A mother decided to display a faceted crystal bowl she’d been given for her wedding but had never used. So she found a sunny spot on a bench and placed it there.
The family had a habit of losing their keys, so it became a reliable place to find the keys, and the stray coins, and the springs that pop out of pens, and the washers that somehow manage to find themselves loose, and the empty lolly wrappers and spare batteries, and …
It soon became the junk-collector.
Frustrated that a thing of beauty had become a source of ugliness, the mother cleared it out and planned to put it away again.
Until a thought popped into her mind that perhaps if she gave it a good purpose, it would remain a thing of beauty.
So she filled it with beautiful, healthy fruit. The sparkling faceted crystal enhanced the colours of the fruit and the bowl remained beautiful and full of purpose.
New Year’s Resolutions
I thought of the stories with which we are all familiar – trying to empty ourselves of bad habits. I thought about New Year’s resolutions to get rid of bad habits.
The thing is, often we try to empty ourselves without replacing the bad with something better, so garbage sneaks in again:
We decide to stop yelling – but have not learned other alternatives such as whispering. So we hold off our yelling for a while – but eventually explode.
We tell our kids or ourselves “Don’t!” – but don’t tell what TO do.
We complain that our loved ones don’t pick up on our clues – but we don’t tell them what we DO want.
We want to stop smacking – but haven’t actually been around gentle alternatives often enough or for long enough to see how they work long term.
And too soon, those things we’re trying to get rid of are replaced with even more garbage.
It doesn’t have to stay that way.
Before you make a commitment to say NO to something,
think about what you will say YES to.
With which beautiful thing will you replace the ugliness?
Find a safe place to discover and explore new and beautiful alternatives
– and often the difference between ugly and beautiful is just a little YES away.
There were no spiders on my garden chair when I sat down today.
The last time I went to sit on my garden chair, I used my hand to knock off a few dried up leaves from its cushions. But, as I went to brush a couple of leaves off the back of the chair, I noticed two big, beady eyes looking up at me.
I shrieked–evidently too quietly for my husband to hear me. But one of my sons yelled from inside the house
‘’You okay, mum?’
Bravely (I thought) I went inside to create the least fuss possible and sought out my daughter who had named the previous year ‘The Year of The Spiders’. That year she worked at an outdoor education camp and took it upon herself to transfer spiders from inside dormitories to outside, away from the screams of hysterical campers.
‘How big is it?’ she asked me as she proceeded to the pantry.
‘Oh, not too big,’ I said.
She raised an eyebrow at me, turned to me and held out her hands. In her left hand she held a square-round tupperware container, big enough for half a sandwich. In her right, a four-litre ice-cream carton.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Medium-sized’.
She grabbed a different container and headed outside to my chair… and the spider.
‘Ooh! He’s a big guy isn’t he?’
My embarrassment dissolved. I felt vindicated.
I also realized how much I enjoy having my young adult kids close enough to me to have them rescue me.
The tables are turning. We rescue each other.
And I’m so glad of our investment in our relationship with them–or I’d be chasing my own spiders.
My mother-in-law Ruth and her sisters are extraordinary cooks. So family get-togethers of our three generations are a great celebration of good, old-fashioned German cooking, with lots of cream, and belly-aches for the uninitiated who tend to be overfilled by too much great food.
At any family gathering, the aunties bring designated dishes. Auntie Audrey makes brandy snaps and pavlova. Auntie Doreen makes pink jelly cakes, with cream in the middle. Ruth makes jelly-slice. And Auntie Joy makes cream-puffs. But that’s just dessert.
Before then, home-made sausage rolls and little meat-balls with home-made tomato sauce are for entree. That’s where the newbys get into trouble. The rest of us know
‘Don’t fill up on sausage rolls because there’s an ocean of food yet to come.’
