Jan 18
Thursday
mastheadmod

Columns

The holidays are just around the around the corner, and I'd like to take this opportunity to talk about the not-so-obvious meaning they hold for children. Meaning? What other meaning could there be besides their religious significance or the generosity of parents and grandparents who buy them gifts?

In my own family, holiday time was spent with my grandparents and that was as good as it ever got for me. Because my grandfather was my favorite person in the entire universe, just being with him was cause for celebration. Our long drive from New York (where I lived) to Philadelphia (where my grandparents lived) seemed interminable.

When we finalkly arrived, I'd run up the front steps of the green painted porch, with the snake plants all lined up in front of the rocking chairs, and ring the bell. As soon as my grandmother caught a glimpse of me, she'd squeal with delight, urging me to hurry in. Such a welcome. Such a warmth. I still remember the wonderful aromas of the holiday foods wafting through the house, and the hugs and the kisses, and the love I felt from everyone in the house–aunts, uncles, cousins, and, of course, my beloved grandfather.

What is this memory worth to me now? I turned 81 in November and I can still see (and savor) every detail of those holidays we celebrated together 75 years ago. Why has it lasted for so many years–my memory of being so warmly welcomed by my grandmother at the door, the precious moments with my grandfather, the delicious holiday of foods, the prayer and songs though I didn't understand the words? It's not just part of my history; it is part of who I am. I carry within me a sense of continuity and because I too celebrate the holidays, my grandsons also

will have such memories.

Where many families follow religious traditions, other families create their own customs, such as Sunday breakfasts or walking together in the woods. Religious or not, these practices give us opportunities to bond with members of the family in special ways–ways that clking to the heart and mind for a lifetime. They create the memories that help us keep our connection to the family and its traditions.

And if this were not enough, customs and holidays do more. They provide children with stability in an ever-changing, ever-challenging world–a world full of confusing contradictions, friends who live by different standards than their own, a society that fosters values that don't match the family's values, and a pendulum that swings from one moral extreme to the other. Holidays and family customs give children moments of security they can count on while the rest of the world moves in its crazy patchwork of opposites. It gives us all a safe harbor in a vast sea of uncertainty.

From my vantage point, holdiays are more than rote or ritual. They are the stuff of nostalgia, that wonderful connection to the past, to our history, and to meanings. If we look at holidays from the perspective of family bonding and of creating memories for the future, then perhaps the toys and games we buy will take a back seat and during our days together, and patience and compassion and love will be in the driver's seat.

Maybe we will greet each other with my grandmother's sense of urgency as she rushed us through the door the quicker to hold us and kiss us. Whatever your tradition, I hope you enjoy it and each other I wish you laughter and live and I hope you treasure every minute. Happy Holidays to one and all. Won't you join me in my fervent hope for the coming year that there will be

Peace in every heart

and in every home

and in every nation.

So the presidential election is over and I can't help but wonder how people are reacting to the outcome.  Mainly, I wonder (as you've probably guessed) how parents' reactions affect their children.  Since children absorb attitudes from the people closest to them, I'd like to know what the youngsters are taking in.  For example, are the "winners" modeling graciousness by conceding that the opposition had something of value to contribute to the public dialogue on crucial issues?  Are the "losers" gracious enough to roll up their sleeves, accept the newly-chosen government and work with it?  Are people on both sides now speaking about what is good for the country instead of just thinking in terms of what is good for their party?  What are the children learning?

In his book, "When Teachers Face Themselves," Arthur T. Jersild states that rejoicing in the success of others is as much a part of compassion as sharing their unhappy moments.  Imagine that!  My friend Cheryl Phillips, an extraordinary early childhood educator, introduced a charming technique to her pupils that would teach them how to have this kind of compassion.  It went like this: whenever a child expressed an idea, or gave an appropriate answer, Mrs. Phillips, along with the rest of the children sent off imaginary fireworks. They did it by slapping one hand against the other, then letting it continue upward  high above their heads like fireworks blasting off.  Then with fingers on both hands wiggling downward as if they were the sparks that fall after the big display, the classroom erupted in a chorus of giggles for the fun that it was.  The exercise ended  with a shower of words of appreciation, affirmation, and admiration.  

What were Mrs. Phillips' pupils learning from such an exercise?  They learned how to celebrate the successes of their peers, despite their pangs of jealousy.  They practiced a spirit of generosity and saw their peers as friends instead of adversaries.  They learned how to appreciate the thoughts and feelings of others and had the comfort of knowing that others were concerned with their thoughts and feelings.  They felt safe in the presence of their peers, safe from ridicule and safe from antagonism.  Instead of focusing on competition, they learned to be supportive and cooperative.

Mrs. Phillips was also a valued member of some of my KEEP THE CONNECTIONSM  WORKSHOPS FOR PARENTS AND OTHER CAREGIVERS where she introduced her technique.  The parents enjoyed the practice as much as the children did and what they gained from such a show of support and appreciation is immeasurable.  They gained self-confidence.  They came to appreciate their own worth, not only as individuals who were growing and learning, but as important contributing members of our little community.  And they felt good about themselves.  

