I’ve been traveling on business a lot lately, which means I’ve been spending a lot of time finding my way through airports and figuring out menus in restaurants. Every airport situation is different – but traveling through them involves a very specific and common set of solutions – find your flight, determine your gate, go through security, get some coffee, and wait to board. It’s a process, with which I am familiar – just like going to the market, or eating in a restaurant, or visiting the pediatrician.
Something that I continue to notice on this trip is how totally consistent little children are. No matter where I’ve been – London, Oslo, Munich, Hamburg, Lviv (in the Ukraine), or even L.A., it doesn’t matter how up-tight or logistically focused their parents may be, kids just seem to be dancing, singing, and passing the time in their own little wonderful world.
It is heartwarming to know that kids all over the world seem to be essentially the same. For toddlers, everything is fascinating. People bustle by, a cell phone rings, a big person is plays peek-a-boo – so much action, so much distraction…their heads swing around from sudden interest to studied stare. It’s truly a pleasure to watch as they interact with the world and soak in new things.
As a parent, what’s clearest to me is how their unbridled curiosity and playfulness makes them completely dependent on us to protect and to guide them. We are, after all, the people who make them safe – upon whose presence they can depend so that they can drift through their day soaking up one experience after another. This means that we’re the ones who know our way around an airport, who know where to get food, who know where the bathrooms are, etc. etc. Most importantly, even if we don’t know our way around, we know how to read the signs and use the tools we have to be able to solve those problems. We have been through the process. Our life experience is what makes us qualified to be parents…and it’s what our kids are counting on.
The same is true for our children at home. As much as we might believe they know what we might expect, or that they appear to “want to do it themselves”, we are the ones who know best. Communicating this – whether it’s about bedtime, diet, hygiene, or courtesy, lets our children know that we have answers – that if they stick with us (as they must at the airport) they will be protected by our knowledge and hopefully, good nature. It is in this way that they learn the process from us.
Letting children make their own rules is not doing them a favor. Imagine one of those toddlers wandering around the airport – hungry, tired, in need of a bathroom – how would she find her way? Most likely she’d be crying for her mommy or daddy because she doesn’t know the process and doesn’t know what to do. When mommy or daddy arrive, this little girl isn’t going to check their qualifications – she’s just going to be happy to see the person (or people) who can offer her the security of knowing.
If you got into a cab and the driver admitted being lost, you wouldn’t have a very comfortable or relaxed ride – would you? Now imagine that your kids are in your cab – and remember that you need to believe you know the process and behave as though you know exactly where you’re going so that they can, while buckled into their seats, relax and continue soaking up the world around them.
Raising children is just like being at the airport – it changes all the time, but you’ve been there before and you can figure it out.
For me, helping my children develop a sense of themselves has meant giving them personal “grips” onto which they can hold when the winds of social conformity start blowing their way. Our first encounter arrived in the form of an earring.
When Aaron was in the 6th grade, one of his friends, the child of good friends of ours, came to school with an earring. Since JoAnn and I were friends with his pal’s parents, Aaron was sure he could convince us to let him pierce his ear and start sporting a stud.
He was wrong. In fact, our conversation led to the following position statement (from me): “Until you are eighteen years old and, as long as you are living in my home, I own your body. You may not deface it.”
Aaron agreed, and he surrendered to the fact that his father was really strict and that he was going to have to return to school unadorned, which he did the next day.
Believe it or not, he survived. He returned to school and his friends still spoke to him.
Here was my thinking. First, I gave him an out, not an absolute “no.” He could make the decision for himself when he was eighteen. Second, I wanted to show him (by forcing the issue) that he could return to his peers without an earring and still remain popular. Finally, my theory was that he would ultimately distinguish himself by being a guy who didn’t have an earring. Ironically, six years later he pierced his ear two weeks before his eighteenth birthday. He expressed concern to JoAnn that I would be angry, but, at that point, I considered his decision “age appropriate” and I met him with humor.
Jewelry notwithstanding, Aaron has a strong sense of himself. He survived all those years without an earring and I think the process gave him a perspective about trends. On the other hand, it’s completely understandable when children want to do what everyone else is doing. On one occasion, we were attending a formal party that our children were also attending. I couldn’t help but notice that the children, specifically the boys, were getting pretty rowdy and their misbehavior was beginning to creep into the consciousness of the adults.
As I watched them, I remembered my feelings as a child (when it was all about having fun) and tried to blend them with my reaction as a parent (cringing at the thought that someone might say “Those kids were really wild last night — especially that Greenberg boy!”).
I decided to flag down my son, Ben, and drop this on him:
“It’s OK to be an idiot – just don’t be the biggest idiot.” I think he really appreciated that. Recently, Aaron phoned to tell me that he was afraid he had been the “biggest idiot” at a holiday party. He’s a grown man now, so it isn’t my problem – but it’s funny (and gratifying) how the old admonitions can stick.
