Parenting is about teaching. Teaching about life, teaching to ride a bike, teaching character, teaching math. Instead of coming up with new curriculum everyday, I rely on trusty phrases I can pull out easily. There is power in repeated words. Here are a few we use at our house:
Are you being kind? Rather than exhorting our kids to be nice, we have always used the word kind. It’s a much richer word. One of my greatest hopes for my kids is that they turn out to be deeply kind. The word kind speaks of compassion, generosity, attention to others; it involves action. I want to call my children to all that kindness implies.
You need to respect her boundaries. We say this when one of our daughters is persisting in doing something that her sister does not like. Even when your sister is screaming No!, it is somehow not self-evident that you should stop–stop poking her, stop playing with her toy, stop reading over her shoulder. When the girls were younger, we would say I hear a red light!
We have even begun teaching about animals’ boundaries. One of the girls has recently made a hobby of picking up the cat. He has been a good sport about it, but after the third time in an hour, he will start to protest with meows and yelps. To help her learn to honor even the cat, I’ve started saying, You need to respect his boundaries.
I’m going to blow my top. Sometimes this phrase follows the one above. This is my warning shot. It lets my daughters know that I am reaching my limit–my limit of patience, my limit of mess, my limit of whining and begging. Remarkably, it often works. Somehow, when I give them advance notice, my kids are able to respect even my boundaries. Not every time, but often enough that I keep doing it. And here’s the key: it is okay as a parent to have boundaries. Despite the impression you may have gotten, mothers cannot be expected to be fountains of unending patience and virtue. We have limits, too.
I apologize. Will you forgive me? When we realize that we have wronged our kids–snapped at them, made a wrong assumption, not listened–we try to acknowledge it and ask their forgiveness. Rick is much better at this than I am. Watching his model, though, I keep trying. I am trusting that even my modest efforts will bear fruit somehow.
You need to build your muscles. This is how I talk about practicing something difficult and getting better over time. Sometimes I am talking about actual muscles, sometimes about mental skills. With our first graders, we talk about building their reading muscles. With our oldest, we talk about building her leg muscles and lungs at Girls on the Run. When my kids get frustrated that something isn’t coming easily, I point them to the longer process of growing and improving.
You have power. You need to use it well. We have begun to talk to our oldest about the power she holds, both in our society as a white person and in her particular school context as a smart, nicely dressed, well fed, fully acclimated member of the community. Whether she feels like it or not, she holds a position of power (and so do I). The sooner she recognizes this, the sooner she will be able to use her power for good–to welcome a new kid, to stand up for someone being mistreated, to bring in those on the margins.
We are trying to build something in our home–a culture where character, generosity, honesty, and courage are the norm. Repeating these phrases is helping us do that, even in the midst of math homework, grumpy days, and never-ending tasks.
[You can see Part 1 of this series here.]
© Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2016