sound too terribly arrogant, but Dave and I are both....let's go with "confident." If the two of us had sworn up and down that these events happened, other people would have followed our lead without doing their own research. It just sounds so reasonable, doesn't it? It could have happened that way. There were facts (fake ones, but still) and sources that seemed trustworthy.

Here's the thing: to my children, the ENTIRE WORLD sounds like that. They can be convinced of almost anything if it's said in a reasonable voice by someone whose motives are not obviously clear. That's why it is my job, even when it causes awkward conversations, to tell my kids what I actually think about things in the world. It is my job to offer real guidance and guidelines while they're still listening to me.

When I was teaching I got an invaluable opportunity to observe a variety of parenting styles on hundreds of different personality types. One thing I noticed was that the parents who said "I don't want to influence their thinking" wound up with kids who were desperate to follow someone else. I know that those parents were attempting to empower their children to have their own thoughts and to make up their own minds about controversial topics--religion, sex, drug use, and political choices, for instance.

Their unintended results, however, were kids who thought they had the experience and information needed to make very adult decisions on their own. Most teenagers will go through that phase, but the ones with parents who had a clear moral point of view at least knew that Mom and Dad would not approve of a particular behavior and therefore had a guardrail of sorts.

I don't want to brainwash my children into weird zombies who cannot think for themselves, but it is my responsibility to help them navigate a world where everything--from middle-school-aged sex to recreational crystal meth use--can be made to sound reasonable to their not-yet-developed minds. They need to know that I have a point of view, why I have that point of view, and that I am living that point of view daily.

And that brings my two ideas together. I need to get across my belief system and moral standards, but if I wait until they are faced with these decisions and then try to explain it all, I'm not going to have much credibility with them. I'm going to be trying to change horses mid-stream and we will all get very wet.

So I'm trying to be aware and ready for all those "teachable" moments in their lives. When I get asked questions about Red Ribbon Week at school, I throw in there that any drug that alters your mind can do damage. I point out that even mild ones can sort of "freeze" a kid's brain development and their future ability to make good decisions.  Maybe I'm the crazy mom giving her 4th grader too much information on the legalization of marijuana, but I'd rather be crazy than blindsided when my kid is taking hits in the bathroom at school. 

When we saw pictures of Angelina Jolie's wedding dress and my daughter wanted to know who the kids were who drew on it, we wound up talking about how big of a commitment children are and that it is much easier to raise them with a husband first. There are actual reasons we value marriage so very much and not just an outmoded sense of convention.  

These are little things, but they will matter. When I use these opportunities to share my world view, and why I hold those views, I help my children navigate future situations where the stakes may be very high indeed. I become someone trustworthy, a voice worth listening to, and the giver of advice worth internalizing and even sharing with others.

How do I know this has a chance of working? Because that's what my mom did--with humor, and grace, and a lot of stories about horses. Let's be bold, let's be intentional, and let's all stay on our horses. When it comes to parenting our sweet children, we don't really have a choice.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Never Forget

This morning, like every morning, we talked about what day it is on the way to school. Like, "today is Monday, October 5th", or whatever.

Except this morning it happens to be September 11th. Like many Americans, when I say that date out loud my voice changes just a little bit. Because I remember. Because it was scary and confusing and just plain horrible.

So this morning, when I said it is Thursday, September 11th, my voice got sad. My 9-year-old daughter sat up straighter in the car and said, "Oh, I know what happened! Can I tell everybody else?"

I told her yes and she proceeded to explain that "bad guys" stole some planes and crashed them into the "twin buildings" and maybe another plane tried to hit the Pentagon. Fairly accurate, but not quite it.

I was torn between my history teacher tendencies to tell the whole story, the fact that I didn't want to scar the kids and then shove them out of the car to school, and my belief that we should talk about our history (especially the painful and scary parts) with our younger generations.

I felt the weight of responsibility to explain this moment accurately, but with perspective little kids could understand.

On September 11, 2001 I was a 25-year-old teacher in Raleigh, North Carolina. I taught 10th grade World History, but I also taught Sociology and Psychology to two 12th grade classes. During class change, one of my seniors came up and said that a plane had hit the World Trade Center and she wanted to know if we could watch it on our classroom TV until the bell rang.

"Sure", I replied, thinking that this was like other times that small engine planes had hit one of the towers in New York. Interesting, but not intensely relevant.

And then, of course, the second one hit. And then Tom Brokaw told me they were passenger planes. And the towers collapsed. And the Pentagon exploded. And then I realized that we were under attack in a way that I, in my American naivete, had never even thought to fear.

I let my senior classes watch the whole thing unfold, thinking that as 18-year-old young men and women, they had a right to know what was changing in the world. One boy asked if this would mean the draft came back. One kid whose dad was flying out of Boston that day asked if I could hear the flight numbers of the aircraft.  A recent immigrant from Palestine said that she didn't see what the big deal was--buildings were bombed by terrorists all the time.

