There Will Be a Door

My daughter is a smart three-and-a-half year old.  I have never said anything to her about Jesus.

This may be shocking to some people, but for me I knew there would be a “right” or best time, and that time had not come before last night.

Truth be told, I don’t speak much to her about God either.  It’s not that I don’t want her to have a rich spiritual life, in fact it’s exactly the opposite.  I know this child, and she is a scientist.  She wants to know how, and why, and what the measurements and evidence are.  I love that about her, and I try to do everything in my power to encourage this way of thinking.

For her right now, trying to explain Jesus is too much like making it a fairy tale.  Which, let’s be fair, in many ways it is like a fairy tale.  But I believe(d) one can only begin to hold the concept of the limitations of human expression in the midst of divine truth after much personal experience over many years.  Even then, the holding is delicate, and easily slips through your fingers.  I can’t even fathom going down the road of, “See that sweet baby? He’s the son of God, He loves all people, he was tortured to death as a criminal. Oh, and he rose from the dead. ‘Night, sweetie…..”

Not. Gonna. Happen.  I just kept telling myself, when the time is right, the door will open, and we will walk through it.

Enter my man, Ezra Jack Keats.

We have the classic book illustrated by Keats The Little Drummer Boy checked out from the library this week.  I’ve been reading/singing it to my child every night for three nights.  As soon as it is over she asks to hear it one more time, so we often have at least two consecutive readings before bed.

Last night, as did so many desperate parents, my husband reached for whatever he thought would work. He said to our bed-bouncing top-of-lungs yelping young’un, “Be quiet, sweetie.  The baby Jesus is trying to sleep.”

Without missing a bounce she laughed and said, “Daddy, that’s silly. The baby Jesus lived a long time ago.  He’s not alive any more. He’s like the dinosaurs.”

I can take a hint.

I took a deep breath, because this is one thing I really didn’t want to screw up. Sex, death, and God need to be as close to right as you can get them.

“Well,” I said, “That’s not exactly true.”

She looked at me seriously. I could tell I was supposed to go on.

I opened The Little Drummer Boy.  “Do you see those kings in the story, the grown ups with crowns and money and fancy presents? Doesn’t it seem a little strange that they are going all that way to give a baby those things?”  She acknowledged it was a little strange.

“Some people believe that baby Jesus was God’s way of coming to live with us on Earth. The kings believed that God sent Jesus. They weren’t just going to see a baby, they believed they were going to honor and welcome a part of God to our world.”

Total attention now.

“See how the baby appreciates the little boy the most? That’s how momma and daddy see  God. We believe God loves all people, and that bringing your truest self as a gift is the best thing you can do.”

She’s still listening to me.  I decide to go for it.  I may never get another chance.

“Momma believes Jesus is still alive. Sometimes I talk to him. (She didn’t laugh at me.)  What would you give baby Jesus as a gift do you think?”

With only a slight pause she says with great confidence, “I would give him a dragon kiss!”

I think I must have gotten something right.  Merry Christmas, everyone.

Fly Away Home

I was born in Charleston, West Virginia, over four decades ago. Before I was fourteen years old, I had been to Bermuda, Quebec, Denmark, Paris, Switzerland, and Germany. I attended college in North Carolina, and before I graduated I had back-packed Germany, Scotland, and England. I worked on Capitol Hill my first year out of college, and lived and worked in the international university community of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill for 10 years before making a conscious choice to move back to West Virginia.

Simply put, I’m a big fan of West Virginians getting out before they lock it in.

I’ve puzzled for several years since my return over the hungry – yea, desperate – plea from some contingencies here to create an environment that children don’t leave. “If we only did this…….if we only changed that……if we had a…………then our kids wouldn’t have to leave home.” This is one of the most misguided philosophies I’ve ever encountered on two fronts.

First, kids are supposed to leave home. When you reduce it down to its barest elements, the whole ideal purpose of parenting is to raise children to a level of maturity where they can take care of themselves in their developing social, physical, intellectual, and spiritual spheres. Even when children have special needs, there is a feeling that the maximum level of independence and autonomy possible should be the goal.  To suggest that there is something unnatural or undesirable about leaving the nest is a bit smothering and insecure. One of the best things that can happen to a young person is to explore the world on his or her own terms. Whether you grow up in West Virginia or Tuscany, you need to deliberately depart the confines of your small, childlike world, and put yourself in the environment of newness, diversity, challenge, and change.

