Archives for posts with tag: child rearing

I used the plural forms of the nouns for this chapter quite purposefully: especially “cultural backgroundS,” because we have, more than ever, many cultural backgrounds in the United States today, and successful adults in will be those who learned as children how to get along with people from countless backgrounds. A dear friend of mine who made multi-culturalism her specialty back in the 1990s, when many of us were preoccupied by such a thing, trained me about the concentric circles of cultural education: one begins with one’s own family history; then one broadens to one’s community; then one’s state and region; and finally, one’s country. In so doing, one encompasses not only one’s own heritage, but the heritages of all those with whom one comes into contact.

My children, through my husband’s family, are direct descendants of Squire Boone, Daniel Boone’s father.  Daniel Boone’s sister, Sarah Boone Wilcoxson, is their grandmother with too many “greats” before it for me to count accurately.  That provided a lot of interesting school reports and “sharing” moments, as A. and S. would bring in old family artifacts that showed something of like in Kentucky’s frontier days, including historical accounts of life at Fort Boonesborough in the 1770s. Old quilts, a replica coonskin cap, yellowed family written records, and paintings of the fort copied from books or printed from web sites were romantic artifacts that made their family history come to life.

At the same time, other classmates were bringing in examples of very different family histories, and discussing how what brought them to Kentucky, whether hundreds of years before, or in the last decade.  The tapestry woven by such diverse stories revealed the rich cultural landscape of the Unites States, and became the foundation on which A. and S. learned to view others’ stories with respect.

Different faiths can also be discussed  with respect, calmly and yet without losing the educational focus that many parents desire: to explain clearly why we believe as we do, and why we think our beliefs are valid. It’s quite possible to “train up a child in the way he should go” without communicating disrespect for other faiths, and to teach children that they can be friends with people from different faith backgrounds. Indeed, as nearly all nations take on less homogeneous  populations, preparing our children for life beyond the nest of home requires that we teach them how to get along with people from many cultures. What helps is that so many customs from the various people groups are linked to the changing seasons, providing a common thread.  Children love changing seasons and the traditions linked to them. Seasonal traditions are an anchor of  stability and joy through childhood.

As I write this, the air is gaining that autumn chill that evokes football, brilliant orange and yellow leaves, chimney smoke, and in that odd, inexplicable way, nostalgia. We have finished the fall arrangements on the front porch.  Tall bundles of corn shucks, bound together and stuffed into 19th century crockery lard jars handed down from my husband’s family, flank the front door.  In front of them are arranged piles of pumpkins in various sizes, squash and gourds.  On the front door hangs a wreath of dried leaves that each year I swear won’t last one more, but thus far, it’s holding its own.

Since our children are grown, we focus on fall decorations rather than Halloween: fall lasts through Thanksgiving, when everything comes down and is replaced with lit Christmas arrangements in the lard jars, the large, divided Christmas wreath on the door, and spotlights to illuminate everything as the doors grow short.

When we would go through this process as the kids were growing up, with each transition they would become excited all over again.  One is tempted to say, “as if they’d never experienced [fall, or Christmas, or spring, or Easter, or the Fourth of July] before,” except that it is their experience of a small bank of past years, and their memory of those, that fuels their exuberance.

What is it about seasons that bring out the child in us?  The changing air, the changing light, the changing colors, and with it, changing household traditions — all contribute to the evocative shift, harkening memories of years  past, and relationships with loved ones who went before. Indeed, the evocative nature of seasonal changes can overwhelm us with sadness, at times, until we can’t bear to mark the changes, and seasons and holidays become excruciatingly painful.  But children are seldom so stricken by loss. Just feeling the crisp breeze of fall and seeing the leaves start to change, or seeing the ice melt and the first crocuses pop their heads through the snow to greet the early March sun, is enough make a child skip home from the school bus.

We live in a house made for seasonal dress-up, like a beautiful women begging to parade her finery on the town square. It’s not a small job — especially for Christmas — and I have years when I’m not sure I can pull it off.  Many’s the November when I’ve picked up the phone and found help, and if I take the time to put on music, put out snacks, and make it a party where we all work together, as I do some years, those are the most delightful.

