Archives for category: Family

Even the word suggests a loss of innocence: for the parent as much as the child.

Eternity drops this soft, blanket-swaddled lump of sweet, pink nappy/milky/doughy life into your arms, and from the first moment, he or she begins pushing away.  A friend of ours, an artist with a singularly thoughtful view of life, told my husband and me that one day, as he was walking and rocking his infant son, it dawned on him that the rest of their lives would be spent in essential conflict: he would grow to love his son more and more, while his son would grow more and more to want independence.  Thus, John said, he realized that where being a parent was concerned, he was destined for grief.  (It did have a good effect: it caused him to reconnect with his own father over a sustained period of time.)

John told Tom and me about that in our kitchen over brunch one Sunday morning when our son was halfway through law school, living in his own house, juggling school with a job, and we were lucky to see him once a week.  Our daughter was in England, and wouldn’t be home for 15 months. Not only did I share John’s feeling of tragedy that our children leave us — and if we’ve done our job well, leave us very easily — but also the concomitant realization that as they leave, our longing for them doesn’t. While our birds-flying-the-coop experience only exhilaration at their growing independence, we experience indescribable sadness. We are delighted to see them launched in the world, making a go of it — but their lack of angst and need for us is easily misinterpreted as lack of love, because child love is so very different from parent love. Child love is admiration and gratitude and affection.  Parent love is someone taking a pick-axe, plunging it into your chest and ripping out your beating heart, without anesthesia.

What has this to do with discipline? Everything, because that first moment when the thought enters the child’s head that, though mother said “no,” one might still choose “yes,” represents the free will and individual sovereignty that is, at some very basic level, the foundation of humanity. Mutiny is always an option! And the very premise of discipline is the lie that we can control the environment fully enough that our children will have to submit to our preferences – yet really, it’s a deception, because children always have the ability to defy us, though they endanger themselves seriously to do so. We just hope they don’t figure that out.

We see it at just a few months of age: the baby that once only snuggled in our arms is now pushing back, pushing away, expressing a preference: don’t hold me this way, hold me that way. Don’t cover my eyes! Give me your breast! I want my binky! Put me down! I am going to push up like this with my arms until I have the upper-body strength to roll over.  And then I’ll push my legs at the same time, and I’ll be moving! AND I WILL BE ABLE TO GO WHERE I WANT TO, AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME.

It’s cute and endearing and we’re so proud, until we see Junior about to tumble down the stairs, or hear him yell “NO, YOU BIG FAT UGLY!” at the preschool teacher, or suffer through his engaging us in that necessary process of testing: “I have to know who will win the battle between you and me.” And where some children will respond with laconic submission to “no, Johnny!” others will narrow their eyes as if to say, “oh, yeah?!?”, elevate the battle to a war, and suddenly your heavenly, pink dough-ball has become a rebellious heretic. Mutiny! How dare he?! Doesn’t this only happen to “bad parents”?

It happens to everyone. The only parents who don’t go through this phase of dismay are those whose children are. . .what can I say?. . . weird. Trust me: you don’t want weirdly obedient children.  Ecclesiastes says there is a time and a place for all things, and weirdly obedient children at age 3, or age 15, end up dumping their wives or husbands at age 42, embezzling office funds, buying a Lamborghini, and running off with a pole dancer.

So your dismay that instead of a pink angel from heaven, you have procreated a demon from the pits of hell is normal. And your demon is normal. But your proper normal response is not to shrug your shoulders and let the demon behave demonically.  I’m sorry to say that your only option is to do your job. You must parent. You must put on your armor and resolve that this little hellion will not get the best of you. You can stir love and intelligence and creativity into the pot. Often those ingredients help. Humor always helps. Especially because you are not going to know what the **** you are doing. It’s like trying to hit a bull’s eye blindfolded.

