Call it the speed of life, a fear of the unknown, a propensity to enable a generation of kids or a desire to get ahead of the Joneses, but those kinds of things are not happening today like they should. As parents, we must recognize that our children’s happiness should be predicated on what they truly need and not based on a fear that they will perform, achieve, and excel less than the neighbor’s kid. Simply put, kids need time to be kids, without orchestration or manipulation. Given the opportunity, every child has a limitless capacity for imagination and a crucial need for spontaneous play.
So what can we do as parents to help foster a healthy diet of independent play? The following are a few sensible suggestions:
1. Don’t Over Schedule Your Kids
Ensure that they have time for themselves and the opportunity to play without the management of parents.
2. Give Them a Chance to Plan a Day
Pick a weekend or available day and have them design a day of play. It will foster independence, leadership skills and it’s just plain fun.
3. Reward Independent Play
Make sure they know you value their desire to play and encourage their independence and creative expression. This validates their independence and further encourages growth.
4. Let Go!
Try to reassure yourself that “there is doing, in non-doing.” Your child will flourish not just because you have designed it that way, but because he or she has also designed it that way.
The old adage “If you love something, set it free” should apply to our kids and the opportunity for them to simply play must be part of their childhood in large amounts. Growing to be a happy and healthy adult requires us to first be a happy and healthy child. Through play that is achieved.
There is a Force. A balance if you will, that oversees the universe and keeps our planet from careening off into the fiery gasses of our molten sun. This Force keeps us grounded and mindful of dirty hands, clean underwear and brushing of teeth before bedtime. This same Force makes us eat green vegetables (cause it’s good for us), is always on the look out for spiders and posesses the keenest sense of smell in the entire solar system. The Force is mom and without her, civilization might have catapulted to complete and utter destitude long, long ago.
One day out of the year we set aside a special time to honor mom. We bring her breakfast in bed, take her to brunch or present her with flowers and niceties. Yet every day of her life she devotes this amazing and uncanny commitment to her kids and family. This commitment is so palpable and engrained in her DNA it sometimes manifests itself supernaturally. Case in point; to this day, my own mother will call me out of the blue just to say, “What’s wrong?” I might not have spoken with her for a week and she calls me when something is actually wrong to ask me if something is wrong. Some kind of psychic ability is inherent in moms that I just can’t explain. Think you can get away with lying about washing your hands after she asked you to wash your hands? Forget it. Moms know that too.
Millions of years of evolution must have given moms these abilities in order to safeguard their young. Show me the most gentle, docile and sweet-as-pie mom. Now have some stranger endanger or even cross her child and that same sweet lady will go Honey Badger on anyone of any size. I’ve seen that trigger go off in my own kids’ mom and that is one ‘mamma’, I don’t want to be on the receiving end of!
Yet the greatest thing our mom ever gave us and will always give us is love. She more than any person in our life, demonstrated that for us on an unwavering daily basis. She did that by staying up late and night to bake cookies for your class. She did it by giving you the last piece of meatloaf even if she hadn’t eaten yet. Who else would boil six dozen hardboiled eggs for Easter when she knew no one was eating one. Who else will remember age in months even when you turn 40 (it’s 480 in case you are wondering)? Mom will hold a wet wash cloth on your forehead when your puking long after anyone else will. She will swear you are the best dancer at the recital even if you had two left feet and were placed in the very back row of kids. She loved you when you were right, she loved you when you were wrong. For the record, no mother ever started a war or provoked an ‘international affair’ of any kind.
So this Mother’s Day, the sun will undeniably rise, the Earth will remain steady in its orbit and a fresh pair of white briefs will softly cradle your lower torso. All of these things will take place because of your mother. And in a world with so much uncertainty and fear, thank God that the Force is on our side. I love you Mom.
This coming summer my organization, Kidventure, will initiate a summer camp pilot program called Voyager that provides a mainstreamed camp for kids with special needs. It is the result of our desire as an organization to bring the joy of Kidventure and camp to a wider group of kids while providing an appropriate camp setting for each child’s specific needs.
But there is much more to this decision than just that.
