Posts Tagged ‘mothering’
How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.
I’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.
Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.
Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.
I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.
Mothering God, my son starts kindergarten in the morning. Please watch over my tiny child, my most precious one, as he climbs up those giant steps and into the mouth of the big yellow bus, its insides wriggling with elbows and knees and backpacks and lunchboxes. Give him calm in the chaos. Let him catch the excitement of his peers, but not their cruelty. May it be the grand adventure he dreams it to be.
Once that bus swallows him up, I can’t accompany him. I can’t hold his hand, and I can’t make sure that he gets where he’s supposed to go. So I’m imagining you, Mama God, standing beside him, a firm hand on his shoulder, your swishing skirts providing a path through the chaos and a safe place to hide if he gets too nervous. Take his hand when I can’t, and guide him where he needs to go.
Since before he was born, I have been trying to protect him and keep him safe. I made sure his environment was safe with crib rails and car seats, baby gates and bike helmets. It was a small world, and I could keep it padded and protected. Now his world is getting bigger. I want his world to be as big as it can be, even if it means I can’t protect him from it. Remind me that this whole big world is still in your hands. Show him all its glorious expanse, but promise me he’ll always be in your care.
I want him to go to school to learn, and not just ABCs and 123s. I want him to learn how to be a friend. How to make good decisions. How to get along with all kinds of people, even mean ones. How to say “no.” How to fail and try again. How to lose and still have fun. How to deal with stress. How to overcome adversity. These lessons aren’t learned with books and worksheets. They can’t be learned in a “safe” environment. They hurt sometimes. Teach him hard-won lessons, because those are the ones that matter, but do not let his spirit be broken. Give him courage and resilience and companions for the journey.
Reassure me, O God, that my one precious child will never be lost in your care. Mother him for me when I cannot. Help me teach him to walk away from me. Hold me tight when I have to let him go. Amen.
Sunday morning was the first time (except for six weeks of maternity leave) I’ve ever been in the same town as my congregation and not been with them for worship. It’s also the first time B has ever been away from church, with the exception of attending the church of my childhood when we are home in Virginia. We were getting ready to visit a neighboring congregation, but he didn’t understand why we couldn’t go to our church, to see his friends and be a part of the family he loves. Truth be told, I was having a hard time with it myself.
Separating from my church, now that I am here in the same town, is harder than I anticipated. While I didn’t miss all the business, meetings, sermon writing, prep work, and early-morning scurry to get ready for worship, I desperately missed being there with them. I didn’t want to lead, I just wanted to come and sit in the pew and worship there. They are my home, my church, my Christian family. Going to a strange, new church is hard. You don’t know what to expect, if there will be a connection to God or others, if you will know any of the songs, if you’ll find the theology abhorrent or just feel terribly out of place. Yet part of sabbatical means being away, and there was no way for me to visit with them without being their pastor—which means being drawn into the pastoral care needs, business decisions, administrative matters and everything else that is church work. So I knew why I needed to stay away, even though I miss them.
It’s harder to explain it to B. After all, Sunday mornings are not work for him. He knows the beauty of church as his family. He has friends his own age, and teenage and adult friends that supervise him while I am leading worship and making the rounds at coffee hour. He looks forward to the routine of a Sunday morning—the pre-worship playtime, shaking hands during the passing of the peace, coming up for the children’s time, and getting too many cupcakes during fellowship time. He knows the rhythms of the church, both the liturgical seasons and the all-important monthly celebration of Birthday Sunday.
I tried to make up for all he is missing with the promise that, for once, we actually get to sit together in church. I reminded him of how frustrated he gets on Sunday mornings, when I am too busy to talk to him or play with him. I promised that during this special sabbatical time, I would be with him during church, the whole time, no distractions. I thought this would be poor consolation, but he seemed pleased.
When we arrived as guests at this new church, B decided without hesitation that he did not want to visit the children’s program—he wanted to sit with me the whole time. As soon as the opening song began, my eyes filled with tears. I was overcome by the power of simply receiving the gift of worship alongside my son. It felt like an immersion, like diving into healing waters. Without worrying about what comes next, focusing on my sermon, noticing who was missing or who looked like they weren’t feeling well, I could just open myself to worship. When someone came and sat in front of us, we could move over so B could still see. When everyone else stood, I could stay seated to remain at B’s height. During the sermon, I took notes and listened for the Word of God, which spoke deeply to my heart. When B got bored, I could fish out a pen and paper from the bottom of my purse. When I was moved, I could cry and not worry about holding it together to say the benediction. These small luxuries felt like tiny miracles, each small marvel to behold.
This has been a deep gift already for sabbatical, and there are quite a few Sundays left. While I expect I will still feel a pang of longing for my own church family on Sunday mornings, I am so grateful for the gift of worship. B seemed to appreciate it too, as he snuggled into my lap during the sermon and showed me the drawings he had made in the bulletin.
Also, I promised him that he could join in the February Birthday Sunday celebration when we get back, and we would sing to him with the others. Church folk, I know you’ll understand and welcome him with open arms, because you’re our family.