You can read books, including this one, and sometimes books can help. The best books are written by people who understand that not all children are alike, and they won’t all respond to the same kind of discipline. It has nothing to do with intelligence, talent, or your ability or worth as a parent. Most children respond well to definite rules and clear consequences. These “linear” children frankly make it a lot easier on their parents, I think. I have one of each: a linear child and a free spirit. Parents of linear children can be a bit judgmental of children who are more willful and have to be persuaded.  Who hasn’t watched Supernanny or any other shows of its ilk on TV, both for the satisfaction of seeing little tyrants learn to behave, but also to pick up some strategies for gaining control over your own obstreperous kids? The nanny shows make liberal use of timeouts, but in my experience, timeouts have limited effectiveness. (Have you ever seen a bedroom filled with tiny shreds of Kleenex, torn up during a 15 minute timeout? or had a child dismantle an un-mortared brick sidewalk because she didn’t like having to sit on a step for 16 minutes? Do you really want to go for round two after that? Maybe Grandma’s switch chosen from the backyard is a better idea.) Some children would rather sit for the rest of their lives than give in to you. The truant officers won’t take kindly to that when the morning class bell rings, and it will be your fault. You are the parent.

I recommend starting with the linear approach: straightforward, not too many edicts but enough to ensure safety and courtesy, teaching “we don’t do that,” then using sharp, simple words; then timeouts, then bottom pops. (Oh, yes! where would we be without those mini-spankings that kids almost seem to crave, and will keep misbehaving until, driven half out of your mind, you administer one?) Remembering to “catch them being good” can be great, but it requires always imagining the terrors you child might be committing at any given moment, and if our brains don’t work like that, maybe it’s a blessing. If you do see un-pre-meditated (that is, sincere and uncynical) remarkably good behavior, I think quietly giving a treat in private is okay once in a while – but you don’t want to instill self-consciousness. “Suzie, I saw you picking flowers for your Grandma, and that was so sweet.  Here’s a Hershey’s Kiss for my sweet girl.” We don’t want Suzie to start picking flowers just to get the chocolate. The fact that she does it naturally, on her own, is what is lovely.

But whether taking the positive rewards approach or the negative consequences method, or — best — some combination thereof, discipline is hard, and breezy recommendations imply a binary good/bad, black/white ecosystem that never exists in real life.

If disciplining “linear” children isn’t easy, guiding free-spirit, non-linear children can fill you with paroxysms of self-doubt. Self-doubt, dear parent, is lethal, and some children quickly learn to plant its seeds in you. Once the child knows you’re doubting yourself, you’re in trouble. I recommend being very chary of making broad and loud early pronouncements with strong-willed children about specific things that absolutely will not be tolerated, because all they have to do is overcome one absolute stricture one time, and your authority is compromised. A smart, wily child will rise to the challenge and test you, or engage you in manipulative reasoning, leading you down a twisting rabbit-path until the standard that seemed so all-important has now been reduced through a series of “except when’s” to a mere nicety. While we teach niceties, if we punish free-spirited children for not observing them, they will never be in our good graces. Linear or free-spirited, our children must feel like they are mostly getting it right. It was a sad day when my linear son, aged five, announced miserably, “I am the worst one in this family!” It was a conclusion he had drawn from my constant barrage of correction, and it broke my heart. I stopped, backed up, held him on my lap, reassured him, relaxed some of my mandates, let go of some obsessions and generally softened my approach.  Granted, parenting is not a democracy, but it is a relationship, and not a dictatorship. Every child needs to feel like success is in his reach.

I’m a strong-willed person, but I had to accept at a certain point with my free-spirited child that if it came down to a battle of wills, I would lose. She would out-starve me, outwit me, out-manipulate me, and out-charm me. If willfulness were won in an arm-wrestling match, the backside of my hand was flat on the table before we ever started. If I were going to be successful teaching her discipline, it would have to be done some other way.   Yet we were still responsible for her in the eyes of God, the state, her school, and we wanted a future full of possibility for this very bright, precocious child. We could see how some of her habits could create havoc in her life and the lives of others. The last thing we wanted was to launch a “spoiled” child on the world, for others to have to clean up after.

