Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Goodbye to Summer?

It's gloomy and dark outside.  Some would say "Welcome!" to the cooler, fall-like weather, but I am dissapointed as summer's kiss seems to have just tickled my skin for a moment before the clouds once again took over the sky.

I haven't the heart to confine my kids to the dining-room table for schoolwork, and binders lay scattered about, books sit unopened, undone, unread and indoors is uncommonly quiet and still.

They chatter and squeal outside, building blanket forts in the still-soft grass, under the trees.  For a moment, there is a bustling and tumbling indoors, and cheeks are pink and cool (is it really the last day of August?) and I offer them a left-over bag of chips to take to their castle in the yard.

A sweet daughter hands me a miniature bouquet of tiny white flowers; pretty yet with an unpleasant scent, and I thank her for her generosity as she bounds away to play - carefree and content.

In my heart, I wish that I could have forever summer... the endless non-routine playtime, basking in sunshine, laziness and memory-making moments with my family.   Each day is carelessly packed with discovery, adventure and a grateful appreciation for the world around us.

However, part of me longs, in quiet expectation, for the sense of accomplishment and contentment that fall will bring.  As the air turns crisp like the leaves on the trees, and they fall crunchy and mulchy onto the sidewalk, we will turn our hearts to home; family times on the couch, reading by the fire, snuggling with hot cocoa (and perhaps a pumpkin spice latte!).

Seasons come and go - summer is a gentle reminder to relax, let go, "don't worry, be happy" while autumn seeps an urgency and prods us to regain our footing; become productive and re-enter the normal hustle and bustle of society's schedule.

I won't let myself forget the warm, lazy days.  I will engrave them upon my memory, revisiting the moments with urgency when winter's cold grip comes to take over and threaten me.  Even now, I remember the frost, the snow, the icicles hanging from the eves - the bone-chilling cold; the hibernation never-want-to-leave-home feeling that takes over...   I'll close my eyes tight and find the sights and sounds of summer within - those moments that etched a wondrous tranquility and fulfillment in my soul.

The Summer Sun Shone Round Me

THE summer sun shone round me,
The folded valley lay
In a stream of sun and odour,
That sultry summer day.

The tall trees stood in the sunlight
As still as still could be,
But the deep grass sighed and rustled
And bowed and beckoned me.

The deep grass moved and whispered
And bowed and brushed my face.
It whispered in the sunshine:
"The winter comes apace."
Robert Louis Stevenson

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Over-Protective Parenting

When my first baby was born, nearly 12 years ago, I was an uncommonly calm and relaxed mother.  Certainly, I did my duty and took prenatal vitamins faithfully, read all the important baby books, took my newborn to her routine check-ups and vaccinated her and I paid close attention to all the developmental milestones.  Frankly, I've strayed far off the path of "normal" and now my parenting looks a far cry from what it did in it's early years - not that I neglect my children in any way, but I'm not as "protective" and cautious as I once was.

Even so, I never took protectiveness to the extreme.  I've know such parents, who ascribe to rigid schedules of feedings, bathing and educational stimulation.  They sterilize, organize and continually verbalize (in at least 2 languages) in order to guarantee their child's healthy, successful development and growth.   This is the parent who painstakingly follows his/her child around with disinfectant and antibacterial spray, guarding precious little Suzie or Johnny from germs, dirt and other harmful objects.  If a toy drops from the baby's hand onto the floor, it is quickly whisked away, to be dutifully sterilized before being returned to the toy shelf.  To be honest, I became so lax that my baby's soother could be on the floor for a day or two and I'd have no problem popping it into their mouth!  (Hey, don't be shocked... doesn't that promote their natural immunity?)

As little Suzie grows up, it becomes apparent that she is the victim of an over-protective parent.  Never allowed to play outside alone, never allowed to talk to the mailman, grocery store clerk or even the zit-faced teen at the McDonald's counter, Suzie is sheltered and cloistered away from the "big, bad, scary world".  This is the child who must wear full-body protective gear when bicycling or riding on his scooter.  When all the other boys are wearing cut-off jeans and just their helmets as they bike up and down the street on a hot, sunny day, poor Johnny has elbow pads, knee pads, shin guards, and a full-face helmet.  Oh... and Mom is on the porch with her eagle eyes to keep watch for bad guys who might show up in the neighborhood.  And when Johnny stops by the house, she jumps up, wipes his nose with a tissue that she pulls out of her pocket and asks:  "Are you sure you're not over-exerting yourself, sweetheart?"

