Contemplating Human Nature

Lately, I have heard human nature tossed around as the explanation for nearly every form of indecent, irresponsible, criminal behavior imaginable. Have you ever noticed that human nature is only used to explain undesirable behavior? Any time a person or group is caught participating in highly questionable or downright illegal activity, the reaction is, “Oh well, what can you expect? It’s human nature?”

Why is it that we don’t use the human nature explanation when a person or group is observed performing unselfish, compassionate acts? “Wow, did you see how she just jumped right in there to save that kid without even thinking about it?” “Oh yeah, well that’s just human nature.” I can’t recall a single time when human nature has been suggested as the reason for admirable behavior.

Now I’m not an expert on human nature, but it seems to me that if something can be attributed to human nature then, by definition, we would all be involved in whatever behavior or activity is in question. We would be powerless to do otherwise because it is our nature. Sort of like the squirrels in my backyard. They spend every day collecting food, stuffing their cheeks and rushing back and forth to their nests. They don’t stop to check on the weather to see if it’s harsh or mild. They are driven by their nature to store as much food as they can, all of them. I’ve never seen a single squirrel sitting back, relaxing, while watching all the others scurrying around.

So I find attributing only undesirable behavior to human nature curious since as human beings we are clearly capable of both desirable and undesirable actions. Therefore, I am inclined to believe that human nature is not the explanation for either. Rather, it seems to me that it is human nature to have choice.

Everything we do, from the instant we open our eyes when we awake until the instant we close them in sleep, is a choice. Granted, many of the choices we make are so routine that we are not even aware of them, but they are choices nevertheless. For every choice we make, there are consequences. To choose one option means to not choose the others. Therein lies the rub. Taking responsibility for our choices, especially when the consequences end up being detrimental to us or those we love, can be extremely difficult.

Now let me make it perfectly clear that I am not suggesting that everything that happens to us is by choice. However, a great deal of what happens to us is due to the choices we have made. And for everything that happens to us, we do get to choose how to deal with it. Unfortunately, our choices are not always what we’d like. Sometimes we are faced with choosing between equally distasteful choices. But that is the nature of having choice. With choice come consequences. With the freedom to make choices comes the responsibility for their consequences.

I would further submit that the process by which we make choices is significantly influenced by observation and experience. Certainly factors such as age, maturity level, and intellectual capacity are also at play. The older we get, the more complicated the decisions between our choices become and the more profound the consequences. Mistakes are inevitable. But no matter how clear and sensible our explanations may be, they do not excuse us from responsibility for the consequences of our actions. Admitting that we have made a poor choice is never easy, but perhaps a better use of our time and energy would be spent in making amends rather than excuses.


Founding Families Under Construction

Twenty years ago my husband and I were out for our daily walk, with our son in tow, discussing plans for my private practice. We were walking through, what was then, a newly established neighborhood with houses in various stages of completion. “Home Improvement” was a popular show at the time and we got to talking about the similarities between building houses and building families. And so, the name for my practice became Families Under Construction and the title for my monthly column, The Parents’ Tool Box.

Together we designed a logo and Jerry worked his magic and animated it for a website (Reload your page to animate):

famucon_anim_familyBelow is the introduction to The Parents’ Tool Box. I will be adding articles in the next few days on my WRITING page. Hope you find a tool you can use!

The Parents’ Tool Box

Families, like houses, come in many different styles, colors and sizes. Building a family is like building a house. Each of us carries a blueprint for what we believe a family should look like. Many of us are carrying around faulty blueprints as a result of a variety of imperfections drawn in by previous generations of architects. However unintentional these imperfections may have been, they can range in severity from poor communication skills, inadequate parenting knowledge, conflictual marriages, and unresolved divorces to alcoholism drug addiction, suicide, and abuse. Our job is to identify the flaws in our blueprints and make modifications that will allow us to construct families that can withstand the elements of time and change.

