Love is never wasted

Some time ago, I came across an anguished post by a devoted mom. She had spent an entire week teaching her kids an in-depth, hands-on, cross-curricular lesson on the major watercolorists of western art. Her kids were enthralled, and seemed to really internalize not only the beauty of the work, but also some of the history, the technical side, and even the biographies of the artists they studied.

Next week? They said, “Watercolor? What’s watercolor?”

Poor mom. Kids are crumbs, and that’s just a fact. But the thing that struck me is that the woman berated herself over having wasted so much time with the lesson.

How wrong she was! There is no such thing as wasted time with your children. There is such a thing as time spent badly — time you spend belittling them, for instance. But there is no such thing as loving, attentive time that is wasted. This is true even if the kids have no conscious memory of the event, even if it’s only five minutes later (see: Kids are crumbs).

As I’ve said before, kids are “not empty mason jars waiting to be filled up with the perfect combination of ingredients. We’re making people, here, not soup.”

There are two related mistakes we can make when we’re raising children. One is that we can imagine that it’s all within our control, and that if we simply add in all the right elements, we’re guaranteed to end up with a happy, confident, faithful, moral, self-sufficient, grounded, hard-working, honest human being. (It doesn’t help that a lot of self-styled experts make a tidy living by all but promising success if you just follow their guidelines.)  The truth is, we can do ev-ry-thing-right and guess what? Kid still has free will. Kid still has specific brain chemistry. Kid still runs into a unique set of experiences, and kid processes them in a unique way according to ten thousand unpredictable variables.

So the first thing to remember is that, when we make parenting choices, we’re not putting in a customized order. It’s a much more delicate and artful and hazardous and beautiful process than that, because it is an act of love, and love can’t be reduced to supply and demand.

The second mistake is to imagine that, if we don’t see the immediate, expected results, it was a wasted effort. This is the folly the mom above fell prey to. She thought, when she was teaching her kids about Winslow Homer, that she was just teaching them about Winslow Homer. I love me some Winslow Homer, but I know that it’s much more important for the kids to learn about other things — things like, “Beauty is important and worth spending time on.” “Your mother loves you and thinks you are worth spending time on.”

Please note that these are things that you can teach by following an intensive Montessori-based course on the history of watercolor, or you can teach it by hanging around on a trampoline telling stupid jokes, or you can teach it by driving the kid to all his hideously tedious T-ball games all weekend long, or you can teach it by . . . well, you get the idea. Time and attention. These are the two things that kids need, and there are a million different ways you can provide them. This is also because time and attention are acts of love, and you cannot count all the ways that love can be expressed.

The child may be the kind of person who accepts and recognizes your love and attention immediately, saying things like, “I had a nice day with you, Mama.” Or he may be the other kind of kid, who doesn’t seem to care at all.  He may not think twice about these things until he has children of his own. He may be the kind of kid who thinks you’re a terrible parent, until one day, at age 50, he had a sudden recollection of a thing you did, and realizes, “She loved me so much!”

There is so much mystery in the human psyche and how it develops. We can work ourselves into a panic fretting that we haven’t given properly, and that our children aren’t receiving properly; and half the time, we’ll be right. Truly, the only way we can be at peace is if, along with doing our best, we remember to turn our children’s lives over to God, over and over again. God’s generosity works both ways: He is generous in what He gives us, and He is generous in how He receives, as well. When we turn our children over to God, He will not let our efforts go to waste. This is because God is love, and when we show love to the people in our care, God will not let that love go to waste. 

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This post originally ran in the National Catholic Register in 2016.

Parents, look for things you’re doing right

If we think back on our own childhoods, we can probably remember bad parenting that hurt us, but also good parenting that stayed with us and continues to strengthen and comfort us even as a memory. This shows that good parenting is real parenting, and it is powerful. So it’s good practice to remind yourself of what you’re doing right. There is probably more than you think, and it probably means more than you realize. Go ahead and list it off for yourself, the slight and the huge, the occasional and the constant. Most parents are doing so much better than they think they are.

Read the rest of my latest at The Catholic Weekly.

Photo by Colin on Unsplash

Parents who are failures, and parents who are not

Not a failure: “My daughter is pregnant.”

Failure: “My daughter had an abortion because she knew damn well what would happen to her if she turned up pregnant in this house.”

 

Not a failure: “My child is severely depressed.” “My child has debilitating anxiety.” “My child is suicidal.” “My child has learning disability.” “My child is non-neurotypical.” 

