Every Generation Judges the Next (and usually harshly): Parenting Edition

No, I have not read this book:how-to-raise-an-adult_custom-486b723d84bbdeae0e5b15b621999f90af939d6b-s400-c85

But I am a parent of my times, and so I know ALL about “helicopter parenting.”  Honestly, I can’t take it too seriously.  Do some parents go overboard?  Yes.  In every generation, are there some parents who are outliers of the norm and give the rest a bad name?  Yes.  Am I tired of this discussion?  A resounding YES.

It might be because I’m a wee bit defensive, having just dropped my first kid off at college, and am facing the consequences of “attachment parenting.”  (My preferred name for my parenting style.)  Holy cow, no one told me it would be THIS hard.  I knew it would be hard, but my household is reeling – Spouse and daughter included.  And no one warned me how it would feel to be an “attachment parent,” and have those kids actually grow up into amazing young adults and, gasp, LEAVE.

In case you want to start, yes I have a life.  I have an incredibly rewarding vocation as pastor.  I have deep, close friends I see regularly.  I practice yoga, and I’m studying to be a yoga teacher.  My life does not revolve around my kids.  BUT:  When they were born, I nursed them, and found it very hard to leave them even for a night when they were babies and toddlers.  When I weaned my first because I had a week-long youth mission trip in NYC, halfway through the week, my spouse and son joined us.   I chose Doctor of Ministry program because friends lived in the area, and could watch my toddler for me.    (Daughter came in-womb.)  I didn’t plan it, but I’ve been entirely grateful that my work allows me the freedom to be there for my kids – after school, for sports, for rides (Just not on Sundays.  Or some weeknights.  That’s the gift and curse of parish ministry.)

And my kids are independent, fight their own fights, and when those times come, freely asked us to not get involved.  And we don’t.  But when we’d have the international students of the Hopkins Masters of Public Health over for dinner, and I heard these mothers and fathers leaving infants, and toddlers, and school kids behind, on another continent, for a year – my heart broke for them.  And again, I was thankful I never had to make those agonizing choices.  Motherhood and ministry just worked together, more or less seamlessly, with my personality and attached parenting.

Maybe that’s why we’re floundering so.  I wouldn’t change a thing, but I would warn other parents who are practicing “attachment parenting.”  It’s really, really hard when they leave the nest.

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A guest blogger on Parent as Protector (or, the pain of letting go.)

My dear, dear friend Kim is a few years ahead of me in the parenting role – She’s been through the sending your kid to college transition of life, and her words were so beautiful and clear, I’m offering them here for every parent letting go just a wee bit more, whether it’s the first day of daycare, preschool, middle school, high school, marriage, or moving across the country:

From Kim:

babyWatching my stepdaughter care for her new baby, I’m taken back to the all- consuming, protective love of new parents. She cried when her baby was playfully dunked in the pool during her first swimming lesson. It’s the kind of love where you give your infant swimming lessons.

This little girl’s been treasured since we new she was coming.   And now that she is here, her parents do all of the gazing, adoring, worrying, and protecting of every new parent.

I’m in a different phase now, that of launching grown children in the world. And I think about the balance of Parent as Protector. My young adult children require much less protecting, but it’s still hard to let go.

I remember that defenseless newborn in my arms. I remember sitting in the car crying to my husband after our first-born had his initial immunizations. I babbled on about my inability to keep him from hurting. Looking back, the scene seems comical (and probably hormone influenced). But then, the feelings were intense; love and protection fused together in those early days.

And as my children grew, love as protection became more blurred. They didn’t overlap so neatly. When does love mean protect, and when does it mean trust?   I could find no formula in the parenting manual, so I learned by trial and error, instinct, and conversations with friends. Pulling back on protection demanded a gradual release, with lots of stumbling, second-guessing, and re-negotiating terms.

But it wasn’t and isn’t easy to define those terms, especially when my kids still often look like they could use some protecting. Just this year, I watched one son select his college because it was near a Chipotle. OK, that wasn’t the only reason, but honestly, I think it was the factor that tipped the decision. Then I read the text from his brother telling me that he thought he would take himself swimming with sharks while on a trip to South Africa. How much do I say to each of my young adult sons? Do I trust or protect?

They both went. And survived. And I’m sure grew up some because their choices. But other times I’ve had to watch them get really hurt. When my oldest son went through a difficult break up, I watched him shut down and literally shrink. He lost weight, his voice grew quieter, he pulled back from friends and family. And though I tried, there was really nothing I could do. It was his time to do some more growing, to learn some hard lessons, to build resilience. But it was my time too. At 48, I’m learning humbling lessons about how hard it can be to let go, and to separate protection from love.

I have compassion now for the younger me when I remember that overwhelming need to protect our new babies.   And I have compassion for myself because it’s so hard to overcome that protective instinct as they grow.  But we must struggle, because otherwise our children won’t be ready to launch and be independent, and cope with life.

