I’ve never met a parent who likes – no, is even OK with – whining. For me it was like nails on a blackboard. Many parents don’t know of another torture that would be worse.
Whining is as developmental and normal in a toddler’s life as discovering the pleasure of saying “no." Don’t think about teaching your child not to do it. Do think about ways you can help yourself deal with it calmly and perhaps shorten it’s duration. Here are a few:
Don’t call it whining. It’s very hard to talk to your child about whining without being critical and blaming. “Stop whining.” “I can’t hear you when you’re whining.” These proclamations will not get you what you want. It may only make it worse.
Make a compassionate association when you hear it. Can you instead think about how frustrated your child is feeling – even if it’s over something you won’t allow. I once heard Aletha Salter say that whining is stuck crying. A child who whines is actually trying hard not to cry so the cry gets stuck. Sometimes validation of the frustration will bring on the crying which eliminates the whine – for now.
Don’t try to teach anything during the whining. As soon as the whining is past and you hear your child’s “normal” voice, name it. “There’s the Sarah voice. What shall we name the voice you use when you feel really frustrated?” Let your child name it. Then when you hear the whine, you can say, “I hear the ‘—-’ voice. Do you need to use that or can you use the Sarah voice?” You might name a couple of different voices you use as well.
Give the connection that is really needed. If you don’t think you have to teach your child to stop whining, when you hear it, get down to your child’s level and validate the frustration. “You really wish I could do what you want. I know I would want that too if I were you. Will you take a hug for now?”
Pay attention to the times your child doesn’t whine. It’s so easy to focus on the tones you hate to hear, but how often do you acknowledge the times your child does a good job coping. Whenever your child doesn’t whine when she asks for what she wants, notice it. “You really know how to ask for what you want. I like that.”
Know that this, too, will pass – even though it may seem like an eternity.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at Connective Parenting.
Play is essential, says John Seely Brown, to becoming the kind of learner that keeps up with the ever-moving flow of activity, interaction, and knowledge of today’s networked world – learning that needs to be more like whitewater kayaking than a steamship that has a set course and just keeps moving along it for a long time.
In a kayak, said Mr. Seely Brown, author, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg Center for Communication, and former chief scientist at Xerox PARC. “You have to be in the flow, pick things up on the moment, feel it with your body, be a part of the flow – in it, not just above it and learning about it. In this new world of flows, knowledge is an action sport. How do we participate in these flows?” he asked in his keynote talk at the 2012 Digital Media & Learning conference in San Francisco in March.
Our kids can demonstrate
It might help us to watch our children do just that. Watch them participate in the unpredictable, constantly changing flow of play in multiplayer games and virtual worlds online and in gaming communities such as Xbox Live (Pew says 97% of US 12-to-17-year-olds play games; do they know something we’re only just beginning to figure out?). Video games are simulations of the world that Seely Brown is describing.
Today’s digital infrastructure is “radically different from anything civilization has ever seen before,” he said. In the past, we’d have “brief moments of radical disruption,” then 40 to 60 years of stability [e.g., "electrification hasn't changed one iota in the past 100 years," he said] during which we developed the institutional and social forms and practices that knew how to use those infrastructures.
In the 21st century, there’s “no stability in sight,” with change “driven by continual exponential advances in computation…. It’s not about learning the old so much as creating the new.” We’re now, at the societal level, having to figure things out as we go, learning and picking up skills on the fly while immersed in the problem. “We can now expect the 1/2 life of a skill – most skills we pick up – to have about five years,” Seely Brown said, whereas in the past “we could pick up a set of skills and basically hold those for life.” Now we’re constantly reinventing, augmenting those skills.
Not knowledge transferred & stored
So it seems to me, he’s talking about something our children are quite skilled at, though the skills are not typically being acquired in school. He’s pointing to a significant disconnect between that immersive learning-as-they-go in games and the learning at school, which is still preparing steamships for the future rather than whitewater kayaks. School is based on the knowledge-transfer model – “you pick up a set of fixed [knowledge] assets that are authoritative and transferred to you in the delivery mechanisms of schooling, which has wonderful scalable efficiency” for delivering the assets to 30, 100, or a million people simultaneously.
That worked when we/the world had those 40-to-60-year periods of stability, when knowledge and authority had time to become “final” and be transferred to the future adult generation’s repositories of authority: experts. Knowledge that’s stored is inaccessible, Seely Brown seems to be saying; knowledge that’s shared is useable.
