I know a divorced, single mom who is raising three children in what can only be described as a chaotic household. Her ex-husband lives in a different city, her parents live in a different state, and her high-energy kids — a tween boy and girl and their younger sister — require someone with the organizational skills of a logistics specialist to keep track of their lives. I sometimes questioned her parenting decisions until something she did stunned me.

One day, she ignored the piles of laundry and household chores, packed her kids into the car and drove north for the weekend just because the weather was gorgeous and who knew when they’d have a weekend like that again? I envied her confidence — not just because her kids will remember that trip instead of the day-to-day messiness of their lives, but because I would never think of doing something that spontaneous with my 6-year-old. Which means, maybe, I’m a bad mom.

I think a lot about parenting. Last year, I moved to the D.C. area after 16 years in Oregon. Although I grew up on the East Coast, I hadn’t been immersed in the competitive parenting scene since I left home for college. But since my husband and I returned, I’ve caught myself fretting over whether enrolling my daughter in the “right” activities — sports or academic enrichment? Karate or Odyssey of the Mind? Or both? — will guarantee her entrance into a good college and success in life.

I don’t have time to talk about parenting with the moms of my daughter’s friends, and, besides, they’re all going through the same thing I am. I started thinking about the people who have raised successful children, and I wanted to explore how they did it.


Carlos Ludena and Janet Ludena with son Armando Ludena, 27, and daughter Jeanellie, 16, at their family home in Montgomery Village, Md. Their advice: Say what you mean. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Janet and Carlos Ludena

Janet and Carlos Ludena, immigrants from Peru, live in Montgomery Village . Carlos operates a company that cleans office buildings; Janet is a mail carrier. They have three children: Karina is a court manager in Florida; Armando is pursuing a master’s in physiology at Case Western Reserve University; and Jeanellie is in high school.

Janet: All the time I told my two kids how we live in Peru, how we sacrifice our life in Peru for here. If we sacrifice our life in Peru for here, we have to be better. Much better. You know? All the time I say, “You know, we have to do this, we have to study more, be a professional.” Sometimes I have argument with them because they say, “It’s okay, we be a teacher.” And I say, “Why you have to be a teacher? You can be a doctor.” And they told me I’m very bad. I compare because I’m discriminate. I compare because you always have to be high.

Carlos: If I do something wrong, my parents told me, “Okay, if you do something wrong, this Christmas I not gonna buy presents for you.” And when Christmas coming, they buy for me. So I learn ... if I do it or not do it, I’m going to get a Christmas present. So I told Janet, think what you told them. Because if you [tell] them, if you give me bad grades, you’re not gonna get some vacation, and when time comes you give the vacation, they gonna learn to play. I told my kids, “Okay, if you do something wrong — for example, we put away your cellular, not for the life — we do it for one week.”


Elizabeth Buckmanat the Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Annapolis. Her advice: Be demanding — about the right things at the right time. (Greg Powers/For The Washington Post)

Elizabeth Buckman

Elizabeth Buckman is vice president for communications at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and lives in Annapolis. Her former husband died unexpectedly about 11 years ago, when her son was 14 and her daughter was 20. Katherine is now a deputy director in the Office of School Reform and Innovation for Denver Public Schools. Colin is head of business development in Africa for the Entrepreneurial Finance Lab.

One of the things that my son and his father bonded on was music, and so I gave all of his guitars to my son, of course. And people said to me, “You gotta get him music lessons.” And my instinct said no. My instinct said let that be a respite. Let that be a place where he goes and he just is with his father when he does that. You know, don’t make it about scales, and, “Have you done your homework?” Don’t make it another thing that he has to do correctly.

I remember thinking, “There are gonna be times when he’s gonna be mad at me because I’m the only parent now. And I want him to be able to go escape someplace safe. You know, when he’s really mad at me, I want him to be able to go be with his dad.” People criticized me about it. That if he wanted to be good like his father, he should get lessons. That I should help him. And I think I helped him by getting out of the way.

My daughter didn’t go back to school for a month. She wanted to stay home. She had a very difficult time. And she was more openly devastated.

My friends tell me I was very strict. I don’t really think I was that strict. Oh, I expected my children to be home when they were supposed to be home, and I expected my children to do well in school, and I expected my children to be courteous, I expected them to work in the summer and make money, but I didn’t expect them to do their laundry. I did it. I remember reading an article about, “Don’t freak out when your children leave their bathroom towels on the floor.” Because you see a wet towel on the floor, and they’ve just looked in the mirror and wondered if they’ve deserved to live, because they’re going through that adolescent time. Which is more important? The worthiness to live or the wet towel?


