Raising Young Children

Not quite thirty years ago, my sister was expecting her first child. At the time, she was living in Germany and I was living in Montgomery, Alabama.  At that time, I had just gotten a new printer, which would print very clearly at very small sizes, and I was a kid with a new toy.

Being as how I had “vast experience” with my own two kids, I wrote my sister a letter about child raising.

Being as how I was the older brother and still loved teasing my sister, I printed the letter on my new printer in super-tiny type. It was a LONG letter (as you can see below), but it all fit onto less than two pages.

I recently got to the point in my clean-out-my-office project where I FOUND that letter to my sister. I scanned it and ran it through OCR, and found it was actually a pretty good letter, so I’m posting it here.

No telling when someone else might find some useful tidbits in it.

So here is my recent email to my sister, including the old letter from many years ago.  If you want to skip directly to the part about kid-raising, then skip all the stuff in dark red – that’s just nattering about what was going on in Montgomery in 1990 (or so).

In the midst of a combination cleaning up junk and searching for something else today, I came across my copy of that letter I mentioned to you a month or two ago – the one I did in micro print on the front and back of one sheet of paper, in three columns, with all my advice about raising a kid. This is the one I wrote you from Montgomery, when you were pregnant with Ariana, but had not yet selected her name. When was Ariana born? 1991? Anyway, I think this letter is in about September of 1990, although I could be off by as much as a year.

Anyway, you’ll be super tickled to know I now have that entire letter in a Word document! So we can make the font any size we want, instead of the 5-point type it was in originally! Hee hee!

Anyway, for your recollection and bemusement, here’s the entire letter. Enjoy!

Gainesvillian: “Hi, there!”
Texan: “Howdy!”
Maineiac: (Nodding) “Mmmm.”
Alabaman: “Hey.”
New Yorker: “Up yawse.”
Sanfordite: “Burp.”
Normal: Baaaaaaiiiiiiiieeeeeee!!!

Wow. It’s been too long since I’ve sent you a letter. But not so long since I’ve written one. I still have your last month’s letter around here somewhere, and I’ll enclose it with this one if I can find it before I mail this one. But I won’t delay mailing this one in looking for that one, because stuff like that is why that one is still on this side of the ocean!

First, a string of excuses as to why it’s been so long. I’ve been busy. (All together, now, in the key of E flat: “It seems to me, … that I have heard that song before…”)

This whole last week the Air Force sponsored a Small Computer Conference right here in Montgomery. They said they were expecting about 1700 people to attend, but I am certain there were well over 3500. There were about 200 vendors who had displays, and quite a few freebies, and LOTS of information, as long as you could figure out who to see and what questions to ask. While I was there, I got some good news and some bad news. The good news was that all the planning I’ve been doing for our new computer system here at CCAF seems to be solidly on the right track, and in fact is on the leading edge of unit integration. More on that later, perhaps. The bad news is that I found a component on a standard AF contract for $615 that we ordered more than 60 of from a private company for $1250 each. I don’t so much blame myself for this, though, because I did extensive research into that particular contract, looking for this particular item, and couldn’t find it. I read all the propaganda that concerned the items on the contract, and I asked several supposedly very knowledgeable people, but no one seemed to be able to give me the info I needed. It might not be too late to change the order, but if it is, oh, well.

The over 35 softball league has now begun, and I’m playing those games on Monday and Wednesday evenings. So far, we’re undefeated. Last Wednesday’s game was a good one: our opponents got eight runs in the first inning. But the final score was 11-9 in favor of the good guys.

