Being parents of four girls, we know that there is no magic formula, no one-size-fits-all, and no secret parenting nugget to guarantee that everything will come up rainbows. Parenting is a wonderfully awkward state of being we are thrust into one day with no maturity standard police, no service hour requirements, no background checks, no skills or personality assessments, no prior experience requirement and no dog-gone manual! One day you are just you and the next day you are forever a parent, staring into the beautiful face of a little human for whom you would do anything, give anything, sacrifice anything, risk anything. It is a crazy, bewildering yet beautiful reality.
Parenting has good seasons and difficult ones. We are all doing our best and learning as we go. Here are few ways we’ve used creativity to incorporate traditions and structures that help shape our family culture toward unity, harmony, meaning, and fun.
1. Keep it Simple
We’ve had three family rules since the kids were tiny. Don’t all great things come in trilogies? Rather than correcting the girls with different language each time there was some misbehavior, we thought it would be easiest to boil down our most important values into three simple things the girls could understand and recall at a moment’s notice. They are so basic, that we have become masters at categorizing every infraction into one of these three rules:
- Don’t lie.
- Be responsible.
- It’s better to give than receive.
The beauty of these three rules (or values) is that we use them as much for affirmation of positive behaviors we want to encourage in our home as for correction. “Wow! I am so proud you told the storekeeper he accidentally gave you an extra dollar! That’s keeping Rule #1. I’m so proud of you for being honest, even when it would have been so easy to not say anything.” The rules don’t change from person to person or situation or season. The standard is always clear, always understood, always expected – from Mom and Dad down to the youngest sibling. Often, a simple question like, “What is rule #3?” is enough to quell a dispute, because we have a common understanding of expected behavior within our family unit.
We designated age 11 as the “rite of passage” age for our girls. The logic is pretty simple: they are old enough to reason and think for themselves, yet young enough to believe Mom and Dad are still cool and worth listening to. To kick off this rite of passage, we take our 11 year old on a one-on-one trip. The trip does not have to be exotic or expensive, it could be a simple backpacking trip, or week at a friend’s cabin. The point of the trip is empowerment, honor, adventure, camaraderie, education and anticipation.
Here’s how we’ve done it: we choose a location based on the individual child, then she has about one year to plan a one-week trip for her and Mom/Dad (depending on who is accompanying). She studies the history and culture of her assigned location via books, documentaries and Internet and begins to map out a week of tours, hikes, museums, sights, culinary experiences, and activities. She is in charge of researching all aspects of the trip from the hotels, flights, trains, tours, restaurants, museum times, appropriate attire, bus stations, tour guides, weather, etc. Then, with some help from Grandma and the “all clear” from Mom and Dad, she books everything and plans the trip from A-Z, while keeping an organized notebook of all the numbers, addresses, web sites, maps, confirmation codes, taxi companies, and any other pertinent information. Once the adventure begins, she gets to navigate the airports, bus and train stations, maps and schedule.
These trips have proven to be absolutely huge in the formation of our girls and family culture. Anticipation is a tool oft overlooked by parents. The positivity, camaraderie and communication that are borne of the rite of passage trip planning and anticipation are immeasurable!
3. Seize the Memories
My husband has this philosophy: we all have a dozen dominant memories from childhood (give or take a couple). Of half we have no control – i.e. the broken arm, the dog that gets run over, the schoolyard bully – the other half, though, can be crafted with a little creativity and intentionality. Most of us have a memory from early childhood that is so special to us, yet when pressed, the only things we can actually describe are the details represented by a photograph. As parents, we have opportunity to claim half of those dominant memories! With a little creative zeal and planning, we can take them back from Happenstance and purposefully craft them into the kind of powerfully positive memories we want our children carrying into adulthood.
We’ve adopted our National Parks Strategy for this end. Over the last three years, we’ve tried to hit as many National Parks as possible. When we get to a picturesque location, we take a whole bunch of pictures to ensure we wind up with at least one “keeper”. We also collect a Christmas ornament from the Gift Shop and let the kids use their hard-earned trip money (a.k.a. the no-whining money) to get a small keepsake. The fun family adventure is just half of the strategy. Along the trip we plant little seeds like, “I just love making memories with you!” and, “Isn’t this awesome?!” When we return home, we print the happiest pictures and put them up around the house so every day the kids see images of themselves having fun as a family in a beautiful, memorable place.
