WantAdsMy sister-in-law took the kids out of town to visit their grandparents for a few days, leaving my brother at home to fend for himself. Conversations with my brother these days are usually peppered with distracting side notes such as, “Stop blowing bubbles in your milk and eat your carrots,” “No, you may not be excused while everyone is still eating,” and “Where are your pants?” So we took the opportunity to hang out together and have an adult conversation. He very kindly offered to take me out to do things he knows I like to do but I said, “I get to do whatever I want every day. Pick something you want to do.” I quietly teased “and I’ll pretend it’s not lame” but that is not pertinent to this story. I was envisioning myself building a chicken coop or a rabbit warren or one of his other I-can-be-a-financial-broker-and-a-farmer-in-Los-Angeles projects. But he is also an artist so we had a lovely evening at an art gallery in Laguna Beach.

Ever since then, I have been chewing on the idea that I get to do whatever I want, every day.  I am single, childless and financially stable. I sold my house and moved into an apartment so that I would not be tied to yard work on the weekends. If I get a text that my friends are going out, I can blow off any chores I was planning to do. I don’t have to explain that Nordstrom bag to anyone. If I want to go to the post office in my pajamas, there’s no one around to suggest a more appropriate course of action. Besides getting up every day, grooming myself, and going to work, there is very little in my life that I absolutely have to do. I’m not sure you can get any closer to complete freedom without moving into the woods, throwing away your smart phone and refusing to pay taxes. I’m in a strange stage in my life when I am free to follow my heart and do just about anything. That should make me happy, right? Isn’t that living the dream? My married friends who spend their days picking up toys and wiping noses with their t-shirts certainly seem to think so.

It turns out that total personal freedom doesn’t equate to happiness. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. It changes as you go through life but we all still need purpose to feel secure and fulfilled. Young people generally do not have a problem finding their purpose. Their lives are full with getting an education, finding a career, and learning how to hold a fork on a date. However, as you get older you can find that what you thought was your purpose in life may have taken a detour. The dream career you went to school for was fun for a while but not realistic. You are so deep into the responsible career you ended up with that you are set on this path for life. The husband you lovingly cared for passed away. The house you spent years remodeling into your own castle was too much for you on your own. You spent years working late into the night after work to earn your master’s degree and never intend to think that hard again. These may be my personal detours but I’m sure you can relate. Life changes all the time and it often takes away those things that you think give your life meaning. Coping with that change can be hard.

What really matters is the people you have in your life and how you contribute to their happiness and wellbeing. That’s hardly a revelation but it is easy to forget sometimes. I don’t know about you, but it takes effort for me not to focus on what I don’t have and instead pour my energy into what I do have. Right now my life is pretty uncomplicated, but one day it will all change again and I will have a whole new set of goals and responsibilities to focus on. Maybe I’ll fall in love again. Maybe I’ll move to a third world country and build schools. Maybe I’ll adopt an extremely needy cat. The possibilities are endless and that gives me hope for the future. But what gives me my sense of purpose right now are my nieces and nephews. Being a good aunt is my job, my responsibility. I am fortunate that I have a brother and cousins with kids nearby and I take great satisfaction in giving them new experiences and being a good example. OK, maybe just the new experiences thing, but you know what I mean. Without a family of my own, I have found a way to feel needed and useful.

The good thing is that you don’t have to have a flesh and blood family or lots of nieces and nephews to get the same sense of purpose in your life. You can find a community to connect to and people to care for, but you can’t wait for it to come to you. You have to go and find it. I didn’t always live near my family and I had to put myself out there. I mentored a child through my town’s family services department. I volunteered at a pet shelter. I had an elderly lady on my street that I checked in on every few days. For my most recent purpose-finding adventure, I joined a charity organization that makes me get up at the crack of dawn every Sunday to train for a half marathon that I am going to run . . . on purpose.  If you feel like no one needs you and your presence on this planet is not important, you haven’t been proactive about it. Your sense of purpose and fulfillment is out there if you are willing to try new things to find it.

Last weekend I was sleeping in my niece’s room in her little twin bed, surrounded by ponies and dolls. I heard the door open and a little person sneak across the room. I opened one eye just enough to see the clock. 5 a.m. Ugh. It’s funny how you can tell which child is nearby from the time of day and the speed of the sneak-up. My three-year-old nephew Stanley climbed into bed with me, snuggled in and went right back to sleep. For the next two hours I stared at his little face while perched uncomfortably in the three inches of bed that were allotted to me. I briefly considered getting down on the floor, and then marveled that I even had that thought. I was putting myself out and suffering for this little boy that had a perfectly good bed of his own. It was more important to have him near me and let him sleep in than to sleep myself.

Now, that is what I call a sense of purpose.

ImageI was swimming with my nine-year-old nephew, Rider, on a hot summer afternoon. We were doing cartwheels and somersaults off the diving board until I remembered that I am not nine anymore and pulled a muscle I didn’t know existed. I quickly changed the game into a floating competition. We talked about his adventures at summer camp and starting school, but every conversation with Rider turns into a story about a video game in about 30 seconds. He went on and on about a game he likes that involves skeletons, zombies, and building forts. I listened to a full description of the challenges at each level and still can’t tell you the point of the game. Rider finished his excited tale of monster-slaying architecture and whined, “But Dad doesn’t let me play it because it’s about zombies.” I said, “Yes, well zombies are evil and scary so I can see why he doesn’t like you playing it.” Such a good aunt, backing up my brother’s parenting decision.

“But they don’t even look like zombies! They have a green block for a head and blue blocks for a body.”

“Then how did Daddy know they are zombies?”

“I told him.”

My brain immediately leapt into action and valiantly tried to wrestle my tongue into submission. But it was too late. I heard myself say, “Well, there’s your problem.”