I pointed out that no where in the world did 110-story buildings collapse all the time and that, in the United States, terrorist attacks were pretty big news. I felt that same weight I felt this morning. To be accurate, to give solid information without inciting hate or backlash towards others, but to get across what was happening. Honestly, it wasn't easy in a class with a kid whose grandparents had fled the Holocaust, the jaded kid from Palestine, and a couple of other immigrants from Iran. Not to mention the kids who thought this seemed like a good reason to buy more guns.

I took copious notes during my lunch period over whatever I could find about al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and why people would kill themselves to destroy office buildings.  At the start of every class period over the next few weeks we had a brief "here's what's new" time to discuss the history that was happening in that very moment. I think I did a pretty good job of conveying significance and awareness of world events without scaring them into hiding in their houses forever. But it was hard and I was uncertain.

So, how do I talk about it with my own kids now--13 years after the raw, painful moments changed our view of what war is?

My children actually already have a decent context for 9/11 because their uncle is a soldier. We have had to explain numerous times over the years why their aunt is here for Christmas or Thanksgiving, but their uncle is away "at the war." We say that there are bad people in the world who try to hurt others and that our soldiers go fight them in other countries so that they can't come here.

It is a gross oversimplification, of course, but there's not a whole lot else to say to little children when they love a soldier who is actually in the fight.

In the first deployment during which my daughter was old enough to notice, I mentioned to our pediatrician that I didn't know what to tell her. He asked, "are you a religious family?" "Yes," I said. "Then just have her pray for him."

What great advice. What an obvious solution that I already knew in my head and my heart.  My children are so blessed that they cannot understand the kind of hate that would cause someone to train for their own suicide, taking out as many civilians as possible in the process. I have had to define the word "war" on many occasions. There is no way that I can adequately explain to them what happened on that other September 11th.

But I can tell my kids that we should pray. For the families who lost loved ones in 2001. For the soldiers who are still fighting this fight on a daily basis. For the firemen and policemen who risk themselves every day for us. And even for the "bad guys" who, somewhere along the way, lost their compassion and their humanity.

As they get older we can also pray for our government's decisions in other countries, for opportunities to make the world a more peaceful place, and for understanding of people desperate and disillusioned enough to choose suicide bombing as a solution for societal problems.

I hope that I am not too forthright with my answers to their questions--I certainly don't want them to fear terrorist attacks in their beds at night. But I do want them to know that the whole world is not as wonderful as the one they live in. I want them to know that bad people exist in the midst of complex political and economic challenges--and that we can be part of the solutions. I want them to pray--and to never forget. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Tip #195: More peace, less quiet

My house is not very quiet. So far this morning I have been yelled at by a toddler who demanded "lights on" at 6:30, there was a sword fight using a pool noodle and a cardboard cut-out, and a "snuggle time" that mostly involved boys shoving each other and giggling.  And this is a holiday.

So quiet, not so much. But peaceful--now that's a different topic.

The other day I was having coffee with a younger friend without children. She asked how the school year was going so far and if we had gotten back into the groove of activities and homework and such. I replied that things were going really well and that, in fact, our mornings and afternoons were...I paused here, not sure what word fit our lives in this moment.

"Peaceful?", she asked.

I laughed out loud and said, "Well, I'm not so sure about that, but our routine is going really well."

Every morning, by 7:20 am, all six of us have dressed, brushed our teeth, eaten breakfast at an actual table, packed snacks and/or lunches, put on shoes, and gotten into the car. Without yelling.

Every night, by 7:30 pm, all four of our kids have finished their homework, eaten dinner, bathed, brushed their teeth, had family prayer time, and gotten into their beds. Still no yelling.

Clearly, I am a parenting genius.

O.k, maybe that is not the most obvious conclusion, but I sometimes wish that it were that simple.

Actually, as I've had a little time to think about what we are doing differently this year I have come to the conclusion that our house is, in fact, peaceful.  When my friend suggested that word I was equating peaceful with boring or quiet or calm--none of which describe the happy chaos of four kids under 10 years old.

We are not experiencing that kind of peace. What we do have, however, is a set of expectations and routines that are making it a lot easier to get the business of home life accomplished with more room for sword fights and Lego time and the design and creation of three thousand rubber-band bracelets.

So, where is all this super-awesome peace coming from, you ask? (I totally understand if you asked that in a snotty, 12-year-old-girl kind of a voice. I'm not mad at you.)

Here's what I've come up with as the major contributing factors to our more peaceful daily life:

1. Established routine

This is not ground breaking or anything, but it matters so much. I realized that some of the biggest fights I had with my kids were because they had one plan and I had another one. So I work to make sure that our expectations match up to encourage less conflict.

Our kids know what happens next on any given school/work day. They get up, go to the bathroom, get dressed, and brush their teeth all before heading to breakfast. (I know, they would be better off brushing after breakfast, but if I let them go back upstairs I would never see them again--this is a hard-earned lesson. So I'm risking their dental health.)

They do not get food until all of these things are accomplished. I run the upstairs crew, getting everyone moving in the right direction while Jay goes downstairs and makes breakfast and gets it on the table.  They have all of their "must-dos" accomplished before they're really awake--which is good because they argue less when they're half asleep.

