When I made my last post, Confessions, I didn’t know what to expect other than my own emotional turmoil. It’s hard even today to be reminded of where we were and who I was six years ago. I believed strongly that it was important to share for anyone wondering what path their parenting should take, but especially for those like I was, afraid that with older, seriously unhappy kids, maybe it’s too late. I was deeply thankful to see that my gut-wrenching level of honesty struck a chord with so many. It reassured me that my sharing wasn’t simply exhibitionist; it was beneficial.
I promised I wouldn’t be long in bringing the positive side of things back, so going forward over the next few posts, I’m going to share some of the very first changes we made, both in our thinking and in our actions.
Change 1: We started saying “Yes” any and every time we reasonably could.
That puritanical streak I mentioned in Part 2 rears its ugly head in the form of a widespread obsession with not “spoiling” children. More traditional presentations of this range from the curmudgeonly, “If they don’t work for what they have they won’t appreciate it” to the more kindly concern for their well being “If they get everything handed to them they’ll never learn to make it on their own.” The updated, forward-thinking, socially conscious version has the greater good at heart with, “We don’t want to encourage consumerism,” but what these all have in common from the child’s perspective is artificially imposed want; “no” for the sake of “no.”
The first couple of times my then 9-year-old asked to spend money to buy Robux (in-game currency for the gaming community Roblox) I wanted so badly to say, “No.”
I wanted to point out that it’s ridiculous to spend real money buying virtual crap. I wanted to offer chores he could do to earn the money so he would learn the value of working for what he wants. Instead I smiled as sweetly as possible and said, “Sure!” I’ve said “sure” many, many times since then. I have no idea how much “real” money has gone into the games on that platform, but what I do know is this:
After awhile, giving without artificial limitations (obviously there are sometimes very real limits on what you can spend) made me feel good. I felt generous. And I began to be curious about what on earth could so interest him in this virtual world. It gave rise to questions that he answered with less and less suspicion and reticence. Where before he saw questions as a prompt for him to futilely try and defend his personal valuation of something he loved (because it was), now he could see it as a genuine and judgment-free interest in who he was and what he did with his time.
There were other things:
I filled a bowl with candy they liked and left it on the counter. Every single time they asked for some, I said, “Yes! Absolutely! That’s what it’s there for,” with a smile.
Was I scared that all they would eat was candy? Damn straight! Did I worry they would ruin their appetites when they asked for some right before dinner? Hell yeah! But I said, “yes” anyway. Over time the attraction and novelty wore off. Today I was looking at the current candy bowl and thinking how it’s probably time to dump it since it’s still ¾ full since I last filled it around Christmas. There is practically no such thing as “dessert” in our house. Because all food is treated as just food, the kids are as likely to ask for shrimp, salad, or fruit as they are for ice cream, chocolate, or chips. And the small moments of joy and abundance I gave them in such an easy thing as a piece of candy added up.
Where previously we had homeschooled to a curriculum a few days a week year-round, I announced there would be a summer vacation for them, then I never, ever went back to teaching.
Around the time we hit that initial 6 month mark when hubby and I had agreed we would see how things had progressed with this new, bizarre parenting adventure, our then 12-year-old asked for my Excel disk so he could “set up a school schedule” for himself. Since that time he has learned four languages including such disparate selections as German and Japanese, as well as the piano, guitar, and ukulele, and when he took the practice ACTs in Math and English he missed just one question. Oh! And remember all of that money I spent on useless in-game currency? That now 15-year-old kid recently asked if he could get a bank account so he can start accepting real world payments for the coding he learned starting on Roblox.
When they asked if they could stay up late on the computer the answer was “yes” and eventually artificially imposed bed times disappeared.
Far from spending all of their time gaming, they now used their computers to learn all kinds of things I never would have thought to include in a curriculum. Now that they weren’t struggling to cram all the fun they could have into 2 hours a day on the computer, many hours were spent exploring worlds we never would have imagined interested them, and sharing their discoveries with us.
Other things that disappeared were the chore list and (for the most part) complaints when they didn’t pick up after themselves.
