Welcome! If you are new to the Lion's Whiskers blog ...

Showing posts with label personal story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label personal story. Show all posts

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Making Failure Okay

A couple of years ago, Jennifer, my husband and I took our kids to a ropes course called Adirondack Extreme. It is described as an “Aerial Tree Top Adventure” which includes a complex ropes course suspended between trees at 10 to 60 feet off the ground. It promised to be a fun physical courage challenge. Little did I know that it would be more of an emotional and social courage challenge for me. The labyrinth of ropes wouldn’t prove to be my biggest adversary, but untangling myself from my own perfectionism would be.

Jennifer did not climb due to an old injury, but she supervised our daughters on the kids’ course. My husband, our son, and I challenged the adult course. We attended a brief instruction on how to put on our harness, how to securely hook and unhook ourselves along the course, and how to ask for help—if push came to shove and we decided we were done at some point along the increasingly challenging course. I paid pretty close attention to the introductory talk, but only half-listened to the “asking for help” part. As I’ve written about previously in my post “Quitters, Campers, and Climbers,” I’m not much of a quitter. I’m a climber who, I'm embarrassed to admit, even sometimes secretly feels superior to quitters.

By the time I reached mid-course, my then 12-year old son was lapping me. He seemed recklessly, blissfully unaware of all the risks that I was quickly becoming aware of as I looked down from the tree tops to the ground twenty, then fifty, feet below. He just kept saying “Mom, this is SO much fun. It’s easy!”

I can assure you this course was NOT easy! And I was so over the idea of this being fun. The more joyless and humorless I became, the more rigid my body became.  My joyful son, on the other hand, had the agility of a monkey; while I swung precariously, holding on for dear life with increasingly sweaty palms, between the various rope mazes. He was fearless, while I was quickly becoming fearful.

One of the big differences between kids and adults in terms of risk assessment is the cognitive tricks that our minds begin to play with us as we develop. According to child psychologist Dr. Tamar Chansky (2004), in her book Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: Powerful, Practical solutions to Overcome Your Child’s Fears, Worries, and Phobias, we feel anxious when we begin to confuse the possibility of occurrence with the probability of it actually occurring. Dr. Chansky writes that the “Anxious Response= Overestimation of Threat + Underestimation of Ability to Cope.” So, while I was focusing on whether or not the ropes were strong enough to hold me, the possibility of falling, how painful it would be to hang upside down for an extended period of time waiting for help, whether or not my children (who I no longer had in sight) were okay or not, and how embarrassing it would be to quit; my son was enjoying each new obstacle on the course while feeling totally secure in his crotch harness and physical ability.

At the second to last level, all alone now on the course, I was officially scared. But quit? OMG, no way! Quitting = Failure, to the perfectionist mind.  Which is, as Jennifer wrote in her last post Failure is Always an Option, “tantamount to total annihilation.” At the very least, annihilation of the ego. Success for me, at times, can be deeply intertwined with trying to prove that I’m lovable and valuable. In short, I wasn’t a kid who learned that her success in life is based on who she is, not on how she looks or what or how well she does. A perfectionist places more value on how she appears to the world than on who she is on the inside.  This misplacement of her inherent value creates a fragile ego swinging precariously from one success to the next, desperately trying to avoid the identity-crisis pitfalls that mistakes, and especially failure, threaten.  It's also what makes perfectionists highly competitive and probably not all that relaxing to be around sometimes. Needless to say, this aspect of my personality is not particularly healthy--nor is feeling secretly superior to quitters, for that matter! These are not personality characteristics I wish to pass along to my children. Instead, I parent my kids in ways that focus on their inherent value.  I focus less on how they look and what grades they get, but more on the core qualities they are developing as kind, loving human beings.  I encourage them to listen to their limits and feelings, to focus on their successes, to identify goals that are truly important to them (not society at large), to do their best because there is no such thing as perfect, and to be gentle with themselves when they make mistakes.  I’ve coached them to develop an internal locus of control (you can read my parenting tips here: Are You an Inny or an Outy?) And I'm known for saying "I love who you are, and who you are becoming."  Let’s be honest, embracing this kind of unconditional acceptance of both ourselves and our children is kind of radical—especially today in our culture of overachievement! Dr. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection is a great resource for anyone interested in understanding and letting go perfectionism!

One of the many gifts of being a parent, in my opinion, is that we get the chance to teach (and learn from) our kids what we, too, need to learn in life.  In essence, parenting has given me the opportunity to release myself from perfectionism's uncomfortable grip and develop the kind of self-acceptance and love that my kids seem to instinctively possess.  And now I was about to model that it's sometimes okay to quit!

