Prayer

Like many people in the San Francisco Bay Area, my spirituality is a hodgepodge of various traditions, custom-tailored along the lines of ordering Chinese takeout: pick one practice/belief from column A, two from column B, one from column C, and so on. I am sure this—among roughly a million other realities of my life—gives my very Catholic mother fits. But she might be happy to know that there is one particular practice I can trace directly back to my Catholic upbringing. That is our family’s version of prayer.

If there’s one thing Catholics are good at, it’s categories and grouping. Check out any Catholic resource and it can tell you the saint’s day, liturgical season (with appropriate vestment colors), day of obligation (which now I believe are more like days of recommendation), and other connected obligations/recommendations such as fasting or abstinence for any day of the calendar, from now till 1,000 years in the future. Not to mention seven sacraments—and their evil twin, seven deadly sins—three cardinal virtues, five decades of the rosary, and 14 stations of the cross. (We can’t take credit for the 10 Commandments, although I assume that was God’s way of testing out how this whole numbered-system thing was going to play out.)

As far as prayer goes, in the Catholic tradition, there are five types: prayers of praise, love, contrition, thanksgiving, and petition. While I personally have spent more hours than I care to remember asking for forgiveness for one failing or another—especially since becoming a father—with the boys I decided to focus on columns D and E: saying thanks, and asking for what you want or need, either for yourself or on behalf of someone else.

In practice, our thanksgiving prayer looks like this: Every night at dinner, we join hands and go around the table, with each person saying something he is thankful for. This could be general such as food or health or a good day, or a specific thing that happened—getting accepted to college (Daveon), landing a triple salchow (Mark), being told that the roaster was out of his favorite coffee beans, and then finding that they had one bag left (Dad). Even with Daveon away at school, this is one tradition that Mark and I faithfully (no pun intended) carry on. And when friends and family join us for dinner, they join our ritual of thanks also.

The “petition prayer” ritual has faded away, but when we were all under one roof and subscribed to roughly the same bedtime, it went this way: Just before bed, as part of our check-in about the day, each person would list anyone they wanted to pray for, as well as anything they wanted to ask for. The “pray fors” could be anyone in our family or friendship circle in general; people we know who could use a little extra thought because of illness, a loss, or other challenge; or folks in need on a larger scale such as disaster victims. The “ask fors” were wide-open, as I encouraged the boys that it’s OK to ask for anything they want, and not to be afraid to feel a little “selfish” at this time.

We say/said all three prayers in a non-specific way: “Thank you for …,” “I want to pray for …,” “I want to ask for …” From my perspective, it doesn’t matter whether the boys conceive of this as praying to a being or spirit, or just putting the energy out into the world. What does matter to me is cultivating a) a spirit of gratitude—because really, for all the struggle they went through, all three of us have so very very much to be grateful for—and b) an understanding that the good words and requests we express to the universe have the power to bring about real changes or results in people’s lives. Our rituals have also reinforced that we should remember the people we care about and who care about us, and that it is a good and important thing to ask for things on our own behalf. Regardless of what traditions they embrace or reject moving forward, I hope that these core principles will stick with them and become integrated in their beliefs and practices.

Next: Cooking

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Independence

There are very few times when I am talking about raising my kids that you will hear me say, “You know what? I did that really well. I may have actually done it a little too well.”

But there is one thing.

When I took a Deaf Culture class years ago (as part of Vista—now Berkeley City College’s—American Sign Language program. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED), one of the topics we covered was child rearing. In Deaf culture, the point of raising children is to carry on cultural norms and values, with the expectation that the children would a) see themselves primarily as members of the community and b) remain connected to these norms and values as they themselves became adults. In Hearing culture—as the Deaf community calls the rest of us—the goal of child raising it to emphasize independence and individuality, with the thought that as an adult the child will a) step out from the existing community values and norms and b) forge his or her own path. Although obviously the child’s “own path” might include a healthy dose of earlier generational norms—and although most of the Deaf people I’ve met over the years have quite distinct, individual personalities—the basic premise remains: Deaf adults primarily see Deaf children as carriers of existing culture, while Hearing adults push their children to explore and create their own independent experience.

In case anyone is wondering, I am not Deaf.

I’ve been fostering (no pun intended) independence pretty much since the day the kids crossed the doorway “officially” for the first time. As I’ve mentioned earlier, from the beginning they had to clean their own rooms and make their own breakfasts and lunches. Not long after, they began cooking dinner once in a while, as I will describe elsewhere. (There was also a period where they cleaned the the bathrooms, on the theory that 95% of the crud came from them. Until I realized that it was faster for me to clean the actual crud than to do a second pass on the boys’ attempts. Despite their best efforts, Hazel they are not. And if you get that reference, you are old enough to have teenaged—or older—kids yourself.)

