Telling My Kids Their Stories

All four of my children love to hear stories about themselves – particularly when those stories are relayed with joy and laughter. We all love the story about Atticus making pee dinosaurs on the couch (though we try not to tell it too often when he is around, for fear of encouraging future artistic endeavors of this sort!). We all find it hilarious that when I took the girls to our Mandarin teacher’s baby shower, FangFang was so excited to interact with other Chinese people that she approached all of them, saying, “Ni hao ma?” (“How are you?”)…but not being exactly fluent in Mandarin anymore, she had no idea what any of them were saying and followed up their responses with another enthusiastic, “Ni hao ma?” Miranda likes to hear about how, when we were traveling to China to adopt Madeleine CaiQun, as our airplane for our international flight taxied away from the gate in Detroit, she announced, “We’re almost to China!” We all laugh about how Matt used to pull Madeleine CaiQun’s pants up super high every time he changed her diaper, and she’d run back into the room, filled with glee, announcing to Miranda and me, “What Baba do?!?!”

(no super high pants – but I just couldn’t resist including a photo of my precious little Madeleine CaiQun from those early days home!)

Those stories are adorable and fun, but each of my children have deeper stories, the narrative arcs of their lives. For my two biological children, not only do they have big picture stories, but they have frequent photos, preserved “coming home from the hospital” outfits, favorite baby toys, and our recollections of their everyday moments. For my adopted children, it’s a bit different. In both of their cases, until they reached about 2 years old, I really have just a few pieces of paper and a couple photos for each of them. I can’t tell them what they smelled like as I snuggled their tiny newborn bodies against me, and I can’t tell them what their first foods or favorite toys were. And that makes the information and the photographs that we do have that much more precious. Those details are sacred.

FangFang asks with regularity, “Mom, you tell me my whole story?” And I walk her through it, in broad 4-year-old terms, from day one of her life until now, telling her what we know of her life. She delights in that and loves to hear it all, again and again. When I leave out details, she asks about those – “Mom, you tell me about the bed where I sleep when we were in China?” Some of the interest in hearing her story is, I expect, about seeking reassurance that we are permanent, and some of it is a straightforward desire to know and hear her own story.

And this week, Madeleine CaiQun asked, in a quiet moment, if I would tell her her whole story. “Not with everyone, though. Just you and me and Miranda. Is it my choice who I want to hear my story?”

“Yes, it is your story, and it is always your choice who you want to share it with.”

And so, as God would have it, my mom has been visiting this week, so I was able to leave the little kids downstairs, so I could sit upstairs with just Madeleine CaiQun and pull out that special folder, containing all of the documents I have about my precious girl’s first years. I got out her referral file folder, as well as the other sparse documents and photos we have from her life before us, and she and I sat together, just the two of us, and looked through them all. I read to her the description of her that the orphanage submitted with her file, all the details of her finding spot and what the orphanage officials shared about their impressions of her, what they wrote about the special need with which they had labelled her.

She has, of course, known her story from the beginning of her days with us. We’ve continually sketched out for her a developmentally appropriate outline of it. But this week was the first time we’d put all the pieces entirely together and spelled it all out for her precisely. And it was good. She needs to know, and she deserves to know, and, at almost 8, she’s ready for the details.

After we looked through the artifacts of her history, she and I snuggled in bed with Miranda joining us, too, and she asked me to tell her the whole story of what we know of her life and her coming into our family, from beginning to end, and I did.

She had some questions, as we talked about the particulars, and I answered them as accurately and as kindly as I could. She deserves those gentle, honest answers, and she deserves to have them from me. Her story is hers, and even I do not own its details. It is hers to know and to share as she chooses.

I expect that Matt and I will continue to talk through our girls’ stories with them in the years to come. We are all continually making sense of who we are and from where we came, and adoption adds another layer of complexity to that investigation. I’m proud to walk with my girls on their journeys and hope that I can honor them and their stories now and in the years to come.

Note: As my kids are getting older, we have increasing discussions about their comfort level with information and stories I share on my blog, and Madeleine CaiQun has authorized the sharing of this blog post.

