The New Fall SeasonSeptember 16, 2006
Next week, my son Ben will turn 11. I find it so fascinating how each new year brings about interesting changes and challenges. At least it's fascinating if you only have one child and he or she is not yet a teenager!
With his birthday and the start of the school year, September has become our month to really think about what we could be doing different or better as parents. We usually come up with a list (yes, we do love our lists) that includes some new freedoms along with new responsibilities. Ben has such a great attitude that he loves these changes and embraces them with enthusiasm. Not always, though - when we said it would be a good idea if he served somewhere in school last year as a way of giving back, he wasn't too keen.
This year was an eclectic mix. First, we decided that he needed to be more helpful with family chores and projects. When you only have one child, it's easy to give him or her a few specific jobs, but then handle everything else yourselves (especially for impatient parents like ourselves). We started noticing that Lori and I were rushing around the house, emptying dishwashers, cleaning up counters, and organizing the garage while he relaxed on the couch because he was "done with my part." We realized that family work needed to be a team effort, so we don't create a "that's not in my job description" home.
Second, we noticed that we were spending way too much time debating and arguing about various small decisions, from when to do homework to bedtime to what to wear to church. I know this is as common as could be, but it is especially easy in one-child homes. Though these are usually very calm and sometimes interesting conversations, they eventually become exhausting. I love to debate things and he's really very good at making his case, but eventually a decision has to be made and we need to move on. We decided that he can offer his alternative plan or any reasons he thinks his idea is better, then we make the decision and the conversation is over. This is just for the day-to-day questions, not ideas for his birthday party or what sport to play this year. And many, many things are left entirely up to him.
The third thing is related to the second. Ben has been playing piano for 3 years and never misses a chance to tell us that he would stop if he could. He's extremely good at it, though, and we love the discipline of working at something regularly, the musical knowledge, and the wonderful way it challenges his mind. And, deep down, he seems to love it, too, but he's not a fan of the constant practicing. Since one of our daily debates is about piano practice, we finally decided to allow him to choose when and how long he practices. His only responsibility is to practice 3 hours each week.
He loves this, and so do we. By giving him the responsibility, he now has a sense of ownership. He is also learning to budget his time - he might have to say no to a fun activity later in the week because he's put off so much of his practice. And don't we all like to do something more when no one is telling us to do it?
The final change came from a recent Wall Street Journal article. It was about allowances (big surprise!). The point was that allowances are there to teach kids about money and responsibility, but if you only give your child enough for fun spending, and not enough to cover things like presents for friends and family, they really aren't learning much at all. Also, if they always know that mom and dad will cover those expenses, make up the difference, or give a 3-month advance when they really, really, really want something, then they're actually learning bad habits.
So this year, Ben is going to receive a larger allowance. He will have to tithe 10%, save 20%, and then the rest is up to him. Here's the catch, though. He will be using his money, and his money only, to buy birthday presents for his friends, and presents for Lori and I on birthdays, Christmas, and Mother's/Father's Day. In other words, he'll need to save and budget for things that are coming later in the year, or for big ticket items he hopes to get. In the end, he'll have about the same amount of money to spend on whatever he wants as he does now, he'll just be responsible for more. It will be very interesting to see just how generous he is with gifts when it's his own money.
What's funny so far is that Ben is doing great with these things - it's Lori and I that are struggling to stay consistent and not take the path of least resistence.
Finally, there were other signs of Ben getting older this fall: he got glasses for the first time and attended his first wedding. The pictures tell the tale. During the wedding, I pointed out to Lori that if Ben got married at the same age we did, we'd be attending his wedding in 10 years! Bonus advice: This is not something most mothers want to hear.
Yes, I know that Ben's glasses only add to the whole Mini-Me thing we got going on. And yes, I know that Lori is one incredibly beautiful woman!
Be sure to share any cool parenting ideas - I'd love to hear them!