Failure: “I have no idea what to do, but there’s no way I’m letting stranger into our personal lives. Professional help is for people who can’t hack it, and I don’t belong in a waiting room with that trash.”

 

Not a failure: “We are totally crashing and burning in the home school/private school/religious school/public school we thought would be so perfect for our kind of family.”

Failure: “We are totally crashing and burning, but if we quit, we’ll be failures as parents/let down the community/have to admit we’re wrong/change our lives around. We better keep going, so everyone will know we care about our kids.”

 

Not a failure: “I don’t understand my kid very well, and it’s hard to talk.”

Failure: “My kid has a great relationship with my spouse, or with her teacher, or with her friend’s mom. I undermine this relationship every chance I get, because they’re usurping me. I’m the parent.”

 

Not a failure: “My kid is screwing up in exactly the same ways I did or do.”

Failure: “Boy, does this look familiar, and boy does it make me feel bad. I’ll punish him double, once for each of us.”

 

Not a failure: “Despite our best efforts to raise him right, my kid exercised his free will and is now a druggie, an alcoholic, a criminal.”

Failure: “His name is forbidden in my home.”

 

Not a failure:  “We are too broke to give our kids everything their friends have.”

Failure: “I must do everything possible to get more money, so we can be happy.”

 

Not a failure: “My child is gay.”

Failure: “I refuse to have gay children, so either the kid or the gayness has got to go.”

 

Not a failure: “My child has left the Church.”

Failure: “I raise Catholic children, so I guess this is no longer my child.  How could he betray Me this way?”

 

Not a failure: “I just said or did exactly the wrong thing to my kid.”

Failure: “We must never speak of this again.”

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A version of this post was originally published in 2014. 

Photo by Alon via Flickr (Creative Commons)

17 ways to make confession easier for your kids

Adult converts sometimes sheepishly admit that confession scares them. What they may not know is cradle Catholics often feel the same way. Very often, anxiety around confession begins in childhood, when well-meaning parents send kids all the wrong messages about when, how, and why we go to confession.

But children aren’t doomed to hate confession. Here are some things you can do to mitigate anxiety and help kids even learn to look forward to confession . . . 

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.  

photo credit: Gwenaël Piaser Ryan via photopin (license)

Why isn’t there more advice about raising teenagers?

These feelings of helplessness are actually a good thing, assuming you all survive. It’s a good thing to realize that you’re no expert, you’re no genius, you’re no bottomless font of wisdom. It’s a good thing to realize that your child is not a robot to be programmed, or an empty sack to be filled with whatever habits and preferences and traits and skills you choose.

What your child is is a unique, irreplaceable immortal being with terrifyingly free will and a lot less self-knowledge than he had a few years ago; and what you are is someone who loves your kid and wants the best for him, but is so far from being in control, it’s laughable.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by Ryan McGuire via Pixabay

Now my husband works from home. And now he knows.

People simply do not take your work seriously if you’re not wearing a uniform or sitting in an office. They can see you there, flagrantly sitting at home like an enormous slug. Even though they intellectually know that you are earning a living, they just can’t get past the notion that, since you are at home, your entire reason for existing is to serve them; and when you have performed the required service, you probably back into a storage closet and power down like an off-duty robot until someone needs you to fix the Wii or find their math book or explain the Vietnam war or unclog the toilet. Or make some food.  Not this food! Food we like better! Cut into triangles!

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Parenting strategies I’ve changed … because I’ve changed

My children range in age from 20 to three – almost a big enough span to comprise two generations. Naturally, the older kids think the younger ones get away with murder. The love to talk about how strict I used to be, how inflexible, how unreasonable.

And they’re right. It’s not just that I had more energy to hold the reins tightly when I was a young mom; it’s that I had a very different idea of how kids should be treated. I was wrong about a lot of things, and much of that wrongness stemmed from wrong ideas I had about myself – about my self-worth, about my value, about my capabilities.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Learning to live as a baptized person

It was a kindly old priest in Coke bottle glasses, a matter-of-fact French Canadian servant of God with no desire to act as Grand Inquisitor. But his simple, basic questions did the job they were intended to do: They let us know that this was real, this was serious, and our responsibility was not going to go away.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Is it technically abuse? Does it really matter?

A child who is told he is stupid will always believe he is stupid. A child who is told she’s a failure will always believe she’s a failure. When these insults and hostility come from the very heart of the family, they take root.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by George Hodan (Creative Commons)

Does Your Child Need Professional Help? You Can Do This.

All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.

Read the rest of my latest for Parable magazine.

Image by Alon via Flickr  (Creative Commons)