FAQ – My Child is So Controlling and Manipulative! What do I do?!

In a large Facebook parenting group that I was recently asked to help moderate, we see certain questions come up over and over again. One of those questions is some form of the following: “My child wants to be in control of everything,” or, “My child is so manipulative,” or “My child is constantly engaging in control battles with me,” all followed by the query, “What do I do?!?!”

I recently wrote a post for that group in an attempt to provide a broad framework for understanding how to address that question, and I’m sharing the response here more publicly.

There are a couple key points to understanding how to respond and what to do. First – it is worth noting that control, in and of itself, is not generally a need. As one of my co-moderators pointed out, if you look at hierarchies of needs proposed in the field of psychology, “control” is not one of them. For instance, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs lists physiological needs (like food, water, and shelter), safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and finally, self-actualization. Nowhere in there is “control” listed as a need – but rather, it would be understood as a means to pursuing the meeting of those needs.

The obvious and important follow-up question would be: what need is my child attempting to meet by pursuing control? If control is not a need in and of itself, but rather an attempt to meet a need, what is the need our children are trying to meet? We need to be detectives and attempt to find the answer to that question. Our children are precious souls. One of our core values in this group is that, “We believe that every child is precious, infinitely valuable, and worthy of love and respect, regardless of their history or challenges.” Let’s really commit to viewing our children that way. When we tell their stories, even to ourselves, with words like, “My child is a manipulative jerk,” we are not honoring our children or their stories. We can, instead, ask ourselves what underlying need is beneath the behavior, working to view our children in the best light possible and understand them and their stories.

Many of our children have come from hard places. They may have learned, through years of experience, that adults are not reliable. They may have learned that there will not always be enough food. They may have learned that they can trust no one else to provide and care for them. Is it any wonder that they would crave control? It often takes years of consistency in our provision and care, years of building trust, before the strength of the messages we’re trying to send – “I will care for you. You are safe here.” – can truly begin to rival the strength of the messages our kids have internalized from their time before us. Even for children who are not from hard places, their desire for control has sources and reasons – and our job as their parents is to help them figure out what those are.

Then we can acknowledge our children’s fear. We can put words to their feelings. We can empathize with them. As they grow, we can help them to understand why their brains operate in this way.

We can also provide the combination of structure and nurture that begins to combat our kids’ feelings of lack of safety.

An essential part of that is sharing control. Our children need to know that they have a voice. Yes, you are the parent, and you are in charge – of course. But your children need to see that you will listen to them, that you hear them when they communicate what they need. Prioritize your “nos” and give “yeses” when you can. Whenever possible, reserve your “no” for situations in which safety is a true concern; and try to create an environment in which you can minimize the number of “nos” you need to give. Whenever possible, say yes. Yes, you may have that piece of gum. Yes, you may have a snack. Yes, you may choose your own outfit today. Yes, we can play outside. Yes, you may have a compromise. Yes, yes, yes. I am in charge, but I do not need to have sole control over every area of our lives.

As our kids grow, we can challenge them in small ways – set the bar low and begin to build their tolerance for a “no” – but that is always done in the framework of love and wanting to see our children grow, and it’s not the first step. We, as parents, are in a unique position of understanding and building relationships with our children and ultimately teaching them that they can trust, that they can experience safety, and that they can get their needs met without attempting to take control.

Last, and this is HUGE – is the observation that if there are control battles going on between us and our children, that means that we are also fighting to maintain control in these situations. We, as parents, are seeing whatever is happening with our children from a framework of control – and that means it is worth considering whether we ourselves are predisposed to view the world in general through a lens of control. That has nothing to do with our children – it’s about us. If this is true of us, before we can help our children, we need to do some hard work ourselves. How do I know? Because this is me. I crave control. It took a lot of self-reflection, prayer, and counseling to figure out why I like to feel in control, when that tendency is strongest, how to pay attention to my mind and body to notice when I’m feeling that desire for control, and what to do when it happens. In parenting, we have a responsibility for recognizing what we bring to the table and dealing with our own junk. As I do that, I am increasingly able to understand my children’s points of view and share control with them. Let’s let control be another area in which we work with our children, not in opposition to them.

