After the rather surprising (and surprisingly controversial) success of my last parenting column for the PBS NewsHour's website — which garnered more than 700,000 page views and and was featured briefly at the tail end of the TV broadcast (!!) — the NewsHour has been kind enough to publish another of my columns. This one is about the joys of watching Charlie give Maxine a true and abiding appreciation for science, the kind I never had myself as a child. I hope you'll check it out. Here's the link.
People never "get over" the death of a loved one. Sadness comes and goes, and that's natural. But they can, according to Russell Friedman of the Grief Recovery Institute, "complete" their grief. That is, they can grieve in a way that allows for happy memories to reign over painful ones. For life to overshadow death. Despite intermittent waves of sadness, people can recover from their grief and move on with their lives. But grief completion doesn't just happen, Friedman contends. People have to make it happen. Grief recovery, he says, requires that people be fully present and engaged in the memories of their loved ones. It requires that they experience the full breadth of their emotions without guilt or regret or judgment. And it requires that they share these emotions — and the memories that come with them — with other people.
Sounds simple, right?
It's not. Not for many of us anyway. Especially those who were brought up in households where "emotion" was something to be contained. And, let's face it, that's a lot of us.
How many times, for example, are children told to calm down when they become upset, or sent to their rooms to work out their feelings? How often do we get frustrated or angry with children for overreacting? How many of us have rushed out of a mall in embarrassment after our kid threw a tantrum? How many of us have asked (or demanded!) that our child stop crying?
Hey, I'm not saying we're bad parents for doing this stuff. We're humans. American humans at that. We were taught by example to stay strong, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, work through our problems on our own. And we've readily complied. Most of us would much rather cry into our pillows than burden others with our sadness.
But maybe it's time to stop the cycle. Maybe it's time we tell our kids it's okay to be mad or sad or worried or upset — and really mean it. Maybe it's time we stop judging the validity of their feelings and simply acknowledge them. Maybe it's time we stop expecting their anger or fear or sadness to "end" precisely when we've have enough of hearing it. And maybe it's time we encourage kids to be emotional in our company, rather than in their room. Instead of Go away to do that, maybe the message should be, Stay here or I'll come, too.
According to Friedman, we help our kids deal with the devastating losses they'll face in their lives (including our own deaths) simply by encouraging them to share their feelings with us.
So let's, you know, go ahead and do that.
We’ve all heard the cliche about letting kids rule the roost. Countless books, TV shows, teachers (neighbors, in-laws, airplane passengers...) repeatedly instruct us to set strict rules, limitations and boundaries for our kids. They tell us this is the key to good parenting. They insist we demand courtesy and respect, and not allow them to display anger, disappointment or frustration "inappropriately.” Largely because of these influencers, we start putting our kids in time-outs for talking back, or being unkind. We become infuriated when they speak to us in voices dripping with sarcasm and defiance. We remind ourselves that if our kids don’t respect us now, then they won’t respect us ever. And if we fail at asserting our authority, even for a moment, we are screwed.
Yet, amidst all this traditional authoritarianism, we have the gall to tell our kids it's important to think for themselves, to question what they hear, to value their own opinions, to assert their independence. What's more, as nonreligious parents, we rely on their critical thinking skills to spare them from brainwashing, propaganda and indoctrination.
Our real message becomes: “Question authority... Just not mine.”
Linda Hatfield, parenting coach and founder of Parenting from the Heart, says the the only way to truly empower children is to let them challenge our decisions and opinions — and win. When we use punishment, shame, guilt, bribery and rewards, she says, not only do children lose valuable self-esteem and miss out on excellent opportunities to think things through — but the parent-child relationship is damaged (which breeds a whole manner of other problems, she says.)
In her Los Angeles-area parenting courses, Hatfield insists that kids be able to challenge their parents without being punished for it. “Even if you don’t agree” with them, she says, "give them credit when they do their own thinking.”
In this way, she says, children will learn that it's not only okay, but good, to question what others tell them. And they’ll respect our decisions and advice far more for the rest of their lives because we have respected them first.
“What I think is most important,” Hatfield says, “is what we model.”
Now, I’m the first to admit, this is easier said than done. Kids are just so immature sometimes. They never just say: “Gee, Mommy, I strongly disagree with you. Please reconsider your decision and let me have that ice cream now, rather than making me wait until later.” Instead, they scream and cry and spit and embarrass us in public places. It’s tough. Even when we do think they have the right to challenge us, we often don't feel we can, in good conscience, give in to their demands because they've been such shits about it.
But Hatfield, who runs her parenting courses and workshops alongside her husband, Ty, asks parents to understand that most of what they consider “misbehavior” is actually age-appropriate; kids, she says, are behaving not to be bad (a word she loathes) but because they’re going through normal developmental stages. So instead of blasting them for doing what you want them to do — challenge what they hear! — Hatfield asks parents to focus on the message, not the method — and to stop taking things so damn personally.
By all means, tell them that spitting is not okay, and that there’s no need to yell.* But then allow yourself to reconsider your own conduct and decisions, Hatfield says. Does it really matter whether the kid has ice cream now or later? Maybe it's a good time to say "Yes." If nothing else, take the opportunity to teach them to value their own opinions and feelings, and encourage them to help find compromises and solutions that work for both of you.
Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, says he talks about this in his workshops. In an e-mail, he told me:
“My kids heard from a very early age that they always have the right to know the reason for a decision AND to question it if they feel it's wrong or unfair. I told them I couldn't just say ‘Because I said so’ and the few times I've said that, they've gleefully called me on it. I've made a point of changing my mind, out loud, when they have a good point. That does more for their growing autonomy than almost anything else I can do. I can attest that the result of all this is not chaos but a pretty smoothly functioning home with scads of mutual respect.”