Then there’s Ruth’s soup: The best chicken noodle soup in the world. Main course provides mountains of turkey and duck, chicken, ham, lamb and corned beef with lashings of creamy coleslaw, potato salad, and whatever else the in-laws bring along as salad.
Cooking, like housework, is not my forte, and I struggled for years to find something I could happily contribute to my in-laws’ family table.
But, a couple of decades ago when we lived overseas, I asked their mother Ruby for her kuchen (German streusel* cake) recipe. When I was little, I watched my own grandmother making kuchen in her tiny kitchen, and helped her to use the same dough to make doughnuts and kitchener buns. So I wasn’t intimidated by the thought of cooking with yeast.
After Ruby died, when the family was facing their first event without her, I baked Ruby’s kuchen. The taste and smell that were faithful to Ruby’s original recipe brought back many happy home memories. I was really pleased to contribute in a very important way to the family’s memories.
Though all the sisters thought that kuchen was too difficult to make, it didn’t take Ruth very long to work out that if I could cook something, almost anybody else could!
Recipes are like that, aren’t they? Some of them are intimidating. Some of them call for ingredients we just don’t have in our homes, or are too rich to make too often. And some of them just don’t suit our tastes. But some of them are just right.
I’ve found that parenting tips are like recipes: Many are passed from generation to generation; some are intimidating; some leave a bitter taste; and some are just too yummy to use too often.
But some of them are just right: they fit us, our family and our situation. Once we’ve tried them a few times, we can’t imagine life without them – even though we may tweak them according to our own tastes.
I’ve had the incredible privilege of running parenting seminars, courses and groups. They include a collection of parenting ‘recipes’ that I’ve learnt along the way, received from colleagues or acquired at a training course. Or they are a complete course, such as Toolbox. They’re all backed up by decades of research.
What I have found though, is that listening to me is not nearly as encouraging to the parents as discovering that others share their joy and frustration — and even their pain!
‘Oh, that happens in your house, too?’ is the most common question I hear. As soon as I hear that, usually within the first five minutes of a seminar, I know that somebody is going to go home feeling much more encouraged, knowing they are not alone in their struggles.
The best bit is to see a parent’s eyes light up as they hear about a different approach, another way of looking at what their kids do, and when they say ‘I reckon I can do that!’
Most of the time the camaraderie that comes from knowing somebody else shares your experience can be positive. But this can be ambushed by a sense of judgement or failure if particular styles or methods of parenting are imposed or implied as particularly better than others.
Because we have different circumstances, personalities and backgrounds, the way we parent will be different from the way others parent. And it will be deeply affected by the way we were parented. It may also differ among our own individual children.
Most of us have memories of promising, ‘I’ll never do that to my child’. But if we don’t find another way to deal with that particular situation, we may discover ourselves reverting to the only way we know how, especially in times of crisis.
The good news is that we don’t have to stick to the recipes that don’t work or we don’t like. There are plenty of options.
So, where can we find healthy parenting ‘recipes’? How can we tell which methods are the best to follow?
Perhaps start off with a bit of basic biology. Books and dvds and websites are a great place to begin to learn basic anatomy and physiology. It’s great to be aware of how babies grow, what they need in order to develop and how best to meet their needs. Then you will be able to describe and understand anatomical features when you have a medical or child-health appointment.
It will also help you to discern good advice from the rubbish you might read.
Find out what’s normal, so that you don’t get upset when your baby starts dropping things from their high-chair over and over again; your two-year-old says ‘No!’; your three-year-old asks ‘Why?’ three hundred times a day; or your eight-year-old argues against everything you say.
Knowing what to expect will help you to feel more comfortable when asking somebody how to work with this next stage. That’s much better than believing that your child is rebelling against your parenting style, or worse, is attacking you personally.
My favourite place to find useful and practical ideas about parenting is www.theparentingplace.com. But like any recipe, there are bits I add or take out, according to the needs of my family.
Take a look at that site and others. Try them out if they seem like they might work for you. Tweak them as necessary. Ask others what they think. Observe other parents and try to see the cause and effect principle in action.
