Archive for the ‘Dear Friends Letters’ Category

Making Connections

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Because I travel a lot, I often observe some pretty amazing things in airports and airplanes. Many of these “amazing” observations don’t exactly make my heart sing, so it was particularly refreshing to have an experience recently that did. I believe it helps to share such stories, especially considering the not-so-great news that bombards us from every direction.

Not long ago, a coworker and I were trying to make a tight connection at the end of a particularly grueling trip. As our plane pulled up to the jet way, my colleague bemoaned, “our next flight has already boarded.” We were seated in the back of the airplane, so it looked pretty hopeless that we’d make our connecting flight. But a girl who was part of a group of teenagers traveling home from an FFA convention overheard the comment and took it upon herself to organize her large party to stay seated and let us get off before them. This gesture allowed us to skip ahead 30 people, enabling us to make our flight by the skin of our teeth.

Now, as most of us know, the teenage years can be difficult ones. So many times the kids get a bad rap. More often than not, what you read about them is less than complimentary, especially compared to the endearing infant and toddler years when we can’t get enough of our kids’ cuteness, can’t stop taking pictures, and want to capture every moment. But things change through the years: we, they, the world. Expectations become more complex, and how our teenagers choose to be in the world affects a wider and wider circle of others with whom we share this planet.

I recently ran across a quote from Dr. Benjamin Spock that got my attention: “In automobile terms, the child supplies the power but the parents have to do the steering.” Without parents who showed by example how to be gracious, how to be patient, and how to be considerate of others, these teenagers on our flight would have never even thought of allowing us to deplane before them. But kudos to them and those who raised them! In this generation of “It’s all about me,” I believe it’s more important than ever for parents to live in a way that demonstrates that it isn’t “all about me.” It’s about all of us, together, connected and aware that we are all in this together.

Fully Engaging With Our Children

Friday, February 13th, 2009

Janet's daughter and grandson

When I was recently at the grocery store with my 5-year-old grandson, the clerk asked if I’d like help out to the car. But, umm, all I had bought was a carton of eggs. I laughed and said that while I may be a grandma, I’m not too feeble to carry a dozen eggs to my car! The dour clerk told me they had to ask everyone that question or they’d ‘get in trouble.’ She then smiled and said, ‘Have a nice day!’ (You just know she’d also be in hot water if she didn’t say that!)

As a grandmother who wants her grandson to grow up to be a common-sense kind of guy and an independent thinker, I felt I had been handed one of those ‘teachable moments.’ For the life of me, though, I was at a loss about what to say! I so wanted to instill in him the value of thinking something through rather than just doing what you’re told because somebody said you’d ‘get in trouble’ if you didn’t. Suddenly I felt like a loser grandma because I didn’t have a clue how to get this principle across to a 5-year-old. Yikes. Why do we always put such pressure on ourselves to suddenly transform into Ward Cleaver at times like this? Why do I always feel as if I should have pearls of wisdom dropping from my mouth around my grandson? But mindful parenting (and grandparenting!) isn’t scripted any more than mindful customer service is (take note, big grocery store chain!), and it usually isn’t what we ’say’ to children that makes the lasting impression. It’s all the gloriously messy and rich and colorful stuff in between. It’s about fully engaging with our children on a daily basis, being in the moment rather than going by a script as we explore critters in the backyard, learn a new board game, or try a ‘yucky’ new food.

Years ago, my mother-in-law cautioned me not to parent too much ‘by the book,’ and she was right. In retrospect, when I think of the things I did right as a parent, it was allowing my daughter to explore at her own pace, and many times that meant refraining from pressing for that ‘teachable moment.’ Sometimes in our eagerness to be the ‘best’ parents we can be, we end up overstimulating our children with unduly long lectures and the latest ‘educational’ toys, bombarding them with so many activities and so much stuff that their little brains and souls go on overload.

With this new year, my wish is that we remember the importance of nurturing our child’s natural curiosity and thought processes, and that we cut ourselves some slack regarding the ways we go about doing it. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children (and ourselves) is simply to be there for them with open ears and hearts, lovingly listening, patiently guiding. Call it mindful parenting or just plain common sense; you can’t go wrong with this approach.

Building Character While Playing Characters

Wednesday, January 7th, 2009

My 11-year-old son was in a play last week. For years, friends had been telling me what a great experience this theater program was and how much their kids enjoyed participating in it. I’m not sure why, but in my mind I pictured spoiled child stars, overly-doting parents, and cramming rehearsals into an already packed schedule. In short, I could not see much positive coming from the whole experience.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself talking with the program’s director at a neighborhood park one day. He explained that the emphasis in the productions was not on the singing and dancing or who was the star of the show, but on responsibility, character, and leadership. Now I started getting interested! Not that I don’t value singing and dancing, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s the real life lessons that I value most.

So Ben auditioned for the play and made it. The weeks just flew by until it was time for the scheduled performances. The kids were busy, and the parents were even busier since it was an all-volunteer production. On the final night before the last performance, I found myself sitting in a room with all of the performers while the director gave them suggestions. After having seen the play from lots of different angles—as a parent, from backstage, from the audience —I expected to hear him tell them not to miss a certain cue, to sing out more during this scene, or something of this sort.

