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Parenting is a full-time, twenty-four-hour-a-day collection of duties, obligations, privileges, and promises. It is a series of steps we take every day to protect, defend, educate, nurture, sympathize with, mentor, feed, drive around, cheer for, and provide whatever else is needed for our children at any particular moment.
Our children, in turn, agree to let us do these many things for them. The relationship between us and our children is not equal, and not necessarily balanced, either.
Our first responsibility as parents is to get our children through each and every day of their lives healthy and happy and confident in the fairness of the world around them.
Here are some ideas to keep your children safe, healthy, respected, and cherished, every single day.
PARKING LOT RULES
In a world inhabited by cars the size of small houses, the parking lot can be an incredibly dangerous place. Children are often distracted and unaware of the chaos going on around them-the dangers of getting from the car to the store and back.
The drivers of the SUVs rumbling by are likewise in another world: watching their own children, talking on their cell-phones, listening to the radio, organizing for their next stop, just as you are probably doing. Will they triple-check the rearview mirror as they back out? You hope so, but maybe not. The last thing they are looking for is your children.
Teach your children Parking Lot Rules, that they need to be right next to you always and whenever you are in a parking lot. There is to be no trailing behind. No racing ahead. No exceptions. Right next to you.
The moment you near a parking lot, either to or from the car, call out "Parking Lot Rules" and your children will know that they absolutely must be by your side. If they have toys in their hands, or Game Boys, or PSPs, or (if you're lucky) a good book, it gets put away that instant.
Nothing is more important than their walking next to you, holding your hand, and safely getting back and forth from the car.
This rule can apply in other situations as well. There will be times when you perceive a danger that your children have missed: perhaps raised voices or the sound of broken glass or a stranger acting erratically. If you call out to your children to watch out for the danger, you simply call more attention to yourself and the vulnerability of your situation.
Instead shout out "Parking Lot Rules." Your children will know instantly and instinctively that they need to be by your side, that instant, no questions asked.
Getting in and out of the car-which happens a million times during childhood-can be dangerous for children if they are not paying attention, and especially as the car door is closing. This is often the precise instant that they reach for you, or push their sister, or drop a toy and go to rescue it.
As you are about to close the door, call out "Fingers fingers," and teach your children that this means that they should pull their hands back instantly, and protect their fingers.
Your children will soon become accustomed to heeding your warning and will instinctively protect themselves and their beautiful hands. This rule will also remind you to take one last look before you shut the car door.
There is no feeling worse than closing a car door on fingers, whether your children's or someone else's.
Once the injury starts to heal up-and the bruises fade, and the cast comes off, and the new nail grows in-you will have to suffer through the retelling of the story for exactly as long as the rest of your life. It will become a milestone of their childhood, and a millstone of your parenting.
A little warning can make all the difference and give your children that extra second that they just might need to pull fingers out of danger.
GROW THE TREE YOU GOT
Imagine that there is a tree growing in a front yard somewhere. Imagine that it is a tree born of one of the most magnificent oak tree strains in the world, the Kentucky black oak. But then imagine that the man who owns this particular house does not care for the beautiful oak. He always wanted an Australian acacia growing in his front yard.
So he does not appreciate the amazing tree. He hardly notices how it shoots into the sky, filling the air with the musky scent of amber and coal. He does not see its branches seeking the freedom of the clouds. He does not know and does not care that its massive roots feed younger and smaller trees nearby.
When the oak fails to yield the occasional purple blooms that the acacia would have given, he is dismissive of the shade it provides. When the wind blowing through the leaves of the oak does not whistle the susurrus of the acacia that he remembers from his youth, he stands deaf to the birds who twitter as they make their home in the oak's wide branches. When the oak scrapes the front of his house trying to survive a vicious windstorm he is unforgiving and cuts off the branch.
The oak cannot do enough to please the man, and soon the man does not even see the magnificent tree when he comes home. There is a gift waiting for him in his front yard every single day but he does not notice it.
What has this to do with the raising of amazing children?
Parents often visualize a whole scenario of activities that will take place when their children finally arrive. Two very dear friends of mine were no different in this regard.
Edgar and Sonya had tried for many years to have children. Every attempt brought more expectations, and every failure somehow doubled those expectations. Finally they were rewarded with a son. Patrick was several weeks early, but survived to become a healthy young man.
My friends pictured Patrick as an athletic boy, given to prowess in any sport to which he set his mind, with great hand-eye coordination. He was sure to be the high school jock his dad had almost become. From the earliest days his room was filled with balls and bats, while posters of his father's sports heroes fought for wall space next to Barney, Rugrats, and Teletubbies.
The weight of the parents' dreams must have been overwhelming for Patrick. Although he did try soccer and baseball for one season each, it turned out that he was not very athletic. Patrick could not throw or kick a ball and could not have cared less.
By the time he was eleven, Patrick was going out of his way to avoid any discussion about sports. If it involved a ball or bat or glove or puck, he wanted no part of it.
Pretty soon the only sound you could hear around the house, at least when the talk turned to athletics, was the father looking at his son and letting out a long and noticeable sigh. Patrick was forced to wear this mantle of failure, especially around his father. As a result, father and son never had a chance to become friends. To this day they maintain a polite but very distant relationship.
Patrick's dad had his heart set on raising an Olympian, and so missed out on raising the painter and storyteller his son turned out to be.