At 9:00 p.m. Labor Day night (Sep 4) I got a call from the Dean of Business at Faulkner University, where I taught Systems Analysis and Development last term. It seems they were desperate, and could I please teach sophomore level Macroeconomics to their Accelerated AA class? Why not. Oh, thank you, thank you. Class starts tomorrow night, and runs from 5:40 to 7:50 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Gulp. But, sure, I’ll give it a shot. Because it’s an accelerated course, there are only 7 1/2 weeks that’s fifteen class days. And the book is 29 chapters long, so that makes it two chapters per class, four chapters a week. That’s a real load on me, and a real load on the students as well. So that’s what I’m doing with my “spare” time. I made a deal with the students: I would give them a test every night on the material we covered in the previous class and on the assigned readings, with minimal cumulative vulnerability, but in exchange, we will have no mid-term, and no final. That brought smiles and nods of approval. So I started out giving them comprehension-level (test of understanding) questions on the previously covered material, and knowledge-level (memory stuff not as in-depth) multiple choice questions on the assigned readings. Well, on two tests, there was one person who got an A (the same on each time), and all the other grades were 68 and below down to 34. I was appalled. I talked it over with the class last night, and decided I will eliminate the segment on the assigned readings. The good thing is that most of the people seem to be pretty much into the subject. Not what you’d expect when you first think of **Eco-bleahnomics**. So what I told them is that while I would be perfectly happy for everyone in the class to get an A, I want to be sure that each person receives the grade they earn, commensurate with the efforts they put out, and the amount of learning they get from the course. That discussion did help to put a more favorable attitude about the tests to date.

Finally, there’s the continuing computer project here at work. Things have all been ordered, we’ve had a visit from the two program helpers who are supposedly going to do a lot of the work for us, and I’m still working my bunions off to get all the system and subsystem specifications outlined and detailed. In other words, no change there. We should be receiving our hardware in late October or early November. Incidentally, at the Computer Show this week, I ran into a friend/acquaintance who is also a prolific programmer, and he is the first person I’ve found who is as confident as I am that I can get this thing up and running by December, 1990! Hooray. Everyone else raises their eyebrows, clears their throat, and verbally shuffles their foot on the floor when they hear my target date. Even our helpers from San Antonio. Well by gum, I’m gonna show ’em! (…*!?*…)

So how’s my favorite fat lady? One of the most poignant things I’ve read on the subject of your current condition was written by, of all people, Erma Bombeck, when she was discussing “If I had it to do all over again…” She said, “If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t wish away my nine months of pregnancy, because in spite of the morning sickness, the emotional unbalance, the aching back, and the humiliating figure, this is the only time I’ll ever have the privilege of helping God create a new life.”

I really appreciated your letter, Cherry, especially your thoughts and feelings in the computer-written one. Yes, Jan and I went through all of that. And SINCE YOU ASKED, I’ll pass along to you some of my thoughts and philosophies and findings on child-raising.

The Pregnancy Period. Lots of people think of this as affecting only the mother, but t’a’int so. More than anything, it’s a period of emotional and psychological adjustment and preparation for both of you. It’s good that human gestation takes as long as it does, because even the best of us require the whole time to become accustomed to the idea that our entire lives are now changed. Forever. Now is the time to play through in your mind all the scenarios that were the significant events of your own youth, and discuss them with your mate, trying out different ways of handling them. Now is the time to sketch out the plans for making your choices among Opportunity Costs (doesn’t that sound like an Economics teacher?), deciding what you’ll give up in the way of “free” time to enhance your income and standard of living. Will Cherry seek work? Will you want to move back to the USA by 1994 so Clothilde can attend an American school? What sort of job security will the Martin family gravitate towards as Esmerelda gets older? Does Bill want to pursue the dynamic and uncertain performance career or seek out the security of a tenured professorship? The good thing is that none of these questions have to be answered now. You’ll likely be better off if you decide not to decide yet. But you’ll find yourselves better prepared to face them when they do have to be answered if you begin discussing them now.

