The Parenting Dare: “We give parents the words” to arm their kids against porn

 
Last week, mother-and-son team Lori and Eric Doerneman released The Parenting Dare, an online video course designed to help parents and kids work together to resist pornography.
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Lori told me:
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This isn’t your typical “Porn is bad and you shouldn’t look”-type of course. We address our broken nature and we clearly show God’s plan of life and love. We talk about why they will be attracted to porn, but that it’s just a trap. We hit that concept pretty hard. We want to dissect the lie and showcase the truth.
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Lori has a degree in education and several years’ experience teaching, and speaking for Project Freedom, a program promoting chastity geared toward eighth graders and their parents. Eric is the oldest of the eight Doerneman children.
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Here is our conversation about The Parenting Dare. My questions are in bold.
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Lori, when we met a few years ago a the Catholic Family Conference in Kansas, you were writing a blog called “Prayer and Duct Tape.” Can you explain that title?
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Lori: I wanted it to be a Catholic blog but without too pious of a title. We had duct tape all over our house. Also, my bra was held together with duct tape at my wedding! Like prayer, it holds us together.
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Eric, you’re pretty open about your own struggles with porn addiction. What happened?
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Eric: We were super Catholic, hitting all the spiritual nails on the head, praying the rosary a lot, going to Mass every Sunday. One summer, I served at Mass every day. Mom was killing the spiritual aspect. But she completely missed the physical aspect.
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Lori: I thought talking about porn would ruin his innocence, and I wanted to keep him innocent.
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Eric: In 5th and 6th grade, I started looking at pictures on internet, masturbating and looking at porn consistently. Mom walked in on me one time, and from, there we always had a bit of a back and forth conversation. I wasn’t always transparent, but through that, we always had a real relationship.
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Lori: I want to talk to my kids, intentionally building a relationship so they will trust me.
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Eric: I told my friends my mom was helping me through it. Initially, they freaked out, but then they thought it was cool. They could never talk to their parents.
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So where did you go from there?
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Lori: The most of the year it took to get him out of porn startled me. Once he finally got out, it was through [an understanding of] the science of what was happening in his brain.
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Eric: I tried [to stop] throughout high school and college. I knew it was immoral, but I couldn’t stop. It wasn’t until college that I said, “I’m actually addicted.” After college, mom kept hounding me. She got me a book [Pornography Addiction: Breaking the Chains] which taught me about the science, and I got a good grasp on what was happening to me.
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What made you think not only of helping your kid, but trying to help other kids and other parents?
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Lori: I changed my parenting through the course helping Eric. I have five sons, and I know I have a lot to offer to other parents.  So I thought, “I want to offer an online course.” Parents need to acknowledge that porn is stealing the hearts of their kids. So we called it “The Parenting Dare.”
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Eric surprised the crap out of me by saying, “You’d suck at doing this alone. I want to do this with you.”
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Eric: We’re daring you to take your blinders off. It’s a hard course. We’re funny, but it’s not tutti frutti. It’s not Pinterest-y.
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Lori: We have made the Gospel too easy. Kids want to do something heroic with their lives.
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Tell me a little bit about what your program offers.
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Eric: There are five main sections of the course, called “modules,” and each one has videos in it, anywhere from seven to ten minutes long. The first module is background, stuff you need to know about us, and then some concepts covered in the course: the four levels of happiness, the brain and addiction, and your belief system.
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Lori: Module Three covers kids age zero to five, to get moms keyed in, and to get them to discuss things openly, like, “That’s your penis!” We get them to establish themselves as an authority.
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“The sex talk” is not a talk, it’s a continual conversation. It starts from a young age: how beautiful your body is, how awesome God is that He created this. This makes it easier to have conversations about sex, porn, lust and love.
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The best addiction is one that never starts. That means we target parents of young kids. In the last three modules, we discuss the parents as the general contractors of their home. The foundation is the understanding of god, and we describe different parts of the “house.”
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The biggest module is the fifth one, for ages eleven to fourteen. As kids mature, we get into bigger concepts. We talk about love versus lust, and about puberty. It helps them be warriors. We talk about understanding the science of porn addiction and help them reject it.
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Eric: We give parents the words to say.
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Lori:  The course is very practical. We address girls sending nudes. I interviewed lots of college girls, and I give them things to say when someone asks for nudes, so they don’t commit social suicide.
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People who enroll are entitled to any updates that will come in the future. Technology is always changing, so is this one of the parts you see yourself updating?
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Lori: Yes. Module Two is about how to protect electronics in your home and your phones. People will buy, for instance, Covenant Eyes, but they don’t install it. We hold their hands, step by step, click by click.
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Why a mother-and-son approach?
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Eric: That’s just how it worked out in our family. In a lot of families, the kids spend more time with mom, and mom has a lot more time to mold the kids.
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Lori: Women use more words, too. But throughout the course, we say this isn’t just for moms to do. We address parents, and that could be moms or dads.
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There are going to be some concepts men will understand in a deeper way because they have testosterone. And some women are so conservative,they can’t even say the word “porn” or “orgasm” or “masturbate.” We hope it will be a family thing, parents going through it together. Husband and wife sitting down together and opening up.
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What if the parents themselves have issues? Do you see this helping them as they help their kids?
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Lori: One of the beliefs we tear down is, “I can’t help my kids because I have my own issues.” No, that actually makes you more qualified. If you grew up dirt poor, are you never gonna talk about it, or are you gonna teach your kid to grow up to avoid it? Do you want your child to be better off, or not?
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I’ve learned how to talk in a different way. How not to shame our kids, to be present for them. It’s almost more of a parenting course: How to authentically connect with your kids so they will open up. We don’t talk about porn all the time. We talk about how to have fun as a family.
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Eric: It’s not even about how to talk when you find out they looked at porn; it’s for beforehand. The tone you want to give off is: If you ever look at that, I’m not gonna hate you. If you do that, they’ll never talk to you about it.
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Lori: It’s a weird tightrope, because you don’t want them to be worldly, but you want them to talk to you.
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What are some other common beliefs you refute?
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Lori: That if my child is moral, and believes in Jesus, they will never look at porn.
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That girls don’t look at porn.
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And the biggest one is: I can’t talk to my child about porn because I want to keep his innocence.

