Tech and Your Family

This is the second part of a three part series on making technology work for you. If you haven’t read the first section yet, please find it here. (This post contains some affiliate links. These links allow me to earn a small commission at no extra cost to you.)

Now that you have come up with a real plan for how to manage technology in your life, you are ready to look into managing your kids’ technology. But even with a coherent plan, you can’t just make rules, even highly intentional and rational rules, and expect smooth sailing, especially if you’re talking about teenagers. 

 

Start with yourself

I have done a lot of reading on this subject. Some of the authors were parents, some were counselors who deal with parents and children, and some were just very productive people. 

Based on my research, my own experience, and what my gut tells me, the first step for any successful control of your teen’s tech use is to set an example of intentional and virtuous technology use. 

As a responsible adult you likely have a lot of reasonable and necessary uses for technology. And you might also waste lots of time. To your kids, the two look identical. (You might have trouble telling the difference sometimes too–I know I do.) So a good way to be more intentional with your own tech use, and to set a good example is simply to tell your kids what you are doing when you are using your phone or computer. “Hey, honey, I’m going to check my email.” “I am going to look up a recipe for roasting a chicken.” “I am looking for a craft idea to do with you this afternoon.” “I am reading an article about___.” “I am texting your grandmother pictures of you.” “I am texting my friend.” 

Just saying what you are doing on your phone can help you stay focused on what you are going to do, as well as let your child know that you are actually doing something reasonable with the time you are looking at your phone instead of him.

It’s also important that you be able to set your phone down. Give your kids phone-free quality time. Put the phones in another room during dinner. (More about family dinners later.) It turns out this is more important than you might think. On page 56 of his book, The Distraction Addiction, Alex Pang describes a study in which pairs of people were randomly assigned to have conversations with each other, either with a visible smartphone present, or without a phone present. The study he cites noted, “It was found that conversations in the absence of mobile communication technologies were rated as significantly superior compared with those in the presence of a mobile device, above and beyond the effects of age, gender, ethnicity, and mood.”

So make sure you can set your own phone aside if you want to make effective rules for your kids. 

 

Make sure that screen time is not the only option

A lot of families struggle with screen time rules because screen time is by far the most alluring option open for their kids. They can do something screen-related or they can do… nothing? Chores? This might be the single most important step to take in making sure your kids have a healthy relationship with tech–making sure they have other things in their lives as well. 

Do they have friends that they can have over or go and visit? Do they have real-life hobbies? Growing plants, raising pets, building models, biking or hiking with friends, etc. are all good things that teach real-life skills and are just plain good for you both physically and mentally. These and other activities are what Cal Newport calls “high quality leisure activities” because they require input, and are deeply satisfying. High quality leisure activities are also great opportunities for parents to spend quality time with their older children, and for siblings to spend quality time with each other and really enjoy one another. 

It’s important to set rules, and enforce them, but I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect screen time limitations to be followed if the alternative is staring at the wall. 

 

Set clear and reasonable boundaries. 

Smartphones are very powerful. They have access to literally the entire internet, with all of the information, and all of the filth that entails. They can have addictive games installed on them, and have a million other ways of encouraging you to spend all your time looking at them. 

They also have great potential to help you live your life better. I use mine for my productivity system, writing blog posts and books, and talking to my friends. 

Since the internet and internet connected devices are so powerful, it is important to give kids guidance and boundaries for their use. Below are the rules I would suggest. 

 

My tech rules

(For the record, my kids are 3 and under. I imagine by the time my kids are teenagers this conversation will be somewhat different. I taught middle school and highschool for a few years though–and loved it–so teens are not an unknown topic for me. These are the rules I would recommend to any of my friends who do have teens.) 

I don’t think kids under 18 should have full-function smartphones. They are designed by very very smart people to be addictive, and your teen’s brain has not developed fully. Any addiction they form as a teen will be much harder to break. That being said, if your kid is driving, or otherwise leaving the house alone, it seems sane to allow them to have a way of calling their parents/bosses or other important people in their lives. There are a number of devices that allow only calling, texting, and some offline apps. I recommend getting one of these for a minor child who will be leaving the house alone. The device can be returned to you when the child returns home, which should allow for proper supervision. 

If you do give your child a smartphone, don’t let him have it in his bedroom. People (adults or children) are most likely to do stupid things on their phones alone at night, and it’s also really bad for your sleep. 

Boundaries for teens

If your child is in middle or highschool, he will likely need internet access for his school work, and a computer for typing papers. I think it’s important for kids to learn how to type properly before leaving school. I recommend a program like Mavis Beacon, or whatever they use nowadays. I recommend giving students access to a computer in a public area (and only in a public area) and having an effective internet filter like Covenant Eyes

Your child may need to have his own email account. If you have a decent relationship with your kid, this shouldn’t be a problem, though depending on the age of the child, it might work well to have them share their passwords with you. I would not allow my teenage children to have social media accounts. (The only exception I can see myself making to this rule at this point would be if my teenager had a business and was using a social media page exclusively for business purposes. In this case I would imagine that adult advice in managing the account would be both helpful and welcome.)

As for computer games, that is a personal decision that each parent has to make on their own. Different people are more or less likely to form addictions. If you know you have a tendency in that direction, you should be more careful with your kids, because addictive behavior is influenced by genetics. I think my rule would be absolutely never more than an hour a day of entertainment screen time, and gaming only as a social activity. (The only exceptions I would make to the social rule would be games that teach you to type, or other practical skills.)  I don’t think I’d let kids under 10 or 12 play either. 

These are just my rules. Everyone has their own needs and difficulties. But no matter who you are, no matter what your rules are, you need to have a good relationship with your kids to make it work. 

 

No rules will work unless you do this

Having the perfect rules, and having perfect technology habits yourself is not enough. If you take nothing else away from this blog post, I want you to take this away: The most important thing you can do to keep your kids safe on the internet (or elsewhere) is to develop an open and loving relationship with them. 

Let them know that they can talk to you about anything. You don’t want your kids being too embarrassed to ask you about the disturbing pictures they saw on someone else’s computer. You don’t want them to be too scared to tell you if someone tried to take advantage of them. 

