Champions: Nature or Nurture?

Yesterday was a good day. Serena Williams won her 7th Wimbledon singles title. It was also her 22nd Majors title tying her with Steffi Graf for most wins in the “Open Era” (translation: since 1968) of tennis. A few hours later, Serena teamed up with her sister Venus to win their 6th Wimbledon’s women’s doubles title.

Nature or Nurture?

Two sisters. Both great at tennis. So what are the ingredients of this success? Is it nature or is it nurture? Do the sisters have cream-of-the-crop genes? Or has their life experience shaped their greatness?

Certainly the girls started young. The story I’ve heard is that their dad was TV-channel-flipping one night and happened upon the winner’s ceremony of a tennis match. When he saw the amount of money awarded to the winner for four day’s work he decided upon careers in tennis for his children. He poured over instructive books and videos on tennis and began to train Venus and Serena almost as soon as they could walk. Flash forward 35 years and his girls are the best of the best.

So did Mr. Williams have some sort of crystal ball about his daughters’ talent? Or did he, himself, have an incredible coaching talent? Or did a bunch of factors come together in just the right way? Nature or nurture?

The Answer Is…

I don’t have a pizzazzy answer but it is a satisfying one, I think. Just last year the results of a study conducted over a five year period in countries around the world concluded…it’s both. Nature AND nurture. And, guess what? It’s pretty much a tie in terms of what impacts us most.

The study itself is pretty interesting. It compiled 2,748 studies of identical twins and looked at more than 17,000 traits. Some physical traits were more the result of genetics – such as having a cleft lip (98% heritable). Bipolar disorder was found to be 70% genetics.. But on average, 49% is genetics, 51% is environment.

Nurture: The Williams Way

Back to the Williams sisters. Genetics blessed them with strong, agile bodies. Their environment did the rest. Here are some things I’ve read about them:

  • Daily two-hour practices for the pre-schoolers instilled discipline
  • Training on tennis courts in impoverished, gang-ridden Compton, under a hail of insults from passersby taught them to be tough in the face of criticism
  • Protection from local gang members who surrounded the courts to fend off those that might hurt the girls taught them community pride and loyalty
  • The Williams family lived by the old adage “blood is thicker than water” providing family support through good times and bad

Nurture: Your Way

Many of us pour our hopes into our children the same way Richard Williams did. This doesn’t mean they will all be champions (or make lots of money!). But as confirmed by the recent study, the environment we provide has tremendous impact on our children: who they are and what they become. A lot of it is up to us — to provide love, discipline, encouragement, grit, creativity, intellectual thinking, and all the other things we value and hope for in our children. We parents and caretakers have both a powerful responsibility and a great opportunity. That is good news indeed.

Share your stories of nature vs. nurture

Making A Difference: How Do You Help your Teen or Young Adult Tackle the Big Issues?

We are not even halfway through 2017 and there have been so many big issues front and center that it makes my head swim. Big issues around gun violence, climate change, immigration, computer hacking, to name a few. The latest is another terrorist attack. My daughter telephoned me the other day expressing grave concern that this is all going to end with a nuclear war. What do we tell our teenagers and young adult children?

The Instinct to Protect

A parent’s first instinct is to protect their children, no matter how old they are. For many, the temptation is denial. Some soft pedal – “it’s really not that bad” or “this doesn’t affect your life directly.” Others block out the conflict. They focus on creating a safe space to retreat to with people who think like them, look like them, have similar experience.

Does Running the Other Way Really Help?

This is not an inexplicable or necessarily evil response. It is, at least on the face of it, the simplest, most manageable approach. But teaching your teenage and young adult children to hide from or ignore a problem is not a solution.

For starters, they most likely won’t really believe the evasive response. If they know enough to worry, and they voice that worry to you, they want help resolving it. Maybe most important, if you ignore the issue, you are ignoring their request for help problem solving. Your effort to protect may end up making them feel more insecure and helpless.

What’s The Alternative?