By talking to them, you teach them innocence. They are kind of grossed out when they hear about porn, and that’s kind of good. You catch them before they’re in it. Talking to them gives them this huge protection.
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Eric: In the part for the 6-10 year age range, we discuss a study that says if kid sees porn, he’ll go back to see if it’s still there, out of curiosity. So parents can ask them if they saw anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
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Lori: Priests say the heartache is that there are young kids looking at porn, and their parents don’t even know. We have to shake up the tree a little bit.
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You touch briefly on the topic of modest dress for girls, which is such a hot button topic.
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Lori: A priest told me, “Don’t go there!” But I saw a woman in the park, and the way she was dressed, she was turning me on! We just raise the question, comment, and say how we handle it. We’re not telling you what to do.
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What is your ultimate goal?
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Lori: It’s our vision to get rid of porn. It won’t happen in the next hundred years, but I want to be able to raise men and women who are porn resistant.
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Eric: The things we’re talking about can be overwhelming. We’re going to help you through every step of the process.

Why do I take my noisy little kids to Mass?

We are there to praise and worship God, to be spiritually nourished, and to unite our lives with the life of Christ as He offers Himself up to the Father. We are not there because we bought our ticket and are entitled to a certain experience.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

How to let your toddler entertain herself (without screens!)

After eighteen straight years with more than one child in the house, I suddenly find myself alone with a toddler. I was worried it would be hard to keep her occupied while I got my work done, but it turns out toddlers are great at entertaining themselves. All you have to do is supply them with the right equipment — and try to turn off the over-anxious housekeeper in your brain.

Here are some tips to help your little one have fun, and to help you relax while she does!

-Let her play in the sink. Turn the chair backward for stability, and put lots of ladles, cups, sieves, and other tools in her reach. Don’t worry about the mess! Water is easy to clean. Put some towels on the floor if it helps you relax.

-Give her a bunch of brightly-colored cloths, preferably silks, that she can sort, fold, and distribute around the house. Yes, laundry will do! Laundry can be cleaned up, Mama, but babies don’t stay babies forever. Relax.

-Give her giant chalk and let her do her thing. Sure, inside. Chalk comes off just about any kind of furniture or paint, so relax. Or it doesn’t. Relax. Just relax. Just. Oh shit those are markers. But maybe they’re washable. Relax.

-Give her a spray bottle and let her “clean” things. Ignore it when she licks up the spray. Yes, ignore those other things she is licking, too. And those other things she is spraying. Maybe put bells on her so she can’t sneak up and spray you in the back of the neck. Or down the back of your pants. Or your compu— oh, well, keyboards can be replaced, Mama! But babies don’t last! Mama!