I have a little buddy in my neighborhood. His name is Ryan…
Earlier in life Ryan was diagnosed with Fragile X Syndrome. Fragile X Syndrome is a genetic condition involving changes in part of the X chromosome. It is the most common form of inherited intellectual disability in boys. Behavior problems associated with Fragile X Syndrome include delay in crawling, walking, or twisting, hyperactive or impulsive behavior, intellectual disability and speech and language delay. This is what most medical books will tell you. What almost all of these descriptions fail to illustrate is what children like Ryan do offer and provide for not only themselves, but for all those around them.
The following is my attempt at redefining Ryan in terms of who he is as a ‘regular kid’ and not one solely articulated by a special needs label:
Boy, 10 years old. Full of energy and a wild, wonderful spirit. He has an incredible affinity and love for all things musical. He is an amazing dancer, who will listen to rock-n-roll for hours on end and move his body in a crowded room like no one is watching. He loves to play and will initiate a game of football, tag or whatever for the sole joy of sharing time with others. He is loving and will impart a hug on just about anyone with the capacity to hug back. He is mischievous at times and possesses this smirk on his face like something is fixing to seriously go down and striking eyes that tell you that he knows just what’s up, even when you don’t. He’s smart, stubborn like me and one of the most likable kids I’ve ever known.
As humans (particularly the grown kind), we tend to categorize and box things and people into nice, neat compartments. We utilize formal descriptions, preconceived notions and bias as tools with which to do so. This is what I believe has happened with the special needs community in great part. The rise in diagnosis and subsequent labeling of kids with special needs over the past few years has resulted in a collective consciousness that automatically places kids in these boxes and unfairly compartmentalizes them culturally. But more times than not, if we look beyond the label and diagnosis, we find unique individuals who have more to offer us than we ever imagined. And isn’t that how we all wish to be defined?
As a child, I too spent a fair share of time in hospitals being explained by a litany of medical terms. While the descriptions and diagnosis certainly aided in caring for me then, they did not define me (nor would I have allowed them too). Likewise, we as a society must not allow people with special needs to be judged similarly and must recognize the amazing gifts they present us all.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “What lies behind us & what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.” Through special needs kids like Ryan, I have gained a broader understanding for bravery, a greater capacity for compassion, and discovered new ways in which to view the world around me. Without a doubt, my life has been enriched.
So rock on Ryan, rock on!
As parents we work hard to teach our kids to be good, wholesome young people. We insist they say thank you, clean up after themselves, and promise not to fight endlessly with their siblings, only to be convinced that your parenting skills have fallen on deaf ears. Then we find out from neighbors, friends and teachers that they have been behaving exactly as we have been trying to teach them all along. They just don’t do it for us. At least they are ‘getting it’ outside of the home.
Recently my wife’s brother and his wife had their first child (aah the sleepless nights). Unbeknownst to me, my mother-in-law had asked all her grandchildren including my kids to complete a ‘Baby Book Form’ that asks the author to complete a set of sentences, providing personal advice and well-wishes for the new baby that will be placed together in one heirloom for so-mentioned baby posterity. My mother-in-law contacted me the other day to ask me if I had seen my son Peyton’s form that he had completed. I had not and so she proceeded to read what my 12 year old boy authored for his one month old cousin.
Sometimes in life, between the frustration of being a parent and the inability to convince your child to clean their room, not talk back to their mother, or annoy the life out of their younger sister, you receive a ‘sign’. You discover that just possibly your own kids not only ‘get it’, but have something to teach you about being a better person yourself. The following are the responses my boy wrote down for his very new red-headed cousin Zachery:
We’re All So Excited You’re Here
Wishes from: Peyton
I hope you learn: how to play sports and have fun, but at the same time to have sportsmanship
I hope you love: life
I hope you get: your dreams
I hope you laugh: every single day
I hope you never forget: how much your family loves you
I hope you are not afraid : To show off
I hope you ignore: people who try to bring you down
I hope you become: a great person
I hope you respect: everyone who meets you no matter how they treat you
I hope you grow: to be a very kind and responsible person
I hope you remember: that you can come to your family whenever you have a problem
Ok, I was wrong. He get’s it and maybe in the midst of trying so desperately to instill in him a good heart, an honest approach to life and strong character, I might just start listening to him a little more. Well done son, well done.
