In college I had a good friend named Val. Val and I swam together, played squash with each other, went to the theater, class parties and studied for our law school finals together. We even played baseball on the school team together. None of this would be in any way remarkable except for the fact that one of Val’s arms was missing the forearm and hand. It curved around the elbow and stopped. Yet Val threw herself into sports, studies and friendships with gusto.
She told me that she was once traveling and met a young boy born with a similar condition. Unlike her, the boy behaved like an invalid with very limited activities and interests. She believed that the big difference was in the parents’ attitudes. Her parents told her that she was special and could do anything. The young boy’s parents pitied him and had a very narrow view of his potential.
Whether or not we actually speak the words, our children take their cues from us.
Everyone has had the experience of watching a small child fall down. He looks around to see how his parents are reacting. If they look frightened and/or horrified, the child usually bursts into tears. If they look encouraging and act like it’s not a big deal, their child will frequently get up and keep playing. We set the tone.
This is crucial for any parent to recognize. And it applies to so many different scenarios.
While some sibling rivalry may be inevitable, I think it is definitely exacerbated by a parent’s expectations. If we communicate that we feel sorry for the older child and expect him to be jealous, he will – and in a big way. But if we treat the arrival of younger siblings as a matter of course (with some appropriate celebration!) and don’t make a big deal of their complicated emotions, they will respond in kind.
Likewise with frightening situations. If we really feel anxious or scared, we, as parents, need to access our inner actor. Our children need to feel safe and secure. We need to remain calm and unruffled and communicate confidence so that our children will feel that way as well. We need to be matter of fact and straightforward and not shrink from uncomfortable situations. They are counting on us to show them the way.
There is an old Yiddish expression, “Shver zu zein a Yid – it’s hard to be a Jew” which we can almost hear coming out of the voices of some of our forbears. Yet, as hard as it might have been, this was never the right message to communicate to our children. The message should be: it is a privilege and an opportunity. Even if we’re not feeling it, we need to lift our own attitudes up for our children’s sake.
And, as with Val, if illness or other challenges strike, we need to present an optimistic and practical outlook. Perhaps this attitude on our part is authentic. If so, terrific. If not, we are a “fake it till you make it” religion. Act “as if,” and we will impact our children positively and ourselves as well.