The first step in building a house is laying the foundation. A solid foundation depends not only on the soundness of the raw materials used, but on the strength of the connections between them. Weakness in any single element or connection threatens the safety of the entire structure. The same is true for families. The foundation of a family depends not only on the health and strength of the individual members, but on the health and strength of the relationships between them. Discord in any single member or relationship threatens the stability of the entire system.
When building a house you choose the sturdiest materials available – brick, lumber, concrete block, cement. The most enduring building blocks for families are commitment, patience, understanding, acceptance, discipline, affection, determination, and communication, with love as the mortar that holds them all together.

But, no matter how carefully you construct a house, or how conscientiously you construct a family, they both require constant maintenance and occasional repair. Neither should be without a toolbox. The more complete the set, the more likely you are to have the tool required for the job. A parent’s toolbox has space for many unique tools that are not always readily available. The challenges they face, like screws, come with many different heads. One screwdriver just won’t handle them all.

I find it ironic that these days houses are built so close together that you can walk between them with your arms outstretched and be touching one with each hand, and yet families, especially parents, feel more isolated than ever before. The Parents’ Toolbox is a place where we can come together with our common questions and concerns – a place where you can shop for the tools you might need to add to your collection.

Each month, The Parents’ Toolbox will respond to a question or issue raised by you, the reader. This is your tool shop. The shelves will be stocked according to the tools you ask for. These tools are guaranteed to be carefully crafted and intended for use in building families to last.


Finding the Fun

Lately, I have noticed a preoccupation with assuring that virtually every aspect of our daily lives be “fun.” The underlying message suggests that if an experience does not promise to be “fun”, then it isn’t worthwhile. And if we are not experiencing the “fun” we “deserve”, we are being deprived. The sentiment seems pervasive, including everything from grocery shopping to business meetings.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I am not opposed to having fun.  In fact, I have been fortunate to experience fun in virtually every aspect of my life.  However, I am not sure it was because having fun was necessarily the goal.  Oftentimes “fun” was an unexpected, delightful happenstance or a welcome by-product experienced while pursuing the actual goal – performing the task at hand to the best of my abilities.

I am reminded of the song, A Spoonful of Sugar, from the movie, Mary Poppins. You might recall that the children refused to clean their room because it wasn’t any “fun”. Mary Poppins showed them how to “find the fun” in their work. Granted there was ‘magic’ involved, but the message was still clear. The fun is in a job well done.

Growing up, I recall expecting to have “fun” at a party, on a picnic, or a vacation.  Fun was usually associated with out of the ordinary occasions. Now I hear people complaining because they aren’t having enough “fun” in school, college, work, marriage, and parenting. I don’t ever remember my parents telling me, “It’s time to go to school.  It’s going to be fun.”  My high school counselor never suggested that I attend college because, “It will be fun.”  When I entered the work force, my employers did not promise me, “Oh, this job is going to be fun!”  My husband and I did not decide to get married because we thought it would be “fun.”

I was particularly struck by a recent magazine headline asking, “Is Parenting Fun?” When Jerry and I were discussing having our first child, the question of whether or not it would be “fun” never came up.  Perhaps “fun” is not even the correct word.  Somehow it seems to minimize or trivialize a commitment as profound as parenting.  The uniquely complex, comprehensive, dynamic nature of the parent-child relationship is unparalleled.  It is the foundation for every other relationship a child establishes.  Everything a child comes to believe about him or herself, about the world, about how to relate to others, originates in the parent-child relationship.

In short, parenting is an awesome responsibility.  So awesome, in fact, that you can’t not do it.  You can choose whether or not to become a parent.  But if you choose to have a child, or become responsible for one, you cannot choose whether or not to parent.  Because even your absence is experienced by the child as parenting.  It’s kind of like the weather.  There is always weather.  There may or may not be precipitation, but there is always weather, whether or not we are aware of it.  And like parenting, the effects of the weather may be immediately observable or they may take years to become evident.

I guess in the question, “Is parenting fun?”, the use of the word “fun” confuses an outcome with a goal, in my mind. Fun is situational and fleeting, whereas parenting is pervasive and eternal. While having fun may be a reasonable expectation when attending a party, I am not sure it is equally reasonable to expect to experience a consistent state of “fun” while parenting. Perhaps a more appropriate question is, “As a parent, can you have fun with your kids?” To that, I would answer a resounding YES!