We try to restrict ourselves to seasonal decorations that are pulled from nature, or at least look like they were. Not eager to burn my house down, I gave up on fresh Christmas garland the year we had to travel to Florida to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary: using artificial garland and not having hands bloodied from wrestling with fresh holly and magnolia, and seeing the synthetic greenery still look as green and plump on January 3 as it did on December 20, altered something in my soul for the more convenient, if not the better. I’ll be the first to admit to loving the Old-World shabby-chic of the slowly drying and browning live greenery at old-fashioned, rambling country manors like the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. As time marches resolutely toward New Year’s and Epiphany, the fresh garlands change, grow flat and dry, and the slow dissipation of “real” greenery becomes part of the evocative tradition. But I’m not in the country inn business, and Winchester’s Island is not a museum. We live here and it behooves us not to be exhausted, living in a tinder box in danger of spontaneously combusting every year between December 20 and January 6. It’s enough of a nod to tradition that we don’t hang a million and a half colored lights on our house. Indeed, when they were younger, my children were quite heartbroken about that, and thought me a terrible Scrooge.

The beauty of dressing your house in the artistic artifacts found outdoors, or a reasonable simulation thereof, is you can talk to your children as you decorate about nature, its cycles and symbols. Fall leaves, pumpkins and gourds become objects for talking any number of interesting topics from history and the natural world. You can discuss  photosynthesis and leaf oxidation; the summer and winter solstice and how that affects daylight hours; the fall harvest; how people once didn’t have artificial light and what they had to do to deal with that; how they had to provide food for themselves to last through the winter;  the original significance of Halloween, celebrated as it was by Christians to show the devil and all the specters of evil and darkness that those living under the protection of Christ had nothing to fear and could afford to mock them; the history and seasonal practices of Native Americans; the story of the Pilgrims; the first Thanksgiving; how our food traditions during October, November and December partake of all these things.  It’s interesting to point out, for example, that something like bobbing for apples would be that much more popular in a world where apples were available in the months from August through October, as was once the case.

During the December holidays, the rich stories available based on symbols of the season are almost limitless.  Regardless of which winter holiday your family celebrates, great lessons in multi-culturalism and mutual respect can be imparted — without having to do hard-edged moralizing — by simply talking about what different groups believe and practice during these months.  Thus, when December 6th approaches, you can talk about Saint Nicholas, who he was in history, and if your family is Christian, the children can put out shoes the night before and find foil-wrapped chocolate coins inside. (I’ll confess that since I frequently forgot the gold coins, I was always relieved that my children forgot to make note of December 6th and failed to put out shoes!) Similarly, when Chanukah is approaching, you can tell the story of the Maccabees and the drops of oil that lasted eight nights, and look at pictures of menorahs and talk about the eight-day celebration that culminates in the Eighth Night, with potato latkes, dreidels, singing and dancing.  You can teach your children the hymn Ma’oz Tzur, (based on acrostics, which provides another great lesson in that ancient form of poetry), ” The Dreidl Song” and “Oh Chanukah, Oh Chanukah,” make potato pancakes (any excuse to eat those delicious crispy treats!) and find Egypt and Israel on the map and talk about their histories.

Here is a modern-day loose translation of Ma’oz Tzur into English:

Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering.
And His courts surrounding, hear, in joy abounding,
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.

Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.

Linked as holidays are to weather, we’ve never in our house been fans of the cynical creep of Christmas earlier and earlier on the calendar.  The public gratitude expressed to Nordstrom department stores, which doesn’t put up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving, reveals that most people prefer to have autumn and Halloween in October, Thanksgiving in November, and Christmas in December.

For the really stubborn and historically minded, like us, “Christmas” doesn’t begin after Thanksgiving.  That four-week period is Advent, when we prepare ourselves and our homes, inside and out, for the joy of welcoming Emmanuel, “God With Us,” on Christmas Eve. Although decades ago the Christmas tree was not decorated until Christmas Eve, most of us include decorating our homes and putting up Christmas trees as part of our Advent activities — but the preparation is not just for one day, December 25, but for the entire twelve-day season beginning December 24 and concluding on Epiphany, or January 6th.  If we have a party during the Christmas season in our home, we usually have it after Christmas Day, and before New Year’s Eve, perhaps the on Fourth Night (December 28th).  We spread out our gift-opening, too, so when guests come to our Christmas party they still seen wrapped presents under the tree. I began that tradition when A. was nearly three, after seeing how too many gifts on one day was utterly overwhelming to a young child. We never even got around to cooking Christmas dinner, so pressured were we to open all the presents and call all the relatives. The focus for such a special day became the stuff, and it was simply depressing.

