Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Going for a Plunge

Many years ago while on vacation with my parents and grandparents, we stopped to spend the night a hotel, and like all youngsters, the pool was always the highlight of the trip. For many of these places, kids under a certain age are required to be accompanied by an adult, and Grandpa came with me. It was nighttime in the indoor pool, so it was a little hard to see in the water even though there were some pool lights illuminating the area. As I swam around the pool, Grandpa seemed to be content just to relax in a chair near the pool. Grandpa didn't speak a lot of English, having been raised from a youth in a Spanish-speaking home, but we did fine in communicating day-to-day things.

At one point, I swam over to the side and convinced Grandpa to get in. Although he was somewhat reticent about getting in, he jumped into the water. Within moments, I realized two important truths: (1) a non-swimmer and 7 feet of water don't mix and (2) being grounded forever for drowning a family member is not a fun way to spend the rest of your life.

As Grandpa surfaced, he was grasping for air, and I panicked because I had no idea that he couldn't swim. I grabbed his arm and pulled him over the the side, and after catching his breath, he let a somewhat embarrassed laugh. I was just glad I wasn't going to appear on the 10 o'clock evening news.

The it came to me. Two additional truths: I was certainly not going to say anything about the incident because I didn't want to get blamed or punished for an accident. "Oh, Mom, but the way, I almost drowned your Father. So, what's to eat?" I also realized quickly that Grandpa wasn't about to say anything either. Too embarrassing of an incident. The rest of the evening, Grandpa stayed in the water by the side of the pool, and we fortunately were able to laugh it off between the two of us.

Having had such experiences, I try to laugh things off when my own kids make silly mistakes. None of us is exempt at any page.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Building Memories with Your Children

"To be in your children's memories tomorrow, you have to be in their lives today."

- Author Unknown

Several years ago when my oldest two children were young, we used their October school vacation break to explore some of the most amazing scenery on the planet in southern Utah. We would load up into our minivan and drive and hike in places like Arches National Park, Bryce National Park, and other lessor-known trails of adventure off the beaten path. One of the traditions I started a few years before in 1996 while we were visiting Kyoto, Japan, was to tell an imaginary story of two young children, Maria and Donguriguri-kun (acorn boy) and their many space adventures.

Well, over the years, the story began to grow with countless episodes filled with fantastic encounters with alien creatures and plenty of villains to spice up the plot. Normally, a made-up story might have a lifespan of a day or two, but this one continued over the years, and I passed the time on most of our long hikes through national parks by telling my kids these tales. In fact, we crossed some very barren landscape hours upon hours with the kids content as can be . . . as long as I kept the story going.

On one particular vacation, we pulled into a very small town without having a plan as to where to spend the night. I threw out the idea of spending the night in the minivan at a gas station, and the kids were excited about the prospect of doing so. The kids ended up bedding down in the back seats while I spent a cramped and somewhat uncomfortable night in the driver's seat. However, it was honestly fun.

Now, the years have passed, and I'm sure my kids wouldn't want to spend a night at the same place. They're adults now, and we all wouldn't fit the same way we did years ago. Still, I relish the memory of doing something a little out of the ordinary.

Doing things outside of the box and experiencing the simplest pleasures of life based on our kids interests and desires can build memories for everyone.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Marriage: What children can learn from us?

As a language teacher working with international students from around the world, I often hear a lot of interesting (and often illogical or shallow) comments about a whole range of topics, including dating and marriage. Most of these students in their early twenties. One day, I asked some of my students what they would think if they went out with a man or woman and they discovered that the person was totally clueless about basic history, geography, and current events. In fact, the person couldn't even find their own country on a map.

When I asked my students if they would go out with this person again, I was somewhat (but not totally) surprised that some of them commented that it would depend on what the person looked like. Now, that's pretty shallow, but from a limited perspective when  you have never had long-term relationships, it is hard to see past the physical. How can you if you have never been involved a long-lasting and happy relationship in which you were totally committed to each other, especially in times of great trials. As a simple analogy, years ago, I thought all ice cream was the same until I tasted premium-flavored ice cream. Man, were my parents just holding out on me all those years by just giving me the generic brand, or perhaps they didn't know there was a difference either?  In other words, people often settle on dating and marrying something less than what they are hoping for, particularly in cases where they think the person will change or improve over the long run; however, I remember hearing once that if you really want to drive a nice porche or other similar vehicle, you don't buy a junker and hope it will change. That won't happen. Don't expect to marry someone that is a "project" (i.e., a person who doesn't share the same hopes and standards) with the hope that you can change the person.

