Race speaks as an authority on what’s happening in the brain in today’s high-stress world—and especially what happens in children’s brains when they are overscheduled, short on sleep, and inundated with technology. But she also speaks as a parent and as a classic overachiever, who sadly developed an autoimmune disease in the wake of the stress of working on her doctorate, remodeling their house, caring for a toddler, and gestating a baby. (Oh Kristen, my sister… let’s you and Brené and I have virtual coffee.)
You can view Race’s TEDx talk here:
I appreciated the mix of solid brain research as well as stories and anecdotes about the consequences of what Carrie Newcomer has called our “culture of perpetual motion.” From the book’s description:
Research has shown that mindfulness practices stimulate the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Regular stimulation of this part of the brain helps us feel happier, healthier, calmer, less anxious, less stressed, and makes it easier for us to concentrate and think clearly—the very behavior we are hoping our children will display.
Race’s work is informed by folks like Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MD and practitioner/proponent of mindfulness meditation, and includes lots of exercises and practices that you can implement right away with your kids—or by yourself. She points out that if we want our kids to be grounded, centered and free of stress, we have to start with ourselves. I say this all the time to parents who want to incorporate Sabbath into their lives but can’t figure out how to convince children (especially teens) to go for it. Don’t let that stop you from doing it.
The exercises in the book are categorized for different ages of children, which is a nice feature. I liked the sections that model how to talk to small children about this stuff. She also addresses some of the naysayers in effective ways (“But I watched tons of TV as a child and I turned out fine!”)
This year I’m trying to see as many of the big Oscar nominees as possible. Last Friday I checked off my first film: Philomena, which is about an Irish woman’s search for her son, who was adopted by American parents some 50 years before. Philomena was one of the Magdalene girls, unwed mothers who were essentially incarcerated in various Catholic institutions and forced into unpaid labor as payment for their shameful mistakes.
It’s an excellent movie, though devastating to watch. It brings up any number of issues related to faith. Here are a couple:
The importance of forgiveness. I wished for a more nuanced portrayal of the topic, however. Near the end of the movie, there’s a scene in which a roomful of religious people practically cluck in disdain at the character of Martin Sixsmith (the journalist who’s been helping Philomena), who is livid at the injustice and secrecy that has persisted for decades. The implication in their response (including Philomena’s) is that he needs to let go of his anger and forgive because such negative feelings serve no purpose.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift of grace. And simmering resentments can corrode our lives. But Martin’s anger in that moment was appropriate. Given the magnitude of the injustice, it was more than that. It was righteous.
I’d wager that any anger the real Martin felt provided motivation for the writing of the book, which after all, served to bring this important story to light. Anger, properly harnessed, is a powerful fuel, and it bothers me when religious people are portrayed in such a milquetoast manner in popular culture.
But pop culture didn’t invent that image out of whole cloth. The Church, if I may be so monolithic, has offered plenty of inspiration for such a portrayal.
But it’s not just the anger and forgiveness thing…
Issues of the body and sexuality. We are still so primitive when it comes to talking about sex and our bodies. The young Philomena is doubly disadvantaged: she was not taught enough basic anatomy to understand how to prevent pregnancy. But she wasn’t taught anything about her body and its own pleasures, either—she admits with some chagrin that she enjoyed her “sin,” and exclaims to Martin Sixsmith, I never even knew what a clitoris was!
We in the Church are still dealing with the aftermath of that old Greek dualism in which the Apostle Paul and other New Testament writers were steeped: spirit good, body bad.But as Martin’s character asks Philomena, what kind of God would create us with these natural sexual urges and then saddle us with such screwed-up, shame-filled religious baggage at the same time? How can something that feels so good be so very very bad? (Secular culture is not much better. Yes, the contours are different. But body image issues, self-punishment to fit an unattainable ideal, the rise of cosmetic surgery in the age of Photoshop—it’s not like the Church is a lone dysfunctional voice.)
We can rejoice that the Magdalene laundries are a memory (though not a distant enough one; the last one closed in the ’90s). But it’s still hard for us to talk about the body in a mature and meaningful way. The spiritual resources are there; we just have to embrace them.