When I reached the next tree post, I found myself hugging and not wanting to let go of that tree with the kind of intense love usually reserved for extreme environmentalists. I was done! It was suddenly much more important to me to listen to my body’s limits and find my kids on the course than to prove to myself and others that I could finish. Suddenly, quitting was not only an option, but it was okay. I couldn’t remember the code word the guide had told me to yell if I needed to be rescued, but in any situation screaming “HELP!” usually works.  I started with a timid “Helloooooo. Guide?!” which quickly progressed to screaming above the treetops “HELP! I need to get down now.” 

In a matter of minutes, a very kind and capable young man arrived on the scene to lower me from the towering heights of my new BFF. I told him I was okay and felt surprisingly calm.  I wanted to reassure him that I wasn’t going to cling to him like a crazy lady when he finally reached me.  He, in turn, reassured me that this kind of thing happens every day.  That made me feel a lot better!  I found myself laughing, recalling my high-pitched screams for help above the tree tops, and relaxing as he lowered us to the ground. I was amazed not to be embarrassed. The earth did not open up to swallow me whole when my feet reached terra firma. Throngs of people weren’t waiting on the ground to laugh, jeer, and otherwise poke fun at my failure. These are the kinds of thoughts that keep perfectionism well-fed, by the way, and keep us from trying things that might mean risking failure in some way, shape, or form. In fact, I felt kind of proud of myself. I had actually asked for help and received it! Trust me when I say, it took more emotional courage for me to quit, ask for help and trust that it would arrive, and social courage to risk embarrassment amongst my peers and family, than the physical courage to force myself to finish the course.

I could have focused on my failure and spiraled down into an abyss of low self-esteem, but I made my failure okay by focusing instead on what I was able to accomplish. I made it okay to quit by untangling who I am as a person from my perfectionist expectations.  I discovered that the belief that you are already “good enough,” no matter what you are able to accomplish, is perfectionism's personal kryptonite. Adopting a new respect for quitting has also freed me up to be willing to climb again! 

By honoring the type of courage I actually needed to develop, I was able to reframe my perceived physical courage “failure” as an emotional courage accomplishment. We can do this for our kids, too, by helping them to recognize the gains they make everyday, by breaking apart difficult tasks into smaller more manageable and achievable ones, and by celebrating their successes. We can help them identify which of the six types of courage they are developing, and are capable of, in everything they do!

As I was writing this post, I asked my daughter to define failure.  Her answer: “There is no such thing as failure Mom. Whatever you are able to do is okay.”  When I also asked if she'd like to try the adult course with me again this summer, now that she's almost 12, she said: “Probably not.  I'm not a big fan of heights.”

You can read more about coaching kids to face challenges in my previous post: Discourage/Encourage: What’s a Parent to Do?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Turning Blue

I recently shared this story over dinner at a restaurant with Lisa's family, and my daughter's delight at my absurdity and my fear was very gratifying! As we have said on this blog many times, sharing stories of our own mistakes and comic misunderstandings normalizes mistakes for our kids. We all make them. Nobody's perfect. And hopefully we can laugh about them afterwards.

So, one cold winter day a few years back I had been reading in a cozy chair, rubbing my hands together to keep warm, sometimes rubbing them between my knees or hugging myself against the chill. I wondered at one point if I should turn the heat up, as I noticed my normally pale skin was looking slightly blue. I hugged a blanket around my shoulders and continued reading. As the sun shifted and came through the window onto my lap, I noticed my hands really looked blue. Definitely blue. I rubbed them together again, thinking I should take a walk and get my blood circulating. I made a cup of tea to warm myself, and tried to quell the tiny voice in my head that was saying, "That does not look normal."

Friday, January 20, 2012


One of the members of our church choir is a dedicated peace activist who has been arrested more than once for her protest work; from time to time she reports on the status of charges against her. When my daughter first understood that this woman had been put in jail because of her beliefs, she was intrigued. This led to a discussion about democracy and civil disobedience, and to the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. The stories about Rosa Parks and Dr. King have become part of American mythology, and I was proud to tell her some of those stories.

I quickly found myself in rather deep water, however, since explaining the background of the struggle required discussing racism and its destructive manifestation in our history of African slavery. Imagine the squirming I suffered inside as I (a white woman) explained to my newly-adopted Ethiopian daughter how white people went to Africa to steal black people and bring them here against their will, their heritage stripped from them. The growing look of baffled alarm on my daughter’s face finally resolved itself into a gut punch of a question. “Am I your slave?”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Jean Labadie's Big Black Dog and Shivering in the Bath

Here is an old Quebecois story I ran across recently in Kevin Crossley Holland's The Young Oxford Book of Folk Tales. It's an easy story to tell with your own details, and it is just begging for exaggeration.   This is my retelling, but you can easily put it into your own words.

