Styles of Parenting: The Puberty Moment and Beyond

 Parents seem always to be surprised when their kids begin to rebel in earnest during the puberty event which, for some, can seem to take forever. The offspring who were the most agreeable till age 12 can quietly turn off their obeisance and good humor, locking their bedroom doors or responding with one-syllable answers at the rare sit-down meal that so recently served as a forum for their carefree humor and daily autobiographical updates.
Adults sharing this phase of their kid's life are often at a challenging stage of their own: pushing 40, perhaps, or these days even older, where assumptions about their careers and deserved self-satisfaction have been neutralized by grinding reality. So, what impartial observer would be surprised that parents and children are at cross purposes at times like these? In the hoped-for norm, the mutual dependency keeps basic interaction functional until a few tough years pass and the kid introduces herself as an adult to her newly rediscovered, similarly disposed, mentors and friends known as Mom and Dad.
And, of course, the template above is subject to the massive uncertainties faced by children in today's America, where fully half live in one-parent households and get limited, skewed interaction with the non-resident parent, if at all. Grandparents, in many circumstances, then, can play the roles we ascribe nominally to parents. But the transition from happy child through brooding teen, on to functional young adult is still biologically and socially mandated for most of us.
The greatest vaccine against the painful transition near puberty is, I believe, the constant availability of, motivation and recognition by at least one strong parent throughout the elementary and middle school years. The attentive parenting regimen seems often to suffer from the time the kid starts to lose his teeth and go to school. It is no wonder, then, that children drift and seem gone away in many aspects by the time puberty arrives.
  Equally common and troubling, in our current world of later-age parenting and single-parent homes, is the phenomenon of invasive, almost "BFF" (Best Friends Forever, in case you missed it) relationships. In these homes, the involvement of one or two parents in the life of the child crosses into an inappropriate intimacy which presupposes that the parent-child relationship allows for no privacy, no happy secrets and no undisclosed longings. This model has been enabled further by the actual danger of unbridled interaction through social media now available to the unmonitored teen. The urge to be accepted by persons other than family can be overpowering for a pre-adult human, and good parents keep aware and wary of this threat. The over-monitored teen is vulnerable as well because they may seek some private life separate from a smothering home life.
  Once this media risk/safety regimen is in place and being enforced, however, parents are best when they invite the adult-in-the-making, who is their child, into the world of adult thought, responsibility and expression of talent. This cannot be done if Mom still uses baby talk and pet names while overstating the specialness of her offspring. When Dad overlooks errors in judgement and fails to engage because he feels awkward or overly sympathetic, teaching opportunities and adult lessons are squandered. These are the types of openings and cries for help for which parents should be prepared and to which they should respond immediately.
  Where we should not automatically go, however, is into the aspects of adult privacy and self-management that a young mind and soul must develop from within. It is our right and responsibility to observe our children's lives and crawl in when necessary or when invited; it is not, however, good for us, or for our lifelong relationship with our offspring, to remain their only confidant, their dependency enabler or their best friend. We want them to make it on their own and feel strong enough to leave us at 18. 
There, I said it. When they are adults, out of high school, they should be anxious to remove the parental leash, and should own the encouragement they've been given to walk away freely. 
This brings us to what parenting really is: preparing our own flesh and blood and adopted loved ones for the exhilarating steps away from the shelter we have provided. If we have instilled the certainty that we are always here to witness, encourage and facilitate strength, our kids will assume adulthood is theirs for the taking. They have learned by experience that we are consistent and as strong as they need us to be. When we help them move into the dorm or to their first apartment when the main job is secured, we can hug, shake hands and let them go. 