Last week I wrote an endorsement for a book of spiritual practices for families. It’s a wonderful resource, full of ideas for parents to bring their faith into everyday life, whether it’s offering blessings at bedtime or welcoming a new pet to the family. It was one of the easiest endorsements I’ve written, and you’ll be hearing more from me about the book when it’s released.
But as I reflected on the legacy of Philomena, I realized with a start that there’s nothing in the book about children’s physical and sexual development. And I’m not saying this to knock the book at all—I myselfdidn’t see a thing missing until the movie prompted me to think about these things.
An obvious one: there must be a way for families (or at least mothers) to mark the occasion of a girl’s first period from a spiritual/faith perspective. My eldest daughter is excited because I’ve promised to take her to Spa World to celebrate this milestone. But there must be more that could be said or done. I’m not talking about a big show or an embarrassing display. I’m talking about some language celebrating God’s good gift of creation and the beauty of our bodies, fearfully and wonderfully made.
How about a teen’s first date? Or a first breakup? Surely the Christian tradition can offer more than a pint of Ben and Jerry’s…
What about a young person’s coming out?
And the real kicker. According to Wikipedia, the average age for a young person to have sex for the first time is 17. That means they’re living under our roofs when it happens. How do we respond to this from a faith perspective?
Can I envision what a faith-filled ritual would look like between parent and young person after she loses her virginity? No, I really can’t. Does such a thing sound easy? Do we need to consider the young person’s privacy and autonomy? No and yes. But that’s all the more reason for the church to be a resource for parents. Don’t we want the kind of relationships with our children such that they could share news of that milestone with us? If so, then we should be ready, with the best our tradition can offer them. (See Tami Taylor’s conversations with Julie on Friday Night Lights—some great stuff to build on there. So simple and authentic.)
I’m not talking about a lecture on abstinence. Parents should communicate their own values, though lectures aren’t terribly effective in my experience. I’m also not talking about the contraception/condoms discussion, though such a conversation is essential; it’s borderline parental malpractice not to have it.
No, I’m talking about making it clear to our kids that their sexual lives are not divorced from their faith, but an essential part of it. I’m talking about repairing the body/spirit duality such that our lives are one integrated whole.
Does a resource containing such rituals exist? If so, I hope my readers will alert me. If not, maybe my friend will write a sequel.
Hey, I’d love for you to join my email list for further inspiration and content. And if you haven’t already checked out Sabbath in the Suburbs, the price has dropped on Amazon! And of course it’s available from Chalice Press, my publisher.
Image: The Dench and Steve Coogan in a still from the movie. If you’re interested in discerning fact from dramatic license in the film, here’s a place to start.
There are parents who refuse to participate in the Santa myth because they don’t want to lie to their children. That stand has integrity in its own way, I suppose, but it seems unnecessary to be so draconian about it. Myths are tales that give meaning and texture to our lives.
As an adult Christian, for example, Christmas invites me into the mystery of a God who refuses to remain at an aloof distance but would participate fully in human vulnerability through the incarnation of Jesus. But that’s kind of abstract for a kid. The Santa myth is much more relatable. As much as some of us chide our kids about lumps of coal and Santa keeping a list (and setting aside the reality that Santa showers more gifts on wealthy homes than poorer ones), the fact is that Santa embodies grace: no matter who you are or what you’ve done, you will be remembered on Christmas morning.
But if you participate in Santa, you need to be ready for some messiness later. There will come a liminal time in which younger siblings still believe in Santa but older siblings know the whole truth. Or what to do with classmates at school whose awareness may not match up with your own child?
Our middle child asked for “the truth” about Santa last year, and Robert shared it with her. Interestingly, this year she’s acting as if the conversation never happened. There’s not always a clear before and after with these things. Sometimes there’s a willful forgetting, or a benign sense of denial. And that’s OK.
Still, if you’re truly concerned about your kid landing in therapy someday to work through their betrayal once they discover the truth about Santa, you could start by downplaying the Santa thing from the get-go. Don’t insist that the guy at the mall is the “real” Santa. Don’t answer a kid’s critical thinking questions with ever wilder explanations about the physics of flying reindeer, or how Santa can deliver so many presents in 24 hours. The appearance of presents on Christmas morning, as if by magic, is wondrous enough. Glitter and fake hoofprints in the snow are just gilding the lily.
