A Parent’s Search for Meaning

Viktor Frankl, in his influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, drew from his experience as a prisoner in the concentration camps at Auschwitz to assert (and I don’t think anyone would argue) that the way in which we approach our lives determines our ability to find fulfillment and purpose within it.

He writes, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our question must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This conclusion is echoed by the Existentialist philosopher Albert Camus, who in his long-form essay The Myth of Sisyphus attempts to imagine what motivates the king from Greek mythology whose eternal punishment in the afterlife was to labor to push a huge boulder up a hill, near the peak of which it would inevitably slip through his hands and roll back down to the bottom. Camus argues that, when faced with even incredible, incomprehensible hardship (such as that lived by Frankl, above), we must use direct our free will to the conclusion that “The struggle itself […] is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

Finally, noted (to me, anyway) writer Jeremy Anderberg, in the great blog that everyone should read, The Art of Manliness, lists a few of the many character-building aspects of fatherhood before hitting on this discovery of meaning. He concludes:

“No matter your position in life — CEO, cubicle automaton, day laborer, stay-at-home dad, entrepreneur, freelancer, trade worker, unemployed — it’s very possible, perhaps even probable, that your greatest, most important role in life will be that of parent. Of provider. Of protector. Of wisdom-purveyor. What that looks like can vary widely from man to man, but have no doubt that raising and loving your children well is one of the most significant things you will do in life.”

Parenting, as you know, can be joyful and full of fun and mirth. It can also be grinding, harrowing, even absurd, and in the march of sleepless nights and seeming lack of evidence that our children are learning or even paying attention, it can be hard to find the motivation to be nurturing, patient, humble and persistent in our work. That’s when we must let the struggle be enough to fill our hearts. Unlike Sisyphus, however, we will experience the joy, the fun, the mirth, if not over this hill, then over the next, or the next.

A final thought, from Frank Pittman, author of Man Enough: Fathers, Sons, and the Search for Masculinity:

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.”

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Between the Brick Wall and the Jellyfish

As we experience the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, please read carefully as I suggest that what we need is more authoritative ones.

That suffix makes all the difference, even according to Google’s dictionary function : an authoritarian is one who goes around “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.” One who is authoritative, on the other hand, is “commanding and self-confident; likely to be respected and obeyed.”

These are also, as you may know, two of the three parenting styles identified by psychologist Diana Baumrind back in the 1960s.

As venerable as they are, Baumrind’s observations are still widely cited in research today. They break down as follows:

The Authoritarian, or Brick Wall, parent works from a model of rules and convictions to which the child is expected to conform. Because children (much like adults) are all different and have changing needs and temperaments, this does not tend to work very well. Therefore, the Authoritarian parent is compelled to use punishment and force to make it happen. This parent wants obedience and respect, and while the application of “power over” others can generate the former, at least in the short term, the future relationship will hold disillusionment, resentment and possibly trauma.

The Permissive parent, therefore, moves as far from this model as possible, at the cost of providing too little structure and guidance. The child’s response to this Jellyfish parent is that she hungers for limits and healthy boundaries and has no one able to guide them through the vicissitudes of growing up. This is problematic enough; in addition, though, when the chips are down the Jellyfish will often snap, in a panic, into Brick Wall mode.

The healthy middle way is undertaken by the Authoritative parent. Unlike the Permissive parent he has clear rules and limits and is willing to hold them; unlike the Authoritarian, she is sensitive to the cues and adaptive to the needs of the child as they present themselves. The Authoritarian provides choices when appropriate and sets limits when needed. He also “encourages verbal give and take, shares with the child the reasoning behind her policy, and solicits his objections when he refuses to conform. Both autonomous self-will and disciplined conformity are valued.”

The Authoritative parent is like a spine: firm, strong and upright, yet flexible. I urge you to stand with other vertebrate parents in their important work.

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The Case of The Pillow

Here’s something that happened.

