Can the Trash Talk

6F73A9CC-2368-4ED3-9D9E-9B1D3200C6ADForty-three years ago, our high school athletic coach asked me to be the scorekeeper for the boys’ basketball and baseball teams. I spent the next few years traveling all over the state, attending games and tournaments, learning more about basketball and baseball than I had ever imagined knowing.

As the official scorekeeper, sitting in the box between the two teams, I had a front-row seat for every game. In those days, players were not allowed to verbally harass the other team. To do so was considered unsportsmanlike conduct and, if caught by the referee, carried the penalty of a personal or technical foul.

Sometime during the intervening years, when I was not paying attention to sports, the rules changed. Now, not only is “trash talk” and “talking smack” allowed, it’s expected, even condoned. The more smack you talk, the better, tougher athlete you are. Really? How does making someone else out to be a loser, make you a winner? If you are truly confident in your superiority, why would you need to inhibit the performance of your opponent? Why would you even want to, for that matter? If you successfully undermine their performance, doesn’t that also diminish the significance of your victory? If you are genuinely superior, shouldn’t your abilities speak for themselves?

Avoiding “trash” and “smack” talk should be easy. Just steer clear of sporting events. Unfortunately, this style of communicating has become pervasive. It has leaked out of the arenas and stadiums and seeped into every facet of society from radio and television talk shows to social media comment sections to political events to backyards to playgrounds. And frankly, it’s ugly. No matter what the age, gender, color, religion, political affiliation, socioeconomic background, position, or situation – it is ugly.

Not only is it ugly, it is counterproductive and destructive. We are not only exposing the worst of ourselves to each other, but to the entire world. Is it only in tragedy that we are reminded of the great good we are capable of when we come together? What is it going to take to inspire us to speak and act from the best of ourselves? We are so much more than what we have become.


Under the Anger and Behind the Words

mask_of_anger_by_fa_teldionThe current culture of anger is deeply disturbing to me.  Granted anger is a natural human emotion, a signal that something is awry.  However, it is both seductive and deceptive, creating the illusion of being in control when we are actually out of control.  Like wild animals with features that exaggerate their size when threatened, we feel bigger and tougher when we are angry.  

Anger is actually a secondary emotion, meaning that another feeling was experienced first, sometimes for only an instant.  Feelings that typically precede anger include fear, distress, disappointment, embarrassment, guilt, inadequacy, insecurity, or even fatigue or hunger.  The common factor shared by these emotions is the sense of vulnerability they produce.  Vulnerability makes us uncomfortable, so we revert to anger because we feel more powerful.  Therefore, anger arises from a sense of deficiency, surfacing when we are operating from a real or perceived deficit.  The deficit may exist in any number of areas from time, knowledge, ability, or confidence, to appreciation or love.  Anger is the mask of certainty we put on in the midst of a crisis of self doubt.

Sometimes anger becomes so automatic, it appears to be instantaneous, seemingly bypassing the original emotion altogether.  Like any habit, it becomes an unconscious choice, but a choice nevertheless.  As a defense mechanism, anger protects us from feelings we would rather deny.  It prevents us from taking responsibility for and dealing with our true feelings, allowing us to direct the energy from those uncomfortable feelings outward, against others.  We transfer the responsibility for our anger to the other person or group and justify our actions with the self-serving logic that since it’s their fault we are angry, they deserve whatever we dish out.  

As a destructive force, anger erodes relationships and precludes change.  Conversation, sabotaged by anger, quickly deteriorates into insults, accusations, and threats, lending to hostility – even violence.  Words spoken  and measures taken in anger eventually lead to regret, in the presence of a healthy conscience.  Wisdom would encourage us to examine the question, “Why are we so angry?,” prior to opening our mouth or taking action.  Advice worthy of deliberation considering it only takes a ‘d’ to turn anger into danger.     

Couples, Family, Parenthood, Personal Growth, Stories, Uncategorized

What Our Words Say About Us

thStanding at about five foot nothing, my grandmother was a woman of few words. But her face, especially her piercing, slate blue eyes, spoke volumes. I don’t ever remember her saying, “I love you,” but I will never forget how her face lit up when my two sisters and I walked through her door. Or that she always had Juicy Fruit in the wardrobe. Or how whenever she took a notion to make something, there were always three of them. Her actions revealed what she did not verbalize. Her economy of words taught me that those who say the least often have the most to say, and vice versa.

