When my children were very young, I had a conversation with my mother that has stuck in my mind since then.
She told me that I should not be so attentive to my children or their needs. That it was all fine and good to try to treat them respectfully and kindly, to anticipate and meet their needs, and to be gentle with them, but that I should not do so as much as I did because the rest of the world would not treat them that way, and they would not be prepared for that.
I said "Mom, are you saying that I should abuse my children so that if, someday, someone else abuses them, they'll be used to it???"
I was highly offended. Shocked, even.
I've come to see that perhaps there was a grain of truth to what she was saying.
Not that I should abuse my children, of course.
But that people who grow up in a loving environment really AREN'T prepared for the harsh realities of the world, sometimes.
The question is how to teach your children- or yourself- how to survive in a world that is often cruel and discourteous, where lies are rewarded more than truth, and where "go along to get along" seems to be the most popular motto.
I don't have the answer to that.
I do have some suggestions for things I think people need to know. Not so much to get along in this world, but to be able to live with themselves, with integrity intact. These things seem to be learned most frequently through living through unpleasant circumstances. This, I think, is what my Mom was getting at- that it is through the hard times that we learn most.
I would not artificially create hard times in order to teach these things to my children, but it is sadly not generally necessary to do so. Difficulties are plenty to be found.
1. The concept of cause and effect: understanding consequences
The most natural thing for a parent to do is to "make everything okay." They don't want their children to suffer, whether it's physical pain, or mental anguish, or any other emotional trauma. So they fix things. They hold their crying child and tell them everything is okay, that it isn't their fault. They tell the child not to "feel bad."
This is, sometimes, a disservice. If a child does something wrong, they SHOULD feel bad. That is how they learn not to repeat it. This does not mean making them feel worse, or punishing them, or holding a grudge. It does not mean refusing to help them deal with the situation. It just means that children should be allowed to own their mistakes, and feel what they feel.
What happens if a parent always makes things better is you end up with fledgling adults who have no idea how to deal with the consequences of their actions. They expect- sometimes demand- that someone else fix the problem. An example I see frequently is college students who skip classes where the only requirement is attendance, and then expect to pass anyway. Who expect an exception to be made for them.
The reality is that sometimes, mistakes happen. And sometimes, they can't be fixed. You can't go back in time and "undo" things. You can only move forward, and accept the consequences.
This is much easier if someone has learned that ALL actions have consequences.
2. How to be responsible for your actions
This naturally follows from accepting that there are consequence to your actions.
I don't think I ever really understood the concept of personal responsibility until I became a mother. I still remember the very moment. When my oldest son was a few days old, the day we came home from the hospital, I remember looking at him and realizing that his very LIFE depended on MY actions or inactions. I was responsible not only for my own life, but for another person's.
This is a huge realization.
I started to pay a lot more attention to what I did. I now had to consider the effects of everything I did or didn't do, on this other person. This meant considering a lot of consequences, from simple things like what I would do with the baby while I took a shower, to how long I would let him cry. And as he grew up, there were many other things to consider, and there continue to be, even as he is becoming an adult. I am a role model, 24/7. Everything I do, everything I say, affects how my children experience the world, and it is part of what is the ongoing creation of them as individuals.
What I figured out later on is that this is true all the time, with everyone I come in contact with, not just with my children. True, a parent is SUPPOSED to be a role model for their children, so there is a level of expectation of responsibility. But every person affects everyone else, and that is ALSO a responsibility.
To be responsible, first you must be aware.
Pay attention to what you choose to do. Make conscious choices.
Be aware of how you affect the people around you. You are not responsible for their actions, but you cannot ignore your contributions or pretend that you are never a catalyst. How you treat people matters.
Acknowledge what you do.
This does not mean to brag about your accomplishments, but to be honest about your mistakes.
But also, be objective about your actions. Evaluate yourself fairly. Sometimes, you might do something that is NOT a mistake, and it's okay to own that, too. :-)
Constantly strive to improve the ratio of conscious choice to habitual action, and of appropriate actions to mistakes or "accidents."
When necessary, apologize. Immediately, if possible.
3. How to apologize
Most people do not know how to apologize. They are not taught to do so. They are, generally, expected to mouth the platitudes, but no one expects them to mean it. What child has not been told "Say you're sorry!" about something, at which point they say it, but then go on as if nothing happened?
A real apology has two important components.
The first is that it is simple, and is not clouded with a variety of excuses and whines.
Apologies don't start with "I'm sorry, but..."
They don't include a suggestion of fault in the other party.
