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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

10 Tips for Creating a Can-Do Child

In response to my previous post about the best advice Martha Stewart ever received, a friend emailed me, "So how do we teach our children what Martha Stewart's dad taught her?" 

Now, Readers, I have absorbed a lot of material about success over the last year – year or two (can you believe) – and it’s changed me in ways I can no longer parse into categories. Things have blended together in my head into a big smoothie of success. This analogy is my acknowledgment that I may repeat something someone else, someone much Bigger, someone much more Expert, someone much more Famous (which is not at all hard) than myself may have said, and if so, I apologize. In advance. In advance of any advance I may eventually receive for work not yet published, in fact.

Now that’s out of the way. 
My amalgamated advice is as follows:
  • Believe your children are capable of great things – however they may grow up to define them.
  • Tell your children you believe this of them.
  • Praise and encourage all effort, persistence, and progress your children make.
  • Encourage them to make and meet goals.
  • Allow them time to be autonomous when possible and to find the creativity in all disciplines.
  • Model, model, model for them your own effort, persistence, and progress toward goals you set yourself.
  • Model your creative engagement. As one reader commented, show them that it’s worthwhile to devote full attention to whatever you do, and not to hold back in hope of something better coming along.
  • Celebrate achievement – but focus on achievement being the result of effort. And persistence and progress.
  • Model resilience after setbacks.
  • Hope for the best!

Now, this list may skew a little vague and touchy-feely, and it is. Oh, it is. But I think and hope it works. I guess we’ll find out eventually. 

All of this advice begs a deeper question that came up from several emails and comments from my treasured readers: How much control do we actually have over our children's development? You see, Readers, I've noticed a tendency, a propensity, shall we say, among people to change their views on how much influence parents actually have over their children, depending on how old their children are, and how much of a mess their grown up childrens' lives appear to be. In short, Readers, I’ve noticed that the older children get, the less their parents say they have any effect on or control over their choices and personalities. 

Buddhists, Kahlil Gibran (“your children are not your children, they are blah, blah, blah"), and anyone who’s a grandparent will tell you: NONE.

And Madeleine Levine, my current book mama, says that once your kid gets to 11, 12, 13 and so on, it’s pretty much up to their friends to shape them. Krikey. This is somewhat distressing to the parent who spends a good part of the night obsessing over what courses her child should take in high school. 

So what good is my list?

One way of looking at this problem is that our parental understanding develops as our children develop from infancy to adulthood. We move from the SENSATION of having no control, except (and this is big) over their physical selves, due to our relative gigantism compared to them, to FEAR that we have no control over them, to HOPE that we aren’t responsible for them. That is, unless they turned out fabululious, and then we take CREDIT.

Another way of looking at this trajectory of responsibility divestment is that by the time our kids are adults, possibly with children of their own, they’ve defined themselves by making many mistakes and having many triumphs, and we are developing dementia. Because we humans tend to forget things were ever different from how they seem in the present, we feel we have no influence on them anymore and that, therefore, we never did. Neither of which is true, as anyone who has spent any time in psychotherapy will know. We did influence them, and we still do. Their eyes are always on us. But the enormity of responsibility for how a person grows up to interact in the world is much easier, perhaps, to disavow than to accept. Which is fine, Grandparents, if you must. You may wash your hands of our stupid choices. But then you aren’t allowed to take credit for our successes, either. And that extends to the offspring of those children you feel you had no ability to influence. And our eyes are on you.

For some reason, I am recalling that when the 9th grader was two, she became obsessed with dressing herself. And undressing herself. And re-dressing herself. Her room was a shambles, with everything always spilling out of the dresser and onto the floor. Needless to say, her outfits were not exactly matchy-matchy Garanimals. That didn’t bother me, actually. I’m not into matchy-matchy. But I didn’t want her wearing bathing suits or party dresses to school. Her very wise Toddler Time teacher suggested I designate one or two drawers of her dresser into which I was to place several outfits appropriate to the season, which she was allowed to wear in any combination she chose. I could rotate these outfits as needed. So, freedom to choose, but limited freedom. Parameters. It worked like a charm. Stripes and florals, skirts over pants, whatever. I didn’t care. In fact, I liked it. Eliminated some of the mess and all of the power struggle.

