I’ve always admired families who stay close after their children are grown. A boy who wants to bring his girlfriend home, girls who go shopping with their mom even after mom’s style is. . . mom-ish. Happy camaraderie and a freedom to be unique while coming back to the fold to be loved unconditionally are metaphoric blocks we are trying to build into our family structure.
Happy, healthy, close (but not clingy) grown families are so rare anymore. When I see one, I want to stop and pull up a chair and watch, like a happy movie, pressing pause at my favorite scenes and hyper-analyzing each minute detail.
I watch my neighbors in awe, Sundays set aside for their grown children to drop by. I watch the massive quantities of groceries rushed in the door in preparation, Lay’s potato chips peeking out of the grocery sacks, the smell of the grill starting, as one by one the vehicles arrive, as their kids bring their kids home. I feel like a stalker but it’s hard to tear myself away from the sweetness of a family who loves well.
But looking at the epically cool families while your little ones aren’t even sleeping through the night can be depressing: happy philosophy discussions over bowls of ice cream seem light years away.
I don’t know this for sure, but here’s what I think: take heart because happy starts now.
I don’t have a three-step plan, but we care deeply about creating a safe family. Our kids aren’t babies anymore; JD is 11, Cambria is 9 and our youngest, Eli, is 4. We are still in the thick of it. We don’t know how it will all turn out. But here are eleven things we are doing to build relationships with our kids and create a home they’ll want to visit someday.
1. Listening >Lecturing
If I want my sixteen-year-old to talk to me about life, then I must listen to my fifth grader. It is hard sometimes. I find it hard to focus. Several weeks ago JD came home from a party and sat at the counter and proceeded to download every single detail. I honestly didn’t want to hear every little bit but a warning deep in my soul stopped me from sending him to the shower. Instead, I put away dishes and listened to his happy chatter. I looked across the counter at his face, still round with boyhood, and knew in my spirit that listening mattered. Daniel told me the other day that he took JD disc golfing; he relayed, a bit shocked, that JD had kept up a running conversation with him for the entire 18 holes.
Does the talking stop for teens because parents stop listening? I don’t know yet. I only know at this stage I’m very, very tempted to stop listening: the stakes aren’t super high, the stories aren’t super interesting, I hear a lot about different kinds of pizza, jokes, and play by play description of each sporting event. But every time I start to tune out, I think of what I want in the future and tune back in.
2. Structure & Spontaneity
Children love surprises. Adults love surprises too, though we’ve conditioned ourselves well to the daily grind of life. But surprises aren’t much fun if they happen constantly. One aspect of my job as a mom right now is creating structure so that we can be spontaneous. This means bedtimes and baths and schoolwork, the rhythm of a weekend, chores and hard work. And then it means throwing it all to the wind and packing everyone up to skip school and ride the subway into Chicago to a rooftop pool Hotwire deal and see fireworks over Navy Pier and eat breakfast on Lake Michigan.
Structure + spontaneity is eating oatmeal for breakfast all week so we can eat donuts every Monday morning. It means going to bed early so they can stay up late when we have company. It means working hard so they appreciate throwing the job list in the trash and going on a hike (with snacks). Schedule makes the surprise so much sweeter; but too much schedule is just sad. Why wait for your kids to be adults to travel with them? Or eat out? No one will think going to the carwash in pajamas is cool when they’re twenty, but they’ll remember it happened and smile all over again. (I know. I was the five-year-old in pajamas watching the carwash magic. I never forgot.) Do the fun stuff. Do it now.
While shopping is hardly a cross for a woman to bear, it takes time and energy and I realized with a flash one day that my daughter Cambria had been begging me to go shopping with her and I was just too busy. I love thrifting and she was looking for the glow of the mall forty minutes away. We made up a plan to shop on free Saturdays when Daniel could have Eli with him and set a date. I was stunned and humbled by how much my daughter loved doing this with me. I wanted to cry multiple times as I realized how much I’d already missed out on and what I could have missed if I didn’t listen to her. We shopped and shopped and shopped. My feet ached. She bought accessories like a diva on vacation but stuck to her budget religiously (her daddy was proud) while I succumbed to Target (her daddy was not as proud of me).
Much like listening, if I want her to know I love her and care about her need to be beautiful when she’s sixteen, I need to be involved in all those feelings now. Right now it’s the perfect color of laces for soccer cleats. I’m told a girl’s beauty needs get more complicated. I’m in it for the long haul even if it has to involve the mall.
Our family loves music. It’s easy to make music styles a hot button conflict as kids get older. But we are trying hard to avoid that by creating “us” music, not “me” music. In other words, we listen to all sorts of music at the kitchen counter, looking up lyrics and critiquing music styles together. This requires patience for Daniel and me (I’ve given up a lot of music that I really love because it’s not best for everyone) but it also requires patience from our kids (they often have to be flexible too).
When we listen and even play and create music together we can appreciate the art and not lapse into a me-oriented world of zoning out with headphones. One of our favorite things to do is create playlists for events and people. We have a massive library of online playlists, carefully curated and edited to fit moods and events: we have a Saturday Morning Pancakes playlist and a Beanbags playlist, not to mention Happy Birthday, Dad, School Background, JD’s Christmas Party, Mowing, Rainy/Soul, and Kick My Wednesday in Gear. My hope for the next few years is for music to draw us closer, not farther apart and give a window into the individuality of each child’s soul.