Sure, as parents, we desire to shield our kids from harm.  In fact, on a daily basis I make choices to safeguard my kids and to prevent them from suffering the consequences of inappropriate situations.  Yet there came a time when I had to "let go" a little, and show some trust and confidence in my kids.  I even have learned to let my kids make the occasional mistake... so they can then learn from the consequences.  I let my toddler run around with wobbly exuberance even though I know he will occasionally fall and end up with a few bumps and bruises.  I even let him climb onto things,  to a certain degree, knowing that when he gets himself into a position that is "scary" for him - like on top of our big, king-sized bed, he'll have to ask for help to get down, and perhaps learn his limitations!

I've even found that homeschooling brings it's own challenges regarding protectiveness, in that I decide how to grade and score my children's work.  For a while, I felt badly about marking an "X" on my children's work, as if it would damage their emotional well-being... Over time, I've learned that making mistakes is a part of life, and recognizing that you have done wrong is the first step in improvement!  My kids have to own up to their behavior, and if they have incomplete work, I don't shield them from it - but I try to patiently guide them to amend their work so they can learn and better themselves.

Extreme cases of over-protectiveness result in children who never fully mature.  These are the kids (adults, actually) whose parents bail them out, time and time again, despite their age and capability to care for themselves. I'm talking about an able-bodied human being who lives with his parents and can't hold down a steady job; sleeps-in every day and stays up late, playing video games - and I would argue that this is not entirely his fault.  Somehow, this behavior has been continually enabled and supported.  This is an extreme case, of course, and obviously is unhealthy for both the parent and the grown-up child.  The problem is, it's not for lack of love that an adult turns out this way.  In most cases, the mother (and sometimes father) are exceptionally loving towards their child.  In fact, they care SO MUCH that they just don't want anything bad to happen to their child.  They don't want them to know the hurts and pains of reality - they don't want them to know humiliation, rejection or for their child to experience the pain of lack.  (Like lacking designer jeans..., or the latest video game... or 'spending money' for pizza and beer...)  If you argued with this parent and told them that "if you really loved your child, you wouldn't enable them.." it may take a while for this concept to actually sink in because they feel they have done nothing but love their child!

I think we can all agree that healthy parenting involves a certain measure of restraint when it comes to allowing our children to experience the consequences of their behavior.  Consequences make excellent teachers.  As parents, we ought to allow our children to learn valuable lessons from their actions.

Something I realized recently was how my idea of God really doesn't line up with this simple parenting principle.  I think we often expect and desire for God to act like an over-protective parent.  We want Him to shield us from EVERY painful consequence, no matter how responsible we are for our individual actions.  We blame Him when things don't go the way we want, even though the results line up with our behavior.  We get mad or become hard-hearted, thinking that God doesn't really love us, and that He's actually a cold-hearted monster in the sky for allowing hardship into our lives.  Now, I'm not trying to address tragedy and the horrible atrocities that this sinful world contains.  So don't get the idea that I'm saying "God wanted your brother to die in a car accident so you could learn a lesson" or something ridiculous like that.   I'm talking more along the lines of dealing with your personal finances, or troubles with relationships or even personal issues which you have allowed to slide over time, and now you're feeling like you've been dealt an unfair hand in life.  Often we look up at God with accusation and think: "Why don't you change this problem!?"  We question the struggle, and don't see the lesson and opportunity for development that is knocking at our door.

My thought is this:  If God made our lives easy and perfect (which couldn't happen anyway due to our imperfections..) then how would we ever learn, grow, develop and mature?  Sure, there are times when I feel overwhelmed and frustrated and hurt.  But if God were to treat me in the manner of an overprotective parent, cushioning me in a bubble of cotton fluff to prevent me from ever being poked, stretched, challenged or hurt - who would I become?  I'd be that spoiled, over-grown child; bloated with a sense of entitlement and selfishness.

