Friday, March 15, 2019

Kids Don't Come With Instructions (But Here Are Some Books I've Found Useful)

Some things I've done that parenting books have told me to do that have changed everything:

1. Validate my children's emotions and experiences as real and important. This one is tricky sometimes. Because they are little and unreasonable and know so much less than I do, it can be incredibly easy to dismiss their feelings. You don't want to eat your vegetables? You don't want to get buckled in your car seat? You don't want to get dressed/bathe/be a reasonably not-disgusting human being? Tough luck, baby, just deal with it! After all, I know exactly what they need to do to turn out to be decent, healthy, productive, contributing, and happy members of society, right? What do they know?

Well, turns out that's not the point. Turns out it doesn't matter if I know more than they do. Turns out that the better I get at  not dismissing their emotions, the easier it is to actually get them to do what I want. It takes some theory-of-mind work and empathy on my part to get there, and I'm not always the best at it in the heat of the moment, but I've had some pretty convincing experiences where as soon as I validated what they were feeling, everything changed. Sometimes it looks like me realizing that what they are asking for really isn't all that difficult to give in to. Most times, when giving in to their demands or feelings isn't an option, it looks like me just recognizing that they are unhappy, and that is a completely valid response. It's okay to be unhappy when I interrupt their play to go to the store, that wouldn't be fun for me either if I were in their shoes. It's okay they are unhappy that I'm forcing bedtime on them when it would be far more interesting to stay up late. Don't I still struggle with that one too? It's okay they are throwing a tantrum or refusing to oblige, I'm asking them to do hard things and they are young. It's not easy. Just a little dose of sympathy and understanding has gone a long way to change everything about my perspective on how I interact with my children. Instead of getting frustrated, I feel the pain with them as we move through these hard parts of the day. Just because they are little doesn't mean their feelings and experiences aren't valid.

2. I no longer believe in punishment. This one felt so counter-intuitive to me the first time I read about it (in this book here), but punishment didn't seem to be working much either, so I decided to give it a try for a bit and see how things went. This was several years ago, when my oldest was probably three. I used to have power struggles with him constantly, and I felt that any resistance and struggle on his part was punishable with time-out. Basically, he was in time-out a lot, several times a day. But all time-out led to was bigger tantrums and more tears and worse power struggles. It was a vicious cycle. So I just stopped using time-out. I stopped punishing him pretty much cold turkey, for anything.

And I'm not sure anything changed about his behavior, but my perspective changed drastically. I realized that most of the things I'd been punishing him for were age appropriate behaviors. He was simply being a three-year old, and I was telling him it was not okay for him to be a three-year old. I was telling him he needed to be older and more mature than he was capable of being. Punishment wasn't teaching him anything but fear and frustration, and as soon as I stopped punishing him, our relationship improved drastically. I began seeing for the first time just how scared of me he had been, and it broke my heart. He was scared of my disapproval, but he also wasn't doing anything "wrong," except trying to learn and grow and test his boundaries in ways that were entirely appropriate for him.

I have not done a formal time-out with my children since then. I can't say I've inflicted any sort of formal punishment for anything. In fact, it's been a long time since I've viewed any of my children's behaviors as deserving punishment at all. This is not to say that they are perfectly behaved angels. Far from it. It's just that I've learned to distinguish between age-appropriate behavior, and actual transgression. Age-appropriate behavior sometimes needs correction (my youngest is a hitter, she's a violent little thing), but punishment doesn't teach correction, it teaches fear. Instead, I try to find ways to talk and teach during calm moments, and when bad behaviors happen (like the hitting), I simply try to redirect and stay calm. But I don't punish. She's only two. Most two-year-olds hit. It's not inappropriate for her age or maturity level. She will grow up some day and she will become more self-aware and develop greater capacity to control her impulses. What I can control is whether or not she also grows up fearing and resenting me, or trusting me to be her safe place.

This rejection of punishment, or even "consequences," I believe has had a profound impact in our home. For the most part, my children are not scared of me. They behave in age-appropriate ways, and I stay calm (mostly, it's a work in progress) and talk to them calmly when those age-appropriate behaviors cross lines of safety and propriety. This whole rejection of punishment has given me all sorts of insight into how Heavenly Father punishes as well, but that's a post for another day (don't have time for a deep theological tangent here, but I have lots of thoughts here that I'm bursting to share, so hopefully soon!).

