What I’ve learned, I think, about helping kids (and others) in pain, in seven steps

bullyA friend’s teenager recently became the victim of ridicule and taunting. Not a little sarcasm or practical jokes. Brutal, denigrating comments that spread like a virus through his school. A scenario that all parents dread. No one wants his child to be the brunt, or hurt, or the prey.

For more years than I care to remember, I always thought a situation like this called for sympathy and protection for the target. I provided lots of both plus advice out the ying-yang.

I’ve gradually changed my mind. Remembering how my kids learned to walk, they fell plenty of times. Certainly I tried to prevent them tumbling out a window or down a flight of stairs, but I knew bruises and cuts were inevitable, and that’s the way they gained experience. Ditto bike riding, skating, skiing.

Our job as adults is not to insure children are never hurt; it’s to help them learn how to handle the pain. Not to rush in and defend them or solve the problem. Experience and thought are great teachers, even through heartache.

We do have techniques we can use that might smooth the path a bit:

* Some kind of positive action almost always helps the sufferer deal better with the situation. My guess is he gains a sense of control over his life. Again, we can help him identify methods. This turns the pain outward rather than inward, where it might fester and cause problems such as suicide attempts. Ideas: write a story expressing emotion, help another kid in trouble, draw a picture of the incident.

* Almost never does a casualty want advice. He wants acknowledgement of his pain, feedback on his perceptions, and assurance someone cares. This goes for adults as well as kids. How often have you told a friend what to do to get rid of the jerk she’s with? Has she ever listened and acted?

* Asking questions is almost always better than making statements. “What did you think?” “How did you feel?” “What else might you have done?” “What could you do if this happens again?” Then you’re using the incident as a teaching opportunity. Educators call this “the teachable moment.”

* Bullying, torment, discrimination, and abuse are universal. We can’t eliminate them. Acknowledge they can be learning experiences with positive results, as we gain strength and knowledge about human relationships. Such diverse resources as Harvard, the Marines, and business consultant Jim Collins mention crucible events in their work, the fires in life through which we pass and either melt or grow stronger and better. When we realize bad experiences can, indeed, help us, we may be able to pass this along to our kids.

* Humans learn so much more from failure and negatives than we do successes and positives. Appreciating this reality helps us deal with our kids’ pain. And stories about our own similar incidents (“There was the time someone called me four-eyes.” “There was the time I was the only one not invited to the party.”) can give subtle support to our kids.

* Because bullying, torment, discrimination, and abuse are universal, we need to help kids gain the tools to deal with them independently. We’re not always going to be around. Talking with them, researching resources, directing them to books, movies, and websites dealing with the topic are avenues for their adjustment.

* We all know kids learn from our examples and responses. We model our belief that positive change is possible, how to deal with rejection and failure, and the methods we use to move beyond and better.

Years ago, Rick Nelson gave the world his advice, once and always true. “But it’s all right now, I’ve learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.”

Hey, I take my philosophy where I find it.

Remembering Mrs. Binkleman: the lasting, glorious, indelible impact of a great teacher

teacherSuffering the blues lately, I was wishing either I was luckier or more talented in my writing or willing to work harder. Typical “feel sorry for yourself” fugue state. As I moped and moaned to myself (my partner won’t tolerate my whining to him), various words came automatically to my mind. Something about beweeping my outcast state and troubling deaf heaven with my cries. Where did that come from, I wondered.

I spared a few minutes to think, and I dredged up out of my memory an old poem that I’d been forced to memorize in school. Shakespeare.* Which led me to remember other things I’d learned by rote in the senior year of high school. Lady MacBeth’s “is this a dagger”. . . Chaucer’s “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote”. . .Burns’ “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us to see oursels as ithers see us!” English teacher Mrs. Binkleman ruled with a firm hand but the soul of a poet.

Unlike some students, who complained and bitched and moaned about the assignments from white-haired, long-skirted Mrs. Binkleman, I kind of enjoyed them, although I never admitted the fact. The language, the history, the door to great minds impressed me. What I didn’t expect was any kind of payback. Memorization was rote, mechanical work, no creativity and little challenge. I never imagined I’d benefit from the tasks. (An aside, she also coached us in thousands of spelling words and other strategies to help us score high on college entrance exams.)

I now seen I’ve gotten lots of rewards from my conscientiousness. The first was in college when I won two tickets to the movies on a radio show for quoting the Burns poem. Less tangible but longer-lasting are the effects when the selections come to me during interesting points in my life. I can quote them to my grandchildren as ready-made homilies. Impress acquaintances. Use them as references in my writing.

The least-anticipated has been the emotional solace they provide. The Shakespearean sonnet that I remembered continues with a comparison to what’s really important—the person the poet loves, who makes him richer than a king, something I needed to recall in the welter of my depression. Others hold equal consolation. “To be” reminds me even the mighty can be confused about the purpose of life. I even have upon occasion memorized additional short pieces I discovered on my own that hold promise of insight. Dickenson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” and Rosetti’s “Who has seen the wind?” Memorized selections come to me when I need them.

So here’s to Mrs. Binkleman and all the teachers like her. They’ve given their students so much more than the ability to regurgitate phrases, Thank your lucky stars you had them for guidance in life and comfort for the soul. Don’t wait, like I’ve unfortunately done, until fifty years after the fact to thank them, too. Let them know now.

* Sonnet 29 (http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174357)
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
       For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
       That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Have we been fooling ourselves all these years? Failure may hold more meaning and value than success because we learn more from it.

failureWe usually define “success” as achieving some sort of goal. A sports team wins a competition. A job search results in an offer from the company of our choice. A contest awards a prize. And life in general, we gain more money or a bigger house or greater fame than others.

I’m starting to realize that I’ve learned the most from projects that I initially labeled as “failures.” This perspective probably is grounded in the decades I’ve spent trying to get published. I wanted to be a writer since I was ten years old. For about 30 years, I slowly but steadily published articles, nonfiction pieces in a variety of local and regional outlets, capped by a how-to book about recruiting and managing volunteers in libraries. Hardly the stuff of a Pulitzer or National Book Award. Since I always wanted to publish fiction, if I’d been asked about my writing success during those years, I would have rated myself as a failure.

At the same time I usually held down a full-time job in communications and public relations. It was during some stints writing applications for grants, then evaluating projects based on the final criteria, that I realized the expectation always was that we’d achieve every objective we’d listed in the original proposal. That defined “success.” This wasn’t always possible or even desirable. Surely if the people involved in the project learned about impacts, that was more important that claiming we’d met objectives. An example—if we hosted an art workshop for kids, and our objective was for each child to create three clay pots, surely it was more important that we leaned those children preferred paints to clay than that every child made his allotted number.

Evaluations with goals and objectives also are common in work plans. In fact as a government employee, I became accustomed to dreaming up annual evaluation methods, which usually changed according to agency fiat every few years, ungrounded in any kind of reality. And again, I seemed to learn more from ostensible “failures” than successes.

This same approach can be applied to raising children. Before mine were well launched into adolescence, I agreed with the theory that good parenting showed up in children who never got in trouble and did well in school. My eyes were opened to the independence of a young human when one of mine always had to learn the hard way. If my sole criterion had been my original standards, I would have written off the parent-child relationship as irretrievably broken. Fortunately I held on and realized both of us had learned and grown through the ill-defined “failure.”

Bob Dylan wrote, “There’s no success like failure. . .failure’s no success at all.” I’m inclined nowadays to apply this Zen-like approach. Arbitrary standards for success may be applied by others, but as the person on my own voyage through life, I’m trying to enjoy and learn from the process, not the result. Perhaps others can benefit from this perspective, too.

Who’s the Old Bitch Now?

old woman Me. Never thought it would happen. When I was young, I’d see old women in non-action at committee meetings and on the job, even in my family. I always had two questions about them.
1) Why did they apply rouge or blusher in bright blotches on their cheeks? And,
2) Why were they often so grouchy?

With age comes wisdom. Sometimes. Or in this case, at least answers. I’m here to tell you that old ladies apply uber-color on their cheeks because their eyesight isn’t good. They can’t discern how heavily they’ve applied it.

As for the grouchiness, this, too, appears to be a function of aging. I’ve lived and learned. The older I get, the more impatient I am with people who have yet to understand the things I have. For example, a group planning an event refuses to prepare a detailed list of responsibilities and assignments. When essentials are overlooked and supplies go missing, my inclination is a motherly “I told you so.” A young friend delivers a lecture to me about packing and scolds that miniature lotion and shampoo are unnecessary. I crow after my return and report the number of hotels failing to provide these essentials.

This extends into public issues and creative efforts. Politicians of all stripes forget what has preceded them, ignore the many solutions that have been implemented in the past, insist on re-visiting the same old debates. Writers believe they’ve uncovered secrets of the universe when a little research would show just how over-used an idea is. Artists brag about their individuality when a visual style is actually a return to days gone by.

Of course criticisms about inexperience and immaturity could flit through my mind and not out my mouth. But maturity also makes me aware that time is fleeting. I don’t want to waste energy and effort being diplomatic. If I blurt out my opinion, get to the heart of the matter without fussing around, I’ll save precious minutes. Unfortunately, I might offend some people in the process.

So before you wonder, “Why is she such an old bitch?”, pause to consider the words of George Santayana (and others who’ve said nearly the same thing), “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. Maybe you can actually learn something from someone older than you.

On the other hand, you could remind me, courtesy of Kurt Vonnegut, “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”