When I Was Your Age

Last night my 5 year old burst into my bedroom, announcing, in a huffy voice, she needed to use my bathroom. I said “of course, you don’t need to ask.” She rushed in and came out later to say she couldn’t use the one she shares with her 2-year-old brother because he was using it. And he takes forever. Which is true. I then launched into one of my famous “when I was little” stories.

I told her when I was her age (and until I was 15), my home only had one bathroom. In the basement. Not that our house was very big anyway, so it wasn’t a huge inconvenience to go downstairs. The main floor was four square rooms of equal size – all tiny. It had been built in the late 1800’s, we think, by the Levi Strauss outfit, which ran cattle in our valley.  It served as a bunkhouse. Then around the turn of the century it was a post office. In fact, our front door, until I was 15, was dark green painted wood with a boarded-up mail slot. The history of me is probably better covered in a book which no one will read, so back to our topic of me telling my daughter she doesn’t have it so bad.

As usual, she has unimpressed. She has heard all about me growing up poor, never having new clothes, never going on anything resembling vacation if it didn’t involve a gun show or a basketball tournament, and working hard. The problem is she also knows I had barn kitties by the 10’s, a dog, my own horse, pet bunnies, and lots of cows. Whenever she has a question about something outdoorsy she asks me “because you grew up on a ranch, you know this stuff, right, Mom?” Usually I do, or if I don’t, I am very creative.

Working at the ranch.

My husband and I are well aware our kids are significantly more privileged than either of us were growing up, and honestly more than most kids. This is not always a good thing, however, in my opinion. Yes, they get to travel to amazing places, they live in a nice house, they have plenty to eat (or not eat, seriously, why can’t they just eat?). These are positives. But we strive very hard to make sure they are growing up grounded, with a decent amount of common sense, and I hope they remain humble and appreciative. How do we this?

That’s the trick isn’t it? How DO we raise children, whose parents are a university professor and a lawyer, who aren’t little jerks? As I have said many times, I am not an expert on parenting. I am in no position to tell others how they should live their life or parent; I just know what works for me, for our little family. And let’s be honest, it barely works for me as it is. I just hope sharing helps others, or gives them an idea, even if that idea is what not to do. Or let’s other parents say “hey, I’m not alone here!”

Discipline is one way, of course, but I’m terrible on this topic. I do my fair share of yelling, threatening, screaming – none of it works in this situation (and do we really expect it to?). So, let’s move on and let another of my more capable team members tackle that one. So, how are we trying to raise non-spoiled kids?

First of all, we do not buy a bunch of new crap for our kids. We don’t do the newest, biggest, flashiest toys. My daughter’s Barbie house came secondhand from a friend. All of our bicycles and tricycles are from goodwill or second hand in some way. The toy kitchen – one of those mom consignment sales. The toy tractor – off a Facebook resale page. We have a closet in their playroom completely dedicated to dress-up – all but two dresses are from secondhand stores (go to Goodwill a few weeks before Halloween – dress up heaven). We do not do giant toys for Christmas. Instead, it’s something small, lots of books, new pajamas, and a new outfit. I do not like to make Christmas about the presents, instead we do bigger presents on birthdays. We have a huge focus on reading in our house, but honestly a majority of our books are from secondhand sources as well. We provide them with as many art supplies as they want, however. The point? You don’t get everything you ask for; you don’t need all those expensive toys to have fun.

Our 5-year-old loves her kitties!

Secondly, we have pets. I think this teaches kids empathy, to not be selfish, and responsibility. We have an old dog, two kitties, which we got as kittens, and two horses. The kitties are outdoor kitties and get to come and go as they please. My kids adore them and carry them around all day, usually in some awkward position. They often feed the animals, but right now cannot be trusted to remember to do it EVERY time. That will come.