I was an extremely sneaky child. It’s really not surprising that I am encouraging that behavior in the next generation. My mother has quite a repertoire of stories that occasionally get dusted off at family dinners. She used to keep chocolate-covered almonds in a candy dish in the living room. I thought I was exceptionally clever and I would take one every few days and put them in a plastic sandwich bag that I hid in a space between the stairs and the organ. The ’70s shag carpet hid it perfectly. (Yes, I know I totally breezed over it but we had an organ. It was cool in the ’70s. Try not to let that distract you from the story.) One day I clued my little brother into the inventive scheme and showed him my stash. I don’t remember him being as impressed as me, but he was five so I probably ignored his ignorance. I knew a brilliant plan when I saw one. It turns out when you remove candy from a bowl, one by one in carefully timed intervals, the remaining pieces don’t magically reproduce. My mother did eventually notice that something was amiss and staged an inquisition in my father’s office. He sat behind his desk like a judge holding court and surveyed the two children standing before him. My mother presented the charges. As the oldest I was cross examined first and adamantly denied all knowledge of the wayward chocolate-covered almonds. It was a mystery indeed. Benedict Arnold caved immediately. The stash was retrieved as my parents no doubt exchanged looks that said, “So she didn’t eat the candy, she just stuck it in a bag behind the organ? This has to come from your side of the family.” That candy dish now sits on my bookshelf, a proud monument to my genius.

Since he was merely an innocent bystander whose only crime was not telling on me sooner, my brother came away unscathed . . . a lesson that would serve him well in future endeavors. I tried so hard to teach him my sneaky ways but he was really bad at it. He would cave under interrogation every time and point the finger at me. As far as I know, he didn’t learn to lie to our parents until high school (when my training finally came into its own.) Kids aren’t born sneaky and this cautionary tale clearly demonstrates that shared genetic pools don’t create partners in crime. So kids have to learn to be sneaky. How do I, as the single, inexperienced, slightly irresponsible aunt, stop myself from contributing to their education?

I did some research and found an awful lot of people on the Internet posting queries like. “My kid is a sneaky thief. How do I stop this behavior?” We’ve had the Internet for quite some time now and yet people still open themselves up for public, anonymous comments from anyone who is bored and opinionated.  Why do they do that? Do they really want the whole world to chime in on their personal problems? It is a question that blows my mind on a daily basis. From what I have observed, rarely do the people who feel the need to comment on random posts offer up anything useful. Most of the responses I read involved shaming kids in inventive ways, beating it out of them or shipping them off to boot camp. Among my favorites:

“Your child is a thief and a liar who is going to jail one day. Start whipping him before it’s too late.”

“Being sneaky is great. It got me where I am now.”

“Clearly you are giving your child too much sugar.”

“Ignore the fact that he is lying to you, and it won’t be such a big deal.”

 I couldn’t find anything helpful to me as the aunt (either real or imagined) of a group of young children that are likely to grow sneakier as they develop out of the cute stage and into pre-teens. The thing is that I’m not the one who has to manage the discipline. If they lie to me, I’ll just tell on them and let their parents deal with it. I love them with all my heart but I am an adult first and their buddy second. What I will do is try to be a good example. My record is not impressive in that area, but we all need goals to strive for. I have decided to provide a safe environment for them where they will not be judged for their honesty, unless it’s really bad and my silence gets me in trouble. I will also not encourage them in their deceit, now that the whole zombie game incident is over. I will be honest with them and build a relationship that they treasure enough that they won’t want to break my trust by lying to me. This from the woman whose seven-year-old niece last weekend snuck out of bed, stole her phone, and took a photo of her sleeping. Time to put a password on the iPhone.

Right now my young nephew is innocently offering up information that will work against him, because like my brother, he hasn’t developed the sneaky streak that his aunt (and apparently his sister) so readily exploited. But time is friend to no one and my brother is only a few short years away from his teenager getting his hands on a packet of cigarettes, trying them out in the backyard with his friends when his parents aren’t home and hiding the butts in a crack in the garden wall. Not that I would know personally, but I hear that kind of stuff happens. All I can do is draw upon my knowledge as a rehabilitated adult and be honest and straightforward with the kids, and let them know that I am here to listen without judgment or collusion. And hope that my theory of genetics not being a factor is actually true.


FriendshipI found an interesting quote from Frederick C. Collins on the daily affirmation wall of inspiration I call my Facebook news feed. Not interesting enough to bother finding out who Frederick C. Collins is, but enough to write it down. It said, “There are two types of people—those who come into a room and say, ‘Well here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.’” In other words, attention whores and attention givers.

Attention whores are really annoying. You know the type. You can hear them screaming “Look at me!” a mile away. They wear pink wigs to parties so people will notice them. They bribe children with presents to ensure they stay the most popular aunt. And they write blogs so that the whole world can share in their brilliant insights. It’s sad really. Attention givers, on the other hand, are truly interested in other people. They listen while making eye contact and make everyone around them feel important. Everybody wants to be friends with someone like that.

Our families have to love us because we are, well, family. We learn to love and develop bonds in the context of our family, and our social skills take root in (what should be) a safe and loving environment. But the time we spend with our mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters is really the training ground for everything else that comes with adulthood. We grow up and go out into the world to make friends. Family relationships prepare us for the other relationships that we will need for the rest of our lives.

What makes somebody a good friend? Besides the obvious characteristics of kindness, concern, loyalty etc., how do you guide a child towards becoming one of those people who walks into a room and is outgoing, genuine, and comfortable mingling with all their friends?