As for so many, the tragedy in Newtown, CT has dominated my thoughts and prayers. Yet, the answers will not be found solely at the federal level, it must be fostered at the ‘familial level’. Families, communities, schools and churches, and camps in this country must take responsibility for providing for a kinder and more caring atmosphere that is inclusive. One that places the lives of 6 and 7 year old children above outdated 2nd Amendment Rights. Where is the Constitutional Amendment that affords our children the right to live in a society that is safe and free from gunshot wounds? Yet, for me, guns are a symptom of a larger problem. Focusing on that issue solely detracts from the larger issue. Fear.
We are a country that suffers from fear. It is glorified in our movies, video games and 24 hour news casts. Our kids are now fed that fear on multiple devices and screens daily. Over 16,000 acts of violence will be witnessed by them before the age of 16. For most with good parents and a sound home, they will be fine, but for the fringe kid, who is maybe bullied or suffers from mental illness (which Texas ranks 48th in funding), he will find solace and comfort in that violence. It’s what he knows after all. He will be withdrawn and quiet and stay out of sight.
The conversation must be made at all levels. Ponder this fact for a moment:
Of the ten deadliest gun attacks in these United States, five of them have taken place in the last five years. Fear, not peace and love, is winning the day. Family, community as well as government shares in the responsibility of overturning this unfortunate trend. If not, then the uproar and the unimaginable outcry over the events in a small town in Connecticut will have all been in vain.
Let’s face it, for most of us reading this blog, we’ve got it good. Even when we think we might not, the overwhelming majority of the world faces far greater hardships than we could ever imagine. On a regular basis we are bombarded with the hope and desire to own more, consume more and have more. The ‘American Dream’ can often be one that drives us to always want more and in turn, never really be satisfied with what we do have and what is really important in our lives like family, freedom, our health and well-being.
The Humble Pie
- At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day
- According to UNICEF, 22,000 children die each day due to poverty
- Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation
- Millions of women spend several hours a day just collecting water
- Each year children around the world loose 443 million school days from water-related illness
- For the 1.9 billion children from the developing world, there are 640 million without adequate shelter
Teaching our kids to have a greater perspective on our global community and a higher sense of humility provides them with the opportunity to be happier and more conscious adults. Perspective is good. In fact, it encourages empathy in our kids and that empathy leads our children to a greater understanding of others and the world around them. But this perspective has to be illuminated by us as parents.
So this holiday season as we serve up the turkey and enjoy the warm company of friends and family, let’s take the chance to really be thankful for what we have and recognize that the majority of the world will not partake as we do. Let us commit to teaching our kids that having the privilege of being wealthy, healthy and safe should also provide us with the responsibility to assist others who are not. We must utilize opportunities to enlighten our kids. The most powerful way I know is to volunteer alongside my kids. Take them to bring food to the poor or help out at the local food bank. Opportunities such as these allow your kids to gain perspective, humility and do so by actively being a part of a solution.
*Statistics derived from Global Issues “Poverty Facts and Stats”.
Whether you are Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, being a parent trumps everything Washington can offer up. And if you are like me, as much as you are proud to be an American, you are more often disgusted with the way our leaders go about getting elected to office. From the money that is spent, to the ads denigrating each other, to lack of character and example displayed by both sides of the aisle, I am troubled by our electoral system and ashamed of our political process.
What Washington needs might be a lesson or two drawn from the playbook of good parenting. Perhaps if our candidates took heed of the lessons we work so hard to instill in our kids and took stock of the example that those lessons provide, just maybe our country would be better for it. So while our candidates desperately seek four years of power, I offer up four parenting lessons that I propose our candidates think about as we near election day.
- Worry about yourself and stop tattle-telling on others: For once, I would like to hear our candidates focus on what they have done, have not done and what they plan on doing. There is a reason we get after our kids for telling on their little sister and the kid down the street. First, its god-awful annoying, but more importantly, it encourages them to take responsibility for themselves and to stop automatically blaming others. Furthermore, in not allowing them to constantly tattle-tell, kids figure out that solutions are best worked out with the source of the problem.
- A White Lie is Still a Lie: Call it what you will, when our leaders spin the truth, use carefully edited sound bites and misconstrue each other’s messages, it’s a lie. As good parents, we’re on the look out for truth. We not only want it for our kids, we require it. If we are requiring our kids to tell the truth, we should demand that our leaders do the same.