Essentially, if you have a plan, and you know what your values are, you can stay calm and never need to get overexcited in the first place.
It appears that, despite proven facts (as opposed to other facts), Jenny McCarthy continues to believe that vaccinations are bad for our children… I wonder how she feels about Polio?
Your un-armed child is walking down the street in your sister’s gated community. A neighborhood vigilante decides that your child is “up to no good”. The vigilante decides, against the advice of law enforcement (who are on their way) to confront your child. Your child reacts to this approach and a physical engagement occurs in which your child ends up dead from a gunshot wound. Do you believe that the vigilante is innocent?
When JoAnn and I got married, a wise friend said that marriage is not 50/50 – it’s 90/90. Essentially, he was telling us that we’d each often feel as though we were giving (or doing) more than half of the relationship’s work and, if we could accept that fact, our marriage would sail along smoothly. After over thirty five years, JoAnn and I agree that the theory remains accurate. The workload shifts; sometimes I’m doing more and sometimes she’s doing more. That’s just the way it is. It also means that there is no clock punching, no keeping track, and no ongoing score sheet, and it’s a real opportunity to give to our parenting partner and let them know that someone else is there helping to carry the load. While raising children, the same sort of understanding is required – because, as parents, we do the majority of the work and the gratitude doesn’t come until much later
In the beginning, we carry virtually 100% of the load – we change diapers, we feed, we entertain, and we worry. Our infants and toddlers, on the other hand, spend almost all of their time observing, smelling, tasting and learning. Although those things don’t help the laundry get done, or the sheets get changed, the impact of that effort on their part is quite substantial. Besides, Nature has made babies cute so that we don’t mind working our tales off for them.
That’s just the way it is.
Parenting demands a tremendous generosity of spirit, and, as our children get older, we are able to teach them to help us so that things aren’t quite so lopsided. At a certain point, we can enlist their aid by saying things like “Please help me clean up your toys.” or “Sit still while I put your socks on”. Narrating and naming these tasks is an important part of the process, as we are actually teaching our children how to do these things for themselves. “First you prepare the sock, now you put it over your toes…” etc. At some point, probably when you’re in a hurry, your child will want to do it for himself. If you’re in a hurry, try to explain that he can do it next time and reward him for his patience. If not, guide him, encourage him, and reward him with praise (and maybe even a phone call to someone else who would be proud).
Whenever possible, and sometimes out of the blue, we make our children aware of the world around them. “Isn’t that an interesting building?”, “Look at those pretty flowers.”, ”We’re so lucky to have…” a nice home, a safe school, warm clothes, food, good health, and so on. In many cases, these are comforts that we can (and do) give our children, and maybe even nice things that we sometimes take for granted – like loving friends, new shoes, a hand-me-down jacket, or a trip to the ice cream store.
These little lessons are all part of our instructional responsibility. Being grateful creates for each of our children their own lucky place in the world. “I’m very lucky.” becomes part of their self-description. They know who they are, they know what they appreciate, and it gives them the strength to build a strong emotional scaffolding and a solid sense of self respect.
Today, as all days, we are grateful to have each other.
The ultrasound! We had been waiting three months for this day. We took our three sons with us, as this was going to be big news. JoAnn and I had already been blessed with the three boys, Aaron (15), Benjamin (12), and Coby (7), but this time we were hoping for a girl. Aaron had been born when we were twenty-six. I wouldn’t ever say that he was an accident, but we weren’t originally planning on having a child just two years into our marriage. Once started, we thought it made sense to bring along our second child, Benjamin, around the three-year mark, and then, as part of our desire to regroup, and to give Benjamin a chance to establish a decent foothold on his life, we waited another five years before welcoming Coby Michael. That was it. We were done. No girl.
As the next few years passed and our boys continued to grow, I watched JoAnn jump at the chance to buy gifts for our nieces and the daughters of our friends. After all, JoAnn is the “girliest” girl I know – always well put together, never harsh or rude, patient and loving at all times. I felt that the three sons were largely mine to train, but I knew she needed someone into whom she could pour her years of wisdom and womanhood. So one day I said to her, “I think we should go for the girl.” She said, “You’re crazy, after three boys, the odds are really against us.” I said, “Let’s cheat a little,”, and that began a seven-month journey to and from the office of a fertility specialist who was trying to help us “get the girl”. At first it was really exciting, but after seven separate months of high hopes and regular disappointment I said to her, “I think happy eggs are fertile eggs, so let’s blow off the medical hoo-ha and just see what happens.”
Of course, we stacked the deck again. JoAnn bought the Ovu Quick Kit and tracked all the necessary happenings. One day, while I was in a meeting with our biggest client, I got a message from my wife saying, “COME HOME NOW!!” The meeting had started at 11 a.m. and it had taken months to set up – I couldn’t leave just then – this was MY presentation. When the meeting finished, at one o’clock, I sped home ready to make a baby. Afterward, I carried great apprehension about those two hours. If we had another boy, would I get the blame because of the two hour delay?