It’s baby time! Some people love babies, some can’t stand them, and everyone else flaps around in the middle. The best thing about this period is the babies themselves generally don’t care. New mothers wail “But I’ve never been a mother before! How do I know I’ll do okay?” Don’t worry. The kid has never been a baby before, either. So she’s got nothing to compare you to. Generally, whatever you do is fine with the baby. Many times I’ve been grateful that God made babies out of hard rubber and infinite adaptability. This age, which includes birth to 6 months, is the training period for Mom and Dad. It helps to remember that the baby, although a real, live, breathing person, is still not a personality – although you and your actions are likely helping to shape her personality; at this age, babies have no considered purpose in life. That means they don’t do things just to get you, though it may sometimes seem that way. If she cries, it can only mean one thing: I’m uncomfortable. And there are only a limited number of reasons a baby can be uncomfortable. She’s hungry, she’s dirty, she’s sleepy, or she’s in pain. Hungry and dirty are fairly self-explanatory. Sleepy can be baffling at times, because it’s not until the later stages of babyhood that a kid will force itself to stay awake. When it’s younger, it just zonks off. Soon you’ll be able to tell “I’m tired” by the tone of the cry. The most frustrating situation of all (for Mom and Dad) is the pain cry. Partly because when your kid hurts, you hurt. Partly because sometimes you can’t understand the pain, or can’t make it go away. One of the things to remember here is that the baby’s digestive system is adapting itself to this new “go to work” concept, and that even a minor gas bubble in the stomach is likely to be the absolute worst pain a baby has ever felt in her entire life. Some pains you can fix (*burp*), and some you won’t be able to. The best thing to do when you can’t make the pain go away (such as teething) is to just love her. She will know. Through the pain and the bawling, the warmth of your love will permeate, and she will know you are there.

Babyhood rules for Mom and Dad: (1) Babies never cry just to make you miserable. There’s always a reason. (2) Sometimes you can’t fix what’s wrong, so you just have to love them. (3) Don’t let it get you. If you can’t fix it, you can say “Oh, well,” but the baby can’t. They don’t understand, they just want the pain to go away. (4) Don’t worry about mistakes. You can learn from them, but except for MAJOR boo-boos, an hour from now the kid will have forgotten all about it. Remember, this is your training period.

The period of BIG babies. This is age from about 6 months until they start to walk. The honeymoon is over. The child has been promoted from infant status, little more than a very coddled pet, to a real person. Awareness hits. Not just awareness of surroundings (that’s earlier), but awareness that their own actions have an effect on their environment. I vividly remember Chad about one month after we had moved from Maine to Columbus, MS. He was about five months old, sitting at the eating table in our temporary apartment patting (pounding?) his chubby little hand on the table. So I started doing the same thing in front of myself. Pat, pat, pat. He saw what I was doing, and in focusing his attention on me he stopped pounding. So I stopped. He looked at his hand and realized he’d stopped what he was doing, so he started up again, and I started up, too. He stopped, and I stopped. I could almost see the light bulb illuminate in the air over his head, the “Aha!” syndrome. The little gears were churning away in his grey matter as comprehension dawned on him that he was controlling what I was doing by what he was doing. Man, this is neat! We must have pounded on that table off and on for twenty minutes. I am sure in my mind that in that moment he underwent the transition from mere existence – the biological machine that merely takes it all in – to actual awareness of self and environment. Not all kids will have their transition be that apparent, but they all will become aware. This is the point when, to my way of thinking, they become a person.

From this point on, all your actions and reactions to your child must fit some sort of logical pattern. That’s not to say that the logic has to be comprehensible to the child, but it should be to you.

Example: you have decided, for safety reasons, that the child should never go out the living room door and play on the upstairs landing. It’s summer, and you have to leave the door open for ventilation, and for some reason you can’t put a child-bar in the door. So the only time you let the kid loose to play in the living room is when you’re right there, watching. Of course, the first thing the kid does is head for the door, scrabbling on all fours. The first few times you dash over, grab the kid, and head her in a different direction, with increasingly sterner verbal warnings each time. Finally, you give her a little swat on the diaper. Just firm enough so she knows you mean business. The tears will be as much from the shock and the emotional outrage at being thwarted as from the “pain”.

At times like this, it has always helped me the most to remember the number one byword for parents if your child is trying your patience, just remember, that’s her job. Stop and think about it. If God had written a job description for children, how would it read? I’m sure it would contain such things as

BABIES: Make a mess. Make noise. Sleep.

BIGGER BABIES: Make a bigger mess, as quickly as possible. Get into everything you can, and put it in your mouth. Make noise. Sleep. Push the limits.

TODDLERS: Make a mess. Get into everything you can. Make noise. Sleep. Push the limits of all rules, then see how much farther you can push. Try your parents’ patience at every opportunity.

And so on. If you view your children in this light, it’s obvious that most kids, especially yours, do a pretty good job of being a child. As a matter of fact, they usually do so well they could qualify for a bonus. (Hugs and other attention.)

