Anchors of Happiness

star-gazing.jpg

We’ve all read about how experiences are better gifts for your kids than toys, but I really liked the way this study put it: holidays with your family are “happiness anchors” in your memory that have lasting effects on your psyche. Now that I’m a parent, I realize how much work my own parents put into arranging special trips for us–not necessarily the giant, Disney-type extravaganzas that most people talk about, but everything from beach vacations to day trips and little rituals at home. Here are some of the moments anchored in my mind.

  • I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to go see comets, eclipses, and meteor showers. I remember driving out to the countryside, being a little scared in the empty darkness but feeling safe with my big brothers, guarding my eyes against the passing headlights to preserve my night vision.
  • I remember road trips that my father planned meticulously, always making sure we’d be near the best delis at lunch time. I treasured a Bazooka Joe comic in Hebrew from a Jewish deli in Connecticut for years.
  • I remember trips to mines and quarries: a boat ride on an underground river, a cold cave pool that never saw the light of day, and giant loose chunks of mica free for the gathering.
  • I remember hours and hours of reading out loud before bedtime: Narnia and Robin Hood with my mother, Tolkien and Homer with my father. Just one more chapter, please!
  • I remember one glorious time when someone offered us a free dumpster full of books that survived a fire, and my father couldn’t resist. We parked it in our driveway and climbed in and dug around for treasures all week.
  • I remember science museums, art museums, planetariums, zoos, aquariums, beaches, mountains, operas, concerts–but also so many small things that my parents probably thought were no big deal: helping my father organize books for a book sale. Science experiments with my mother. I even have deeply happy memories of my bi-weekly turn to come along on the grocery shopping and get to pick the flavor of soda for weekend dinners.

I’m writing these down mostly to remind myself that my kids don’t need big fireworks from me. Today my six-year-old got to come–just him!–to Walmart to buy diapers, and we stopped for a little snack and a chat afterwards (“Subway is the best restaurant ever, Mama!”). My four-year-old is thrilled because she got to do “cutting practice” today (something my mother used to do for me),

Tovah cutting

and my two-year-old is just happy that I watched her do a trick. (“Watch this, Mama! SAME TRICK!”) They will remember the vacations and the expensive trips, but they’ll remember the little things too.

Dear Me:

  1. Dear 14-year-old me: spending every lunch period sitting in the chapel and crying is not normal. Tell someone, for heaven’s sake. This is called “depression.”
  2. Dear 18-year-old me: why would you even date a guy who’s mean to people, inconsiderate to you, and doesn’t really care much about you or anything else? I don’t get it.
  3. Dear 20-year-old me: learn NFP before you get married, you dummy. Don’t just say “oh, we’ll learn it when we need it.” Trust me, you’ll need it.
  4. Dear 21-year-old me: just give the baby a bottle. You will never regret it.
  5. Dear 22-year-old me: anti-depressants are wonderful. It’s about time.
  6. Dear 23-year-old me: I know you don’t really believe it when people say this, but it really will get easier as your kids get older. Really!
  7. Dear me for the last five years: just go to bed. There are very, very few things you could be doing that will make you happier than more sleep.

Come see the rest of the 7 Quick Takes at Kelly’s!

Self Esteem and Scripts

Self Doubt, Depression, Confidence, Psychology, Esteem

If you had told me 10 years ago that I’d end up doing “self esteem exercises” every morning, I would have laughed.  I grew up convinced that anyone who advocated for raising self esteem in children was trying to do away with the hierarchy of natural talent, and would end up trapping students on a feel-good plateau of mediocrity.  This way of thinking wasn’t entirely wrong: recent studies have shown that children are more successful when they are praised for trying hard, rather than for being smart.  But somehow it ended up, at least in my experience, with parents denying or ignoring the need to praise their children at all.  I was lucky enough to have supportive and appreciative parents; but a dear friend of mine grew up thinking that he was stupid, because he received nothing but criticism at home.  As an adult, he discovered that many of his difficulties were due to an undiagnosed and untreated disability, and that many of the talents and skills he took for granted were actually in high demand and esteem outside of his family.  He has found out that his parents were actually very proud of him but never got around to telling him that.  He is doing well, but still struggles against the self-doubt and feelings of deficiency that have been programmed into his brain.

This is why, at the risk of giving my children big heads, I work hard to praise their efforts and natural talents alike, to notice and point out their achievements, to be encouraging about their failures, and to tell them point-blank that I am proud of them, and that I love them.

This last point–explicitly telling the kids how I feel about them–brings me back to the self-esteem exercises, which were recommended by my counselor.  Like Gottman’s scripts, they sound awkward at first, because they’re so obvious and cliche (my personal version is “I am good.  I am a daughter of God.  I deserve to be loved and respected”); but that doesn’t make them unnecessary.  Yes, I know that God loves me, just like a child knows that his parent loves him; but it is so much easier to believe it when you hear it out loud!  In the same way, I know that my husband cares about me and is listening; but it helps so much if he makes sure to express it with a script like “how was your day?” or “yeah, that sounds rough” or “poor baby” or just “uh-huh.”  Silence can be misinterpreted; saying something, even if sounds unnatural, clears things up.  Whether you suffer from the criticism of your family and peers, or just the lifelong crushing weight of original sin, it’s important to be reminded, out loud, that you are loved.