18 August 2011

Teach children to stay positive in a world filled with yucky stuff

Tsunamis, a disappearing college fund, global warming, wars with no end in sight…... there’s plenty for young people to worry about these days. It can be downright depressing.

It’s important, however, that parents and other care-takers of small children help them maintain a positive outlook on life. We’ve long known that negative thoughts are toxic. Gloom and doom thinking takes its toll on the still-developing brain (no one wants an underperforming hippocampus!) -- the results of which can show up in the classroom, the playground, around the dinner table and everywhere else. Worry can literally make us sick.

Like most things, modeling is key. If parents and teachers tend toward the morbid and macabre, chances are their little ones will follow closely behind in their footsteps.

Since humans are creatures of habit, a big part of a parent’s job is to help their kiddos develop good ones. And that includes how we deal with life’s boo-boos, boogey-men and other yucky stuff.

First, a disclaimer: Clinical Depression is a very real brain disease and not uncommon among young folks. It can be debilitating if not treated properly by a physician. In no way I am trying to minimize the importance of seeking appropriate medical care for the condition.

But, I’m not talking about Clinical Depression. I’m talking about worry and fear. I’m talking about coping with life’s day-to-day circumstances, some of which is indeed frightful.

Here’s the thing: most children are more worried with being left off the birthday party list than any mutating influenza virus and impending pandemic. Bullies on the playground pose more of a threat than Taliban insurgents in the hills of Afghanistan in the eyes of your typical kindergartner.

But the playground provides many great lessons for the larger world in which they occupy. Here’s one: this too shall pass.

My theory is that if we can help children understand perspective, balance and problem-solving with the (seemingly) small stuff, they’ll better be able to deal with the big stuff in constructive ways down the road. And, hopefully avoid turning into pessimists, hypochondriacs, hermits and doomsdayers. We’ll need the next generation to be on its toes if it’s going to fix all the messes we’ve made for them.

My daughters are eight and five. I love our bedtime talks. Their understanding of the world in which they live and place in it always amazes me. In a few years, I’ll be invited to their private world less often, just as they’re confronting more sophisticated fears. I know that this is my window to lay the foundation for effective patterns of communication and methods of deconstructing problems. Hopefully the foundation will serve us well through the slings and arrows of adolescence and beyond.

I’ve learned from my daughters that frequent reality checks are important in order to dispel misinterpretations and misconceptions picked up on the playground or overheard from the evening news when I thought they were sound asleep. Fear tells lies. No, we don’t have an ogre that lives in our woods; no it’s unlikely we’ll have a monsoon in North Carolina; yes, it’s a good idea to come inside when it starts lightning. I try to practice active listening with my daughters (that mostly means shut up and let them talk) and help them sort through fact and fiction. Most times, the logical conclusion is… “that’s not so scary, after all.”

It’s not that I’m encouraging my daughters to be naïve or Pollyanna. I know there is plenty of scary stuff out there. I’m terrified for my little girls. But living out a life filled with fearfulness only warps ones sense of reality. Fear distorts. In fact, the sky is NOT falling.

Like most parents, my instinct is to hold on (too) tightly and not let anything bad happen. But, I’ve seen “Finding Nemo” enough to learn my lesson. Better judgment prevails. I’m not really going to find a deserted island to ship them off to before boys start sniffing around. I will teach them, however, that a swift kick in a certain area will promptly stop a boy in his tracks if he’s getting too fresh.

And I also know this: hanging on too tightly will just make then want to go bungee jumping and get things pierced by the time they’re in 4th grade. Deep down, I do want them to experience the joy of racing wildly on their bicycles with their hair blowing crazily in the wind. But I’ll be cringing every second until they come to a complete stop at the bottom of the hill and be there with kisses for their boo-boos and Dora the Explorer Band-Aids when they crash.

Most times, experience is the best teacher. Every now and then my girls will need to experience failure to fully gain a sense of their own strength and resiliency… You now, take a few lumps and get back up off the mat (as hard as that might be for me to watch). If you face fear head on a few times, he starts to seem a little less menacing. Now is a good time to learn that lesson, while I’m just around the corner to help them pick up the pieces.

Balance is important, too. Sure, there’s plenty to worry about. We either dwell on it or we go outside and splash in mud puddles. Childhood is fleeting. Negativity is bound to creep in. Meanness and jealousy and greed and fear will have their say. Anything we can do to preserve the natural state of childhood (which is, of course, purely innocent and downright goofy) and encourage milk-shooting-through-nose uproarious laughter and other such silliness, to me, is the best way to ward off the sinister forces of fear.

I’m thinking if my girls are spending most of their time playing Twister and catching lightning bugs then they’ll just be too busy having fun to worry themselves with the darker elements of life… at least it can be postponed until they’re more mature and prepared to do so, both cognitively and psychologically. The last thing I want is for the joy of childhood to be compromised by a bunch of grown-up worries. Fear robs.

Here’s more of what I want for my children (all children): I want them to see the beauty in everyday things. To see the glass half full. To stop and smell the roses. To see the good in people and trust in the good-ness of humankind, not in a naïve way, but in a faithful way (the opposite of fear is faith).

I want them to understand that it’s always darkest just before dawn and that just behind every thunderstorm is a clear, blue sky. I want them to value the simple things in life: that the birth of a butterfly is magic and an afternoon looking for four-leaf-clovers is a perfect antidote for an absolutely dreadful math teacher or the obligatory tragic lead story on the seven o’clock news.

Life is good. It’s a little scary sometimes, but good, nevertheless. Dangerous? It can be, but most times it’s safe (just look both ways, buckle-up, scrub your fruits and vegetables and keep plugging along). Yes, there are some downright awful people in the world, but the nice ones outnumber them a thousand to one.

Mostly I want my children to know this: in this life there is a constant tug and pull between good and evil, love and hate. But in the end, good wins out. Love prevails.

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