-Give her a metal can with a slot cut in the lid, and a bunch of coins. Such a satisfying sound as they tumble in! If you’re nervous about her eating coins, give her a milk jug with a hole cut in the side, and a supply of clothespins. Or give her whatever she wants. Give her your wallet. Give her a goldfish. Give her the gold bouillon you’ve been saving for your retirement. Give her live ammo. Just check her diaper later.

-Give her a knife. No, just a butter knife, and some, some, some play doh or celery or whatever to chop. Fine, let her have the real knife. Fine, let her cut you. You have more blood to give, Mama, I know you do.

-Watch Octonauts. Watch it and watch it and watch it.

Something to report of love

It’s the end of vacation, when all the things we meant to do over the summer cascade into guilt and regret. “Tree house” and “ocean” and “art museum” come off the list; “haircut” and “school shopping” go on. We should have done more! When I was little, I remember doing more.

On the radio, I heard the end of an essay by a man trying to connect with his elderly father, a father who had been harsh and distant for decades. I gathered that the one happy childhood memory the narrator had was of their annual, extravagant beach house vacation. The kids would run and play and whoop it up, while the dad would glower and retreat to the couch to watch TV. Still, he made it happen year after year.

Now, forty years later, the man finally asked his father if he had fun on those vacations — and if not, if he hated them as much as he seemed to, why did he make such a point of taking them every year?

It turns out that the old man, now almost eighty years old, was still smarting from the sting of his childhood, from the first day of school, when the teacher would assign that dreaded essay, “What I Did On My Summer Vacation.” The only true answer would have been: “We gathered peaches to pay the landlord” or “We shot rats in the turnip field so we wouldn’t starve come winter.”

So he and his brothers would make up something to write about, something that would prove that they had been having fun like the rest of the world. He resolved that his own kids wouldn’t have to resort to fantasy. They’d do something real on summer vacation, something wonderful. Something to report.

When my kids were all little, I used to accuse myself of not so much striving to make a happy childhood for them, as striving to create evidence that they had had a happy childhood. A baby book full of carefully edited anecdotes and cute dialogue; a photo album of high points and rare good days. Maybe, day to day, they had to cower away from me and my mood swings, and maybe they longed for me to just sit down, relax, and play with them, rather than frantically crafting towers of glorious expectations, and then collapsing in tears when it all caved in under the weight of real life. Maybe so. In the words of an old guide to confession: I am unable to judge the severity of my actions.

Either way, I had some hard evidence. I could point to the salt clay figurines, the stretchy loop potholders, the quirky animal sewing cards I had made just for them, using the back of a Crispix box and my own lifeblood, and I could say, “The proof is here. Only a loving mother would have done this. Remember how I let you make muffins with me, even though you drive me crazy? Let’s laminate this photo of you petting a goat at age 2, and let’s not laminate the memory of me crying over how much money we spent to get in. You liked that goat, you liked it very much. But you won’t remember, so I need to nail it down now, to present to the judge, I mean put in your baby book. And look, you were wearing a dress that I sewed myself.

Behold, the gulf between love and intentions. Oh, the longing to love, the longing to be loved, the longing to have been loved. Oh, the clumsy swipes we take at that shining, shifting goal of happiness.

We are all, maybe, hoping to pacify the demands of the past, striving to bridge the gulf, to reach back over all those summers and tell our own selves as children, “Yes, you were happy. Here’s the proof.” We’re telling that long-dead teacher, now moldering in the grave, “You wanted an essay? You wanted to know what I did? Here’s my child, and he had fun on his summer vacation. Here’s the evidence you demanded; it’s all there.”

Here are the things I remember about my childhood, along with the vacations and the treats, the parades and the birthday parties — and also along with the mood swings and strife, the tensions and shouting, tipped-over tables slammed doors. Here are the things I remember, from summer and from winter, from the long, empty, formless days of vacation and the long, empty, formless days inside the lonely, needy heart of a child looking for some definitive proof of love:

I remember my mother putting down her book (more precious than rubies) and looking me straight in the eye when I called her name. My father pausing for a minute before he answered me, staying silent a little too long, muscling past his first impulse to criticize or refute. My big sisters praising me for so skillfully walking down the stairs with only one foot on each step, instead of two, like babies do. I remember being on rented skates and being swooped up from behind, a rescue just as the floor loomed up to pound in my face. I remember someone holding a pajama zipper away from my belly, protecting my skin as they zipped it up. I remember being protected.

There’s the evidence, and I’m writing it down now. It is the end of summer. We have something to report.

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A version of this essay originally ran under a different title at Aleteia in 2016.
Image: David Prasad via Flickr (Licensed)

 

 

Writing about your kids? Watch your mouth.

