MarcieNKids1954cuOur own life experience is our greatest parenting resource.  In my book, Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around”, I suggest that parenting is like driving a cab: if you don’t at least ACT like you know the way, your passengers (children) are going to be nervous and uncomfortable as you would be with a rookie cab driver.

But how can new parents proceed with confidence?  By looking backward at the way they themselves were parented.

All of us are influenced by what Selma Frieberg, author of The Magic Years, called the “Ghosts in our Nursery” – essentially, the voices of those who raised us.  Learning to recognize how our parents influenced us may be the most effective way of preparing for the job ahead.  What did your parents do that you remember most positively?  Were there hugs at night?  Surprise trips to the ice cream store?  Goofy family photos? What makes these events so memorable?

dunce in cornerWhat do you remember that was negative?  Was it discipline with a belt, or friendly persuasion?  Was it time in isolation?  Was it “no dessert”?  Did your parents explain their motives, or just make you frustrated and angry with them?  How can you avoid repeating those mistakes with your own children?

I put together some simple questions for you to ask your spouse, parenting partner, or co-parent, in order to better understand the emotional land mines that you might encounter. Use these questions to help you clarify the values, vision, and goals that will define the system you apply as you define your family.  These questions should help you narrow down your parenting objectives and unify your message.  They are of value no matter how old your children may be.

  • What did/do you love most about your father?  Your mother?
  • Did you know your grandparents?  What do or did you love  / remember most about them?
  • In what ways do you think your parents are like their parents?  In what ways do you think they are different?
  • Were your parents always honest with you?  Did they always tell you the truth?
  • What do you think were your parent’s biggest mistakes?  Successes?
  • At what moment were you proudest to be the child of your father / mother?
  • At what moment were you most embarrassed by your father / mother?  Would you be just as embarrassed today? (Do you feel embarrassed just thinking about it?  If so, feel the power of this memory!)
  • Do you remember whether or not your mother was always busy?  Was your father?
  • Which or your behaviors did your parents punish most severely?  Do you agree with their decisions?
  • What behaviors did they encourage?  Will you encourage the same ones?
  • How did your parents let you know they loved you?  Will you (or do you) do the same with your children?
  • Did you ever really disappoint your parents?  How?  How did that behavior affect the way they treated you?  How did your behavior or self-image change as a result?
  • When did you most feel loved?  Why?
  • Did your family have any rituals / holidays / quirks?  What was your role in them?  How did your parents handle them?  Were they the leaders?  Did they ever let you lead?  How did you feel about that?
  • Who is your favorite relative?  Why?
  • Who is your favorite parenting role model?  Why?
  • What is your greatest fear about being a parent?

couple-talkingCuteAlthough I originally created this as a one-time organizational tool, I have learned that part of a successful parenting system is the regular recalibration of messages and techniques. The values you define from this lesson can be the foundation you fall back on, year after year, as you build the “emotional scaffolding” inside your children.

Consider these the rules of the sport that your team will be playing.  As managers, you and your partner will have to remember to watch game films at regular intervals, to review the day, to change the plan, to hold a mirror up to each other to see if you’re both still on track.  If you desire, document your conclusions after reading the questionnaire and check them every once in a while to see if you’re still on course.  Are you avoiding the behaviors you disliked in your parents?  Are you being positive with your children?  Are you communicating and reflecting your thoughts regularly with your mate?

couple-talking-moneyKeeping these resolutions in mind will make the process quicker and easier than having to always start at scratch.  Remember, parenting is a practice, it evolves, and lessons are taught to us every day.  The more we do it, the more we reflect and share, the easier it becomes – and the more proficient WE become.  Sharing and defining those lessons is one of the keys to staying on course.

We all have our own stories — and, to me, everyone’s story is interesting.  Essentially, these questions ask, “What makes you who you are?”   Think of your own questions and add them to the list.  Then decide, from this discussion, how you’re going to communicate, how you’re going to strengthen each other’s confessed weaknesses, and protect each other from your fears (JoAnn and I came up with “key words” to let each other know that we’d fallen off course).  Remember those resolutions, and use them as your litmus test when you regularly recalibrate.

DecaturStoreGreenbergsNot everything our parents did was right or wrong. How we raise your children is finally and entirely up to us – but starting with our past is a good way to build a value system, recognize our strengths, and move forward with confidence.

LEFT – The Greenberg Bros. store.  Decatur Ill.  1911

My mom would have been ninety-two last week.  Here are three gems she left me:

Don’t be so open minded that your brain falls out.

