Parenting the best we can

There are a lot of alarming news stories that power parental fears. You know, the kind of stories that trumpet:

Kids Who Eat Cupcakes More Likely to Fail Math

or

Not Having a Pet Makes Children Selfish

(Note: These are both fake headlines, of course but about eighteen years ago I read a ludicrous study that said that children who listen to musical theater are more likely to have premarital sex. This was before Hamilton became the number one soundtrack for teenagers so who’s to say how that skewed the numbers!)

Studies are tricky things. Take, for example, the infamous example that tied ice cream consumption to murder rates. Of course ice cream sales have absolutely nothing to do with violent crime but both things happen to increase during the summer for a host of reasons and efforts to tie the two together is a great reminder that correlation does not equal causation. So who’s to say, really, that your decision to let your preschooler eat a cupcake is actually going to have any impact on his 5th grade math scores?

Real life news stories like the silly examples above make us think that we have more control over the future than we really do. In reality kids are way too complicated and life is way too variable to make those kinds of direct ties. So when you read research about kids who “fail” and kids who “succeed” or any other mess of things, remember that they are not talking about your kid. Your child is not a statistic or a study; your child is a unique human being whose life isn’t so easily predicted.

I know that it’s hard to accept that we cannot dictate our children’s futures via the choices we make today.  I would love to tell you that there is one great way to raise a great kid and that if we all follow it that we will have children who will grow into fine adults with no bad habits and a clear road to success. But there isn’t and there never will be. Our children are varied, our lives are varied, our options are varied and we all have to live with certain limits and realities.

On the other hand, if we can focus on the here and now of our parenting lives we can save ourselves a lot of guilt and worry. Right now you will make the best decisions you can with the information you have, in the context in which you and your child are living, and given the resources that are available to you. That’s all you can do. That’s all any of us can do. And frankly, that’s good enough.

In unsafe times kids need to feel safe

I’m worried about our kids; they’re really afraid right now. I know, I know — many of us are really afraid but we’re grown ups and theoretically we’ve got more coping mechanisms. Our kids, though, especially the young ones, are counting on us to be their coping mechanisms.

While our kids are growing into the full people that they will someday be they rely on the adults in their lives to fill in the empty spaces. We keep them fed and clothed and we help them process the world around them.

Right now, whatever side you’re on politically, I think you’d have to agree that the world is pretty messy. And our kids are scared.

Even if you don’t talk politics in your house your children are not blind to what’s going on. It’s all over the media, on the front page of magazines in the check out line, humming from the parents on park benches while the kids swarm the climbers.  If they go to school then they are talking about it there. (On the playground, in the lunchroom and for the older children, in class.) Some of them are repeating things they hear their parents say and some of them are repeating things they see the talking heads on TV say. Children who I know have felt threatened by the words of their peers. Children who have not been targets report that they’re worried for loved ones.

And children feel divided, too. I’ve talked to a number of kids and teens who have needed to process learning that someone they care about voted for the other side (whatever that side might be) and how that feels. There are arguments happening at lockers and in class and on the bus.

We are in a tough place. Many of us want to raise children who are socially aware and active. We want to take them to events and marches and protests and I think that’s great but we have to remember what they need most right now (what we all need most right now) is hope. How are you giving that to them?

Look at this video below. This is a father and his son at an event honoring the people who lost their lives in the Paris terror attack that occurred November 13, 2015. Go ahead and watch it (it’s short).

This little boy is so afraid and his father gives him hope. No, flowers don’t protect us from guns but we protect each other. We are not alone. This is what our children need to hear. Look at that little boy’s face and the calm that comes over him. It’s powerful, isn’t it?

We need to be thoughtful about how we’re instilling optimism in our children as we move through these tumultuous times. We need to build in opportunities to be hopeful (even when we feel hopeless). We can do this by showing our children the good things that are coming out of this and there is good if we look for it. We can also do it by making sure that we don’t just focus on the conflicts in history; we’ve made progress, too. I know many of us fear we’re sliding backwards but again, for our kids, we need to show them the ways that we’ve moved forward.

And if this inspires us to stay on the phones (and sign the postcards and show up at the events) for a while longer, that’s not a bad thing either.

We also need to remind the other adults in our children’s lives — particularly their educators and other leaders — to speak out against fear and expressly speak to their safety. Some leaders shy away from this for fear of getting political but fear does not have politics and anxious children have trouble learning. They need us to be strong for them and to be willing to wade into the muck to promise them that whatever happens, we are committed to their safety.

That’s a message every child needs to hear.

20 Things I’ve Learned in 20 Years of Parenting

This is my son when he was about nine months old. I try not to share too many pics of my kids on the internet but I figure no one can recognize him from this one so his privacy remains protected.

