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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.

 

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A Message from George Bailey

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Daily reports of hate-motivated violence, divisive rhetoric, threats to long-held racial, religious, and gender liberties, along with irreparable attacks on the Earth, have led me to limit screen exposure.  It’s not an effort to hide from reality. It’s just that discerning what is real has become so complicated, especially when people claim that because they think or believe something is true, that makes it true.  Not only true, but fact.

Lately, it feels like I’ve been transported to an altered state of existence, reminiscent of the sequence in “It’s A Wonderful Life” when George Bailey wished that he’d never been born and finds himself in Pottersville.  He discovers the people he knew and loved have degenerated into the worst versions of themselves, becoming bitter, greedy, and cruel. Lining the streets of the once charming town are businesses catering to all manner of human vice.   

In a world without George Bailey, Mr. Potter managed to destroy every shred of decency and humanity that had characterized Bedford Falls.  In the absence of George Bailey, Potter capitalized on people’s fears, distrust, ignorance, anger, and desperation, thereby establishing complete dependence on him.  Without the conscience, courage, empathy, and lovingkindness of George Bailey, Potter’s quest for power and control went unchecked.

Whereas George looked for the best in people, appealing to their strengths, and inspiring them to discover these in themselves, Potter relied on people’s insecurities, preying upon their weaknesses, which more readily served his selfish purposes.  George discovered that in the presence of genuine caring and relationship, people strive to live up to your highest expectations of them. Potter preferred to operate in the absence of genuine caring and relationship counting on people to be satisfied to live down to his lowest expectations.  

These two opposing approaches to wielding personal influence have been readily observed over the past year.  What is abundantly clear is that if we allow ourselves to become disillusioned, when faced with disappointment, it is easy to slip into self pity and despair.  By doing so, we make ourselves vulnerable to those who would guide us down a destructive path.

This is not the time to retreat into darkness.  Now’s the time to rise up, determined to stay alert, be smart, take action, and work harder to create the conditions necessary for the preservation of a healthy future for our children, ourselves, and our planet.  We have reached a critical time in our history when we must choose between what is best and what is easy. In choosing to do what is best, we must think globally while living locally. We must live in the present while being mindful of the future.  

When my younger son became overwhelmed by challenging situations, he attempted to alleviate anxiety by declaring, “I don’t care!”  Instead of trying to convince him that he did indeed care or excusing him from trying, I would say, “I guess I’ll have to care enough for both of us until you feel strong enough to care again.”  This response, combined with guided practice and encouragement, generally invited a spirit of cooperation rather than antagonism. Eventually he felt confident enough to resume caring.

It’s easier not to care.  It relieves any sense of personal responsibility for improving the situation.  But not caring creates a false sense of security that can be dangerous. Not caring leads people to do and fail to do things that may have devastating consequences for all of us, such as pollution, climate change, food waste.  Therefore, it is necessary to care more and do more to make up for those who choose not to care. Hopefully, in time, they will find the courage to care.

Anger has become the prevailing emotion in our current social climate.   Anger is an emotion that appears powerful and strong because it is often loud, even violent.  But anger is based in fear, ignorance, insecurity, and emptiness leading to hate, cruelty, and division.  Anger may be a strong emotion, but it is not an emotion of strength. Love is an emotion of strength. Love comes from a place of courage, awareness, confidence, and fulfillment lending to growth, compassion, and unity.  

It’s easy to hate.  You don’t have to give up anything to hate.  Loving is much harder because you have to give something up.  You have to give up putting yourself first. Love is powerful.  Love can be fierce, as well as tender. Love is patient and kind.  It sacrifices and protects. It challenges wrongdoing and defies injustice.  Love endures hardship and dares to hope. People yearn for love in their lives.  They want to be loved fiercely. Choose to love, in hopes that it will serve as a beacon guiding others to discover the power of love within themselves.  

George Bailey discovered he had a wonderful life, not because of what he had, but because of what he gave.  The care and love he unselfishly shared inspired hope, giving others the courage to care and love as well. George’s wealth was measured in devoted family and friends.  May we all seek such riches in the New Year.

 

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Satisfying, Not Stressful, Holidays

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As parents we long to create magical holiday memories for our children.  While their heads are filled with “visions of sugarplums,” we’re overwhelmed by what we’re convinced has to be done and spent to make those memories possible.  Perhaps there is another way to make this holiday season memorable and meaningful while minimizing the hassles.