3. Parenting is less about my children, and far more about me. I can't "change" my children, I can only change me. 90% of our struggles are about my expectations, and most of the time, my expectations aren't fair. The reason church is so frustrating? Because I expect my two-year old to sit quietly for a solid hour. Is that a fair expectation? Maybe for some kids, but not for my girl. That doesn't mean that I'm not supposed to have any expectations for her behavior, but it does mean that when I'm feeling super frustrated with her, the frustration is stemming from my expectations not being met, not from her behavior actually being inappropriate for her age and maturity level. I can change my expectations, I can't necessarily change her.

4. Less stuff is best. Experiences are better than toys. Children need to get outside, explore, be messy. Routine is key. Routine is crucial. Routine is life. It's okay for kids to be bored. They need unstructured time just to play. They need to be allowed to fail, to make mistakes. Humor always helps. Silliness can go a long way. Connection is key. Food does not need to be a battle. Sleep should be protected at all costs. Sleep is life. Touching is important. Give hugs and kisses, tickles and caresses. Be gentle. Be kind. Be calm. Be calm. Be calm. (This last one is kind of just a grab bag of some parenting philosophies I believe in and have worked for us.)

Now, does this mean I'm a perfect parent and we have no struggles and my children are all wonderful? No! (I already talked about my violent two-year-old, no perfect children here!) My kids watch far more TV than they should and do far fewer chores than they should. We still have lots of things we need to work on around here, there are still lots of ways I could be a better mother. The point is, I'm a better mother than I used to be because of parenting books. Below is a list of some of my favorite ones.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham

Kind of the big one that has changed me the most. I don't know if it will offer everyone the same enlightenment it offered me, but I 100% credit this book for setting me on the path to be the parent I am today.

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

Not quite as life-changing for me, but still brim full of all the things I believe work with kids: validating feelings, getting rid of punishment, using empathy, etc. Haven't read the original one, but plan to some day.

Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv

The book itself was a complete bore, not riveting at all. But the message completely resonated with me. It presented a view of childhood that I really want for my kids, about helping them connect with nature.

Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne

Again, maybe not the most well written, but a message that deeply resonated with me about the kind of simple childhood I want to create for my children.

Bonus! Including an Instagram account here: Ralphie from @SimplyOnPurpose . She is the single best reason to be on Instagram, in my personal opinion. I won't say that I agree with 100% of the things she says, but I probably agree with 99.9% of her parenting philosophy. She preaches positive parenting, and it is beautiful. If you aren't already following her, you probably should be. Peruse her archived stories, she has such gems of wisdom and advice about all sorts of things. Water the flowers, not the weeds! Stay safe! Ignore the junk!

What are your favorite parenting books/resources? I'm always looking for new ones!

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Feminist Financial Literacy:

We passed a big financial milestone last month:

We finally paid off all of our student loan debt!!!!

And of course, I'm using the words "we" and "our" gratuitously here, because none of the student loan debt was actually mine (I take great pride in the fact that despite my 9+ years of post-high-school education, I've never taken out a dime in loans to pay for any of it), and of course, all of the money to pay it off came from my husband's salary. But, we live in that kind of "our money, our debt" household. Of course it took both of us to get to this point.

And considering it was six figures worth of debt (I'm fuzzy on the actual number, somewhere between $130,000.00 and $150,000.00, because law school is expensive, man!), I'm also fairly proud that we managed to pay it all off in just over five years.

We actually had the majority of it paid off before we left Houston. In fact, if my husband had stayed at his job in Houston just one month longer, we would've had the whole thing paid off then. But when we moved, we took about a 50% pay cut, and we bought a house, so we decided to put the last couple thousand of our student loan debt on hold (as in, just paying the minimum) while we settled into our new financial position and figured things out. But sitting down at the beginning of this year to figure out our finances, we decided that we had enough financial security now to just go ahead and pay off the rest of that loan, and start funneling that money into an extra retirement account in my name.

When I say it took both of us to get to this point, it's because my husband and I both play different roles in our financial life. He's the one with a business degree who took all sorts of finance courses in undergrad. He's the one who mapped out our loan repayment plan. He has our long-term retirement plan in place with an investment strategy to get us in a very comfortable position in the future. He's got the big picture figured out. My strong suit, in compliment, is the day-to-day budgeting and frugal living. I know how to walk into a store (any store) and walk out with only the things on my list, and sometimes, not even all the things on the list because while shopping I realize that the mental math isn't adding up and I need to cut the non-essentials to meet the budget. I'm the one tracking our spending and making decisions about where we need to tighten our belts and where we maybe have room to finally spend a little.