Realistically, I believe that God does shelter us from our actions a lot more than we could ever think or comprehend.  Having children, I know for certain that my kids really do use up the work-hours of their guardian angels... considering how many almost-poked-out-eyes and should-have-been-broken bones we've encountered as a family.  Even more so, I'm certain that God has prevented some horrible situations in my life.  I sense His leading and protection on a continual basis and I know that what I've received is far better than I deserve! 

The thought I really wanted to express, was the idea of God as a parent.  Whatever it is that you expect from God, and whatever attributes you have ascribed to Him, must be filtered through the idea of a wise, loving, perfect parent who desires to see us mature and grow and develop.  I believe it hurts him when He sees us make mistakes - in the same way that I hurt when my children make poor choices.  That doesn't mean I stop them from all of their mistakes, though.  I understand the importance of growth by accountability.  I hold my kids accountable when appropriate, and bail them out when appropriate.  It may seem a bit lame, but there is plenty of truth in the saying: No pain, no gain!  Like it or not, there are times in my life where I will be challenged - it doesn't mean God doesn't like me and isn't watching out for me; in fact it actually is a sign that He LOVES me and is cheering me on, as I journey towards maturity.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Home Alone: A Sign of Growing Up

Don't leave the house.
Don't answer the phone.  (Unless you recognize the caller id...)
Don't turn on the stove or oven.
Stay out of the cupboards.
Don't give your little brother a bath.
Don't go on the internet.
Don't turn on the fireplace.
Don't fight!
Don't make a mess.  (Or you will most certainly clean it up.)
Don't do any experiments with electrical appliances, water, fire, the freezer, food, paint, scissors, yourself or (most especially) your siblings while I am gone!

Do be good.
Be quiet.

This is just a sample of the tangent of concerns I race through before leaving one of my older kids in charge of things when I have to step out for a quick errand.  I've embarked upon a stage of new freedoms, as my oldest kids cruise into further maturity and the ability to babysit.  Yet there are so many considerations and areas of constraint which I need to impress upon my kids, especially considering the fact that they are not just responsible for themselves, but are helping to care for their younger siblings as well, including a very energetic, explorative toddler.  That is why the majority of times I leave the toddler in one of my older children's care, it is during one of his naps so the likelihood of mishap is greatly reduced.

At some point in time, my children will grow in wisdom, and instead of following a precise, clearly defined, over-explanatory set of rules and regulations, they instead will be governed by the knowledge they possess and the reasoning that comes from internalizing a situation and thinking with their hearts.  Isn't that what maturity is about?  We say that a person is mature if they can think before they speak, make sound decisions and not act based on their emotions and just "living for the moment".  A mature person has the ability to foresee the results and future consequences of their actions.  (Unfortunately our society is populated by a rather large number of immature adults, judging from this definition.)

So, until my oldest children posses a great deal more maturity, I will continue to spell out with extreme clarity, the "Do's" and "Don'ts" of being left home alone.  The last thing I want to come home to is some sort of odd science experiment gone wrong, with the firemen at my doorstep, blue smoke pluming out the doors and windows, half-naked children crying on the grass  (because who doesn't love to run around the house in your underwear?) and my eldest son, Ethan, saying "I know I'm in big trouble, but that was really COOL!"
No thank you.  I'll do my best to prevent that sort of unfortunate event.

This got me thinking about our growth as believers.  In a state of immaturity, we long for rules and regulations, and think "If I can just follow this teaching, that prayer or this new revelation, my Christian walk will be dandy!" However, the fact is, what matters the most is what is going on inside of our hearts.  The more we truly know the Lord, the more it becomes fixed in our hearts how He would like us to act.  We've all seen or heard of stories where the "book knowledge" or "head knowledge" person goes up against the "life-experience" person, and just can't compete with the depth of wisdom that comes from living in the real world.  How much more so with our Christian walk?  We will become the type of people whom God wants to use and work through, not when we have read enough material and attained a Bible College degree, but when we have proven ourselves to be committed to a deep relationship with Him.

