character development

Are You Still Trying?

I’m nothing if not persistent.  When I set my mind to do something, I am tenacious about seeing it through from start to finish.  I love checklists because crossing completed items off my to-do list gives me a sense of accomplishment.  In fact, if I finish a task that was not on my list, sometimes I write it on after the fact just so I can check it off as completed.  Even when I don’t have a written list of what I hope to accomplish for the day, I usually have at least a mental checklist to refer to as I go about my daily activities.  When it came to homeschooling, my general approach was the same and I wanted to be able to check tasks off my list and see real evidence that I had been productive.  Can you relate?

The problem I ran into was that there are so many aspects of homeschooling that are hard to measure objectively.  How could I tell on a daily basis if I was effective in teaching my children in ways that they learned best?  It takes a lot of experience and trial and error to see what works with each individual child.  With the learning challenges my children dealt with, I couldn’t even guarantee that what they seemed to have mastered one day would still be mastered the next day or if I’d have to back up and re-teach material.  Sometimes it seemed like we were just marking time – one step forward, one step back.

My checklist and plans for academic accomplishments were only one aspect of my goals for homeschooling my children.  I wanted my children to grow in their love for each other and to develop a Christian worldview for themselves.  Ultimately, their character was far more important to me than any school subject and I prayed for my children daily.  Again my checklist mentality nagged at me.  How could I document that the children were growing in character as well as knowledge?  One minute I would be congratulating myself on my successful instruction as one child would show kindness toward the other, and the next minute I’m breaking up a fight between the formerly loving siblings.  I’d think we had made progress when a child tearfully confessed to an infraction, only to see the same child hours later protesting by sticking her tongue forward with her lips still closed so that technically she wasn’t sticking her tongue out which was against the rules.  So much for her having an attitude of respect, although her critical thinking skills appeared to be developing!

While I am persistent, I am not especially patient.  Homeschooling was harder than working other jobs had been for me, because there were so many intangibles that I often was unable to grab on to any specific accomplishment to help me feel successful.  Somehow, just surviving another day didn’t seem adequate.  I wondered if I was omitting something vital in the content of my instruction or perhaps missing an aspect of my children’s learning disabilities that could hold them back if left unidentified.  Having faith and trusting God are important to me, but certainly don’t come naturally.  Homeschooling was like planting seeds and pulling weeds around the tender young plants, but not knowing when or what the future harvest might be.

My children, bless them, are resilient in spite of their mother’s ways.  In one of my many attempts to figure out how best to help my son, Josh, I was explaining the latest theory I’d learned about and suggested that maybe it would help him if we tried it out.  By this point, we had been homeschooling for years and Josh had been through many of my well-intentioned experiments to find ways to alleviate some of his learning challenges.  Josh looked at me as I explained the latest and greatest educational approach and then slowly shook his head.

“Mom, are you still trying after all this time?  I think after all the things we’ve tried you should know that I’m just the way I am.  Regular stuff doesn’t work with me.”

Wow.  Josh knew I was trying to help him, but he also knew when to say “enough is enough” and to accept his strengths and limitations as the person he was intended to be.  It was tough for me, coming from my family of high academic achievers and my checklist mentality to realize that my son was on a different path.  It also tested my stated belief that character was truly more important than academics.  Our ultimate goal as homeschoolers is to raise our children to be the individuals God intended them to be, and sometimes that looks different than we may have imagined.

Today, as a young adult, my son’s character is evident and honestly he is farther along in that area than I was at his age.  I am proud of him and his accomplishments, and although I’m still persistent and will offer him suggestions if I think they will be helpful for him, I also can accept him just the way he is even if nothing about his approach to learning ever changes.  Am I still trying?  Yes, and I probably always will be, because that’s just the way I am.  Today, though, I am trying for greater acceptance, understanding, and appreciation of the unique contributions each of my children will make in their lives.

Homeschool Flashback #4 Discipline

Discipline is not fun! The example above shows just what my daughter thought about having to practice her spelling words and then use them in a sentence. She became especially frustrated if she missed the same word several days in a row and had to go through the practice exercises. I thought of this discipline as a training technique to improve and develop her spelling skills and character. My daughter viewed it as punishment for being young enough that she was forced to learn to spell words and live up to adult expectations for her education.

How many of you teachers and parents would give in to your child at this point and not push them further? No one? That’s what I thought. We push our kids to greater levels of achievement, not out of some malicious sense of payback for what we endured as children but because we know that giving up is rarely helpful. Learning to stick with a task, even one that is hated or just not fun, is something that everyone must come to terms with sooner or later. As adults we understand that hitting the wall a few times until we accomplish something makes the success all the sweeter. Likewise, giving up leaves a lingering sense of failure that is hard to eradicate.

In the example portrayed above, you probably noticed an unenthusiatic attitude about doing schoolwork. I did talk to my daughter both about the need to persevere and the need for self discipline. These two things generalize far beyond the academic realm and into many aspects of everyday life.