- If Billy Told You to Jump Off a Cliff, Would You? Often pulled from the playbook of parenthood, the frequently used term aims at teaching our kids to do the right thing and follow their own heart and own personal judgement. Why do our leaders seem to change their tune, alter their platforms and conform more than one can count? Given a parent’s perspective, our leaders are listening to Billy and jumping off cliffs more often than is humanly healthy. You see, in Washington, Billy comes in the form of money, influence and Super Pacs. Billy pays for elections and ultimately in the end, our leaders jump from many cliffs, thus abandoning their own heart and own personal judgement.
- When You Have Done Something Wrong, Say You’re Sorry: This lesson seems to have wandered off in general from our Great Nation. I was always raised with the understanding that if you screw up, admit it and make amends. No doubt it’s hard to swallow at times, but it’s the right thing to do without question. Wouldn’t it be refreshing for our leaders to open up a State of the Union or stump speech with something like, “First I want to apologize for my handling of the economy,” I would like to take responsibility for poor decisions that lead to soldiers losing their lives,” or “I cheated on my wife, it was wrong and I apologize to her and to my country.” One of the greatest epidemics in our land is the refusal to admit when you were wrong. Our athletes deny steroids, our politicians deny culpability and it’s wrong and cuts squarely against the grain of what we as parents work so hard to instill in our kids.
An old man hired a young man to come and help him build an orchard on a mountain. They divided the land into halves, each responsible for growing and caring for the tree’s on their half of the mountain.
After working closely with thousands of kids and their families for the past 18 years, the story shared with me by a co-worker seems more poignant and applicable for our kids than ever before. Far too many times parents focus on the immediate fruit of their kids and disregard their long term growth and roots. While the intention is well-placed, many times we fall short of allowing for the kind of growth and maturation that is essential for our kids. What do I mean by this and what do I believe we need to do for our kids to help them grow strong deep roots that are capable of weathering the storms without us?
- Take a Chance
When we as parents over protect and over parent our children, we limit the opportunity for our kids to take chances and risk. The act taking risks and chances gives them the opportunity to gain independence, create memorable moments and leads to one of the most valuable lessons of all….failure.
- Failure is Good
Failure is one of the most powerful opportunities for personal growth. And by the way, it is inevitable. When we fail we open the door for success after that failure. And rest-assured, realizing you can succeed at something after you have failed places roots deep in a ground that is required for healthy adulthood.
- Enabling: A Disease
The act of enabling our children is like stealing their natural potential right out from underneath their feet. Enabling our kids prevents them from taking responsibility for their environment and themselves. The act of enabling our kids stems from our own fears and in the end is a selfish parenting act that robs them of real growth, responsibility and maturation.
- Walk the Walk
You can talk Shakespeare till you are blue in the face. If you walk Mark Twain, your Mark Twain to your kid. My point here is, all the things we need to do to teach our kid to grow deep roots needs to first be sowed by our actions and then by our words. As a parent, our example is the most powerful mentor for our children. Practice what you preach.
Great leaders are not born, they simply had great mentors. If our goal is to raise our children to be strong and happy people who can respond to adversity and weather any storm, then we must give them the tools to do so. We must love them with all our heart but that love must not be without intelligence and purpose. For when we teach our children to grow roots deep into the ground, we give them the foundation to be the best they can be and in return, they will foster a similar growth for their own children.
The following article was published in The New York Times today, May 30th. Like teachers, we so often undervalue those that have some of the greatest impact and impression on our kids. Great article Dan.
By Dan Fleshler
New York Times May 30, 2012
In an act of quiet rebellion, my daughter will spend this summer as a counselor at a sleep-away camp in the Adirondacks. As rebellions go, this one is admittedly very tame. But she is resisting considerable pressure to join the throngs of anxious fellow collegians (she’s finishing her junior year) who will pad their résumés with summer internships in corporations, charities, law firms and other employers that, according to conventional wisdom, offer better preparation for the brutal economy than a summer camp.
She has been attending the same old-fashioned, all-American camp since she was 8 and has been a counselor there for the last three years. For much of the winter and spring, I argued with her and my wife against the camp option, telling them that my daughter needed every conceivable edge to help her survive and thrive in this rough, unforgiving, every-woman-for-herself world.
