By Ann Brown
On the agenda at this week’s faculty meeting was the book, How Children Succeed. The director had given us each a copy of the book at the back-to-school faculty retreat and we all agreed to read it and discuss it together. Because we are an erudite, intellectually curious, book-discussing kind of faculty. Plus, everyone is in a “yes” sort of mood at the beginning of the year. As opposed to the end-of-the-year faculty retreat when we tend to table everything on the agenda until the back-to-school faculty retreat and spend the day gazing at the beauty of the sun on Teacher Elizabeth’s pool and promising that by next year’s b-t-s faculty retreat we will be courageous enough to wear a bathing suit. Oh wait. Maybe that’s just me.
Frankly, however, I don’t remember agreeing to read the book at all, but I believe that it happened. The back-to-school retreat is generally when I resolve to be A Better Teacher and I probably answered with an enthusiastic affirmative when Sheila asked if we wanted to do a book discussion this year. Or – a more plausible theory – when that dialogue happened, I was in the kitchen, loading up on the feta and Kalamata olives and squinting deep into the pitcher to see if all the sangria was gone. We take food very seriously at our faculty retreats. In fact, last month we spent over forty minutes discussing the menu for our faculty holiday party and subsequently had to table the discussion on How Children Succeed until after Winter Break.
Even with the extra weeks, however, I came to last Friday’s meeting still not having read the book, wholly unprepared to discuss it. Which – if you know me even a little bit you will not be surprised to hear this – did not stop me from expressing my opinions about it. Evidently, I don’t really have to have read a book to be able to talk about it for an entire ninety-minute faculty meeting.
Despite just making up stuff, I found myself really getting into the discussion. During a particularly lively conversation about fostering qualities of grit and perseverance in children, I even volunteered to write an article about it for the school newsletter. In fact, I would write an article about the whole book! So you could all learn from what I read!
I was so carried away with my awesome offer to do this that it kinda slipped my mind that I haven’t, ahem, read the book yet. Though I sincerely intend to. Right after I finish reading that Maria Semple book, whatsitcalled? Bernadette or something. It’s due at the library on Tuesday so I really have to read it this weekend.
But there is good news.
As it turns out, a point in the book that we were discussing – and about which I volunteered to write – is a topic dear to my heart. It is a topic about which I have done quite a bit of research. And by “research”, I mean I have spent a lot of time on a sunny chaise lounge, drinking white Sangria during summer vacation thinking about it.
The topic is: coping skills.
As with pretty much everything in raising kids, it all begins with us – the parents – modeling the quality we want to see in our child. This can be confusing and difficult in a world that tells us our kids need high self esteem to succeed, and to be an involved parent, and to validate, validate, validate. It can feel as though fostering coping skills is in direct conflict with our “everybody wins” culture of parenting.
The way I see it, we have to offer our kids appropriate opportunities and doses of frustration, sadness, anger and – yes – failure in order to foster their coping skills. I mean, if you never feel failure or disappointment, with what, exactly, are you learning to cope?
Let’s say, for instance, that your four-year-old comes home from school and says to you, “my teacher is so MEAN! She made us come inside from the yard just when we were in the middle of our game! It made me sad the whole afternoon.”
What do you say? If you try to reference all the parenting books, you can find yourself saying everything from, “that teacher DOES sound mean. I am so sorry you were sad” to “never question a teacher” to “bring Mommy her beer, please. My day was no fucking picnic, either.”
Fostering coping skills in our kids allows us to keep The Big Picture in mind when responding to our kid’s frustration. We can say, “Yeah, nobody likes having to stop their game in the middle’” and give our child a sincere look of validation. And then we can move on to a new topic of conversation.
Or, let’s say your child starts crying because the blue cup he wanted was chosen by his baby sister. It can be tempting to belittle or dismiss the kid’s crying, especially at the end of a long day (“IT’S JUST A CUP. A STUPID, #%&^%^ CUP, DO YOU HEAR ME? THERE ARE CHILDREN WHO HAVE NO WATER!!!”) or to sink to The Stuff We Swore We’d Never Do (“you want something to cry about??? I’ll give you something to cry about!”) or – and I admit to doing this more than once – just take the stupid blue cup from the stupid baby and give it to the whiner. Because life is short and you will put your head in the oven if you have to listen to your child cry one more stupid minute.
And then you say to yourself, “what did that blowhard Ann Brown write about that book she never read that talked about fostering coping skills in my child?”
And you remember what I wrote. And you say to your child, “Yeah, I get it. You are really disappointed about not having the blue cup today. Some days are like that.” You try very very very very hard not to sound sarcastic when you say it because your goal is to validate the child’s feelings without buying into it.
If you are an aging hippie like me, you might call this: COMPASSIONATE DETACHMENT. And it will set you – and your child – free. Not to put too dramatic a spin on it or anything.
Kids need to know what disappointment feels like. Because if they experience it, that’s how they trust that they are capable of living through it. Kids need to know what sadness feels like. And frustration. And anger. And failure. And the myriad feelings that we think we are supposed to protect them from feeling.
The trick, as a parent, is to find that sincere balance of compassion and detachment. Personally, I think it starts in the eyes. Really locking eyes with your child and transmitting a message of “I hear you”. If you have a strong visual connection that reads compassion, then your words of detachment from the issue won’t sting as much.
“You are really angry and sad because we took the Christmas tree down. I remember when I have felt like that.”
And then you give your kid a little hug or a nice lovey kitty gaze, and you move on. You don’t give it any more energy than that.
Raising kids with strong coping skills is pretty much numbers one, two and three on the list of stuff that’s really important to do. People who can cope with the vicissitudes of life, people who see failures and disappointment in perspective, people who believe they can weather a storm, are generally optimistic, resilient and adventurous people. Even if they have melancholic, hand-wringing Eyeore type mothers like me.
Raising kids with strong coping skills also requires the parents to get through hearing a lot of crying (their child’s. Well, and their own, I suppose, as well). Because your child is allowed to feel what s/he feels. You cannot be the feelings Nazi (“That’s not a good reason to be sad”). But you can make sure your child’s feelings don’t rule and define the entire household. (“I get it that you’re really sad about the Christmas tree. But we are eating dinner now, and if you’d like to join us, you will have to pull yourself together.”)
(Also, the example of the Christmas tree is just conjecture. I’m Jewish. I have no idea what feelings arise from taking down a Christmas tree. Personally, when it’s time to put the Chanukah menorah away after eight nights, I am happy and relieved and sick of candle wax on the dining room table.)
Please don’t hesitate to continue the dialogue about this great book, How Children Succeed. I’m happy to talk to you about it. Right after I read it. Or not.