  The trouble comes when we hug, shake hands and ask them to text every morning or to call us for anything at all that they might need, then proceed to call them and ask nosey questions and even drop in, unannounced. Maybe they whine about something in the dorm and we call the Director of Housing, instead of advising them to handle it themselves; maybe we show up at their place of work, commenting later about the boss or the crummy building he's in. We hear the beginning of a gossip story over the phone and laugh at their words when they say unkind things about others, the way a best friend might, instead of taking up for decency by pointing out that this is a bad habit (something that we should have established years earlier, of course.) By playing along and, glomming onto their next steps, we are keeping them too young. This might partially explain why a majority of young adults intend to keep themselves marriage-and-chid-free well into their 30s: It's too early to give up the status of the child of special place, who expects adoring, rather than confidence-instilling parents. Other factors are at play here, of course, when it comes to delaying adulthood in today's America. High divorce and low marriage rates over the last half century have driven down any assumption that making a family is essential and guarantees one a rewarding life. But among children of over-indulgent parents, the missing motivation to achieve independence creates a lingering immaturity which is often fed by the community into which the young adults are first launched, whether to higher education or into the workforce. 
  Since humans have gained a few years on life expectancy over the last century, largely due to effective disease prevention and treatment, it can be easy to assume that waiting later to be grown up is just fine. Having parents old enough to be your grandparents, however, can deprive a person of the capacity to confront uncertainty and fear. It can make one surrender and go home to Mommy and Daddy, a result that pleases the old folks who are selfish enough to allow dependency in their heirs, just so they can have their baby in the house. 
  So, how does a good parent avoid the temptation and the laziness that leads to late maturity in young adults? There are many methods, to be sure, some of which work well for just a few and others which are universal. Here is a draft list, bound to come across as insufficient as well as somewhat condescending, coming from someone like me, whose grown kids are fine and deserve to take full credit on their own. But I was there and they still expect my notice and my respect, making me feel still involved in their effort and their joy.
--Engage physically from the beginning, holding, rocking, singing when they are newborn, then reading with them multiple times a day by the time they are six months old.
--Play games that are both fun and challenging, whether they are improvised on the spot or conventional, prefabricated fun. Be there.
--Ask questions that require some thought for an answer, and listen to the reply. Encourage them to elaborate, and then discuss their answers respectfully. If they are saying something ridiculous, it is our job to reason with them and bring them along to rational expression. 
--Never denigrate their opinions or dismiss their thoughts by laughing at them (when they're being serious), berating, or ignoring them. Use every opportunity to teach reasonable discussion by example.
--Never tolerate a disrespectful tone, and never use such a tone in front of them, whether talking with them, their other parent, visiting family or friends. The urge to speak thusly is just beneath the surface for each of us, and the example we set is our only power to pass along attitudinal decency.
--Deal with behavioral issues immediately by engaging them, looking them in the eye and quickly making clear what was wrong. Putting off punishment and prolonging the period of discipline is lazy and self-serving. Time-outs are overused when they are the constant first response. This should be saved for big breaking of rules, not for everyday correction. Being grounded for extended periods teaches little when overused as well, and the enforcement requires strict agreement and enforcement by both parents. This unity is rare between parents, and the impact is reduced as a result. Sit the child down. Look her in the eye. Say what you mean in just a few sentences. Your power derives from your consistency, your attention and the fact that you are the big person in their lives.
--Never make yourself convince a child that you are right in a disciplinary incident. You are right because you are in charge, and this is their ultimate source of security. If you drag out the discussion and sound like a weak person begging for cooperation, the child makes subliminal note that its easy to get around you. If you are fair and consistent, their patterns will eventually mirror yours, with some room for stylistic differences. 
        --Always pay attention to their work, their achievements and their improvement. Say words of recognition and careful pride, avoiding any lavishing of over-the-top praise. There are still many miles to go before they are complete adults. Smart parents also realize that they, themselves, are still evolving and in need of improvement through self-evaluation.
        --Because we, as parents and as humans, will fail from time to time, we must also instill in our heirs an ability to admit when we are wrong. This is the most important measure of true maturity, and our kids can only learn it from us. If they are forced by our behavior to learn from other influences in their lives, we will have missed a key component of welcoming them to adulthood.  This sad result is a fact of life for far too many of us, and the negative behavior is far too easy to pass along to the next generation. 