Today is my son’s 20th birthday, which means I’ve been a mom for two decades. That feels like a very long time and it also doesn’t feel like any time at all. Here’s what I’ve learned from being a mom for twenty whole years.

  1. Nothing can prepare you for being a parent so when you are waiting and you worry that you’re not ready? There’s no such thing as being ready. It’s OK. You’ll do fine.
  2. Being a parent is kinda like finding a room in your house that you didn’t know you had and it’s full of stuff you didn’t know you were keeping. You will discover lots of things about yourself, much of it surprising and some of it less than flattering.
  3. You will make mistakes and the first time you do it will feel devastating. Fortunately babies and children are pretty darn resilient because mistakes are inevitable. Practice self-forgiveness; it will come in handy.
  4. Our children are who they are and we can certainly influence who they are but we can’t change it. It’s far easier to work with a child’s temperament than to fight it.
  5. Children are people not projects. It’s nice when they do things we get to brag about but pleasing us or justifying our decisions is not their purpose on the planet.
  6. Parenting is humbling work. Every parent is eventually that mom or dad in public that we all swore we’d never be. Every parent says things they regret to their kids. Like my boss used to tell me when I was complaining about a challenge at work, “What an opportunity for growth!” You will do a lot of growing.
  7. Curiosity is an underrated tool in parenting. Be curious about who your child is and about who you are. Be curious about what might work and when something doesn’t work — that sleep training plan or that homework routine — be curious about why it didn’t work and what you can learn from it. Being curious will help you feel like a scientist trying to figure things out instead of like a bewildered parent flailing away at a problem.
  8. Parenting is not something you can do alone. I’m not talking about a partner (although a partner is a nice thing to have), I’m talking about your village. You will need help because we all need help. We will need someone who can take the kid off of our hands when we’ve had it and we will also need people who can listen to us rant or rail or cry when we’ve had it. Your village should be full of people who will build you up, not tear you down. Parenting is hard work and uninvited criticism makes it a lot harder.
  9. Parenting will bring up stuff you didn’t know you had and you will have to watch for it. Sometimes you won’t have to watch for it because it will bonk you over your head. Expect your kids to push all of your buttons and hit all of your weak spots. It happens to every one of us and that’s when it’s a good time to lean on your village (see #8).
  10. But being a parent is also the ultimate do-over. You will get to right a lot of your wrongs if you are willing to face those wrongs. Being a parent may be triggering but it can also be very healing.
  11. There are a whole lot of books about parenting and they all say different things. Read the ones you like and don’t worry about the rest. There is one exception: I do think everyone needs a copy of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk.
  12. Our children are supposed to grow up and leave us, which means that we will always love them more than they love us. At the beginning they need us more than we need them so it can be confusing when their loyalty shifts but that gradual turning out and away from us is a good thing. Celebrate it with them and then you can always go to your village for some hugs when you’re missing them.
  13. That said, don’t mistake that turning away as an indicator that your work is done. Your teen needs you just as much as your toddler did — sometimes even more. Their demands for your attention just tend to be less consistent.
  14. Legally your child may belong to you but in reality they belong to themselves. They will like things you hate, hate things you love, and have their own strong opinions. Be interested instead of offended and you’ll all be much happier.
  15. Expect to have a lot of very deep, very heavy conversations while driving. Facing the back of your head is a lot easier than facing your face so you can expect your child to ask you the very hardest questions when you’re trying to merge onto the freeway during rush hour. Plan accordingly.
  16. There is a whole genre of books and movies about parents who run away from their families. This is because we all want to run away sometimes. This doesn’t make you a bad parent; it makes you overwhelmed or exhausted or both. See what I mean about self-forgiveness coming in handy?
  17. You won’t always like your kids because they will not always be likable. They will not always like you either. This is called being human and sharing your life with other humans.
  18. It’s very powerful to let a child know that even if you don’t like them and even if they don’t like you that you will always love them. Let them know that your love and commitment is big enough to cover both of you.
  19. You know that guilt-inducing poem that says, “[Q]uiet down, cobwebs. Dust, go to sleep./I’m rocking my baby. Babies don’t keep“? It’s true but it’s also true that someone has to clean the house. Make sure you have days where you get to just gaze into each other’s eyes, sure, but don’t feel bad when you put them down to vacuum.
  20. To be a parent is to agree to give part of yourself over to nostalgia the instant you take that child into your arms. You will miss them forever but the more you accept that and accept that this is yours and not theirs to carry, the more you will enjoy the ever-growing person in front of you.

Much love to my son (and to his sister) for teaching me so much every single day and for being such good company while I’m learning!