But what type of knowledge are we working with? Tacit knowledge, he said. “In a world of constant flux, learning has as much to do with creating the new as learning the old – but in creating the new, much of what is created is basically tacit, hasn’t had enough time to be crystallized out as explicit knowledge” – the explicit knowledge that was transferred from our teachers to us when we were in school.
So how can school – and if not school, then parents – help our children “cope with the tacit knowledge that kind of flows hidden beneath us all the time,” as this author, scientist, and educator put it?
Know. Make. Play
Back to that point about play. Besides the discussion about school, my takeaway from Seely Brown’s talk is that we very much need to clear space for our children to play – with digital media, solid objects (I’m thinking of the film Hugo), whatever they love to play with, and make sure some of that is the collaborative or social play that many children love too. He said that, especially now, we need to be all three: homo sapiens (man as knower), homo faber (man as maker, or “tinkerer”), and homo ludens (man as player).
Psychiatrist Stuart Brown said play is “a process of nature that’s within all of us” and essential to mental health and social efficacy. In that process of play, the player figures out how to…
- Work with and create constantly flowing tacit knowledge
- Turn it into the solution needed in the moment
- Respond to a new set of conditions with the experience just gained and new tacit knowledge flowing in from fellow players and other sources, and
- Repeat and
It’s a dynamic process for our dynamic, shrinking, networked world, where answers, solutions, and “meaning emerge as much from context as from content,” Seely Brown said – the context that’s like whitewater, the flow of a classroom, a multiplayer video game, an improvisational theater stage, a group videochat, protests online and on streets, etc. So is it possible that the 97% of US 12-to-17-year-olds who play video games know something intuitively that we’re only just beginning to figure out? Might we consider what their process has to teach us?
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.
A while back, my son Adam and I struck a deal. He could stay up late for a Harry Potter flick if he watched a documentary with me called, "Gloria in Her Words." The “Gloria” of the title was, of course, Gloria Steinem. Gloria Steinem is what Maya Angelou calls a “shero” of mine. She cleared the way for my mother to go to graduate school and open up her own checking account. She is the woman responsible for the fact that medical and law school classes are almost 50 percent women.
True, there can never exactly be another Gloria Steinem. She oversaw an unprecedented social revolution that transformed the world forever. But there doesn’t seem on obvious heir ready to take the mantle of feminist leadership from Ms. Steinem. Why is that? By my count we’re on the fourth wave of feminism.
Where is this generation’s Gloria Steinem? Where is the one true, clear voice decrying the Ultrasound Bill? In 2012 seven states require a woman to undergo an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy. And that bill was downgraded from a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound – a decidedly more painful and humiliating procedure. Where is the outrage over degrading a woman that has elected to have a legal medical procedure?
I’d like to tell you that discovering Steinem and understanding the origins of gender equality thrilled Adam. Alas, he passed most of the time playing with his Game Boy (note there is no Game Girl) until it was time to board the Hogwarts Express. But I take his disinterest as evidence of Steinem’s stunning success. Professional women, working women are the rule rather than the exception for him. He doesn’t think it’s unusual that his sister wants to become a doctor.
At one point in the documentary, Adam paused his game when archival footage of the suffrage movement caught his attention. He was shocked that women had not always been allowed to vote. His great-grandmother – who came to this country when she was barely 2 – was 30 years old when she legally cast her first vote.
Yes, we’ve come a long way, baby. When I was a child that meant that women finally had their own cigarette brand. By the time I was a teenager, we got our first national magazine. One of the documentary’s biggest hoots was to hear the male anchormen of my childhood predict the demise of Ms. Magazine and trip over the dated words: “women’s liberation.”
Ms. Magazine took off and in high schools and colleges more women were gradually added to the cannon in literature courses. Thank you, Gloria Steinem. But we’re not there yet. According to VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, women have been notably absent on a number of literary prize shortlists this season. That might only seem reasonable to the novelist V.S. Naipaul, who thinks no woman is his literary equal. I dare him to say that in front of Toni Morrison.
When I was Adam’s age I was stumped by a riddle about a father and son who get into a car accident and need surgery. The surgeon on call takes one look at the boy and says, “I can’t operate on this child; he’s my son.”
“Why?” I asked Adam. “That’s easy,” Adam said. “The surgeon is the boy’s mother.”
Thank you, Gloria Steinem.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Judy Bolton-Fasman blogs at The Judy Chronicles.