So is competition a bad thing?  It may not be bad in and of itself, but it is certainly made to look bad when television sports announcers refer to winning in terms of "beating," "killing," "demolishing," "stomping," "trouncing," "pulverizing," and the like.  The kind of praise Michael Phelps received for his eight gold medal success at the Summer Olympics was devoid of such language.  And from all accounts, Michael was more focused on conquering his own records for speed than in destroying the other swimmers.  There is a time and place for friendly competition to encourage children to do their best. There's excitement in competing and children enjoy the dynamic tension that arises from it. But when they also practice supportiveness and take delight in the success of others, they add balance and harmony, and civility, and kindness, and generosity to their lives and to the lives of others.

 

Every so often we hear a story about a public servant who falls from grace – falling also from a respected position he held in service to his country. Senator John Edwards is the latest politician to confess to having an extramarital affair.  He seemed to have it all – integrity, money, a loving family, prestige, perhaps even a place in the next president's cabinet.  He had been a champion of the poor and an all-around good guy.  What happened?  What was he thinking?  Was he thinking at all about his actions and their consequences?  Did he think even for a moment about the effect his behavior would have on his wife and children when they found out?  And why would he risk everything – his reputation, his credibility, his family's trust, his career in public service, and his self-worth?  Why would he take a gamble on losing it all when he knew that as a public figure he would be constantly scrutinized by a gossip-hungry media?

Why do we human beings toss our intelligence and integrity out the window when we say, "I know I shouldn't but . . ." and then go ahead and do it anyway?  Is it simply a matter of self-indulgence – making decisions based on our desires and emotions in spite of what we know?  Is it just a lack of self-control?  Or short-sightedness?  We know the hazards of smoking while we continue to smoke.  We know that obesity causes all kinds of health problems and we continue to overeat.  We know that having an extramarital affair can destroy our lives and we do it anyway.

What lessons can we learn from Senator Edwards' unfortunate experience that can help us build into our children a strong moral compass.  How can we teach them to act wisely, to become aware of how their behaviors will affect others, and how can we make doing the right thing as  natural as breathing?  I am reminded of all the righteous Gentiles in Europe who hid Jews in their homes from the Nazis.  When they were asked why they risked their own lives and the lives of their families, sometimes for total strangers, every one of them replied without a moment's hesitation, "It was the right thing to do."

How do we create an atmosphere where doing the right thing is natural and where it is natural to do the right thing?  Most of us know what is right to do.  We know eating healthy food is better than eating junk food.  We know exercise is better than endless hours of watching television, and we know finding real satisfactions in our lives is better than taking harmful substances like drugs and tobacco and alcohol.  If we make these wise choices, we will make them acceptable to our children by filling our homes with laughter and affection and strong relationships built on mutual respect.  What's right for the children is right for us, so we'll have to be good role models.  And when children do the right thing, they ought to be admired for their strength of character.

Is any of this realistic?  Doable?  Easy?  Yes, Yes, and No.  Yes, it was realistic for the thousands of Gentiles in Europe under the threat of death to do the right thing.  It was their belief system and their way of life, and their conscience and spirit of generosity that made it possible.  While it would have been so much easier, and safer, to turn their backs to the plight of the Jews, or turn them in, these righteous individuals gave them shelter and food and expected nothing in return. Yes, it was doable because they chose to do it against all odds.  And no, it isn't easy.   What's easy is not doing the right thing.  What's easy is indulging ourselves.  What's easy is not caring.

How we handle our children's or our own mistakes makes a critical difference in whether they will continue to value doing the right thing. We are, after all, going to make mistakes.  But by dealing with our errors in judgment honestly, and with understanding and compassion and forgiveness, we make it possible for our children and ourselves to return to the right path.

And finally, there are rewards for doing the right thing: a feeling of worth, of high self-esteem, of knowing you are being the best you and your children can be, of putting into this tired old world a spirit of generosity, of caring, of goodness, and bringing upon yourself the good will of all the men and women and children whose lives you touched..

Teenage daughter to her mother:  "You never listen."

Mother to her teenage daughter:  "I heard every word you said."

Did the daughter say exactly what she means, and did she mean what she said?  I she didn't, how can her mother know what she really means?  And did Mom miss the underlying meaning by taking her daughter's words literally?  What is the sHecret to real communication?

Let's begin with listening because that is where real communication begins.

What parents hear in a KEEP THE CONNECTION WORKSHOP is:   "Learn to listen and listen to learn."  There is more to listening than hearing words.  There's getting to the heart of what a person is trying to say.

Unfortunately, the words they use are often quite contrary to what they mean.  For example, when a child says, "I don't care," he probably cares deeply but does not know how to handle a problem he is having.  If you take the words literally, you'll miss the point.  His point.

So how can you get to your child's underlying meanings?  What does it take to listen?  Let's say your child comes to you, perhaps he looks troubled, and very hesitantly he says he wants to tell you something.  This is a very special moment.  He stands before you, vulnerable and shaky, and you can see or sense that he is distressed.  And he's fragile.  The slightest misstep can result in his saying, "Aw, forget it" or "Never mind."

