My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.

Sometimes we all need reminders in parenting – glimpses of the reality that we know to be true but can so easily forget in the moment. I’m firmly committed to connected parenting, and I believe in giving my kids the benefit of the doubt and being gentle with them – but even so, I still have moments of frustration and feeling like my kiddos must be working against me.

Yesterday morning Matt made a Lego truck for Atticus, who was thrilled. But the truck broke just as Matt was pulling out of the driveway on his way to work, and Atticus was inconsolable. He firmly believed that Matt, and only Matt, had the power to fix his truck, and he was devastated by the idea that it would be hours before Matt was home again. A full-blown meltdown ensued.

I already had a “to do” list a mile long, and my interest in spending 30 minutes working through a tantrum was so low. I engaged halfheartedly, though, and just as I was starting to feel defeated, that nothing I was saying or trying was helpful, he curled up on the chair and said, very sadly, “Mommy, I’m going crazy.”

Immediately I stopped. And I remembered the quote I have seen so many times before and wholeheartedly believe to be true: My child is not giving me a hard time. They are having a hard time.

My little guy’s meltdown wasn’t a manipulative attempt to ruin my day; it was an expression of the overwhelming emotions he was feeling. At four years old, he doesn’t have the self-regulation skills to know how to calm himself. He knew his feelings were big, too big for him to handle alone, and his meltdown was a reflection of that, and he needed help to work through it and through his feelings.

I went and sat down on the floor near him. “Oh, buddy, you’re not going crazy,” I told him. “But I know you’re feeing a lot of feelings, and they can be big and overwhelming, can’t they?”

“Mommy, I AM going crazy!” he insisted.

“You feel like you’re going crazy?” I asked. He nodded. “You need Mommy to help you with those feelings?” Another nod.

“Let me get some flowers. We’ll smell them together,” I suggested.

“Will that help with the crazy feelings?” he asked.

“Yes, yes, it will,” I told him.

We leaned in together, breathing deeply in the smell of our flowers, then slowly letting out those deep breaths.

A few minutes passed, and he said, “Mommy, also I would like some chocolate milk.” I refilled his cup for him and asked if he wanted me to hold his hand while he drank it.

“No, Mommy, I want you to sit with me,” he said. He curled up on my lap and drank his chocolate milk.

And then, calm, he told me, “Mommy, I love you.” And he was able to strategize with me about what we should do about his Lego truck. We texted Matt a picture and asked where to put the pieces that had fallen off, and he texted back a response. I replaced those pieces, and Atticus was good to go.

Note his truck on the windowsill behind him!

This is what parenting is. This is the mom I – far too often – am not but the mom I always want to be.

Fall Family Fun

Life has been full these past few months, and I’ve gotten behind on blogging. This blog serves several purposes, one of which is a record of sorts for our family. I love to look back and see where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and where we are now, and I hope that my kids will one day enjoy these records, as well.

And to that end, there are some fun memories I’d like to make sure I document this year for us!

Naturally, I am an introverted, intellectual homebody. My idea of a perfect day would have to include some time curled up on the couch with a blanket and a mug of tea and a good book. But I’m trying to grow in being more of a fun mom, creating memories for my kids and having special outings and adventures, and this fall we had several.

We took a morning and went with some friends from church to Hickory Ridge Orchard and took a tour and visited some animals. The chickens were a bit over-enthusiastic in their pursuit of the food Atticus was carrying, and he was not pleased!

The girls took it more in stride 😊

And then we enjoyed what was definitely a highlight for us – apple picking!

Having 5 apple-pickers, we’re able to get quite a few pretty quickly, and we came home with a respectable haul, to be used to make apple pie, applesauce, apple butter, and other assorted apple items!

Another Saturday this fall, Matt had to work, so the kids and I made the drive out to Longmeadow Rescue Ranch, where our friend Courtney works training horses, to enjoy one of their Wagon Days. We saw Twister paint…

…we enjoyed some of the biggest slices of pizza we’d ever seen from a food truck there for the afternoon…

…each kiddo got to enjoy a pony ride!

