Fellow parents, we are raising our children in uncertain times!
There are unpredictable–and disturbing–winds blowing. In this blog post, I’m going to show that when we communicate to our children the truth that we and they are capable of strength and growth no matter what is happening around us, we help them grow into people who can stand in the wind.
Layers Of Uncertainty
In our home and among our several kids, unpredictability feels like it comes in different levels, just like the Covid Codes at one of our kid’s schools. A small sampling might include:
- Code Yellow: Will school next week be virtual or physical?
- Code Orange: What will our economic situation look like?
- Code Red: Who will win the election? Will America cease to exist? Is the environment corrupted beyond repair? Will an asteroid hit us?
This Uncertainty Is Driving A Lot Of Anxiety In Kids–And Parents
Kids are feeling more anxious. Time magazine writes “…if COVID-19 is sparing most kids’ bodies, it’s not being so kind to their minds,” reporting that both quarantine and increases in unemployment rates are linked with more anxiety and depression in kids and teens. (The article doesn’t even mention the extra layers of stress linked to social or political fears and upheaval.)
And it isn’t just our kids. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control cited in the Washington Post, U.S. adults are also experiencing “considerably elevated adverse mental health conditions.” In fact, the Post article continues with a special shout out to many of us parents: “People who were already juggling day care or raising children while simultaneously establishing careers have had their lives upended on nearly every front.”
They’re talking about us. We’re famous!
Parent Attitudes Have A Big Effect On Kids Attitudes
But guess what? Despite all these messages of fear that our kids are receiving from the world and (me shaking my fist at the sky) that accursed social media, it turns out that we, their parents, also are having a big effect.
Quite possibly a bigger effect.
Our words, attitudes and actions–including potentially shaking our fists at the sky, crying at the fates and prophesying doom–are picked up by our kids loud and clear.
Or as Dr. Sanya Pelini, PhD, writes in PsychCentral, anxiety “is often a learned trait. What this means is that an anxious parent does certain things, behaves in a certain way and reacts to situations in a certain manner, sparking his or her kid’s anxiety.”
No! I do not want to give you one more thing to worry about or feel guilty about.
This is actually great news. Because the flip side of knowing that we can pass on fear or anxiety to our kids through our behavior is realizing that we can also help pass on faith and resilience! And that is awesome.
I Personally Realized I Was Passing Messages Of Fear To My Kids
Around the time that I realized that reading one more NY Times article was not going to help me or my country, I also realized that I was doing a big disservice to my kids.
You see, I am concerned about some of the things going on in our world. I should be. We all should be. And I was not shy or quiet about sharing my concerns around the house.
And my family is, uh, a bit political. My eldest son has worked on multiple campaigns as a paid consultant, my wife and I have often volunteered over the years, and even my younger kids follow the news and intensely discuss issues. So everyone was happy to discuss various challenges and even outrages.
But when I saw that one of my teenagers responded to a political event in our family group chat with “We’re doomed!” I had a “hang on a sec” moment.
Are you kidding?
Being in an airplane falling out of the sky might be “doomed.”
Being attacked by Mongols might be “doomed.”
Walking the plank or being spaced might be “doomed.”
But a political event? Even a brutal one? Even the death of a hero? Does that make us “doomed?”
When you’re doomed, there is no point in going on. Being doomed is giving up.
I personally have never felt that losing a job, or a home, or an election, was enough to “doom” me. Yet somehow, with my annoyance at what I saw as wrong and unjust, I was showing my kids a perspective of helplessness. And that point of view just isn’t very helpful!
The “world”–and Instagram–is already doing a bang up job of telling my kids the bad news. But I resolved then and there to remind myself to teach and model the good news to my kids—that far from being “doomed” we are incredibly resourceful.
First of all, I’m trying to make sure that my kids understand that although this moment is unique in my and their lifetimes, it is not even close to unusual in the big picture of human experience.
Humans have experienced a lot of existential threats. Mongols invading. Conquistadores landing. Smallpox. Black plague. Drought. Swarms of locusts. Famine. We are not remotely the first ones to be unsure about what will happen next.
If fact, on a gut level, our emotional response to the “Days of Covid” is probably similar to what others felt during fairly recent (and arguably even more challenging) times like The Great Depression, Jim Crow and segregation, the 1918 Spanish Flu, World War II, and on and on. History is full of pain, tears and terror.
And that’s just “history-history”. There’s a 100% chance that there is more specific pain and struggle in your family history. (Here’s one–my late grandmother’s husband, brothers, and brother-in-law were simultaneously overseas fighting during World War II, while she watched the kids and took care of her dying father. Wow, gramma–that sounds stressful!)