 So, how does this relate to being a parent and raising kids? Children need to see healthy relationships, ones in which parents might struggle, but they have positive coping and communication skills to weather emotional, physical, and financial storms. Marriages don't have to be perfect because none are, but children need to learn the skills to help them make wise choices in making friends and getting along with eventual partners.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Dealing with Disappointment

"Failure doesn't mean you are a failure. It just means you haven't succeeded yet."
- Attributed to Robert Schuller
Several years ago, I took my youngest two children to a lake in the mountains not too far from our home with the hope of landing a fish or two for dinner. Of course, growing up, my fishing experience sometimes entailed using a piece of old cheese or baloney on a rusted hook in a creek near my house. Sometimes, I was able to catch a sunfish or two, but I never really had the knack or skill to catch some more sporting game.

My kids and I were full of enthusiasm to land some nice trout that day, and from the start, the fishing was somewhat flow. People around us seemed to be having some success, but again, I was never the best at baiting a hook and knowing where to go looking for the best fishing spot. As the evening progressed, we moved to a different place along the bank of the lake and finally we caught a nice rainbow trout. The kids were thrilled at reeling in the single fish we caught that day, and they put it in a bucket with water to watch it. Having no other luck, we decided to call it a day, and the prospect of having the fish for dinner was definitely on their minds. Then, as we were preparing to leave, I decided to empty the water from the bucket to take the fish home, and in the process, I accidentally pour out the fish and he happily swam away.
At that moment, you could see my kids' countenances change in a second from exuberance and glee to total despair. "Man, Dad. You really ruined OUR day. Can't you get ANYTHING right?" Or at least, I thought they were going to say that. We didn't have more time to fish, and the thought or returning home empty handed weighed on me.
After of few moments of awkwardness and disappointment, I told them not to worry and that we would simply go to the store and buy some great seafood to replace it (which I think turned out to be shrimp and crab legs---an expensive alternative).
Now, in life, disappointment will come to all of us sooner or later. We can stop its hand from touching our lives, and in many cases, we won't be able to substitute the suffering with some grocery items as I did on our fishing trip. Feeling upset and disappointed is a natural feeling, and just telling someone not to feel that way denies the reality of the feelings. However, how we respond and react to those feelings is the key. Do we simply waddle in self pity, or do we make efforts to see such events as stepping stones to better understanding of life events?
Since that time, our family has seen our share of unique challenges, as the majority of people on this planet, and in many ways, I am grateful for each lesson these trials have taught me.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Feeding Your Marriage

"Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years."
Attributed to Simone Signoret (French actress, 1921-1985)

Stress can occur in a marriage when kids seem to be spinning out of control or if they are simply going through the everyday, evolving (and perplexing) nature of being a teenager. One day they might seem to be acting completely  rationale, and then they go ballistic the next. Face it. To a large degree, you won't be able to control what they do and say; they only real control you have to any degree is how you respond to it.
Unfortunately, all of this stress can exact its toll on a marriage and the relationship you have with your spouse. For this reason, feeding your marriage with daily acts of kindness and compassion, along with a double serving of love and thoughtfulness, can go a long way to lifting one's spirit and mending wounds. In the many years I jave published online, I have seldom spoken of my wife just because she much prefers to remain out of the limelight; however, I wouldn't do our family justice by not mentioning the glue that binds our family together. In particular, she has done so much to make me happy, and in term, I have worked hard to reciprocate these same acts of kindness.
Generally speaking, young couples with glitz and exhuberant anticipation of marriage in their eyes have little understanding of what life will throw at them 2,5, 10, or 20 years down the road, and in a way, that is a good thing because we might be so afraid of the future that we don't have the faith and hope that things will turn out for our good. Courage often develops before and during the battle.
When daily battles are to be fought, small acts of kindness and love to our spouses are truely the tiny threads, sown together over time, and keep people together. From time to time, a thread might snap, but the combined total of thousands of them sustain marriage and families in the midst of life's challenges. 

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

"As parents, we guide by our unspoken example.  
It is only when we're talking to them that our kids aren't listening."  
 - Attributed to Robert Brault

 There are times in our lives when we as parents seem to be dishing out some form a sermonette to our children on some lost value or virtue that has seemed to have escaped them. My kids often remind me that I have given this or that one before ("Oh, yeah, dad. Isn't that sermonette number 234? Got it.") At some point, even my Reader's Digest version of my lectures don't appear to fly either. 
Unless you are talking about allowance or how much you plan on letting them use the car (or you just want to hear your own voice rehashing the lecture for the 10,000th time), you will probably be talking on deaf ears. And rightly so in many cases.
While we tend to administer instruction from the pulpit looking down, we probably should be spending more time in the pews ourselves. Personally, I have found that that I can't expect my children to rise to any higher standard than to the one I reach myself. Can you expect your children to be honest if you try to sneak food and drink into a movie theater when clearly posted signs say it is prohibited? You can try to justify certain behaviors by saying the policy doesn't make sense or that the movie theater makes tons of money off refreshments (which they do), but so will your children. We honor policies out of respect. We might be able to outsmart children when they are little, but they quickly see the shallowness of our words.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Being Prepared for the Long Parenting Journey