 

Here is some advice therapists, counselors, priests and others often give on this subject: 

Eat dinner as a family, and make it a pleasant daily ritual. It’s good for your health and for your relationships. And talk during dinner. Talk about anything and everything. Most of all, let your kids talk. Let them ask questions, tell stories, and argue (courteously of course).

Make sure your children know you love them no matter what. Children have love languages too. If you’re not sure your kids know you love them, make sure of it. Discipline should show love, not make your kids doubt it. There are many ways to discipline, and you need to find one that works for each of your kids. Whatever you pick, it is vital that it leaves your children very clear about what expectations and consequences are, and also leaves them feeling loved and respected. Make sure your relationship with your kids is based on love, not fear. 

Teach your kids about their bodies.

Making sure children know how their bodies work and what appropriate and inappropriate touch are like, and what to do if they see or experience anything inappropriate. This knowledge must be age appropriate, but the general consensus is that it’s better to go too early than too late. 

When you do teach them about their bodies, be sure not to leave them with a sense of shame or embarrassment at the topic. If your child senses that you are embarrassed by the topic, it can lead to an unwillingness to discuss problems that arise, and even marital difficulties later on. 

If you are for any reason incapable of giving a reverent, honest and open explanation of bodily processes to your child, then it might be a good idea to ask a trusted friend to explain it. 

 

Managing Technology in Your Life Part 1

Several months ago someone asked me to write about teens and technology use.  I thought it sounded like a fun topic, so I researched the subject. I fell down a rabbit hole of books about tech and kids, tech and society, social media, etc. Then I read Digital Minimalism–by far the best of the lot–and was thoroughly overcome with a sense of inferiority. I knew that no blog post I could ever write would be anywhere near as good as that book. And I also knew that I couldn’t just write a blog post that said, “Read Digital Minimalism. Just do it. You will be happier.” 

So I didn’t write at all. But I finally decided that I just had to share its ideas. You should really just read Digital Minimalism, but I will try to make this blog post the next best thing. 

Start with a plan

When you’re coming up with screen time rules for your kids, the most important thing is to have a coherent idea of the role you want tech to play in your life. Making up arbitrary rules doesn’t work. You need a coherent and principled system, like digital minimalism. 

On his blog, Cal Newport (author of the book Digital Minimalism) defines digital minimalism as “a philosophy that helps you question what digital communication tools (and behaviors surrounding these tools) add the most value to your life.”

It’s not about going home and throwing out your TV, your smart phone, or your laptop, unless you decide rationally and intentionally that this is what is best for you and your family. You might, but that’s not really the point. The point is to use your technologies to help you get what you want, rather than letting them run your life. 

What do you want?

So the first step in coming up with a tech plan is to list your goals as a person and as a family. What would your perfect life look like? What do you want to achieve? What kind of leisure activities would you like to spend your time on? What would you like your kids to be and do? What sort of quality time do you want to spend with your children? What talents do you want to develop? What talents do you want your kids to develop? What big financial, relationship or personal goals do you have in your life? 

Really take some time to think about these questions, because the answers will be the basis not only for a sound tech strategy, but also for a happier and more fulfilling life.

 

What tech do you use?

The second step: List all of the tech you (and your family) regularly use. This includes devices (eg. Laptop, smart speakers, ipods, smart phones, TV, gaming consoles, etc.) It also includes services and social media platforms. (eg. Cable, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram, etc.) 

Be thorough. Really take stock of the technologies you use and how you use them. And how much you use them–which might be hard. A time tracker might be useful for this. There are automatic time tracking programs for both computers and phones which can tell you how much time you spend on which apps. If you want to track all your activities, not just the ones on particular devices, you can also use the pen and paper method, or there are apps that you can use on your phone to track your activities of all kinds. It can be quite interesting to see how much time you spend on different things, but time tracking is hard. I tried it for about 3 days (using a simple app) and by the third day I gave up, exhausted from the effort of trying to be always aware of what I was doing. 

Cal Newport actually recommends taking a 30 day break from all inessential technologies just as a sort of detox, so you can think more clearly about what you have been spending your time on and whether you want those things back in your life. This might actually be easier than tracking your activities.

 

Is your tech helping you get what you want? 

Step three is to compare your two lists. Look at each technology in your life and ask yourself three questions. 

  1. Does this device or service help me achieve any of the things I have decided that I value? 
  2. Is this device or technology the best or only way to achieve that goal? 
  3. How can I minimize the downsides of this technology and improve its effectiveness for my purposes?

If anything on your list does not pass the first test, then get rid of it. If it’s not making you happier or helping you achieve your goals, then you don’t want it in your life. 

The second question is where things get more complicated. An example would be Facebook. Let’s say I’ve decided that keeping in touch with my family is very important to me, and Facebook helps me do that. But is Facebook the best technology for helping you stay in touch with family? Or when you log in, do you mainly see angry political ranting and cat videos that distract you for the next 15 minutes (or the next hour) and take you away from your family who is present. Consider alternatives. I, for example, don’t use Facebook for anything personal. I have some friends who live elsewhere who I want to keep in touch with, and I have chosen to use a group chat instead of Facebook, because I think that this maximizes my meaningful interaction with my actual friends in ways that Facebook does not. 

But maybe you decide that Facebook is indeed the best choice for you. This is where question 3 comes in. How can you use Facebook so that you minimize the negative consequences of it? I do use Facebook. I used to find it irritating, frustrating and time wasting. I was frustrated that my email was constantly full of updates. But I had found that it was the most effective way to advertise my blog, so I had to figure out how to mitigate the negative consequences of having it in my life.

Because my only purpose for having Facebook is to advertise my writing, I blocked all email notifications. I have Facebook only on my laptop, and not on my phone. I post links when I write a new blog post, and then I leave. I have learned that looking at my Facebook feed makes me angry and sad, so I pretty much limit my Facebook use to posting links and leaving. (I also occasionally network using the private messenger function, but never on my phone.) This works very well for me.

Other people might need to use Facebook because of a Facebook group that they participate in. It is possible to bookmark that group’s page, so that when you need to check your group you can go directly there without looking at things that irritate and distract you.