Second, from an economic development standpoint, we need less a climate of existing jobs than a climate of innovation to draw the people our state needs to blossom now; and yet we still have a strong dialogue here that centers on former West Virginians coming “home” to fill job vacancies that await them. The people I have in mind that will come to make their lives in our state are looking for opportunity to build, create, and innovate. I am interested in the minds that seek an environment that supports new business creation, not simply seats for warm bodies.

I propose we give the clutching after our offspring a rest. Let’s stop worrying about getting former West Virginians back, and start strategizing about creating a place where smart, motivated people who have grown through diverse life experiences want to work and play. With all due respect to those of us who grew up here, our birth certificates do not automatically make us part of West Virginia’s bright future. What will make us part of that future is our willingness to engage the world; to embrace new people and cultural elements from outside our borders; and to stop asking for jobs and start making them.

Oh yes. And our willingness to kiss our children on the cheek and wish them well on their own journey to whatever place – maybe ultimately here – that creates a sense of home and identity for them and their best lives.

This post is adapted from the original composed for “A Better West Virginia Challenge.”

Image credit: Jamie Gaucher

Flight of the Fledgling: Adolescents and Risk

fledg·ling also fledge·ling (fl j l ng). n. 1. A young bird that has recently acquired its flight feathers.

One of the most common images of necessary risk is the baby bird, poised on the edge of its nest.  There comes a time when every strong and healthy little avian creature struggles up to take the plunge, and if it doesn’t figure it out on its own, it’s momma’s job to push it out, for its own good.

In our species, the teenage years are the human version of a period for taking necessary risk.  The necessity of the process does nothing to mitigate how nail-bitingly stressful it is to behold; but now and then considering risk-taking as a developmental task for adolescents can help adults be a little more patient and understanding as our baby birds flop their way into the world.

Young people don’t wake up one day as responsible, functioning, healthy adults.  They learn a lot by trial and error.  I’ll never forget my own introduction to smoking tobacco.  My decision was influenced strongly by adult behavior and by my general conviction that I needed to try on this behavior if I was going to ever move forward to become “grown up.”  I was thirteen years old on a student exchange trip to France, and I was the youngest student in our group.  My absolute idol was a high school senior on the trip from my school system who was tall, rail thin, totally sophisticated, and mysteriously beautiful.  For some unknown reason she let he hang out with her.  She smoked Dunhill cigarettes, which are made by British American Tobacco company and generally considered “luxury” cigs.

"Remember that fledgling birds are learning to fly and when you see them on the ground, leave them be and bring your pets inside. Courtesy of Wildlife Images."

Of course we all know that there is nothing luxurious about cancer, phlegm, and emphysema, but you can’t really convey that to a fledgling, not all the way when you are competing against a powerful if misguided instinct to develop into an adult.  Thankfully, smoking never really took off for me, and I believe one of the reasons is that my father gave me a story that “allowed” that to happen.  He told me once that he really tried to be a smoker (which to this day cracks me up).  He tried cigarettes, pipes, and various other techniques for consuming tobacco, but at the end of the day he “just didn’t like it.”  As simple as that is, I think it created a different paradigm for me than anything any other adult was selling.  I will always be grateful for dad showing me that putting down something you pick up is a choice that can be successfully implemented, and especially for admitting that he wanted to be cool but eventually decided someone else’s definition of cool was not going to run his life.

This to me is the ultimate risk in many ways for all of us, and maybe the last great wing pump before we can really soar.  Teens are going to try things, sometimes dangerous things.  They want to find out what happens, yes; but they also want to find out where certain behaviors and choices fit in the framework of the adult they are trying to become.  Of course this is rarely a conscious process, but if we watch kids taking risks and remember they are not necessarily permanent decisions but learning processes, it can help.

Some risks will be unacceptable, and should be explained as such.  Kids will still probably try them anyway, but as they make their final decisions about who they will be as adults they are likely to remember what we told them.  “I tried that.  I chose not to make it part of who I am today.”

That message can go a long way.

Image source: Salem-News.com

Good Relationships: Show Us What They Look Like

This week I’ll be writing a few posts about adolescents and adolescent health.  Yesterday’s post got me thinking about this group of people again in ways I haven’t for some time, and I miss working on behalf of those crazy kids.

