When she was around four years old, my daughter was fascinated by people who had obvious, visible disabilities or physical differences. Her interest was pure curiosity and genuine intrigue in order to understand the world around her, as is the case for all children at that age. There were no sinister motives behind her stares. Whether it be the man in the post office who used a cane, or the woman in the grocery store who had a severely scarred face, my daughter wanted to know what she was looking at.
And, not surprisingly, she peppered me with lots of (loud!) questions. I didn’t appreciate the awful acoustics of the marble foyer in the post office until that day she crossed paths with that man. I didn’t hush her or get embarrassed, and instead matter of factly answered her questions. In some cases, I would also later suggest a different (better) way of asking and talking about other people who might act, think, speak, or look different than she does.
So much of raising young children is showing them the way. We teach them not just the what and why, but also the how. Over time, we hope they learn how to talk about what they are experiencing or witnessing in life in a way that uses the filters of empathy, compassion, and respect for others. We (hopefully) lead by example, sure, but we also need to give them the tools so that they can, eventually, ask themselves whether what they are about to say or write will be hurtful or regrettable. Yes, we fortunately live in a society that protects free speech, but just because we can say something, doesn’t always mean we should, or at least not in the way that comes to mind first.
It dawned on me recently that I more or less use this same process when filtering my own writing, especially blog posts and essays. I’ve always had a general list of mental questions that I cross-check against something that I might eventually share for public consumption. I don’t always hit the brakes if something is questionable or fails to meet the mark, but I at least pause to consider the potential ramifications. They are very much like the things I want my daughter to start considering, especially when she’s saying something about someone else.
Today I share these questions with you. Whether you are a parent trying to coach a child and/or a writer, maybe you will find them useful. (For most of them, if the answer is “yes”, the follow up question to ask is, Do I care?)
Is what I am about to say/publish hurtful to my reputation?
Is what I am about to say/publish hurtful to my friends or family?
Could my words be construed in a way that I do not intend?
Will I lose control over these words (i.e. through editing, posting online elsewhere) and their use/reception?
Will I regret this tomorrow, next year, in ten years?
Am I breaching any kind of confidentiality that I owe somebody else, implicitly or otherwise?
Do I sound entitled, whiny, or out of touch?
Have I taken into consideration the “other side”?
Are my words tone deaf? Do they consider the plights/lives of others?
Do my words contain bias, prejudice, or stereotypes?
Am I being hurtful or unfair toward a particular group of people?
Does this sound racist/classist/sexist/privileged/etc.?
Am I basing my assertions or arguments on anecdote, assumptions, facts, emotion, and/or hearsay?
Am I being honest in my motives and through my words?
What about you, parents and writers? What question(s) do you have your children ask themselves or do you ask yourself before you unleashing words? I’d love to know.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
Our house is rather quiet. It seems to have started with my aversion to noise and a general preference for calm, since even before our daughter came along. Now on the cusp of her being seven years old, I sense that this is something that she favors most of the time too.
Still, feeling guilty that my affinity for quiet roars too loudly around here sometimes, I will occasionally ask, “Do you want me to put some music on or something?”
“No, that’s OK, Mama. I like it quiet,” she usually responds. I think she means it. She’s always played pretty quietly, and is easily startled by loud noises or overwhelmed (like me) by the endless ones. But more than that, I think she also wants all of the details. She doesn’t want to miss anything.
She likes being able to hear the conversations between my husband and me, peppering us with dozens of questions if she can’t hear us from another room. By leaving out the pointless cacophony, there is also room for her to be receptive to the soundless nuances around us, whether it be the shifting afternoon light on the walls or the patterns that present themselves in the wood floors. She points these things out with a regularity and enthusiasm that surprises me sometimes, at least given her age.
I do think it’s a gift, this tendency that she and I share, to see and hear things that others don’t seem to. Indeed, it’s what allowed me to notice on a recent summer morning that an unfamiliar bird had alighted across the street somewhere. It stood out merely because I didn’t recognize the song. I was completely engrossed in a book, and yet this strange birdsong stopped me in my tracks. I coursed through my admittedly limited mental catalog of birdsong, and couldn’t place it. The convenience of technology at my fingertips then led me down the distracted path of trying to determine what winged friend had stopped by, much less a reflection that with the changing season upon us also comes a changing of the guards so to speak, at least the feathered ones. I mulled the solstice that was now far back in summer’s wake when what I should have been doing was simply reading my book.