These are just examples. Maybe the technology you’re looking at is Netflix. Maybe you have decided that watching a TV show or film with your spouse or your kids is a valuable way of connecting with them, and that Netflix is the best way of accomplishing that. But maybe you are frustrated because you find that every time you look at Netflix you spend half an hour being irritated because you can’t figure out what you want to watch. Maybe a good choice for you would be to make a rule that you don’t open up Netflix unless you have already decided what to watch, or that you will set a 10 minute timer, after which you will pick whatever has looked best so far.

The point is that every technology you have, every service you subscribe to, everything you own, takes a certain amount of space, time, mental energy, and sometimes money to maintain. Is it worth it, and how can it be minimized? This is the decision you have to make, based on your own goals for you and your family

Now that you have made a coherent and principled system for making technology decisions, now you are ready to tackle the sticky issue of how much and what technologies are appropriate for your child to use. 

That will be for next time. 

 

Why I Let My Phone Run My Life

One of the biggest struggles I’ve had since quitting my teaching job to take care of my own children is staying organized. I was a reasonably organized teacher. I had binders for every subject, specially labeled computer files for each week of each class, and I even (mostly) stayed on top of my grading.

But home life is harder to organize. There are so many things to keep track of, and less boundary between personal tasks and work tasks. Feeding and caring for the baby needs to be done, but eating and showering equally needs to happen, and there is no boundary between baby time and mommy time. As far as babies are concerned, everything belongs to them, especially mom’s body.

And then not only are there baby needs and mommy needs to balance, there’s also a house to care for. Food to cook, and, if you’re like me, other projects that aren’t as optional as they might seem to others, because doing them is the only way you can feel that you are still your own person and not some new nameless being known only by the generic title of “mom.”

 

So, how to keep everything organized? How to remember to take showers, to get meat out of the freezer so supper tomorrow will actually happen, and to send that email, all while a baby wants to be held every minute of every day (and night)?

Ideas that didn’t work for me

I tried writing lists on little scraps of paper the day before, but I was frustrated by having to rewrite all the routine things that had to be done every day, or most days, but that still managed to be left on the back burner if I didn’t explicitly plan them.

I was always discouraged about having forgotten to do the dishes, or vacuum, or sweep….

So I tried the command center thing.

I put an inspiring quote on the wall. I made white board calendar templates and framed them so I could write reach month’s events as they happened. I made a weekly schedule so that I could have a recurring checklist of daily and weekly tasks. And I made a menu board.

The menu board worked pretty well. I often filled it out, but the weekly planned schedule didn’t. If I couldn’t do Monday’s tasks for some reason, my whole week got thrown off. And besides, seeing my list of daily and weekly tasks that I still wasn’t doing despite having a chart on my wall was just discouraging. Even though I could cross off all the things I did, all I was really seeing was the things I hadn’t done.

And then even when I did do a task, it wasn’t worth the trouble of going to the kitchen to cross it off, because then I would just have to wipe off all the marker the next day and start over.

So the command center wasn’t working.

I tried redoing the quote, redoing my weekly board to be more user friendly, reorganizing things to make my writing supplies easier to access, but it still wasn’t working.

 

That’s when I heard about Todoist, and the idea of a phone-based system that was actually designed to help people manage complicated work schedules as well as personal tasks was enticing.

I installed it on my phone, and I have never looked back.

Five ways Todoist helps me stay sane

 

Remembering stuff

You know that feeling where you know you need to do something but you can’t remember what it was? And how frustrating that is? Or you know you need something at the store, but you can’t remember what?

I don’t have that problem nearly as often now, thanks to the todoist inbox.

If I notice I’m low on soap, I can just grab my phone and add a task. If someone mentions something they would like to have, I can add a task, and when their birthday rolls around, I know what to get them. If I hear a cool song on the radio, I can write that down too so that I can listen to it again. Or if a friend recommends a good book, or I get a letter I need to answer, or if I just come up with a marvelous idea that I can’t act on right away, all I have to do is grab my phone and type a couple words.

 

Then, when I have a few minutes to sit down, I can take all my notes and put them in the right categories, and schedule them to pop up automatically when they need to be done. The program is designed that way, so it’s really easy.

 

Shopping

 

Having the inbox function is great for shopping, because when I run out of something in the bathroom, or think of something I need in the bedroom, I don’t have to either remember it or go to my specific shopping list place to write it down. I can just add a task to my shopping project right there on my phone.

And then I don’t have the issue of forgetting my shopping list, because it’s right there on my phone, and I rarely forget to bring my phone.

Another great feature for shopping is that I can share the shopping project with my husband, so he can add items to the lists as well, even when I’m already at the store, (and vice versa.) It helps smooth out communications that way.

 

Marriage meetings

 

Another way todoist helps me and my husband communicate is helping us organize our weekly marriage meeting. (If you’re married and not doing a weekly marriage meeting, you should really consider it. It’s amazing. Read this article to get started on the right foot.)

We were doing the meeting thing but it was a little hard sometimes because we couldn’t remember all the little things we needed to talk about. So it dragged out and got disorganized… And we would write down the decisions we made each week on a piece of paper, and then forget to look at it again.

Todoist changed all that. Now we have a shared meeting project where we can both dump the things we need to discuss, and when we get to the “what needs to happen around here” section, all we need to do is look at the list. It’s easy, effective, and satisfying.

And then when we decide what to do, it’s easy to schedule things and decide who will do them right there in the app.

 

Menu planning

 

I’ve also started using todoist to plan my menus. I love it because I can plan my menu anywhere or anytime I have a free moment. I can be in bed having trouble sleeping, sitting in a chair nursing a baby, or waiting at a doctor’s office, and I can just whip out by phone and plan a menu, creating appropriate shopping list entries at the same time, and scheduling cooking tasks, like get out frozen meat at the appropriate time.

I still have an occasional day where dinner time rolls around and I don’t know what to make, but it is so much less frequent now.