A Lesson in Stitches

I am sitting here with my coffee, finally thawed out after walking in the below freezing, morning air. I have discovered that it is when I walk that my mind opens to new ideas, new ways of thinking about old ideas, and connections between things that did not seem remotely related before.

I started off thinking about a book I read by Silas House and Neela Vaswani, Same Sun Here, which is the story of a twelve-year-old boy and girl who are pen pals. It begins as a project for school. The girl lives in New York City and is a recent immigrant from India. The boy lives in southeastern Kentucky near the Tennessee border. Clearly these two children come from diverse backgrounds and yet it is clear that many of their thoughts, desires, and needs are quite similar. Through their letter writing, (and yes, they actually write letters, you know those things people used to take the time to write by hand, put in an envelope, stamp, and send through the mail), they get to know one another and learn to appreciate the differences between them. They continue to communicate even after the assignment has been completed.

I felt an immediate connection with the characters in this book because my mother is from southeastern Kentucky and my father is from upstate New York. To my New York relatives I was considered a country bumpkin, albeit affectionately. To my friends in Kentucky, I was a city slicker, in spite of the fact that I did not set foot in New York City until the ripe old age of twenty. I have heard all the stereotypes about hicks, rednecks, city slickers, and snobs. What I have come to realize is that these groups are not limited by geographical location. They exist everywhere. I should know. I’m related to quite a few of them.

The particular memory that captured my attention this morning was one that involves my maternal grandmother. She grew up and lived on a farm most of her life. She was a small woman, about 5 feet, 2 inches tall. I remember that I was almost as tall as her by the time I was ten. I am not sure she graduated from eighth grade. She was married at age 16 and gave birth to six children, including a set of twins. They both died, one at birth, the other before reaching a year of age. So four children survived to adulthood, the youngest of which is my mother.

Most people would consider my grandmother ignorant and backward because she was not well-educated or worldly, and simply because she was from southeastern Kentucky. She would probably have been one of the first to agree with them. She never tried to be anything she wasn’t. She was neither ashamed nor prideful. She was simply Grandma and she taught me many valuable lessons. I remember some of her frequent reminders – “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all,” “Before you go criticizing, walk a mile in their shoes,” and “You treat others the way you want to be treated and you’ll be alright.” But the lesson that came to mind today was one that occurred when I was about seven.

We drove up to visit my grandparents most Sundays after church. Grandma would have Sunday dinner ready for us and then we would spend the remainder of the afternoon visiting. On this particular Sunday she taught me to embroider. I remember her ironing a pattern onto a scrap piece of material. It was a pair of cardinals perched on the branch of a blooming dogwood tree. First, she carefully placed the stamped cloth into hoops so that it was easier to handle. Then she separated the thread so that I could work with just two strands. Next came threading the needle and knotting the end. She patiently showed me how to make the basic embroidery stitch and watched as I made my first hesitant attempts. I stuck my finger numerous times, but I was determined and spent the entire visit working on that picture.

Before it was time for us to leave, she came to check my progress. She sat down next to me and I handed her my work. She said, “Now Carolyn, you know how to tell if someone’s a good embroiderer?” “How Grandma?” I asked with wide-eyed curiosity. She carefully turned my picture around, “You look at the back. If their work looks just as neat on the back as it does on the front, then you know they’re a good embroiderer.”

I have carried that memory and that lesson with me throughout my life, and every time I pick up a needle I think of her. But it was not until this morning that I realized this lesson goes well beyond embroidery. Now whether or not she realized that, I am not sure. But the same is true of life. If I endeavor to be my best and do my best, then my life should look just as “neat” on the back as it does on the front. If someone were to turn my life around, the me they would see should be easy to recognize. While the two may not look exactly the same, it would hopefully be clear that just as much care has been taken with what is on the inside as with what is on the outside.


While Walking

This morning, as I walked through the first snow of the year, I noticed the quiet stillness created by the gently falling flakes. No other form of precipation produces this effect. Only snow. My senses were heightened. Noises sounded crisper. I could hear the flakes landing on the leaves. Images seemed clearer. Every branch and tree – the detail of every house was outlined. I could smell and taste the cold. I felt like a part of the landscape.

