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!

Creative Cake Baking: Making a Love Cake

Yesterday evening, I took a step out of my comfort zone. I really like to know, understand, and, if possible, control what is going on around me, and it’s frustrating for me when I can’t make that happen. I like logic and order. And as you might expect, being a mother to 4 children ages 7 and under, my life could rarely be described as “orderly!”

My oldest daughter, Miranda, is a lot like me, but she also shares some traits with her father, and one of the most beautiful similarities between her and Matt is their creativity and desire to explore. Miranda loves to come up with new ideas and execute them. She loves telling stories and painting and making plans. And another thing she loves is baking.

A few times in the past, she has come to me, carrying a hand-written-and-illustrated recipe, and announced that she wanted to bake something. “That sounds great!” I’d reply. “I was just thinking about making a cake, too! I have this recipe right here; maybe we could combine ours and make one together?” And then we would – surprise, surprise – follow my recipe as we baked together. She always went along with it good-naturedly, and I breathed a sigh of relief.

That all came to an end about a week ago. Miranda came to me with, this time, an entire hand-written-and-illustrated book with her latest cake recipe.

“Mom,” she said. “You know how sometimes we bake together, and we say that we’re combining your recipe and mine? Really we mostly just follow your recipe. I’d really like to make a cake that follows my recipe.”

Inwardly I cringed. My inner control freak whispered to me through its clenched teeth, “That’s because we know my recipe will be edible! If we’re going to spend all that time and use all those ingredients for which we’ve paid good money, shouldn’t we at least make something that we know won’t taste horrible?!?!”

But instead of speaking those words to my precious, earnest daughter, I took a deep breath and said, “Okay, let’s do that. Can you tell me what the ingredients are? Then we can make sure we have them, so we can make your cake.”

She named off flour, sugar, cinnamon, salt, eggs, milk, and butter. I breathed another sigh of relief – at least we were in the right neighborhood for cake ingredients. I asked her whether we needed cow’s milk (which we don’t generally have on hand) or whether almond milk would suffice, and she assured me that almond milk would work great. I told her I was pretty sure that most cakes included at least one of baking powder or baking soda, and I couldn’t remember which or why, but we might want to investigate that to see if one or both were really necessary. She responded that we didn’t need to look it up – we could just include a bit of both.

The one thing we really would need to buy, though, she said, was frosting, unless we were going to make that, too, but she hadn’t come up with a recipe for that yet. She hasn’t had as much experience with making frosting, so I wasn’t sure she’d have a good sense of the ingredients that should be included, and I thought we were probably already pushing our luck with following a 7-year-old’s made up recipe for baking a cake from scratch, so I offered just to buy the frosting.

I picked up a container of frosting in this week’s grocery shopping trip, and so, last night, we set about making our cake. Miranda honestly did almost all of it by herself. I helped her pour some of the ingredients when they were in large or full containers, but she was the one who did most of the work and ensured we were following the recipe. She loved it.

And I tried to hold my tongue and not make a million suggestions 🙂 I reminded myself that this whole thing was about connecting with her and honoring her desire to follow her recipe, to create something she’d designed. I needed to prioritize the connection, not the cake.

I did point out to her that she’d gotten out the bread flour instead of just the regular flour – but she insisted the bread flour was exactly what she wanted to use. And as I was reaching into a high cupboard for some of the baking ingredients for her, I asked if she wanted to add some vanilla (which she did). I really tried to let her take the lead. The only thing I mandated was that we really needed to bake it at a temperature more like 350 or 375 instead of the 151 degrees that she’d written down in her recipe. She assured me that that was really what she’d meant anyway.

We baked the cake during dinner, and after the bigs had taken their baths (and, unfortunately, the littles were already in bed), Miranda and Madeleine CaiQun and I frosted it.

Then the the two big girls and Matt and I tried it.

I was a bit nervous – but honestly, it was good! We all actually enjoyed it, and the girls are excited to share it with the littles and enjoy it as dessert for this week!

Matt asked Miranda what it was called. “A Love Cake,” she responded. How very appropriate <3

I’m so glad that I went along with her desire to create her own recipe and actually follow it and bake her cake, just the way she wanted <3 It was one of the highlights of my weekend. I need to remember, over and over and over again, to prioritize the connection and the relationships with my kids instead of the tasks themselves. These kids of mine make me a better person!

