Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Leading children through life's jungle

As kids grow up, they begin to navigate life without the help of Mom and Dad.

My family used to live in a house that had several overgrown lilac bushes running along its north side, bushes that had been there for probably a hundred or so years, their trunks gray and gnarled, their purple blossoms impossibly fragrant as they filled the summer air.

During the spring and summer, those lilac bushes became known as the "jungle" since, to our son Joe's young eyes, they were as green, overgrown, and endless as any plot of land running along the Amazon might be. My husband Mark and I enjoyed the jungle, too, especially since it was conveniently located next to the front steps, where we could sit, drink a cup of coffee, and keep an eye on our little explorer.

Every so often, Mark ventured into the jungle along with Joe. Joe was always thrilled when his dad joined him. "Follow me," he'd suggest, waving a dimpled hand as he led the way to the back of the jungle, where things really got exciting. (He'd hidden a plastic bucket and shovel there.)

One day, Mark and Joe began to build a small, very primitive playhouse in the jungle. Mark let Joe do the planning while he took orders. The two of them rearranged twigs, branches, and leaves until they were both satisfied. Sitting down on a log that doubled as a sofa, Joe stretched his legs out and sighed. "Oh, Daddy," he said. "I so happy."

That was many years ago. We moved away from the house with the conveniently located jungle, and our intrepid explorer is in high school now, discovering new territories, along with a different kind of jungle or two every so often.

To my mind, one of the hardest facts I've been forced to accept about being a parent is that we're no longer completely able to elicit statements like "I so happy" from our children, no matter how much we long to. Somewhere between baby teeth and adolescence the responsibility for finding happiness becomes something people have to do for themselves.

We can try to buy happiness for our children with purchases ranging from toys to video games to flat-screen television sets. We can attempt to cheer them up, make them smile, even coerce a laugh or two. Sometimes we achieve our goal. Many times – especially as they get older – we don't.

Throughout my journey as a mom during the past decade and a half – and especially since our oldest son became a teenager – I've occasionally wondered why parenthood seems to become more difficult with each passing birthday. Not worse, but definitely harder.

At first I wondered if any and all angst in our household might be due to the double whammy of hormones – ours on the decline and the boys' on the increase. But I've come to realize that isn't it.

I believe that if our children's jungles stayed small, close to the house, and easily navigated, they'd never learn how to use a compass on their own. And that's the goal of most parents – to make sure their offspring can figure out how to get out of any jungle they might find themselves in someday.

So we force ourselves to sit back, bite our tongues, and wait as they figure out the difference between north, south, east, and west, as well as which direction they really want to go. We try to be there to help them up if they fall, and we clap more loudly than anyone else when they soar. Most of all, we let them know that we're not going anywhere. We can't lead them through the jungle anymore, but we can always offer the use of our machete.

It's never easy to watch your child struggle as he makes his way through the world. But it's so very rewarding to watch when children do reach a goal, when they get their diplomas, ace an interview, or even handle failures with grace. Such occasions make a mom think to herself, "I so happy, too.

Posted in Christian Science Monitor
Nell Musolf

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Practicing parenting on my nephews

Learning to be a parent, with family

One of the benefits to being the youngest sibling is that I got to learn about and practice parenting on my sibling’s children before I had my own. I learned (and am still learning) from my sister’s successes and mistakes while having a real interest (though not exactly responsibility) in how my nephews turn out – and hopefully being able to make a real contribution to their lives.

NephewsMy sister’s boys are great kids. Really, lots and lots of fun. They were also unwittingly, in the time we spent together, my guinea pigs for starting to figure out my parenting style. With them, I tried out the permissive persona, the super-strict persona and most in between. In addition to forgiving me for my experiments, they taught me so much about individual personalities and how what might work for one may not work for the other.

Each of my nephews has his own communication style, his own talents, his own quirks, just like every set of siblings. I’ve been quite close to and less close to each of them over time, as their own adolescences ebbed and flowed and my life went from crazy busy to absolutely insane and back again and again and again. I have my own funny and sweet stories about each of them that are distinct from their parents’ stories. I’ve really been very privileged to be part of their lives.

Knowing when to say when

At some point, the parenting-related experimenting stopped. I feel lucky that I did that before I went too far and couldn’t “just” be their loving (or annoying, as the case may be) aunt. They already have a mother, after all, and don’t need another. As an aunt, a related very interested party, I’ve tried to be something of a constant in their lives, even if it’s at a geographic distance.

My oldest nephew, now in his early 20s, is spending the summer near us. In some ways, I get to practice parenting again, see what it might like to have a child that old, one who is mostly adult but still a little bit young. But he doesn’t need to be parented like my kids do. He does, however, still need a related very interested party as a sounding board, for emotional support-and for a regular place to crash away from his internship.

A glimpse into the future

When I look at this almost grown man whom I once held in one hand, then glance at my own children, I see the future. I see how Alfs might be years from now after we get through the teen years. A hulking presence in the family room but also a really nice guy. Someone I and my kids and my husband like to have around.

