It was a September day two years ago when everything changed. The week before, I’d had a busy full-time job and felt fully in control of my world. Now, Richard and I found ourselves gazing at the little red and wrinkled bundle that was our son – our first child.
What we didn’t know was the extent to which life would change … forever. I’d naively assumed that eight-and-a-half months of nausea followed by a night of hard labour meant that the difficult bit was over. I’d been given advice by the bucket load on the practical challenges of the first few weeks – feeding, bathing, changing – and mastering this while enduring acute sleep deprivation seemed to put Special Forces training in the shade. But useful as that was, my focus on the few weeks following the birth meant that I had somehow overlooked the fact that this was just the beginning. The parenthood journey had really only just begun.
In the whirlwind of life as a mum or dad (we eventually had four primary age children – what were we thinking?) what I longed for was a book. Not any book – a parenting book that I could pick up quickly and easily to find some wisdom to help me in this wonderful but challenging role. Just as the ancient book of Proverbs gives bite-sized principles for living, I needed something that would give me principles for parenting and family life.
And that’s why I decided to write If You Forget Everything Else, Remember This – Parenting in the Primary Years. It’s a book of short and to-the-point sayings that parents can read in a few minutes while waiting for the kettle to boil – sayings that you can recall and draw upon in an instant amid the busyness, tiredness and chaos that goes with the territory of parenting in the primary years.
I have tried to make each chapter heading an easy-to-remember catchphrase. One of my favourites is about words. I’ve included it in the book, but let me share it with you here:
Speak words of life
One of the most memorable pieces of bite-sized wisdom in the book of Proverbs reminds us: “The tongue has the power of life and death.” They are strong words indeed, but they do point out the sheer power of the words we speak.
When they are babies and toddlers it’s relatively easy to say encouraging and affirming words to our children. Our son learns to recognise the first letter of his name, or we catch our daughter sharing her toys, and we readily give praise, telling them how clever, kind or generous they are. As children move into the primary years, however, it’s easy to focus more on the negatives. We slip into nagging and pointing out what is wrong rather than spotting what is right and praising them for it.
Some time ago, our youngest asked if he could wash the car. He made a good job of it, however armed with a hose and free time he found lots of other things that he believed could do with dousing – including his brother! A water fight soon ensued, and I told him off in no uncertain terms for the tsunami he’d created. It was only later that I realised I’d had nothing to say about the sparkling clean car – least of all made a point of praising him for it.
For one of our children, words of praise or encouragement are especially important. When he was about 11 years old I was looking for something and discovered a shoebox under his bed. I took the lid off and found it was full of cards, notes and scraps of paper. They were all addressed to him and said kind and supportive things; over the years he had saved them. When I asked him about it he said, “It’s my treasure box. If I’m feeling sad I take it out and read the words people have said, and it makes me feel good.”
I remember meeting a dad at a Care for the Family event. He had four stepchildren and they spent half the week with him and half with their biological dad. He told me about a wall in their kitchen. They called it the ‘sticker wall’ because they stuck things that they could be proud of on it. He said the children weren’t top of the class at school, nor were they great at sport. Nevertheless, all kinds of different achievements were celebrated – successes that were special to them as a family. And it wasn’t just the children’s achievements that were marked. One sticker read, “You did really good driving today, Dad” and another, “Mummy is the best brownie maker in the world.” When visitors came, the children would drag them through to the kitchen to see the wall. That stepdad told me he’d watch their hearts swell with pride as the visitors admired all the stickers.
One family we know has a birthday tradition. After the candles are blown out on the cake, each member says something that they love or admire about the birthday girl or boy. It’s an encouragement that they can take with them into the year ahead: words not just for birthdays … but for life.