FIVE O’CLOCK MARKETPLACE KIDS; Raising “At Risk” Children in the Bible Belt

 

 

                       

“You know how I was late to school today, Mom?  Well, when I got there, I could tell that my teacher was really disappointed that I was there.  I think she was looking forward to a whole day without me there.”

I didn’t know how to respond.  Children always know how adults feel about them, whether or not they can articulate it.  “Wow,” I said, “that must have been really hard to see.”

“It was,” he said.  “Sometimes I try to make her happy, but I think it would make her happier if I just wasn’t there. No one wants me at school, Mom.”

My child had high needs in the classroom.  He had a teacher aide part of the day but still struggled with attention, completing tasks, and not distracting his classmates.  He was never the child to get picked first for a group project or the child asked to take something to the office.  In all fairness, had he been sent to the office for a delivery, it is unlikely the teacher would have seen him again for some time.  The kids in his class groaned and even cried when they were assigned to do a group project with him.  He was difficult to get on board, had ideas that didn’t pertain to the assignment, and was always breaking things they were working on.  And yet he was always so eager in the good ways also – eager to share… eager to give hugs….eager to smile and interact… eager to get to the next class… eager to finish class.  His eagerness to please was without bounds, and he usually failed miserably at the thing he wanted the most.

The Parable of the Vineyard

In Mathew 20:1-16, Jesus tells a parable about a group of vineyard workers waiting to be hired for labor.  The owner of the vineyard went out early and collected his first wave of workers, promising to pay them one denarius for the day.  Then again around 9:00 in the morning, he saw another group of workers in the marketplace with nothing to do and invited them to work for him.  This time he said, “I will pay you whatever is right.”  He did the same thing at noon, 3:00, and 5:00 in the afternoon.  To the last group he said, “Why have you been standing here all day doing nothing?”  They responded, “Because no one has hired us.”

Growing up in a farming community, I am not unfamiliar with the ways of day laborers.   The marketplace must have been the place where landowners went to find workmen.  The workers hired first are always the strongest, the most skilled, and the ones with the best reputation for working hard and completing their jobs.  Landowners know they must arrive early to get the best labor because everyone wants that quality of workers.  The unique thing about this landowner is that he got the best labor force and then continued to go back until the very end of the day.  The 5:00 o’clock crowd were clearly not desirable hires.  Maybe they had some sort of disability, maybe they looked weak, maybe they had a reputation for ignoring directions, maybe they carried contention with them wherever they went, and maybe they were just lazy.  They were the 5:00 o’clock crowd for a reason.

What does the 5 O’clock crowd look like?

  • The small fifth grader who is always picked last for soccer because he is one foot smaller than everyone else.
  • The awkward office mate who never gets invited for office lunches because conversations with him are never enjoyable.
  • The highschooler with ADHD whose impulse control issues mean he is constantly in BIG trouble. Plus this kid can’t even remember to take out the garbage every day. Trusting him with anything else would be ridiculous. 
  • The twelve-year old girl who creates conflict in every situation she participates in. Trouble follows this little one.
  • The child with a developmental delay that isn’t capable of understanding or following directions.
  • The convicted felon who struggles daily finding work because of his record.
  • Children with histories of complex trauma.
  • People with mental illness.

This 5:00 o’clock crowd was not a crowd of stellar citizens.  It was a crowd of marginalized persons.  They were the reject crowd.  They were passed by over and over and over again, and yet still they stood at that marketplace waiting for someone to hire them because their NEED was great.

Here is the beautiful thing about this parable.  The landowner calls the misfit crowd to pay them first.  They had only been working for one hour, and he gives them a FULL day wage.  He then goes on and gives everyone the same full day payment.  It makes the ones hired early-on angry.  They weren’t angry because they were being cheated.  They were angry because the master was being generous.

I promise I am getting to the parenting application although it has taken me longer than usual this time.  Jesus gives us what we NEED, not what we DESERVE.   Is it possible for us to treat our children with that same gentleness and kindness?  Can we give them what they NEED and not what they DESERVE?  Can we give a 5:00 o’clock marketplace child so much grace that we are giving him/her the tenderness, affection, pride, and inheritance equal to that of the child that gets up before dawn to work? Can we do this even if they never earn it, but always NEED it?

Parents with the Jonah Spirit

I have met some parents that have what I call a Jonah spirit.  After Jonah went to Nineveh and the Ninevites turned to God, Jonah became very depressed.  He wanted the Ninevites to die at God’s hand.  His response was, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, O Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”  Jonah was so angry at God for not giving the Ninevites what they deserved that he wanted to die.  Parents with a Jonah spirit want to punish their children more than they want to help their children.  They want to make their children suffer the way they have suffered.  These parents are score keepers and their children are always behind.

Here is the thing that 5:00 o’clock marketplace kids suffer all day.   They endure rejection after rejection.  They have huge insecurities.  They irritate their teachers, forget assignments, get in fights, steal food, get suspended, antagonize, never sit still, etc.  They compare themselves constantly to other kids who have favor with adults.  I work with parents that feel like they MUST constantly punish these 5:00 o’clock marketplace kids.  They feel as though they can punish these misbehaviors away.  They feel as though they MUST give these children what they deserve.  They often quote verses in the Bible about judgment, obedience and the “rod”.

The message of the Bible is undeserved mercy for all of us.  You probably read the parable thinking you would have been picked early-on in the day.  Maybe in this world you are everyone’s first pick; maybe you are an overachieving, hyper-responsible person.  In God’s eyes, we are all the 5 o’clock crowd getting mercy none of us can earn, getting salvation none of us can pay for, inheriting the kingdom without being born into royalty.  I will end with this quote by Dr. Karyn Purvis.  “Don’t expect children to act like Jesus; instead, just treat them like Jesus would.”  Can you treat really hard kids with kindness they don’t deserve so that they can experience a connection they have never had?