Mindful of grandma’s reticence, I listened that much more carefully when she did speak. One day, while sharing a hurtful encounter with a classmate that rendered me speechless, incapable of producing a witty retort, she took my hands in hers and said, “Carolyn, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” That advice has saved me countless times from the pain of remorse. The regret from what is never said is so much easier to bear than the regret from what is.

Holding my tongue has provided the opportunity to observe that what a person says reveals so much more about them than it does about the person to whom they are speaking. The eyes may be the windows to one’s soul, but words are the mirrors of one’s mind. In these days of attempting to excuse hurtful, cruel, malicious, ugly talk with the simple justification, “I’m just saying what’s on my mind,” I can’t help wondering, what does that say about our minds?


The Power of Words

sf_wordsPreviously I wrote that words are powerful. After thinking about that statement, I would like to modify it. More accurately, words can be powerful. Words, in and of themselves, have no power. Just because words are spoken, doesn’t make them true. Speaking them louder doesn’t make them truer. Words can only have the power we grant them.

Currently words are being tossed around as weapons. Fortunately words cannot cause physical damage. Words cannot kill. However, they can be destructive to our mental, emotional, and social well being, if we choose to accept the words being tossed to us and give them the power they were intended to have. But, we can refuse to give credence to the words thrown at us. We can let them fall harmlessly around us. We possess the power to determine the effect of their impact. In turn, we choose whether to use words as weapons or as balm. Tremendous courage is required for the latter.


Saying What’s on Your Mind

sf_showerMy older son has been after me to start a blog for a couple of years now. At first I resisted because frankly, I didn’t like the word blog. It sounds like something you do when you vomit. But then I googled (sounds like what might happen when someone tickles you too hard…oops, I googled!) it and discovered blog is simply short for web log. Now a log is an official record, typically associated with a voyage or travel. So the next issue was what to web log about. Anything, he told me, just write about whatever’s on your mind. And that got me thinking.

There seems to be an epidemic of people saying and writing what’s on their minds. And that is fine, so long as it is clear to them and their audience that that is all it is – what’s on their mind. That doesn’t make it true, right, or factual. It is what’s on their mind, which is the same thing as their opinion. Unfortunately, we become very attached to our opinions. So much so that we seek verification of our opinions by listening only to those who share our opinions and ignoring those who do not; only attending to information that supports our position and interpreting new information in a way that supports our existing beliefs or theories. This is called confirmation bias. Honestly, that’s a real thing. You can google it.

So here’s what’s on my mind – my opinion. Words are powerful. They can be constructive or destructive. In order to avoid the latter, they should be selected carefully and thoughtfully. That is why we have a brain – so we can think before we speak. A good test for deciding whether or not we should or should not say what we are about to say is to consider how we would feel if someone said it to us. I believe there would be much less talking and blogging, if this test were practiced more often. I’ve decided that the only place it is completely safe to say what’s on my mind is in the shower. Lately, I find myself taking them more often.


The Art of Holiday Celebrations

My office window looks out over the neighborhood park. I have logged hundreds of miles in laps around that park over the past 20 years, and yet, there is something magical about walking through it during the first snow of the season. I savor the quiet stillness created by the gently drifting flakes. No other form of precipitation creates this effect. Only snow. My senses are heightened. Sounds are crisper. I hear the flakes falling on the dry, frozen leaves. Images are clearer. Every tree and branch, the detail of every house is outlined. Edges are softened. I can actually smell and taste the cold. As part of the landscape in nature’s painting, I am merely a figure on the master artist’s vast canvas.

I have a habit of viewing everything in terms of relationships and the arts. Perhaps it is an occupational hazard of my professional training in the former and my passion for the latter. Or it may be because it is through relationships and the arts that we communicate who we are, what we believe, what we value, what we need, want, desire, and who we want to become. Then again it might be the result of my deep conviction that both relationships and the arts are essential to our survival.

As we approach the celebrations taking place over the next couple of months, with all the associated sights, sounds, scents, flavors, and feelings, I find myself wondering, what would the holidays be without the arts? Would there even be holidays without the arts?

Holidays are an outgrowth of our beliefs, but how would we express and perpetuate those beliefs without the arts? Would it be possible without the oral tradition of storytelling or the written word? Can you even imagine celebrating without music? How would we know that something special is happening without visual symbols and cues? What about the dances, the dramas, the preparation and presentation of food? I cannot think of a single aspect of the holidays that is not steeped in the arts.