For the third year in a row, Norway has won the accolade of best place in the world to be a mother, according to a report by Save the Children that looks at factors such as mother’s health, education, and economic status, as well as children’s health and nutrition.
Not surprisingly, Nordic neighbors Iceland and Sweden are to be found in the top five as well. That’s probably because of the generous maternity leave system (one year paid in most cases), abundant and low-cost child-care run by the public sector, and very understanding employers in these socialist welfare model countries.
But is it really so great to be a mom in Norway?
After having been one on both sides of the Atlantic, I am not so sure. First, more Norwegian women are in the workforce during a child’s early years.
Two out of three women are employed in Norway compared with 46.7 percent in the US, according to data from Statistics Norway and Catalyst respectively. And only about 56 percent of all US mothers with children under the age of 1 were in the labor force. In Norway, many more moms go back to work, partly because employers have a flexible scheme that lets workers return back to work part-time and extend their maternity leave pay up to two years. Plus it also only costs about $400 a month for full-time day care from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., summer months included.
Norway touts the high percentage of women in the workforce as a good thing. But those who would like to raise their child at home instead of day care are sometimes criticized for not “integrating” their child into Norwegian society. The Norwegian government recently cut the cash-support scheme “kontantstøtte” for parents of two-year-olds to encourage more day care use. Under the old scheme, Norwegians were actually paid to stay home with their toddler, on top of their maternity pay, to help free up spots for those that wanted to use the day care centers.
As of 2010, 89.3 percent of parents had day-care spots, so the scheme became unnecessary.
There is also an expectation that all mothers should go back to work since there is such an efficient and affordable system in place to take care of children. Here, there is more pressure to have a job to go back to after maternity leave, whereas in the US you would be criticized for prioritizing your career ahead of your child’s early formative years.
I personally know of only two stay-at-home moms in my son’s elementary class in Oslo, whereas in my old neighborhood in a New York suburb the stay-at-home moms were the majority, and those who took the train into the City were the selfish mommies.
This is not to say that the US should be the role model. The country actually came 25th on State of the World’s Mothers Report, falling well below most wealthy nations, according to Carolyn Miles, Save the Children president.
“A woman in the US is more than 7 times as likely to die of a pregnancy-related cause in her lifetime than a woman in Italy or Ireland,” said Ms. Miles. “When it comes to the number of children enrolled in preschools or the political status of women, the United States also places in the bottom 10 countries of the developed world.”
Well, maybe it’s not so bad here after all.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs.
Just 3, my son stomped around the living room banging his drum and occasionally growling. He urged me to follow. I did, trying to hide giggles as I roared.
On a lazy post-nap afternoon, we cuddled as we watched a video about a little boy named Pierre who was so cantankerous that he did not even care if a lion swallowed him whole. Together, we warbled every time the narrator, Carole King, sung, “I don’t care.”
Thank you, author Maurice Sendak, for each of those precious moments with my son Simon. Thank you for what you have given countless children, parents, and grandparents, and all of the readers of your books.
The news of Maurice Sendak’s death today at age 83 saddened me more than I could have imagined. Imagine. Mr. Sendak gave so many of us the freedom to imagine not just of rainbows and angels but of what those monsters under the bed might look like.
I remember few books from my early childhood except for Where the Wild Things Are. I don’t remember why I loved that book so, but it doesn’t matter. I am reliving my love of that short tale and other Sendak books through my son.
My husband and I began introducing Sendak’s books to Simon more than a year ago, shortly before he turned 3. I at first wondered if Simon was too young for Where the Wild Things Are with its illustrations of scary creatures and its tale of a boy who leaves home and ends up on an island with beasts. Simon taught me not to be so afraid of what may or may not scare him. Children are wise. They’ll let you know when something is too much. In fact, at age 4, Simon regularly perches himself at the top of our family room stairs to watch “Beauty and the Beast.” He is too scared to sit too close to the television screen in the early scenes. The beast is just too ferocious.
Nothing, though, seems to scare Simon in "Where the Wild Things Are." He embraces the wild things as something endearing and funny. If Max could march with beasts, so could Simon.
And yet, our son likes to sleep with his light on. If he wakes up early to find we have shut the light off, he shouts out, “Turn the light on.” Even this morning, he woke up at 5 a.m. and said, “I’m scared of the dark.”
