…but do they know we love them?

Sometimes when I write, it’s only when I see people’s reactions that I realize what I’ve said. The responses to my last post were all different and reflected what they meant to the people who read the piece.

The more I think about it, the more I wonder how it is that we convey what we feel to those we love. Of course kind words, gentle touch, and thoughtful deeds, help, support, and caring all are important, but why is it that sometimes it doesn’t seem as if the message gets through.

“If he really loved me, he’d say he loves me,” the young wife said to me in my office one day.
“Do you love her?” I asked him.
“Of course I do,” he answered.
“Can you tell her?” I asked.
“I love you,” he said.
“He only said that because you told him to,” she said.

Is there anything he can do to get the message across? If she says that his washing the dishes would show he loves her and he washes the dishes, will she say, “but he’s only doing that because you told him to.”

So I leave the question open. How do we let those we love know that we love them in a way that they will understand? How can we do what they want us to do to prove it without their devaluing the effort?

Is knowing that you are loved something that only happens when you have been loved and cherished as an infant? Is that necessary? Is it sufficient? For others does it take lots of years and shared experiences?

Examining our tortoise pictures in the Galapagos

What are your thoughts?

…but do they know?

Yesterday I was talking to someone who is visiting Israel on one of those programs that exist for young people. When I asked if she would be coming back to stay, she said to me, “My parents miss me.”

Ah, how tender! Her parents miss her. I am sure they do. She is a delightful person. But more important than the fact that they miss her is the fact that she knows it.

I was immediately struck by the realization that I never could have made that statement. Did my parents miss me when I was gone? Sometimes I think the happiest moments of their lives were when they were dropping me off at camp or at some weekend experience. When I returned, there was never the feeling that I had been missed. In fact, it seemed like my re-entry constituted a sort of intrusion.

Did my parents love me? I’m betting they did. My mother in her own hung-up way probably did love me. My father in his very quiet, very gentle way, I am sure loved me. But did I know it? Did I feel it?

I think about my own children. I wonder if they felt that kind of love. I wonder if they knew that I missed them when they were gone. I wonder if my oldest son knows that I cried half the night when we left him in Atlanta to attend school there. I wonder if he knew the joy I felt when he came home for weekends. I wonder if my daughter realized that the day I went to pick her up in Oklahoma City 100 miles away, when I brought her back for a surprise visit to the States, I sobbed most of the way to the airport and practically jumped out of my skin when the plane was late. I wonder about my other children too, whether they know how many times I have spent days and nights worrying about their safety as they traveled to strange places, as they served in the Army and reserves, as they traveled on dark roads past Arab villages. I wonder if they know how much I love them.

Parents’ love is strong and fierce, but sometimes our gentle, laid-back manner belies the passion we feel for the safety, well-being, and happiness of our children. How can we let them know?

It seems that some parents know how to do it. I’d like the recipe, please.

Herding cats

Imagine for a moment that you had a very small family and all you ever wanted was a big one. So, you got married and had maybe 5 children. It was fun. They were great. Yes, there were arguments and pushing and vying for attention, but in general, it was fun.

And now suppose that you had forgotten that when they grew up they would want to have families of their own. It actually never entered your mind.

And now imagine that in the blink of an eye there are something like 28 grandchildren.. maybe even a couple more… and all of a sudden, it’s not that easy to do almost anything with all of them. Oh, and along the way, the children have acquired spouses…

And now, let’s say you wanted to get a picture of all of them.

Um, you get the picture. Only I didn’t. Watch the following to see people disappear and reappear. Guess how many are missing the day of the picture taking and how many are hiding or are blocked in each picture.*

Yep. Herding cats.

Oh, there are more, but you get the point…

*The winner gets to be the photographer the next time.

Don’t do it!

