Sept 23 & 24, 2004

That is so very right.  Little babies are born to be loved and meant to continue being loved until they die of old age in their beds, sleeping warmly and dreaming of a place of miracles and joy.  Babies are designed to draw us in with their big eyes and rosebud lips, to pull us into full on protective mode and to suddenly be willing to give our lives for someone we didn't even know a year before.  It is indeed incredible how much parenthood changes a person.  Everything is suddenly so much more intense and critical.  Every decision is riddled with importance and for many, many years, every choice we make has to consider another person's needs.  It's not a job, it's an adventure.

Parenting six children has been quite an adventure for me.  It started in 1978 when I was sixteen and I did NOT have a clue what I was getting into.  As it turned out, it was the greatest things that ever happened to me.  I had babies in 1980, 1982, 1992, 1997 and 1999.  My kids are some of the greatest people I've ever met and each one has been a joy to have in my life.  The are extremely individual from one another, totally different personalities.  As you can see from the dates, there is a ten year gap between my two generations of children.  Interestingly enough. my first and my fourth children, my second and fifth children and my third and sixth children are the most alike.  It's as though they copied the pattern set before them. 

I have five sons and one daughter (#4).  I can say with authority that boys are considerably easier to raise that girls.  What's interesting is that my daughter was a tremendously challenging younger child.  As a baby, she was a screamer, a complainer, a tantrum thrower.  She's stubborn to a fault and had me pulling my hair out on more than one occasion.  For a good long while, my oldest son, Joe was her caregiver and I swear, I'm shocked she didn't send him into a mental institution.  She was one tough cookie.  I mentioned this was interesting, didn't I?  Somewhere around the age of ten, Delena started to evolve into this amazing, loving, fun, funny and cooperative kid.  That's almost two years that she's been golden.   We were so worried about how she'd be as a teen that it somewhat distracted us from the presence.  It just goes to show that we need to focus on where we are now, because where we're going could be anywhere at all. 

I don't claim to be any kind of parenting expert by a longshot, but I do claim to have a good bit of experience.  If we learn best by screwing up, I should definitely have expert status.  I've had over 26 years to screw up a good bit and I took good advantage of it.  Still, I'm taken aback by some of the letters I get and some of the case studies I see on TV.  As much as love, deep and abiding love, parenting is about common sense and it sometimes seems that common sense is a lost art.  All of us who were parented by parents of the 50's and 60's likely set out to do things differently from how we were raised.  When the restraint of that time met with the free love, freestyle world of the 70's, then collided head long with the ME 80's and the techno 90's, we may well have swung a little too far the other direction.  It's quite possible that we became more interested in being a pal to our kids than in raising them responsibly.  We may well have gotten so averse to upsetting them in anyway that we forgot to teach them the qualities of empathy, of impulse control, of sharing and of self-discipline.  To this end, I submit some of the prime choices that were illustrated last night in Dr Phil's prime time special, "Family First."

The ones that really stymie me are the parents who have fallen into the deep end of the pool and lost total perspective of who is the parent and who is the child.  Dr Phil spoke with a woman who was completely helpless in the face of her very young children who would not wear anything but pajamas.  She spoke of them wearing pajamas when they went out in public to stores, to birthday parties and such.  She was in complete mental gridlock as to how to handle this difficult dilemma.  Although Phil and I frequently part ways on the subject of parenting, this time and for most of the night, he was absolutely dead on.  Who's the boss here?  What she's failing to see is twofold (other than the fact that she might well be an idiot):  Children, like the adults they will grow up to be, will take whatever you will let them take.  It is in their nature to be self-gratifying and they will pursue this to the extreme to which they are allowed.  The other obvious fact that she and other parents much embrace is that you are going to make your children sad.  You are going to make them cry.  You are going to break their hearts and you are going to crush their tender little spirits.  We try not to do it any more than necessary, but sometimes, they have to hit the wall and know that the wall is immovable.  Ironically, kids need walls, even though they will beat their tiny fists against them and scream to high heaven.  Phil told her to simply inform the child that if they don't change into appropriate clothes, the jammies go into the trash.  "But she'll get them out!"  "Then put them where she can't get them."  Again, when did people/parents become so helpless?  "But she'll cry!"  Well, yeah, then she'll get tired and then she'll get over it.  I would have been a little more direct if this child was manipulating me in this fashion.  "I know you love your jammies and you want to see them again tonight, don't you?  If they aren't in a puddle at your feet in tennnn seconds I am going to set them on fire.  Ten...nine..." 

