Thursday, September 23, 2010

Fear and Trembling Part II: Facing My Own Fears, Provoked By a Hit and Run

The question of fear and how to face it is really a big one; I wish I could have a franker and more frequent conversations about such things with people. Earlier this year, I checked out a book from the library (Free Range Kids) written by a mother who had gotten herself called “the worst mother in the world”  for having allowed her (8 year old?) son to take  public transportation (including the subway) from midtown Manhattan back to his house alone.  She herself had found her action unspectacular (in either the good or bad sense); when local media got hold of it however, she was asked to appear on TV and won herself the title  (in some circles, anyway) of the “Worst Mother in the World” title. I am not personally committed to the specifics of what she allowed her son to do. While I doubt I would do the same with any of my kids, I believe that a good parent usually has a better sense of what a child’s ready for than an outside observer ever could. Which is why we need to watch our kids and respond to them as individuals…

One of the great difficulties of being a parent is, of course, OUR fear. We need to help our kids face fears, but first of all, we ourselves need to face a tremendous host of fears. Fears that our kids inspire in us. I was very discouraged after the birth of my first child by just how very afraid I felt most of the time. The possibility of harm was always lurking.  Back then, physical harm was foremost in my mind, but a friend—whose daughter recently turned 14—assures me that the fear he faces now with her is no less real, palpable, or serious.

I believe him. As I look towards the years when my children will face a host of challenging situations, I want to be ready to face my own fear and theirs. Earlier this year, I was deeply provoked by a hit-and-run accident that occurred outside a local high school. I thought, naturally, of the tragic deaths of a couple of young people who met their death unexpectedly. But I also thought of the terrified young girl who was behind the wheel when she accidentally hit two acquaintances. What kind of courage it requires to face that kind of reality! It got me thinking—what kind of education could you give your children to enable them to handle that kind of situation? First of all, you need to teach them not to run away from mistakes. Since then, I’ve been on a kind of mission to make sure my kids don’t walk away when they hurt someone; that they stay and help. It’s an amazingly hard thing to do: when my kids hurt someone, their guilt often makes them defensive, and they pull away from the person they’ve damaged (even if we’re talking a minor scrape that was *really* an accident!).  I’m hoping—and praying—that  some of this stays with them in the long run. 

Monday, September 13, 2010

Fear and Trembling….and Parenting Through It….

So lately my former student/blog commentator/texter extraordinaire Don Miller has been responding like crazy to one of my posts. But really, he’s not responding: he’s addressing a whole new topic, and one that deserves some attention: bullying, and our attempts to eliminate it. But in his posts and private emails to me, he’s getting at a much larger set of issues: the role that parents have in protecting their children from outside menaces. This takes many forms, but personal harassment is certainly one of them. Don’s questions—about whether we take things too far in trying to protect our children from harm—get at a central problem that we as parents face: what does it mean to protect our children? Can it be taken too far?

I have read a number of articles that suggest that we definitely do take our protection too far, and that it has a number of dire consequences for our kids. Back in 2004 I read—and passed on—an article by Hana Estroff Marano that was published in Psychology Today, “A Nation of Wimps.” Marano’s claim is that our over-protective parenting was producing a nation of spineless children. I have given this article to many of my students, who understand where she’s coming from: many of them are the victims of excessive parenting (at the hands of kind and very-well-intentioned mothers and fathers). So there is a problem, or a potential one. At the same time, every parent wants to protect children. What to do?

As strange as it may seems, I believe that what we parents and teachers need most is to protect and love our children more—not less. Come again? Yes; we need to understand that part of protecting our children is trying to equip them thoroughly with what they need to go through life, not just trying to keep them from getting hurt but helping them work through the hurt, trusting that there is something good at the other end of that pain. We will not keep them from the many faces of pain; the real question is how we can help them deal with suffering. What I want most for my children is to help them face their fears courageously and intelligently; and if I spend too much trying to keep them from fear or hurt, I limit their ability to grow in courage and intelligence. At the same time, I want them to know they’re not alone is confronting reality; I want them to know that I am there for them in the ways that I can help. If I try to avoid all pain, I limit my ability to teach them some of the life lessons they need most. When my almost-five year old daughter Veronica decided to go off the diving board recently, I told her I would be watching her and would be ready to meet her when she got off. But she had to face her own fear as she jumped off (and the terror on her face right before she hit the water was priceless); she did and I was proud—and I made her do it again and again so that she could get comfortable with that fear….It’s just the beginning of my own journey, trying to figure out how to face my own fears better and help them more (suggestions welcome!).

Ultimately, as a person of faith, I trust that reality is a good thing—and I don’t want to spare my kids their impact with it.