The Beginning:  Attachment (yes, I said attachment)

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who is most famous for his experiments in social isolation the 1950s. He was motivated by John Bowlby’s studies of maternal separation, and his claim that children need much more from their parents than simply food. Bowlby, known as the father of attachment theory, had been criticized for his views because at the time, parents were taught that too much physical contact was bad for an infant’s development. In Harlow’s experiments, monkeys were raised in isolation chambers so he could observe the horrible and cruel things that happened to them when deprived of nurturing love. Harlow deprived babies of their mothers and observed that they chose a soft cloth doll that provided comfort over a doll made of wire that provided food and nourishment but no emotional relief. Depriving monkeys of physical contact amounted to torture and they developed severe cognitive issues. I’ve seen the old black and white footage of the experiments and, as an animal lover and a normal human being, I am still trying to block it out. The experiments are very well known and credited with raising awareness of the importance of social bonding. And with inspiring the movement against animal cruelty in laboratories. One of his own students is even credited with saying that “the work was really violating ordinary sensibilities.” Really?

What is interesting about the experiments is that they confirmed Bowlby’s claims about the importance of care-giving and companionship in not just the social development of a child but cognitive development as well. The failure of a child to bond with a caregiver in the early stages of life can have dire consequences. I should warn you, if you are interested in learning more about how our brains and social skills develop through attachment and bonding, you are likely to find more case studies and photos of abandoned, unloved children than you can emotionally handle. Trust me on that one.

What is positive and fulfilling about the subject is the incredible power of attachment to heal and nurture. In discussing Attachment Theory, the scribes on Wikipedia explain, “Infants become attached to individuals who are sensitive and responsive in social interactions with them. . . . When an infant begins to crawl and walk they begin to use attachment figures (familiar people) as a secure base to explore from and return to. Caregivers’ responses lead to the development of patterns of attachment; these, in turn, lead to internal working models which will guide the individual’s perceptions, emotions, thoughts and expectations in later relationships.” My sister-in-law has a degree in this stuff and talks about attachment research all the time on Mom Psych. The point is that children learn how to relate to other people through the interaction with their first caregivers. What an awesome and overwhelming responsibility for anyone who is close to a young child.

Emotional Literacy

Friendship can be boiled down to one idea—having someone in your life that fulfills your needs. You have to admit, one of the strongest motivating factors in life is “I am being paid attention to? Am I being heard?” Even those people who seem to be so outgoing and only interested in others need attention. We all need our friendships to make us feel like we have value. As we mature, we learn to recognize that need in other people. We acknowledge what other people want and we have to make decisions about whether to give it to them. We decide whether in that moment we are the giver or the taker. Friendships are hard work, like a marriage. The key to real friendship is what we do when someone else’s needs conflict with our own, and the first step in getting through those situations is having the emotional maturity to recognize the conflict in the first place.

In order to create lasting friendships, we have to develop emotional literacy and learn to read other people’s social cues. We subconsciously learn to read body language through example, and that starts when an infant stares into an adult’s face and learns to copy a smile or a frown. Not only do we recognize other’s needs through non-verbal cues, but we communicate respect and empathy through eye contact and body language as well, and that is not something you can sit down and teach someone. Children learn to read other people and develop social skills through the positive physical interaction in their early relationships.

When psychologists talk about the Caregiver, they are generally referring to a parental figure. However, I like to think of it in a much broader sense. Every time I hug my nieces and nephews, bounce with them on the trampoline, give dolphin rides in the pool, or kiss them goodnight, I am teaching them social skills. I am communicating that I love them, but I am also helping their little developing brains to learn how to engage and communicate effectively. I am teaching them how to be successful friends and partners.

All of my nephews and even my nieces have gone through a stage where they pretend to be grossed out by my kisses, and my hugs are a form of entrapment to be wriggled out of like I have cooties. I don’t know what cooties are but I know they are not good. Kisses are currency to be used when I’m not cooperating. “I’ll give you 50 kisses if you come outside and play.” But I know that it is just another way for them to get my attention and start a wrestle. Strong social connections are very important keys to happiness and physical interaction with children in their early development gets them started on the right path. I take great pride in pinning my nieces and nephews down and smooching them or wrapping my arms around them in my lap when we watch TV, because I know that I am contributing to the caring, friendly people that they are going to become.

Schuylers-Monster2Last summer I was travelling with a good friend who does not like children or animals. Or people. But mostly children. She is quite happy being single and in charge of her own kingdom. That kingdom just happens to be the one from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where the Child Catcher lures them out with lollipops and throws them into the paddy wagon. Our club-style hotel hosted a mixer for the guests and for a minute I thought a young family was going to join our table. Under my breath I threatened that under no circumstances was she to make a scene and move to another table. She confirmed with equal ferocity that that was exactly what she was going to do if they did not keep moving. We agreed she would be eating dinner alone. Thankfully her withering stare scared them away and I was spared the embarrassment. We were instead joined by three elderly ladies who spoke Italian with my friend and they thought she was a delight.

After I had lectured her on the joy that is strange children in public places, we spent the next morning on a crowded train with no air conditioning in 100-degree heat. A little boy and his mother sat next to me and for an hour the child kicked, screamed, threw food and generally irritated everyone within earshot. My friend watched in smug satisfaction from the seat she had managed to escape to a few rows back. I passed the time in seething judgment of the mother who clearly had no control over her Tasmanian devil of a child. I would like to think that I was able to keep a straight face and therefore my feelings to myself, but I’ll bet the poor woman felt every bit of my disdain as I picked cookie crumbs out of my hair. I’ve thought a lot since then about how we treat people whose children are misbehaving in public. The truth is that we know nothing about the strangers that we encounter in restaurants and airplanes and there is every chance that a situation like my train ride calls for compassion rather than criticism.

Rob Rummel-Hudson is an author and parent to a child with a rare neurological disorder caused by a malformation of the brain. He wrote a memoir about his daughter’s inability to speak and the family’s tireless efforts to find ways for her to communicate. It’s titled Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with his Wordless Daughter. I read it in one sitting, mesmerized by this man’s honest and touching story about his struggle with feeling inadequate as a parent and fighting for a place in this world for his child. He tells a story of the first time he was confronted with a lack of compassion and patience while grocery shopping.

