Children's Voice Oct/Nov 2005

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Calmness in an Age of Anxiety

By Patrick Mitchell

I didn't answer my cell phone for a full day last week; in fact, I didn't even check to see who had called. It was part of my plan to surrender to calmness more often as an alternative to worrying about not keeping up with every detail of everything every day.

My wife thought I was half crazy to let my calls go, but then the world has gone half mad anyway, says Henry B. Biller, professor of psychology at the University of Rhode Island, and coauthor of the soon-to-be-published book, Hope in the Age of Anxiety. Parents who rush too much, the clinical psychologist told me, may be sacrificing calmness for anxiety as they strive to live up to frenetic expectations they carve for themselves on daily to-do lists.

"Time To Get Up!"

From the moment some parents and children get up in the morning, Biller says, they're rushing around. That's easy enough to believe when I consider my own life and as I think of the lives of my friends and relatives. Even their children (and mine) appear to have packed schedules.

"Parents are rushing their kids," Biller says. "It's 'Hurry up, we've got to get to school,' or 'We've got to get somewhere. . . did you do your homework? Brush your teeth,' and 'Rush, rush, rush.' And then it's 'Who's going to pick up the kids to take them to their sports practice, or their religions practice, or their extra tutoring?' Keep kids busy, keep 'em out of trouble--that's the mantra."

The mantra is wrong, though, he cautions. "Everybody's so concerned about material things and so worried about the future that they forget about today and the relationships they have and the tremendous importance of spending time together and sharing. Children are getting overloaded, just like their parents. Parents are piling more and more on kids, teachers are piling on more and more homework. . . and the children's days are [becoming] just as filled up as their parents'."

More Doesn't Mean Better

Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Parents should remember their children are watching their every move and basing their own emerging characters, in one way or another, on the things their parents say and do. Children are learning to load themselves up, Biller says, often getting into the daily schedule-anxiety grind with the zeal of their overloaded parents.

They're filling their days, he says, with lessons, events, timetables, and a dizzying array of stuff that overwhelms everyone involved. Parents would do well to tone down their own to-do lists, and the lists they make for their children as well, and teach their children to relax a bit and become relatively calm in an age of anxiety.

"Particularly with young kids," Biller says, "one of the biggest issues is, What is it that you want, and what does the child want? What's the difference between you and the child? People get really mixed up about that. I think a lot of kids are stressed out because we, as a society, live like more is better."

But more is not always better, he says, noting that some stressed-out children go along with their parents' wishes but inside secretly yearn for a relatively calm day, a calm week, a calm childhood. They'd cash in calmness if only they knew such a choice existed. Biller believes parents would do well by their children to reassess their goals for themselves and for their kids and include calmness as a goal in their reassessment.

Relax and Get Real

The remedy, Biller says, includes giving yourself and your children a good dose of calmness from time to time, and as often as possible. "You are a frame of reference for your children. Realize that the child may want to identify with some of the things about you, but not other things. Be a real person. Don't be some kind of artificial construction, where you feel you're going to be some kind of godlike figure in the child's life. Nobody's perfect. But maybe you can become a better person by trying to be better with your child, and you can grow, too."

Patrick Mitchell writes and publishes a monthly newsletter, The Down to Earth Dad, from his home in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. His column in Children's Voice appears on an occasional basis. To reserve Patrick Mitchell for speaking engagements and workshops, call him toll-free at 877/282-DADS. Subscribe to The Down to Earth Dad by sending $33 to The Down to Earth Dad, PO Box 1907, Coeur d'Alene, ID 83816. Discounts are available for large volume newsletter orders via grants and organizational sponsorship. E-mail: patrick@downtoearthdad.org. Website: www.DownToEarthDad.org.

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