I once took a class about missionary family health. The instructor pulled a seedling from its little terra cotta pot, exposing its threadlike roots. She held it up with two fingers.
“Seedlings are fragile,” she said. “And they’re especially vulnerable when they’re being transplanted. The longer the roots are exposed, the more likely it is that the plant’s health will suffer. Your kids are young and fragile, too, so make sure your family transition periods don’t last too long–get your family stable as soon as possible and don’t let transitions drag on and on.”
I thought back to my first six years as a parent. It seemed like one long transition, punctuated by brief moments of normalcy. I wondered if my children’s little “roots” had been irrevocably damaged. Dried up and shriveled, unable to take nourishment.
If I could talk to myself as a young missionary mama, I would tell her that yes, disruption in routine causes discipline issues, anxiety, and relational strife. But I would also reassure her that she can create a little piece of stability all around herself. I would remind her about the time that she dreamed she was like a boat bringing people safely across a stormy sea, and I would tell her that, to her children, home is wherever she is.
And I would buy her a big box of sticky notes and a sharpie. Here’s why.
What To Do With Sticky Notes and Sharpies
1. Write Down Your Schedule
Sometimes the only indication that a child is stressed during a transition is that they suddenly start whining and clinging. They might cling to you, have trouble sleeping, or have trouble switching activities.
It took me years to realize that I contributed to transition-related clinginess in my son. He was so flexible and easygoing that I dragged him around from one thing to the next. I assumed that he knew “The Plan.” Until one day when he burst into tears and said, “Mommy, I had no idea we were going to ___’s house. All you guys ever say is ‘get in the car.’ You never tell me where we’re going!”
Poor kid! I was so busy keeping all the plates spinning that I forgot to communicate our plans.
Even the most laid-back child benefits from seeing the family schedule. Sticky notes to the rescue! You can use one color for rhythm-related items— meals, chores, hygiene, and sleep— and another color for variable items like visiting people, going on outings, etc. Or you could just write your general “to dos” on one sticky note and discuss it with the whole family at breakfast. Kids who feel anxious might even like to have their own note so they can check what’s coming next.
You might not always know everything that will happen in a day, and that’s okay, too. It helps my son to let him know which times of the day are flexible/unknown. You could do that with another color of sticky note, or just write “flexible time.”
2. Write Down Behavior Goals
Introduce enough jet lag and even the most well-behaved kids can seem like untrained miscreants. This is hard when you are living with your in-laws for two months on home assignment, or when you’re on vacation in Thailand and there is no naughty step like you have at home. It helps to remember that it’s normal for kids to get off-track and for you to have to reign things in again.
Personally, though, I don’t have the mental and emotional capacity to plan a response to a discipline issue on the spur of the moment during a transition. So, if I notice unwanted behavior patterns, I take a little time when the kids are asleep to make a plan. Then I post the plan where we can all see and remember it. Sticky notes are a portable way to do that.
They can also be used to keep track of progress. When we were moving out of India, things were all kinds of crazy. I quickly realized my kids were ignoring me. First, I sat them down and explained the need to listen better. Then, for two weeks, every time they came when we called them, we drew them a star on their own sticky note. And every time the sticky note accumulated 50 stars, we bought them ice cream cones– a huge deal for them because we don’t eat a lot of desserts!
This was easy for me to remember and implement, hard to lose because it fit in my back pocket, and motivating for my kids, who were really proud of themselves for listening well. Because in the end, they really wanted to listen and obey, but just like us, they got distracted with all the extra things they had to process and think about. They needed extra support, reminders, and patience from us as parents to help them succeed.
Although my kids love traveling, they often bicker when we are in transition. They usually need one of several things: a break from each other, more one-on-one time with Mom or Dad, or quality time with each other. The problem is, it can be difficult to find time for these things during transitions.
My husband and I discovered a pocket of precious time hiding right under our noses. One day while on a long flight, we decided to play with our kids instead of watching in-flight entertainment. We found that airplanes are a surprisingly great place to get one-on-one time with children. It’s a small investment of time, but it goes a long way toward filling their love cups.
You could try playing tic-tac-toe or other games with your sticky notes, writing down things you’re thankful for, listing things you loved about the place you’re leaving, or sketching out plans for the next place. My personal favorite is to secretly brainstorm how to be a blessing to the other sibling(s). You could help a child write affirmations for his siblings and hide them in his stuff when he gets up to use the restroom. Or, using your sticky notes again, you could make animated “movie” flip books.
We all have more fun and arrive more emotionally fulfilled if we play with our kids in airports and on airplanes.
Seedlings in Transition
When my family lived in the mountains of India, I used to ride my bike up our Himalayan valley to a shop near a carved wooden temple. There a man stood selling seedlings. He would wait all day, whether it was raining or dry, hot or cool. Next to him, on a tarp on the ground, sat seedlings, their roots wrapped in dirt and a wet piece of newspaper. Those seedlings survived days of waiting and a jostling ride in my backpack until I could get them home and plant them in the good soil of my garden.
Transitions aren’t easy on children — or parents. We won’t always handle disruptions perfectly, and we won’t always have easy solutions to problems. But with Jesus and some sticky notes (or whatever method works for you) we can wrap our fragile little ones in a stable family environment, so they can bloom wherever, and whenever, they are planted.