What does this have to do with the reader who responded that he felt it would have been useless to tell his daughter she could do anything she wanted to, because he knew it was untrue, and she would have known he knew it, too? He went on to explain that there were too many random factors at work in determining what a person could be; ultimately, he said, citing Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking Fast and Slow, success depends about 30 percent on ability and 70 percent on chance. This is a pretty bleak outlook, in some ways. It’s tempting to say, why bother trying, then? And yet, because I am not yet old, I persist.

I guess the connection is this: that we all operate within constraints, and yet those constraints can be the mold for our creativity and for our sense of autonomy. None of us can control the external world, but we can still learn agency from within that constraint. The point is not to say that the world is going to throw you curveballs, so you’d better spend your life ducking. The point is not to say that you must wear a red shirt with your blue pants, or else. The point is to say that given the need to wear clothes and your parent’s need for some kind of order, your choice is limited by circumstances, but within those limitations you can create your own outfit. Similarly, teaching your child that she can do whatever she wants allows her to stretch. The world may – will – prevent or hinder or complicate circumstances, but the child who believes she can do, will do what she can with what life hands her. Goals may need altering, but the can-do child will accommodate that. That’s better than not trying stuff in anticipation of chance working against her. Besides, hard work and creativity may alter goals and circumstances in positive ways.

Sonnets. Villanelles. Sestinas. Sometimes restrictions are liberating. Look at it this way. By frustrating your young child’s desire to do whatever he wants (wear a bathing suit to school in winter in Albany, NY, say) yet giving him some choices, you teach many lessons. One is that the world will not always bend to his wishes. Would you not say that is a useful lesson? Another is that he still has some control over himself and his person. Is that not also useful? And a final one is that there is satisfaction from working within constraints. Again, useful. It teaches him he can do anything he wants to do. In this case, he wants to pick his own outfit. It also teaches him to modify his goal to accommodate his limits - to revise what he wants to do, if necessity forces him to. And that, I think, is the way of the world. Success is determined by how fully you express yourself within your limits. 

Selected Bibliography
Dweck, Mindset
Faber and Mazlich, How to Talk So Your Kids Will Listen & Listen So They Will Talk
Ginott, Between Parent and Child
Halvorsen, Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals
Levine, Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success
Mogel, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
Pink, Drive

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Whose Screw is Loose?

Is it mine?

Last week I had this piece in the New York Times Motherlode blog. It ran in tandem with KJ Dell’Antonia’s response to it. In case you missed them, they are about how my daughter's course selections for next year triggered my anxiety about how much to push for prestigious colleges and KJ's lack of anxiety about it and her heartwarming belief in passion and hard work. Together, they are still generating comments, which is good, since there’s no such thing as bad publicity, I am told. If only I could publish my blog in the NYTimes everyday, I’d get a lot more comments on it. Of course, I would have to grow a thicker skin. Maybe just let my tendency to eczema fulfill itself…

Because some of those comments – hoo boy. Let me tell you. I’ve tried not to read too many of them, because I can only stand so much. Plus, I am suggestible, so it’s best not to pay too close attention or I might start (really) believing them.

Interestingly, every comment I saw suggested or downright declared that I had better seek help for my mental illness. Which, you know, rankles, since I’ve been doing that for years. And none of those professionals has ever told me I’m crazy. Except one, but she was joking. I am pretty sure.

Meanwhile, every comment the husband read was about how the commenter hadn't been a bit concerned one way or another about college, yet his/her child had grown up to be an exemplary human with absolutely no stress or intervention of a parental nature.

Yet my friends told me they thought the comments were overall kind of in agreement with me.

Go figure. We find what we are looking for, I guess.


I thought, Readers, you might be interested in a few background details about the posts.

