Family Matters

In August of 1999, Kevin O’Connor, a talented reporter with the Rutland Herald sat through a series of Parenting Classes I was presenting at Rutland High School.

My husband had this article framed and gave it to me as a gift. It has intense sentimental value for both of us. It was this article that brought us together.

As I read through this article (with my 5’11”, 15 year old daughter on my lap), I was struck at all the things that have changed in my life and all the things that remain constant.

Here is a snapshot…

Things that changed since the article was first published.

  • I am 8 years older and have the gray hair to prove it
  • I have 5 children, all of them teenagers and at this writing one is starting her first year of college and the other is spending 6 months in Chile as an exchange student
  • I moved, built a house, acquired a second dog, play both golf and tennis and talk about retirement with fondness instead of disbelief.

What hasn’t changed is

  • The solid nature of this parenting philosophy I adopted nearly 18 years ago
  • The strategies that applied when my children were 2,  still apply as they reach adulthood
  • Concepts that support my family as we experienced the sometimes difficult challenges and choices of life
  • Our commitment to each other as individuals and our family as a whole.

9 years later, we still know what we know—that Family Matters.

I hope you enjoy this brief look into the beginning of Parenting On Track.

From the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, August 29, 1999

Family Matters: Vicki Hemenway is helping Vermont parents stop lecturing and start living.

By Kevin O’Connor

Family Matters

You’re trying to tame your wild child at the supermarket checkout when, searching your wallet for that elusive $20 bill, you unearth something else.

The baby picture.

“You know your children are miracles – do you remember that part?” Vicki Hemenway says. “They start out perfect! Absolutely perfect! But the first time they say, ‘No, I don’t want to, I don’t like those, you can’t make me, you start to forget a little bit, right? By the time they hit pre-teens, you have all but forgotten you ever liked that child.”

Hemenway empathizes. She’s a mother of three who lives in Ludlow. She’s also a parent educator who’s consoling a standing-room-only crowd of 100 ground-down grownups in Rutland.

“You can see the optimism in children’s eyes, can’t you? They really think they can do anything. They’re right, they absolutely can – with the right training. It doesn’t include nagging, belittling, scolding, sarcasm, punishing, power struggles, being right, taking away opportunities, saving them from mistakes, making them feel we don’t trust them. All of those things turn them into that person you don’t recognize.”

Meet the woman who’s helping hundreds of Vermont mothers and fathers stop lecturing and start living.

Hemenway has taught parenting to at least 100 study groups in the past 10 years, most recently under the sponsorship of Rutland Regional Medical Center and independent doctors under the Vermont Physicians Clinic umbrella.

The 41-year-old offers more than motherly advice. She’s a
teacher/preacher/double feature, inspiring parents to act with courage one minute, bringing down the house with a standup routine about checkout candy racks the next.

Most parents tell Hemenway they want children who are capable, cooperative, responsible and respectful.

“If we left children alone, they’d end up there all by themselves,” she responds. “Guess who talks them out of all those things? We do.”

Want to save your children from making a mistake?

You’re making one yourself.

“How will you know what they can do unless you give them an opportunity to show you what they can’t do?” Hemenway says. “The minute they show you they can’t do something, it just means they haven’t been taught, so teach them.”

Like to constantly remind your little ones to wear their hats and coats?

It may be cold comfort.

“What’s the message we send our children when we do that? I absolutely do not trust you have the ability to figure out it’s 30 below and you’re probably going to need them.”

The bottom line for parents who think they have a problem:

You may be it.

“If you paid a lot of attention to your children when they were babies up until the age of 2, they were trained to think they needed a lot of
attention in order to be noticed,” Hemenway says. “If power and fighting and loud voices are a part of your family atmosphere, that’s what your child is familiar with – they want part of the power, too, so they fight with you. If you’re sarcastic or use humiliation, revenge is going to be something familiar to them.

“Most of us are not outwardly cruel. We talk about our children on the telephone where we can be heard. We comment unnecessarily, we butt in, we editorialize, we’re opinioned, we moralize. When they’re telling us a story, we go, ‘Uh-huh, I’m sure it’s a great story, hon, but I really have to finish with these potatoes.’ Yeah, potatoes are very important. If you’re not listening to a 4-year-old’s story, don’t expect them to talk to you when they turn 13 and all of a sudden you want to know all the juicy details.”

What’s a parent to do?

A growing number in the Green Mountains are turning to Hemenway.