Some people think teenagers are hard to love.  In spite of myself, I think they are wonderful.  Sure, they can be hard to communicate with at times.  They don’t like us grown ups much.  They live to test boundaries in ways both exhausting and aggravating.  And sometimes they endanger others and themselves.  Yet there is just something so charming about their delicate posture on the teeter-totter between childhood and adulthood that melts my heart.  Growing up is gut-wrenchingly difficult work, and at no time is that more obvious than the teen years.

It’s too easy to ask questions about why kids are they way they are, as if we adults have nothing to do with it.  We have almost everything to do with it.  In its publication “Talking Back: What Teens Want Adults to Know About Teen Pregnancy” the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy highlights 10 concerns young people have.  One of the most powerful is this:

Show us what good, responsible relationships look like.  We’re as influenced by what you do as by what you say.  Demonstrating a respectful relationship—one that is characterized by trust, love, communication, and responsibility—can go a long way in helping us understand why healthy relationships are so important and worthwhile.

No one can start an argument by saying relationships are difficult.  They are very difficult, and the added layer of being role models for the young in our relationships might be considered another layer of challenge.  It might, however, be considered an opportunity to break out of patterns of struggle for purposes above and beyond ourselves.

When I take the time to think about it, I feel empowered to be a better partner, daughter, sister, and friend when I think about what my life looks like to my child.  Most importantly in this context are the partner and friend relationships, because those relationships are voluntary.  All are important, but these relationships are choices young people I care about must make and carry out for themselves.  What do I show them every day?

Conflict resolution.  Communication.  Self-respect and respect for others.  Caring for the body.  Caring for the mind.  Caring for the spirit.  Knowing one’s own values and priorities and carrying them forward at home and at work.  Having the courtesy to honor the values and priorities of others when they differ from one’s own.  Young people look to us every day for answers to questions about these issues, even when they don’t explicitly ask or tell us they are curious and watching.

Let’s recommit to showing them what it these things look like.  Teens may make us crazy, but they deserve our best.

Image credit: Free Extras

MTV’s “Skins”: Has the horse already bolted?

If you are a parent or child advocate, like it or not you should be aware of this program: MTV’s “Skins.”

I worked for a few years as a sexuality educator and advocate for adolescent pregnancy prevention initiatives.  I find I am generally much more comfortable than most adults with the reality that teenagers are sexual people (well, actually, we all are from cradle to grave, but that’s another post).  Where I have always found discomfort is in the lies that marketers tell society in general and kids in particular in order to make a buck.

The video clip linked above is from an interview done by Anderson Cooper with a former reality TV star on MTV and with a representative of the program’s writers and marketers.  As when I did work directly with adolescents, I stick by my philosophy, if you want to know the truth about what’s going on with kids, listen to the kid before you listen to the adult.

The young woman in the interview is in fact no longer a teenager, but she has a perspective on the show that I believe trumps what anyone currently trying to make money off the program would put forth.  I am interested in anyone else’s opinion about the possible value of this program.  Truly, I like to think if I had a teenager in my family right now I would be bold enough to discuss the show with her.  While I am generally grossed out by the ongoing exploitation of children for money on every level, I have a feeling this is not all without value.

Rather than bunch up in outrage, we could see this as an opportunity.  When I watched the clips of the show, I had an unexpected feeling of flashback to my own teenage years.  It was not so much the specific situations as the feeling that now, as an adult, I was getting a look at a private world that I vividly remember wanting to keep under wraps from grown ups when I was that age.

Maybe as a parent thanks are in order.  Kids, MTV is not your friend, but it might be mom’s.  I think you were just busted.  Now turn off the TV, come over here and give me a hug.

Santa Claus: or, There and Back Again

Before I became a parent, I was sure of one thing:  No elaborate lies about this guy named Santa Claus.  I generally “believed” myself as a child, but I don’t remember my parents telling me he was real.  I had presents under the tree “from Santa” and enjoyed all of the traditions and stories about the North Pole, reindeer, etc.; but Christmas was about spiritual matters and the other stuff was just fairy tale fun.

This Christmas my daughter is 2 1/2 years old.  She is prime time for the jolly old elf, and I saw on her face something I never expected.  A few times when I started to explain that it is all just tradition and a fun story, she gave me a look that I can only describe as please don’t take this away from me.  In that instant I realized this period of magical thinking is truly brief, and while I had no interest in some elaborate ruse for myself, she was interested.

Conundrum.

