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Entries from May 2009

Adapting to an Empty Nest and Sharing Parenting Pearls Learned Along the Way

I ate chocolate cake for breakfast today. I fed my sadness. I’m not proud of it (although it was an exceptionally delectable piece of my homemade specialty). Yes, I break down and succumb to unhealthy measures to escape my feelings from time to time. As a counseling psychology professional, I’m just a little more aware of the implications when I do it. The trouble today? Looming empty-nest syndrome brought on by my daughter’s impending graduation.

My daughter and I are extremely close and I’m profoundly proud of her. I knew one day she would grow and flee the nest, but even now it’s surreal to me. We’ll get through it and I’ll be strong. I owe her that. She’s going off to college to pursue her dreams and I can only imagine how frightening it is for her to move away.

That’s where I draw my strength. Being strong and reassuring will help her when she’s feeling homesick. I say this because I know there are other mothers out there who are feeling just as crushed as I feel. I’m also a single mom of an only child, so I deeply understand the secret desire to hold on. Don’t. Let them fly and be proud. If you’re struggling, find support with other moms (in fact, feel free to contact me and let’s start a support group together!).

Having stated that, I want to take a moment to share some parenting pearls that have worked wonders for me these past 18 years. These pearls haven’t always been supported by my colleagues, but I felt convicted about how I was raising my daughter and followed my heart and instincts. Seeing her success and emotional maturity today confirms my choices.

1.             Love your child unconditionally.

Some professionals have suggested that I have loved/love my daughter too much. NEVER. I believe you can NEVER love your child ENOUGH. It is not enmeshment; it is a parental duty to put your child above and beyond everything else. Choices and decisions you make should be carefully weighed against their impact on your children.

Sidney Poitier brilliantly describes such sentiment in a scene from the 1967 drama, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” when his father complains about the sacrifices he made for him and Poitier’s character retorts that it was his job as a father to work so hard for his kids and family.

2.             Kids are spoiled by things, not your love.

Children become demanding when things (toys, money, monster-sized lonely houses, overstuffed playrooms, etc.) are thrown at them in place of the love and nurturing they need. Happy Meals have taught kids that they need to be entertained and given toys with each meal. You can teach them the opposite.

A trick I tried that seemed effective was when visiting a fast food restaurant (only on rare occasions did we go to such places), I’d share a burger with my daughter. No Happy Meal with toys and games. We’d get one burger and enjoy it under a tree at some park. She’d learn to share, spend quality time with me, and to not expect some flimsy toy with each meal. To this day, she still raves about our memories of getting a “big, juicy burger.” 

We also have formal dinners every night (most nights) and cook together. Lighting a candle at dinner makes it extra special. Such routines inspire joy, gratitude and reverence for life’s gifts.

3.             Consistency is critical when raising children.

Kids will naturally manipulate if they experience inconsistency. However, what most people don’t realize is that children actually feel insecure when rules are slippery. Therefore, reinforcing and being consistent with your rules helps to make your children feel safe and secure. They might still test your rules to see what they can get away with, but that’s just to know that they can count on you and a safe world.

Similarly, they need your yeses to be consistent too. Love and praise them and don’t back off of the good things you’ve promised them. Don’t say you’ll go to their game and not show up. Don’t promise to take them to the movies and then not go. Doing so shows slippery rules and you’ll teach them to be just as slippery and noncompliant (along with feeling heartbroken).

4.             TRUST your kids - even your teens.

If you’ve raised your children in a manner of loving consistency and not spoiling them, you’ve raised emotionally mature kids. As teens, you need to listen to their feelings and create empathy. Sure, they’ll go through emotional up and downs. Who doesn’t when one’s body is rapidly changing and hormones are fluctuating beyond belief? Love, support and listen to them.

If you distrust everything they say and set up a power struggle, you are sure to have a rough ride. Too many parents expect the worst and also expect their kids to be perfect. They see emotional reactivity as noncompliance when most of the time, kids really just need a hug and some reassurance to get through the changing chaos of their growth. My daughter’s and my conflicts have just melted away when we stop, hug each other, and mutually share what we’re really experiencing. After all, trust is a two-way street and empathy is the only bridge to peace and healing.

Writing this has been therapeutic for me as it allows me to look back on my daughter’s life, smiling and remembering all of it. Like eating the chocolate cake this morning, I haven’t been a perfect parent. I’ve been inconsistent at times and have definitely engaged in some battles of will. Overall, however, it’s been absolutely amazing. My daughter is the joy of my life and I know I did right by making decisions around her best wellbeing. She’s given back 1,000-fold too.

My best presents, my best memories, and my best accomplishments have been with and because her. Some might argue it’s enmeshment and I disagree.  It’s parenthood - the most important job I, and you, will ever have. My daughter is strong, loving, compassionate, communicative, mature, independent, and confident. She is also quite talented and creative. She needed love to feel safe. She needed trust to trust her own internal guidance. She needed freedom to learn independence. She needed consistency to learn self-discipline. She needed gratitude to grow spiritually and fuel her creative gifts. She is ready to flee the nest and achieve her dreams. So am I—with a deep breath, a broad smile, unshakable support, gigantic applause, and maybe a couple extra pounds.

