Thursday, May 24, 2012

Take Time to Smell the Roses

Take Time to Smell the Roses - ParentUnplugged - Stacy Snyder
Just with the responsibilities of parenting, wage earning, and housekeeping, it’s easy to get caught up in the daily grind and not take time to appreciate, much less enjoy, a single minute of your time.  Add to your commitments family and social obligations, and maybe a hobby or organization that requires time, and you can find yourself in complete obligation overload, with no time to be grateful for the first flower bud popping out after the cold winter or the developing vibrancy of your child’s personality.  If you don’t slow down and pay attention to the little treasures we tend to bypass every day, you deny yourself the opportunity for balance and harmony.

I am the worst offender of trying to fit in more tasks in one daypart than humanly possible.  Have an extra forty-five minutes on my hands?  I’m going to make it to Costco for household items, fill up the car with gas, and deposit that check at the bank I’ve been carrying around for 2 weeks.  Four hours to myself while the kids are at school?  I can do a 45-minute workout, make a new music playlist, do the laundry, work a few hours for my job, and sew on the button that fell off of my new pants, all with 5 minutes to spare before pickup.  When I used to work full-time, I used to pride myself on how much stuff I could get done in short periods of time.  It’s called efficiency and I thrive on it.

I find, though, that the more efficiently I function now as a stay-at-home mom, the more opportunities I miss.  The more stuff I'm able to accomplish, the less I'm able to enjoy, because I'm constantly running so fast.  Who cares that I got the garage cleaned and the flowers watered before pick-up time, when it was at the expense of turning down an invitation for coffee with a friend?  So what that I finished the online preschool applications before the rest of the neighborhood, when I traded in an hour of my actual preschooler “reading” to me?  No one gave me a high five because I finished the weekly shopping and cleaned the house in the time that I could have rested my body and soul with an afternoon catnap in the sun after reading a few chapters of a juicy book.  I feel like as a society, we have a tendency these days to go so fast and furious that we often times don’t even know what we’re doing, must less why we’re performing it so quickly.  Our priorities get lost and our time gets sucked away.  We miss the little things:  the rainbow after a downpour, the new puppy pawing at your ankle, and the fact that the neighbor who you see every day is somehow now six months pregnant without you having ever noticed!

As parents, we can’t help but struggle with prioritizing our time, as we’re pulled in many different directions, which is simply the nature of the job.  How often do we think about the ramifications of our decisions on priorities, though?  Not often enough.  While it may not seem like a big deal that you’re texting a friend or emailing a client while your child is telling you about his day, all in the name of multi-tasking, it actually registers loud and clear.  It’s great that you’ve spent a full year obsessively decorating your house to perfection, but does it really matter if you have no friends to come enjoy it with you because you’ve blown them off for twelve months?  The kids most certainly don’t give a shit about the final living room arrangement, but they definitely learned to realize in that year that its importance trumps time spent with them while you were out shopping for that last perfect piece to pull the room together. 

It’s bad enough that some of us have an unnatural need to fill every spare minute with a productive activity.  It’s even worse when we apply that need to our children’s lives.  I’m all for learning the value of the whole with a team sport, practicing the discipline required to learn to play an instrument, or whatever interest your child may pursue.  But there’s such a thing as too much of a good thing.  By running them from soccer to gymnastics to chess club to violin lessons and then through the drive-through before evening homework, we’re setting them up for never properly developing the art of experiencing life as it comes to them.  Heck, they can’t even see life coming at them as they’re moving so fast!  You may have conversations while you cart them around, but everyone’s attention is split with at least one other thing, like driving or preparing for the next activity.  Missed is the opportunity to discuss today’s science experiment with their friend or teacher on the corner on their way home from school, because we’re rushing them home for a snack before baseball.  Gone are the days of playing outside all day, using creativity to keep themselves occupied, and collecting and studying lightning bugs after dusk.  There’s no time for any of that.  We’re too busy getting to Little Gym and Drama Club.  We’re caught up in cutting people off when they talk to us because we don’t have time to listen.  We’ve got to be somewhere, dammit!  It takes more than one hand of fingers for me to count how many times I’ve actually broken into a run in the last week alone on the way to pick someone up, drop someone off, or get myself somewhere.

