Tough times call for strong parents

Drawing lessons of strength and stability from generations who grew up under greater stress than today's.

The current generation of young Americans has been blessed with a happy childhood. This generation, often called the millennials has - until Sept. 11, 2001 - enjoyed an epoch of unprecedented peace and prosperity. They have come to expect that life will only get better, simply because it always has.

Now, they are faced with a war. They are bombarded with its horrific images of death, destruction, and suffering. They hear whispers foretelling retaliatory terrorism, frayed international relations, and economic collapse.

What are we, their parents and caretakers, supposed to tell them now that their high expectations of comfort and security are in jeopardy? How are we supposed to put on a brave face when we don't feel very courageous?

Some historical perspective may help.

The reality is that these tough times - despite the current war and its attendant anxieties - are no worse, and are probably less daunting, than the tough times faced by the majority of American children who came of age during the first half of the 20th century (not to mention children who were born into current strife around the world).

It is humbling to speak to elderly people about their lives. I am struck by how little they complain. Despite the hardships they've endured, many whom I've met lack today's endemic self-pity. They tend to sound the same theme: Life may have been hard, but that was just part of living.

I am inspired by a storyformer Sen. George McGovern told me about his father who, after the family lost all its money when a local bank failed during the Great Depression, sat down with his family and said: "It's only money. We'll survive."

I take the senior McGovern as a role model as I struggle to be a good father to my two young millennials. Senator McGovern's tale helped me realize that one of the greatest gifts parents can give their children is to be strong for them, even when they may feel weak.

A woman I interviewed, Prudence Paine, remembers her mother's strength during the German bombing of Britain during World War II.

"I never saw her cry. What she did privately, I don't know. I always felt safe, very safe. She never transmitted her fear to me," she told me. "She always stressed that we were together, and that was what was important. She didn't let me know that there was something terrible going on. I was very aware that on Sept. 11 - we were working here [at school] - we weren't supposed to tell the children what was going on ... it was horrible for us because we had to be the best actors in the world, pretending that we were having a normal day and that everything was fine. That's what my mother must have done, day in, day out. The strain must have been horrible."

Social-science researchers confirm the importance to children of their parents showing grace under pressure. Nearly all parents of toddlers have had the experience of being with their child when she falls down. If the fall isn't a bad one - that is, if the child isn't in significant pain - she'll look up at her parent. The child takes her cue from Mom or Dad. If the parent looks scared, the child will be frightened. If the parent conveys the sense that everything is OK, the child will usually respond in kind.

How can a parent summon this inner calm when a war storm rages? There are two wells from which parents have historically drawn strength, although these wells are less deep than they were in generations past.

I saw this clearly on a recent trip to Anna, Ill., a small farming community. I had come to Anna for an interview. I arrived early so I went to find some coffee and eggs. Towns like Anna usually have a restaurant where locals congregate, but many of its downtown buildings were boarded up, so I went to a McDonalds out by the highway.

As it turned out, that McDonald's was the local coffee shop. Ten jovial men sat together. Most of them were over 70. The talk was about Holsteins, calves, and an acquaintance who had been kicked by a horse. Not far from this group, an old woman in a faded blue stocking cap and a long coat sat alone, staring into a Styrofoam cup. If this were New York City, I'd have pegged her as a homeless person, trying to warm up before she was shooed away for loitering. But, each time one of the old men in the corner got up to leave, he stopped, patted her on the shoulder, and said something comforting. One of the men refilled her cup. They clearly cared about her.

Even in the generic environment of McDonalds, I had a clear sense of the community that existed in Anna. I couldn't imagine a similar scene in my own upscale neighborhood in suburban Boston. I was comforted and reassured that this part of America still existed - until I thought about Anna's moribund downtown and the age of the men who treated the old woman with courtesy and compassion.

Families, friends, neighborhoods, community - it's a simple formula for building a strong foundation for your child. In today's world, however, it's often difficult to gather the right ingredients. In the end, it comes down to the choices we make, what we set as our priorities.

Do you stay home watching TV or make the extra effort to invite the new neighbors over for dinner? Do you visit with your parents on holidays - even though they often drive you crazy - so that they can see your kids? Do you take a job that doesn't require much travel, although it may mean a cut in pay? These are hard choices. As parents, we all have to face them. But these days, when it comes time to choose, I remember the old men of Anna coming together each morning for something far more important than a cup of coffee.

Participation in organized religion - the other formerly deep well of solace during tough times - has declined sharply in the lifetime of the millennials. Even in the early 1980s the average American child spent two hours per week going to temple, church, or Sunday school. Today, it is only half that. Beyond any potential divine benefit, organized religion can be therapeutic because of the communities it creates: the other caring adults who will come to the aid of a parent or child when he or she is sick, distraught, exhausted, or in need. Moreover, religious rituals are able to provide children and adults with a most important coping mechanism. Religious practices - prayer, meditation, sitting shiva, or lighting candles - give us something to do to help us combat the feeling of being overwhelmed, passive, hopeless.

Parents can learn from this. Teach your children that there is always something they can do to combat the problem or assuage their anguish. These tactics give the child a feeling of control and teach him to be proactive about his problems.

The lesson is much like the one President Franklin Roosevelt gave the nation in his first inaugural address: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."

The greatest danger to someone facing stress is that he or she will become afraid and do nothing.

Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist, is an adjunct assistant professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. His latest book is 'Tough Times, Strong Children: Lessons from the Past for Your Child's Future.'

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