She got her sons’ permission to write everything she writes.

Yeah. So what? They are your children. Your relationship with them is not a contractual obligation where one party can sign away their rights to dignity and privacy just because their mom has a deadline and a grievance

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

 

My mother couldn’t hear me during the consecration (and other excellent lessons)

A friend recently reminded me of this post I wrote about my mother in 2012. We’re just home from camping, so I thought I’d re-run it today, on her birthday (because my mother reduced, reused, and recycled long before it was cool, so she’d definitely approve of reposting). Please say a prayer for my mother, if you would. She has advanced Alzheimer’s, and while we’re very grateful she’s in a nursing home that takes good care of her, we miss her.

Here are the things that my mother always taught us (not always in so many words):

Reading is what people do, like breathing or blinking.  Read to yourself, read out loud to your kids (any age), read with your spouse at night.  Every time you turn off the TV, you’ve won back a little bit of your life.

Not everything that’s good is explicitly Catholic, and not everything that calls itself  Catholic is good.  True for art, music, ideas, lives.

But sooner or later, you have to decide which side you’re on.  I think she said this to me when she saw the trashy cover of a CD I was listening to as a teenager.  You can make excuses and give yourself passes, but your spiritual life is made up of these choices:  there’s no such thing as (a) the religious part of your life, and (b) the rest of your life.  If you want to be a Catholic, you have to live that way all the time, even if it means cutting out things you enjoy.

Functionality is beautiful.  If it works, then it’s a good system, even if it looks silly.

There are worse things in life than being embarrassed. I remember hearing one of my parents’ friends telling his conversion story.  The only part I remember is, “And right there, in the middle of the airport, I kneeled down and said to God . . . ”  I remember rolling my eyes and thinking, “Boy, that sums it up.”  It seemed like the rest of the world was the airport, going about its business, and our family was the weirdos, standing out, doing something different, acting like freaks — not always about religious things, but about everything.  Well, it turns out that children (and teenagers) do not die from standing out.  Also, when they grow up, they will be able to enjoy something the Normals never enjoy:  the exquisite thrill of fitting in.  I still get a delicious little transgressive frisson when I make cake from a box mix, JUST LIKE OTHER PEOPLE DO.  Brrr!

Never lose hope about other people.  Maybe you can’t change them — in fact, you definitely can’t change them — but God can.  So keep praying for them.  Even if they never know you’re doing it (and even if you never see the results yourself), it may be the most important thing you do for them.

Everybody’s tired.  Nobody feels really well.  Everybody feels like they’re no good at least some of the time.  Now please get up and go to work anyway.

Accept the people that God sends into your life.  My mother is a magnet for strange, needy, difficult people.  They seem to realize that she’s no good at social chit chat, and will answer them directly, on whatever bizarre terms they choose to start the conversation; and she will help them if she can.  She is ready and willing to talk about anything, as long as it’s interesting or important.  When I was little, I hated having our house open to strange and unpredictable people, but now I wish I were courageous enough to have that kind of house.

A good idea is worth repeating, and repeating, and repeating.  People may groan and say, “Not that again!” but they’ll thank you later when they actually remember it.

You go to Mass to worship God.  If you’re there for anything other than that, you’re wasting your time.  My mother would answer me any time I called her name, any time at all, except during the consecration and elevation.  I remember being very young and being baffled that she didn’t seem to hear me when her head was bowed.  Eventually I figured it out!

Go outside for a minute; you’ll feel better.

Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.  My mother would love to live in a one-room shack with a cot, a computer, a hot plate, and a drain in the floor for easy cleaning.  Instead, my parents maintain a dusty, cumbersome, 12+-room Victorian house, because sometimes people need a place to stay (as we did one year, when our entire family had a collective nervous breakdown and needed shelter).

Catholics aren’t afraid of science.

Catholics aren’t afraid of history, or sex, or death.

Catholics aren’t afraid of anything. Actually, of course they are, but they are the ones who are equipped to forge ahead anyway.

Charity believes all things.  The good you see in people may not be the whole truth about them, but it is true.  So start there, and make a fuss over it until it turns into something more.

Don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, and don’t pretend to like things you don’t like.

Poetry is meant to be read out loud. The first time you read it, just listen to the sounds. Then read it again and start to think about what it’s saying.

When in doubt, add more garlic.

