Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Language of Loving Your Child

When people hear that I have a 9-yr old in addition to my two babies, the response is always the same: “Oh that’s so nice! He can help you out with the little ones! I’m sure that makes it much easier.” While it is true that he helps me out and that I’m not sure what I’d do without him, having a child who is so much older than the other two is painfully difficult. Their needs are so very different and switching between toddler and newborn mode to nearly-tween mode is, to say the least, mind-boggling. At least it is for me.

Styles is a fantastic child. He gets good grades in school, plays soccer, is more than willing to help me out with the babies and mundane housework like switching the laundry over, and yes, he does make my life easier with the two babies at times. I’d be a milky mess if it weren’t for his willingness to get me breast pads on a whim. Madilyn would be much more difficult than she already is if he didn’t play with her as much as he does. And the house would be a constant disaster if he didn’t help me out with picking up Madilyn’s destructive messes. So I guess you could say that in a physical way, having an older child makes my life a little easier. But in an emotional and mental way, it is astonishingly taxing.

Obviously the newborn requires lots of cuddling. I cuddle him while he sleeps and while he eats. When he cries, I immediately run to his aid. The toddler requires nearly as much attention as the newborn does. I’m constantly running after her keeping her out of trouble (or trying), picking up her messes; feeding her when she wants to be fed because, you know, meal time is NO time to EAT; scolding her to help her learn to be a productive member of society, and catering to her toddler emotions which require cuddling and as much one-on-one time as I can provide. I am with the babies all day long so there are many opportunities to take pictures of them. I play dress up with Madilyn, we color, paint, play bubbles, and go to the park. Grady is growing daily and changing rapidly so I try to not miss out on any Kodak moments, and there are many.

Styles sees all of this and I know that it hurts him on some level. It’s difficult for a 9 year old to understand that I can’t cuddle him all the time the way that I used to – he has homework to get done and a room to clean. He doesn’t get to sleep with us anymore because the baby does and it just wouldn’t be safe in our Olympic Queen – he’s a MMA champ in his sleep. The Kodak opportunities aren’t as readily available for him as they are for the other two. He wakes up in the morning, goes to school, comes home and does homework, goes out to play with his friends, eats dinner with us, and then goes to bed. On the weekends, he enjoys spending time with his friends as opposed to being holed up in his room (I’m not complaining!) He is at a difficult age where he is experimenting with lying, deception, talking back, inappropriate usage of language, and just general defiance. He gets disciplined more than the other two children at this time in his life. But it’s not because he’s a bad kid, it’s because he’s in a completely different place in his life than they are. It’s just the natural course of life. He plays soccer and I’ve seen him looking for my watchful eyes as he plays. I know that he wants to know I am paying attention to him, and only him the whole time he is on the field. But I can’t do that. I have a supremely active toddler that I have to corral and the newborn who inevitably wants to eat every time Styles steps foot onto the field. I do my absolute best to cheer him on and to let him know that I’m watching and taking pictures every time his foot touches the ball. I am very proud of his efforts and I want him to know that. But when my attentions and affections must be shared by his two very demanding, much younger siblings, how can I let him know how much I love and adore him?

I struggle with new and fun things to do with and for him because my husband works very long hours as a restaurant manager and much of the time it is just the kids and me. We don’t really have the financial resources for me to get a babysitter on a regular basis so I often have to do things around the home or take the other two with us. I have, however; come up with a few things that you can do to make your older child feel just as much love now as he or she did when they were adorable little bundles. These apply to all older children, not just ones with much younger siblings.

My top 11 Favorite Ways to Show my Elementary Schooler that he is Important to me:

1. Write love notes on a napkin and put it in their lunchbox. I don’t do it every day because I don’t want it to lose its magical powers. Every so often, I use a Sharpie to write something special to him.

2. Hide cards in random spots for your child to find. Hallmark has a really cute line especially for kids from their parents for absolutely no reason. I found one recently that told the child how important they were to the family dynamic. I put it on his pillow before he went to bed that night. I’ve also hidden them in his LEGO boxes, on top of his video game system, in the pocket of some pants, in his shoe, and in the drawer where he keeps his toothbrush. Keep it interesting and fun. And remember, you don’t have to buy a card. Make a handmade one – those are just as fun to a child.

3. Make a special breakfast for them. Styles’ favorite thing in the world is bacon. Pair that with a freshly baked blueberry muffin, and I’ve won his heart (and his good behavior) for at least 24 hours. Figure out what your child LOVES to eat in the morning, wake up early, and allow them to arise to the aroma of their favorite food. It is a mouthwateringly simple way to show them you care.