            So, this farmer, Jean Labadie, he had his suspicions about his neighbor, Pierre Martin. Yes, two weeks running Jean was missing chickens, and he was pretty sure Pierre was stealing them. Weasels would have left a path of destruction, but no, this was just one chicken at a time. But he could not bring himself to say, "Hey Pierre Martin are you stealing my chickens one by one?" With this on his mind he was helping Pierre Martin pull some stumps and he said, "Something has been stealing my chickens, sure, so I went to the Huron village and got me a big black dog. See him? - there he is at just over there."
            Pierre Martin squinted up his eyes to look across the field. "Where?"
            "That big black dog, with his red tongue dripping, and those big black paws, you see him there?"
            "Oh!" Pierre Martin went back to work.
            Sure enough, no more chickens went missing from Jean's yard. But one day he ran into Pierre Martin in town. "Hey, Jean, you should chain up your big black dog, he chased me down the road," said Pierre.
            "No, he's at my farm guarding the chickens," Jean replied, very surprised.
            "Looked like the same dog," Pierre said. "Big black paws, red dripping tongue. Keep him on a chain."
             A few days later, Jean again met Pierre in the town, and this time Madame Sasson was with him. "Was that your big black dog chasing my sheep?" she demanded to know. "That dog is dangerous."
            Jean Labadie raised both hands. This was getting complicated. "No, no, my dog is chained up in my yard. That is a different dog chasing your sheep."
            "No, your dog broke the chain," Pierre Martin said.  "You should take him back to the Huron village.  That's a mean dog."
            Well, for sure this was getting to be ridiculous, but the next day Jean Labadie hitched up his wagon and drove past Pierre Martin's house, shouting, "I'm taking this dog back!"  And he made a pretense of patting something down inside the wagon until he was out of sight.  He spent the day with his Huron friends, and then came home.
             Pierre Martin was waiting for him.  "Your crazy dog came back!  Chased some children and scared them right into church.  You can't keep a dangerous dog like that!  You should shoot him!"
             Now what could Jean Labadie do?  He could not at this point admit he had made up the dog, and although he was sure Pierre Martin was raking him over the coals, he was sure stuck.  "I'll shoot him," Jean Labadie replied.  "Satisfied?"
             There was a little small smile on Pierre Martin's face when he said, "Oh, I suppose I am."
             At home, Jean Labadie got out shotgun and whistled loud.  "Here you, dog!" he shouted.  Then he fired into the ground, and then dug a grave and filled it back in.  And he hoped that would be last he heard about his big black dog.

             I don't know about you, but usually when I've been afraid to ask a question, say what I think, or speak up, the problem only gets worse.  I have a personal story that I've told many times to the Lovely K. with much laughter.  This story features me in the bathtub while answering a phone call from a new business acquaintance.  There was a moment at the start of the call that would have been the appropriate time to say, "This is not a good time to speak - I know it's 11 a.m. on a business day but I was thrown from a horse this morning and now I'm soaking in the tub, so can I call you later?"  That moment slipped by, and I found myself trying to avoid any splishy, splashy, watery sounds that would give me away (So unprofessional! I was very concerned at that stage of my career about seeming very very professional!) The call went on and on much longer than I expected, while the water cooled and I began to shiver.  Somehow I couldn't summon the social courage to say, "You know, all this time we've been talking I've been in the bath."  And when this editor began giving me information to write down (clearly assuming I was sitting fully dressed at a desk) I pretended to write, making suitable "mmhmms" to indicate I was ready for the next bit of dictation.  My daughter howls at this last bit as I pantomime writing with a wet finger on the rim on the bathtub, nodding and shivering, wondering how I would explain this to my agent.
            Now, at the age of 50, I have long since let go (I think) a majority of the social fears that kept me quiet.  I don't like shivering in the tub, and I don't want to shoot any imaginary dogs. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Don't Be Scared!

I grew up in an old farmhouse that had two dim and musty attics, a dark, multi-chambered and cobwebby basement, a ramshackle garage and a variety of derelict outbuildings - corn crib, wood shed, henhouses, outhouse. The barn didn't actually come to us when my parents bought the house, but there it was right next door: huge, weathered, and full of mysterious, rusted farm equipment. All of these shadowy spaces were populated by wasps and/or spiders and/or mice and/or bats, bristling with potential splinters, and cluttered with hard-to-identify objects the previous (original) family had left behind. You can either interpret this landscape as spooky and ominous or fun and exciting. At various times in my childhood they were all those things in turn; what I can assure you is that at no time was I indifferent to these places. I was always attracted to them, either with a creeping dread or with a spirit of discovery, and I spent a lot of time in them.

