To my kids, this Mother's Day

Dear kids,
As Mother’s Day approaches, I’ve been thinking about you. I know it’s supposed to happen the other way around—you guys thinking about your mom —but that’s just how moms are. We can’t help it. I want you to know how much I love you. I don’t always get it right, but I am trying to be a good mom. Not the best mom, because who knows what the best mom is anyway? I want you to know I think about each of you all day, every day. I’m trying to keep this little family of ours all together and balanced. Your dad is wonderful and walks right alongside me in this parenting gig, and we hope you each know how important you are to us. You’re growing up so fast, which I hate and love at the same time.

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As your mom, there are some things that I’d like you to know, and Mother’s Day seems a good time to do it. Your dad and I are trying to teach you things that will help you grow and make you into tolerable teenagers and, hopefully, well-rounded adults one day. So I want you to understand these things:

I’m not going to fix every problem you have.
I can never protect you from all the frustrations, hurts, and harm that you will face. But I will try to find a balance between protecting you and allowing you to experience life. While I won’t fix your problems, I will help you figure out how to handle them. Because as you do, you grow and mature. You’ll learn how to deal with the next thing that comes your way. Each lesson you learn for yourself is an experience unique to you. It’s something you’ll own, and I want you to have it even though the process will be hard for us both. We’ll make the best of it together.

I’m not perfect, and I never will be.
Which means that you aren’t perfect either, and I shouldn’t expect perfection from you. And that’s OK because neither one of us needs to be perfect. As difficult as it may be, I want to show you by example that it’s OK to mess up. It’s OK to flat-out fail. Mistakes happen, but I want you to know that you can always start over or try again. So I’m learning that it’s not my place to manage every aspect of your life. As you get older, I will trust more and more in your own abilities to make good decisions and direct your own path. (Of course, I may need to step in from time to time, but you’ll be cool with that, right?)
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Sharing is so important.
I want you to be aware of life outside our house. There’s always someone around you who might need a little encouragement or a little help. Sometimes your friends may have something sad or stressful going on at home. Sometimes they might just be having a bad day. I want you to notice these things and be a good friend. Be mindful of others because you have been given a lot. And with that, comes the responsibility to share it. Be generous. Be aware. Always be watching for ways to share instead of only watching out for yourself.

Your body is a big deal.
I look at how fast you guys are growing, and it seems so miraculous to me. Each of you is getting taller, stronger, more handsome, more beautiful. We’ve talked a lot about our bodies—that your body is yours, and no one else gets to touch it or hurt it. I also want you to know that your body is amazing. It can do so many things. I’m trying to be a good example for you here, too. Try to always make time for a walk outside. Try to eat real food. When your body feels good, you feel good. You have more opportunities to do things. You only have this one body: take care of it. You only have this one life: make the most of it.

I have to set boundaries.
Which means there will be times when you don’t get to do something you really want to do. That doesn’t mean I don’t trust you. It means that I love you—and I don’t always trust other people, especially people who might hurt you. I’m not trying to be mean or be the worst parent ever. I’m trying to find a way to let you grow up and not hold on so tight…but also not panic at the fear that something might happen to you when I let go and give you more independence. We’ll have to work on this one together.

There’s a time to be proud and a time to be humble.
You’re going to win at some things, and you’re going to lose at some things. When you lose, be proud of your effort. I know it doesn’t feel good to lose, but there’s no shame in it when you have done your best. There will always be someone better than you, so all we ask is that you do whatever your best is. When you win, be respectful of those around you who helped you win. And be aware that if you won, someone else lost. There’s absolutely no place for bragging. EVER. Remember our phrase, “You’re better than that.” It applies here, too. Be a good example.

Adults deserve your respect.
Meeting and talking to adults is sometimes intimidating, but you can do it. They want to hear you speak for yourself. They want to learn about you through your words, not mine. Address them as Mr. or Mrs.if that is how they introduce themselves. Even though we’re more casual with some of our friends, this is important to some adults. When you speak, look an adult in the eyes. This shows respect to that adult, and it shows that you are confident in yourself. Both of those are things I love to see. When you do this in front of your younger siblings or other children, you are setting a wonderful example for them. They learn more from watching you than they would ever learn from me, even if I say it over and over again.