As I pondered the choices, Schuyler played a game that might be called “Sugar-crazed Howler Monkey Runs in Circles,” Since we were standing in the freezer section of a mostly unoccupied store, I was inclined to let her be rowdy for a while longer. A short older woman walked down the aisle in front of us, eyeing Schuyler with a pinched expression on her face. As she moved past us, the woman rolled her eyes and said loudly, “Wow, I hope you are not planning to have another one . . . “

”’I beg your pardon?” I said. She gave a short sarcastic chuckle and kept walking. “Wow,” I said, feeling my irritation growing. “I can’t believe you’ve never seen a rambunctious kid before.” The woman snorted and said, “Not like her . . . ” “Not like her.” This time, I’d heard something new from someone confronted with Schuyler’s uniqueness. I’d heard disgust. And rejection. Of Schuyler. I’d wondered for years if I would ever experience it, and suddenly there it was. This woman faced Schuyler’s jabbering and hooting and didn’t hear Schuylerese. She heard a feral child.

After confronting the woman and explaining the situation with his daughter’s brain disorder, he was expecting an apology. But what he got was, “I don’t care what’s wrong with her. If she can’t behave like a normal kid then she shouldn’t be out in public. Maybe you should have her institutionalized if she can’t do any better than that.”

It sounds like an extreme story. Really, who could be that cruel to a perfect stranger? Several of my friends have autistic children and in talking to them about their experiences in public, I have realized that it is a very common occurrence. In a time when our every thought is Twitter-worthy and we are free to spew our opinions, informed or otherwise, all over the Internet, we seem to have become a society of people who are emboldened and entitled to share our disapproval. And certainly anyone who dares to inconvenience us in any way is asking for a piece of our mind.

Just because a child looks like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum, I don’t think it gives us the right to jump to conclusions and chastise the parents. The mother struggling to keep her screaming child quiet might be an incompetent mother who has no idea how to train a child. Or she could be a wonderful mother trying to deal with a disability that she is bravely battling every day. She might be doing her best to make a normal life for her family and could use an offer of assistance rather than a look of disapproval. And even if she is just a clueless mother, who are we that we feel compelled to make a stranger feel bad? Do we really need to look down our noses and make it clear we don’t approve of their child’s behavior just because we don’t appreciate being showered with their kid’s soggy cookie? Of course, there are obviously times to speak up when we witness what might be abuse or neglect. But I’m talking about those times when a child is making a mess in a restaurant or disturbing your meal, and you feel compelled to make a snide remark to the parents about keeping their animals in the zoo. I’m pretty sure you know what I mean. We’ve all been tempted.

Even the best-behaved children in the world have their moments and there is no such thing as a perfect parent. Embarrassing situations are inevitable. I know some children who will remain nameless who saw a horse urinating and running across a field at the same time and thought that would be an interesting experiment. Talk about a case for institutionalization. Maybe next time I find myself irritated when my comfort is being interrupted by a loud and seemingly out-of-control child, I should be a little less quick to judge and a little more compassionate.

ImageI had a couple of friends coming over for dinner and I needed something interesting to do with Tilapia. I don’t really cook so much as heat things up, so it had to be simple and foolproof. I pulled some lemon-pepper marinade out of the fridge, put it down on the counter and went away to answer the phone. When I came back I picked up the bottle and shook it with all the enthusiasm I could muster. The only little thing I forgot was that I had loosened the cap when I got it out. A second later I was standing in the kitchen with marinade dripping down my face, through my hair, all over my clothes and down the cabinets. I took a few moments to let the shock wear off and survey the damage. It really was quite spectacular. It occurred to me, as I was standing there in lemon scented socks, that this is the reason I live alone, so no one is there to witness the train wreck. Just in case you think this was an unfortunate but atypical incident, last week my sister-in-law emailed an asparagus soup recipe to my mother and me. I replied that it tasted like dirt and thanks to my new hand-held blender that I have yet to master, it was now all over my kitchen wall. My mother’s response was, “That’s my girl.”

I have very vivid memories of my mother trying to teach me to cook. She can make anything without a recipe but I was the queen of banana bread. That is the only thing I remember making as a kid. When I get good at something I tend to stick with it. In my teen years I progressed to lemon bars, which was exciting for everybody. My mother was very smart about teaching me to cook, which sounds odd now that I have so graphically described her failure. She figured out that I am a stubborn piece of work and I don’t respond well to the now-I-am-going-to-teach-you-something approach. She didn’t put me in an apron and say, “And now we are going to cook.” When she was making dinner, she would casually mention tidbits like, “To get the core out of an iceberg lettuce, you slam it down on the counter and then the core twists right out.” Her cooking tips have stuck with me through the years because I didn’t realize I was being told what to do. The fact that I can’t keep my dinner off the kitchen walls has more to do with my unwillingness to practice than the quality of my education. My cooking skills did not develop beyond cookie baking and breaking up a lettuce because in my young adulthood I discovered that you can have pad thai and chicken tiki marsala delivered in thirty minutes for a fraction of the effort and cost.

The only place I get any experience is when I am helping out at my brother’s house. My niece Rose likes to get involved. She smashes egg shells into the omelets, loses count when she is measuring flour, and usually spills milk all over the floor. I don’t like cooking to start with, so I certainly don’t love cooking with a six-year-old tornado who insists on doing everything herself. But I am constantly reminded of the times my mother watched me burn this or put the wrong ingredients in that. People who have been afforded that kind of patience have a duty to pass it on, I guess. I don’t announce to Rose that I am cooking, but if she notices and pulls up a chair, I hand her the eggs. Then I get the spoon I will need to fish out all the eggshell.