When my children ask questions about Santa, I usually preface my answer by saying, “Well, the story goes that…” This puts me in the role of the communicator of a folktale rather than some perpetrator of a fraud. If they’re inclined to continue believing, they will accept this framing. If they’re ready to push further, they will.
In fact, though there are many ways to have the Santa conversation, this is the one that makes the most sense to me—to approach it as a story. Here is the gist of what I said to our oldest daughter a few years back. Her questions had turned from idle to insistent (and trust me, you’ll know when it’s time for this conversation). I’m recreating it here as a single commentary, but this unfolded over a series of halting conversations—in fact, it continues to unfold.
The story of Santa is just that—a story. It began a long time ago, with a man named Nicholas, who was a bishop in Myra, in present-day Turkey. Nicholas was a humble man with a special fondness for children. He had a reputation for secret gift-giving, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him. There are many other examples of Nicholas’s generosity that were told. Over time, Nicholas became Saint Nicholas, which is the church’s way of honoring him.
And his story spread, as beautiful stories tend to do. It was such a beautiful story that everyone wanted to be a part of it, not just in Greece and Turkey, where Nicholas was from, but all over the world. People changed the story somewhat and called Nicholas by other names: Father Christmas, Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and so forth. Just as Nicholas gave gifts in secret, so do parents and other adults give secret gifts to children.
The story of Santa has continued all of these centuries because it’s a powerful story that helps give our lives meaning. And that story has not ended with you asking the “truth” about Santa. Santa is as real now as he was the moment before you asked the question. And the story will continue as long as there are people willing to tell it and live in it.
Yes, the story goes on—it’s just that you’re in a different place in the story now. Before, you were in the part of the story that received gifts as if by magic on Christmas morning. Guess what? You still get to be in that part of the story. But now you also get to be in the part of the story that shares those gifts with other people. (Maybe you’d like to help pick out stocking stuffers for your younger siblings, for example.)
There are all kinds of characters in stories like this. There are characters who think the whole thing is silly and a waste of time. That’s OK. There are also people who go around telling their siblings or their peers the “truth.” You can choose to do that if you want. But then you’ve taken away their choice to be where they want to be in the story. I hope you won’t take that choice away from them. They’ll come to another place in the story when it is time.
When I said earlier that the story began with Nicolas of Myra, that’s not really true. Because Nicholas was part of an older and deeper story, the story of Jesus. Jesus’ life was one of giving to those around him, living simply, sharing good news with hurting people, and asking others to follow his example. Nicholas decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to living in that story. So many of us, when we participate in the Santa story, are also participating in Jesus’ story. For others, the Santa story is not connected with Jesus, but with the spirit of giving. That’s OK too.
Over time, you will have questions about Jesus’ story as well. How can a man die and come back to life? Are all of Jesus’ miracles really possible? What happens to us after we die, if anything? I have all of those questions too, and probably always will. But the bottom line for me is that the story of Jesus has grabbed ahold of me and won’t let me go. It’s the story I want to live in, as best I can, for as long as I can.
The big problem is not that they think too highly of themselves. Their bigger challenge is conflict negotiation, and they often are unable to think for themselves. The overinvolvement of helicopter parents prevents children from learning how to grapple with disappointments on their own. If parents are navigating every minor situation for their kids, kids never learn to deal with conflict on their own. Helicopter parenting has caused these kids to crash land.
We’ve all heard this. People love to kvetch about helicopter parents; we pass around stories of parents who go on job interviews with their adult children, or who call colleges during the application process, pretending to be the high school student, or who step in for their high schooler, arguing for higher grade on tests. My sense is that these egregious stories are outliers, though there does seem to be an uptick in this helicopter mentality among certain socioeconomic groups, and I’ve seen plenty of examples of it myself.