Posted on Thursday, October 31, 2013 at 02:26PM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

Volunteers: Why Do We Do It?

Over some 40 years I’ve been involved, intermittently, in small group, non-government politics. Because it would be wrong to share names or exact circumstances, I will discuss here only the categories that include all varieties of volunteer committees, boards and officers charged with doing the right thing for those who asked them to lead. Churches, fraternal organizations, little leagues and PTAs come to mind. As we consider the human dynamics most often at work for volunteer leaders, there is an evident triage I would apply:
  1) Good people very often bring themselves forward to serve in these roles, and they do so for idealistic reasons: they feel a sincere obligation to serve; they care about the work at hand; they are honoring their friends and associates by taking personal responsibility. The work brings out their best qualities in leading, sharing and producing results.
  2) The second group will take on the responsibility because it is what they do everyday in the rest of their lives. They come from responsible families and see volunteerism as a useful function. These people do not need special recognition, but see themselves as bound to serve. They are positioned to serve selflessly, even if they are less inspired than the first group.
  3) Inevitably, there will be another profile. These actively seek a leadership position, longing for a circle wherein they will, at last, wield some power. They may well be harboring grudges against old family or business relationships, which have nothing to do with the people with whom they now collaborate. With those subliminal grudges roiling within, these individuals will offer to take on large responsibilities early in their tenure, dig up faults in their predecessors, speak in the first person when rolling out an idea, or exhibit frustration with the slow movement of decision-making by leadership. This, almost, vengeful syndrome may also include a desire to be a successful dealmaker, by cozying up to others like themselves, in order to get their way as they seldom do in the rest of their lives. In the most aggressive profile, these will also seek some favors or inside, personal advantage as a requisite to their service.
I attempt to stay in the middle group. Unlike those from the first group, my sense of a useful obligation fulfilled clearly outweighs any glowing, altruistic vision of mine.
Those in the third group need the most attention, because, by their approach, they demand  it. Their personal mandate begins with assumptions: "This group is not functioning effectively." "Systems of decision and management are deficient." "It is comfortable or complacent, and, thus, fails to make needed changes." "It is oblivious to the discontent of the people it serves." "It's members are not as incisive, experienced, motivated, knowledgeable, tough, I am...." 
The list goes on, depending upon the needs of the aggressive, new volunteer.
An argument can be made that the principal obstacle to a good beginning, for partnership between an existing group and a new volunteer, is precisely that varying list of personal assumptions. They will have madeup their minds before learning the scope and dynamics of the organization. This puts the new person immediately at odds with other volunteers. This interferes with the ability of all to focus upon the work at hand, to question one another freely and to regularly make tough decisions before moving on to other essential business, as they must.
What is needed, then, is an appropriate period of orientation and familiarization for the new volunteers so that they may disarm themselves, respect the decent intentions of those already serving, and very quickly earn the respect of their fellows. Very soon they will be able to channel their questions, observations and suggestions through the existing dynamic, and, in return, they will have a greatly enhanced position from which to instigate useful, timely and lasting change. Collegial respect follows, and the intangible rewards for service ensue.
If, on the other hand, the actual intent of an individual is to punish or humiliate the existing group, hardly any effort by them is required; negativism, gossip, rumor, flagrant instigation within the served community--all of these are very simple for one individual to accomplish. In these cases, it is incumbent upon the majority to neutralize or remove the offender, whichever is available under organization rules. Coaching and, thus, changing the behavior of an adult by means of such limited contact as comes with monthly meetings and strings of email, will not work in this setting. Because there is always work to be done that requires full attention, removal of actively negative, recalcitrant individuals is necessary, before great damage is done.
The best outcome for aggressive newcomers is that they quickly spend their negative energy, look around at fellow volunteers, here, who refuse to be pushed around and continue to serve. Quick learners will adapt their behavior, and begin to serve.  This scenario is, in my experience, rare, but it can happen. More often, the burning issues motivating newcomers flame out at about the time they decide they don't feel like serving anymore. They quit.
It is also worth noting that group one, the idealists, can present a profile similar to the the aggressive third group. Precisely because they care deeply, they may be inclined to press hard early on, also without the benefit of acclimation. This is why, for both the angry and the inspired, there must be immediate invitation and encouragement to learn and to join, positively, the mission at hand. There is a requirement upon the rest of the volunteers to keep an open mind and to be available to facilitate their integration.
And the cycle, inevitably, repeats with each election or appointment designed to bring in fresh perspective and new energy. 
It must also be said that a culture of discord may be in place in the existing group. Bad blood has become the norm, and high turnover is expected, with no vision toward calming things down. At times like these, groups one and two need to step up and patiently engineer calm and focus. This begins by putting oneself forward for service, having no desire or illusions of personal benefit or attention or credit. 
This outline, of course, does not comprise the full scope of this topic. Yet, in the end, the battle to champion significance over pettiness is part of any group endeavor. Regularly reviewing our individual motives, therefore, will always be useful.