Here’s an alternative approach that I have used with my teens and young adults. We can start by affirming to our children that their concerns are not silly. At the same time, I think it is important to let them know that there are solutions. Finally, talk to them about what they can do to be a part of the solution. I’ve suggested finding groups that are already working on these problems and finding out how to get involved. Or starting their own project and recruiting friends to help. Or writing on the topic for the school or local newspaper. Taking action gets rid of that feeling of helplessness, the source of fear.

Sound familiar? It’s the same approach that works with toddlers when they’re scared of big dogs. It’s the same approach that works with elementary school kids who are being teased. Yes, world problems are bigger and are overwhelming, even for parents! And solving them is neither easy nor fast. But if we and our children believe we can contribute to a solution, and we act upon that belief, we are on our way to a better world.

How do you address your teenager’s fears about the world?

Profiles in Courage

Today Barack Obama received a Profiles in Courage Award. In his speech he talked about what courage means. He talked about representatives to Congress who voted to protect health care even though they knew it might cost them their jobs. They made a decision that doing what they knew in their hearts was right for the world was more important than doing what was safe for themselves.

Courage comes from the Latin word for heart. Action on the conviction in your heart is not a choice confined only to those who govern. Or to those in power. Every individual – grownups, teenagers, and children can act with courage.

Lately, in the face of many new dangers – the unrelenting violence in city, suburb, and small town; the loss of jobs and not knowing where the next meal is coming from; families being ripped apart as parents are deported away from their children; the rise of oceans with accompanying hurricanes and droughts; the bullying at school –we can get caught up in protecting our own little worlds, feeling powerless to help others being swept away in the tide.

I encourage you to listen to Obama’s speech. If you have school-age children or teenagers, fix some hot chocolate or a couple of ice cream sundaes, pull up your chairs around a computer and listen together. Then talk about it. About what it means to have courage. Courage to tackle big challenges. Courage to listen to one another, even when you disagree. Courage to stand up to hate. What it takes to build character. To play your part in the destiny of the world.

John F. Kennedy put out the call: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Extend this. Not just to your country but to your neighbor, your co-worker, your schoolmate. To your parent. To your child.

Share your favorite stories of courage.

Skin Deep Beauty

Tis graduation season. Time for young people across the country to shine. Girls in party dresses, sparkly shoes, glamour makeup. Looking their best. Feeling their best.

A few years ago I was asked to be a graduation speaker and, in preparing, I took a look online at some other, more famous speakers, for inspiration. Since then, I take time, every year, to listen to a few speeches given by people who interest and inspire me.

This year I found a speech given in 2015 to Wellesley graduates by the fabulous writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I am not going to summarize her speech here. But I mention it because the opening of her speech was about makeup. And that got me thinking.

Makeup hides flaws. Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

Adichie didn’t wear makeup in her teens. But in her young adulthood, she found herself in a professional situation where her contribution to the conversation was dismissed by the men around the table. She decided to start wearing lipstick to give her the appearance of being more experienced, older. Maybe, she thought, her co-workers would treat her with more respect.

Like Adichie, I was not a makeup-wearer. In fact, I resisted makeup except on the very most special occasions until I was in my 40s. And, whereas Adichie put on lipstick to appear older, there came a point when I looked in the mirror and decided concealer was needed to make me look younger.

So, what are the pluses and the pitfalls?

On the positive side, makeup can make you feel better about yourself – in all sorts of ways. For a young Adichie, it gave her more confidence among intimidating and dismissive businessmen. For an older me, it staves off being dismissed as “over-the-hill” and irrelevant. For teens who feel like one big pimple, it can give confidence in social interactions.

But are there downsides related to these same concerns? Men don’t wear makeup. Should women develop confidence in other ways rather than giving in to unequal standards?

I think it all comes down to this: Does wearing makeup make you feel better about yourself INSIDE? When you wear makeup, do you feel your inner self shine as much as your outer self? Or does makeup make you feel more like an object? Or, along with hiding your physical flaws, does makeup cover up your inner being? Teens are especially vulnerable to this pitfall as they struggle to establish their identities.