In Which Miranda Becomes a Vegetarian

One of my greatest joys in parenthood is watching my children develop interests and passions of their own. All four of our children have what our pediatrician refers to as “big personalities,” so there is no shortage of passion here. Even if we tried to direct it, I’m not sure we could, and each time it bursts forth from one child or another, I feel like I’ve just gotten to unwrap another Christmas gift. I get a real glimpse at where my child’s heart is, and the wonder and awe that this child whom I have the privilege of shepherding through life has his or her own unique convictions and excitements and passions – and that I have a front row seat to witnessing them – is glorious.

One of Miranda’s latest passions is vegetarianism. As a family, we have been almost entirely pescetarian since shortly after Matt’s heart attack. For several months now, though, Miranda has been entirely vegetarian. She was never really a huge fan of fish, anyway, and while the rest of us have always made occasional brief forays into the carnivorous culture in which we exist (primarily related to social gatherings), Miranda abstains from meat entirely.

I remember very clearly sitting on the couch one morning, doing our history reading, and looking at pictures of Vikings carrying in animal carcasses in preparation for a feast. The meat-to-be looked so very…animal-like. I believe that was the moment that solidified it all in her mind with finality. She would not be consuming meat.

Since then, our conversations about vegetarianism generally go something like this:

  • Miranda: I will not eat meat! It is mean to kill animals for food and eat them!
  • Me: I respect that conviction, and we’ll honor that. You don’t have to eat meat.
  • Miranda: No one should eat meat! If anyone eats meat, they should be killed!
  • Me: So…you think it’s evil to kill animals?
  • Miranda: Yes!
  • Me: So evil that anyone who eats an animal should be killed?
  • Miranda: Yes!
  • Me: Doesn’t that seem a bit ironic to you?
  • Miranda: No. Why would that be ironic?
  • Me: Well, you’re advocating for killing people, because you’re protesting that they are killing animals. If you value the lives of animals, do you think maybe we should also value the lives of people?
  • Miranda, looking at me as if that proposal is the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard: No.

There you have it, my friends. Miranda Grace, the ultimate intensifier, has spoken. She is a vegetarian, and the rest of us are supposed to follow her lead – or else.

Either that, or I need to keep working with her on developing some sense of moderation and respect for others’ convictions and the ethical gray areas of life 😉

Witnessing the Power of Connection

Matt and I have, for years, embraced the parenting philosophy often known as trust-based relational intervention (TBRI) or, to use more commonplace terminology, parenting with connection. One of the tenets of this philosophy relates to the idea that corrective discipline should be designed to teach, not to punish. That part is easy enough to grasp (though sometimes difficult to practice!), but one element of the philosophy that has taken us longer to really understand – and to implement – has been the importance of the work of relationship-building outside of situations of conflict.

If we want our kids to respect us and be willing to work with us when the heat is on, we have to make the investments in our relationships with them ahead of time – not to mention that relationship investment is just a huge part of loving someone. In some ways, we’ve been doing that from day one. Wanting to have relationships with our children is one of the primary reasons we homeschool, and I obviously have a great deal of time with all of our kids during the day. But the fact is that we’re also very task-oriented during much of that time together. During school time we are, obviously, doing school. I take one child with me each week to go grocery shopping, and we do get some good time together while we’re out, but the focus is still on the task of grocery shopping. Honestly, with four kids, it’s hard to make time for pure, individual relational connection, but we’ve known for a while now that it’s important, and we’ve been trying to make time for it. I’ve been doing some one-on-one dates with kids, and I’ve tried to find other opportunities for individual connection (or connection with smaller groups of kids) throughout the day, and that has been so good. Sometimes it looks like asking a child to go choose a book to read together. Sometimes it looks like playing our Teddy Bear Memory game together. Sometimes it looks like letting a child choose something to make with me in the kitchen.