Michele Zavos holds Esmeralda, a toy dinosaur her daughter made when she was 11. Her advice: Help your children find themselves, whoever that may be. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Michele Zavos

Michele Zavos, a lawyer in Washington, founded one of the first lesbian parenting groups in the country. Her daughter graduated from Sidwell Friends School and attended Cornell. Addie left collegeto go to culinary school and is now a professional cook.

I have this brilliant child. She goes to Cornell. She does really well. She comes back at one of my nephews’ bar mitzvah and says, “Mom, with my grades, I could get into Harvard Law School.” I said, “Oh! Be still my heart!”

She was [at Cornell] a year, then that summer she did a Quaker program to work with inner-city kids in Philadelphia. She started cooking there. You know, when she was growing up, she was in the kitchen all the time, from the time she was, like, 3 years old and could reach into the sink. But it just never dawned on me that I have a chef. She tells us, “You know, I can get the assistant cook’s job here. I don’t want to go back to Cornell.” We’re like, “Okay, if you really want to do that, okay.”

So she’s now 19, and she’s the youngest assistant cook they’ve ever had. And then I guess after about a year and a half, she says, “I’m going back to school.” And she does not do well at all, and she says, “I don’t want to be here.” She gets a job in Boston as the kitchen manager of the Beacon Hill Friends house. We go out to dinner, and she says to me, “Mom, I think I want to go to culinary school. Are you disappointed?” And, sort of your whole being a parent flashes by. And I thought, I better get this right. I said to her, “You know what, Add? Even if I am disappointed, here’s what you say to me: ‘F--- you, Mom, it’s my life.’ She sort of flinched and said, “My therapist said that, too, but not like that.” It was really funny.

Two weeks later she was signed up in culinary school, graduated with honors, was an assistant to one of the teachers, and loved it. To see this kid, who has one of the most brilliant legal minds I’ve ever seen, decide to be a chef, was very hard. It was very hard. For me. Not for her. She’s happy.

I represent so many parents. And they come and say, “Oh, my kid’s going to do this, this and this, and would you write the trust so it’s for college and everything?” And I say, “Your kid may not go to college. Your kid may be like mine and go to culinary school. They’re like, ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ I said, “You know what? Your job is to see who your kid is. And help your kid be whoever that is.”


Laurie and Bob Keller with daughters Julianne Reilly, 27, right, and Joan Keller, 30, at home in Bethesda. Their advice: Give your children a voice. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Bob and Laurie Keller

Bob Keller is a lawyer; Laurie Keller is a grade-school math tutor. They live in Bethesda and have three children. Josh is a music therapist; Joan is a high school science teacher, and Julianne is a K-8 music teacher who is pursuing a master’s in social work.

Laurie: If in the home you are like, “It’s my way or the highway, and you don’t have a voice, and I don’t care if you like it,” even if you do it respectfully, not only do I not think it works, I don’t think you will prepare kids for the world outside your family. By often giving them a voice, then when we had to occasionally institute what we called “a parental mandate,” they were much more willing to accept it.

Bob: What I observed with all of our kids as time went on is that they understand the situation when they’re part of the process.

Laurie: The main way [we gave our kids a voice] was the family meeting. We had an agenda on the refrigerator to which anyone could add issues. Issues were titled such that there was no blame and no names used. You got to the essence of the problem. And we had to come to a consensus on solutions, or the issue was tabled till the next week.

The reason you had to have a consensus on decisions was they learned that this time they might not get their way, but next time the family would be more willing to go along with their idea. So that engendered, I think, the sense of being a real team.

Bob: Participation in the meetings was optional. But if you left the meeting, then you were still bound by whatever the meeting decided.

Laurie: We rotated acting as chairperson, secretary and timer. And we started with appreciations. “I appreciate that Daddy went to the store when I was in the middle of fixing dinner and realized I hadn’t bought the chicken.” And the kids did it. It set the tone for the meeting. There was also the “I can” can. They put things in a jar when they learned to do something: “I learned my multiplication tables.” “I can tie my shoes.” “I can cook spaghetti.”

Bob: There was more than a few times when a kid would be upset by something, and once they put the thing on the agenda, then that sort of defused it.