And for most of our marriage, I've been fairly happy with this arrangement. It works out well. I focus on pinching the pennies now, and he reassures me that when we're 70, we'll be set.

But recently, I've been feeling a need or a pressure or whatever to get a better handle on the bigger picture side of things. Partly, I think this has stemmed from conversations with my younger sister, Angela. Angela is single and lives in Palo Alto, California. As in Silicon Valley. She works as a school teacher, but she has friends at Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and all the other various tech industries there. She knows people who make a lot of money. I mean, she lives in Silicon Valley, money (or the lack thereof) is everywhere in her world. After watching how her friends spent money, and stressing about her own financial position (it's an expensive place to live, and she's doing it on a teacher's salary), Angela started talking to people about their financial plans. When she was at a party, or hanging out with a group of people, she started asking anyone who was willing to talk what their financial plans were. And she noticed the most fascinating divide. Any guys she asked could talk for hours about their money. They had all sorts of plans and ideas and investment strategies. But whenever she asked women these questions, most of them would freeze up, or talk vaguely about "saving," or flat out admit they didn't really have a financial plan. And these are highly educated women working at big-name places in cutting edge fields! It struck my sister as problematic that women who were otherwise just as intelligent and qualified as men still seemed to lack the kind of financial literacy that these men have.

So last summer, Angela and one of her closest friends started a financial literacy book club for women. Every month, they choose a book on some financial topic to read, and then when they get together, they not only discuss the book, but also usually have a guest speaker talk to them about financial topics (recently the head of YouTube finances was one of their guest speakers... my sister has some pretty cool connections). Hearing her talk about this book club, and her own growing passion in helping single women get more educated about their finances, has really inspired me.

I'm in the lucky position that I'm not single, and I don't necessarily have to bear all the financial responsibility for my future alone. But I'm not sure that matters. My husband is very smart and knowledgeable, and I have every reason to trust him and the decisions he makes about our money. But that doesn't mean I'm not smart and knowledgeable too, and that we both might benefit if I were to learn some of this big picture stuff and contribute to the decision making process. I mean, there is always the terrible "what-if" scenario where I could end up single far earlier than I plan to, and that alone should be enough motivation to get me to figure this stuff out. But provided my husband out-lives me, I still believe our financial life is only all the stronger for having two heads thinking about it together.

Over the past few months, I've been starting to read more financial books about investing and other big picture stuff. This is an entirely foreign field for me, and I'm quite naive. The more I read, the more I realize I have to learn. Also, the more I realize how much knowledge my husband actually has. I've been peppering him with questions recently about our retirement accounts, and while I still get confused about the difference between 401ks and traditional IRAs vs. Roth IRAs (something about when the taxes are taken out...?), I'm slowly getting there. I'm picking up terms like index funds and targeted accounts and slowly, ever so slowly, trying to make sense of it all.

But while I realize I am still far, far behind my husband in grasping all this stuff, I've also still seen glimmers of how me learning about this could help both of us. Right now, the plan my husband has in place for us has us retiring comfortably at around age 67 (so, 65 for me?), provided our income remains fairly stable. But I've been reading up on trends like FIRE and value investing  and other such things, and I've been talking to him about how we could work to push that number lower, or at least, get us to a place where he could scale back at work earlier and branch out into some of his other interests. My husband makes a great lawyer, but it's a stressful job, and he has all sorts of other interests he would love to explore if he didn't feel such pressure to provide for a family (he's talked about teaching and graphic design, for instance). So I can be a voice to advocate for different investing strategies that open up possibilities for us. I like that! But it won't happen at all if I don't take the initiative to learn some of this stuff myself and really be a partner in making these decisions.

All of this is to say that I still don't quite know what I'm talking about when it comes to big picture financial strategies. I'm still very much a newbie at all this stuff. But I also believe that I am smart and capable, and this is important stuff for me to know about, even though I have a husband who is way ahead of me here. It's important in case I don't always have that husband, and it's important because my insights and knowledge can potentially benefit both us in the long term. I don't want to be dependent on someone else for financial security, not a financial planner, not even my husband. I want to know these things myself so that I can make the best decisions for myself.

