A Sweet Valentine’s Day Project

I’m always looking for fun opportunities to connect with and encourage my kiddos. I’d read recently about a practice some parents have had of making a heart for each kiddo for each day of February and writing on each heart something that they love and appreciate about that child.

I love that idea – except that my kids would absolutely want to keep those hearts. But they are young and do a horrible job of storing and preserving mementos. Within weeks, if not days, I’d be walking down the hallway, stepping on crumpled up hearts saying things like, “Miranda Grace, I love your strength and intensity. They sometimes make life challenging for you, but they are going to serve you well in life, and I appreciate all the work you have put in over the last couple years in learning how to use them well” or, “Madeleine CaiQun, I love your ability to focus on what is important. You have a gift for seeing the big picture and reminding us all about what we should truly prioritize.” And I am in a stage of life in which de-cluttering is a priority. With 4 small children (and 2 sentimental adults), stuff just tends to multiply here, and I’m on a mission to counteract that as much as is possible.

And so I ordered us a collection of notebooks. There were enough for each of us, even Matt and me, to have one. I labelled them and wrote introductory notes on the first page of each about how we are a family – our love is not contingent, but we can still love and appreciate various characteristics of each other, and it’s good to recognize those and encourage each other with sharing about what we see. And then we got to work on filling them!

I have to laugh about the way in which we as a family completed this project. I had grand plans at the beginning – 30 pages per book, so I’d write something in each person’s book each night and also have each child write in 1-2 books per night, and Matt would write when he could, and we’d get it done. We started off pretty strong, the big girls and me doing a good number of entries on the first night. And then we fell off track and ended up needing to spend a lot of time the last couple days finishing up everything – and in fact I realized on February 13 that one child had not written in either of two siblings’ books, so I saved some pages for her to do on the 14th, but otherwise Matt and I stayed up and finished up all of the books late on the night of the 13th – except mine 😉 That’s the life of a mom! Matt will work with the kids to finish it up soon, but his and the kids are all done now. The big girls have been reading theirs, and I’m hoping that these will be encouraging touchstones for them in the years to come. Everyone needs to hear about ways they are loved and appreciated.

Even incomplete, my book is already such an encouragement to me. In fact, I was teary after just the first entry. Madeleine CaiQun was the first to write in my book, and this was what she wrote:

“Mommy, I love you because you love me. Love, MeiMei”

Ah!! My day was made. It continues to be made every time I look at that page. She knows I love her. She rests in that. And that is what, for her, defines our relationship. I’m so thankful.

It took some time. It took some effort. But my kiddos won’t be little forever, and I won’t have the chance to pour into them in the same way forever. I want to take advantage of any opportunities we have to build a sense of love and respect and appreciation within our family. For me, these moments of connection and encouragement are oh so worth it. I’m glad we added this project to our agenda for the month.

Book Thoughts: Siblings Without Rivalry

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about sibling relationships – how to cultivate good relationships among all 4 of my children. There has been a lot of discussion about sibling relationships within the China adoption community lately (I wrote this guest post last month for a popular China adoption blog), and, more personally, Matt and I have been working on addressing some concerns we have about ways we’ve seen our kids interacting with each other . We have a lot of different dynamics going on in our family that complicate our kids’ sibling relationships – we have both biological and adopted children; we’ve virtual twinned and adopted out of birth order; and we have 4 kids with the age difference between our oldest and youngest being only 4.5 years. We have girls and boys; introverts and extroverts; sensory seekers and sensory avoiders.

As a researcher, my instinct whenever I encounter a situation in which I’m not certain how to proceed, is to find a book 🙂 The book Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish came well recommended, and I’d appreciated another book they’d written, so I dived into this one last month.

I found it often helpful but also sometimes not incredibly practical, at least for my crew.

The book begins with encouragement to understand our children’s perspectives. They are individuals with individual preferences, and they may not always get along perfectly or appreciate one another, and we as parents need to understand that and give them good, healthy ways to express their feelings honestly.

It then discusses the dangers of comparisons, which, to me, tied in closely with their discussion of placing children into roles. Making comparisons includes things that are, to me, obviously problematic, like making a statement to a child like, “Your sister always gets her math homework right; why can’t you?!?” But it also includes interactions that have a bit more subtlety – any discussion a child’s accomplishments relative to those of another child; labeling children as “the athletic one” and “the funny one;” and only allowing children to pursue interests at which they are the best in the family. This section forced me to ask myself some questions, in particular about the strategies I use to parent my oldest two children, who are less than a year apart in age and spend much of their time together but who are also very different.

I was reminded of that this week when a Facebook memory popped up from two years ago:

Madeleine CaiQun – “Mom, if me and JieJie want to be flower girls in Uncle Daniel’s and Sharon’s wedding, we’ll have to practice – it’s a big job for 5-year-old girls!!”
Miranda Grace – “I have practiced enough. I even knew how to do it before I practiced. Watch me.”

It’s easy to box them in, to make assumptions about who they are and who they will be, and not give them space to explore beyond that. It’s a tough line to walk – encouraging each of them in who they are but not pigeonholing them or restricting them. I want them to be free to explore and become exactly who God created them to be, and their relationship with each other is going to be part of that, but I hope it will be an empowering part, as opposed to a limiting part.

Relatedly, there was discussion about treating children uniquely, not equally. We need to give each child what he or she needs, which is not necessarily the same thing that a brother or sister needs. The book encouraged parents to treat our children as we hope they will become and empower them to become that.

The last section of the book focused on conflict. I found a large portion of the conversation helpful, but I also disagreed with parts of it. The authors’ suggestions for helping your children in working through conflict are, essentially, to acknowledge that the situation is complicated and acknowledge your children’s feelings but then to assure them that you are certain they can come to an agreement that works for everyone and leave and allow them to work it out on their own.

Sometimes that works well. I followed their directions almost exactly one morning when we were in Wisconsin and my two big girls were fighting over some toys, and the result was that they worked it out on their own and enjoyed hours of happy play time together.

However, the fact is that our children are often doing as well as they can in the moment. Sometimes a brief interlude in a fight with a sibling, taking time to tell the story to a parent and have their feelings acknowledged, is enough to help them come out of a state of dysregulation, and they can then focus more and work through the conflict themselves – but sometimes it’s not. And sometimes children are children, they’re young, their brains are not fully developed, and they simply do not have the skills to resolve a conflict on their own.

At our house we practice scripts. Probably the earliest one was this –

  • “May I have a turn with that toy when you’re done?”
  • “Yes, you may have a turn when I’m done.”

Do I expect my 7-year-olds to say exactly that to each other every single time one of them wants a toy that the other one has? No. But practicing that script in different situations when they were 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 gave them a framework to understand the dialogue that can occur. It helped them to learn that they were not allowed to take toys from one another but that there was an expectation of sharing. It also helped them to practice working out conflict with each other.

If kids are calm and if they truly have the skills to work through the conflict themselves, I think the book’s recommendations can work – but I don’t think those conditions are always met (and this may be true in particular for kids who have experienced trauma).

In general, I found the book helpful. Though I didn’t agree with every single one of its recommendations, it challenged me to reconsider the ways in which I think about and interact with my kids, and it gave me some new strategies to put into practice. For me it was a worthwhile read!