10 gifts you ought to give your teenagers

As our kids get older, we find it harder and harder to choose gifts for them, now that we can no longer just scan the toy aisle and pick out something neat and colorful. We ask for wish lists, and on them are items that, not only do I not understand why someone would want them, I don’t even completely know what they are.

But I do know how to give older kids the intangible things they need on the 363 days of the year, when it’s not their birthday or Christmas (and not a single one of them needs a charging cable). These are things that may or may not delight them when they receive them, but may stay with them and help them for the rest of their lives.

  1. Being needed. Let them feel the feeling of being important to another human being. This can happen automatically in large families, but even there, some kids are good at escaping responsibility. But understanding that we are responsible for other people is a fundamental part of being human, and kids should learn it early. Some families overdo this, and turn kids, especially girls, into mini parents. This is unjust, and will lead to resentment and burnout. But if your child tends to feel that the world is here to serve him, that needs correcting. All kids should be in charge of something important, even if it’s small.2. The gift of being listened to, even if it’s something you don’t personally care about, because you care about your kid. Let them know more than you about something, and be really interested to hear all about it. Teenagers can come across as arrogant know-it-alls, but this, like so many unpleasant teen traits, often stems from insecurity. They desperately want to prove they’re smart and well-informed and interesting and worthy of attention. So sometimes step back and let them show their stuff, and compliment them on how well they know their topic. They may act like they don’t care, but they probably care very much, and will be very pleased to know they’ve impressed you. More importantly, if you are in the habit of listening to them chatter about inconsequential stuff, they are more likely to come to you with stuff that does matter.
  2. The gift of earning stuff they want. It can be tempting to give teenagers everything they think they need to make them happy, because you want them to be happy and you want them to be happy with you. But you’ll be giving them a much more long-lasting gift if you help them figure out how to do some work to earn some money to get the thing. This will also help them become more discerning about just how badly they want or need some item.
  3. The gift of getting away with things. Sometimes, let stuff ride. Just don’t notice it. It will be easier on all of you if you just pretend you don’t hear that tone of voice, didn’t notice that mess, aren’t aware of that screw-up, don’t care about that bad habit. It’s okay to have personal limits about what you’ll put up with, but make sure you’re not constantly correcting every last little thing. Prioritize, and save your correcting energy for things that really need it.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Image by Luisella Planeta Leoni from Pixabay

You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

Back in the days where cameras used film and you only had so many shots to take, my father took us kids to the aquarium.

We had a wonderful time, but when we got our photos developed, I was disappointed to see nothing but . . . us. “Why didn’t you take any pictures of the dolphin show?” I asked my father.

“I can get a dolphin picture anywhere,” he said. And he was right. The gift shop was full of sharp, professional photos of the animals. But there were no postcards with our faces on them — no tourist brochures featuring me, specifically, gasping with amazement, or my little brother, in particular, laughing in delight as he caught the dolphin’s spray.

And that was what my father wanted: Our happiness, our wonder and delight as we watched the dolphins leaping around and splashing us. That was why he had brought us there: So we would be delighted. And there was something in it for him, too. He enjoyed watching us enjoy ourselves. The one thing better than being happy yourself is seeing the joy of someone you love.

I think of this day when fretting over God’s sometimes baffling inefficiency. God is no businessman. If He wanted to maximize the number of souls saved, there are thousands of ways He could have made it happen: By taking away free will, for instance. By making virtuous behavior irresistible. By writing letters on the wall with a giant hand, rather than hinting with parables, whispering with grace, scattering clues of goodness, truth, and beauty all throughout the natural world.

He could have been more direct. He could have skipped all the strangeness, sorrow, and pain we feel as we blunder our way through life, toward Him. He could have been more efficient.

Instead, he chose the promise of delight. Instead, He gives us free will. He gives us the time and ability and desire to decide what to do with it. He wants us to come to Him not because we’re forced to, but because we have discovered Him, because we have found our own way toward Him, because we have realized organically, from the inside out, that we need and want what only He has to offer. He wants us to delight in Him. Not to find ourselves deposited briskly at the porch of Heaven, but to let ourselves be found.

It’s not a business transaction. It’s love. And there’s something in it for Him, too. He delights in our delight when we find Him.

Do we realize this? We may find ourselves miserably struggling to appease God, or anxiously, resentfully trying to avoid offending Him. But do we understand how He delights in us? He enjoys us. He likes us, and that is the only reason He made us in the first place. God is not deficient in anything. He didn’t need to make us at all. 