Laurie: They made dinner once a week. They would tell me what they wanted to make, then I would get it. It could be macaroni and cheese out of a box, which wouldn’t necessarily be what I would fix, but that’s what we would have, and that, again, that’s a way of giving them a voice. They learned to not only pick themselves up from mistakes; they learned to advocate for themselves, too.

The message you got from the family meetings, from family fun, is that it’s okay to pull in the reins a little bit and value our time together as a family. It’s going to be fine if you don’t do ballet, or you don’t do gymnastics, or we decide you’re going to stop playing baseball and soccer because we’re going to go to Deep Creek Lake a lot. We were not doing all of these millions of things, and we were seeing value in the fact of what we were doing as opposed to what we weren’t doing.


Sandra Falwell holds the photographs of her children at her family home in Clinton. Her advice: Teach them to value what they have. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Sandra Falwell

Sandra Falwell is a neonatal intensive care nurse who lives in Clinton, Md., with her second husband, Robert, a retired former owner of a financial services company. She has a son, Stanley, who is a professor in Budapest, and a stepdaughter, Tahra, a homemaker in Georgia.

The teacher told me that [Stanley] wasn’t turning in his homework. So, I talked with him, and 13-year-olds are very audacious. He says, “Well, I just didn’t feel like it.” And then I commenced to say, “Well, let’s just talk.” And I sat down and went over the various things I had gone through during the civil rights era.

We bused down to Little Rock when they were integrating that school. I was just a child then, but they put us on a bus, and down we went. And it was very intense, and of course they turned hoses on us and stuff like that. Then I told him how I integrated South Shore High School in Chicago. We had police escorts to school because the Blackstone Rangers, which was a black gang, were incensed that we wanted to go to school. They lived in the projects [and] were incensed that we thought we were better than them.

You know, he’s living a pretty good middle-class life. He’s going to a great school, and he didn’t value it at all. I talked about that it’s my fault that you don’t understand, because I’ve never told you why it’s important.

I said, “You have to understand your grandmother, too. She was never able to go to college. So she had to work as a clerk, and clerks made next to nothing. We lived in a basement apartment, but I was in the neighborhood that got me to the best school. I didn’t appreciate it then; I didn’t even understand it then. She got over the glass ceiling in the government. She got to the professional level by doing the exams they used to do back then. And so I remember my mom going to school at night after work. She became a government mediator for civil rights complaints.

So, my expectation of you is you take everything we’re giving you and you do the best you can with it. And I don’t know what that ‘best you can’ is. But what I do know is I am never going to hear from your teacher again that you weren’t doing your homework.”

And at the end of it I said: “Since you don’t value that education, everything you’re going to do from this point on is going to be somewhat educational. So at this moment I am pulling the television and cable. My expectation will be that the first thing you’re going to do is your homework. I will be checking it from now on, and I better not find out that you didn’t tell me about it. And then I expect you to read. I don’t care what you read; it can be fiction, it can be your schoolwork, but I expect you to read.” And so he’s grumbling and carrying on. I said, “And you have to understand, this is for the next year.” And, of course, he’s like, Year ?” And I’m like, “You heard me. This is for the next year. I want this to set in your mind for the rest of your life.”

And he used to come up from that point on — every night around about 9 — he would get his dessert, and he would sit there, have a cup of tea and read. And it became a lifelong habit for him.


Rosemary Tran Lauer with husband William Lauer and three of her children, from the right: Kim Tran, 27, Elizabeth Tran, 29, Anh Tran, 31, in Oakton, Va. Her advice: You work hard, they work hard. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

Rosemary Tran Lauer

Rosemary Tran Lauer lives in Oakton, Va. She left Vietnam during the fall of Saigon and worked low-wage jobs, including at a hair salon, while raising her children. She is now a real estate agent. Her children are Bang, managing director for Morgan Stanley in Southeast Asia; Mai,a nutrition consultant; Anh, a senior associate at an architecture firm; Elizabeth and Kim, who work for the Advisory Board Co. in Washington; Karen, a vice president at a data communications firm; and Ann, a former regional director for a cosmetics company.

I love them, but [I made] a lot of sacrifice. And I think the children know. How do they know? First of all they don’t have time with you. But you don’t take that time to do something crazy. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I just work. So even my son, when he was very young, he know he has to help me. When we come here he [was] 3 years old. If I do something, he has to watch the baby. “If you don’t help Mommy, I cannot do this, and we don’t have food to eat, we don’t have place to live, so let’s work together here.”

