Monday, October 26, 2015

The Intriguing Mystery of A Child

One of the interesting things about parenting a kindergartener is that you get these strange little windows into what they are thinking, without much in the way of explanation or discussion.

For example, the other night I am sitting on the couch reading and my daughter is playing in her play area. She comes over to show me something she’s built, and helpfully tells me it’s a scooter for her doll. 

“Nice work!” I tell her.

She then explains that she is buying new safety equipment for her doll and that she buys her new safety equipment every year (because she outgrows it, like my daughter does her bathing suits).

“What kind of safety equipment?” I wonder. “Helmets?”

She tells me that it’s helmets and knee pads and elbow pads. This is strange, I think. As far as I know, my daughter has never worn knee or elbow pads. Where did this idea come from?

“Don’t you think that’s a bit much for scooter riding?” I ask.

“She’s my sweet girl and I don’t want her to get hurt.” she tells me.

That’s pretty much the end of the exchange, and I am left puzzling. “Sweet girl” is one of my pet names for my daughter, so I see where that came in. I do tell her that I don’t want her to get hurt, usually in the context of her doing something really foolish like standing on a kitchen chair and pushing on the back of it to tip it. (I caught her before she fell, but I wasn’t pleased.) In things like bike riding I actually encourage her to be brave.

In fact, this is not a kid who’s terrible sheltered when it comes to physical activity. She climbed a 20 foot climbing wall a month ago (in a harness, on a belay, but she was still 20 feet up in the air climbing the wall). She dives head first into the deep end of the pool. She gets bumps and bruises and scrapes and we talk about “the good kind of scrapes and bruises” meaning the kind you get because you were doing something really fun.

On the other hand, she really doesn’t like getting hurt. Not that anyone does, of course, but she is very intense in her reaction. I think it’s partly her age and partly the dramatic personality she inherited from my side of the family. Minor scrapes are often accompanied by loud wails, tears, and insistence that “It hurts me very much!” and “I want this scrape to go away right now!” Which makes it hard to keep a straight face sometimes while trying to comfort her.

So maybe she wishes we were protecting her a little more? That her mommy was doing a better job taking care of her sweet girl? Or maybe she saw a TV show or read a book featuring a kid wearing elbow and knee pads and wanted to try the idea out with her doll? Who knows? I can’t really ask her, because I don’t think she really knows either. Trust me, I've tried. Either her explanation doesn't really make sense to me or she gets bored with the conversation and veers off in another direction altogether. She’s just playing, and her game makes sense to her even when she can’t explain it to me. It hammers home that this kid I adore, this child who shares my home and my genes and my water bottles, this girl I think I know so well, I sometimes don't know at all.  Like any other human being, she’s forever an intriguing mystery to me.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Phonetics Blues

“I before E except after C and when it sounds like A as in neighbor and weigh. Weird, right?” says my husband this morning as we engage our daughter in yet another discussion of how to spell a particular word.

My daughter’s kindergarten teacher tells us not to spell words for her anymore. She wants my daughter to listen to the sounds and figure out the letters. The same principle applies when my daughter is trying to read. She is supposed to be sounding out the letters to figure out the words. The school uses a mixture of phonics and sight words (high frequency words that are simply memorized) to teach reading. In theory, it all sounds fine. It should help my daughter be more confident and independent in her reading.

In practice, English doesn’t seem to work well that way. Take the word “knight.” My daughter wants to be a knight for Halloween. My husband has made her a knight costume complete with shield and sequined “chain mail” armor. Public schools no longer celebrate Halloween, but they do have “Storybook Character” day on October 30th in which the children are requested to bring a storybook to school and dress up as a character from the book. My daughter is quite excited about this idea, plans to wear her knight costume to school, and really, really wants to be able to read at least part of the book to her teacher if asked.

We have a cute little storybook about a Knight and a Dragon who are dismal failures at fighting each other and open up a restaurant together instead. (The Knight and The Dragon by Tomie dePaola).  We were practicing it this evening before bedtime. My daughter was trying to read it by sounding out the words. Unfortunately, if you sound out the word “knight” you get “k-nig-hit” which is adorably Monty Python but not particularly helpful to a five-year-old trying to make sense of a story. It took about five minutes for her to struggle through the first sentence (which also contained the words “fought” which comes out “f-o-uh-g-hit” and “castle” which comes out “s or k, mom? – k-a-s-t-lee”).  I’m not sure she had any sense of the meaning of the sentence because she was working so hard just sounding out the words. After she finished I told her that was enough practice for the evening (because frustration + five-year-old + bedtime = a more explosive combination than dynamite) and I read the rest of the book.