When Meeting Kids’ Needs Is No Longer Fun

“You have never had to do anything this hard in your life,” our teen son said to us after being given the job of raking and moving an enormous pile of leaves to the front yard.  We burst into laughter.  He felt so persecuted, when in reality he could move those leaves a thousand times, and it wouldn’t come close to the amount of time, energy, agony, stress, effort, and money that we have put into raising him.  Kids are naturally self-centered.  Even the most responsible, hard- working, compassionate kids are naturally self-serving.

Children have a hard time seeing adults as having needs, much less seeing those adult needs as being above their own needs in that moment.  “That is not fair,” they say when parents have to work instead of taking them to the movies.

I was trying to determine when I became less self-serving, and I would have to say it was after adopting my children.  At the time, I thought I was a very thoughtful adult; now I look back and see how selfish I was.  Honestly, at the beginning I met their needs to keep them alive and to keep me from losing my mind with their crying.  I can actually remember having meltdowns that first year, realizing that I always had to take care of them.  I had to feed them twelve times a day even if I was throwing up, had three doctors’ appointments, had no food in the fridge, and had a migraine.  Their needs never ended and weren’t based on my needs at all.  They were just so incredibly immature about it all. Didn’t they understand at four months and fifteen months that I had important needs also?   At least my spouse understood the limits of my human capacities on a bad day, but not the kids.  They kept asking to be fed and comforted all day long, no matter what was going on.  They also never got on the same sleep schedule so someone was always awake!

The kids just kept demanding, asking, and needing, year after year, year after year.  Somewhere along the way, I became the “need meeter”.  Somewhere along the way, I developed an enormous satisfaction in meeting their needs.  Kids train you well like this.  You give them your full, undivided attention, and they give you a dimpled smile.  You give them every ounce of your energy, and they choose you above everyone else.  They wrap their little arms around you, and all is right in the world.   I would drive for an hour to a kids’ museum and spend the day watching them play and laugh, enjoying every minute of their delight. I would sit and rock a sick child for hours or all night to comfort him/her if needed, and the satisfaction I received from soothing my uncomfortable child is incomparable to just about anything I can imagine experiencing.  And the discomfort I felt at my chid’s discomfort was to be avoided at all cost.  It was torment for me to see my child in distress.

Something shifted in the pre-teens.  I was still the “need meeter”, but only on their terms.  Sometimes they needed me desperately and for hours, and other times they didn’t need me at all.  Meeting needs became less satisfying and more sacrificing.  Making them their favorite snack when they grumbled and rolled their eyes at me just didn’t do it for me anymore.  Teenagers prepare you for the world of separation from your child.  I couldn’t have imagined when they were one-year old leaving them with anyone unfamiliar even for a minute.  Now I imagine and look forward to a day they will be independent, having their own adventures.  There are so many things I love about having teens, but doing things for them has lost its luster.

I just announced to them they would each be shopping for and cooking one meal per week.  My child who is a planner is making hot dogs.  My impulsive child who should be making the hot dogs is apparently making pork roast with sides.  If you knew my children, you would be looking forward to the hot dogs and dreading the pork roast at this point.  I am finding a new enjoyment now.  I am enjoying watching my children become independent.  They are really as cute as when they were toddlers navigating this big adult world for the first time.  I have started giving them their own forms to fill out at the doctor’s office, and my son misread “marital” and asked me what his martial status was.  He said, “That is asking about the military, right?”   I laughed hard and loud with him because he can laugh well at his own expense.  He also asked me if PMS stood for psychic metal skills.   Apparently for a couple of years now when I say, “I am PMSing,” that has been quite confusing to him because as far as he knows, he has never seen me move metal with my mind.

The shift between enjoying meeting needs and not enjoying it anymore has been gradual and a necessary part of them feeling more independent.  When this shift doesn’t happen, parents end up resentful, and children lack the skills for independence.  I have worked with parents of adult children who still wake up their children in the morning, remind them of doctor’s appointments, and do their laundry.  When the shift from need meeting to supporting independence doesn’t happen, it leads to very unhappy parents and entitled, angry, and insecure kids.  In talking to adult children in these situations, it becomes clear that they feel incompetent.

Tweens and teens want to be competent.  They want to start doing things alone.  Don’t miss the window of time when they begin to flirt with independence.  If you do, they will decide independence isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, and it is awful nice to let mom and dad still do everything for you.  Here is a list of suggestions for kids that age:

Let Them Fill Out Their Own Forms

  • Let them fill out their own forms at the doctor’s office and write their own checks for school activities. In writing out their own checks, they, of course, would need to balance the checkbook. They will need your help for a while, but not forever.

Let Them Fail

  • Tweens in the kitchen is a lot like having toddlers in the kitchen. They create a huge disaster and often make things that are inedible.  Still, let them explore.  Give them the job of cooking one night a week which would include making a grocery list of supplies.  Don’t do the thinking for them. If you know something is missing from the list, don’t rescue.  Kids learn better from natural consequences than from conversations.  They may forget to add the hot dog buns once, but they won’t forget twice.  In case you are wondering how the pot roast turned out, my son burned a $14 roast to the consistency of a brick.  The next time he planned a meal, it was a manageable meal for him (frozen pizza with our favorite toppings added, a garden salad, and strawberry smoothies) and turned out perfect.

Don’t Let the Eye Rolls and Whining Discourage You

  • Kids this age are just amazing at staying in this seemingly constant state of complaining about everything they have to do. Most people don’t like to fold laundry or clean a bathtub, but that is just part of real life.  Parents often avoid the discomfort of the battle and do things themselves.