But He did. He did, because it’s not about the perfect dolphin picture. It’s not about efficiency. It’s about Him and us, us in particular. It’s about love and delight.

So there are two lessons here. One is more practical and immediate, and is mainly for parents:

Just as God loves us intensely now, for who we are, then we, as parents, must keep on reminding ourselves to enjoy, appreciate, and respond to our children now, as they are.

It is terribly easy to get distracted from this purpose — to pursue the “perfect dolphin picture,” and to forget why we came in the first place.  When we’re planning birthday parties, are we trying to please our actual kid, or to impress a thousand anonymous moms on Pinterest? When our older kids are choosing a college, do we nudge them toward the one that will help them be what they were meant to be, or toward the one with the name that strokes our own egos? When our children declare themselves for who they are — through their interests, their dress, their strengths, their humor, their voices, their hearts — do we remember to stop and delight in them, as specific, irreplaceable children? 

Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op?  God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them — not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them. 

The second lesson is more universal, and it is this:

This intensely personal, specific love and delight that parents should cultivate toward their kids is the same personal, specific love and delight that God feels toward us. Toward you. Remember this.

The Father made you, specifically, on purpose. Christ came to save you, individually, intentionally. He delights in you for who you are. He wants to forgive your sins “more quickly than a mother would snatch her child out of the fire” (St. John Vianney). He wants to save you because He knows you, and delights in you. 

God is no businessman. He is bogglingly inefficient. Christ said to St. Teresa of Avila, “I would create the world again just to hear you say you love me.”  Oh, it’s personal. He could get a perfect dolphin picture anywhere. But he’d rather have you.

 

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This essay was originally published in Parable magazine in 2018. Republished with permission. 

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)

Señor Secondthoughts

Who wants to hear about a parenting victory? This one comes with a mascot, and his name is Señor Secondthoughts. 

Our youngest got a much-desired present for her sixth birthday: A stuffed Owlette and and a stuffed Gecko, of PJ Masks. She’s had Catboy for a while, but she really wanted the other two. I discovered it was cheaper to buy a set of three, so when the new stuffies arrived, I tossed the extra Catboy in my closet and wrapped up the other two, and she was absolutely thrilled.

A few weeks later, she barged into my room and stumbled across the extra Catboy. So we explained what happened and said she could keep the extra toy if she wanted to. My husband suggested that she could give him a mustache and turn him into Catboy’s evil twin. She thought that was amusing, and went on her way.

Half an hour later, she barged in again, this time in tears. She explained that she “actually took Daddy seriously” and went ahead and gave Catboy a mustache, and now she changed her mind, but it was too late, because she used permanent marker. She then dissolved into sobs of real, terrible sorrow and regret.

 My first struggle was not to burst out laughing, because Catboy looks hilarious with a mustache. The one she gave him has a little twirl and looks very evil indeed. 

My second struggle was to resist doing any of the things I would have done in the past, if a child had come to me with a problem like this.

In the past, if I had been feeling cranky, I would have told her that it wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t worth crying over, because it was just a toy and she does have another toy, and some kids would be happy to have two Catboys.

If I had been feeling sympathetic, I would have said I don’t want her to feel sad about a birthday present, and I would have ordered a replacement on the spot (for a grand total of three Catboys) to make her stop crying.

Or if I had been in a hurry, I might have just tried to distract her, make it into a joke, or change the subject, so she would forget her problem and be cheerful again.

Behold: I have been in therapy for several years, so here is what I did instead.

I held her and rubbed her back while she cried, and said I could see how sad she was and how bad it felt, and how I know she wishes she hadn’t done it. And we just stayed with that for a while, and were sad together, until he started to calm down a little. In pop psychology terms, this is called letting her “feel her feelings.”

Then I said there is a name for what she’s feeling, and that name is “regret.” I told her regret is when something seems like a really good idea, so you do it, but then you suddenly realize it wasn’t a good idea. I said that everybody does things and then feels regret sometimes. She is a kid who loves words and loves to understand how human beings act, so giving her a name for what she was feeling was important; and it was important to let her know that it was a common human feeling, and she wasn’t uniquely foolish or uniquely suffering. This also gave her something intellectual to focus on, and broke up the storm of feelings somewhat.