If parenting ideas don’t sit right with your tastes or ingredients, don’t feel obliged to stick with them. If something doesn’t work, try something else.
And remember, if you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got.
Perhaps the best way to measure parenting recipes is to hold them up against a popular list of ingredients found in the bible in Galatians 5:22: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Add a dose of fun and you have the greatest recipe for warm and happy memories that your kids will want to pass on for generations.
*Streusel is a crumble topping made with flour, butter and sugar.
The first time I did it was months ago, when my beloved child was not contributing at all to the smooth-functioning of our household. Instead of doing his allocated chores, he spent his time and energy on playing x-box on our t.v.
When he went off to school one morning, I grabbed his x-box remote and put it away.
I can’t remember whether it was intentional or not. But after I put it away, I forgot where I put it.
Sometimes I’m blessed with a terrible memory.
To say that for a while I was not a popular mum would be the understatement of the year. However, I do remember telling him that, perhaps, if he did his chores, I might be prompted to remember.
Weeks went past.
Everyone in our house has their own chores to do. Everyone else had already taken on his job of feeding the dog.
Shelby the dog was a bundle of white fluff that you couldn’t actually see on her. Chris used to say that she shed more fluff than she could possibly produce. In the ensuing weeks white fluff carpeted the rugs, the floors and every surface in the house.
It was disgusting.
But we were at an impasse.
Stubborn mum refused to look for the remote until his jobs were done. And refused to do his jobs despite living in dog-fluff circumstances.
Son demonstrated that he can be equally stubborn. He inherited a double-dose of stubborn, with an added pinch of passive resistance.
Possibly prompted by an imminent houseful of guests I decided that, regardless of my intentions to stick to my guns, I needed to do the vacuuming. I went to the cupboard in the laundry, picked up the vacuum-cleaner…and there, behind the vacuum-cleaner, was the hidden remote.
I didn’t need to do the vacuuming that day.
I simply went to find the offending son and explained that I’d suddenly remembered where his treasure was. If he did his chores I could make sure they were reunited.
He looked at me with that look that asks ‘Should I believe you?’.
I walked away.
A few moments later, I heard chuckling coming from the laundry.
‘Fair call, mum. Fair call. I deserved that. That was well done.’
Phew! Not quite the reaction I anticipated. But it reaffirmed to me that logical consequences and ‘assisting’ our kids to take responsibility for their actions works – at least it did, that time.
I wonder if he’ll know where to look when he’s looking for his missing computer…
Some people have told me how talented they think I am, and inside I laugh. The most important lesson I’ve learnt in the process of writing is that practice makes better.
Very occasionally, writing these articles happens easily. I wake up very early in the morning with a thought in my mind, get dressed, grab my glasses and my car keys and head to a coffee shop, and voila, 40 minutes later an article is born. But more often, they are a slog—an enjoyable slog.
I became a writer quite accidentally … well, so I thought, until I took a look back at how it happened.
Our little family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, when our children were four, two and not quite one. Even before we were married we’d planned to move overseas for Chris to do post-doctorate research. We figured that I would be stuck at home with little kids during this time, so it didn’t really matter where we were.
But we had no idea how homesick I would be, being so far away from everybody we knew. It was before the age of computers in homes. These days I can communicate with my sister in the UK using Skype or Facebook.
In Memphis, I wrote letters. Ten pages of letters per day, every day. And in the process of writing letters,
I learnt to write.
My mother kept all the letters I wrote to her and presented them to me in a large folder only last year. The letters stopped after about 18 months, by which time we’d settled into the Memphis community and I was no longer so homesick.
After we came back to Australia, moved houses, had another baby and settled all the kids into school, I went to university and learnt more about writing … and word limits. Writing essay after essay helped me to learn to be more concise, and reading article after article, book after book, I learnt to be more discerning about styles and word choices.