Through the arts, we convey what is being celebrated and why. The arts provide an outward expression of our beliefs and values. It is through our interactions, in relationship to one another, that these outward expressions gain meaning and significance. The arts allow us to define and perpetuate our identity. Sue Monk Kidd wrote that, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” The arts communicate our stories through literature, music, dance, theatre, culinary, and visual art. They are integral to our holiday celebrations.

Consider what the holiday you celebrate means to you. Recall your earliest memories of this holiday. What traditions did your family practice? What was their significance? How did you know? What feelings were inspired by the celebration? What beliefs were preserved? How do those beliefs impact you daily? How did participating in this holiday affect the person you have become?

Explore how the arts allow you to express the meaning of this holiday. Look around your home. What symbols are displayed? What stories are told? What books or passages are read? Will you listen to music composed for this holiday? Will you attend dance or dramatic performances that are specific to this holiday? Are there special dishes that will be prepared? How would your experience of this holiday change without these artistic elements?

Determine whether or not you are effectively communicating the meaning through your celebration. Do your children know what you are celebrating and why? Ask them. If they are unsure or confused, explain the significance of this holiday. Identify the symbols and what they represent. Clarify the beliefs underlying your celebration. Children of all ages enjoy the telling and, over the years, will come to understand more with each retelling. Be aware of how the arts help make this holiday come to life for your children.

We are in the midst of a season intended to inspire us to reaffirm our beliefs, become improved versions of our former selves, honor and strengthen our significant relationships, and dedicate ourselves to making a meaningful contribution in whatever corner of the world we reside. Each of us is endowed with the power to do these things. But we have to recognize and choose to do so. Like Scrooge, we are challenged to wake up and discover that humankind is our business.

Every day we have chances to make real, beneficial, lasting differences in the lives of others in both discreet and obvious ways. But first, we have to notice. We have to be paying attention. Through the arts and in our relationships we are challenged to use all our senses to fully appreciate and participate in life.
We must:

Look closely
Smell intently
Taste discerningly
Listen carefully
Feel deeply

so that we can:

Think clearly
Speak thoughtfully
Act wisely
Touch gently
Love graciously
Live purposefully

Whatever holiday you observe, may love, peace, and joy be at the center of your celebration and last throughout the coming year.

Personal Growth

Brownie Lessons

Several months ago, I attended the final performance of a musical produced by my younger son’s high school. We arrived about half an hour before the curtain and took our seats. We spent the time looking through the program and quietly chatting, occasionally acknowledging someone we recognized. Curtain time was postponed to allow for the number of people still purchasing tickets, so we sat back and observed the goings on around us. There were cameras flashing everywhere and the show had not even started. It took me a minute to realize what was happening. People were taking pictures of themselves and each other as they sat waiting in the audience. I think this is what you call mesies, or yousies, or is it ussies? No, selfies. That’s it! Whatever it’s called, it was fascinating to behold. I never realized being a member of the audience was picture worthy. Anyway, it was rather amusing.

Since then I have become more aware of the current picture-taking phenomenon. Everywhere I go people are taking pictures – pictures of the things they are about to buy, the food they are eating, who they are with, where they are, and what they are doing minute by minute. And there is not just one camera for the group. Everyone in the group has a camera taking pictures at the same time. Pictures of each other taking pictures. I can’t help but wonder if these pictures will ever be viewed again? Are the pictures an attempt to document life or validate it? Are the pictures meant to record the significance of the event or give significance to the lives of those in them as well as those taking them? Are the pictures capturing a moment in time or is the moment being missed because the people are too busy taking the picture? If a picture is worth a thousand words, are thousands of pictures really worth that much more?

When I was a little girl, we had one camera. My father sent a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye to my mother when he was in the Navy during the Korean War. He asked her to have someone take pictures of her to include in the letters she mailed to him – a ‘selfie’ of sorts. The Brownie facilitated their courtship, documented their marriage, and recorded the arrival of each of their three daughters. For years, it faithfully chronicled significant milestones, noteworthy events, and occasionally, everyday life. I say occasionally because the expense associated with the cost of film, flash bulbs, and developing made having pictures a luxury that we treasured. Mom might take our picture because she had made us a new dress, or Dad had built us a swing set, or we did something funny she wanted to remember. The significance of these occasions was highlighted by the removal of the Brownie Hawkeye from its lofty perch on the shelf in my parent’s closet.