It’s funny because my kids have never displayed the want to constantly run at warped speed to places and things.  They’d much prefer hanging out at home, playing outside drawing on the sidewalks and scootering to the neighbor kid’s house to say hello.  I always promised myself I would let my children’s personalities dictate the pace of their activities.  I started off strong when my eldest was small.  I favored talking a walk around the neighborhood to see the turtles pop their heads up from the lake to the organized Wiggle Worms kids’ music classes.  I didn’t fall prey to the 3-year-old cheer program, but instead opted for building things out of pots and pans on the kitchen floor.  Somehow I fell off the wagon, though, as my family got larger, my kids older, and my time less my own.  I guess subconsciously I started to reclaim time for myself by booking up my kids’ time.  It started small with a park district cIass here and a Preschool hour there.  I’d then book my new-found hour with other tasks and priorities instead of just enjoying the peace and quiet.  It kept growing until I found myself this last semester completely unable to keep up with just the weekly schedule of my kids’ activities, coupled with my own.  Between leading talent show practices, morning workouts, and moms’ night out, I fit in dinner parties, date-nights, writing every day, and a part-time job.  While I love all of those things, combined it was completely insane and counterproductive, because I started resenting, instead of enjoying, each normally fun activity.  I was not only overbooking my own time with activities that weren’t the highest priorities in our lives, but also overbooking my kids’ time with activities.

For a kid whose favorite thing in the world to do is relax and read a book without a single plan on the horizon, I sent my eldest daughter over the edge with weekly piano lessons, tennis lessons, Brownies, and twice-weekly dance practice.  I had booked her for so many activities that I had to hire a babysitter to watch my toddler so as to get her to the places she need to go.  Half-way through the semester, a twice-weekly running program started at school that she wanted to participate in as well, so I encouraged her to join that too.  Pretty soon she was overscheduled beyond comprehension, with at least one activity every day after school and more times than not, a social or family obligation over the weekend.  She had no downtime, no time to play, and rarely a moment to reflect.  She revolted by being cranky and snarky in the mornings, taking twice as long on homework after school, and asking if it was okay to turn down birthday party invitations.  She squawked at any mention of a family activity outside the home on the weekends and started a habit of crying when I spent time with both girls, complaining that she never got any alone time with her moms.

The mountain of obligation I had created for my family became crystal clear over Spring Break.  We traveled to Lake Geneva with another family, where we spent five days in an unoccupied home on the lake, with not a single activity planned.  My family unwound by rolling in the grass, reading books in front of the fireplace,  walking the trails around the lake, and playing long games of hacky sack.  The laid-back friends we vacationed with brought with them two pairs of binoculars, and the girls took turns watching birds and learning to recognize the different types.  My girls thrived in the relaxing environment where they were able to just exist and unhurriedly experience whatever came their way.  They were happier than I remember seeing them in ages.  Months later they still talk about the bugs they saw in Wisconsin, the horse named Maddie they petted in the town square, and at least every other day they excitedly poke me or whisper to me to check out the female robin they just spotted. 

Once again, I have vowed to follow the natural pace of my own children when it comes to scheduling and activities.  We’ve almost finished our obligations for the school year, and we’re reveling in playing at the park after school and taking random bike rides and walks around the neighborhood just because, not to actually get anywhere.  I’m still me, so I torture myself daily with considering booking a free hour with a playdate or an organized trip to a destination, but the good news is it usually doesn’t get past the consideration phase as I reel myself back in and try to surround myself with other like-minded parents  that keep me in check.  For now it seems to be working, as when I asked my eldest daughter about her Best Part and Worst Part of last weekend, she said her Best Part was having the whole weekend to relax without having to do anything specific and she said she actually didn’t have a Worst Part.  Score. 

My kids’ utter enjoyment and amazement at the little things they encounter every day by just paying attention has started to rub off on me too.  When confronted with a workday that ended short this week, instead of packing in the usual tasks I could accomplish in two hours time, I opted for reading a newspaper in the back yard in the sun and instead of practicing the kickbox routine for the class I teach once a week, I took a three-hour walk through my old neighborhood, stopping to talk to people and see things.  The sky didn't fall because the laundry piled up, my kids didn't suffer because we had to eat out one night instead of cook, and no one even noticed that the floor has accumulated dust.  What they did noticed was that their mom asked them more questions about their day at school and let them choose and make their own dinner.  They noticed that piano lesson was forgotten, skipped, and not remembered until the following week, when they rolled on the floor and laughed in hysterics at the pace of their lives.  They noticed that they can breathe easier when their parents can breathe easier.