But it all starts from such a beautiful place. There is a purity in my step daughter’s love for her daughter that is so right and sweet. I could no more speak to her about pulling back and letting Piper struggle and develop resilience than I could convince her to move to the moon. It’s one of the many paradoxes of parenting, this balance between holding tight and letting go. She will and can only figure it out as she goes. As do I.

But who will set my dvr?

Articles abound on how to prepare your kid for college (Reminder to self:  Buy him tylenol, ibuprofen, tums, benedryl, neosporin and bandaids.)  Even though some are cheesy and some are ridiculously expensive and over the top – I’m reminded of just how many onesies I was told he would need when I brought him home from the hospital – it’s nice to have a list to check.

But where is the list of what every parent needs before their kid (selfishly!) takes all their knowledge to another zipcode?

My personal list:

  1. Brush up on all football knowledge so I can ease my husband’s sorrow at losing his #1 football companion.  Practice high-fives, cheers, and memorize stats on Ravens’ players.  Try to stay awake through all 4 quarters.
  2. Begin practicing staying up late so I am awake to pick my daughter up at curfew – No longer will her older brother be around to save me that task.  Warn her that her curfew may change to account for parents who need sleep.
  3. Have him teach me: To set the DVR, to log-in to the cloud, to back up my phone, to update my phone, to work my phone.
  4. Don’t put too much pressure or pay too much attention to his sister who has 2 years left at home, in an effort to express all that parental energy that has no where to go.  Instead, get a life.  (Trust, that like nursing and weaning, that energy will reset to match the need.)
  5. Reconcile self to reality:  I’m getting old, even if 50 is the new 30, an entire phase of active day-to-day parenting energy of keeping track of and worrying and is coming to an end.  Figure out:  Now what?
  6. Trust all the research that says adults whose homes do not include children are far happier and have a higher quality of life.
  7. Remind self:  It’s okay to cry when you drop him off.  But take tissues, and plan fun outing with husband.    Right – re-connect with husband.

Again, I am reminded of how potent these life transitions that are so universal, but so gut-wrenching when they are YOUR life transitions.  The days ARE long, the years ARE short.  This is life.

baby ben copy

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Jesus’ Anne Lamot Moment and Parenting Teenagers

Like every single parent out there, I have great kids.  I do!  Just ask anyone.  The thing is, they are teenagers.  And because lots of people who read this blog also know my kids, I will protect their privacy and just say that our house is not immune to the travails and trials that parents of teenagers go through.  Notice I said the parents, not the trials and travails that teens go through.  Recent research suggests that this time of life isn’t hard, or stressful, or full of the sturm und drang I learned about in Psych 101.  At least not for the teens.  It’s the parents who struggle.  I don’t know for sure how my parents who had  3 teenage girls at the same time did it.  But wow, do I have compassion for all those families whose struggles are of the more extreme teenage type.  Because it’s hard enough with the normal stuff.

This week’s scripture is from Matthew 10:42, where Jesus says that even giving a cup of cold water to someone in need is ministry.  I love this. How Anne Lamot of him!  She is always talking about giving people cups of cold water.  To be perfectly honest, living a faithful life can feel so, well, hard.  Let alone being a faithful parent, whatever that might be.  But a cup of cold water?  Whew.  That I can do.  

And Dr. Barbara Fredrickson’s research at UNC backs up Jesus’ command about cups of cold water.  She says that every small act of kindness and connection we make with another human being changes our physiology – not just our brain – to make us more resilient.  Kindness, even the teensy tiny kind, can strengthen our immune system, lower our blood pressure, calm our heart rate, and forge new neural pathways to make us more compassionate.  How great is that!

And so today’s kindness is challenge is this:  Because the parents of teenagers are living with those same teenagers, sometimes we don’t see our kids the way the rest of the world does.   Actually, this is true for all parents.  We miss the forest in the midst of the daily struggles to get those trees to grow more or less straight.  And we forget, or don’t see, or don’t know, how great our kids are.   If you have the opportunity today to let a parent know something good or amazing or just nice that their kid did, let them know.  That’s like a cup of cold water when we’re trudging through the desert wilderness of parenting.  And also, let your parents know you are grateful they let you survive until you grew up, because it was hard on them.  That too, is a cup of cold water, even if it’s overdue.  

So thanks, Judy and Bob, for not sending all of us to a convent, or shipping us out to the wilderness, or leaving us on an desert island ’til we were “cooked,” as someone in my church calls it.  I had no idea how tempted you must have been.  And congrats.  You did well.  And I know it’s too little but hopefully not too late:  I apologize for how much my teenage self took for granted!  Now I know.  

Pre-Teen Mortification

“Are you guys comfortable with your Korean Heritage?”  my husband asks our two kids as he drives them to middle school.  “Because, you know, I was really embarrassed by my last name and being part Korean when I was your age.”

