Reflections on My Parents Who
"Parented Well in a Media Age"
Elizabeth Patterson, PCI Certified Parent Coach® Park City, Utah
First, I have to say how much your book Parenting Well in a Media Age—Keeping Our Kids Human has affected not only my own parenting and my future coaching, but also my whole perspective about my own childhood. Reading and studying it has given me a real paradigm shift. I am second in a family of eight children. I often thought my parents a little odd and backward, and even felt I had a deprived childhood at times. I don't remember going to Disneyland or out for hamburgers. We had only one small black-and-white TV, the use of which was limited to one program a day maximum. My parents had us gather 'round for Scrabble, Scripture reading, and math games, and irritatingly played classical music around the house—even opera! Even though we were financially well off, my Mom wore less-than-fashionable but comfortable and practical styles like a big warm puffy coat that made me cringe when she came to see me cheerlead at high school basketball games. She liked to sew many of my clothes, and insisted we take our own healthy snacks with us to the circus instead of buying popcorn and soda. And even though we had two cars, my Dad rode his bike any place he could—where all my friends could see—and my parents refused to drive me to the High School which was close to a mile away, saying I could walk or bike. My weekly assignment to vacuum Widow Hogard's tiny home as she walked behind me holding my elbow the whole time wasn't exactly a social highlight. Instead of going out with friends on New Year's Eve like most other parents, my parents said they preferred to be with their children. I was embarrassed by how out-of-the-ordinary our family was, but my parents seemed to get a kick out of being different. Their theme song, which they sang out loud, was "Side by Side." One year we moved up to the mountains for the summer, and built a log cabin together, while all my friends were tanning at the neighborhood pool. Most unusual of all, my parents between them took time to read to every one of us pretty much every night—up into our teen years, and most of that time was one-on-one. On nights they didn't read, Mom would quote poetry to us as she rubbed our backs with her rough hands.
As I got a bit older, I learned that my childhood wasn't as bad as I had thought it had been, and realized that I actually appreciated and had gained from many things that had seemed a bit out of the ordinary. I came to treasure my parents' idiosyncrasies. But it wasn't until I read and really thought about your book Parenting Well that I had a life-changing "Aha!" I began to appreciate how truly inspired and forward-thinking my parents had been in many ways. It's almost as if they had used your book as a parenting guide (in their own special way)! They certainly weren't perfect parents, and made at least their share of mistakes, but I realize that, in a unique way, they met and taught us how to meet real human needs. Even though we children still smilingly shake our heads about Mom and Dad fairly often, we are all happily-married parents, productive, self-actualized and "media literate." I'm also seeing that their 28 grandchildren and future great-great grandchildren will benefit from their against-the-current but human-need-filling legacy, from the "personally generated culture" they created for all of us. This gives me great hope as a parent coach in being able to influence and be a catalyst for change in this "industry-generated culture" we live in, for "when we meet the real human needs of one person, it rubs off on all those he or she meets…As we practice and model the importance of the Vital Five…we create a second, human culture…a personally generated culture." (pp. 216-217)
I'm so excited about realizing what a "good job" my parents actually did! Thank you for helping me see that! I want to use the first part of this paper to explore how my own parents' use of the Vital 5 outlined in Parenting Well "immunized" not just the eight of us, but also our combined 28 children against the current media culture and its challenges for today's kids.
Even though our parents embarrassed us, all of us kids did feel a strong "loving parent-child bond." (p.59) Although we thought it was weird that they would rather spend time with us than their friends, we did feel important. Not only did spending time with them help us feel confident and secure, it also helped us intellectually by "linking learning to emotional bonding experiences early on." (p.69) Being one-on-one with a parent reading aloud every night give us a love of books and reading, and our parents' affirmations as we played family math games like "Woofff 'n Proof" made us think we were very smart. A sentence in your book characterizes an aspect of my parents during my stormy teen years: "Even if (teens) disagree with us, they won't lose respect for us if we stay true to what we believe is in their best interest." (p. 86) I remember a night my friends came to pick me up for a school dance, my father calmly but firmly told them I couldn't go because I hadn't done my chores. I ranted and cried, but he wouldn't budge. As I started to slam dishes as I washed them with tears streaming down my face, I realized my Dad was helping me, and he continued to help me with my chores throughout the evening, talking and joking with me. As he exercised his "authentic authority" (p. 82), by enforcing consequences but keeping the relationship primary, I knew he had my happiness and best interest at heart, and I had never respected him more. This respect helped "immunize" me against unhealthy media even then; I did sneak into a few R-rated movies, but sensing the disappointment my parents would feel if they knew kept me from continuing to go to violent movies with my friends.