Concrete Learning

  • Encourage your kids to make their own money. Kids this age often have business ideas. Let them run with these ideas.  My daughter who is thirteen has a pet-sitting business.  We encouraged this business with a few rules of our own.  She has to create her own schedule, clean before the initial pet visit, and clean up after the pets leave.  Just last night she went to meet a neighbor to discuss a potential job coming up.  I don’t make those arrangements for her.  It is her business. She has developed so many skills around this business of hers and makes a good bit of money that she promptly deposits in the bank.   Kids this age can’t see what they don’t have to do.  If you are calling everyone, writing everyone thank you notes, etc., they will not consider those things as a necessary part of having a business.

Free Time is Very important

  • Some kids don’t have any responsibilities at home because they go straight from school to soccer, and from soccer to piano. By the time they get home, they are rushing through homework to get to bed at a decent hour.  Activities are great, but they often come at the cost of children not learning to be competent individuals.  They don’t have time to load a dishwasher, do their own laundry, or prep a grocery list.
  • Creativity is born out of boredom. Creativity, like every other child venture, is messy.  Deal with it.  Let your child take apart the toaster or dig through the trash for craft supplies.  Let him spend an hour inventing cookies you know aren’t going to turn out because no one added eggs.  Let them take the hammer and nails and make themselves a fort or shelves for their room (that will promptly topple over). Let them write a play script, write a letter, get into the sewing supplies, and many other things that are so much more wholesome than screen time.

Most children decide between the ages of 11-13 what they are good at and want to invest their time in.  More often than not, this becomes the career that they will also pursue as adults. Think back to yourself at that age.  If you are an engineer today, you were probably driving your mother crazy taking things apart.  If you are a nurse today, you can look back and see that you have always been a caretaker. This age is full of promise, potential, and fun.  So stop meeting every need and start supporting their need for independence.


When Parents Lose Their Minds over “Flip Sequin” Shirts

There is a new fad called “brush changing sequins”.  You can find these appealing, brushing sequins on everything from key chains to bedspreads.  I had a little girl come into my office with a flip sequin t-shirt on the other day.   It was dark blue with a large, glittery silver heart on the front.  I am thirty-seven, almost thirty-eight years old, and let me tell you that I had to restrain myself from reaching out and brushing the sequins up and down on her shirt.  Instead, I went to Ross and bought a “brush changing sequin” pillow that everyone in my family was always snatching out of each other’s hands. My children are teenagers, and this pillow was making them act like toddlers.  Since it was causing so many family problems, I took it to my office.  Now I only have to snatch it out of the kids’ hands that I work with, and since I am quite a bit bigger, I can flip those sequins whenever I want.  I am only making part of this up.  The moral of this story is that the “brush changing sequin” items are very, very alluring.

I got a call from a parent to come into a school meeting for her child accused of sexually assaulting another child.  Now the parent was understandably in a panic, and initially I was shocked.  As it happens, a little girl named Holly was wearing an irresistible “brush changing sequin” t-shirt to first grade.  Jony had never seen anything like it.  It had a fantastic unicorn on it that was bright purple and pink on one side, and then when flipped it turned shiny gold and silver.  Holly spent much of the day rubbing her hands on her chest, flipping the sequins.  Jony also spent much of the day using his hands to flip the sequins on Holly’s unicorn.  Jony remarked over and over again how much he loved Holly’s shirt.  Holly was inviting other children to flip the sequins on her shirt but was getting annoyed that Jony, who sat next to her, continued to flip them without permission.

Here is the kicker… Holly’s parents came bursting into the school the next day claiming seven year old Holly had been sexually harassed by seven year old Jony.  Legally, any unwanted touch can be considered harassment (check the law if you doubt me).

A word of advice… I know that your child is dying for one of these new items of clothing.  I am guessing the fad will end as quickly as fidget spinners and silly bands. And once again, it leaves me wishing I could have invented such a useless, brilliant thing that would make me millions overnight.   But while this is the fad, please don’t let your child wear these to school and expect that children will keep their hands off them.  They will NOT.  Children are “action oriented”.  They won’t say, “Show me how that shirt works.”  They will just try it themselves.  This does NOT make them sexual fiends.  This makes them normal.  So if you are going to let your child wear one of these shirts to school, please have patience on these poor children who are facing a major distraction made up of completely alluring shiny things that feel so satisfying to brush up and down, up and down.  If you don’t understand the allurement, then try it.  Trust me, it is addictive.   If this is too big of a problem, then act like an adult, skip the clothing, and buy your child a pillow instead.  Then you and your child can fight over who gets to hold the pillow and flip the sequins while you are watching TV.

By the way, the child I work with was very impressed that I bought a pillow just like the shirt she had on last week.  I responded, “You know, you were having so much fun flipping those sequins, I wanted to try.”  Her response, “Oh, Dr. Melody, you should have just asked me.  I promise I would have said, ‘Yes’.  You did not have to go buy a pillow for yourself.”  Sometimes children are the most reasonable humans.

 

 

 


When No One Brings You a Casserole

A casserole is the ultimate comfort food for me.  It doesn’t matter what the ingredients are.   They are almost always creamy warm comfort, oozing with cheese.  My husband who is from Mexico does not understand casseroles and is always very suspicious of the ingredients.  He asks, “What is this, anyway?”  I say, “Cheese.”  He looks at me as though that is not a very convincing answer, and I wonder how I could have married a man who is so mistrustful of cheese.  When we brought our children home, our friends all signed up to bring us dinner for a month.  More often than not, friends showed up at our door with warm casseroles – cream and broccoli, chicken and rice, and always, always, with cheese on top.

Casseroles are often brought to people enduring some type of loss or hardship.  They are a warm expression of comfort given to remind people that they are not forgotten, given to acknowledge grief; however, not all hardships are shared.  Parents are more likely to share, “My child has leukemia,” than “I just had to call 911 and have my teenager admitted to the mental hospital.” Both situations are tragic, but in the first, help is called for on social media and at church podiums.  People flock with promises of prayers and start a dinner train.  Updates are posted and shared on social media.  Money is sometimes raised, and generosity is experienced even from strangers.  In the latter example, however, parents often keep quiet. Rumors spread, people whisper, but grief is not shared.  People don’t know what to say or how to ask.