 

Getting kids to read more and better books

I really hate the mantra that it doesn’t matter what kids read, as long as they’re reading. Of course it matters. I know we can do better than that, and I know how important it is to lay a deep, strong foundation of good ideas, powerful words and images, and memorable scenes and characters. Unfortunately, most of the books that are popular in my kids’ social circles don’t have any of these things.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: Boy and Book via PublicDomainPictures.net

Marriage advice that’s great . . . for toddlers

Ah, June, when the internet is awash with advice about marriage — most of it lousy.

Either it assumes that men and women are puppets in a simple story, rather than complex human beings who are learning how to love each other; or else it applies to some marriages but by no means all; or else it’s really good advice . . . for parents dealing with toddlers.

Here are a few bits of marriage advice that work great for a toddler-parent relationship, but is awful advice for a marriage:

Never go to bed angry.

For little kids, sure. I believe in soft landings at bedtime. No child learns lessons when he’s exhausted — and most parents don’t teach good lessons when they’re exhausted, either. Bedtime is time for a hug and as much affirmation as you can muster. If your kid has been a louse all day long, bedtime is still time to say, “I love you,” and maybe remind yourself that your kids isn’t always an irrational demon. Tomorrow you really can start again.

But marriages are more complex. If you suffered a minor annoyance before bed, then yes, you can decide, “Meh, I’ll shake this off and give my love a kiss, because the major good in our marriage overrides the minor bad.” Sometimes the reason you’re angry is because it’s time to go to bed, and a good night’s sleep will set everything to rights.

But if there’s something actually worth being angry about, you’re not going to work through it after a long day when you’re both exhausted and not thinking clearly.

Most marriages go through rough spells, and going to bed angry isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, spouses will wake up in the morning, feel rested, and decide to apologize, or at least they feel more ready to address the problem in a constructive, loving way.

Or sometimes they will realize, “I’ve been angry for twelve years, and I don’t want to live like this anymore. Time to make some changes.” This can’t happen if you paste on a contented smile just because you now have pajamas on.

Just open up and express what’s bothering you if you want things to change.

For little guys? Oh lort, just tell me what is wrong and I will fix it. Or if I can’t fix it, I will read you Frog and Toad so you forget about it.  Here, have a bit of chocolate from my secret stash. I’m glad you told me what is wrong. I would be upset, too. I love you.

It’s not that simple between spouses, though. Oh, don’t suffer endlessly in silence. No one, husband or wife, should offer themselves up as an open sewer for whatever the other spouse wants to dump.

But it’s also not useful to allow an endless stream of complaint to flow from your lips. Listen to yourself. Do most of your words reflect the true nature of your experience of your marriage? Or are you super devoted to being “honest and open” when it comes to the bad, but suddenly stoic and self-contained when it comes to the good?

Expressing anger and frustration day in and day out is more likely to shut down communication than to open it, whether your unhappiness is justified or not. One of the reasons I finally started seeing a therapist was because I didn’t know how to tell the difference between big problems and little problems, and even when I could tell, I didn’t know how to adjust my response accordingly.

Being honest isn’t the same as opening the floodgates. Honesty is also about discernment. It’s less stream-of-consciousness blather and more poetry, in which words and ideas are carefully chosen and balanced to express something true.

Also, some bad spouses just don’t care. You may be doing your level best to express, in as truthful and balanced a way as possible, that your marriage has serious problems, and it may just not work. Communication is vital in marriage, but it’s not magic. It’s only useful when both spouses are willing to listen and willing to make changes.

Just submit to the head of the household and all will be well.

In most toddler-parent relationships? Absolutely. Dear child rolling around on the floor like a maniac, I am bigger and smarter, and I am in charge of you. Just obey. Put clothes on, because it is snowing. Do not put your head in the dentist’s aquarium. Forever forsake the idea of eating that lightbulb, ya little dummy. Submit, and all will be well.

But in most marriages, this crap advice leads to unhappiness, resentment, and even abuse — and it often expands to abuse of children, too, which the wife feels unable to stop, or unwilling to acknowledge. Unquestioning submission lets insecure, immature, un-self-controlled men to treat their families like garbage in the name of godliness, which is just as bad for men as it is for women and children.

Couples who obsess about wives obeying husbands tend to gloss over the extraordinarily heavier burden God lays on men, which is to love their wives as Christ loves the Church (and no, not even St. Paul says that men have to do their part after women do their part, but if she’s being a lippy dame, you are off the hook, being-Christ-wise.)

In loving, functional relationships, it’s not even on the radar, because husband and wife will both be focused on working out what’s best for the family and best for each other, rather than on who’s obeying whom.