Rather than doling out “responsibilities” I treated them with the same respect I expected to receive if someone asked for my help. I asked nicely if one would take out the trash, or load the dishwasher, or wipe down the bathroom, and found that they did so without complaint. As they noticed me clearing away their mess from the living room they began to help, then do it themselves sometimes, or reciprocate by clearing up something we had left about. I invited help with picking recipes and cooking together and some of our closest bonding has since been in the kitchen prepping food together, while my first post here will give you an idea of how I used to end most dinner preps...
And somehow over these past 6 years - having let go of the reins - all of the joy and bonding that I used to despair of has grown up amongst us almost effortlessly.
I say “almost” because it is an effort on my part. I have been renouncing one deeply ingrained belief after another for six years now. The internet is filled with people who will mock the supposed idiocy of “being your child’s friend” [read: treating them as well as you would a stranger] and parenting books will flat out tell you that if your kids are always happy, you’re doing it wrong. I - and so many of us - have internalized the notion that parenting has to be adversarial, but I know now it doesn’t. Every day I make conscious choices to make our lives better. Our days as parents are filled with hundreds of small decisions and getting to where we are now has been as intellectually simple but as counterintuitive to my “training” as making the one that will bring more peace, more joy, and more love into our home no matter what.
There are still hurdles. I still trip up. One of my sticking points has been our middle-child’s room. Until recently it was a battle. He wouldn’t clean it and he hated if I went in to do so, mainly because I was an asshole about it when I did. Maybe a year ago I went in huffing and simmering and he lost it. When I stomped out carrying down the laundry, he followed me and with his face beet red with the effort to suppress tears he shouted, “Do you have any idea how fucking humiliating that was?” Apparently he had been in a Skype call with friends when I barged in, remonstrations flowing. Old me would have dismissed his concern, triumphantly declaring that had he cleaned his room he would never have suffered such embarrassment. New me looked into his shimmering eyes, took in his skinny frame trembling with fury, and saw myself at his age: Not yet self-aware or ambitious enough about cleaning to prioritize it; shaking with anger and hurt at harsh words from my parents, and too furious in that moment to consider anything beyond my own pain.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “You’re right, I shouldn’t have come in without permission and I shouldn’t have talked to you that way. I love you and that’s more important than even a clean room.”
A guest who had been staying with us (and had a pretty terrible upbringing himself) overheard and told me later, “I couldn’t believe it when I heard him drop the F-bomb. My mom would have put me through a wall!” I replied simply, “I don’t think any of us are aiming to be the parents we had.” The fact is it was disrespectful for him to yell at me that way. It was also disrespectful that I violated the only 140 square feet in the world that are his alone. The choice I made in that moment was to have more peace and show more love instead of escalating or attempting to prove my point or “be right.” Far from leading to a smart-assed, disrespectful teen who walks all over his spineless, permissive mother, that is the last time we’ve fought about his room. He cleaned it that day; and since then, while he doesn’t keep it clean without prompting, he has agreed to let hubby help when needed (because hubby is less “judgy” than I) and has even paid his older brother to come in and show him all the little things that I like done that he knows he’d never think of on his own. All without yelling or humiliation.
I think that was the day I finally understood what Radical Unschoolers in the forum I frequent mean when they tell people that it isn’t about the little things. They can’t tell a newcomer how to make their kids clean their rooms. They can only share the principles underlying their parenting. They could never know what would work for me and mine because every family is different. But no family is better off with less peace, less abundance, or less love. If I’d chosen that day to do and say nothing, the worst thing that could have come in the immediate aftermath of finding my son’s room a mess… was that his room would be a mess. There are ways to fix that and we’ve found the one that works for us. But the worst thing that could have happened in the aftermath of me being a snippy bitch about it was the loss of love and trust between my son and me, and I promise you all, that’s a much harder thing to fix.
Thank you for again making it to the end of a very long post. But before you go: Is there some small choice can you make today to bring more love, joy, peace, or abundance to your family? Is there something you would normally say, “No” to that you could say, “Yes” to instead? Just want to share? I invite you to comment. Would you like to read more of our journey from fear to fun? I would be thrilled if you would follow. Do you think others might find help or hope in our story? I would be honored if you would resteem!