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How Will We Love?

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Valentine’s Day is nearly here.  For weeks now, there have been roses and chocolate or chocolate roses everywhere.  Everything from donuts to dog treats are heart shaped.  The commodity of love is in the air, and it’s for sale.  The message is simple. The bigger the price tag, the greater the love.  Love is as easy as sending a card, candy, or flowers, better yet all three.  Throw in a piece of expensive jewelry and you’ve got it made. But therein lies the flaw in our reasoning – assuming simple means easy.  Love is an excellent example of something seemingly simple being anything but easy.

Throughout history, this single four-letter word has inspired countless artists, philosophers, and scholars.  Few themes, if any, have kindled more artistic and intellectual productivity than love. Yet, when asked what love is, no two people give exactly the same definition.  

What I don’t know about love could fill volumes.  Nevertheless, having spent most of my life noticing, reading about, studying, and practicing love in relationships, I have formed some general impressions.  I have not officially conducted research or administered a questionnaire to collect data. Whether or not there is empirical evidence to support them, I don’t know.  These conclusions are drawn based on nearly sixty years of observing and contemplating love.

Love comes from the head, not the heart.  The brain is the source of all our thoughts and feelings.  As human beings, we are in a perpetual state of thinking and feeling.  Our emotions affect our thoughts and vice versa. And our thoughts and feelings affect the rest of our body, including our heart.  They may make it beat faster or slower, but they do not originate there. While it may sound romantic to say we are speaking from the heart or we love with all our heart, that is not the case.  When our thoughts and feelings are in alignment, the resulting actions reflect our authentic self. Even though it comes from the head, genuine love is vitalizing.

Knowing what love isn’t is just as important as knowing what love is.  Mistakenly confusing love with physical attraction, sexual desire, emotional neediness, and material objects can have devastating consequences, especially for the young and inexperienced. While these may be precursors to love or expressions of love, they are not it’s equivalent. Providing our children with clear messages about appropriate expressions of love helps protect them against being exploited.  Love does not intentionally inflict pain and suffering. Love does not practice or justify abusive or criminal behavior. Love is a shield, not a weapon.

Love is both personal and universal.  We are all hardwired with the capacity to receive and give love.  Our ability to actually recognize, accept, and demonstrate it is largely determined by our interpersonal experience.  Thus, the ability to love is learned. Parents are the primary teachers and models for what children come to believe about love. While each of us has a unique perspective, love is something we all want. Love makes the difference between existing and living.

Love requires empathy.  Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in another person’s place.  When it comes to love, empathy presupposes personal experience or some level of familiarity with love, whether direct or vicarious.  We cannot presume to love another effectively in the absence of any exposure to love. Taking the time to get to know, understand, and clarify expectations regarding love is necessary in any mutually satisfying relationship.  To show love, we must first know love.

Ours is an impoverished language when it comes to love.  Unlike the marketing industry, the Greeks understood that what you feel for a stick of gum, household appliance, or car is not the same as what you feel for another person.  They had seven different words to describe the types of love people experience. Since we have only one word, it is vital that we reserve its use for the most important people in our lives. Overuse of the word love diminishes its significance.

Love is an action word.  In the declarative sentence, “I love you,” love is the verb.  A verb is an action word. It depicts or implies action. Verbally expressing love is beautiful. Failing to pair it with congruent action renders it meaningless. Love is most powerful when our words match our actions.    

Love changes.  Change is not the same as growth.  Growth suggests something that can be measured, like height, or counted, like money.  Love exists as a quality, not a quantity. We are not endowed with a finite amount of love that can be used up, leaving us empty handed.  The capacity for love is immeasurable. Love evolves to meet the changing needs of those involved in the relationship. Love takes many forms and is transformative.  Love changes everything.

Love is an act of courage.  There are no guarantees when it comes to love.  It takes tremendous courage to open ourselves to the possibility that our love may not be reciprocated – to accept that, either way, our life will be changed.  Love is messy, complicated, and hard. Love may disappoint or even fail. But there is value in every encounter with love we have. We don’t lose from loving or being loved.  We gain from it.

Love is an endless act of forgiveness.  Love is strong enough to withstand disappointment, with ourselves and with others.  Loving another means choosing not to punish them when they make a mistake. Love offers the transgressor an opportunity to redeem themself after exhibiting genuine remorse.  However, love also recognizes when repeated offenses create a pattern and forgiveness becomes enabling. Enabling unacceptable behavior is not in the best interest of either party.  Love makes amends, not excuses.