Unpopular opinion: Wifely obedience is occasionally useful in loving relationships in times of some forms of extreme crisis. It’s like when the government declares a state of emergency and suspends habeas corpus. It’s not a long-term plan; it’s to get the union through until things can function the way they’re supposed to again; and it’s only a good idea if the leader isn’t a tyrant.

And then there are other forms of extreme crisis that call for the wife not to submit, but instead to extricate herself, at least temporarily, from the idea that she’s in a marriage. When the husband is being abusive or otherwise dangerous, obedience would be wrong; and she is required to simply protect herself and her children.

***

Next time you hear some bit of marriage advice that’s popular but rubs you the wrong way, maybe this is the problem: It’s good advice for a parent-child relationship, but completely inappropriate for a marriage between equals who love each other.

What would you add to my list?

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Image: Kewpie bride and groom on Ebay

Irrational fear doesn’t make our kids safer (even in Ikea)

No, really. You probably don’t have to bring bodyguards, tape your kids to your legs, or spray them with anti-trafficking spray before venturing out of your house.

I feel the need to say this because that “we almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story is foolish and dangerous — and still making the rounds.

Here’s the backstory, if you missed it:

Diandra Toyos, a mom from Southern CA, was at an Ikea store with her three young kids. She noticed that a couple of guys weren’t shopping and didn’t appear to be with anyone who was shopping, but seemed to be following her family around. She eventually talked to security and then left.

She reports to social media:

Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards. I’m reading more and more about these experiences and it’s terrifying. If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.

The story got tens of thousands of shares, and moms across the country trembled with fear.

Let’s start with the good information in her account.

1. It’s a good idea to listen to your gut (unless your gut constantly cries wolf). There is nothing wrong with looking for help if you feel like something is “off,” even if you’re not sure exactly what it is that’s wrong.

2. It’s a good idea to keep track of your young kids. Pay attention, because kids can get into all kinds of trouble in a short time.

Now let’s talk about what’s insane and dangerous in this mom’s message.

First, whatever happened at Ikea, if anything, it almost certainly wasn’t a close call with human trafficking. People who are actual experts in the field say this simply isn’t how human trafficking works.

“There are zero indicators of human trafficking in Toyos’ story. Zero,” says Lara Powers in the L.A. Times. Powers, “a professional in the anti-trafficking field,” insists the same thing as every other expert I’ve encountered:

I have never seen, read or heard about a real sex-trafficking situation in which a child was abducted by traffickers in broad daylight at a busy store under a mother’s watchful eye. It’s just not the way it works.

How does it work, then?

Victims are recruited, manipulated, made dependent. The psychological and emotional ties they establish are highly effective. Trafficked children are unlikely to attempt escape.They often won’t snitch on their traffickers even if law enforcement approaches them.

Among common patterns of sex-trafficking recruitment and control: Parents or foster care parents selling their children. Or runaway, homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ, picked up at bus stops by traffickers who exploit their hunger and need for shelter. Or a young girl who falls in love with a man who says he loves her too, then pimps her out.

And while child sex trafficking can happen to anyone, children of color, children with a past history of sex abuse, children who come from broken or unstable homes, children who face poverty, and children with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

 

Here is a more typical story of human trafficking: An impoverished teenager named “Blessing” flees Nigeria in hopes of finding work. Once she has been moved across several borders, her handlers try to push her into prostitution. She’s ransomed; she’s shuttled around some more, imprisoned, put out to sea, rescued, and then released in Italy.

This is a horribly typical, very common story of a child caught up in human trafficking. She is alone; she is poor; she is black; she has few connections; her home government is a shambles; her parents don’t know where she is; she has no help. She is very obviously vulnerable in several different ways.

In other words, she is most likely nothing like your child. Your child is almost certainly safe from trafficking. It’s not a matter of holding your child’s hand especially tight when you’re shopping for futons; it’s a matter of having a family, being a member of a community, speaking the native language, having some resources. These are the facts, as described by the latest report on human trafficking from the U.S. government.

 

Worse: Focusing on unlikely dangers can make us careless about actual risk, either to our own kids or to others’. As the op-ed piece in the LA Times says the Ikea story

so misrepresents the dangers, warning signs and risks associated with sex trafficking that its readers and likers may now try to protect kids by watching for the wrong things in the wrong places. They may miss real sex trafficking as it happens; they may miss the opportunity to extend a lifeline to child who needs their help. What people don’t understand about sex trafficking can prove lethal to kids.

There’s another risk, too. Irrational fear is bad for us, directly, immediately. I know what irrational fear can do. At the height of the anthrax scare, when my husband travelled a lot and I was alone in our apartment with three very young children, I barely dared to venture into the fenced back yard. Shopping for groceries, going to the library, or stopping at McDonald’s for fries were all perilous nightmares.