Our family enjoyed a vacation to visit family in Florida a few weeks back, including one morning at the beach. J was building a master sandcastle, I was sticking my feet in the cold water, and B was playing in the sand and chasing seagulls. The beach was mostly empty. His fear of the water kept him far away from danger, so we let him wander freely as we all enjoyed the sun and sand and ocean spray. He generally stayed within a 10-15 yard radius. We kept an eye out, but trusted him to stay close. For over an hour, he ran and returned, up and down the beach. The tie-dyed blue and yellow bulls-eye on his shirt made him easy to spot, no matter what.
Then I looked up one time and decided he had strayed a little too far. I called out to him, but he couldn’t hear over the sound of the waves. I figured he was running over to investigate some fishermen just down the beach, and he would turn around after he checked them out. When he kept running past their poles and buckets, I started out after him, calling his name again and again. He just kept running down the beach. I started to get angry, quickened my pace to try to close the distance, and waited for him to turn around. He just kept running. He was getting faster, and farther away. I started to run—and I don’t run—and called out to him louder and louder. I started to contemplate what kind of consequences to apply to a child who runs away. He just kept running and running, and I couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t getting tired, stopping, looking back. I ran and ran, but I couldn’t catch up to him.
Finally, an older gentleman noticed a young child running alone and looked back for a parent. I gestured that I was trying to catch him, and the man jogged to catch up to B and stop him. He touched him on the shoulder, bent down and turned him around to face me, pointing me out running along behind him. B took off running again, but this time toward me.
It was only then that I realized what had happened. He had gotten confused and thought he was lost. He panicked, and just started running faster and faster. By the time I caught up to him he was red-faced, crying and shaking with fear. All the harsh words I’d been planning vanished, and I simply embraced him in the sand.
B learned an important lesson that day: if you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction. You might just be making it harder for your mother to find you. We had talked about this a few times, but he said he just forgot when he got frightened.
What has been on my mind ever since, though, was the difference in our experiences that day. B was panicked, probably afraid he’d lost his parents forever, that he’d never get home from this faraway place. I remember that fear as a child, the fear of being lost and separated and unable to find your way home. His heart must have been racing as fast as his little legs. I can’t recall another experience in his short lifetime that would have been so frightening or traumatic. Had he even paused to look back over his shoulder, he would have seen me and ceased to fear. But the more fear he felt, the harder he ran—and the farther away he got from me.
While I was annoyed with him at first, I was never afraid. I was never lost, nor was he ever lost to me. I could see where he was the whole time, that electric t-shirt standing out against the pale sand. I knew he was safe. I knew he would not be harmed. I knew I would not stop running until I caught up with him. I knew the way back home. I had nothing to fear.
The whole experience makes me pause and reflect on our relationship with God. How often do we think we are lost, and so we panic and just start running? The more frightened we get, the harder we run. The less we recognize our surroundings, the faster we blow through them trying to recover familiar territory. Like B, we forget the rules when we get frightened. If you are lost, sit down. Stay put. Wait to be found. Do not run faster and faster and faster—because you might just be running in the wrong direction.
God knows where we are. We may feel lost, but we are never lost to God. Like any watchful mother, She knows exactly where we are and will not let us out of Her sight. When we stray too far, She is in active pursuit. Our reunion with the Beloved does not depend on our ability to find our way home again all by ourselves. All we have to do is stop the running, and She will find us. Sometimes, it takes intercession, direction from another soul who can see our fear, turn us around, and show us God is coming after us. No matter what, God will not stop chasing us until we are safe in Her arms again.
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore, we will not fear.
The Lord of Hosts is with us.
“Be still and know that I am God.” –From Psalm 46
B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.
“But it’s O.K., right?”
His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.
The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.
The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior? B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?
“But it’s O.K., right?”
I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”
As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.
“But it’s O.K., right?”
No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?
B begins his day curled up in bed with us. Some days, he creeps in before dawn and we snooze awhile together. Other days, he comes in ready to wake up and we cajole him into bed for a few minutes while we peel our eyes open. Almost always, the first words he utters in the morning come in the form of a question. Not the same question. Not just an ordinary question. Not, “can we get up now?”, “what are we having for breakfast today?”, or “what are we doing today?” B begins the day with some of the most random and most specific questions he asks all day. (And he averages several hundred questions a day.)
Here are the questions from this week. Remember, these are the first words he utters in the morning. All begin with the prefix, “Mommy?”
- Have astronauts ever met an alien in space?
- Do some rock stars like Corvettes?
- Do you know what “fascinating” means?
- What do you call this bone I can feel in my hand? I can see it in my skin–do you call it a skin bone?
- Do elephants live in the jungle? What about alligators?
- Does our watermelon have seeds? (The CSA one awaiting us on the kitchen table.)
- If something is alive, does that mean it has eyes?
I love his inquisitiveness, even if I find it overwhelmingly intense at 0-dark-thirty. These are always the first in a long line of questions that pour out of him in the pre-dawn hours. I wish I had thought to remember more of them, but I confess that my first thought as they pummel my sleeping brain like a shot of BBs is to just make it stop.
