Parenting is a lot of things: It can be fun, rewarding, eye-opening, difficult, challenging and exhausting – off the top of my head. And all of those emotions are usually felt before noon in my house.
Meet Xavier Marat. Born on February 9, 2011, your textbook definition of “spirited child”. While I do not love labeling people, especially children, he fits the description almost perfectly and the truth is, labels can be helpful in locating the right resources.
It wasn’t until I heard the term “spirited” that I began to Google my heart out. Finally I came across a book, THE book, that continues to help our journey be a bit smoother: Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurchinka So many books and articles focus on telling you what NOT to do as parents, while this one gives me the language that I need to know what TO do. (more…)
Years ago, in a particularly frustrating phase of parenthood when it seemed like I would never get my head above water, a wise mentor mama encouraged me with words that I’ve hung on to and passed along over the years:
“It’s not what you do in any given moment, it’s what you’re characterized by.”
I can’t tell you what a load that took off of my heart. We try so hard to do it all “right,” to create perfection for our kids, to be the poster parents we feel pressured to be, to have homes filled with joy and light and creativity at every moment and every turn. And we’re so hard on ourselves when we, inevitably, fail at the task!!
Every young mother has smiled through clenched teeth as some well meaning older woman has delivered that admonishment with misty eyes. I know I did, when I had four under four and going to the bathroom alone was a struggle, never mind accomplishing the herculean task of grocery shopping.
Of course the sentiment is absolutely true, which is probably why it irks us so much. No one knows more than the maxed out mother how hard she’s trying to enjoy it more, or how guilty she sometimes feels not to be living up to that rosy cheeked vision of motherhood she had while expecting her first.
But, it’s impossible to enjoy every second, isn’t it? And if older moms were more honest, or memories of early childhood were less selective, we wouldn’t say things like that to young mothers.
One grandma got it right when she saw me struggling with eight mittens, four hats, and three boys who all had to pee in the entryway of a building one morning. She patted my arm and smiled:
“The days are long, but the years are short.”
And so they are.
Family life. We’ve got it all figured out. We’ve got a firm philosophy of childhood in mind. We know what we want. More importantly, we know what we don’t want as glaring examples of bad parenting surround us at every turn. It will be easy to do better than that, surely. And then… our babies are born.
The realities of parenthood and family life are sobering, aren’t they?
It’s easy to understand why parents get so discouraged and why they trade their dreams of intentional Family Culture for anything that will ensure their survival this day, this hour, this minute.
I remember one particular family that I looked up to when my kids were little. I went so far as to invite them (with their four angelic children) to dinner just before Hannah was born. It makes me laugh now, but with great sincerity and an earnest desire to “get it right” I sat Judy down after dinner and asked her what I could do to replicate the things about them that I so admired in my own family. Graciously, she did not laugh me out of my own living room.
“You see that one?” She pointed at her baby, ten years old, quietly playing solitaire on my carpet, “I really thought he might be possessed when he was a toddler! He never stopped screaming and he fought everything. Every single thing. And he was my fourth, so it’s not like it was my first merry-go-round!”
“My house is a train wreck. It’s never clean. Right now, I have piles of laundry waiting to be done. Don’t even talk to me about dishes. It’s impossible to keep on top of it. But those aren’t the things that matter.”
Years later I visited her house and, indeed, it was a train wreck. She was not much of a housekeeper, but she was a fantastic mother.
“Spend the time on the things that matter. Include the kids in everything, even when it’s harder and takes longer. Spend the time on books and music and art projects. Take walks. Collect things. Talk to them. Just remember to do your best every day. Perfect doesn’t matter, just do your best.”
She could never have known how much her words would mean to me over the coming days, weeks, months and years. She’ll never know how many times I held her family up as the pinnacle of all I hoped to accomplish, “someday,” and how much comfort it gave me that her advice was not a formula for success to follow in her footsteps, but an open window into the real world and hard work of raising great kids and building a beautiful family culture.
You see, a Family Culture is built, it doesn’t arrive gift wrapped upon the delivery of your first child.
Family Culture is the culmination of a million tiny moments, tiny choices, tiny and insignificant seeming motions that we go through over and over without thinking much about them. It’s something that can (and will) develop by accident, or it’s something that you develop very much on purpose.
What matters to you most in family life? Joy? Peace? Education? The Arts? Adventure?
