Thursday, January 27, 2011

Reality Check

One of the biggest dilemmas parents face is the "reality check" issue.  When is it appropriate to share reality in the face of your child's dreams?    Do you help them confront reality, or merely distract them with a more realistic option?  Does reality checking kill your child's spirit?  Most parents have encountered the wild dream with absolutely no realistic hope of attainment and wondered how to respond.  Here are some examples gleaned from tales told over a cup of coffee with other mothers:

  • She's already 5'6", but she's still clinging to the idea she can be a jockey.
  • He thinks he can go to the [Airforce] Academy and be a pilot, but his asthma will probably keep him out of the military altogether.
  • He wants to be a veterinarian, but with his grades he'll be lucky to get into college ANYWHERE. Never mind vet school.
  • She thinks she'll be the next Crystal Bowersox (or Carrie Underwood, whatever), and her voice just isn't that distinctive.
This is one of those really tough places for parents.  You want to support your kids as they follow their dreams, but at the same time, you want to let them down easy when it's apparent that they're headed for failure.  Still, you know that many of these things just run their course.  And, to further muddy the waters, we all know the stories of the one who succeeded against all odds. Plus, there is always opportunity cost - what must be given up to support this unrealistic dream?  Not to mention honesty issues: can you honestly tell your daughter you think she is the best?

I think it's important to nurture our children's passions because those passions represent who God created that child to be.  I also know that every passion can lead down a hundred different paths, but all most children can see is the most familiar one - I love football so I want to be an NFL player - when, in reality, there are literally hundreds of jobs related to football that aren't being a player.  

I also think that we need to guard our children against people who want to live out their dreams through our kids.  They are out there - people who will USE your child for their personal gain.  They will tell your child she can "go all the way" (whether she's a singer or a gymnast) with no basis in reality.  Whether it's to squeeze more money for lessons out of you or from their own frustrated past - they are exploiting your child.

God has given you a special role: you are a parent.  You are charged with caring for the WHOLE child. Teachers are responsible for their learning, coaches are responsible for their athletic performance, and dentists are responsible for their teeth.   You, mom or dad, are responsible for your whole child.  That means physical, emotional, educational, spiritual, social and moral.  Is your child's unrealistic dream hurting any other part of his or her life? Is it hurting the rest of the family in any way? Then it's probably time for a reality check.  Is their passion bringing them joy without harming any other part of their well-being, or the family's well-being?  Then you should probably support it.  Not fool proof, but certainly a useful place to start.

Oh, and let me splash a little cold water in your face with one more reality check: you can only do your best; God will have to do the rest.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Generation to generation

This morning I was treated to an exercise class for seniors and people who are generally out of shape (read ME) and the leader introduced a concept of intergenerational “movement” which appealed to me a great deal. She brought back a memory: Long ago, when I was in high school, I was taught to do the polka by my date’s father, while his mother taught him. This was kind of an amazing experience since I had never been to any kind of dance where there were people who weren’t my peers. Later, as my date and I tried out our newly acquired skills, I was enthralled to watch his parents, who had probably been dancing together at least 25 years, tear up the dance floor. That long ago date’s mother passed away last year and this was the first memory of her that came to me when I heard the news.

Another memory in the same thread: In my freshman year of college I was totally engrossed in the college experience when a professor asked if anyone in the class babysat. Chronically in need of cash, and a very experienced babysitter, I raised my hand. After an evening with his small children I became achingly aware of the absence of children on the campus. I realized that it truly was a place apart, and on some level I don’t think I really wanted to be there anymore.

One other thought: My eldest daughter is in her 4th year of seminary. Except for the year away at internship, she has been an integral part of a family who lives close to her school. While she is technically their employee, they treat her as part of their family.  This relationship has been tremendously enriching to her, and, I would wager, to them as well. In the course of her duties she has met four generations of that family and they have met her, and her husband.

We are built for community. In families it may be blood, or it may be love that binds us together. In the church it is water that makes us family. In the nation, it is history that binds us one to the other. We belong, whether we choose to participate or not.

Family is a powerful binding, but it’s not always practical or even healthy to live near one another. Community IS family – only bigger. And real communities and real families are intergenerational. I believe that everyone needs to know people of more than two generations (their own and their parents.) My children didn’t grow up near either set of grandparents but through telephone and e-mail and summer vacations they still know the love so generously given. And, when they come to visit me, they have many surrogate grandparents who are interested in their lives, in their stories. This is community. This is family.

It’s a win-win to make an effort to reach out to other generations and include them in our lives. Let’s listen to their stories and tell them ours. And, in the words of Steven Stills, (from about the time I learned to polka) “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with!”

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I have a dream. . .

Growing up in the rural Midwest I was mostly a passive observer to the civil rights movement.  Still, in 1972 someone in South Dakota commissioned, for the all-state chorus, a choral work based on the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech.  I don't remember who wrote the music but I clearly remember how it inspired my 16-year-old heart. It was nuanced to the cadence of Dr. King's oratory, but classical enough for a bunch of white Lutherans, Catholics and Methodists from the prairies to execute. It was fitting music for a beautiful vision of the future. 