‘Success means getting up once oftener than you fall down’
Being surrounded by toddlers in my work reminds me of their persistence. Toddlers are determined to get to where they want to go. They get up and fall down, and get up … and fall down. They keep getting up, over, and over and over again. I’m sure that whoever it was who said ‘Success means getting up once oftener than you fall down’ had been watching a bunch of babies.
Younger children just want to learn and keep doing, over and over and over again. They don’t seem to care how well they do anything. They just keep at it
But as children get to school age, that determined endeavour seems to disappear in some of them.
Children aged between five and twelve years of age need to become good at something
Chris and I attended an excellent ‘Family Wellness’ course a number of years ago. The kids were dragged along for a couple of sessions, too. A key idea of the course was that children aged between five and twelve years of age need to become good at something.
With a new perspective from the course, I looked at the people I knew who were confident and accomplished in what they did. Whether they were artists, engineers, architects, cooks, farmers or athletes, every one of them had worked hard to be where they are now. Talent had very little to do with their success.
Skyscrapers, bridges, planes and ships are not designed by people who suddenly decide to build them. Great buildings begin with wooden blocks, Lego, meccano and piles of sand being moved from one spot to another. Great artworks begin with painting dots and squiggles, and experimentations with shade and light, correction and starting from scratch, over and over again.
Admittedly, some people are born to be more athletic or musical or artistic than others. But without determined, intentional, frequent practice, people do not become great at something.
Life is about learning; making mistakes, correcting mistakes
I recently heard an interview on the ABC with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the world-famous singer. She said,
‘You never stop learning … The moment you think you can’t learn anymore, I think you’re dead. Life is about learning; making mistakes, correcting mistakes … If I did two hours a day on vocalese, seven days a week, it would never be enough. Think of the tennis player. How many times has he hit that little ball? It’s a lifestyle, not a job.’
So, armed with our new perspective on parenting 5–12-year-olds, Chris and I looked at our parenting. We were familiar with our kids beginning new ventures: joining a basketball team, learning a musical instrument, playing a game.
They were eager starters.
Everything was new and interesting.
For a while the practice was a novelty, but soon it became a drag with its repetition. Being part of a team was fun, but it also became tiresome when it required early morning starts or missing out on parties or fishing trips.
With our new perspective we began to help them to ‘hang in there!’ We explained the plateau that happens when you learn something new: You learn eagerly and quickly for a while, but then you don’t seem to get any better; the kids in the team won’t throw to you because you keep dropping the ball; the clarinet refuses to give you that particular note and it squeaks precisely when you are trying your hardest; you keep coming ‘second’ every time you play chess.
It’s at the plateau that most people quit.
It’s at the plateau that most people quit. That’s the time that we as parents, coaches and encouragers need to get in there and be the cheer squad.
Forget about ‘constructive criticism’! Research by the Gottman Institute demonstrates that, particularly in children, criticism is not constructive.
Instead, stress the positive:
‘What a great catch! Now, do that again!’
‘See what happens when you do that: It’s strong!’
Describe what you see. Describe how you feel.
Give your children the words to express what they’ve done.
Encourage positive steps and celebrate small successes as well as big ones.
Every positive effort is a success, regardless of its outcome.
A few years ago I was part of a school chaplains’ meeting. One of the chaplains shared a story about a teenager who was constantly in trouble with the police. He kept breaking into cars and stealing them.
When the teenager was asked by the chaplain, ‘Why do you do it?’, his reply was,
‘I just want to be good at something, and that’s all I know’.
Everybody needs to get good at something.
Everybody needs to get good at something. Natural talent and ability play only a small part in a person’s success. For each of us, in everything we do, practice makes better.
We’re home again. Arrived at the airport at lunch time Thursday with peace in our hearts and minds and only a little anxiety at how things would be at our house.
This morning, I’ve spent my first few hours checking out some photos, my journal, and planning for where to begin this next phase of our lives.