Love is a choice.  Every day we participate in countless interactions that present us with the opportunity to demonstrate a loving response.  Choosing love means choosing kindness, patience, and generosity. It means choosing not to be threatened by or resentful of another’s abilities and talents.  Love delights in doing good and seeing others do good also. It offers honesty without cruelty and seeks the same. Love is safe, dependable, and hopeful. Love inspires us to become our best selves and to desire the same for others.

Since love is a choice, each of us is faced with the question, how will we love?  I intend to love like the small grain of sand in an oyster that, over time, produces a pearl.  This Valentine’s Day, my wish is for each of us to possess the wisdom to recognize love, the courage to accept and offer it, and the resolve to surround ourselves with people to love, who will love us in return.  Of all the things I might one day be remembered for, let it be that I knew love and loved well.

 

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The Pace of Childhood

img_0944Savoring memories of rocking and singing babies to sleep, reading aloud, building stuffed animal farms and zoos, hiking through woods, combing beaches…creating childhood treasuries. Cherishing time well spent.

 

 

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To Disparage is Simple, To Discern Complex

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Waiting in the lobby following a theatrical performance, I overheard some young cast members expressing their admiration for actors who don’t disparage other actors.  Who not only avoid this ugly practice, but discourage others from doing so. I thought, what powerful teachers are those who model their advice.

Afterwards, while mulling over their comments, I imagined inserting myself in the conversation to mention that clearly, disparaging other actors doesn’t do anything to make you a better one.  Learning what to do and not to do based on the examination of other actors’ work, on the other hand, is valuable.

The same reasoning applies to any profession or aspect of life.  Disparaging other parents, or my own parents, for that matter, doesn’t do anything to make me a better parent.  Learning what to do and not to do based on observation of others’ parenting, however, is useful. Being discerning does not necessitate being disparaging.  

Unfortunately, disparaging one another has become a national pastime, from the general public, to celebrities, to our elected officials.  And social media provides a convenient forum for participating. It’s like a competition to see who can come up with the most derogatory comments the fastest.  The participants appear to be under the impression that this behavior reflects cleverness, intellectual superiority, and sophistication. Seems to me like just another form of bullying.  I think they call it cyberbullying. I’m pretty sure kids get in trouble when they are caught doing it.

For all the cleverness, intellect, and sophistication it supposedly demonstrates, disparaging others doesn’t seem to be accomplishing anything.  Disparaging invites disparaging. Bullying invites bullying. What a waste of time, energy, and brain cells.

Like any other destructive activity – accusing, belittling, complaining, hating – disparaging others is a lot easier to do than actually doing something to improve the situation.  These are all behaviors we resort to when we feel threatened, vulnerable, inadequate, and insecure. Self doubt painstakingly disguised as bravado. Such defensive reactions prevent any productive exchange from occurring.        

When we’re intent on composing the next witty comeback, we’re no longer listening. Whether any content from the original message had genuine merit gets lost in the crossfire.  When we choose to respond based on our initial impression, we fail to engage the self-monitoring part of our brain. Choosing instead to take a deep breath or count to ten, gives us time to activate the prefrontal cortex, increasing our chances of reacting more appropriately.  

While our immediate reaction, in any given situation, may be the most honest, the most revealing of our innermost self, it may not be the most beneficial.  Our first impression may not be the best one upon which to base our actions.  As the character, Elliott Anderson, in the movie, “Black or White” stated, “…it’s not my first thought that counts. It’s my second and third and fourth thought, and in each and every case…it comes down to the action.”  

We may not have complete control over the instantaneous internal reaction we experience when faced with controversy, but we certainly can control the action we choose to take.  We can choose to ignore disparaging comments. We can refuse to reciprocate. We can choose to be the grown up. As adults we should know better, but knowing better is meaningless if we don’t do better.  