More than 600 Rutland County families have taken a course in the past two years alone, leading Hemenway and friends to open a business, Shared Ventures, and expand offerings to personal and professional relationships ranging from school to work.

Hemenway offers perspective on why people behave as they do, then shares practical words to make life easier for everyone.

“My goal is to help parents remember why they had children and to enjoy every single day with their kids,” she says.

Hate saying no to your children, for example? The words “as soon as” let you say yes.

“Yes, you can have a phone in your room … as soon as you can pay for it,” Hemenway demonstrates.

Giving children an allowance also has its payoff.

“I am the nicest mother in the store. My answer is always, ‘Yes! – did you bring your money? Yes, you can buy that TV! – do you have enough? Sure, buy that Nintendo! – how many weeks will it take to save up?”

Hemenway can draw smiles. She also can raise eyebrows. She doesn’t believe in punishment. Or praise. Or any new mittens for naughty kittens.

“How many pairs of gloves do you buy your children each winter?” she asks parents. “And each time you say, ‘This is the last pair of gloves I’m going to buy you.’ What do you think you’re teaching children? If you want them to know you’re serious about the big stuff, you’ve got be willing to be serious about the little stuff.”

Parents who point a finger at problems with their children don’t necessarily like to be reminded the rest of the digits on their hands are curled back at them.

“Even if parents have suspicions, they might have something to do with it, hearing it out loud completely surprises them,” Hemenway says.

Still, they listen. A third of the 75 parents in her spring class on adolescence didn’t want the six-week study to end. They successfully lobbied for a month-long extension.

Adults who work in area schools and daycare centers are seeing how Hemenway’s classes are changing parent-child dynamics – if not always seeing why. As a result, Hemenway has reserved a 100-seat lecture hall for a fall series aimed at bringing educators into her fold.

“Parents are sharing with teachers, ‘We’re in this parent education class, we’re not supposed to save our children – if they don’t bring their lunch, please don’t feed them, they’ll learn,’” she says. “Teachers who don’t understand why see it as almost neglectful. If we don’t get educators on
board, it will be difficult for parents to continue this philosophy. These same techniques, when applied to schools and businesses, will make everyone’s lives more pleasant, productive and satisfying. We definitely see this as a movement.”

Welcome to a beginning parenting class. Hemenway introduces herself as the mother of a 5-year-old son and 7- and 10-year-old daughters. She began her own study of parenting just before the birth of her oldest.

“I didn’t want to fight with my children for 18 years. That’s not what my idea of parenting is. I want to enjoy all of the things they go through. I want to watch their growth with enthusiasm. I didn’t think I could do that on my own.”

Hemenway discovered the work of the late Alfred Adler, an Austrian-born physician and psychiatrist who advocated treating everyone with equal dignity and respect. She also read such contemporary titles as “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelsen.

Hemenway learned some parents are authoritarian.

“It’s order without freedom.” She demonstrates in her best drill sergeant voice: “Did you brush your teeth? You got five minutes ’til bedtime. NOW!”

Other parents are permissive.

“It’s freedom without order.” She singsongs: “Do you think maybe if we put the yummy gummy bear toothpaste on and we do it with the flashlight so you can see . . . “

Hemenway urges parents to be democratic.

“Order with freedom. It’s respectful to me and it’s respectful to my children. We both win.” She says in a firm and kind voice: “Would you like to brush your teeth now or after we read a story? You know it’s working when your kid can’t tell if you’re asking, if you’re telling, if you’re mad, if you don’t care.”

Kids won’t pull up their socks in the morning?

Hemenway tells parents to put themselves in their children’s shoes.

“Every individual interprets every situation completely differently. That would account for some of the trouble you have in understanding those small people. It doesn’t look the same to them. What does the grocery store look like to you? Serious business – I got a list, 32 minutes, $92, 72 coupons. What does the grocery store look like to a child? Toys R Us – things echo, the carts go fast, you can slide. It’s a football field, an ice arena, a ballet stage. It is a cornucopia of stimulation.”

Next time you’re upset because you’re trying to get out the door and your child isn’t, Hemenway has a suggestion.

“The first thing you say is, ‘What else could it be?’ Maybe this child isn’t trying to drive me crazy. Maybe those socks really do bother them. Maybe they’re worried about a test. You’ll start to learn all kinds of amazing things about your children when you start looking at the world through their eyes. It doesn’t mean giving up control—although does anybody think they have it?”

Hemenway likes to read parents the dictionary definition of the word “cooperation.”

