PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS, STORYTELLING

Beliefs (Not Facts) Inform Behaviour

Take the Example of the Flu and COVID-19

We are so busy that it is impossible for us to deeply investigate each headline. These headlines, by the way, are designed to scream a soundbite at us to believe and then repeat. This morning on the news, we heard once again that the flu numbers were much lower than in previous years. But why? And how do we KNOW why that is? AND how does that impact our behaviour?

Everyone has their own theories depending on their set of beliefs. If you believe that COVID is a hoax, you insist that everything is being counted as a COVID death even when the death should be counted as something else. You may find Facebook postings or Tweets from nurses that confirm this. The lower number of flu deaths would support that belief, because a flu death being counted as a COVID death means that the flu numbers would of course be lower than before. 

If you feel that masks and social distancing prevent transmission of disease, you will attribute the lower flu numbers to our COVID prevention behaviours. You would point to articles from WHO or Public Health. Facts support our own beliefs. 

But how did we get to our beliefs?

We’d like to think that we are rational people who end up with beliefs based on fact.  A lot of our beliefs were taught to us and we believe them unconsciously. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Our experience and constructs interact and we end up with beliefs that are confirmed or challenged by new interactions. Many of us feel that science and research form the basis of our understanding of the world, while others point to conflicting studies, changing advice from healthcare providers, or pharmaceutical firms lobbying governments. In any case, we all prefer to be in our echo chambers seeking information that confirms our biases.

In the case of COVID and the flu, complicating all that is how facts are collected, recorded, analyzed, and reported. How are rules interpreted by the frontline? How consistent is the data being collected? What else is happening? Who is funding the newspaper reporting the news? What is their political stance? And more importantly — WHAT SHOULD WE BE DOING!? How do these facts inform our behaviour?

After reading all the different articles out there1, I reluctantly realized that the reality is that I firmly believe that the flu and COVID are transmitted in similar ways. Therefore, I believe that if we do things like wear masks, wash our hands, and socially distance, we can lower the risks of transmitting both the flu and COVID. I staunchly believe that masks and social distancing help us protect each other from our respective germs.

What does that have to do with parenting?

We often have a set of beliefs about our children. Their behaviour over time supports that belief or surprises us, which then may cause us to adjust our beliefs.  However, humans don’t really like to have our beliefs challenged. It causes cognitive dissonance (holding two opposing thoughts at the same time) that can be anxiety-inducing. So sometimes we get defensive (maybe even go on the offensive) to protect our ego and beliefs.

Let’s say we believe that our kids are lazy.

There is some truth to that anyways, as humans are designed to conserve energy.  But then we see everything they do (or don’t do) as a confirmation that they are lazy, which then adds layers and layers of stress, because how in the world are they going to become successful contributing members of society if they are lazy? We have to change them! They need to buck up and be less lazy! 

So then, what do we do? We tell them to stop being lazy. And what do they do? They get defensive about being labeled lazy because of such-and-such an excuse/reason. However, if they hear the word “lazy” enough, labeling them, they will embrace that, Oh, I must be lazy and in order not to be lazy, I have to work very hard, which I don’t want to do right this moment, so I’m not going to. Which triggers our fears again. And on it goes. They behave exactly the way we feared they would.

It is our responsibility to break that cycle. (If we don’t, we just pass it on and they will have to break the cycle when they become adults.) We need to always challenge our beliefs about our children. Be aware that our natural tendency is to take a behaviour and use it to justify our beliefs. Instead, we can wonder what else is going on. I’ve learned that a lot of times they have some barrier that I didn’t know or understand until we dug into a bit more. More of than not, their “excuse” was actually quite legitimate, and by listening carefully and working with them to remove those barriers (such as being tired or fearing the consequences), they have become a lot more willing to get done what I think is important to get done.

Let’s say that we believe our kids are addicted to playing video games.