So when times get trying and you think your patience is at an end, calm yourself and remember, she’s only doing her job, and a pretty good job at that.

Back to the previous example. Brunhilde is doing her best to do exactly what you don’t want her to do. Yes, this will continue, even into adulthood. Don’t you at times do things (because?) Mom doesn’t want you to? Even now? So what’s the best way to handle it? First, the younger they are, the less you can afford to ignore it.

You must always keep in mind the child’s capability for responsibility and decisions.

We’re talking about big babies here. They can crawl (eventually) but not walk yet. The only, repeat ONLY way to handle this age child is constant love, less than constant attention, and to be more persistent than she is.

Make no mistake, while children of any age lack many skills, persistence is there in abundance. You cannot afford at any time to let your child out-persistent you about truly important things, like safety or moral values. If you do, one of two things will happen. The kid will either get the “Aha! I beat you!” reaction (more common in older children, especially teenagers), or will down deep inside, fully believe you weren’t serious about it. So that subject will cease to be important to her also.

Here’s my watchword for enforcing discipline on children of any age. Firm but gentle. Firm meaning persistence, meaning sticking to my decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, about what’s important and what’s not, and not changing your mind because of emotional considerations. (Logical reasoning is another story.) Gentle meaning all enforcement is done with love; throughout any actions you feel are necessary to get the behavior you insist on, there will be no doubt ever in the child’s mind that you love her unconditionally. It should be obvious (but usually isn’t in the heat of the moment) this means you must fully in your heart love the child, and believe she intends to do good; sometimes this is difficult to master.

This period of Big-babyhood is another one of training for the parent. You must train yourself to look into the future and predict the long-term consequences of your actions, or omission of action. Examples: if every time the baby cries, you run to pick her up and coo and cuddle her, you will be teaching her whenever she wants to be picked up and cuddled, all she has to do is cry. This is not true with infants, as they do not have the awareness to put cause and effect together. But it doesn’t pay to underestimate the intelligence of a child of any age even one as young as six months. If after she tries to go out the living room door twenty-seven times you get worn out and give up, go sit on the steps and let her play on the landing, you will be teaching her she can get whatever she wants if she is more persistent than you. Of course, this won’t happen with one occurrence, or two, or even ten. But it doesn’t take long for any action to become a habit pattern, for any circumstance of “just this once” to run to a hundred just-this-onces. Does this mean you should never make an exception? Of course not. But how much is too much? That’s a decision you’ll have to make for yourself; my advice is exceptions for a year should be able to be counted on one hand. Then exceptions do not become the rule.

Toddlerhood: The period from when they begin to walk until the onset of the “Terrible Twos.” The main portion of the child’s job at this age is to get into everything. They may even learn to climb. My friend Russ Winge (in Okinawa)’s daughter climbed. Once they couldn’t find her for twenty minutes and were frantic. She had climbed to the sofa, onto the table by the sofa, up on a display box on the table, and from there to the top of an upright stereo cabinet, where she went to sleep. Five feet in the air. You’ll have to ensure all cabinets have child-proof latches or contain nothing you object to her getting into. You’ll have to keep sharp kitchen implements in high-up cabinets, and soaps and bleaches out of reach. You might even, as I did, begin tying any empty plastic bags in knots before you throw them away. It’s much harder to pull a knotted plastic bag over your head than an unknotted one. You know what’s blue and sits in a corner? A baby playing with a plastic bag. What’s red and noisy and sits in a corner? A baby teething on a razor blade. These jokes might be funny if they hadn’t actually happened to someone’s child.

This is the age at which Skinnerian psychology becomes most effective. It starts in Big-babyhood but becomes supremely prevalent at this age: what children crave most is attention. Mom tells me that as a small child I would do things that I knew without a doubt would earn me a spanking, but it was worth it for the attention I got. B. F. Skinner tells us to reward desired behavior and ignore undesired behavior. Positive reinforcement works, negative reinforcement doesn’t, because it rewards the child with attention. I don’t agree with that totally, for reasons I’ll go into later, but at this age, it’s the very best general guidance.