Perhaps the most obvious marker of the kids’ independence is how they have long traveled from place to place by themselves. I did drive them to their elementary school, even though both we and the school are a block or two from BART stations. Mostly because I wasn’t convinced they would consistently get on the right train. And because I could see lots of arguments when one was sure it was the red line, and the other was sure it was the yellow line, and then I would be getting calls from the BART police. (“Mr. Sadusky? It’s …” “I know. Say no more, I’ll be right there.”)

I usually drove them to their first middle school as well, because there’s no easy way to get there by train or bus. But from that point on—say around age 13—they’ve been more or less doing it on their own. School, practices, lessons, meets, social engagements—even when I “could” drive them, more and more we made it a habit for them to get there and back on their own. To the point where now, even if I offer to drive, they often will prefer to hop the bus or train. Which I am sure they are doing just to be nice, because clearly they would rather be in the passenger seat with Dad and his jazz or weirdo hip-hop CDs.

This independent transport reached a new level when Daveon, and later Mark, began driving. This cuts me out entirely as the middle-man, even when a car is required. At one point, Daveon actually offered to drive Mark to his twice-weekly 6AM skating sessions, which was noteworthy to the point of being a bit alarming. This did not stop me from taking him up on the offer, of course.

So if your goal in raising your kids is to get them to the point where they don’t need you, like I say, I think I may be a bit of an overachiever in this department. Or maybe the kids are just doing me a favor and getting me gradually acclimated to the point where I will be an empty-nester, so it won’t be too much of a shock. They’re thoughtful like that.

Next: Prayer

Goals

There are certain things I think I’ve gotten better at as the kids have gotten older—and wish I had practiced more when they were younger. One of these is defining the boys’ behavior in terms of goals. Rather than getting into judgments based on “right” and “wrong,” it helps when the focus is on “Where do you want to be?”, followed by “Are these behaviors/choices helping you get there, or getting in the way?”

As with most things parent, putting this “wise mind” approach into practice is easier said than done, and involves juggling a number of factors:

  • Number 1—Separating either kid’s goals from my goals for him. I certainly think it’s fine to have goals for your kid (mine generally involve them making enough money to fund my retirement), but these don’t form a great basis for a kid-centric goals-based approach to behavior. Someone it just doesn’t carry quite as much punch to say: “Here’s what I think is right for you. Are your choices helping you achieve this?” So keeping the focus on what they describe as their own goals is key—and this requires a lot of listening, gentle probing, clarifying questions, etc. Sometimes helping your kid get clarity on his or her own goals is one of the greatest gifts you can give. (And when you have a kid like Mark, helping your kid get clarity on his goals is both a necessity and a full-time job. If “I don’t know” were an actual goal, he would be the most accomplished human in the history of the species.)
  • Number 2, now that you’ve done a great job letting your kids educate you about their goals—Helping them gauge their behavior and choices in terms of achieving these goals. To oversimplify, any choice can help, hinder, or be neutral with respect to achieving a given goal. Helping the kids understand this is another great gift. The complicating factor here: As the smart grown-up, you often have a better sense of the types of choices that will help bring about a desired goal. For example, when Daveon went through the period where he was sure he would someday be a Major League Baseball All-Star, it occurred to me—but clearly not to him—that once in a while he should pick up a bat. In situations like these, once again we enter balance territory, where you want to offer useful information without taking over ownership of the process. I don’t have any magical wisdom here—sometimes I throw out, “I have some thoughts about some things that might be helpful in your situation. I can share them if you like, or not.” I often get a yes, though more often as the boys get older, a no. Which is fine for the most part. Usually. Which leads me to …
  • Number 3—All of this kid ownership is fine and good and healthy, but the reality is, for almost every single one of your kids’ goals, you as parent will be making a substantial commitment of time, money, other resource, or any combination of the above. This is important because it gives you the right—and, I would argue, the obligation—to say, “I’m happy to work along with your process. At the same time, I except to see some level of effort and/or outcome. If your way of doing things isn’t producing this effort/outcome, I reserve the right to step in in a more decision-making way.” (I don’t actually talk to my kids like this. It’s more like: “Look. If you want to keep taking sax lessons, you need to practice. If you don’t want to practice, lessons are done. Your call.” But you get the point.)