Lively conversation and the passionate exchange of ideas can occur without disparaging one another.  Does there have to be a tragedy or crisis for us to transcend our differences? Do we just keep pretending not to see what we are doing to each other? What are we willing to sacrifice in our desperate quest to have the last word, the final brilliant retort? Imagine what we could accomplish if all that energy wasted on disparaging each other were directed toward discovering solutions that might benefit all of us.  And we are all US.  #DisparageNot 

Related blog posts:

Saying What’s On Your Mind

The Power of Words

What Our Words Say About Us

Under the Anger and Behind the Words

Can the Trash Talk

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Practice Makes Permanent, Not Perfect

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Previously we explored how crucial it is to study our art form.  Since there is no formal preparation or training required for parenting, it’s up to us to seek the information and experience necessary to become the parents our children need.  We can only do what we know, so the more we know, the more we can do. Let’s consider the next effective practice of artists and its implications for parenting as art: Artists practice.  They do and redo. They try, erase, and try again.  They are constantly striving to achieve excellence.  

The underlying message here is that artists expect to make mistakes.  They give themselves permission not to get it right the first time. They assume that accomplishing a great work is going to require great effort including alterations, corrections, and revisions.

Nevertheless, artists don’t begin painting or sculpting without first making sketches. Authors don’t publish books without editing. Orchestras don’t hold concerts, dancers don’t have recitals, casts don’t produce plays, and singers don’t perform without first rehearsing.   While they may accept the inevitability of mistakes, artists clearly attempt to minimize their occurrence in the final product by engaging in purposeful practice.

Having grown up in a household where the platitude, “Practice makes perfect,” was routinely uttered, it’s not surprising that I adopted the same cliche.  (Note: Perfect is defined as flawless, without fault, without error.) However, I recall the occasion when my older son enlightened me. We were in the car on our way home from a violin lesson. I was extolling the importance of practice declaring ‘practice makes perfect,’ when he announced, “Not necessarily, Mom. My teacher says, ‘Practice makes permanent, not perfect.” It was one of those eye-opening, obvious statements that I had never considered.  

We had a meaningful conversation about how if you practice something incorrectly it becomes just as permanent as practicing it correctly.  We questioned whether or not there really is such a thing as perfect. The more we talked, the more it seemed that perfect is relative. More often than not, perfect is used to describe something that is exactly what we wanted or something that happens just the way we expected.  Whether or not that makes it perfect is debatable. We concluded that excellence is a more realistic goal.

Practicing for the purpose of continuous improvement is a worthwhile objective in any aspect of life.  The most we can ever hope to achieve is our best. But our best can get better, with practice. On the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s recording of “So it Goes” with John Denver, you can hear the audio technician ask John Denver whether this is a take or just practice. John Denver replies, “They’re all practice.”  

In life, practice and mistakes go hand in hand.  Hopefully the more we do of the former, the fewer there are of the latter.   Sitting on my desk is a framed copy of a Family Circle cartoon in which the grandmother is telling her grandson, “If you’re afraid you’ll make a mistake, you won’t make anything.”  The greatest failure is failing to prepare and failing to try. And the worst mistake we can make is one from which we fail to learn anything.

How do we adopt the artist’s commitment to practice and acceptance of mistakes in our parenting?  First of all, we admit to ourselves that most of what we do as parents is practice. We try something and if it gets the desired response from our kids, we use it again.  Along the way we make mistakes. Owning up to our mistakes, identifying why they were mistakes, accepting responsibility for our actions, apologizing to our kids for them, and attempting to do better are all part of practicing the art of parenting.  If we don’t think our kids know we make mistakes, we’re mistaken. And if we believe they’ll lose respect for us if we admit them, we’re wrong.

Secondly, we must extend the same attitude toward practice and mistakes to our children.  They are practicing, too. They are going to make mistakes. If we can help them learn to recognize and accept responsibility for their mistakes while they are young, when the results are less serious, we can help them learn to avoid mistakes that carry more severe consequences as they get older.  Avoiding overreacting or punishing based on knee-jerk reactions go a long way toward accomplishing the desired outcome.

If we want our children to seek excellence in all aspects of their lives, we must emphasize the value of practice.  At the same time we must teach them not to be afraid of making mistakes or of being wrong. The best way to do this is by example.  One of the most important things we can practice, is what we preach!

 

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Studying Our Art Form is Crucial

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Last time we examined how essential knowing our medium is to the art of parenting. Getting to know each of our children as unique individuals improves our chances of providing the parenting they need.  Now let’s consider the second effective practice of artists and its implications for parenting as art. Artists observe and study the work of those who have gone before them, not to replicate their work, but to learn from the accomplishments and avoid the mistakes, in an effort to create their own unique style.  

