Friday, October 30, 2009

Raising UU Kids

I'm still sick with the dreaded "Con-flu"--oh man, it's really awful! So just for fun I'm posting something I wrote a while back. Hope everyone out there is healthy and gearing up for a fabulous Halloween!

I serve a wonderful Unitarian Universalist congregation as a Religious Educators. Sometimes on a Sunday morning after the service, I’ll be standing with a few parents, drinking coffee. We watch as their children tear around the fellowship hall with chocolate donut crumbs covering their faces.

The parents shake their heads, cover their eyes and ask me, “How did you do it? How are your children so well behaved?”

I laugh out loud and say “Oh, really, they’re just pretending to be angels!”

And for heaven’s sake, they’re teenagers! They misbehave in completely different ways, now. But then I wipe the smile off my face and try to pass along a few of the things that I’ve finally picked up after all these years of making more mistakes than I ever dreamed were possible.

Step into this raising children stage of your life with both feet, and your whole heart.

Somehow you were called to be a parent and when you signed those adoption papers or you opened that door to your grandchild or you birthed that child; however it happened, there was a moment when you said “YES!” to that call.

Remind yourself that this is the biggest thing in your life right now. Bigger than work or school or busy life; yes, we have to do those things, too, of course. But raising kids is really the Big Top of the circus and sometimes we have to remember that.

So, put a sticky note on your bathroom mirror, buy a ring with as many intertwined strands as you have children, put a medallion that says “love” in your wallet, whatever works for you, but make it a physical reminder that catches your eye. This helps keep it all in perspective. Oh, and you might want to wear some sturdy boots for that first step.

Claim your kingdom.

You are the grand supreme ruler of your family. Well, you and whatever partner in parenting you are lucky enough to have. Claim that. Yes, of course, you are a kind and benevolent ruler with only your beloved subjects’ best interests at heart. But don’t feel like you always have to get buy-in from your children.

Say “oh, I am so sorry that eating that whole bag of cookies I told you not to eat gave you a tummy ache” and make a sad face, and then pack that little cookie monster in the car and go to grandma’s house anyway. Don’t reason. Don’t argue.

This is why so many Unitarian Universalist children grow-up to be lawyers; we throw logic at them from toddlerhood. Yes, we do trust in the democratic process, and there is an important role for collaborative decision making in family life. This is not it.

You are the ruler, sometimes you really do know what is best and no, you don’t always have to explain it to your children, and even if you do explain it, you don’t have to reach consensus. Swoop in with your grand robes, offer gentle empathy, and then make your grown-up compassionate decision and move on.

Splash in the kitchen sink, clean to the “Bee Gees” and laugh out loud, a lot.

You have to have fun with parenting and family life. It’s hard. It can sometimes be harder than the LSAT and the Boston marathon on the same day. You want to scream and retch and roll on the floor because it’s ripping your intellect right out to watch PBS Kids for one more second.

But you don’t have to! Fill up the kitchen sink, do the “dishes” and splash around. Bake big huge pans of brownies. Dance. Even if you have teenagers. Look at your child with brownie batter in their hair and soap bubbles covering their whole torso, yes, the teenagers, too.

This works really well if you play music that would horrify your children as they grow into the teen years. That makes for so much fun it’s almost too much. “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive….ah, ah, ah, ah…..”

Look into those big happy eyes and the see the silly smile. How can you help but smile, too? And hey, you get a big pan of brownies in the deal.

Use the democratic process.

No, don’t use this in times of trauma or with an urgent dispute. But, if you are deciding which restaurant to go to after a big long day of yard work, or where to go on vacation, then yes. Create a family poll. Have someone present a power point about which computer they want the family to buy and then vote on whether it’s a good idea. If it’s something you are willing to really let go to the vote, then do it.

This is a great experience in life, and sometimes we all find out that what we dearly wished for was not all we’d hoped it would be. That is a powerful experience.

Say, “Oh wow, did I screw-up.”

