Have you ever noticed that toddler shoe sizes start at the number 5? At least, here in the US. It makes me think about the saying we have, "act your age, not your shoes size." Funny. It's almost as if we correlate shoe size with behavioral expectation. When we have a toddler, how often do we take the time to teach and train her to follow expectations–like not dumping her Cheerios all over the floor while eating? As if she has a five-year-old reasoning that will rationalize the idea that we expect her to grow out of it. And then, when our kids are in their teens wearing sizes 8 through 12, it's not unexpected for them to act like they did when they were responsible for practically nothing more than breathing. As if learning life skills will come through eagle-eye adolescent observation. My daughter is getting married. That, of course, has me thinking quite a bit. A lot of people will talk to me about empty nesting especially since we have a son who will graduate from high school and leave for college within a few months of our daughter's wedding. We'll be down to one. It's such an exciting time in life. I am emotional about not being able to see all of my kids every day or hug them each night, but I find such joy in watching the amazing human beings that they are. Yet I almost feel guilty for not being more loving as a mother since I don't cry myself to sleep each night as people are implying I should. That made me think even more. What is it that helps me focus on the good, capable individuals my kids have become?
In a word, parents. Mine.
I analyzed ways that my own parents helped me become who I am, and I realized that one of the greatest gifts they gave me was treating me appropriately according to my age. I also reminisced about what young motherhood was like–the positive things that I was able to do with my own kids that helped them as children, and me as a parent. I was blessed to have both of my parents present in my life until my father passed away when I was in my 30s, and I am still married to my college sweetheart with whom I co-parent 3 children. I admit that I can only write from this perspective, but I do hope that some of my observations can be a help to any parent.
1. Do the homework
What do I mean by that? Well, exactly that. Talk to a pediatrician, do some research, and know what a child of that age, mental capability or phase should be able to handle. Each child is different, yes. I spent years in an international classroom learning how to communicate and teach children with many different abilities, cultures, races, and societies. There is no certain formula, but there are common threads of what to expect, and how much kids can handle. This article is an example of what Parents Magazine recommends teaching your child before the age of 10. There's a lot of research info out there already done for you! Just because parenting doesn't come with a manual, doesn't mean that you can't compile your own. Take the time to learn your kids. You won't regret it.
2. Education before discipline
I don't know what your view is on discipline in the home, but whether you think you are lenient or strict, we all have a standard. If you ground your kid, take away screen time, send them to their room, spank, or yell. We are reacting to our kids' behavior. Let's make sure it's healthy.
We had a rule in our house. For the parents. Kids were never scolded for something they weren't previously educated about. For example, when someone climbed the pantry shelves, found the flour, and "made cookies" all over the counter and floor, they helped clean up the mess as they were taught certain expectations that mom failed to cover. If I never mentioned the pantry and cookie-baking as off-limits, it was not on them to assume. It was on me to teach them. So we had some laughs and thorough discussion about what expectations mom has in the kitchen. I think we should eradicate the phrase "You should know better than that," and replace it with an inner dialogue asking ourselves, "Did I educate them about that?"
iMOM.com has a list of what she calls creative consequences to help if you're new to the idea of child discipline, but don't forget to educate your child on expectations if we want them to understand the fairness of discipline.
3. Freedom within boundaries
Not just freedom, and not just boundaries. Kids do not do well with extremes in any setting.Since the kitchen was a bit of a haven for me and happened to be where I spent a lot of time while my kids were very young, I enjoyed having them with me. But, it came with the challenge of curious young minds and the ever-beckoning lure of pantry shelves and cabinet doors. So, I assigned the kids a "safe place". They had a drawer in our kitchen that they could crawl or walk up to and empty to their heart's content. It held small pots and pans with lids with all shapes and sizes. Another thing that they were allowed to grab were the wooden utensils. Yup. You guessed it. BOOM. We had many a bangin' concert in our home.
As they grow, these liberties become much more complicated than a freedom drawer. But, if you defer to points one and two you should be able to add to their freedoms as they are able to handle them, teaching what's expected along the way.
4. Make it fun
This one is simple when they are little, but challenging as they grow and start to think that your games are lame. But if you constantly communicate with them, it can be life-saving. Let me explain.
When my kids were very little we would play the "stop game". It was a fun way that we would play a type of "red light–green light". Except I used the word "stop", and they would have to freeze where they were. They could then wait for me to come "tag" them, or ask for permission to run to a marker along the path we were traveling, hoping I wouldn't shout "stop" before they made it to their next destination. It became instinctual for them to freeze when they heard my voice call "stop". Since they knew how to respond to that as soon as they could walk, my "stop" call literally saved them from running out into a busy street multiple times while out and about.
Not to be a broken record, but as you study your child and his development, find things that interest him, and make his life fun. Family outings, activities, and game nights can become more attractive to him than the allure of things about this world that scare us. And that could save him from a lot of trouble.
5. Leave room for error (aka, growth)
Even though this is a list of things that helped me and my kids, it doesn't always work. And this might be the most valuable point I've learned as a parent. Kids make mistakes. They get angry and hit their siblings even though they know we expect them not to. There will be times we have to remove privileges or ground them. But love triumphs mistakes, and they should know that. We can ask them the question, "how can I help you make a better decision the next time you are in this situation?"
As teenagers, my kids sometimes made choices that I wish they hadn't. But they are within an age of freedom where I can't dictate every decision. They aren't going to come to every "fun" family activity or movie night, and they are likely going to do things that make me cry. But that doesn't mean I can't be there for them. One practice that our family has adopted is the x-plan from Bert Fulks. An invaluable tool for keeping the lines of communication open for them on their own time, and helping us feel comfortable with the freedoms they experience as the boundaries disappear into adulthood.
Let's love and respect our kids, intentionally equipping them to become responsible, healthy adults one day. In a few weeks at my first-born's wedding, I might be an emotional mess, but I still fully intend to enjoy watching her soar from the nest!