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A child's eye view of the Village

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Wednesday, February 11th, 2004 — They say, "It takes a village to raise a child." The village, the accumulated resources, values and wisdom of a group beyond the parents and relatives of a child, ultimately brings the child to adulthood.

It is reassuring to know we are not alone in confronting this daunting challenge of raising a human being. But there is a flip side. Whether we like it or not, the choices we make for ourselves affect the community as a whole, especially the children who look to us for their identity and approval.

What do they see? How are we functioning as a village?

By and large, I think we do well. Most of us give time and attention to our parenting. We want the best for our kids. But I have come to believe that we need to take a closer look. Even the most conscientious parenting can be sidetracked when we shift from "wanting the best for our kids" to "wanting our kids to be the best."

This preoccupation with excellence doesn't start with parenting. We are a community of high achievers. Many of us have very high standards for our own performance, and we transfer those expectations to our children.

Nothing is wrong with being a high achiever. Some people are hard-wired for excellence from the start, and all of us need to live with a sense of purpose and commitment.

The problem comes when commitment becomes a drive for excellence beyond one's natural ability, or when we put blinders on and assume we should all achieve at the same high level, at the same pace and in the same pursuits.

One of our kids took piano lessons, "just like his older brothers." But unlike them, he hated them. We tormented him, and he tormented one teacher after another until we said, "Enough!" He quit his lessons.

Yet he went on some years later to become an excellent musician. He needed to do it his way. Thank goodness he protested loudly enough for us to hear.

A yellowed, frayed sheet of paper hangs on my laundry-room wall. On it is written a poem entitled, "Children Learn What They Live." It is my reminder that how we act as adults -- toward each other and our children -- has long-term effects.

When children live in an environment of criticism they learn to be critical; when they live with shame they learn to feel ashamed. Conversely, when children live with approval they learn to like themselves and others. What goes around comes around -- a saying about as old, and true, as "It takes a village...."

As a village, are we too often critical and judgmental, causing our kids to feel inadequate? Or do we give a thumbs up to their performance and achievements, giving them encouragement and allowing them to see their world as a friendly place?

I ask these questions because we have seen signs of distress in some of our young people. Some are now protesting, loudly. Some just act out.

Many factors may contribute to this distress, but one may be that we have defined success too narrowly, ignoring basic differences in our children. Each is meant to blossom in a particular way.

As the elders in the community, it is our responsibility to safeguard their right to be themselves and to provide customized guidelines for their growth, not off-the-shelf one-size-fits-all expectations.

It took my husband and me longer than we care to admit to realize that our children were not all cut out of the same cloth as we were. Nor were they all cut out of the same cloth as each other. We sailed along for years trying to fit each into the same mold. Why didn't it occur to us sooner that there are more ways to live a happy and productive life than the path we chose?

What message are we sending our kids as they move toward their own places in the world? Do we believe in them? Do we let them know that?

Our children mirror the values of our village of Palo Alto. Some of our kids are having trouble finding their bearings. Can we stop and listen to them, even if it means examining some of our own assumptions?

They deserve this from us.

We are at our best as a village when we enjoy the best in each of our children.