We have so many lessons learned raising our kids we had to add an index! So, the main areas are split up and linked for you below. Happy reading!
Having raised 3.5 kids, we have learned some things. Kids don’t come with instruction manuals and no parenting book or baby book will ever prepare you for the experience. I think we can safely say that raising kids is a learning curve and a steep one at that. Even armed with our parents’ advice and experiences we knew very little, but enough to embark on this parenting adventure. Here are some of our takeaways from experience as a whole.
As parents, our most important job is to make sure that we give our children the tools to succeed as adults. There was a TED talk that I saw once by Mel Robison. The topic was “How to stop screwing yourself over.” This TED talk had nothing to do with parenting. The talk was actually about doing the things that you don’t feel like doing when there is no one around to make you do them. As I was listening to this, I thought about my oldest daughter, Ashlyn. All the times I asked her to do something she didn’t want to do, now as a grown adult, she does those things. She is conscientious about making healthy nutritional choices, exercising, getting her college coursework done, planning her schedule to prioritize school and work. These are all habits that we had a hand in building by our parenting.
Let me tell you a little more about our oldest daughter. Ashlyn, our guinea pig, if you will, was by far the easiest. She never really tested boundaries and always strived to meet expectations. She got a lot of privilege and minimal restrictions because she hardly ever stepped out of line. Of course, we had our “tough” preteen years. The worst we ever got from her was some sass. By comparison to other parents’ horror stories, we had it easy. Today she is out in the world, finishing up her 3rd year of college and thriving as a young adult. We are so proud of her. Often after I wrap up a phone call with her, I can’t help but think we did a good job. It might seem a little braggy, but out of all the things we have accomplished, raising our kids is by far the most rewarding.
Taylor, our middle daughter, was a late bloomer. A petite baby, she didn’t crawl but scooted, was late to walk and talk, and had no concept of personal space. Taylor was our sweet sunshine and rainbows kid. Well, she still is. Between the ages of 6 – 9, Taylor went through a sneaking and fibbing stage. This stage was challenging. We had no idea why she felt the need to sneak things or lie. We weren’t overly strict, and we never punished honesty. It was important that even if the kids did something wrong, they knew that if they fessed up when asked, the most punishment they would ever get was talking to, for the most part. To this day, she is still not the greatest at keeping on top of her school assignments. We chalk it up to her artsy side, and we know that it’s just part of who she is. She still meets our expectations for her grades, and that’s all we ask. We know she is capable of so much more. We want so much for her to put effort into her school work, but we have to accept that school is not Taylor’s passion, and that’s ok. Taylor has no idea what comes next for her after she graduates high school, and that’s ok too. Sometimes you just need a little more time in the nest.
Amelia, the baby, was by far the most challenging child. She was, or is, stubborn and strong-headed. We had a trying time as a toddler and a worse time as a preteen. She was never sneaky or told fibs. She was just a very strongly opinionated child with her own ideas on how to do EVERYTHING! It took some major intervention to help us get to a place where we could understand each other and communicate effectively. Amelia taught us that it is ok to ask for help and seek help when things aren’t working. Amelia is an amazing young woman, very driven, and passionate about her goals. She is also the kindest, most empathetic human I have ever known. Amelia is going to be so great out in the world as an adult. Bright and driven, and full of ideas on making the world better if not a more efficient place.
Isaiah was the latest addition to our family. He came to us when he was 18, still a senior in high school, a friend of our oldest daughter, and not living in the best situation. When he asked if he could come live with us, we knew he would be our son from then on. Isaiah has a story, and maybe one day he will allow me to tell it, but as it is not my story to share, I will not be telling it today. Isaiah has found his path. He enlisted in the Navy and is thriving! We couldn’t be more proud of the man he is becoming.
So how did we do it? It wasn’t easy, but here are the things we did and learned to mold and shape these extraordinary humans.
Boundaries are by far the most important key to parenting. If you ever want to shower alone again or use the restroom without a shadow, boundaries are the means to which you win back your privacy. We set boundaries right from the start by not letting our children into our bed at night and learning that it’s ok to establish privacy boundaries. Here are a few that we set for our house.