“O, no, we like it!  We’re fine with it!” respond Ben, 8th grader and Sadie, 6th grader.  “We think it’s cool!”

“O, good,” says my mischievous husband.  “Then you won’t mind this,” as they pull into the crowded school parking lot, with all their friends and peers pouring into the front door.

And he rolls all the windows down, locks the doors, pulls a hat like this on his head – 

Turns up the cd player in the car so he can blast Korean Rap Music (This is long before Psy and Gangam Style was hip) and begins drumming out the beat on his steering wheel with a pair of chopsticks.

They were mortified.  “Let us out!”  “Stop!  Stop right now!” as they frantically try to roll up their windows and escape the torture-mobile.

We laugh about this now that both kids are 4 years older, but at the time they were NOT amused.

Remember those years of being so mortified by your parents?  I’ve thought about what might be going on in the brain that causes such a painful response when we’re pre-teens.  And I’ve wondered a couple of things:

1. There is a specific part of our brains that determine “me” and “you.” In pop psych language, we refer to “boundaries,” and we all differ in our comfort zones.   For some people, that part of the brain doesn’t distinguish me versus you as clearly as it does for others.  (The ideal is somewhere  between the two extremes of complete overlap and no overlap at all.)  Maybe for pre-teens, this part of their brain is in high over-drive of development.

2. Part of the pre-teen’s brain development is to discover, and strengthen, and claim their own sense of “me-ness,” over and beyond their parents “you-ness.”

Yet all the ways pre-teens feel embarrassed by their parents suggests an over-identification with their parents, as though their friends will hold them accountable for their parents’ actions, as though there isn’t any separation between them.  Now that’s a strange reversal, isn’t it, after all the years parents have felt judged by their child’s behavior.  (In the extreme, this “family shame” of some cultures results in brothers and fathers and uncles killing the sisters and daughters and nieces who have “brought shame” upon the family.   Could that be a “me” versus “you” conflation in our brains?)

But for the pre-teen brain, could this mortification at their parents’ mere existence be a wicked combination of two developmental tasks?

1. A frantic, desperate need to fit in, as the pre-teen brain drives its owner to form closer bonds with their own peers, the ones who will help them survive in this world (because their parents, historically, will soon be old and doddering and useless to them.)

2. Motivating that drive is an incredibly painful intolerance for being different or calling attention to themselves in any way that makes them stand out, because at this stage, standing out could threaten their survival (on the African savannahs.)

3. An increased awareness and sensitivity to just how connected they have been with their parents.  The blurring of the “me” and “you” ness of their brains that kept them alive from birth until now doesn’t serve them well at this point and into the future.  This could be because the pre-teen brain is getting better at “meta-cognition,” that is, awareness of itself.

The conclusion?  As pre-teens we are incredibly sensitive.  It’s how we make it to adulthood.  And my husband is amazingly mischievous, which used to delight, then torment, and now makes my teenagers roll their eyes.  As I always say, he makes us laugh; I get us there on time.

In the end, don’t take it personally.  Your pre-teens’ “you-ness” is not a 100% overlap with your own “me-ness.”  And it’s just the beginning.

 

Name it to tame it: Upstairs-Downstairs and Left-Right

What exactly is going on when we throw a hissy fit?  What can we do about it?  And what can we do to help our kids handle their own tantrums?

If you’re the parent of a small child, you’ve been there.  We were at the mall, my kids were three and one, and for whatever mysterious reasons, the three year old had a conniption fit.  In public.  Not even in a store, but in the open-air walkway.  I was sleep-deprived the way only a working parent of toddlers trying to write a dissertation can be.  I gave up; we all collapsed in the walkway, and I let him cry it out.

If you’ve ever lost your temper at work, or yelled at your kids or spouse, you’ve been there, too.

We all lose it at one time or another.  We all have borne the brunt of someone else’s temper.  What is going on?

This video :

http://www.kidsinthehouse.com/video/how-storytelling-connects-both-sides-brain

is for my West Coast friend Rabbi Jill Zimmerman, who runs the Jewish mindfulness network (see http://www.ravjill.com/the-jewish-mindfulness-network/)

since she asked me ages ago how naming our emotions helps calm us down. (I apologize for the ad at the beginning.)

Here, Daniel Siegel explains how a parent can respond to a child who trips and skins her knee.

The right side of the brain is the “experiencing” side, where all our emotions and physical sensations are registered. It is the left side that uses linear, logical, and language thought to make sense of the world.

Okay, yes, this is simplistic, but it helps to conceptualize what is happening.

When we are overwhelmed by what the right side is experiencing – The emotions, the pain – then the right side is in charge. Another way of thinking about it is upstairs versus downstairs, with the downstairs representing the amygdala, which sparks the fight-flight-freeze- faint response.  The upstairs is the executive of the whole operation, the prefrontal cortex.