One of my favorite childhood pastimes was looking through our box of photos and listening to Mom and Dad reminisce. Thanks to their carefully maintained picture collection, I was introduced to people who died before I was born. I caught a glimpse of the lives my parents led before they had children. I came to know myself through a series of photo-inspired memories of things I did before I even realized I was a person. Mom’s Brownie provided illustrations for the stories of our lives. It also allowed her to keep my grandparents, who lived a thousand miles away, apprised of our growth and accomplishments. Otherwise, very few people saw our pictures. While they were priceless to us, we figured everybody had their own pictures to look at – their own stories to tell.

If you have never seen a Brownie Hawkeye, it was a nifty, black, Bakelite, 4-inch cube (I always wondered why it was called a Brownie when it was black) with a lens centered in the front and a view finder on top along with a thin, plastic, strap handle across the middle. Next to the view finder was a gray button. Holding the camera level at waist height with the light behind you, your subjects remaining perfectly still and centered in the view finder, you pressed the gray button until it clicked while holding the camera steady. Then you had to remember the gray knob near the bottom that you turned after taking the picture to advance the film. For indoor pictures there was a flash attachment that looked a bit like a miniature, silver, satellite dish with an arm. You fastened the arm to the camera, screwed the bulb in, and you were ready to make your subjects see stars. With a Brownie, you had to be the one that was “smart” because the camera wasn’t.

Since the Brownie did not lend itself to taking selfies, my parents are largely absent from the pictures of my sisters and me. Actually, I doubt my parents ever considered inserting themselves in the pictures they took. They knew they were there, albeit behind the camera, but more importantly, we knew they were there. The closest thing to a selfie my mother ever took was a picture of my first day of middle school. There I stand in our front yard, anxious, excited, uncertain, wearing a new dress Mom made, and on the ground beside me is her shadow. It reminds me of the description of a character I read once, “She preferred to see herself reflected in the expressions on the faces of others rather than in a mirror,” (from The Painted Cave by Jean Aeul).

In spite of it’s lack of technological savvy, the Brownie supported many of the life lessons my parents valued. Holding perfectly still and waiting while being brought into focus and centered helped develop patience and self control. Since the Brownie made rare appearances it was possible to discern what constituted a special occasion. Waiting to reach the end of a roll of film, delivering it to the pharmacist to be sent off for processing, waiting weeks for the pictures to be developed, checking every few days on whether they had arrived, and finally taking them home unopened until we could look at them together required the ability to delay gratification. Blurry, dark, or double exposed results provided practice in dealing with disappointment. Sharing pictures with a limited audience made it clear what was private and what was public. Earning the privilege of fetching the Brownie and anticipating getting old enough to actually use it created rites of passage. Learning when and how to use the Brownie, as well as how to properly maintain and store it encouraged responsibility and self discipline. Whether intentionally or accidentally, that dandy, little camera certainly facilitated the process of developing my character.

Now throwing out my smart phone and pledging to never take another picture or selfie would be downright foolish. Declaring that modern technology makes it impossible to teach patience, self control, responsibility, self discipline, how to be discerning, how to delay gratification, how to deal with disappointment, how to distinguish between what is private and public, and how to complete rites of passage successfully would be equally absurd. However, I would submit that instilling these traits is more challenging in a cultural climate characterized by immediate results. When the prevailing message is that whatever you want should be instantaneous, it is hard to counter with the notion that most things worth having are not.

The advent of “smart” technology has prompted me to become a “smarter” parent. Anticipating the repercussions from regularly released new products and upgrades requires mindful, intentional, proactive, vigilant parenting practices. When modern cultural trappings fail to affirm desirable personal qualities, it becomes necessary to actively seek and sometimes create opportunities for them to be experienced, practiced, and hopefully embraced, in addition to modeling them. I am surrounded by accouterments promising to reduce the amount of work, thinking, even remembering that I have to do. Although I cannot control the presence of these items in the world, I can certainly control the role they are allowed to play in my life. Ultimately, I am in command of the power button, not vice versa.

These days, the Brownie sits on a shelf in my parents’ house, empty and long retired. Unlike its successors, it has no memory. But it sure did enhance mine. Now it serves as a reminder that it is impossible to capture a moment in time for storage on a cloud with the hopes of actually living it later. The Brownie was merely a tool used to commemorate the moments of our lives. It was up to us to live them to their fullest.