Bottom line: To wear or not to wear. Only if it enhances how YOU feel about yourself.

Share your makeup pros and cons.

Friendly Skies

I’m having out-of-town guests next month. Putting together my show-them-the-best-of-Chicago list includes, of course, the iconic Second City right up there at the top. As I hopped online to find out what revue is playing right now, I was disheartened to see that Second City has experienced problems lately with verbally abusive audience members. So much so that they are now starting each show with an announcement of what should be obvious – racist, sexist, or otherwise rageful bullying will be not be tolerated.

This kind of uncivil, even assaulting behavior seems to be more and more the norm. Who has not been shocked and horrified by the series of airline-related hostilities toward their customers? I should say that on my last few flights, the attendants have bent over backward to be friendly and helpful. But yelling at passengers and ultimately physically assaulting them should never happen.

The lack of civility hurts not only the individual in the line of fire but the surrounding community as well. At the heart of it is the breakdown of societal norms that we have covenanted with each other to uphold. It is scary enough to us adults. For our children, it destroys their sense of safety that the larger community is supposed to provide.

So it was heartening to read today of a different kind of airline experience – one in which an adult served as a positive role model for a child, without even knowing he was being observed. The adult was NFL player for the Atlanta Flacons, Mohamed Sanu. On a flight up the east coast, he was seated in the row in front of a child traveling to train for an elite hockey team. Sanu spent his time on the flight studying his playbook. He noshed on a banana and cranapple juice. And when approached by fans eager to say Hello to the star, Sanu reciprocated with friendly conversation. The boy behind Sanu watched it all. And he took note. His parents did too. And in this current environment where community, self-discipline, and civility cannot be taken for granted, they wrote Sanu a note thanking him for inspiring their child.

This is not a big story. It should not even be remarkable. But in these turbulent times, it bears sharing – community is the sum of small acts of civility. Pass it on!

Share your stories from the friendly skies.

Highest Court in the House

Everyone is talking about who will be next on the United States Supreme Court. Today let’s talk about your household’s Supreme Court…you and your partner.

I was standing in line at the grocery store the other day and this two-foot-tall kid came barreling through, not just my line but all the lines at all the other checkout counters. Most people looked at him with exasperation. A few smiled. (I will never understand people who think this kind of behavior is cute.) His mother called after him weakly. Heads swerved to look at her…judgmentally.

Bad mother, right? Too lenient. Not in control. We’ve all heard the advice before. You can reason with your child, let her make her case, maybe even make a concession if it seems reasoned. But if all this fails, No means No! You are the highest court in your household.

Rules are great, right? The theory behind them is rock solid. It’s the execution that can get a little dicey. And the toughest of all situations are those that occur outside the house — the super market meltdown, the sit-on-the-sidewalk, refusal-to-walk kind of battle – where it seems like the whole world is watching and judging YOU!

Here are a few tips from my many years of experience:

  • Describe the outing to your child before you leave the house. This does not mean map out every step. Keep it simple, be clear. It helps everyone, even little kids, to have the basic plan in their heads.
  • Anticipate potential weak points in the outing for your child. If you are going grocery shopping, feed them before you roll the cart past the candy. Pet peeve: The candy rack sits right next to the checkout. You AND your kid get a good 5 minutes staring it down. Let’s be real. Sometimes you feel like reaching for the Snickers just as much as your child does.
  • Build in some fun. If you have the time, include a stop at the park or the children’s section at the bookstore. If you don’t have extra time, sing songs or tell jokes or just make funny faces along the way. Maybe some passersby will give you a dirty look or roll their eyes. OK, a little embarrassing, especially if your singing voice is like mine. But it beats the look you get when your kid has a meltdown. Oh yeah.
  • Anticipate the meltdown and take a break. If your kid is getting fussy or loud and wild, or is giving you pushback on your funny faces and singing, try to build in a quiet break. If possible, stop home for some rest. For both of you.
  • If all else fails and the meltdown occurs, stop and remove your child (and yourself) from the situation. He will eventually calm down. So will you. Your grocery cart will still be there when you get back.

