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!

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  1. This is an amazing idea! I used to do feedback notebooks with my third graders. Every day they wrote a letter to me about what was in their heads. It was awesome. This is awesome-r. Totally stealing it!

  2. I have no parenting strategies to offer, on account of not being an actual parent :-), but how I love this. 🙂 LOVE this. It’s a beautiful way to give everyone a voice without the emotional charge of in-person discussion. XO

  3. We have four kids, and you and Dan know them, Bethany. I wish I could think of some strategy or method that we used in raising them. I can’t. All I now is that they turned out to be pretty awesome. I’m proud of each and every one of them. I’m not sure we did anything particularly right, but I do know we tried our best to love them and to hold them responsible for their words nd actions, both the good ones and the not so good ones. We’re from that primitive generation that still used corporal punishment when deemed necessary. But we promised our kids that we’d do our best to never discipline them in anger. No striking out unexpectedly or alienating verbal dressing downs spoken in the heat of the moment. We were, and remain, convinced that that kind of “discipline” is much more about the parent than the child. Much more about retaliation than the correction of damaging behavior. Admittedly, we cut our teeth on the first child. He paid the tuition for his siblings, or the lion’s share anyway. Because, as our experience as parents went on, we grew in our understanding of children and how to help them truly mature. We learned something about choosing our battles more wisely. We also got older, and more tired, I think, so our last one had pretty smooth sailing as he grew up…at least at home. That’s how I see it anyway. But I’d love it if our adult children, and those of your readers, could share what they think their parents did right. I’m thinking that could be enlightening for us all. I’d also like to hear about what we did wrong…but not tonight! Maybe another day, or evening, over a cold beer or two, when we’re all feeling loose and mellow and can roll with the punches better…and then forget all about it in the morning! 🙂 Thanks for writing, Bethany. Keep it up!

  4. I love, love this – it’s really heartening to see it. When I was growing up my parents and I also wrote letters to each other during arguments, or when we felt it was the only way to really be heard without interruption or being burdened with the others’ reaction. Neither of mine is old enough to write a full letter, yet, but it hadn’t occurred to me that they could still use a dedicated notebook for expressing themselves through art or even just torn pages.

    Right now, though, our basic “strategy” for tantrums and meltdowns is to bring the tantrum-ee somewhere dark and quiet, and to sit with them until they’ve got it out of their system (unless they don’t want to be sat with and then we let them be). We try to talk about it after, if they’re up for that, to at least try to address whatever was going on to cause the tantrum (usually, inevitably, hunger, overtiredness, or overstimulation). We reassure them that they are loved. It doesn’t always go as neatly and smooth as that – it often doesn’t – but that’s the goal, and as long as we aren’t all rolling around on the floor throwing our own tantrums at the end of it I consider it a success.

  5. Megsie – Ooh, using this as a teacher? I love it! (Did you see the recent post on Momastery where she wrote about how her son’s teacher uses notes from the kids to do some ninja love work in the classroom? It made me think of you!)

    Krista – We were at lunch the other day with a friend who told us his theory that writing and speaking are completely different communication skills, hardly even in the same category, and I kept agreeing with him enthusiastically. Writing through emotions is SO MUCH EASIER for me than talking through them (is it for you as well?), and while I know that there are times when face-to-face discussions really are better, I appreciate having methods like the letter-writing to communicate without all the fluster. 🙂

    Jeff – You know, I actually have a half-formed post from a few years ago on the subject of what our parents did right. Thanks for the reminder to dust that off and give it some proper attention! (And I wholeheartedly agree, your kids did turn out pretty awesome.)

    Jaqbuncad – Sounds like you have a GREAT system for helping your little ones through meltdowns! I don’t remember being that calm or proactive when my older daughter was preschool age… :/ However, kids are rock stars at forgiveness, and we’re all learning together how to navigate family life. Sounds like you and your kiddos are already establishing fantastic communication strategies! (P.S. – Re: preschoolers expressing themselves through art — my daughters were both experts at drawing themselves with angry eyebrows by the time they were three… haha. Also, if my husband and I ever slept in and the girls were hungry for breakfast, they’d slip pictures under our door of themselves starving and weeping puddles of tears. It was hilarious.)

  6. LOVE the idea / wording of open-source parenting – “Here’s our take and we welcome feedback.”

    I have LOTS of opinions and it would be a book… but I’ll try to just make a couple of comments. And put the disclaimer that we’re barely in the middle of the process … so all comments are of questionable value until the results are in.

    Overarching idea – Teach and model for our kids loving God and others and be explaining parents. It’s our job to show / teach them how the world works. We certainly fall short of this idea in so many ways … but that is the driving force behind all we do.

    Four of our biggies are obedience, respect, appeal and explaining.

    – Kids have to obey / follow the rules or else there are consequences. This isn’t because we’re tyrants … it’s because it’s the way the world works. My country and state have laws I have to follow, I have a boss, etc. Dad has to obey his boss … and / or make an appeal.

    – Respect. Parents and kids should always be treated with respect. So we speak kindly to each other … even when we’re angry or irritated. We can communicate negative emotions in a kind and respectful way. We expect our kids to say yes sir and ma’am and we say that back to them. We politely ask our kids to do things … even when the choice not to involves consequences. – e.g. Please clean out the dishwasher. I think this reflects how God treats us. God asks us to do things as part of following and if we choose to say no, then there are consequences…even if we are unaware of them. It also reflects how we want them to treat each other. When they “bark” at each other … we can say, “Do Mom and Dad talk like that to you? Do Mom and Dad talk like that to each other? No. So neither can you.”

    – There’s always room to appeal. If you’re not happy with an idea / instruction then make an appeal. We’re trying to teach our kids how to make a good appeal. And we’ve even given them permission to go to our relatives / friends to get help if we’re being “unreasonable.” Again … this reflects God. Abraham appealed to God about judgement on Sodom and there are numerous other examples.

    – We spend a lot of time explaining about how the world works. And I’m loving this. My parents never talked about anything sexual … and it’s been a HUGE challenge for me … but we’ve talked about body parts since early on and sexuality is a normal part of life that can be openly discussed like everything else. And it sometimes gets a little awkward … but I’d rather they get our take on things first before they hear about it from other people.

    I may be delusional … but don’t give up the hope in your daughters confiding in you even during the teenage years. It may not happen … but it could. And openness and respect and conversation now both on your part and theirs definitely sets the stage for that in the future. I’m hoping and praying for that to continue with our kids now (we have 2 of 4 that are currently teenagers) and for a long time to come.

  7. Hi Geoffrey! Sorry it took me so long to reply, but I’ve enjoyed reading and re-reading your comment over the last several days. I really love the way you guys seem to be forming family habits, not setting different standards between the way the kids are expected to behave and the way mom and dad are expected to behave. I’d imagine that raising them with human-skills like this is going to make your kids’ transition into adulthood much, much easier. Thanks for weighing in, and I hope you don’t mind if I glean some from these insights in future posts!

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