The following year I took a hint from our Jewish friends and Chanukah, and had twelve gifts — some special and high on the Christmas wish list, but many as modest as an inexpensive puzzle or box of candy — and each day’s gifts wrapped differently. I spent time matching the size of the gift for both children, so we would have no jealousy: never would one child open a Slinky as the other child open a space rocket. On Christmas Day they opened gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles who didn’t understand or care for the concept of spreading out the holiday. If they wanted to, they could open one of their matching gifts from us.  Often they chose not to. Then, after Christmas Day, we said nothing.  Every couple of days they would come to us, “May we open a present?” “Yes!” and they would go to the tree together to choose which twin gifts they would open. If they had skipped a day, then there were days when they could open two. I didn’t have to supervise, because I had made sure that gifts of like sizes, values and pizzaz-level were wrapped identically — same paper, same ribbon. We also had, and still have, special meals on all Twelve Nights, keep the Christmas music going, and generally treat the season like an extended party — which it is!

Twelfth Night, or January 5th, is called “Little Christmas” by many who celebrate the Twelve Days, and can include its own evening celebration. The day after, January 6th, is Epiphany, “The Feast of Lights,” when the Magi came to worship the young boy Jesus. In my home, we always had a special dinner either on Twelfth Night or on Epiphany, with plenty of lit candles, more music, and we opened the last of the Christmas presents under the tree.  Yes, it’s true: I’ve never taken my Christmas decorations down before January 7th!

My children loved the languorous pace of the Twelve Days of Christmas, concluding with Epiphany. This kind of slower celebration might be hard to introduce with teenagers, but those with very young children can do so without much consternation from the lower ranks.  You might try it next year! If you don’t like it, you can always return to the standard Christmas Day orgy of gifts.

Even the word suggests a loss of innocence: for the parent as much as the child.

Eternity drops this soft, blanket-swaddled lump of sweet, pink nappy/milky/doughy life into your arms, and from the first moment, he or she begins pushing away.  A friend of ours, an artist with a singularly thoughtful view of life, told my husband and me that one day, as he was walking and rocking his infant son, it dawned on him that the rest of their lives would be spent in essential conflict: he would grow to love his son more and more, while his son would grow more and more to want independence.  Thus, John said, he realized that where being a parent was concerned, he was destined for grief.  (It did have a good effect: it caused him to reconnect with his own father over a sustained period of time.)

John told Tom and me about that in our kitchen over brunch one Sunday morning when our son was halfway through law school, living in his own house, juggling school with a job, and we were lucky to see him once a week.  Our daughter was in England, and wouldn’t be home for 15 months. Not only did I share John’s feeling of tragedy that our children leave us — and if we’ve done our job well, leave us very easily — but also the concomitant realization that as they leave, our longing for them doesn’t. While our birds-flying-the-coop experience only exhilaration at their growing independence, we experience indescribable sadness. We are delighted to see them launched in the world, making a go of it — but their lack of angst and need for us is easily misinterpreted as lack of love, because child love is so very different from parent love. Child love is admiration and gratitude and affection.  Parent love is someone taking a pick-axe, plunging it into your chest and ripping out your beating heart, without anesthesia.

What has this to do with discipline? Everything, because that first moment when the thought enters the child’s head that, though mother said “no,” one might still choose “yes,” represents the free will and individual sovereignty that is, at some very basic level, the foundation of humanity. Mutiny is always an option! And the very premise of discipline is the lie that we can control the environment fully enough that our children will have to submit to our preferences – yet really, it’s a deception, because children always have the ability to defy us, though they endanger themselves seriously to do so. We just hope they don’t figure that out.

We see it at just a few months of age: the baby that once only snuggled in our arms is now pushing back, pushing away, expressing a preference: don’t hold me this way, hold me that way. Don’t cover my eyes! Give me your breast! I want my binky! Put me down! I am going to push up like this with my arms until I have the upper-body strength to roll over.  And then I’ll push my legs at the same time, and I’ll be moving! AND I WILL BE ABLE TO GO WHERE I WANT TO, AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME.

