Open-Source Parenting


Open-Source Parenting: Advent

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how the Christmas season tends to barrel into me somewhere around mid-November and then plummet me toward December 25th strewing intentionality, budgeting, and more than a small percentage of my joy in its wake. I resolved to find a way off the Polar Express this year—to reclaim giving without all the slapdash spending, to create a magical holiday for my girls without piling presents to the ceiling, to keep the twinkle lights in our souls lit all month long rather than building up to one big event (and the subsequent crash).

And then I got too busy to do much of anything about it.

That’s how it goes, doesn’t it? Idealism and real life rarely play nicely, especially when children are thrown in the mix. However, that’s where grace comes in.

Grace for ourselves for not having it all together.
Grace for our kiddos for unPinterestifying our charming family projects in about two seconds flat.
Grace for holidays that go according to plan exactly zero percent of the time.
Grace for me for sharing this advent activities list with you the day advent begins instead of sometime, you know, when it might have been useful. (Hi, 2015 readers!)

I put together this list of family activities this morning with inspiration from my friends Andrea and Adriel, plus my own Elf-esque love of sugar. I tried to make it a healthy (figuratively speaking here) mix of fun and meaningful activities, and there are more than twenty-four options so we’ll have a buffer in case December gets a little unruly on us. Most of them take less than half an hour out of the day. Also, all of these activities except for the first two are free or nearly so.

I’m doing nothing fancier with this list than printing it off on a sheet of Christmas stationery so we can read over it as a family and choose which activity we’d like to do every day of December. We plan to do this in connection with reading a chapter each day from The Jesus Storybook Bible, a gorgeously written children’s Bible that focuses each story on Jesus. (Even if you don’t have kids, this book is a gem.) And… that’s it! Christmasy magic without a zillion trips to the store.

If you’re interested in doing something similar, I’m sharing what I came up with below. Feel free to tweak it, wreck it, truss it up in tinsel, or use it as a springboard for an original list of your own. The idea is to make December meaningful for our kids without losing hours of sleep or shelling out big bucks.

Ready? Here you go:

An Advent Activities List for Designated Magic-Makers

  • Pack a shoebox online for Operation Christmas Child ($25)
  • Sponsor a child through Help One Now ($40/month) and write an introduction letter to him or her
  • Go through old toys and games to give some away to a shelter for battered women and children
  • Make Christmas cards to send to great-grandparents
  • Fill an extra grocery bag when we shop to give to someone who needs it
  • Make a pinecone bird feeder to hang outside for the birds
  • Have a Christmas music dance party in our living room
  • Take a family walk around downtown to look at Christmas lights and get a treat
  • Make hot cocoa
  • Offer to help someone with a task they don’t want to do
  • Go on a Christmas shopping date with Mom
  • Put on our best Scrooge faces and watch The Muppet Christmas Carol together
  • Make Christmas cards to send to grandparents
  • Invite a friend over to play for the afternoon
  • Read I Spy Christmas or Snowmen at Christmas (or another hidden picture book) together
  • Make a Christmas card for friends who just moved away
  • Go to the local animal refuge to play with the dogs and cats
  • Wrap Christmas presents with Dad
  • Make almond bark pretzels and share some with our neighbors
  • Babysit a friend’s baby so the mom can go do some shopping alone
  • Play a Christmas piano concert for relatives on Skype
  • Write a letter to Jesus thanking him for all the gifts we’ve received throughout the year
  • Make origami star ornaments
  • Look up how they celebrate Christmas in other countries
  • Watch Elf (with plenty of sugary treats, of course!)
  • Write a letter to troops stationed away from home
  • Put on our Santa hats and read Christmas stories on the sofa
  • Write little love notes to each other and put them in our stockings
  • Make edible Christmas wreaths
  • Rewrite the words to a Christmas carol for fun

Your turn! What would you add to the list? Do you have any tried-and-true tips for making December special without stress? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!



Open-Source Parenting: Magic

“…My endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.” ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge

/ / /

Santa Claus and I were not on speaking terms when I was a kid. Christmas was already a touchy subject in our fundamentalist tradition, what with the pagan origins of Christmas trees and the commercialism of all those shiny wrapped gifts. Don’t get me wrong; my siblings and I got to open presents on Christmas morning just like other children, but we sure as shootin’ knew they didn’t come from a fat shapeshifter in red fur whose name just happened to be an anagram for “Satan.” For a while when I was very young, I had the impression that I wasn’t supposed to know about him at all, so I adopted a kind of haughty obliviousness toward the old gent. After all, it wasn’t as if he were real.