Is it easy? Sometimes, sometimes not. Does it always work? Nope. But regardless of what happens, always remember… you’re the boss, boss.

Share your favorite meltdown stories.

Celebrating Birthdays, Celebrating Life

I am thick into preparing my family’s “birthday month”. When my kids were little, we referred to it as our own private March Madness. Out of the five of us in our nuclear family, only I am born outside the month of March. The girls are spaced three years apart between each (how’s that for timing?!) – too much of an age difference for joint parties. Our kitchen turned into a bona fide bakery every March. And, of course, there were gifts, party invites, streamers, etc. On top of that, my mother’s birthday is smack in the middle of March.

Why do we celebrate birthdays?

Now everyone is older. It is still birthday month in my life but in a very different way. Which gets me thinking: Why are birthdays meaningful? After all, in some cultures, birthdays are not celebrated at all. And for those of us who do celebrate, what do birthdays mean?

A Kid’s-Eye View

Kids seem to enjoy birthday celebrations the most. Of course, there is the material joy of gifts and cakes. This is also the one day each year for the birthday boy or girl to be the center of attention. Family love. A chance to host friends. And also a pride in notching another year onto the belt, another step in becoming “big.”

A Young-Adult-Eye View

My kids are now all in their 20s. The thing for them seems to be destination birthday parties – flexing their newly found financial independence and giving themselves a mini-vacation from the recently-entered world of work!

A Middle-Age-Eye View

At my age, many people don’t actually like to celebrate their birthdays at all. I remember when I turned 50, I hightailed it out of town to avoid any “surprise” parties. My birthday was a stark reminder that I was “heading into the back nine” as they say.

An Elder’s-Eye View

At my parents’ age, my experience is that those who make it that far enjoy celebrating again. It is a time of reflection on a life well lived, a chance to share memories and celebrate deep connection to family and friends.

Celebrating Life

There is one thing, though, that runs continuously through every birthday. And it sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. That is your actual BIRTH day, the day you came into the world. It is a chance to celebrate life itself, with all its various points along the life cycle. A time to engage in the sheer joy of the birthday person’s presence on earth, his or her unique contribution to humanity.

So, a Happy Birthday to all my March people. And, more generally to all: To Life, L’chaim!

Share your favorite birthday stories.

The Story Behind St. Patrick’s Day

It’s a quiet Sunday afternoon and I’ve been catching up with my twenty-something daughters about their weekend exploits. This weekend the color green features heavily in the conversations – not the least of which is the dye that has turned our Chicago River a bright, almost fluorescent green. In addition, the beer is flowing freely and shamrocks are everywhere. Yes, they have been celebrating St. Patrick’s Day.

So here are a few interesting tidbits about this holiday.

A Shamrock is NOT a four-leaf clover and is not about “luck”

This is something I used to be really confused about. There is indeed such a thing as a four-leaf clover. It is a relatively rare find. Hence, to find one is considered lucky. Like: Winning the lottery is rare, so winning is considered lucky. But this has nothing to do with St. Patrick’s Day.

A Shamrock IS a three-leaf clover and is about Christianity.

A three leaf clover is not so rare. It grows like a weed because…it is a weed. In Ireland (and other places), there are fields and fields of it. So how does this relate to St. Patrick’s Day?

Well, St. Patrick had an interesting relationship with Ireland. He was born and raised in what would later become England. But when he was sixteen, he was kidnapped by Irish raiders and sold as a slave in Gaelic Ireland. There he toiled as a shepherd for six years. During this time he found God. Later, he escaped and made his way back home to Britain, went on to become a priest, and made the decision to trek back to Ireland to share the Christian message.

This is where the three-leaf clover comes in. St. Patrick found it to be a great prop in his presentations about the Holy Trinity. He would hold up the three-leaf clover for all in the crowds to see; then he would kick the drama up a notch, touching each leaf – one for the Father, one for the Son, one for the Holy Spirit.