But Max’s “wild things” aren’t the monsters hiding under the bed. They are what a little boy or girl imagines to fill some kind of need. I will forever love this book, and I know my son will, too. We don’t read it now as much as we used to, but it remains on a book shelf. Every time we read it, Simon laughs at the same parts. And he often wants to have a parade.
Mr. Sendak broke the rules on children’s books, so often filled with everything light, airy, and well fairy-like. Life is not always Disney Land. Even little children know that. Thank you, Maurice Sendak, for showing us the world as you saw it.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Linda Wertheimer blogs at Jewish Muse.
I want to lace tight a pair of sturdy boots that will never let me lose my footing. I want to strap on a too-large pack, heavy with only life’s essentials and not the weight of my world. I want to walk headlong down a path, one with twists and turns, and yes, obstacles even, but one with markers so I’ll never lose my way.
I want to go wild.
After reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” about both her physical and metaphorical journey hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, I can’t help but fantasize about doing the same. Imagine? Imagine leaving behind, if only for a week (a month? three?) the demands of this complicated 21st century lifestyle. The pressure of a 24-7 on-demand world would be lost in the woods.
By hiking into the natural world, I could trade the psychic weight of my overextended life with the physical weight of a pack. I would welcome a bruised back, the chafe of straps along my hips, real cuts and bruises, real blood, in exchange for the blanching of my soul. That kind of pain can’t compare to the psychic assault from underemployment and overtaxing family life, underwater mortgages and overwhelming bills, wars and incomprehensible crime that is our modern life.
One on one with nature, we might remember what it is to be truly alive and how to live true.
Some might call me selfish if I were to leave behind my world of responsibilities. Yet hiking into the woods, I wouldn’t be walking away from my life, but toward it. Going into the wild, experiencing physical pain and discomfort, true hunger, would no doubt break me down, but I suspect it wouldn’t break me. Learning to ration supplies, push myself another mile or five, listen to my soul while alone for days on the path would strengthen my will. I might even remember how to be kind to those I meet in passing, how to give and receive kindnesses when in need.
If each day I were reduced to the bare essentials of life – warmth and cold, food and water, light and darkness, exhaustion and resolve – I might just remember who I am and what I’m capable of. In that quiet place, I might be able to hear the sound of my own voice again.
I suspect I’m not alone in wanting this. In the weeks and months to come, I expect “Wild” will inspire others to go back to a simpler way, to rediscover the wild within.
I hope I’m one of them.
Among US 12-to-17-year-olds, the most avid users of videochat – such as on iChat, Skype, or “hangouts” in Google+ – are also the most avid social networkers, according to just-released data from the Pew Internet Project, indicating to me how integral video chat is becoming to socializing and keeping in touch with friends and family.
Pew looked into two other uses of online video too: video recording and uploading, such as 1) producing and sharing do-it-yourself music videos and clips of exploits in video games or vlogging (video blogging) on YouTube, and 2) live video streaming like what 16-year-old Texas singer Austin Mahone does on Ustream.tv (he has a YouTube channel too). The researchers found that:
- 37% of online teens videochat, girls (42%) more than boys (at 33%). Age doesn’t make a huge difference: 34% of online 12-to-13-year-olds use video chat and 39% of 14-to-17-year-olds do.
- At 27%, teens’ video recording and uploading has almost doubled since Pew’s last look at this in 2006, when 14% were doing so. And girls have nearly caught up with boys in this aspect of online video activity. In 2006 the numbers were 19% boys and 10% of girls; now it’s 28% of boys and 26% of girls. With this activity, age makes more of a difference – 30% of teens 14-17 record and upload video, compared to 21% of 12-to-13-year-olds. The researchers add that the numbers suggest cell phone use “does not relate to teens’ likelihood of recording or uploading videos” – 28% of teen cell phone owners share self-produced video while 25% of teens without cell phones do.
- Only 13% of teens stream live video, with little distinctions by age or gender (13% of boys and 12% of girls), but “social media users are more likely to stream video” than non-social networkers (14% compared to 5%, respectively), Pew says. And interestingly, “other choices that teens make about their online privacy do not relate to their likelihood of streaming video…. there is no statistically significant difference among teens with private, semi-private or public profiles.
As for social media use in general, Pew’s latest: 77% of all teens have cellphones (23% have smartphones) and 97% of those phone owners text; 40% of texting teens videochat compared with 27% of non-texters.
