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How to Teach Kids to Swim Upstream in a Toxic Culture

Family being silly on a bed

I want my kids to rise above their culture, in spite of all the mistakes I make as a parent.

I want them to learn the hard lessons.

To have a killer work ethic. To eat real food. To be kind and generous.

I want “entitlement” to be so far out of their vocabulary that they don’t know what it means (or how to act like it).

I want them to be the people who know how to spend money wisely, even if they had $100,000 to blow if they chose.

I want them to prioritize family, God, and good stewardship of all their resources.

I definitely want them to be better people than me. To be leaders. Innovators. Helpers. Givers.

The culture we live in is going to try to make them self-centered, stuff-centered, pleasure-centered, and cynical.

Somehow, even in my daily exhaustion as a parent, I have to help them build up armor against all that.

My Dad’s Legacy

Gabe with Dzia Dzia

I sat down with my 7-year-old the other day and told her a story about a lesson I learned from my dad.

When I was little, every time we went out to eat, my dad would check the bill – he made sure each item was accounted for and that the math was done correctly. (Of course I had to explain that waitresses used to have to write everything down in pen and do their own calculations, unlike the computer systems of today’s restaurants…and yes, then I had to give myself a pep talk and a glass of wine later to try to forget how old I’m getting!!)

A surprising percentage of the time, he found mistakes.

Sometimes he was overcharged a dollar or two, but more often the mistake was in his favor: a glass of milk wasn’t included, the addition ended up too low on the total, or one time with a large party of family members, a server forgot to include the entire back side of the tab in the total – all the beverages. Those drinks probably would have cost her $40-50 out of her tips at the end of the night, and she thanked my dad profusely for pointing out the error.

Because you see, my dad always showed the servers their errors, even when it cost him more money and was totally their fault.

That habit and uprightness left a lasting impression on me, and I explained to Leah that I learned two things from her Dzia Dzia (Polish for grandfather):

  1. That I always should check my work for mistakes, especially when I’m in a hurry – and I always should check other people’s work too.
  2. That no matter what, even if it costs me, I should tell the truth and be completely honest about what I know.

So…Are we Redoing Some Math?

Why was I telling her this story?

She had not done very well on a social studies test recently, and as I went over her mistakes with her, we realized that one of the fill-in-the-blank answers that she needed (and missed) had not been provided in the “choose from these” options box. It was a mistake on the test, and I wrote to the teacher requesting her point back.

Leah was very excited about this development and told the rest of the family (in a bit of a self-righteous voice) about how her teacher had made a mistake but mom was asking for the point back.

Leah's 2015 school photo[3]

Then I found out that the teacher had instructed the children at the beginning of the test to add that word to the answer box.

Leah didn’t deserve that point back, because she did not listen and follow directions – as important of a skill as test-taking. Or being honest.

I told my daughter that long story from my childhood to illustrate the point that we were going to write to her teacher again, asking that the point be taken back off her grade. It was important to me to do the right thing either way, and that mistake was on Leah for not listening.

Let’s just say she liked the story a lot better when it didn’t have anything to do with her!

But I hope that it’s the kind of lesson that will stick in her memory as she grows just like my dad’s compulsion to check the bill did in mine. I told my husband and older son the night before that I was going to have the conversation with her, and older brother Paul gave me the parenting trophy for the day: “Wow, good one, Mom, that’s really good…”

I think it’s a sign of success that a 10-year-old can recognize good parenting in action! (Of course, he probably can also tally all the awful things I’ve said and horrid tone of voice I slip into more often than not…)

I was also impressed by him lately after a big gathering of his peers, when he reported that there were “a lot of bullies there.” He was clearly disgruntled by the other boys’ unfair behavior and said something like, “That’s why I don’t just make friends with everybody – I take time to pick my friends and make them good ones.”

Insert mental image of proud Mom’s heart bursting with joy – like that scene in the Grinch, only brighter and bigger…

I’m not sure how we lucked out to have ended up with such wisdom in one so young – and perhaps the teenage hormonal years will still knock that out of him – but I’m grateful for it.

I want to make sure, like we do in the kitchen with our diets, that we are intentional about continuing to build a positive family culture.

