Friday, December 10, 2010

GUEST BLOG POST: The Power of Values by Mary O'Donohue

When I became a mom at 36, a friend of mine who didn’t yet have children, asked me with curiosity how my life had changed. I struggled at first - not knowing how to express the seismic shift my life had taken. Ultimately I found the words. “I used to breathe air and now I breathe joy.” I know that may sound kind of “out there” – but that’s exactly how I felt. Everything about the world had changed.

And something intrinsically changed when I became a mom too. Little by little, day-by-day, in what felt like mommy boot camp in the first 6 weeks of my son’s life, I started to realize something. I was powerful. I mean, I could put a crying infant to sleep at 3 AM with a gentle, strategically timed bouncing motion I never even knew I had. And as an older mom, I didn’t mind being up with a crying infant at 3AM! I didn’t feel like I was missing anything, you know? Not only that, but it turned out I had a gift for making my son smile – never mind that the pediatrician said babies that young don’t smile. Mine did. Because I had the power.

As my son grew out of babyhood and into the world of toddlers, my powers kept multiplying. With a mere kiss, a spray of antiseptic and a Band Aid, I could conquer any boo boo, from paper cut to full on scrape. And don’t get me started on songs, because I had it down. I made up tunes on the spot with lyrics that would make any 4 year-old stop and listen. As a matter of fact, when my son was that age, he simply believed that there were songs for everything from brushing his teeth to using the potty. Like they already existed on the preschool hit parade. He had no idea I was making them up on the spot.

And then when my little guy turned five, something happened that kind of stopped me in my tracks. I told him for maybe the 500th time to “Say thank you.” And he dutifully repeated the words, although it sounded more like “Thaaaaaaank Youuuuuuu.” Not too sincere. But I’d gotten him to say the words. And that was what I wanted. Right? Or was it?

Soon after that it suddenly hit me that with all the power I had, I’d been missing the point when it came to teaching gratitude to my son. By prompting him to say the words, I was merely training him to act thankful. I wasn’t teaching him to be a grateful person.

And as our family grew, I realized that when my husband and I told our kids to “say thank you,” or “say please,” we were denying them the opportunity to actually be grateful or respectful. In short, we weren’t giving them the chance to express their own power – the power of living their values. And I think as parents we unintentionally do our kids a disservice when we urge them to merely say words when what we really want is that our kids have values. But as a busy parent, how can you instill values like gratitude and respect for others in your children, especially during the hectic holidays? Here are a few suggestions to get started:

- For gratitude:

• Before you sit down for dinner with your family, have a ten minute chat with your kids - no longer or it will feel like a lecture – and ask them to kind of ”play detectives.” See if they can figure out where their favorite dish actually came from. If your eight-year-old son loves the sweet potatoes with marshmallows, ask him where all the ingredients came from in that dish and how they might have gotten to your table. Were there farmers involved? Did someone drive a truckload of marshmallows to your local market? And how did you find just the right spices for your son’s favorite dish? After he’s sleuthed his way to the real back-story behind the food, ask him to think about that for a moment as he sits down for his meal so that he’s not just grateful for the yummy food he’s about to eat, but he will actually start to think that there’s more to appreciate than meets the eye.

• During the holiday season, initiate a daily practice of gratitude simply by having each member of the family find one experience in each day to be grateful for and talk about it over dinner or at bedtime each night. Even if your or your kids have had a bad day, find something positive that came out of it – how they handled themselves in a tough situation or how it made them realize how strong or capable they actually are. Make it an ongoing practice for your family.

-For Respect for Others:

• Whether you’re visiting relatives down the block for a holiday meal or traveling thousands of miles to celebrate with extended family, ask your kids to come up with 5 ways they can show respect to family and friends this holiday season. For instance, if visiting with Grandma for Christmas, Hanukkah, or any family celebration, they can make a small hostess gift like a drawing or place cards. They can also help set the table, pull grandma’s chair back so she can sit down comfortably, wait their turn before speaking at the holiday table, and make every effort not to talk with their mouths full! When they come up with their list the only rule is that they can’t use the word “respect” per se. They actually have to come up with concrete ways to be respectful and then do their best to do each thing on their list.

• This holiday season, as you are looking at your holiday gift giving lists, ask your children to come up with a list of their own – with a twist. Ask each child to individually write down the 5 ways they would like you as a parent to give them respect. Your child’s list might include that they would like to be a part of family decisions…kids hate to be left out. They might also write “When you say ‘I’ll come up to say goodnight in two minutes’ actually come up in two minutes, not a half hour later! And - hey mom - when you play board games – don’t just let me win! When I’m on the phone with my friend from school, please do not mock the things we talk about. “ And, “Hey dad, don’t try to solve all my problems. Sometimes I’ll ask for your help and sometimes I want to try to fix things on my own.” It’s amazing what your kids will come up with. As well-meaning parents who want our children to be respected in the world, sometimes we don’t realize they may not feel that they are getting enough respect in their own families. Just asking them to make this list can be very eye opening for parents.

This holiday season I hope all parents realize our true powers lie not only in rocking our little ones to sleep, or healing boo boos with tender kisses, but in living our values and sharing those values with our children.

Mary O’Donohue is the author of When You Say ‘Thank You’ Mean It…and 11 Other Lessons for Instilling Lifelong Values in Your Children. She and her husband have been married for fifteen years and they have two children, a son and a daughter. She balances being a mom with a long career in television production. She’s an avid traveler, having spent time in Ireland, England, Greece, France, Germany, Italy, Turkey and China. She loves to read and has a passion for photography.

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