And it has brought me so much joy recently to see growing moments of connection between Matt and our kids and to witness the fruit of his growing pursuit of them. One night, as he and I discussed ways to cultivate empathy in and connect with our big kids, Matt proposed that we start reading through The Chronicles of Narnia with them, as he remembers reading those books as a touchstone of his childhood. As he reads, Madeleine CaiQun curls up next to him, and both girls are so excited for all four of us to be reading these great books together. They’re really into the stories, and they love that connecting time.

And the other day, one of our kiddos was having a difficult time after really working hard on some challenging math concepts. She was totally dysregulated, unable to play well with the other kids, and uninterested in engaging with me or working on her own in any suggestion I made. Matt asked her to come down to the studio and make some artwork with him. Half an hour later, she emerged, totally regulated, with artwork to distribute to everyone as gifts.

We are seeing more spontaneous affection, more willingness to work through periods of dysregulation – and more connection in general. Those moments of investing in relationships with our kiddos are so precious and so important!

On Priorities, Family Teamwork, and Chores

Matt and I have talked a fair amount about our priorities for ourselves and our family, and, as will come as no surprise to anyone who has entered our house ever, having a perfectly organized, always-clean home is just not at the top of the list. I think that at this point in our lives, having 4 children ages 3-7 and homeschooling them all, the choice is really between having a clean house or ever doing anything else at all – and because I’d like to have time to enjoy my husband, enjoy my children, have relationships with other people, occasionally read a book or write a blog post, or really do anything else ever, having a clean house is not a make or break thing.

That said, I do crave order, and it stresses me out when our house is a mess. We’ve always existed in that space of realizing that our house will not be perfectly clean – and being okay with that – but never quite being happy with how it does look on a daily basis. I read an article earlier this year that confirmed for me that this is a real thing – there is a link between stress and clutter. Since then, Matt and I have been slowly but steadily working to de-clutter our house and keep it more organized and clean, and that has been so good. I’ve found a rhythm for more of our household tasks that helps me to stay on top of them without it adding too much strain to my day, and having those routines has been so helpful.

Until a few weeks ago, our children’s contributions to our household tasks had primarily been on an as-requested basis, with the understanding that everyone was to help when asked to do so – and they’d sometimes even volunteer themselves or ask to help with various tasks. The big kids’ only real, routine chores were to (1) help clean up the living room every day after lunch and (2) put away their own laundry. However, we started to get increasing amounts of resistance when we’d ask our big kids to help with various tasks. As I shared recently, one of them whined, when asked to help set the table, that she felt like a slave when I asked her to do things around the house. The increasing resistance was pretty close to crossing my line of necessitating drastic measures, but the comparison of themselves to slaves was a leap far past that line.

Matt and I announced a family meeting, wherein we made a list of all of the household tasks that need to be done in order to keep our home running smoothly, how often those tasks need to be done, and who usually performs them.

Surprise, surprise, the performer of the majority of these tasks was me! We discussed the fact that our family is a team, and as such, it shouldn’t be one person’s job to handle all of the household work, and we asked the big girls to volunteer for jobs they’d like to do. Novelty is a strong motivator, and they each actually chose a number of tasks for which they’d like to be responsible!

I put together a couple laminated sheets, listing out each child’s Family Teamwork Jobs (aka chores) and the days on which they are responsible for those jobs, and we’ve been using that system for almost a month now.

It has made a huge difference. The novelty has worn off, and the complaints have begun, but we have persisted in spite of that. There are very few jobs that even the big kids perform entirely on their own – but they’re still learning how to do each one and getting better at each as we get more experience, and I work with each of them to accomplish what needs to be done, so it’s an opportunity for us to build connection by working together. Additionally, I now have a schedule (and some accountability, in the form of 7-year-olds and their lists) for completing each task, so each one is more likely to be done than when I just waited and hoped for time to tackle it.

We’re seeing increased personal responsibility from our kids, and this is another vehicle to reinforce for all of us that our family is a team, and we work together to accomplish what needs to be done. I do give them some grace (most often when it is helpful for me to do so – i.e. when I just need the dishes to be done without spending 30 minutes doing them), but we largely stick to our schedules, and I think we’re growing as people, growing as a family…and our house is cleaner and more organized! We’re counting it as a win 🙂