First of all, Gym Mom immediately identified herself. Not to worry. We are still on excellent terms. In fact, she emailed that she was “excited and proud" to make her debut in the Times. So all is well there. And you can see she has an excellent sense of humor.

I, too, have retained mine, despite glancing at one too many exhortations to let my kid eat lunch already. Far too many commenters use as evidence of my mental illness and my terrible mothering the “fact” that I am “making” the 9th grader skip lunch. Hello? She took lunch this year, her first year in high school, because I/we insisted. She has put her foot down about next year. None of her friends take lunch, so why should I force her to if she doesn’t want to? Eventually, one HT from Ohio wrote in explaining why she avoided lunch all through high school: "my high school cafeteria was like something out of The Lord of The Flies, and anyone who could avoid it, did." Of her cafeteria experience, the 9th grader says, simply, that it's full of “drama.” 

Furthermore, since we live in a town that has its school schedule organized for the benefit of the all-important athletic teams that “need” to practice in the afternoons, high school starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 2:07 p.m., and not at the time that would most fit with adolescent development and support academic achievement. (Do NOT get me started on that.) The point is, the 9th grader can have lunch slash snack when she gets home.

By the way, many of these kids take that extra period and use it for art or music, because they’re only allotted time in a regular schedule for one or the other, and this way they can take both. So it’s not as if it’s only the Type A tiger cubs who drop lunch.

Second of all, almost better than having something published was emailing with KJ Dell’Antonia about publishing it. After she accepted my initial essay, I decided I wanted to rewrite it, making it less flippant and self-deprecating, which doesn’t play well when Motherlode readers are ready with their comment-trigger-fingers. Subtlety doesn’t really work, as I’ve found on both occasions I’ve published in Motherlode. In fact, half the readers don’t even finish the piece, which I could tell this time, because they criticize me for being too invested, when I concluded by letting the 9th grader make her own decision about her extra class. Yes, that little factoid eluded most readers. KJ told me she hashed out her response with her husband, who comes down a little closer to my side than she, and then it was a go. Still, she worried that she was “letting me out to hang,” because my piece was going to offend people who didn’t have ways or means of getting their children into top colleges. I could see that my piece hinged on my emotional conflict, while hers was a reasoned, logical argument, and therefore I would be blasted by people who didn't read the subtext, but I told her it was fine. I am all about conflict. So I put my head on the block and wham!

I am still here.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

TMI? The Tao of Worry

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Readers, I am obsessing about my left breast. I feel nothing different in it. It doesn’t hurt. And yet, in the past, I have had pain there, and a few months ago, I had a pulled muscle basically right underneath it. I spent so much time poking around the area that I bruised myself. Right now, nothing is going on. Yet I feel like I feel something, in the sense of sensing something. I feel like I sense something there. A thickness. A weirdness. Which reminds me of two things. One is this story about the sister of a friend who went to the doctor complaining that her breast hurt, “Right here.” She said, jabbing at the spot. The doctor said, “have you been doing that a lot?” “What this?” She said, jabbing at the spot. “Yes.” Said the doctor. “Yes,” she said. The doctor said, “Stop doing that.”

The other thing I'm reminded of is the homeopath I visited for a while in hopes of curing my chronic exercise-induced urticaria. (That’s hives, for the uninitiated.) I was also having problems breast feeding my kid with my LEFT breast. After taking my medical history she pointed out that  I have issues on the left side of my body. Left ovary removed. Mastitis in left breast. Then she gave me a little bottle of something. It didn’t cure the hives. Years later, acupuncture alleviated them - and also led to the discovery of the lipoma (fatty benign tumor) on my left shoulderblade. Left, left left.

So the explanation of why I’m obsessing about my left breast may be that because I have a history of things going wrong on the left side of my body, when I start to worry about things going wrong, I tend towards the left (sinistra in Latin - root of sinister, if you think about it) side.

Good thing I’m going for my annual mammogram on Monday. After which, the husband asked, will I be able to relax about my boob for a while? Yeah, probably for about a month. Realistically.