Hopefully it’s not just one thing, but many, that you’re seeking to build into your Family Culture. With those things firmly in mind, it gets easier to lift yourself out of the daily grind of parenting multiple little people and the endless shoe tying, nose wiping, tantrum management and the litany of “Why?” questions to think on a bigger scale, with grander purpose and to do your best on any given day. Your best will vary with the seasons, with your health, with your family situation, and a million other things. That’s okay, and it’s to be expected. Just do your best today.
Our philosophies drive our actions, we all know that. If you’ve purposed to build a Family Culture of Peace, Joy and Adventure, and The Arts then your day with your littles might look exactly the same from the outside, but will be completely transformed on the inside because there will be a very definite “why” to your actions and interactions with your little people.
Do you see the difference? It’s not in the externals at all, it’s in why you’re doing what you are doing. You’ll know that you’re building something, with very tiny bricks.
The first five years of parenting are full of joys, but they’re full of struggles as well. It can be a very difficult and disheartening journey. It is made easier, I think, when one takes the longer view. If you can see, in your sticky faced, naked because he refuses clothing, belligerent because he wants a cookie, little person a self confident teenager with bright eyes filled with passion and purpose, it makes it a little easier to take the time to lay the next tiny tile that becomes the mosaic of a family.
Young mothers need to band together and help each other reach for something higher than the status quo, but in a way that builds up and helps forward, instead of inducing further guilt over perceived failures.
Middle mothers need to keep going, and remember not to count our chickens before they hatch. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and comparison is the enemy of building beautiful Family Cultures.
Older mothers need to reach down and help pull up the mamas struggling so hard in the daily grind. I know one grandma who blesses the socks off of younger families by turning up to help clean, cook, read to little ones and generally ease the mother’s burden, all the while encouraging her that she’ll get there.
The same goes for Daddies, incidentally.
If you have babies and toddlers and are just a few years into this parenthood marathon, take heart. You have years and years ahead of you to build something beautiful with your family and you have all the tools you need within yourself and under your roof. The main thing, it seems to me, is to think about it every day, and purpose in your heart to do the little things that matter. It won’t appear over night, but one day you’ll be the one with the “big kids” and you’ll find that your family is characterized by a very distinct culture… one that you’ve built, from the cradle on up. Make sure it’s the one you want, dig in and build with purpose!
Mothers of littles… weigh in… what are your thoughts on building Family Culture? What are your struggles?
Thousands of dollars are spent on consultants whose sole purpose is to examine the existing culture and craft action plans for developing it with an eye toward collaboration, productivity increase, or some other attribute that is important tot he growth and development of the corporation at large and the individual members within it.
In the parenting world there is a lot of talk about patching the ship, surviving a given stage, “fixing” a certain behavior, instilling certain values and in general “doing the right things” for our children. There are innumerable systems and philosophies full of dos and don’ts that are, at once, dizzying and demoralizing. There is immense pressure put on parents to perform and to provide that elusive “perfect” environment for their growing progeny. There is pressure on the kids too, who are primped, paraded, and compared to their peers at every turn, from their grades and the school they attend to their after school activities and their “giftings.”
What if the basic philosophy of treating children as a product to be crafted and then “sold” at the end in to the “real world” is wrong? What if it’s not at all about any of the things we spend so much time stressing out over? What if, instead, it’s about creating a family culture, more than it is about creating an individual? What if the individual is not a result of the series of behavior modifications and educational or enrichment “inputs” and what if, instead, he is the result of the culture of the family that is crafted around him?
Notice I said, “crafted,” not born into.
Think for a moment about the implications of that. What if it’s the family culture that matters most?
What is culture?
It’s the synthesis of arts, human interaction, philosophy, literature, education, heritage appreciation and building, values, habits and customs.
Every family has a “culture,” whether or not they are aware of it. If you think about the families you know, you’ll be able to easily identify the prime aspects of their cultures in a very few words.
Of course there is more to a culture than a one word summation, but in that one word definition, you have an immediate picture of what that means within a family.
What word, or two, would sum up your family culture?
Are you happy with that?
Every family has a culture, but you’re not stuck with what you were born into, and you’re not limited by what you are right now. Culture can be made, it can be crafted. Indeed, it is always made, always crafted, it’s just that most people aren’t conscious of the process.
Through intentional philosophy and through a myriad of small choices.