I confess, I’m still spelling words for my daughter, despite her teacher’s instructions. If the word makes sense phonetically I’ll get her to spell it, but I just can’t stand it otherwise. It just doesn’t make sense to me to teach her wrong ways of spelling and reading that she’ll have to unlearn later. I’m balancing between encouraging her to read and keeping reading fun by making sure she still gets the stories she loves. The phrase “yes, we know, sorry, English is strange” has become quite frequently heard around our house. I know I must have gone through the same thing as a child. I have dim, recently awakened memories of being taught about helper vowels and silent letters. So I know it all works out, because I started reading competently around the 2nd or 3rd grade. And I do believe that once it is learned English is a lovely, flexible, powerful language. I just feel sorry for the kindergarteners.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Being A "Nicey"

My daughter’s kindergarten class has read a book titled “The Meanies Came To School” (written by Joy Cawley). I presume with some guidance from the teacher, the children have all decided that they don’t want to be “meanies" and that instead they will all be “niceys.” This has become quite the topic for discussion around our house, as my daughter explores the question of being mean or being nice and what that implies for her behavior.

In the car one day, she announced that she thought that my husband and I were “niceys.” I was flattered and I thanked her. Then, of course, she follows the butter up with the tough questions. “Why are you a nicey?” she wants to know.

The question reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague earlier that week. I had been very pleased about a particular patient who was doing well and who had mentioned during their visit that they had used something I told them to help someone else. I mentioned to my colleague how happy I was, and how I always hope that what I say will be helpful and will be passed along from person to person. My mental images is like the wave that happens at sport stadiums, but rather than arm waving, I’m hoping for a wave of good health. My colleague agreed and mentioned she’d like to see a wave of kindness as well, which sounded really good to me.

I answered my daughter’s question with one of my own, in approved Socratic fashion. “What would happen if I wasn’t a nicey? How would you feel?”

She responded immediately that she wouldn’t like that, that she’d feel bad. “How would Daddy feel, if I was a meanie to him?”

Again, she responded quickly that Daddy wouldn’t like that.v“Do you think that if I were a meanie then you and Daddy might end up being meanies too?”

That was more challenging (hypothetical contingencies are tough for grown-ups, let alone five-year-olds) but she came to the conclusion that yes, she and Daddy might be meanies if I was a meanie, and she was able to extend it and observe that her grandparents and aunts and uncles might all be meanies as well.

“Right. So, I don’t want to live in a world full of meanies. That’s no fun. I’d rather live in a world of niceys, so I try to be nice. Plus, when I’m nice to someone whose mean to me, then sometimes their meanness stops.”

Then, because I didn’t want to leave her with the idea that she couldn’t speak up for herself or do something to stop someone who was treating her badly, I elaborated. “When someone is mean to me I can use my words and say ‘Please Stop. I don’t like that.’ and then if they don’t stop I can walk away and get help. I can tell them to stop while still treating them kindly and speaking in a respectful voice. And my kindness and respect reminds them to be kind and respectful as well."

The conversation went off on a tangent then, as conversations with five-year-olds have a tendency to do. It was probably too much at once, anyway. But it pops up again here and there. I know my daughter, so I know we’ll keep talking about it until she gets it settled in her mind. And I’ll keep trying to get my point across.

I’m a “nicey,” a kind person, because I truly do want to live in a world that is filled with kindness. I would love to see waves of kindness spreading around the world. I do believe that kindness can absorb and stop the spread of meanness and can set limits at the same time. How about you?

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Healthy Relationships

I work with a lot of people who have experienced toxic, negative, hurtful relationships. Often they’ve been through an entire history of them. Whether these were romances or friendships, eventually a person who is getting healthier will ask the question “How can I have a healthy relationship in the future? or “How can I keep this from happening again?”