Definitions of good parenting change

I don’t know if you heard about the latest recommendations on introducing peanuts to your baby. It used to be that doctors told parents to hold off on adding peanuts to a child’s diet until their first birthday; research showed that this prevented allergies. Now they’re saying to introduce it early especially if your child is at risk of developing an allergy because now they have new research. I won’t go into the details here because that’s a discussion you need to have with your child’s healthcare provider but it did make me think about how much has changed just since my oldest child was born twenty years ago (that might sound like a long time ago to you but I assure you it feels like it was just last week) and how many of the considered choices I made are no longer supported by research.

Like car seats. Back in my day you flipped the car seat forward facing when your child hit 20 pounds or 1 year, whichever came first. That was the safe way to do it and that’s what we did.

You go back a little further and kids weren’t even in car seats and they were getting cereal in their bottles as soon as they were born and then there’s that story about my mom feeding my sister raw bacon in her high chair before my sister was six months old. It used to be good parenting to leave your baby unattended out in the sun because there was no better medicine than fresh air and sunshine. Now can you imagine?

It’s not that none of this matters or that we turned out fine so what’s with all this new-fangled parenting advice, it’s just that as parents we can only do the best we can with the information that we have. Sometimes our good parenting choices will turn into bad parenting choices with the passage of time.

We have to resign ourselves to the fact that we are going to screw up even if we do everything right.

Twenty years from now something we know for certain will become obsolete and we’ll find out that the thoughtful, informed care we took with our decision about feeding or sleeping or schooling will turn out to be wrong.

Which means sometimes all we have is the thoughtful informed part because the actual act may turn out to be a mistake.

We are all going to have to learn to forgive ourselves so why not start now instead of waiting for a couple of decades when our choices start looking as silly as leaving a naked baby alone outside to sun themselves for a few hours every day?

Good parenting, if you get stuck on the acts, is a bar that moves. We all fail sometimes. Sometimes we fail a lot. So instead of getting stuck on acts, I think we need to focus on effort, intention, and learning and change.

  • Try hard.
  • Be fueled by good intentions.
  • Keep learning and be willing to change.

I remember at one playdate when we were talking about some change in the research and a mom waved her hand, grimacing in frustration, and said, “Oh man, I don’t want to know! Now I have to feel guilty about doing it wrong all of this time!”

Only we don’t have to feel guilty; we could say, “Great! Now I can make a new decision!”

I know, I know, telling a parent not to feel guilty is like telling water to stop being wet. But we can try. We can feel guilty and then forgive ourselves, understanding that we were doing the best we could and now we can do better. Good for us!

 

 

The Impact of Trauma on Family Culture

as a man i carry this anger  it is
untraceable yet i know my father taught it to me
with his blood with his stories  he loved
all of us enough to teach us not to trust
even so  his eyes have in them the dark well of mercy
this vine of flower is watered by fire and it is my life

~ Aaron A. Abeyta, from Why We Don’t Mention My Great-Grandfather’s Name

So far we’ve been talking about the ways that family members may experience trauma differently. This is to explain why your aunt and uncle might not agree with your dad about what went on when they were kids. And to help us understand why your mom might have handled things pretty well while her brother or sister have struggled. But what about those of us who grow up in traumatized families? How does this impact the way we experience the world?

There are, of course, different kinds of trauma. In generally healthy systems, a single traumatic event can be startling, even earth shattering, but if the system is resilient — if the connections are good, if the general outlook is positive, if there is open acceptance of feelings — the system will recover. But if the system is continuously traumatized, it will shape itself to the trauma. This is true for individuals, too.

Let’s look at the Youngs again.

Extreme poverty is traumatizing and the Young family was extremely poor even before their father died. From what we can tell, the family was generationally poor, which means the parents came to their relationship already stressed and already carrying some culture of trauma. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have done a good job (I want to be very clear that poor parents are not automatically inadequate parents) but it does mean that the loss of one of the main breadwinners taxed what was already an overtaxed system. Losing a parent is always traumatic but remember, in a resilient system people will have a tough time but they will heal. The Young system didn’t have room for resiliency.

So the father dies and the family moves, which is another stress, and they children (who likely were already working in the fields) move to the mill. Eddie Lou told her children that the area they moved to wasn’t very safe. “She talked about kids carrying knives and that kind of thing,” reports her son, Earl Parker. The mills, too, were unsafe. That was trauma.

Finally the biggest trauma of all, the disruption of the family. The Youngs lost more than half their children to the orphanage.

We know that these events impacted each Young differently but we can see that in each of their families, the legacy of this trauma was passed on in different ways. Traumatized families who have not dealt with the trauma have cultures that reflect these traits, which are often intertwined and feed each other:

  • Secrecy
  • Dysregulation
  • Isolation
  • Scarcity
  • Normalization
  • Loyalty

Secrecy

Traumatized families keep secrets from outside but from each other, too. Several of the descendants Manning interviewed had only a vague idea of what happened to their parents and grandparents. Seaborn Young‘s granddaughter Claudie Suggs echoes many of the interviewees.