I was so caught up in avoiding and outwitting irrational, unlikely dangers that I had no emotional energy left to tend to the actual, present needs of early childhood: the need for calm, the need for peace, the need for a little freedom, and the need to feel safe and secure, rather than embattled and in flight.

Fear distorts our reason. It leads us to make bad decisions, and it leads us to teach poor decision-making to the kids who see us constantly fearful and anxious. The day after the “We almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story came out, a young mother of one confided to a group that she was rethinking having any more children. The world just seemed so dangerous to her, she couldn’t see how it was possible to keep a second child safe. It seemed that merely leaving the home all but guaranteed that something awful would happen. After all, it happened in Ikea! Or almost happened! Or, well, something almost happened . . .

Bad things do happen. Kids sometimes get kidnapped. Tree limbs fall on people’s heads. Sinkholes open up in the playground. Stray bullets make their way into the skulls of innocent people. Bad things do happen, even to the children of vigilant parents.

But when Jesus said, “Be not afraid,” it wasn’t because He simply wasn’t up to speed on all the dangers that the modern world can possibly present. It was because He knew that fear drives out reason, makes it harder to think, makes it harder to love. Fear makes it harder to live the lives we are given, driving us instead to scurry around in a shadowy world of horrible possibilities. Fear is a thief.

Sometimes, fear makes us cruel, leading us to blame others for their misfortunes because we believe that we, ourselves, are so wise, prudent, responsible (and preemptively fearful) that we are different, we will be safe, we can be in control.

But we are not in control. More fear will not make us more in control.

It is very hard. We are obligated to be careful and prudent with our children, to routinely reassess how we are caring for them, and to take legitimate threats seriously, because we love them and must care for them. And they are, by definition, vulnerable. That is just how it is. The responsibility can be terrifying, overwhelming, if we let fear take over.

But more fear is not the same as more love. Love illuminates; fear butts our reason. Love gives us courage to act when something is wrong; fear tells us that the world is full of nothing but wrongness. It doesn’t make us safer to be more fearful. It’s not harmless to pass along hysterical warnings “just in case.” It’s not harmless to endlessly ruminate over what might possibly happen if we’re not perfectly vigilant at all times. Irrational fear makes us less safe, not more. It makes us live less, not more.

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Image: By Thomas.ZAPATA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Homemade cake with a side of red herring

 

When I was a new mom, I was the greatest. THE GREATEST. You could tell how great I was because of the ever-growing list of things I was too good of a mom to ever resort to.

I’m not talking about high standards; I’m talking about bonkers standards — things I rejected as lazy or third rate or tacky, for no reason at all. Mainly, it was time-savers and effort-savers that seemed like cheating to me. If something was easy, then that in itself was evidence that it was probably the crap way to do it, and people who take that route were crap moms.

When I had two kids, for instance, I used to sit in silent, scornful judgement of this other mom who would come to Mass five minutes late with her eight girls, and each one of those tragically undervalued waifs had a ponytail in her hair. A ponytail, can you imagine? How the heck do you manage to be late when you haven’t even spent any time at all doing their hair? This so-called “mother” never even reserved a small lock of hair to make into a tiny braid and wrap around the ponytail to hide the rubber band that is color-coordinated with their socks just in case it shows.

My kids, by the way, wanted their hair cut short so it was easy to brush. But they got tiny braids, because I loved them, unlike some moms.

Please visit my GoFundMe, where I’m currently raising funds toward the invention of a time machine. I need to go back twenty years and kick my own ass.

Here are a few things I allow in my house now, because guess what, you haughty, know-nothing, backwards, psychosnob former self? These things make life easier. Tah dah! Life is hard enough without putting extra hurdles in your own path just to prove that you can clamber over them with your martyred smile intact.

Box cakes. Oh yes. We have twelve birthday cakes every year, plus baptism cakes, confirmation cakes, First Communion cakes (first confession gets no cake. No cake!), not to mention “your actual birth date that we want to mark, and then we’ll have a separate cake when we can schedule a party with friends” cakes. No one expects them to taste like much. The important thing is making sure everyone gets their very own edible platform for a giant, flaming message saying, “Hey, we can currently remember your name and we think you’re swell!”

I do know how to bake a real cake. I’ve even baked two towering wedding cakes, one for my own wedding and one for my brother-in-law. You wanna get married, I’ll actually sift some flour for you. Otherwise: Betty Crocker, you’re coming home with me tonight.