It’s cute and endearing and we’re so proud, until we see Junior about to tumble down the stairs, or hear him yell “NO, YOU BIG FAT UGLY!” at the preschool teacher, or suffer through his engaging us in that necessary process of testing: “I have to know who will win the battle between you and me.” And where some children will respond with laconic submission to “no, Johnny!” others will narrow their eyes as if to say, “oh, yeah?!?”, elevate the battle to a war, and suddenly your heavenly, pink dough-ball has become a rebellious heretic. Mutiny! How dare he?! Doesn’t this only happen to “bad parents”?

It happens to everyone. The only parents who don’t go through this phase of dismay are those whose children are. . .what can I say?. . . weird. Trust me: you don’t want weirdly obedient children.  Ecclesiastes says there is a time and a place for all things, and weirdly obedient children at age 3, or age 15, end up dumping their wives or husbands at age 42, embezzling office funds, buying a Lamborghini, and running off with a pole dancer.

So your dismay that instead of a pink angel from heaven, you have procreated a demon from the pits of hell is normal. And your demon is normal. But your proper normal response is not to shrug your shoulders and let the demon behave demonically.  I’m sorry to say that your only option is to do your job. You must parent. You must put on your armor and resolve that this little hellion will not get the best of you. You can stir love and intelligence and creativity into the pot. Often those ingredients help. Humor always helps. Especially because you are not going to know what the **** you are doing. It’s like trying to hit a bull’s eye blindfolded.

You can read books, including this one, and sometimes books can help. The best books are written by people who understand that not all children are alike, and they won’t all respond to the same kind of discipline. It has nothing to do with intelligence, talent, or your ability or worth as a parent. Most children respond well to definite rules and clear consequences. These “linear” children frankly make it a lot easier on their parents, I think. I have one of each: a linear child and a free spirit. Parents of linear children can be a bit judgmental of children who are more willful and have to be persuaded.  Who hasn’t watched Supernanny or any other shows of its ilk on TV, both for the satisfaction of seeing little tyrants learn to behave, but also to pick up some strategies for gaining control over your own obstreperous kids? The nanny shows make liberal use of timeouts, but in my experience, timeouts have limited effectiveness. (Have you ever seen a bedroom filled with tiny shreds of Kleenex, torn up during a 15 minute timeout? or had a child dismantle an un-mortared brick sidewalk because she didn’t like having to sit on a step for 16 minutes? Do you really want to go for round two after that? Maybe Grandma’s switch chosen from the backyard is a better idea.) Some children would rather sit for the rest of their lives than give in to you. The truant officers won’t take kindly to that when the morning class bell rings, and it will be your fault. You are the parent.

I recommend starting with the linear approach: straightforward, not too many edicts but enough to ensure safety and courtesy, teaching “we don’t do that,” then using sharp, simple words; then timeouts, then bottom pops. (Oh, yes! where would we be without those mini-spankings that kids almost seem to crave, and will keep misbehaving until, driven half out of your mind, you administer one?) Remembering to “catch them being good” can be great, but it requires always imagining the terrors you child might be committing at any given moment, and if our brains don’t work like that, maybe it’s a blessing. If you do see un-pre-meditated (that is, sincere and uncynical) remarkably good behavior, I think quietly giving a treat in private is okay once in a while – but you don’t want to instill self-consciousness. “Suzie, I saw you picking flowers for your Grandma, and that was so sweet.  Here’s a Hershey’s Kiss for my sweet girl.” We don’t want Suzie to start picking flowers just to get the chocolate. The fact that she does it naturally, on her own, is what is lovely.

But whether taking the positive rewards approach or the negative consequences method, or — best — some combination thereof, discipline is hard, and breezy recommendations imply a binary good/bad, black/white ecosystem that never exists in real life.