Ready for School

As of this year, I have spent 45 Augusts getting myself or my sons ready to go back to school. That is a lot of school supplies! Now, with only a high school sophomore to shop for, the supply list is shorter, though he is taller. Following in the shadow of his nearly 6-foot frame while he scans the fully-stocked store shelves for items, I surreptitiously open a new box of crayons, delighting in their colors, fragrance, and the memories. The message Joe Fox sends Shopgirl in “You’ve Got Mail” comes to mind. “Don’t you love New York in the fall? It makes me wanna buy school supplies. I would send you a bouquet of newly sharpened pencils if I knew your name and address.”

However, being ready for school involves more than a backpack full of supplies and new clothes to wear. In addition to fulfilling their basic needs for nutrition, rest, health, and safety, we can deeply enhance our children’s school experience by equipping them with desirable habits and skills. Whether entering preschool or grad school, these ageless, timeless, universal qualities benefit not only our kids, but everyone with whom they interact.

Although I am presenting these personal qualities in a list, please be mindful that in reality they cannot be prioritized. They do not exist in isolation. They do not develop in a linear sequence. They are profoundly interrelated, mutually inclusive, and utterly interdependent. They are completely free, totally renewable, and inherently priceless. Unlike school supplies, they never run out. In fact, the more they are used, the better they get.

Personal Qualities Supply List for School Readiness

Curiosity: Noticing and observing one’s surroundings using all of the senses. Recognizing how the small details work together to make the larger picture. The desire to know and understand. A willingness to learn. The inclination to wonder.

Confidence: The assurance that one is competent and capable of learning. Eager to try, even in the face of making mistakes or failing. Recognizing the valuable lessons in mistakes and failures. The determination to put forth a best effort.

Self-Discipline: The ability to monitor and manage one’s words and actions. The desire to control impulses in an effort to behave appropriately. Being able to listen carefully, follow directions, ask relevant questions, and complete tasks.

Courage: Choosing to do what is right, even when it is not easy or popular, and even in the presence of fear. Knowing when to stand firm, when to admit fault, and when to seek help. Being gracious in the face of success or failure. Eager to extend sincere apologies and make amends.

Generosity: Recognizing and accepting the need to take turns and share. Pitching in to help without being asked. Assisting those in need without expecting recognition or reward. Finding pleasure in doing for others.

Empathy: Being able to imagine oneself in another’s circumstances and respond in a fitting manner. Treating others the way one wishes to be treated, not necessarily the way one has been treated or seen others treated.

Courtesy: Demonstrating good manners. Using please, thank you, may I, and excuse me. Exhibiting respect for other’s feelings, opinions, and rights.

Perseverance. The determination to keep trying in the face of challenges. Comparing current performance with past performance in working toward improvement. Seeking excellence, not perfection.

Accountability. Accepting responsibility for one’s actions and the resulting consequences. Being reliable with personal possessions and cleaning up after oneself. Leaving things in the condition they were found, or better.

Kindness: Treating others with consideration and compassion. Acknowledging others with eye contact and a smile. Expressing thanks and appreciation. Thinking twice before speaking. Using encouraging words and actions. Realizing that to have a friend, one must be a friend.

Conscience. Knowing the difference between right and wrong. Accepting that just because one can do something, doesn’t mean one should. Deciding to be honest, without being cruel. Listening to and complying with that “still small voice” inside.

Instilling personal qualities in our children is an ongoing process, most effectively accomplished in an atmosphere characterized by patience, consistency, and love. The kind of patience that adopts age-appropriate, realistic expectations; takes the time to express those expectations clearly; and understands that the ability to meet expectations will improve with experience. The kind of consistency that expresses appreciation and approval when good choices are made and institutes reasonable, relevant consequences when poor choices are made. The kind of love that says, “You are more important to us than anything you do or don’t do at school. We will be there to help you work through any problems that arise as well as celebrate your accomplishments.” The kind of love that makes our children stronger and encourages them to strive for their best. The kind of love that is committed to modeling the qualities we expect them to exemplify.

I am convinced that children equipped with this supply of personal qualities will not only be ready for school. They will be ready for life.


The Illusion of Independence

During my years as a parent educator, I frequently asked parents, “What are your goals for your children? What kind of people do you want them to become?” Most commonly, their simultaneous, immediate response was an emphatic, “Independent! We want them to be independent!” What is this fascination with independence?

I realize this obsession with independence probably stems from our political history, given that the cornerstone of our country’s foundation is the Declaration of Independence. Apparently what seemed to be a reasonable national goal was adopted as a reasonable personal goal as well. But in reality, while we may be a self-governing nation, we are far from independent.