A Day in the Life of a Homeschooling Mom

A blog I follow is doing a series on a “Homeschool Day in the Life.” I loved reading through some of the writers’ entries on that topic and especially reading through their current and some of their older entries and seeing how their lives had changed over time. It’s such a fun record of what life is really like during a given stage and how that evolves over the years in small changes that often pass unnoticed at the time but add up into significant shifts over time. I’d like to keep that record for my family 🙂

This year we have kiddos in 2nd grade (Miranda, age 7), 1st grade (Madeleine CaiQun, age 7), and a very, very, very loose pre-school (FangFang, age 4, and Atticus, age 3). I’m sharing about our day from last Friday.

I have been trying to get up early and spend some time doing my own Bible study before my kids are all up – but I’ve had a cold, and I wasn’t sleeping well, and in the night I re-set my alarm for 8:30 – a last possible wake-up time if a child didn’t wake me up before then 🙂 I got up around then and headed downstairs for our breakfast routine. Matt and I work together to get breakfast on the table for everyone, and while we’re eating, the big kids work on math and handwriting. Miranda is using Singapore for math this year, and she usually doesn’t need much instruction – math just clicks for her. Madeleine CaiQun uses Math-U-See, so she and I watch a DVD of instruction together every 5 or 6 days, but otherwise she just needs to do one workbook lesson each morning. As they finish, I check their work and call them back to the table to fix anything that was not correct the first time.

Once math and handwriting (our table subjects) are out of the way, the kids get some free play time. I’ll usually take this time to do any dinner prep that needs to be taken care of ahead of time, respond to some e-mails, or do some cleaning. On this particular day, I mostly did some cleaning, so our kitchen and dining room would be in better shape when our Chinese teacher arrived to help us make dumplings that afternoon.

Around 11:00 I gave the girls a 5 minute warning that we’d be starting our reading school soon. They know that means it’s time to start wrapping up, but we still had a bit of difficulty transitioning from play time back to school work. It’s easier when we have a concrete activity to do (a Cosmic Yoga show or a walk, for example), but they also love just having free play time.

For reading school, the big kids join me on the couch. More often than not, the littles join us, too, but on this day, they were fascinated by a book they got out on their own and chose to look at that together instead.

The big girls and I read through our books for Bible, History, Geography, and some Literature from our Sonlight curriculum and our readings for Black History Month. Normally we’d do Science, too, but our most recent book about Science had been a Magic School Bus book, and they’d been so excited about it that we’d tackled 5 days’ worth of reading and work all in one day! We also often do a lesson from our Language Arts book and/or Spelling, but Thursdays and Fridays get a bit tight for us with our afternoon commitments, and we were starting a bit late, so I opted not to try to get those in. We still had a pile of books to work through, though 🙂

Miranda was having a bit of a rough day. She is strong-willed, passionate, and intense – all amazing, wonderful personality traits – but sometimes it’s hard for her to settle in to what her mama wants to do at any given moment 😉 Routine helps with that but doesn’t eliminate the struggle entirely, and we continue to work and pray.

Once we finished that portion of school, it was almost lunch time. I agreed that the big girls could have a break from work and take some more time to play if they would promise to help me finish cleaning up after lunch. Lunches at our house these days tend to be leftovers, some thrown together snack type foods (veggies, fruit, yogurt, crackers, nuts, cheese, etc.) or, probably most frequently, some sort of pasta – spaghetti, ravioli, or macaroni and cheese – not the absolute healthiest, but they’re quick and easy and work for everyone! We reviewed our current Bible memory verses and some of our Chinese language learning during lunch – in particular, we were supposed to have a Happy New Year poem ready to recite, so we needed to make sure we were prepared for that!

After lunch, I reminded the girls of their promise to help clean up…and it did not exactly go how I would have desired. I needed to get the dining room table cleared and cleaned, and if the big kids are in a great, agreeable mood, they can do a decent job of picking up toys, but they’re still at an age where they often need me to help break the job down into smaller pieces and participate along with them, and the little kids are definitely still at that age. They disobeyed, I yelled, and we all needed to apologize and seek forgiveness. We managed to get it all done, and then we snuggled on the couch to read a couple Encyclopedia Brown stories before our Chinese teacher arrived.