If I had it to do over today, given a non-linear child who would choose anything over losing a war of wills, I would spend less time laying down the law and more time trying gently to “sell” the right behavior. I would do less yelling and reacting with cynicism when she erred (I know! It’s awful!  You see, anyone can write a book about childrearing!), and appeal more to her desire to honor us. I would express more concern and optimism and less anger. Confronting my own undergirding, my edicts and bitterness and anger and accusations were spawned by fear and despair: fear that I would find no measures to instill better habits in her, and despair for what her life might be if she never learned to defer gratification. In reacting with fear and despair I forfeited faith and trust in God, and at some level, respect for her, even in her undisciplined choices. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one of the five foundational truths is the dignity of man. I think it’s very important for parents to remember to treat even their misbehaving children with dignity: that alone is proof that we have faith that God will eventually teach them and steer them right. While they live with us, we can and will do all in our power to guide them, but reacting with despair or harsh remarks shows a lack of faith in Providence and the future. It hurts our children terribly when we reveal no confidence in their ability to improve. If we’re praying for them, we should have every confidence in the world that things will turn out beautifully in the end.

Households with a combination of linear children and free spirits have their own challenges: linear children rightfully think that the free spirited child is getting away with murder, and that you simply aren’t putting your foot down as you should. They probably don’t know about all the times you tried to be authoritarian that failed.  They think you should just be tougher — because your being tough worked with them.  Their sense of justice is offended. This is understandable.  All I can recommend is talking with them, explaining about different learning styles, how some people don’t respond well to authoritarianism.  You can point out that you tried it again and again, and it simply did not work — and because we love her, we have to try every approach until we find something that works.

As for my own free spirit, on her own, now that she’s a young adult, her faith in God and her sense of personal identity has helped her create a magnificent life. Somehow, with the cover of living with her parents removed, now that it’s obvious to all the world that her errors are her responsibility, she crosses most of the i’s and dots most of the t’s that were ignored in high school.  Today her brother is as proud of her as she is of him.

And what her parents don’t know won’t hurt us.

Now, really. What kind of mother would I be if I took pictures of my kids in time out?

I don’t want to discourage parents whose children don’t seem naturally to get along.  That day did arrive for ours — I think it was when our children reached middle school.  But until then, they were  great friends and had hours of hilarity together for years.  It was always a mystery to me why this was so, and I was very grateful, but I never felt like I could take credit.  Often, however, I would ponder it, and analyze why it might be. My brother and I, who were about three years apart, played happily in preschool, but then competed and fought like France and Germany (I was France, he Germany) from the elementary years on. My husband and his sister, five years apart, were too separated by age to have much interaction: they were more like England and Greece.  But our two were delighted with each others’ company, their four-year age difference notwithstanding — so much that for years they didn’t have friends over as often as they might.  They had wonderful built-in playmates in each other.

One thing my husband and I did as parents was to try to inspire in our son’s imagination what it might feel like to be the younger, just to encourage him to be empathetic and gentle with his sister.  For nearly four years he had been an only child, doted upon and showered with attention, affirmation and encouragement like a crown prince by his subjects.  How could we make that up to his poor sister, who always had to share our attention with a precocious boy four years her senior?  I filled Andrew’s head with the concept that this clumsy girl baby must surely feel entirely inadequate next to her fluent, coordinated, adept, confident older brother.  Consequently, in his attempts to win our approval or to be classified as a Good Older Brother, he would exclaim, “Sidney! what you are doing right now? putting ravioli on your head? I have never done that!” “Sidney! You are really good at  dancing! I can’t dance at all!” (“nor do I want to!” — naw, he didn’t say that.  He probably just thought it.)

It wasn’t until years later, watching home videos, that I was shocked to see all of us catering to a pudgy little female tyrant, careening around commanding, “NO TALK, ANDREW! NO TALK!” and if he dared to violate her wishes, backhanding him good! In my worry about the “second child syndrome,” I caved to her every shriek, while long-suffering Andrew quietly acquiesced to whatever the little despot demanded.  This was a completely different version of reality from the one I carried in my mind. Holy moly: Sidney wasn’t to be pitied; she ruled the roost.

But she adored her big brother.  He was her beau ideale. She tried to do everything he did.  One day after a long session of father-son baseball during a family vacation, we were all back in our hotel room sprawling on the floor, when Sidney came in from the adjoining bedroom, baseball cap askew on her head, ball the size of a grapefruit in her right baby hand, bat in the other hand, toddling over to us as if to say, “Play baseball with me!” It was one of those rare moments that shines in all our memories.