I heard parents say once that they were collecting stories to tell at their child’s wedding.  The immediate thought I had was, “That must be nice.”   It struck me that so many of the parents I work with do the opposite.  They collect stories they will not tell.  They stay alone.  There are hurts parents can’t share –  shame so deep, wounds so raw, regrets they can’t speak, pain that never ends, and the heartache of broken children they can’t repair.  These parents suffer alone, retreating like an armadillo rolling quickly into an armored shell.  No one can be let in.  They don’t get casseroles and promises of prayers.  They don’t get invitations or sympathetic glances.

There are things inside of this rolled-up shell that no one really wants to see.   When they ask “How is everything?”, they really don’t want to know, and if they do want to know, your radar goes up.  You must protect your family.  There are things inside of this shell that are so holy, so broken, so precious, that you must retreat.  Retreat – a word that sounds like surrender, but to these families it feels like a war.  There is no time for socializing.  There is no time for small talk.  There is no time for texting.  There is no world outside of the shell.

This is the place no one visits.  People talk about these places in whispers, but no one wants to go there. The suffering is too raw.  These are the prayer requests never asked for.  These families rarely ask for help.

 

Here are some of the families rolled up in a shell:

Mental illness in the family

Mental illness hospitalizations

Incarceration of family member

Addictions within the family

Children with disabilities that don’t improve year after year

Adoption disruption in a family

Sexual abuse within the family

Families of those in fulltime ministry

 

How You Can Help a Family that is Quietly Suffering

Give a practical gift that can’t be refused

You can send a card in the mail with a restaurant gift certificate.  You can order pizza for them and tell them when it will be delivered.  You can hire someone to clean their house or pick up loads of laundry. Unless you have been in a forgotten place, you can’t imagine what these small gestures mean to a family.

Invite them over

These families generally feel isolated and are often excluded from social events because there is an assumption that their lives are just too complicated for fun.  Include them anyway.  Their lives will often continue to be hard, and a fun night out is often the exact thing that is needed.

Say Something

Don’t fill the space with false reassurances or spiritual words that minimize suffering and normalize their pain.  It is Ok to say, “I don’t know what to say, but I really wanted to reach out to you,” or “I just wanted you guys to know that I am thinking about you.”  If you have a history of similar suffering, and you are comfortable sharing that, this can be an incredible comfort.

Don’t Give Advice

If things were as simple as an outsider looking in and offering a formula for fixing the problem, don’t you think the problem would be fixed by now?  These things are complicated. These families are often living day by day, just trying to make the next right decision.

 

 


How Motherhood Turned Me Inside Out

I can remember the first time someone criticized one of my children.  My son was about a year old, sitting on the floor in a white onesie.  A neighbor was having tea with me while he played on the floor.  She looked over at him smiling and said, “Have you noticed there is something wrong with his toes?”

I had noticed. In fact, my now teen son jokes about his toes often. “Mom, God put all the good looking on my face and forgot about my feet,” he actually said this morning.  “They are some funky feet.” We laughed together when he said this.  However, when “that woman” who no longer deserves to be called “my neighbor” said that, I felt something I had never felt before.  I had been flipped inside out, vulnerable, and completely exposed.  The tears took me by surprise. There were so many, and although I was willing them – no, begging them to stop – they kept coming.  I scooped up my son, went to my room, and sobbed.  I had never felt this vulnerable before.  “I am stronger than this,” I told myself as the tears kept flowing. Later that day, I bought him a board book about baby toes and how much moms love them.  We read it over and over again, and I still can’t get rid of it because it comforted my heart to be doing something about the “foot” situation.  I read it thinking, “By golly, he might have ugly feet, but he will never know that”.  My plan failed miserably and beautifully.  He knows his feet are ugly, and he could care less about it.

I am not a person that is easy to pick on.  I grew up with four brothers.  Our house was full of boys who celebrated my toughness and dissimilarity to other girls.  I was good at taking care of myself and others. This comment would be the first of hundreds that have undone me as a mother.

As a professional, I sit in countless IEP meetings advocating for the kids I work with.  I am bold, determined, and composed.  As a parent, I sit in IEP meetings begging my tears not to betray the strong presence I need to have.  They do not listen.  They betray me every single time.  I am such a blubbering mess in those that I determined not to attend any more IEP meetings without my own IEP advocate and my mom.   Yes, I am 37 years old, and I try not to attend any IEP meetings without my mom.

Why do we feel so incredibly vulnerable as moms?  I believe it is because, frankly, there isn’t a d*** thing we care about more than our kids.  We care so much that we stay turned inside out much of the time.  We both find a Hercules strength we didn’t know we were capable of, and cry so many rivers of tears we never imagined were part of this journey.  Motherhood kicks a**.  Motherhood makes you feel like creating a new drink that mixes caffeine and alcohol…energy and calm…snatch your child out of the street and restrain yourself from strangling them!  “What! That isn’t a new drink?” you ask. Then it was certainly created by an exhausted mother.  If you are wondering why I am using asterisks instead of cuss words, it is because my children read my blog, and I would never live down cussing around them.

I thought this would get easier as my kids got older, but it doesn’t.  It just gets harder.  I am no longer the most important voice in my children’s lives.  Peers voices get louder and louder, and they are never as gentle as my voice.  Kids develop insecurities and hurts you can’t fix.  And you, poor Momma, are never more happy than your most unhappy child!  It is both the curse and the connection in motherhood.  You can’t stay connected if you don’t stay tender.  So stay tender, cry a river, put on your armor and cuss very quietly.