If disciplining “linear” children isn’t easy, guiding free-spirit, non-linear children can fill you with paroxysms of self-doubt. Self-doubt, dear parent, is lethal, and some children quickly learn to plant its seeds in you. Once the child knows you’re doubting yourself, you’re in trouble. I recommend being very chary of making broad and loud early pronouncements with strong-willed children about specific things that absolutely will not be tolerated, because all they have to do is overcome one absolute stricture one time, and your authority is compromised. A smart, wily child will rise to the challenge and test you, or engage you in manipulative reasoning, leading you down a twisting rabbit-path until the standard that seemed so all-important has now been reduced through a series of “except when’s” to a mere nicety. While we teach niceties, if we punish free-spirited children for not observing them, they will never be in our good graces. Linear or free-spirited, our children must feel like they are mostly getting it right. It was a sad day when my linear son, aged five, announced miserably, “I am the worst one in this family!” It was a conclusion he had drawn from my constant barrage of correction, and it broke my heart. I stopped, backed up, held him on my lap, reassured him, relaxed some of my mandates, let go of some obsessions and generally softened my approach.  Granted, parenting is not a democracy, but it is a relationship, and not a dictatorship. Every child needs to feel like success is in his reach.

I’m a strong-willed person, but I had to accept at a certain point with my free-spirited child that if it came down to a battle of wills, I would lose. She would out-starve me, outwit me, out-manipulate me, and out-charm me. If willfulness were won in an arm-wrestling match, the backside of my hand was flat on the table before we ever started. If I were going to be successful teaching her discipline, it would have to be done some other way.   Yet we were still responsible for her in the eyes of God, the state, her school, and we wanted a future full of possibility for this very bright, precocious child. We could see how some of her habits could create havoc in her life and the lives of others. The last thing we wanted was to launch a “spoiled” child on the world, for others to have to clean up after.

If I had it to do over today, given a non-linear child who would choose anything over losing a war of wills, I would spend less time laying down the law and more time trying gently to “sell” the right behavior. I would do less yelling and reacting with cynicism when she erred (I know! It’s awful!  You see, anyone can write a book about childrearing!), and appeal more to her desire to honor us. I would express more concern and optimism and less anger. Confronting my own undergirding, my edicts and bitterness and anger and accusations were spawned by fear and despair: fear that I would find no measures to instill better habits in her, and despair for what her life might be if she never learned to defer gratification. In reacting with fear and despair I forfeited faith and trust in God, and at some level, respect for her, even in her undisciplined choices. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one of the five foundational truths is the dignity of man. I think it’s very important for parents to remember to treat even their misbehaving children with dignity: that alone is proof that we have faith that God will eventually teach them and steer them right. While they live with us, we can and will do all in our power to guide them, but reacting with despair or harsh remarks shows a lack of faith in Providence and the future. It hurts our children terribly when we reveal no confidence in their ability to improve. If we’re praying for them, we should have every confidence in the world that things will turn out beautifully in the end.

Households with a combination of linear children and free spirits have their own challenges: linear children rightfully think that the free spirited child is getting away with murder, and that you simply aren’t putting your foot down as you should. They probably don’t know about all the times you tried to be authoritarian that failed.  They think you should just be tougher — because your being tough worked with them.  Their sense of justice is offended. This is understandable.  All I can recommend is talking with them, explaining about different learning styles, how some people don’t respond well to authoritarianism.  You can point out that you tried it again and again, and it simply did not work — and because we love her, we have to try every approach until we find something that works.

As for my own free spirit, on her own, now that she’s a young adult, her faith in God and her sense of personal identity has helped her create a magnificent life. Somehow, with the cover of living with her parents removed, now that it’s obvious to all the world that her errors are her responsibility, she crosses most of the i’s and dots most of the t’s that were ignored in high school.  Today her brother is as proud of her as she is of him.

And what her parents don’t know won’t hurt us.

Now, really. What kind of mother would I be if I took pictures of my kids in time out?

(Photo Credit: Colin Dixon/Arcaid/Corbis)

When I first was taken with great architecture in my life, I began to reflect on great structures. It dawned on me that great structures last. In time, it began to dawn on me that not only do great structures last, but perhaps all great things last.  As I observed life around me, I could see a marked difference among that which had only been around a few years, that which had been around decades but was fading into disrepair or obscurity, or that which had survived centuries or even millennia.

Thus, my first observation about how to pursue a quality life was born:

To gain insight into the best of human life, study and absorb the things that have stood the test of time, and have lasted.

At first I thought primarily about the built environment, but as time went on, I realized that once could broaden that philosophy to include music, literature, art, and religion. And ever since that time, I have gained my great moments of spiritual exhilaration when learning at the feet of great masters of all these disciplines, whose work has had to endure a few decades of being buffeted by the course of events, societal distractions, even ridicule, and then emerged again showing forth a wisdom that people at first overlooked or even scorned.