Example 1: The toddler has a plastic rod from a toy and has found a wonderful variety of sounds can be made by banging the stick on different parts of the counter. She gets a thud here, a thunk over there, and a gut-wrenching CLANG on the side that sets your teeth on edge. Object: you want her to avoid the clang. Importance: it drives you batty, but won’t affect the child’s safety or habit patterns adversely either way. What do you do? This one is easy. When she thuds or thunks you laugh and clap and tickle her cheek, but when she clangs, you find something else to do. If she continues to clang, you leave the room. It might take longer than you wish, especially since the clangs make you want to scream, but looked at another way, you are doing the correct thing for your precious child, while at the same time training yourself to be patient, tolerant, loving, and to use the right technique.

Example 2: You are in a fairly nice restaurant, and your 14-month-old is shouting, “..BAAAA-BAAAA-BAAAAA BAAAAA!” at the top of her voice. What do you do? Aha, gotcha! This is a situation you really can’t ignore. Any attention paid to the child could serve to reinforce the behavior; besides, she’s not really being bad and doesn’t deserve punishment. Ignoring the child will get you dirty looks at best, or at worst could get you thrown out of the restaurant. Despair not, I have The Answer! In one word. This word is a treasure; I suggest you write it in monk’s script on parchment, frame it in ebony and lapiz lazuli and  put it in your jewelry box. And the answer is…


When it finally comes time to use this treasure, you will thank your lucky stars that you know of it, for nothing else will do. In the restaurant, give her a cracker. You will be carrying a supply of them in your purse, won’t you? While she’s noisy, you don’t look at her, you don’t talk to her. You merely put the cracker in front of her. As soon as she cuts the noise, which should be as with a machete as soon as she sees the cracker, then you lavish attention on her, even before she smears cracker into her mouth. After only fourteen thousand incidents like this, she’ll get the idea that shutting up gets attention. One caveat. Use variety in your distraction. You don’t want to teach her that shouting gets a cracker. Next time give her a glass half full of ice (highball glasses work great). Then try a pen and a napkin. Your creative powers will be taxed to their fullest as you struggle to come up with the ideal distraction for a given situation.

And here’s the secret of the century for all parents. Distraction works at any age. Any age. Even the teething infant can usually be successfully distracted with the right stimulus, say a special toy or music, combined with lots of parental attention. Yes, it even works with teenagers, and once you get proficient, with adults. Don’t you dare repeat this, but in the last several years, I have used it successfully many times with Mom. But it is as a toddler that your child will bring your distractive abilities into their own. Now go back and apply this solution to Beezus trying to get out the living room door.

The “Terrible Twos.” This period is the first period of emotional adjustment for a child, the first of many times a person has to learn that the world just isn’t fair. This period in a child’s life is defined as that period between when a child first learns the true meaning of “I want” (rather than merely accepting things as they come) and comprehending that just because she wants it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen that way. The overriding characteristic of a child in this age is the use of the word “NO!” to parents. You can tell by the period’s name the age at which it usually occurs. Some children have a terrible time believing they can’t have everything their way. “Reebok, it’s time to go to bed.” “NO!” “Magdalena, you must eat your liverburger.” “NO! Eye keem. Wan’ eye keem!” These times, more than any others, are trying for Mom and Dad. Just keep saying to yourself under your breath, “Firm but gentle. Firm but gentle. I’m more persistent than she is. Firm but gentle.” Then smile sweetly and stuff her little mouth full of chicken yogurt. And when all seems lost and you’re about at the end of your rope, and you think that the next instant will find you shouting down at your kid like a drill sergeant, stop. Take a deep breath and think, “Someday, you too will have a child.”

The ages past Terrible-two-hood are many and varied, and maybe I’ll get into those in another letter. If you want. But through it all, keep the bywords in mind. “That’s her job.” “She’s doing a good job of being a baby.” “Firm but gentle.” “Distraction, distraction.” And finally, “Someday, you’ll probably have a kid lust like you!”

I should hope this is enough for now. I still owe you some more, and I’ll get to it as soon as I can. Until then, then.


Hard to believe all that fit onto the front and 2/3 of the back of one piece of paper, eh?

More later. Love you!


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