When my daughter, Elizabeth, was in first grade, she came home from school and placed her lunch box on the counter with a thud. Then, rather wistfully, she requested that from now on I pack her sandwich and fruit in a brown paper bag. I was puzzled and knew there had to be more to the retirement of her Barney (the purple dinosaur) lunch box. She had carried it all through Kindergarten and said she wanted to continue with him into the next grade.
“Why a bag?” I asked. She sighed, and it all came tumbling out.
It seems one of the girls at the lunch table had looked at her lunch box and said, quite loudly, “You like Barney? He’s for babies!”
My first reaction to hearing the story was to storm into the lunchroom the next day and defend my youngest child. I wanted to walk over to the girls at her table and shout, “She can carry any kind of lunch box she likes!”
Of course, I did not do that. Nor did I overreact to Elizabeth’s request for brown instead of purple. Instead, I took a deep breath and advised her that she could continue to carry Barney and not listen to her classmate. “You can still like Barney. I know I do,” I said. “And you do not have to listen to what others say about what you like.”
She nodded but did not seem convinced. She was not willing to take a stand on the lunch box. Maybe a little bit of her had outgrown Barney, but most probably she did not want to make Barney her Alamo. The lunch box was put away. I offered to purchase a different one, but Elizabeth was not going to take a risk with some other choice. Brown paper would be fine for now.
Fortunately, as Elizabeth grew, she began to figure out what voices mattered. It was not always easy. But she learned how to tune out some of the naysayers and even carried a Superman lunch box in high school.
Achieving that kind of growth does not always come easily. And in an age when social media is so prevalent, it is hard for young people to find and listen to positive voices. It requires a lot of work to deflect ads, posts, and random comments. But it is possible.
However, family life can nurture the skills needed for growth and ignoring negative voices. It can offer a safe haven and be the place of positive voices. Families can cultivate and give to each other the gift of being enough. When a child, or even an adult, has a sense of being loved and enough, life is easier. It becomes easier to figure out what voices matter. It makes one feel whole and content.
Some might say, just tune out the critics. However, most people cannot move to an island or stay away from all technology and external influences. Family members will have computers and cell phones. Most young people stay connected via some form of social media. Isolation is not a viable answer for most.
But parents can ask, “What voices are you listening to?” We can stress to our children that they are more than the number of likes on a social media post. Families can provide good voices via music, books, and loved ones.
Ways to Foster the Positive for Children
In an age of dings, screens, and constant contact, find quiet time. Ride in the car without the radio. Shut off the Wi-Fi for a few hours. Take a field trip to a church, and just sit. Go for a hike, and enjoy God’s creation.
Affirm, affirm, affirm.
Remember to stay positive with children. That does not mean that a parent or grandparent approves of all the children do, but it does mean treating them with kindness and understanding. A friend of mine once told me that children need the most love when they are at their most unlovable. If a child messes up or is pouty or surly, love him or her. Send him a card. Take her out to breakfast. Hang out with the kids at a bookstore. And listen.
Be present to others.
Invite children to write a note to a relative or a parish member whom they admire. Go visit a neighbor or friend who might be alone. Send notes to each other, and be “secret admirers” to siblings and parents. Offer praise in a real way.
Encourage family members to participate in charitable acts. One night my children saw a three-year-old celebrating her birthday at a soup kitchen. We were volunteering, and that memory stayed with the children for a long time. Remind family members that everyone makes mistakes and to be kind to themselves.
Look to saints and heroes.
Listen to St. Francis de Sales, who said, “Be who you are, and be that perfectly well.” Introduce children to the stories of saints who took a different path that, at times, might not have been easy. Tell children about role models like Jim Abbott, who grew up to become a Major League Baseball player after being born with one hand.
Say nighttime prayers, or sit and chat each night with each child.
At our house, things came tumbling out when our kids were talking to God. My little lunch-box girl was praying a form of the Ignatian Examen before she knew what it was. She would reflect on her day and then talk about the next. She asked God to forgive her for being mean to a sibling and then asked God for help with a spelling test. Have honest conversations with children about what they are experiencing each day.
It is not easy to feel enough all the time. It is hard to grow up in such an ever-changing world. And it is hard to be mocked for a choice of lunch box. But with an affirming and loving family, children have a good start.