I had never thought about it until I read Parenting Well, but I realize my parents did an excellent job of nurturing "an interior life" (p. 94) in their children. They created interior "space" by not allowing much TV, and by having places like our homemade cabin in the woods where we could wander and daydream. Mom and Dad were always reading and talking about some new book or idea, and they loved to listen to our ideas. Our interior lives became richer with daily prayer and family scripture time. They helped us become "self-determined" by making us "responsible for ourselves" (and letting us learn by consequences as mentioned above) and not "over-working to 'get their kids' to do something whether it's homework or housework." (p. 121) They rarely asked us about grades or enforced doing homework—they said that was our responsibility—though they "inspired" us with stories of relatives at MIT and Harvard, and just assumed we would be intrinsically motivated. Another way they nurtured our interior life was to refuse to conform to almost any form of materialism. "Materialism really means 'we experience the external world as the strongest force in our lives…The inner world is no longer experienced as vividly as the outer world.'" (p. 95) They allowed us our materialistic preferences in our own lives, (I was the school fashion and make-up queen for a couple of years, while my Mom took pride in wearing no make-up and shopping at bargain basements) but I think that we were so immunized by our "interior-life-based" home environment that we all eventually came to the conclusion that it wasn't worth the effort and time away from things that truly "fed" us to try and keep up with fashion or media trends.
Another way my parents nurtured our vital human needs was in their "commonplace creativity." (p. 161) Their basic philosophy was, "Why buy it if we can create it?" They still have lamps in their living room that they made from Cypress wood knees that they gathered in the Florida swamps as newlyweds—and they still have stories of how romantic it was to be poor and inventive. From the outset, they negated and "immunized" us against "the greatest con of this culture: What sells is what is of most value." (p.163) They more generated the feeling in our home that "our world is of our own making," which included "enjoying mental challenges" (p. 178), making homemade candy, sewing without patterns, and puppet shows. We as children, and now, our own children, have all developed our own "constructively creative" hobbies, from woodworking to poetry, camping to composing. These interests (passions!) seem to hold a much greater attraction for us and our children than any mass media does, as opposed to the interests of many of our children's peers, who seem not to have a "deep respect for our need to create." (p. 158) "Outside of computers or video games, few children these days have hobbies like stamp collecting, crafts, or sewing." (p. 162)
My parents also seemed to instinctively provide us with the "fifth essential need: contribution as relationship." They helped set a great "personal adequacy foundation" (p.190) in helping us be competent in our own eyes, and internally directed; as illustrated by their unique choices, they lived the epitome of "their sense of self is not determined by what others think, say, or do"! (p. 191) They also taught us to "serve life." (p.192) From helping out the elderly to building our cabin, we as children were expected to participate and contribute for as long as I can remember, and it really gave us a sense of connection, which led to spontaneous service on our own. I love the thought that "the impetus to contribute comes from a felt connection" and that a parent's primary work "is not so much to coerce service out of our kids, as it is to cultivate it within them." (p.193) My parents also taught us to participate in our own entertainment. I can't remember being passively entertained even with "screens"; we would fold laundry and make comments about the program as we watched our short TV allotment. Also, we would read Mary Poppins before we saw the movie, talk about the "real" family that the "Sound of Music" was based on, and then memorize and belt out the songs from both. Such activities immunized us against the passive consumption of images, and, therefore, against non-participation in life that characterizes so many of today's kids: "Since, in passive viewing, (kids) aren't contributing ideas to a conversation about the screen images, they become increasingly distanced from their real human need to participate in life and contribute to it." (p. 186)
I've saved the third essential need, that of "image making," for last, because it is such a profound one for me. One of the most exciting ideas of the book for me was that "with a vision, the people thrive." (p.231) I've always been a "goal setter," but I've never realized that I have only able to think about goals because I could imagine myself achieving something. I'm realizing that impetus for productive action comes from, even in a small way, being able to "image" that action, or its results. ("Possibility thinking," p.127) Wow! I'm just starting to see the far-reaching results of my parents' commitment to read to each child every night, and to talk to us regularly about our goals. I'm seeing that the seemingly small act of reading a few minutes nightly didn't just foster a "loving parent-child bond" and a love of reading, neither did it only foster a richer "interior life" and engender "creative expression." Perhaps its greatest gift was in its fostering my ability to "image"—not just story action, but my own personal future action. This kind of imaging takes sustained mental energy and stamina. I've thought about this a lot as it relates to media-saturated children whose "inner speech [and inner pictures] are continually disrupted and the child's mental processing aborted." (p. 27) Reading to us nightly, as opposed to sending us off to bed after an evening of TV, has got to be one of the simplest but best ways my parents immunized their children—and their future posterity!—against the industry-generated media culture.