If there is a lesson here for parents, it is that we must recognize the innate gifts and individual talents that each child possesses. We must separate our own expectations from those of our children and give them a great life based on who and what they are, not who or what we had always hoped they would be.
Oak, acacia, redwood, or pine. Athlete, dancer, artist, or scholar.
Grow the tree you got.
SMILE WHEN YOU SEE THEM
The Nancy Armato Rule
Antonina's mother, Nancy Armato, is the ultimate child greeter. She smiles and beams and bursts with pride at the sight of her three children and her six grandchildren. No child who enters her home has any doubt whatsoever that he or she is completely welcome-there is no room for doubt.
Grandma Nancy's hugs, kisses, compliments, questions about a new toy or shoes, recognition of a sterling report card, or her recalling a goal in a recent soccer game-all are part of her fabulous greeting. Every child gets his moment.
The children around her respond in kind. They feel so loved and welcomed by her that it literally and physically changes them. They open to her like roses bathed in the warmth of the morning sun. She adds a patina of grace to their lives when each one realizes they have given her reason to smile.
Watch your son walk into a room. What is the first thing he does?
He looks around at the faces watching him walk in. He is instinctively searching for the visual cues that tell him that he is welcome and a part of the family, that he is loved and wanted, and that he was missed while he was gone.
The easiest and simplest way to give him the approval and welcome he seeks is to smile when you see him. A smile instantly sets him at ease. A smile says, "Yes, I love you."
A frown, or only a grunt of recognition, faint praise, or sheer disinterest, sends a message of dismissal.
Let your son feel welcome from the first moment he sees you. Let him know that he is loved and important to you, always and forever. When you see him, smile, and leave no doubt that at that moment he is the most important person in your world.
ONCE SEEN, NEVER UNSEEN
When I was only nine years old, and living with my mom and my brother in the Hollywood Hills of California, our traditional Sunday dinner was interrupted by the sound of screeching tires and a huge explosion.
We raced outside to see that two cars had collided head-on in the middle of Franklin Avenue. Hubcaps were still spinning on the pavement as we ran over to see if we could help. A fire was just starting in the Volkswagen, and the other car was on its roof. My mom was five feet, five inches tall and weighed a hundred pounds at the most, but she somehow found the strength to pull the passenger, a six- two man, out of the burning VW and drag him twenty feet away, where she ministered to him until the police and fire and ambulances finally came.
But the driver of the VW was not so lucky. I guess he had banged his head pretty hard and was nearly unconscious. When I walked up to ask him if he was okay, I looked inside the car. His feet were on fire. A minute later, the whole thing burst into a big flame and he disappeared in it. I could not take my eyes off him. Now, of course, I wish I had.
Once seen, never unseen. The images that seared across my retinas that night so many years ago are with me today and will be with me forever. My mother would tell you that she told me not to look, but how could I not?
Today, when I am watching television with my boys, I am overwhelmed by the images that have become so commonplace. It's not just the news or the spectacle stations, but all the crime show ads and Court TV and CNN.
In films, on television, in the newspaper, on the Internet, in everyday life, disturbing visuals are everywhere. Protect your little people from sad sights that will stay with them forever. Cover their eyes if they are too young to do it themselves, and teach them to cover their own eyes as soon as they can. There is no good reason for your child to know the morbid details of the passings and the horrors that are captured and broadcast these days.
Once seen, never unseen.
TREAT HER LIKE YOUR BOSS
No matter how tired or fed up you are with how things are going at the office or store or school, or wherever you might work, if the person who signs your paycheck walks in, somehow there is a little reserve of goodwill saved up, just for him or her.
From out of thin air comes a smile or a sudden lilt in the voice, or a very optimistic assessment of the absolute disaster staring everyone in the face. This good-natured version of you is like a can of emergency survival instinct, always there somewhere, just waiting to be used.
This is the source to which you might consider turning when you are completely fed up with your daughter, when she has found your last nerve and is standing on it, when you realize you have memorized the phone number of the private military academy over in the next county.
But instead of raising your voice to her, instead of saying some things you may regret later, instead of reminding her that you brought her into this world, instead of embarrassing her in front of the entire family, even though that is precisely what she deserves, just imagine . . .
What would you do if your boss suddenly walked into the room? Hmmm. Would you pull him by the earlobe? Would you stick your finger in his face and hiss like a snake? Would you ask him the same question over and over? Would you ask him the same question over and over? Would you call him a name? Would you call him by his full name in a loud voice with lots of extra pronunciation on all the consonants?
Probably not. Not if you wanted to keep your job.
To your boss you would show complete respect and consideration. To your boss you would give the benefit of the doubt. There is no concession you could not make, and no compromise that could not be reached.
Your daughter should get the same respect, if not more. Why not let her meet the kind and considerate you hiding there behind the angry and frustrated version? Why not introduce her to the resilient spirit who always finds a reason to laugh at a situation, regardless of how dire?
Let her say hello to the forgiving optimist who makes a self- deprecating remark to lighten the mood, and makes the whole room laugh. Let her hang out with the practical gamer who always finds a way to look at the bright side of things.
Treat her like your boss.
ALMOST ALWAYS SKIP THE FIRST THING THAT COMES TO MIND
I was playing golf with my son Sam in Los Angeles. He was a pretty good golfer for a six-year-old but was not really concentrating this particular day and topped the ball three times in a row. "Topped" means that the bottom of the club hits just the very top of the ball, moving it forward only a few feet. He must have known that I would be unhappy with his poor play, and looked up at me just to get the confirmation.