We are not hermits. Nor are we preparing children to live in isolation. We are social beings, incapable of surviving independently from one another or the world around us. So why do we continue to set this unattainable goal for ourselves and our children? A goal that leads people to live with the illusion of independence – assuming they have achieved independence because they live hundreds or thousands of miles from their parents. Believing they are independent because they have cut themselves off from anyone who ever caused them pain. Convinced they are independent because they have managed to remain uncommitted to anyone or anything other than themselves.

Lately I have observed a worrisome trend. The typical scenario involves a young child, sometimes still in diapers, toddling along the sidewalk of a busy street, an open body of water, or the edge of a natural or constructed precipice. The parent or parents, from several yards behind, are yelling at the child, who continues to move forward, to WAIT! The parent or parents sprint to grab the child seconds before what was a completely preventable situation becomes a tragic accident.

Equally troubling are parents who excuse disrespectful, disruptive, even abusive behavior by attributing it to their child’s budding independence or “spirit.” Confusing “spirit” with misbehavior leads to bad habits, not independence. These practices appear to be embraced as part of an effort to allow independence to emerge in an uninhibited, natural fashion. However well-intentioned, these efforts are misguided for at least three reasons: 1) Independence is not the result of an absence of limits, 2) Independence need not be thwarted, nor “spirit” broken, through the process of acquiring self-control, and 3) There is no such thing as independence.

Since there is no such thing as independence, logically, independence cannot be a goal of parenting. Perhaps a more realistic goal of parenting is raising people who are capable of establishing and maintaining healthy relationships. Thus, the job of parenting requires us to continually address the delicate balance between needs – ours and our children’s – for separateness and connectedness – for individuality and community – of self and others. The balance between these needs changes over time with age, maturity, and experience – ours and theirs. The ways in which our children need us will change.

Changes in goals require changes in strategy. There are skills our children need and parenting strategies that accompany this shift in focus from independence to relationship.

Promote self-reliance. Many of us fall into the habit of doing things for our children that they could do for themselves. Taking over these tasks seems to make things easier (for us), save time (ours), and assure that they get done “right” (our way), but in the long run we are doing our children a disservice. Oftentimes, they interpret our willingness to step in and take over as, “I can’t do anything right so why try?” or “I am not responsible for taking care of myself.” Given time, our children’s self-reliance gets flabby and out of shape like an unused muscle.

Our job includes teaching our children how to take care of their bodies, their belongings, and their obligations. In the process, it is essential that we: 1) Pay attention to when they are ready to take on responsibility in these areas, 2) Take the time to properly train them, 3) Demonstrate patience while they practice, and 4) Step back and let them exercise their self-reliance. By turning over to our children those things they have demonstrated the ability to do for themselves, we send the message, “I have confidence that you can do it.” When we have confidence in our children, they have confidence in themselves.

Avoid confusing self-reliance with independence. Our children need to be self-reliant, not because they will one day be independent, but because every day for the rest of their lives they will be living in relationship with others. Self-reliant individuals have successful relationships because they are clear on where another person’s responsibility ends and theirs begins. Promoting self-reliance requires modeling self-reliance.

Foster self-awareness. When we presume to know what our children think and feel, and what they want, we deny them the opportunity to know and express who they are. When we make statements like, “You know you don’t think science is boring,” or “You can’t possibly be tired. You just took a nap,” or “You know you’d rather play sports than dance,” we reveal more about ourselves than about our children.

Our job includes teaching our children how to think, not what to think; how to accurately identify and appropriately express their feelings, not what to feel; and how to make choices that will assist in reaching their goals, not our goals. While our children may be like us, they are not us. Kahlil Gibran wisely explains , “…You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their souls, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams. You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you, for life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday…”

Avoid confusing self-awareness with self-centeredness. Our children need to be aware of what they think, how they feel, their likes and dislikes, not so they can always get what they want, but so they can more honestly share who they are with others. Fostering self-awareness requires modeling self-awareness.

Nurture self-esteem. When we convey to our children that they are unconditionally loved and valued, we are nurturing their self-esteem. Unconditional love does not mean unconditional approval and permission to do whatever you want or behave however you like. Our children know they are loved and valued when we express our appreciation for their efforts, demonstrate our affection for them just because they are, and care enough to stop them when they are doing what they shouldn’t until they learn to stop themselves.