My daughter would like to take a babysitter's course so that she can be a "certified sitter" but does that really mean that she will be fully equipped to handle whatever situation that arises?  Of course not!  It takes experience and maturity to successfully and safely care for children for extended periods of time, and even I've goofed up every now and then!  ....Like the time my first born was playing with a penny when she was a toddler, and I thought: "What's the big deal?  She wouldn't put it in her mouth..."  Moments later, she was gagging and choking, and ended up swallowing the penny.  (I felt like a pretty rotten mother at that point!)  Then there is the time that this same child was downstairs "helping" me do laundry.  She took an empty box of powdered detergent, lifted it upside-down to peer into the "empty" bottom of the box and several granules of leftover soap powder fell directly into her eyes.  Oh the screaming!!!  ...and the terror that I felt as I frantically called my husband, wondering what to do.  From work, he called Poison Control on his other line and instructed me to hold my screaming toddler, face up, and pour water into her eyes for 10 minutes, to rinse them out.  For the first 5 minutes, she was screaming a blood-curdling "Mommmeeeey.... Mommmeeeey!!!" Until eventually, she lost hope in me ceasing this horrible activity, and she began a heart-rending plea for "Daddy...", hoping he might come and save her.  Yes.  That was one of the most horrific parenting moments of my life.  (Just so you know, today her eyes are perfectly fine; so rinsing them and enduring the heartbreaking experience of terrorizing my poor child was worth it.  Mostly.)

While I can't expect perfection from my kids as they grow up and are left home alone more and more, and likely there will be stains on the carpet, broken dishes and magic-marker war paint on the baby's face when left in the care of the older kids, this can't stop me from allowing them to walk this journey to maturity (with a reasonable amount of guidance).  Over time, my rules will become less detailed, and I will simply entrust them to the care for their siblings and the home, and to uphold our family values when they are "in charge".

I think a sign of growing maturity in a Christian is the ability to walk along with less sense of the rules and regulations which "should" govern a believer's life, and instead to have more of a heart-knowledge that beats in tune with the God we love and serve.  The more we love and know Him, the better we can serve Him and do His will.  I can't always be explicit with my children, but if I instruct them and, most importantly, train them to think with their hearts, and perhaps even say to themselves: "Would Mom want me to do this?" then I can expect that, apart from the occasional mistake, my kids will do fine on their own.

The whole WWJD? "What Would Jesus Do?" craze was a great idea, but frankly, I think most people haven't a clue of what Jesus would do.  If you wear the bracelet and then look to it before you make a decision, you might be able to come up with some random scriptures that will help direct you, but if you don't actually KNOW Jesus, and have a relationship with Him, you probably will flounder.  I guess what I'm saying here is, my heart is to see Christians (and myself) holding a deeper understanding of "how to live" not based on words written on a page, but by the grace, love, hope and faith that is stamped upon our hearts.  And that only comes by knowing God, and growing in your relationship with Him.  That takes time and commitment.  It can't be obtained by reading another book or listening to another sermon.  Those things help, but as I've stressed in the past, it's all about relationship.

It may be helpful, as a Christian, to have clear guidelines and signposts, as it were, to govern your daily living.  However, my challenge lies in the idea that to truly live for Christ, you must be transformed from the inside; developing a maturity that comes from a heart in tune with the Savior.
It's all part of growing up.  

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Summer Thunder

We have enjoyed an abundance of spectacular summer thunderstorms this year.  Many nights have found me staring up into the sky, nose pressed against the window pane as I attempt to absorb the majesty and splendor that flashes chaotically, followed by a tremendous drum roll of thunder.

To bring us all up to speed, I will give a simple, elementary-level definition of what creates the perfect summer storm.  "Thunderstorms result from the rapid upward movement of warm, moist air." (Wikipedia)  A perfect summer storm will often occur on a humid summer night, after the ground has spent the day absorbing the sun's heat.

Something inside me has always loved the power displayed in a violent, noisy thunderstorm.  Perhaps it is the unleashing of "nature's fury" that serves to release my own tensions with each burst of lightning, and the ominous booming of thunder.  When a "good storm" is completed, I am calmed by the sound of millions of droplets of rain; the water that seems to wash away bad feelings and leaves me still, quiet and small.

Some of you may have wondered at my lack of postings for the past couple of weeks.  The laze of summer days has imposed a silence upon me as I catch up with my troubled thoughts, my stormy feelings and seek to restore a turbulent, hurried life to a place of rest and surrender.

In many ways, I feel like a thunderstorm has been brewing; as my life, so full and heavy, has heated up over time.  I've been running hard and fast - in overdrive, with my engine close to overheating.  I even came close to zapping a few people with the frustration and frenetic energy which churned inside of me - but the storm remained, contained (barely) inside my heart.

