Painful Lessons

6-27-13

By Claudia Quigg

I recently joined Dr. T. Berry Brazelton in the celebration of his 95th birthday.  A great storyteller, Berry regaled me with tales from his long, interesting life, including stories he shares in his new autobiography, Learning to Listen.

 

He’s studied families around the world.  One story is from the Mayan babies of Zinacantan in southern Mexico.  Nights are cold in this mountainous region, so families live in small round mud huts, warmed by a fire in the middle of the floor.

 

When babies begin to crawl, parents watch as they reach out and touch the fire with one finger.  Howling in pain, they’re scooped up by their loving parents for comfort.  These babies learn that fire is to be avoided at all costs, and from that moment on, they know to stay away.

 

Watching while a baby burns his finger would be unthinkable in the U.S. where parents do everything in their power to make the path ahead smooth.

 

But this hovering may not ultimately be in the best interest of the child.  While a parent’s protective instincts are necessary, some overly protective parents may be denying their children some pretty important lessons.

 

The goal of childhood is to prepare kids to live successfully in a world full of bumps and scrapes.  Even from toddlerhood, kids learn consequences from their own risky behavior.  They learn not to bite their friends in child care or pull the dog’s tail, for example.

 

Opportunities for this learning abound when children go to school.  When he forgets his gym shoes, do you jump in the car and drive them to him or do you let him get sidelined for PE that day?  Either response might be appropriate.  Only parents know which lessons their children seem to be ready to learn.

 

When parents intervene before a child experiences a consequence, they short-circuit the learning process.  I’m not advocating for letting kids experience serious injury, but I hope parents will use discretion in deciding when it’s appropriate for a child to learn a safe lesson now and then.

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The Kindness of Strangers

6-20-13

By Claudia Quigg

The plane had touched down, but the young mother was still flying high.

 

She was traveling through three airports with her one and four-year-old children to visit relatives several states away.

 

Hauling a diaper bag, car seat, and other paraphernalia needed for two little ones, this mother had her hands full.  She had thoughtfully prepared snacks, activities and everything else she could think of to make their trip go smoothly.

 

So an unexpected encounter with a fellow traveler was especially gratifying to her.

 

The gentleman was waiting for the same flight they would be boarding.  He smiled as he watched the family’s gentle interactions.  When the mother spoke to him, it was clear that English was not his native language.

 

He asked her, “What is ‘behave?’”  The mother explained that we use that word to describe children minding their parents and acting respectfully.

 

“Ah!” he exclaimed.  “Your children BEHAVE!”  His admiration of the children was clear.  At that moment, their flight was called and they boarded the plane.

 

For the remainder of the flight, that parent felt as if she had an ally.  She knew someone really saw and valued her family.

 

After they landed, she was walking on air. It was such a small thing that he did, but it made a big difference for one family’s otherwise stressful experience.

 

Every day, our journeys cross the paths of others who may be carrying a heavy load.  Some of them are people dealing with loneliness, ill health, divorce or loss of a job.  It’s hard to imagine the universe of pain playing out in the lives of those we meet casually.

 

But one thing is sure:  Kindness is a welcomed relief to a lonely soul, a hurting heart, or a stressed parent.  A soft word accompanied by a warm smile may make a real difference in one person’s experience.

 

A small gesture of support can mean the world to a parent struggling to get by.  It’s not rocket science; it’s just human kindness.  And kindness expressed to parents will have a powerful impact on their children.

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Dads Matter

6-13-13

By Claudia Quigg

It was surprise to me when I heard a gifted young man comment that he will never be successful because he’s just “not smart enough.”

Startled by his observation, I asked him what he meant.  By the end of his explanation, I learned his father had raised him frequently observing that he really wasn’t “smart enough.”

Haunted by this man’s evaluation of himself, I’ve been paying attention to others’.  When I note a person with healthy self-confidence, I ask about his or her father.  Likewise, I’ve asked a number of people who fail to see their own gifts about their fathers, too.