Then I told her that sometimes, we feel a lot of regret over something, and it feels really bad, but sometimes, after a while, we figure out a way to make it work, and then it stops feeling so bad, and might even start feeling good. I said that it was okay to feel bad right now, but that she probably wouldn’t feel this bad forever. I said that everybody knows she’s really good at figuring stuff out and finding ways to have fun with things, so she could probably someday figure out a way to have fun with Evil Catboy — or, as I was by now calling him in my head, Señor Secondthoughts. I wanted to build her up a little, and remind her that she’s capable of rising above this. And I wanted her to know that this was going to be something she herself would be dealing with. 
 
She was quite a bit calmer by this time, but I know she has a habit of suddenly reminding herself of what she was upset about and getting worked up all over again; so I seized the moment and distracted her with some other topic entirely. She took the bait, got excited about the new thing (some snack or something, I forget what), and off she went, leaving Señor Secondthoughts behind.  
 
She has since re-discovered this mustachio’d villain, and it doesn’t seem to bother her at all. 
 
Here’s the important part: This is not a formula for making everything better. That did happen in this case, with this particular kid, for this particular problem she had. But even if she hadn’t responded so well, I would have been happy with how I handled it, because it’s not about the problem right now. It’s about the kid and her future.
 
More and more, I’m realizing that my job as parent is not to fix my kid’s problems, and it’s definitely not my job to make them stop feeling bad and start feeling good as quickly as possible. You can do that with babies, but once a kid is old enough to have a conversation, they’re old enough to start talking about feelings, and learning what to do with them. 
 
When a kid is upset, my first impulse is usually to try to push past the bad feelings, either with sternness or with sympathy. But even if it does quiet the kid down quickly, this is just papering over an emotional mess. The mess will still be there, and the kid will not have learned any skills for how to clean it up when it inevitably happens again. 
 
I had a big revelation: Part of the reason I want to fix things as quickly as possible is because my kid’s strong feelings elicit strong feelings in me; and sometimes, that’s actually what I’m trying to manage: My own feelings, not my kid’s. It’s very normal to feel impatience or disgust or distress or pity when a kid comes to you sobbing. But it’s not fair to make the kid to change her behavior so that my feelings about it are more manageable. This doesn’t help the child at all. It doesn’t equip her for the future, and may even teach her awful mental habits of inappropriate shame and nameless resentment that will emerge in various unpleasant ways for the rest of her life (not that I would know anything about that, twitch twitch). 
 
My job isn’t to make her shush. My job is to teach her how to be a human being who will inevitably make mistakes, feel bad about them, and live to tell the tale.
 
So this is how we do it: We let kids feel their feelings. We name the feeling, and we call it normal, and let them know it’s okay to feel this way. Then we talk about what might happen next, and remind them that they do have the power to move on and be awesome. And then we do something else. You can actually do this with kids of all ages, using age-appropriate terms. 
 
Important: Sometimes, you just don’t have time for this, and that’s okay, too. Sometimes a little kid is melting down and you absolutely need to be somewhere, so your only choice is to scoop them up and deal with it later. This, too, is normal. But if at all possible, it is a good idea to deal with it later, and not just chalk it up to a kid being bad. 
And sometimes you just blow it. Sometimes you’re not the ideal parent, and you handle things wrong. And what is this called? This is called having regrets. It feels bad, but etc. etc. etc. See?  You can do this for yourself, too. 
 
When you do have time to go through all the steps, though, remember that it won’t always result in a calm, happy kid, but that’s not really the goal. The goal is having a kid who has emotions, knows it’s okay to have emotions, and has some clue about what to do with her emotions.
 
That’s my goal for myself, as well. We can do it! Señor Secondthoughts is here to cheer us on.  
 
 

Humility in parenting can help heal the past

My brother is a therapist, and he says his clients don’t talk much about being hurt by their parents.

Okay, that’s not true. Let me back up.

When I first started seeing a therapist, I had a lot to say about the things my parents had done wrong. I was doing so many things differently, and better than my parents had. I also had a lot to say about the things I had done wrong AS a parent, and how afraid I was that my kids would be justifiably angry at me for all the ways I had screwed up.

It’s a strange place to be in: Simultaneously recognizing just how wrong your parents were, and being honest about how much it hurt you, and recognizing just how wrong you often are yourself, and being honest about how much it hurts your kids. How do you even live that way? How do you move forward?