Today I was waiting for my husband and I was sitting across the room from two young people. I am guessing that they were about 15 years old. They were a boy and a girl. I watched as the girl kept leaning forward, placing her face under his face. She would move closer and then closer yet. She kissed him and moved back and then moved forward again, placing her face under his once again. At one point he stood up and moved to a position farther from where she was sitting. He sat down and in no time, there she was, moving in on him- once again touching him and placing herself very close to his face.

And all I could think was, “Don’t do it!” I wanted to tell her that she is a lovely looking girl. She has so much that she can accomplish in her life. But the message that she was giving to this boy and the world in general is that she is so hungry for affirmation from a boy that she has no problem with practically assaulting him in public.

I felt so very sad for her. I thought about what her future might be like. At this rate, she could be pregnant by 16 and opportunities for her own development as a person will be limited. Poverty may follow. And what does she have to give to the next generation?

And coincidentally it is international women’s day. What message do we really need to give to young women?

We need to teach our daughters and granddaughters that it’s a big world full of wonderful opportunities. The time for romance and marriage and children comes later, but first they need to devote themselves to developing as people. They need to discover their interests and expand their capabilities. They need to learn what their particular talents are and then to nourish them and enjoy them. They need to learn about how to have healthy relationships, based on shared values and not just perceptions of “coolness” or appreciation of someone’s looks. Friendships between boys and girls, in my book, are just fine. But things need to be kept light and friendly. They don’t need to rush. They are going to be adults hopefully for a long, long time.

Protecting children

A horrific story out of Florida says that a mother killed her two teenage children, shooting them because they “mouthed off” to her.

The article is here.

As more information was published, it turns out that the daughter and mother were in counseling for problems between them because the mother felt that the daughter’s behavior had changed for the worse when she started in her current school. In counseling, presumably one on one, the daughter told the counselor of at least two incident in which the mother had been physically abusive. The counselor, as mandated by law, contacted the authorities and they became involved. This was in November of 2010. Authorities came to investigate and with the daughter’s report of being slapped several times on one occasion and of a previous incident that involved bleeding from the lip, the authorities decided not to pursue further investigation since there was no lasting damage. Several days later, the mother ran her car into the back of a trailer causing damage to both vehicles and both drivers. Before she could be tested for drugs or alcohol after the accident, she left the hospital. Further disclosures have the mother as having a drug and alcohol addiction and her own mother knew that she was depressed.

So I have a couple of questions:

1. Was there not a way to prevent her from buying the gun that she used to kill her children? She bought it only days before the shooting.

2. Was there not a way to assess just how much of a danger she could be to her children?

Or are we so hungry for freedom and self-determination that we will risk children’s lives rather than embarrass or hurt the feelings of their parents?

Most risk assessments are not geared to teenagers in upper middle class homes. They deal with infants and little children usually living in poverty, in single parent homes, or with parents who for one reason or another are not able to provide adequate care. But what about a child who lives in a middle class or more affluent home with college educated parents who are high achievers? Is it so difficult to believe that addictions and mental illness also exist in these homes?

I wish I had the answer as to how to assess the danger to kids. It would have to be an assessment that took into account things like drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, outbursts of emotional or physical abuse, threats, acting out behaviors, depression and rage. It would have to be an assessment model that is easy for the investigator to use. And, of course, the investigator would have to be able to detect inconsistencies that would point to deception.

I don’t have the answer, but when I think of these children and tens or hundreds of others who could have been protected, I know that we need to come up with something that works.

Your children deserve a happy childhood

Most of us, when we decide to have children, think about how cute and sweet and lovable babies are. We think of their smiles. We fantasize cuddling them and holding them and having them fall asleep on our shoulder. If we think ahead, perhaps we see them building things with blocks or taking their doll or action figure for a walk. We may picture ourselves reading them a story or pointing out interesting flowers or trees or birds.

We may not necessarily realize that aside from the physical care of children (not an easy proposition in itself), we all are responsible for their emotional safety and security.