In my journal I was reminded about a sermon I heard while we were away, by Casey Treat. A phrase he said hit home to me and has been playing in my mind ever since. He said that some miracles are spontaneous and have instant effects.
‘But most times’, he said, ‘you’ve got to walk into your miracle every day’.
When we began our trek around the beautiful Northern Territory, I was unfit and felt sorry for myself. For the past couple of weeks, my mind has replayed ‘You’ve got to walk into your miracle everyday!’ Walking into my miracle has worn out my new shoes and given me a new attitude.
My husband heard the same sermon. Before the sermon he encouraged me up and over and through King’s Canyon. He sat with me when I conked out on the way to the Mirray lookout at Kakadu, and helped me get to the top…eventually.
He taught me about where to place my feet, to take the smallest steps possible to conserve energy. He held my water bottle and my camera. And held my hand when I was scared.
Since the sermon he’s been encouraging me to ‘walk into my miracle everyday’, pointing out my progress.
I need to add here that the kids were almost placing bets as to whether we would come back liking each other more, or ready to throw each other off a cliff. I think they’re happy.
We’ve had lots of coffee. We’ve eaten lots of camp food and many take-aways, especially if there were markets available. We’ve even helped to cater for several meals for 80! We’ve spent time with our daughter and some dear friends, and made new ones.
We’ve laughed a lot. We’ve talked a lot. We’ve held hands a lot and learnt more about each other. We’ve also realized how much we’ve rubbed off on each other over the past 28 years. The past month has refreshed our relationship–another miracle we’ve walked into every day.
Now we’re home again and I guess there’s the temptation to get back into the same life we left a month ago: which would seem to destroy the purpose of having ever left.
My hope is that the good things will continue – spending time together, less television and news interrupting our day, our increased communication with each other.
But what I’ve learnt during this trip is that hoping to do well in anything doesn’t bring the miracles. It’s walking into those miracles everyday that makes the difference.
It doesn’t matter where we walk. What does matter is that we consciously and intentionally continue to walk into the miracle of a great relationship, together. And wherever we are will be home.
There are reminders of Shelby all around the house. The irony is that the things I miss the most are the things that most annoyed me:
The blonde fluff everywhere. Her dad used to say ‘She sheds more fluff than she can produce’.
The snoring over the volume of her dad.
The clip of her toenails on the floor in the middle of the night.
The yelping, signalling she wanted to go outside, and inside and outside and inside and…you get the picture.
Her determination to join and oversee every project I ever undertook – finding a comfortable throne in the middle of it.
I put my dinner on the coffee table two nights ago – when I was alone to eat it by myself in front of the telly. I put it in the middle of the table so she couldn’t get it. If we forgot to feed her, then nothing stopped her from climbing onto the lounge-chair, straddling the chasm between seat and table, and eating whatever was there.
Then I realized, I can put my food on the floor now, and it will stay intact.
No-doggy to lick the plates clean.
No clicking of her paws as she climbed into the electric fry-pan on the floor.
No spaghetti-stained fur on the top of her head after she’d dug into a big pot and tipped it over so she didn’t miss one lick.
No snuffly noises as she tried to investigate who was on the other side of the door.
The garden won’t be sat on or dug up anymore.
It doesn’t matter if the gas-man leaves the gate ajar.
And no-doggy to sit at the side of the bed or chair alerting me that someone needs more loving than usual.
I’ve never had a dog before so I’ve never lost one either.
But I wish it hadn’t taken me until she was gone to realize how much she taught me.
Chris has been busy gardening. He grew up on a farm, and he is the true-life evidence that you can’t take the farm out of the man. He loves it!
Our half-pug dog Shelby loves to help him. Wherever Chris has been digging, Shelby loves to dig too. And wherever something lush manages to grow (and is not too prickly), Shelby sits on it, as if to give her approval. We can’t get cross at her because she looks up at us with her big, brown eyes, wagging her tail as if to say, ‘Thank you so much! This is a lovely new throne for me!’