The more I am appreciating my own upbringing, the more saddened I am becoming about the media's influence on children's learning, behavior, and values who don't have their vital needs met, particularly as this relates to imaging. I was fascinated by the thoughts in your book of Joseph Pearce that "television floods the infant-child brain with images at the very time his or her brain is supposed to learn how to make images from within." (p. 128) This failure to learn how to generate internal images greatly affects the child's basic ability to learn, because they "can't 'see' what the mathematical symbol or the semantic words mean, nor the chemical formulae, nor the concept of civilization as we know it." (p.129). It seems that as the child spends more and more time in front of a screen, and, hence, in low "reptilian" brain stimulation, it becomes progressively harder for him to engage higher-order thinking skills required for real learning. "Children's brains become disorganized and seek easy stimulation instead of the more effortful mental challenge. The natural and normal processes of thinking become tremendously difficult as the brain seeks hyper stimulation and avoids situations requiring deep thought." (p. 27) As you point out in the Course 2 manual, if the child over-uses "screen machines" and spends little or no time "generating his own images," the results will be decreased attention span, less developed language, thinking, and creative skills, and less intrinsic motivation for learning.
The lack of ability to image in a media-saturated child affects his behavior quite significantly. Not only does the hyper-stimulation of low brain areas from fast-moving images "wind a child like a tight corkscrew," ("Healthy Brain Development," p. 30) so that he behaves in out-of-control ways, but he also behaves badly or even violently because he "can't 'imagine' an inner scenario to replace the outer one, so feels victimized by the environment." (p. 129) While it may be true at times that highly-imaginative children can be creative little "Dennis-the-Menaces," their behavior is most often benign. Unimaginative children, on the other hand, "are far more prone to violence…because they can't imagine an alternative when direct sensory information is threatening, insulting, unpleasant, or unrewarding. They lash out against unpleasantness in typical R-system defensiveness." (p. 129) A few weeks ago, I experienced this first-hand with a little 3-year-old in our church who was the focus of much concern because of his extremely out-of-control and violent behavior. He not only was hyperactive and could not sit still for a short Sunday school lesson with the other kids, but he had also grabbed a little boy in a strangle-hold and wouldn't let go, and had suddenly turned and punched a little girl in the face with full force. His social skills with peers were virtually non-existent. As I was visiting with his mother in their home, the handsome little boy took my hand and led me to the TV where he proved himself to be an extremely fast shooter at the current video game. "Wow, he's pretty quick" I said to his mom. "Yea," she replied, "I'd get rid of that thing if I could—he plays it all day; I can't even get him to stop for lunch." I wanted to sign her up for PCI Parent Coaching on the spot!