"If you have never been hated by your child, you have never been a parent. "
Bette Davis (1908-1989), American actress

Sometimes, as a parent, we might have the inclination to beat ourselves up for all our kids failings, particularly when children externalize their reasons for their problems which often fall in our direction. Of course, there are times when we must accept accountability for our shortcomings, but children often have an uncanny ability to make it all our fault and we often internalize this criticism to an extreme. They often magnify the serious of a situation and become can become very dramatic.

I've just been grateful that as my children have gotten older, they have reach a point where they realize that while we aren't perfect, we're not quite to ogres that might have appeared to be years ago. So, when hard times come your way and your kids scream in your face, bite your tongue a little with the knowledge that this phase will pass . . .  perhaps not in the timeline you would hope for, but things often improve. You just have to be prepared for the long haul.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I'm growing kids, not tomatoes!

As a parent, you try your hardest at times to make everything just right, and sometimes minor inconveniences can appear to be major catastrophes. This is particularly true when you have limited perspective on how tragic and painful life can be.

While living in Japan years ago, my wife was attempting to raise cherry tomatoes on the balcony of our apartment. It wasn't a major gardening effort, but with space at a premium in Tokyo, my wife wanted to grow a few things to supplement our dinner plate. Then, one day we realized that our 2-year-old daughter had discovered the joy of picking the tomatoes and tossing them down the stairs (and they don't bounce very well either).

Now, while it wasn't a life-threatening scenario, it was somewhat disappointing to us to have missed out on a potentially nice load of delicious tomatoes. Yet, reflecting back on that, her picking them didn't raise the event to a category 5 hurricane. It was one of those things that you just need to brush off and laugh a little.

By doing so in similar situations, anyone might be able to build some resilience when (not if) real dire circumstances blow our way.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Giving Positive Feedback without Sticking Your Foot in Your Mouth

"When you're right, no one remembers;
when you're wrong, no one forgets."

The tongue can be a powerful force for good, or it can be used to degrade or humiliate others, and this is as applicable to adults as it is to children. Often times, in our feeble attempts to correct our children, we sometimes become overly critical, unknowingly convincing ourselves that kids will learn it no other way. There have been occasions when I personally have tried to deal with a situation in which one of my kids was doing something that I considered somewhat annoying (e.g., yelling around the house) and have simply told the child, "Stop being annoying."

Yeah, what good does a statement like that have when (1) the activity the child was involved in wasn't destructive or bothersome to the degree that I let it irk me, (2) it didn't identify or address specifically the behavior that I wanted the child to pay attention to and modify, and (3) it didn't offer an alternative activity that the child could choose to do instead.

On the day I was leaving the post office after having registered for the draft when I was 18 (I just remember this day because of the circumstances), I remember seeing the quote above hanging on the wall. What struck me was its significance: we too often are unwilling to let others forget their past mistakes, and in the case with children, providing no positive feedback or comments only seems to magnifiy in their minds the image that others have about them.

This is a constant reminder to me that I need to focus on giving positive feedback that builds self worth and helps a child make specific behavior modifications in a supportive way.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Patience: An Underappreciated Virtue

"I can't control the wind, but I can adjust the sails."

One of things that can cause serious frustration in life is our inability to accept the fact that we have limited control over certain things that happen to us in life. Yes, I can usually decide whether I get up at 6:00 a.m. or 6:10 a.m. or whether or not I smile to the person walking past me on the street. However, some things are simply beyond our control. Fretting and complaining about it won't change the facts.