Knock before you enter mom and dad’s room. This may seem like a no-brainer, but if you have ever lived through walking in on your parents, you know how important it is. You also understand that kids are all wrapped up in their own little world, so thinking outside of that doesn’t happen very often. Thus, making every matter urgent and of extreme importance. They will not stop and think about what may be happening on the other side of the door. Their only thought is of their own need at that very moment. So, establishing knocking is essential for that one moment that you may have forgotten to lock the door. It’s also probably not as tough as you think. We also established this rule for the bathroom too. If the bathroom door is closed, knock before entering, and don’t bother if it is in use.
We established a manners code early on, like don’t interrupt unless it was urgent. By urgent, I mean injury, destruction to property, or a severe rule-breaking offense. As mentioned before, kids are in their own little worlds and whatever is on their minds is so important it just can’t wait. You have to teach them that it can. Adult conversations were one of those moments that their thought or need could wait. If I was talking to another adult, that was adult conversation. Which meant it was not appropriate for kids to be involved, listen to, or interjecting themselves into the conversation.
Then there was the mom is busy boundary. If I was in the middle of doing a task, it was not the time to ask for me for something or ask me to do something else because you were bored. Bored was not a word you said more than once in our home. If you were bored, it meant you needed a task. There was always something that needed to be done, like folding laundry or vacuuming.
Nowadays, lots of parents work from home. It is not unreasonable to set the boundary to be able to get your work done. When my kids were young, I was still taking college courses. I used time blocking to be able to get my work done. During my blocked time, usually two-hour intervals, the kids were expected to play on their own, read, write, color, play outside, pretty much anything but interrupt me from working. After the two hours of work was finished we did 2 hours of together time. We would go for a walk, or bake, or have a picnic, or something else that was engaging and usually learning-based. Then it was back to another two-hour block of work. This workflow worked well for us. I got my school work done, and the girls got time with me. We perfected this workflow through a lot of trial and error.
Boundaries are so important for your personal space and to teach your kids that everyone (including them) has personal space that should be valued by everyone else. If you teach your children that you can not be at their beck and call 24/7, then they will learn to do things themselves, entertain themselves, and learn to value time to themselves.
Expectations and Rules
Setting expectations is different from establishing rules. Expectations are the behaviors that you expect from your children. Rules are the things that your children follow. For example, I expect my girls to behave and mind their manners no matter what. When we go somewhere, it is a rule that they stay with me and not wander off. Another way to distinguish the two is that expectations are fixed, whereas rules can have exceptions. For example, I expect good grades from my girls, A’s and B’s, nothing less. Whereas the rule ‘don’t use the stove’ has conditions. The girls were allowed to use the stove with permission under adult supervision.
Another example of an expectation in our home is chores. I expect my girls to pitch in and help with various age-appropriate tasks around the house. We all live together, and therefore it is up to all of us to keep our home neat and tidy. There were no rewards or allowances for this. You got rewarded for going above and beyond the expectation. The girls cleaned the garage without being told, and it was not a chore of theirs, but they saw that it needed to get done, so they took the initiative and did it. This deed earned them a tremendous amount of gratitude and a reward for their thoughtfulness.
We had three rules for each situation:
Going to the store: 1) no touching 2) no running off 3) don’t talk to strangers
House rules, 1) clean your messes 2) no running 3) no snacks without permission
Playing outside, 1) stay within the boundaries 2) don’t play with other people’s things 3) stay together.
There were more, and as our girls grew, the rules did too.
Rules were constantly being updated. As the girls got older, some rules were no longer needed, and some rules became utterly irrelevant. Expectations, however, were consistent, with us adding more as they got older. The key is to make sure that the expectation is not beneath them or too out of reach. It needs to be obtainable through effort. There is a delicate balance, you don’t want too many or too few expectations, and you don’t want unrealistic or unreasonable expectations either.