What I can try to pass on is something that I did manage to learn from my mother: the art of entertaining. It has always amazed me that my mother can whip up a meal for twelve people with an hour’s notice and not freak out about it. In high school, my brother and I could easily sweet-talk her into letting our friends come over at the last minute. Something mysterious would come out of the freezer and turn into a fabulous dinner without any drama. We were so proud of her for that. Other mothers would carry on at the imposition or just let us fend for ourselves. The art of entertaining is a fabulous thing. Most people assume it’s about money and snobbery, but it’s actually about planning and presentation. You can order pizza and still present it to your guests like you care. Entertaining well is not about having a fancy home or owning the Crate and Barrel catalog. Money certainly helps provide the appearance of class, but in reality it is an attitude and a way of behaving. If you have ever turned on a television, you know that money does not produce class. So you don’t need money to learn how to treat guests in your own home.

When Rose grows up, I’m not the one she is going to call to ask how long you cook a turkey or what spices you use on a rack of lamb. But as an adult that she looks up to, I can teach a few things by example. When my nieces and nephews come to my house we are more likely to have a food fight with Goldfish crackers while watching The Lion King than to sit at a nicely set table, but there are always opportunities to teach good manners and entertaining etiquette. When we have dinner parties, Rose sees me taking coats, offering our guests something to drink and making sure everyone is included in the conversation. Children absorb so much from the example that we set. Let’s just hope she doesn’t follow my example of the proper way to apply lemon-pepper marinade.

ImageMy grandmother has a large, blue ceramic jug decorated with the face of a pirate coming out of the mouth of a lion, among other various characters you would not expect to find peering out from the side of a jug. In other words, it is very ugly. We don’t know how my great-great-grandparents came into possession of this monstrosity but it has been passed down for generations and now sits proudly in my mother’s living room. My brother and I have a running joke about which one of us has to take it and when we get fresh, my grandmother occasionally threatens to leave it to one of us in her will. I am trying to keep on her good side. What I have claimed as mine is an equally gaudy gold and green jar that has a music box in the lid. My great-grandmother kept dried ginger in it and my brother and I learned how to get the lid off without triggering the music box and we would sneak a piece, lick all the sugar off and then throw the spicy ginger away. It is a worthless jar that she probably won in a raffle at her lawn bowling club, but I love it and have cherished it for as long as I can remember.

My grandmother was recently in the hospital with heart failure so the family gathered together for some quality time. Naturally with a scare like that she was thinking about what she was going to leave to us, and the subject of inheritance and the importance of family heirlooms was on all of our minds. Grandma had just shipped her personal belongings from Australia to California when she moved in with my parents, so the house was overflowing with memories. I wandered from room to room remembering childhood visits with my grandparents: the silver hairbrush that always sat on her dresser, the painting of a tree that I always thought looked like a fat lady posing for a photo, the horse statue that I played with when she wasn’t looking.

Sitting in my grandmother’s hospital room in a moment of quiet, I asked her why it was so important to her to pass these things down. She said that what mattered to her was to be able to pass down an appreciation of the things of beauty and quality that she had valued enough to work for, to care for and to carry across several continents and back. The monetary value of her worldly possessions was meaningless; but they represented her life and her parents before her and their parents before them. Passing down the art and objects of beauty (blue jugs aside) was very important to her. She wanted me to learn that this life is not about acquiring as much stuff as you can. You should have things around you that matter, not just things that you have because that’s what Charlie Farnsbarns has. I didn’t ask but I think Charlie Farnsbarns is her version of keeping up with the Joneses. It’s been a while since I was fully fluent in Aussie slang but I’m pretty sure she made that up.

After contemplating this ritual that my grandmother was going through as she assigned her precious treasures to her descendants, I was lying in bed one morning listening to my mother making pancakes with her own grandchildren. My eight-year-old nephew was looking at a cabinet of knick-knacks and said to his little brother, “See that glass ship in a bottle? I would like to inherit that one day.” I lay in bed smiling. He wasn’t wishing he had a ship like that. He wasn’t asking for it. It was his ginger jar.

As the only member in my generation of the family without children of my own, I won’t be the one who is charged with keeping the treasures—and the memories that go with them—in the family. So I have been thinking about what I can do as an aunt to keep our family history alive for my brother’s and cousin’s kids, and here is what I have come up with. I would like to preface this list by saying that I am not necessarily talking about money and things of value here. Although my grandmother has some pieces of art that are beautiful, my family also has a set of multi-colored tin cups that we treat as family heirlooms because of the memories that they bring up. Family possessions do not have to have monetary value to make them important.

Tell kids the history behind family heirlooms and where they came from.

I would love to know how my great-grandmother came into possession of my ginger jar. I took the opportunity at the hospital to ask my grandmother about some of the decorations I had seen in her house for decades but had never taken the time to ask about. I listed many of the things I remembered as a child and she gave me the story behind how each of them came into her possession. I was shocked to realize that some of her things went back five generations. We don’t like to talk about having stuff because it sounds materialistic and crass. But as my grandparents get older I have noticed more and more that their stuff, the little knick-knacks and furniture that have survived through the years, really matters to them. These possessions represent a lifetime of memories. By learning the stories behind them, we are more likely to care too and treat their things with respect. I have personally observed how hurt an elderly person can be when their family shows no interest in the things they have loved and treasured. I am going to find more opportunities to tell my nieces and nephews about our family gems so that when it is their turn to take care of them, they will appreciate their significance and honor the memory of our ancestors. 

Tell kids stories that connect them to the family history.