In the early years of marriage (roughly the first 15 or so), couples typically spend a lot of energy both getting to know each other’s foibles and trying to rectify them. They often express their frustration with each other. Some of this is all right. If one spouse can help the other grow and develop him/herself in a positive way, then those types of encounters can lead to positive things for both the individuals and the relationship. So often, though, people think of the relationship as a zero-sum game. In order for one to be up, the other must be down. They vie for the top position and are never happy because no one can occupy the top position all of the time if two people are vying for it.

Some couples go through this process in quiet ways. They try to influence each other by words and deeds. Sometimes they resort to manipulative measures. But, in the end, if they are both working toward the same goal, a happy life together which includes both of them feeling good and happy, then the uncomfortable times at least can yield good results.

Other couples are in a constant struggle to prove to each other that he/she is smarter, better, more clever, better liked, etc. than the other. This constant struggle impacts badly on those around them.

I am acquainted with a couple that has been married around 50 years. I have not known them the whole time, but I have known them for a significant period of time. It has not happened that I have been with the couple and they were not in some sort of struggle with each other. He picks at her; she picks at him. They do it everywhere- in front of friends, relatives, and strangers. It has become a habit. It may never end.

That is what should not happen.

All couples go through the struggle for ascendancy. At some point, the sooner the better, they should come to the point where they realize that their happiness is entwined with their partner’s. If my husband is miserable, so am I. If my wife feels hurt and put down, I feel the pain.

At that point, the marriage can turn around and become a place where people are appreciated and nurtured.

And the children will feel it. They will see that their mother and father are working together. They will feel safe and secure.

They deserve it.

Still crazy (about him) after all these years!

Still crazy (about him) after all these years!

Families and honesty

As if I really have to tell you…

The basis of any close loving relationship is honesty. Family members should know that they can count on each other to tell the truth. Children must be able to trust their parents in order for them to feel secure. One way that parents can teach this is to let the children know that even if it means getting into trouble with mom and dad, it is always better to tell the truth. Sometimes we would explain it to our children like this: Suppose I told you that if you act nicely now I will give you ice cream after dinner and then after dinner I say I didn’t really mean it, how would you act the next time I promised a reward? How would it feel if you couldn’t trust me?

My own children were, by and large, pretty honest growing up. I am certain there were some lies and deceptions, but if so, they were not of consequence. I knew I could count on them to tell me the truth and they knew they could count on me to take them seriously.

In fact, once we had a babysitter that one of my children didn’t like. The child asked me not to have that babysitter again, but wouldn’t tell me why– and I did not call that babysitter again. Only months later did I learn the reason, and it was good that the sitter did not return. Similarly, when there was a problem at school, I always asked the child first to tell me what had happened. I always got a straight story and I always advocated for my children when appropriate.

When our oldest son left for college in Israel, we all still were living in the US. Before he left, he asked me to promise to let him know if anything happened to anyone in the family– illness or other important things he should know. I told him that I would because I knew that if I didn’t assure him that he would know, he could be in a constant state of tension- wondering if everything is OK at home. After all, back then, before mobile telephones and before the university dorms even had hall telephones in them, communications consisted of letters that took between 5 and 10 days to arrive from the US. But it was only because he knew that he could trust me that my answer was reassuring.

Some families are not honest about things like illnesses and other unpleasant information because they want to protect either themselves or others. That can create big problems.

Once we knew a family where a somewhat distant family member died suddenly at 92 years of age. Members of the family decided not to tell one of the older people to spare her feelings. However, a few weeks later there was a wedding to which both would have been invited. How to explain the absence of the deceased family member? Their solution : a trip to Europe. In our family, from then on, “going to Europe” took on a sinister connotation.

In my own family, my mother hid information about my father’s illness that was essential to my sister’s and my health. My mother hid her own illness from her friends, many of whom were like sisters to her. It robbed them of their ability to support her and it robbed her of the support they could have provided.

Bad news is hard to share, but secrets and lies separate people and doing that at a time when love and support are needed is simply a very bad choice.