Unseen Kids; The Silent Drowning of Siblings of Special Needs Kids

They say that drowning is a silent death which is what makes it so dangerous.  Muffled voices underwater, limbs flailing where no one can see them, and then under they go.  I have worked with many siblings of special needs kids.  They tell the same story.

“I feel invisible.”

“I don’t even feel like a real kid.”

“My brother/sister always comes first.”

“It is my job to get everything right because my sibling isn’t capable of getting things right.”

“No one sees how I hurt, or how scared I am.”

“My mom/dad has no time for me.”

As a parent of a special needs child, I get it.  It is like your family is in a boat, and it tips over. Your first thought is to rescue your kids. Only one of them can’t swim. You hear his screams, and you swim toward him.  You know your other child is fine because she is a strong swimmer.  Time passes, and you still haven’t managed to get your child to safety. Your strong swimmer starts to weaken.  A person can only tread water for so long. Still, you don’t hear her cry out, and your hands are full with your special needs child.  Everyone in the water is doing the best they can, really.  Still, the unseen child has to be rescued, guided, or accompanied to the shore before she drowns.

Here are some helpful tips that we have learned:

  1. Alternate sleep and wake times.

My higher needs child goes to bed first, and I wake him up later.  In this way, I have time every day to connect with my daughter. Sometimes we play games, lay in bed and talk, or watch her favorite show together.  If you were to quantify the time I spend attending to each child, it would still be far from fair, but she has uninterrupted time almost every day with one of us.

  1. Make the time you do have count.

If your “unseen” child has a doctor or dentist appointment, keep her/him out of school, or at least take her to lunch.  If you are taking a work trip, take that child with you.  Even if you are just running an errand, include her and stop for a milkshake.

  1. Check- In frequently.

Think about how difficult your special needs child is for you, the pressure you feel, your inability to rest, the fears you have for his/her future.  Your “unseen” child feels all of this, but he/she is so much more vulnerable than you are.  She needs to be able to talk about her own very real grief and fears concerning her sibling.  She needs to voice the injustice, her anger, her sadness, and her jealousy of other people’s families who are not like hers.  The grief is hers also.  I have found that if you join a child well in his/her distress about a special needs sibling, she begins to be able to express compassion and grace toward her sibling.  If you can’t join her well in her distress and don’t check in with her frequently, anger and resentment grow.

  1. Don’t obsess about fairness.

I heard the phrase “treating unequal’s equally is not fair”.  This is very true.  If you have one bag of M& M’s in your purse, and you know one of your kids ate a huge breakfast and the other hasn’t eaten all day, is it fair to split the M&Ms in half?  Life isn’t fair.  One child may get more of your time, but the other child probably has more privileges.

 

We have to reach for these kids and hear them before their heads go under the water.  We have to hear their muffled voices before their faces go under water.  We have to see the strain in their muscles before they fatigue and go under. Their lives depend on it.  A child can only tread  water so long alone.  They need our presence.  They need our attunement.  They need to know that even though their needs will never be as big, they are equally important.  They need to know that even though time is not allocated fully, we see the hours stolen from them.  They need to have a voice and a parent willing to sit with the discomfort that we can’t fix everything for our kids.


Surviving Middle School When it Sucks

Let’s face it. Middle school sucks. There is this food chain in middle school, and everyone is in survival mode trying to stay off the bottom of the food chain at any cost. Kids do things in middle school that they wouldn’t do at any other age. They are all pretty terrified of social rejection, and regardless of their popularity status, they all feel rejected at times.
I spent my 7th and 8th grade years in a Russian middle school. I spent the first 13 years of my life in Mexico, so to say it was a shocking change was an understatement. I went from the top of the food chain to the bottom so quickly that I had no idea what had happened or why I was there. I had never been at the bottom of the food chain before. It was a lonely place, and “no one” wanted to be seen with me there. I mean there were a few kids that would cast compassionate looks my way, but they were only a few notches up from me and didn’t dare to stick up for me.
Nothing about me fit in. I had this green Land’s End jacket, while all the other girls had wool jackets with fur-trimmed collars. I had gore-tex hiking boots, while the other girls had sleek, tall leather boots that they changed out of as they arrived at school into high heels. I never owned a pair of high heels until I was in my late teens. They wore short skirts, makeup, and looked like college girls going to a frat party. I looked like a cross between a pioneer and a mountaineer. One thing I do credit my middle school years with is learning Russian pretty well. I learned quickly that Americanka suka means American bitch. I have always had a knack for languages like that.
Just a few months into a truly nightmarish school experience, I decided I was going to start escaping. There was an area where everyone hung their jackets and changed out of their boots that looked like a clothing area from a department store. All 300 kids that attended the school had layers of winter gear that they peeled off at the beginning of the day. There was a custodian who had kind eyes and looked older than Methuselah whose sole job it was to lock the coatroom and mop up the entrance from the constant snow that got trekked in. The entry way was right in front of the cafeteria where my lunch was stolen daily. She was a witness to it all. I asked her to let me hide in the locked coatroom area. She opened it for me every day, any time I needed her to. She was always at the front entrance, right next to the coatroom with the keys hanging around her neck. I ran to the back of the area where no one would see me and waited until the coast was clear. I would hear the keys jingle and the coatroom unlocked, and she would tell me I could leave. I would run. Every day, I would stay at school as long as I could endure, and then I would hide in the coatroom. Some days I never even made it to school because it just felt too unbearable to go. I always left our apartment at the same hour though, so my dad wouldn’t suspect anything. My dad thought I could handle anything which in some areas made me feel undefeatable. He didn’t understand that no child can handle that type of bullying well.
Here is the thing. I was not a kid who avoided school. I loved school, and I loved people, but middle school showed me what children will do when they are at the bottom of the food chain. They will do just about anything to escape. For some kids, that looks very different than what I did. Some kids escape by checking out, some by acting out, and others by pushing every boundary possible. I was fortunate to have a mom who was happy to see me no matter what time I got home and never uttered a whisper of my prison break escapades to my dad. She never lectured me on how I would never make it into a good college if I kept skipping out on school. She knew that I loved school. She saw past my behavior, understood that I was doing what I needed to do, and didn’t give up on my future because of it.
Be patient with your middle schoolers. This is such a hard stage in life. Protect your middle schoolers. If that means taking their phones away, then do it. Imagine a child who is at the bottom of the food chain and who never gets a break from the harassment because he/she has constant access to a phone. I believe this is why the suicide rate for young teens has increased. Pull them out of school if you need to. The damage done can be so much worse than a few years of being inconvenienced by homeschool or trying to figure out how to pay for another school. Individualized Education Plans will not protect your child from other children.