The Tooth Fairy got the same treatment from me, as did that sacrilegious, egg-stealing lout The Easter Bunny. I looked down on my friends for believing in such nonsense, and I looked down even more on their parents for encouraging it. When I grew up and had kids of my own, I would never lie to them like that.

In the monkey grass with Hudson Taylor
Don’t mess with eight-year-old Bethany’s mental integrity or she will cat you.

A few things happened between my childhood resolution and the arrival of my own children though. One was the day in college when a few of my friends and professors teamed up to give me an Easter basket full of candy. It was the first Easter basket of my life (that I’d been allowed to keep, at any rate), and my classmates that day were treated to the sound of choking giddy laugh-tears. The candy itself wasn’t such a big deal, but the playfulness behind it, the bright colors and whimsy superimposed on a holiday that had often crushed me beneath its gravity, loosened up some tightly clenched fistful of my soul.

I was also at college when I learned about Coleridge’s “poetic faith,” about how we’ll willingly shed our sense of reality so we can slip into the pages of a well-written story. I hadn’t thought of that before even though falling headfirst into books was one of my favorite pastimes. The concept made perfect sense to me however. While I was nerding out over my Lord of the Rings trilogy, it wasn’t as if I actually thought Middle Earth existed… but I did believe in it. When Frodo set off for Mount Doom, I was there, my imagination busy alchemizing fable into fact. As scornful as I had always been of magic, I now realized that I was an old hand at it.

I still contend that books are best read in pillow forts.

/ / /

I didn’t set out to use the willing suspension of disbelief as a parenting strategy. It just kind of happened as we figured out our family rhythm over the years.

Take our old friend Satan Santa. Dan and I never told our girls that a jolly bearded reindeer driver would be bringing their gifts, but we didn’t exclude him from the holidays either. We read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and watched “Elf” and sang about the woes of Rudolph. When Natalie started asking if Santa Claus was real, we told her about the original St. Nicholas and asked her what she thought of it all. Our extremely literal little girl wasn’t quite buying the existence of a magical Santa. She did agree, however, that it was a lot of fun to pretend, and so we did. We do.

We pretend about the Easter Bunny as well. Most years, we go for a little family walk during which plastic eggs mysteriously appear in tree branches and clumps of grass around us. The girls try every time to catch Dan and I at it because they know we’re the ones planting the goods, but there’s magic in it all the same. “Wow, thank you Easter Bunny!” they’ll giggle in our direction with conspiratorial eye-rolls.

And then there’s the Tooth Fairy:

Tooth Fairy
I admit nothing.

I don’t share any of this to criticize how other parents handle folklore with their kids. Nor am I trying to minimize the sacred side of holidays like Christmas and Easter. I just wanted to share the way we’ve found to keep both reality and magic as dance partners in our family life—by handing the reins over to our imaginations from time to time, giggling our way straight into story, and together experiencing worlds that only exist through the willing suspension of disbelief.

Your turn! How do you navigate the realm of legendary figures with your family? What did you think about it all when you were a kid yourself? Any good stories to tell? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!


Open-Source Parenting: Body Safety

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it wasn’t until after the Steubenville High School rape case in 2012 that I realized that consent was a Thing. I mean, I’d always known the word, but I’d never before thought of it as a principle, something to be taught and learned and insisted upon the way we do with freedom and equality. I remember reading Abby Norman’s post The Day I Taught How Not to Rape and feeling stunned by the simple truth of her premise:

“We have to teach clearly and boldly that consent is… an enthusiastic, unequivocal YES!”

Maybe those of you who came from Quiverfull-style backgrounds can relate to my own upbringing in which the guiding principle was submission rather than consent. Children and women were taught that our bodies were not our own and that struggling against a physical aggressor in a position of authority over us was grounds for harsher treatment. Intimacy was something to be claimed by those in power. I can hardly think of a more dangerous mindset for sheltered children to grow up believing.