Open_Mind_xlargeAll of us have been in situations where our better nature overrides our common sense.  I’ve loaned money to friends.  I’ve counseled people to stay hopeful and remain in bad relationships.  I’ve even been tempted to let my teenage son have his girlfriend sleep over – and, in each of those cases, I’ve had to remind myself that, chances are, I will end up on the wrong end of those equations. I’ll lose my money (and perhaps my friend.) I’ll be providing grief counseling to broken-hearted lovers.  And I’ll continually worry about my son and his girlfriend.

With children, I have found this sentiment reads as being naïve… and sometimes it’s important that they learn certain lessons on their own.  How many toys loaned to “friends” (often to curry favor) will be lost or broken before a child learns that “generosity” has limits – and that there are people in the world who see generosity as just an opportunity for taking.

When I was in college a guy asked me to lend him a hundred bucks because he was going to the track.  At the end of the day, he caught up with me somewhere and handed me two-hundred.  Wow.  A couple of days later, he asked if he could borrow the two hundred. No problem.  But I never saw him again.  Yes, shame on him — and shame on me, because my hope was greater than my common sense.

wishfulthinkingfingerscrossedSometimes “open minded” means gullible. .  We’ve raised level-headed kids, but occasionally they’ve came home with some pretty ridiculous stories.  These were things that just didn’t make sense, but in the excitement of creating the fable they forgot the need for logic, and so did my JoAnn and I.  We heard how Billy’s very slightly built dad was playing professional hockey. We learned how Amber’s mother flew in the Space Shuttle.  We were skeptical, but these things seemed possible.  I guess we just wanted to believe.  This  type of open-mindedness is “wishful thinking” –  like allowing the fox to watch the chickens because he swore he wasn’t hungry.  Sometimes it’s just the nature of the beast to do what comes naturally.  That’s something we all need to remember when we think the banks will regulate themselves or that voting documentation has to be available in twelve different languages.

The grass is always greener on the other side. But you still have to mow both lawns.

SONY DSCAs a person who was rarely happy in his job, this gem is probably the most practical piece of advice I ever got.  I was always thinking how things would be better if I could just work somewhere else, or just drive that other car, or just be best friends with that really important person.  Now, after many years of life experience, it turns out that everything and everyone have their own complications.  No matter how attractive a change seems, it may just be exchanging one set of problems for another.

This is mostly a cautionary expression , and it’s one we have to learn for ourselves.  One of our sons had what I considered a great job.  He was employed full time, with health benefits, at a highly respected company.  What’s more, he worked a shift from 2pm to 11pm. If his work was complete, he could leave early and still get paid for eight hours.  At age 27 I would have been in Nirvana with a steady job like that.  But there were problems, as there always are.  It was a little far from home, the hours cut into time with his girlfriend, his co-workers lacked motivation, there was no upward trajectory, and much more.  So he quit.

MowerOnLawnIn this case, there was no other lawn, only the hope of a better one.  Ah, the illusions of youth.  The good news is, after a very scary four months of unemployment, he got a job that led to another opportunity, that led to his current job and — for now — he appears to be happy.   The “lesson learned” was, “Never leave a job until you have the next one.” And he’s the first to admit it.

When it comes to relationships, I’ve met lots of people who are always looking for a better mate. But JoAnn and I have agreed over the years, nobody’s perfect, including us, and trading one person in for another can introduce a whole new set of problems.

There is no question that most situations can be improved, but it’s important to measure both “lawns” and completely understand the maintenance requirements of each.  And always remember that having a lawn to mow is a blessing of its own.

The Truth Floats

bubbles1Try to hold a bubble underwater and you’ll note that it finds a way to squeak between your fingers.  Additionally, if you try to speed that bubble upward, it often breaks into many tiny bubbles and its essence becomes lost.

“The truth floats” has multiple interpretations.  To some people it means, “What goes around comes around.” I prefer to think of it as proof that the end result is usually the right result.

We used this expression to help our children understand why bullying was the bully’s problem.  There’s much evidence that kids who bully have an internal unhappiness that motivates them to pick on others and, in the long run, that will have a far more adverse effect on the bully’s own lives than it will on anyone else’s.  Ultimately, the Truth will float and that kid will find him or herself with no friends.  In the short run, this is just a way to help your child understand and rise above the barbs that some people will hurl at them.  In the long run, this also allows children to take stock of themselves and have faith in their actions, knowing that their goodness will ultimately be what “floats” in their world.

crazy-personTo explain this phenomenon to my children, I said, “What you know to be true, other people also know.”  We need to have faith that other people are smart enough to see the things we see.  This is often confirmed when someone says “Is that person crazy, or is it just me?”