Yet, our ancestors–and literally billions of other people–persevered and found joy, love and meaning in those uncertain and troubled times. And the indisputable fact is that millions and millions of people are doing and will continue to do the same right now, right here. Including us.
Let’s Talk About Concentration Camps
Secondly, I’m reminding myself–and my kids–of a simple fact: no matter what the situation is, on a fundamental level we are never the victims of circumstance because we always retain our power to choose how we respond.
Earlier during quarantine I read Viktor Frankl’s memoir of surviving the Nazi death camps. In one passage in that book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he describes marching hungry, sick and beaten with a work crew–and marveling with another prisoner at the beauty of a sunrise. He writes:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Inspired, I decided to read another memoir of finding liberty within prison walls–The Upside of Fear by Weldon Long. At first, Long’s story seems very different from that of Frankl. Frankl was educated, spoke multiple languages, and was already an author when he was imprisoned by the Nazis for the crime of being Jewish, while Long was a highschool dropout, alcoholic, addict and career criminal when he was imprisoned for armed robbery, fraud and burglary.
Yet, after years of imprisonment and bitterness at the unfairness of his life, Long read Frankl’s book and discovered his own capacity to respond to his circumstances. He describes feeling happy and peaceful for the first time since childhood, within prison walls and surrounded by violence and fear. Over the following years he read, exercised, got his GED and then two college degrees, tutored other inmates and wrote a daily letter to the son he had abandoned. Released after 13 years in prison, Long reunited with his son, built a multimillion dollar business, and now makes regular trips back to prison to mentor and inspire other convicts.
Most recently, I’ve been reading about Nelson Mandela. Did you know that Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison, for the crime of opposing apartheid? He spent most of this time in the Robben Island prison, crushing rocks to make gravel by day, and spending his nights in a damp and cramped concrete cell with a bucket for a toilet. And yet, in prison he earned a Law Degree, learned to speak Afrikaans (the language of his oppressors), and organized a resistance movement. But he didn’t view those as his most difficult accomplishments. In 2000, he said ““If I had not been to prison, I would not have been able to achieve the most difficult task in life and that is changing yourself.”
Although most of us are not sleeping in a tiny prison cell or enduring daily beatings, for many of us these days of Covid are dissolving the illusion that life can be predictable or that we can control our world. That’s not fun–but it is an astounding gift of clarity. Because the truth is that even before Covid, life was still fundamentally unpredictable and beyond our control.
My Note To My Kids.
Science shows that as a parent I can pass fears and anxiety onto my kids–but I also can pass on my faith and perseverance.
So, kids, I want you to know something.
The times we are living in have challenges–but they are not unusual in human history. In fact, on a grand scale, it is kinda normal.
You and I are descended from millions of generations of resilient survivors. They could handle it, and so can we. And we are!
If Nelson Mandela could break rocks into gravel all day, use a bucket for a toilet, clean out his bucket and the buckets of other prisoners and then still learn another language and get a law degree at night in a damp cell, then I’m totally not surprised at the way you wake up with your alarm, finish your homework for Virtual School, and do your chores with a good attitude. It makes a lot of sense that you are capable of that.
And if Victor Frankl could experience his entire family going to the gas chambers, endure years of deprivation, be marched hungry and battered to build a road for his oppressors to march on–and then look up and marvel at the beauty of a sunrise–well, if he can do that, I’m actually not surprised that I can keep my temper most of the time, even if I don’t know who will win the election or how many students will attend my Virtual Guitar School. It makes a lot of sense that I am capable of that.
Nelson Mandela famously memorized and recited the poem Invictus, by W.E. Henley, throughout his time in prison, when he wanted to encourage himself and others. It ends with these words:
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Frankl, Long and Mandela, who embraced their own power over themselves, ultimately also discovered the power to also improve the lives of those imprisoned with them, their wider communities–or even the world.
And kids, whether you are negotiating with me for more autonomy, are applying to college, or are thinking about global warming, you too can be resourceful and effective. You can stand in the wind, and you will never be doomed for as long as you decide not to be.
And as your dad, I will endeavor to demonstrate a little wind standing of my own!
(By the way, my kids were very good at listening to this blog post and giving me feedback. Thanks, kids!)
Anxiety and Mental Health Challenges Have Increased During Covid
The Upside Of Fear by Weldon Long
Man’s Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl
Nelson Mandela Imprisoned
Morgan Freeman recites Invictus