With this in mind, although parents can have a great influence on their children, we can't control many of their choices very easily. (Tying them to their beds just isn't a viable option.) You just have to accept the fact that their attitudes toward you might evolve over time. You could almost summarize the thought life cycle of a in this way:
  • Six years old: "My dad knows all kinds of stuff, and he knows more about fishing than your dad."
  • Ten years old: "My dad knows a lot about a lot of stuff, but he can't make dinner very well."
  • Thirteen years old: "My dad? He just doesn't understand how things are today. So old fashioned."
  • Fifteen years old: "Who? My old man? He just doesn't get it. He's a control freak! When I turn 18, I'm out of here! I can live life the way I want without him breathing down my neck and trying to tell me what to do and how to live. This family sucks! It's not his call to decide on how I live my life."
  • Seventeen years old (and one day before turning 18---a legal adult where I live):  "My dad says I'll be an adult tomorrow. Hmmm . . . Why is he celebrating in his bedroom?"
  • Eighteen years old (the day after turning 18): (Banging on the locked front door) "Uh dad? Uh, I know I said I wanted to move out when I turned 18, and you so nicely packed all of my belongings in boxes and placed them outside along the curb for me . . . thanks . . . but could I stay a little longer? Oh, and I don't have $250 to pay you rent for first month. Dad? Dad? I know you're inside there." 
  • Nineteen years old: "Dad. I love you! So much! Can I have (not borrow) $50?"
  • Twenty-one years old: "My dad knows a lot about a lot of stuff, but he can't make dinner very well."
As you can see (or will see in the future), our children's feelings toward us often goes through cycles, and by accepting the fact that teenagers can be calm one minute and then can go ballistic another is a fact of life. We can't control the wind, but we can have some influence on how we (and our children) trim the sails. Having patience in the midst of any frightening storm can help us see things through.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Free Time Activities: A lot can be learned outside of the classroom

Growing up in the Midwest of the United States in the 1960s and 70s, life in many ways seemed so simple and fun, but perhaps not by today's standards. With our world today filled with electronic gadgets and gizmos (some of which seem utterly useless like a USB lava lamp), teenagers walk around as if some of this devices are an actual physical appendage to their  bodies like an arm or leg, and these kids would experience some form of panic attack if their cell phone battery died. And if all the cell phone companies went out of business tomorrow and service ended as we know it today, I think many teenagers would wither up and blow away.

I remember the carefree days of playing in the cornfields, fishing along a quiet stream, hiking through the woods, and riding bikes. Come to think of it, I can't remember spending much time at all in front of the TV. And personal computers? Hah!

Now, I'm not saying that technology doesn't have its benefits, for were it not for the Internet and wireless communication, I wouldn't be able to type this blog entry on the bus coming home from work. Yet, providing kids with carefree opportunities to experience the simple pleasures of life instead of sending them to 20 different after school programs (i.e., ballad on Mondays, piano on Tuesdays, karate on Wednesdays, gymnastics on Thursdays . . .), perhaps we should be providing other opportunities to grow in different ways.

Success in life isn't measure simply by the future job our kids will have 10 years from now. Personally, I wouldn't trade the memories of just being a kid. I mean how many  kids climb up on the roof of their house, make a crude parachute out of sheets, and jump off to see if it works? I survived!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Compassion: A Lesson in Overlooking our Past Mistakes

One of the worst fears that had often come across my mind in raising kids, especially teenagers, was the day they would ask my parents, point blank, what kind of son I was growing up. And so, my kids asked my father on a couple of occassions.

Pause . . .

Gulp! "Oh, please. I hope you never found out the times I went rafting in the swollen creek after heavy thunderstorms with no life preserver and one of us nearly drown."

"Oh, yeah. I really hope you don't say ANYTHING about the time got into a car accident when I was 16 years old, especially because I tell my own kids that teenagers are unsafe for the roads."

OH, YEAH! I please, PLEASE don't say anything about the time . . . well . . . I can't talk about THAT episode online. Too embarrassing."

. . . . and so, those were my thoughts. I felt somewhat like crawling into a hole. I knew I hadn't been all that bad. I got decent grades in school, and I wasn't a member of any gang. I was pretty normal, but what would my dad say?

Then, my father said something I'll never forget . . . He said, "I couldn't have asked for better kids (speaking of me and my brothers)."

I waited for him to qualify his statement, like "Well, except for the time that . . . " But it never came. Wow, I came out okay. I'm just so thankful that my parents have selective memories and that they have shown understanding and compassion to an unperfect son. A lesson in forgiveness, compassion, and love.

Too often as parents, we forget that our children have emotional bank accounts, and that everytime we say something negative, we withdraw from that account that can leave people emotionally drained. Showing a little more forgiveness for our youthful (and even current) follies and shortcomings in life can brush away the memories and hurt of past misdeeds and shortcomings and can certainly build better relationships.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Choosing Friends

"If you judge people, you have no time to love them."

- Mother Teresa

Choosing good friends now (and a partner later on in one's life) is a difficult labyrinth to navigate for people in general, but teenagers is specific. Getting kids to trust your judgement and advice can be swayed one way or another, in part, by how we try to communicate our feelings with them. Unfortunately, standing on the pulpit of life experiences and preaching down to them (unintentionally in many cases) will only cause them to role their eyes and exclaim that mom and dad are rambling on and on in lecture mode again.