4. Allow your child to take a random day off from school and do something they love to do. I don’t do this often. My child’s education is very important to me, however; he gets great grades and is in the gifted program. To reward him for his hard work once per quarter, I let him sleep in one morning (without his prior knowledge), and then take him to do something fun. When we lived in Orlando, we’d go to Disney. Now we go to the beach, the park, to play Putt-Putt golf, or a movie. I like making it a random Wednesday to break up the monotony of the week and each little break is so appreciated by him.

6. Surprise your child with something that they’ve been pining after or saving their money for. This is another one that I don’t do on a regular basis, but sometimes when I’m feeling especially loving and generous I’ll pick up a LEGO set that Styles has had his eyes on for some time. I wrap it up and put it on his bed for him to discover when he gets home from school. I like pretending that I don’t know how it got there and I love seeing the delight in his face. Now if I could just get him to stop talking about how excited he is for a week straight, I’d be much obliged.

5. Dress up and take your child on a date. We haven’t done this in a while but I used to dress us both up in our Sunday best, get Styles a little treat or a bunch of flowers (he loved that), and take him to his favorite restaurant. He loves calamari so we’d start with that, I’d let him eat whatever he wanted to off of the menu, and then we’d round it out with dessert. Sometimes we’d follow dinner up with a walk around the lake at the park or a movie. There have been other date nights that involved a simple picnic dinner outdoors and stargazing with our telescopes.

7. Look at your child when he or she is talking to you and at least pretend to be interested in and excited about what they are saying. I have a hard time with this. Styles is an incessant talker. Sometimes he talks just to hear himself talk and what he’s saying has no relevance to…ANYTHING. Because of this, I often find myself zoning out when he talks. Lately I have tried to be more attentive to his stories but I have also had to learn to tell him when I am available for intent listening and when I’m not. When I AM available, I stop what I’m doing, look him in the eye and engage him in a conversation.

8. Plan a game night. Styles absolutely loves to play board games and so do we. We pop some popcorn, allow him to pick out the game, and we play for a predetermined amount of time. This is generally a weekend activity and we always wait until his little sister has gone to bed so that he has our full-on attention

9. Ask your child how they are feeling and what is going on in their personal lives. Even children who talk a LOT are sometimes reluctant to express their feelings. It is important for us to know what is going on in their lives and to remain connected to their feelings. When I notice that Styles is in a melancholy mood, I sit him down and ask him what’s going on. It often takes some prodding but I remind him on a regular basis that he can talk to me. I have also opened the floor recently for him to tell me when I’ve hurt his feelings in some way. I want the lines of communication to be open especially as we enter the scary teen years. I want to be the first person he comes to when he is in a situation where drugs or alcohol are involved and when he decides he’s ready to have sex. That communication doesn’t come over night. You have to plant the seed and water it daily for it to grow, long before they reach those scary years. This one on one attention allows your child to know that you are available for them, even if you have other children or situations vying for your time.

10. Remember that your child is still a child. Styles is very mature and intelligent and I often forget that he is still a child. I was reminded a few weeks ago that he is just a child as he was taking a bath and telling me about his latest toy. His small frame was covered in bubbles and I remembered being 9 and loving to play with my “My Little Ponies” while I was talking on my new phone. This is a particularly difficult stage between child and teenager and I try to remember that when he asks to cuddle with me on the couch, to take a bubble bath, and romp in puddles. All of this after he’s talked back to me and told me what HE thinks is best for his life. Allow your older child to still be a child.

11. Have your child help you in the kitchen. Cooking can be really fun. Sometimes I have to beg Styles to get in the kitchen with me but once he feels like he’s in charge of measuring all of the ingredients, he becomes much more interested in spending time with me behind the stove. We recently made homemade ice-cream in plastic bags. It was a fun science experiment with a super-sweet reward in the end.

Of course there are many ways to let your child know that they are loved but these are the ones that I try to implement in our household. What do you do to let your older child know that they are loved? If you’re reading this and have teenagers, what do YOU do? I’d love to get new and fresh ideas and I hope you have taken something away from reading mine.


Cody J. Bennett said... [Reply to comment]

Heya Summer,

Just curious if you've ever picked up The Five Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman; it may give insights on how to be more effective with the efforts to show each of your children love that they hear and feel within. Your list above gives a great variety to how love can be shown. I know for myself, I'm prone to often, share love through methods that touch my own heart (like me giving acts of service to my wife, when in reality she'd be more "filled" through quality time).

Great post!

Rachelle said... [Reply to comment]

Wonderful post! I was glad to hear the positive aspects of your family dynamic but also some challenges that you face with an age difference like that. Those are great suggestions on ways to help not only older children but individual children feel special. Being a middle child, I know my parents did a lot of those same things with me to help me feel important and loved. Thanks for sharing!

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