After several episodes of “submitting” to boyfriends who wanted to take advantage of me, I was finally able to reject that mentality, and I am often reminded of how grateful I am to be here, free, seeing my own voice carry weight. This has taken time to filter down into my parenting through. I’ve taught my girls from the beginning about which parts of their body are off-limits to everyone except Mom and their doctor (“If someone tries to touch you there, you say…?” “NO!!!!”), but we never talked any further about why someone might want to touch them there or what other kinds of predatory behavior they should watch out for. Part of it was that I didn’t want to scare the girls, but the larger reason was that I honestly hadn’t considered the possibility that they would be targeted.

Who wants to think about that? Let me tell you, there is a special kind of nausea reserved for parents who imagine their children being groomed by a sexual predator. I was so unwilling to go there that I didn’t even think about my unwillingness to think about it… until recently when a friend with a daughter Sophie’s age had to confront some troubling attention her daughter was receiving from a bus monitor. I spent the whole next morning doing research on how to talk to kids about body safety and then made up a worksheet that Dan and I went over with the girls at lunch (and have referred to several times since).

Our conversation was mercifully devoid of the fear and the ick-factor that my inner pessimist had expected. Dan and I talked matter-of-factly, answering the girls’ questions and helping them role-play scenarios so they could practice safe responses. We focused on these main points:

  • I am the boss of my own body! We reiterated what they should do if someone tries to touch their bathing suit areas and then talked at length about how they can refuse any kind of touch that makes them uncomfortable. This can be a delicate subject here in Italy, where even new acquaintances will bend down and ask children for a kiss on the cheek. However, Dan and I agreed that the girls’ personal boundaries are more important than society’s standards of politeness, and we taught them how to say, “I’m sorry, I’d rather not” and stick to it, even (especially!!) if the person gets upset.
  • I don’t keep secrets from Mom & Dad! We clarified the difference between a surprise (something you’ll get to tell soon) and a secret (something you’re never supposed to tell) and impressed on the girls how important it is that they tell us immediately if anyone ever asks them to keep a secret from us. We had to do a wee bit of backpedaling on this one as Natalie’s first question was, “So I have to tell you secrets my friends tell me at school?” Dan and I did the best we could explaining which kinds of secrets are okay for the girls to keep and which ones aren’t, and it’s possible the whole subject is more confusing than ever. We’ll try to keep open dialogue about it though and hope that the main point sticks.
  • If I don’t have permission from Mom & Dad, I don’t do it! This one provided the most role-playing hilarity, but our point was simple. If someone—even someone they know—asks the girls to come into their house, get into their car, or take a walk with them, they need to get permission first. Period. End of story. No exceptions. We did clarify that they can get permission from a babysitter or relative that we have personally put in charge of them, but they should never take someone’s word that it will be fine to go off alone.
  • I stay away from “tricky people”! I got this wording from Pattie Fitzgerald, a child safety expert who makes the point that “strangers” only make up 10% of those who sexually abuse children. Instead, we want our girls to be wary of any “tricky person,” defined as anyone who makes our girls feel unsafe, nervous, or icky, anyone who won’t respect the girls’ boundaries, or anyone significantly older than them who says they specially need the girls’ help. (That last one is apparently a tactic that predators use to lure kids away or groom them toward a more intimate relationship.) If they feel someone is acting “tricky” around them, the girls are to come tell us right away.
  • If I get lost when I’m out, I… The girls already knew the first rule about getting lost in public, which is that they should stop right where they are and wait for us to find them rather than wander around looking for us. We then taught them that if they see a police offer or a mom with kids come by, those are safe people to ask for help. They should then ask those people to call their parents from where they’re standing. (The girls know both of our mobile numbers by heart. Mostly. We’ve been quizzing them every couple of days to be sure.)

I’m grateful that we were able to have a good family discussion about boundaries without making the girls paranoid of every single adult male in their lives or every stranger on the sidewalk. In fact, as we talked, I realized just how empowering the conversation was. We were teaching the girls that they have the right to say no to unwanted touch. What I would have given for that sense of ownership over my own body as a girl!