It is no wonder, and no surprise that this decline to my emotions, and this challenge to calm my anger has come directly on the heels of reading about gratitude.  It seems that with each new revelation, we are immediately bombarded with something contrary - an attack, as it were, on the new-found knowledge and inspiration.

For the past couple of mornings, I have been waking early and studying scripture relating to thanksgiving.  (Not until after I have had a few sips of freshly brewed coffee, that is!)  I flipped my Bible open to Psalm 34, and was intrigued by the title above the chapter:  The Happiness Of Those Who Trust In GodYes, please!  I am always in line for some extra happiness - especially lately, when I've been feeling drained and burnt out - and I'm already foreseeing and dreading the coming busyness of Fall.

Everything that I previously wrote about, concerning gratefulness and thanksgiving being directly related to joy, was once again reinforced in the first few verses of this psalm.  To put it simply, a soul that is focused on the greatness of our God (not on our own, sometimes crappy existence), along with having a heart that lifts up thanksgiving (I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth) results in a HAPPY, contented person.

I've been steaming, and brewing up the perfect summer storm by concentrating on myself.  I've been distracted and overwhelmed by the negative, instead of offering gratitude for the many blessings that surround me.

Since I am a mom, various songs from cartoons end up running through my head from time to time, and I wanted to share one on my blog today because it seems quite fitting.  I couldn't find the original song, but instead found an acapella version of the Veggietales song "Thankful Heart" from the film Madame Blueberry.

It's not easy to be thankful when you feel stuck in the muck; whether you are overwhelmed by bills, sickness, bad attitudes, work, a struggling marriage, or all of the above.  In the end, I believe that there is always something to be thankful for:  Sunshine, fresh air, apple pie, sleeping in, baby giggles, family, a good book, summer storms, and most of all, a Heavenly Father who loves us!  No matter what is going on, thankfulness can lift your heart above your circumstances and give you the boost you need to get through the day.

A thankful heart is a happy heart.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Keeping Up Appearances

I screwed up.  I just caught myself in the middle of a lecture trying to pressure my child to change his behavior, using motivation that I have to admit was fundamentally wrong.  It's scary, really, how we can shape a child's perception of themselves and the world around them with just a few words.

Let me rewind... This is the second day of VBS (Vacation Bible School) for my kids this summer - and I have to admit, I've been quite giddy with the opportunity to drop my children off at the doorstep of a neighborhood church where they can spend the morning happily playing games, singing songs, and learning about Jesus.  (They even give them a snack!)  VBS was a part of my childhood, and I well remember the exciting mornings of music, games, drama and crafts... a pleasant distraction from the lull of summer!  So I was eagerly anticipating this first week in August which would provide me with my own mini-vacation - a rare chance to have a week of mornings to myself (once my youngest is down for his nap).  As a homeschooling mom, I am almost never alone, and I'm not complaining, but I sure do appreciate VBS week!!!!

This morning I promptly arrived at the church, signed in my children and let the elementary-aged children race off, while I walked the preschool kids to their classroom.  Within minutes, I was freed (temporarily) of my kids, and walked with happy, lightened steps to my van.  Suddenly, I heard my eldest child's voice calling to me, to tell me that her brother was fooling around and trying to run away from his teacher.  My nostrils flared and my eyes bugged out a little.  All I ask is a quiet couple of hours... is it too much to ask for???  I fumed silently.

The skip in my step deflated to a businesslike stomp as I charged into the building, adorned with the "you-better-shape-up-or-else" expression on my face.  The defendant was sitting guiltily on a chair on the side of the room, seemingly confined to a time-out.

Quickly, methodically and expertly I cross-examined him, finding that indeed his behavior was erroneous.  Then began the manipulative 'mother-speak' in which I chided him to consider the following:  "What will people think of you when you act like a 'crazy' kid?"

To be brutally honest, I was thinking more along the lines of: What will people think of us, the parents?  Because like it or not, my kids' behavior creates an impression and reflects on my parenting abilities.  Not only that, but my kids have the habit of dropping the line: "I'm a pastor's kid..." as if it is an exclusive V.I.P. pass that will get them special treatment.  (Apparently they haven't come to the same revelation that I have regarding titles... the title we hold is far more about responsibility than it is about privilege!)