Another child who was TWO watched 9+ hours of TV a day and "refused" to not watch TV.  The mom admitted that she did it to keep him out from under foot.  So what kind of masochist takes this story to Dr Phil?  The one who wants to hear him tell her that she should take every TV out of the house (yeah, that'll happen.)

Then there's the four year old who has more toys than God and gets pissed when the UPS guy drives past the house without stopping.  The mom just can't tell the little girl no and actually rearranges the budget to buy her more toys.  You should have seen her face when Phil told her to get rid of (pack away, donate, whatever) 90% of what the little girl owned and let her get used to having less (another one where you could tell that Mom wasn't going to even come close to doing what he suggested).  I don't even think these moms want anything to change.  I'm not sure what they are hoping to achieve with the Phil experience, but they glaze over when he gives great advice.

My next question is why oh why do these people giggle and tee hee whenever Dr Phil calls them on their behavior as parents?  "Do you laugh when he goes potty on the floor?  Do you put him in time out and then not enforce it."  Yes.  Tee hee hee.

It's really not funny.  At all.

The most interesting case was the absolutely crazy kid whose family Phil interviewed.  The kid tortured his sister, killed the family pets, smeared his own feces on the wall, was violent with his parents and had uncontrollable screaming fits.  Phil told the parents, "There are fourteen characteristics of a serial killer.  Would it surprise you to know that your son has seventeen and Jeffrey Dalmer had seven?"  Actually, the kid only had nine, but wow, what a handful.  At one point, Phil told the father he was going to have to "take this child back to the nuts and bolts."  Eric, Delena and I all three thought he was going to say, "take this child back to the nuthouse."  Sherry and I wondered today if the kid would get his ass kicked in school (or be feared and worshiped) after the Dr Phil special, having been "labeled" as a potential serial killer.  I could picture his teachers watching the special saying, "Fuuuuuuuuuuuck!!"

I think Phil summed it up particularly well with one of the moms.  It was either the mom who spoiled her kid with gifts or the one who let her kids wear jammies 24/7 or Mike Teevee's mom.  He said, "Who told you this was going to be easy?"  Parenting isn't easy by anyone's standards, but I can tell you that it's worth it.

"Worth it," I've found, tends to fluctuate from day to day when you're in the throngs of difficult parenting.  I've definitely been there.  As I said, Delena was a very tough cookie for the first ten years or so.  Josh (#3) was a handful all the way through.  He was a very, very sweet baby who didn't even cry until he was eleven days old and he had to have a state mandated PKU test.  Around the age of 3-4, he got very busy and precocious and ended up being my challenge child.  From the time he was about 9-10 on, that kid was always in trouble.  He tormented David (two years older than he was) like mad and was defiant as all hell.  It seemed like it was forever a struggle just to get him to do the simplest things like go to school, brush his teeth or clean his room.  Every moment with Josh was high drama and amped up to the highest degree.  I know I'd deal better with it now than I did then, but my common sense was out the door back then.  Had I known then what I know now, it's likely Josh's life would have gone a lot differently, but then, so would the lives of my other two sons.  Josh is the one who skipped school on a regular basis, fell into the drugs and alcohol and familiarized me with the Juvenile Court system.  Although he is still strongly given to the dramatic (even overly dramatic), he's doing much better now, has a little boy and two beautiful stepdaughters.  At 22, he's quite the family man and does his best to do what's right and is working to get his life together.  It's so difficult for young people in today's world, especially when children are involved.  Rent is outrageous, groceries are through the roof and car payments are impossible to meet.  In short, it's an incredible accomplishment for young, unskilled people to meet even the most basic of human needs.  Before he was getting by, however, he really put me through the ringer.