And my sister Angela? Well, she's actually going to business school this fall. I imagine she's going to be taking this new-found passion of hers for educating women about financial literacy into the future in a big way. I'm cheering her on and supporting her by taking the message to heart and becoming financially literate myself. If you've read any good books on any financial topics, please let me know! I'm here for it!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Books I Read in February

Okay folks, February was a short (cold, miserable) month, and I had some frustrating experiences with my audio book app (more on that later, it deserves it's own post), but I still managed to finish seven books, which is not too shabby. Let's cut the preamble here and just dive in.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

This was a re-read for my virtual book club. I haven't read this book since high school? college? I forget, but oh my goodness, it is still a top favorite of all time. This is a seriously depressing book that makes you hate all men, but it's so beautifully written I love it despite that. This is by far my favorite Hardy, and if you've never read it, you should. You really should. You may cry buckets of tears, but you'll still love it. I promise.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

This was also a re-read, for my other book club, and this book is so much fun and so delightful and if you haven't read it yet this is another one you should go out and read right now because it's just delightful. For our book club we actually watched the movie (because, duh!), and this is one of those rare times where the movie really is better than the book. Except the book is still wonderful! I love the book, and I will totally re-read it again some day. There are things about the book that are really fun. But the movie is better (the Jane Seymour version, there are others but that one is THE one). If you haven't seen the movie, find it, watch it, love it. You'll thank me.

How To Talk So Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

As part of my January self-help kick, I decided I wanted to read a good parenting book, but this was all my library had available through the audio book app that looked remotely interesting (see my note above about frustrations). I think I would've preferred to read the original one, but this one was still surprisingly good. I found myself agreeing with everything the authors said, patting myself on the back for already doing most of the things they suggested, and coming away with a few new tricks that have come in really handy in dealing with my oldest's emotional moments. I think I've got a post brewing in my head about parenting books, we'll see if I ever find the time to write it.

Wedding Night by Sophie Kinsella

This was my attempt at "seasonal reading" for February (you know, Valentine's Day...). Ugh. I think this is my third Sophie Kinsella, and I think I've finally decided I need to give up on her. I mean, I liked it well enough to finish it. She can be quite funny, and there were some ridiculous shenanigans in this one that were amusing (really ridiculous, but funny), but mostly, it's too much cotton candy and swearing and stuff.

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy

If this book had been about a thin sized girl losing her aunt and fighting with her mom and overcoming obstacles to finally go out with the cute boy at work, it would've been fairly cliche, unremarkable chick lit YA. But the fact that the main character is plus sized really does make this book remarkable. I'm not sure I've ever been in the head of a plus sized high school girl like this before, and it was equal parts inspiring and heart-breaking. It was one of those reading experiences for me where I realized that some voices don't get their fair share of representation in certain genres, and it was refreshing to be able to hear this voice and vicariously experience her triumphs and pain. It's not a must read, but it is a good one. I very much enjoyed it. (Anyone seen the movie? Haven't gotten around to it yet, but I'm planning to watch it!)

This Is the Year I Put My Financial Life in Order by John Schwartz

So, I've been on a weird kick of reading books about money recently (this is another post entirely), but this is definitely one you can skip. I mean, unless you are as clueless and this guy, and max out your credit cards, and make poor real estate decisions that lead to near bankruptcy, and luck out by belonging to a generation that still gets pensions so it doesn't matter that you borrowed from your retirement to pay off your kids' student loan debts... then go ahead and take financial advice from this guy. Schwartz is a New York Times reporter, so the guy can write. Much of this was fairly entertaining and highly readable. But seriously, you don't need to read this one.

Circe by Madeline Miller

The one time my library's app came through for me with a winner! This book has been getting some buzz for a while now. Last year I picked it up in an airport bookstore and read a few pages and knew I needed to read the whole thing, and... I loved it! This may not be a great book for everyone. The pacing feels a bit episodic. It felt like the structure of the Iliad or Odyssey, epic and grand but not a modern plot structure. The writing is beautiful. Oh my goodness, the writing just swept me up and left me swimming in this world of petty jealous gods and witchcraft magic and sailors lost at sea... it's beautiful. I highly recommend the audio version, it's very well done. Long story short, if you enjoy Greek mythology and have even a passing familiarity with the Odyssey, or just enjoy beautiful well-written books, this is one for you! We'll see how long it stays with me, but it already feels like one I'd love to re-read in a few years (and that's high praise from me!).

Okay, that's a wrap on February. I've got Spring Break next week, so I'm hoping that translates into some writing time here on the old blog, because I've got so many things I want to talk about! But for now, have any of you read any of these? What did you think of them? I'd love to hear!