So, here we were at the obstetrician’s office, sonogram underway. JoAnn was forty-two, so she’d had an amnio four weeks earlier – but this was the follow up, and this was going to be our moment of destiny. We all crowded into the room as the doctor placed gel on JoAnn’s belly, and I explained the different machines to our boys, who had never seen an ultrasound. The doctor said, “Well, this baby has fine shoulders, and the brain appears to be developing quite nicely.” To which I responded, “You know doctor, we’re here to determine the sex of the baby.” Her reply was quick and direct. “Yes, but this is my job, and I have to do it in a specific order. I will let you know when we get to the pertinent parts.” “Okay,” I said sheepishly, and we boys went back to joking (mostly making fun of me for being pushy with the doctor.) After a few minutes, the doctor said, “Would you look at that?” We all turned to look at the screen, on which “It’s a Girl” had been typed. We erupted in tears and relief, except JoAnn, who skeptically demanded to see the genetic outcome of the amnio in order to confirm what the doctor had told us. Sure enough, it WAS a girl.
Minutes later, we walked down the hall in a happy cluster surrounding JoAnn when suddenly she stopped short, made a face, looked at us all and said, “Did you guys hear that?” None of us had heard anything. “You didn’t hear a loud boom?” “No,” we all replied. “Oh,” she said, appearing to think deeply. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear it.” “It was all of you dropping a notch in status.” That was the prologue to the arrival of our fourth and final child, our wonderful daughter, Emily.
Ever since my time in the closet ended my terror of the dark, I’ve used the same method to address other fears. I’m what psychologists call a “counter-phobe.” When I was afraid of needles, I gave blood. When I worried about not knowing anyone at a party, I forced myself to go. It worked!
I’ve encouraged my children to confront their anxieties in the same way. Problem-solving builds self-esteem, and real growth often occurs during our least comfortable periods.
But I’m also aware that not all fears can be addressed like this. Some things can’t be confronted head-on. Those are the things that parents sometimes tend to stress about that aren’t really within our immediate control, which is a tendency we should try to resist. Bovine growth hormone, the chemical content of fabric softener – yes, perhaps these are genuine long-term concerns, but they’re not worth ruining “today” for our children. Kids already have many worries that don’t even hit our radar: “Is Johnny going to be mean to me?” Will I be picked for a dance solo?” “Does my teacher like me?” Adding to their anxiety by being anxious ourselves is a big mistake.
In the late 1940s, Dr. Theodore Woodward, a professor at the University of Maryland Medical School, told his students “When you hear hoof beats, think of horses, not zebras.” Since horses are common in Maryland and zebras are rare, one should expect that hoof beats are probably made by a horse. This expression was accepted in medical circles to mean that the most simple explanation is probably the most likely – and one shouldn’t necessarily look (or think) beyond the obvious problem for some bigger problem. The same goes for things we choose to worry about. Or not worry about. Keep your worrying simple – the anxiety spread by being overly concerned about the radiation from a cell phone is probably worse than the effects of the radiation itself.
Parents have a lot to worry about, yet our children expect us to be calm, confident leaders. Our task is this: without ignoring our concerns, we need to create a safe harbor for the people who depend on us.
When I was about six years old my mom summoned my sister and me to a serious discussion. The topic was fire safety! If we ever smelled smoke, or if we thought our house was on fire, we were NOT to come to our parents’ room. We were to close our bedroom door, climb out our windows, and meet in the front of the house. After a tear-filled discussion about the unlikeliness of a fire, we were sent to rehearse the fire plan. Now we knew what to do in an emergency, and we knew that our parents knew what to do. They had prepared us.
I was afraid of the dark as a young child. My mom was sensitive to my fear and asked if I wanted to overcome it. I said, “Sure.” Opening the door of a closet, she directed me to get inside and sit down on the floor. “Are you comfortable? Are you scared in any way?” she asked. When I replied that I was fine, she said. “Okay, I’m going to close the door a bit,” and she closed it, but with a couple of inches of light still streaming in. “Are you okay?” she asked. “Yep,” said I. Then we talked for a while about various things until she said, “Do you think you’re ready for me to close the door the rest of the way?” I answered, “I guess so. “Very good,” she said, “and I’ll be right here outside the door if you get scared. I just want you to see that the dark doesn’t make the closet any different. You just have to get used to it.”
So she closed the door the rest of the way. Man, was it dark! But minute by minute it got a little lighter. I could see light at the bottom of the door. Soon I could even see the outline of my hand. “Hey, this isn’t so bad.” I thought. “How are you doing?” asked Mom from outside. “Just come out whenever you’re ready.” After a few minutes I calmly exited the closet, never to be afraid of the dark again.