Bribery vs. Rewards
There is a big difference between rewards and bribes. Rewards are often given for good behavior, whereas you offer a bribe to avoid or stop bad or unwanted behavior. Giving a bribe has the opposite effect than what you are trying to accomplish. You are not correcting the behavior. You are reinforcing it. Instead of setting the proper behavior expectation, you have just made it more appealing to misbehave. Knowing that each time they continue to act up, they will get a reward. Instead, try rewarding for the follow-through and completion of the expectation you set. For example, if you want your toddler to stop throwing tantrums, ignore the fit, don’t give attention to the misbehaving, or create a boundary; If you are to throw a tantrum, you must do it in your room. Once the child has decided to not tantrum to get what they want and instead ask or accept the alternative, offer praise.
Praise for good behavior is a reward. It is in our nature to want to be praised and give acknowledgment for our good deeds. Give praise frequently to reinforce the behaviors you want to encourage your children to exhibit. Praise should be shown for even the small things. For example, if your child keeps their room tidy, let them know you notice and you are proud of them.
It is essential to reinforce desired behaviors, but once a reward becomes an expectation of the child for being “good” the reward loses its value. This is why rewards don’t always need to be tangible. Physical rewards should be reserved for behavior that goes above and beyond a set expectation. Like if your child brings home a straight-A report card, celebrate with a special dinner out or a trip to the store for that new video game they have been eyeing.
It can be hard not to give in to the bribe. Trust me – it is not worth it!
Fostering independence at a young age is so crucial to the growth of your kids. It teaches them to trust their own opinions and think through choices, enabling them to make more challenging choices and be confident in their decisions later in life. It gives them a clear sense of their voice and individuality, too. Their independence is what is going to allow you to have your space. When a child is independent, they can entertain themselves. They can go to bed without you having to lay with them until they fall asleep. They learn to make good choices on their own.
We started to develop independence around 2 years old in our kids. We did this by giving them small choices for things, like what clothes they wanted to wear for the day, or what they would like for a snack. By making their own choices, they also got to experience the consequences of their choices, good or bad, and learn from them. Like, “Wearing sandals in the snow sucks!” Next time maybe choose the snow boots, as mom suggested. Even at an early age, these lessons were important at shaping the ability to make better choices which turned into making good choices more effortlessly.
As they got older, we gave more challenging choices. We talked through tough spots they faced with peer pressure, self-advocacy, and challenging questions like, “Is it ever ok to betray the trust and confidence of those close to you?” This was an actual topic that came up between Ashlyn and one of her close friends. She learned that sometimes to do the right thing doesn’t mean doing “their” right thing.
For the most part, we let them decide what was best in the situations they faced. Of course, with a bit of guidance to ensure it was the right choice. Because we gave them the ability to be independent and think independently, it gave them the gift of self-trust. They can trust their instincts, thoughts, and feelings. They can make crucial decisions and be ok with having an unpopular opinion. They can walk away trusting that they are acting in their own best interest. Through these actions, they naturally developed integrity.
Integrity and Honesty
Teaching a child to develop values such as trust, honesty, truth, and integrity is as simple as practicing what you preach. Be honest with your kids. Answer questions truthfully. Admit your mistakes and apologize. Act with fairness and kindness. It is possible to be firm but kind. Remember that kids are kids, and learning to develop and uphold values takes time and practice.
Remember when I mentioned Taylor and her sneaking and lying phase? She had to learn that the consequence of dishonesty was way worse than telling the truth. We were consistent in that lesson, and eventually, she just stopped sneaking and lying. Once she stopped the behavior, she started to earn back the trust she lost and noticed that she had more privileges and choices.
You earn trust through action or inaction. We trusted our kids up until they did something to break that trust, then they had to earn it back. Those are hard lessons for kids to learn. We praised honesty and integrity. These are core values that we uphold ourselves and expect of our children and our other relationships.