If we believe that there is no educational benefit to video games and that it’s bad for their brains, we will become quite stressed out at their “addiction” to playing video games. We will worry that they are wasting their time and that they cannot control their urges to do what is fun as opposed to what they should do. So we nag, scold, limit, and tell them that they shouldn’t be addicted to video games.

It’s important to observe them carefully without bias whenever possible. I started noticing how much more interactive video games are nowadays and how complicated they are. It requires a great deal of problem solving, collaboration, and hand-eye coordination to play these games. They are learning leadership and followership skills that they might have gotten in the olden days when kids ran wild until sundown. COD, R6S, Among Us, Fall Guys, Animal Crossing, Roblox, and Minecraft are actually amazingly interactive games where the kids grow as people.  I’m really impressed with how much they learn and how excited they are explaining very complex things to me.

Let’s say we are worried they will fall behind everyone else. The Tiger Mom in me wants them to be really good at math, competent swimmers, perfectly tri-lingual, dedicated to a martial art, and talented at a musical instrument.  But why? Because I want them to be successful as adults. When they were little, I made them do math programs, weekend Chinese school, and take swimming, kung fu and piano lessons. I drove them around and yelled at them to practice everything. At one point in time, they would hear me coming and leave the room so that they didn’t have to hear me lecture them. We were stressed all the time.

I quickly realized that the stress I put on them was causing problems with our relationship and they were starting to hate the things I wanted them to be good at! They were internalizing the stress and what failures they were for not meeting my expectations. They feared me and flipped between trying to please me and trying to escape all that I wanted them to do. All the activities were not getting them to where I wanted them to be.

Rest and Restart

It was time for a reboot and a review of what my beliefs and ensuing behaviours were actually doing. I realized that I don’t need them to be excellent at things. I want them to learn how to learn, experience improvement, and to desire excellence. None of what/how I was doing was getting us there. So we started over and I took them out of their activities and let them pick what they were interested in exploring. Now we choose things together that we want to invest in and I don’t (consciously at least, ha ha) give them any pressure to have to be good at it. Ironically, that seems to free them up to want to be good at it.

So far my kids are: decent at math, competent swimmers, reluctant to learn languages, and lovers of pop music and computer games. They are very adept at PC software (one can even build a PC from scratch), are learning to code, like to host Discord parties, and will challenge my husband or me if they disagree with our opinions. They can hold their own when conversing with other kids or even adults. They have their own ideas and aren’t afraid to voice them. 

Do I think they will be successful adults? I believe they will know how to set their own goals, develop thoughtful plans, and work well with people to get where they want to go. I believe they will know how to be healthy and happy. I believe they will be fine.

That’s successful enough for me.

1Readings about this topic:

From WHO: “WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard From the Canadian Government, Public Health: “Overview of influenza monitoring in Canada From Texas’ KXXV: “Healthy habits urged during COVID-19 also help prevent spread of flu” by Halle Jones, November 16, 2020 From New York Post: “Drop in flu deaths may indicate that most at risk died from COVID-19” by Melanie Gray, October 24, 2020 From United Press International: “COVID-19 prevention may lead to record low flu rates, CDC says” by Dennis Thompson, September 18, 2020 From Yahoo!life: “Can the Flu Shot Help Protect Against COVID-19? The Answer May Surprise You” by Dominique Michelle Astorino, August 27, 2020 From AFP Fact Check: “CDC does not add flu and pneumonia deaths to COVID-19 toll” by Clare Savage, June 23, 2020 From Arkansas’ Baxter Bulletin: “Statistically speaking: COVID-19 vs. flu” by Dr. Steve Parsons and Dr. Susan Parson, April 1, 2020 From WHO: “WHO launches new global influenza strategy” March 11, 1919

PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS

Overdoing Goal Setting

A goal is not always meant to be reached, it often serves simply as something to aim at.

Bruce Lee

People always tell you to be specific about your goals. The more specific you are, the more likely you can achieve your goals. And for the most part, that’s true isn’t it? You have to know what you want, to know needs to be done, to do it, and then finally know that you did it.