 

Keeping it together

 

I sometimes struggle with depression, get sick, or just get overwhelmed. And as frustrating as it is to be sick, depressed, or overwhelmed and need a break, the worst part is when it’s basically over, and you’re able to start getting back to work. Picking up all the pieces of your life, and trying to remember where you were after a good night’s sleep is hard enough, but after a week of being out of it, on vacation or sick–that’s practically impossible, and likely to send you back into the pits of overwhelmed despair.

With todoist, though, I don’t have to worry about it. The undone tasks pile up in my to-do list, yes, but I can just chip away at them one at a time, and they get automatically rescheduled when they are supposed to be. It only takes a few days to get back on track with household tasks.

And for more unusual projects, all the tasks are still there. I don’t have to recreate the whole idea in my head again every time I have to take a break.

 

To sum up

I have been using todoist every day since July, and it has been incredibly helpful, both for accomplishing everyday mundane tasks like cooking dinner, but also for helping me move ahead on exciting projects and accomplish big goals. Out reminds me to exercise, to write, and to keep in contact with friends more consistently. It helps me plan activities to do with my kids, dates with my husband, and gifts for my friends and family. It also helped me finish writing and publishing my book.

Perhaps most importantly, it makes it easier for me to forgive myself for not accomplishing every single thing every day. If you can’t get through everything on your list for the day, that’s okay. It keeps track of what you did accomplish, how close you came to the goal you set yourself for the day, and lets you reschedule tasks easily and simply for another day. I love waking up in the morning and looking at all the things I can decide to do today. And then in the evening, I can look and see how many things I accomplished, and what things I get to do later.

Todoist has been a lifesaver for me. I have been not just more productive, but also more relaxed since I started using it, and while I still have plenty of challenges, todoist helps me face them.

If you want to use it too, it’s available at Todoist.com, or in your phone’s app store

(For the record, I use the free version of todoist, which is available for free to anyone, and I have not been asked to write this review, nor am I receiving anything in return for it. I just happen to think it’s a wonderful way to use tech to help people be happier and more effective.)

Letter to my future self

Dear future self,

I’ve been seeing parents dealing with their teenage and middle school children lately, and sometimes it makes me cringe. Based on my own memories of being a teenager, and my experiences teaching teens for three years, it seems like a lot of people go about it all wrong.

Here’s a few things I want to be very careful to remember in ten years, because I can only assume that the parents I see have forgotten these things, and their children suffer for it.

 

Teenagers aren’t scary monsters

Teenagers are not horrible monsters that come and replace your sweet babies after a few short years and do their best to ruin your life. Based on the reactions I get when I tell people I like teaching middle school, and the self-pitying comments I hear from parents, I get the impression many people think this.

Adolescence is just the next stage in a child’s development, and while it will be difficult because of hormones, mood swings, and potential personality clashes, it can be a wonderful time if managed properly. Young adolescents have the energy and enthusiasm of a child, coupled with a budding adult intelligence, which makes them a lot of fun if managed properly.

 

Teenagers need respect

Just because you are someone’s parent doesn’t mean that you can disrespect them and their ideas and still expect them to respect you. Respect is a two way street, even in parenting.

Teens and preteens are if probably more sensitive about their personal dignity than you are. If you demean your child you are placing him in an impossible situation: either he must accept it and see himself as worthless, or, if he wishes to see himself as redeemable, he must see you as wrong.

 

Teenagers are neither adults nor children

They are not adults, of course, and they need to be guided towards good choices and guarded from bad ones. Internet filters and rules about technology are necessary. Just as you wouldn’t give a fourteen year old a car, a credit card, and a full liquor cabinet with no guidance, a full-function smart phone is too much for a teen to handle without guidance.

However, this does not mean they can or should be treated like two year old olds.  They must be given opportunities to learn responsibility. And this means no more and no less than giving them responsibility. They need to be treated as competent if they are ever to become so. And they have to be given the opportunity to make mistakes. The great thing about giving a teenager limited responsibilities is that they can learn about making mistakes while the consequences are manageable.

A twelve year old should be able to do all of these things:

  • Keep track of their own school work. (It’s not your job as a parent to pack your fifth grader’s backpack–don’t let anyone tell you different. If they forget something at home, the consequences will be relatively small, and should be felt by the child.)
  • Decide what appropriate winter wear for the day is. (If you’re doing something unusual, guidance can still be helpful)
  • Plan and cook a simple meal for the family
  • Babysit younger siblings (maybe not for days at a time, but certainly for an evening out).
  • Do their own laundry. This doesn’t mean they have to do all their laundry, but you shouldn’t have to hunt down their dirty clothes, or did their clean ones.
  • Earn money working for people (they will need help connecting with people to work for)
  • Respectfully and intelligently discuss their own rules and discipline. (Teach your child how to respectfully ask for exceptions or modifications to the rules)
  • Set personal goals (with help)
  • Start budgeting and tracking their expenses
  • Go to the store, ride bikes, or take walks in a reasonably safe neighborhood without a hovering adult.
  • Order their own food at restaurants without your help. (Giving them a budget is reasonable)
  • Start using power tools under supervision
  • Mow the lawn
  • Take care of their own garden plot
  • Remember to bring their own things to routine events. Church books, school supplies, etc.
  • Understand that they are a contributing member of the household with responsibilities in making everything run smoothly.

 

Depression is not just a bad attitude

A lot of teenagers suffer from more or less severe depression. If your kid has consistently bad moods, low energy, poor sleep, or general lack of motivation, it’s likely not just a bad attitude. You won’t solve it by yelling at them. It’s probably not their fault.

 

If your kid has these problems, look for simple solutions first.

  • Trauma: if the behavior came on suddenly, figure out if there was a trauma of some kind. Gently try to get your kid to tell you what happened and work through their feelings in a positive way. Having a good, respectful relationship with your kid is invaluable for this. (Depression-causing trauma doesn’t have to be something serious like sexual assault. Even something as trivial as being called a “baby” by an authority figure can cause long term issues if not sorted out. Trust me.)
  • Exercise: Make sure your kids are getting enough strenuous activity. Outdoors is best. If a person is already depressed, they will almost definitely need company to help them exercise.
  • Nutrition: a good multivitamin can do wonders, especially for girls. And almost everyone who doesn’t live in the tropics can benefit from taking vitamin D3.
  • Social life: does your kid get out and spend time with good friends often enough? Healthy social interactions can keep you break the downward spiral of negative thoughts.
  • Responsibility: if you have nothing in your life that is your responsibility and of which you can take ownership, minor depression can quickly develop into feelings of worthlessness. It’s important for everyone to feel that they have a role to play and that they would be missed.

