If you live on this planet and happen to have read or watched any kind of news recently, you've probably found yourself wondering if you're awake or having a really terrible nightmare.
As a mother of two youngsters, I am very sensitive to pain and misery caused to children around the world. Be it Ebola or the killing of innocent children in Iraq, Syria, Ukraine and Gaza, the well-known abuse of hundreds of children in England, or the killing of an unarmed teenager in Missouri... it all breaks my heart.
I was wide-awake and restless at 11:53 p.m. thanks to some headlines on HuffPost, The New York Times, and NPR and so, I shifted to reading headlines from The Atlantic instead. There, an article titled The Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life caught my attention. I started reading and, just a few lines in, I knew exactly what the author was referring to: Forget the misery and agony the world causes our children... What about the misery and agony that we, the parents and later the educators, bring into their lives?
And that's when I started wondering, why?
Why are parents, communities, societies and countries -- lucky and blessed with peace, resources, knowledge, and support -- tormenting our children into a life of future "excellent sheep"? Why is it that our most "successful" children are also suffering from stress, addiction, and depression, deprived of any internal mechanisms to deal with the problems life throws at them?
Is it because we are terrorizing them with messages like: Life is a race and only the fit, first-place holders will be successful? Is it because we are setting them up on a mission to get to top of the ladder -- no matter whom they stomp on or how they get there? And by the way, do they know why they are climbing so high and what happens when they get there? Is it because we love and reward our children for being "smart" and "doing as they're told"? Is it because our children's' math scores are the definitive measure of "doing well" at school and as a country in general? Or, is it because we guide our children to become the persons we secretly wanted to be, but for some reason or another we couldn't?
Whatever happened to the good old clichés of parenting like "love your children unconditionally"? What about fostering their strengths; bringing their hearts and minds together; showing empathy for their pains; teaching them to be resilient by letting them fall down; not talking (or yelling) at them, but explaining why; restraining from buying them everything, but making, recycling, reusing and inventing new things together; playing, talking and connecting with them; letting go of private coaches and tutors and just being there with them?
I know what you might be thinking. Our kids have to be successful in order to be happy. By doing well in school they can get a good job that pays enough to relieve them of the stress and worry we often feel as adults. Although that may be true to some extent, I personally couldn't disagree more. A person can be very successful by means of wealth, position and honor; however, that same person can also be profoundly unhappy. At the same time, a person can experience immense happiness, but be poor and unsuccessful as defined by our society's measures.
Believe me, I don't want to start a debate on success or happiness. Instead, I want to highlight an opportunity we have as parents: Let's help children everywhere in this world to experience less pain, misery and agony in life.
How can we accomplish this? As a mom, the answer is becoming clearer to me every day: I, the parent, know better and so I should push myself to do better.
For instance, I know that my mornings are so much more joyful and relaxed when I have prepared and put breakfast on the table ready to eat when my kids arrive. It gives us 20 minutes of relaxed morning chat that puts down our expectations and schedules for the day ahead of us. It gives me a chance to hear about my sons' hopes for how they want the day to turn out or to discuss what kind of activity we should plan for after work/school. So, I do wake up earlier at least twice weekly to give us that precious time in the morning.
I'm not saying what I am doing is wondrous or should be replicated. But I am saying it's an example of a small sacrifice on my part that guarantees major happiness for my sons -- both in the moment and for life. By being attuned when I spend time with them, I am able to acknowledge their wants and needs. I get to know them better and, therefore, I can better guide them.
And that's my number one goal as a parent: To guide my children -- frequently, consistently, clearly and impactful. 1
Guiding my sons in such a manner helps to develop a strong sense of self within them, one they can someday forcefully direct. To me, a strong sense of self not only assures future happiness for my sons, but it signifies success in its most meaningful form.
So please, let go of your TV and technology (it's nightmarish out there anyway). And try to spend one hour actively engaged with your children instead. After all, you are their most important teacher (and their most preferred teacher), not the tutors and coaches who are there boost one specific brain circuit or physical function in your child.
Get to know your children better. Discuss your day and their day, listening genuinely. Learn about their passions and their failures. Direct them based on your values and their wants, needs, abilities and weaknesses. Guide them until they can someday guide themselves.
Just tell them you love them. Not just when they've cleaned their room or put a hard puzzle together, but whisper it to them when they're sad, shout it at them when they're happy, write it down when they're occupied with homework, and sing it aloud when you're driving in the car together. Subscribe to that age-old adage and show them you love them unconditionally. As simplistic as it sounds, it just might be the most effective way to help your kids succeed in life!
1. Halvorson, H.G. and E.T. Higgins, Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. 2013: Hudson Street Press.