Butts, Farts & Raising Boys

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The first thing people always say about my children is how beautiful they are – and its true! They’re adorable. My ex-husband is white, specifically Dutch and some stuff, and I’m black, specifically pan-African with a hint of western Europe and dash of South Asia, so our kids have an incredible presentation of genes. They each have different colors and textures of hair, and they each have a different eye-color, one green, one brown, one blue. And yes, all the same father, please don’t even go there with your judging mom-shaming purity-policing conditioning culture.

The first is PARENT. The verb. As in parenting.

After people tell me how handsome my kids are, they talk about how well-behaved, kind and cooperative they are. People always ask me what’s the secret! So here’s a quick list of some of the things I consistently do as a parent:

+PARENT

The first is PARENT. The verb. As in parenting. As in I am RAISING children to be secure, independent, members of society – I am responsible for sending thoughtful, compassionate, MEN into the world to thrive and find a place where their talents serve their community. I am shaping their behavior. I’m nurturing a tiny seed to have strong healthy roots, giving it what it needs to continue to flourish and provide for itself outside of my greenhouse.

I am RAISING children to be secure, independent, members of society – I am responsible for sending thoughtful, compassionate, MEN into the world to thrive and find a place where their talents serve their community. I am shaping their behavior.

+SHAPING BEHAVIOR

So what does shaping behavior look like? First of all, I have to talk about my pet peeves: tangled hangers. Answering questions with questions. Unnecessary defensiveness. Parents of ill-mannered children that blame it on kids being kids.

Here’s my disclaimer: DISCLAIMER: I’m focusing on your average well-child. I am not including children whose brains fit somewhere on the autism spectrum or any child diagnosed with another major developmental, neurological or psychological abnormality or delay. I’m talking about your generally mentally healthy child.

Ok, so parents of ill-mannered children that blame it on kids being kids is a pet peeve of mine. That’s why they have us – it’s our job to show and tell them how to behave and in what setting. Now it doesn’t mean that kids should be seen and not heard – it means we have to guide them, lovingly and attentively how to control their voices, their bodies and their emotions, and if that is beyond their control in that moment, that’s when you take them aside and give them space to scream, run, or have a total meltdown. It’s about CONTEXT – giving them space and security to be themselves, according to the context. We are parents – it’s our job to shape their behavior.

We’re in this together and we can have fun, but we need to all do our part if we’re going to make it through this adventure together.

If you don’t know this about me, I’m a big huge fan of using “I statements” and talking about my life – from my perspective. I try not to generalize or teach or dictate; I like to share – this is me and my story, this is what works for me. Leading up to this show, someone asked me, “Oh, are you talking about raising men from a man’s perspective or a woman’s?” And I said, “Um, neither. This is my experience and sharing what works for me.” I will never say women be like or men be like – I’m going to say, “Octavia be like…” and if it finds value in your heart, so be it. If it doesn’t, carry on.

So, in the realm of BEHAVIOR SHAPING, here’s what I do:

  • Face-level instructions
    • I get in their faces, at eye level either on my knees or all of us on chairs or a couch…and I explain what’s going on.
    • Our home culture is like we’re a team and I’m the captain – we’re in this together and we can have fun, but we need to all do our part if we’re going to make it through this adventure together.
    • I have only asked my kids to act like adults ONCE that I can remember, and I prepped them for it ahead of time. I told them I know they’ll think this [event] is boring, they’ll want to run around and scream and play, but just for 30 minutes, I need them to act like grown-ups, just in this setting, for this amount of time.
    • It empowers them, sets up expectations and lets them know how long they need to put on a grown-up hat. I also think this empowers them to feel important in their own way, like they’re tasked with a really important, temporary, job.
    • I avoid words like “obey” and “obedient” and instead I use words like “cooperate” and “participate.”
    • I invite them to join me in doing this thing…

I avoid words like “obey” and “obedient” and instead I use words like “cooperate” and “participate.”

  • Repetition there are two kinds of repetition here
    • The first connects to what I just mentioned – face-level instructions: I have the kids repeat what I said back to me, so I know they received the message I just sent in the way I meant for it to be received. We’re going to go to the store, you’re not going to ask me for Pokemon cards. What are you not going to do today? Ask for Pokemon cards.
    • The second is I will never say anything only once. The sooner I realized that, the more rapidly my anxiety dropped. I will never say anything just once – TO THE SAME CHILD. Ryan, do you have your lunch? Yes. Ryan, do you have your lunch? Yes. Ryan, do you have your lunch? No. Ok, go get it. Ryan, go get your lunch.
  • No is not a bad word. My children need to hear the word no, and understand that no has value. There doesn’t need to be a why or rationalization or negotiation. I said no.
  • Give emphatic Yeses. I am hyper-conscious to give more yeses than I give nos. they’re both important and powerful words.