When planning our holiday celebrations, we might ask ourselves, “What do we want the holidays to mean to our children?  What kind of memories do we want them to have? What feelings do we want them to associate with the holidays? Are we effectively communicating the meaning this holiday holds for us through our celebration?”  Revisiting our own favorite childhood holiday memories can be a place to start. What kinds of things did our families do to make those memories possible?

Oftentimes, when we recall favorite memories, they have little or nothing to do with how many gifts there were or how much was spent on them.  Specific gifts may not even be remembered. Typically, our memories have more to do with the atmosphere of the holidays that existed in our homes – the aromas, the music, the voices, the feelings.  Jo Robinson and Jean Coppock Staeheli remind us in their book, Unplug the Christmas Machine, that no matter what cultural or religious holiday you are celebrating, “What children want and need is more time with their parents, an evenly-paced holiday season, traditions they can count on, and realistic expectations about gifts…Most people spend more time and emotional energy on gift-giving than anything else, and yet gift-giving is consistently rated as the least valued aspect of the celebration.”

Here are a few tried and true strategies for creating the meaningful holiday memories we desire:

View the holidays through a child’s eyes.  Children experience the holidays differently at different ages.  For example, the infant who rests calmly in Santa’s arms may become the toddler who shrieks in terror at this bearded stranger.  The very young child for whom we carefully shopped may be more interested in the package’s wrapping than its contents. Pay attention to and respect each child’s reactions and avoid taking their preferences personally.  By demonstrating respect for their feelings, they learn to respect us and others. Our responsiveness to their needs and feelings leave a more lasting impression than any picture with Santa.

Make family time a priority.  Let decorating the house, making and wrapping gifts, and preparing meals be family activities.  Delegate tasks according to age and ability. Everyone can do something. Having a special job to do makes everyone feel they are making a valuable contribution to the family’s celebration.

Pull out your collection of holiday books or check some out from the library and read to each other!  Listen to holiday music! Get out the art supplies and create! Take a walk in the neighborhood and enjoy the sights and sounds of the season.  Limit television viewing to holiday specials that the family can watch together. These are opportunities to discuss the portrayal of the holiday and whether or not it is in agreement with our values.  Spend time exploring the meaning of the holiday being celebrated and its religious and cultural significance.

Simplify the social calendar.  Attend only those functions believed to be absolutely necessary.  Maintain a flexible, realistic schedule as much as possible. When children are attending events that may last past their bedtime, take along their pajamas.  If an event involves a meal with lots of unique or unusual dishes, taking along foods we know our children will eat can prevent an unpleasant scene. Feeding them ahead of time is another option.  Take along a few quiet toys, books, or art supplies in case the entertainment is geared toward adults. Our children will remember our efforts to make these experiences pleasant for them.

Schedule quiet time.  Listen to soothing music and use soft voices.  Institute a “whisper hour” when everyone is asked to speak only in whispers.  Family members may spend this time in whatever way they find most relaxing – reading, drawing, doing puzzles, resting, or writing letters.

Limit wish lists.  By limiting our children’s wish list, we help them learn to make choices and identify what they really want.  Encourage them to make choices that are within the family budget. Making the list is part of the fun when they write it themselves, draw pictures of the desired items, or cut them from catalogues and glue them on a piece of paper.  (These become treasured keepsakes.) Remember more is not necessarily better. Knowing someone cared enough to get what they really wanted helps make the recipient feel special.

Avoid taking children shopping.  Arrange to let them stay with trusted relatives or friends.  Set up a babysitting co-op for the holidays so that everyone gets a chance to get some uninterrupted shopping done.  When taking our children along is unavoidable, planning several, short trips when they are at their best – after meals or naps – can prevent meltdowns.  Involve them in the shopping when possible. Let them hold the list and help look for items. Make the most of whatever time is spent with them. It all becomes part of their memories.    

Involve children in the joy of giving.  Ask them for gift suggestions.  Encourage them to make gifts whenever possible.  It helps to start early. Close friends and relatives will treasure simply framed original works of art, homemade calendars using children’s artwork or photos, or treats children helped bake and decorate.  Never underestimate the value of a handmade gift, for they come from the heart.

Include children in a holiday tradition of giving to those less fortunate.  Involve them in collecting for food, clothing, coat, book, or toy drives.  Let them put money in the Salvation Army bucket and explain how the money is used.  Prepare a meal for a lonely individual or needy family in the neighborhood. We can teach our children the lesson that Scrooge’s friend, Jacob Marley, learned too late – ‘humankind is our business.’

Stress is a major obstacle to satisfying holidays.  We reduce stress by keeping the focus where it belongs.  By focusing on our families, beliefs, and traditions, we create the magical holiday memories we desire for our children.