I’m not sure whether or not we’ve covered everything we should on this topic with the girls. When I read that the director of GRACE, a Christian child abuse investigation firm, has seen too much to allow his daughters to sleep over at their friends’ houses or attend church camps, my throat closed up a little. Is it really as bad as that? Am I endangering my children every time I leave them in someone else’s care? The idea of keeping the girls confined to home doesn’t sit well with me, so I’m trusting that there’s a balance between naivety and paranoia. Surely we can be informed and prepared without thinking the worst of everyone around us. Surely our children can take steps toward independence without opening themselves to abuse. Surely, surely, fear should not be our rubric for parenting any more than denial should.

The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is that we can share our collective wisdom for the benefit of all, so here’s where I open it up to you. What are your thoughts on teaching body safety to kids? Are there any strategies or conversations that have worked well in your experience? I’m still very, very new at this line of thought, so I’d appreciate any insights you might have… and judging by the sheer number of new parents among my friends, I suspect I’m not the only one.


Open-Source Parenting: Adventure

The weekend before last, spring burst overhead like a cosmic dandelion puff. Sunbeams settled on our noses, songbird gossip tickled our ears, and last year’s snapdragons made a grand re-entry if only to outdo the wild daisies carpeting our town.

It was terrifying.

The first good weather of the year, see, held me accountable to a promise I’d made to Dan: that I would let the girls out to play. As in, by themselves. Without any form of parent nearby. At the little park which is only partially within sight and earshot of my window and which has a second street exit within neither.

I promise you that I have worked hard to curb my paranoid instincts about mothering. My imagination has always been a worst-case scenario handbook with an apocalyptic bent, and each of the girls has toddled at least once within a hairs breadth of tragedy; by all logic, I should be a vigilante-helicopter mutt of a mom. I try not to let the crazy limit my daughters’ development though, which is why I agreed that this would be the spring of going out to play. But oh, friends… the disasters that played out in my mind as soon as the girls left my sight. They were kidnapped at least three times a minute during that first hour.

Playground privileges
(That tiny speck of pink in the park is my heart walking around outside my body, NBD.)

The girls went out to the park every afternoon of the week, and while those accumulating hours of non-tragedy helped bolster my resolve, they still weren’t easy for me. Villains and bullies and natural disasters lurked in my peripheral vision every time I peeked out the window. I kept running a cost-benefit analysis on the girls’ independence; did their healthy development really outweigh the risk of whatever [unlikely] [but unspeakable] evil could befall them out there? Could I live with myself if something happened?

I don’t have any easy answers yet—and probably never will—but a little trip we took yesterday helped put things into perspective for me. The four of us were sitting around the Sunday lunch table feeling worn down and antsy from our week when we decided the only thing for it was to hit the road. Half an hour later, we were merging onto the highway, and half an hour after that, we were winding up to a little town we’d never visited before. No maps, no guidebooks, no agenda whatsoever (aside from gelato, which is my goal in everything).


We only stayed an hour, but it was a gorgeous, living-out-loud kind of hour. Downtown Trevi is laid out like some kind of medieval maze, and we took turns choosing which direction to explore. The girls didn’t want to speak Italian—“We’re tourists today!”—so we snapped pictures and skipped and called to each other like the boisterous Americans we still are. I couldn’t stop grinning. Exploring like this might just be my favorite way to experience the world.

The girls exploring Trevi

It always has been, too. The way Natalie and Sophie were running down stone tunnels and peeking into courtyards of olive trees yesterday is exactly how I used to run down creek beds and peek into dogwood thickets as a kid. The neighborhoods I lived in growing up were so much bigger to me than they were to adults, who always let themselves be limited by things like road signs or propriety. I wandered and scouted and burrowed and built and destroyed and imagined and braved. My knees were perpetually scraped. I couldn’t wait to go outside. Knowing that there was a dangerous element to my explorations had only sharpened the experience for me, a sprinkle of chili on my chocolate.

I watched the girls bound up a twisty side path and thought of an article from The Atlantic that my friend Dunny sent me a couple of weeks ago. It’s long but well worth the read if you’re fascinated by this latest generation of overprotective parents (myself included) and how our preoccupation with safety might not be the best thing for our kids. The article features a playground in North Wales that is set up more like a junkyard than anything; old tires, mattresses, and tin drums are at the kids’ disposal, and a playground supervisor only intervenes in the case of actual danger—say, if a kid’s fire gets out of control. Do you know how much I would have loved playing there? Exploration and imagination were always far more thrilling to me than regulation-height swing sets; I suspect they are to most children.