Depression is sometimes a physical condition that doesn’t respond to normal methods like those above. Antidepressants can help in extreme cases, but alternative medicine usually has fewer side effects and can sometimes yield very good results.

 

At the moment, dealing with a two-year-old, I look forward to the day when I can have an intelligent conversation with my own child. I look forward to being able to start having a friendship with my child, to trusting her, to learning things from her, to watching her mind grow and develop as she becomes a woman.

I know it can be hard to share a house–and especially a kitchen–with another woman, and this is probably part of why so many mothers struggle with their teenage daughters. And I know it’s hard to watch a child struggle and learn things the hard way, and that this is what growing up looks like. And I am sure I will have my share of arguments and disagreements with my children as they grow up.

But hopefully this letter will remind me that my children are people and that they want to be treated like people. And that adolescents can be very enjoyable.

The Trouble with Survival Mode

You’ve probably been there. You want to clean, but you have to rescue the crying baby from the over-exuberant toddler. Once you get the baby asleep, though, it’s time to make supper. You’re almost done making supper–fighting off the toddler who is  grabbing knives or emptying the dish soap and screaming–and you’re about to sit down to eat when the baby wakes up screaming again…After supper–which adds to your pile of unwashed dishes–you think about cleaning again, but the toddler finds a previously unexplored cabinet and empties its relatively dangerous contents into the floor next to the baby…. At which point you give up…. For a few minutes. Then you realize that giving up doesn’t actually do you any good.

You’re miserable because there’s so much stuff to do, and it just seems like no matter how hard you work you never get ahead. It’s like bailing out a boat that has a hole in it and you keep bailing and you stay just ahead of the leak so you don’t quite sink. But all you have to look forward to is more bailing because the hole never gets smaller and the water never stops coming in.

What happened?

When you first got into the boat you probably had a destination in mind. You noticed landmarks, or measured your progress by looking at charts, and mapping out a course. But you’ve been bailing for so long that your life has shrunken to an endless cycle of filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge, filling a bucket, dumping it over the edge. It’s gotten so bad that you don’t even notice that you’re drifting off course. Or that you have the tools to patch your leak, if you would just stop for five minutes.

If fact, you don’t even notice that you’ve forgotten why you got into the boat in the first place.

Now of course in real life it’s not dumping buckets of water out of your boat. It’s working to pay bills, fixing things that get broken, pulling the toddler off the crying baby (I assume that’s not just me), getting dinner on the table, packing school lunches, mediating disputes, checking emails, worrying about money, worrying about kids…. And it goes on. You feel like if you just keep your head down and keep working, maybe there will someday be a light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe when the kids are old enough for school. Wait…. Then there will be even more bills to pay… So, maybe when the kids move out? (You can survive another twenty years of this, right?)

That’s just the trouble though: keeping your head down. You have to look up sometimes.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey tells the story of busy workers clearing a jungle. They are working so hard, getting so much done, hacking up trees and vines as well as they can. Suddenly the leader tells them, “Wait, stop, you’re cutting down the wrong jungle!”

This is how we can end up if we let the tunnel vision of survival mode run our lives. The tunnel vision is good when you’re putting out a fire. It’s great not to be worrying about what you’ll be doing in ten years if you are busy saving the town from burning up. But life isn’t supposed to be a constant series of putting out fires. If it is, you’re doing it wrong.

The point that Stephen Covey was making with his jungle story, was, as he put it, you have to “begin with the end in mind.” You have to be able to break free of crisis-mode tunnel vision so that you can remember what your goal is, and think about what it will take to reach it. Maybe if you look up from bailing out your boat for just a moment you’ll realize that you can just swim to shore. Maybe you’ll realize that someone threw you a rope or that someone’s willing to throw you a rope if you just ask.

This sort of crisis mood can come into just about any aspect of life.

Financial

Financial survival mode looks like this: You try to at least pay the minimum payment on your credit cards, you’re probably renting, and you run out of money by the time the next paycheck comes. You aren’t quite sure what you spent the money on, but you’re too busy to find out and you definitely don’t have an emergency fund so even if you do succeed in paying your credit cards off, if you have to call the plumber, you’re right back where you started: paying interest on credit card loans.

The first step is to choose to believe that you don’t have to live that way. The second step is to sit down with your spouse if you’re married or if you’re single by yourself with a friend who knows about money or a financial advisor if you can get one, and figure out what your goal is. Your goals will depend on who you are. It could be anything from, “we will be debt free by next Christmas” or “we will be in position to open our own home in three years,” to “I want to start a business that provides all the income we need in five years.”

Then, once you’ve determined what your goal is, make a plan to reach it. Divide it up into actionable steps. Schedule them. And most importantly, plan how you will keep checking your progress. It could be as simply as putting a monthly reminder on your calendar to see if you are making the progress you want.

This book could get you started in the right direction: Why smart people do stupid things with money.

Marriage

Working with your goals in mind is particularly important in a relationship. It’s easy to end up going through the motions of married life, if you don’t remind yourself what you’re trying to accomplish. Presumably you got married so that you could help each other be happy together. Maybe you didn’t think it out quite like that beforehand, but that’s generally why people want to get married. And so if you start taking each other for granted, bickering over chores, or just feeling unappreciated or upset in general, it’s likely that the real problem is that you’ve lost sight of your goal.

The steps for this are the same:

First, recognize that you don’t have to live that way. Assuming that you and your spouse are sane, decent human adults, you should be able to work out a plan together to help each other be happy, and then execute that plan.

Secondly, block out some time to be alone and sit down together and discuss the things that are bothering you. Seriously, do it. If you need a babysitter get one. (If you can’t afford it, do it anyway, and add money goals to your discussion. It’s that important.) If the kids have to eat junk food and watch cartoons one night, or if you have to call in three favors from your sister in law, just do it. And then drink some wine, eat some chocolate, listen to some music, whatever it takes to be in a good mood, and talk it out with your spouse.