Other friends lived in similarly old, minimally electrified, cavernous houses on large properties with tumble-down barns, sheds, guest houses, gazebos, stables, etc. This was the 60s and 70s, in rural New York, and the gentrification push from New York City hadn't yet begun. One of my friends actually lived on the grounds of a sprawling old mental hospital, and we wandered freely, poking our noses into rooms, or trying to wipe the grime off the windows of locked buildings so we could spy. We played in settings that have become horror movie standards, but back then it was just normal: usually fun, occasionally mysterious, with a once-in-a-while dip into real fright. But still normal. It was the brand-new homes with wall-to-wall carpeting, bright overhead lights, and shiny matching appliances that were truly foreign to me. Only one of my friends lived in such an outlandish house as that.

I don't know how many kids today get to roam around by themselves in such liminal spaces. As you may recall from my post about bedtime stories, liminal refers to thresholds. These places are neither here nor there, inside nor outside, inhabited nor empty. They are all between. They are openings, waiting in suspended time. It is here that the hero can experience the call to adventure, the invitation to step into the unknown and begin the quest. Yes, there is fear in the unknown, and fear in shadowy spaces. But I think that I, for one, spent much of this time unconsciously testing myself, measuring my courage against the courage I discovered in stories. If I had discovered a wardrobe that led into another world, I would have been ready.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Using Moral Courage to Navigate Facebook and other Social Jungles!

On the eve of my son’s adolescence, he begged me to let him have a facebook account. At the time, there was a loosely followed guideline that only those 13 years and older could log on and join.  Since I didn’t really understand yet how best to navigate my first born’s adolescence anymore than facebook’s social jungle, I was stalling for time. 

I was also, it turns out, arbitrarily setting his adolescence entrance at age 13 and at facebook’s front door.   I could have opted for the more traditional Native American vision quest to mark his transition from childhood to adulthood.  But with no Native American ancestry whatsoever, such a quest would not only be totally out of integrity, but likely to involve a lot more preparation and trouble.  What wilderness could he wander alone in anyway to complete the sometimes weeks long journey from boy-to-manhood?  A place devoid of traffic, people, and other modern day distractions where he could survive with little water or food, where I wouldn't go nuts with worry? How long could I put off his school’s attendance officer calling every morning wondering whether or not he had yet achieved the necessary spiritual insight and maturity sufficient to return a more mature young man to middle school?  The East African male circumcision was out of the question, too, for obvious reasons.  So, facebook became intertwined with my son’s quest for more independence and offered a secret passageway to a parallel universe far, far away from anything mom or dad could even remotely understand. 

Truth be told, I’m not a big fan of facebook.  I am, however, shamelessly using it to help promote Lion's WhiskersI also didn’t know yet the kind of evils we would encounter together in this particular social networking jungle. 

The arbitrary age limit thing didn’t stop him from pestering me a lot.  I half-listened to his complaints about how EVERYONE else and their mother has a facebook page.  Even when he said “Mom, someone at school has made a facebook account with my name.” I absentmindedly responded, “Well, just tell them to delete it!” 

A few months passed.  Little did I know the scope of my son’s classmate’s moral indiscretion.  Or the impact that someone hacking into our family’s life could have!  Because I did not take the time to understand my son’s pleas, or facebook for that matter,  I was ill-equipped and too distracted to help him navigate this moral morass.  Big mistake!  He eventually took matters into his own hands, with the help of an older friend, and created his own facebook account with a pseudonym. Since  his classmate wouldn’t stop impersonating him, he reasoned he should alert his friends that though they thought they were “friending” him on facebook, they were actually communicating with an imposter.

We are pretty connected, my son and I.  He also breaks pretty easily when I kick my training in therapy/interrogation techniques into high gear.  I could tell he was hiding something.  Something was heavy on his heart.  It took about a day for me to discover that he had just joined the facebook generation, albeit as a dude by the name of  “Ferbmeister.” He faced the consequences from us.  He was lectured pretty heavily about the ills associated with lying, unsupervised computer access, and the fact that two wrongs don't make a right. 

As his parents, we spent an entire weekend trying to understand who and how this other child had managed to “friend” people we knew all over North America.  Not one parent of any of the other children alerted us to the fact that this impersonator was “friending” them on behalf of our son, despite having their suspicions and knowing that our kids weren't allowed on facebook.  Thankfully, one was willing to share who the impersonating child was.  If we don't stick together as parents, with a common vision to help guide our children towards moral, right, or otherwise kind behavior, our children are at risk for not developing the kind of moral courage we are proposing through Lion's Whiskers.

