Tom and I struggled for years to have children. Yet, on a brisk winter day in February, as I watched our oldest child share why she was Pro-Life, I could not have been more grateful to my Father in heaven who blessed us with this miracle 15 years ago. We were infertile for the first four years of marriage and you can imagine our excitement when our first baby came into this world. Mary Grace, who got her name from “Hail Mary, full of Grace”, was born on September 28th, 1999. We were the typical overjoyed, hovering, expectant, gushing, bragging parents of this firstborn child.
Now, at the time of becoming new parents, we could not imagine who Mary Grace would become one day. We just loved that new baby! A few years later, as we watched this baby turns into a toddler, into a preschooler, and then a kid who would one day go out into the world and be someone, we began to look at our young children and wonder, “God what do you have planned for this child?” Who are they to become in 5, 10, 20 years? How will they be as a friend, spouse, or parent? Are there areas that are blocking them, holding them back, or preventing them from excelling in the areas of physical, spiritual, academic, social, and emotional stability? Or are there areas specific to their disposition that we should pay attention to in helping them thrive?
I remember when first it occurred to me that Mary Grace could be different in ways that didn’t allow her to easily blend in. Her Kindergarten teacher remarked that, after several months in school, Mary Grace had done a cartwheel in the classroom and revealed a small gush of emotion. Her teacher was so delighted that Mary Grace had finally come out of her shell. But something about this implication didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t that she was shy, I found myself reasoning, but her reserved, calculated, highly-sensitive self was guarded in public before she could begin to feel comfortable with her new environment. So, slightly defensively, I said, “Well you just don’t see her at home.”
Isn’t it surprising how our children show up in another environment outside of the home and are often perceived by their teachers or aunts and uncles differently than what we experience them to be like at home? God makes our kids so unique and to see their personalities unfold is both perplexing and wondrous. When I volunteer in the classroom of my kids it is AMAZING to me how I see them and their characteristics in an entirely different light. And mostly for the good.
I have favored a personality book over the years that has been a huge (no, HUGE!) help in me realizing that it’s not me or my parenting style or my dysfunctional self being passed on to them, it’s just how they were created. Mary Grace is bright and enterprising; from the early age of 10 she wrote a blog for several years, well just because! (Check it out here: http://omg-ruserious.blogspot.com/) She had a knack for it and just loved it and it came easily and naturally to her. After two years homeschooling her, the demands of having (at the time) 7 kids in 9 years became an increasingly difficult “call” to juggle, so we enrolled her in our local Catholic school beginning in 4th grade. It was then that we started to look at her life in the bigger picture, as she was now with lots of peers and, left up to her, fitting in seemed more important than her academic or spiritual growth. As time went on, we began to understand her approach and her pace; taking time to arrive at conclusions. She played all the CYO sports and swam but it wasn’t until 7th grade that she settled on volleyball as her sport. She played the piano for a few years and has now moved on to the ukulele. She enjoyed photography but really came to experience it as a simple hobby of taking pictures of her siblings and friends as the time arose. She made friends easily but was always reserved and deliberate.
I’d like to say, with Mary Grace being our oldest, that we had it all figured out — but, of course not! She remains the guinea pig in all this parenting experimentation. Even our first high school party with her was a bit of a fail forward. We can now laugh and shake our heads and wonder how we didn’t see what we couldn’t see? Yes indeed, this parenting gig is full time work and it is constantly changing! And yes, it is a labor of love, a true vocation that can fill any amount of time you want to give to it. And the more your child falls on either end of the spectrum, either being highly gifted or mildly disabled, the more time and attention is demanded of you. But we do have some things figured out.
Tom and I quickly saw how outnumbered we were in terms of resources and energy and time. It’s difficult enough doing this for two kids, let alone our big crew of nine! In the last 4 years we decided we really needed to get a handle on this vocation of parenting. So, twice yearly we get away for a day or an overnight and do a review of each child and look at those 5 areas of growth: physical, spiritual, academic, social and emotional. We try to create space in their lives, and in our home, to help them grow into God and see and use the gifts they have been given. We include them in their own goal setting as they write simple goals for themselves and then we help them understand the process and how to monitor their progress. Also we look at Gary Chapman’s understanding of love languages and how we are meeting those needs. We ask ourselves:
- Do they see themselves as a gift? Learning who they are and helping them to feel that they belong is huge.
- What do they truly value and how are they hindered in growing in these areas given their predispositions?
- What are the ways we are parenting them correctly and incorrectly?
- How do our personality styles help or hinder them?
- And most importantly, how do we bring them to a living relationship with Jesus? How do we create opportunities for His loving arms to surround them and comfort them when we are unable to reach or fill that ache in their heart?
So imagine her thrill when she came home one afternoon and recounted to us the unexpected enthusiasm of her class as they leapt to their feet and chanted “Save the babies, save the babies” after her first presentation in junior high. This was a seventh grade assignment she presented to her class on being Pro-Life. It had such a dramatic effect on her classmates that she was encouraged to speak at an event with Tom. Still she resisted. However in this season of life she was still open to be led and it is in this very narrow moment we made a plan. This was an opportunity we didn’t want to miss! Tom worked with her on a speech that she delivered to 400 adults. And then from that event another lady invited her to speak, which lead then to another speaking event. Walking with her through these times was powerful as it cemented her relationship even more with Tom and deepened her sense of mission.
There were several weekend retreats during the summers to follow that she was able to attend. This surrounded her with Christian youth, a greater Catholic formation, and brought a fuller sense of a call out of the depths of her heart. However she refused to do any more speaking after this past summer. “Never again, I am not going to give any more speeches.” But when a group from last year’s March for Life asked her to come back again this winter — and agreed to pay her a couple hundred dollars — Mary Grace was in. We felt a call to accompany her for several reasons which proved to be so very fruitful. These were simple doors that opened and we walked with her through these doors. Well, “we” meaning her Dad.
How do you help your teenagers flourish? We want to hear from you! Share your successes and fail forwards in the comments below!