Gradually our small backyard has been divided into two domains: Shelby-friendly territory, and the garden. Currently there are all manner of fences, netting and even satay sticks protecting Chris’s precious garden from one small, aging, curious and territory-protecting Shelby. But somehow Shelby still manages to pick Chris’s peas.
By wangling her half-pug half-snout into whatever angle the fencing allows, Shelby grips onto the nearest pea pod. If it’s a snow pea, she’ll eat it all. But if it is a snap pea, she grabs the whole thing, deposits it on the ground in front of her and shells it. Very occasionally she won’t be able to get the last of the peas that are left in the shell. But she is determined. So she takes the entire pod into her mouth, somehow manages to extract the peas, and spits out the rest. Perhaps she could qualify for Australia’s Got Talent.
I too love gardens. A couple of years ago, inspired by a ‘metre-square garden’ book, I prepared a metre-square in the front yard. I had visions of having a Vietnamese salad garden in my one-metre square. In my head I had it all planned, and off I went to the local garden shop to purchase my seedlings (and have a cup of tea and scones). Evidently I was gone long enough for Chris to see that I’d been digging, so he decided to help.
When I returned, instead of my perfect metre-square ready for picture-perfect planting, half the front yard had been turned into a ploughed field. To write down in words what I felt, in a way that would not embarrass my dear one, is too tricky. Let’s just say that one of our teenagers refused to have any of her friends over anymore. She was already ready to leave because of the possums that had taken up residence in our roof and wall cavities. Now she was disgusted that our front garden had been turned into a farmyard.
Thankfully, Chris and I had grown together long enough for everything to be okay. I could recognise that he had done what came naturally to him. His love language of ‘Acts of Service’ had kicked in and, combined with the gardening and physical activity, he’d had a great afternoon. He was justifiably proud of his efforts.
I, on the other hand, had to swallow the words that had crept to the front of my mouth. In the past I would have said something like, ‘What did you do that for? You always do what you want! Why didn’t you ask?’
A blessing of being married for a couple of decades is that through doing, getting it wrong, forgiving and then trying again, we’ve learnt that our marriage certificate is not a certificate of mind-reading. I hadn’t told Chris about what I had envisaged. How then could I expect that he: had any idea about the book I had bought, would ever think about planting a Vietnamese salad garden, or ever had heard of the concept of a metre-square garden? Fortunately, I had learnt (the hard way) the blessing of choosing to hold my tongue.
So, for a season or two, we had what looked like a farmyard in our front yard. Inside renovations and the eviction of our resident possums altered our daughter’s attitude, so she no longer felt the compulsion to leave. And life was a little too busy to worry about pumpkins replacing petunias. The farmyard survived, and so did our relationship.
One day, I visited the home of some dear friends. In their front yard were garden beds of pretty flowers and lovely foliage. When I looked more closely, I saw that the foliage was in fact different types of lettuce and herbs. Tomatoes were beautifully staked and attractively presented. Their garden looked gorgeous, as well as being practical. I asked our friends if Chris could come to see their garden, and they were gracious enough to invite us over for pizza.
If a picture paints a thousand words, a garden speaks an entire book to a garden-loving husband. Given a way to combine his love of gardening with his love for his wife, he has now spent weeks redesigning, digging, composting, paving, pruning and planting our front yard, so that now it is both pretty and practical. Yesterday he and I together put in the last touch: spreading lovely mulch among the freshly planted pansies, petunias, cyclamens and gazillion bulbs that he had divided, sorted and replanted.
In pride of place are his meticulously varnished garden stakes, proudly supporting his precious peas, which are pleasing to the eye and safe from the snout of our pea-plucking pug.
Originally published as:
‘Shelby, the pea-plucking pug’ in The Lutheran, July 2012, Vol46, No6, P214-215