However, I feel like we’ve overdone this and goals have become this never-ending pressure to do more, better, and faster. And this translates into unnecessary pressure on our children.

For example, we want our children to be successful.

So we start asking them to achieve at a younger and younger age. We put them in sports, music, language, or coding programs. We show off when they do something that is impressive. We look disappointed when they don’t get a good grade or didn’t win. We push them to practice and be better (‘more perfect’). There is this ‘path’ for success that involves the right program at the right university, which requires the right grades from the right courses from the right high school, which means that learning the right things in middle school and elementary school is essential, which means… you guessed it… the right kindergarten activities!!!

Is the goal for them to be rich? Employable? Competent? Happy? Or is the goal for them to be capable of making good decisions, to be the best version of themselves? Do those activities even help them reach the right goals? The goals that will help them achieve what they want to achieve?

The most successful people do not follow others’ formula. They develop their own mantras, their truths, their visions. They do learn from others. They often learn from other people’s mistakes. They don’t just do exactly what other successful people do. They learn. They are always learning. They experience. They are always experiencing. They do. They are always doing.

Being specific about a goal isn’t what gets you there, because it just isn’t ever really possible to do exactly as we plan or want. It’s more important to be able to respond if things DON’T go as we planned.

It isn’t realistic for every Olympic athlete to win a medal, but they aim for it. It doesn’t make sense for quarterly sales to be consistent, given how much the world changes. But having a general target and some flexibility to figure it out can be very exciting and stimulating for some. It isn’t reasonable to expect every child to be able to accomplish the same level of learnings for every topic at a certain age. But being around others who are also striving to learn and grow can inspire a group of kids to excel together.

We need things to aim at.

We need to aspire.

But depending on who we are and our circumstances, we will reach what we can reach. That’s fine. Then, on an as needed basis, we adjust our aspirations, our approach, our expectations, our routines.

And we go again.

PARENTAL ASPIRATIONS, PODCAST INTERVIEW

Untigering Parent

Visit the Untigering website, preview a chapter of her new book, and listen to our interview below.

As a Chinese-American and daughter of a pastor, Iris Chen played by the rules and succeeded, but felt that those (impressive) achievements didn’t quite have meaning in her life. She is now on a journey of Untigering which she defines as Gentle Parenting and Unschooling. Always thoughtful and insightful, Iris has brought together a community of parents from various ethnic and cultural backgrounds to share with and learn from each other.

Untigering with Iris Chen

When I first realized that I was parenting my children in a way that *I* didn’t want to be parented, I went on a search at the University of Google. The concept of Untigering quickly jumped out at me and I immediately became a fan of Iris Chen’s and joined the community she was building on Facebook. What surprised me most was how many people related to what I was going through… and that they weren’t all Asian American! They came from all over. We really are more alike than different. While she writes and speaks from her own experience of being Asian American, there are common elements for all of us unlearning and unprogramming in order to build an approach that works for our own unique family. (You can access a preview of a chapter from her book: Redefining Success: An Untigering Parent’s Guide to Our Beliefs About Success, How We Came to Them, and How to Change Them.)

In our podcast, Iris touches on numerous topics:

  • Obedience: Coming from a cultural and religious background that meant strict rules and the expectation is that you’re do as your told, she knew that she was going to do things differently with her kids. It was difficult, because she defaulted to an authoritarian style of parenting and had a tendency to demand obedience.
  • Acknowledging Past Trauma: It is very important to explore our own wounds, our past trauma, not for blaming purposes, but to move forward. She could see that our personalities responded to our parenting and social conditioning and what she was doing was harmful to her children. She got back in touch and got to know herself. This is very hard! It is unnatural and there is a lot of work to be done.
  • Learning: The world is changing so rapidly. The content that kids learn in third grade become irrelevant. Instead of focusing on content, we should be giving them the skills for how to learn. She sees learning as a life process… learning in many different ways, not just in school. She points out: as adults, we are constantlyg learning new things in organic ways. We should allows kids to learn that way too.
  • Curating Own Lifestyle: Living in China for 16 years, they were able to curate their life and culture, not American, not Chinese, a Third Culture. They created the family and community culture they wanted. It gave her the freedom to say, this does not work for our family, can we create something new? It gave them the freedom not to fit in a box. We often don’t question things when we are in it, because ‘that’s just the way things are’.
  • Achievement and expectation: We shouldn’t focus on the outward markers of achievement to prove that we’ve made it. For her, those achievements didn’t end up meaning anything. When she no longer had anyone telling her what the standards and expectations were, she was at a loss… did not know how to manage time and what to do with life. As she got older, she had to get back in touch with what she loved to do.
  • Consent-based living: It’s not just about education. It’s about relationships and parenting. It’s about how to honour our children. Unschooling isn’t just about education. It’s consent-based. It’s not coercive, not about ‘sit down and pay attention to what I have to teach you’ says someone with authority and a lesson plan. It’s a way of living and relating with each other with respect and consent.

Her Key Message: Know and love yourself.  All the details will stem from that one place where we know who we are and can know and love and accept who we are.  Everything should come from a place of unconditional love.

DEVELOPING ROUTINES

Fail to Succeed

The voices in our heads can be horribly mean: “You are failing as a mother.  You not a good wife.  You are a lousy daughter.  You are a bad friend. You are a bad manager.  That was a dumb thing to do.  You sounded stupid in that last meeting.  You didn’t complete your work AND you’re going to be late to the parent-teacher meeting. You have bad judgment, you make bad decisions. Your house is a disaster. Your health sucks.  You are too fat. You don’t make enough money. Your kids are badly behaved and it’s all your fault. Your cardio needs improvement. You have no grit.  You can’t do anything well!  You are a complete disaster!”  The spiral can happen pretty quickly and it’s a brutal if the other side of our brains don’t step up quickly enough to combat those bullies.  Lack of sleep and high expectations are not a good combination (am I right, new moms?)…

On the other hand, the celebration of success is entrenched in everything that we do, every Olympics, every career promotion, every project, every election…  What we don’t see is how hard those winners worked, how often they failed and how difficult it was for them to motivate themselves beyond the last fall or broken bone.

So how do we adjust our thoughts when we are bullying ourselves just at a time when we need to be encouraging ourselves to keep going?  Apparently the secret is to accept that failure is an integral process of succeeding.  Let’s hear from a few famous people, you know… famous for their many successes:

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.” – Confucius

“I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

“Failure provides the opportunity to begin again, more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

“I don’t believe I have special talents, I have persistence … After the first failure, second failure, third failure, I kept trying.” – Carol Rubbia

“There is something to be said for keeping at a thing, isn’t there?” – Frank Sinatra

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” –  Thomas A. Edison

“Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.” –  Winston Churchill

“It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.” – Bill Gates

Failure has to be BUILT in to the process!  It is actually a part of learning, improving, growing, developing… it is on the path to the success.  Success doesn’t happen without failure! If we stopped riding our bikes as soon as we fell off because we defined ourselves as a failure… then we fail to learn how to ride a bike.  If we define the falling off as a failure to get the balance right, then get back on, figure out how to adjust the balance… then we learn how to ride a bike. If we said “I’m not good at math” because we got some answers wrong, then we will be bad at math.  If we define getting the answer wrong as failure to get that answer right, but then asked about how to get it right and figured out where we went wrong… well, then we will learn how to get better at math!

So I hope you join me as we get back on the horse, get back on the bike and get up after each fall. Never say die.  Just do it. Try and try again.  I’ll be back!  We start where we start!

Like my pretzels… after a few tries, they are looking a LOT better than they did when I started out!

LOVE FIRST

Maybe, He’s a Spoon…

Growing up, I really valued being smart. My parents are smart, my sisters are smart, my friends are smart, and I was expected to be smart.