As time went on and she gained verbal skills and humor, the sounds of giggles wafted through the house like perfume for the ears.  “How pleasant it is when brothers live in harmony!” Andrew would make funny things for his little sister, such as a large construction paper book entitled “PREWEO EWO.” It was nonsensical to us, but he “read” it to her quite often with great dramatic inflection, as we tried to muffle our amusement. And then there was the little cross of wood he nailed together, and wrote in pencil, “This is the cross of Jesus.”  On the other side, he nailed a elongated diamond, centered on the cross, which made a shape somewhat like a star and scrawled, also in pencil, “This is the star of Jesus.” He was adamant that he made it for Sidney: I guess he had resolved that the job of teaching her theology fell to him.  And on Sidney’s part, she was never offered a piece of candy anywhere — at ballet, at the doctor, at a birthday party — that she didn’t ask for one to take home for her brother.  And as she has been doing with everyone her entire life, she made her brother laugh. Real belly laughter, with dimples to match, for hours on end.

The idyllic years lasted longer than any parent has the right to hope, but they did fade.  The bickering started and seemed to make up in its intensity for the entire decade of bliss that had gone before. Like  a storm cloud that passes over and shrouds any memory of spring, we survived those years, and the cloud passed.

Sometimes it seems that just when parents remark that things are most sublime, a shift comes and fills you with despair. And just when you despair of ever regaining the joy from an earlier time, the scene changes, the characters learn and evolve, and the sun comes back out from behind the clouds.  As we used to remind the child who was bereft when he was losing at CandyLand, “Zings can change!” Take a few deep breaths and wait a bit. You don’t know but what Queen Frostine isn’t the next card in the deck.

How have you dealt with sibling relations in your family?  What has worked well, and what hasn’t?

G.K. Chesterton write about this in Orthodoxy, and while I don't think you must subscribe to all he does in that book to raise renaissance children, I think one element is crucial: you must have a sense of the miraculous, a sense of enchantment, a sense of the beauty of creation. And you must be able to convey that to your child.    Perhaps it requires seeing the world again through his eyes: the magic of a butterfly, the sheer, fragile iridescence of bubbles from a bubble jar; the heartbreak of little blue robins' eggs fallen from their nest; the strains of certain music that cause your baby's fat arms to pump.  These are things that we parents experience almost involuntarily when we welcome our newborns, but they can easily fall by the boards when we're tired and cranky.  Perhaps the challenge as a parent is to maintain that childlike sense of observation even as our children outgrow it. For it is true, is it not?, that all of life is a testament to beauty and wonder and joy.  If we lose that sense of surprise and delight, then it would be no surprise for our children also to lose it. And this entire task of raising renaissance children who then become renaissance adults is about encouraging them to retain their wonder at the world.

G.K. Chesterton writes about this in Orthodoxy, and while I don’t think you must subscribe to all he does in that book to raise renaissance children, I think one element is crucial: you must have a sense of the miraculous, a sense of enchantment, a sense of the beauty of creation. And you must be able to convey that to your child.   Perhaps it requires seeing the world again through four-year-old eyes: the magic of a butterfly, the sheer, fragile iridescence of bubbles from a bubble jar; the heartbreak of little blue robins’ eggs fallen broken from their nest; the strains of certain music that cause your baby’s fat arms to pump.  These are things that we parents experience almost involuntarily when we welcome our newborns, but they can easily fall by the boards when we’re tired and cranky, dealing with the terrible twos or the even-more-terrible teens.

Like many people who respond to the concept of raising Renaissance children, the seeds for the idea were planted in me at a young age. I grew up in a middle-class home in north central Florida, which contributed to my conviction that providing a rich array of educational enrichment to children doesn’t require great wealth.  These days it doesn’t even require that parents be well educated themselves, nor does it require having a two-parent home.  It is possible for nearly any parent, single or married, to open a child’s eyes and heart to the wonders of the world without private-school education, broad travel, or a large financial investment. It can be significantly more challenging to do so if your working hours are long enough that you rarely see your child, or if the culture with which you are surrounded is hostile to the concept. I do not want to minimize the challenges in your case if you are living in such an environment.  In the last chapter of this book, I’ll discuss some ideas for getting help if you have little or no support and yet you have a deep desire to encourage Renaissance values in your child. I would like to help you to believe that miracles can happen for you.

