Jen Hatmaker on the Benefits of Positive Parenting

How did the popular author and mom of 5 find a way to encourage herself and her kids?

Posted in , Aug 24, 2017

Jen, with her kids Ben and Remy, notes when family members do something nice for each other.

It was one of those days. I loved my husband, Brandon, and our kids, and I adored the life we’d built together. Some days, though, I just didn’t feel it. Brandon and I have five kids—Gavin, 19, Sydney, 17, Caleb, 15, Ben, 14, and Remy, 11. Despite being enormously grateful for our family (especially after God answered our prayers by bringing us Ben and Remy through the gift of adoption), I sometimes found myself feeling—I’m sure most moms feel this way at one time or another—underappreciated. I felt guilty even thinking it.

Still, some days, motherhood seemed like a game of guilt management, as if I had more obligations than there were hours in the day. Brandon and I were pastoring a church and running a nonprofit, and on top of that I was an author, blogger and speaker. Not that my kids paid much notice. Because I worked from home and therefore didn’t have a “real” job, I was always at their disposal. Remy, for instance, insisted she was “too little” to do her chores. Sydney found a way to disagree with every word out of my mouth, and Ben and Caleb were locked in an endless cycle of bickering.

Normally I liked the chaos, even thrived on it, but at that time (this was a few years ago, so the kids were a bit younger), it felt overwhelming. Growing kids meant growing amounts of everything—more bills, more arguments, more cell phone tracker apps and more food than I ever knew was possible for five kids to consume. I was tired of constantly disciplining, picking up after their messes and trying to impress upon them the importance of speaking kindly to each other. Most of all, I was tired of feeling sorry for myself.

I call times like these the doldrums. One of the problems with the doldrums was that the things I needed to do to feel better were the exact things I had lost the energy for. Tidying the house. Spending quality time with Brandon. Speaking patiently to my children. Fixing my hair before going to the grocery store. But my will refused to cooperate, which made me feel more and more disappointed in myself. It was a vicious cycle.

So on that particular evening, I simply retreated to my room. I can’t even remember what specifically the kids had done to make me so upset. It was probably just an ordinary dinner table spat, but it was enough to make me flee. I leaned against the bedroom door and prayed, “God, you know I love mothering these children, but right now I’m having a little trouble acting as if I do. Something needs to change in our family, and it’s going to take your help.”

Without missing a beat, God responded. He brought to mind several lovely moments my kids had engineered that very day. Moments they had helped one another, showed kindness, cracked a joke. In a strikingly vivid way, I was reminded of the ordinary goodness of their lives. Had I been seeing only the bad moments? How much good was I missing because I was trapped in the doldrums and taking it out on my kids?

Not so long ago, I used to love watching them play together, acting out fairy tales or playing school. They sometimes used an old chalkboard.... I stood up straight. How could I forget that old chalkboard? I threw open the bedroom door and rummaged through our hall closet until I found it. I dusted it off and stood it up on its rickety legs right outside the kitchen. Perfect.

“Okay, everyone,” I said. “I’ve got an announcement.”

The kids looked at me warily. I am drawn to systems—a chore chart, a meal prep schedule. They probably thought I was about to launch yet another revamp of our chore schedule or an entirely new system.

“We’re going to start a list,” I said. They glanced at each other skeptically. “But this is a special list.”

Silence. I detected their expressions turning to curiosity.

“We’re going to track all the good things we do,” I said, tapping the board. “There’s a catch though. It has to be about someone else. This isn’t the space to brag about how incredible it was that you unloaded the dishwasher. This is the place to brag about the good things we all do in this family.”

We called it the Brag Board.

Anytime we caught someone being kind, helpful, gracious or just plain awesome, we wrote it down on the board. It wasn’t as if we were trying to make our behavior better or kinder, only that we were noticing it.

The funny thing is, I don’t think they had more shining moments than before, but they just started celebrating them more. Little things. Like when Ben clamped his mouth shut instead of snapping at his brother. Celebrating Gavin’s high science test scores. Brandon and I acknowledging when one of them took out the recycling or complimented a sibling. Jotting down examples of Remy’s thoughtfulness and Ben’s jokes.

Sometimes they used the Brag Board as a place for humorous tattling: “I noticed that when Caleb ignored your instruction to get off the phone last night, he at least turned off the light while whispering, ‘saving electricity.’”

It was fun to watch the Brag Board make its way into daily life. I’d hear the kids say to each other, “Oh! That’s going on the Brag Board!” Plus, I’d watch them casually saunter over to see if anyone had written something nice about them.

Of course I challenged myself to notice the positive. Occasionally this meant following a particular child around for a day. But catching kids in their goodness totally beat constantly reprimanding them in their struggles and feeling guilty as a mother. The Lord reminded me over and over: You see what you’re looking for.

The doldrums, by the way, are a real place on earth and not just an expression to describe a down period. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sailors used to fear the region around the equator where the winds diminished or died altogether, sometimes trapping ships and their crews for weeks at a time. There are even tales about sailors going mad in the doldrums. I can identify. Soon enough, though, for most sailing ships, the winds would gently rise and the vessel would be delivered from the doldrums.

That’s what happened to me. The wind that finally came was like the breath of heaven. My mind cleared. All my negative feelings subsided. The truth on the Brag Board was proof. I could not have been given better kids to love and be loved by. It took some time for any of these things to make a difference. But it had taken me two months to get that far deep into the doldrums. I had to claw my way out, one decision, one moment of noticing the good instead of stressing about the bad, at a time.

About a month after setting up the Brag Board, as I was scrawling a quick thank-you to the kids for being super helpful at a party we hosted, I realized I was happy to be alive again. I remembered the truth buried beneath my funk: These are the kids of my dreams. I like them so much, I cannot believe I am lucky enough to get to raise them. If I could handpick five kids in the entire universe to raise, it would be them.

I still face occasional bouts of the doldrums. I think they’re probably something everyone deals with at one point or another. But now I know the way out. We will see exactly what we look for, and it’s always possible to catch someone doing good.

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The cover of Jen Hatmaker's Of Mess and Moxie Jen Hatmaker is the author of Of Mess and Moxie: Wrangling Delight Out of This Wild and Glorious Life (Thomas Nelson, 2017).
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