Are You Profiting Off Someone Else's Pain?

Today I was asked how it felt to profit off people’s pain. It’s not the first time I heard this question. The other time came from a busy male CEO that seemed to sneer at my decision to leave engineering and become a counseling therapist.

Today’s question came from a similarly successful male executive. I felt sad and a little misunderstood. I also couldn’t help but recognize the irony that each of them has a net worth far greater than mine.

Stepping back and looking at the big picture, I began thinking about all of the layoffs around the world; the state of our health from unhealthy fast food and inactivity; the quality of our relationships that compete with technology, addictions, and a relentless desire for instant gratification; and this ubiquitous thing called the “rat race” that deems a large net worth and array of material possessions as a measure of success. Am I profiting or are the people that have created and sustained this “rat race” culture?

The effects of this “rat race” culture are frightening. Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me, cites data that indicates narcissism is escalating by 30% since the 1960s. Childhood poverty in the U.S, has also been on the rise since 2000. In fact, almost half of our children are living in families that range from low-income to poverty level. On top of that, our uninsured rate continues to climb. Unemployment is at staggering rates. Not surprisingly, insecurity and the anxiety that stems from this current environment is at an all time high.

The silver lining can be summed up by the adage, when one door closes, another one opens. This national and global crisis is an opportunity to re-focus on what matters. We need to change the “rat race” culture and focus on how we are raising the next generation.

Rather than profit off people’s weaknesses (providing fast food that people can eat in a car…knowing that people procrastinate and will unlikely cancel their subscriptions that renew automatically…manipulating people to reciprocate and purchase a product when given something for free…selling them cosmetic surgeries that feed their insecure-based self-obsession…capitalizing on their fears with unnecessary products…etc., etc.), we all need to come together and make our character and relationships - not money - the measure of our success. When we do, we cultivate empathy and compassion for people. When we do that, we don’t even think of business schemes that hurt people (Ponzi schemes, etc.).

In closing, I am struck by an example Benjamin Franklin gives in his autobiography about how he was raised as a child. During instruction, they were told not to notice the food they were eating or any of the table settings (external items that money buys) but to focus on the lessons and what was “good, just and prudent in the Conduct of Life.” Perhaps that is something we can all practice. Don’t focus on profit in business, but on what is good, just and prudent in the Conduct of Life.

(Please note-All members of the American Counseling Association, American Psychological Association and similar professional therapy organizations have a strict code of ethics that focuses on the client’s well-being over profit. All professionals must also provide a certain percentage of pro-bono and community work. In addition, most of my colleagues, and myself included, have frequently extended our services and waived fees on a case-by-case basis with our clients as needed.)

The Answer to the One-Minute Personality Assessment (Goof or Nerd?)

There are a lot of goofs out there! At least that’s what people shared in their emails in response to my last post (Would you rather be a goof or a nerd?). 

This question first came up when I was conversing with the chairman of the board of my old company and teasingly called him a goof. My friend and I said that to each other so often that the “You’re a goof” comment slipped out of my mouth almost by accident. However, the usual smile that accompanied the comment didn’t appear. 

Instead, he shot me an incredulous stare as if I had given the worst blow a person could give and retorted, “A goof??”

 I stammered for a second and attempted a little humor with my reply, “Well, would you rather be a goof or a nerd?” 

He straightened his jacket, cleared his throat, and then proudly stated “A nerd of course!” 

“Oh” I mumbled and didn’t pursue it any further. 

After that, I began quizzing people everywhere. The president of the firm preferred to be a goof. A top salesman preferred to be a goof. A researcher clearly wanted to be a nerd. Another senior executive absolutely preferred to be a nerd. Hmm, I began detecting a pattern. Was it sense of humor? Extroversion? The degree to which one took themselves seriously? 

Then I hit my first anomaly. A life of the party, funny, witty, gregarious, top performer wanted to be a nerd. It didn’t make sense. Everything fit perfectly with him being a goof. After some discussion, he said that he felt like a goof but wanted to be a nerd. 

Ohhh. Different subtleties exist with my new assessment. 

Now, I’ve come full circle. Life is complex and it’s difficult to lump people into a category of personality types, let alone an over-simplistic dichotomy. Having said that, I realize now that the best answer is a both/and, not an either/or. Thus, as my good friend, Reid Walley, stated in his comment, we are all probably a little bit of nerd and a little bit of goof—and we’re better for it that way. 

Most people can behave very goofy at times and can be quite nerdy at other times. It’s a good thing to be that way. Balance doesn’t exist in either extreme. For instance, if you are just a nerd, you might never enjoy the humor and light side of life. Or, if you are only a goof, you could miss out on the satisfaction gained from intellectualism and serious life issues. The answer to growth is in finding balance between the extremes. Therefore, if you find yourself answering in one definitive category, you might want to try cultivating the other side of yourself to stay in balance. Try being a goofy nerd or nerdy goof and feel good about it. The shift can be empowering.