In this admittedly unscientific survey, a picture emerges:  We seem to carry our fathers’ opinions of us throughout our lives.

Turning instead to the hard science about the effects of fathers on their children, a number of studies indicate that fathers’ opinions—more than mothers’—have an enormous impact on their children’s sense of self-worth.

Mothers matter, too, but father power may have a greater influence.  Children expect praise from their mothers so they discount a lot of what their moms have to say.  But dads’ words echo for years.

And it’s more than just what dads say that matters.  It’s also their very presence.  The National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI) conducts research about differences in children related to their dads. According to Wade Horn and Tom Sylvester of NFI, sustained contact with Dad is the strongest predictor of a son’s self-esteem.  The most important single factor for daughters’ self-esteem is physical affection from their fathers. In both cases the crucial nature of Dad’s role is evident.

The authors also point to the impact fathers have on controlling antisocial behaviors in their children.  In their book Father Facts, the authors share studies which show that “father love” is a better predictor than “mother love” for certain outcomes including absence of behavior problems and substance abuse, and overall mental health and well-being.

While they are often minimized by television sitcoms and other popular media, the truth remains:  Dads Matter.

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Being the Baby

6/6/13

By Claudia Quigg

Two-year-old Gabby strode confidently into the play group.  When I asked where her big sister was, she replied soberly, “At ‘chool.”  Gabby was more than glad to have a “’chool” of her own to attend that day.

 

As a “little sister” myself, I understood her angst.  Its the work of the baby in every family to watch from the sidelines as older siblings leave home and do exotic-sounding things like go to preschool.

 

The baby of the family has a different sort of existence from the very beginning. While the firstborn has to prove to the world that his parents know how to raise children, the baby can instead bask in the glow of his family’s adoration.

 

While the firstborn must blaze the trail of sometimes-frightening first experiences, the baby steps comfortably into a road that his family has already plowed.  The baby is rarely asked to venture out alone, and instead eagerly joins older siblings in the world they have already mastered.

 

Perhaps because their way is paved for them, lastborns tend to be idealistic risk takers who know few boundaries, like Copernicus, Bill Gates  and Harriet Tubman.  Affectionate attention seekers with good senses of humor, it’s no surprise successful comedians are over-represented in this group:  Billy Crystal, Eddie Murphy, Drew Carey, Jim Carey, Rosie O’Donnell, Whoopi Goldberg, Stephen Colbert and Jay Leno among them.

 

Lastborn children show an interesting discrepancy between high and low self-esteem.  Nurturing from older family members and the examples they see in older siblings lead them to develop strong social skills, leading to their likeability and high self-esteem.

 

But the downside for lastborns is that many of them grow up comparing themselves to older siblings who are always stronger, smarter and more accomplished during the growing-up years.  This comparison leaves some feeling inadequate.

 

In general, every birth order position can lead to success when children are respected as the individuals they are.  Babies of the family can achieve great things, just like their older counterparts, and what’s more, they’ll probably have more fun along the way.

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Postponing Parenthood

5/30/13

By Claudia Quigg

Ann Patchett’s bestselling novel “State of Wonder” tells the story of medical researchers studying an Amazonian tribe in which woman routinely bear children into their seventies. The idea of developing a pill to replace exhausting and expensive fertility treatments has this fictitious drug company seeing dollar signs.

 

The novel’s timely release addresses the growing number of couples who are postponing parenthood for a variety of reasons. Many folks are waiting longer to marry (if they marry at all) and likewise they are putting off bearing children.

 

Why are parents waiting? Many want to travel and pursue other interests first before they accept the confinement of raising children.

 

Some are waiting to establish themselves professionally before they become parents, choosing to put in their dues-paying years before they have a divided focus.

 

Other young adults have watched their own families of origin crumble with rising divorce rates, and they want to be very, very sure before making a commitment they may fail to honor.

