I gave birth to my first child – our daughter, Maria – in February 1988. One month shy of my 27th birthday. A bit of a political junkie, I asked the nurse to put a radio in my labor room so I could listen to the results of the New Hampshire primary and cheer on my candidate. Nine months later, the race to the White House was won by George H.W. Bush.
Fast forward 13 years to February 2001. One month shy of my 40th birthday. After hoping to conceive for several years, we were overjoyed to learn that I was pregnant. Maria and her little brother Isaac were in middle school, so a baby would no doubt change our lives. Five days after 9/11 changed the world, Tessa was born. The White House was occupied by George W. Bush.
Fast forward another 15 years to February 2016. I am twice the age I was in 1988, and Maria is now 28 and is a bit embroiled in the politics of the day herself. I learned the results of the New Hampshire primary via tweets, Facebook posts, TV talking heads, and 24-hour online news reports. I tried to explain who I was cheering for (and why) to Tessa and her three younger adopted siblings. We are now a family of eight, and the race to the White House is in full swing.
I’ve been raising children for 28 years. By the time our youngest (Ben, age 9) graduates from high school, we will have spent 36 consecutive years raising kids. (And, of course, it doesn’t end when they leave the nest.) As Baby Boomers, we have watched three generations of children – from my nephews’ Generation X, to our older kids’ Generation Y (Millennials), and now our younger kids’ Generation Z – take their unique place in the world.
When it comes to parenting through these years and generations, much has changed. But most has stayed the same.
What has changed?
I lost my parents and quickly discovered that being motherless profoundly changed me as a mother. My dad died in November 2012, three weeks after we brought our 9-year-old son Anton home from an orphanage at the far eastern edge of Siberia. Exactly one year later, my mom died, and I became an orphan myself. While being in the “sandwich generation” for a while – caring for young kids and aging parents at the same time – was challenging, I would give anything to turn back time and spend more of it with my mom and dad. My advice to parents reading this: Treasure your folks’ quirky comments. Soak in their stories. Listen to their lullabies. Savor their songs. Then pass their spirits on to your children, because that thread is the one thing that binds past and future and creates the tapestry that is your unique family.
Screens have, sadly, become surrogate parents in many ways. Electronic devices have replaced moms and dads as teachers, encouragers, entertainers, and advisers. Parents also get distracted from their role by escaping into their own screens.
My advice: Do the hard work of enforcing strict screen-time limits, both for your children and yourself. On car trips, turn off the “smart” phones and play those smart old travel games; sing Christmas carols, tell stories of your own childhood, listen to oldies, and laugh at the lyrics. And for goodness’ sake, never put a TV in your child’s bedroom.
Family mealtime has been eroded. Many parents are caving to their kids’ requests for unhealthy foods. At our children’s sports events, young kids are popping Skittles for breakfast (while staring at a screen). Grocery carts are filled with food-coloring-laden drinks, sodas, and snacks.
My advice: Do the hard work of making meals and eating them together. Perhaps it’s because we’re old (and old school), but we make every effort, every day, to eat dinner together around the table. No one takes a bite until everyone is seated and a prayer is shared. My kids know when they get up in the morning that a healthy breakfast will be placed in front of them, and there will be no negotiating for Pop Tarts. And above all, no screens at the table (see above).
What has stayed the same?
Kids are still… kids. Teenage girls still have love-hate relationships with their mothers. Young boys still love to snuggle into their mother’s necks and breathe in the scent of her. Siblings still annoy each other and try to carve out their piece of the family dynamics. Adolescents still struggle with issues of self-identity, self-worth, and self-respect. Kids still struggle with authority, but ultimately can be taught to respect.
My advice: Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t push your kids too hard, or you will push them away. Encourage them to pursue the things they love, not the ones you do. Give them music lessons. Involve them in sports – but not necessarily a school sport (rock climbing and martial arts are just fine). Take time to listen to their silence as well as their words. And put down the screens (see above).
School is still school. Fourth graders still have spelling lists, and eighth graders have that thing called algebra.
My advice: Focus more on helping your kids learn to love learning and less on their grades. Sure, they should do their best. But trust me, unless your kids are planning to go to Harvard or become brain surgeons, their math scores aren’t going to mean a hill of beans when they are 28. (The only grade that still haunts me is the “C” I got in home economics. Yet, if that meant anything, I would not have attempted to raise six kids, prepare meals every day, and take care of a home.) Also, let the teachers and coaches do their jobs.
This nation is still the best country on earth to grow a family. If you’re reading this from overseas, I mean no offense. I’m just daily reminded of the opportunities that my kids have – especially when compared to the alternatives. Three of our children spent their first 3, 7, and 9 years in Ethiopia and Russia, hungry and hopeless beyond anything we can imagine. Our daughter Sera – strong, spirited – dreams of racing in the Olympics one day. (One of her heroes is Jesse Owens, and she’s eager to watch Race, the movie about his life.) Sera sat at our local Iowa caucus in January and listened to her old mama speak on behalf of the candidate I was supporting. Six months from now someone will win the race to the White House. And no matter who it is, I will tell my children – as my father told me – to respect our leaders and trust in the goodness of the citizens of this great nation.
I will tell my children to run their own race, too. God willing, I will be here to cheer them on during the births of their own kids… the next generation.
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