Throwing stuff at the wall and seeing what sticks has worked ok for us so far. People are constantly telling us how well-behaved our kids are when we’re out, but as we add more to the mix and are balancing so many ages at once, I fear that we’re coming unraveled and not doing our best anymore.

I know that the key to great parenting and raising counter-cultural kids is being super consistent, but sometimes my head gets all scrambled about what to be consistent about – and how to do it positively, without the scowl-and-snap technique that I’m getting all too good at.

Operation: Reboot Parenting

My husband and I have been talking about rebooting our intentionality as parents since I attended a Family Systems webinar by Saren Loosli, mom of 5 kids ages 11 and up. She’s the co-founder of the Power of Moms website, daughter of two best-selling parenting experts, and on the other end of the parenting game as me.

She shared actionable strategies with all of us, including:

  • How to establish rules and consequences that really work.
  • A proven method for helping children learn to take responsibility for their actions and work out issues with each other
  • A surprising (and fun) way to get children to clean up after themselves.
  • A simple way to streamline your family routines and motivate kids to help with housework
  • The secret to building a family culture that is stronger than peer culture.
Family Systems eCourseIf you’re interested in gaining the same wisdom and perspective from Saren that I did, she has her full Family Systems eCourse available and is offering Kitchen Stewardship® readers a special discount. Use promo code KS20FS to get 20% off the program!

Saren Loosli's family - Power of Moms Family Systems

Saren and her beautiful family, above

By the way, lest you think my kids are perfect and we have it all together, I want you to know that they still snap at each other sometimes, talk back to their parents, and balk (and throw fits) about doing basic chores, including everyday requests like, “Go potty and wash your hands before lunch.”

Oh yes. That 4-year-old may eat his raw veggies like a champ, but the horror of washing one’s hands – it’s too much to bear. Winking smile

RELATED: Should you pay your kids to do chores?

I want to know that fun way to get my kids to clean up after themselves so I can stop pulling the “Mad Mommy” card with gems of phrases, like,

I’m going to throw away any toys on the floor!”


“Who left the pencil down low again so Gabe can poke his eye out with it?!?”

and the ever popular,

“I’m telling Grandma no more Christmas presents this year! We have too much stuff!”

Yeah. Those could probably use some editing.

Feeling the same way? Insight from Saren’s Family Systems eCourse can help!

What is your most fond hope for your kids as they grow? What do you see in your own parenting that needs some tweaking (or an overhaul!)?

Disclosure: I am an affiliate with Power of Moms, and if you end up buying any courses or eBooks from them, I’ll earn some commission. But clearly, that’s not what this is all about. This is about fixing my parenting systems while you all watch so I get some accountability. See? It’s all about ME. So I can raise kids who aren’t self-centered….ummmm….

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

2 thoughts on “How to Teach Kids to Swim Upstream in a Toxic Culture”

  1. I recently reread How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk, and it’s renewed my determination to recommend that book to everyone!! My favorite thing about it is that it gives you strategies for feeling your feelings and standing up for yourself while still being basically kind and empathetic to your kids–everyone wins. There are lots of examples, some of them illustrated like comic strips. When my son was around 5, we read the illustrated ones together and discussed them; he liked seeing “the right way and the wrong way” for a parent to handle a situation, but most informative for me were a couple of cases where he felt that the approach presented as right was offensive–he told me why and what HE thought the parent should say. He’s 11 now and recently yelled that if we keep punishing him, he’s just going to get madder and be more disobedient, so punishing doesn’t work!! I reread the chapter on alternatives to punishment, and then I told him that we were NOT going to end his punishment early, but we might try something different for future misbehavior. I showed him an illustrated story in the chapter and said, “I feel like this wouldn’t work with you because you wouldn’t react the way this kid does.” He reluctantly agreed that he often does resist admitting he’s done wrong or taking steps to correct it. We talked about how changing strategies would require cooperation on both sides. Then we went through the chapter and wrote down the points we thought were most important for our family, and we had a meeting with his dad to discuss them. It’s helped a lot.

    On this reading I also was surprised to realize how closely their procedure for discussing and solving a persistent problem resembles the approach my mother used with me. She didn’t have this book but did read some similar ones!

    I hope you learn some great new strategies this spring!

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