In fact, telling them that they are hanging out with a bad crowd will most certainly get you off their Christmas list. Trying to prevent them from doing so will just confirm in their minds that we are so out of touch, and preaching about the virtues of good friendship can only go so far without children seeing the same attribute demonstrated in your own life. However, parents also tend to rush to judgement and write potential friends off because of their initial looks, manners, and demeanor. Pushed to much, children might emotionally check out of your own life, preferring to seek friendship and companionship elsewhere.

Whatever the case might be, we should recognize that a friend is one who will help you live the standards you have set for yourself and will never ask or influence you to do otherwise even if your standards are different from your own.

Furthermore, a friend is one that won't bail on your when life gets really tough. I often tell my kids that one of the reasons I love their mother is that she is a solid brick. Now, it might not sound very appealing to call your spouse a brick, but what I mean to emphasize is that when (not if) trials and torrents spill into your boat of life, you want someone that will remain steadfast at your side rather than one who bails overboard at the first wind of trouble.
Yes, yes! Life will get difficult and romantic love will only carry you so far, but if you have great friends (in my case, my wife), they will stay firm in the midst of the angry waves.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Balancing Your Priorities

People don't care how much you know
until they know how much you care.

As young parents (which I am NOT at this point in my life), people often spend much of their focus on expanding and developing their careers with the philosophy that their new employment opportunities and salary will benefit their children in the years to come.

Futhermore, we sometimes live with the false impression that young kids require more time than teenagers or adult children; however, my experience has been quite the opposite in that my older and adult children have needed just as much and even more attention than the did when they were little.

Earlier in my career as a teacher, I spent a great deal of time presenting and traveling with the idea that this exposure and experience would get me ahead in my field. (Hey, who wouldn't accept invitations to be a keynote speaker at conferences around the world?) I tried to justify the sacrifice of being away from family as a stepping stone to something greater for them. However, kids will never remember the awards and recognition that you received beyond the walls of your home. In fact, although teenagers might not readily admit it, they need your time, your ear, just as much or even more than they didn when they were crawling on your knee.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with plenty of adversity (and happy for it----after the fact), for it is the one thing that always seems to truly introduce man to himself. In a way, I'm glad I didn't realize how hard life would get over the years in raising a family, for in fact, if any young couple had any idea of the plethora of unfortunate events that generally come to all of us, fewer couples would probably get married. Personally, I saw my weaknesses and tried to make myself better.

Going back to balancing priorities, kids need to know how much you care about them, and such can be accomplished by the simpliest things (things I have done with my family): playing a game of chess, snowing camping in the mountains, running together in a race, gritting your teeth and daring to take your new driver on the freeway for driving practice, sitting up all night to watch a meteor shower.

Someone once said that you never see a hearse pulling a U-Haul (moving) truck, and in the same way, the only things that I believe that you can take with you after you die are your personal character and your family.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Life isn't Fair

 "If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't lead anywhere."

Over the years, I've heard kids exclaim that life isn't fair dealing with the wide range of activities from whose turn it is to get the milk out of the fridge for dinner (once again, happening 15 minutes ago in our family) to more serious issues dealing with life-threatening illnesses or even death.

And on numerous occasions we've all heard the exclamation, "Life sucks!"

Well, what's new with that? Life's experiences can be pretty lonely and cruel at time.

Of course, many (most) things in life don't go the way we plan, and if we go running around complaining about this fact---that life isn't all bliss---we certainly will feel robbed. Of course, we must recognize the reality of the pain that comes along with life's challenges, for that is real, and trying to dismiss those feelings doesn't foster understanding either.

Several years ago while our young family was living in Japan, we elated at the future birth of next child. My wife was in the very early stages of pregnancy, and everything seemed to be proceeding as normal until serious medical circumstances arose in which the doctor (who didn't speak English) stated that the baby wouldn't survive. Separated from family for thousands of miles, with few friends, and with a very VERY limited ability to communicate in Japanese, I felt like ominous clouds were drawing around us. For five months, my wife remained in bed with a great deal of uncertainty as to how things would turn out. The waiting game---the gnawing uncertainty---was one of the hardest things to endure for me because we didn't really know what the next day would bring. Life, death? I'm sure many people have suffered similar and even more tragedy than we were going through.

People often ponder of the fact that bad things happen to good people, and yet, for all that we are enduring or have endured, I wouldn't trade any of these experiences because adversity has been a good teacher. Of course, I didn't feel that way in the midst of the specific trail, but having passed through it, I have a clearer and better perspective of things.