He has a need to tell you what is disturbing him and at the same time he's worried about your reaction to what he has to say. If he came to you at an earlier time, and you were receptive and  compassionate, he will now trust you enough to reveal his secret.

How do you begin?  Not with questions, please.  Spare your child the question you would ask to find out what is going on, because the minute you ask your question you will steer him away from his own thoughts and feelings.  He needs the freedom to begin at his starting point, not yours. You don't know how he wants to begin.  You don't know when he will feel comfortable enough and safe enough to reveal the details of his problem.

So here's an opening line that might encourage him to open up:  "I can see this is important.  Let's sit down and you can tell me about it."   Now settle in somewhere and place yourself where you can observe his facial expression, his eyes, his hands, his body language.  Settled in, all you need to say is, "Okay, Honey, I'm listening."

It may take a few minutes for your child to get the courage to talk.  He may need time to put his feelings into words.  Or he may not be able to put the details of his story in any kind of order.   Your silence gives him time to work it out. If the silence begins to make you feel unesy, get up to get something to drink for both of you and you might find it breaks the tension.  By the time you return he may be ready to talk.

In a similar scenario in my book, "27 Secrets to Raising Amazing Children," there is a dialogue between a mother and her 6 year old son.  She does not prod or probe, but silently and compassionately conveys the support and encouragement he needs to feel safe enough to reveal his private thoughts.

She does not criticise or pass judgment on what he is saying and without ever having asked a question, she learns what is on her little boy's mind and the burden he is carrying on his shoulders.  While he talks, he sorts out his thoughts and feelings and, most importantly, he sorts out his values for himself.  And the mother, having learned how to listen and having listened to learn, finds out just a little bit more about her son --- who he is, what he thinks, what he feels, and what he values.

In a television commercial, an adorable little girl in a blue tutu emerges victorious from the bathroom.  She jumps up and down and, along with her mother, claps her hands over her success at toilet training.  Perhaps her first.  Mom ought to memorize the picture of her child's glee and satisfaction over "a-job-well-done" as a reminder of the vital role success plays in a child’s self-image.

We may not think of toilet training as anything more than the end of the endless stream of diapers, but it seems to me that it is more. Here was the little girl’s first awareness of herself as a capable person. She will want to repeat her success, especially because it met with her mother’s approval and appreciation.  But it is also important for her to see herself as capable. She is  learning how to value her own accomplishments. This is how she gets to accept her specialness.  And to top it all off, her triumph in the bathroom made her happy.

So this brings us to the question of what makes children happy.  For some, like the little girl in the blue tu-tu, it was a sense of accomplishment (and pleasing her mother;) for others it is having good friends, while others are happy when they discover new ideas or facts.  For most children it is the time they spend with attentive parents.  For many children, happiness seems to hinge on getting the latest toy or gadget.  The problem is, it’s short-lived.  Children tire of toys and electronic gadgets are outdated even before the bill is paid.  Computer games are fun to play, but the child is happiest when he wins – and he has an accomplishment he can boast about.

Yes, we want our children to be happy, but is it our job to make them happy?  For example, do we feel we’re supposed to make our children happy when they are sad?  What’s so bad about sad?  Don’t children have the right to feel the full sweep of human emotions?  Instead of trying to happy them out of it, we can help them learn how to handle sadness instead.  (And when they do learn how to handle sadness on their own, they’ll be well on their way to being happy again because they did it on their own.)  We can and should comfort them, but not so excessively that they are robbed of the chance to nurture themselves – a blueprint they will need when they are out on their own. 

And we can show them how their sad feelings can lead to having sympathy and compassion for others who are sad.  Are we supposed to make our children happy by entertaining them when they are bored?  Some parents are glad to drop everything and spend time with their restless child.  But not all the time.  They need to also be aware of their child’s need to find ways to entertain him or herself.  Shouldn’t we try to make the angry child happy?  (It would certainly make us feel better.)  One thing we ought not do is try to humor him or her out of it.  Children have a right to be angry and by our acceptance of it we help them accept themselves in their worst moment.

Let’s take a cue from the Constitution of the United States which does not guarantee its citizens happiness, just the freedom to pursue it. (What would government have to do if it took responsibility for making each one of us happy?) We, too, can give our children the freedom to pursue happiness. We can give them a safe place to live, where joy happens; where they are loved, nurtured, accepted, and respected; where their goodness is cultivated, and where we bring out the best in them. Then we can leave the rest up to them.

After all is said and done, there is a way you can contribute to your children’s happiness.  Perhaps the best way of all.  Be happy yourself; it’s contagious.  Then show them how to take delight in the little things, how to make the best of bad situations, and how to enjoy the work of your own hands.  Fill your house with laughter and fun, sing with them, dance with them, cherish them.  Walk in the park with them, talk with them, listen to them, support them, reach out to them.  Be happy they are your children. That ought to do it.

When the late opera star, Beverly Sills was asked how she could be so happy when she had two disabled children, one whose deafness precluded her ever hearing her mother’s beautiful voice, Ms. Sills replied, “Even if I cannot be happy, I can be cheerful.”  In or out of the opera, Ms. Sills was a star.