Thursday, September 24, 2015

What You Put in the Center by Carolyn Pierce

I recently came across this passage while I was reading:
We had one of those world maps with the U.S. right in the middle -- remember those? And one of the students looked at it and said, "How come the East Indies are in the west?" And that question got me thinking about the impact of what you put in the center, and what it does to everything else.*

I can picture exactly the map referenced in the quote. The map, presumably made by an American company, featured the United States smack-dab in the middle of the map. The U.S. looked huge compared to the rest of the countries in the world. I grew up thinking that the U.S. was the largest nation in the world. Because Russia (or the U.S.S.R., or whatever its name was at the time) was cut so that part of it was on the left side of the map and part of it was on the right side of the map, it didn't look nearly as big as it is in reality. Canada, stretching to the far north, grew smaller toward the Arctic, which fooled the eye. Imagine my surprise and disillusion when I came face-to-face with the realization that not only was the U.S. not the largest country in the world, it wasn't even the second largest! That kind of map lead me to believe a falsehood about the size of the U.S., and I am reasonably certain that it also (subliminally) led me to believe that the U.S. was the most important country on earth. Okay, maybe it is to me, but probably not to people in other countries. I wonder what the maps in their schools look like . . .

Reading this passage did make me think about maps, but it also spoke to me about other parts of life. I have heard many times the adage, "You make time for what matters", so let's take a look at our daily planners or the calendars we have hanging on the refrigerator. How often is quality time with family or friends written in? How much time each week is allocated to worship? If you wrote down the time spent in front of the TV or playing on an electronic device, would it totally fill your free time? Have you blocked out time for improving your physical health? Is there time each week for learning something new? Do you have any volunteer service penciled in? If someone else took a look at your calendar, could they see at a glance what you put in the center of your life?

As if that wasn't guilt-inducing enough, let's think about our thinking. What absorbs your thoughts? If you had a thought-o-meter, where would the needle point most often? Do you constantly think about your job, your money, your looks, your possessions, your importance in life? Do you continue to think about work even when you are relaxing with family or friends? They can tell, you know. Are your thoughts most often focused on self-pity, your trials and tribulations, how others have done you wrong -- the unpleasant things in your life? That shows on your face (and it is not pretty). Likewise, if your thoughts are most often concerned with the good things in your life (counting your blessings, so to speak), that shows on your face as well. Your thoughts are a sure indicator of what you have put in the center of your life.

Ditto for your words -- they are just thoughts with a voice.  What does your conversation reveal about what is at the center of your life?

Lest you think I am feeling "holier-than-thou", rest assured that what I am writing is very convicting for me as well. I need to examine my own calendar, my own thoughts, my own words to see what I have put at the center of my life. I'm afraid I will not be pleased by the conclusions I must draw. I feel the need to make a plaque for my wall so I can see it every day:
                                            What you put in the center impacts everything else.

*The passage (in a book called A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger) is a quote from Deborah Meier, a revolutionary educator who founded the Central Park East schools in Harlem in the 1970s. Meier was talking about the importance of what you put in the center of the curriculum in schools, but the words spoke to me about life in general.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

On Mouth Washing and Other Parental Practices

Yesterday I read David Gets in Trouble by David Shannon to forty kindergarteners and not a single one of them knew why David had a bar of soap in his mouth on the page with the caption:  But Dad says it too!  Most of them thought he was in trouble for eating soap. I looked at the other two adults in the room and we realized that we were witnessing a historical moment:  Parents no longer threatened to wash their kids’ mouths with soap to stop them from using foul language.  And let me tell you, this particular public health practice is used on at least three continents that I know of.  This gives me hope that we as human parents are evolving.

Maybe the next things to go would be threatening them with being picked up by the police if they behave badly.  In fact, I wish we could just stop all threats, bribes and alternate explanations (a.k.a little lies).  All these practices are short term parenting strategies that 1) make us feel that we have addressed the situation and not allowed the child to “get away” with bad behavior, 2) get us out of an uncomfortable situation of having to reason and give explanations that are comprehensible to a little one and 3) with luck, will get immediate, albeit temporary compliance. 

I know what it's like.  I have been there.  We are at a friend's house.  The kids are playing nicely.  My children are being charming.  The adults are marveling at their wit and intelligence.   Then it comes time to go.  I know that dealing with change in one's plans is a test for some of them.  I know that I will be facing a volcano when I try to get them to leave.  So I come up with an alternate explanation. I tell them that the hosts have to leave to go somewhere else and there won't be anyone to play with anyway.  I am just  trying to preempt a scene of kicking and screaming and refusal to leave.  I am trying to spare the child, myself and the hosts an ugly and uncomfortable situation.  But in the process I am withholding from my child the opportunity to learn self-control and ultimately how to manage his own will to live a happy life.

I wish all children could walk around with an “under construction” sign on their backs so that we as parents could approach our job as builders of character and not managers of behavior.  Every tantrum, every strong expression of will, every push back on what is needed and appropriate is a human child’s opportunity to shape his character; to learn to be considerate of others, to control his will or to tell the truth.

And those of us who have either passed the stage of little-child rearing or don’t yet have children, we could hold our tongues and our judgments so that mother or father in the supermarket or at the restaurant, feels comfortable doing what is right and not what is expedient.  Because we all stand to benefit from parenting that builds character in the future adults that will run our world.