+Affirming Personalities & Unconditional Acceptance

Reminding my children that they have unique thoughts, opinions and decision-making skills and then affirming their judgement is a major factor in nurturing their autonomy and confidence. I use a ton of phrases like:

  • Figure it out! – and then applaud them for what they figure out
  • What do you think? – and then affirm their thoughts and let them lead if it really is a sound choice (Hey that’s a great idea! Let’s do that)
  • Try it and see what happens – I love this one because it empowers them to take a risk and make adjustments if it failed, slowly desensitizing the fear of failure
  • What do you like? – and then affirm their choices…
    • PSA: THIS INCLUDES DEFYING GENDER ROLES – if my children want to paint their nails, play in wigs, makeup and skirts, or dresses (and sometimes they do), they can, with my emphatic support.

I put myself in timeout more than the kids.

+Planting Compassion

This one is kind of hard to do – because my boys don’t see a lot of masculine tenderness. There’s no male role model in my home and I have no idea what their dad does at his home – I only know how he was when we were married. So this is a tough one for me to teach, but here’s how I do it. If one of the boys is hurt, I model that compassion – even though I’m not a man, I hope some of the routine will stay with them.

  • I first assess them like the first responder that is deep within me: Are you hurt? Tell me what happened.
  • Then I acknowledge their pain. Wow that must have really made you feel bad – or that must have really hurt – or stung.
  • Then I hold them. Do you want a hug? Ok.
  • If the conflict is between each other, I’ll guide them through the process as peers: Look at your brother. How would you feel if the same thing happened to you? What would make you feel better? Why don’t you ask him how you can help him feel better? Ok, now do that thing, just like he asked.

+Growing Communication Skills

Ok, this touches on some of my pet peeves again: when people avoid, deflect or circumnavigate a direct question, answer a question with a question, or don’t ask the proper question needed to get the answers they need. Since these behaviors in adults bother the heck out of me, the only way I can fight this major evil is by training my children to not be those adults when they grow up. Hey control what you can, right? This is hopefully just one part of a legacy of communication development that will be passed down for generations!

  • Answering questions directly. Answer the question that was asked, not what you think the other person might actually be asking. This, I am guessing, is a learned behavior when you’re afraid of being in trouble, and/or constantly adapting to anticipate a passive aggressive person’s intent. In this case, I give them the opportunity to answer the question I asked. Here are some ways my children have recently responded to my questions:
    • Where’s your phone?
      • I wasn’t on it! // That’s not what I asked. // It’s on my bed.
    • Did you finish all your schoolwork?
      • My battery died. // That’s not what I asked. // No, but I will when my battery charges.
  • Asking questions. When I teach my kids to ask questions, I teach them to first think about what they want to know, learn or gain from the question. Ask for what you want. Here are some examples:
    • Are we going to target? // No. // Oh, I wanted a toy. // Then ask: Mom, I want to get a new toy; can we go to Target? // No. The answer is still No, but your end goal is the toy; not Target.

+Conflict Resolution

I don’t love being Referee Mom all the time, but when there is an actual disagreement (not just irritability and whining), I really get excited about this teaching moment. I have pulled a lot of these tips from watching Dr. Phil mediate circular arguments between toxic spouses and from watching Nanny 911/Super Nanny mitigating the most chaotic of households. I also get the role playing from my mom. Some of my best comebacks and bold statements I ever said as a kid were from my mom practicing an actual script with me at home.

  • Stay in the present.
    • Steve is always starting the game before I can log in! // What precisely just happened? I don’t want to hear about always or yesterday or last week – why are you upset now?
  • Use I statements.
    • Reminding the boys to tell me their own story helps turn down the blame and identify what part of the problem they can control themselves, ultimately helping them self-soothe.
  • Role play.
    • GIMME THAT CORD. // No, try again – Hey Ryan, my phone is dying, can I have the cord back I let you use? And then wait for his response.
    • I’ll ask them to repeat the whole scene until they’re giggling and learning new language in healthy communication.

+Naming emotions

Emotions are meant to be felt. All emotions are good emotions. All emotions are for all people. I am always repeating this for the kids. I want them to crow into men that can feel, name those feelings without shame, express those feelings clearly without fear, and be present with other people’s emotions as well.

I’m highly intuitive and frequently feel a shift in my boys’ emotions before they even know how to use words to describe their feelings. I’m proactive in this way, but I still ask them to try and name what they’re feeling. I never try to cheer them up when they’re sad. I let them be sad. I make room for their feelings and invite them to take breaks until they feel differently.