Nathan, as many of you know, was a pistol from the word go.  His daddy is an engineer and he got that in spades.  His life is built around cause and effect and he won't rest until he's found out what causes the sound inside of a toy or seen what the dog will do if you lock him in a closet.  Will the turtles eat this?  I want to write. No paper!  I can see better if I write on the walls!  He is impassioned with life and lives every moment of it to the fullest.  His brother, Dylan, is two years older and is fairly quiet, reserved, sweet and quirky.  They are extremely opposite in personalities and are the very best of friends.  They share a room, almost never, ever fight and love each other fiercely. Dylan has had to take a back seat to attention needed to keep Nathan in line and he has done so with good spirit.  He's a very low maintenance kid and I make sure he gets a good amount of my time.  That's one of the reasons I was comfortable home-schooling him.  Between Nathan, Josh and Delena, there's not much about the normal life of  kids that I haven't experienced.

So I know from which I speak when I say that motherhood/parenthood can be a very thankless job.  I think one of the most major mistakes parents, particularly moms, make is in thinking that they are going to be rewarded in some way for being a good parent.  We expect that children (and in some cases, husbands) are going to "do" for us or think of us in the same way that we take care of them.  We think that they are able to intuit what we need or see us up there on the cross, trying desperately to get that last nail hammered in.  We think that they will care that we are inconvenience on their behalf or that we are giving until we have nothing else to give.

They don't.

They can't.

How often do we become angry and resentful because people are taking advantage of what we are giving?  Usually with nothing more than a "Thanks, Mom" and you're lucky to get that.  I talked to a psychologist friend of mine about this very thing and he quickly informed me that people, in their younger forms, are not set up to think or react in an empathetic manner until they are (get ready) well into their twenties.  They are in survival mode to the point that projecting outward to externalize into what another person might be thinking, feeling or needing is nearly impossible.  They are immersed in stark awareness of their own needs and wants to the extreme.  We expect that if we make allowances for them, trimming back the budget to get something they particularly want or rearranging our schedule to accommodate some activity they need our help to pursue that they will go all dewy eyed, hold our hands in theirs and say, "Mom.  Thank you.  From the bottom of my heart, thank you."  What really happens is that you think about how you were going to take a long bubble bath, dress, drop your daughter at the movies to meet their friends, then go spend the evening having dinner with a friend, swing by, pick them up and drive home where you'll get to bed on time and sleep blissfully.  Instead, she needs you to leave an hour early to pick up Missy, Chrissy and Pissy at their houses which are all at opposing sides of town (you're the other point of the square and the movie theater is in the middle = no bubble bath).  When you get to the theater, she realizes, OMG!!!!!  She left her allowance that she's using to pay for the ticket and popcorn in the pocket of her OTHER hoodie!!!!  She HAS to see this movie, she just HAS to and she'd saved up for weeks to have lots of money for the arcade before and now she's got nothing, NOTHING!!!!  OMG!!!  Eeeeeeee!  You pull your last $20 out of your wallet and hand it to her, your fingers gripping it a little tighter as she snatches it from your fingers and disappears inside, bouncing up and down with Missy, Chrissy and Pissy like little whack-a-moles.  As you're driving away, your cell phone rings and it's HER cell phone.  "MOM OMG I JUST FOUND OUT THAT CISSY, WHO WE HAVEN'T SEEN IN FOREVER CAN COME TO THE MOVIES TOO BUT I NEED FOR YOU TO GO GET HER BECAUSE YOU REMEMBER CISSY WHO WENT AWAY TO VISIT HER SISTER IN MINNESOTA AFTER HER MOM WAS SENT TO REHAB AND SHE'S BEEN GONE EVER SINCE AND SHE'S ONLY IN TOWN FOR THIS ONE NIGHT AND IT'S OUR ONLY CHANCE TO SEE HER AND YOU JUST HAVE TO GO GET HER, YOU JUST HAVE TO!!"