So much in our high-tech, artificial lifestyle deceives, alters, dampens, or overpowers our senses. There is so much light, we can’t see the stars. So much noise, we can’t hear the birds sing. So many deodorizers, we can’t smell the flowers. So much to do, we don’t notice.

Well, the holidays are behind us and hopefully we have been inspired to reaffirm our beliefs, become better versions of our former selves, honor and strengthen our significant relationships, and dedicate our efforts toward making a meaningful difference in whatever corner of the world we reside. We are each endowed with the power to do these very things. Each and every day we are given chances to make real, beneficial, lasting differences in the lives of those around us in both discreet and obvious ways. But first, we have to notice. We have to be paying attention. We have to:

Listen carefully
Look closely
Smell intently
Taste thoroughly
Feel deeply

Only then can we expect to:

Speak thoughtfully
Touch gently
Act courageously
Love graciously
Live intentionally


The Chance to Write Again

Back in August, we spent a week in New York City visiting our older son who has made it his home for the past two years. We walked all over the place. Every evening, as we rode the subway back to his neighborhood, we would each guess how many miles we put on the pedometer. I think we covered just under 12 miles one day. But one of my favorite routes includes walking over the Brooklyn Bridge. While in Brooklyn, I picked up a copy of Brooklyn Family magazine published by New York Parenting. I am always interested in the conversation regarding parenting in other communities. I was impressed with the wealth of information offered and the quality of the publication.

When I got back to Lexington, I emailed the editor to share my impressions and attached an article I had written that related to the topics covered in the August issue. She responded promptly and asked if she could include it in the September issue. And so, after a two year hiatus, I was given the chance to write again about my passions – marriage, parenting, family. As of January, I will be a regular contributor to the five editions of New York Parenting magazine.

You can access the articles published to date on my WRITING page. The most recent submission was added today, Peace on Earth. Considering all the disheartening headlines we have been bombarded with over the past several months, I wanted to start out the New Year with a message of peace. I invite you to join me in making a resolution to choose peace in the days to come. Perhaps, if we all help each other, we will keep our resolution and create a revolution! A peaceful revolution. Is that possible? Let’s try.


Hello and Welcome

My husband and I are in the process of designing and creating this website.  He insists that I need to include a blog.  Let me start off by admitting that I am not even sure I know what a blog is.  I think it’s my husband’s gentle way of suggesting I should try expressing my thoughts and ideas to someone besides him.  Poor guy.  You see, I resigned from my last paid position two years ago and have been home ever since.  He happens to work out of our home as well.  So, when I hear something on the radio or television or read something on the internet that gets me riled up, guess who gets to listen to my ranting.  He probably has the optimistic notion that this will be a quieter way for me to work through my frustrations.  Becoming a blogger reminds me of the old expression, “I used to couldn’t spell blogger and now I are one.”

Anyway, I’ll tell you a little about who I am.   I have been passionate about family relationships, especially my own, for as long as I can remember.  I am a trained, but not practicing marriage and family therapist.  I have practiced marriage and family therapy, conducted parenting classes, and written on just about every topic associated with marriage and family relationship issues for over twenty years.  It’s probably safe to say that parenting is my favorite aspect of the family system to address.  I have used various metaphors for exploring the parent-child relationship in columns published in parenting magazines, church bulletins, and school newsletters.

The Parent’s Tool Box viewed parenting in terms of its qualities as a building process.  Pastoral Parenting was written from the perspective of parenting as spiritual guidance.  Most recently, as arts facilitator for a creative and performing arts school, my passion for the arts and their role in enriching and enhancing life inspired The Art of Parenting.  Currently, I am writing a monthly article for New York Parenting magazine.  Examples from each of these endeavors will be available on my Writing page.

This blog, (and honestly, I do not like that word.  Surely someone could have come up with a more attractive sounding description for whatever this is.), will serve as a repository for the thoughts, ideas, observations, and reactions inspired by my personal experience with marriage, parenting, and family as well as my general impressions of these universally human relationships.  Several people have encouraged me to write a book.  Perhaps this will help me decide whether or not I have anything worth saying.  If you choose to join me on this journey, I’ll be glad to have the company.