Savta, Grandma, Bubby, Nana

If new parents have a complaint “no one prepared me for parenthood” and parents of newly married children realize there is no road map to being a mother/father-in-law, there is another path that is far more uncharted. How does one be a grandparent?

You see, most people have been around new babies. They have watched friends or siblings or cousins be new parents. They observe comforting techniques, clever holds, and parent-initiated play. But being a parent-in-law and being a grandparent are far harder skills to learn.

We may have learned that in-laws were outlaws. Comedians told us that mixed feelings were what happened when you saw your mother-in-law driving off a cliff in your new Cadillac. Our own parents may have complained of in-laws’ meddling or of their disinterest. It seems that very few families hit a good balance.

But perhaps, even more problematic is how to define ourselves in the roles of grandparents. For many of us, our own grandparents seemed ancient when we were young, and seeing them as people separate from their grandparent role was so very difficult. They were obviously created only for our comfort, the real purveyors of unconditional positive regard.

At first, it’s not that hard. We coo and we smile and we hold and rock the infants. They are so lovable. I never really understood the word “delicious” until I looked at my first grandchild and now the youngest is just as delicious. But what do we do as they grow older?

Early on I decided that I was not into buying their love. First of all, Israeli homes are small. Secondly, my children buy their children everything they need and much of what they want. They lack for nothing. I didn’t want my grandchildren to look forward to my visits as a gift extravaganza. I also didn’t want to force hugs or kisses on them, as much as they were so very appealing. I remember as a child feeling smothered in my grandmother’s ample bosom. I didn’t want my grandchildren to feel that.

So how do we build healthy relationships with them? How do we let these precious young people know that we love them?

I decided that my home should have interesting things for the children to do when they come. Boxes of Legos, wooden blocks, small cars, little plastic people, and hand puppets are available. We have checkers and chess and playing cards. We have childrens’ videos and books. We sometimes show them home videos of interesting places we’ve been. We placed in the garden little figures in both ceramic and plastic of animals and gnomes that the children enjoy identifying, visiting, and often moving around from one place to another in the garden. Some of the figures are on the ground, some are hanging from trees, and one gorilla is climbing up a large pottery urn. As the seasonal fruits ripen on our trees and vines, together we pick plums, pomegranates, clementines, and lemons. We harvest grapes. We are growing kumquats and in another couple of years, when the fruit may be eaten, they will join the cycle. And we usually have an ample supply of pretzels and chocolate milk. In fact, when the children visit, often they home in on the chocolate milk as if it is a ritual. Of course the other thing we have done is the special trips that by now we have taken 7 of the grandchildren on.

We, of course, talk with them, listen to them, tell them stories about when their parents were young and tell them of our own adventures.

My maternal grandparents and their 6 oldest grandchildren

My maternal grandparents and their 6 oldest grandchildren 1955

My paternal grandmother and my two oldest children (her great-grandchildren) 1973

My paternal grandmother and my two oldest children (her great-grandchildren) 1973

My parents with their grandchildren, 1983

My parents with their grandchildren, 1983

What do you/your parents do as grandparents to foster close relationships with your/their grandchildren?

Musings on the first day of school

It’s the first day of school for most of the schools here in Israel. It set me to thinking about my oldest child’s first day. Here is the album page– the photos are so glued as to be destroyed if removed. The middle two pictures are from the first day of school. The upper picture is of one of his building projects. The lower picture is with his sister, Rachel.

Benjy's first day

Benjy's first day

I remember his first day of nursery school. His teacher was a gentle, kind, woman who believed in reason and calm discussion. His nursery school was located in the synagogue where my husband served as rabbi, and so it was not very worrisome to have him away since I knew his father was close by.

He was the kind of child who played his cards close to his chest. Introverted. He didn’t tell me a word about what was going on at school. I would hear from the other parents about the visits of musicians and of fantastic art projects and incredibly creative activities. He told me nothing. But it wasn’t worrisome, because I knew his father was nearby and that he was safe.