I highly recommend the marriage meeting format. It’s simple and really helps the conversation be productive. (My husband and I have been doing them every week for at least a year now, and we recommend it to all our friends.)

And finally, come up with a plan to reach your goal. Set up actionable steps, schedule them. One good step might be scheduling time for intentional communication, like a weekly marriage meeting. Or scheduling fun things to do together–dates don’t have to be expensive. Or getting the kitchen sink fixed… whatever you decide will help you make each other happy.

And then follow through on your plan.

Parenting:

Survival mode parenting, also known as reactive parenting, looks like lots of stress, yelling, and chaos. The kids are always doing something unacceptable, and you’re always tearing your hair out and yelling at them. You probably resort to screens frequently to keep them quiet, and if you don’t, you’re likely constantly sending one or more of them to their rooms. You can’t stand their behavior, but they don’t seem to change no matter what you do. You yell and punish and cry, but they never seem to get any better. If anything they get worse and worse.

Parenting will always be stressful. Children are difficult– that’s just the way it is, but there’s no reason why it has to be absolute misery all day every day. There is no virtue in being miserable. American parents seem to feel that they have to be stressed and overworked or else they’re just not doing their jobs. Which is completely baloney. Following a vocation, like marriage and parenting, should make us happier. If we’re constantly miserable, we’re likely doing something wrong.

So first of all, tell yourself that you don’t have to be miserable. Sleep deprivation might be inevitable at certain stages in your children’s development, but long-term misery should never be required.

Then, sit down (with your spouse if possible) and figure out two things: what kind of people you are trying to raise your children into, and what exactly is making you miserable.

As far as the first question goes, you might think that you already know the answer: well, obviously I want my kids to be good people. But that’s not specific enough. There’s a lot of ways of being good people. You have to choose a few traits that are extra important to you. My husband and I want to raise children who are confident, resourceful, and truth-seeking. Some people prioritize kindness or generosity above everything else and tailor their parenting techniques for those goals. There is no one right answer.

As far as the second question goes, you might be surprised when you figure out what the underlying problem really is. Maybe the whole issue is that you’re not getting enough sleep. If you could get enough sleep, everything else would fall into place. Or maybe the trouble is your children scream too much and it’s stressful for everyone. Or perhaps you just need a system for everyone to get some chores done every day so that the house is not always a mess. Maybe you’re really just lonely, and some company would solve your worst problems. Or you could just be working with an ineffective philosophy of parenting, and just changing a few of your assumptions will make everything easier.

Then form a plan to achieve your newly clarified goals. For example, you’ve determined that you want your children to be independent, so what changes are you going to make to your discipline system to encourage personal responsibility?

You figured out that you need some time to yourself every week so that you can feel like a human? How are you going to get it? Hire a babysitter? Trade off time with your spouse? Trade off time with other parents? Teach your kids to entertain themselves? Get your kids some new activities they can do independently? The answer will depend on you, your kids’ ages and personalities, and your other circumstances.

And finally, once you’ve made your plan, figure out how you’re going to ensure that it happens. Are you going to reassess your progress every week? Every month?

 

Getting out of survival mode is less about working hard and more about working smart. You have to figure out what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and what’s stopping you so that you can formulate a plan to fix it.

Resources

Here are a few books that should help: (Affiliate links: I earn a small commission if you buy through these links. There is no extra cost to you, and I heartily recommend all of these books)

 

This is a book recommended to me by a financial advisor. It’s a great basic roadmap to why you have money troubles, and how to get out of them.


This book is a good overview of the ways of thinking that will make you happier and more effective.

 

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is in a relationship or is planning on being in one. It explains a lot of the misunderstandings that arise between spouses and how to solve them and have a happy and satisfying relationship.

I’ve read a lot of Catholic books on marriage, and many of them tend to be discouraging. This one is not. It shows a balanced view of marriage–admitting the struggles, but pointing out the graces and joys. It also has a balanced idea of the roles of husband and wife–sticking to what the Church actually says, not personal opinions or outdated stereotypes. Every 21st century Catholic married couple should read this book.

 

This is one of the best books on parenting that I have ever read. It gives practical tips and makes good parenting seem possible and achievable.

 

Pamela Druckerman, an American who lives in France, points out some of the odd habits of American parents, and contrasts them with how French parents raise their children. She combines the best of both worlds, and tells entertaining stories. I hadn’t laughed so hard in months. It also helped me de-stress my parenting style a bit.

 

5 Tips for Better Dinner Conversations

You’ve just put the finishing touches on supper. It’s nutritious, delicious, and artistically presented in attractive dishes. Your spouse and all the kids are ready to share another wonderful family meal. You know how important family meals are, after all, and you want the best for your children. So, you sit down to dinner ready for wonderful conversation and family bonding time.

“So Johnny, how was school today?” You ask your son brightly.

“Ok.” Johnny says, shoveling another mouthful of mashed potatoes into his face.

Not a very interesting answer, but you try to take comfort in the fact that at least he obviously likes the meal you prepared.

“How did your classes go, Jenny?” You ask your teenage daughter.

“I have a paper due tomorrow. Can I go?”

You nod, sighing internally.

Finally, you turn to your husband. “How was work?”

“It was fine.” He says. “Can you pass the salt?”

“Mom,” your younger daughter interrupts, just as you’re about to pick up the salt. “Johnny just kicked me under the table. Can you make him stop?”

You sigh… family dinners are supposed to be great bonding time…after all, studies show that more family dinners means healthier, more successful, happier children and teens. But aside from good healthy home cooked food, what really makes or breaks the family dinner is the conversation that goes with it. If the conversation goes well, you will likely have a happy family experience overall. If the conversation is a disaster, you likely have other problems in your family.

Here are five tips that should make your family meal conversations more satisfying and enjoyable.

 

Ask open ended questions

Yes or no questions are good for some things, but dinner conversation is not one of them. If you want to get a conversation going, you have to ask a question that requires your conversation partner to bring some information to the table. If you ask, “How was school today?” “Fine” is a perfectly legitimate answer, but it gives you nothing to talk about.