Of course, maybe the mammogram will reveal something wrong, and then I’ll have the very shallow pleasure of knowing that I was right. Except that I’ve spent a portion of pretty much every day worrying about cancer, so eventually, I may be right, no matter what. Lately, I’ve added cardiac concerns to my worry list. Not that I have heart trouble – at least not that anyone’s discovered. That's precisely the point. No one has discovered any problem. Yet anything could develop at any moment. And it’s the stuff you don’t know about that will get you. It happened to a couple of friends of mine. Of course they are still alive and healthy. But they are living with the knowledge that there’s something wrong with their hearts.

The real question, though, is why the worry in the first place?

Aren’t we all living with the knowledge that there could be something wrong? Indeed, isn’t there something wrong with all of our hearts? Hello? They are eventually going to stop working. We are going to die. That is what is wrong. That is why the worry.

Here are two pieces of advice I've been given by Professionals for dealing with worry:

  1. Set aside a certain amount of time every day to worry, and then don't worry until that time.
  2.  Or, worry once and worry well. 

This advice doesn't work for me. I cannot "worry once," and the time of day I set aside to worry is usually 3-5 a.m., which is kind of a drag.

I’ve concluded that I need to think about death. “Come to terms with death,” as some might say. Perhaps all you Readers  have come to terms with death and live worry-free lives of great empowerment and fulfillment. If so, please share.

I find it interesting that my worries increase as things get better in other areas of my life. For example, I have paying work. I recently got a raise. I’ve had some success with my blog. My kids and husband are healthy, and I have friends. So the question is, do I have some kind of homeostatic mechanism at work trying to keep me at emotional equilibrium? You know, don’t fly too high, don’t dip too low?  Is it a self-protective system to remind me to balance my life and pay attention to my physical health so I can continue? Is some kind of tao of worry at work? 

Or is it a pathological set up, a self-sabotage that keeps me from fully expressing whatever it is in me to express? The time I spend in useless, pointless worry about illnesses I don’t have, is time spent not doing things that are useful. And it's not as if it's protective. 

How to remove the anxiety? Besides medication, I mean. Perhaps, Readers, you are thinking that I am an excellent candidate for some kind of pill. Perhaps you are right. But I prefer not to take pills. I prefer  to manage my anxiety in other ways. This attitude, I understand, is one symptom of the anxious person. Or one symptom of one kind of anxious person. My kind.

But I digress. The idea is to Come to Terms with Death. Is that even possible? Have you, Readers? I know that Tibetan Buddhist monks sometimes meditate in graveyards and charnel houses to accustom themselves to the idea. And there is a nifty mantra – sutra – on impermanence:
I am of the nature to grow old. I cannot escape growing old.
I am of the nature to become ill. I cannot escape illness.
I am of the nature to die. I cannot escape death. 
It’s just not that appealing to meditate on these ideas. Yet, remembering that these processes – illness, old age (if you’re lucky), and death – are part of everyone’s parcel does relieve some anxiety. If you’re like me, you get into the mindset that everything in life is supposed to have a certain baseline: things are good, people are healthy, jobs are there, work is productive. So anytime something dips below baseline, there's a sense that there’s something wrong, abnormal, and let’s face it, kind of shameful. So it’s good to remember that there isn’t really a baseline, and that there’s nothing shameful about experiencing these natural processes of life.

All this blather reminds me of a high school weekend party I attended. I had a “deep” teenaged conversation about death with a person I won't name, because he was somebody’s boyfriend. Also because this is a blog, and I don't name names. But I apparently can't resist bragging about this boy obliquely. One of us was angsting about it (death) –guess who? The other one, he said he didn’t worry about death, because when he was dead, he wouldn’t care. And I found that so comforting. I had this moment of total release. It was so simple. Just letting go of the problem. It would come, life would be over, but it wouldn’t matter. Then he kissed me. 

Linking sex and death. Gee, has that ever happened before? Is there any literature on that? Well, anyway, it's a much more pleasant connection than I started with. Although mentioning sex does remind me of my left breast....