Now I live in the South, and as I watch old video of Dr. King and all the momentous events of those days I have a context for it. And I know people who grew up in the places where the reality of those flickering images occurred.  And I have spent a lot of time in Chicago recently.  There, I  stood in a museum just blocks from the actual site of the 1968 Democratic Convention and watched black and white video of Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and a very young Ted Koppel report from the confusion and fear of that moment. I remember it well; it seemed the world had gone mad. And this time, no longer young and living on the prairie, isolated and insulated from such events, I watched it again with new eyes. 

Dr. King's speech is beautiful.  The picture he paints of his dream is like Isaiah's pictures of lions laying with lambs and children playing with venomous snakes.  So much better than reality. . . so much to wish for!  Of all the dreams he recounts in his speech, the one that gives me the most pause is this:
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."
Can we make, at least, this dream come true?  Can we look at all little children and see only their character?  Can we look at our children, and the children of Haiti and Central America and Canada, and see only their character and not the color of their skin?

Last week a pre-school teacher told of her sadness about teaching the concept of "different" to children.  Until they are taught that some people are different, they are unaware of the difference, or, if they notice, entirely matter of fact about it.  I have blue eyes and you have green eyes, period.  Bias is a learned behavior; it becomes so internalized that we don't even notice it.  We've probably all had the experience of having a child bring a friend home from school who we know a lot about (in my French class, plays flute in the band, dad works at IBM, lives in XYZ subdivision, needs help with math) only to be unexpectedly confronted with a child of a race different from our own.  Unless we teach them differently, most kids only notice the HUMAN race. 

I believe, along with Dr. King, that this is the way God sees us: as the human race.  And as individuals.  We are each unique, yet all God's children.  Let's treat each other that way - and let our kids keep doing what comes naturally!

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Seeking the Win-Win Solution

I don't know exactly when I first encountered the concept of the win-win solution but I know I was an adult before I gave it a label. I was thinking about win-win this morning as I read that a local community college just purchased a building soon to be vacated by Macy's.  The building is an anchor of a rapidly declining shopping mall in, you guessed it, an economically declining neighborhood.  The absence of decent shopping is going to cause further decline in this neighborhood, and so the downward spiral continues.

Into this depressing situation comes this lovely win-win solution.  The community college already has a number of offices, and quite a bit of job skills training, bursting at the seams of a site just down the street.  The college will obviously benefit from this purchase!  Since public transportation here is anchored by shopping malls and college campuses this deal will also likely prevent the reduction of public transit to the neighborhood.  Might the presence of students in the mall result in increased sales at the food court? I wouldn't be surprised.  And, if there's still a bookstore in that mall, this may breathe some new life into it as well.  But the absolute clincher is that the single most effective way to increase income is to increase education levels.  A win-win is a lovely thing.

I think we should try to improve at this win-win thing.  Culturally we are adapted to the win-lose culture of sports.  We are taught to compete at school, at games and at work.  We rarely remember that it's possible for everyone to win.  There's a board game on the market right now that I found difficult to learn because it's built around the win-win principle.  The game is called Pandemic and the players, while operating independently,  are effectively a team fighting a common adversary: an epidemic.  The only way to win the game is to defeat the disease through cooperative behavior.  If I play in such a way that my token advances farther or faster, we all die in the end.  If I cooperate with the other players, we all win and the true adversary, the epidemic, is defeated.

I think this is the root of the problems in the world today - we have misidentified the enemy.  We are competing in a win-lose fashion with the very people who should be our allies against the true enemy.  The poor guy using Medicaid to go to dialysis is not my enemy.  Poverty is the enemy.  The woman competing with me for the same job is not my enemy; the lack of jobs is the enemy.    If I spend my energy trying to eliminate the poor guy's Medicaid I win nothing, and he loses everything.  If all my energy goes to proving I am the better candidate for this lone job, then I win and she loses; and I don't know the true consequences of my win.  Her kids my go hungry, where mine might have only had to buy off-brand sneakers.  If I spend my energy trying to eliminate poverty or create jobs the poor guy, the woman and I will all win.

You may be thinking that I've wandered far from parenting today.  I don't think so.  Parents are the first teachers about winning;  you are the one who encourages your kid to seek the win-win or the win-lose.  Most kids, left to their own devices, will instinctively seek the win-win.  The most ready example of cooperative play (the kid version of win-win) is jumping rope.  Every kid gets it that to play jump rope games it takes at least 3 people, 2 to turn the rope and one to jump.  And they also understand that if they want to jump in the middle, then they have to take a turn at the end, swinging the rope.  (And, we all know what happens to the kid who doesn't get it.)  Teach your kids to value the win-win over the win-lose.  Model it for them, inside and outside the family. I think our very future may depend on it!