Instead of asking how school went, or if it was ok, try asking questions like, “What was something interesting that happened at school/work/home today?” Then your conversation partner has to actually introduce some information into the conversation.

 

Ask followup questions

You sit down to dinner. “Johnny, what was something interesting that happened at school today?”

“We played a new game at recess.” Johnny says.

“That’s interesting.” You say…and the conversation dies.

Conversation is like a game of tennis. You serve the ball to get in into play–this is like the preliminary question. Your partner returns it, by adding something new. And you need to return it again, once again by adding something of your own, or by asking a follow up question.

If Johnny tells you he played a new game at recess, you should ask, “What game was it?”

Then, when he tells you what game it is, you now have a real topic of conversation. Your whole family could get involved. You could share stories of when you played that game, discuss the rules, and eventually end up going on glorious tangents about ball manufacture, game theory, and the Olympics… which brings me to the next tip.

 

Bring up interesting topics.

You are probably very busy, but try to spend at least a few minutes each week learning  or doing something interesting just so that you can share it with your family and broaden your and their horizons a little. I think most of what I learned as a child, and much of my joy in learning, came from conversations around the dining room table. My parents read, my brother read, I read; and we discussed all of it over our meals. We almost always had something new and interesting to talk about.

It doesn’t really matter what the topic is–as long as you are interested in it, you can probably get your family interested too… with a few exceptions.

 

Avoid depressing topics.

Many families have some topics that are banned for discussion during meals. Common forbidden topics include snakes, worms, and anything gross or gory. Besides your own family’s forbidden topics, I would suggest avoiding any topic that is likely to result in a sense of hopelessness or fear. This would include conspiracy theories, the end of the world, the three days of darkness, and probably about half of what was in the latest newspaper…

Conspiracy theories are sort of fun–you get a perverse sort of thrill from discussing how “they” –depending on your political affiliation and interests, “they” might stand for the Illuminati, Big Business, The Government, the Communists, the Jews, the Freemasons, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Left, the Right, the Far Left, or the Far Right–are controlling everything, and have been controlling everything for the last few decades/centuries. Discussing conspiracy theories gives you the feeling that you are special, you are not deceived like the rest of men, you have the secret knowledge that will make you powerful–except that in practice it does nothing but make you fearful and hopeless.

If “they,” whoever they might be, really have as much power as your theory says they do, then there isn’t really much point in trying to make the world a better place–and that is the message your children will imbibe with their spaghetti and meatballs.

It is good to discuss politics and history and sociology with your family. But these conversations will form your child’s world view possibly more than anything else, and so be sure that the world you show them is the one you want them to see.

Any since it is important to discuss different topics, it’s inevitable that disagreements will arise, which brings me to my last point.

 

Practice good manners

Talking to people is one of the most important skills you can teach your children. And being polite is a vital part of that skill. So a few ground rules are in order. Here’s a sample list of rules that will help your conversations stay respectful and enjoyable.

 

  1. Listen to the other person’s full thought before answering.
  2. Swallow before talking.
  3. Make sure other people get a turn to talk.
  4. Stay on topic, unless everyone is okay with changing the subject.
  5. If you disagree, respectfully explain your reasons for disagreeing, rather than insulting the other person.
  6. Keep voices at an appropriate indoor volume.

 

Hopefully these five tips will give you what you need to make meal time with your family a relaxing and stimulating experience.

Self-Development for Stay at Home Moms

We’ve all heard the phrase, “occupational hazards.” You might think of cooks burning themselves, linemen suffering accidents, office workers getting back problems, or something like that. You might even think of a sort of humorous occupational hazard, like English teachers finding themselves correcting their friends’ grammar. Anyway, every occupation comes with its own set of hazards, even being a stay-at-home mom. In fact, the occupational hazards of being a stay-at-home mom are surprisingly dangerous and subtle.

A woman who works a “normal” job in the world, whether it’s being a lawyer making six figures, or working at a grocery store for minimum wage, has certain benefits associated with this job. She has contacts with the outside world. She has a schedule of sorts that makes her go from one place to another. She is recognized for her work, and she’s at least paying into social security, if not into another retirement account.

But then the woman has a child, and finds that she needs to spend time with her children for their well-being. And sometimes when the wife works a job it actually costs a family money, because of peculiarly designed tax codes and the cost of daycare. Besides, there is no substitute for a strong family environment with a caring parent. Children almost always do better both cognitively and emotionally in a stimulating home than in an institution.

The Dangers of Staying at Home

But when a woman quits her outside job to spend time caring for her children, she often loses her contacts, her schedule, her recognition and her societal respect. This is a dangerous situation for a woman to be in, for anyone to be in. Adults need the company of other adults. They need structure in their lives, and they need to have a sense of self worth, which in many cases, is a by-product of being respected by others.

Bitterness

In her book, The Price of Motherhood, Anne Crittenden tells the story of one lady who quit her job as the copy editor of the Washington Post so that she could care for her children as she believed they needed to be cared for. She said,

“It’s a shock…raising children is still part of a relatively low status world. Everything was gone once I started to stay home. In my new job as a mother I had no salary and no professional contacts. There were no more movies, no more dinners out, no work clothes….it was as if everything was being taken away from me.

“I hope this doesn’t sound self-pitying, because self-pity is not what I felt. Anger is what I felt. You can sit behind a desk in an office and proofread and be paid $50,000 a year…you can enjoy freedom and respect. Or you can stay at home and do work a thousand times as important and not only not get paid, but almost have your privileges as an adult stripped from you.”

This is one option: anger at your fate and at society for making the life of stay-at-home moms so unrespected. I think there’s a lot of that nowadays. And some of it, perhaps most of it, is justified. It’s true that society doesn’t seem to care about the sanity and self-worth of those who train tomorrow’s citizens in mind.

But anger and bitterness can eat you from the inside out and leave nothing left. You may have started out with the noble ideal of raising your child, and chosen to leave behind a promising career or a fulfilling job. And this is noble. But you can become embittered by the consequences of that choice, and bitterness has a way of turning into resentment. And if you resent your children, one wonders if they will really be better off for having their mother around.