Avoid confusing self-esteem with selfishness. Our children need to value and love themselves, not so they can feel better than others, but so they can feel better about others. The extent to which they are able to care for and value themselves will be the extent to which they are able to care for and value others. Nurturing self-esteem requires modeling self-esteem.

Encourage initiative. We live in a world full of things that need doing. We cannot afford to excuse our children from doing these tasks by declaring, “Somebody ought to do something about that.” Whether it is as simple as seeing that the floor needs to be swept or the leaves need to be raked, or as complex as seeing people without a place to sleep or food to eat, the job is ours. While we may not be able to complete the job alone, it is our responsibility to do what we can.

Avoid confusing taking initiative with taking credit. Our children need to know that when they see a job that needs to be done, that they are capable of doing, they should do it – not because of the recognition they can get, but because of the difference they can make. Encouraging initiative requires modeling initiative.

Instill empathy. Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another’s situation in an attempt to respond in a helpful, meaningful way. Living in relationship requires that we try to see things from perspectives other than our own. An empathetic person will ask him/herself, “If that were me, how would I feel? What would I wish someone would do or say?” and then act accordingly.

Avoid confusing empathy with pity. Pity is immobilizing and breeds contempt, whereas empathy is motivating and inspires hope. Our children need to be able to appreciate the plight of others and have compassion, not so they can give others fish, but so they can teach others how to fish. Instilling empathy requires modeling empathy.

Teach effective communication. Communication is effective when the message received is the message intended. Since we can’t not communicate, we want to be sure that our words match our tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. Listening is the other key element in effective communication. Listening requires a total body experience that includes our eyes and feelings, as well as our ears. The feelings behind the words are just as important as the words themselves.

Avoid confusing effective communication with talking. People can talk for hours and never communicate effectively. Not only do our children need to be able to clearly express themselves, they need to be willing to listen to and understand others. Teaching effective communication requires modeling effective communication

Each of us is the product of all the relationships we have ever had. We are indelibly linked to the past and the future through these connections. Greater knowledge of and attention to these connections enhances our identity as an individual and as a family. Maintaining relationships takes time and energy, but they are well spent in this endeavor. “There are two special gifts we should give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.” Not just roots. Not just wings. Both. The deeper we plant the roots, the stronger the wings.

Our goal as parents is to raise people who know how to live in relationship to self and others. We are not merely raising sons and daughters. We are preparing husbands and wives – fathers and mothers. Like this great country we call home, they must learn to be self-governing, but they will never be independent. If we do our job well, they will not always need us, but hopefully, they will always want us. Happy Interdependence Day!


Beyond Paternity to Parenting

My husband and I were both working on doctoral degrees when our first son was born. We also had part-time jobs and were hundreds of miles away from our families. After waiting five years to have a baby, we were anxious to take care of him ourselves. A system of “tag-team parenting” evolved that allowed us to take care of our extrafamilial responsibilities as well as have individual and joint time with Douglas. The different reactions we received when we were out separately with our infant son were most interesting. While people would come up to me and comment on Douglas, they would stop Jerry and say things like, “Your wife sure is lucky you’re willing to babysit,” or “How nice that you’re helping your wife out,” or “Giving the wife a break, I see.” The message was clear. When I had Douglas with me, I was doing my job, but when Jerry had him, he was doing me a favor.

The first few times we found these remarks amusing, but twenty-five years later we still hear the same thing. We both find this deeply disappointing. Why is it that when a father does what mothers have been doing for centuries, he’s Superman, but a mother doing it is still ‘just a mom’? These attitudes serve to perpetuate the stereotypic practice of equating ‘parent’ with ‘mother’ and minimize the profound significance of the father’s role.

A growing number of fathers expect their parenting role to exceed the limits of paternity, financial support, and “roughhousing.” The majority of men in recent studies report that they are more involved in childrearing than their fathers were and that they desire an equal partnership with their spouse in the rearing of their children. While including fathers in pregnancy and childbirth has been a tremendous improvement, it is not enough. It’s ironic that hospitals go out of their way to involve fathers in labor and delivery, even inviting them to cut the umbilical cord, and then fail to require the father’s presence when informing the mother about feeding, bathing, diapering, changing the umbilical cord dressings, etc. I’m pretty sure it’s not because they assume the father already knows how.