Well, kind of safe.

I remember the first time the teacher called to tell me that Benjy had run away from school. The school was the equivalent of close to a mile by car or across a number of parking lots and down the side of a steep hill from our house. This was not good news. Benjy was found within about a half hour, but I was shaking for a lot longer.

The second time he ran away from school, he was a bit smarter. He took a little girl with him and before the teacher noticed, they had already traversed the hill and the parking lots, I suppose, because she couldn’t find them. She called and asked me to go out and look for them. I was at home with three little children, ages 3, 17 months, and one month. I was not able to go and look. I was able to panic. Fortunately, the two showed up at my back door not long afterwards.

As the other children grew up and started school, the first day was a happy day for them and for me. The others were not nearly as adventurous as their big brother, (although just as mischievous, each in his/her own way).

It was only when the youngest went to nursery school for the first time that I was swept away by the feeling that I was not just relinquishing control of her, but that I was trusting the world to take good care of her. I knew too much about the world to feel confident that others would treat her the way I wanted her treated– with kindness and gentleness. As I sat in the room with her the first day and the teacher distributed the juice in tiny cups, I saw her take her cup and put it to her lips. I thought, “she is going to drink what is given to her. Please let the world serve her only good things.”

Today most of my grandchildren start school once again. A few are going to day care for the first time. I pray that the world treats all of these precious children as they deserve to be treated. I pray that they will become the kind of people who will make the world a better place.


I haven’t posted in a while on anything therapy/growth related and it’s about time. For the last two days I have been thinking of competition. Competition seems to be hard-wired in human beings. Even very little children want to be able to do something better than their sibling. They want to be thought smarter, prettier, cuter. They say things like “I can hold my breath longer than you can” or “my picture is nicer.”

It makes sense that we compare ourselves to others. There has to be some yardstick for performance, else how would we know if a performance were better or worse than average. We looked at Susan Boyle and we compared her to other women her age, other women singers, and before she began to sing, we expected that she would be laughable. Her appearance was thought to be substandard and people expected that her performance would be too. Everyone was surprised when she opened her mouth to sing and her singing was beautiful. In our minds, we compared it to the type of singing a normal person does and it was much better and then we held it up to a higher standard and she met or surpassed it. Comparisons help us make judgments.

However, competition turns out to be inappropriate and even harmful in many circumstances. In relationships with siblings and spouses, competition leads to devaluing behavior, sabotage, and ridicule. In families, we are on the same team. We need to be happy when any of our team members scores a basket! We need to help them maximize their performance just as we strive to do our own best. Saying “great job” and “wow, you did it!” when someone else has achieved something costs nothing and helps to build good will and feelings of security.

We all accept the concept of sibling rivalry as natural. Parents struggle to help each of their children to feel loved and valued, but there is always an echo of that rivalry. However, even worse is the situation when people have been programmed from early childhood to be comparing themselves to all others around them. The result is either always feeling wanting and inadequate or feeling superior (often without reason).

There are sometimes good results from striving for the kind of excellence that would lead people to see one as superior. People go to school and study for years to become the most knowledgeable, the recognized authority. People design research studies to achieve benefits for the public at large, but also because they want others to recognize their achievement and superiority.

But when competition enters family life, it is often destructive. When husband and wife each strive to be the one who is right all the time or the one who knows best, both of them suffer. When children are compared to one another in a way that lessens the value of one, that is destructive not only to the child’s ego, but to the sibling relationship– a relationship that often is the most satisfying lifelong relationship a person has.

Virginia Satir, a talented and much loved family therapist once told a couple that their competition was not a bad thing. The bad thing was what they were competing about. She suggested they compete to see who in the couple be the most loving, the most caring, the most forgiving, the most supportive, the most helpful. It’s the kind of competition that families need. It’s the kind of competition the world needs.