I wrote in a recent post how I owe every joy of my adult life to the high level of independence granted me. This is not an exaggeration. Being able to chart the terrain of my own life from a young age is why I live in Italy today with an entrepreneur husband and two little girls who think anything is possible. Our life is full of unknown turns; we rarely know where the next month will take us, and sometimes our choices feel as helter-skelter as our wanderings through Trevi yesterday.

There is so much joy in a life of adventure though. The reality of risk heightens our senses, keeps our prayers earnest, and reminds us to appreciate. The low times provide contrast for the highs, and we learn as we go. We cultivate grace as a survival skill. We do our best to trust and to keep on trusting that we’re not doing this life alone, that divine love is holding us as surely as the ground beneath our feet. We look forward to new experiences, new places, new reserves of courage on tap.

I don’t want to be painting our lives too glibly here. If I were writing this on a day when our bank account was drip-drying, for instance, or when bureaucracy had us in a stranglehold, I would tell you how I sometimes petition the universe for boredom—just a little predictability, just enough of a nice stable rut for me to catch my breath. I know the truth though: living greatly means risking greatly. And the question I’m left with on this side of our weekend is… Could I live with myself if I didn’t let my girls experience this for themselves?

Unknown archway

Your turn! How do you cultivate a sense of adventure in your children? How much independence do you think is appropriate? Do you have any tips for parents like me who can’t help imagining sinkholes and trolls under the playground slide? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!


Open-Source Parenting: Context

In a research-intensive book about couple communication that Dan and I are reading together, the authors emphasize how important it is to be aware of “filters” that might be affecting our conversations. A filter could be a bad mood, a distraction, an unspoken expectation—anything, really, that colors the way we hear and respond to our partners.

Immediately upon reading this, I thought of lunchtime. In our house, lunchtime falls anywhere from five minutes to an hour past my blood sugar threshold of niceness, and I inevitably become hangry. “Hangry” refers to the type of hunger-induced anger that, say, a cross-dressing Chris Farley might experience when denied French fries:

If Dan tries to speak to me when I am in this state of ravenous rage, I am liable to eat his head. This is an example of a “filter” through which his kind offers to help with lunch are interpreted as direct insults to my person and through which my attempts to express my feelings are interpreted as acts of cannibalism. Knowing that it’s my hangry hour, however, helps us get through it. (That, and compulsive snacking.) The point is that, by being aware of underlying factors, we take away much of their invisible power to manipulate situations for the worse.

8 - What the chef looked like

(This is the face of hanger, FYI… brought to you by lunchtime circa 2009.)

I was reminded of this charming tendency of mine when a wise grandmom wrote me following my last Open-Source Parenting post. She shared her realization that sometimes meltdowns (of both the child and the parent variety) happen when we don’t have enough nutrients in our system—when we haven’t had enough protein that day, or when we’ve been eating a lot of junk food. Of course! I thought, reading her email. It’s the hangry effect!

I don’t know why I had never connected that idea to my children’s behavior before, but she’s absolutely right. Sometimes behavior problems aren’t really behavior problems at all; sometimes they’re tummy problems.

Other times, behavior problems are actually sleep problems. I am firmly convinced that most children we know here in this Mediterranean culture of long, late dinners do not get enough sleep at night and that this makes their little brains jittery and contrary during the day.

I see it happening with emotional states too, how one of the girls will channel her sadness or frustration into unpleasant behavior. (Don’t we all do this, really?) It also tends to happen when our schedules are overfull or when there’s too little attention to go around. Sometimes, behavior problems really are behavior problems and need to be met with consequences, but sometimes—more than fifty percent of the time for us—our kids are acting out because of some underlying cause that needs to be addressed more than the behavior itself does.

This troubleshooting approach is not the easiest, I know. It would take far less work to pick a preferred brand of punishment and wield it each time our children misbehave. In fact, I’ve heard disciplinarians argue that because kids thrive on consistency, punishment should take a one-crime-fits-all approach. That’s terrible reasoning though, especially if we want to reach our children’s hearts. These are our children, not lab rats being taught to perform a series of socially acceptable actions. I’m not nearly as interested in how well my girls act as I am in how well they are. If my daughter is feeling stressed, that’s the issue I want to address above and beyond the fact that she yelled at me. If my daughter clearly needs some sleep (or a steak!), that’s what I need to provide before I even think about sermonizing.