Like it or not, a summer internship — indeed, more than one — has become de rigueur for a college student. That is a big reason why her camp, like others, has had an increasingly difficult time retaining experienced counselors. Whatever she wants to do upon graduation — right now, the uncomfortably tentative plan is to make documentary films — I insisted that those reviewing my daughter’s work experience will be decidedly unimpressed with “Camp Counselor, 2009-2012.”
Anyone can be a camp counselor, I said, and in this economy, she can’t afford to be just anyone. She needs to show that she is exceptional, to bedazzle potential employers, to brand herself. Just one line on the résumé could spell the difference between joining the millions of college grads lounging on their parents’ couches and a fabulous entry-level gig with Martin Scorsese — or, if she changes vocational directions, another rung on the ladder to success.
I tried to sound sure of myself, even persuaded friends working in various industries to tell her it was true, but my argument was halfhearted. Much of me secretly concurred with the powerful argument my wife made for returning to camp: our daughter would have plenty of time for the so-called real world and we should not begrudge her just one more summer in paradise. “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens,” Yeats warned. He had a point. “The real world sucks,” my wife said, and she had a point, too.
My daughter already came across as an impressive young woman based on her accomplishments, and I had no idea whether one more line on her résumé was likely to make the slightest difference. A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers concluded that “unpaid internships offer no advantage to the job-seeking student,” and that was the only kind of internship her friends had managed to land in previous summer searches. For awhile, though, I forced myself to parrot conventional wisdom because there was at least a chance that it was true.
But the clinching argument came from my daughter’s impassioned defense of camp counselors, and her outrage that someone glancing at résumés would believe that a 20-year-old who fetches coffee at Google is more impressive than one who spends days and nights nurturing, teaching, organizing, comforting and inspiring.
“What I do there matters,” she insisted. In several conversations, she told us about helping a camper cope with her mother’s debilitating depression and comforting others whose parents were fighting or separating, about aiding 11- and 12-year-olds who were coming to terms with their sexuality, battling anorexia, confronting body fear. She talked about the many hours devoted to water-skiing lessons, about instilling the confidence needed by awkward, gawky, painfully self-conscious 8- and 9-year-olds to stay prone in the water, hold on to the rope, then rise up and stay on their feet as the boat pulled away. “What’s more important than that?” she asked.
I had no answer, because I couldn’t come up with anything more important. Nor could I dispute her additional point that the work was incomparable preparation for the future, requiring the skills to manage group projects and motivate individuals, set goals and juggle tight schedules, and stay available for 24 hours a day, six days a week, in sickness and in health.
My wife and I wouldn’t have been able to stop her from returning to camp, but our approval was important to her, so eventually I gave in, with the proviso that she agree to make a documentary film about camping.
That doesn’t mean I am convinced it was the right choice. It is possible to prepare for some challenges of parenthood, to seek guidance from friends and experts when you are not sure about something. But nothing can prepare you for waking up in the middle of the night, terrified that your child is going to be eaten alive by the world, she is too sweet and guileless for what lies beyond the nest of college and camp, you haven’t done enough to toughen her, she’s just not ready.
If I wake up with those fears this summer, I will try to tell myself that in a society where great camp counselors — like great teachers — are absurdly undervalued, her insistence on going back to camp demonstrates a great deal of toughness. And I will try to remember that, at a certain point, there is nothing more my wife and I can do, other than to hope that our daughter can hold on to the rope and stay on her feet as the boat pulls away.
Dan Fleshler is a media and public affairs consultant in New York City.
I think often that some of the most important lessons in life come not from inspirational speakers, therapists and yoga instructors, but from kids. Perhaps it is the way they view the world and those around them, unimpeded by the filters, opinions and preconceived notions we tend to pile up as we grow older.
I think that far too many ‘adults’ gloss over the answers and examples our kids give us and dust them off as ‘childish behavior’. Perhaps more of us could benefit from some ‘childish behavior’ and an unabashed innocence that so many kids possess.
The following video comes to us from CNN posted May 15, 2012. It is an example of the power of being a kid, even in the most challenging of situations. It demonstrates the capacity and ability, through friendship, to find hope in one another. It should serve as an example for all of us.