Because children are young and learning, sometimes they don’t know what their feelings are called. They simply feel, without words. In this case, we have used a tool called SASHET (google it for some helpful graphics). SASHET stands for:

  • Scared
  • Angry
  • Sad
  • Happy
  • Excited
  • Tender

We’ll talk about what these words mean, and they can pick which one is closest to what they’re feeling. Then we take it from there, which usually includes either long cuddles or loud silliness.

I give them space to be funny, because, come on, farts are funny! But after the giggle, move on. If they can’t, that’s when I send them to the bathroom to spend quality time with their own butts and farts in privacy.

+POTTY TALK!

Here it is finally – I said we’d be talking about butts and farts.

They talk about butts and farts all day every day, any chance they get to say it, they say it. Penis. Weenis. Booty hole. Poops. Turds. All the things. All the smelly things.

I love bathroom humor as much as the next guy, but it is my job to tell them when the joke is old.

I give them space to be funny, because, come on, farts are funny! But after the giggle, move on. If they can’t, that’s when I send them to the bathroom to spend quality time with their own butts and farts in privacy.

+OWNING AND COMMUNICATING MY EMOTIONS as a parent

I put myself in timeout more than the kids – they know this!

Kids are kids and they’re gonna do kid stuff. And they’ll get loud. And messy. They’ll argue. They’ll break all your good shit. They’ll destroy things. They’ll lose things. They’ll exhaust the fuck out of you. And instead of losing my mind with them, I tell them:

Guys, I am tired. I’m getting frustrated because you’re not cooperating. I’m having a really difficult time. I’m going to go lay down and I don’t want to be interrupted. When I come back, let’s try this again, OK? OK.

And they know to leave me alone. They also know it’s not them – it’s not their fault – I’m not mad at them, I’m overwhelmed and tired. And I let them see I’m overwhelmed and tired. When I’m sad, I tell them I’m sad. If I need space I tell them I need space. When I want a hug, I ask for it. And they do the same.

So in conclusion

  • I give my kids room to be themselves
  • I don’t police them – I let them make thought-based decisions
  • I invite them to cooperate
  • I affirm their reasoning and make sure they feel safe and secure

And so far… they’re the darlingest of darlings, and even better-behaved when I’m not around.

-OR

Forgiving Fathers Day

Father’s Day isn’t easy for me.

There are many reasons starting with a father-absent childhood and the depressing jealousy watching daddies and daughters live out a fantasy I’d never have – all the way to the recurring life-theme of pushing away deep relationships to save myself the embarrassment, shame, and agony of potential abandonment.

And now that I’m divorced, we can add another reason for me to want to get the day over with. I don’t want to think about not celebrating this day with the father of my children because we just don’t have that kind of relationship. I honestly just want to go back to work. Or go off the grid. Maybe next year I’ll find a cabin in Alberta for the weekend. Alone.

However, the following story reminds me to be less sad on Father’s Day and be more accepting of the love that DOES surround me everyday – if I choose to see it. Every piece of it is true and straight from the supernatural energies the swirl around us.

Now I try to celebrate Father’s Day by remembering that magic is real and forgiveness can communicate, even beyond the grave.

So Happy Father’s Day to all the dads – the great ones and the not-so-great ones. And to the kids that struggle with this like I do, well…you’re here, in part, thanks to your dad’s super swimmers. Hating/detesting/resenting him only means you’re letting a part of yourself rot right along with your esteem of him. Might as well accept it, make peace with it, and then make the most of it.

This story, “February” is a short piece I wrote about eight years ago. Hope you enjoy it.


FEBRUARY

Thrilled to be living abroad for the semester, I planned to go to the south of France for winter break with my best friends Anne and Ryan. Mom called the weekend before our departure and said she spoke with Dad. He didn’t sound well, she had said. She asked if I wanted to come home and see him instead of going on vacation. I said no. Well, call your father, she said. I said no.

* * *

My father, James Reese, was very active in the community.  In the seventies, he and my mother had a radio show together.  I’m told he was called ‘the velvet voice of Detroit,’ for his smooth baritone vocals and charming radio personality. They also owned and operated an adult life and career counseling center called M.O.R.E: Mobilizing Our Reserve Energy.

He was my world as a small child. I was full of hope and my eyes twinkled when I heard his voice. But things changed by the time the eighties rolled around. The success vanished. They said he changed. My parents divorced when I was two years old, and I have no memory of them ever living in the same house. For as long as I could remember, he lived in Ohio.