Next, I mustered the moral and social courage to confront, albeit diplomatically and without accusation, the parents of the child who we knew was impersonating our son.  Their response was defensive and they minimized the impact of their child's actions.  “It’s just kids being kids.  Besides, our child isn't really ever on the computer and wouldn't know how to do such a thing even if they were.” WHAT?!  I mean I’ve heard of putting your head in the sand, but this parent had theirs deep in the Sahara!

ostrich head in sand

Whether out of embarrassment, denial, or a lack of comfort with the kind of authority we have the privilege to hold as parents, it is, in my opinion, unacceptable to shelter our children from the consequences of their actions. 

We never received an apology from the child or the family, nor were any of our friends notified that who they thought they were communicating with for all those months was not, in fact, our child.  It took weeks for us to undo the child's handiwork and for the child to finally delete the account, after we alerted the powers that be at facebook.  It saddened my heart that this child would not receive the benefit of a consequence to help them correct their moral compass in the direction of ethical, kind behavior.  And it really angered my kids. 

Kids, for the most part, have a pretty good sense of the difference between right and wrong on the playground, so this wasn’t much different.  Research now shows that from birth, humans are hard-wired to care.  As parents, we have the responsibility to help them learn how to connect and activate, through practice, that wiring through our care for them.  Developing a moral conscience is no longer understood to be a logical or even stage-by-stage process.  Rather, it is a learned skill best passed from parent to child through loving communication, care, and in my case, finally listening to my child’s pleas for help  and asking others to be accountable for their actions—even if they aren’t willing to be.

My kids demanded justice.  “Mom, how come you give us consequences and so-and-so has none?  That just doesn't seem fair!

I, in turn, asked them, “How do you think we would have handled this situation if you had been the one impersonating a classmate?” 

Their answer: “You would make us apologize, delete the account, and probably even make some other kind of amends to make things right again.”  “You bet I would,”  was my emphatic response. 

Unfortunately, morality is sometimes a double-edged sword.  Even when we show care for others, they may not care about us.   Even when we do the right thing, it can often be hard.  We may risk our own safety, welfare, social acceptance, or even imprisonment for the causes we believe in.   How then do we teach our children to do the right thing?  Especially when life doesn't seem fair.  Well, we can be the kind of people we hope they will someday become.  We can model for our children how to react in ways that are life-affirming and not to be victims of our circumstances.  We can advocate for them when they need help.  We can dig our heads out of the sand!

Gratefully, many months after the facebook fiasco, my son's teacher not only arranged a ritual in the woods whereby each child had the opportunity to cross over a metaphorical threshold into adolescence.  She also tried to intervene with my son and his imposter.  She could see the distrust and distance the incident had created between them.  She asked the offending child to apologize.  My son was forgiving, but remained unimpressed.  Kids are like that.  They remember who pushed them off the swing, bit them in playgroup, or stole their identity. 

A few months later I ran into the child on the playground.  The child clearly wanted to avoid me, looking embarrassed and ashamed.  I said, with kindness and compassion in my heart, “You never need to avoid or be ashamed around me.  I care about you and I care about my son.  We all make mistakes.  I just wanted you to know the impact of your actions.  I wish you well.”  I turned the other cheek, so to speak. 

Never underestimate the impact of your real or virtual moral footprint, especially in the lives of your children!

For more on the moral development of children, and how important YOU are as your child's first and most important teacher...be sure to read my post "Hard-wired to Care: You Matter in the Moral Life of Your Child!"

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Courage is Not the Absence of Fear

Courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear. ~ Ambrose Redmoon

As parents, we are often faced with the decision to put the welfare of our children above that of our own.  Being a courageous parent can range from rescuing your child from near death or other peril, to fighting for your child’s right to feel safe at school and not bullied, to telling the truth about your decision to separate, to holding your child’s hand at their hospital bedside, to canceling that belated wedding anniversary vacation (the first one in 10 years) due to your child’s unexpected flu bug, to waking each morning early to ensure that you keep your job and your child has shelter, food, and the many other necessities modern life now seems to require.  Any number of opportunities present themselves everyday to us as parents to muster and model the six types of courage.  Sometimes we even fail to recognize what courage it takes to be a parent.  It takes courage to walk through the fears about our own eclipsed needs after deciding to have a child.  To accept the risks associated with loving another human being so fully and completely that they one day walk out our front door with the keys to their own castle in hand (God willing). Courage is telling the truth about who we are, apologizing when we mess up, and loving ourselves and our child in the process. 