Here are a few rules of thumb I tell parents to consider:

When you notice your child’s behavior changing, do not ignore it.

If your child is withdrawing more, or ending up in trouble all the time, don’t wait to address it. If your child is sulking off to his/her room more, avoiding social activities, or zoning into electronics without moderation, address it. You still have so much control at this age. I have parents say things like, “I really regret giving her a phone in the fourth grade. Now she is on it all the time, and any limits I set lead to huge meltdowns and attitude.” The assumed powerlessness in this statement is very telling. You still have so much control at this age. They aren’t paying their own phone bills or driving themselves around town. Add the structure or nurture that they need, and middle schoolers need lots of each.

Don’t always believe what the school administrators or teachers say. Listen to your child’s behavior and your intuition.

I don’t know if teachers have a training class on what they should all say when a child is failing socially, but since I attend many school meetings for clients, I can say that one thing I hear often is – “This is such a kind class. We haven’t had such a kind class in a while. This child has plenty of friends. We see them having a great time with other kids.” Kids who grow up to be very kind adults can still be exceedingly cruel in middle school. Believe your child. Once I was visiting a classroom where two girls were constantly and cruelly picking on this child I was working with. I was talking to the teacher about it as she assured me how kind these two girls were. Then right in front of us as the child I was working with entered the classroom, these two girls made a beeline for her and said, “You stink today.” The teacher’s jaw dropped. I don’t believe she was lying. She just wasn’t paying attention.

Supervise their electronics appropriately.

Yes, your child might be receiving 100 texts a day, but if you don’t have time to make sure these texts are safe and free of harassment, then your child should not have an iPhone. There are ways to only allow certain numbers to text your child or call your child, and I recommend using these safeguards. I have seen texts that are sexually harassing starting as early as 5th grade. I have seen group texts telling a middle schooler he/she should just kill him/herself already. No child can handle this.

Believe in your child.

Look past middle school and the craziness of puberty, and have hope. They will settle down. They will stop seeing rejection around every corner. Can you remember doing things in middle school that shock you a bit today? You probably can. Have patience. This is such a hard age. They will find themselves.


If I Could Be Your Memory Keeper

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What I hope you remember…

Please remember how you nestled into my arms, and we read Llama, Llama Red Pajama over and over again…..

Remember how I made sure to let you know we were skipping the scary picture where baby llama was alone in bed, eyes wide, terrified of a noise.

Remember how your freshly conditioned curls left spots on my t-shirts, and how I didn’t care at all.  I breathed you in, held one of you under each arm while you took turns turning the pages for me.  My arms were always full with both of you.

Please forget the strain in my voice when I told you to stop squirming because I couldn’t read the wobbly words.  Please forget my tired sigh when you turned three pages instead of one, and we went back and forth looking for the right page.

Please remember how I encouraged you to play.  I let you climb tall trees, play on the roof, use tools, and get dirty.  I let you build ziplines, launch businesses, and always jump in creeks.  Remember how I packed extra clothes in the car, just in case you got wet, even though we weren’t planning on getting wet.  Remember how I didn’t care about the “stay on the trail” signs or the “no outside food sign”.  Remember what a rule-breaker I was. We only followed the ten percent of the rules that kept us alive; the other ninety were up for grabs.  Not drinking bleach is a good rule.  Staying on the trail is a dumb rule unless you are on the edge of the Grand Canyon, and then it falls in the 10% of rules we follow.

Please forget how tired I was at the end of our adventures.  How my laughter would turn to agitation as I was trying to get everyone back in the car.   Please forget when I didn’t have the energy to read a story at night, and I told you to “get back in bed” even though you were just coming for a quick hug.  Night-time was so hard for me.  I was always so tired, and you never stopped wanting me.  Please forget me pleading for you to get in bed and stay there.  Please forget the words I should have swallowed but instead spit out at you… unkind words that I immediately regretted.

Please remember how I fought for you whenever things got rough.  Remember how when that big boy hit you on the playground, I was possessed with an unnatural anger that even frightened me.  Remember how I always defended you, even when you were in trouble and it was your fault, especially when it was your fault. Remember how I defended who you are and not what you did.  I spoke of the character I saw in you.  I spoke the truth about you. Remember how I cried for sadness when you told me you had to miss yet another party at school.  Please remember how my heart always broke with yours.

Please forget my tears when the school phone calls came.  Please forget my impatience with you when I know you were doing the best you could.  Please, please for the love of everything holy forget any words that added to the discouragement you were already feeling, any actions of mine that confirmed what others believed about you.  Forgive me for sometimes letting fear get the best of me, for letting fear take control.

Please remember how we woke up hours before the sun broke across the horizon to do physical therapy.  Remember how I gave you an M&M after every lap you crawled.  Remember how we laughed until we cried when we had to do that horrible exercise where I had to crawl behind you and pull on your legs.  We would end up in a heap on the floor, never able to complete the activity, laughing so hard.  Remember how we pretended we were ninjas or soldiers in training.