Posted on Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 07:59AM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

Singing Goodbye

For more than 25 years I have been asked or hired to sing at weddings and funerals. Though the music selected by families for either milestone event can be anywhere from inspirational to inappropriate, my experience has been consistently positive, moving and spiritually engrossing.  Both the happy and the sad are profound. Of the two events, though, singing as a stranger, to a group of friends and family of the deceased has had the most profound, didactic impact upon me and on my spiritual curiosity.

Even when a long, productive life is more celebrated than mourned during a funeral, I am touched by the universality of our struggle to understand the finality which is being marked in the ceremony. And, too often, young people leave this life due to accident or illness, and the expected sadness, combined with welling anger in the grieving ones, has not had time to find its form. So, the mourners are in a state of shock and disbelief, and that benumbed silence opens the heart of an unrelated observer to consideration of all things spiritual.

As I consider the ephemeral, the spiritual and the transient reality of our conscious time as sentient, flesh-and-blood beings of earth, my certainties evaporate. I am then pushed by certainty of our physical death to confront all assumptions of life’s value. For me, the existence of spirit is a given; one authoritative definition of the components of that spirit and of its journey, however, does not exist for me. The very human act of asking sincere questions about “eternity,” “God” and “spirit,” nonetheless makes me surrender to possibility. Because of these experiences, I will never judge the spiritual conviction of another person, even as I fully reject any judgment aimed at my lack of allegiance or specificity in matters of religion.

The point of this declaration is to affirm that most of the content of my outlook in these matters was formed between songs I have sung while sitting at the funerals of people I didn’t really know. I normally sit near the organ or piano, in the front of the rear of the sacred space. Looking out at the gathering from my seat, usually out of the sightlines of those in attendance, I am awash in the helplessness of the moment. A good speaker, minister, imam, rabbi or priest brings light to the moment with talk of the good of the physical life, now over, of the person in the casket. Good memories and times of hope are relived, if only fleetingly.

Yet, as I listen, motionless and powerless in the presence of the lost one and the ones who mourn the loss, the soul-teaching moment surrounds me. It becomes ever clearer that I can never know any tangible answer to the eternal, intangible question; I am ill-suited for any declaration of certainty, doctrine or loyalty to any denominational legacy or man-made narrative. As a living body and mind I can never know what having, and losing, physical life truly means to the spirit which does, I believe, exist.

Even so, I am warmed by the reality of our gathered kindnesses, all pressed to let go and all exposed to comforting uncertainty.  If put to best use, these moments offer unsurpassed opportunity to nourish tolerance among those of us willing to allow for, and wonder about, the eternity of shared spirit. 

