Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sometimes kids surprise us

Sometimes kids surprise us. Perhaps it is that we underestimate them or perhaps it is that they show resilience that shadows that of most adults. We think of them as fragile and vulnerable because they're little beings we are trying to protect but more times than we parents probably care to count they show maturity and strength that makes them a lot less fragile than we think.

In my case, the surprise came from our first trip to visit Santa. My daughter was born in February of 2008 so last Christmas she was almost 10 months old but since she does not attend day care we decided that the mall at Christmas time was probably more germs than we could handle. We didn't take her to visit Santa then so we knew we'd be doing so this year but I was reluctant. As a kid, visiting Santa was not part of my Christmas traditions and just didn't seem of real importance for me. Additionally, although our daughter is a very friendly outgoing child sometimes she exhibits a bit of anxiety around men she doesn't know so I was sure the Santa visit would be less than ideal. My husband thought otherwise and insisted at every opportunity that we should take her.

He had been mentioning Santa to her whenever they saw a cartoon, character, etc. that represented him and she seemed to be excited. I didn't believe him. I put it off hoping trips & tasks would intervene and we would "just run out of time". So, I don't have to tell you how surprised I was when we were in Walmart running errands and as I turned a corner heard my daughter shriek with excitement. She had caught a glimpse of Santa. He was sitting on a wire bench in the Garden department. He was wearing glasses and was too thin to even resemble the jolly old guy but he was in a red suit and had a hat and beard so our daughter just about jumped out of the shopping cart and dragged us to him. She waited in line, walked up to him, sat in his lap and smiled for the picture. Wow. Wow!

The crying, scared scene I had imagined was so far from reality. She glowed. I don't think she gets the asking for presents bit... she just loved hanging out with a POPULAR character of the season. She also enjoyed the Santa Shamu and Elmo at Sea World. The best part... well I have to say it was the look of satisfaction on my husband's face as he reminded me that he knew she would do ok and that I underestimate her most of the time. The next week he took her to the mall to "hang out" with Santa again. She did great and dad couldn't have been prouder.

Lesson learned. The holidays bring many opportunities for our kids to surprise us. Whether it is adapting to travel, new family members, or new experiences like Santa and fireworks we should always give them the benefit of the doubt and be ready to console and reassure if need be or just enjoy their joy.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Teaching Kids to Give Not Just Receive

Giving back, being thankful or grateful, these are words we hear a lot as the end of the year approaches and we begin to reflect on the trials and successes we've had in the past months. Oddly, it's not something we hear from many children. For kids it seems that the focus of our holidays has become, perpetuated by society, the number and kinds of gifts they will receive. It can become completely about them if we're not careful to teach that during the holidays and beyond it is best to give than to receive.

Our children are bombarded with ads for toys and images of making lists of the things they want and "deserve" because they were good. But not too many messages are being sent to them by mass media, or parents for that matter, that the important part of this season is about opening our hears, giving back, giving thanks and simply being grateful for all that we have and all that we don't have.

So what's a parent to do? How can we teach our children about being altruistic without burdening them with the problems and issues of the adult world? In our quest to teach our children empathy and selflessness do we risk robbing them of a childhood by exposing them to issues we consider above them? Will seeing poverty, hunger, sickness, or pollution overwhelm their spirit?

In my opinion it is actually the opposite. We usually underestimate kids. Being direct and honest with them is usually the best option. Allowing them to see the world for what it is (be it your local community or another country) helps them empathize and better understand it.

If you seek out experiences that are age appropriate and always let your kids ask questions and express their emotions world issues can be a great way to connect with them and to instill values. When they express their emotions validate and help them deal with them. Ask any teacher and they'll remind us that most kids will want to "help" when they encounter others with a problem especially other children, so provide opportunities for them to do so. Volunteer as a family at a shelter. Take them shopping for toys for kids in need and then go with them to deliver these gifts. Visit the elderly or raise funds for a cause of interest. Don't forget to listen to their ideas and help them implement these. Kids can surprise us with their own valid solutions to problems. As long as you are by their side explaining and reassuring any exposure to the world's ills will only help them think more globally, be more empathetic and ultimately create an altruistic little person.

Additionally, consider that travel can be a valuable tool in your child's education and growth. With travel comes both knowledge and empathy and a world with more empathetic people can be a better place for all of us.

My personal experience with travel as a teaching tool makes me recall a trip where I was old enough to notice the poverty in the country we were visiting. My parents would often drive us down to Monterrey Mexico to visit family and on this particular trip I must have been about four or five years old. I remember that we stopped for gas in Laredo after we had crossed the border and a small girl... not much older and actually shorter than me... came up to my father as he was pumping gas to ask if he wanted to buy gum. She was dirty, shoeless, and thin. It made me sad that she was working and the look of desperation in her eyes made me feel the need to help. My father bought her box of gum (not just a pack) and my mother gave her a pair of my shoes.

She was so happy and within minutes we had three or four other children asking my parents for clothes or food or anything. My dad handed out some more coins and told them he would be back with more clothes. The rest of the two and a half hour drive to Monterrey my parents explained to me that some children in this world didn't have parents or a home or many things we were blessed with so it was up to us and others to help them. They explained that there are many kids around the world who are hungry and poor who have to work for their survival.

To make a long story short a new family tradition was started and on every trip we took to Monterrey we always brought as much clothes and shoes as we could. On our drive down we gave clothes and shoes to as many kids as we could and also made special trips into very poor areas where we were surrounded by so many kids that our bags of clothes disappeared in seconds.

We were not a wealthy family (actually I don't think we were even middle class) and I am sure that we could have sold some of those clothes for a few extra dollars or kept them longer to not have to buy more clothes but seeing the joy in the faces of the children we gave it to made me feel hopeful. Hopeful for their well being, hopeful for their happiness and mostly it made me feel rich. I was rich in the love of my parents, in the safety of my home, in the true sense of the word... rich in spirit.

So this holiday season give your children the gift that counts. Teach them about giving and share your time and love with them while encouraging them to share their blessings with others.