Please forget my impatience when your body resisted the pattern.  Please forget how I rushed you out of bed in the morning, when your little arms were still wrapped around my neck, heavy with sleep.  Please forget how many mornings you and I would both end in tears of frustration and exhaustion, lying on the mats on the floor.  And to my little one that didn’t need it – please forgive the hours and years of attention that you missed out on.  I wish I had more to give, needed less sleep, had more energy, and could juggle everyone’s needs without dropping the balls.  I wish I hadn’t dropped so many balls.

Parenting is the hardest job.  It is a job that requires a paradox of abilities.  You must stay very strong and very tender at the same time.  You have to both care a whole lot and not care at all.  You have to learn to pay careful attention and learn to actively ignore.  You have to be strong enough to fight the longest battles and tender enough to comfort the deepest wounds.  You have to have a high standard and yet always choose the relationship above that standard. You have to have super- sonic hearing and also be half deaf. You have to forget offenses toward you and pursue repair even if it isn’t your fault.  You have to set realistic expectations but always believe in fairy tales.   Parenting is hard. I don’t always do it well, but I hope you remembered how hard I tried.  I tried so hard.  I made so many mistakes.

I wish I could pick your memories.  There are so many sighs I would like to breathe away.  There are so many words I wish I could take back.  Please remember how I sought to repair my offenses toward you.  Please remember that I always reached for you, and how we started the day over on a clean slate.  Remember that you can bring anything to me, anything at all, and I will always want to be in relationship with you.  If you remember anything, please remember this. If only I could be your memory keeper…

 

 


Parenting Shame

 

 

Shame: canstockphoto24272637a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.

The phone was propped on my shoulder as I listened intently while my friend was describing her two-year-old son’s first public temper tantrum.   Her first child had been very compliant and would not have dreamed of calling any attention to herself in public like that.  She said, “I was shocked when I saw him on the floor kicking and screaming over something he didn’t get that he wanted.  I was amazed at how quickly embarrassment flooded me.”  Then the woman behind me in the line smiled and said, “Honey, they all do this.  He will stop eventually.”

As she recounted her story, I felt tears roll down my cheeks even before the sadness hit me. I remembered what it was like when I had a toddler melting down everywhere we went.  I couldn’t recall one time when someone was kind to me like that.  At best people would avoid me. Often people glared at me and mumbled loudly under their breath.  They mumbled things like, “She shouldn’t leave the house if she can’t control her kids,” or “He needs a whipping,” or they would turn to their own child and loudly say, “I am so glad you know how to behave in a store.”   At times, because his behavior was so confusing and chaotic, people would gather around with cell phones ready, trying to determine whether or not they should call someone about this woman with the out-of-control child.  I was shocked by how quickly I was flooded with emotions despite the years that have passed without a public meltdown.  Although today I think about those times with sadness and even tenderness toward both of us, this momma who was struggling so much, and my sweet boy who was struggling even more, in those moments I remember feeling ashamed.

There were times when people, in an attempt to be kind, dismissed the behavior when I tried to explain it to them.  This too made me feel shame.  If every two, three, or four-year-old does this, then why I am so overwhelmed?  What is wrong with me?  When I told people that my son never napped, they said things like, “Oh, I have a bad sleeper too. I am lucky if he takes an hour nap.”  They didn’t hear me.  My son NEVER NAPPED, ever! For years he also slept poorly during the night, many nights as few as four hours.  We were beyond exhausted.

There is a proverb in the Bible (Proverbs 10:1) that says, “A wise son brings joy to his father, but a foolish son brings grief to his mother.” This proverb strikes me as so interesting.  Why is it that the author only mentions grief coming to the mother? The author was clearly aware that a mother’s view of herself is connected to how well her children are doing.

It is interesting because the more frequently I speak out publically about parenting shame, the more I realize that every parent experiences shame to some degree. There is enough shame to go around.  Mothers feel shame for not spending enough time with their kids, for choosing not to homeschool, for struggling with anger, for beginning the day badly or ending the day badly.  There is no end to parenting shame.   Working mothers feel shame for not spending enough time with their children. Stay-at-home moms feel shame for not enjoying the time they do spend with their children.   I think that there is this expectation both from society and from ourselves that we should be able to “fix things”.  Isn’t that a mom’s job, to teach her children how to behave?  Even though most women would rally against that statement, they live as though this is a sacred truth.  This creates a situation where you feel responsible for others’ behaviors even though you can’t control anyone but yourself.   In this post, I am not referring to irresponsible parents who do not provide enough structure, supervision, or nurture for their children.  I am referring to parents who have the tendency to be overly responsible.

Shame is immobilizing.  Shame makes it impossible for us to be present with our children, and it brings about this sense of urgency to our parenting that is always unhealthy.  It makes us focus on the outcome, which we can’t control, instead of the process, which we can. We can only control our own behaviors.   Shame makes us want to isolate ourselves and lash out at those we love.  Here are some things that I have found helpful in dealing with shame as a parent.

Identify Your Own Shame Triggers

The first step to dealing with shame is to recognize it and identify the people you are around, or places you are in, when you get triggered.  Maybe it is your aunt who always raises her eyebrows when your child interrupts her, or the grocery store with the long lines where your child always acts out. Just identifying it accurately can take some of shame’s power away.  Simply recognizing it is sometimes enough to stop the wave of anger that often comes after a person feels shame.  Shame is very different than guilt.  The message of guilt is “I did something wrong”.  The message of shame is “I am wrong” (Dr. Karyn Purvis).  In identifying your triggers, you can also learn to avoid them when possible.

Your Relationship with Your Child is More Important Than Anyone’s Expectations of You or Your Child

Remember the relationships that are long lasting.  Do the right thing for the person with whom you will have a life-long relationship.  Maybe the teacher communicates that she expects you to have a consequence waiting for your child after school.  You experience shame when she tells you what your child did at school, but you know your child has already been punished.  Always pick your child.  You will always have a relationship with your child, and you may or may not remember his/her 1st grade teacher’s name in five years.