Posted on Sunday, August 26, 2012 at 04:32PM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment

The Soul of Peace

Walking into the old church building, the white one with its bell in the steeple from the late 19th century, out in the countryside, we feel the presence of souls no longer occupying the flesh of this life. By extension, we are warmed by the assumption of God’s quiet, swirling nearness; we feel that we are returned to safety and comfort for reconnection with the tangibly ephemeral spirituality of our ancestors and their Maker.

But I get most of the same feelings when I walk into an old family home, touching and seeing the remnants of lives that came before mine, the ones that assured my arrival here so that I may ponder my place in eternity. Whether the house is from 1850 or 1960, I am moved by the thought that this place holds aspects of the souls who dreamed a life that eventually included me. The idea of God is also floating about, but more as common denominator, less as creator.

A belief in power beyond our bodies is amply documented as a human priority, dating from the earliest confirmation that we could observe and reflect upon our world, as by painting animals on cave walls or carving body parts from stone. Because we see our lives as a continuation of those that preceded ours, we are bound to invest inordinate trust in the remembered, but inaccessible, spiritual touch of past lives. This mystical connection offers comfort to many, whether by formal doctrine or simple, sensory memory.

Humans will, however, inevitably resort to firm definition and exclusive portrayal of spiritual truth, often imbuing it with hard, physical descriptions in an effort to make it tangible to the people who walk the earth now. From a clever, compelling narrative there often follows an opportunity to build a sect, a cult, a denomination, a religion, or a physical philosophy. For the good stewards of these spontaneous, human creations, power over the listeners who then become believers is the seductive goal. These leaders in belief don’t have to be cynical or power-mad to evolve in this manner; adoration accrues to the one who makes my soft hopes into concrete foundations, regardless of his motives. *


Our ability to feel--and remember--pain, relation, anger, hope and loss, makes:

My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord:

My heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. (Psalm 84).


            And the words “living God” hold the key to human response around the elusiveness of spiritual hope. During our good days, whether holding a grandparent’s hand, walking into the sanctuary as a child, or holding our own child for a christening in the same space twenty years later, we are covered in safety and implicit gratitude. We are open to the gifts so peacefully showered; the good desires within us are reinforced to seek their own replication through loyalty and selflessness. All of this is good, and it is routine in all forms of agreed-upon behavior attributed to multiple religious traditions across the earth.

            It is only after that baptized child dies when his friend’s meth lab blows up, or she is the victim of a drunk driver, molester, or he of a drone attack, food poisoning, AIDS, suicide—all of which occur every day—only when these truths attack are we taken back to the place of doubt and review of our full beliefs. Our reaction to what we learn from actual crisis defines our practical level of connection to our God. We are forced to confront again our trust of any force beyond what, and whom, we can touch.  We are changed spiritually by the lasting impact upon our physical world from death, sickness, injury, mental illness, emotional breakdown and all forms of change beyond our control.  There is a simple triage that results: we retrench, making vows to trust greater power even more; or we re-examine and adjust our spiritual assumptions; or we turn away from trusting beyond what we can manage by touch in the here and now.

            In conversations on such spiritual topics--from the existence of an active God, to the “everything happens for a reason” school of thought, through absolutism of all stripes and on to lazy, or careful, relativism—one is struck by the extreme variations. No two people of a given religion see its particulars in the same light; no two atheists have the same rationale for their rationality. In short, we are all selectively inheriting spirituality, making it up as we go along. We select the verses, leaders, philosophies, communities and friends, which complement our preferred balance of our non-physical components.

            It is, of course, only when another person claims a special power associated with their particular enlightenment; only when such power is turned toward compulsion and exclusivity and the accumulation of guns or money in the name of their revelation—only then do I personally turn the inquisitive lights off and walk out of the sanctuary marred by arrogant certainty.