My second thought, however, is always: where is this question coming from? At that hour of the morning, I can only assume that each morning’s line of questioning emerges from somewhere in his dreams. And this, to use the newest word in his lexicon, fascinates me. I don’t know about you, but I am totally infatuated with the idea of peering into his dreams, his subconscious, to learn how his mind works and what worries him and what excites him and what puzzles him. These questions are a small window into his young mind.
Apparently, it is a very random and inquisitive place. I’m going to try to suppress my desire to outfit him with a snooze button and pay better attention to the questions themselves.
Hoping to get off easy, I replied: Jesus is with God.
B: “No. Where is he?”
No such luck this time.
Me: “Well, some people think that Jesus and God are in heaven, which is a place that is far away where they live. But I think Jesus and God are around us all the time, so they can help us when we need it.”
B: “Oh. So they help us?”
B: Like the guy who mows our lawn?
Me: What do you mean, like the guy who mows our lawn?
B: He helps us. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn helps us.
Me: Sure. That sounds good to me. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn.
What an image of Christ—the lanky, awkward teenager who shows up once a week and tames our wild lawn with the mower. He works quickly and silently, knocking at the door at the end for his meager $20 and barely saying a word. But his presence has put our minds at ease all summer long. We used to worry and fret and procrastinate and agonize over who would mow the lawn and when. Now, even when it starts to look overgrown, we don’t give it a second thought, because we know that our faithful teenage helper will take care of it, whenever he gets around to it. His lanky shoulders have taken a huge burden from us, and know that trusting him with our yard is one of the best things we ‘ve ever done.
Sure, Jesus is like that. Imago Dei, right?
That’s what B said to me this morning in the car on the way to preschool. “If you put down the window, then you can see God.”
He spent the last week getting his first dose of Christian education outside the home through vacation bible school, so we have been having all kinds of interesting conversations about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the love of God. I figured this would be another untwisting of something he had heard at VBS.
Baffled, I asked, “What do you mean? How can you see God by putting down the window?”
“You know,” he said. “The wind.”
This time it was my words that need untwisting. Everything is literal in his three-year-old mind. The day before, he had inquired about when and where and how he would get to see God. Having not met God in person, he had surmised that God was dead.
I marveled that his young mind could arrive so quickly and easily at one of the great arguments among atheists everywhere. Thankfully, because this is such a familiar point, it has a familiar answer: the wind.
On the way to school the day before, I had answered his question about the death of God with the analogy of the wind. We cannot see the wind, but we can see the effects of the wind on the trees and feel it on our faces. God is the same way—we cannot see God, but we can see what God does, like all the things God has made in the world and the love we feel with one another. I know young children don’t quite understand analogy, but it was the best explanation I could offer without concocting for him a heaven where God lives far, far away. He smiled and giggled and talked about the wind and generally seemed satisfied with the answer.
And then, this morning in the car, his request: “Put down the window, so I can see God. You know, in the wind.”
I realized I didn’t need to untwist his conception after all. I just rolled down the window, and glanced in the rearview mirror to see him laughing and smiling in the back seat, hair flying in the wind. Yes, that is God alright—I see the Holy One too.
This morning started out rough. B woke up early, then melted down from tiredness, then we got stuck in 45 minutes of traffic on the ride to school. To fill time in traffic, I introduced B to new music: Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book.
B loves music, and we have been intentional about teaching him our favorites. For J, that means The Beatles. For me, that means the songs of the church. The music of the church is my deepest connection to God. When I need strength or hope or intimacy with God, I start to sing. My great-grandmother taught me to love the old hymns like “Whispering Hope” and “In the Garden.” My children’s choir directors filled me with “Apple Red Happiness” and “Do Lord.” During youth group, church camp and retreat years, I learned “Sanctuary” and “Pass It On” and “It’s Amazing.” In college, we sang social justice with “City of God,” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” and “We Shall Overcome.” In every church I’ve served, I have learned new songs as I learned more about God, and the songs hold that faith understanding for me.
Increasing my repertoire of songs increases my repertoire of faith. They are a reservoir of strength, courage, insight, hope and grace. These songs of my heart have shaped my understanding of God, and they are my testimony to God’s love. I want to pass the songs on to B as they were passed on to me, so that he too can have such a supply of faith-filled words and melodies to draw on when he needs them.
And so this challenging morning I removed The Beatles from the CD player and stuck in My Mother’s Hymn Book. With a touch of irony as we sat in traffic, the song that swept us away today was “I Shall Not Be Moved.” This is one of my heart’s songs, and it often comes to me when I am facing difficulty or conflict. I sing it as a mantra of encouragement and strength when I feel weak or afraid.
This morning we played it over and over. Johnny Cash, B and I sang our hearts out. For the first time, B continued to belt out the melody line when I switched to harmony, so we became a trio of young and old, unison and harmony, wisdom and innocence. I went from grousing to laughing, and then to crying with joy at the crazy beauty of this one moment. When we finally got to preschool, 20 minutes late, we stayed in the car together to sing it one more time. I did not want the moment to end.
B will not likely remember this moment. Perhaps, though, with enough repetition, he will learn this song by heart. Someday, when he needs it most, this song might come into his heart and bring him faith, encouragement, strength, grace, the love of God and of his mother.