 

Whatever the reasons, many babies are being born to first time parents in their forties (but not their seventies, thank goodness!).

 

I see a number of changes, some real benefits and others which may be considered disadvantages.  Parents who wait probably have more judgment and perspective about their children than younger parents.

 

Older parents have more financial resources to bring to their children. Some financial advantages have real value, like access to high quality medical and child care. Some of what passes for necessary expenditures like designer baby clothes and over-the-top birthday parties may have questionable value.

 

Disadvantages of delayed parenthood include the tendency for older parents to worry more about their children. They’re also more likely to find themselves sandwiched between raising their kids and caring for elderly parents at the same time, which can be a crushing load.

 

In the future, many more parents will attend their kids’ high school graduations in their sixties.  It will be interesting to watch this significant group of older parents pass through each stage of child-rearing, undoubtedly impacting our society’s experience of family life.

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Connectedness

5/23/13

By Claudia Quigg

From our first breath, we seek connection. Newborns blink against the bright lights, then scan their surroundings until they catch sight of their parents’ faces. Their eyes light up as they fix their gaze on a loving countenance, investing themselves in this growing bond.

 

They use their hearing in the same way, listening through the noisy din to recognize the sounds of familiar voices they have come to know already.

 

We open our world to curiosity about others who inhabit it. Babies watch toddlers, toddlers reach out to one another, preschoolers create playful scenarios together, school aged kids build their worlds around each other, and teenagers align themselves with their peers just as they do their families.

 

Our worlds become larger over the span of our lives.  Adulthood is attained when we leave the selfish focus of our own small circle to begin to feel connections with others around the world.  We internalize the experiences of those far away whose names we may never know.

 

We swell with admiration for proud accomplished athletes in the quadrennial Olympic opening procession.  From Albania to Uzbekistan we watch and imagine the joy each participant’s family must feel. In such grand moments, we celebrate the unity of all men and women around the globe.

 

But we also feel the pain of this connection.  When children starve in Ghana, we feel the loss. When a tsunami wipes out a village in Taiwan, we shed a tear. In the human family, we all belong to one another. A loss for any of us is a loss for all of us.

 

And so human tragedy on our own shores strikes sharply into the hearts of us all. Recent events in Connecticut, Massachusetts and Texas join the long list of occasions in which we are reminded of our connection to each other.

 

This is the human condition.  We must connect just as we must breathe.  Our connections with each other create our pain, but also our joy. The solidarity with each other we cherish must be comfort enough to dispel our fear.

 

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Parenting in Dog Years

5-16-13

By Claudia Quigg

Time drags for kids who don’t have awareness of the passing days.  While seasons rush by in a blur for busy adults, young children may feel that winter lasts forever.

 

Most adults will recall the time in their lives when a school year seemed like a lifetime, and a summer was an eternity.  Remember how rich you felt in early June with a long string of summer days reaching out before you?  But now you know that even in June, autumn will be here before you know it and you’d better get ready for another cold season to follow.  Our sense of timing changes dramatically across our life span.

 

Young children live in the moment, for good and for bad.  Their engagement in that moment gives them the focus they need to wring every bit of learning out of it.  Their years are like dog years to them, each day packed full of living.

 

Over the years, children build perspective about the mysterious passage of time we all experience.

 

Parents can give kids a sense of control over time by talking about events to come.  Hearing about the day ahead at breakfast helps a child manage it better than living each moment unsure of what will happen next.

 

Likewise, parents can talk about events in the weeks to come.  While the concept of time measurement is still tricky for children younger than school age, they can know that Molly is coming to play sometime in the future.

 

One young dad shared that he’s learned a few days of anticipation is all his two-year-old can handle.  He now knows to wait until a little closer to events to let her excitement peak.

 

Building their perspective of time is one way our children grow to feel competent as they develop a picture of how each day fits into the progress of their lives.

 

And one day, they’ll look back gratefully at the patient teaching of their loving parents during those long years that now seem to have passed in the blink of an eye.

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