I can feel the presence of the believers and doubters and accommodators in my bloodline. As spiritually firm as many of them may have been, I am certain that, whatever their manifestation in mystic ephemera at this moment, each would grant me the room and the time to get closer to truth, without my assuming that I will ever own that truth. I am not equipped to doubt that souls at peace leave peace to the rest of us.

            Arriving at that trust involving eternity, however, is ultimately between God and me. I can love you, my fellow man, but I will never trust any one of us to be the exclusive messenger of any version of that highest power.  Like St. Paul in a profoundly humble moment, I will only know Truth on that day when—and I must say if—I meet God, face to face.




*(It is important to note that good things are done by good people when they assemble to help others. Religious organizations are particularly useful in this way, as long as they don’t demand a pound of conversion flesh in return for kindness. May this outlet for good will be ever among us.)



Posted on Wednesday, September 14, 2011 at 11:47PM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | Comments2 Comments

Vouch For Good Teachers

Where did all the proponents of private school vouchers get their superior education, the education that makes them want to disavow public schools? Did they get it from prep schools and top 20 universities? This seems unlikely; those folks get in with cash and legacies. We are, probably, being harangued on this topic by former public school students who long for both upper-class status and for the imagined good old days––not to mention shelter from immigrants and other fearsome ethnic types.

In 2005, In Wilmington, Delaware, several committed teachers, fresh from college, began giving of themselves in challenging circumstances, working toward the intellectual salvation of a collection of middle-schoolers. The worthy objective of the enterprise is to secure, for the selected participants, grant-funded scholarships to private high schools in the Wilmington area.

This effort ironically makes the same case, though more stealthily, as the one made by voucher proponents: only by narrowing the sample can we ensure success; the system has failed, and only extraordinary measures taken by private individuals can turn this around. In fact, the leader of the Wilmington effort wants to limit that program’s size to 65 students in order to increase the odds of retaining 100% of those selected.

This is a formula for controlled success for a fortunate few. If the sample is limited, with even a moderate audition of character and intellect, results must naturally be superior to the results seen by those who may neither select nor reject a single student––those teaching in public school. Public schools have the noble mission of taking on all the kids that can’t pay for, or be accepted by, the programs of the wealthy and the high-minded.

The fact that these young Delaware teachers are devoting themselves to the betterment of educationally neglected kids is good news. But the better news is that plain, selfless public school educators give of themselves every day. Because a sense of mission guides their lives, good teachers are not permitted by their conscience to abdicate their responsibility to push opportunity in front of pupils. With a mix of something familial and something collegial, they ignite sparks of enlightenment every day in kids they could have only prayed for a week before.

At home, for most kids to have a chance to excel––or to keep up––they require nothing more than encouragement from at least one respectable figure of adult authority. This need not be a mom or dad, but it should at least be the same one who makes dinner or breakfast, the one who signs the kid up for something––anything––extracurricular and shows up to watch; someone who looks with pride or concern at the report card each grading period. Just one loving critic will do. Yet, even without this help, some kids break through anyway under the inspiration of the person at the front of the public school classroom.

Amid goofy, transitory educational trends and stingy budgets, most teachers get it right. Still, persistent underlying problems plague us. Many kids are forever limited by a negative adult example at home, or by parental assumptions that the education of the child is the responsibility of the school and the system. Some kids who get good food and plenty of sleep––between trips to the mall––are no better off than the actively discouraged offspring of bitter, underprivileged or underachieving adults.

Getting the private sector to cough up more money for poor kids is always good. Even though ideas like the Wilmington project are important and worthy of our good wishes, we must not lose focus on the larger picture. Public education demands our attention, undiminished resources and political support; our effort to reach the largest number must not be watered down by a voucher system. The required elixir for nurturing the broadest number of achievers continues to be societal agreement––sought by the parent or guardian, funded by the community and, finally, dispensed by the teacher to our beloved hope––the ordinary, deserving child. 

Posted on Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 11:33AM by Registered CommenterCoEternity | CommentsPost a Comment
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