As a child and family therapist, I frequently witness the courage and compassion parents have in advocating for their mentally ill child, their child who struggles in school because of a learning disorder, their obese child facing long-term health issues if they don’t lose some weight, or their child banished to the outskirts of social acceptance due to the arbitrary judgment of an individual or group with more social cache.  I see the heartbreak on these parents’ faces when their child is called fat, gay, stupid, or weird.  Then, I witness the tears brushed away and the smile return to greet their child’s gaze with unconditional love.  The child, in turn, is looking for that acceptance as fuel for their own courage to face the battles they must.  Sometimes as parents we feel powerless about what to do to help our child through a tough time.  But it is the decision to keep moving forward, digging together for solutions in the dark, that inspires our children to have faith in the kindness of others, hope for their future, and to develop the necessary courage associated with resilience. 

Thursday, September 22, 2011

What Animals Can Teach Us About Pain

“I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” Wendell Berry, The Peace of Wild Things

“He who fears to suffer, suffers from fear.” French proverb

“There are more things that frighten us than injure us… and we suffer more in imagination than in reality.” Seneca

Anyone who has adopted a child in another country knows that obtaining a visa means getting a blood test and any missed vaccinations for the child. My daughter was eight when I adopted her; I went with her to the American embassy in Addis Ababa for a blood test, and the episode turned out to be the first of many frantic and nearly-hysterical encounters with needles. Without going into detail I will just say she had to be restrained. Upon returning to the States, I had to take her for more shots to bring her up to date. I always struggled to decide if it was better to warn her that there was a needle waiting for her at the doctor’s office, or let it come as a nasty surprise. I wanted her to trust that I would be honest with her, that I wouldn’t trick her, and yet the anticipation of the shot produced such distress that it seemed cruel to prolong it by an advance warning.
At twelve, she is calmer and less prone to tears at the doctor’s office. “But it does hurt,” she reminds me grimly.

“Not as much as getting hit by a truck,” I reply.

The answer to this is a glare.

“Well it doesn’t hurt as much as getting hit by a truck,” I say. “And I should know.”

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I'm Not Scared, I'm EXCITED!

Like many of you reading Lion’s Whiskers, both my kids started new schools this week.  At my house, surprisingly little drama occurred in the days prior to the first day of school.  Unlike years previous, we had actually completed all the school shopping, the kids had cleaned their rooms, and I knew the exact bus schedule.  I’m wise enough now as a parent, however, to not assume anything about how my kids might react the night before school starts.  The same goes for the night before Halloween and all the costume changes that entails.  The countdown began.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

On a Journey

"All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." - Leo Tolstoy

Lisa and I were talking about Steven Spielberg, and that had me thinking about how this great modern storyteller’s work fits Tolstoy’s observation. Stories are about our encounter with the unfamiliar. Either we have gone on a journey and find the unfamiliar along the way, or the unfamiliar comes and finds us where we live, even if we just wanted to stay home and have a cup of coffee. Consider two of Spielberg’s many great films: Jaws, and Schindler’s List.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

A Hurricane is Coming!

Hurricane Irene headed my family’s way recently.  Were we scared?  No.  Did we decide to cut short our RV vacation by one night in order to avoid being pushed around by Irene on the I-87 battling her high winds and rain?  Yes.  Were my children anxious about the storm brewing down south heading our direction?  No.  Why not?  Well, as a family we decided to opt for courage instead of fear in this case.  We made sure to get all the information first, and then we made a couple sound decisions.  We checked we had a flashlight or two, some water and extra provisions, and we charged our cellular phones.  We also decided to still use our tickets for a five-minute hot air balloon ride we'd purchased before we hit the road home, before the winds started to blow.  Granted, we were not in the eye of the storm and many folks on the East Coast needed to be much braver than us.  That said, I decided to reframe this whole experience as an adventure.  Having kids in your life will help you develop this healthy habit! 

Thursday, August 18, 2011

My Hansel and Gretel Moment

When I was just entering 1st grade, my father’s job took him to Switzerland. We would all live in Zurich for a year, and my sister and I would go to school there. The company had found us an apartment, but it wasn’t yet ready for us when we arrived, and we spent a week or two living in a hill-top hotel while my father began work. The school I was to attend was just for grades one and two; my sister, in third grade, was going somewhere else.

Before my first day of class, the headmaster came to our hotel and walked us to my school. Our route followed sidewalks and sets of stairs down the hill toward the shore of Lake Zurich, and my school turned out to be a beautiful old house across from a park. It all seemed very delightful. I was well satisfied.

The next day, my sister was given instructions to make sure I got on the bus back to the hotel at the end of the school day; our school bus would be stopping first at her school, and then coming to get the smallest kids. At the end of school, I waited out front, watching the buses come and go, and all the children departing. If my sister was waving frantically from a bus window I never saw her. When it was clear there were no more buses, I decided as only a 7-year-old can, well, I walked here yesterday, I’ll just walk back.