It was in the middle of this rant about what others would think of him, when I felt conviction prick my heart and I hearkened to the ominous warning I felt in my gut.  Suddenly I heard what I was saying; heard how I was trying to motivate my child and pressure him on the basis of appearances, not what really matters.  Basically, I was trying to motivate my kid with a form of peer-pressure and fitting in, with concern solely focused on the expectations of those he "should" try to impress.

I can remember growing up with an immense respect for my father and his status in our community, church and his workplace.  He was (and still is) a man who people knew to be honest and a hard worker.  He was dependable.  And he had good kids.  That was part of the package.  I didn't want to soil his reputation.  I liked the kind of man my father was, and I liked that people esteemed him.  However, there is a downside to all of this.  When appearances become the icon of success, it is possible for the heart to be ignored and neglected.

How then, do I motivate my children to obey?  How do I encourage good behavior; respectable, likable behavior?  It comes back to the issue of the moral fabric I weave into my family and the simple truth that Jesus used in response to the Pharisees when they tried to stump him by asking their hard-hearted, legalistic question - What is the most important commandment?  Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God...and love your neighbor as yourself."

This is not an issue of "acting good" so that people will think well of my child and subsequently think well of me.  If all that matters is "fitting in", then what about when negative peer pressure comes down the path?  Will my child care more about what his friends think about him than about doing the right thing?   I want my children to learn to think with their hearts, drawing their motivation from what they know in their heart is the right thing to do.  What really matters today is that my kid was being a pain in the butt to his teacher, and that was both unkind and selfish.  I changed my whole lecturing process in that instant of revelation, and asked my son:  "Are you being kind to your teacher by being a crazy kid?"

With that question, I'm hoping that my son was able to put himself in his leader's shoes.  Suddenly it was about caring for someone else - it was about showing love and respect.  Having dealt with the underlying motive, I asked my son what he should "do about it" and how he should make things right.  He admitted that he should apologize and sat quietly for a few moments before remorsefully walking over to his teacher and saying "sorry".  In that moment, I knew a lesson was learned.  It wasn't easy for him to walk over and "make things right" with the cool, teenage guy who was his leader.  I could tell that he looked up to him, and that admitting he was wrong was a humbling act.  Yet, I felt it was entirely necessary.

The real problem was my son's selfish behavior, and trying to curb my child's actions on the basis of appearance would only justify further selfishness.  Simply being concerned about "my appearance, my reputation and my standing" shows a firm grasp on what matters the most: ME!  With the focus turned outward onto how the behavior affected his leader, the emphasis was placed on the value of consideration and kindness.

It's not always easy to determine how to best teach and motivate our kids.  More often than not, we just want to make the bad behavior stop and will use whatever means necessary.  Repetition, bribing, threatening and lecturing are common tools in a parent's behavior modification strategy, and I'll be the first to admit that I don't always do the right thing regarding kids.  My initial response is usually based out of a sense of urgency - I just want it to stop!  My perspective, however, should be the long-term and should consider the state of my child's heart; equipping them with character and a healthy attitude.

There was a surprise for me when I returned to pick up my kids at lunchtime.  I went to sign out my son, and one of his teachers said to him "Are you going to tell your mom everything you did today?"

He looked up, startled and definitely worried and said slowly "What do you mean?"

She smiled, a look of puzzlement on her face and exclaimed: "Tell her how you were sharing!"

A look of relief crossed over my son's face and he shrugged his shoulders, "I was helping in class, and giving out the crafts..."

My concern immediately lifted, and my heart was overjoyed to know that my child was doing what mattered - he was being kind and loving to others; he was putting others first!  "That's great!"  I told him sincerely, with a smile on my face.  "It sounds like you were being very kind."

It's amazing how over the course of a couple hours we came full circle... Life's lessons seem to move in fast-forward when it comes to our kids.   I'm so thankful for my children's tender, teachable hearts and the joy that they bring to me as a parent.  I'm also thankful for how much they teach me, and I know I'll be more aware of what motivates me when I relate to others.  It's not about keeping up appearances.  It's what's inside that counts - it's all about relationship and what comes from the heart.