Love is the most important thing.
Look, there’s a lot of ugliness in the world. I want to protect you from it, but I can’t. Bad things happen. People will say mean words and do mean things. You will see hateful actions everywhere, even if you’re not looking for it. But you should always know that you are loved no matter what. No matter what you do or say, we will always love you. (This doesn’t mean we will always like you or approve of your actions, but always know that you are loved.) And you should always try to show love to others. It’s OK to stop interacting with people who only want spread hate or people who only want to knock others down. But if you’re not sure what to do, always try to show love. If you’re going to make a mistake, be wrong on the side of showing too much love than the side of hurting someone.

I am so proud of you.
I may not say it all the time, but you are the joy of my life. I would choose you every time if someone gave me the chance again. Even if I’m having a bad day and I (wrongly) take it out on you. Even if you’re having a bad day and I don’t handle it well. Our family is the best part of my world, which means YOU are the best part of my world. I am so proud that I am your mom.

Happy Mother’s Day, kids.

Using a token economy to encourage good behavior

Last week I posted a picture of our kitchen area and several folks asked about the mason jar/tongue depressor situation. I thought I would share our reward system that we call “Sticks.”  It works really well for us and is a great motivator to encourage positive behavior. I’ve posted about our screen time sticks in the past and we’ve implemented a similar method for behavior.

Using a token economy to encourage good behavior

I am a huge fan of using token economies with children. I think it removes parents from the nagging cycle and really helps to solidify house rules and expectations. I love that it encourages and reinforces positive behavior rather than punishing negative behavior, so that it’s aspirational rather than punitive. I also find that it keeps my emotional reactivity lower because I’ve got a bargaining chip that the kids care about. We already use a token economy for screen time using the same jar/stick method. We used to use charts for behavior, but printing out a new chart each week became a chore, and hanging them in the living room was an eyesore. In our new house, I wanted to find a method that didn’t require printing . . . that was simple and easy and not completely hideous to have in plain sight.

Easy reward system for kids

To make this system, I bought several mason jars with handles and then labeled them with some cute removeable labels from Martha Stewart. Then I bought some jumbo craft sticks to use as counters. (Okay, that’s not entirely true. I bought tongue depressors, not realizing they would come individually wrapped. I recommend the craft sticks. Same size. less work.)

On a sligtly larger jar, I wrote down the behaviors they are working for to earn each stick. For us, we’re working on:

Clean room
Manners and voice

I would recommend more specific goals for younger kids – things that are easier to understand like “staying in bed at bedtime” and “putting your shoes away.”  But we’ve moved into a stage where I wanted to start working on character all day.

a simple but effective behavioral reward system for kids
Each night, the kids have the opportunity to earn 5 sticks. Once they get to 30, they get a prize. They always know what prize they are working towards and it is usually something I would have bought anyway. We’ve worked towards earning new school backpacks, Halloween costumes, new PJ’s, new watches, new sunglasses, etc. If the kids are begging for something from the store, I will often buy it and tell them they can earn it with sticks.

Since they have to get 30, my kids usually earn a prize a week. I am judicious with giving out sticks – they really have to be mindful of their behavior all day. And for us . . . it REALLY WORKS.  I’d watched these tactics employed in classrooms using marbles and noticed how motivated kids are by arbitrary rewards. All it takes most days is a simple “you’re about to lose a stick” threat and my kids are back in line.

Using a token economy to encourage good behavior

So . . . that’s our reward system in a nutshell.

Do you have any kind of reward system or discipline chart at home? What do the kids work on? How do you keep track of it? What do you use as rewards?