The littles, in particular, were thrilled with that experience. They’ve watched their older sisters taking horseback riding lessons, and they loved getting to participate in something similar. Atticus talked all day long about how was now a horse rider, too, and FangFang now refers to the pony she rode, Pal, as her best friend.

We also enjoyed some snow cones…

…and a wagon ride…

…though Miranda was not thrilled about having to wait for the wagon ride, and her expression shows it!

We walked around and visited many of the animals at the ranch, and the chickens were a particular favorite.

Miranda made this drawing of her favorite chicken on the way home!

The next week, we took an even longer trip, this time venturing up to Wisconsin to see the China Lights. In recent years, each fall a group of artists from China have decorated Boerner Botanical Gardens with lanterns, and this year the theme was pandas. FangFang is obsessed with pandas, and we knew she would be beside herself with excitement to see the exhibit, and it was taking place around her birthday. We’d looked at our calendar to see if we could fit in a quick trip to Wisconsin to make it work, but Matt just didn’t have any free blocks of time to do it. Courtney agreed to go with us, and plans were made! The trip was almost de-railed last minute, as three of our kids came down with strep throat (everyone but Madeleine CaiQun), but we were able to get everyone on antibiotics before we left so that they wouldn’t be contagious, and though we had a bit of anxiety about it, we went ahead with the trip, and we were really glad we went. There were some hard parts – sleep wasn’t great for kids who had sore throats (or their mama) – but it was neat to see this exhibit, and I always love giving our family the opportunity to experience different aspects of Chinese culture – and we got to see my mom a bit!

The next weekend, my dad and his boyfriend and my brothers and sister-in-law all came to Columbia for a visit, and we crammed in several fun fall activities! We all went out to Peach Tree Farm, went on a hayride, saw animals, and looked at some gigantic pumpkins.

That afternoon we had some fun at home, with Atticus using my brother Danny as a jungle gym and FangFang practicing her independent standing with my sister-in-law, Sharon!

Matt led the kids in their pumpkin carving endeavors, and the results were much more impressive than if I had been involved with the process 😉

We also enjoyed some outside time – David raked leaves with the big kids, and Danny taught Miranda how to ride her bike without training wheels – a big milestone for her!

We also took in a visit to the big tree.

Close on the heels of that visit was our Halloween fun – this year we had a dinosaur, a cat, a dragon, and a panda – pretty adorable!

I hope you had a fall full of fun activities, and I’m looking forward to seeing what our next season will hold for us!

The Blessing of Big Feelings

This girl – she feels everything BIG. That presents us with some significant challenges. She and I and Matt have spent years trying out and cultivating strategies to walk through them well. But also? We’ve held onto the hope that those big feelings were going to translate into big empathy and into big triumphs, and we’ve cast a vision for that as we’ve talked with her about how God made her and how she is wired.

And sometimes we see glimpses – or even more than glimpses – of that hope shining through.

This morning, her three younger siblings were experiencing some conflict, and Madeleine CaiQun was left in tears. She and Miranda disappeared upstairs, and when they came down, Madeleine CaiQun came to me for some hugs and comfort, and Miranda went into the living room to talk with the littles.

Miranda came to me a few minutes later, “Mom, MeiMei told me about how she was feeling when we were upstairs in the luminescence room. The luminescence room is kind of like club house we made on the bottom bunk in our room where we can talk about feelings. We were petting the cats up there for a few minutes. And when we came downstairs, I talked to FangFang and Atticus. They didn’t want MeiMei to play with them, because their building wasn’t big enough, so I helped them make it bigger, and they said she could play now.”

And a bit later, as our all-three-year-old-boy child was attempting to destroy all the buildings, she took the initiative to create a “scrapyard” for him, full of creations for him to knock down.

Kindness, empathy, initiative, problem-solving, creativity, peace-making, and helpfulness – all things I hope and pray for as I parent my kids, as we walk through squabble after squabble, as we talk about how we can work as a team to solve problem after problem. It’s so encouraging to me as a mother to have these moments in which I see glimpses of the fruit of that. We’ll keep pressing on, working together to grow, and hoping for more and more of these moments.

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.