Michelangelo and da Vinci apprenticed themselves to the most well-respected artists of their time.  Van Gogh enrolled himself in the Academy of Arts in Brussels. Beethoven was a student of Hadyn and was heavily influenced by Mozart.  Martha Graham, a pioneer of modern dance, studied with her predecessors, Isador Duncan and Ruth St. Denis. In every art discipline you find one generation of great artists training the next generation of great artists, yet the resulting art is never exactly the same.

Michelangelo knew that he wanted to be a painter of the human form and sought to learn everything he could from his teacher, but he was not satisfied with the flat image that appeared on the canvas.  He set out to improve his technique by dissecting cadavers in order to learn how the muscles, tendons, veins and joints worked under the skin. By combining the fundamental skills he learned as an apprentice with his study of the human body, Michelangelo created realistic human forms and a renowned personal style.

When we attempt to apply the artist’s effective practice of studying the knowledge and wisdom gathered by predecessors to parenting, there is an immediate stumbling block.  The persistent belief that parenting is governed by instinct presents a forbidding obstacle. The presumption of instinct precludes the need for learning. Instinct is defined as an innate or inborn ability that determines behavior.  Examples include nest building in birds, web spinning by spiders, and cocoon building by caterpillars. These behaviors occur naturally in ALL members of the species without being learned or practiced.

In order for a behavior to be considered instinctual or innate, it must be observed before the animal has had a chance to learn the behavior from observation or experience.  The only known innate human behaviors are the reflexes observed in infants at birth, such as the startle, sucking, and grasping reflex. Since we cannot isolate humans until they reach reproductive maturity, in order to observe what other behaviors might occur instinctually, we can assume that all other behaviors are learned, including those involved in parenting.  If parenting were governed by instinct, we would not have so many questions about how to do it, and specifically, how to do it well?

Confronting the fallacy of a parenting instinct is critical because that misconception prevents people from asking for assistance.  When they don’t know what to do, they feel guilty and incompetent, as if they are missing something that other people have. What they are missing is information and skills that can be acquired.  Seeking these from others with more knowledge and experience is a sign of maturity not dependence, of wisdom not weakness.

Having demonstrated that parenting is learned, I contend that the most profound influence on our performance as parents is our experience as children.  Unfortunately, we spend the majority of our apprenticeship unaware of the training we are receiving. Most of us do not realize how thoroughly we have been indoctrinated until we are in the midst of parenting and open our mouth only to hear our mother’s or father’s voice come out.

Unlike other artists, we do not get to choose our original teachers.  Therefore, it is essential that we evaluate the instruction we have received (ideally before beginning our own masterpieces), and determine in what areas we need to make adjustments.  Doing the opposite of what our parents did is not necessarily an improvement. Whatever faulty lessons we may have learned, we are not destined to repeat them. They can be unlearned and relearned in order to construct a more effective set of skills.  If we can only do what we know, it is imperative we develop a sense of curiosity about parenting that motivates us to learn more.

Retooling our skill set requires a conscious decision to explore the wealth of information about child development and parenting.  This can be accomplished in a number of ways: observing other parents to acquire an alternative view from the one we have experienced; consulting books and articles on child development (I recommend Dr. Penelope Leach) and parenting (I recommend Jane Nelsen, Nancy Samalin, and Stephanie Marston); and seeking the advice of other adults whose parenting we admire, in a sense, adopting them as mentors.   

Remember, our medium is constantly changing, as is the world around us.  I once heard a speaker say, “Becoming is superior to being.” ‘Being’ implies a static, fixed state whereas ‘Becoming’ suggests an active, continuous process.  Parenting, by virtue of the nature of our medium, requires that we continuously seek to become the parents our children need.

Imagine what might happen if we invested as much time and effort in preparing to become parents as people invest in preparing to become artists.  What if we put as much thought into the decisions we make about parenting as we do about buying a house or car? What if we were as dedicated to our job as parents as we are to our temporary jobs? When you consider that the masterpieces we produce have implications for the lives of generations to come, it is reasonable to suggest that intentional preparation for the art of parenting is crucial.  

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Knowing Our Medium is a Necessity

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Last time, I outlined the effective practices of artists and suggested we might also apply these to parenting.  Let’s focus on the first one, “artists meticulously study their medium in order to understand and anticipate how it will respond to their applications.”  This intensive effort to become familiar with the nature of the medium is an ongoing process.

