Last year, we all celebrated James’ and Tiarna’s engagement at a church beach retreat, exactly where I am now, exactly one year later. Yesterday was their seven-month Wedding anniversary – So yes, we’ve had a big year.
Last time we were here, I wrote:
James came down the stairs (of another unit) at exactly the same moment that I’d determined to give each one of my family members a hug.
I went to him, arms outstretched.
‘But I can’t hug you back!’ he said, as if I didn’t notice that his arms were stuffed full of the weekend’s rubbish, headed for the bin.
‘That’s what grace is all about. Isn’t it?’ I teased. ‘When you receive and you can’t give back’.
I continued down to the beach.
Grey sky. Storm clouds. Crashing waves. I noted the contrast between the heat of yesterday and the refreshing cool of this morning.
Into my heart flowed ‘God of wonders, beyond our galaxy, You are holy. The universe declares your majesty…You are holy’.
The song continued in my heart and I joined in praise and worship for a brief moment bathing in glory…until a friendly dog came up to me, licked my shoe and then my hand, and splashed me with my second shower for the morning. I laughed, and the poor dog looked up and ran off towards its owners, one of whom was dressed similarly to me.
My walk continued – and so did my contemplation of the ordinariness of our lives in comparison with God’s glory.
But God gently reminded me of my hug with James and of how we often welcome new members of the family. Most often He gives us babies into our family—little ones who can’t coordinate anything yet, can’t do anything to receive our love, our service, our all.
God gives us others who can’t give back, to teach us grace–to gift us with the joy of being grace-givers, and thereby to learn something of the love He has for us.
A few years ago, my entire side of the family gathered in Brisbane – to visit our brother and family, and to celebrate Christmas together. For three weeks our three generations buzzed around Carl and Kylie’s home, shuffled between the airport, car hire companies, accommodation, shopping centres, and everything else that busy families do at Christmas time in and around Brisbane. Chris’s birthday is just before Christmas, so remembering to celebrate it became my special task.
Chris and I with three of our children house-sat in a home that was perfect for our needs. I discovered they had an extra freezer in their garage so I devised a scheme to make Chris a birthday cake made of ice-cream–his favourite type of birthday cake. The house was across the road from a large supermarket, so it wasn’t too tricky to gather the goods I needed, or to hide them in the garage freezer.
Whenever Chris disappeared, I added another layer to the ice-cream cake. The cake had layers of vanilla and salted caramel icecream with frozen raspberries and blobs of nutella mixed through. I even piped whipped cream over the top, just like one of those birthday cakes you buy from the supermarket.
Several days before the birthday, my sister-in-law Kylie and her daughters called in to spend some time with us.
‘Great!’ I said. ‘It would be so much easier to surprise him if you could take it home with you.’ We smuggled it out to Kylie’s car, safely surrounded in its lined cake tin and snuggled in between layers of ice-packs in a $2.99 Coles cooler-bag.
Chris’s birthday was possibly the funnest birthday he’s had for ages, travelling all around the sights of Brisbane. The entire family planned to get together early in the evening to celebrate. But the timing blew out, as it often does.
During the course of the afternoon, Kylie texted me about several changes of plans. She seemed to be most concerned about Chris’s birthday celebrations. I texted her back – that timing didn’t matter. As long as the cake was okay, all would be good.
As I arrived at Kylie’s later that afternoon, she and my sister Annie were fussing in the kitchen adding the final touches to the cake. They’d gathered inspiration from a Family Circle magazine and the cake had gone from an almost-like-a-supermarket-ice-cream-cake, to ‘A Christopher’s Super Special Deluxe’ with golden toffee castles towering above crushed Crunchie bars, caramelized pop-corn and Maltezers, all smothered in a rich, gooey caramel sauce. I barely recognized it – but was so very proud and thankful of their extra efforts.
The family gathered and sang ‘Happy Birthday.’ Chris blew out the candles, made a wish, and giggles erupted from behind me.
I sat close to Chris while he cut the cake, eager to see the layers. He drew out the first cake wedge. Annie and Kylie hovered above my head still giggling. At the moment that we could see layers, they burst into laughter and retreated to the kitchen.
I followed them, put my hands on my hips and didn’t say a word, except perhaps ‘Don’t you want any cake?’
Kylie blushed and pulled a squirmy face.
‘It was such a hot and busy day when you smuggled that cake into the car,’ she said. ‘I dropped the girls off here, there and everywhere, and we got home really late. The next morning I went to my exercise class, and there, on the floor by the front seat of the car was the Coles cooler bag. It had been there all night.’