My second youngest daughter, the quintessential middle child, was turning nine. I, who have never walked by a Star Wars branded product I didn’t stop to examine, came across a pillow case that I thought would be a perfect addition to her bedroom array which includes the following:

One (1) poster from the Whiteside revival showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl;

One (1) giant poster of a kitty from a kids’ magazine that reads “Keep Your Head Up,” though my daughter doesn’t understand why it needs to say that;

One (1) color copy of the cover of a Princess Leia comic, given to her by her dad, depicting the character standing over a dispatched storm trooper with a smoking blaster;

One (1) drawing of Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, wrought by her second oldest sister;

Twenty-three (23) assorted stuffed kitties–including one (1) tiger–in a pile;

One (1) completed coloring page depicting Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on Jabba’s sail barge.

Like I said, I thought that this pillow case I found at Target, featuring artwork from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film poster (the one that randomly added a pommel and cross-guard to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, I guess because it didn’t look enough like a sword?), would fit in nicely.

So, when the day came, I put the case on her pillow and left it for her to discover. When we got home that day we made up a pretense for her to enter her room. She came in, saw it immediately, said, “Hmmm,” and went about her business.

Later she sat next to me on the couch while I paged through a National Geographic. She began to cry softly. I have been parenting four daughters long enough to not overreact to this and just snuggled her closer. But I already had a pretty good idea of what was up.

Later I came into her room with her toothbrush and, gesturing to the pillow case, asked, “Do you like it, honey, or is it a little much?”

After a moment she replied, “A little,” and burst into tears.

For goodness’ sake, I said, it’s okay if she doesn’t like it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings!

I emphasized that if she got a gift from some other adult it was best to at least pretend that she liked it, but that she didn’t need to worry about that stuff with me. I appreciate that she likes what she likes. Once she understood that this was true, she felt better.

And really, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. What could be better than knowing that she takes our shared fandom very seriously?

 

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The Intake

Here’s something that I didn’t expect to come up. I took my eldest daughter (age 12) to establish care with her new pediatrician. Though she had one when she was younger, she doesn’t really remember; lately when she needed a doctor we have taken her to urgent care. So this was new territory. She liked the idea of having a doctor who knew her and would know her needs over time, and I emphasized that if she didn’t feel comfortable with this one we could find another.

All was well until we started filling out the intake paperwork. I had my own to complete, so I was distracted when she asked me something about taking prescription drugs. I reminded her that the only prescription she had was her asthma inhaler.

Turns out, that wasn’t what she was asking. She was puzzling over a list of questions about drug use: as in, has she ever used prescription drugs that were prescribed to someone else? Once I pointed it out, she asked what to do about the answer she had already marked (“sometimes”) now that she had changed it to “never.” She seemed agitated, and I assumed it was because she didn’t like the look of a crossed-out response on what was evidently some sort of test.

I turned back to my own paperwork until I heard her say to herself, “Bath salts? I’ve done that a few times.” I intervened, maybe a little abruptly. “Just put ‘never.’ I’ll explain later.”

The appointment went well, I thought. I don’t think anyone, much less a 12 year-old girl, wants to be present for a discussion of her body mass index. But the doctor was very nice and respectful and my daughter decided to keep her.

We went about our day, joining the rest of the family for lunch, a hike, and a trip to the library. It wasn’t until we got home that I learned she couldn’t stop thinking about that drugs questionnaire. For one thing, she was dismayed that her hastily changed response about prescription drugs would be seen as suspicious, and worse, would be part of permanent medical record.

But that wasn’t all. She was upset that the abuse of these myriad drugs was prominent enough to merit a questionnaire to begin with. She said she didn’t know there were “so many bad things in the world.”

I was taken aback. Of course she didn’t know about those things. Where would she learn about them? At least, without attending public school? More importantly, what should she know? And when?

I went on the internet to look for answers. This was not my first mistake; nor would it be my last. A google search for “How to talk to kids about drugs” brought up a slew of articles about how to keep your kids from using drugs; how to tell if they (or their friends) were using drugs; how to stop them if they were.

Nothing about how to teach kids about drug use in our society for those who otherwise would not know about it (or at least, given that there is hardly a family untouched by it somehow, would not recognize it when they saw it).

How come? I need to dig deeper. I’ll share what I find next week. And please, if you have some answers, please share with us.

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Some Class

 

What’s that old joke that isn’t as funny as we think it is? About how kids don’t come with a manual? (Also, why are there always a couple of extra grommets? Was it just me?)

A corollary to that joke is a serious question: if there were classes on how to be a parent, would you take them?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a parent and you don’t need no outside learnin’. Life is the best teacher. Your child is the best teacher. You are the expert on your kids.