5. Open Door to Friends
When does the proverbial door open to friends? I’m not sure and I don’t want to miss the window, so our door has been open from the start of our kids being able to have relationships. It only gets more enjoyable and fun as their friends get older (and funnier and more interesting).
It is never easy to allow your home to be open. It’s not easy to teach a child how to be and have a good friend; having friends and being friendly is something taught most often by example. It’s exhausting to have toddlers over that bite each other and spill juice all over. It’s not easy to deal with hurt feelings when little girls leave each other out and it’s embarrassing if it’s your kid who is the offender. It feels weary to explain why your son can’t shoot his airsoft gun at friends without eye protection.
Sometimes it seems easier to close the door to friends, but I’m not sure anything other than temporary comfort is accomplished by that choice. Interacting with my children and their friends gives me opportunity again and again to train them, to demonstrate and teach wisdom and grace as well as speaking life and love into the extra kids in our home. I don’t want to wake up one day and realize that I don’t even know my children’s friends. So that means waking up now, and interacting now and swinging the door open. . . wide.
6. Patience with Trends and Styles
Children are going to become adults. It’s important as parents to guide their steps and set parameters, but there should still be a lot of room for individuality. Think carefully before you choose to die on the hill of which shoes your child wants to wear to the family reunion. This is really hard for me because I feel like our kids reflect us. We don’t want them to be rebellious but I’d rather use my influence on issues that are black and white rather than making my daughter a mini me. Our kids are just hitting the age of caring about all of this. Homeschooling doesn’t shield a child’s desperate need to fit in and feel cool! I don’t place high priority on the cool factor–in fact a very low one (“I shop at Goodwill. You can too!”)–but we don’t want to exasperate them either.
I may live to regret this, but we have found that saying something like this works: “Hey, this isn’t our favorite thing, and please don’t wear it to special events but why don’t you wear it when you are going [fill in appropriate place for trendy item].” Time and time again I see the thrill of said trendy item wear off and the child acquiesce to our family’s more classic (read: boring) style of clothing and appearance. But in the meantime we have averted multiple world wars and wounded spirits and misunderstandings.
7. Pizza Night
On Friday nights at 7 pm at our house, you will see people draw their activities to a close and show up for pizza and family movie night. We are on our second year of regularly doing this together and I have been surprised at how much everyone enjoys it. Sometimes Daniel even takes time off of work for it.
We eat in the living room and shut all the windows. JD usually picks the movie; he screens and searches relentlessly to find excellent entertainment each week. We have not forced this time slot to be free but as Daniel and I have chosen not to work or engage in other obligations, we have noticed that the kids do too. It’s crazy the things they’ll opt out of on their own: “Oh, sorry, I’d love to go but we have movie night. Maybe Saturday.” (I secretly grin to myself.)
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Journaling is actually a new way I’m communicating with the kids but it’s been so successful that I’m sharing it here. I grabbed two blank journals (here’s a great one to start with, but there are many parent-child journal options available), Googled a list of questions to ask kids, and wrote one at the top of each journal. I explained that each child’s response was 100% optional and I promised no hurt feelings if they never wrote back.
I did not expect their intense fascination with journal sharing. They pour their hearts out on paper and then leave it on my pillow in a little bound book. I have laughed and laughed and almost cried reading what they think about life, and love too. You should try it. But believe me when I say the hardest thing about journaling with your kids is refusing to screenshot their responses to your friends.
9. Debriefing after Events
This is huge for our family. We have a lot of event traffic and travel and guests and it’s very easy for us to lose track of family life. When I was a kid I capitalized on those busy times to do exactly as I pleased and I was pretty sure Mom and Dad would never notice.
Debriefing gives us a chance to see how each child is doing, if there is anything to address from the event that just happened (it’s not polite to throw and gleefully launch frogs in front of little children, even if it is fun) or soothe hurts (we are sorry you got left out of the game) or even just simply saying: “Hey. You guys were awesome hosts. Good job.”
10. Sending Children to Grandparents
Everyone needs a break from each other. Training children is not a lasting assignment, but marriage is, and it’s important to cultivate your marriage. I admit feeling guilty every single time I send the kids to their grandparents (even though its only twice a year) but to fall in love again is a better gift to our children than marriage burnout while we cling to parenting 24/7/365.
11. Going Outdoors
Something about being outside seems to make humanity realize that the universe does not revolve around themselves. Being exposed to the elements is sometimes gentle and sometimes harsh but it’s all directly from the hand of God, unlike being inside our carefully controlled environments. The normal everyday frustrations of family life seem to pale a little when you leave the bills on the desk and the crumbs on the floor to go hiking in a cave or fishing in a pond.
Laying in the back yard on fresh cut grass eating cookies, catching lightning bugs, building a fire, watching stars come out, listening for birds. . . appreciating the world God created, together, brings an awareness that God is in control and we are not. And that’s a good thing for a family to know.
Our kids are still so young. Everyone is home at night, safely tucked in before nine o’clock. Their issues are all quite manageable. I know the years ahead will bring challenges and I’m not blind: I know there will be hard days and hard years. But I’m excited, too, because I like these people my kids are becoming and it’s so exciting to watch them grow.
I don’t want to create a close family so that I cling tightly, unable to say goodbye: that was never God’s intention or design for the family. He created families as safe places (communities!) to demonstrate the Gospel and grow children into people who will turn around and do the same. I am looking forward to launching our kids into the great wide world and I can’t wait for them to come home and tell us all about it.
Photography: JenniMarie Photography
(Final Photo: Hayley Novak)