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How Little Ripples of Kindness Create Big Waves of Happiness

purimOf all the Jewish holidays, none is anticipated by little children more than the festival of Purim.

The theme of reversal figures prominently in the traditional observance of Purim, which is seen as a kind of alter-ego to the solemn holiday of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. In place of fasting there is feasting. In place of prayerful reflection there is revelry. In place of the simple white garments of purity there are costumes and spectacle.

Children especially look forward to dressing up on Purim. But Purim is in no way a Jewish Halloween. Just the opposite: children dress up and go door-to-door not to ask for treats and threaten tricks, but to give away gifts of food to others.

Which brings me to the point of this narrative, with only one more small digression.

Click here to read the whole article.

In Memorium

Father-son-fist-bumpToday marks the second anniversary of my father’s death.  He was a man of unyielding principle and discipline, of meticulous honesty and unwavering standards.  He had the ability to create an instant rapport with others and charm them without guile or manipulation, but he never seemed able to completely let down his emotional guard to truly connect.  He could be hard, but he instilled in me a code of ethics and integrity that have formed the foundation of my sense of self and my worldview.

I wrote this tribute to him for Father’s Day in 2001:

Honor (is learned from) Thy Father

 

Affluenza: Nothing new but the name

why-do-you-think-that-juxtaposing-an-image-and-some-words-is-sufficent-authority-for-you-to-act-like-a-spoiled-insensitive-bratSome verbal atrocities are either too offensive or too absurd to ever be forgotten. Like Jonathan Gruber’s candid admission that “the stupidity of the American voter … was really, really critical for [Obamacare] to pass.” Or Brian Williams misremembering that he had been shot down in a helicopter. Or Al Gore’s claim that he invented the internet (although, in all fairness, that was not quite what he said).

But few violations of common sense and common decency compare to that of Jean Boyd, the judge who concluded that probation and rehab were sufficient punishment for Ethan Crouch — after he pled guilty to taking the lives of four people while driving drunk — because he was a victim of affluenza.

Now, two years later, after Ethan Crouch has violated his parole, fled to Mexico with his mother, and finally ended up back in custody, the Washington Post would like us to reconsider whether the diagnosis is really so ridiculous after all. Rallying experts to support his case, Post editor Fred Barbash suggests that affluenza may indeed be an authentic malady, citing ASU professor of psychology Suniya S. Luthar and Barry Schwartz of Swarthmore College:

“High-risk behavior, including extreme substance abuse and promiscuous sex, is growing fast among young people from communities dominated by white-collar, well-educated parents. These kids … show serious levels of maladjustment as teens, displaying … marijuana and alcohol abuse, including binge drinking [and] abuse of illegal or prescription drugs.”[What also stands out] is the type of rule-breaking – widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency such as stealing from parents or peers among the affluent, as opposed to behavior related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon, among the inner-city teens.”

“[What also stands out] is the type of rule-breaking – widespread cheating and random acts of delinquency such as stealing from parents or peers among the affluent, as opposed to behavior related to self-defense, such as carrying a weapon, among the inner-city teens.”

And finally: Serious depression or anxiety among affluent kids is “is two to three times national rates.”

No arguments from this quarter. But what does not appear in Mr. Barbash’s lengthy commentary is even the most meager attempt to identify why affluence produces teenage miscreants. What is it about growing up with every possible advantage that predisposes so many children to criminally irresponsible behavior?

The answer is quite simple.

Click here to find out why.

Are you a brick?

Daily-Quotes-Life-Is-The-Most-Difficult-Exam-Inspirational-Quotes-PicturesA rabbi walked into a brick-making factory.

No, this isn’t a joke.  It really happened, many decades ago when Jerusalem was still a quiet, provincial village.  The rabbi watched as workmen filled up iron trays with moistened clay and slid them into large baking kilns, removing each tray to make room for the next.

“Tell me something,” the rabbi asked one of the workers.  “The clay looks exactly the same coming out of the kiln as it does going in.  What would happen if you didn’t put it into the fire?”

The worker laughed.  “It may look the same,” he replied, “but without the mold holding the clay together it would disintegrate the moment it began to dry.  You have to bake it in the fire if you want it to become a brick.”

The rabbi learned an important lesson from the brick-maker:  Our schedules and responsibilities “hold us together,” keeping us productive and forcing us to be efficient.  But what happens after work, on the weekends, or over vacation?  Do we remain disciplined with our time and solid as a brick, or do we crumble like so much dust into idleness and fritter away our time?

For parents especially, summer vacation poses a challenge, with two months of unstructured time looming before their children.

On the one hand, children need free time to learn to create their own schedules and manage their own time.  Too much structure deprives children of a critical component in their development.