Despite the near disaster and an extra-hot Brisbane summer, the ice-cream cake was perfect. Every layer was distinct from every other layer. There were nutella blobs just big enough to melt in your mouth in between spoonfuls of ice-cream and the tangy surprise of miraculously-still-frozen raspberries. And the mountain of gold, chocolate and caramel on top covered a ‘meltitude’ of sins.
Hopefully, Kylie realized long ago that all was forgiven instantly–that’s what Christmas is about. We’re really thankful to her for being a wonderful host …and especially for a great Christmas birthday story.
And, especially that Christmas, we were also thankful to Coles for very effective cooler bags.
Four of us delivered beautiful babies within a couple days of each other, and met as we waddled down the corridors, pushing our babies in their clear bassinettes. We discovered that we lived close to each other, and decided to meet up. We each brought a friend to our first meeting, and continued to gather regularly to support, laugh and cry together.
We shared our problems with breastfeeding: some had no milk and some had too much. Some had sleep, others had little. We excitedly phoned each other when our babies cut their first teeth, and rolled over for the first time – Well everybody else phoned when their baby rolled over. Our baby rolled over off the side of the bed, landing on her head – with both of us watching. So our excited phone-call was to the doctor!
Then, the babies began to walk. From then on, they proceeded to ‘explore’ or ‘get into mischief’ – depending on which school of thought we came from. Out came the virtual daggers that ripped each other’s views of parenting into shreds. Some were in favour of smacking while others were opposed to it. Some had schedules for sleeping times, while others had baby-led regimes.
Out of our regard for each other, we celebrated a combined first birthday, and officially ended our group. We recognised that our views differed enough to become a barrier to our friendship if we continued to meet up under the same circumstances.
Our ‘babies’ are now well into their twenties. All of them are beautiful, healthy, loving young adults – despite their parents’ different approaches to parenting. Occasionally we bump into the other parents and we share what our young adults are up to. We are still friends – probably because we chose to focus on things other than the behaviour of each other’s children.
We all wanted to do our very best for our families. But unfortunately, that was often framed in a very black and white viewpoint – certainly one that was clouded by lack of sleep, childhood illnesses, current hypotheses on child-rearing and the different backgrounds and beliefs of each of our families.
That initial experience of parenting groups was enough to make me seek friendships and mentoring outside of a focus on children. Perhaps I subconsciously recognised that other parents of children the same age as mine were caught up in the same boat as me. So I maintained friendships with older, more experienced parents through craft groups and bible studies. Through informal discussions, I found their objective views were much more helpful. Perhaps the most encouraging message they gave me was that they had survived.
At one stage, a group of older members of our congregation organised a parenting course presented by Ross Campbell, author of ‘How to really love your child’ and Gary Chapman, author of ‘The Five Love Languages’. The course was great and the kids had a good time too. They were fed pizza and cared for while we learnt to enjoy our kids…and really love them in a way they could understand. These days, we try to encourage and mentor parents as we were encouraged and mentored.
We recognise that there is a whole world full of different parenting philosophies and practices today. Each family is different from every other family. So we encourage families to note and treasure those differences.
Some families have found it useful to make their own Family Values Ladder. Parents each make a list of what is important to them such as: education, trust, sharing, honesty, God-loving. Then they share their ideas and together prioritise them according to what they believe to be most important to their family. It’s useful to involve the kids in this process. Just a word of caution: Taking your teens to the local KFC to do this activity while their friends are working a shift behind the counter is not a good idea…Don’t ask me how I know that!
Family Values Ladders
Together with your partner, work out which values you hold to most strongly, and write them on a ladder such as this.
‘Family Values Ladders’ help keep family ‘challenges’ in perspective. For example, if ‘kindness’ is high on the family value ladder, while ‘keeping up with fashion’ is further down the ladder, mum and dad might choose to focus on encouraging kindness in their family, rather than arguing with their children about which t-shirt they should wear.
These days I encourage all parents to attend courses, read books, watch dvds or television programmes that teach about child development and relationships. There are some words of caution I usually give:
Parenting courses, parenting groups and parenting advice that is useful should leave you with a feeling of ‘I can do that’, no matter how well (or not) you have been doing.
Good parenting courses should back-up other good parenting courses
If some advice you hear is contrary to what others are saying, check it out! Find out the evidence and the original source of the information and compare it.
If your heart is telling you that something is not right, ask yourself, “Is this showing love, and does it practice respect for all concerned?’
Ask questions! Don’t take any advice as ‘gospel’ without questioning it – and especially, check out the context of biblical references if they are quoted.
Perhaps the wisest words of advice we’ve ever received are from Ian Grant, author of ‘Growing Great Families!’ *
‘If you’re having fun being a parent you’re probably doing it about right!’
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.