Looking back and breaking it down, I’m trying to figure out, well, what exactly does it mean to be smart, really? To my parents I think it meant good judgment, good work and making good decisions… doing the right things. As kids, that translated to getting top grades to get into a good university and then a stable and financially lucrative career. My high school friends were all clever, funny, successful and creative. They became successful businesspeople or high achieving entrepreneurs, maybe journalists, published authors, high level professionals in blue chip companies. They are highly regarded in their fields.

I can see now that we were a bit snobby about intelligence. We felt that being well read, informed about the world, multilingual, logical, progressive and urban were very important indicators of intelligence. And that intelligence somehow made us better human beings. We looked down on those who were not as smart, who did not have common sense and who could not keep up.

As an adult who is today celebrating my nearly half a century as a human being, I can see that the more I know, the more I know how little I know. Now, as I work with super smart people at work, I feel less smart. My arrogance as a young person has been replaced with humility as an older person.

Nothing is simple, everything is interlinked and problems can be very complicated. Plus… people can be smart differently and can contribute in the weirdest of ways.

Also… being smart does not necessarily translate into success or happiness. With mental health issues becoming more mainstream to discuss, I can see how my recent struggles with mental health are quite normal… to be expected even!

It’s about control (or lack there of). It’s about expectations versus reality. It’s about resilience and bouncing back from adversity. It’s about voices in our heads telling us what to believe about ourselves. It’s about finding joy and experiencing love. Being smart doesn’t always translate into being mentally healthy. In fact, thinking we are smart and expecting others to be smart in the same way causes stress and anxiety for them as well as for us.

When we knowingly wink and say ‘well, he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer’, we are assuming that someone is a knife and that a knife should be sharp. C’mon. We all know that’s not true. There are so many other tools in that drawer and there are knives that are fabulous because they are not sharp.

The next time someone tells me that another person is not the sharpest knife in the drawer, I’m going to respond: Maybe he’s a spoon. If you used him for his spoon properties, I’ll bet he could do a great job.

So let’s help people, including ourselves, figure out who they are and what they are meant to do, rather than all try to be the sharpest knife in that proverbial drawer.

UNDERSTANDING EMOTIONS

The Perfection of Mediocracy

“Mommy,” my 11-year old gravely starts off, “Mommy, I know that you probably won’t be too happy about this, but I think I have to tell you anyway.”

As a parent, you are always worried about your children, their safety, their happiness, their future… As I braced myself for his confession, I tried to guess what this was about, predict how I might react, manage how I should not over-react, and keep my mind from getting carried away with what he could possibly tell me that I might not be “too happy about”…

“Mommy, I know you want me to be a straight A student, but I think I’m going to be a B+ student. I might be able to get some As, but I’ll probably get mostly Bs… maybe even a C or two…”

The Tiger Mom in me just wanted to roar at him and indignantly state why he should strive for better and how important grades are, but the calm mom in me marvelled at his self awareness as we proceeded to have a conversation about why he felt this way.

I quickly admitted to him that I had mixed feelings, that I admired him for knowing himself but that I hoped he had confidence in himself to achieve anything he set his mind to. We discovered that he wasn’t sure the additional effort to get the As were worth it to him. It sounded like he was practicing self care and managing his resources based on his goals of learning and getting enough sleep to be healthy.

It got me thinking about how much we celebrate success, strive for perfection, and encourage achievement. For some, this is absolutely appropriate and they go on to do great things. But how many people are struggling every day, feeling like failures because they did not live up to some lofty goals they set and constantly compare themselves to? For some, overcoming obstacles and barriers to reach their goals makes them happy. But is that true for everyone? Are others comfortable achieving what they think is good enough so they can focus on aspects of life that make truly them happy? Maybe they are content being content.

My son got me thinking about happiness. You don’t have to be successful to be happy. You don’t have to be perfect to be happy. You don’t have to be rich to be happy. You have to want what you have to be happy. You have to appreciate what you have to be happy. You have to enjoy what you have to be happy.

So he wants to get good enough grades that accurately reflect his ability and still have enough time and energy to enjoy his life. He knows what makes him happy. I’m good with that.