All of those things are true. And that’s exactly why you should consider taking a class.

In a plug of epic shamelessness, I would like to recommend the Nurturing Parenting classes offered at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

  • is the general Nurturing Parenting class. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and caretakers of all stripes (even with stripes!).

Thursdays feature two classes:

  • Nurturing Fathers, for dads and male caretakers only and co-facilitated by yours truly, and the
  • Nurturing Parenting class for parents in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery.

All three classes are FREE, and offer childcare, dinner and bus and transportation assistance.

All three classes focus on doing the work on ourselves that help us to help our kids–nurturing ourselves and each other so that we can nurture them.

To enroll in a class, simply call Family Tree at 541-967-6580.

Hope to see you there!

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Friending

Being a parent can be…absorbing. So much so, in fact, that it’s possible to lose track of the things that make up a non-parenting life. Case in point: today I am home with the kids while my wife left to spend the afternoon with her friend, who had managed to find someone to watch her own. Our kids were genuinely puzzled by what was happening. “Where did Mom go?”

“To hang out with her friend.”

“But…what are they doing?”

“I don’t know. Going to lunch. Going to a bookstore. Whatever they want to do, I guess.”

“But…why?”

Etc.

Clearly we don’t spend enough time with our friends. Outside of church or other family-related functions, it just doesn’t happen. For our first several years as parents, it was just hard to manage. One is busy, what with the children and all. It’s hard to spend time with other adults who aren’t also parents. Eventually, it got easier, but I guess it just hadn’t occurred to us until recently. And we’re both relatively (and happily) antisocial anyway. Evenings in this house are a flurry of knitting and book-reading.

And yet…friends! They’re kind of important, aren’t they? From a parenting standpoint, it’s good to model this kind of social interaction (as became clear when my daughters were baffled by the idea of adults hanging out together away from children).

But there’s more! Last night we had accepted a long-standing invitation for dinner at the home of some people we knew from church. It was fun. I forgot. Other people: fun! On the way home, the 12 year-old pointed out what a different sort of household this was, with an open invitation to whomever needed a place to go. People in and out all the time. Long dinner table, guest bedrooms. Stay as long as you like. Definitely different from our rather more insular household (plus, short dinner table, no spare anything).

But again, good to model the interactions. And good for kids to know about other kinds of family.

Sounds like a project! In the new year, I resolve to have some friends. Wish me luck.

 

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Try This One Weird Trick When You Parent!

I have always been amused by those cheap and vaguely disreputable looking ads that appear at the bottom of the screen on websites. You know, the ones that exhort you to try this “one weird trick” to solve various problems. I’m not sure how effective those ads are, but one can assume that if they didn’t work (for the marketers, that is, if not for the curious clicker) they wouldn’t be there. I have never been intrigued enough to actually click on them (have you?), but fortunately at least one journalist was paid to do so.

Parenting, as you know, rarely lends itself to easy or singular answers (in other words, to “one weird trick”). But sometimes there is a simple solution. I’m going to present not one, fellow parent, not two, but three weird tricks that will actually get results with your kids.

Try this one weird trick to make your kids smarter!

Here it is, without even a dodgy video you can’t skip or pause: get some books. That’s right, according to science, there is a strong correlation between having books in the home and kids’ future academic achievement. That’s it! Of course the assumption is that these books get read at some point. But most important is simply to own them and make them available. Kids who grow up in a home with books will learn to value them and the skills needed to unlock them.

Want to know what your kids are thinking? Try this one weird trick!

This one I got from a parent I worked with a few years ago, who told me her amazing secret: she makes sure that when her daughter and friends are going somewhere, she is the driver. Evidently the act of driving clouds awareness, in the tween/teen brain, of the presence of the parent. Give it 8 or 10 blocks, and those kids will start talking as if there are no adults present. You will learn everything, and they won’t know that you know it! This may actually be true. I don’t know; I’m not science. But research does support the practice of talking to your kids in the car. The casual, pressure-free environment eliminates the need for eye contact and facilitates communication.

This one weird trick will keep your kids from doing drugs!