I’ve given my stock advice. Things like “learn to value and care about yourself. know what is important to you. don’t put up with people who treat you badly, even in small ways.  know your own limits and insist that others respect them. do things you enjoy for their own sake, and be friends with the people you meet there.” I do think all of that is pretty good advice, but I recognize that it hasn’t been completely satisfactory for many people. So I was pretty excited recently, while reading the book Simplify by Bill Hybels, to find a chapter (chapter 7, if you’re interested) on friendship. He outlined some common sense things to look for and some others to watch out for and some ways to go about making friends. I liked his list, but since he is a Christian writer and a pastor, his was very spiritually focused. I wanted something that was more general that I could share with people I’m working with. So, inspired by Mr. Hybels, here are some thoughts about forming healthy relationships.

First of all, for any of these characteristics, look for patterns. Anyone can have a good day or a bad day, but try to keep the overall pattern of a person’s behavior in mind. And look not just at how the person is treating you but at how they interact with everyone around them. Look at the small details that can be very telling. Many people can be charming when they are trying to win a new friend or romantic partner. How they treat the people they aren’t trying to impress can be much more revealing. How they behave when they don’t know anyone is watching is most likely to reflect the core of who they are.  

Characteristics to look for include having a positive attitude. Look for someone who appreciates the good in his own life and isn’t complaining all the time; someone who when faced with challenges says “ok, we can do this.” It’s also good to look for someone who is truthful and trustworthy. Honesty in small things, like admitting small faults or letting the cashier know he gave too much change is a great sign that a person will be honest in larger things. A person who is patient and kind, who doesn’t get upset or angry easily and who shows consideration for people around her, will likely be patient and kind with you as well. A self-disciplined person, who can say “no thanks, that’s not good for me” about an extra piece of cake, a late night, a drink, or an impulse purchase will encourage you to be healthy as well. A person who can respect his own limits is much more likely to respect yours. A person who keeps small promises, like showing up when she says she will, is more likely to come through on the big promises.

On the other hand, watch out for a person who is arrogant or entitled, someone who views themselves as better than other people. In particular, watch out for someone who is perfectly nice to you but is rude to people who she is categorizing as “not important” or “just there to serve me.” Sooner or later the person who berates the waitress, the bus driver, or the clerk is going to see you as an object as well. When you fail to meet her needs you’ll be in for the same treatment. Don’t get too close to someone who rants, trantrums, whines, sulks or pouts when things don’t go his way.  Being able to handle disappointment and even adversity with grace and class is the mark of a true grown-up, and relationships with people who are emotional children in adult bodies are often exhausting and painful. Someone who is habitually dishonest in small things is not likely to be honest in large things like faithfulness and commitment keeping. Someone who is constantly gossiping about others is probably going to gossip about you when you aren’t around. A person who complains about someone else’s behavior to you is probably not going to be able to work out problems with you in a healthy and relationship building way. A person who is mean and hurtful, who breaks the confidences of others, or causes trouble between other people is showing that they are toxic. Don’t put up with unkindness disguised as humor, no matter who the target is. That’s a form of bullying. And stay away from careless friends, people who are inconsiderate or thoughtless about other people’s time, energy, and feelings.

Finally, step into new relationships slowly. I hate to be a buzz-kill, but relationships that seem too good to be true probably are. I recommend being very wary of anyone who appears to completely understand, love and connect with you on the first meeting. Romantic ideas of soul mates or love at first sight aside, usually that kind of intense initial connection is much more about the holes and wounds inside each person and the fantasy of rescue than any kind of honest, adult connection. Relationships aren’t and can’t be a short cut to avoid doing hard emotional work. Instead of dumping your entire history and all of your emotional pain on someone at the first meeting, take it slow. Give it time. Developing a relationship is a dance of small, mutual steps, a process of growing give and take. Confide a little piece of information, something you don’t tell everyone, and see how she handles that. Try out trusting him with a little vulnerability and see if he is able to reciprocate. See how the two of you are able to navigate an area of disagreement or difference. Make sure you can talk about the tough, important topics (money, sex, politics, religion, families) bit by bit, and that you can do so with respect even when you don’t agree.

This can be a tough list to follow. Often the people who give you a thrill are the people who have more of the negative characteristics than the positive. They can seem sophisticated, funny, and exciting. The people who are honest, kind, patient, self-disciplined and positive can seem hopelessly dull. I get it. But I have to ask you this. If you’ve been chasing thrills for years and you’re now at the tail end of a string of painful relationships, how’s that working out for you? Is it time to try something else yet?