Monday, October 31, 2011

Raising ‘Nice’ Kids Isn’t Enough — Develop Their Strength Too

“I don’t want to wear this dress,” my 8-year-old insists during a recent school morning. The mornings always seem rushed, always pushed to the last millisecond of packed lunches, brushed teeth, socks and shoes and keys and backpacks locked and loaded.

In haste, I dismiss her opinion and say, “Just get dressed. We only have 20 minutes.” Turning away, my eyes catch a hint of her crinkled expression — a mild “hmmph” thrown at my back.

Twenty years later, I can say with confidence that I did the best I could with the tools in my parenting toolkit. I can listen some afternoon at my kitchen table as my daughter complains that her husband doesn’t listen, doesn’t hear her. That her opinions don’t seem to count.

I can pat her hand, sigh heavily and tell her that men aren’t taught to listen.

Yeah, I’m not going to do that.

How can it be in this age of self-awareness and self-indulgence that I see young girls — and boys — apologizing without provocation, remaining silent, smiling through injury or cleaning up someone else’s psychological garbage? “Oh, it’s OK! She didn’t really mean that!”

No, it’s not okay. Put down the It's Okay Mop and step away from that social vomit, girls and boys! It really stinks!

Parents will beam with pride when a child politely accepts a sticker from a salesperson or eats every bite on the dinner plate. But we will shake our heads in disbelief when that previously "happy” child develops a “mean streak,” starts responding in two-word sentences or adds a blotch of purple dye to his or her hair.

One way or another, people find a way to be heard. They find a way to be seen, noticed and acknowledged. To deny an authentic humanity can lead to either self-destruction or an eventual build up of pressure that leads to outward destruction of everything that touches them.

Eventually, we become inert and not fully alive or we become explosive and psychotic. Of course, those are extremes; there are people of all shades in between. But there is also an alternative.

Mary Oliver wrote a poem, “In Blackwater Woods,” where she speaks of the changing season and reflects on the loss and salvation that comes from letting go. As parents, we have to know when to take hold of our children and steer them in the right direction and when to loosen our anxious grip and let them be fully themselves. We can only do that, though, if we’ve learned to do it too.

Stand up for yourself. Let go of petty differences. Find peace in the storm.

This balance is as difficult to locate sometimes as the balance between work and play, love and hate, contentment and restlessness. So we will muddle along, trying to choose our words with our children more carefully, allowing some discomfort when they publicly speak their minds, understanding that mothers and daughters and fathers and sons won’t always agree.

But on one thing I hope we can all agree. Honor and respect and love begin at home — whether you are showing it to someone at age 1 or 100 — then it flows out into the world. A child grounded in a strong faith and value system who can speak up without shame or doubt, but who can also show love and respect to those of differing opinions, will be better equipped to function in this world and contribute boundless gifts.

Instead of half-alive people pleasers, victims or extremists, we’ll raise the next generation of strong and influential peacekeepers — purple hair optional.

The men and women I know and respect are the ones who don’t take abuse lying down. And they handle it with a smile and a firm upper lip. They know who they are and whose they are.

So I say let’s not raise NICE girls and boys. Let’s raise STRONG ones. Because you’re all stronger than you know.

Deuteronomy 4:9