We’re in the middle of “goals and how to reach them” experience right now. Mark is at an advanced enough skating level that he realistically needs to devote more time and energy on the ice and in related activities if he hopes to stay competitive. This in turn means cutting down on social activities, watching what he eats, and so on.

So: goals. Do you want to complete in a national championship? Do you want to have a “normal” high school experience? Do you want to juggle both and let the chips fall where they lie? And the accompanying choices: whether to have the extra cupcake, go to the party, take the extra stretch class, do a quick workout each night at home, and on and on.

By continually asking these questions and guiding through the options (did I mention Mark needs a lot of help sorting through goals and priorities?), I hope and believe that Mark can take ownership of and feel pride in his decisions and outcomes.

Which can be whatever he wants.

As long as it involves checks made out to Dad.

Next: Independence

Fit

To all new and prospective parents out there: After 12 years in the game, I highly recommend that you become good friends with the concept of “fit.” What I’ve learned is, one size definitely does not fit all. We have spent much of our time together finding the right fit—in terms of schools, activities, you name it.

For adoptive parents, you are introduced to “fit” the day you start the search process for your kids. All children have both good and challenging qualities—what you want is to find the kids who are the right “fit” for your personality, values, and lifestyle. This is just my own opinion, but I believe detecting fit is a matter of gut-level, versus brain-level, knowledge. A kid can look perfect—or  very imperfect—on paper, but when you meet him or her in person, something kicks in that tells you “Of course” or “No way” or “Maybe …” (For the maybes, I’d recommend a second or third visit before you commit.)

And that’s just the beginning. From the point at which you and your kids become a family, you can apply fit to .. well, to pretty much everything that follows. Over the years we’ve had to suss out fit for obvious things like babysitters, coaches, therapists, tutors, and music teachers, as well as less-obvious things like behavioral systems, travel destinations, movie picks, restaurants, etc. As just one random example, the boys and I had more fun on our first trip to Victoria, Canada (where there is Nothing. To. Do.) than we did on our trip to Hawaii. All because the former, with its quirky charm, was more “us” at the time.

Fit.

Probably the most important area in which fit applies is choosing a school. Between the two of them, my kids have over the years gone to two schools with great reputations, two with funky reputations, and one that no one ever heard of (school-switching is kind of a hobby in our family). Ranking the schools from the most positive experience to the most negative one, the order looks something like this:

  • Funky reputation school 1
  • School no one ever heard of
  • Funky reputation school 2
  • Great reputation school 1
  • Great reputation school 2 (This experience was so negative, I’m tempted to make up some other schools just to move this one further down the list. More details in a future post.)

As you can see, in our experience, the so-called “great” schools ended up as what I fondly refer to as “awful” fits for one kid or the other.

To help determine fit regarding a given school, activity, or person for your kid, I recommend getting as much information as possible to help assess fit. I find talking to folks—administration, teachers, parents—more useful than reading information or looking at stats and achievements (believe it or not, most schools highlight their most positive stats and achievements in their recruiting information). Fit is primarily about the human element, so the more human contact, the better. A few thoughts about this: If you’re getting input from someone and you find that you personally don’t have a fit with that person—their values, vision, etc. don’t line up with yours—listen carefully to their advice. And then do the exact opposite. And if someone throws an “of course” into their advice: “Of course you want to send your kid to [name of teacher/school/camp/coach/etc.]?” Run screaming in the opposite direction.

Lest you think finding the right fit is challenging … well, you’re correct. Why? Because …

  • The right fit for you, and the right fit for your kid, are usually (always?) two different things. The school that you love so much that you think, “Shoot, I wish I could go here”? Your kid will hate it, and when you look more closely, you will realize that it’s really not the right place for him or her. So you pick the kid’s best fit—which is, of course, the one you yourself hate—and spend the next several years becoming a master at gritting your teeth.
  • As your kids grow and change, so do the things that fit. Much as you spend every six months buying them a new pair of shoes (Payless was my best friend until the boys’ feet stopped growing), you could make a full-time career of trying to keep up with your kids’ changing interests and needs and looking for the perfect—if temporary—match. This is when you inadvertently become a Taoist as you seek to attain the middle path between your kids’ needs and your sanity.

Finding fit requires taking the time to learn both yourself and kids pretty intimately, but it has the potential to reap amazing rewards. Plenty of people will tell you what you “should” do with and for your kids, but when you nail the right fit? Solid gold.

Next: Goals