The best way to teach your kids respect is by giving them respect. It’s another one of those lead by example lessons. Your children are, like you, full of emotions, thoughts, and opinions, and they have good and bad days. Their feelings deserve to be validated, but they need to be shown that while their feelings matter, they do not matter more or less than anyone else’s feelings. Their voice deserves to be heard, but there is an appropriate place, time, and manner to express their thoughts and opinions. For example, when my girls butt into a conversation that is not meant for them or are not a part of, we let them know that it is not their place to share their thoughts as they were not asked to join in the conversation between Justin and me. Usually, it’s with a clever saying, “this is an A-B conversation, please C your way out,” is a popular one in the Owney household. Kids also need to be taught that it is ok to have a bad day or not to be happy. No one is always happy or always has a good day, but most adults don’t go around throwing tantrums or taking their bad day out on those around them. So why should your kids have that opportunity? They shouldn’t. No one should. We gave our kids the option to tell us about the bad day or the incident that soured their mood, but they only got 5 minutes. Then they had to think about what they could do to change the situation or mood. We taught our kids that you could not control the things other people do or say, but you have control over how you act or respond and how you let it affect you.
Conversely, it is ok to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments and share their wins, but not at the expense of someone else’s feelings. You should never belittle others or try to one-up someone to make yourself feel more accomplished, important, or seem better than anyone else. Another lesson we taught the kids is that how you speak to someone is a sign of respect. You should be mindful of words and tone. Adults deserve their respect, as they have been on the earth longer and have had life experiences they have not. They do not always have to agree with adults, but they may not be disrespectful. They also may not be rude to each other. We expected each member of our family the respect and consideration we gave them. We loved them, and when they were rude to each other, it hurt our feelings. Same for if they didn’t respect themselves. I think in the parenting books, this is called mirroring? The basic concept is that you want your children to see themselves as you see them. So if you showed them that you value them and expected others, including themselves, to do so too. I could be getting that all wrong, but I still think it’s a solid concept.
Structure and Stability
The last topic is structure and stability. As a military family, we had to find ways to provide structure and stability through all the moves and starting over. The structure was more straightforward because we were consistent in our expectations and rules. We also valued schedules. Our kids went to bed and woke up at the same time every day. As they got older, we allowed shifts in the schedule based on weekday vs. weekend, but for the most part, we were consistent. Giving the kids consistency allowed them to know what was expected of them and what they could expect from us no matter what was happening in our lives due to outside influences, hashtag Navy Life.
Stability was a little harder to manage due to Justin’s work schedule, which is why the structure of our day-to-day lives was so critical. To give the kids the most stability we could, I made the rules. We decided that this would be the best way to keep things consistent.
Let me explain why we would not do this vital parenting process together. If Justin made rules or gave out punishments, they needed to be maintained by me while he was gone. For example, if he wanted the kids to be up, dressed, and ready for the day by 8am, that meant I had to be up earlier to get them up and ready and enforce the rule. He was gone, so the enforcement fell on my shoulders which is an unrealistic expectation when he had no idea what our day looked like or what the schedule was while he was away. Same for punishment, if he took away screen time for a month and left on an underway, and during the underway, the only time I got a minute to myself was the two hours of screen time we allowed the kids, then he just punished me, too! Which means that I would more than likely end the punishment for my sanity and undermine him in the process. Undermining is one thing that we agreed never to do to one another. If one of us thought the other was overreacting, acting unfairly, or letting other things get in the way of our feelings and projecting that onto our kids, we said something privately, away from the kids, to the other. You can always apologize and walk back the things you said in the heat of the moment. Admitting mistakes and correcting them is part of teaching honesty, integrity, and respect. It’s ok to let your kids see that you’re human and make mistakes too. What you can’t take back is the damage you do to your spouse in the kids’ eyes when you undermine them as a parent. By undermining the other parent, you show your kids that you lack respect for your spouse. It is essential to have a united front and to be a team so that your children CAN’T divide and conquer.
We are not perfect parents, and this is not an easy job. There were many times when we second-guessed ourselves and made mistakes, but we always tried to do better. The lessons our kids have taught us about patience and understanding have made us better spouses to each other and better friends to others.
To any parent reading this blog post, the one takeaway we hope you get from this is that YOU are doing great. Parenting is complex and challenging. The fact that you read this post and made it to the end means you rock!
Leave a comment below if you have anything to add to the list. We know there are so many more topics that we didn’t cover and would love to encourage a discussion thread about parenting.