When we visited my grandparents as little kids, my brother and I would jump into bed with them in the morning. We thought it was great fun to wake them up but now that I am an aunt who loves my morning snuggles, I realize they were probably lying there waiting for us. We would beg my grandfather to tell us stories about when he was young and it didn’t take much coaxing. We learned the stories by heart and would make requests such as, “Tell us about the time your dog got attacked by a kangaroo while you were mustering cattle and how you saved his life,” or, “Tell us the one about when Mummy got in trouble for riding her big sister’s horse and fell off.” My favorites were actually about World War II because it was a time we could not relate to and even the stories he could share with children were fascinating. He had a great tale about how he and his mates distracted a truck driver and relieved the Americans of their supply of socks and underwear from the back of the truck. He had a good laugh every time he told that one. As kids growing up in the city in America, those stories connected us to farm life, our Australian culture, and the history of the war, all at the same time. My father’s father had a similar morning story-time ritual and I have never forgotten the stories of how he survived the war as an Air Force bomb aimer and how our family came to be who we are now. They are both gone and my paternal grandfather’s military cap sits on my brother’s mantel piece and my maternal grandfather’s hat is on my shelf. Those hats represent every one of those stories for us.

Stories about the family can connect children to family heirlooms and give young ones a tangible connection to the past. Children understand things they can touch and feel. My great-grandfather was a jockey, and tales about my great-grandparents living in Hong Kong to help start the horse racing industry there give meaning to the Asian sculptures and furniture that my grandmother has saved. I don’t consider myself a good storyteller and I have never taken the time to tell the kids about what life was like for their dad and me growing up in Australia, or adjusting to our new life in America. Maybe instead of letting them fight over the games on my iPad when they get into bed with me, I should try starting my own morning story time.

Let kids grow into an appreciation of things

If my parents gave my nephew that ship in a bottle now, it would instantly lose its meaning for him. My ginger jar means so much to me because I have spent thirty-something years looking at it, playing with it and admiring it. My mother has had it for a while and she could have given it to me when I was younger but if she had, I wouldn’t appreciate it as much. Give children something to look forward to inheriting and they will value it more.  

Why should little trinkets like a ginger jar and an Air Force hat matter? Throughout much of human history, families were connected by land. Land gave the family roots and great care was taken to keep it in the family generation after generation. The land was not yours but something you were charged with taking care of until it was time to pass it on. Now that so many of us live in cities, we have lost that connection. When we die, we pass down whatever financial assets we have, but money dissipates. With no emotional association or family ties, it is likely to be spent or devalued by the economy. Families benefit from financial inheritance and that is a good thing. However it cannot replace the role that living on the land played in keeping loved ones together and preserving family history. This makes preserving items of family significance all the more important. It is not about materialism or accumulating wealth. It is about connecting to where we came from and keeping the legacy alive.

One day my brother will display the ugly blue jug and visitors will have to think of kind things to say about it. “Wow, isn’t that . . . interesting?” I will be very proud of him for caring enough about our family heirloom to ensure that it is safe and still around to be inflicted upon the next generation. I too am going to help keep our family history alive for my nieces and nephews so that when it is their turn, they understand and appreciate the things that represent their amazing and colorful family.

ImageI recently took my niece to her first ballet. We saw the Russian National Ballet perform Cinderella.  At age 6, Rose is a little young for a full-length ballet but the stepmother was a large, comic man in a dress and the stepsisters were funny so it was a good way to introduce the theater and fine arts. She sat still longer than I expected and although she thought the girls were too skinny and couldn’t understand why this theater didn’t have popcorn, she liked the fairy godmother’s costume and the pretty music.

When the performance was over, the dancers were still taking their bows when people in the audience started making a beeline for the door. I thought, “These people just danced for you for two hours and you can’t take a minute to show them your appreciation? They are still on the stage, for crying out loud.”

We live in a country where you can see something as extraordinary as a ballet (and the Russian National Ballet no less) for the cost of a week’s worth of Starbucks. Are we showing our children by example that we don’t take that for granted, or are we teaching them that being first out of the parking lot is more important than other people’s feelings?

The problem I had with the ballet exodus is that I’m sure none of those people walking out in view of the performers thought for a minute that it was rude. It was not an intentional snub, just a thoughtless and self-centered action. It occurred to me as I was standing there clapping that you don’t have to be well-versed in theater etiquette to realize that this scene is awkward and unfortunate. Common courtesy tells you that, if you take a moment to see the world around you and not just focus on your own interests. I hate to think what our Russian guests were thinking.

My sister-in-law has a book on her shelf called Etiquette by Emily Post, published in 1946. I enjoy browsing through its helpful rules to live by such as the appropriate attire for your butler and the protocol of leaving a calling card. One of my favorite passages is about the etiquette of leaving someone’s home. “When a visitor is ready to leave, she (or he) merely stands. To one with whom she has been talking, the visitor says, “Good-by. I hope I shall see you again soon” —or “sometime” —or “I’ve enjoyed our talk so much.” Naturally a woman is less effusive in what she says to a man than in what she says to another woman. And yet she may very well exclaim, “I’ve been completely thrilled!” if he has told her anything that can be truthfully described as thrilling, but not otherwise.” The entire book goes on like that and I find it endlessly entertaining.

Obviously social norms have changed since the days of Emily Post. We are no longer bound by rules of how to introduce your guests on arrival or who sits to the right of the host at a dinner party. After wrangling Rose into a dress and tights for the ballet and convincing her that going to the theater was a dressing up occasion, I was a little disappointed to see people arrive in flop flops and jeans. Emily Post would have fainted. However, I have come to accept that any social norms that might suggest control over what you are allowed to do are a thing of the past. I recently had brunch in a fancy restaurant in downtown Los Angeles next to a woman wearing pajamas. Breaking convention doesn’t bother me when it is harmless and you are the only person who looks like a fool eating breakfast in your sleepwear. However, I refuse to give up on the idea that there are standards of politeness and consideration of others. Some rules of etiquette will never die. You may not be required to exclaim, “I’ve been completely thrilled!” when saying goodbye anymore, but you do have to wait for the curtains to close instead of walking out while the performers take their bows.

Employing common decency means thinking about other people, paying attention to the situation around you and setting a good example. I think it might possibly all come down to one word: gratitude. A person who is grateful for the people in their lives, the experiences they encounter and the opportunities that come their way, are not the people who cut in line to get ahead, spray you with food because they are talking with their mouth full or slamming the door back in your face because they couldn’t be bothered to hold it for you, to name a few of my pet peeves. We all are prone to unintentional offense because we are human, but my outing with my niece has inspired me to be a better example of how a thoughtful, considerate person behaves. And I might try to throw “completely thrilled” in there next time I am saying farewell, just for fun.

ImageNo one at my brother’s house understands the concept of sleeping in. It is just not done. I have come to understand this fact and adjust my bedtime accordingly, knowing that at the crack of dawn, three children will be fighting over a spot next to me in bed and a turn with the games on my iPad. If I am lucky they let me keep my pillow and I never complain about the early morning intrusions. One day, however, they were a little more feisty than usual. They turned on the light, snapped off my sleeping mask, jumped on the bed, pulled off the covers and dragged me to the floor by my feet. Once suitably restrained on the floor, they demanded piggy-back rides, which happens so frequently they have shortened “Please Aunty Jo, may I have a piggy-back ride” to “Pretzel!” I’m not entirely certain but I think it might be my horse name. This did not produce the desired activity so my eight-year-old nephew, Rider, sat on me and said, “I’m sensing some negativity.”

I think of myself as a fairly positive person. Maybe not when being physically abused at 6 a.m., but, you know, generally speaking. My nephew’s early-onset sarcasm always makes me laugh but this time it got me thinking about whether he really does notice when I am negative. Growing up, I had a friend whose father was kind of a negative person. When she asked him for permission to do anything, his first reaction was almost always “no.” She knew that if she kept talking and explaining the situation, he would have time to think about it and come around. She had learned that his first reaction was going to be negative and that it was not always the final word on the subject. She had to give him time to work his mind around to something more positive. It was fascinating to watch and had a big impact on me.

I have noticed that some people are inherently positive and always see a challenge as something that can be overcome. We all know people who smile all the time and exude happiness. When my husband was dealing with a setback in his cancer treatment, his doctor suggested a “laugh clinic” that was being held in the hospital. A woman in a clown nose had patients in a circle and was teaching them how to fake a hearty laugh. She claimed that if you pretend you are happy, eventually you will be. She proved this theory by explaining that when she was standing in the street in her pajamas watching her house burn down, she made herself laugh for 20 minutes and felt much better. She was clearly insane and I kept wondering when the psych ward was going to notice she was missing.

While there is apparently such a thing as being ridiculously positive, others have to work on how they react to difficulty and need constant encouragement. Many of my friends who are parents have one child who sees the good in everything and one who has to be convinced that the world isn’t going to end when things don’t go as planned. Why do some kids chug up the hill chanting, “I think I can. I think I can” while their sibling is thinking, “I cannot pull even so little a train over the mountain. I cannot, I cannot”? They have the same parents, so clearly nature has a hand in deciding this personality trait. But what do parents do to nurture the right attitude that an enthusiastic aunt can take to heart?

I turned to a friend who has twins. One is like her, a happy, positive person. The other she describes as a born pessimist. When anything goes wrong he is automatically having “the worst day ever!” She has started a routine to help him train his brain to focus on the positive first. When he gets in the car after school, he has to tell her one good thing that happened that day before he is allowed to go through his laundry list of all the wrongs he has suffered. He is still allowed to tell her about his problems, but first he has to focus on something positive. Then she helps him find something that he can learn from the things that were bad. Even when venting about the negative, he has to find something that he can take away and use next time he finds himself in that situation. She is using this repetition in hopes that he will learn to find the positive first on his own.

If you do a search for self-help material on how to have a positive attitude, like me you will be bombarded with people who can tell you how it is done. Just put your mind to it! If you change your thoughts, you can control what happens in your life! Create your life from within. If you want love, focus on all the people you love. If you want success, focus your mind on the areas where you are already successful. There are books and books of catch phrases that are hard to argue with, but training your mind to automatically go to a happy place is easier said than done.

I decided to start small. I get that a positive attitude is part of the personality you are born with, but attitudes and thinking can be changed. Ask any psychologist. Like almost everything in our ever changing lives, the knowledge of how to be positive can be learned and the skill developed. If I am going to help my nieces and nephews cultivate a positive attitude, I first need to lead by example. I made a conscious effort to change “you have to” to “you get to.” “Hey everybody! We get to put on our pajamas and brush our teeth!” OK, so maybe that wasn’t the best moment to launch the plan. Three-year-old Stanley’s bottom lip starts quivering at the mere mention of an N-A-P so it was a tough sell. But I like the theory. The kids can only benefit from my efforts to positive. Don’t get me wrong, I marched their behinds to bed because doing what Aunty Jo says is not optional, but I did it with a smile.

The amount of time that I get to spend with each of my many nieces and nephews is not going to change their personalities. That’s not my job. But I can avoid showing them how negative is done. To be clear, anyone sitting on my head at 6 in the morning is going to continue to sense some serious negativity. But I am determined that one day, my attackers will look back at my influence on their lives as a positive one.

empathyAt a conference for financial professionals in Miami recently, I attended a keynote speech by Michael J. Fox. I’m pretty sure he has nothing to do with the world of finance, but sometimes I think they choose speakers at these events to help us forget for a minute that our livelihoods are dependent on the U.S. economy. I was so interested in hearing what he had to say that I arrived early and sat in the front. It was inspiring and depressing, sad and hilarious all at the same time. He has an endearing sense of humor and an inspiring message but it was hard to watch knowing that he is struggling with Parkinson’s disease. Despite his life-threatening illness, he spoke about the amazing opportunities he has been given because of his disease and how important it is to be optimistic.