As for me, other than being born into a safe, stable home, my first miracle took place when I was four. My father, a modestly-paid professor of civil engineering at the University of Connecticut at the time, was awarded a sabbatical leave which took our family to Mexico for six months.  This was in 1959, and travel through Mexico was safe and fascinating.  At that very young age, I absorbed the colors, tastes and sounds of a culture quite foreign to mine, and it opened my eyes to the world beyond my world.  Although travel isn’t necessary to awaken a curiosity in children for other cultures and ideas, travel usually does have that impact on children and young people.  (For that reason, I encourage all parents to take advantage of as many safe opportunities for travel as might be presented to your children through their lives, which we will talk about in a later chapter: school trips, church mission trips, trips through extracurricular activities such as competitive sports or other games, musical performance groups, language groups –it’s remarkable the wide array of travel experiences that are available now.)  Although I was only four, many images and experiences from our time in Mexico stayed with me and left me permanently more open to different places, people and food.

But raising children is hard work. Manual work. You can feel, late in the day, as if your body simply will not carry you to the moment when they are safely in bed.  I remember falling in bed myself, once they were “down,” wearing an exhaustion that defies description. Perhaps the challenge as a parent is to maintain that childlike sense of observation even as we feel like we’re loaded down with fifty sacks of four, and even as our children, moving into the surly teen years, pretend to outgrow it. For it is true, is it not, that all of life is a testament to beauty and wonder and joy?  If we lose that sense of surprise and delight, then it would be no surprise for our children also to lose it. And this entire task of raising renaissance children who then become renaissance adults is about encouraging them to retain their wonder at the world.

Don’t despair if you realize that your sense of surprise and delight with the world has dissipated.  You can get it back, and I’ll write more about that in a later post.

In fact, one of the best blog posts.  Ever.

Here's the Angelika Kauffman painting in its entirety.

Four Children with a Basket of Fruit.

Isn’t it lovely?

Angelika (or “Angelica”) Kauffman lived from 1741 to 1807.

She was born in Switzerland and grew up in Austria.  Her father was a painter and taught her to paint. She was multi-talented, and had quite an illustrious career.  A real Renaissance child in her own right!

Okay, so this is, to me, anyway, amazing: I found the banner image you see on the blog yesterday evening. It had all the qualities I wanted — too many even to be able to explain here. I downloaded it and cropped it and posted it, all the while feeling. . .not right, you know. . .because that little angel-on-your-shoulder statement was posted to the right of the image: “Copyright restrictions may apply.” I knew it had to be dealt with. I told myself that the artist might well be someone who does contemporary old-master-style paintings, and he or she might be simply delighted to have his or her work cameoed (is that a verb?) on a blog and a book cover. Instant publicity, right?  Sales, right? But if we had to pay, we’d pay; I was just hoping it wouldn’t be too much. The image was perfect.

So today, when the publisher’s representative called me about some other details, I told her about finding the image, “borrowing it,” and the need for us to find out about rights.  (And, of course, the need for rights to be affordable.) She quickly said that if I would send her the link, she’d get right on it and see what she could learn.

Of course, have I ever been about to wait for someone else to do something like that? Noooooo. I  sent Amanda the link, but I also did some digging myself, and learned — glory be! — that the painting “Four Children and a Basket of Fruit” was painted by Angelika Kauffman around 1800.  It’s on a myriad of poster and oil painting reproduction sites because (yes, it’s true) it’s in the public domain!  The image is perfect for Raising the Renaissance Child — okay, to me it’s perfect — if you disagree, please let me know — and it’s mine to use forever, for anything.  What’s more, the details of Angelika Kauffman’s life will resonate with Renaissance Child fans.  More about that in the coming days.

Just one more way that I feel the guiding hand of Providence on me in this project.

I’ve dreamed about this book for many years.: first when my two children were small, and I saw them responding to a certain somewhat contrived environment that I intentionally created for them.  Later, as they went into their teen and high school years, I grieved that I could no longer write it, because I had failed in the attempt: they seemed to reject everything that I had so assiduously taught them, and raced into the arms of popular culture in all the most horrifying ways, to my way of thinking.