I fear sometimes that this inborn tendency to notice will lead her down the path that I seem to be on. This inability to turn off the desire for details, or searching for meaning and moral in the minutiae, even when there truly is none. Like the other day when I noticed that the woman who comes down our street every recycling day, pushing her overloaded shopping cart while looking for five cent treasures. She had a bum tire on her cart. To me, the audible anomaly was akin to an air raid siren. I was immediately thrust into those shopping experiences that we all have, the ones that start with a bad shopping cart with the wheel that sticks or wobbles incessantly. We discover the source of irritation—and fix it too—almost immediately. We have that luxury. But what about this woman who needs to work so hard just to find two nickels to rub together, and yet has to also deal with this crappy cart that serves as her work horse? Her life seems hard enough and she can’t even get a new cart at the front of the store. There was a deeper metaphor there in that rickety wheel, I’m sure, but all I could think about after hearing that clickety clack along the asphalt was that she seems to have gotten not one but two bad cards dealt in her hand. Why her? Why not me?
Or what about the single dahlia I noticed on the busy road running perpendicular to my side street? Every year this unknown gardener—anonymous to me at least—grows one dahlia, a different color every year, right at the edge of the sidewalk where the granite berm meets the pavement. With ambulances and cars racing by, it is quite a precarious spot to grow anything, much less something as large as a saucer on a four foot stem.
I saw it the other evening while on a walk, a deep garnet color this year. It reminded me that I took a photo of another one, white and deep pink, in that very spot a few years ago. It was glorious, and, considering the neighborhood, a gift as well. Which is why I was dismayed while driving to the grocery store the next afternoon. There it sat, that magnificent red flower head, right in the middle of the street, gleaming like a roadside flare. It was clear that this was not some accidental brush with a biker or stroller. No, given the location where it met its demise, and the perfection with which it still maintained its beauty, it was clear that this was a deliberate plucking and chucking by some ungrateful hoodlum. It bothered me on behalf of the gardener for the better part of an hour.
But what perhaps shook me more was that I noticed this floral fate in the first instance. How many other drivers had driven by that spot before me and wondered how this blossom met its demise in this way? How many even noticed it while it was still living the day before? Was the heart of the gardener heavy now? Does any of it even matter, in the grand scheme of things? Is my threading together of dahlias from year to year done for no apparent reason, or simply no reason at all?
My daughter, she has this affliction too. Like the ladybug that she somehow spotted from yards away while we were on a walk last week. We were consumed in some chatter when she was immediately distracted by this lovely thing meandering on the bark, well above her head.
It might be a curse, perhaps, to some, and certainly some days it seems that way to me, this inability to turn off the details that just lead me down the rabbit hole of endless inquiry and introspection. It can be exhausting to notice so much, especially when you’re not even trying. But I have to remember that, on balance, it really is a gift, and one that is predominately innate, it seems. I think that it ultimately comes from a place of deep empathy for the world around us and wanting to fully understand it all. How to temper it so one is not overwhelmed or takes on more than her fair share of the world’s burden, I’m still not sure. Maybe it’s not as necessary for me at my age, but as she starts to creep closer to the point where there will be increasingly more inputs into her world, I start to wonder how I can help her learn to filter out the noise just so that she can make it through the day. I hope that I am up to the task.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
This two-part piece, or at least the early notions of it, has been swirling in my mind for several months now, perhaps most intensely since the devastating events in Newtown, Connecticut. I’m not even sure it has even really gelled much at all, and I certainly don’t have any definitive perspective or conclusions. But the strands of it keep rising up, almost tentacle-like, such that it seems like I need to start processing it in a more concrete way like this. I don’t necessarily think its applicability is limited to parenting or raising kids, though that is certainly the angle I am offering here.
Part One will focus on the difficulty in deciding how much (or when) we should tell our kids about all that is not right in our world.
Part Two will focus on the mixed emotions we, as parents, can sometimes feel knowing more about tragedies than we ever wanted to.
One morning, while I was packing her lunch, M offered her (unsolicited) opinion about how she only likes the “thin” (deli-sliced) cheddar cheese, and not the “block” cheese because it is too thick. Though her statement sounded like a stern lecture to me, I know what she meant given that she’s only 5½ and still working on nuanced statements like that. So I laughed it off with a joke about how that sounds ridiculously diva-ish, like she’s been reading too many princess books, and fired off a quick one-liner on Twitter about it.