N. To act or work together with another or others for a common purpose.

“It does not mean, ‘Do what I say when I say.’ Parents say, ‘I want a child who knows how to cooperate.’ The first question is, ‘What are you doing to help them learn it?’ Ask yourself how many times are you willing to work together with this other person toward a common goal.”

She moves on to the word “responsible.”

“The definition is a child is able to respond to a situation effectively. How many of you come in and drop your coat, your keys, your briefcase, your books, use the dinner table as your office space, but you’ll walk into your kids room and tell them everything needs to be put away?”

And “respect.”

“Have you ever tried to get a child to treat you respectfully until you treated them with respect first? You can’t get someone to treat you with respect if you haven’t shown them what it looks like.”

The vocabulary lesson continues.

“How many of you say, ‘You need to . . . ‘ in your house? They don’t need to brush their teeth. Their teeth are not bothering them. They’re bothering you. You have to tell them that. The sentence is, ‘I want you to . . . ‘ Think about what you really want to ask your children. It’s how you develop cooperation—being honest about what you’d like to see happen.”

Hemenway asks parents to picture themselves waiting at the checkout as their child rattles the candy rack.

“You know there are nine people behind you looking at you like, ‘What kind of parent is this who can’t even control their child in the grocery line,’ so you say to your child through gritted teeth, ‘Honey, you need to stop touching that.’ “

But they don’t need to, do they? Hemenway notes one of her children fears embarrassment.

“Ask yourself, ‘What’s my goal right now? To get them to stop whatever it is they’re doing or to give them useful information about why it won’t work very well for them?’ It’s far more effective for me to lean down and say, ‘Are you willing to have the candy roll all over the floor and pick them up while people are waiting?’ That made sense to her. I didn’t tell her she needed to stop. I gave her information she could use to make a decision. She stopped all by herself.”

When children misbehave, parents respond loudly.

Hemenway suggests something lighter.

“Usually parents think, ‘In a minute I’m going to tell them to go to their room.’ Instead, you could stop what you’re doing and say to them, ‘You know what, I just have to do One Potato Two Potato right now – will you play with me?’ What kind of day do you think I’m going to have versus the parent who screams, ‘That’s enough – I’ve had it!’ Humor cuts through the tension. It gets back to putting things into perspective.”

Still tongue-tied?

You could pose a question.

“When you’re frustrated, take a deep breath and ask your children what you should do. You keep saying you’re doing it for them, and they have the least amount of say in it. Children base their behavior on what they believe to be true, not on what is actually true. Most kids don’t know why you decide what you decide. They don’t know there’s a thought process involved. Give them the information you have. Have a conversation about what they think works. That’s how they learn how to make decisions.”

Or you could say nothing.

“Do you know how difficult it is for parents to say, ‘I need five minutes to think about this before I say anything?’ What happens if my child decides to fight with me and I walk away? I’ve ended it. It’s not that you walk away and let them do whatever they want, it’s saying, ‘I’m not fighting with you—when you calm down, I would be willing to talk about this problem.’

“Your children aren’t interested in taking your power. They just want to develop their own sense of power. That really means how to make decisions, how to take responsibilities, how to feel capable. Timeouts are for parents. You need the timeout. Go relax on your bed, call somebody you love, do something that reminds you that life is good. Taking that extra three
minutes to do it correctly in the long run saves you 30 minutes of fighting.”

Like what you hear? Don’t tell Hemenway “good job.”

She hates praise.

“We’re walking around putting stickers on everything. Most of us don’t see the harm in it. It’s very detrimental to the health and wellbeing of children. We teach children if they aren’t getting praise, they probably aren’t doing it well. It’s about pleasing everybody else versus how do I feel about it.”

When children ask Hemenway about their work, she turns the question around.

“You might want to ask them what they think. If they’ve only given 20 percent and they ask, ‘So, Mom, how do you think I did?’ and you say, ‘Great job,’ you’ve just told that kid all he has to do is 20 percent. Maybe they didn’t think they did a good job. You’re assuming you know they tried their hardest and they did their best, but you haven’t asked them. What difference does it make what you think? Once they leave your house, they’re supposed to be able to make decisions based on what they think. If you’ve been trained to ask somebody else, when are you going to start making decisions for yourself?”

Hemenway says parents who think they’re praising children instead may be patronizing them.