As I talked with my daughter, I tried to help her see that working at mundane tasks was just a part of everyday life. As a child, it might include her school work and chores. As an adult, it would encompass caring for a home and completing whatever work she had committed to do.

Here’s the rub: if a person does not learn to discipline himself or herself, there will be others who will gladly discipline them. If you don’t like being told what to do, don’t wait when you see something that needs to be done. Take initiative, and no one will have to tell you what to do because you’ve already taken care of it. Learn to think for yourself and develop your own convictions, because if you don’t there will be plenty of people who will gladly tell you what to think and how to act on their beliefs.

Your child may think learning to spell and do schoolwork is a pain. But it is a character growing kind of pain with a bigger purpose beyond mastery of an academic skill set. As it says in Hebrews 12: 11 “All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

What’s So Bad About Yelling?

Before I became a parent, I determined that I would not be a yeller. I would talk calmly to my children, who of course would hang on my every word as I politely explained what I wanted from them. They would comply with my requests, and we would ultimately end up on the cover of a homeschooling magazine. Some of this actually came true. I did become a parent! As for the rest, let’s just say I’m still a work in progress. I used to think I was a very patient person. As a speech/language pathologist, I worked with others’ children and people remarked about how patient I was with them. I truly believed they were right about me, until I had children of my own and they were around for longer than 30 – 60 minute therapy sessions once or twice a week. I was forced to see that I was really pretty impatient a good deal of the time. On top of that unfortunate revelation I found out that I was quite capable of being a yeller, especially when I felt frustrated. Is yelling such a big deal? The old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is just not true. Words can hurt, and sometimes have lasting results. Once in frustration I yelled at my son, “What’s wrong with you?” and that was after he had already been diagnosed with ADHD, auditory processing, and sensory processing difficulties. He struggled every single day, and my yelling at him was insensitive, hurtful, and revealed much more about what was wrong with me. I asked my son for forgiveness, and he willingly gave it and showered me with grace. Even though my boy was able to move past the incident, I was scarred by my own words and knew I needed to alter my behavior. My yelling forced me to see some ugly things about myself that were hard to acknowledge but needed to change. In addition to the negative emotional effects it sometimes causes, yelling really isn’t effective as a child training technique. Children who are frequently yelled at learn to gauge the seriousness of the yeller and when they will actually have to comply with requests. It’s as if they know they don’t have to worry about taking action until a certain decibel level is reached. You may think yelling will help you blow off steam, but it’s bad for your voice and ultimately doesn’t make you less frustrated or more effective with your children. If anything it has the opposite effect, much the way an immunization helps build up resistance by introducing a small amount of something undesirable into the body so it will build up immunity against stronger versions. Children who are yelled at often build up a resistance to your loud voice and they tune it out until it’s clear you mean business. A parent who is yelling empty threats with no consistent follow-through inadvertently teaches children that they can safely ignore what is being said. This leads to further parental frustration and the yelling cycle is perpetuated. I have seen more than one movie where the most frightening “bad guy” speaks in a soft, controlled voice. It’s scary because you know that he means what he says and will follow through with any promised action. He is in control of himself and the situation, and he doesn’t need to raise his voice or repeat himself to make his intentions known. Now I’m not trying to frighten my children into obedience, but neither do I want to overpower them with my own lack of self control as I screech commands at them. I don’t want to yell to get my children’s attention, and I don’t want my children to think they only have to listen when Mom is about to blow. Some people find that they are less likely to yell when they have spent time in God’s word and in prayer. Others know they need to exercise to release tension, or have some time with friends to recharge a bit. I had a hard time eliminating my yelling responses. I spent a lot of time in prayer. I did not want to continue to be a yeller, yet I often felt like screaming. So I read the Bible. I journaled. I cried and prayed some more. I recognized that I needed to treat my children with respect, even when they were at their most challenging. The yelling problem was about me, not them. In order to be the person God wanted me to be I needed His help to persist in fighting my impulses to yell. I’d like to say that at some point I reached a level of maturity and self-control and never yelled at my children again. But that would be a lie. I have had to ask for forgiveness from each of my children many times. Talk about humbling! I don’t yell much these days, but I know I’m still capable of it. I’m not yet the person I someday hope to be, but I am taking steps forward and pushing on by the grace of God. I hope this is an encouragement to all my fellow yellers. You are not alone, and change is possible.

I’m weird, you’re weird, we’re all weird now!

***Today’s blog post is by a guest blogger. My daughter, Beth, is a special education major and shares her experience with a young friend who has Asperger Syndrome.***

I am notorious at reading too deeply into simple statements, but this struck me as profound.

