While dining at a restaurant a few weeks ago, my daughter Amaya saw a child her own age who appeared to have been born with a malformed arm. Amaya nestled her face against me and whispered that she felt afraid when she saw the little girl’s arm. I was irritated by Amaya’s reaction and wondered to myself, “Why do we feel afraid of things that are different?” I sternly told Amaya, “Don’t be.” After we had left the restaurant I tried to explain with more clarity: “That little girl is just like you—she wants to be happy, to play and make friends. All of us are different in our own way. Some of those differences are very visible, while others are more hidden.” Afterwards I thought about how it is through moments such as these that we can have an impact on our children’s development, as long as we are attentive and do not forget to address emotions and reactions that may be self-centered or inconsiderate. I wondered if I had communicated effectively with Amaya.
This interaction also brought to mind a different event when, as a child, I had acted without care and was corrected. Sometimes I would rideshare with another family for the commute to school. One day, when my friend’s mother was driving, her daughter and I had been treated to root beer shakes after school and were delirious with sugar highs since we were mostly raised on California health food diets. We were noisy and giggling as the car set out on the 40-minute drive to our mountain neighborhood. At the beginning of the mountain pass we approached a bad traffic accident. I remember shrilling and saying, “Oh, I can’t look; I don’t want to see the accident!” I spoke with spontaneous aversion and hype from the sugar-fueled excitement.
My friend’s mother quickly corrected my outburst. I cannot recall her exact words, but she spoke of being calm, compassionate, and sending a prayer when we see suffering. The correction made a strong impression on me and I quickly regretted being inconsiderate. I have actually returned to that moment as an adult when I see myself wanting to look away instead of facing the suffering of others. Thinking about the incident now, I admire the mother who spoke to me with such clarity. It is not always easy to be present enough to respond as she did, especially when driving noisy children home from school. Children and adults alike learn so much from making mistakes and having them pointed out. I feel that this kind of correction and input is priceless when done skillfully.
Of course, selfish behavior is not always the norm with children. Observing my daughters and other children, I often witness sweet moments of spontaneous caring acts that are so encouraging. When Mathias, who is five years old and one of Amaya’s good friends, was crying because of a scratched knee, his mother and I gushed to see little Leela going to him and giving him a warm hug while patting his back to comfort him. It seems, as parents, that we have to be attentive, but we should also be able to step back and provide space. For example, by not rushing in to resolve a conflict during playtime as children are often able to solve their own conflicts or find a way to help another child who might be worked up. If not, they ask for help. Most of the time there is a natural goodness that is very heartening.
However, our self-centered habits and culture are overwhelming and, as parents, our bias for our own children can also be overwhelming. To keep an eye on our own habits and those of our children takes effort. Amaya is the eldest, my firstborn. She is now almost seven and I still find myself ready to spoon feed her and dress her, even pulling on her socks! Whereas, Leela, now almost three, is the baby, but even though she is younger she is so much more independent. Partly, this is a reflection of her personality, but also the fact that I have given her space to be independent. There is this fine line between nurturing and indulging our children that I am trying to be conscious of and sometimes I have to refrain from over nurturing, or worse, placing my children on a pedestal.
When Amaya was little, I asked a respected Buddhist teacher who also has a family for advice about raising children. He answered without hesitation: “Just don’t spoil them.” Amaya was still an only child and was already showing signs of becoming spoiled from too much attention. With a heaviness in my heart, I asked, “But how?” The teacher explained, “Children should help in the house as soon as they are old enough.” I felt that this was grounded advice. Since then, other teachers have also reminded me to teach our children to help more around the home.
This may seem obvious to some parents, but my tendency is to do everything for my daughters. Recently, another mother mentioned that she was teaching her young son to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. She explained to him that by not doing so, he would be leaving the task for someone else to do and that this showed a lack of consideration. I thought, “Right on! Yes, we have to start helping our children to think of others, beginning with daily habits.” Again I was reminded of how we have to explain the reasoning involved when we teach our children to do or not to do something, so that they can connect the results to their actions, and can also understand how their actions affect others.
Whenever I can I try to remind myself and my family that all beings are the same in that none of us like to suffer or be uncomfortable, and that we all long for contentment, even if we are misguided at times in our search for that contentment. I believe that being considerate of the needs of others should start in the home and that being considerate of one other can be enhanced by helping out more.