Instead, what he said has stayed with me a long time, and in fact, I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. (more…)

Never Underestimate the Value of a Good Hello

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

I learned a fair amount about parenting from my “firstborn,” a larger-than-life golden retriever. Perhaps the most important lesson she taught me was to never underestimate the value of a good hello. Every day after work, I would come home to a whirling dervish of a dog. I soon learned that how I handled those first few moments of togetherness could make or break the quality of my (our!) evening.

A quick ruffling of her head with a “Hey there, Sandra McJean!” meant I’d be in for a long evening of “Stop chewing on the armoire!” and “Why are you barking?!” On the other hand, if I gave Sandy 10 minutes of undivided attention upon my arrival, it made all the difference. Given a little play time, some serious petting, and encouraging words, she’d be good to go for the rest of the night. When I became mother to my first daughter, I recognized the drill! Sure enough, the tone for an entire evening had a lot to do with how those first few minutes were managed. Did my daughter feel seen and heard-truly welcomed and full of my love for her, or did she feel overlooked and insignificant, leaving her empty and wanting more, more, MORE!? (more…)

Receiving an “A” in Kindness

Sunday, November 16th, 2008

I know a man, Jim, who’s a 4th grade teacher. At the end of the school year last June, he casually mentioned to a group of friends some things that have stayed in my mind and heart over these last months. He was talking about the requisite achievement tests, assessments, reports to the district, reports to the parents and the paperwork that are all part of the end-of-the-year procedures expected of teachers. He had just completed all of these reports and wanted us to know something.

Now, I’ve heard Jim talk about his class on a number of occasions. His eyes veritably twinkle as he tells how, in September, the kids are sort of - kids. And then by June, they are taller, more confident, more not so kid-like. His love for his calling, as well as for his charges, simply shines through. Every time I hear him mention his class, I’m struck with how I hope that every single one of his students’ parents understands how fortunate they are to have him in their lives.

On this particular day, he felt compelled to share with someone something that no commentary, no assessment, no form that he has to complete ever, ever asks for. Because he thought it was something important enough for someone to know, he wanted to report to us, friends sitting around, that the end of this school year, as so many others, found his students kinder, gentler and softer to each other than they had been at the beginning of the school year, and that, from his vantage point, it appeared that their souls seemed to be in pretty good shape. (more…)

Containers of Connection & Love

Friday, November 7th, 2008

One could say that everything we do for the holidays is an effort to create ‘containers of connection’ — ways to ensure Light and Love are present in the cold and wintry darkness of the year.

My family’s special ‘container of connection’ is a cluster of old log cabins in the backwoods of Alabama — our homestead for over thirty years. Our entire wild and wooly clan descends on Papa every December — children, spouses, grandchildren, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and a cockatiel named Tuck. Mama found the land long ago and convinced her high-powered attorney husband to live intimately with the natural world. She died awhile back, and nowadays Papa is gardener, farmer, and beekeeper. Mostly he spends his time figuring out how to co-inhabit with the wild creatures who really own the place.

As the longest night approaches, our land grows still and expectant, serenely waiting for the return of Light. But inside the cabins, chaos reigns. Inflatable mattresses have new holes to patch; children find the candy stash and fly around in sugared frenzies; tempers flare over non-stop eating and mounds of dirty dishes. Unresolved issues from childhood pour out over dinner; doors slam; people pout and yell, and we are left wondering why in the world, once again, we agreed to participate in such madness. (more…)

The Power of a Smile

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

On a recent business trip to New York, it was very cold, the wind was blowing, my feet hurt from the previous 8 hours spent walking the trade show floor, and I was starving. Needless to say, I wasn’t in the best of moods and wanted nothing more than to go back to my hotel room and crawl under the covers. Unfortunately, I still had a business dinner to get through that evening.

So there I was, walking in the snow and wind, feeling very sorry for myself, and knowing my misery wasn’t going to end anytime soon. I came to a corner where I had to stop to wait for the light. A little boy of about six was standing there, holding his mother’s hand. Suddenly, for no reason, this child looked up and gave me the biggest, brightest, sweetest smile ever. His whole face just glowed in my direction. My rotten mood evaporated — poof! — just like that! With one brilliant smile, that little boy turned my day around.

I have thought about that incident many times since that trip — how the actions of a complete stranger had such a profound effect on me. When I look back on it, I can’t help but think about what effect I may have on the people I come into contact with on any given day.

The holidays are stressful times for so many — people who don’t have any family close by, people who have suffered the recent loss of a loved one, people who have lost a job at the worst possible time, or people who are just piling too much on their plates (as I was that cold New York day). This holiday season, remember this story of the difference a little boy made as you go about your day. Make your smiles brighter, say a kind word, offer to help if you can sense it is needed, and leave a positive impression wherever you can. One small gesture could end up being the best gift you have ever given.