Here's a cool video of McGowan speaking at a freethought festival in April:
*If you’re yelling this bit yourself, it’s probably not going to work. Just FYI.
On Monday, I'll publish my highly anticipated 10 Commandments For Talking to Kids About God. Yes, I said anticipated. Maybe not literally anticipated, but anticipated in a greatly-exaggerated-so-as-to-build-hype sort of a way — which is also important. Just not literally important. Anyway, in the meantime, I thought I'd preface my list with a gentle reminder: No matter how you choose to handle religion (or any other subject!) with your own child, try not to go all judgey on parents who have chosen different paths.
This is a tough one. We parents are, by nature, so damn self-righteous. You know it’s true. We might not consider ourselves perfect parents, but that doesn’t stop us from noticing all the ways in which we’re superior to others — especially when something is important to us and we truly believe our way is the right way.
But the thing about parental judgeyness? It's highly annoying and almost never helpful.
Take, for example, my decision to be open about my beliefs with my daughter. Some will think this is a great idea; others will think it's a tremendously bad idea. So which is it? How the hell should I know? My kid's only 6. This one decision could lead to something really great for my kid, or it could lead to something really bad, or it could lead to something just fine. I won't know until she's, like, 80, at which point it's very likely I won't care anymore.
Not to go all Buddhist on you (too late), but it’s a fallacy to label things as good or bad. Because life is an evolving story — one thing leads to another, which leads to another, which leads to another. We make our choices with the hope that they will lead only to good things. But we know, too, that we're limited by our resources, experiences, knowledge and personalities — as well as the personalities of our children.
You might lament how your neighbor is bringing up her kid. Maybe you think it's a shame that Little Joe has to go to church and pray at dinner and believe in the power of Jesus Christ. But what kind of kid is Joe? Is he nice? Does your kid like him? If so, maybe give the religious stuff a pass.
If your friends or family members are hurting their kids, I trust that you’ll step in and take action. Short of that, though, try observing others' decisions, rather than judging them. Maybe say to yourself. "Wow, that doesn't appeal to me. But I wonder if it will turn out to be a good thing, a bad thing or a neutral thing."
Now is the point where I start to hear my friends clearing their throats in the background. (Quiet down out there!) So let me admit, openly and without hesitation, that I may be the writer here but I'm not the role model. I often find myself in the position of Sir Judge-a-Lot, and must remind myself that what seems weird, nonsensical or poorly considered to me actually could work out great for others. Judgeyness (which I wish WordPress would stop underlining with red dots) is like any other addiction; we must combat it one day at a time.
Luckily, the payoff is immediate. Time and again, I find that when I stop judging and start observing with compassion, I begin to look inward — at what I can learn, not what I can teach. My stress is lowered, my friendships are stronger, and my heart is happier.
And, as if that weren't enough, I'm a better parent, too.
Have you ever made that quip about how you've got two savings accounts for your child — one for college, the other for therapy? Yeah, me too. We modern parents are such a self-aware lot. We know that, no matter how hard we try, we are screwing up our kids in all sorts of unique and surprising ways.
But it's my sense that beneath all this genuine self-deprecation is a fair amount of good, old-fashioned pride, too. When it comes down to it, I think most of us believe we've got a solid handle on this whole parenting thing. Our kids are so ridiculously awesome, we tell ourselves; we must not be that bad.
And we aren't. We really aren't. In addition to the love and attention we shower on them daily, we spend countless additional hours deliberating over how to raise them up well. We read parenting books and blogs. We talk to other parents, and model our own. We subscribe to magazines. And, lucky for us, an awful lot of it just comes naturally.
I was talking to a friend last week who hasn't had children yet. She noted my preoccupation over my kid's sleeping habits (don't get me started) and voiced her apprehension about not being able to figure all that out when the time came for her. What I told her, and what you already know if you have kids, is that parenting is a basic instinct. One that comes from the heart. It's as though, upon the birth of a child, each parent suddenly unearths this huge, previously unknown arsenal of skills.
Unfortunately — and this is the part I didn't mention to my friend — no parenting arsenal is complete. Parents might surprise themselves by finding they have the ability to deal with sleep issues or potty training or discipline. Or they might not.
When my daughter wanted to talk about God, there was nothing natural in my reaction. I didn't know if I should say nice things about religion, or use cautioning words, or try to be neutral. And what the hell was "neutral" anyway? I'm a journalist — I know damn well that even neutral has a point of view.
It scared me to find so much uncertainty inside myself. I knew I was at risk of saying things I didn't believe, sending messages I didn't want to send. I knew I needed help on this one.
Over the past several months, I've become convinced I'm not alone. The truth is, it's not just atheists and agnostics who struggle to find the right way to talk to their kids about religion. People who consider themselves “spiritual," but not particularly religious, often are heavily burdened by the God Talk, as well. Mixed-religion couples also have a hard time finding a common language to use with their kids. Not to mention parents who, for whatever reason, aren't keen to fall back on their own religious upbringing (or lack thereof).
All of us are looking to embrace a fresh approach to religion with our children — but haven't yet figured out what that approach might be. Is it possible to do this just right? I don't know. But I think we should try. We owe it to our kids.
Just like we owe it to them to keep depositing money into those therapy accounts.
So what about you? Did the God Talk come naturally to you? Or did you have to look for outside resources? If so, where did you look? What did you find? And are you satisfied with what you learned?