My question is, why? Why are people choosing to parent this way? If we can get to the cause, we can start to correct it. I’ve heard a number of explanations:
the increasing competitiveness of college admissions and the job market;
the spiraling cost of higher education, leading to a “customer is always right” mentality;
a media culture that likes to peddle fear of the bogeyman lurking behind over corner, to the point that parents are terrified to let their kids roam free in the world (figuratively and literally)
a rejection of authoritarian, “do it my way” models of parenting in favor of a teaching/shepherding model. In theory, this shepherding model should be about equipping the child to make her own decisions and live in the world, but other factors combine to create a bitter result: buddy-buddy parents who are so petrified of their kids’ failing that they flatten every bump in the road.
I suggest another cause underlying this stuff. I haven’t heard it mentioned much, but I think it’s a factor we shouldn’t ignore. It has to do with time.
Nobody starts out intending to impersonate his child to a college admissions officer. It happens over a period of years, and it happens with a thousand tiny decisions, starting when they are young. Decisions like:
1. When my child is having an emotional reaction to something, am I able to stop what I’m doing and let them have their feelings, or am I going to find a quick and easy way to smooth things over?
2. If my child absolutely refuses to wear a coat, will I let them go without one and suffer the discomfort—and learn a valuable lesson—or am I going to “make” them wear one?
3. If a student is having a conflict with a teacher’s teaching style, will I coach him first on how to address the issue, and support those efforts, intervening as a last resort? Or will I immediately swoop in and take over, demanding that the teacher conform to my child’s learning style?
4. Am I going to let my child play freely on the monkey bars, knowing there’s a teensy-tiny chance they could fall and break their arm, or worse? Or am I going to follow them around squawking “be careful, be careful” like a paranoid cockatoo?
I argue that the way you answer these questions, and a thousand others, is directly related to factors such as:
1. whether you’ve built any margins into your schedule to address a child’s emotional life, as opposed to pacifying or appeasing them so you can get on to the next thing, or
2. your tolerance of a cold and complaining child, which is directly related to your own stress level, or
3. whether you’re able do the hard work of coaching, which will take much longer than just doing it yourself, or
4. whether you have time for a trip to the emergency room. (OK, nobody really has ER time built into their schedule.)
I don’t consider myself a helicopter parent by temperament. Sure, I hate as much as anyone to see my kids experience pain or loss, but I try to take the long view and understand that failures and setbacks build resilience. That said, the times that I find myself firing up the chopper are precisely those times when I am too busy, too stressed, or too anxious to stop and help the kids work through their issues. I’d rather solve it myself, brush my hands off, and get on with life.
But in this parenting business, short-cuts (while sometimes necessary) can be costly. One of my parenting mantras is “the harder thing is the easier thing.” That is, doing what seems harder at the time is often easier in the long run: investing the time in helping a child understand her own emotions, or advocate for herself, pays huge dividends down the road. Building margins into my schedule is my biggest spiritual challenge at the moment, but I need to, not just for myself but for my children.
Because there’s no way I’m accompanying them on a job interview.
Halloween is still several days away, but in many homes, the excitement and preparation has been going on for several weeks. In our family, the kids are planning their costumes, imagining ever-more-intricate ones. I love their creativity, and want them to have fun and feel great about their costumes, but some of the logistics of their imaginations require me to ratchet back their expectations. I am not a seamstress with an abundance of free time. As of this writing, we are settling on a zombie, Gaia (aka Mother Earth) and Luke Skywalker.
Truth be told, Halloween is one of my least favorite holidays. Some Christians have a suspicion toward Halloween because of its supposed relationship to the occult. That’s not my issue; in fact, All Hallow’s Eve is connected to All Saints Day, an explicitly Christian celebration adapted from the Celts.
No, I don’t love how over-the-top Halloween has become. The trend is away from homemade, improvised costumes and toward “authenticity.” My aspiring Luke Skywalker is angling for a “real” costume, not one of Daddy’s white shirts with a wraparound belt and makeshift lightsaber.
Halloween is a huge and growing industry, and it shows in my neighborhood. Every year we see more and more houses with extreme decorations—elaborate graveyards, spooky lighting, fog machines, even a full-fledged haunted house right on the front lawn. That’s their choice, of course, and my children love trick-or-treating at these homes… but they make even a moderate amount of decorating look positively Scrooge-like in comparison! (They also draw the bulk of the trick-or-treaters, leaving the rest of us to frantically give away six Snickers at a time as the crowd starts to thin.)