Honestly? I wanted to respond to her, without levity and comedic relief, that she’s even lucky to have cheese to eat on a regular basis in the first place, much less a variety of thicknesses! The modern day equivalent of “there are starving kids in China” that so many of us used to hear as children. The reason I wanted to respond that way is because I happened to be in the midst of preparing for a fundraising meeting I had later that night for the nonprofit board on which I sit.* Considering the core mission of this group is to harvest and provide fresh produce to emergency food providers like pantries and shelters, I am more than acutely aware of how much some families struggle every day, and just how easy M’s life really is. How lucky our family is. How painfully hungry so many other families are. So statements like that get to me once in a while, no matter how naive they are.
But I also feel that I have to temper my knowledge of real world problems with her still overwhelmingly innocent, ignorant and ego-centric view of the world. There are many reasons to do that, and largely, we do. Don’t get me wrong, M doesn’t live in a bubble. We have slowly brought her into the fold that there are many in the world that are not so lucky, for a variety of reasons. From a young age we’ve included her when we make donations (goods and money…some of those things directly from M herself) to various causes. She’s seen some very sick kids when we’ve had to visit Boston Children’s Hospital. She will tell you that I am particularly vocal about the importance of not wasting food, and why. She knows that life has some not so pretty parts.
The question is, where should that line be drawn? I never quite know. Her age complicates things even more, equally straddling the line between babyhood and tweendom. Should it be on a macro or micro scale? Should we enlighten her in a generalized way (when the contextual occasion arises) that there is hunger, homelessness, disease and violence in the world, and vastly so in some places? Or do we just fill her in if there is someone familiar or a localized reason that makes it personal and relevant to her? I can see arguments on both sides here, and none of them being the clear winner.
In a world where there is incessant news coverage, and some of it now out of my control, it is sometimes a challenge to be an effective filter anymore. I was stunned the other day when I got gas for the car and was more or less forced to listen to the small television screen at my pump blaring out the day’s headlines. And here I thought TVs at the supermarket was our rock bottom. Seriously, is this much coverage (and advertising) really necessary?
My sense is that before 24/7 television coverage, the Internet and social media, the lens that is often focused only on the negativity in our world was not as wide-angle as it is today. Certainly the sensationalism was likely less, but also the speed, quantity and scope of this kind of news too. Weather related havoc, widespread disease, famine or political unrest, profound violence . . . it’s not just in our backyard anymore, but global. These tragedies are daily themes and there’s seemingly no end to the hard and fast media frenzy, with catchy slogans and dire lead-in music. This is why I largely no longer watch the news. It’s too much to bear sometimes, though I know those kinds of things existed well before our culture of hyped up media.
But I’m now finding that her age and attending school with a peer group that is not as equally sheltered about some newsy kinds of things (the Boston Marathon bombings being a very recent example) makes this increasingly challenging. That’s not a judgment call on other parents, by the way. Like I said, convincing arguments on both sides. But at the same time, how can I effectively carry out my preference for minimal to no information (if it’s not directly relevant) when the default for so many around is to tell their children about these things? In a nutshell, I can’t. Or at least not without some serious closing off from the world in which we live.
There’s something to be said for living optimistically, seeing only the good and turning a blind eye to the bad. There’s something to be said for acknowledging the dark underbelly of our world, and, more to the point, helping out where we can. There’s also something to be said for us, her parents, controlling the flow and source of information. Achieving a workable balance between all three is the challenge. We don’t want her to be scared of the world just as equally as we don’t want her to be blindsided either. If there were ever a time where I felt like the sands of parenting were shifting beneath my feet, it is certainly now. The magnifying lens that is Kindergarten, which comes in just a few short weeks, only intensifies the heat of this uncertain terrain.
Of course, what ends up happening for us is something of a cobbled, case-by-case nature, like most parenting decisions. And not all of them are sound choices, often realized in retrospect.
But some are. And as she gets older and inserts herself more readily into a society, with viewpoints that are as varied as the people within it, I get increasingly antsy that some of this information should come from us first. Mainly so that there are no surprises and she is not caught off-guard on the playground, but also so that she can get accurate information, ask questions and have any resultant anxieties tempered a bit.
At the end of the day, I don’t want her to be jaded and carry the weight of the world on her shoulders so young. But I also don’t want her to grow up to be oblivious to the realities around us either. I think having an understanding of the vastly different life landscapes around us gives—or someday will give—her a deeper appreciation for her own situation, will help shape what direction she wants to live her life and ultimately identify what things are important and, ideally, help foster the sense of compassion and empathy toward others that I can already see she has. Distilled to the most purest of intentions, this is perhaps what guides me most. Not that she gain an appreciation for what she has, but that she understands the diverse lives of those around her and within the community in which she lives. Through this lens I hope that she can view the world and contribute to the good news we are all so desperately waiting to hear.