Our afternoons and evenings run in the reverse. They do homework and have a snack as soon as they get home. If a kid doesn't have homework I make something up so that everyone is doing the same thing at the same time. When a kid finishes their work, they can go play. When everyone is finished they can play or watch a TV show (I usually reserve TV for when I'm making dinner so there is less whining and begging for food while I cook). They know well in advance if they have a practice or a lesson or something that day and no one is stunned by a sudden shift in the schedule. They just complain less that way.

2. A place for everything

We also spent a lot of time arguing about finding shoes or picking out appropriate outfits, cleaning up their toys, and getting all their school stuff ready in the morning. While I am pretty good at being organized, I do not have the time or inclination to constantly clean my house and hunt down 12 individual shoes every morning. So we have finally settled into some options that work for us as a family and that the kids can do themselves.

For instance, toys stay in their rooms or in our family room. There is a giant cabinet in the family room where any toys found there at the end of the day are stored. The kids, even the two-year-old, can pick up any toys they see and put them away in the cabinet. It is easy and they know where toys go. They have similar bin/cabinet solutions in their rooms so that they can clean up after themselves without my help. Sure, it takes for-freakin'-ever when they do it themselves, but it gets done eventually. And no one has any fun until it is all done. Honestly, this usually results in the older ones herding the younger ones into helping at this point in our family. When they were all younger it took more time and attention on my part.

All shoes go in a basket by our door. You get to keep your tennis shoes and a pair of flip-flops in there. (This is the South so flip flops are a 9-month kind of a shoe. Sometimes even 10 months if December turns out to be mild.) Other shoes are worn rarely and stay in their closets. Their instructions when they get home are to go to the bathroom and take off their shoes. Everyone, even baby Jack, knows this routine and they all do it pretty regularly. So, no more shoe hunts in the mornings.

Shoe Basket-close is good enough
Clothes are identified as either school appropriate or play clothes--if you pick a top and a bottom from the school appropriate categories then I do not argue about what you wear. Even if it doesn't match, although I will point that out. Even if you will be hot/cold, even though I will point that out as well. The kids decide pretty quickly to take my advice or leave it. No more dressing fights.

We have a bench with hooks above it where all backpacks and coats go. No backpacks or coats go anywhere else. All the kids can reach the hooks and the bench. Backpacks are put on the bench and are ready for school for the next day before dinner (or baseball practice or whatever for that night). All they have left to do in the morning is put in the snacks we hand them and pick up their lunch box if they are taking their lunch.

3. My adjusted attitude

I realized that a lot of our daily stresses were due to my expectations and the complete unrealistic nature of those expectations. I tend to think that it all has to be perfect all of the time. All beds made, all toys always picked up, all of us calmly moving toward our day filled with joy and energy. Some days are like that. But other days have a sick kid or a stressful meeting at work to look forward to or a new baby who likes to poop out of his clothes after you've buckled him into his car seat. That's what real life looks like.

I, over the last year, have really focused on being more patient with my children. I have focused on seeing my instructions through their eyes and seeing myself that way as well. I have realized that they will not remember if all the toys were picked up--they will remember that I smiled at them every morning. Sometimes, it doesn't all get done. Sometimes, if I think we've all had a particularly tiring day, I let things slide and we climb into unmade beds with visible Legos on the floor. That's o.k. We can still be peaceful and a little messy just like we can be peaceful and a lot loud.

4. Better anticipation of exceptions

I used to be totally blindsided by mornings with hiccups in them. When Jay is at work early or out of town, for instance, I used to expect to be able to get the same morning routine accomplished without him. Sometimes I can, but sometimes you get cold cereal for breakfast in the car on the way to school and you're buying your lunch. And your snack because I forgot that, too. Maybe your teacher has an extra--I'll send her two to replace her stash tomorrow.

I have one kid who wakes up hard. There could be an earthquake and a helicopter collision above our house at the same time and this kid would sleep through it. Most days it doesn't matter at all, but then there have also been days that resulted in me physically dressing the kid myself in an effort to move more quickly. It generally just made the whole situation worse and did not make anything move faster, especially not said child.

It turns out, however, that over the course of a few painful years, I noticed that these weren't totally random events sent to harass me. The kids have a harder time remembering what to do when Daddy is gone. It throws them off their game. I need to get up earlier for that so we have extra time. My slow-to-wake-up kid has a harder time the morning after baseball or soccer practice so he gets a few minutes of extra snuggling before any instructions on those days and magically returns to his sweet self.

What seemed like totally random melt-downs by irrational beings now look more like the frustrated expressions of people who were confused or surprised when they woke up.  Sometimes they still show all the rational behavior of Yosemite Sam on a bad acid trip, but most of the time I can figure out what is really wrong and course correct before it spirals out of control.

And when I can't...when I have to manhandle a toddler into a five-point harness while dragging three backpacks and a half eaten bagel smeared with dripping honey to the car, I pray.

And that's really where our more-peaceful daily lives are coming from. I am more peaceful. I am more willing to get out of the way of God's plan for my life and my family and to allow that kind of peace--the peace of love and joy and grace--to flow through me and over my sweet kiddos.

Even when they're messy. Even when they're loud. Even when they're crazy.

Hope you've had a peaceful Labor Day weekend--happy four-day week!