Once again I run up against the misnomer I’ve followed for years that I’m here to teach my kids lessons.  My kids teach me more every single day than I could teach them in a lifetime!  Most kids are born with a curiosity for those things around them….nature, people, and things built by man.  Instinctively they know when to take time to enjoy the view.  Follow their lead and listen to you own natural instinct to take a minute to enjoy the powerful scent of the rose.  The office, the clients, the writing, the projects, the exercising, the housecleaning, and the chores aren’t going anywhere…they’ll be right there waiting for you, none the wiser.  Odds are, you’ll be better able to accommodate their demands if you take a minute for yourself to appreciate the little things beforehand. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Listen Up

Stacy Snyder - Listen Up - StacySaysIt
Photo courtesy of
We hear our children every day.  Their words, stories and thoughts revolve around their toys, their friends, their teachers, their jokes, their fears, etc.  We don’t always listen, though, to what they’re actually saying.  You can miss the story of your child’s life if you don’t actively turn your listening ears on.

I had the luxury of spending a few hours alone with my own parents a few weeks ago in Indianapolis.  No kids, no spouse, no friends or extended family.  We went to lunch at a local eatery of my father’s choice, where he knows the owner and many of the servers, hosts, and patrons.  Normally I dig that type of atmosphere, as I’m a huge supporter of local businesses and I too enjoy a familiarity about my surroundings.

The people were nice, the food was good, and the service was top-notch.  It was the perfect atmosphere for us to have an actual conversation, one that is uninterrupted by little hands trying to grab the phone, children trying to compete for the attention of their grandparents, or siblings engaging in sparring that only takes place in front of relatives.   The dogs’ antics aren’t stealing center stage at the restaurant and here the call waiting is obsolete.  Just as my parents and I start in on our first of many unfinished conversations, the server comes to take our order.  We order and my dad tells a funny story of some sort to the waitress.  By the time he’s finished with his joke, he’s forgotten about our half-mast conversation, and sits at the table waiting fodder.  We engage in a second discussion about (insert topic here) which we don’t get to complete because my mom knows the old codger sitting kitty-cornered from our table and needs to say hello.  He doesn’t recognize her and ends the salutation abruptly.  My mom focuses her attention back to us and is about to join in on our talk, when the old man finally recognizes my mom and intercedes to say hello again, this time really meaning it.  A short, yet strained, conversation ensues between the elder and my mom, as he doesn’t hear so well and many words have to be repeated, LOUDLY across the tables. 
With everyone’s attention back at their own table with their own company, I start to share yet another story with my parents, in answer to a question my dad has posed earlier.  Before I finish my thought, the host has passed our table on his way to seat another group of patrons, and my dad is loudly teasing him from across the room, about his supposed singing abilities.  I don’t even know the how or the why of the conversation, but I am cognizant at that point that any external small talk would trump anything I had to say.  I’m also painfully aware that when the intrusive small talk stops, my dad will have no idea of the topic we had been previously discussing.  I start to get annoyed and even begin that nasty cauldron-stirring we all do from time to time, where you overdramatize the obvious, thinking, “He’s not listening.  He never listens.  He always pretends to listen, but in actuality is just waiting for a moment to add something of his own.”  

Then I catch the eye of a toddler sitting in a high-chair at the table behind us.  He’s flirting with me, trying to get my attention.  I engage in a full-on game of peek-a-boo with him, as it’s more interactive than anything I have going on at my own booth.  The little boy is like a sponge, just soaking up any bit of attention he can get from me.  I’m a sucker for kids on a good day, but my current state of frustration with my own parents for not allowing a single moment of uninterrupted conversation, allows me to pour it on thick with this tyke.  The kid eats while he’s eyeballing me, just daring me to look away so he can start his hide and seek routine up again.  From time to time I tune into my own table’s conversation, but realize my attention is not really needed there, so my mind starts to wander.

Here I am, at 40 years old, perturbed because my dad doesn’t really listen to me.  In all fairness, we need to call a spade a spade, as I’m a huge motor mouth that talks too much for any innocent bystander in a five-minute time frame.  So just imagine how my parents must feel having raised me, year in and year out!  They’ve probably always been overwhelmed with my chatter and my opinions on EVERYTHING.  They’re probably glad to now have grandkids as a buffer between us!  

I know my mom listened to me, though, for the majority of my childhood.  She heard the things I said.  She caught on to the meaning of my lack of communication.  She knew what to expect from the undertones of my language.  She questioned me on things she didn’t understand, stamped a seal of approval on those things she agreed with, and debated with me (or sometimes nagged or lectured me) about those things she disagreed with.  She’d head off potential disasters, based on what she’d hear me say, and she’d sometimes punish me for those things I didn’t know she overheard!  I knew she was paying attention, even if sometimes she was in auto-pilot as she had so much of her own stuff going on.   

I think about my own kids now.  My girls talk a lot.  Sometimes they talk incessantly.  Sometimes it drives me absolutely batty.  Sometimes I tune them out.  Sometimes I half-listen.  Sometimes the meaning of their expressions registers days after their words have been spoken, often times when it is too late to discuss.  Other times, I turn my mind off of the 75-item-deep chore list constantly looping in my subconscious, and actively engage in listening to my kids.  This is when the magic takes place.  This is when I learn who my kids are becoming, what they are affected by, and why they feel the way they do.  This is when I find out who they admire, what makes them happy, where they want to visit, and when they are most receptive to change.  This is also when I hear what they are struggling with.  I don’t have to ask them the questions to get the answers.  They tell me everything I need to know if I just pay attention.  Sometimes I probe further into their stories for more clarification, other times I just listen and observe.  Many times my first reaction is to correct their grammar or remind them not to talk with their mouths full of food, but always my goal is to pay attention, as I am forever fearful of missing a cue one of them puts out about a situation that’s in the brewing stage or a potential fear that can be squashed.  I don’t want to neglect a cry for help or bypass a latent learning experience.

The engaging part is hard.  Whether you’re out working in Corporate America for ten hours a day, leaving just a few hours a day with your kids, or if you’re home with them all day, the concept is the same:  you need to take advantage of a listening moment when it presents itself.  It’s the quality of the moment, not the quantity of the moments themselves.  Don’t let the beat-down of the work day or the monotony of the household chores be the excuse that robs you from precious quality time with your children.  Draw them in.  Share your day.  Ask about theirs.  Hear them out.  Allow them to open up to you.  Listen attentively.  Show them you care.  Show them you notice.  Show them you’re listening.  Lead by example so they can learn to be good listeners themselves.  Time flies.  Before you know it, your kids will be packed up and heading out the door for preschool, college or their honeymoon.  Don’t let them cross that threshold thinking you don’t care what they say just because you didn’t listen.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Let Them Suffer the Consequences

One of the hardest things about being a parent is watching our kids make mistakes.  Even more difficult is allowing them to suffer the consequences of their actions.  Some parents choose to bypass the consequence part altogether, thinking they are helping their kids by taking away the sting of the ramification. They’re not.  In fact, we can do irreparable damage to our children by not allowing them to face the music.  It’s tempting to negate the punishment after the crime has been long forgotten.  Don’t let your child off the hook, though, or you’ll be sorry in the long run.  

I was in trouble a lot as a child.  I was a good kid with a big heart, and meant well.  I did, however, have the propensity for pranks.  From whoopee cushions on teachers’ chairs to Saran Wrap wrapped taut across the hole under the seat of the toilet in my parents’ bathroom, to stealing a kid’s snack, whose mother sent him something other than plain saltines, I was somewhat of a troublemaker and liked to pull practical jokes on my friends, family, and teachers.  Sometimes they were harmless and other times they went a bit too far.  My exasperated mother, who was both on the receiving end of my jokes, as well as listed first on the school principal’s speed dial list, dealt with one caper after another with me.  In grade-school, she’d hear about me having to sit out for recess, or “hit the fence” by running out of the classroom, out of the school and to the fence we viewed from our elementary school window and back as fast as I could.  Other times she’d get called in to pick me up late from school, as my deviance would dictate me staying after school to write the Gettysburg Address.  I’d even get in trouble while serving my time, as I found a way to work the system and write up numerous copies of the Gettysburg Address in advance of my being assigned punishment, so that I wouldn’t ever have to stay after school as long when I did get in trouble…I’d just pull out a pre-printed copy!  My mom dealt with it all.  Sometimes she’d let the punishment the school doled out serve as punishment enough.  Other times an additional ramification would be waiting for me at home, like being denied a privilege such as watching TV or playing video games, or having to do extra chores, or in extreme cases, getting grounded for days on end.  At a minimum, though, I got a severe talking to for my pranks and regular kid infractions, such as being nasty to my sister, not sharing my toys, getting into the adults’ business, and bossing everyone around.  The conversation would start with her conveying disappointment in my behavior and end with a threat of what would happen to me next time if I repeated my offense.