When you mess up, and yell about things that mean nothing, or make a bad decision or otherwise are very human, then say so. Say, “I’m so sorry”. This is how our children learn to own their own screw-ups. They watch us when we make mistakes. They see, and calculate and then they say “hey, maybe that’s just how I should be. I should say I’m sorry”.

Sometimes the last thing we want is to say “Oh honey bear, I shouldn’t have said that.” Or even “I am so sorry I put all that crabbiness on you, sweet child”. But when we can, on those few sacred moments when we are bigger people and own what we did, we offer the best gift, no gift wrap needed. Say it; say “I’m sorry.” Someday, you might even hear it back.

Go outside.

Spend some time every day under the big sky and if you do it with your whole family, even better. Go for a walk around your block at dusk, walk in the rain, garden, pull weeds, play at the beach when it’s cold and no one else is there. Leave cell phones and other little electronic gremlins in your pocket or back home.

Just be together and notice the snails and leaves and clouds and bugs. Yes, even with your teenagers, even if you have to bribe them with ice cream or fish and chips, do it.

Eat meals together.

No, not every meal all the time, but some of them some of the time. Everyone in the family needs to eat, so why not together? Setting the table and cooking together make the time even more special. Light candles, play good jazz, dim the lights. When you do, even eating beans and rice becomes elegant.

And don’t drill children about homework or cleaning rooms over meals. Treat these dinner companions as if they’re treasured guests. They are, of course. Before you know it they’re grown and off at their own tables.

Give your children real work to do.

Clean the house, dust, mop, make food, clean-up a river bed, give them real chores. Do real things in the real world and count on them to do their part. Yes they will complain, yes they will whine, it’s just noise, ignore it.

Our children get so used to having things done for them that they don’t always learn that the two things dangling from their arms are hands and that they can really help. If you go to the local teen center that serves meals before sending the teens out on the streets for the evening, your child will understand their profound ability to work, and just how important making bean burritos and sweeping up really can be.

Love your kids. I mean really, actively, deliberately; love them.

It’s not always easy. We’re tired; we have grown up problems that overwhelm us. But this one can’t wait. Do things that let your child know you love them. Tell them; say “I love you! I am so glad that you are my child! The day you came into my life was one of the very best days, ever!” Make their favorite food; snuggle.

Be certain that your child knows that you love them with every single cell in your body. No not just love them. Love. It is a part of every breath you take and every single thing you will ever do. You can give in to this. It’s not a psychosis. It’s a state of being and it’s called parenting. Give in. You’ll never regret it.

Go to Church. Just go.

Go as often as you can. Go every week. An intentional religious community has a deep influence on the development of a child and a family. It’s more important than soccer or sleep-overs and it’s worth taking a stand.

When you go week after week you create a history, a tradition. Children need that. At church there are elders and peers, there are people who care about you and your children in particular and there are people who will bring you soup if your dog dies. There is no other way to make the same combination of belief, values and community come together. None. Just go. You will be so glad that you did.

I’ll bet in just a few years the parents from my church who had the little speed demons will be drinking coffee as their teen lounges at a table with church friends and the parent of a donut crumb covered little one will ask them “How did you do it?”, I hope they laugh just a little, smile, nod and pass on a few humble things they have learned about this amazing journey of raising children.


Volly said...

I've never really been a "kid person" the way some folks are, but I dearly, dearly love the kids in my UU congregation. They are truly special. Just tonight at a Halloween party, one child walked up to the man who was next to me on the cider line (not his dad, just someone he knew as an RE classmate's dad) and asked him "Is it true they just found a new planet -- or is it a gas giant?" This child was probably no more than 8 years old. And there was no condescension from the adult that you might otherwise hear, such as "Well, you certainly have some wide-ranging interests for such a little fellow! Gas giants, indeed, ha ha ha!" The man simply answered the question and provided some additional information he had on the subject. They conversed as equals.

These kids have a curiosity and love of learning that seems to start fading from other children even at that very early age. It give me simultaneous feelings of encouragement for them and sadness for the others.

uuMomma said...

Best advice ever. Feel better.