“We didn’t know anything about my grandfather’s childhood,” she says. “It will be interesting now to know how he grew up, and learn about his family and everything.”

Secrecy comes from the shame surrounding the traumatic events but it can also be a coping mechanism. Many people deal with trauma by not dealing with it. They change the subject or insist that those things are in the past and don’t need to be discussed. Family members who push for answers may be ostracized or otherwise punished for breaking the family code of secrecy.

Dysregulation

People who have lived through unaddressed trauma are dysregulated especially if those traumatic events happened in their childhood. We’ve discussed how trauma actually changes developing brains and if that child does not receive trauma-informed support they will grow to be a dysregulated adult. Dysregulation looks like anger, irritability, fear, depression and anxiety.

Here is a very simplistic example of the way families pass on dysregulation. If a parent always startles when someone slams the door (because door slamming preceded a beating when they were a child) then their children will learn to startle when a door slams. The parent may not even realize they startle because the reaction is so ingrained in but they will pass it on to their children.

People who are continuously dysregulated may turn to alcohol or drugs or work or sex to self-medicate and this further traumatizes the family.

Isolation

Many traumatized families isolate themselves because of shame or because of reasonable fear of what might happen if people learn about what’s really going on. Looking at the Youngs again, there are some children and grandchildren who were told that Catherine Young was forced to take her children to the orphanage when other people in their community became concerned about them. Sometimes it makes sense to distrust people outside of the family.

Traumatized families also become isolated because people in the community may shun them. Outsiders may blame family members for their trauma or feel concerned about their own family’s safety if they should become involved. Or there may be racism, xenophobia, classism or other prejudice at play.

Scarcity

In traumatized families there isn’t enough of something — money, time, safety, attention, love — and they pass that sense of scarcity on. It’s like those grandparents who saved every rubber band because they grew up in the depression. To grow up with lack is to grow up afraid and sometimes suspicious. Are there not enough rubber bands in the world? Or are there just not enough rubber bands for me?

The scarcity in traumatized families shows up in arguments when people are fighting about mundane things like who’s hosting for the holidays and who’s going to inherit grandpa’s cuff links. It’s not about holidays or cuff links, it’s about there not being enough to go around. In healthy families this kind of conflict is low grade; in traumatized families it can destroy entire relationships.

Normalization

In the This American Life episode Duty Calls younger brother David, who grew up in an alcoholic family beset by violence, makes the point that the people who were a part of his life helped perpetuate the dysfunctional family culture:

At that age when you’re going through all that you know it’s not right so you try to act like your life isn’t bad. You try to act like your life is normal. You hide that away from the rest of the world. I was scared to have friends of mine over to sleep at the house because the average kid is going to be freaked out. … The kids who do end up coming over and become regulars, they’re the ones who are just as f*cked up as you.

This normalization can make it incredibly hard for other family members to break out for two reasons. The first is that we cannot become the things we cannot imagine. Remember that one of the traits of resiliency is initiative. In order to initiate change, we have to believe that things can change. We have to see another way to be. When I talk to individuals who have successfully broken away from the traumatized norms in their family, they talk about how they knew things could be different from visiting other families or reading books or watching television shows and realizing that not everyone lived that way.

The second way that normalization keeps families trapped is that to reject the family culture is in some way to reject the family. Which leads us to the next lesson learned.

Loyalty

In traumatized families all of these cultural lessons get meshed into codependency masked as loyalty. In healthy families, loyalty is earned through care and attention. In traumatized families, loyalty is coerced. Families shaped by trauma tend to be all or nothing; you are either inside the circle or out. If you are unmasking or telling family secrets, that is a betrayal. If you are looking outside the family for support or information, that is betrayal. If you are speaking out against ingrained family behaviors, that is betrayal.

In Mary’s family, we can see this play out in the way that her daughters won’t hear her speak against her mother. It is a trauma that perpetuates itself. Catherine’s act is the central trauma on which Mary focuses her life but speaking out against that trauma goes against the family code of loyalty, learned from Mary herself. (Remember, she’s the one who keeps the family together as a reaction to her mother’s need to send her children away.)

Breaking away from the culture of trauma often means losing access to the family itself. The cost of interrupting the cycle is very high.


I’ve enjoyed writing about the Young family and appreciate you coming along with me. I’ve touched very lightly on some very big topics so if there are questions or thoughts you have, feel free to share them in the comments or contact me. I will answer on blog if I can (I’ll keep your questions or thoughts anonymous and won’t quote anything personal if you share something). Thank you for reading!

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