But then, as older parents with older children always reassure, they came back. Gradually, mostly in college, they concluded that our home and family had provided them with special, irreplaceable, cherished wisdom and values, and they even began to celebrate the odd petri dish in which they had grown into cognizant beings, able to make their own choices.

And they told me to write this book.

Maybe, ultimately, that’s why I decided to write Raising the Renaissance Child, after all: because my own children said it was a book that deserved shelf space, and that I was the right person to bring it into being.

Recently there’s been a bit of buzz about the Tiger Mom’s book.  I haven’t read it, and won’t until this is done and safely in the hands of the publisher – too fearful that the Tiger Mom’s voice or ideas will seep into mine.  I might agree with some of her techniques, many of her goals. But I recall that even the Tiger Mom admitted that her child-rearing method wasn’t altogether successful: that at least one of her children rebelled quite seriously, and it caused some relational problems.

Creating a Renaissance home caused no direct relational problems – but that’s not to say we didn’t have any.  The relational problems we had were either because I adopted too much of a zealot’s mentality, and lost my friendly nature as I saw my children temporarily pretend to reject our teachings, or because I myself didn’t live up to the Renaissance values that I espoused. In the ways that I caved personally to popular culture, they felt disappointed and betrayed.

Any endeavor like this, raising Renaissance children through the creation of a Renaissance home, can’t become an overly dogmatic practice.  One can’t be fanatical. One has to bend, and there must be joy in it.  It must be an idea – not an ideology.  I think ultimately, good child rearing is a conversation between loving parents and ever-more independent children.  Maybe that sounds namby-pamby, loosy-goosy, and frighteningly undisciplined.  But in these times, children have too many opportunities to create a secret life about which parents know nothing – the conversation is our attempt to keep ourselves in the mix.  If it’s a monologue pronounced by the parent and unquestioningly submitted to by the child. . .well, Mom or Dad, you’re kidding yourself.  If you’ve raised smart children, Renaissance children, they are going to question, they are going to think for themselves, and they are going to push back when they perceive your mandates don’t align with the values that have been fundamental in your home.  That’s a good thing: the same questioning they do with you will become the model for the questioning they will do with the world.  And that’s what raising the Renaissance child is all about: teaching our young people to reject the tawdry, to seek and to cherish the truth, and to create for themselves lives of beauty, optimism and hope, comprised of things that have lasted centuries and even millennia, and will continue to last.

This is a book for parents of children still-at-home, especially young children, and for soon-to-be-parents, and perhaps for grandparents who hope to apply the suggestions to their interactions with their childrens’ children.  It is not a book for parents whose children are grown. The problem with making parenting recommendations is that one is bound to be met with defensiveness from those whose parenting lives are now, for all intents and purposes, over.  We care too much about our kids, and feel too responsible for the choices we made as we raised them, to be able to accept any critiques, even indirect ones, with equanimity.  So if hostile lobs come from parents who feel guilty about a time in the past, I will state outright: this book was not written for you.

For the intended audience, do not worry if adopting all the suggestions in this book doesn’t feel right.  Take what works for you, and ignore what doesn’t. Most of these tools were ones that my family found worked for us, or other families found worked for them, but a family is a living and unique organism.  Your children will end by loving yours if you, and they, grow to embrace what distinguishes it from every other family on earth.  That’s the miracle of family life, and any true renaissance person knows how to cherish it.

Enjoy the quest.

I’m a professional writer, wife and mom, Anglican, sports fan (especially college football and basketball), music lover, book reader, frequent traveler, more often irritated than I care to admit, more indulgent of others than perhaps I should be — until I think how I, too, want to be indulged.

I think most problems in the world would be solved by laughter, prayer and taking baths instead of showers. Bourbon helps, too.

I’m writing a book about raising children to gravitate toward life-affirming things that have stood the test of time, and to choose those things independently, as young adults.  In my view, the things that last centuries or even millennia tend to be the things that we would want our children to recognize, learn from, absorb, and celebrate. The title of the book is Raising the Renaissance Child, and it will be published by Westbow Press, a division of Thomas Nelson. My plan is for the book manuscript to be completed by June 2013, and for the print version to be launched in late November that year.

I would be grateful if you would follow my blog and contribute your thoughts and suggestions.

%d bloggers like this: