Thursday, August 13, 2009

Conversation and Change

I love it when I have good conversations with my two grown children, Corin, 39, and Cecelia, 24 (in eleven days). There is a transition where your children become fully adult in your psyche and you become fully human in theirs, and you connect. That transition, from my experience, is more continuum than point, stretching out over a long period of teasing out the boundaries that you each agree to observe. Unfortunately many parent and child relationships remain lost on that continuum, neither advancing nor retreating, but circling and unrooted or stuck and despairing.

Boundaries in human relations are unlike those a land surveyor stakes out with metal posts to register in a county office. Humans are infinitely mutable and undeniably fickle in their preferences and dislikes. We negotiate understandings, boundaries in our relationships, and then our contexts change or we ourselves change through experience, education and new influences. The negotiated understandings are no longer settled and must be visited once more.

How does anyone prepare for change? What coping skills do we inculcate to move whole from one unexpected event to the next? What is the ground from which courage springs, and how do we fan its flames in youthful hearts? These are the questions that parents ponder, each in his or her own way, when they consider the awesome responsibility of nurturing a child to adulthood. It seems to me that these are the questions that a society should ponder when we consider how we live together in communities, from our local neighborhoods to our national political units.

As a parent, I have long recognized that my job is to raise my children to leave me – to leave me physically and establish their own households, to leave me emotionally and form nurturing relationships, and to leave me spiritually and encounter the divine through their own lenses. As with any job, there is a gaping chasm between the job’s expectations and one’s performance.

Preparing children to face change head-on is a job that is ongoing throughout their development. In the early years, it’s about comforting children when unpleasant changes occur, beginning as early as when an infant’s status changes from feeling sated to feeling hungry. As children grow to experience disappointment, for example, when a childhood friend doesn’t want to share a toy, when Mom says “No” to an after-school activity, or when the college of choice sends a rejection notice, parents must also develop their repertoire of responses beyond offering comfort.

Learning how to handle disappointment is a tough lesson that sometimes feels like it hurts us, the parents, more than it hurts our disappointed children. The conversations between parent and child that lay the foundation for developing coping skills require patience and consistency. Disappointment is a persistent fact of life. Helping children develop the ability to respond honestly, realistically and hopefully to disappointments merits equal persistence.

I have observed that those adults with the greatest resilience, who are able to pick themselves up and move on after great disappointments, are those who have well-developed self-talk, that ability to separate the disappointment from the ego and to place the disappointment into its proportionate place in one’s universe. Self-talk is, from my perspective, the continuation of the conversations that occurred between parent and child, but now occur within the child’s sense of self, the amalgamation of his identity, morality and experience. I believe that courageous adults have a self-confidence that builds upon helpful self-talk.

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