Heroes To Grow On

Last week we posted a Daily Find link to a moving story about Brad Meltzer, the dad who wrote a special book for his son describing a number of his favorite heroes. I won’t repeat the story (though I recommend you click here and read it), but suffice it to say it was not the typical “How I Taught My Son What It Means To Be A Hero” stuff.

It was about life and loss and teaching kids how broad the word ‘hero’ really is. It was about knowing that some things worth teaching (and learning) are uncomfortable, and how important it is to feel, even when it hurts. It was about growth.

So I started thinking about the brilliance of what that dad did, whether he knew it or not at the time. And how we can all create tools to help our kids navigate through the rough spots and moments of hurt. We can layer lessons about resilience and emotional strength on top of almost anything we’re teaching, and that’s a huge double bonus.

So here are some simple ideas — things you can do to add another layer to the learning and teaching that goes on in your family every day.

Let yourself be (a little bit) vulnerable in front of your child. Even moms have moments when things happen that leave us feeling insecure or scared or hurt. Like when a close friend is ill, or the new account you thought you’d nailed at work is offered to someone else. We tend to immediately put our armor on with our kids, claiming that we’re fine or it doesn’t matter, to protect them from our pain.

Instead, try explaining how you feel.

“I just learned something sad. My friend Bonnie is in the hospital and she needs to have an operation. I’m worried about her, and it’s on my mind right now. So if I seem upset, or like I’m not myself, that’s what going on. I’ll be fine as soon as Bonnie’s better, and OF COURSE I’m always here for you to be your mom. You’re the center of my world, and I love you to the moon and back, but right now I’m thinking a lot about Bonnie”.

Keep it matter-of-fact. Never make them feel like it’s their job to take care of you. But open your heart. They’ll learn that it’s safe, and they’ll open their heart in return.

Put yourself in feeling places with your kids. Watch TV. Go to movies. Take your children to live theater. Talk about the emotions you witness. Cliche example: The Lion King (who hasn’t seen that?). “What do you think Simba was feeling when he thought he caused Mufasa’s death? Why did he run away?”

It gives you an arena to talk about scary feelings without it being about THEM. It’s always easier to talk about the other guy. That’s why “I have a friend who …” is such a time-honored technique when people need help.

Take note of intuitive, feeling events when you’re out and about with your kids. Instead of turning away from the guy on the corner who’s asking for money when you’re sitting at the red light, engage in conversation about it. A conversation I’ve had with my own …

“I’m so conflicted about what to do when I see these poor guys. They need help so badly, but I don’t want to give them money to spend on alcohol or drugs. That’s hurting, not helping. Maybe we could keep a sack of food that won’t go bad in the back of the car and give them some when they need it.”

This situation offers the added opportunity to talk about mental illness and drug abuse. TALK TALK TALK. Remember, you’re layering.

Don’t avoid the rough stuff or lie to your kids about it. For example: Yes, the neighbor’s husband left the family to go off with another woman. Love is complicated, and even though moms and dads will always love their kids, sometimes they stop loving each other. No, your dad is NOT going to leave (as long as you’re pretty sure of it), and the neighbors will get through it and be OK. We’re going to help in any way we can. They’re pretty angry and upset right now.

Another layer here is that your kids will learn they can trust you to tell them the truth. That’s huge.

Share the fantastic, happy feelings too. Don’t hide your emotion when you’re head-exploding happy. Let your kiddos see that happiness can be just as emotional as sadness or anger. Let them see you crying with relief when the breast lump turns out to be a benign cyst, or when their Grandpa’s triple bypass goes flawlessly.

Celebrate effusively when something good happens. Poker faces have their place, but not in the safe space of your family.

The idea is to teach that all emotions — happy, sad, embarrassed, angry, scared, confused … whatever — are part of life. Some feel better than others, but they are all inescapable. And better when shared.

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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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