I set out confidently, marching up any set up stairs I came to, striding along the sidewalks, zig-zagging my way in an uphill direction. I have no idea how long it was before I realized that I really had no clue which sidewalks and which stairs to take. It finally dawned on me that I was completely lost. In a foreign country. And I was seven.

That was when I got scared.

Most of the fairy tales I’d heard so far were more or less localized to this place – if this wasn’t the Black Forest of Germany, Switzerland nevertheless had children named Hansel and Gretel. When I realized I would have to knock on somebody’s door and ask for help, the quiet and orderly Swiss neighborhood took on a terrifying hue. In my memory, that moment featured sunshine suddenly blotted out by dark clouds. Before me was a house, selected at random to be the site of my ordeal. What witch might open the door I dreaded to discover.

The terror of that moment is clear to me by the fact that I remember nothing after bursting into tears as the door opened, and I sobbed, “Hotel Sonnenberg! Hotel Sonnenberg!” My next clear memory is saying good-bye to the white-haired old lady (good witch) who had answered the door. She had given me an apple and put me in a taxi, sending me to the hotel and my frantic mother.

All told, I hadn’t been missing for very long. By the time the Jennifer-less bus had arrived I was already well on my journey, and the minutes were short between my mother’s first frightened knowledge that I was lost, and the phone call from the good witch.

I don’t know if the experience would have been more or less scary if my imagination hadn’t been fully stoked with fairy tales already. But it seemed to me at the time that this was the stuff of story, that indeed this was exactly what happened to little children in stories; if I was the hero of my own story then I must do the difficult thing, and do my best to face whatever witch, giant or ogre I found behind the door. I had to muster my emotional courage and raise my hand to knock.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Stolen Thunder

Talking about secrets with my daughter turned out to be more complicated than I expected. A few months ago I asked her to deliver a sealed letter to one of the teachers at school whom I had been unable to reach by email. When K. asked what it was about, I said, “Well, it’s … a secret.”

“But you said you shouldn’t have secrets!”

“This is a different kind of secret,” I said. “I have to talk with her about some exciting news she has to announce, but she hasn’t done it yet, and it’s not for me to steal her thunder ."

I think of all the exciting announcements we may get to make in our lives. “We’re getting married!” or “I got the promotion!” or “His cancer is in complete remission!” I have a friend who has a habit of beating people to the punch with good news, saying things like, “So-and-So is pregnant. Act really surprised when she tells you.”

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Circle of Life

I quietly feared the moment when my son would ask why my dad wasn’t in his life.  Like many parents, who wish to avoid discussing the proverbial "elephant" in the living room (those family secrets, unspoken expectations, and difficult topics), I wasn’t really prepared for how early or how I would answer some of my son’s questions.  So, I was shocked when, as I tucked his 2 year-old body into bed one night, he whispered in the dark, “Mommy, where is your daddy?”
The truth is my dad died when I was young.  My dad will only be a part of my son’s life through some shared memories and DNA.  It is also true that he died from alcoholism and that my son was too young to know about that particular fact.  Though I’d already begun our conversation about the circle of life, and about how important it is to take good care of our bodies.  I wasn’t prepared for my son’s tender-hearted, painful realization that since my dad died when I was young, that I, too, could die while he’s still young; and that he, too, would someday die.  Like the connecting links on a chain, my son’s toddler logic strung the reality of life and death together in seamless motion.    I suddenly remembered what a good friend and also a mom of two young children, faced with a terminal breast cancer diagnosis, once said to me, “Tell the truth, even though it may hurt.  Just don’t make false promises.”  So, I stayed away from promises about living to 100.  Losing a parent early in life will teach you that kind of realism.  However, when we take away some belief from our kids, such as our immortality, we need to replace such illusions with hope-infused beliefs. 


Thursday, July 28, 2011


The story of the Brave Little Parrot reminds me of a story from my own life that I have shared with K., and that I will probably share many more times. It's a cautionary tale!

Many years ago, I lived in an old house on the side of a hill in a wooded valley. My boyfriend and I were restoring this old house, and frequently had heaps of old lumber to dispose of. There was a large field to the south of the house, and one autumn day we made a burn pile there.The wind was high, the grass was dry – and you can imagine what happened.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Losing it All and Gaining Everything That's Truly Important: Robert and Emma's Story

Robert and Emma* liken their declaration of bankruptcy in 2007, the resulting loss of their house and all their possessions as a result of Robert’s failed business venture, to having the skin removed from their bodies.  That painful, yet also, incredulously, freeing.  They and their three teenage children managed to come through the financial crisis stronger, clearer about their purpose in life, more loving and accepting of one another, and with a renewed commitment to family time and family fun.  They both said, many times during our interview, “It’s all just stuff.  The only thing that matters is the love in your family.  We had a wake up call to make our family our top priority—not our careers.” 