In my less fraught moments, I had to admit that, for all the stupid and awful things they did, my parents had certainly done better than their parents — and it was also likely that my grandparents had done better than their parents. I floated the idea that, if things kept up on this trajectory, and every generation improved on the previous one, then within a few decades, we’d be a race of gods. I’ll have to get back to you about how that works out.

The pattern is a real one, though — up to a point. We see what our parents have done wrong, and we don’t make that mistake. No, instead we invent brand new mistakes to make instead. We would hate for our kids to miss out on all the delicious angst and resentment that should come along with childhood, so we make sure we come up with something for them to correct when they have kids of their own.

I’ve thought about it a lot, and there is a real answer to the question “How do you live that way?” — that is, there is a way to live with yourself when you’re simultaneously aware of how much your parents did wrong, and how much you’re doing wrong yourself.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

 

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

What counts as a work of mercy?

Several years ago, I was in a group of parents, mostly mothers, talking about our lives. We circled around to a favorite topic: How to make sure we had an active spiritual life, when every bit of energy and every moment of the day was taken up with the most mundane obligations: wiping bottoms, fetching juice, cleaning up spills of said juice, wiping away tears related to said spilled juice, and wiping bottoms again.

One of the more experienced mothers suggested that, when we give one of our own children a drink, we are engaging actively in our spiritual lives, specifically, by giving drink to the thirsty, which is a corporal work of mercy.

One of the few fathers in the group scoffed at the idea. It doesn’t “count” to give your own child a drink, he argued. You have to do that; it’s your job. It’s the bare minimum, and you definitely don’t deserve any accolades for doing the bare minimum, especially when it’s something so easy and basic as handing a sippy cup to a kid.

I remember the conversation so well because I was a young mother with several small children at the time, and his response crushed me. I felt there was something wrong with his argument, but I wasn’t sure what, so I assumed he was right, and I just needed to try harder.

But I’ve had years to think about it, and I think I’ve teased out his errors. There are several, and they are common.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

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It’s easier to recover from being spoiled than from being abused

One of the toughest, potentially most painful, potentially most rewarding parts of being a parent is sorting through what you experienced yourself as a child. As soon as you start raising a child of your own, you have to figure out which parts of your childhood you want to live out with your own kids, and which parts you want to leave behind forever. Everybody goes through this, whether consciously or not.

The huge, unwieldy question of “How will I discipline my kids?” is especially tough. It strikes at the heart of so many profound issues, and the stakes are so high.

Like most of the really tough things in life, there are perils on both sides. If you’re either too harsh or too lenient in how you discipline your child, it could truly harm them, and that harm can ripple out to affect their relationships with other people and even with God.

So yes, it’s important to get it right. But there’s some comfort in knowing it’s not actually possible to get it completely right. You are going to make mistakes. You are going to be inconsistent, and give mixed messages to your kids. This is just how humans act, and I’ve never seen even really wonderful parents get it exactly right.

But I’m here to tell you this: If you are going to err, it’s far better to err on the side of laxity than on the side of harshness. This is not because being spoiled isn’t bad for kids. It is.

But if your child is going to have to recover from one extreme or the other as an adult, is far easier to recover from spoiling than it is from abuse. And there are all too many parenting philosophies calling themselves “discipline” that are really abuse.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Image: FeeLoona via Pixabay

A few things I’ve learned about teens, conflict, and discipline

I like teenagers. Good thing, too, as we currently have five teenaged kids living in our house (as well as two kids who have graduated to full-blown adulthood). They’re so much nicer to be around than when I was that age. They’re fun to talk to (well, sometimes); they’re funny (well, sometimes); they’re creative and interesting and helpful (well, sometimes). I like teenagers.

Well, sometimes. A lot of the time.

But still, there is conflict.  A teenager’s body grows in fits and starts, and not always in graceful proportions; and their psyches are doing the same thing. Even when they’re not suffering from hormonal tumult, they’re trying to make what is truly an excruciating transition from childhood to adulthood. It can get ugly. And no, I’m not always patient and understanding. But I’m also not always the raging volcano of injustice and retribution I was afraid I would be.

Conflict, and the need to impose discipline, are pretty much inevitable when you’re raising a teenager; but unless there are serious mental health problems and/or your teen is doing something massively dangerous or destructive like using hard drugs or running away from home, it should be possible to have a relationship that includes things besides conflict and discipline.

Here are a general principles I’ve learned…

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image: by daveynin via Flickr –  Creative Commons

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)