More than three-quarters, 77%, of all teens use social sites; 16% use Twitter. Comparing their use of video to non-socialnetworkers, Pew says “teens who use Facebook and Twitter are more likely to use video chat, with 41% of Facebook users chatting (compared with 25% of non-users) and 60% of Twitter users using video chat (compared with 33% of non-Twitter users).”
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Anne Collier blogs at NetFamilyNews.
Hi Folks! As our annual "Take Our Children to the Park…And Leave Them There Day" draws nigh (does “nigh” ever get used without the verb draw?), it's good to remember why it is so great for kids to get out and play, on their own, without a coach, program or parents to organize (or limit!) them.
The idea of the holiday is simple: On May 19 (Saturday), we take our kids, age 7 or 8 and up, to the local park at 10 a.m. That way, they meet up with other kids from the neighborhood. We wave goodbye and the kids are on their own to come up with something to do. Boredom works in their favor – eventually they start playing because not playing is so painfully dull.
By the time they’re through – it could be half an hour or half a day later – chances are they’ll want to do it again. And so Sunday becomes “Our kids are going to the park on their own” day, as do most days thereafter!
If you’ve got younger kids – great. Go to the park and witness what your kids will be able to do in only a few years. Meantime, you’re there on the bench, creating the kind of community that reassures the parents waving their older kids goodbye.
Spread the word!
The idea is not radical. It’s simply a way to “re-seed” the all-too-empty playgrounds and parks with children. There’s no reason kids can’t play on their own. Crime is down since when we parents were kids. Diabetes and obesity — the twin scourges of sitting inside — are up. What’s more, it is safer for kids to play than not to play, and this study (if you need to wave one around) says that letting kids play unsupervised is one of the best things a parent can do for a child:
Professor Roger Mackett, who led the study, said: “Allowing children to leave the house without an accompanying adult has significant benefits. The health benefits are clear, but without action the less tangible benefits of increased independence and self-reliance will be lost.That may be a very great loss with many implications.”
Fight the fear that has kept kids indoors or only in supervised programs. Go forth to Facebook and Twitter and the PTA to spread the word about Take Our Children to the Park… and Leave Them There Day! And let us know if you get some traction!
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Lenore Skenazy blogs at Free-Range Kids.
What’s the best place in the world to be a mother? Not the US, says Save the Children – not by a long shot.
In it’s annual pre-Mother’s Day index of the best and worst places across the globe to be a mother, the international children’s advocacy group puts Norway in the No. 1 spot, while the US sits at number 25 - down in between Belarus and the Czech Republic.
Maternal death rate, low preschool attendance and low political representation push the US behind many of its developed country peers, the organization says. To come up with its rankings list, the group also evaluated factors such as maternity leave policies, mortality among children younger than five and the ratio of estimated female to male earned income.
Mothers in the US face a 1 in 2,100 risk of maternal death – the highest in any industrialized nation – and children face an under-five mortality rate of 8 per 1,000 births. That’s around the same level as rates in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovakia, and Qatar.
Save the Children's “breastfeeding policy scorecard” also lists the US as “poor,” behind almost all other developed nations. This is in large part because the of the country’s short and unpaid maternity leave policy, the group reports. The US also has among the lowest percentage of moms exclusively breastfeeding at three months. (The group ties breastfeeding to significant health benefits for mother and child.)
“While the US has moved up in the rankings, ahead of last year’s 31st place, we still fall below most wealthy nations,” said Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, in a press release. “A woman in the US is more than seven times as likely to die of a pregnancy-related cause in her lifetime than a woman in Italy or Ireland. When it comes to the number of children enrolled in preschools or the political status of women, the United States also places in the bottom 10 countries of the developed world.”
But the US is still a far better spot for moms than the countries at the bottom end of Save The Children’s rankings.
“Conditions for mothers and their children in the bottom countries are grim,” the report says. “On average, 1 in 30 women will die from pregnancy-related causes. One child in 7 dies before his or her fifth birthday, and more than 1 in 3 suffers from malnutrition. Nearly half the population lacks access to safe water and fewer than 4 girls for every 5 boys are enrolled in primary school.”
In Niger, the bottom-ranked country, only 13 percent of parliamentary seats are held by women; a typical girl receives only four years of education and one in seven children die before his or her fifth birthday.
“That means that every mother in Niger is likely to suffer the loss of a child,” the report says.
Whether it's in the cozy twilight of a bedtime tuck-in or the supermarket checkout line, kIds will surprise parents with the "big" questions: Why am I here? Where did Grandma go when she died? Where does evil behavior come from? The longing to find meaning in life seems innate.
Finding the words to explain these things to an impressionable three-year-old, a skeptical adolescent, or even your adult self can be unsettling.
Modern Parenthood had a conversation about this with Krista Tippett a mother, journalist, and founder and host of public radio's "On Being," a weekly exploration of the "big" questions at the center of life. Her books include "Einstein's God – Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit" and "Speaking of Faith – Why Religion Matters and How to Talk about it."
The intersection of her profession (contemplating these issues and talking to the best thinkers about them) and her family life (she's the mother of an 18-year-old and a soon-to-be-14-year-old) made Modern Parenthood want to ask her these questions:
Do you think parents have a responsibility to cultivate some sort of meaning-making or spiritual sentiment in their children?
It’s kind of a new phenomenon in Western history right now that we have all these kids growing up with parents who have rejected their traditions of origin, in a way people weren’t free to do previously.
Children ask for this. Maybe they’re asking for structure and meaning-making. Or maybe they’re just asking the big theological questions which they do at very young ages: Where do we come from? Why do people die? Why do people treat each other that way?
So do we have an obligation to come up with something? I don’t know. But I think we have a responsibility to meet our children’s questions and longings along those lines. I think that – especially for people who have rejected the tradition in their background – that becomes an opportunity.
You grew up in Oklahoma with a grandfather who was a fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist preacher, left that tradition when you went away from home, and found yourself unsettled without a spiritual anchor at midlife. How important is it for parents to be settled in their spirituality?
In the name of not giving your children what you rejected, you also give them nothing to reject, to work with, to question, and to challenge.
It’s true a lot of people these days do go through a period of agnosticism or searching or atheism. That’s what happened to me. But I circled back to questions of meaning, of morality, and – ultimately – faith as an adult.
The question becomes: What do you do with that? Do you take it seriously? A lot of people hit that place when they have children. They start asking themselves this question: What do I need to pass on to my children? And I think it does feel like a huge burden. But just seeing that as an adventure and as a moment of possibility for yourself can be really important.
Rabbi Sandy Sasso [an expert on spirituality and parenting interviewed by Tippett] says, don’t let the people who ruined your tradition for you define what that tradition is about. Often many of us – even if we have grown up uprooted or have uprooted ourselves – we have a mother tongue, we have a homeland. Start there; don’t let it be defined by the people who turned you away from it. See if there’s something there for you to work with as an adult bringing your questions now, your curiosities now.
Can you define “homeland”?
Your denomination. For me, my Southern Baptist upbringing was so rooted to a place, it was a whole universe which stopped making sense when I left.
But when I started realizing that what I was asking – what I initially thought were ethical questions which in fact were spiritual questions – I did realize that Christianity was my mother tongue; the Bible was my textbook.
I could have moved away from that. But I really needed to go back there and see, because I knew how to read that. And I did find that I was reading whole different things there than what had been taught to me in Sunday school. And that was really exciting.
I didn’t return to the Southern Baptist tradition, but I did go back to Christianity. And now I really identify more as Christian instead of a denomination.
Parents want their children to be virtuous. But you talk about virtues becoming charged and uncomfortable to discuss. Why?
A lot of the words around the classic virtues are either charged or just watered down – compassion, gratitude, love. Love is something you fall into, you fall out of. Compassion and gratitude have been on too many Hallmark cards. And words like "peace" and "justice" are politically charged. So for the virtues we want and need, the language itself doesn’t carry the water for us.
I think a lot about how to use other words and stories and narratives with the connotations virtue has when these things are meaningful.
And what about nurturing virtues in children?
I did an interview for Mother’s Day last year with the Jewish-Buddhist teacher, mother, and grandmother Sylvia Boorstein. And she really brought me back to the fact that what we nurture in our children is most of all what we demonstrate to them.
So I think a lot about that: What are we passing on? What are we supporting in them? And what are we modeling? And it’s uncomfortable that it comes down to that. But it really does.
What are examples of that discomfort?
When we think about how we nurture our children’s spiritual lives or impart them with virtues, we want guidance on what to teach them. And it’s really important that we actually have to cultivate these things in ourselves even as we are teaching them and cultivating them. It’s good to remember that.
It’s also kind of a relief, because when you think about how do I grow my children’s inner life, their spiritual life, it feels daunting. But if you realize that part of the work is growing your own – and that part of what you can take time and energy to do for the sake of your child is to be cultivating that in yourself – then it’s helpful.
Big virtues are very daunting. Compassion is huge. Forgiveness is huge. So one thing I’m really attentive to in my conversations with people are ways into those superstar virtues. Some ways are cultivating atmospheres; some are creating silence. In our 21st century lives and families, you actually have to make an effort to create silent spaces where there are no electronics on. In all of our spiritual traditions, silence is a very important element of self-awareness and of virtue and of deepening.
I was talking to Rabbi Sandy Sasso [an expert on spirituality and parenting], who points out that reading is an exercise that takes us out of our own imagination and introduces us to the lives and minds of different others.
So we can see some of these ordinary things that we want our children to do as also spiritually enriching; it’s not necessarily an extra set of activities.
It’s pausing – this is where it gets hard – in the morning when we’re all late and I’m yelling at everybody to get out the door and I’m in a panic. It’s knowing it really is possible to stop and take a breath and just be present – and say, “Here we are at the beginning of the day....” It’s knowing that that can create a whole different atmosphere.
Another thing I think a lot about is beauty, as in attention to beauty. Beauty almost is a moral value and something that is necessary for human beings that makes us more alive and is a way into virtue that I hear a lot. That’s something that we can show our children in all kinds of ways, both in our homes and outside our homes.
So that’s how I think we break these things down and see them as possibilities that are woven into the fabric of the everyday.
Is it important for parents to raise their children in a specific faith?
I think the depths of faith and religion are in the particularities. Our traditions have specific emphases. They have vocabularies; they have texts; they have rituals; they have communities. And children are very drawn to all of those.
So I don’t think you have to feel like by giving your children a particular experience you’re narrowing their field. You’re giving them tools to work with. They are going to ask their questions, they are going to challenge it, they – in this world, in this age – are going to be exposed to a whole bunch of other things, and you have no control over that. So to give children something substantive to work with is valuable – and it’s not to narrow them, it’s to give them some depth and some roots, and they can grow as they grow and go where they’ll go.
What tools – books or movies or methods – do you suggest to convey meaning-making to children?
Human beings are storytelling creatures and always have been. But we kind of lost our sense of that. In the 20th century we became very fact-based, very plan-based. Our children remind us that our traditions are full of stories to delight in – and it’s exciting to take our children’s cue on this, because they know how to work with them.
Something that may feel a little counterintuitive: Children know what to do with the hard stories and the dark side of life that is also there in our traditions – the complexity of it all.
In fact, they are experiencing that in the world, they are experiencing things that are happening in their families that are painful, or difficult – and, in fact, that’s what [the stories] are there for.
Also, respecting silence, respecting questions [are tools to use]. Children are big askers of questions, and our traditions grew out of these existential questions: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Is there a god? Why do people treat each other that way?
And being willing to be in those questions with our children – as maybe I think our parents weren’t, because they felt like they had to give us answers, whether they felt like they had the answer or not. I think it can be just as valuable, and maybe pretty exciting, if your child asks a question like this, for you to say “Boy, that’s a great question. What do you think? Here are some ideas I have.” To really share in that wonder, because that’s a big piece of religion too.
Do you have any “ah ha!” moments when this worked for you?
One thing that’s been really interesting to me is how interested my children were and remain in my grandfather who was the religious patriarch of our family. He was a Southern Baptist preacher. He was the one who laid down all the rules. And a lot of what he stood for is a lot of what I rejected for myself later on. Although I think the vitality of his faith is still very formative for me and inspirational.
He was a kind of a contradictory character because you would get the impression God was pretty mean – you just couldn’t do anything or have any fun. But my grandfather was this very funny loving person. And so I drew all this information about the nature of God, not just from what he said, but from how he was.
My children have always loved stories about him and there was this cathartic story when I was a child that I’ve told them about. He was kind of an evangelist and he used to pastor at little country churches just kind of itinerantly.
And this cathartic story is where I was in a shed, where he kept the lawnmower, and there was a snake coiled up in there. There was this epic battle between my grandfather with a hoe and the snake. My kids love stories like that. And if you think about it, there’s all these classic layers to it – all those images we take from the Bible about the serpent, and here’s the preacher taking one on; good versus evil; dark versus light; courage and comfort in the face of danger.
So even things that we’ve rejected but that are dramatic narratives – we may reject them, but they are still interesting and complex.
Children love to hear that stuff and they’ll do with it what they will. And we have to trust them.