I had enough moxie to never repeat the same prank, but not enough smarts to stop the prankster routine, so I kept getting in trouble as I got older.  Junior high school moved into new territory where I was punished at school with humiliation (putting your face to the wall or wearing a dunce cap or getting detention) for such infractions as commenting on a male teacher’s underwear choice or skipping lunch in lieu of writing fake love notes from one teacher to another and leaving them on their car windshields.  I always got double punishment for these crimes, as I was old enough to know better.  I spent a lot of junior high weekends holed up in my bedroom instead of attending the school basketball games and high school football games. 

By the time I entered high school, I knew I had to tow the line and keep my nose clean, so I refrained from the big obstacles, like drugs and heavy drinking, and instead opted for skipping classes to go to Planned Parenthood and smoking on the school volleyball bus and incorrectly conjugating a cuss words in Spanish aimed at the teacher.  The consequences for my actions were stepped up substantially.  I was given in-school suspension, kicked off of sports teams and threatened with being stripped of my valedictorian status.  My home life was social event after social event being pulled from my calendar.  I pulled a stunt my senior year where a guy friend and I prank called the parents of a girlfriend of ours, from Florida during Spring Break, where their daughter was also vacationing with another family.  I pretended to be their daughter and told them I was being held hostage and he posed as the abductor.  We called them COLLECT from the Pink Porpoise motel in Ft. Myers Beach, where 20 of my closest senior friends and I vacationed in two adjoining rooms.  The second I hung up the phone that evening, I knew I had crossed a line.  I’ll never forget the day my mom received the letter from the girl’s parents in the mail.  The paragraphs detailed the conversation of the prank call, listed the names of all 21 kids that had vacationed in Florida in those two rooms that week, and described the fear the call had invoked in my friend’s parents until they were able to confirm the whereabouts of their daughter.  My name wasn’t singled out as one of the callers, but my mom knew I had done it before I even copped to the crime.  She was disappointed and mad, yes, but this time she was embarrassed of me and truly worried about my path in life.  I’m sure there was some major grounding and privilege taking associated with that hoax, but I don’t even remember them, as they paled in comparison to my parents’ requirement of me calling the friend and her parents that I had spoofed and admitting my identity and fault.  I also had to reimburse them for the collect call.  Additionally, my parents had me contact all 20 of the kids’ parents that had traveled with me on Spring Break and apologize for my actions and for bringing their kids into my mess.  The parents I hoodwinked were cordial to me when I called but have never spoken to me since that day.  Most of the other parents were receptive to my call, but some were very angry and I got a tongue lashing from a few.  I’m truly lucky I didn’t get more than that!  I had crossed the teenage bad behavior threshold and had truly hurt people.  I hurt my friend, her parents, my parents, and all the friends who had vacationed with me on Spring Break.  Sadly, I had also hurt myself, as I had done something I could never take back. 

I’m still friends with the girl, whose parents I deceived twenty-some-years ago.  She forgave me long ago.  I am blessed to still have many friends, teachers, and family members that believed in me then and cared enough to always make me face the music, even now.  That prank was the last one ever pulled.  Because of my parents and teachers both setting clear expectations and ramifications of my behavior, I was prepared for functioning as an adult in college and beyond.  I knew to expect an unexcused absence mark if I decided to blow off a class.  Three of those absences equaled a whole letter grade drop….not a surprise.  I understood that I ran the risk of not getting a job I wanted if I was late to the interview or lied on my resume.  Being kicked to the curb with or without my belonging was a clear result of not paying rent.  Life was not full of too many surprises because I was forced to take responsibility for my own actions as a child by my parents, and today because of them.  