I [didn’t] have a vacation for 17 years. Vacation for us is pack the kids into the car, drive down to the beach, then drive back at night. The life of the immigrant! I listen to my clients tell me how glamorous their life is, they travel, they go vacation, I don’t get it.

Once in a while when the tip money is good, then I would treat my kids. After church, because we dressed for church, we would go to the Four Seasons and come in and pretend that we have money. So the kids know how to drink tea for high tea. So I give them the exposure in a very small dose to see the educated, the rich people, what their life is like versus our reality. I work with a lot of very intellectual, intelligent, powerful people, you know, the salon? The clients. So [I’m] always very chatty — “What do you do?” “Oh, I’m a professor.” Next time if I bring my kid over, I bring them to the professor, and I say, “Guess what? She’s a professor. That why she sits in my chair. But because I don’t have a degree, I stand behind the chair.”

We stress discipline a lot. I expect them to be smart. I don’t care how they do it. As long as they bring in the A.

Now my older daughter [doesn’t] even want me to cook. They come in like an army. They shop for food, Thanksgiving, Christmas — they buy everything, they bring it over, they cook, and I set the table. We eat; after we eat, zoom, all of them go in before they go home, the house clean.


James and Miriam Early hold a sculpture they bought while on vacation in Jamaica with their two sons 30 years ago, at their home in D.C. Their advice: Success is having an interesting life. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)

James and Miriam Early

James and Miriam Early live in Washington. James is director of cultural heritage policy at the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage; Miriam is a retired teacher of students with special needs. Their sons are artists. JaBen is an actor; Jah-Mir is a poet.

James: My mother once told me, “You are treating those children too much like your friends. They are your children.” We took our children everywhere. Everywhere. I mean, our children got so good they could say, “Mom, Dad, is this one of those receptions where somebody walks around with trays, or is this gonna be a sit-down?” They were very comfortable in cultural institutions and museums. And I would venture to say that we were relatively lenient parents.

Miriam: We never set a curfew, per se, but they were always home by 12 o’clock. They just came home.

James: We didn’t stop and say, “Okay, now is the time to have children, and we’re going to expose them to Bach or Beethoven, or we’re gonna play Charlie Parker for them, or we’re going to look at school issues, and we’re gonna read psychology. …”

Miriam: Or buy the house in the neighborhood because of the schools.

James: None of that entered into our equation. We didn’t have a methodological approach to parenting. I don’t think we ever read any parenting books.

I am a left-wing activist, and so I was always out trying to save the world. … There was always discussion going on, and so that was the milieu in which they were raised, in a liberal kind of way.

Miriam: They literally grew up at the Smithsonian. They grew up — let’s be real — in rarified air.

James: Rarified liberal, yeah. Radical ideas.

Miriam: They are comfortable around people like Dr. John Hope Franklin, like Amiri Baraka.

James: At a certain point there’s the challenge of parenthood versus friendship. Sometimes the term “family” obscures that you’re dealing with four distinct emotional planes, psychological planes, internal anxieties, work pressures, marital challenges, and it’s challenging. And if you have not thought about it, it can smack you.

Do not think that because you’re an adult or you’re a parent, that somehow if you just keep struggling you will find that magical reserve that every parent is supposed to have. We did family counseling, right up until they were 16 years old or so. Because we had heavy moments. A liberal orientation means that at a certain point, your children mature in their voice beyond their ability to take responsibility, and so you are challenged as a parent. You want to exercise that vertical parent role, but it’s too late because you raised them in the social role.

Miriam: [They] were raised to express their feelings. And sometimes when they express their feelings, it’s not what you want to hear.

James: Particularly you’ll hear stuff from the past, things that you may not have been aware of. For example, Jah-Mir said, “Dad, you never taught me to ride a bicycle.”

Miriam: Which he learned when he was 20 in London.

James: It’s part of a narrative of I was too busy to teach him to ride a bike. This goes back to being too committed to a social construct and missing the fact that you’re living in one. And it’s probably not an unusual thing, particularly for very active, successful people.

My line, my nutty, politically correct line was, “You don’t need to go to college.” My line would be, particularly today, “Here’s $50,000. I’ll see you in four years.” If you want to go to college, do it, or go make something. Because college and success don’t equate. You got all these kids now who have gone to the most prestigious schools, and they’re busboys and poets because they can’t get jobs. But they are adjusting to a quality of life which has nothing to do with a monetary index.

Lisa Grace Lednicer is a multiplatform editor at The Post.

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