But children shouldn’t be left entirely on their own, particularly in this generation when electronic toys provide limitless junk food for their growing minds.

As in all things, the best parents are consultants, gently but persistently helping their children to recognize the options in front of them and prodding them to make the choices that will serve them best.

And the best way to teach our children is by modeling the behaviors we want them to learn.  Be a brick, and your children will be bricks, too.

Honor (is learned from) Thy Father

Pearland defensive back Matt La Chiusa and his teammates stand during the playing of the National Anthem before the Oilers' opening game of the 2014 Texas high school football season against the Conroe Woodlands College Park Cavaliers played on August 29, 2014 at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, Texas. Pearland would go on to win the contest 25-14.

I was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

The man didn’t respond.  “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused.  My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Why should we take off our hats for the national anthem?  Why should we stand up for the flag?  Why should we address strangers as “Sir” or “Madam,” wear coats and ties to church or synagogue, and give up our seats to the elderly?

It’s a matter of respect.  Respect for people.  Respect for institutions.  Respect for wisdom and values and human dignity.

Unfortunately, respect has been going out of fashion for a long time.  Sex scandals and no-fault divorce have eroded respect for marriage and commitment.  Partisan politics has eroded respect for leadership.  Inflated grades and deflated standards have eroded respect for teaching.  Abortion-on-demand and doctor-assisted suicide have eroded respect for life.  “Reality television” has eroded respect for ourselves.

Which was our first step onto this slippery slope?  Maybe it was the noble ideal of social equality, set spinning so wildly out of control that we began to equate respect with elitism.  Maybe the information glut convinced us that we know as much about medicine as our doctors, as much about cars as our mechanics, and as much about education as our children’s teachers.  Maybe our relentless pursuit of leisure time has made us too selfish to value age and experience, too lazy to act civilly toward our neighbors.

When respect is not earned, it disintegrates; when respect is exploited, it implodes.  Indeed, after his desperate quest for legacy, Bill Clinton was best remembered at the time of his departure as the American president who made his underwear preferences a matter of public policy, who pilfered the White House china,  and for whom a large percentage of once-self-respecting Americans so casually excused perjury in federal court.  Barack Obama will leave behind the first video of an American president making faces in the mirror in preparation for an historic selfie.

conversation-startersBut we should never rely on respect to percolate down from the top; it is our responsibility to grow it up from the grass roots.  It is the job of parents to teach their children to say “please” and “thank you,” to not interrupt and not talk with their mouths full, to speak civilly and give up their seats to the elderly, to pick up their own litter and maybe even someone else’s.  By doing so, parents instill in their children an intuitive sense of respect for others, even if their children may not understand why all these social minutiae are indispensable.

But too many parents have abdicated that job, either because they’re not around enough or because they never learned to be respectful themselves.

The Talmud says that where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader yourself.  In today’s increasingly fatherless society, teachers, scout leaders, and little league coaches have a greater obligation than ever to teach respect by showing respect for others — and so do we all every time we walk down the street or through the supermarket aisle.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  And a journey through life begins with a step in the right direction.  Help a child take that step and, many steps later, his success will speak his thanks louder than words.

Every Father’s Day offers a reminder to say every day:  Thanks, Dad.

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Are you too sure for your own good?

“Understanding the distinctions between probability and certainty is one of the keys to developing a sociological imagination (and becoming an educated citizen, for that matter). One of the fascinating aspects of social science is using research tools to test assumptions through collected data—typically through multiple studies in a variety of settings.”

odds-in-your-favor.jpg.423x318_q100_crop-centerThis insightful post by Karen Sternheimer raises two critical points.

First, aside from death and taxes, there’s no such thing as a sure thing.  Everything we do is based in probable outcomes.  In the game of life, we are all gamblers.

But that’s as it should be.  The difference between a gambler and an investor is largely semantic.  We take a chance every time we cross the street, and success in any enterprise depends on weighing risk against reward, assessing the odds of winning against the odds of losing, calculating how much might be won and how much might be lost.

“Thinking about probabilities, rather than certainties, leads us to ask questions that help us understand sociological phenomena in much more depth than assumptions do.”

The problem is that most of us don’t want to do the hard work of making sure our facts are in order and our reasoning is sound.  We’d rather listen to our gut, which is notoriously unreliable; after all, it’s a lot easier to take confidence in feelings and assumptions, than to deal with uncertainty.

The second point is the likelihood of children learning from their parents’ examples.  If we gamble, chances are our children will, too.  If we gamble recklessly, we are setting them up for disaster.  But if we never take risks, our children may grow up timid and unaccomplished.

However, if we play the odds wisely, not waiting for the sure thing that will never come but neither betting the farm on long-shots… if we do our due diligence to make cautious bets when the probabilities are in our favor and the potential losses are manageable, then odds are our children will learn to be responsible gamblers themselves and will have the best chance for success in life that we can pass on to them.

