Why do some children struggle more than other children with growing up?
I had been bouncing the question around all morning trying to decide why my oldest daughter was struggling with another one of the billion of little stepping stones that encompass adolescence. The latest milestone wasn’t significantly large or intimidating, but, rather, just another small building block that had somehow managed to send her sprawling back down the maturity ladder. It was a Deja vu moment that made me recall all of the small stumbles she has encountered during the course of her childhood: picky eating, combing her hair, answering grown ups, washing her face, waking up for school, managing time, doing her chores, tying her shoes, finding her things. Nothing difficult, but a long list of simple things that she has struggled with longer than most of my other kiddos.
I happened upon an analogy of a classroom with desks staggered in rows and the kids were tossing simple crumpled paper balls into the waste basket at the front of the room. The students in the back were struggling more than the kids in the front row to throw across the span of distance and desks. The simple concept resonated with me. It illustrated beautifully why in mixed families, some children face a few more hurdles than other children. (See this image played out here.) My oldest daughter struggles on some of the simplest of tasks, not because she isn’t as gifted or intelligent or attentive or as responsible as her siblings. She struggles because she is positioned in the back row in our family. In a mixed family of his children, her children and our children, my oldest has the most disadvantageous starting point. She has lost the most through the breaking up and recombining of families. She has the most to overcome. And she is not alone. Today, so many children in a large variety of situations struggle to master the most basic elements of growing up.
So how do you go about increasing a child’s chances of success? How do you ease the transition from adolescence to maturity for a child caught in the complicated webs of the modern split/step family? How do you make learning moments out of little missteps, so everyone grows together as a family?
Here are 5 tips to help bridge the gaps in blended families, large families, or any kind of family suffering the demands and time constraints of busy, contemporary living, as well as to bolster the confidence of children struggling to throw from the back row!
1. Spending More Time Apart
As backward as this concept may seem, individual time is a huge asset to children in any family, but especially in mixed or larger families. Time apart from siblings and the scrutiny of jealous rivals, reassures a child of their value and worth in the larger group. Throughout the year, I try to find creative ways to give the gift of individual time to my kids whether in the form of a planned outing, an impromptu treat at a restaurant, a scheduled meeting or club event, or even just as company to do errands. Time alone is a valuable commodity and a great opportunity to really listen to your child. It can also be a great opportunity to help them navigate through some of the struggles of daily life. Lynelle Zandstra offers some incredible ideas for outings and topics of conversation in her book Choose Words Choose Life that can help you jumpstart your solo trips. Click on the book for a direct link to grab a copy!
2. Focusing On Strengths
As a self-diagnosed, hyper-critical parent I know it is easier to point out everything your child does wrong during the course of the day then what they are actually doing right. And when you multiply it by however many children, little (or spouse-size) that you have, it is no wonder that you feel like all you do is nag everyone throughout the day. In addition to the negative effect it has on your day, the constant barrage of criticism is hard for little people’s ears to digest as the steady flow of disapproval tumbles from parent’s mouths. Sometimes a little positive feedback can be enough to get everyone back on a positive path! So for a few weeks, try keeping five tokens in your pocket, specific to each family member (I use pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters, etc but anything will work….glass bobbles, candy, paperclips) and as you notice something done without a reminder or a job well done, give a quick compliment and pat on the back, then switch your token from one pocket to the other. By the end of the day, all of the tokens should have switched from one pocket to the other, and you will know you handed out a substantial amount of positive to counter all of the no’s that inherently define a momma’s day. At the beginning of the week, it will seem like work but after a few days you’ll find yourself without tokens to transfer and children more eager to please!
3. Pursuing a Passion
Throughout the course of a day, I often bargain with myself, “One more load of laundry, then you can read one chapter in your book.” Or “Just finish dishes and then you can go sneak outside to water the garden.” It is easier to navigate the tedious aspects of my day with the promise of some relief doing something I love. Why would our kids be any different? So once in a while, I will remind myself instead of threatening a consequence for a chore not completed, I will promise a reward for a little effort or motivation. Tap into the things your kids love. For thirty minutes cleaning rooms, set aside half an hour of family game time. For a little dessert, request a shower complete with nail trimming and ear cleaning! Schedule a movie trip for an upcoming weekend and during the school week have everyone pack their own lunches and set their own alarm clocks to earn their movie pass. The reward system can extend beyond allowances and sticker charts….reward good behavior with areas of interest: fishing trips, hiking expeditions, art classes or swim time. Good behavior and family time can co-exist!
4. Guess Who?
One of my favorite games growing up was Guess Who? The object of the game was to single out a character by identifying distinctive physical traits from a picture. You were armed with a bunch of pictures of unique personas, such as Dotty Dolly and Hairless Herman, and you were allowed alternating yes or no questions to figure out which person was chosen. Playing with this concept to create a dinnertime game based on the same strategy, I like to highlight certain positive character traits or supply a funny anecdote to share and allow everyone to guess which kiddo is being described. There are a million different ways the game could be played, depending on the goal of the particular round. You could try to highlight positive attributes on a day rife with sibling bickering, introduce baby stories to reinforce family history for later arrivals & newer additions, or strengthen bonds by tapping into family jokes and favorite laughable moments. The idea isn’t to single out individuals or draw attention to conflicts, but instead to celebrate differences and to recognize the unique people and lasting bonds that connect a family together!
5. Treasure Hunt
As the crazy chaos of the school year envelops my family each year, I struggle to find moments to give helpful advice or creative counseling that won’t just be blown off as just another of Mom’s lengthy lectures. So I found a way to make discovering my advice a fun and rewarding process that not only makes the message more meaningful, but also more likely to be remembered and reflected on in the future. Depending on what the issue or struggle I see one of my children going through, I will try to find an appropriate Bible passage that might lend some wisdom to my short people with a QUICK footnote (Note: I intentionally limit my lesson portion to 2 sentences so it doesn’t get tedious….sometimes fewer words are more powerful) explaining the correlation and application. Sometimes I am able to locate a verse from my own daily readings, but often I will lean on a Biblical Search Engine to guide me to a specific topic or keyword. (They have several versions of the Bible to pull from on this website, but I like to use The New American Revised Edition). I will follow my guiding principle with a bit of praise or a compliment on an area I’ve noticed we’ve matured on as well, because “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” Now for the fun part. I take my note and hide it in the appropriate book and chapter of my kids’ bibles (everyone has their own in their room), and then I leave clues hiding about in their room to direct them on where to find the secret note. I will leave notes on mirrors or windows with dry erase markers, directions on slips of paper under pillows, and code words from magazine clippings tucked into pockets; any fun way to help them discover the pieces to the puzzle will work. The hardest part is waiting for them to stumble on the clues, but it is part of the fun! Sometimes they will find it on surprisingly difficult days when one kiddo in particular is in need of a lighter moment or sometimes it will become a family affair to discover all of the pieces to find the treasure. The beauty is often found in the memory making, but all the more reason it works! The lesson is built into a memory and is highlighted in their Bible for future reminders, when similar struggles transpire.