A child steeped in a media industry-generated culture that hasn't developed his imaging capabilities will most likely come to value what the media tells him to value. As Csikszentmihalyi is quoted in Parenting Well, "people without an internalized symbolic system can all too easily become captives of the media. They are easily manipulated by demagogues, pacified by entertainers, and exploited by anyone who has something to sell." (p. 128) Not only will the child be extremely susceptible to marketing tactics, but he will also be anxious to have what his peers have, not being able to imagine in his own mind what it is he really wants. A child that doesn't know what is really important to him is a child in a state of uncertainty and distress, and is therefore much more vulnerable to mass marketing, "acquiring possessions as a way to feel more satisfied." (Course 2 Notebook, p. 173)
As a parent coach, I hope to be able to use stories from my unusual childhood from time to time to help parents imagine different ways they can immunize their own children in our media-drenched culture. Again, "imaging" would be one of the most important tools I could use to address these issues! I would help the parent "see" "hopeful images" and potentials in her child, and in the situation, that will help her move from "parenting from a place of fear" to a place of hope. (p. 146) I would also try and help her discover what are the driving "'images' her kids have in their [own] heads" (p. 150) which are the basis for their behavior. This was one of the most important questions I asked one of my coaching clients: "What do you think is really going on in your teenager's mind when she 'spews forth' like that?" It seems like one of the greatest tasks of Discovery is to be able to slow down, step back, and really see an accurate, in-perspective "image" of what is going on, and to see what in the living system is causing it to go on! "As we spend more time consciously changing our inner pictures about our kids, we relax more. Moreover, we are more likely to base our parental decisions on what is really happening rather than on imagined fears." (p. 146) As a parent sees her child more accurately, she can start to see more clearly the role and effects of media in her child's life. I can ask questions like, "What does your child love to do—what gets him excited?" "What activities bring the most aliveness to your family?" "What's working best for you in managing screen use? Also, I like having the inventories as a resource for me to give my client amplifying feedback as to what is working, and I love the parent introspections, especially the one about "Being present to your child" (because it focuses on connection and bonding)—not only to discover what is working, but to help a parent see possibilities that might apply to her Dream.
One other thing I'm doing is compiling Appreciative Inquiry questions and exercises that relate directly to each of the Vital 5. "What's something you do with your child each day that excites and energizes you both?" "When you find your mind wandering when your child is talking to you (as we all do, at times), what do you do to gently bring yourself back to the present moment?" (adapted from "To Strengthen the Bond With Your Children," p. 93) "When do you have your best visits with yourself?" "How are you communicating with your child that the more he knows himself, the more he can offer in friendship to others?" (adapted from "To Cultivate Your Inner Life," pp. 119, 122) I also have a personal story I might use as a coach about sharing your quote below with my 17-year-old son who was struggling socially. He was amazed at what happened when he decided to quit focusing on getting approval and attention from others, and just relax and be true to his own voice: "One of the paradoxes of humans is that the more confident they are in themselves and not in need of people, the more people seek them out and the more they are included within the group. Also, a person with a healthy self-image is inclusive and can reach out to others, even becoming effective group leaders" (p. 116)
A powerful AI question having to do with imaging that can re-frame almost any parental concern is "What would you like to see happen?" One of my favorite exercises around this is my adaptation of one from "To Nurture Your Image Making Abilities:" "Before this potentially contentious time with your child, imagine what you would like to see happen. How would you like the conversation to go? What feeling do you want to create? See in your mind's eye how you will handle the situation as clearly as you can. Imagine your child's reactions as you want them to be." (p. 155) To nurture creative expression, I would ask questions such as, "How do you notice your child being creative in small ways?" "Tell me about a time when you saw your child solve a problem in a way you hadn't considered" "What is it that gives you joy; what are you passionate about?" (adapted from "To Catalyze Your Creative Expression," p. 184) To help parents understand and help fulfill their child's need to contribute, I can ask questions such as, "How does your child know that his contributions are essential to keep the family running smoothly?" "What do you do that lets your child know you really enjoy his unique contributions to your family?" "In what ways are you making your child's true needs—as opposed to his 'wants'—your top priority?" (p. 212) I might suggest some of the "Family Media Literacy Activities" in Lesson 28 of the PCI manual, such as asking simple questions over dinner about what the child has just watched, or encouraging video camera use for capturing family memories (and for making movies with the child's friends as actors).
I think one of the most life-affirming ways of helping parents deal with an industry-generated media culture is "using our image making abilities for energized parenting…holding dream images for ourselves as well as our children." (p. 153) In my coaching thus far, I've had the most powerful energy shifts happen when we've been able to move from frustration over a certain situation to "If you could have any outcome here, what would you most want?" I am also learning to appreciate how much mental discipline and creativity it takes for a client who is in the habit of focusing on problems to really create and commit to a viable, positive image that is real enough to be "felt." Reading Parenting Well has helped to solidify the whole Appreciative Inquiry process in my mind, especially as it relates to the Dream. I really believe that "changing the mental picture of their child will also change parenting practices" (p. 143) and that "whatever is bogging us down as a family can be re-constructed into positive vision." (p. 154) Since we "move in the direction of the images we hold most often," (p. 154) I'm committed to holding an image of being a catalyst for positive change for parents and disrupting the industry-generated system!
For reprint permission, please contact Liz Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.