So don’t get bitter… easier said than done. How will you avoid bitterness and resentment? How can you avoid pining after the freedom and respect you had previously? How will you maintain your sense of self-respect?

Needing To Be Needed

But, maybe you don’t have this problem. Maybe you have always dreamed of being a stay-at-home mom, and you are so happy to be one now. That’s great, but even this can be dangerous, too. Some women get their sense of self-respect by devoting themselves to their families in a fanatical, controlling way. They compensate for their lack of worldly status by basking in the fact that their families “need” them. This can be as poisonous an attitude as anger and resentment.

C. S. Lewis describes where this attitude can lead in his book The Four Loves. (The sections on affection and friendship are amazing!) He invents a character, Mrs. Fidget, to personify this outlook.

Mrs. Fidget… died a few months ago. It is really astonishing how her family have brightened up. The drawn look has gone from her husband’s face; he begins to be able to laugh. The younger boy whom I had always thought an embittered, peevish little creature, turns out to be quite human. The older, which was hardly ever at home except when he was in bed, is nearly always there now and has begun to reorganise the garden. The girl, who was always supposed to be “delicate” (though I never found out what exactly the trouble was), now has the riding lessons which were once out of the question, dances all night, and plays any amount of tennis.

Mrs. Fidget very often said that she lived for her family. And it was not untrue. Everyone in the neighbourhood knew it. “She lives for her family,” they said; “what a wife and mother!” She did all the washing; true, she did it badly, and they could have afforded to send it out to laundry, and they frequently begged her not to do it. But she did. There was always a hot lunch for anyone who was at home and always a hot meal at night (even in mid-summer). They implored her not to provide this. They protested almost with tears in their eyes (and with truth) that they liked cold meals. It made no difference. She was living for her family. She always sat up to “welcome” you if you were out late at night; two or three in the morning, it made no odds; you would always find the frail, pale, weary face awaiting you, like a silent accusation. Which means of course that you couldn’t with any decency go out very often….

Mrs. Fidget, as she so often said, would “work her fingers to the bone” for her family. They couldn’t stop her. Nor could they—being decent people—quite sit still and watch her do it. They had to help. Indeed they were always having to help. That is, they did things for her to help her to do things for them which they didn’t want done….

The Vicar says Mrs. Fidget is now at rest. Let us hope she is. What’s quite certain is that her family are.

Now Lewis is evidently exaggerating for the sake of humor as much as to make a point, but there is a real danger here. If a woman finds all of her self identity in being needed by her family, she will either end up controlling and limiting her children and ruining their lives, or she will be empty and embittered when they leave home.

If she becomes a controlling parent both her spouse and her children will suffer. But the children will get the worst of it, because they are not developed yet. Children are not supposed to need their mothers forever. Children are supposed to grow up and become independent. But it is perfectly possible to change that: to make a person permanently dependent on another emotionally and even physically.

If her children are lucky enough to escape and strong enough to go start independent lives of their own, then in her middle age, when they are grown up and gone, her life will be empty of all meaning. If she has made her self-worth completely dependent on being needed by others, when they don’t need her anymore, she will have no selfworth.

Self-Worth and Self-Development

So how can a mother stay at home with her children, and raise them well, and still be happy and fulfilled? Is it possible? Or is there too much societal pressure against it? Is the only solution to work an outside job and put your kids in a daycare center all day?

I think there is a solution. In fact, I think there are many solutions—about as many as there are dedicated stay-at-home moms. But they all boil down to one thing. Self-development.

Usually when someone finds a career fulfilling, it is because that career has possibilities. It gives you opportunities to advance, to challenge yourself. You can feel that you are getting somewhere, that you are better in some way than you were the year before, that you have done something worthwhile.

Now motherhood is definitely challenging, but does it offer opportunities to advance?

I think it does, but only when viewed in the right way. I think that motherhood is not only easier but more fun if it is approached as a learning experience. You are learning how to be a better parent. Studying new ideas for raising your children and teaching them new skills. Seeing how much independence they can handle, how strong you have made them. Constantly learning new things and new methods. This is one way to make motherhood fulfilling.

But some women, despite taking pride in their parenting, and trying to do a great job, still need some recognition of their abilities and feel insufficiently challenged. This is not a good situation, as it can lead to frustration and boredom, and there’s nothing so boring as a bored person. I think that it is very important for a woman like this to find something she can challenge herself with.

There are hundreds of different options out there. Some ladies learn languages, write books and blogs, or perfect their cooking with ever more intriguing recipes. Others run photography businesses, design clothes, do direct sales, make and sell amazing crafts, or paint pictures. And these are just a few of the many options out there. I’m sure there are plenty of ladies who write computer programs during their toddler’s naps. Even reading good books is a productive activity.

Christian women can (and should) spend time in prayer and spiritual reading, in developing a relationship with God that will outlast any life-changes. In A Mother’s Rule of Life, Holly Pierlot describes how this activity helps her become happier in her home life, and how much it helps both her family and herself to be happier and more contented.

I think these sorts of activities are extremely good, both for the women who are doing these things, and for their families. If a woman has a productive, fulfilling hobby, she has an extra source of happiness and interest in her life, and this will enrich her family’s experience.

Time spent on productive businesses and hobbies is not wasted, and it is not time taken from the family. Not only does it give her children a broader range of activities to observe, it makes the mother more interesting, more perfect, more truly human. She will be a better person and a better mother because of it. And her family will be better for it as well.

Some books that every mother can enjoy. (These are affiliate links. Purchases made through these links benefit Enjoyingwomanhood.com at no extra cost to you. I have read all of these books and found them excellent)

Holly Pierlot shares her personal journey from desperation and misery in her family life to peace and order. While this book is written for Catholics, her ideas and insights could benefit any mother of children.

In this famous book on parenting, John Rosemond draws from his own experience, his knowledge of child psychology, and common sense to develop a sensible, healthy system of raising children that is liberating for both parents and children.


Conor Gallagher takes the wisdom of ancient Greece and applies it to the 21st century child. People haven’t changed much over the last 3000 years or so, he contends, so why not listen to what Aristotle had to say about kids?