* I am on the board of directors of the Boston Area Gleaners, Inc. www.bostonareagleaners.org
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
One thing we do as parents of young children is teach them how to navigate the world with appropriate interjections of politeness and civility. On the quilt of humanity, it is often the only thing that keeps the edges from fraying.
I take this responsibility seriously, as does most every other parent I know. From very early on we prompt our kids to say “please” and “thank you” after their
requests demands for more crackers. We remind them to say “hello” to people when we first see them. As they grow from toddlers into preschoolers, we add another dimension by teaching them the importance of saying “I’m sorry” for various indiscretions and jostlings that may have transpired. By the time they reach M’s age, there is often very little need to give reminders since they largely have “my bad” and danke on lock.
Though people do have lapses in their social graces from time to time, myself included.
Have you ever noticed when you overhear people talking on the street who may be upset or venting over something, whether it be a workplace situation, dealing with a tricky customer service reprentative or some kind of relationship issue, that the general themes of disgruntlement fall along the lines of not having been asked nicely, thanked or that disappointment or hurt feelings were not adequately acknowledged with a mea culpa? Listen sometime. It’s overwhelmingly true. This stuff really matters. It’s why it’s one of the first things we tackle as parents.
For me, it’s not so much that I notice these pleasantries when they are given, but more so when they are not. Like when you hold the door open for someone, and they waltz right through without even acknowledging that you didn’t slam the door behind you, as you now wish you had. Or, like the bee that was in my bonnet last week, when you do a favor for someone and they do not say thank you. For me it seems to be the “thank you’s” that matter most. It feels good to me to be recognized.
Yet, I noticed for M that it is the “I’m sorry’s” that matter more to her. I picked up on this only very recently, when I noticed that the prevailing thread of her schooltime woes—or any time that her dad or I have somehow wronged her—is that the accused did not explicitly state he or she was sorry. And she calls us out on it all the time. She will notice it in television shows if someone has gaffed and not accounted for it. Granted, we’re working on some of the nuances, like the fact that when I clean up her mess of toys in the living room after she goes to bed it probably warrants more of a “thank you” from her than an “I’m sorry” from me like she wants. But even the story she told me the other day about a boy who did something to affront her, ended with her telling me how she went up to him and demanded an apology. I think she stood her ground until he finally relented, which is probably not as authentic of an apology as she imagines. Again, nuances. Always a work in progress.
I was curious about this. So yesterday I asked her that, of the three—please, thank you or I’m sorry—which was most important for her to hear from people. Her answer was in line with my expectation. Whereas I want to have my efforts recognized, she wants her feelings validated. While I can certainly dwell for a bit if I think there is an apology warranted in a certain situation, I seem to forget those instances faster, more permanently than times where I wish I had just been thanked. That grudge lasts longer. I never really thought about it before, but I do think it’s odd.
Is this because I’ve got the benefit of more time on earth to know the interplay between the finite limits of time and energy that we all have in the context of doing something for others that does not always have mutual benefit? Is this because I am not able to do some things as unconditionally as I imagined I could and as others seemingly can? Is this because I’m not as overly sensitive to the actions of others who’ve hurt me that I can move past it easier than M can right now? Is it because M still largely living in the ego-centric way that young kids do? Is it because hurt feelings can linger longer for some than might any amount of energy expended? Is because I’m really comparing apples and oranges, even though we teach these things simultaneously to our kids? Probably a bit of yes to all of these. I wonder what it says about each of us given our respective preferences and expectations. I wonder her prevailing desire for apologies will hold true for her over time.
So, what matters most to you? And, if I haven’t said it lately, thank you for reading.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
One of the immediate benefits of joining Twitter is finding like-minded folks. Or them finding you. Such is the case of how I came to be asked to write a book review for Teaching Kids to Be Good People: Progressive Parenting for the 21st Century, by author Annie Fox, M.Ed.
I have just finished reading Teaching Kids to Be Good People, and can honestly say how lucky I am to have been asked to read and comment on a truly remarkable, entirely timely, and much needed parenting resource like this. Every parent, particularly those with school-aged kids and teenagers, should get their hands on a copy.
The overriding message of Teaching Kids to Be Good People is that we, as parents, have the ability and the duty to teach our children how to become empathic, morally-minded and self-aware citizens. That one of our primary obligations to our kids is to give them the tools to live as happy and good people despite the many conflicts that our world often throws their way, like bullies, prejudice and mean-spirited behavior.