Children need fathers to progress out of the delivery room into the nursery and beyond. How do we (and by we, I mean all of us, males and females) go about replacing the peripheral father with an all-inclusive version? Here are a few suggestions:

Changes in Language. Words are powerful. Through language we communicate our attitudes, beliefs, and expectations. As long as we continue to equate the word parent with mother, we are cheating fathers and children. When parenting books, magazines, or articles are clearly geared to a female audience, authors and publishers are suggesting that fathers need not read them. When letters asking for volunteers for school-related activities are addressed to mothers, the message is clear about who is expected to reply. So gentlemen, the subtle, yet persistent exclusion of fathers in the conversation about parenting suggests you are free to move out of the picture, emotionally and even physically. But if you accept the circumstances as inevitable and, therefore, permission to renege on your responsibilities as a parent, not only are you depriving your children, you are denying yourself the rich rewards of this role. When we can openly say to our sons, as they cuddle their teddy bears, comfort a sibling or friend, or care for a pet, “You’re going to make a terrific father someday,” we’ll know the language of parenting has changed.

Changes in Attitudes and Expectations. The false impression that child care is something fathers occasionally do for mothers continues to prevail. In actuality, parenting is what fathers do with mothers for their children. Referring to fathers as babysitters is absurd. Babysitters are people who get paid to fill in for parents who are unavailable. Fathers, you are not temporary filler. You are the real thing. Seeing you fulfill your parental responsibilities in public, as well as private, should be treated as the norm, not a novelty. Parenting should be a mutual sharing of both the responsibilities and rewards of child rearing.

Men are not solely responsible for making the optional involvement of fathers acceptable. Many women lack a role model for a hands-on father. They have been socialized to believe that mothers should know all there is to know and do all there is to do with regard to child care. Otherwise they are not fulfilling their duty. Many of us fall into the trap of assuming there are only two ways of doing things – our way and the wrong way. When it comes to children, it is presumed mothers know “the right way.” When fathers demonstrate competence in this arena, it can be threatening to a mother’s self image. Fathers, if you face these situations, be patient, but persistent. Make it clear that your active participation is a statement about your desire to parent, not about your partner’s ability to parent.

Changes in Actions. Wilhelm Busch reminds us, “To become a father is not hard. To be a father is, however.” Any job worth doing is worth doing to the best of your ability. Parenting is no exception, whether you are male or female. In your efforts to become the father your children need you to be, take the time to: Examine your sense of identity. If your identity is all tied up in whether or not you are employed, what you are employed to do, where you are employed, and how much you earn, then your identity is extremely vulnerable to the unpredictability of the marketplace. If you look to your colleagues or employer to provide you with a sense of worth, you are forgetting that these people are primarily interested in what you can do and specifically, what you can do for them. In the eyes of your children, your value is not determined by the size of your paycheck. Children attribute the greatest power to those who are available to fulfill their needs – prepare their meals, participate in their play, provide comfort when they’re hurt or ill, etc. The only place you are irreplaceable is at home. I have never heard of anyone expressing regret for not having spent more time at the office on their deathbed. Conserve your energy. Save some of the smiles, words of encouragement, patience and enthusiasm you demonstrate at the office for the people waiting for you at home. Utilize the time it takes you to travel home to mentally prepare yourself for the transition from your office work to your family work. Your children deserve the best of you, not the leftovers.

Get the training the job requires. None of us is adequately prepared for the job of parenting. Few of us have had any formal training. The rest of us are limited to the parenting we received as kids – the models our parents provided. Many men do not feel good about the job their fathers did, but they don’t know how to do any differently. Sometimes when people don’t feel competent in a role, they simply avoid it. Don’t allow your discomfort to rob you and your children of one of the most critical relationships in your lives. Take the initiative to learn more about becoming the father you want to be. Read, attend classes and workshops, or join a parenting group. Identify a father you really admire and ask him to be your mentor. Spend time discussing your joint parenting goals with your spouse. Just because you didn’t give birth doesn’t make you any less of a parent.

The fact is, you can’t not parent. You can choose whether or not to become a parent or whether or not to be an involved parent. But if you have children, you cannot choose whether or not to parent. Your presence or absence will be experienced as parenting by your children. The way your children experience your involvement in their lives, or lack thereof, has an extraordinary impact on what they come to believe about themselves and how they relate to the rest of the world. The relationships that children establish with their parents provide the foundation for every other relationship they will ever have.

As you celebrate Father’s Day, take the time to reflect on what this role means to you, your children, your family, the future. The next time someone says, “How nice you’re willing to babysit for your wife,” boldly reply, “It’s my job. I’m doing this for them. I’m a dad!”