This is why culture crafting in business has become such big business. The first thing that has to change, if the culture of a business is going to be overhauled, is the mindset of the leaders, the CEO and the management. These are the people directly responsible for the climate of the business both in the public sphere, but also behind closed boardroom doors and in the day to day workings. They pay the big bucks to have someone from the outside, with clearer vision, come in and point out what, sometimes, they’re too close to see: what their philosophy really is and how it is affecting everyone who works with and for them. Once the new philosophy is clearly identified, then any number of actions can be put into place to change the culture. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long term project.
It is the same with families. The responsibility for the existing family culture lies squarely with the parents, as does any hope for developing the culture beyond that.
What is your family culture? What do you want it to be?
Not sure? Ask someone close to your family to help you see more clearly.
I think there is real benefit in considering this idea of family culture vs. reactionary parenting based on the ever changing whims of culture and the unending litany of books thrown at parents, marketed to their fears and weaknesses.
It will be a project that demands daily attention to the details. It will require faith in the 20 year process and value depth of interaction over instant gratification style results. Less emphasis will be put on what you’re seeing in front of you at any given moment. More emphasis will be put on what you’re trying to develop over the long haul.
A focus on building family culture takes the microscope off of the child. It also takes the child out of the center of the family and instead equalizes the values of all of the members. All of a sudden Jr. is part of something bigger than himself, more valuable than himself alone. He’s clipped, like a bright new t-shirt, to a laundry line that stretches for generations behind him and off into the future ahead of him. He has a valuable place in it, but he’s not holding it together, he’s not holding it up, it’s not there just for him, it was there before him, and will be there after him. Over the years it becomes clear that he has a responsibility to keep the line going when his turn comes.
Building family culture means that you’re not just parenting your children, you’re equally invested in self development and the personal growth of your partner. It means that the decisions you make about education, activities, the way you spend your evenings and weekends, what you read and watch, the community involvement you have, the way you interact with grandparents and extended family, your attitude towards total strangers and the habits that you allow to form are all considered in light of your family culture and what you are trying to cultivate.
It’s a harder way to raise a family, because it requires constant thought and evaluation on the part of the parents. It requires a focus on philosophy and overall “plan” not just a “whatever works” mindset for the moment.
But, I believe it’s a more respectful way to parent, because children, after all, are not products.
They are not inconveniences. They are not pets, or prizes or trophies to validate our self worth or a second chance at our childhoods. They are living, breathing souls who will live on into a future we will never see. They are our gift to the future. They are the echo of our existence and the living legacy of our grandparents and great grandparents. I don’t know about you, but when I think of my kids that way, as the living trust that my great grandparents fought wars (public as well as private) and famine on behalf of, it changes my perspective on my responsibility as a parent. It’s not just about me, and my kids. It’s about the past and the future of our family for untold generations ahead of me. How could I reduce that to a 1-2-3 method of parenting or a sound-bite, or strawman generalization? Families aren’t that simple. Humanity is not that simple.
Over the next few weeks we’re going to explore this concept of Family Culture further. We’re going to discuss what it looks like, how to build it, and we’re going to think about what that means in very concrete terms. I’d love to have your input. I’d love to have your suggestions, your observations, perhaps even your own article on what you’ve learned about family culture and the power of it in your own life. Please weigh in, and let’s talk. As a generation of free-thinking parents, let’s lay down the over simplifications of our age and dig in to do the decades deep work of crafting a family and its culture.
Experiencing a little slice of life through their eyes and having the privilege of peeking into family life under someone else’s roof. Our travels often include friends and family, not to mention complete strangers in addition to grandparents, and it has been wonderful. Each family blesses us in a different way. Each family causes me to look at life a little differently; and each family causes me to reflect with a grateful heart on the good gifts I have been given in my own family life.
I was considering these things this morning while we sat in the park, burning the half an hour between the ferry boat docking and the commencement of Sunday services at my parents’ church. Grammy took us to a lovely little park with a bronze statue of two little children playing leap frog. The girl was on top, leaping over her little brother with her pig tails flying in the breeze. Delightful.
The inscription on the plaque next to the statue caught my eye, I cannot remember the exact quote, but the gist of it is as follows: It is not blood that binds the hearts of family members, but the joy they take in one another and sharing life together. How true.
Someone I respect greatly says that what a child needs most is for his parents to simply delight in who he is, that no amount of discipline or instruction will come to more than a hill of beans if the child doesn’t grow in the sunshine of true joy at his mere existence. This quote seems to embody that thought, doesn’t it? (more…)