Paper Plates. Lots of people use paper plates to get those tough weeks after giving birth, or they blushingly resort to them for a day or so while they’re moving to Finland or something. We use them most days, because they are paper, and you don’t have to wash them, and Fishers come in one size: Swarm.

Sometimes friends will share photos of their unspeakably messy kitchen, with a sink overflowing with dirty dishes. And I’m like, “Bitch, that’s us halfway through pre-breakfast snack.” If Gideon ever came to our house and watched my kids drink, none of them would make the cut, because the little creeps would rather lap out of the faucet than wash a cup, and all the cups are always dirty, and yes, I run the dishwasher twice a day. See: swarm.

If I’m serving soup or spaghetti or something drippy, then we drag out the china (and plastic), but paper plates are the standard. Sorry, environment. It’s just paper. I have faith in you.

Kiddie TV. Sometimes people will ask me, “How do you manage to get your writing done every morning with little kids in the house?” The answer is, “They watch TV.” Sorry. That is how it happens.I love the idea of children roaming wild through wooded dells, or spending idyllic hours mesmerized with nothing a spool of twine and their own imagination, but I don’t currently have the funds to hire an Idyllic Childhood Manager. Netflix, on the other hand, is quite cheap.

They have to get dressed and eat breakfast first, and then they can watch TV for a couple of hours. They don’t complain when it’s time to turn it off, because it’s part of the schedule. I sit in the room with them if possible, but if they’re bugging me, I go hide.

Mr. TV is not on nonstop. I do read to the kids most days (or I get someone else to read to them), and we squeeze in a craft maybe once a week, and they have active play every day, but for keeping the little shriekers occupied for chunk of time, there is nothing like TV. If I feel guilty about it, I toss a doll with a wooden head in their laps while they are watching Barbie: Life In the Dream House. That makes it Montessori.

Buspar. So, first, I had to get over the idea that you can just power your way through mental illness by trying harder. I needed to bite the bullet and start shopping for a therapist. Therapy is not for losers, or for people who don’t pray enough.
Then I had to get used to the idea that you really can tell your therapist anything, including, “I’ve made tons of progress with you, but I’ve hit a wall,” and I need to call my other doctor and see what kind of drugs are out there, to give me a leg up. Drugs are not for people too lazy to do the work of therapy.
Then I had to get used to the idea that all drugs have a trade-off, and if one particular one has outlived its usefulness, or the side effects are too ugly, you might have to try a different one; or, you might have to ask yourself if it makes sense to see how you do without any drugs, but not in the same way as you did before you got used to the idea that it was okay to take drugs.
Then, I had to get used to the idea that even people who have made tons of progress have bad days, and sometimes All The Things You’ve Learned aren’t making you calm the hell down so you can have a normal evening at home with your family. So you pop a couple of pills that settle down your brain, and make it possible for you to identify the walls of your life as not currently caving in around you.

And it works, and there is not a damn thing wrong with it, because the goal is to be able to live your life.

And that’s what it all boils down to. What makes it possible to live the life you want and need and ought to live?  I started this post out as a lighthearted “Bad moms unite! Whatcha gonna do!” kind of thing, but now I think I have something to say.

It’s a good thing to have standards. But it’s a bad thing to assume that “difficult” is the same as “virtuous.” Sometimes, we put obstacles in our own paths as way of proving our worth or our dedication. Difficulties, even unnecessary ones that we choose for ourselves, can make us stronger or keep us from sliding into apathy or mediocrity; but they can also be a wonderful red herring that distract us from pursuing our true vocations.

It’s not about lowering our standards. It’s about remembering that standards aren’t ends in themselves. They’re there to help us achieve our goals; and if they’re not doing that, then it’s time to discard them.

So it’s a good thing to have standards, but it’s also a good thing to step back and reassess our standards from time to time. What am I actually trying to achieve? Is it a worthy goal? Are my standards actually helping me do what I need to do, or am I keeping them around mainly out of vanity, or a desire to punish myself, or a desire to prove something that no one actually cares about? Or even just out of habit? Do my standards fit my current, actual life, or have I moved past them? If I choose to do some things the hard way, is it really a personal choice, or am I making life harder for the people around me, too?

And wouldn’t you rather have pie? Because I make a killer apple pie, with homemade crust with this special technique I learned. See, an hour earlier, you take the butter, and you put it . . . no? You really want Betty Crocker Red Velvet cake, decorated with frosting from a can? That’s what would make you feel happy?

Can do.

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Image: By Lupo [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons