There’s been a lot of griping in the news these days about the slow-to-grow-up generation of 20-somethings who return home after being out in the world and sit, accumulating crumbs, in their parents’ living rooms.
In fact, the "boomerang generation" is moving back home at the highest rate since the 1950s – currently 21.6 percent of adults ages 25 to 34 according to a recent Pew Research report. Three-in-ten parents reported having a child who has moved home for economic reasons.
But I want to celebrate another kind of boomerang kid. This is one who is actually more of a hitchhiking kid than a returning child, since the home she’d normally return to is rented out to tenants, and her parents – my husband and I – have decamped to Beijing where we are having an adventure.
Joanna, 24, decided that it was all the more reason for her to have an adventure as well, so she quit her job (gulp), backpacked around Thailand and Cambodia with a friend (another gulp), volunteered at a home for street kids in Chang Mai, Thailand (gulp, gulp, gulp), and landed in Beijing, where we were surprised, mostly delighted, and maybe even a little taken aback to realize that we’d have a roommate.
Luckily, we had rented a three-bedroom apartment, so Joanna actually has her own little nest in one corner of the place, and we can use a third bedroom for a study plus guestroom.
The three of us have gone hiking on the Great Wall, had hysterical experiences in Chinese restaurants (bacteria dry pot, anyone?), made Thanksgiving dinner, Chinese new year cookies, and ravioli in the kitchen, and explored this vast city as a family. Just about every Wednesday, Joanna and I go out for manicures and chatter. The other day we found a dirt-cheap place where we got perfect manicures for 30 RMB (less than $5), talked about life, and watched Chinese shoppers watch the laowai (foreign) women get their nails done.
It’s true that there’s a certain adjustment that comes for a couple that had gotten used to the idea of the empty nest. For instance, there are times when Joanna will decide to have friends over and inadvertently make us feel a little bit like interlopers in our own place. Our other child, coincidentally, lives in Guangzhou in the south of China where he teaches conversational English to college students. There’s something nice about being in the same country but also giving him a couple hundred miles of breathing room. And having both kids boomerang at the same time would certainly feel a lot more crowded.
Joanna has decided to extend her China adventure for another year, but threatens to get her own place. I’m already steeling myself for that departure. The day I dropped her off for college I was sad but I knew she’d be home for Thanksgiving and then Christmas and spring break and the summer. For now, though, we revel in the inside jokes – did her father just order in Chinese fish that was too good for us? – and celebrate the spirit of the here and now.
It’s been a week for family travel news. Right after Sen. Charles Schumer went to bat for flying families, urging airlines to allow parents and kids to sit together without paying extra for window and aisle seats, this news tidbit comes in from the West Coast:
This past weekend, apparently, a 3-year-old boy was kicked off an Alaska Airlines flight for refusing to wear his seatbelt. Here’s the scene, as described to local press by the child’s dad, Mark Yanchak.
(Parents of toddlers, you will feel sympathy here. Promise. And then you will resolve to never leave the house with your kid.)
As dad struggled to get the seatbelt latched, mom, who was sitting in first class with the couple’s other son and her mother (nice arrangement, I say), came back into coach with a pacifier and some water. The two parents were eventually able to get the boy calmed down.
But by that time the plane was already rolling back to the gate, Yanchak said. And soon an airline representative asked Yanchak and his son to get off the plane. Alaska Airlines later offered to rebook the family on another flight, but the Yanchaks declined.
“I’m not sure how the kids will feel about flying next time,” Yanchack said.
What a start to the vacation.
This story terrifies me. As do various others like it. (Check out our piece from March about another crew calling the police on an unruly 3- and 8-year-old.)
My Baby M, since she was 2 months old, has been on more flights than I can count, including a 19-hour jaunt from Baltimore to Nairobi, via London. And she is usually awesome, the celebrity of the plane, waving and blowing kisses to all. (And there’s nothing like a baby to keep other Southwest patrons from sitting in your row, I must add.)
But she is also getting older. And more opinionated. And squirmy. She is turning into a toddler. And one of these days – I just know it – she’s going to lose it. I’ll have forgotten snacks or sippy cups or the five bazillion toys I bring to keep her entertained. I’ll tell her she’s not allowed to kick the seat in front of her, or that she really just can’t crawl down the aisle.
And I’m telling you, she’s going to freak out.
Because, well, she’s a toddler. And testing limits is a toddler's job. That’s the beautiful – if also frustrating and often publicly embarrassing – push and pull over independence, the sign that a baby is growing into her own little person.
Now, should other passengers or the flight crew have to put up with that? Probably no. But a little patience and sympathy would be nice. I mean, we don’t kick the snoring guy off the plane, even though that might be appreciated.
Luckily, it seems that the airlines themselves have come up with a solution.
Since Delta, American, et al (the notable exception, of course, being Southwest) will probably charge extra this summer for window and aisle seats, essentially penalizing parents for sitting together, it seems there is an incentive for just dropping your 3-year-old in another row.
Works for me.
I’m sure the folks in seats 21 A and C won’t mind.
I have a very personal – albeit indirect – relationship with Taylor.
Before backing the unspeakable acts of murder, rape, and mutilation in neighboring Sierra Leone, he invaded his home country of Liberia in December 1989, in an attempt to unseat the then-dictator, Samuel Doe. That was five days before my wedding to a US diplomat, Dennis Jett, who was the deputy-ambassador at our embassy in Monrovia. We went ahead with the ceremony anyway; Monrovia was a long way from the fighting upcountry and the invasion seemed a minor thing.
That illusion was dispelled in the following months. Taylor and another rebel hacked their way through the country in what became a civil war of remarkable brutality. Never, even as a journalist working in other parts of Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, had I witnessed such wanton atrocities.
After a while, the original aim of the conflict – the ousting of the president, the defense of the government, the primacy of the tribe – ceased to matter; only the killing counted. As a result, the State Department ordered me out of the country in June 1990, just as Taylor was about to march into Monrovia.
I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Dennis and our friends to likely disaster. Many of the other diplomats were hiding Liberians who were of tribes that were being hunted down by either government troops or Taylor’s rebels. (Shades of Nazi Germany.) So before departing, I told the stewards and gardeners and guards who worked at our residence to move into the first floor with their families. Although we didn’t have Marines protecting the place, I hoped the fact that it was an official US residence would dissuade soldiers from breaking in and spiriting people off to executions on the beaches around town.
A few years later, I received a letter from Mohammed, one of the stewards. He was illiterate and must have gotten a professional letter writer to pen the missive. In it, he thanked me for saving him and his family, and the families of the other employees; at one point, he said, there were upwards of 40 people, many of them children, living in our house. (Dennis had moved to the safety of the embassy compound almost immediately after my departure.)
That letter had enormous significance for me when I first received it; now, as a parent, I find it almost too poignant. I cannot begin to – nor do I want to – imagine the terror and sense of impotence in protecting their children that Liberians must have felt during the fighting. To say nothing of the unspeakable suffering that Taylor’s acolytes in Sierra Leone would later visit on children there, senselessly amputating their hands or feet to sow fear and submission among the populace.
Charles Taylor’s sentence today won’t erase any of that, but it does provide justice for the tens of thousands of his victims.
“Hi, Barbara, This is Maurice.”
That brief greeting on a Sunday morning in late 1994 was my personal introduction to Maurice Sendak, who died earlier this month and has been inspiring a wild rumpus of memories among our family and friends.
I read Mr. Sendak’s works endlessly to my children, Michael and David Saltzman, when I first discovered Sendak the writer and artist. David loved to draw and tell stories from the time he was little. He especially loved Mr. Sendak’s whimsical, wicked and imaginative drawings – whether for his own books or those he illustrated for others, such as “What Do You Say, Dear?"
David found Max, Rosie, Little Bear, and other characters drawn by Sendak to be lifelong inspirations for his own artistic creations. We would talk endlessly about the characters Sendak created, how effectively he could convey his thoughts with a few clean lines, his ideas with a few choice words. Of course, none of us ever imagined the vital role that Sendak would later play in David’s own life and work.
David felt so lucky to meet Sendak at a Master’s Tea at Yale University in February 1986, when David was a freshman. After Sendak’s passing, a Yale classmate remembered watching David and Sendak talking together, writer to writer, artist to artist: “Sendak had just given a presentation and I remember Dave hanging around afterwards to get his autograph. The two spoke and laughed and I was just thrilled to be in the presence of two such delightful and talented souls. I've long been a huge fan of Sendak's work, but in my mind Dave always understood Sendak best.”
Sendak must have thought so, too: He invited David to visit his studio in Connecticut. A couple of days later, David and a friend took the train to Litchfield, where, in the middle of the woods, the two were transported to the Wild Things’ world. Sendak showed him where he lived, where he worked, where he displayed his collection of Disneyana and talked about what it was like to be an artist and author. That day changed David’s life.
That evening, when he returned to Yale, David called: “Now I know what I want to do,” he told me, recounting that indescribable afternoon. “I want to be a children’s book artist and author and live in the middle of the woods and have a studio filled with light, just like Mr. Sendak’s.”
Three years later, David’s dream started to gel when he joined a summer study group taking him to ancient Greek sites. Grecian mythological figures and lore entranced him. One day as he entered his class, David told a silly joke and nobody laughed, or even said hello to him. He doodled a few squiggles and thought the result looked like a little jester. Next to the sad face, he wrote the words: “The jester has lost his jingle.” And thus the germ of an idea for a children’s book – in rhyming verse – about the healing nature of laughter began.
In September 1988, “The Jester Has Lost His Jingle” became David’s senior project in both English and art.
Just a month later, he was diagnosed with cancer, but he stayed at Yale to be with his friends while he was treated. And he continued work on “The Jester” – a consuming focus – through treatment and remission and on to graduation in May 1989.
He came home to California and continued working on the project – through a relapse and further treatment until his death, at 22, in March 1990.
We promised David that – whatever happened – his book would live.
But agents and publishers told us it would be too expensive to produce 64 pages in full color, in hardcover with a dust jacket, as David had envisioned. And besides, they said, rhyme wasn’t selling that year and they’d have to get David’s rhyme “translated” into prose. David wanted his book produced with the same quality he had admired in all of his hero Sendak’s books. And we vowed not to let him down.
We finally took out an equity line of credit to publish the book ourselves, and I decided to impose on Sendak to bolster David’s legacy. In November 1994, I sent a prototype of “The Jester Has Lost His Jingle” to Sendak. He had a reputation as a curmudgeon, so I tried to make it easy – I shipped the prototype of the book along with a letter and picture of David and Sendak taken at the Master’s Tea. And I included a self-addressed, pre-paid Fedex package for him to return the book.
I half-expected it to come back unopened. It had been eight years since their meeting – how could Sendak possibly remember David among the legions of his fans?
And then the phone call came.
“Barbara, I was so surprised to receive your package,” Sendak said, to my disbelief. “I remember David very well. I had no idea David was so ill and was devastated to learn that he had died. I was afraid to open the book, because I was afraid I might not like it, and if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t be able to say anything good about it.”
“My brother Jack has been very ill with cancer,” Sendak said. “I don’t know how David went through what he did and produced such a strong work. I wish I had known and I wish I could have helped him when he was alive. He was very talented. But I will do whatever I can to help him now.”
He asked what he could do. I told him that if he could write a few words about David and the book, it would tell everyone that this was a valuable, serious work of children’s literature. “I’m honored to do that,” he said. “Please tell me, how much can I write?”
I told him there was no limit. “What is the deadline?” I told him the deadline. “I am working on another project but will get something to you by then,” he promised.
In January 1995, Sendak called me at my office precisely the day his remarks were due. “Hi, Barbara, I’ve written a few words …. The problem is I have no way to get them to you. I don’t have a secretary.”
“Please, I’d be honored to have you dictate them to me,” I said.
For the next half hour, Maurice Sendak dictated the words I have repeated in countless readings of “The Jester Has Lost His Jingle.” I cried as I typed, and I could tell he was crying, too.
“Our lives briefly touched,” Sendak began. “But I remember him among all the eager, talented young people I’ve bumped into along the way. I remember the face – the enthusiasm – the intelligence and unaffected extraordinariness of David Saltzman. It is difficult to remember all the bright, promising youngsters. It is easy to remember David.”
When the book was introduced at the American Booksellers Convention in Chicago that May, David’s byline was rendered, just as Maurice Sendak’s always was: “Story and Pictures by David Saltzman.” Just below that, the cover said, “With an Afterword by Maurice Sendak.”
Across the top of our small booth – tucked in the farthest corner of the immense Chicago convention center – we displayed the last sentence of Sendak’s Afterword across a vivid 10-foot banner: “David’s Jester soars with life.”
On the first day of the convention, when I had stepped away briefly, a man came by, looked at the banner and snapped at David’s father Joe, a professor of journalism at USC Annenberg: “You can’t quote anything from Maurice Sendak. You don’t have permission to do that. I’m Maurice Sendak’s agent and everything with Mr. Sendak’s name goes through me.”
Joe explained that we had actually gone directly through Maurice Sendak.
“We’ll see about that,” he said and stormed away. He came back, chagrined, a little later and told Joe, “I apologize. I just spoke to Maurice and he said he did write the afterword and gave you permission to use his name on the cover of the book. He has never done that before. But you definitely have his permission. I wish you the best of luck.”
Without Sendak’s support, encouragement, and incredible generosity, “The Jester” would have been dismissed out of hand by the entire publishing community – distributors, wholesalers, booksellers, media. Instead, “The Jester Has Lost His Jingle” reached the New York Times best-seller list.
In June 1995, when we returned home from the convention, a hand-written note awaited us on “The Night Kitchen” stationery:
The book is absolutely beautiful! You have done full justice to the work. The varieties of colors and tones! Rich – fresh and lovely. Mazeltov. I am just embroiled in the printing of a new book so I am very sensitive to the difficulties you’ve wonderfully overcome.
I will treasure my copy. I will treasure my relationship with David and his whole superb family.
We will always treasure Maurice Sendak. Not just for his transforming, insightful, captivating stories and artwork. We will always treasure Maurice Sendak for his great generosity to our son – for allowing us to link David’s name to his in print forever.
Leave it to the celebrity moms to make one feel totally inadequate.
Just when I had gotten over the fact that I didn’t think of “Blue Ivy” as a name for my daughter (“How’d you miss that one?” my college roommate e-mailed back in January), and just after I had come to terms with the realization that I would never have my own Simpson-Sims-Spelling-style clothing line (apparently wearing the same sweatpants multiple days in a row does not a fashionista make), here comes Charlize Theron.
The South African actress and new mom has been making the press rounds to promote her new film, “Snow White and the Huntsman,” in which she plays Ravenna, the fairy tale’s wicked queen. And predictably, many of the questions have revolved around her infant son Jackson, whom she adopted in March.
Here are some of the tidbits we have learned:
Ms. Theron says being a new mom “just feels right.” No Mommy Wars-style identity crisis here. The peacefulness oozes out of her interviews.
“My mom said the most beautiful thing,” the actress recalled during a chat with Ellen DeGeneres. “I’m going to cry. She said ... ‘It took me nine months to fall in love with you when you were growing in my stomach.’ She’s like, ‘It took you two years to fall in love with this little baby.’ ... It really took two years of just waiting and then, one day, it’s finally there. It just feels exactly how it’s supposed to feel. I don’t know how to describe it. It just feels right.”
Meanwhile, she says her dogs – a rescue terrier mutt named Berkley and a pit bull rescue named Blue – took to Jackson right away.
“From the moment this baby came into our home, those two dogs have never been more in love,” she said. “It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever witnessed.”
Blue, apparently, even wakes up with Theron every time she needs to change or feed Jackson, and “whenever the baby would cry the pit would start crying ... he’ll do anything for that baby.”
(Hear that, Labrador retriever sneaking onto the couch downstairs? It’s not just about what the baby will toss you from the high chair.)
And, to top it off, Theron enjoys changing diapers.
“I love it!” she said on the Today show. “I’ve got to tell you, I’m available for other babies’ diapers to be changed ... I can do it in my sleep now. I’m so good.”
Awesome. I’ll be tweeting you my address, Charlize.
In addition to waxing poetically about acting, the constructs of female characters in popular films, power and how women see themselves in the world, Theron had this to say about her atypical path toward motherhood:
“You can't really be too calculated about everything in life. I think I've gone through my life with the understanding that you've got to let go and you can't think that you're going to control your destiny. I think I made peace with that at a very young age because I went through an experience that taught me that as soon as you think that you know how your life is going to be, something in the universe will make you realize that you really are not that in control of it.”
And then, on the adoption:
“So then you go through the process, and it's tough. It's not the easiest process – and then again, I've never liked things too easy in life. But it emotionally knocks you out. It's a really difficult thing to experience, but I never once faltered and thought that I didn't want to go through with it. You kind of go through situations that don't work out, and then all of a sudden you have this baby in your hands and you forget about all of that. You forget about the last three years of your life. You just realize that everything unfolded exactly the way it was supposed to unfold.”
At least today’s celebrity mom inferiority complex comes with some thoughts worth pondering.
As a fellow parent put it, “It blows me away that she got suspended for telling it like it is (from her perspective).”
He was talking about the story of high school freshman Jessica Barba, who – for a school assignment – created a video and Facebook profile of a fictional 12-year-old who, the story goes, committed suicide because she was bullied. The real-life drama continued when some “concerned parent” saw the fake profile but apparently not the disclaimers in it that this was fiction and called her local police, who called the school, which subsequently suspended Jessica for five days, later unsuspending her during a hearing held while Jessica and her parents appeared on NBC’s Today Show.
(Adding absurdity to the pile of mistakes on just about everybody's part, including news reporters, author Judith Warner wrote in Time.com that the "outrage" in all this was how her teachers would "allow this girl, like so very many of her peers, to reach nearly the end of 10th grade without a solid grasp of written English." Really, Ms. Warner, this was your main takeaway?)
By all accounts, Jessica was honestly “telling it like it is” – in a school assignment – from her perspective. Of course she shouldn’t be punished for that, and that part of the story had a happy ending. She was allowed back to school and the suspension was erased from her school record.
But her perspective illustrated the most important takeaway from this experience: how it parroted back the misinformation, hyperbole, and fear her generation has been fed by (probably mostly well-meaning but) misinformed reporters, policymakers, school officials, and Internet-safety advocates. Very unfortunately, I’m hearing more and more kids echoing the misinformation they and their parents have been getting.
Echo chamber of dangerous messaging
For example, Jessica’s video suggests she learned somewhere that suicide naturally follows bullying, which is dangerously simplistic – not a message that should be spread. I doubt she’d take much comfort in this, but her video has something in common with the recently released film "Bully," supposedly one of the more “sensitive” accounts of this age-old problem.
Here’s how the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention put it: "Bully" is an example of “an increasingly pervasive media narrative that portrays youth suicide as a normative and rational response to being bullied. In addition to misinforming the public, there is considerable evidence that such narratives can spark imitative behavior in vulnerable individuals, a phenomenon referred to as suicide contagion.”
As a society, we must not create an echo chamber of dangerous messaging, especially where suicide is concerned. Jessica’s video represents the echo.
Adults need a ‘filter,’ too
Another important takeaway from this story is how much more intelligently we’ll be able to work with young people if we don’t take what we see in their online communication and expression at face value or in a vacuum. There’s usually offline context to what happens online – it’s embedded in everyday life, and for young people, school life, sociality, and relationships.
Facebook isn’t a context, really; life is the context for what happens in Facebook. Jessica’s online video and fake Facebook profile were for a school assignment.
“Because of the digital revolution, we each need to develop better filters, screens and BS detectors to sort through the information blizzard of daily life,” writes author, speaker and digital-age consultant Don Tapscott in Part 3 of his “Living Out Loud” series at HuffingtonPost.com.
So we don’t need just to teach our kids to develop those filters, but ourselves as well. And we’re applying that filter to a much broader range of content. Our children are learning to apply it to their peers’ social content in whatever media (as are their peers to theirs) as well as professionally produced content, and we’re learning to apply it to our children’s expression and communication in media as much as to those of our peers, whether personal or professional.
This is media literacy now, right? And it needs to be applied not only to what’s in-coming, but also to what’s out-going – what we’re producing, sharing, texting, etc. By the nature of today’s media, whether used by a 15-year-old or a 50-year-old, it can’t easily be separated from social literacy or digital literacy, and it requires healthy doses of both critical thinking and compassion.
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.
Into these boxes we place the carefully wrapped, delicate (or sturdy) sealed packages of language arts and science and social studies. Don’t forget the box of P.E. and art and band and music and sports! The box of recess, lunch, and homework club too. The box of friendships. The box of meetings and parent-teacher conferences; conviviality, joy, consternation, frustration, and even heartache – but mostly triumph and fulfillment.
In June, the schoolhouse begins to fill with these real and imagined boxes that come in all sizes. They are the vessels for all we have experienced, learned, made, sung, acted, danced, run and cherished between September and June, and they begin to pile up in anticipation of the big move to a new year.
It’s like moving a house we’ve grown accustomed to. There are book boxes and china boxes and wardrobes – small boxes for a few heavy items, and bubble-wrap and tissue paper for the breakables; wardrobes for all those costumes that are put to use every day, plus the extra-special costume day we call Halloween. Sometimes they are disguises, sometimes just character or scene changes. Everything we need for the next place is being prepared for loading. The truck is here, idling.
We are only moving around the corner to a new neighborhood: September 2012, and a new school year. It’s not far, but nonetheless all of these boxes must be carried home, or loaded onto the school bus. Some go into storage, and some just get immediately reopened in a new location – at your house, at camp, grandma’s house, tree houses, boats and minivans.
Perhaps new things will be added in July and August? Good! There’s always room for the box to expand. Just be sure to bring it back to school in the fall, when it will be time to unpack and move our belongings into School Year 2012-2013.
New room? Same room? New teacher? Same teacher? It’ll be different for each of us. But there are always new costumes … and always new boxes to fill. The new kids in this neighborhood might look familiar – even the same names as the old school! – but I guarantee they’ll be different. We’re all going to be new kids by September – it’s just one of the laws of summer.
If this move is like all the prior ones we’ve experienced, September will mix new discoveries of old things, reunions with favorite toys and experiences, and perhaps a few insurance claims for broken glassware that the movers packed inconsiderately or that fell off the truck.
The unpacking script might go like this: Now where are those math skills I put in an easy-to-find place? I know I put the comma rules in here somewhere … I just hope the box isn’t under the box spring mattress! The French vocabulary was in a big box with “Français” across the top in big letters. Ou est-il? Uh-oh: the science box is leaking. I wonder what I packed in there? Perhaps it should have been double-sealed? And the papiér maché mask and puppets I worked so hard on in art class? Crumbled. No worries; time to make new ones … I’d choose different colors this time anyway. It’s the making of it that’s the most precious cargo.
Our belongings are ourselves. We are what we pack and unpack. For a while in June it feels as if we are living in two houses or in two years at once; departing and arriving at the same time; to and from the same destination. Packing up the present school house is inextricably bound to our expectation of unpacking in the new one, next year’s, particularly since so much of what we have packed was chosen with the new one in mind. We may even find that some of the things we most cherished have lost their value over the summer, during the move, and we’re ready for entirely new, unanticipated treasures. It’s one of the benefits of moving, of changing, of growing: finding that we can be new and old in knowledge at the same time.
We're packing the house of friendship too – which is much harder to box up. It goes on the truck last. It wants to stay unpacked until the last minute, but even this most sacred belonging needs a little time away from school to rejuvenate and grow. The new kids in this neighborhood might look familiar – even the same names as the old school! – but I guarantee they’ll be different. We’re all going to be new kids by September – it’s just one of the laws of summer.
You know the forwarding address. See you at the new place.
Every summer I help parents deal with this issue: kids are homesick and want to come home from camp. This is certainly not an easy one, but there are a few guiding principles:
1. Don't immediately panic. Some initial homesickness is to be expected.
2. Try to buy time. Tell your child to give it a little more time and then you'll revisit. In the meantime, your child may settle in comfortably.
3. If you are worried, get feedback from the camp staff about how your child seems to be doing.
4. Keep in mind that homesickness is contagious and all of the kids in the bunk may gradually move from homesickness to happiness.
5. If your child is telling you something that is very troubling, then by all means assess the situation and consider whether or not coming home is the necessary response.
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. Jennifer Powell-Lunder and Barbara Greenberg blogs at Talking Teenage.
It’s been a bit of a month for etiquette lessons.
Most recently we had the story of a group of noisy 10-year-olds in a Washington State movie theater... and the adult man who punched one of them out. But that's hardly all. Look back through May and there has been a full wave of public, not-so-nice comments about everyone from Bollywood starlet Aishwarya Rai (too fat post pregnancy?) to “tanning mom,” Patricia Krentcil (too tanned?) to Jamie Lynne Grumet, who posed breastfeeding her 3-year-old son on the cover of Time Magazine (too... too?).
Then there was that 6-year-old boy suspended from school for singing LMFAO lyrics – a sign, one might argue, of a culture so rude that an unsuspecting elementary school student is penalized for mimicking it.
And of course there's the good old presidential campaign. Nothing but manners there.
So, with this barrage of public rudeness, the sort that includes a healthy dose of being uncharitable to others, what’s an etiquette-minded parent to do?
No, it’s not time to double down on the which-fork-goes-where thing, says Elena Neitlich, owner of the company Etiquette Moms, which runs etiquette training courses and certification classes across the country with a specialty in children’s and teen manners.
“People get confused about what etiquette really is,” she says. “I believe etiquette is about how we respect others, how we respect ourselves and how we value others. Our integrity. And I always throw in compassion.”
That’s a little trickier than convincing your 10-year-old to put his napkin in his lap.
But Ms. Neitlich says it’s quite doable. The catch, parents, is that it starts with us.
“I think parents are very concerned these days about appearance. They think their kids are a little sloppier than they used to be, they think their kids are more sexualized than they used to be. [The parents] worry about a lack of honorifics – that the 68-year-old woman next door is 'Jean’ rather than ‘Ms.’ or ‘Mrs.’... I think parents are concerned about what kids are being exposed to on TV. And there’s a lot of concern around sports figures. There’s been a rash of really bad sportsmanship – it’s almost normalized.”
But in addressing all of these worries, and others, the solution comes down to modeling good manners, she says.
Giving others the benefit of the doubt.
“People are not out to get one another,” she says. “Quite the opposite; we’re all pretty good inside.”
That woman who left her shopping cart in the middle of the grocery aisle? Probably not specifically trying to block you. That driver who didn’t have his turn-signal on? Probably not trying to be a jerk. That 6-year-old boy singing “I’m sexy and I know it?” Probably not intending harassment.
Wait a moment before responding.
So the next time a car full of teenagers cuts you off as you’re driving your child home from school? Don’t gesture. Don’t even swear in the car. Take a deep breath and wonder what you’re about to model to your kids.
“You can even say, ‘You know, there was a time when I might have responded in a different way to this.’ ” Neitlich says.
Model healthy ways of giving and receiving feedback.
That includes showing respect. Ie, the opposite of what many kids see if they look through Facebook or the comments on blogs and news stories online.
And, our favorite over here at Modern Parenthood, model the polite usage of technology.
If you text throughout your daughter’s soccer match or your son’s school play, it’s sort of hard to fault them for texting while you’re trying to engage them in conversation. If you let the phone interrupt you at dinner, or when you’re taking a walk with the family, then you’re teaching the lesson that others don’t deserve your full attention and respect.
And of course, you can always add table manners, too.
Ever wonder why you yell at your kids, take away privileges and put them in time out and nothing seems to change? It’s because you are spinning the endless cycle of action and reaction instead of stopping it. You are expecting your child to make the change and be the grown-up first.
A father I am working with has established a deep cycle of resistance with his eight year old daughter, who is a very strong-willed child and says things to her father like, “You don’t love me”, “You’re mean”, and “It’s unfair”. She has a little brother who is easy and flexible and gets his parents approval because of it.
Dad complains, “She says no to everything, even something she knows is coming up and she is supposed to do. For instance, I told her when we got home it was time to go up to bed – twice. Calmly. But when we walked in the door, she went directly over to the table and started to draw. That started it.”
When this dad, like so many parents, is faced with a child who doesn’t do what she is told, what is expected of her—even the simplest no-brainers—he feels disrespected and ignored and therefore reacts accordingly. The key is in changing his perception of his daughter from, “She’s doing this on purpose to disrespect me” to something like, “She’s being resistant to what I have asked which means she’s probably feeling unheard.” But to get to this type of understanding, he must first unload his baggage and defuse his buttons.
As a child, this dad was in a divorced, highly dysfunctional family where he felt like “nothing”. Feeling disrespected was not even in his vocabulary because respect wasn’t. He was nothing. His Appreciation Button reminds him of that every time his daughter resists him. His old, yet very alive, belief that he is worth nothing gets triggered when his daughter ignores any of his requests. Logically he then feels ignored, worthless, dismissed and disrespected. Which in turn provokes him to resistance, to control, to anger, thus unintentionally sending his daughter the message that she is bad, unappreciative, a disappointment, and not good enough—his baggage comes full circle.
His daughter naturally resists what she perceives her father thinks of her, and her integrity fights back—at anytime she thinks she can take control—especially around no-brainers. To stop the cycle, this dad needs to be willing to see that his daughter is not calling him a nothing like his mother did. She just doesn’t like being told what to do—something her brother has very little difficulty with (a huge thorn in her side). But Dad thinks it’s about him and reacts. His reaction causes his daughter to feel unloved and wrong and thus she resists him. It’s in his court to stop the cycle. He must first grapple with the old messages he has about himself from long ago and understand they had nothing to do with him and all to do with his parents. Just as his daughter’s initial resistance has nothing to do with him and all to do with her temperament. To empty our baggage, we have to let go of our perceptions.
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.