When I pay attention the context of my children’s behavior, I often see that it’s not about the behavior at all, and this helps me to respond to their needs rather than react to their deeds. (Too cheesy? Feel free to turn that into an ironic cross-stitch wall hanging if you’d like.)

Your turn! What underlying causes have you noticed affecting your kids’ behavior? Do you have any tried and true methods for deciphering what’s going on behind your child’s tone of voice? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!


Open-Source Parenting: Write Through It

Reentering the atmosphere after a weekend away can feel like an exercise in crash-and-burn. Everyone is a little off his or her axis. The only thing in the fridge is a jar of pickles, that one duffel bag never manages to get all the way unpacked, and uncertain amounts of homework are due. We all start to run a little hotter than usual, but our unceremonious landing back into the daily grind is especially hard on the girls. Without giving away too many incriminating details, I will say that we had an epic meltdown of the daughter variety today, triggered by the fact that homework exists in this fallen world and will continue to be inflicted on humanity for the foreseeable future.

The sound level in our house during the meltdown was something like you’d expect at a hog stampede. After making sure that the melting child was at least safe in her room, Dan and I slumped against the doorframe and looked at each other with “OMG” eyes. You know the ones. We figured we had about three minutes before our neighbors called the cops on suspicion of manslaughter, and we were really really hoping that the other would telepathically convey the magic parenting solution that would get us out of the mess.

This did not happen. (Though neither, thankfully, did the police intervention.) What did happen is that our worked-up girl raged herself to sleep, and while she napped away the drama, I turned to my Hail Mary: a simple lined notebook in which she and I exchange letters when other forms of communication fail.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to write—how do you reason with a child on fire?—but I wanted first to help her define what was happening in her emotional core (tiredness from our trip, frustration over a difficult homework assignment) and second to encourage her to write back and help me understand her experience. I ended by making sure she knew I loved her, no matter what.

I have no prototype for this parenting strategy, just inspiration gleaned from mamas like Erika Morrison and Meredith Jacobs and the simple fact that I work through emotional turmoil more easily through writing. I realized this about myself in my teenage years when I filled journals to their paper-blade edges with hot black ink. I wish I had started the habit sooner though. I think a lot of my childhood would have been easier to understand and process had I known to write through it, to identify my emotions and their causes, to root myself in perspective.

This is what I’m trying to teach my daughters now. In my letters, I do my best to ask good questions that can act as bridges between our separate viewpoints. I prompt them to venture into the messy territory of their emotions, and I try to keep our notebooks a safe place to be honest with each other in the mad hope that we can continue through their teenage years. Sometimes, the lines on those pages are the only open lines of communication we have, but they never fail to help my girls and I understand each other better.

I know I can’t speak for all children here, and maybe not even most children, but my daughters really love this method of working through issues. We don’t always limit it to writing; sometimes we draw pictures of how we feel, and we often incorporate some silliness into our letters because that’s how we roll. Few parenting experiences are sweeter to me than hearing a notebook slipped under my door and opening it to find my daughter’s heart scrawled (or scribbled, or illustrated) on the page. Especially when we’re in a rough patch, this practice helps me feel that we’re doing okay after all—that I’m not a hopeless failure and the girls aren’t wild hogs and we haven’t completely botched our chance to build strong communication with each other in the few remaining days before teenage hormones start waging guerilla warfare on our household. (Yes, the girls come by their dramatic flair honestly.)

I’m sure that my daughters won’t always confide in me to the extent they do now. I hope, however, that this word-processing skill will stay with them for life and that these early letter exchanges of ours will help them to center themselves when the stakes get higher. I also hope that the better we get at this, the fewer OMG-eyed meltdowns we’ll have to weather. A mama can dream, right? (Write?)

Mama letters

Your turn! What parenting strategies have you found effective when life gets too overwhelming for your little ones? For kids with whom writing doesn’t jibe (or those who are still too young to write), what are some other ways they can learn to process their hard feelings? The idea behind this Open-Source Parenting series is to share our collective wisdom for the good of all. I’ve learned more from other parents’ stories than I have from expert advice, and I’d wager you have too, so let’s continue the conversation in the comments below or over on Facebook. I’m looking forward to hearing your take!


