I won’t be the one rotten apple in our bunch

July 1, 2015

It was one of those rare moments when everyone was talking and giggling together. With three college students at home for a few days, along with three younger children, it was great to listen to them. I just sat and watched as I mended a skirt, enjoying the cheerfulness around me.


Then it happened. Someone was devouring some crunchy candy that had been sitting there just begging to be eaten. That wasn’t the problem. No one really minded—except for one. This child has a limited tolerance for noise that she doesn’t approve of.


If someone starts singing, she stops them within about two beats. If someone is chewing and she can hear it, she is adamant that they stop eating near her. Belches, however, always seem to be met with delight.


She says loud chewing annoys her. I remind her that listening to her gripe can be frustrating, too. But she doesn’t see that. She just feels that if she doesn’t want to hear it, it shouldn’t be happening.


In a home with as many people as ours, noise happens. Sometimes it’s just plain pandemonium. We call that “happy noise.” But for this child, if she is not involved in the noise-making, it bothers her.


She doesn’t hear me when I encourage her to practice tolerance, but if someone talks with their mouth full, she can detect it from across the house. When she is practicing her instrument, she is happy, but someone else’s humming is enough to drive her insane.


The cheerfulness permeating our house that evening disappeared rather rapidly as this child voiced her complaint. All the other children fell silent at her outburst. Then the offending child did what I am sure most would do—tossed a whole handful of candy into her mouth and crunched away with a smirk.


The party continued, but it made me think: One person had controlled the whole mood of the house. We often get annoyed when our children spoil that fun, but what if we are the ones to blame? What if we are the “complaining child,” so to speak, who is ruining the good memories?


Obviously, there are times when discipline and control need to be at the forefront. However, perhaps we focus on that more than we need to. Our desire for order may be stifling a lot of great conversation, joking around, and good memories. Are we the rotten apple in the barrel?


Not only that, but when discipline is needed, does it have to be communicated in an angry tone? Can we let the unimportant things go, so the more important work of relationships can continue?


When it does become necessary to manage behaviors, consider allowing the consequences to do the talking. Shouting is a consequence, but it isn’t a logical one and it can really destroy the mood in the home.


If the kids forget to do their laundry, it doesn’t do any good to yell at them and then do the laundry for them. Sympathize, but remember that it’s not your issue; it’s theirs. Let them find something else to wear.


As long as disagreements are only verbal and not vicious, I tend to stay out of them. No matter what I decide, one child is going to be mad at me, so why jump in? Besides, they need to figure out how to discuss issues with others all by themselves.


Meanwhile, back at our party, I am still sitting comfortably in my chair, now mending a shirt, still smiling, and not really worried about what is going on. I keep on eye on things and try to be aware of each child’s feelings, but the desire to micromanage just isn’t there. I am free to joke around and laugh with them. I don’t have to deal with every little thing. I don’t want to and the children don’t want me to. I can just enjoy their company.


I found a little trick along the way: When I start feeling taken advantage of or unappreciated, I take that as a signal that I am doing too much—maybe more than others want me to do. I start getting grumpy and the whole house gets a little tense.


So I pull back. I free myself from those obligations. I still put dinner on the table, of course, and I make sure the house is clean. I visit with the children and help them with the things they need. I do the mending and ironing and drive endless miles taking them to their activities.


But when it comes to bailing them out of a bad decision—like leaving their homework for the last minute, or needing ten dozen cookies for a bake sale in one hour—I politely ask them how they plan to get that done. I hope they don’t hear me whistling as I head off, but if they do, it’s okay. If they caused the problem, they can fix it. Meanwhile, I stay cheerful.


I will still help them, but the bulk of the responsibility rests on their shoulders, right where it belongs. I am a helpful parent, not a helicopter parent. I help them face their obligations, but I don’t allow them to transfer their obligations to my shoulders.


At our party, I had time to sit back and banter with my children. I may or may not have won the belching contest; I will never tell. But one thing is for certain. I intend to enjoy their company, and if there’s one rotten apple, it’s not going to be me.

Donna Howard is a mother of ten children—yes, ten—a grandmother of six, and has served as a foster parent. She has a bachelor’s degree in clarinet performance and composition. She teaches elementary music methods to education majors and owns her own band instrument repair business.

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