But this task is not as daunting as it sounds, for us or our children. This is because Ms. Fox so effortlessly guides the reader with her conversational prose, real-life examples, personal stories, and teaching tools (like introspective questions for you to ponder as a parent, and activities to be done with your children). Moreover, this is the first book that I have read in a long time that offers examples with modern situations, particularly with teens (social media interactions, LGTB issues, sexual activity, school relationships, just to name a few). This is what makes the book so very relevant and important.
There are several areas that Ms. Fox addresses, each compelling in their own right. For example (and these are just a few), there are chapters about teaching our kids how to manage their emotions, including negative ones like anger and sadness (hint: it’s not to stifle or ignore them like so many of us are guilty of doing ourselves!), how to act morally in social situations that are not entirely comfortable to do so, conflict resolution, learning how to understand how others feel (empathy) and act or react accordingly, and (my personal favorite) how to help our children develop social courage in the face of opposition or unacceptable behavior by others (like witnessing bullies or interacting with people who claim to be friends, but act otherwise).
Considering how long it has been since so many of us parents have been in middle and high school, it is comforting that someone like Ms. Fox has her finger on the pulse of today’s youth and what kinds of things we need to start doing (or doing more of) so that our children can cope with the dynamic and shifting social landscape surrounding them. The author understands and reminds us of just how much the media and social pressure can affect our children’s behavior (and that of their peers) in a negative way, well beyond what any of us were exposed to when we were that age ourselves. Reading this portion of her book reminded me of the palpable animosity that we all experienced during last year’s election, particularly the name-calling. Yet, we are the adults that our children look to for model behavior—how can we expect our kids to act benevolently even in the face of differing opinions when so many of us do not act that way ourselves? This passage from the books gets at the core of this truth (using the example of kids who might have a nasty thing to say to a peer via email/text):
“Teaching kids to be good people includes helping them see that US vs. THEM is a myth. We are all US. And there are no justifications for being mean. None. Of course, from time to time, our kids might still get into conflicts with others, but when they consider crossing the line, our voice needs to be inside their head. That just might give them enough lead-time to delete that barb before they press SEND.”
Annie Fox also believes, as do I, that every child is good at his or her essential core, but that sometimes there are conflicting messages received by the child (from parents, society, peers) about what is acceptable behavior, both within ourselves and in others. With this book, I felt empowered and as though I can proactively prevent some of this behavior in my own child in a meaningful way, and that hopefully these same messages will ripple through her circle of peers as time marches on.
With her “What Would You Teach Here?” examples, she gives a short fact pattern of a situation that a child has encountered, forcing us to think about actions and analysis that we would take, and then providing us with her measured yet educated take on the issue. She also has several exercises and activities at the end of each subject area that we can each do with our children to drive the message home and, in some cases, actually practice and create some “muscle memory” for the inevitable real-life situations. Though I have not personally undertaken any of those (yet!), I am certain that my husband and I will be using this book as a resource in the future when our daughter is a bit older, and we can incorporate them into our family dialogue about the values that we want her to embody: compassion, respect, generosity and empathy. Here’s how Ms. Fox sets the stage for some activities (conversation starting points) in one particularly relevant section (we live in a very diverse community):
“Most children’s lives are confined to their community (neighborhood, school). Yet the world they are becoming a part of is one in which faraway lands and ideas of people with different experiences are more easily accessible than ever. Teaching 21st century kids to be good people includes helping them be accepting of and comfortable with all kinds of people. With this self-confidence, they will be brave enough to do good things, near and far.”
This is but one example in Teaching Kids to Be Good People that demonstrates how the author is tuned in to the vastly different landscape that our children are growing up in, especially considering the wide use of the Internet and social media within the global context
Though some of this book certainly felt geared toward parents of slightly older children (mine is 5 ½), I honestly think I read this at exactly the right time so that I can understand what lies ahead for my daughter, our family and her peers. We are entering the world of public school in just a few months, and her social sphere will widen in ways I can only imagine at this point. It will certainly warrant a re-read it again when certain age-related issues come up down the line.
When reading Teaching Kids to Be Good People, I really felt like I was sitting down over coffee with a trusted and non-judgmental friend, a fellow parent at that, who has a profound insight about how to change the tide of mean-spirited actions and words that we just hear too much about these days when it comes to our young people. It did not feel preachy or holier than thou. Instead, I feel inspired and empowered to do the work, my job, as a parent to help calibrate my child’s moral compass not just early on, but along the way.
Please read this book. If enough parents read this and use it as yet another tool for raising our children, there is wonderful change ahead. I’m sure of it.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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