how to negotiate screen time with tech-obsessed kids

How to negotiate screen time with tech-obsessed kids It seems like I’ve been writing about screen time all over the web this month, and probably for good reason: many parents are figuring out how to maintain some balance with our tech-obsessed kids. This has been an issue in my house ever since the kids have been old enough to operate the computer. My kids are huge technology fans, which is no big surprise given the fact that they have two parents whose phones are tethered to their hands 24/7. I think technology can provide some great educational opportunities for kids . . . after all, I credit the website with teaching my daughter to read. At the same time, screen time that goes unchecked is concerning to me. I think that kids need a good balance, and boundaries have to be put into place to make sure that kids don’t end up staring at a screen all day long when they could be playing or interacting with family.  I thought I would share one of the tools we use for screen time. We call them “screen time sticks”, but it’s really just a token system to try to tangibly help the kids understand their limits in regards to the t.v. and computer.  In our house, screen time is a privilege, not a right. Each of my kids have the chance to earn screen time for the following day by being respectful and following the rules. If they aren’t towing the line with their behavior, the screen time privilege is lost. How to negotiate screen time with tech-obsessed kids Each day, the kids have the opportunity to earn 2 screen-time sticks for the following day.  One is good for 30 minutes of tv time, and one is good for 30 minutes of computer/phone time. At the end of each day, we have a quick family meeting where we discuss whether or not these were earned based on the obedience and respect each child exhibited.  If they earned it, the stick goes into the jar for the following day. (There is a video of me explaining the system in action over at Babble). The next day, the kids can redeem the stick with screen time. I set the timer to 30 minutes, and what’s that rings, their time is up. It is simple but it works. When they decide that they wants to redeem their screen time, they turn their stick in to me. Kids can choose to use their screen time together. For example, my kids might decide to watch a Jake and the Neverland Pirates episode together. But if they watch together, then all of the tokens must be relinquished. If they don’t want to spend their token and another child is watching a show, they have to do an activity in another room. Any symbol can work for this kind of token system: a marble, a star sticker, a laminated paper certificate . . . but the key is something that represents a child’s screen time, and that they must relinquish once they have decided to use it. This is a concrete way for parents to keep things in check, and also for kids to understand limits. How to negotiate screen time with tech-obsessed kids Over at Huffington Post, I’ve got a few more ideas on screen time management, including using timers and the “clean before screen” rule. You can read those here. (And in this video, you can see me admit that I’m not always perfect at this because, HELLO. I get some benefit from the glowing screen of distraction as well).   How to do negotiate screen time with your kids? Are you comfortable with the amount of scree time your kids watch, or would you like to implement more controls?

I’m a better aunt than I am a mother

Ever since my nephews were old enough to fly without a parent, we’ve been having them out for part of the summer.  I think the first time they came out they were 4 and 7.  Now they are 14 and 17.  It used to be that we had to pay extra money for them to be escorted to and from their seat by a flight attendant, wearing an Unaccompanied Minor sticker.  Now they are old enough to check in themselves, and one of them can drive.  (gulp).

For many years we hosted them before we had kids of our own, so it was a kind of parenting “trial run”.  Man, I was a good mom back then, before I had kids.  We poured ourselves into the boys for the days they were with us.  We were so intentional . . . we packed our time full of fun things, and in the evenings we took time to sit down with them and really listen.  I remember doing affirmations with them, talking about their hopes and dreams, and giving them encouragement and advice in the areas where they were struggling.  We always spent a night or two doing a “slumber party” where we stayed up talking late into the evening.

(on a trip to Mexico with Austin and Derek, 2001)

On the first night the boys were here, we fell back into that pattern.  I was sitting on the floor with them and an easy familiarity took over, as they talked about their current life, their joys and frustrations, all of it laden with heavy sarcasm and smack-talk, of course.   I felt a great connection to them, as I have in so many summers past.

We also had a ton of intentional time with my nephews these past weeks.  I pretty much blew off most of my responsibilities in favor of seeking out fun things for them to do.  I let the house fall apart, I didn’t get enough sleep, but man, we had fun.

But I did have this nagging feeeling this whole week . . . I think it was a mixture of guilt, nostalgia, and sadness.  Because I know that I am not this cool with my own kids.

My time with my nephews has always had two goals: build on intimacy and build on fun.  This is the kind of mom I always thought I would be: a mom who seeks out fun experiences for her kids, and a mom who is present and listening and available.

Much to my surprise, though, I have become a very different mother.  A mother who is tired and cranky and often on auto-pilot.  A mother whose M.O. is less about intimacy and fun and more about getting through the day.  A mom whose goal most days is to just get the kids to sleep and keep the house from falling apart. 

A mom who sometimes (often) does the bare minimum to keep the boat floating.

And that just made me feel a little sad this week. . . . that I’m not the mom I hoped I would be.  That my mom skills don’t stand up to my aunt skills.  I’m sure that this is a combination of many things.  My time with my nephews is usually a concentrated and finite amount of time. We’re usually in vacation mode. I’m not doing the dirty-work of discipline and day-to-day.  And obviously, they are two less children and even at their first visit they were a bit older than my kids.  Of course, I have the benefit of being the cool aunt and not the every-day mom.