He was my world as a small child. I was full of hope and my eyes twinkled when I heard his voice. When I missed him the most, I would listen over and over again to his recording of a black empowerment poem, I Am The Oppressed. I wrote him letters too, many of which were never sent.

Daddy, when are you coming to visit, most said. Don’t forget, it’s my birthday soon, I would write. Daddy, it’s almost Christmas. Are you coming home? When will I see you again? I have a dance recital, Daddy. Are you coming to it? Daddy, I just finished another Suzuki book. When will you hear me play the cello?

Many of the replies listed a thousand excuses, but always closed with I’m working on something now; we’ll have a lot of money soon. Pray for Daddy.

He was my world as a small child. I was full of hope and my eyes twinkled when I heard his voice. He did visit sometimes; every few years or some other irregular pattern. The years came and went, many letters exchanged, all the same. Many promises of frequent visits. Promises to send money. Promises that things would change. All of them empty.

In high school, I gave up on having the illusion of that dream daddy-daughter relationship. I gave up on the letters. I gave up on the phone calls. I lost the recordings of his voice. Hey dad, I would say on the occasional brief telephone conversation, so… can I have some money? Hey pop, wanna get me a car for my sixteenth? Hi dad. Yeah, well… uh, I gotta go. It was strained, tense. Forced at best. I gave up. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t care. Apathy was my weapon of choice against the pain. By my last year of high school, it was fifteen years of private cello lessons, practicing, orchestras, camps, recitals, international tours, sixteen years of ballet jazz and gymnastics, countless sports games, college level Calculus, all of this he had never seen. Finally my high school graduation, I didn’t ask him to come. He did manage to come up for that, the first time he ever heard me play the cello.

The summer before my junior year of college, Mom and I went to visit my brother and sister-in-law in Ohio. Dad moved close to them thanks to brother’s coaxing. It was the first time I had seen him in about two years. He looked old. He was already an old man, something like fifty when I was born. But now he looked really old. He tried to give me stuff. Just stuff. Old piano books, his keyboard, a print of a painting and other random things I didn’t really want. But I accepted them. By my junior year of college, I had plans to study abroad. I went to Rennes, France for my spring semester.

* * *

Two days later, Mom called in the morning after my first Monday morning class at l’Universite d’Haute Bretagne. She said something was wrong but she didn’t know what. She would call again. We had a break between classes that morning, and it was a beautiful day. Anne and I were getting so excited for our excursion south, we decided to ditch the next class and take a walk through the park. The bright sun, the sound of falling water in the fountains, the slight rustle of leaves blowing in the fresh spring breeze all tried to hide me from the pang of fear lurking in my heart and tears burning in the backs of my eyes. I knew Mom would call soon. And she did.

I heard the gasp and the 24-hour second of hollow silence that comes before that first big drop in a roller coaster, followed by the struggle for breath to let out a blood-curdling scream. It was the swoop without the thrill and laughter. The ground fell and my stomach dropped with it. I crumbled onto the gravel park floor. I was sure it wouldn’t catch me.

I pretended for so long that I wouldn’t care until he cared. That I wouldn’t love until he loved. But I did. I cared. I loved. And I wanted my Dad. I wrote another letter that night; another letter I would never send:

Dad, I waited for you. I waited for you to come to me and be ready to be my father. I wanted you to make it work and to walk me down the aisle. I wanted you to love me and be proud of me. I wanted you to go everywhere and say “Look at my beautiful family. Look at my beautiful daughter. I love her and I am proud of her.” But you didn’t.

Ryan met up with Anne and me for a few silent mournful kirs. They stayed with me all night. Neither forced the words that would never come out the right way. We sat there in silence, save my un-suppressible fits of sobbing that would strike at any random moment, until we fell asleep. I didn’t go to the south of France. I left the next morning for Detroit.

* * *

After the terrible week at home consisting of finding out that Dad died alone in his small apartment that had already reeked of death, that he had a few distant relatives that had to be retrieved to fill a total of ten seats in a small memorial chapel, and that he was cremated because he was found one or two days postmortem, I went back to France eager to get on with my life.

When May came around, I realized I had over packed– I went home with a small carry-on for Dad’s memorial service, and came back with my cello and a large suitcase. I began to mail boxes of my belongings from France to my anticipated self in Detroit. I had been home for at least a week or two before the boxes started to show up one at a time. They all made the journey except one. I figured it was a sign from God that I had way to many clothes for one person and I should accept the loss as encouragement to downsize my closet. I think God had a hand in it all, but the message was not about my closet.

