Respect for Children’s Boundaries

Determination

Don’t mess with me

At a baby shower I attended recently, I made the remark “Kids can have boundaries” and was met with “Well, duh!” No, I did not feel insulted; I felt encouraged. After all, I came of age in an era when children’s boundaries were not given the respect they deserved. Though my own family fortunately did not follow this pattern, it was not at all uncommon to see a young child publicly instructed “Give your grandpa a kiss,” or “Give your Aunt Helen a hug.” There was no thought that the child had any say in the matter.
Yes, I realize children are not entitled to free rein in whatever they do: They are children, after all. But among the zillion things we do expect these same children to accomplish before they come of age, is the concept of saying No to unwanted touching and/or sexual advances. It does make more sense, it seems clear enough to me, to start this training early, to encourage our children to develop an awareness of what these boundaries mean to them. That includes saying Yes or No to the same person at different times, depending on their feelings at the time.
Can you imagine a world where there is never an implication that “This person said Yes to me last week, so of course I just assumed they were okay with having sex the next time I was interested”? Or a world where there was no Incel movement because there was no feeling of entitlement to hear the word Yes just because?
I am so encouraged to see the awareness that has developed in the past couple of decades—not just regarding overtly sexual behavior but also anything that makes a person uncomfortable. One boundary violation that did occasionally occur in my childhood was excessive tickling. “Look, she’s laughing so she must like it” was the general attitude. Laughter in response to ticking is a reflexive response; it does not necessarily indicate pleasure. That helpless feeling when you are being held down and tickled is not something I would ever want to repeat. It bothered me to the point that, once I was raising my own child and he would actually ask me to tickle him, I could not bring myself to do it. Too many memories of how helpless that once made me feel.
What better training can we give our youngest generation, than to simply say “Would you like a hug?” and for that child to know we will accept their answer without complaint. We are no more entitled to hugs from every child we think is cute, than any of us are to sexual favors from other adults we may be attracted to.
Of course there are all manner of non-physical boundaries too, which are a topic for another day. It is one area where I have witnessed a major increase in awareness, along with a need to start teaching that respect for both self and others at an early age. That is some progress I can get behind.

Parenting – It’s Not a Competition

Kelsey 2019 w dog

Photo Credit:  Anna Dobbs Applebaum

Parenting – It’s not a competition.  What a concept, I know.  Yes, it is a huge undertaking, and yes it is critical to how your children turn out, how they feel secure and loved (or not), whether they grow up with good physical and mental health.  Of course it matters.  Every bit of it matters.  But so many parents see only their mistakes, and spend far too much time beating themselves up over every single one.

I was at a training recently that discussed attachment, among other things.  It has long been known that infants and young children decide whether the world is a safe place, based largely on how their caregivers respond to their needs.  Luckily, most of them decide it is a safe place and go on to live fulfilling lives.

But here is the part that was new and intriguing to me:  Those slight breaches, the times when a parent or other caregiver is distracted or sad or angry—when the parent reaches out again, comforts the child, heals the breach—some breaches are actually beneficial to the parent-child relationship, because the healing is part of the connection.  And without those breaches, what would there be to heal from?  (Okay, I am talking minor breaches, not outright abuse or neglect; that is critical here.)

When my son was tiny, I had a wonderful friend Beth who had a Masters degree and a Phi Beta Kappa key—all the trappings of extreme intelligence and accomplishment.  Beth told me something I will never forget:  The most important thing you can give your children is You.  Yes, You.  Another parent might make more homemade goodies, keep a cleaner house, give the best birthday parties…and that is great.  But that is them, and that is how they bond with their own children.

You have no need to compete.  Hug your children.  Listen to them.  Help them process their emotions, I’m really big on that one.  Compliment them.  Protect them.  Help them feel loved.  If your children feel loved, they are likely to see you as the best parent in the world.  (At least when they are little; teen years may be a bit more challenging.)  Those are the things that will bond you to them.  Doing your best is important; trying to measure up to the standards you think others set is not.

My wonderful friend Becca MacDowell told me a great story about comparing yourself to others.  Becca was a single mom raising two young children, working full time, and had pretty much given up on her attempts to attend college classes in the midst of all that.  She turned on the TV and watched an episode about a single mother of four who had decided to become a doctor.  Of course Becca felt totally inferior, having given up on college courses with “only” two children to raise.  She watched the entire episode, feeling worse at every turn while this woman was regaled for her tenacity.

Then at the end of the show, guess what?  It was casually mentioned that during this entire period of Mom’s medical schooling, she had turned over total custody and care of her children to her mother/their grandmother.  Kind of obliterates the whole story line of raising four children while you pursue a dream, doesn’t it?

The point being, we don’t know anyone’s whole story but our own.  Comparisons can be very destructive.  Are you supportive?  Do you do your best?  Are you there for your children?  

Give yourself a little credit, okay?

Do It Like a Girl–A Genius Girl

Basic Algebra at age 7

No Fear of Basic Algebra

When I took a recent trip and stayed in more than one perfectly nice hotel, I found myself having difficulty leaning far enough over the sink to be able to see well enough to apply makeup. The only hotel that didn’t have this problem was one that provided a portable makeup mirror. Why is this such a problem? I am a woman of perfectly average height, 5’4”, so it makes no sense that I should have to stand on my tippytoes just to get a good look at my own face. Then it occurred to me: I’m guessing no one asked any woman how this arrangement worked for the people it was supposedly designed to accommodate.
Women got the vote in 1920, and yet we are still not asked often enough for our opinions in male dominated areas, such as the design of buildings. I am not proposing that every third woman become an architect (though we could certainly use more women’s influence in the design of these hotel rooms), but it does seem we could use more programs along the lines of We Code, programs that encourage girls and young women to research nontraditional fields.
The first step is realizing we can do it. And realizing that if we do it like a girl—a genius girl—that is a compliment. The movie “Hidden Figures” depicts three black women who started out as genius girls, who were at the top of their field yet had to constantly prove themselves. They helped pave the way for the rest of us to take our own ideas seriously.
Part of knowing we can do it, comes from breaking a task down into simpler parts, learning step by step and not letting the enormity of the total task overwhelm us. The girl pictured in this blog, my friend’s 7 year old daughter, is doing basic algebra. Algebra? Isn’t that for high schoolers? Well, not the really basic form. She is looking at things like 5 + x = 7. Just subtract 5 from 7 and you have x. Her dad helped her cut it down to its simplest form. This is a child who will not be held back by fear, and who has already discovered that learning is such a joy. I congratulate her dad on conveying that to her, and I hope this early learning stays with her, that she does not become timid as a teenager, that she does not lose her nerve.
This mastery of concepts is beautiful, and our young girls need to be encouraged every step of the way. If we encourage enough girls and women to pursue these nontraditional fields, maybe the day will come when an average height woman can put on makeup in a hotel bathroom without having to twist, turn, and stretch to accommodate herself to some male’s idea of great design.

Benign Narcissism

Narcissism has received a lot of attention lately, and for good reason. Many narcissists with horrid intentions are gaining power in ways. This should not be ignored; we would do well to know how to steer clear of these toxic people, or at least to minimize the damage.
There are, however, many narcissistic people who are rather benign, so I feel it is important to make some distinctions. To begin with, we were all narcissists as young children; until about the age of seven, children have difficulty seeing things from the viewpoint of another. That is healthy narcissism and certainly nothing to be concerned about.
Like any other diagnosis, narcissism does not have an on-off switch; there is a continuum of narcissistic behaviors ranging from the benign to the extremely toxic. Say, for example, your family member or significant other makes plans for both of you to go to the Grand Canyon without first asking your opinion. You may be afraid of heights, though nothing has previously led you to share that information, and this person thinks they are rewarding you with a trip that you in actuality dread even thinking about. They come to you, excited with the plan they have made, and you break the news about your acrophobia. The reaction could be very telling about what degree and type of narcissism you are dealing with.
Do you hear “Omigosh, I had to idea. How about I make a plan to go to the Grand Canyon with someone else, and you and I take a different vacation, maybe a cruise”? Or “But the Grand Canyon is such a natural wonder. Do you think it might be worth doing some work on that phobia of yours so we could go together and both enjoy it”? Conversely you might hear “You never want to have any fun. The Grand Canyon is beautiful! I worked my tail off planning this, and you are out to ruin it.”
This is very telling. The first two responses could come from a benign narcissist, someone who is merely a bit absent-minded about checking to see things from others’ viewpoints. That third one? This is someone who is out to punish you any time you don’t see things they way they do. And willing, even eager to be verbally abusive in the process. This person wants his or her own way about things, with little to no consideration about the wants and needs of others—even of those in his or her closest circle.
This is toxic. And this is the type of narcissism you are being warned about in countless articles on the internet and in the popular press.
But let us please be careful that we do not put the more benign narcissists in the same category as the toxic ones.

reflection in water

girl admiring own reflection

Healing Childhood Trauma

angry child-b&w“The further back the story, the deeper the pain.” That was a principle behind narrative therapy, the retelling of your own story in the process of healing; I heard this in a speech several years ago by John Savage, author of “Listening and Caring Skills in Ministry”. It is not often that someone’s exact words will continue to stand out so many years later. Whatever the therapy: narrative, cognitive behavioral, reality therapy, EMDR…that principle applies. “The further back the story, the deeper the pain.”
If an early childhood experience continues to bother you, do not discount it. Your body, and your psyche, are giving you a message. There are ways to make your peace with traumatic experiences, to go on with your life, to integrate the past in a way that benefits your future self.
There are a number of factors at work in the processing of trauma, one of which is the ability to make sense out of what happened. In children so young that they do not yet have good language skills, this becomes far more difficult. They have memories in pictures sometimes, and there are body memories. The lack of a narrative makes it more difficult to process what has occurred. Some people are helped by listening closely to the stories those around them; for others that is not a feasible option.
Fortunately, far more attention is being paid to healing childhood trauma than in times past, thanks in part to research showing that these traumas can even affect epigenetics, the process that determines which of your genes will be expressed and which ones will be turned off. It can impact others in your circle who sense your pain, and it can impact future generations.
It is never too late to start down your path of healing. Suppose you are 95 years old and have only a few months to live, wouldn’t it be great to spend those few months enduring less emotional pain?
When people decide to move forward I often hear “This stops now” or “It ends with me.” And it can. With the right help and direction, lives can be reclaimed and thoroughly enjoyed. It happens every day.

About race

Gerard, Gerardie, Jason on couch 2013_About RaceHaving been raised in a household that was on the cutting edge of the Civil Rights movement, I find myself with a mixture of observations and feelings.  Today, we have a Black President; I well remember my father saying that would be the day we had achieved what we set out to.  I wish he had been as right about that as he was about playing such an active role in the movement.

Over the years, my reactions to discussing issues of race have ranged from boredom (after all, it was discussed a lot during my growing-up years) to frustration that it is even still an issue.

A few days ago, as I was leaving a restaurant, a well-dressed young African-American man held the door open for me.  I said “Thank you, sir” and thought that would be the end of it.  This young man was beyond courteous; he was deferential.  His parents had clearly had the conversation with him that I never had to have with my own son.  He knew that a white person could be trouble.  Any white person.  And I am horrified that Black parents still need to remind their sons of this.

I like to think that most white people are fair-minded, but of course you can’t tell that about anyone on sight.

Here is what I wanted to say to this kind young man:

“I am so sorry that your safety depends on your being deferential to a person who is in no way superior to you, who happens to have the benefit of white privilege every single day.

“I know your parents raised you right by having ‘the conversation’ with you about avoiding violence or unjustified arrest due to the color of your skin.  They were right.  What is wrong is that they had to do it.

“Young white men are allowed a few minor mistakes, and even to be a bit mouthy on occasion; it is wrong that you do not have the same opportunity.

“I hope you go far in your life.  And I hope that by the time you have a son, you can safely skip that conversation.  I saw enough in one brief moment, to know that you are a fine young man and you deserve better than to have to ever spend one nanosecond worrying how people will respond to the color of your skin.”

Are Trauma Memories Ever False?

Traumatized

I’m terrified!

One issue I come across, a lot, is abuse. And abusers frequently work hard at convincing their victims that their memories are false. Kind of like a person who intentionally trips you as you run past, then makes a big show of helping you up while commenting the entire time how they really tried to prevent the fall. A gymnast could begin to question his or her sense of balance.

This is frequently referred to as “crazy making,” the serious effort to convince you that you didn’t see what you know you saw, hear what you know you heard, or experience what you are absolutely certain you experienced.
When it comes to traumatic memories from further back in time, there is controversy about their accuracy. This controversy works like crazy-making: the victim cannot recover from a trauma that they are being told did not occur. A refusal to believe someone who is reporting severe trauma and/or pain leaves that victim without an ally.
There is even a False Memories Syndrome Foundation. According to wikipedia.com, numerous members of this group have actually been convicted of abuse. The Book The Courage to Heal, by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis states that “If you feel something has happened, it probably has; details may vary but the essence is there.”
Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D., author of Betrayal Trauma, talks about how the body remembers traumatic events. She mentions research in which children who had suffered early traumas they did not recall, were put in a room full of toys, and acted out exactly what had happened! (Bessel Van der Kolk, M.D. also has significant research in this area of body memory.)
This Foundation has led many to believe there is actually such a thing as False Memories Syndrome. According to the recently released DSM-V, which has been criticized for excessive diagnoses, there is no such diagnosis.
This creation of a phony syndrome has made it more difficult for professionals and their clients to collaboratively resolve traumatic events.

How’s Your Ego?

self-image, self-esteem, strength of ego, healthy ego, narcissism

“Look at me!”

No, I am not talking about the Freudian concept of id, ego, and superego.  This is about your confidence level, your self-image.  It’s about self-confidence versus narcissism.

Narcissistic behavior is on the rise in this country, which I detest; at the same time, I welcome healthy and strong egos.

When children are young, narcissism is developmental.  They cannot comprehend another person’s viewpoint.  Toddlers are paying attention to who is watching them; teens often spend excessive time preening.  This is healthy narcissism, and not a reason for concern.  It does not reflect the primary characteristics of the more toxic narcissism among adults:  arrogance, feeling of entitlement, and lack of empathy.

The most egregious of these, to me, is lack of empathy, which may be reflected in numerous ways.  Some people prattle on about their luxury vacations, their investments, the children’s private schools…while knowing full well that you don’t have enough in your refrigerator to get through the week.  They never ask how you are or if they can be of help, because they simply don’t care.  Others are savvy enough to go through the motions, like asking how you are surviving as a caregiver for your mother’s Alzheimer’s.  They don’t really listen to your answer, but at least they have the social skills to fake it.

If you are choosing this type of person as a friend or significant other, carefully consider what life with that person will be like when life doesn’t give them what they want.  These people seldom improve.  This will be the person who bellows for days about a head cold, then is too busy to tend to your pneumonia.  Or it will be the person who, when you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, goes around telling everyone how difficult that has made his or her life.  Never mind about what it does to you!

I love to ask two questions:  1) Am I dealing with a narcissist? 2) Am I becoming one?  Of course, if you bother to ask Question 2, the answer is probably No.  Narcissists are amazingly low on self-awareness, and question 2 is unlikely to cross their arrogant little minds.