I have known too many people who complain bitterly about being tricked about Santa Claus.  They use words like tricked, lied to, fooled,  and deceived.  They say things like, “I realized I could never trust my parents again.”  That, my friends, is serious business.  I don’t think there is any sure way to know if one’s child will end up feeling this way if you lead them along the merry path.  All I knew, or thought I knew, was that I was not about to risk it.  I mean for heaven’s sake, I need my credibility there for things like sex, God, and paper or plastic.  I can’t be burning it up over some fool elf.

But like I said………there was that face.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t real, and I found myself enjoying the game in spite of myself.  The look on her face when she saw Santa soliciting donations for a children’s charity in town was incredible.  She was just speechless in his presence, but couldn’t stop talking about him at home.  She talked about the elves, the workshops, the North Pole, the flying reindeer, all of it.  Where it started to change was when she processed the stories about “keeping a list.”

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Santa Claus without getting into the lists of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.  The worst are picture books that show him keeping lists of names of “the good little girls and boys.”  My child’s face would cloud over and she looked very unhappy.  Truly, she should have nothing to worry about.  She’s a well-behaved kid.  But I knew she definitely did not like this part of the story.

One evening as she was falling asleep I heard her say, “Santa will be upset with me.  Santa is going to be upset.”  I assured her Santa was just fine with her, that he didn’t get upset with anyone, that it was all good.  But the next episode sealed the deal for me.  As we were talking about Santa in general and the fact that Christmas is coming, she cut her eyes away from me and said flatly, “I don’t love him.”

My girl is one of the most loving children I’ve ever known.  This was a red alert that the big man had to be kicked to the curb.  After talking it over with her father, I told my daughter, “You know, Santa Claus is just a character in a story that people like to tell this time of year.  It’s for fun.  It’s all about magic, and giving, and imagination.”  She looked at me with wide eyes.  I went for it.  “He’s not real.  He’s made up.  Momma and Daddy are real.  We love you.  You never have to worry about Santa, he’s just pretend and for fun.  If it’s not fun, we can just not talk about him.”

That child’s face lit up like a you know what.  She smiled a beautiful smile and hugged me with all her might.

What can I say?  If it works, it works.  If it doesn’t, it’s truly no loss.  Yesterday we lost a fat guy in a suit we were going to lose eventually anyway, and we kept a tighter grip on unconditional love.  That is for real.

Image credit: Norman Rockwell

Life and Death (and Life) in the the Garden

The creation myth recorded in the book of Genesis is perhaps the most well-known ancient story of human origins.  By “story of our origin” I mean exactly that.  It is not science, it is a story.  It is a genuine and compelling myth, and many cultures have them.  I like this framing of myth from Wikipedia:

…….academic use of the term generally does not pass judgment on truth or falsity.  In the study of folklore, a myth is a sacred narrative explaining how the world and humankind came to be in their present form.  Many scholars in other fields use the term “myth” in somewhat different ways.  In a very broad sense, the word can refer to any traditional story.

One of the reasons I adore mythology is that it tends to illustrate more deeply Truth (capital T) than does dry fact.  For example, the layering of conflict, hubris, love, temptation, foolishness, desire and loss in the Greek myth of Icarus is difficult to match.  By using a factually “untrue” story, the Greeks say more about the human condition in a few words than most others have in volumes.

Our weeping mulberry tree in November

The garden presents itself in special ways this time of year.  There is so much to learn and appreciate year ’round, but something about the autumn season seems to lend itself especially well to talking about some of the most difficult topics.  My parenting philosophy is to use both myth and nature to teach my daughter as early as possible about life.  Decline and death are difficult topics for many when it comes to talking with young children, but I find that the more I expose my child to the garden, the more naturally and comfortably she seems to absorb the conversations.

All year long, we talk about fertility, and seeds, and conditions for life.  We talk about living things thriving where they get what they need, and withering where they do not.  We discuss intervention and non-intervention in the food chain (not easy, but good).  We respect the passing of worms, and bugs, and birds.  We thank the world for sharing its bounty with us, and we remind ourselves of our reciprocal role in respecting the systems around us.

The garden is a place of joy, and loss, and natural comings and goings.  It is, in fact, the perfect place.  All the more understandable that getting kicked out was the ultimate punishment for Adam and Eve……….and all the more True that our restoration there is a natural culmination to a journey lived outside. 

Welcome, winter.  Spring will surely be here soon.

Image credit: Elizabeth Gaucher