(Trigger warning for Helicopter moms – you’re not going like these next two paragraphs). Along with pets, comes the ability to be outside. Feel the grass on your toes. Don’t be afraid to get dirty. Make mud pies. Put on your raincoat when it rains, or not. Remember to wear gloves when it’s snowing. See dead animals. Wait, what? Yes, I said dead animals. Being exposed to this teaches children about the cycle of life and it makes them better rounded individuals. Talk with them about this. Earlier this week, one of the cats killed a bunny and left it in the yard. Our dog sees this as manna from heaven and loves all the free treats. He ate half of it. My kids witnessed this. I was at work and our nanny had to pick it up, who was way more traumatized than my kids. I talked with my daughter about it when I got home. She wasn’t really that sad, just mad at her cat for killing a bunny and leaving it in the yard, mostly nonchalant. I was happy with the realistic girl we have. Update: this past weekend we had our first dead snake, courtesy of the cats. Me to 5 year old: “Did you touch it?” Her: “Ya, it was really cool!” And I’m happy she touched it. Snakes do feel cool, honestly.

I let my kids play in the dirt!

Playing outside on their own also forces a certain amount of common sense on them, something I think can be severely lacking in kids who spend their days being shuttled from one activity to another or put in front of the TV/iPad, etc for long periods of time. Unsupervised play can be a bit nerve wracking but is so important. If you stand on that lawn chair, odds are you’re going to fall off. Cats don’t always love going down the slide with you. You fell down and no one is immediately there to pick you up. My kids play outside by themselves quite a bit, especially when I need to get dinner on the table after a full day of work.

Kids and dog walking through the creek.

We also have two horses. Nothing fancy (in fact we got one of them free when we bought the other one – she was lame when we got her, but we nursed her back to nearly 100%), just two grade mares we can ride and love on. Now, I know this is not for everyone. Not everyone can afford horses. I am well aware of this, trust me. But for our kids, the horses are teaching them important skills, way beyond good balance, calm hands, and don’t walk by the back end. My kids are not afraid of getting dirty, quite the opposite in fact. They learn to overcome fears. They learn empathy. They also learn to take charge and be the boss on that lazy paint mare.

Third, say “please” and “thank you.” Every. Single. Time. I know this sounds a bit ridiculous, but I strongly believe it helps raise kids who are appreciative and respectful. I have heard other moms say to saying thank you, “it’s just not something we place a huge priority on. We find other things more important.” Well, I don’t. I think this is the base and you can place the other building blocks of being a good human on top of it. Because in the end, we are trying to raise decent humans. I find kids that do not say “thank you” quite rude. Period. I know that’s harsh, but when they go out into a world without being able to show appreciation and respect, well, they are probably going to be fine honestly, but people will think they suck. I do not want that for my kids. Oh, and my kids learn to say “thank you” in every language spoken in places we travel. To tell you the truth, hearing my daughter at 19 months say “obrigada!” to waiters in little neighborhood restaurants in Portugal was pretty adorable. And ALWAYS got us special treatment. She also learned it in Bulgarian (blagodarya), Greek (efharisto), and of course Italian (grazie). My two-year-old also became a professional at “please” and “thank you” in Italian this June, as well as “good day”, “good evening”, “good night”. After being home several months, he still constantly asks us what things are in Italian (or French, which his dad speaks). Last night was “stainless steel.” I have no idea, buddy.

Fourth and finally, give them responsibility. This varies based on age, but includes cleaning their own room, then their own bathroom, then the kitchen, whatever. Our 5-year-old cleans her own room, is supposed to put her laundry away (this takes some serious convincing), picks up her toys, very important drawings, blanket forts, etc. out of the living room and anywhere else they have migrated. She also has been dressing herself, complete with picking out all of her outfits for two years. She often sets the table for Saturday family breakfast. The 2-year-old, well, he likes to help me clean up from dinner and rinse plates/bowls/cups/glasses for the dishwasher. He’s less great at picking up toys, but superb at picking out his pajamas and shirt/pants combinations that rarely match.   

So does this work? It does for us, or at least it seems to with a 5 and 2-year-old. Only time will tell, really. What works for YOUR family, in the category of raising grounded kids? I’d love to see your thoughts below.

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