Every medium, used by visual artists, possesses its own unique properties that can be directly affected by environmental conditions, such as temperature and humidity. Therefore, the artist must observe how the medium responds in a variety of situations. Each type of medium necessitates a different level of involvement on the part of the artist.  Some are applied with gentle strokes (watercolors) while others require vigorous manipulation (clay) and still others demand considerable force (marble).

In addition, every medium has its limitations.  While the artist determines the parameters for a piece in terms of size, scope, theme, for example, the medium selected restricts what the artist can do.  Although the artist directs the creative process, this is best accomplished with a knowledge and respect for the medium’s characteristics.

Finally, equipped with knowledge, experience, skills and tools, artists apply, carve, shape, mold and sculpt the medium toward the vision they hold in their mind.  Every artist interacts differently with their chosen medium, thereby accomplishing different results. Ultimately it is the relationship between the artist and the medium that determines the outcome.

What happens when we attempt to apply this effective practice of artists to parenting? Some of us have the opportunity to begin getting to know our children before they are even born.  Others of us must wait until that momentous occasion when they are delivered into our arms. Still others become parents or guardians to children at various ages and stages of development.  Regardless of how or when our children come to us, the process of discovering who they are and how they respond to the world around them is ongoing.

Like the artists’ medium, each child possesses unique qualities and characteristics that are directly affected by both internal conditions (physical well being, emotional maturity, intellectual capacity), as well as external conditions (family atmosphere, social circumstances, and cultural expectations).  While every child arrives with basic physical, emotional, intellectual, and social needs, the formula for meeting these needs is unique for each child. When we take the time to observe how a child reacts in various situations, the benefits are immeasurable. Armed with this information we are better prepared to interact in ways that fulfill their needs.  When all of a child’s needs are being met, their ability to achieve their full potential is profoundly enhanced.

Like artists, parents undergo changes.  In addition to changing physically, we are exposed to new experiences, information, and ideas that affect our performance.  Unlike the artists’ medium, our children are constantly changing, developing, and growing, too. They can think, act, and speak for themselves. As they change, their needs change as well. Although the direction of influence between parents and children is reciprocal, not unidirectional, we are the adults in the relationship.  Therefore, we must persist in our efforts to anticipate and understand these changes.

Just as each artist has a distinctive style, each parent interacts differently with each child, thereby generating different results. Ultimately it is the relationship between the parent and child that determines the outcome, for both.  No two will look exactly alike.

I read once, “…it’s one thing to be dedicated to the idea of parenthood and quite another to be dedicated to the practice of it.”  The reality is that the relationship we establish with our children lays the foundation for EVERY other relationship they will ever have, including those with siblings, friends, spouses, and of course, their own children.  While artists may choose to work with different medium throughout the course of their career, the art of parenting demands a lifetime commitment.

To be continued…

 

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Parenting as Art

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According to George Santayana, “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces.”  When it comes to the human family, I propose that, as parents, we are the principle artists.  

Parenting is defined as the act of rearing offspring; the raising of children; the taking care of the next generation.  Art is defined as skill acquired by experience, study and observation; a branch of learning; an occupation requiring knowledge or skill; the conscious use of skill and creative imagination in the production of aesthetic objects.  I would further propose that the ability to perform the former is greatly enhanced by viewing it as the latter – thus the title, Parenting as Art.

What do artists do to maximize the potential for creating a masterpiece?  

First of all, artists meticulously study their medium in order to understand and anticipate how it will respond to their applications.

Secondly, artists take the time to observe and study the work of those who have gone before them, not to replicate prior work, but to learn from the masters’ accomplishments as well as their mistakes, in an effort to create a uniquely personal style.

Thirdly, artists practice.  They do and redo. They try, erase and try again.  They are constantly striving to improve.

Next, artists have a vision for what they want the outcome to be.  They are highly selective in who they involve in the process of their work.

Finally, artists arrive at that point when they realize they have done all that they can. They step back from their work, confident that they have given it all it needs to stand on its own.

Over the next few posts, I will explore how the art of parenting compares to other art forms – the similarities and differences.  Perhaps it is possible to discover how to apply the artists’ effective practices to the creation of our own family masterpieces. To be continued.