Imagine, though, where I could have ended up had I never been assigned consequences for my actions.  I could be broken, cast away from society in prison, or living a life filled with drugs and crime, homeless living on the streets, or destitute and in trouble.  It’s not that far-fetched.  It took about ten years for my harmless kid pranks to escalate to truly destructive teenage behavior, all while being dealt punishments and consequences from my parents, teachers, and loved ones.  Imagine the scenario if left unchecked.  What if, when I called a kid a bad name at school in 4th grade (even though the action warranted the name-calling, in my opinion) my parents hadn’t grounded me for my bad language and mean spirit and forced me to apologize after talking to me about compassion ?  I’ll tell you what:  I would have learned that “an eye for an eye” is fair game.  It would have condoned me being nasty and I would have continued to do it as a teen and young adult, and I would be, at the minimum, a complete bitch today.  Imagine the outcome if, when I lost my scholarship in college due to bad grades, attributable to pot smoking and dereliction, my parents told me it was okay, no worries, they’d foot the bill for my next semester, instead of telling me, “Tough break, you’ll have to live with your mom for the summer, get a job, pay her rent, get some counseling, and get drug tested every week until you prove you’re ready to go back to school.”?  I’ll tell you what:  I would have never finished college!  I would have screwed around indefinitely at my parents’ expense.  What if my mom hadn’t have staged an intervention when I was a stoner and heading nowhere fast as recent college drop-out?  I’d probably think it was okay to get high with my own kids today, like I’ve seen other parents do with theirs. 

Growing up, I often wished that my parents were more like some of my friends’ parents, who didn’t punish them, never required them to do chores or save their own money, treated them like their friends, and bailed them out when they got into tight spots.  Today I thank God that I was stuck with the parents I had.  Those friends truly didn’t stand a chance at life.  There’s not a one of them fully functioning as an adult today.  Now as a parent myself, I try to instill in my children a sense of responsibility for their actions.  Because of the things I did as a child, I probably over-enunciate the lesson to my kids, sometimes to a detriment.  My eight-year-old cries before I even correct her if she’s mean to her sister, and I sometimes wonder if my three-year-old is almost too young to understand the connection between tomorrow’s loss of treat privilege to today’s sassy response to her parents.  I have to say, though, I’d rather err on the side of caution that on the side of free-for-all.  I know how that turns out.  Today’s 10-year-old boy that backhands his sister without ramification is the same adult male up on charges for battery and assault.  Today’s 12-year-old girl left without consequence after telling her mother that she refuses to be nice to an unpopular girl at school because she doesn’t matter, turns into tomorrow’s college cyber-bully, responsible for the humiliating mass-text attributable to the death of a college freshman .  Today’s 1st-grader telling his teacher he doesn’t have to do the homework because the teacher can’t make him, and left unaccountable, morphs into tomorrow’s recent college grad who loses his first job due to insubordination.

It’s hard to hold our kids accountable, especially when so many of us don’t hold ourselves accountable on a daily basis.  It can even be painful at times.  Sometimes punishments for our children have more detriment to us that to our kids.  He can’t watch TV for the day?  What will I do with him while I try to work out?  I guess no workout today with Elmo out of the picture.  Other times the consequence is simply a conversation about the child’s actions, or a review of your family’s Rubicon for consequences, which can be just as difficult for you to convey as it for your child to understand.  I truly feel like the Wicked Witch of the West when my toddler is crying huge crocodile tears and looking at me with eyes that say, “Why me, mom?” when I don’t let her have ice cream because of her bad behavior, even though her sister still gets the icy treat.  It’s the best feeling in the world, though, six months later, when at the same ice cream shop my slightly better behaved toddler asks me if today she can have an ice cream cone because she’s not misbehaving like last time when she didn’t get her treat.  The growth we help foster in our children by allowing them to suffer their consequences is well worth the sometimes uncomfortable interactions with our kids.  After all, our job is to be their parent, not their friend.  Our job is to do what’s best for them, even if it seems like it’s not best for us.  If you’ve never let them suffer before, let them suffer today by doling out a consequence for an action and give them a chance at being prepared for life outside your home, where the world is not so forgiving.