“If you wouldn’t say it to your best friend, don’t say it to your child. You would never say to a friend, ‘You’re sitting so nicely,’ ‘Are you going to go to the bathroom before we order?’ ‘You did such a nice job on your salad!’ or, ‘Honey, you were so good at dinner!’ Then why would you say it to your child?”

Hemenway instead encourages parents to encourage children.

“The definition of ‘encourage’ is to give courage, to inspire. The more courage children have, the more likely they are to, if not do the right thing, take responsibility for it. It takes courage to say no, to say yes, to forgive, to listen, to defend, to retreat, to love. Praise does not
address any of these issues. Praise is about the deed – it’s, ‘You’re such a good boy when you share your toys.’ Encouragement is about the doer – it’s, ‘You’ve been working really hard at getting along with your brother.’ The motto should be, as the adult, I will help instill in my child a sense of courage to deal with adversity, decisions, success, failure, rejection, embarrassment, loss, pain, humiliation, and move on.”

Just as Hemenway doesn’t praise children, she doesn’t punish them, either.

“The last time you were being punished as a kid, were you thinking to yourself, ‘Wow, I really think my parents might be on to something here!’ Or when you’ve been an adult and a boss or a co-worker humiliated you because of a mistake you made, were you thinking, ‘Gosh, I know that person is treating me like I’m 5, but I think they might have a good point!’ Punishment does not teach mutual respect, cooperation, confidence, trust, independence, equality, optimism, faith or recovery. If you know all that, will you still use it?”

Instead, Hemenway tells parents to help children see the consequences of their actions.

Example: Your child has written on the wall. You could scream and send them to their room. Or you could say in firm and kind tone: “I see you’ve chosen to write on the wall. The sponge and the bucket are under the sink. If you run into any trouble, come get me.”

Child constantly miss the bus? Introduce them to Mom’s Taxi.

“They can hire you with part of their allowance. That’s what would happen in the real world.”

Hemenway can guess what you’re thinking.

“Don’t make excuses like, ‘It might be too hard for them.’ If you don’t hold them accountable, why would they think anybody else would? You keep saying, ‘I want them to take responsibility for themselves and their choices.’ Then
let them.

“Never do for a child what a child can do for themselves. You take away opportunity after opportunity for them to practice being responsible because you’ll do it for them. It’s easier, it’s faster, you’re better at it. But how are we going to train our children to be as good as we are if we don’t give them a chance? How many times do you think it would take a child to go to school without their coat and teachers to say, ‘Sorry, if you don’t have your coat, you don’t go out,’ that your child would start to remember to bring their coat? It takes courage to let your children make mistakes, but that’s what makes them strong. They have figured out how to solve a problem. Leave them alone. Let them practice. Let them travel that road at a young age when the consequences aren’t dangerous.”

Hemenway has two words for parents who take her advice:

Be consistent.

“Parents will say they want their children to follow through on what they say, and I have watched parents change their mind in 10 minutes. Ask yourself how many times you have said no five times to your children, only to have them wear you down to say yes. So how are they supposed to learn about following through and consistency?”

You may get crying, stomping or screaming at first. But Hemenway says hold firm and they’ll learn.

“Follow-through gets rid of all that drama, because they already know no matter what I try my mother isn’t going to change her mind. Do you know what a great gift that is to a pre-teen? What’s wrong with them saying to friends, ‘Do you know what my mother will do, and I know my mother will do it because the last time I left my $70 Gap coat on the soccer field and somebody took it, I didn’t get a new one. We went down to the Goodwill and I bought one until I saved my money up for a new coat.’ That’s one of the few ways kids have of saying no and getting out of trouble.”

Here in class, a father wants to know why his 2-1/2-year-old bit him while

“Because they have teeth,” Hemenway responds. “Sometimes it’s that simple.”

Sometimes it’s not. A mother recalls bringing clean clothes to her daughter when the 9-year-old had a temper tantrum practicing the flute.

What’s a parent to do?

Hemenway has a different question: “Does your daughter do laundry yet? Wash it, dry it, iron it, fold it, put it away?”

“No,” the mother says. “I don’t even do that.”

Hemenway’s 10-year-old washes, dries and folds the family laundry. She also writes checks to pay the family bills.

“Then I sign them, my 7-year-old puts them in the envelopes, my 5-year-old licks the stamps and they take them to the mailbox,” Hemenway says.

Again, she can guess what you’re thinking.

“It’s a family,” she responds. “Do you only do things for yourself in your family or do you do things for everybody? Work is worth. Instill a strong sense of worth in your children by providing an opportunity to contribute in meaningful ways. Start them young. Most of you wait until they’re 10 or 12 and then you wonder why they don’t want to. Why would they? You’ve been waiting on them for 12 years.”

