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How 14 boys taught us to parent

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Even on the most challenging days, all parents can agree that the daunting tasks of raising children are equally matched by the rewards of watching them grow up to be strong and capable adults. But when you have 14 children in your care – 12 of whom are teenage boys and the other two are 8 and 4 -- the rewards (and challenges!) are immeasurable.

Our boys aren’t all quite “ours” per se—we’re houseparents at Milton Hershey School (MHS), a position we’ve proudly held for about eight years. MHS is a cost free, co-residential school in Hershey, Pennsylvania for children of lower income backgrounds, with students coming from around the country. Houseparents are couples who live in a family-style home on campus with students, supporting them and overseeing their academic and personal lives in the same way that a parent or guardian would. We’ve both always had careers working with children. When we found out that we were adopting our first son, we felt like it was time for a change. The houseparent position sounded perfect for us and our new lives as parents.

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Over the years, our home has welcomed dozens of boys, and we’ve embraced each one with love and support. While we haven’t figured it all out yet, we have managed to learn a few lessons over the years that any parent could relate to and benefit from in raising their own children.

Fight to be present

Every day is hectic—that’s just how life is, especially in our digital world. But we make it a priority to be fully in the moment with our boys as much as we can. One way we try to do this is by sharing a family dinner, with no phones or electronics, as often as we can. Even if only half of our boys are able to make it home for dinner due to sports or extracurricular activities, we still have family-style dinner as much as possible. We bond when we come together to enjoy a meal and give our undivided attention to our kids. Some nights it’s short and discussion is topical, but other nights we’re there for an hour engrossed in a lively conversation about dating, current events, school projects and more. This gives us a great chance to really see our guys and get a feel for how they are truly doing.

As houseparents of high schoolers, our students are usually with us for only a few years, so we really need to build that trust and rapport with them so we can give them the care they deserve and develop life-long relationships. A shared time when everyone is truly “there” is where you’ll find you connect the most with your kids.

Create family play time

Every family has their own activity they can enjoy together. For some, it’s playing a sport or going hiking. For others, it’s a boardgame or a movie. We love to make milkshakes (but really, who doesn’t love a good milkshake?). We make them almost every Sunday evening with the guys. We have even opened our home up to fundraisers, turning our house into a milkshake shop capable of making more than 100 shakes in a night.

Another thing we do is take a few hours on Saturdays to go outside and spend time together as a family. We have found that there are so many great organic teaching moments during this time: how to play fairly, how to pick teams, how to lose gracefully—the list goes on and on. We’re able to help guide them and provide advice so they can build character. Modeling good behavior is important to us and playing together is a natural way to serve as a role model.

Play the long game

When we first started houseparenting, we sometimes felt discouraged if one of the boys didn’t immediately grasp a lesson we tried to teach. But it’s important to remember that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint. Like all parents, we try to instill lessons in everything we do – but it doesn’t always stick, and that’s okay. Hopefully, it will click for them and they’ll appreciate what we tried to teach them. It might be in a week, it might be in a year, it might be in 10 years, but we know that someday they might realize and appreciate the lessons they learned in our house. You just need to be patient, and remember, when the lessons do click, it makes it all worth it.

Celebrate the wins

Children thrive off of positive reinforcement, and as a couple we try to give compliments and look for the positives to celebrate with our boys. Making a big deal about little wins, like a good grade on a test or a young one putting his shoes on the right feet, helps uplift children and encourage them. On birthdays in our house, we sit together and have the boys say something positive about the birthday boy. We never force it, but they look forward to sharing those praises and further strengthening the bonds they share. We always wrap up with the two of us sharing about the birthday boy. Not only does positive thinking make kids feel good, but it also teaches them how to give and receive praise, which can be a tough lesson in itself.

Truth on the front end, grace on the back end

We have high expectations for our boys, and they know it. We remind them how fortunate they are for the opportunities they’ve been given and remind them that we want to help set them up for success. That said, we know that they’ll make mistakes from time to time—who doesn’t? But it’s important to follow up each setback or failure with encouragement so they can grow from that experience. Character is king, and all parents need to work hard to instill that in their children. Even if they don’t do their chores or they argue with their roommate, we remind them that they can be an unstoppable force for good in the world if they choose to be. That’s what matters most as they develop their core identity.

When we chose to become houseparents, we didn’t just take on a job, we accepted a new lifestyle. Like other parents, we get to see these kids grow up to have the lives we hoped they would. It makes us feel proud to see them making their own way in the world, especially knowing we had a small part in their growth and development. Over the years, the lessons we’ve learned teaching our boys have been invaluable, and have given us insight into how to better raise our own children. We are thankful for the unique parenting experience that our houseparent role has given us.

Our lives have changed so much since we moved to Hershey—and despite the challenges that arise from time to time, the ability to contribute to the growth of the wonderful young men we’ve shared a home with has truly made it a change for the better.

Clare and Will Ogle are houseparents at Milton Hershey School, a cost-free, private, co-residential school and home for children from lower income families located in Hershey, Pennsylvania. For more information, visit mhskids.org.

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