 

Are your kids ready? They’ll let you know.

On a summer afternoon many years ago, I stood in my front yard and watched my neighbor teaching his four-year-old son how to pedal a new bicycle. The father hovered nervously as the boy tried to balance himself between his bike’s rear training wheels. Just then a blurred figure whisked by – my own four-year-old son, riding confidently on his own two-wheeler, sans training wheels.

“That’s amazing,” my neighbor gasped.

Was it? I hadn’t thought so, even though I couldn’t ride a bike with confidence until I was nearly 12.

Father teaching son how to ride a bike

I’m not one of those parents who push their children to become hyper-achievers. Rather, it was my son’s relentless petitions to remove his training wheels that had prompted me to reach into the tool box and retire that extraneous hardware to the back of the garage with so much other junk. I never consulted books or articles or experts about the age at which a boy is developmentally ready to ride a bicycle.

My son wanted to learn. Who was I to stand in his way?

It took some time on my part, and a good bit of huffing and puffing, gripping the back of the seat with white knuckles and running along beside him, first in the back yard and later in the street. But who ever said being a parent was easy?

In less than a week my son was tooling around on his own, a bit shaky at first, but more boldly and self-assured with each circuit around the neighborhood. By the end of the school year, he was still in only boy in his class who had learned to ride. It was hard not to be proud. Maybe my son really was amazing. Maybe he would excel in basketball or football as well as bicycling. Maybe he would win an athletic scholarship to UCLA or Ohio State, become a college all-star and a first-draft pick, break every professional record, and land a $50 million endorsement contract with Nike.

Or maybe not. Was I already turning into one of those over-zealous parents who live vicariously through their children and make them neurotic in the process? What if I pushed my son too hard and made him hate sports forever, or convinced him to set his heart on an unachievable goal? Wasn’t it safer to take it slow and err on the side of caution rather than encourage him to reach for the sky and risk setting him up for anxiety or disappointment?

THE ROOT OF ALL FAILURE

For decades now, psychology and education gurus have been telling us that all our problems stem from a single root: low self-esteem. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we lack confidence in our own ability to achieve; without confidence, we can’t motivate ourselves to try; unmotivated, we never do achieve, reinforcing our feelings of inadequacy and perpetuating a vicious circle of substandard performance.

By lowering expectations, by diluting standards, by broadening the definition of success to include effort and attitude and environment, we make it possible for our children to succeed and enable their self-esteem to flourish. That’s the theory. The problem is that it doesn’t work, mostly because kids are neither as shallow nor as fragile as its advocates would have us believe.

If I have learned anything in my years standing in front of a class room, it is that kids can spot a phony a mile off – and certainly when it’s standing only a few feet away at the front of the class. Students know whether they have had to work for their grades. And every student, no matter how grade-conscious or grade-indifferent, feels better about himself for having earned a B than he does for having been given an A. Even the student who fails because of laziness learns the consequences of inaction and, with a little guidance, learns that he can climb out of the hole he has dug for himself.

THE ULTIMATE GIFT

True, low self-esteem will produce a vicious circle of low achievement. But high yet realistic standards will create a virtuous circle wherein genuine achievement begets sincere aspirations to attain ever-higher goals. By sheltering our children from expectations that challenge their abilities, we steal from them the opportunity to experience the joy of meaningful accomplishment and condemn them to a life of complacency and mediocrity… as well as that bugaboo, low self-esteem.

King Solomon warned us, parents and educators alike: teach every youth according to his own way. Each child is a unique combination of talents, abilities, emotions, and desires. To help our children channel those qualities in the pursuit of excellence, to awaken in them the passion to reach for the stars – this is the greatest gift we can give them.

7604866396_d2182f8058_bMy son hasn’t grown up to become an Olympic athlete. I’ll probably never find his name in a sports almanac or see his picture on a box of Wheaties. But I’ll always remember the expression on his face that summer’s day as he zipped up and down the street, standing up on his pedals, shooting me a grin as he watched me watching him and recognized the pride I felt.

No one ever told him that four-year-olds can’t ride bicycles.

On his next pass, he locked down his coaster breaks and skidded to a stop. “Will you teach me to ride with no hands?” he asked, eager to conquer his next mountain.

“Not today,” I said with a smile. Understanding limits also builds self-esteem.

“Okay,” he said. And, still grinning, he was on his way again.

Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

 

The Way we Talk

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Speak softly.  Speak with a smile.  Speak clearly.  Use vocabulary. Be firm, fair, and friendly.  Be consistent.  Speak and then listen.  Listen before you speak.  Speak descriptively.  Speak with refinement.  Speak about important things.  Find something important to you in what’s important to them.