Eat dinner together! Several studies over the last 10-15 years have demonstrated that kids who eat meals with their family are significantly less likely to engage in drug use or other risky behaviors. As I looked into this weird trick, I found that its veracity has been challenged by recent research. It just goes to show that magic is always more complicated than we think (see Harry Potter). But even if you can’t sit together for meals, you can find some other opportunity to connect regularly with your kids and nurture trust and communication.

There, now you’ve got it all figured out. Parents, send no money!

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The Wheel

In Nurturing Parenting, as I’ve mentioned, there is an emphasis on parents being able to recognize and meet our own needs so that we can do the same for our children. Hopefully by now this is a familiar concept (though I can attest that it doesn’t get any easier with repetition).

There’s more. In the class, we talk about the several areas in which we (as parents, humans, etc) have needs. They are categorized as follows:

Physical. Self explanatory, I would hope. Includes all the things you imagine keep you alive; things that feel good, ya da ya da.

Emotional. Knowing the feelings, feeling the feelings, expressing them in an appropriate and legal way.

Social. Interacting with people; making connections; communicating. I suck at this.

Intellectual. Learning things, developing skills. If reading books covered it, I would win this pie piece. Just don’t ask me how to change a tire.

All of the above tend to have a lot of buy-in with our parents. No disputing their importance or their practical value. But from there it gets a little tricky.

Creative. Some people wonder out loud why this is a category. The most common story is this (perhaps you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve said it!): “I can’t do any of that creative stuff.” Or, “I can’t even draw stick figures.” Or, “Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing.” This is where I start whacking people with (rhetorical) rolled up newspapers.

First of all, none of that is true. It’s just that you don’t think it’s important enough to do it. Or to practice. Then, I point out all the ways in which you probably are meeting (or attempting to meet) your creative needs. What about that story you told at work about your last fishing trip? What about that casserole thing you made last Thursday?

Spiritual. Again, a lot of people have trouble with this one. Sometimes it’s for the same reason that stuff about a higher power in the Twelve-Step programs can bother folks. Look, the takeaway is that whatever higher power it is that you land on, it’s important that it’s not you. The same rule applies to meeting your needs. Your mom and your dad couldn’t do it for you, and you can’t do it by yourself. The spiritual need is the need to plug into something other than our ego. “I go to church” is the automatic answer, and probably that helps.

But what about going fishin’? I am being completely serious. Solitude works to meet this need. So does silence. Taking a walk, outside, without your cell phone, can check all the boxes. Easy peasy. Except it never is.

So it has to become important.

Crucially, this array of needs is not a hierarchy; some are not more important than others. Rather, it’s a wheel. It needs some inflation all around in order to turn properly.

Which of these needs are you meeting on a regular basis? Which need some work? Most importantly, which don’t you want to think about?

Start with those.

Take care!

 

 

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(Small) People Who Need People

How do we know, beyond a doubt, that humans are social animals?

1.) Archaeological evidence of milkshakes with two straws.

2.) Can’t read anything without sharing it on Facebook.

3.) Babies have “critical windows” for development during which parts of the brain need to be stimulated through interaction with others.

The first two are self-evident, but the third answer I  learned from our Nurturing Parenting class. What does it mean, though?

As I understand it (and keep in mind that I’m not an expert, but I play one on this blog), infant’s brains have an optimal period–anywhere between 6 months, in the case of vision, and four years, for logic and math skills–in which to make crucial connections that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

That’s one of those double-edged sword things. Clearly the stakes are pretty high, as children that don’t get what they need in the first few years–affection, interaction, a sense of stability and safety, opportunities to move and learn–will not have the skills they need to function as adults. That’s a bit scary.

To be clear, just because those connections aren’t formed in the brain during those critical windows doesn’t mean that it’s too late. What it does mean is that it will take a lot of work. And probably long-term (as in lifelong) support. See what I mean about being dependent on others? There’s just no way around it.

But this presents a great opportunity. Parents have a vision of the sort of people their children will be as adults (even if that vision is not always articulated, or even consciously crafted). Most often what we come up with is that we want our adult kids to be confident, capable, creative and well-rounded.

Those attributes don’t have to be shaped in school, or daycare, or summer camp, or anywhere outside the family. If we give them what they need when they need it (we’re talking birth to age four), they’ll be good to go.

The rest is just writing checks.

 

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Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused around what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage. On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, it engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

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