*sigh*  Cissy and her amphetamine addicted alcoholic mother will be the death of you, or at least of your evening.  But it's a rare event that Cissy is in town.  You call your friend and tell her you'll meet an hour later, then drive back across town, pick up Cissy and drop her at the movies.  As you're leaving from dropping off Cissy, your cell phone rings and you gingerly look at it.  *whew*  It's your friend and not another trip across town to pick up Lissy or Swishy or some other friend.  Your friend tells you that her daughter, Sassy, broke up with her boyfriend on the phone a few minutes before and is hysterical, so your friend thinks she should stick around because Sassy is freaking out.  You drive on to the restaurant to have a nice dinner alone, only to find that it's closed for renovations.  Not to be outdone, you pull into the McDonald's down the road and go inside to order where a 20-year-old takes your order on a register with pictures of the food on the buttons and has trouble counting back your change to you.  The burger you ordered with no onions has double onions, the fries are cold and you have real coke instead of diet code.  You sit down, eat your food, drive back to the theater and sit in the lobby for an hour until the movie is over, drive the bubbly "issy" crew home to their respective homes, then drag yourself into your own driveway.  Weary, you crawl into bed and remember that you wanted to invite your friend out for dinner the next night and reach for the phone, only to find that your daughter is on three-way with two of the "issies," talking animatedly and not looking as though they are going to be finished any time soon.  You hang up the phone, realizing your cell is downstairs, alllll the way downstairs, in your purse.  As you turn over, your husband says, "Oh, I'm going to go play paintball with Steve tomorrow, so I'll be late."  Which solves the problem of whether or not you get the phone.  You take a zoloft and go to sleep.

Sound at all familiar?  I can't count the number of times I've very quickly trashed plans I made for myself in favor of what a family member needed or wanted.  If I'm making chicken, I give the largest breast to my husband.  If there is one piece of pie left, I ask if anyone wants it before I eat it.  If I want to eat Italian food and my husband wants Chinese, I'm going to be eating Chinese that night.  At least that's how it used to be until I realized how resentful I was getting over always getting the shitty end of the stick.  I was the one who would sacrifice if sacrificing needed to happen.  I always presumed that they wanted what they wanted much more passionately than I wanted what I wanted and would give in to make things easier.  But it didn't, really, because I was teaching them and teaching myself that the things I wanted didn't matter and shouldn't be treated as anything important!  If *I* do not honor my own plans, my own wants, my own nurturing, how can I expect them to do so?  Why should they assign value to the things that I'm demonstrating to them are unimportant?  If they get what they want, they aren't going to care if I sigh heavily, use passive aggressive guilt maneuvers and velcro the longsuffering back of my hand to my tortured and much maligned forehead.  The end result is that it's a small price to pay to get to do what they want to do.

We can't expect that husbands or children will come to us and say, "Is this an inconvenience?  If it's too much trouble, I can make other arrangements."  Rather, we can't expect that until we have TRAINED them to know that we are also important and when we extend ourselves to them and go out of our way to accommodate them that it's a gift given of love.  We have to value ourselves first and let them see that our time and our plans are important as well. 

Something I noticed when I started implementing this strategy (if you can call doing what they're already doing for themselves as "strategy") is that about half of the time, no one much cared.  If I ate the last piece of pie without saying anything or took the large piece of chicken, they didn't care.  It was monumental for me, but they didn't even notice.  If I told my husband, "No, tomorrow night isn't good for me.  Remember, I told you I was getting a pedicure then.  I have an appointment," he would say, "Oh.  No problem.  I completely forgot.  I'll move it out to Thursday." 

So how can we changed what happened to our poor heroine and her horrible night?

Remember the original plan:  bubble bath, dress, take daughter to the movies, dinner with a friend, pick up daughter and go home. 

You can see from all that happened that the mom really does care about the daughter and Cissy and their happiness, but she shouldn't have to sacrifice her whole night.  This is where you pick your battles.

First question:  Where are the issy's parents?  Call the two who live on the other side of town and find out which one can meet you at the theater to pick up and drop off.  That way, you're only doing half of the driving and can still wiggle into that bathtub.  Next question is the money... make CERTAIN you get the money BACK from the daughter when you get home, teaching her that your money is as valuable as hers.  Cissy?  Sure, you can drive over and get Cissy since this is a "once in forever" situation, but since you are giving up some of your time and plans to help your daughter do something SHE wants to do, that favor should be returned.  How can she free up time for you later in the week?  Can she make dinner and do the dishes one evening while you relax?  Perhaps she can wash and fold the laundry and put it away while you go visit a friend.  Let her know very calmly that you have abruptly changed your plans, which are important to you just like hers are to her, to help her and that you'd like to have that time given back to you.  Tell her when and tell her what.  Another alternative is to call your husband and ask him to haul Cissy's ass to the theater.  (OH, but we don't want to interrupt HIS night, do we?)