So, if the right-experiencing side and the downstairs-amygdala of the brain are in charge, well, it can get ugly fast. That’s when tantrums and yelling and outbursts take over, and we feel out of control. Because our emotions are in control.

But, upstairs, the prefrontal cortex provides emotional regulation, and puts the brakes on the impulsivity of the amygdala, keeping us from flipping our lid.  Bring the left hemisphere of the brain on board, to use language to make sense of what is happening, and you can now integrate the experience using all the tools available in the brain.

The linear-language-logical left brain and the executive prefrontal cortex can calm the raging alligator downstairs and soothe the pain felt in the right.

No we can use our minds to decide the best way to respond. All assuming, of course, that our lives are not literally being threatened. If your life is threatened, by all means, let the brain do what it’s designed to do: Fight-flee-freeze-faint.

So, as Daniel Siegel says, you “Name it to tame it.”  Which means paying attention to what you are feeling – physically and emotionally. Help your child name what is happening – that is, what they are experiencing.  The sooner you are aware of what is going on inside you, the sooner the alligator can be soothed.  This takes practice – and it’s best to practice when all is calm.  Right now, this second, how do you feel inside your skin?  Name it.  Make a habit of checking in.  Then you’ll have the skills to use the tools already in your brain.  Name it to tame it.

 

Parenting Advice: Let’s Just Chill

This past week or so I’ve been bombarded by parenting advice and analysis – Maybe if you are on Facebook, you saw this article:

NEW PARENTING STUDY RELEASED, by Sarah Miller: Image 

If you missed it, here’s a summary: “A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go fucking ape shit.” 30127406.htmlhttp://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/shouts/2014/03/new-parenting-study-released.html

Now that we’re all fed up with snow forcing way too much family-togetherness,  everyone has an opinion about our parenting styles – what we do wrong, what we do right (mostly what we do wrong.)    Let’s take a sampling:  

Don’t Help Your Kids With Their Homework
And other insights from a ground- breaking study of how parents impact children’s academic achievement, by Dana Goldstein

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Because guess what?  It doesn’t make any difference in their long-term performance and success.  http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/04/and-dont-help-your-kids-with-their-homework/358636/

Then there’s this one that analyzes what we’ve been told a million times already:  Helicopter parenting isn’t good for anyone.  Our kids need to take risks, get out there, be unsupervised.  Good thing none of US are helicoptering around!  This from the article by Hanna Rosin, “Why not just leave our kids alone.”

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http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/hey-parents-leave-those-kids-alone/358631/

And then this one, by Christine Doran, reminding us to let our kids explore the great outdoors:  

http://www.independent.ie/lifestyle/mothers-babies/why-not-just-leave-our-kids-alone-to-get-on-with-the-business-of-being-children-30127406.html

Don’t get me wrong – I love reading (skimming) these articles.  What I don’t love is how easily I feel condemned, or like it’s already too late for me, since my kids are now 14 & 16.  But then I realized: “tried and true” practices of parenting change every decade, if not more often.  Believe it or not, our grandparents made it through their childhood.  Remarkably, people have been parenting in all sorts of different ways and homo sapiens sapiens haven’t died out yet.  Chances are your kids – and mine – no matter what we’ve done right (letting them play unsupervised football in the neighborhood for hours – yay me!) and what we’ve done wrong (let my daughter hang in her room, unsupervised, for hours and hours on-line with her phone and my computer – boo) our kids are going to make it.  In spite of our anxiety they won’t play the right sports or instrument or learn a second language or make the right friends or go to the right preschool or get high enough SATs to get into a competitive college to have a successful career.  Research shows that’s not what the current batch of 18 – 35 year olds want, anyway, and no one knows what it will take to be successful in this brave new world.  No one ever does, and it’s always a brave new world.  

In 1899, parenting expert Granville Stanley Hall suggested, “We need less sentimentality and more spanking.”  When we shifted from nannies to mothers, women were warned not to “coddle.”  Then 1930s permissiveness shifted to the “self-sacrificing, indulgent TV mothers of the 1950’s” followed by the benign neglect of the ’60s.  (From Brigid Schulte’s book “Overwhelmed.”) 

Now look at us:  North American parents spend not only more time at work, but more hours in hands-on parenting than most any other era or country.  

So, when these articles get you feeling bad about what you have or have not done, take heart.  Next year, there will be different advice.  But here’s some advice for right now:  Don’t parent out of fear or anxiety.  What values have staying power?  In our house, the mantra is, “Be kind.”  Find what your family’s motto is, keep it short and simple, and stay true to that.  Don’t worry about the best GPA, academic success, travel team, college acceptance.  What really matters now and for every tomorrow?  For me, it’s “Be kind.”  What is it for you?