But still, there is a little pang that my role as a mom feels so different from my role as an aunt.  I think there might be some middle-ground here that I’m missing.  I’m pondering this today.

the trauma of sports

When my oldest son Jafta was about four and a half, he began begging to attend a basketball camp he heard about for a friend. I signed him up for one through our city for preschool-aged kids. For three months, he asked about it every day. Despite his shoddy math skills at the ripe age of four, he was inexplicably able to count down the days until this camp started. It was supposed to start on a Monday in April. On Saturday, I got a call telling me it had been cancelled due to low enrollment. The next camp was in October.

I found myself with two options:
1) completely crush my son and have him mope about it endlessly until the next camp starts IN SEVERAL MONTHS
2) accidentally omit information about his age and enroll him in a camp running the same week for kids age 6-8

I made the choice that I thought would best preserve my sanity and signed him up for the camp for older kids. He’s tall, I reasoned. And also, persistent. This was best for everyone involved.

A little backstory: I did not grow up in an athletic household. I have two artsy sisters and a father who is more likely to attend the symphony than a sporting event. I am much more familiar with ballet shoes and chord charts than I am with cleats and shin guards. Gym class was generally a nightmare for me. I was really not coordinated enough to make a ball connect with my foot, or a bat, or any kind of net. I grew up near the beach, where impromptu volleyball games broke out on a regular basis, and I would be prodded into joining a game that was “casual”. Come on! We’re just playing for fun! About five minutes in, I would be subjected to the glares of my friends as they realized that the only skill I possessed was that of attracting balls to my foreheard. All I can really remember from those incidences is feeling my performance anxiety increase every time a friend shouted out, “ROTATE!”, knowing that soon it would be my turn to throw the ball up in the air and smack in into the net. Needless to say, I was never lifted onto the shoulders of my team after making a score in the big game. So the whole concept of being a “sports mom” is both intimidating and a little foreign to me.

Athletics have always brought up deep insecurities for me. And as any parent knows, having a child basically means watching your own fears and insecurities walk around outside your body.
Like when you drop your son off for his big week of basketball camp that he begged to attend, and watch him roam aimlessly through the gym, clearly self-conscious about being the new kid, looking for a friend or something to do and seemingly unsure of where to even put his hands as he looks for a familiar face.

Like when you see him find the few kids he know: a handful of kids from church who are older . . . and he runs excitedly to them, but then stops and walks away because they seem engaged and he seems intimidated.

Like when you observe that just because your tall four-year-old looks old enough to pass for a K-2 student, doesn’t mean he can keep up athletically. There is a vast difference of skill level between your child and the other kids, and you know that he notices, too. Only he doesn’t understand that it’s an age/motor development issue. He just knows he can’t do things as well as everyone else.

Or when, on the first day, you don’t send him with snack money because you don’t know that they break for snack halfway through, so he sits and watches other kids eat and then can’t recover for the second half of the day. Not because he was desperately hungry, but because he was left out and it make him feel self-conscious.

When, after the first day of camp, he asks to play football instead, and you remember that after his first day of baseball camp he requested to play basketball instead. And you know that he’s really just hoping that, in a new sport, he will be automatically as skilled as he hopes and imagines himself to be. And you know that he’s disappointed that he is not.

When, on the way home, your son mentions that maybe next time he could play basketball without any of his friends being there, because having his friends there makes him feel embarrassed.
When you know that one reason your African American son was drawn to basketball is because he has noticed that basketball players tend to look more like him. And he lives in a world where few people, including his adoptive parents, look like him. And then you take him to a camp of over 100 students, and still none of them have brown skin like he does. And you know that he is keenly aware of this, too.
When you come to watch the scrimmage at the end of camp each day, and he sees you and tries even harder to make that basket, and he can’t. So then he pretends to be hurt so that he can be rescued from trying.

When you give him a little more grace than usual about fibbing in the car ride home, because you know that he didn’t make fifteen baskets, but he earnestly wishes that he did.

When, every day that you pick him up, you see his face fall when the Camper of the Day is announced and it is not him. And even though you know that each child will get a turn as the coveted Camper of the Day, you also know that to your sensitive son, being the last one to get this recognition is brutal.
And when he finally does get Camper of the Day, on the very last day of camp, and after his name is called and he gets his treat, he disrupts the whole ceremony by running full-speed out of his line and into your arms, and your heart breaks into a million pieces that he’s not at all embarrassed to show how proud he is and how much he wants you to be proud, too.

And when you realize that none of this really has anything at all to do with sports, and everything to do with the inevitable beauty and pain and insecurity that is part of growing up. And that there is nothing you can do but cheer him on.