Ironically, all of these expressions seem to be methods for protecting ourselves from our own optimism.  I think it’s important to remain positive, to believe in the best we have to offer each other, but I’m also experienced enough to know that we need to teach our children (and often ourselves) to be wary of those who are not quite as hopeful as we.

HappyFaceoptimist300x185Ultimately, however, believing that things will work out, and that Truth will prevail, is not a bad way to go through life…

… just don’t take any wooden nickels.

Turkey2It’s November now, the month of Thanksgiving (one of my two faves (4th of July being the other)).

November is also the month when our children start rehearsing seriously for their school Holiday Programs.  Singing, dancing, holding signs – whatever it is they’re doing – they’re preparing to be “on their best” for their parents and for their community.

School-children-playing-violinWhen I was young, the Christmas Program was an all-day affair.  We students got to leave our classes early so that we could go home, change into our holiday best and return in the evening for a Bake Sale (to raise money for the school) and for our performance.  Our parents would drop us off in our classroom and then go find seats in the auditorium.  About forty-five minutes later, the show would begin.  We would entertain ourselves in the classroom by playing simple games – like Hangman (on the board), or Simon Says until someone would summon us for our moment on stage.  We would file onto the risers as we had done in rehearsals the day before and face our parents and our community, who were very excited to see what our class had to offer on this pre-holiday occasion.  All the parents were there.  This was Big Time.

LittleGirlSingsToday, the “Holiday” Program still offers the same opportunity for our children.  The concept is similar, although the celebration is more diverse.  After all, it was radical when Hannukah songs were introduced at my elementary school, but today schools spend a lot of time teaching our kids to embrace diversity with sensitivity and empathy.  I find these new additions refreshing, and I note ironically, that we, as parents, don’t seem to be doing our part.

One big thing that has changed is that many parents today only seem to care about their child’s performance.  Typically, these days, after any class finishes their part of the program, a wave of parents stands up and leaves – so that by the end of the program, the last performers (usually the older kids) are greeted by a much-emptier auditorium.  This, I fear, is an unfortunate sign of our times.

People regularly ask me, “What’s wrong with kids today?  Why are they discourteous, why are they so self-involved?”  I believe the answer lies partially in the parental behavior described above.  Why should our children care about the other kids in their school, if their parents don’t?  Why, in fact, should they care about anyone else if we parents are always prioritizing them over others, sometimes even over their teachers or coaches?

SparseAuditoriumBestLiteThis isn’t rocket science.  I didn’t have to study anything beside my own childhood and the emotion I felt when my children asked me after their performances why the audience was so empty.  We parents need to teach our children to be sensitive to the feelings of others and to act in a manner consistent with those feelings.  This isn’t always easy.  There are obligations to attend to, meals after the performance, Grandma’s in town and restless siblings, etc.  But as we demonstrate your concern for the feelings of others, our children will begin to understand that they are not the center of the Universe and that they, too, need to be aware of those around them.

Although it may seem like I’m counseling other parents to be “selfless”, the truth is (from my experience) that teaching our children to behave well and respect others is very much in our own self-interest.  By teaching our children to be conscious of the world around them, and by showing them how to be courteous, our lives actually become much easier.  We don’t have to spend time worrying about bad behavior or insensitivity toward others.  We don’t have to deal with a child that talks back, or corral our kids when we go out in public.  Kids naturally accept and incorporate the positive values that we, their parents have portrayed.  Ultimately, they actually realize that we are people whose feelings and opinions they should also care about, because, they are, after all, a part of a family and community.

StageCurtainSo, there’s a lot more at stake when you decide to bail in the middle of a school performance.  When I wrote “Raising Children That Other People Like to be Around”, I listed “Setting an Example” as one of my key values.  By showing our children that we care about the performances of other children – even children to whom we have no direct connection – we are teaching them that we respect other people in the world.  When they’re reminded that the world is bigger than they are, they gain a perspective that allows them to FEEL and experience gratitude for the things and people around them.  It’s a lesson that will serve them their entire lives.

Yes, November is the month for gratitude, and I’ve written on this subject now because it’s the time to start scheduling those Holiday Programs.  Enjoy the time, and enjoy all the performances.

Happy Thanksgiving.

happy-thanksgiving