Dinner?  You paid for it, you fix it.  I have been so surprised at the number of women I've met who wouldn't say shit if their mouth was full of it.  I do not HESITATE to send food back, whether I am at a fast food joint or a fancy restaurant.  I am paying for food.  I asked for it to be prepared a certain way and that's how I want it to be.  The chef and the waitress (and I say this as an ex-waitress of many years) are doing their job.  If my steak is cooked through and I ordered it rare, it's going back.  If my eggs are runny, they're going back.  I'm not going to sit there and eat food I don't enjoy because someone dropped the ball.  If I DO get the food I ordered, but it doesn't taste good (too greasy, tastes off or isn't as described), I send it back.  If I'm paying money for food, I want it to taste good and I want to enjoy it.  I'll say something like, "You know, this doesn't taste like I expected and I'm really not enjoying eating it."  Invariably, the waitress will do one of two things.  Either I will be offered another entree and the cost of the icky food will be deducted from my bill or a manager will be sent over.  If the manager is called (this is supposed to intimidate the patron on one level and on another level, in some restaurants, only managers can make these decisions), I repeat my info and they will usually do the same thing ("Can I get you something else?")  I've never had it turn into a big deal at all and I end up spending my money on something that I really do enjoy.  If I don't want another entree (honestly, sometimes if it's overly greasy or just tastes nasty, I may have lost my appetite), the cost of the dish is taken off my bill.  Of course, I mentioned that common sense thing and it comes into play here.  You shouldn't try to send back food after you've eaten half the plate.  I'd say up to a quarter or a third is a generous portion to figure out that you just aren't digging the food. 

How does this fit into parenting?  Because so much of parenting is about what Phil calls "socializing" your child, meaning teaching them about this world and our society and how to integrate themselves into both in a positive way.  Part of that means being able to accept that you don't always get what you want when you want it and that the world will not stop and wrap around your every heart's desire.  Your children can't know that you are going to stand up for yourself and what you need and want unless YOU know that.  It's hard the first few times because you feel like you are "putting people out" and being a fusser.  You aren't.  You're taking control of the things that you are and are not willing to accept in life and I can PROMISE you that when you narrow those down and become less accepting of some of the things that make you feel resentful, your life feels a lot cleaner and more on target.  Sometimes, a kid needs to hear "no" and not "no" with a lengthy discussion of how and why, but sometimes just "No, that's not something that can happen right now."  Although I am a MAJOR communicator with my children, I learned a while back not to explain away everything.  I don't feel we should wield power trips over our kids, hitting them in the head with "BECAUSE I SAID SO" and lording our superiority as adults over them.   Kids have very little control in their lives overall and while they are very excited to take that control when it's handed to them, we won't have to rub their faces in it maliciously.  Still, sometimes, they have to hit a firm wall.  I do believe that we often work too hard to make our kid's every wish come true.  We get the feeling that if it is within our power at all to accommodate their wants, we should.  Sometimes, their disappointment turns into a tirade and temper tantrum and sometimes it's met with a shrug and asking what's for dinner.  If we cave after we've said no, we've taught them that we can be manipulated if they can just shout us down or stay in the game longer than we can.  One of the first principles I taught Delena was "No means NO."  It doesn't mean, "Maybe."  It doesn't mean, "OK, let's barter this out."  It doesn't mean, "See if you can talk me into it."  I also don't throw "no" around lightly.  If one of my kids asks for something material or for me to do something for them, I do seriously consider the degree to which it would put me out to accommodate them.  If I can without feeling oppressed, then I do. If it's a close call, but still on the side of feeling like I can do it, I'll ask them to help me in some way in return (I don't want them to think we follow strict "Rules of Acquisition" for every little thing I do for them, so I only ask for something in return if I'm going to inconvenience myself in some way.  It's a fine line between getting them to understand that they need to also think of others and the value of their time and inconvenience versus creating a mindset of "what's in it for me" whenever they do something for someone).  If it's going to really throw a monkey wrench in my plans to do what they need, about 8 times out of 10, I'll say no.  You know what?  They've lived through it every time so far.