To learn more about how to be a resilient family and harness the kind of courage to climb your way out of difficulty, read on!

*I've changed Robert and Emma's names to protect their privacy.

Thursday, July 14, 2011


My daughter and Lisa’s kids all take Tae Kwon Do, the martial arts practice of Korea. They are all just months away from earning their black belts, and I want to share one story from their long journey today. 

Part of their testing for rank promotion (the belt tests) is board-breaking. Actually breaking the board isn’t required, but trying is. Among the lower ranks, the first class in which they try board-breaking is scary or exciting, according to temperament. It is definitely possible to get hurt doing this; what is required is careful preparation and then decisive action. My daughter was extremely apprehensive the first time. The prospect of striking the wood clearly had her rattled, and she kept darting nervous glances my way where I sat in the parents’ section. As I recall, Lisa’s son was the first to raise his hand to give it a try. He took his fighting stance in front of the instructor who was holding the board, and then slammed it with a hammer fist. Crrrack! We all broke into spontaneous applause as the two halves went flying. Before long, Lisa’s daughter was waving her hand in the air to take her turn, but K. was shrinking visibly.  As an athletic performance with an audience,  this was a task that required both physical courage and social courage.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

This is What's True: Anya's Story

In the summer of 2009, my friend Anya's* husband suddenly announced he was moving out.  After ten years of marriage and two children together, he quit after a few short months of couples counseling and moved into his own house.  When Anya’s husband departed, it was left to her to sit her two children down, ages 7 and 10, and tell them that daddy would no longer be living with them.  She chose to tell the truth, as she knew it, to buffer her children against future family changes and ensure that they would continue to approach her with any difficult questions and not harbor their grief. Anya mustered the kind of emotional and spiritual courage required to protect her children from the impending fallout.  She kept the information she shared with her children to the facts, reassuring their spoken fears, with this simple statement:  “This is what’s true: daddy has moved out and we are still a family.” 

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Go Climb a Tree!

One of my son’s favorite activities as a child was to climb trees.  Any tree would do: spindly little Charlie Brown Christmas-type trees, grand dame oaks, distinguished firs, sticky pines, scratchy cedars, or the budding cherry blossom—his all-time favorite.  At around age three, he began his tree-climbing pursuit in earnest.  He started developing his physical courage muscles on the trees in our yard.  It didn’t take long for him to master the first few limbs on his favorite tree and, like Jack and his beanstalk, want to spend everyday climbing higher and higher and higher.  It was those first few attempts at getting higher that our coaching as his parents became really important! 

My son, E., age 8

He’d hang from his arms on the lowest limb, gaining an appreciation for gravity and the feel of his feet off the ground.  He wasn’t fearless to begin with. And neither were my husband and I.  Heights are one of my husband’s few dislikes; though he has gained mastery over this particular fear by continuing to place himself in situations that test it.  We are both mindful not to pass along our fears to our kids—as much as possible!  We also wanted to coach our kids to gain what social psychologists term an ‘internal locus of control’.  The natural evolution for a child is to move from more of an external locus of control (relying on his/her parents, fate, luck, or other external circumstances to guide decision-making and behavior) to an internal locus of control (whereby a child is more self-motivated, self-disciplined, and believes his/her behavior is guided by personal decisions and/or efforts).  Securely attached kids, it turns out, also show a higher degree of internal locus of control. 

To learn more about how I coached my son to develop physical courage, READ ON!

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Message

In the first year or so that my daughter, the Lovely K., was with me, she found phone conversations and leaving messages very challenging. She was eight, and had not had very much experience with phones in Ethiopia, if any. In many parts of the world, cell phones have leap-frogged right over land lines in places that never had phone service at all, but even so, not everybody can afford it. It is not unusual for just one person in an extended family or neighborhood to have a phone, and pass along messages and loan the phone as required.

But I digress. For many people, phones seem to be surgically attached, and it can be hard to bear in mind that talking on the phone is a skill we actually have to learn. In my childhood it was much simpler. We didn’t have answering machines, let alone cell phones. We had a weekly phone call with grandma, which accustomed me to speaking and listening to someone I couldn’t see, and therefore whose visual cues couldn’t help me follow the conversation. If we called a friend and nobody was home, the line would just ring and ring and ring, and we would try again later, or if the line was in use we got the busy signal, something that seems to be a relic of the past now.  I know, I know, "In my day..." is just about the most boring and curmudgeonly way to begin an argument!