Hemenway is talking about children’s need to belong when another mother raises her hand.

“We have this thing where they have to do chores because they belong to the household,” the mother says. “They’re not necessarily happy belonging to the household then.”

What should she do when her children won’t do chores?

“I’ll tell you what I did,” Hemenway says. “I said, ‘OK, I think we’ve all decided this week we’re all going to only take care of our own needs – I am ready to only be responsible for one person instead of four.’ My kids saw that and said, ‘You can’t do that, you’re the mother.’ I said, ‘Oh, I can. My job is to keep you safe and fed. Here’s the cereal and the milk and don’t leave the house.’”

She gives the last line with a wink and a comic smile, only to get wide eyes and confused frowns.

“You’re thinking, ‘Oh, come on, I would never not feed my children.’ I would. Because I know they won’t starve in two days, but they deserve to know what it looks like if they’re going to fight the system every time somebody asks them to do something. It’s my job to represent to my children what they can expect from other people if they don’t make a contribution. You have to be ready to follow through.”

Parents have more questions. What if my child won’t pick up their dirty clothes? Does that mean you don’t give them clean ones? Does that mean neighbors will think you’re a terrible parent?

“The questions really are what kind of a relationship are you trying to develop with your child, and what kind of a child do you want to send out into the world at 18?” Hemenway responds. “Everything else is a distraction from you doing what needs to get done.”

(In the meantime, withhold the clean clothes and, as far as the neighbors, “They know what it feels like – they have children who would do exactly the same thing.”)

Hemenway doesn’t pull any punches. Push her too hard on how to get your children to make their beds and she’ll hit you with the bigger problems facing youth today.

“Alcohol, drugs, suicide, sex, violence … Ask yourself, ‘What is my legacy?’ To teach my children to clean their room, or to think, to question, to fight for social justice? We place so much importance on so many things that do not matter. If it’s not physically or morally dangerous, don’t worry about it.”

Hemenway tells about a friend whose children accidentally broke a bag of powdered sugar on the kitchen floor. The woman, horrified to see the mess, sent the children to their room and called for advice.

“What are we going to do to solve the problem?” Hemenway says. “We know what needs to happen next. You clean it up and the babies need to get bathed. They made a mistake. Go make a memory. Bring them back downstairs, play in the powdered sugar together. Then do what has to be done. Every day those are your choices – make a memory or focus on a mistake.”

Her audience breaks into hysterics.

Hemenway is serious.

“You’re going to relieve some of the stress in your lives,” she says. “You don’t have to care so much about every single mistake your children make. That was just a story of how some parents would say, ‘I can’t believe what they did!’ They didn’t do anything. The powdered sugar fell on the floor and they made the most of that opportunity.”

Hemenway laughs.

“You can imagine what my house looks like, right?”

Hemenway and friend Peggy Lucci of Fair Haven teach a variety of small and large classes not only for parents, but also for educators and, starting this fall, employers. Their audiences may be different, but their aims are the same: cut conflict and build communication, cooperation and community.

Here at parenting class, Hemenway asks how everyone’s doing. Some parents voice discouragement, saying they’re only seeing the mistakes they’re making.

“That is progress,” Hemenway says. “The focus up to now has been with that small person over there, ‘What are they doing, how come they’re doing that?’ It takes real courage for you to step back and realize, ‘Wait a minute, I
have something to do with this—now if I change a little bit, it stands to reason everything is going to shift in my family.’ “

Childhood, she reminds, is an 18-year journey.

“Look for improvement, not perfection in your children. How many of you secretly think your children should be capable, cooperative, responsible and respectful by the time they’re 7? I’m 41. I’m still working on a couple of these. If they pick up 10 blocks and the week before they would have screamed for two and a half hours before they even thought about it, notice
the improvement.”

And repeat three simple words.

“When your kids are getting ready to leave the house, whether they’re going to school or Grandma’s or a party or the soccer field, what do you usually start saying to them? ‘You be good, say thank you, be careful, make sure that you’re not . . . ‘ What message do you think they’re getting right then? They’re not capable and you don’t trust them. Make sure when you open your mouth they know the first message is, ‘My parents love me.’ Every time they leave your house, act as if it may be the last thing you get to say something to them. Do you want it to be ‘blah blah blah blah blah’ or do you want it to be ‘I love you?’”