I also see my nephew trying out what I can only deduce as parenting-type personas as he interacts with my kids. He’s seeing what works for each and getting to know them. He’s trying things out. He’s a very interested party in their lives with real interest in how they turn out, and I’m sure will make a real contribution to their lives.

The circle continues.

Jen Klein is a New England-based technical writer and mother of three. When she isn't asking her kids to stop bickering, "caramelizing" the dinner or actively ignoring the dust bunnies under the couch, she enjoys knitting, gardening, photography, going to the beach, coming up with excuses not to exercise, embarrassing her pre-teen in public, and trying to figure out what she wants to be when she grows up.

She'll be your best friend in exchange for some good red wine and a Dagoba dark chocolate bar.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Stay-at-home dads remain a rarity

Society still frowns on changing traditional roles

As times change, more and more fathers are participating in their children's lives. However, the full-time stay-at-home father is still an elusive species.

The U.S. Census found there are just 98,000 fathers in America with children under 15 years old and who have been out of the workplace for at least one year.

Those who choose to stay home with their children find it rewarding. However, society does not embrace the idea entirely, said Linda Benson, a sociology lecturer at the University of Missouri-St. Louis."The stay-at-home dad is still slightly stigmatized," Benson said. "It's becoming accepted, but it's slowly changing."

It's hard to change attitudes about men and women, she said.

"Even some liberated women still feel the same about gender roles," Benson said. "We can have past assumptions built into our relationships."

Economics is playing a larger role in the growth of stay-at-home dads, both full and part time. Some fathers, because they're out of work or have become disabled, stay home because they have no choice.

Parents might opt for the father to stay home for financial reasons. The wife might earn a larger salary with better benefits, freeing the father to stay home, Benson said.

"This is a conscious sacrifice for the couple," she said. "They are giving up a second income. However, studies show some family members want to have another family member taking care of their children."

The cost of day care played a role in the decision for Mike Ruffino, 34, of St. Peters, to stay home with his two children.

"The price of day care can be $180 to $200 a week," said Ruffino, formerly of Hazelwood. "My wife (Jennifer) and I wanted one of us to stay home, so we decided it should be me. A large portion of my paycheck would go to day care, anyway, so by staying home, we're actually saving money."

Having a stay-at-home dad can be an adjustment, both for the adults and the children.

"It can be tough for the kids to adjust to their dad's new role," Benson said. "Men are more willing to tolerate a mess but can be more strict and stick to the rules."

Benson emphasized that parenting is not an instinct.

"Men can cook, clean and bathe the children," she said. "Family life is changing. The tradition of the father as the sole breadwinner is now (found in) only 30 percent of families in the United States."

Posted in North County Journal
Scott Bandle

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Grandma And Grandpa Are Good For Children

The first national survey about the relationships that adolescents have with their grandparents shows that grandparents who are involved in the upbringing of their grandchildren can contribute to a child’s well-being.

This research led by Oxford University, in collaboration with the Institute of Education, London, challenges previous research showing that grandparents who are heavily committed to looking after their grandchildren could become depressed and have a negative effect on the children.

The research surveyed questionnaires from 1,596 children, aged between 11-16 from across England and Wales, and researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 40 children from a range of backgrounds. Another key finding of the research was that almost a third of maternal grandmothers provided regular care-taking for their grandchildren, with 40 per cent providing occasional help with childcare.

The survey reveals that grandparents often have more time than working parents to support young people in activities and are well placed to talk to their grandchildren about any problems the young people may be experiencing. They were also found to be involved in helping to solve the young people’s problems, as well as talking with them about plans for their future.

Principle investigator Professor Ann Buchanan, Director of the Centre for Research into Parenting and Children in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work at Oxford University, will launch the research findings at the annual meeting of the Grandparents’ Association in London on June 4.

Professor Buchanan said: ‘We were surprised by the huge amount of informal caring that the grandparents were doing and how in some cases they were filling the parenting gap for hard working parents. Most adolescents really welcomed this relationship. What was especially interesting was the links we found between ‘involved grandparents’ and adolescent well-being. Closeness was not enough: only grandparents who got stuck in and did things with their grandchildren had this positive impact on their grandchildren.’

Co-investigator Dr Eirini Flouri, from the Institute of Education, said: ‘We found that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren buffered the effects of adverse life events, such as parental separation, because it calmed the children down. This suggests future investigations should pay more attention to the role of grandparents in developing resilience in young people.’

A range of factors predicted the involvement of the grandparents in the upbringing of their grandchildren including: living in a less deprived area; frequent contact; and the good health of the grandparent. The young people surveyed did not view physical proximity as being necessarily important as they used modern technology to communicate. They said they felt grandparents became closer when they undertook some traditional parenting tasks.

This study also shows that at times of family breakdown and separation, many grandparents played an important role in bringing stability to their grandchildren. Grandparents were also found to be important in times of family adversity and appeared to help the whole family buffer the difficulties. The researchers conclude that given the grandparents’ role is almost invisible in family policy in the UK, the government needs to rethink the policy implications of this largely positive role and provide more support for the important intergenerational relationships.

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