Every time I'm asked for parenting advice, I feel hesitant. Children, families and relationships are all so unique. Every family, every child has different needs. Most often I advise, "Pray. Follow your own instincts."
I still believe in prayer and meditation as the best advice, but I also know we get confused by the many voices in society offering conflicting information. I'll say this — I believe 90 percent of parental mistakes come from parents (not kids) giving in to peer pressure. Trying to fit in.
The desire to be "normal," or at least conform to some social parameter, plagues all of us. To some extent these desires are healthy. They keep us from stealing cars and yelling at the slow person in front of us at the grocery store. Yet the drive to wear the right clothes, see the same movies, play the cool sports stifles individuals.
I'll be clear. If you want to raise kind, smart, creative boys (and girls), prepare to be very different. If you're raising sons, I don't need to show you the research detailing the toxic environment modern society offers boys. Over and over, when my boys were little, people told me I was turning my boys into wimps and nerds by choosing violin lessons, reading too many books and rejecting video games and cable TV. I ignored the naysayers because, for me, popularity was never the goal. Interestingly, my boys are extremely well-liked among their peers.
I'll share a secret, and it's a big one.
I believe my children are amazing.
And I believe your children are amazing.
The essence of my mothering resides in these words from C.S. Lewis (my favorite quote ever, ever):
“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship. ... It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics."
Viewing my children as beings with limitless potential has helped me many, many times to sift through bad advice and temporary fads. We are aiming for heaven, not Facebook "likes." I have no aspirations for my sons to hold titles or prestige, but I do want them to be good, moral men who spread light and joy wherever they may go.
In the same vein, we try to treat everyone as God's children. I'm the first to admit we haven't been wholly successful. Cruel remarks echo through our house far too often. Even so, we don't accept unkindness as acceptable behavior. My boys learned young they'd better not make jokes about someone's weight or race or education. We laugh almost constantly, but at life's absurdities, not at other people.
When the boys were tiny and friends warned us we would make them soft, my husband, Erik, replied, "I'm comfortable with my own masculinity." Through example, he shows that diapering babies, reading Jane Austen, folding laundry and holding up your pinkie at tea parties are for real men. Why the desire for "toughness" anyway? Hardness and insensitivity corrupt us all to some degree; we don't need to cultivate those tendencies.
Too often, the phrase "boys will be boys" excuses bad behavior. Yes, mothers of boys need to understand boys will make enormous messes, turn any stick into a sword or gun and forget to use shampoo and toothpaste. However, we don't have to accept fighting, objectifying women, crude words or behavior.
My friend Catherine parents twin boys who just turned 4. "They've started hitting each other and everyone," she said. "How do I get them to stop?"
"Work on it every single day for the next 15 years," I answered with only the very slightest tinge of sarcasm.
And it's true. Just recently, my 21-year-old learned how to hold wrestling matches without anyone crying or needing stitches. Boys hit. They just do. Still, it's our job as parents to help them control their tempers.
I am not a fan of the "let them fight it out" mentality. My husband and I both saw examples of brothers who fought as children and caused lifelong resentment. Also, learning to control the desire to hit or lash out will be invaluable when boys become husbands and fathers.
Preparing for fatherhood begins in childhood. When one of my boys kicks the winning soccer goal or receives a perfect test score, I'm happy, but I'm much more proud when they soothe a fussy baby at church, take a pack of younger visitors out to play on the trampoline or consent to play tea party or princess games with their younger sister. As the adage goes, “A man never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child.”
Crude jokes — especially anything objectifying women — have no place among real men. Neither does crude behavior.
When someone burps at our house, they say "excuse me." Old fashioned? Yes, but good manners never go out of style. I believe the old ways are the best ways — opening doors, shoveling sidewalks, giving up your seat on the bus.
Our sons should be "acquainted with grief." This subject requires prayerful insight from parents, but I believe it is essential our children understand the heartaches and struggles in their own home, their neighborhood and the world. For some, it's easier to talk about starving children in Africa than the fact Daddy just lost his job. Our children gain compassion and perspective when they know life isn't easy for anyone. As Plato famously advised, "Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle."
Finally, maintaining a sense of whimsy leads to kindness. As Gabe loves to say, "My life would be so boring if my parents weren't so immature."
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I'll confess to all kinds of immaturity. I think it would be a shame to outgrow or be "too cool" to make valentines, drive through mud puddles, talk in silly voices, watch "Toy Story" and hold water fights in the backyard.
Happiness and kindness walk hand in hand. The more I encourage laughter at home, the happier we become.
And we are, as I love to repeat, made for happiness.
Writer, photographer and Utah's Young Mother of the Year, Michelle Lehnardt is raising five future fathers and one little mother. She writes at scenesfromthewild.blogspot.com on raspberry pie, chicken coops and missing her missionary son in Russia.