On a normal non-Friday day, after our living room clean-up time, we’d usually have 15-45 minutes of quiet reading time, and then the kids would watch a couple shows on Netflix while I worked. Then on Mondays, Wednesdays, and most Fridays, we’d get ready to head out for Miranda’s swim practice. On his way home from work, Matt sometimes picks up the younger kids there so they don’t have to stay through the entire practice (and I don’t have to corral them all through the entire practice, because let’s just say that bringing a 3-year-old boy to swim practice is always an adventure 😉 ), but otherwise we all hang out there until we come home for dinner time. Tuesdays we have our small group, and Thursdays FangFang has PT earlier in the afternoon, so the whole reading and tv and work routine gets shifted later so it bumps up right into dinner time.

On Friday afternoons, though, our Chinese teacher comes! Normally we work on language learning, but this week we got to learn how to make dumplings!

Jenny had already made some pork dumplings ahead of time, and she had prepared some vegetarian filling to bring so we could all work together to make vegetarian dumplings to stay closer to our mostly pescetarian diet. We all loved making the dumplings, and she has promised to give me her filling recipes, so we can replicate them in the future! Then, of course, we cooked and ate them – yum!

After Jenny left, I had the big girls do their independent reading and then come discuss it with me as they finished. This is the first year in which I’m not having them read all of their readers out loud to me. Partly that’s a practical matter – as they have grown in reading ability, they’ve also grown in quantities that they read, and it saves us all time if they read quietly on their own 🙂 But also they are good enough readers now that they can read quietly and independently, which is pretty awesome!

Then I let the kiddos watch a couple tv shows. I needed to finish cleaning up from our dumpling making and then get started on dinner, so I wouldn’t be able to get in any work time, but we all need some quiet down time in the afternoon. And I was able to make our baked oatmeal and smoothie “breakfast for dinner” meal and get another dish of baked oatmeal prepared and in the refrigerator to take the next morning to a women’s ministry event at church.

The big girls and I had some conflict again that evening when I asked them to help me set the table for dinner. They didn’t want to, they said. They wouldn’t do it, they said. When I ask them to do things around the house, they feel like slaves, they said. We had a conversation about authority, teamwork, and who actually does most of the household work. One daughter seemed mollified; the other stomped up to her room.

We’d been planning to attend a Chinese New Year showcase, featuring our school district’s students who have been learning Mandarin, but once Matt got home, he and I had to have a conversation about whether that could still happen in light of all the drama of the day. The daughter who had refused to help at dinner time insisted that she would modify her behavior, and she was able to handle it, and she wanted us to go – and I really wanted us all to go. We are pretty busy, and it feels like a lot of our life consists of Matt taking the kids to a fun event while I work or me taking kids to a fun event while he works, or one of us taking some of the kids while the other stays home with another group of kids, not all of us doing things together. I had been looking forward to a fun outing for us all to enjoy together, so I was glad to be able to make it happen. We loaded everyone into the van and headed downtown for the showcase.

Matt put the little kids to bed when we got home, and the big kids stayed up just a bit longer and watched a show while I exercised on our elliptical before I put them to bed. We’ve been reading some Encyclopedia Brown stories, as well as our primary Read-Alouds, as bedtime stories. After I read to them, I prayed for them and tucked them in and came back downstairs – parenting day done – phew.

Matt and I generally try to reconnect and spend some time together after the kids are in bed. I showered, and then we chatted about our days and my women’s ministry event the next morning and just random, fun stuff while we played Upwords. Usually we go to bed at the same time, and I read to him from the book we’re reading together, but on this particular night, he still felt like he had some energy and had a painting he wanted to work on, but I was pretty wiped out. I went upstairs and climbed into bed and journaled and prayed for a little while. I’d been feeling a bit disconnected from God – I’m sure in part due to my not getting up early to spend time in the Word on my own, but also I’ve been very focused on doing things recently, less on being thoughtful and prayerful about what He could be doing and how I could and should be responding to that. I needed to spend some time wrestling with that (and realizing that it had probably played a part in our hard day, as well), and then I read for just a few minutes before I went to sleep.

Honestly, it didn’t feel like a great day. Making dumplings was super cool, and it was neat to see the Chinese New Year showcase. But the kids and I had more conflict than usual. I got a lot of cleaning done but not a lot of fun, relaxing time with the kiddos. It was a stressful day. But some days are like that. I thought about going back and choosing a different day to write about (the next day we had a lot of fun and games and puzzles and happiness!), but that seemed less genuine. The truth is that we have some really fun, encouraging days, but we also have days full of conflict and anger and hurt feelings and apologies and repentance, and they’re both real. Maybe next year my “day in the life” post will hit on a better day 🙂 Until then, this was just one day in our homeschooling life!

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!