Above all, like I was mentioning in a previous column, do not give anything you cannot give with love.  If you are giving of yourself to your family and resenting them for it, YOU have contaminated the relationship, not them.  It's your responsibility to know your limits and calmly, lovingly but firmly define and protect them.  You don't have to scream, shout, hit or bring drama into it.  Smile.  Tell them you love them, but let them know that you are absolute on this and that it's not negotiable.  "I'm sorry.  I'm just not in a place to do that for you."  If they try to convince you of how you ARE actually in a place to do it, just keep repeating, "I'm sorry, that just isn't going to work for me."  There are some pretty powerful words you should learn if you frequently find yourself over-giving.  In addition to a simple, "No," two of the most effective words you can use are "regardless" and "nevertheless."  You can even acknowledge their predicament.  "I can tell this upsets you and I'm sorry you are sad; nevertheless, it's the way it is."  "I've heard what you have told me and I can see that it means a lot to you, nevertheless, I'm going to have to say no."  Listen to them, look attentive, nod, say, "mmm hmm," now and then, then say, "OK, I hear where you're coming from.  Regardless, it's just not going to be something I can do."  Don't act as though you simply don't care about their plight, but that it's just not doable.  You might offer a compromise or alternative if you want.  "I can't take you to the mall tonight because I already have plans (even if those plans are taking a bubble bath and giving yourself a pedicure), but I am going by there on Tuesday to go to the bank and I'll be happy to take you then."  "I'm not comfortable with you seeing an NC-17 movie, but I'll be happy to take you to an R rated one."  "I can't really get you that DVD right now, but if you'd like to do some extra chores around the house to earn additional allowance, we can buy it on Friday."  

By not always being available to fix every ailment in their lives or acting as an energy and transportation ATM, it also helps our kids learn to problem solve and come up with alternative arrangements.  Often, they get too fixated on one solution (usually involving output of some kind from YOU), that they don't open their eyes to other options until the old reliable solution is eliminated.

Something else that never fails to shock me are the kids I've seen on Dr Phil and in real life who scream at their parents, hit them, call them names, spit on them and slam doors in their faces.  Let me tell you, friend.  When that happens, the whole world needs to cave in on that kid.  I am not an advocate of spanking and, in fact, have not spanked my last three children.  That doesn't mean that they are undisciplined and it doesn't mean the world hasn't caved in on them a time or two.  Hitting doesn't have to happen to get the point across.  It's all in the energy projection. 

Another point that I was really screwing up on was that I was insisting on applying the same rules I used for the kids on me.  I didn't think it was fair that I could do something when they cannot.  Then I thought about RHIP (Rank Has Its Privileges).  They can't drive.  They can't vote.  They can't buy liquor.  They also cannot eat in their rooms, eat at my computer or stay up past 9.  I can.  I can because I'm a grown up.  They can when they are grown ups.  It's as simple as that.

That same psychologist who told me about the mode of operation of kids and teens also told me that in this world, there are a few basic rules of existentialism:

1)  You cannot have everything you want all at once.

2)  You cannot have everything you want sequentially. 

3)  Every choice is bittersweet.  When you choose one thing, you sacrifice other things.

4)  Every action, no matter how big or small, has consequences.

Good words to know. 

Just bear in mind that being a good parent, despite what we'd love to believe, does not mean we will always be thanked, always be popular, always be appreciated or even be liked.  Sometimes, you have to be the scourge in their life to help them to grow and to learn that it's not always about them.  It's also important that we completely understand that sometimes, it IS about us and WE do come first.   

Yep, they're born to be loved, but loving them means teaching them and giving them a "whole parent" and a loving parent who is giving to them with love and joy rather than with resentment.

Have a wonderful weekend,