Open-Source Parenting: “Make It Right”

Several years ago, I was introduced to the luminous Rachelle Mee-Chapman through her post about morning soul-care time with her little girls (who are both lovely full-grown teenagers now, which, how??). I never adopted the practice for myself—due mostly to the fact that I am soulless zombie first thing in the a.m.—but Rachelle’s creative, conversation-driven approach to her children’s spirituality stuck with me. I had the privilege to host her at our home a couple of years later, and watching her interact with my girls was one of my favorite things about her visit. Her parenting strategies and perspectives were straight-up gifts for me.

I was thinking over it this morning—how my mothering has been shaped over the years by others’ mama-wisdom. I used to lament that babies didn’t come with instruction manuals even as I read What to Expect the First Year, which is about as comprehensive a baby instruction manual as you can get. I didn’t just want to know what to expect though… or even what the experts recommended I do in any given situation; I wanted to know the how and the why. I wanted the kind of perspective that comes from experience, the kind that’s transmitted through stories rather than bullet points.

I’m so grateful for friends like Rachelle who have provided that for me through the early years of child-raising, and I’d like to pay it forward now by sharing a series of my own intentional parenting practices. Maybe you’ll be able to relate to some of them and maybe not, but I believe in open-source wisdom, and I’d love to hear your take in the comments or on Facebook. (Even if you’re not a parent, you were once a kid yourself; I’d still love to have your voice in the conversation!) Shall we get started?

My girls spend a solid eight hours a day in each other’s company, plus more on weekends. They go to the same school, share many of the same friends (and sometimes clothes!), and are each other’s most constant playmate. In a lot of ways, this is a beautiful experience for them. Growing up in a conga line of brothers, I often wished for a sister close in age so that I could have exactly the kind of glitter-coated rapport that my girls have with each other.

Spending so much time together, however, provides ample opportunity for them to step on each other’s toes… sometimes literally. One sister pushes the other’s buttons or breaks one of her toys or says something insulting or accidentally-on-purpose bumps into her with her fist, and we have A Situation on our hands. Ideally, the girls would work it out with each other, but they’re currently eight and six, and we’re still working on the whole independent problem-solving thing. Their first recourse is almost always one single word, spoken at the same decibel level and in much the same tone as a displeased chimpanzee: “MOOOMMMMMM!”

I start by trying to tone down the emotional energy in the room so that they can hear beyond their own indignation, and once I’ve gotten the facts of the case, I tell the offending party[ies] the same thing I always tell them, whether the hurt has been emotional or physical, intentional or not: “You need to make it right.”

I’m not sure exactly when this phrase entered our family. I didn’t grow up with it, and when the girls were much younger, I’d instruct them to say they were sorry if they’d hurt someone. It was such a simple thing to ask of them. It didn’t sit quite right with me though. For one thing, kids often hurt or offend each other without meaning to; asking them to feel sorry for an innocent mistake is inviting protest and might result in more bruised feelings. Second, what about a genuine grievance for which the perpetrator doesn’t feel remorse? I don’t see a grumbled “sorry” as capable of righting any wrongs. (My friend Allison has an excellent post about that here.)

At some point, “make it right” became part of our family vocabulary, and it’s turned out to be our go-to template for solving the girls’ skirmishes. Depending on the situation, making it right could mean anything from offering a hug to procuring a Band-Aid to replacing a broken toy. We usually put the impetus on the girls to figure out what would fix the situation; Dan and I want them to be cultivating this skill now in the safe space of our home so that they can rely on it throughout life when the stakes might be higher than their little sister’s indignation. And yes, nine times out of ten, the problem is mended with a quick apology… but we don’t insist on remorse. We do insist on thoughtful reconciliation.

Puzzle party

“Make it right” applies to us parents too, but that’s a post for another day. What are your thoughts? How do you help your kiddos (or others’) handle their inevitable clashes? Are you for more parental direction or less when troubleshooting hurt feelings? Is there a strategy that absolutely hasn’t worked for you? Let’s have a conversation!

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