But this is not a blog, or eventually a book, about my life, but about your child, and how you can broaden your child’s spirit and vision, as it were, to recognize quality in the midst of all the noise in our world.  I can give you a lot of practical tips, but underlying those has to be your bedrock conviction that there is something worth shooting for, high above the diet fed by the Disney Channel and MTV. You have to believe that some things, the really good things, are everlasting.  If they weren’t, it would be rather cruel to force-feed them to our children: I don’t think our goal is to create creatures of utter cultural anachronism, weirdos and nerds destined to be mocked and bullied.

What’s more, truly to raise a Renaissance child doesn’t mean sequestering him or her from all of the cultural junk food that comprises most of young Americans’ media diet.  If you do that, he will have no way to discern quality from candy, and once he gets his first taste of Cheetos, if you will, it’ll be good bye caviar (figuratively speaking). The allure of forbidden fruit is real, so a little bit of age-appropriate cotton candy  can be used to teach the difference between shallowness and depth, and the occasional joy of cuddling up in bed and watching one’s favorite prince or princess outwit the evil villain. Later you can find seek out the age-appropriate version of the real Pocahontas, who was not in love with John Smith but sacrificed herself more heroically simply from an inner sense of fairness. 

It all goes back to your own convictions, and communicating them calmly and respectfully to your child, trusting that if you can take the most advanced concept and put it into simple language and render it understandable.

So what are we trying to produce, if not weirdos and nerds? I think for me, my desire 24 years ago when my first child was born, was summed up in a documentary my husband saw about a Japanese woman raising her children in the aftermath of Hiroshima.  As she put her children to bed each night, she told the camera that she tried to teach them “to look beneath the surface of things.”  Above all, we will have prepared our children for life, and they will be better citizens of the world, if they know how to do that – and culture that has lasted through time is only a tool to teach our children to go deep, question the prevailing wisdom (which so often is only herd-think) and have the courage to stand alone if one must. I’m not sure one can do that without being inspired by stories of others who have, and by having the messages of courage and nobility instilled in us. So we expose our children to heroicism in the arts and history and the world – large things that capture their minds and hearts and inspire them to dream big dreams. Because one will never sacrifice without a dream as a promise to back it up.

But you can’t fake it: you have to believe at some very elemental level that the universe is on your side in this endeavor: that for all the seeming dominance of bedazzled plastic, it will ultimately turn to dust, and the good and the heroic will remain.  For some of us, this is not hard.  We believe it – we know it. For others, you may have to spend some time contemplating this concept and asking yourself what you really believe, and what is really important to you.  If you really believe that it’s more important for a girl to be popular at her school than for her to have self-respect, then you will never be able to persuade her that you aren’t just as devastated as she when she has been abandoned by the cool kids on the weekend. If you really believe that winning the football game is all-important, your son will know that when he misses the last-second field goal that you are ashamed of him and he will imagine that you prefer another child to him.

And above all, when it seems that your teenager is rejecting everything you have tried assiduously to teach him, can you keep from throwing it over yourself in your own mini-popularity contest with your own beloved child? Because although we can be flexible, we can’t be hypocrites and keep our childrens’ respect.  They will push and test and torment us, and we have to be stronger than they are.  We have to win their love by risking their scorn. We can’t tell them that reading Black Beauty is better than reading A Diamond for Tammy, and four years later ourselves be caught reading a dime-store bodice-ripper under the covers with a flashlight. 

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The details of an NPR segment I heard years ago about successful parenting of preschoolers are long lost now in a brain stuffed through the years with whether we’re out of cat food, who regretted that invitation, is the science fair project getting done, and are you sure that brown stain in the ceiling isn’t larger today than it was last week. But one poignant example from the story has never left me: the topic was yet another academic attempt to trace the common home characteristics among successful elementary school students, beyond the old maxim, nevertheless true, about gathering for dinner.  And the pediatric authority being interviewed described a Mack-truck sized factor so simple that as I listened I was nearly brought to tears.  The fact is, she said, successful children have been talked to by their parents.  And an overwhelming number of others haven’t.  She said, “There simply isn’t any substitute for the mother or father who, when dishing up the peas to the baby in the high chair, says, “These are peas! Peas are round! Peas are green!”