I was baby-sitting for a near and dear family for me. Upon returning from a short bike ride to drop off the younger of two brothers to soccer practice, the older brother and I had an extremely brief conversation. It went something like this:

M: *mumbles something about himself being a “stupid-dumb head”*
Beth: Hey, I don’t like the sounds of that. You are not a stupid-dumb head!
M: I know, sometimes I say things like that.
Beth: Well, I don’t like those words. They aren’t true. And I bet your mom doesn’t like them either.
M: She doesn’t mind.
Beth: If I mentioned to her that you said that, would she be sad?
M: Don’t mention it to her, okay? It doesn’t mean anything. You don’t have to mention it.
Beth: I just don’t want you to say those things about yourself. I like your head. I want you to like your head too!
M: Okay… I’m just weird.
Beth: Oh?
M: Yeah. I’m weird. You’re weird too. Everyone is weird!
Beth: Yeah, but you know what? Being weird rocks. Let’s scream it.. ready? 1, 2, 3-

What makes this profound is my buddy in this story has Asperger’s syndrome. He is a quirky boy, and fitting in isn’t always easy. However, strides have been made, society has come a long way. Self-confidence and self-love is a rare find in individuals such as these, and it warms my heart to know that these kinds of children can proudly scream “Being weird rocks!” in place of being a “stupid-dumb head.” Having a difference can be isolating, and it’s encouraging to know that not only can people cope with this, they can be proud of their differences too.

We still have so far to go, though. However, I do think it’s important to celebrate these small steps, for they are significant.

Of Ferrets and Men

Back when Josh was in high school, we studied Steinbeck’s novelOf Mice and Men. It was a bittersweet portrayal of the friendship between two men named George and Lennie. Lennie is a large man with a mental disability who is very devoted to George and dependent on him for guidance. Although others consider Lennie to be limited in most capacities, he proves himself to be a strong and tireless worker for even the hardest of manual labor jobs. Lennie likes to touch things, and has a love for petting small, furry animals. He dreams of one day living in a house with George and tending rabbits. Lennie is a big guy with a soft spot for little animals, who is only appreciated by those around him for his ability to utilize his size and strength as he works alongside George. After Josh and his sister, Beth, finished the book we discussed the plot and concluded that literature unit. It was a month or so after that when Josh told me he identified with Lennie. My son is a big guy, 6’3″ now and was probably over 6′ at the time. His shoulders are broad and with his AD/HD he has always had more energy than most. His learning disabilities have caused some people to conclude that he just isn’t that bright though he comes in handy for reaching things up high and for carrying heavy loads. As Beth pointed out, Josh is really smart but he just doesn’t have the kind of smart that shows up very well. In any case, it saddened me to see the similarities that Josh recognized between Lennie and himself. Josh also works a job that requires a lot of manual labor, and, like Lennie, he loves animals. We have three pets that he dutifully helps tend to, and he volunteers with the cats at our local humane society. He adopted an abandoned ferret from the humane society, and with all the animals he has been gentle and attentive. His ferret, Tabitha, had been abandoned in an apartment closet when the previous owners moved out. When Josh got her, she was an adult of undetermined age and he had gone out and bought all the supplies needed to care for her. He had sole responsibility for his pet, so when she got sick we found a vet who treated small pets. Josh found out that Tabitha was having seizures, and he had to give her medicine twice a day. The medicine needed refrigeration, so Josh bought a small refrigerator to keep in his room near her cage. Tabitha quickly learned to turn her head away from the medicine syringe and to clamp her furry ferret lips closed, but Josh never grew impatient with her. He talked to her and persisted until he got the medicine she needed into her. Despite this care, Tabitha developed new health problems, and Josh made several more trips to the vet. Tabitha was losing fur, was having seizures, needed medicines to counteract the side effects of the other medicines, and was often up during the night disturbing Josh’s sleep. Through all of this, Josh never complained, but continued to buy the medicines and special food the vet recommended. He crooned to Tabitha and held her, telling her she was still cute despite having lost most of her fur. Last week, Tabitha was in obvious pain and returned to the vet to see if she could be helped but to no avail. She died on Sunday, and Josh was not surprised but was saddened to lose his Tabitha. We don’t know how old she was, but Josh had been her owner for the last couple years. He brought her home to bury her, and I watched out the window as my big, strong son carefully tended to his ferret for the last time.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

“If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, here lives a great street sweeper who did his job well.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. in his speech “Facing the Challenge of a New Age” Address at the Institute of Non-violence and Social Change, Montgomery, Alabama, December 1956

I have always loved this quote by Martin Luther King, Jr. I’ve come to think about it and appreciate it even more as my son grew up and it became clear that he was not going to be able to go to college full-time and instead entered the workforce. He is at a position that would be considered a menial job, but I am as proud of him as if he were in the most prestigious position imaginable. His character is good. His heart is in the right place. He is honest, trustworthy, and giving. So here’s a salute to all those street sweepers, painters, composers, poets, and stockmen like my Josh pushing carts in from the parking lot. You do it well, and there’s more to honor than a title and position.