The box showed up a few weeks later, but it did not arrive as it was sent. While the other boxes knocked on my front door looking like old men who had seen one too many hard days in their long lives, the last box was brand new, large with crisp un-bashed-in corners, and wrapped with plastic twine like a gift. On the box was a note from the postman: We apologize but your parcel was damaged en route beyond repair. We hope this contains your items, but are not responsible for any lost or damaged articles. I tore open the box like it was Christmas.

I was reunited with sweaters, shoes and shirts I thought I would never see again. We hugged and laughed about old times. All of my belongings were accounted for, but there was more: a box of Toffiffee candies, some amateur photography, some intricately patterned tattoo-like doodles, a copy of Dante’s Inferno, a few Grateful Dead records, a handwritten copy of DESIDERATA.

Desiderata. Desiderata. It was everything I was looking for at that time in my life; the time when everyone looks for direction aside from blind faith in what our parents taught us about life, love, and religion. I was searching for meaning aside from religious doctrine flooded with room for human error in interpretation. I remembered Shusaku Endo in Deep River writing, “There are varying degrees of truth in all religions. All religions spring forth from the same God. But every religion is imperfect. That is because they all have been transmitted to us by imperfect human beings.”

How much of Truth is lost in translation? I wondered why Creator left it up to us dumb humans to try to translate Life into our own simple comprehension. If it is one God speaking to all of us around the world, then why do so many religions contradict each other? I look to the Bible for inspiration, direction, and guidelines, but what about my other friends who turn to other doctrines, up to and including Dr. Seuss?  How could we engage in deep philosophical discussions if one side is faithless in the other’s foundations of thought? How would we coexist under the umbrella of pure inborn human laws that are not implied by an organized faith? I had asked God for a summary. I asked him for a philosophy of life so simple and unattached to any religion that every sane human can effortlessly agree that this is what Life is about. This time, my wish was His command. Tangibly delivered into my hands.

I took Desiderata with me everywhere, pinning it on the wall above my bed while I worked at camp that summer, then to the wall above my bed in my apartment to close out my senior year of college. In 2005, I focused my college exit paper, my Philosophy of Life, on my relationship with my father, the fact that I had never really grieved him, and how I had come to find closure with his death. I concluded the paper with my narrative of how Desiderata came to me in 2004.

I wrote: Desiderata was my little present from God. It was beautifully scripted on cloud-print paper, emphasizing its supernatural state. I was so excited. I had been thinking of how I could summarize my beliefs, my passions, and my mystic view of life. This was it …I read the poem and I said out loud smiling towards the sky, ‘Thank you’. I read Desiderata so many times it was partially committed to memory. It had become such a part of me that one familiar word in an unrelated conversation triggered a flood of phrases from the poem that I would recite over and over in my head. I made copies of it and passed it on to my classmates during my Philosophy of Life presentation. I loved Desiderata.

Having its impression on my heart, I had realized the painful truth: I never really did trade optimism for apathy. I used apathy as a cover to avoid getting hurt, just in case Dad never had a stroke of courage to develop a bond with me. I was devastated with his death; not mourning the loss of a great life full of memories, but having the potential of Daddy-daughter redemption stripped away from my soul. Ultimately, I came to peace with Dad within myself. I forgave him for not being the 100% Daddy that I wanted, and I forgave myself for not rushing home to see him one last time. I thanked God for sending Desiderata to help me retrieve my childlike optimism about life and love.

It was 2005 and I was graduating from college. After commencement, my family gathered in a hotel room to have a bit of a celebration complete with champagne and gifts. I opened a card from my godmother Aunt Marcy.

I heard the gasp and the 24-hour second of hollow silence that comes before that first big drop in the roller coaster, followed by the struggle for breath to let out a blood-curdling scream. It was the swoop with all of the thrill and laughter. The ground fell and my stomach flew up into my throat. Inside the envelope was a wallet-sized excerpt from Desiderata. I glanced blankly back and forth between the wallet card and Aunt Marcy’s face.

“I looked all over for it,” she said, “It was the last one.”

“Did I tell you the story about this?” I sputtered out.

“No…”

I began to recant from the part about having too many clothes. After I closed with the part about passing out copies to my fellow students, Mom looked at Aunt Marcy and said, “Should I tell her or should you?”

Aunt Marcy smiled and said, “You should”.

“Remember how I told you about M.O.R.E.,” Mom began. “Your father and I used to teach a class on this poem. It was his favorite poem. He used to read it to you when you were a baby.”

A few years afterwards, my mom found copies of Desiderata, branded with the M.O.R.E. logo, just like my dad had designed. I keep one framed in my bedroom.

Desiderata - Max Ehrmann

to read all of Desiderata, click here


Happy Father’s Day, dad.

~OR

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