Just talk.  In talk we’re saying so many things: we’re saying that our children are on our minds, that in the death-struggle between them and the cat food inventory in our frazzled consciousness, they have won.  We’re saying that they are worth talking to. And of course, we’re also saying all the things we are actually saying about peas, what “round” and “green” means, and spoons and plates and microwaves and when that first wave of desperate hunger has passed, not putting the peas on your head. (Actually, it was usually ravioli, for some reason, and I’m amazed that my daughter’s scalp isn’t still coated with orange grease.)

I wish I had more details from that NPR feature.  I would like to have a podcast of it  on my phone, push “play” and force young parents to listen when they pronounce on what their children couldn’t possibly understand at “this age.”  “He’s only [two, three, four]. I mean, I’ve pointed to babies and said I have one in my tummy, but he doesn’t really understand any of it.”

How do you know what he understands, or doesn’t? And is it not incumbent on you to try to translate into understandable terms something as world-shattering as the sudden arrival of a screaming day-and-night competitor for his mother or father’s attention? Can’t you try to imagine and do everything you might to help him come to an understanding of the rude changes coming in his young life?

But it starts long before the first sibling is on his or her way.  If you see your life as a series of choices, whether wise or foolish, good or bad, unfortunate or fortunate, those are things about which you can talk to your child: “We live here because long ago I [learned to love old houses] [decided I hated snow] [fell in love with an aspiring rock star] [couldn’t stand my mother’s Wednesday-night, pan-fried liver].” Okay, your two-year-old may not know the word “aspiring,” but she has an intimate connection to the concept  “I want,” and it’s a very small leap from “I want” to “I want to be.”  And that’s aspiration.  By the time she’s three, you can even teach her the word.

(One of the sources of amusement and joy in our house was the fact that every erect speaking mammal knew the phrase “deferring gratification,” and what it meant, and the concept was discussed frequently relative to any number of chores and pleasures. Why the philosophy seems to have fallen by the wayside now that we are all adults has more to do with the dissipation that comes from age or the lack of a regular paycheck, but thankfully, that is a different book.)

It seemed we talked about everything. When the house was built. When Abraham Lincoln was president, relative to when the house was built. Who
Abraham Lincoln was, and why he was great. What slavery is. What war is.  What the Civil War was.  (My son’s expression for the Civil War was that it was a “brother war of the North against the South.” We got out the map for that one, and then had to explain that a map was a drawing of where we live, or other people live, pictured from way up above in the sky.)

We talked about seeds, and why we plant them. What would happen after we planted them, if we did certain things or didn’t do them. What kind of seeds they were.  What was supposed to grow from them and what we could do with those things. (Although only one soccer-sized watermelon appeared. That was another discussion.) What rain was. Why it was good, but also why sometimes we didn’t like it.  Why we all had things to do during the day — things we didn’t always want to do, like preschool and work. What would happen if we didn’t do those things: not “I’ll get fired and we’ll be homeless,” or “I’ll go to jail for truancy and you won’t have a mother,” but “We wouldn’t have any money for the baseball game,” and “You wouldn’t learn to count or read.” We talked about the cats, and why Gabriel didn’t like it when we grabbed his stomach and twisted it.  But how nice he was not to scratch us when we did. We talked about friends, and the nice and not-nice things they did, how we could advocate for ourselves while still being fair to them, and when we needed a teacher to intervene. We talked a lot about advocating for ourselves with teachers, too — because we found ourselves in defensive positions with ignorant teachers quite a bit. We talked realistically about life and its challenges. We talked a lot about God, love, beauty, family, history, books, music, movies, sports, and, of course, the stuff that goes in the potty.  (Why do all kids love that so much? Why do all young parents think it belongs on Comedy Central, or, if not, Facebook?)

When you think of a young mind as an empty slate on which all this information is written, creating a very rudimentary Encyclopedia Britannica of life, a foundation of general knowledge on which is built everything else when he or she gets into “real school,” it’s no wonder that the child who knows at least something about peas, the color green, babies, seeds, rain, jobs, maps, sports, fair play, stupid teachers, Abraham Lincoln and poop has a pretty sizable and priceless advantage in life.  And it doesn’t cost a thing.

What adult-sized topics have you talked about successfully with your child? What surprising topics has your child brought up that challenged you to dig deep  before answering?

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