Apologies are not about excuses. They are not even about reasons. Excuses and reasons matter far more to the person making them than to the offended party. They are an attempt to "not feel bad," in keeping with the usual early training of avoiding the consequences of mistakes. Salve to the conscience.
The second part of an apology is that it must be genuine.
For it to be genuine, there must be real, ongoing action taken to avoid the same mistake happening again.
If you do not attempt to avoid a recurrence, then you clearly were not sorry in the first place. If you regret what happened, you'll make sure it doesn't happen again.
4. How to keep your word
This one is pretty simple.
If you give your word, keep it.
If you say you'll do something, do it.
There are two parts to this one, too.
The first part is to be careful what you say and particularly what you say you will do. This doesn't mean semantic word-juggling, to avoid pinning yourself down. It's the same basic thing as I've already mentioned- make conscious choices.
The other part of this is to avoid trying to weasel out of anything, ever.
Do not make excuses, to others, or, most importantly, to yourself, about what you did or did not say you would do. Be clear in the first place. When in doubt, interpret things in the most honorable possible way. Not the most "convenient." If fixing a mistake comes down to inconveniencing either yourself or another person, choose yourself.
It all comes back, again, to what I learned as a brand new mother. Consider well the consequences of everything you say or do. Pay attention. Consider where things might lead before committing to a particular path.
Getting in the habit of this ability to stay aware and to anticipate possible problems may be one of the best things you learn how to do for yourself. One way I suggest for honing this skill is to become an assistant to someone, and learn to be the best possible assistant, anticipating every need, every possible error, and be prepared to handle any of it as smoothly as you can. Think ahead, but act in the moment.
5. How to be a friend
I have come across people who really do not know how to be a friend to someone.
It seems the popular culture definition of "friend" means what I would consider an acquaintance, if that. Facebook and MySpace are excellent examples of that, where people have long lists of "friends" which often include anyone they happen to be able to recognize on the street, or, even more interestingly, anyone who happens to ASK to be a "friend" online.
Another part of the popular definition seems to be that a friend is someone you hang out with, but have no other responsibility to. Like often happens in school cliques. "Best friends" today, enemies tomorrow, and what's the difference, really? As long as it's convenient to hang out, people do, and as soon as something better comes along, sayonara, baby.
That's not friendship.
Friendship is a relationship, a commitment.
Relationships require effort.
I had someone tell me recently that she was not interested in any "friendship" or relationship that took effort. She believed that "friends" should just be that way, no effort required, and certainly no responsibilities other than what suited her mood at the time.
She's young and inexperienced (although I'm sure she would argue that point). I have had relationships last longer than she has been alive.
Any real relationship requires effort, especially in the area of communication. Also, to be a friend requires consideration of the other person's feelings, of their needs, and of their preferences.
In my book, being a friend means something along these lines: "I will give to you the best of myself I am able to give, and I will help you to do the same for me."
This means being able to call your friend on their bullshit, even if that's uncomfortable. It means being absolutely honest with them, and continually working to improve communication, checking and double checking to be sure that things are clear between you. It means not taking them for granted, while also being able to depend on them, and having them be able to depend on you. It means offering- and accepting- help when needed. It is a give and take, a two way street, a meeting of minds and hearts, where both people give more than 50%.
And it is chock full of the other stuff I've talked about so far- consequences, being responsible for your actions, apologies, and keeping your word.
In other words, effort. Paying attention.
6. How to be poor
This one is a little different than the rest.
It has to do with appreciating what you have.
And it has to do with keeping in mind that you may not always have it.
Learn how to make do with less. Don't waste things- whether they are material things, or relationships with people. Have a plan for how you will get by if things get worse because, I can almost guarantee it, they will.
When I was growing up, we didn't have a lot. I didn't feel poor at the time, most of the time, but it was clear that we didn't have or do the same things a lot of other people had or did.
When I was first out on my own, at one point I was supporting two people on a part time minimum wage job.
We had a place to sleep, and didn't starve, so what's the big deal?
We could not, however, do things that many people took for granted- like having a car, going to a cheap movie, eating at a restaurant, or buying new clothes.
It was not a particularly fun time. But it probably was one of the most beneficial times of my life because I gained an appreciation for what we did have, for earning my way, and especially an understanding that what someone earns is not who they are, and certainly is not their "value" as a person.
So now, when my kids and I have financial difficulties, we are well acquainted with figuring out how to make do with what we have on hand instead of running to the grocery store every day. It's not such a big deal- and I am glad, for them, that they will never panic at the thought of not having money for a few days.
This is not, by any means, an all-inclusive list. Just some of the stuff from conversations I've been having lately.
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