We’ve taken these strategies one step farther. When we have a family dinner with a little extra time in the evening, we will let the girls each gather up one photo from our picture collection and tell why that photo is special and relay a story or memory. We do the same thing with the Christmas ornaments. As we celebrate Advent, we end the evening by letting one child per night choose any ornament from the tree and share a special memory associated. Since we’ve collected ornaments from our travels, it’s just one more way to cement super-positive family adventure memories. The repetition of revisiting those fun family memories begins to etch a deep groove in each child’s memory, creating life-long, positive, dominant memory.
4. Chopped Challenge
We are foodies. We love good healthy food, but we don’t always want to make it – we want our kids to make it. Good luck with that, right? That’s where we got the idea to introduce Chopped Challenge to our home, a cooking competition modeled after the TV show. First, we select a specified number of “mystery ingredients” – typically, some things from the kids’ “pick it out of my food” category, along with some things they enjoy eating . Second, ingredients are secretly placed in a brown paper bag. Then, a timer is set, a category designated (appetizer, entree, or dessert), and the sisters go head-to-head to see who can make the most delicious dish before the clock runs out. Once the timer sounds, each chef must present whatever she was able to get on the plate to the judges, consisting of an audience-participant sister or sisters and at least one parent. Then, as the judges sample each plate, the chefs are asked what they like most about what they’ve prepared and one thing they might have done different. Next, each judge must give one compliment and one critique. Typically, the parent judge makes the final decision and a big show of whose plate is on the chopping block.
What we’ve gained from the Chopped Challenge Strategy is, first, a lot of funny memories, but also, the girls have learned to cook. They take their successes and failures and build on them to do better the next time. They pay attention when other people are cooking. They analyze what they are eating to see if they could replicate the dish, and they think through why certain things work and others do not. And also, on occasion, they will eat ingredients they once thought gross. The competition has been a fun way to give our kids confidence in the kitchen and turn them into culinary students, willing to learn and experiment with making delicious, healthy food that we can all enjoy.
5. Harry Potter
We believe one way to turn our kids into life-long learners is to first, turn them into Readers (with a capital “R”). The best – and arguably, the only – way to become excellent at any discipline, is to spend A LOT of time doing it; from soccer to piano to crossword puzzles to reading (recognizing that some individuals have limitations that would make this inapplicable). The question for us was: How do we get our kids to do enough reading that they become excellent and voracious readers?
Every kid we have encountered who has started the Harry Potter series has finished it. When they finish one book, they can hardly stand waiting to get their hands on the next. Seeing this, we recognized Harry Potter as simply a means to the end of nurturing our girls into Readers. As soon as each daughter was proficient enough to read Harry Potter, we put book one in her hands and let the Harry Potter series work its’ magic. By the time she had read through all 4,195 pages of the seven-book series, all the habits of an avid reader were set, as if in wet cement. We’ve continued to feed those habits with good books, and lots of them!
Fast forward a few years, and what we’ve seen is that our pre-high school age girls are able to bridge over into non-fiction: history, theology, economics, leadership, and other genres, because they have become excellent readers and learned to effectively assimilate information from text. And to think it all started with Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone!
So, those are just five little ideas to get your creative wheels turning – strategies we’ve tried and had success with. We all know how easy it is to become overwhelmed with the intense pace of family life and frantically put all our energies into simply surviving. But, with a little extra effort to think outside the box – and maybe an extra cup of coffee – we can create some subtle, yet profoundly impactful, creative structures to put our parenting back on the rails. What crazy strategies or traditions could you create to bring more unity, harmony, meaning and creativity into your family? You’ve got what it takes to reshape your family culture. Take off your boring adult hat for a minute, engage your imagination, and ask, “What would make this mundane, yet important task totally fun and memorable?” – and then give it a try!
Photo Credit: Liz West, Flickr Creative Commons