 Good Repair Creates Intimacy

Remember that no one does everything right.  There is no parent on earth who gets everything right.  Every parent loses his temper at times, and even shames his child at times.  There is no intimacy in a relationship if there is not restoration.  These relationship ruptures are opportunities to increase our intimacy by making it right with our child.  Whenever there is a rupture in the relationship, make sure that you restore things.  Children are so forgiving even if you can’t physically restore something.  Just saying, “I wish I would have done things differently. I made the wrong choice,” shows a child that you are willing to make it right.  Restoration that is genuine, honest, and vulnerable draws a child even closer to the parent than before the rupture happened.

Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of Yourself

On another note, it is best to avoid thinking about the future which can be very overwhelming for a parent who is feeling immobilized.  Just focus on one day at a time.  What does your child need today? That is a question that even a very overwhelmed parent can answer. On the other hand, a question like, “What does your child need to learn before high school?”  Is completely overwhelming for a parent whose child is struggling in kindergarten.

 


Life on a Raft; isolation in special needs families

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“Who is going to take Ava to her soccer games this week?” my husband asked, concerned. 

“I don’t know. I will think of someone to call,” I responded, although I cringed at the thought.

Did I have anyone to call?  When was the last time I had spoken to one of the moms who had kids in Ava’s class?  I wracked my brain and remembered one playdate over the summer she had had.  I called that parent, but she was unable to help.  She was sweet and gave me a list of other moms that were carpooling.  She didn’t understand; carpooling was part of the island life, and we had moved away from the island years ago.

School used to be such a place of isolation for us.  I dreaded going into the public school more than anything, and yet I will bet that I was called in more than any other parent there.  I can remember one time being called into a meeting with Jony’s second grade teacher.  She was a safe place for me and for him.  She had kind, warm eyes and a generous smile, and although she couldn’t reign in my son’s behaviors, she always landed in a place of compassion for him.

 I put on my cloak of defense that morning – the cloak that demanded the IEP be followed and his needs be considered, the cloak that protected me from my own tears and vulnerability.  She greeted me with a warm hug, and I felt the cloak slipping off my shoulders.  I don’t remember what the meeting was about – there were so many meetings!  About 10 minutes into the meeting, the P.E. teacher barged into the room.  He said, “I am sorry to interrupt your meeting, but I heard you were here, and I need to talk to you about Jony.”  He didn’t look sorry; he looked angry.  His speech was pressured and irritated.  I don’t remember what he said, but I remember how I felt….smaller and smaller, wishing the ground could swallow me up.  Before he was done, the school counselor came in to pile on the complaints, full of criticism, judgment, and annoyance.  I remember standing up, willing myself to advocate, but I couldn’t find any words, so instead I babbled, “I need to go – maybe you can just email me.”  I rushed out the door, hoping I could get to my car before bursting into tears, and the music teacher rushed out of her room as I hurried by.  “Do you have a minute?  I really need to talk to you about Jony,” she said.  “No, I don’t,” I replied as I hurried past her surprised gasp.  I made it to the car before bursting into tears. 

Experiences like this pushed us into isolation.  We only participated in the mandatory holiday parties.  I became an expert in avoiding eye contact and conversation at school activities.  Too much friendliness always seemed to lead to a conversation, and that always led to complaints about Jony.  I used to pursue social contact, but as the years got more difficult, I began to avoid it.  It was just so much simpler not to interact too much with people. 

We started out on an island with everyone else, but we were sometimes pushed, sometimes moved away willingly, until the only place to go was out to sea.  We built a raft; at first it was rickety, and the water threatened to overwhelm us, but eventually we added to it, making it sturdy and safe.  We created our own world away from the island where we created our own entertainment, safety, peace, and sometimes rest.  There are other families on rafts.  We see them and bump into each other once in a while.  Sometimes our rafts are tied together for a bit and we visit, but each raft is built for the specific needs of the family, and often these needs conflict.  On one raft a child can only calm down by using his iPad, but on our raft, iPads are prohibited.  Mostly we relate from a distance: phone calls, emails, texts, and thoughtful gifts.  

Then there are the island people.  We still have island friends.  They are kind, warm, and flexible, and they work at staying connected.  It is hard to stay connected to a raft family.  When we finally get to the island activity, we spend the majority of our time meeting needs and little time engaging in the social activity. 

Then there are the children on the raft who are only there because of the needs of other children in the family.  These children long to be part of the island life.  They live in constant dissonance, wanting both to be on the raft and to be on the island.  They go to all the island  get-togethers, but they usually can’t host any.  There just isn’t any room on the raft for extra people.  Even if there is room on the raft, they understand that islander children don’t understand raft life.  Islander children wonder at the high structure of the raft, paired with what seem to be low expectations.  There is great sadness for these children.  They understand all they miss, and as a result develop a greater sense of maturity. The parents on the raft understand that island children can survive on a raft, but raft children cannot survive on the island.  It is a price they know is unfairly paid by the child who would thrive on the island.

We still live on the raft, but we visit the island frequently now.  At some point along the way, we got used to the sweetness of the raft – the way it doesn’t matter what you have there or who you are – the way you focus on all the treasures you have, and they seem so many while you are on the raft – the closeness of the people on the raft and those sweet friends that join us here on occasion.  In changing schools, we have met a community of raft families, families that do all the things island families do but with different expectations and much different conversations.  All of us, regardless of jobs, social standing, or finances, have chosen to leave the island because the water is kinder to our children.   We started to feel less isolated and more connected.

There are some families that are able to move onto the raft for a season, coming back to the island restored. Other families stay on the raft forever. Every family’s goal is not to move back to the island, because some children will never thrive there.  For these families, the goal is to find the sweetness of the raft. The goal is to connect with the people on the raft, and to stay connected with people who matter to you.