All of his stories were memorable but I keep coming back to one: After a vacation in Paris, he and his family flew on the Air France Concorde back to New York. For those too young to remember, the Concorde was a supersonic plane that could get you from Paris to New York in 3 hours if you were willing to sell a kidney to pay for the ticket. His wife is afraid of flying and was particularly afraid of the futuristic Concorde. Michael promised her that if this trip was too much, they would never take that type of plane again. One Valium and three hours later, the family made it to New York. The next day Michael was in his office watching television and heard that the next flight to leave Paris after his family took off had crashed, killing 113 people. The Concorde never flew again. In telling this story in his book, Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, he finishes by saying, “Sometimes, when you are alone, minutes pass before you even realize you are crying.”

There is a reason why I have been thinking about this story. In 2001, my parents came to visit my husband and me in New York. We took them on a road trip up the coast and had a wonderful time in Cape Cod. On the way home, we dropped my parents off in Boston as their flight back to Los Angeles was leaving from Logan airport the next morning. My husband’s office was on Park Avenue, but the morning that my parents were traveling, he had a special meeting in the World Trade Center. Exactly one week later, he called me at 8:45 in the morning and said, “Turn on the TV.” We watched the twin towers fall together on the phone, completely stunned by the fact that if the attackers had launched their plan one week earlier, my parents would have been on the plane that crashed into the building and my husband would have been on the 34th floor. I was at work surrounded by others who were also sitting around the TV in stunned silence. Sometimes you don’t have to be alone for several minutes to pass before you realize that you are crying.

As a society, we don’t have trouble empathizing when tragedy hits us on a national scale. Our hearts go out to the people whose houses are washed away by a hurricane, whose businesses are destroyed by an oil spill, or whose families are devastated by a madman with a gun. We are a very caring and generous nation and we rally around those who are suffering. I was only one of many in my office who shed tears when we heard that 27 children and teachers that we had never met had been murdered in their classroom in Connecticut. Why is it that so many have trouble taking that empathy down to a small, everyday scale? Why can’t we empathize with people who don’t share our level of education, our financial status, or dare I say it, our political point of view? Seth Godin is an author who has published 14 best-selling books about societal issues such as the post-industrial revolution, marketing and leadership. On his popular site titled Seth’s Blog he recently posted this quote: “When we extend our heart, our soul and our feelings to another, when we imagine what it must be like to be them, we expose ourselves to risk. The risk of feeling bruised, or of losing our ability to see the world from just one crisp and certain point of view.”

Since I am as guilty as anyone, today I am going to try to take an ounce of the empathy that I feel for the families burying their children in Newtown, and exercise it on something trivial as well, like people who can’t quit smoking or listening to country music. Imagine what our world would be like if we were all willing to empathize, even just a little bit, with people whose habits, preferences and opinions annoy us.

spoiling kidsListening to the radio on my way to work, I heard an interview with a singer who was enjoying his first big hit. The DJ asked what big purchases he had made since becoming rich and famous. I was expecting him to say a house or a car, but he proudly announced that he could finally afford to buy the Lego Millennium Falcon, a space ship from Star Wars. He had wanted it his whole life and that was the first thing he did with his new found wealth. “Huh,” I thought to myself,” I just bought that for my nephew.” For a brief moment I felt a twinge of guilt for being that family member who showers the kids with material possessions and then leaves the parents to deal with the consequences. How ridiculous that a rock star was excited about earning his prize and I just dropped it into the lap of a spoiled eight-year-old. And then I got over it, took my nephew to Disneyland and bought him whatever he wanted.

Giving presents to my nieces and nephews makes me happy. I will do just about anything for those moments of dancing around in excitement, hugs, and loud proclamations that I’m the best aunt ever. Everybody who loves a child wants those moments. However, they also need to be able to find the boundaries. As an aunt, do I understand how my gift giving enthusiasm is impacting the children? I thought about it and the answer is no. No, I do not. I have no experience in keeping children grounded and grateful while everyone around is giving them everything they ask for. I’m also willing to admit that I’m not likely to learn. I’m not going to stop buying Lego or going through the American Girl doll catalog with my niece to figure out what she wants next. I also do not want to cause problems, and turn those sweet little “you’re the best aunt” faces into spoiled “this is not what I wanted” scowls. I truly believe that giving children too much at once is detrimental, but I want someone else to worry about it and let me be the popular aunt.

Since I can’t trust my own discernment when it comes to overdoing it on the presents, I have made a conscious effort to rely on my brother and his wife to guide me. I have started asking them if it is OK if I buy the creepy mummy Indiana Jones set, or the movie with the scary bear.  I am trying to ask if I can take them bowling or out to dinner when the kids are not within ear shot so that they have a chance to say no without being the bad guy. I say I’m trying because I will admit that I asked my brother about the holy grail of Lego sets as it was sitting on my bed waiting to be wrapped. Self-control is not my strong suit, but at least I am trying. Parents don’t want to say no or be forced to be the gatekeeper all the time, but they know better than anyone when their kids need the family to dial down the spoiling.

I can’t imagine how hard it is to protect a child from the commercialism and greed that is so ingrained in our world, but I think it is a very important role in parenting.  I am aware that I regularly flop over the fence, alternating between trying not to be a part of the problem and being the chief offender. The least I can do is ensure open communication with the parents of the children I am influencing. Even if I ignore them and clean out Toys-R-Us anyway, at least they can mentally prepare themselves to make room for another spaceship.