St. Patrick died on March 17 (or so it is said). Over time, much folklore grew up around his life and work. And he became the patron saint of Ireland.

So Why the Holiday in the good ol’ US of A?

So why celebrate in the US? In a word: immigration. The Irish were once upon a time – in the mid-1800s — fleeing persecution and famine in their country. They flooded the shores of the United States — 1.5 million strong. And they brought their culture with them. Life here wasn’t easy for them. For a long time people born in the United States reviled the Irish – stereotyped and discriminated against them. But over time, they assimilated into the dominant American culture. And, the American culture has also embraced some Irish traditions. Like St. Patrick’s Day.

To end with an Irish blessing:

May your blessings outnumber
The shamrocks that grow,
And may trouble avoid you
Wherever you go.

OR you may prefer:

Here’s to a long life and a merry one
A quick death and an easy one
A pretty girl and an honest one
A cold beer and another one!

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

Laugh Out Loud

Over the decades, I have been an on-again, off-again viewer of Saturday Night Live. But I have set the record over the last two months for tuning in. And I am not alone. Some 10 million people are chuckling right along with me. What, then, does humor actually do for us?

Humor Helps People Cope

When Mary Tyler Moore died last month, many of us were sad at this latest in a seemingly endless string of cultural icons leaving the planet, making it a little less bright for those of us still here on earth. Numerous TV stations reran some of the most endearing clips from Mary’s shows, highlighting her wry smile and sharp wit. One of these clips from the Mary Tyler Moore Show zoomed in on Mary and her pals at a funeral for Chuckles the Clown. Initially Mary chastises her colleagues for making jokes at such a sad time. But as the eulogy gets underway, Mary finds herself giggling up a storm. Humor helps us cope with stressful situations. By laughing, we let ourselves know that this too shall pass and we will survive.

Humor Brings People Together

Back to Saturday Night Live. Part of the reason I make sure to watch it is because I know my friends and family will be watching it too. And after it’s over we’ll laugh together. A shared act — whether joyful or just plain silly — that brings us closer together.

Humor Makes Us Healthier

Remember the scene in Mary Poppins where she takes the children for a visit to Uncle Albert who loves to laugh? Albert laughs so long and so hard, he rises off the floor and floats up to the ceiling. And his laugh is infectious. Soon his guests are floating around with him. There’s biology behind the warm feelings roused by a good laugh—maybe it won’t raise your body off the floor but it does lift your spirits pretty high. When we laugh, our muscles contract. And this muscle movement releases endorphins in the brain that make us feel a giddy lighthearted joy.

Share your stories of lightening the mood with a good laugh!

Teaching Love of Country

Today’s blog entry has been a hard one to write. Tomorrow is President’s Day, an in-your-face reminder of the turmoil roiling our country, in large part having to do with our new President. Some people will celebrate the change they hope this new person in the White House will bring. Others will march in protest of all that he represents. In the face of all this, what do we teach our kids? Perhaps, no matter what we feel about the current President, we can teach love of country.

Trying Times

We are in trying times. A lot of Americans do not love the current condition of their country. For many, it’s harder and harder to make ends meet. Time with family is harder and harder to squeeze in. Retirement recedes further and further from our grasp. It’s a scary time where hatred is palpable. People are often suspicious of those who look different, talk different, worship different. Some of us wish desperately for the good old days. Others of us wish just as desperately for a future that has been an elusive promise since the days of our founding fathers.

How, then, do we teach love of country in times like ours?

Teaching Love of Country

Maybe the greatest fundamental thing about our country that we can all (well almost all) agree on is that we live in a democracy. WE THE PEOPLE is how we roll. And our children can understand that from a pretty young age.

So, what to do?

Actually celebrate President’s Day. What an opportunity! A day off to share with our kids, to read about, talk about, watch movies about our country’s leaders, past and current. In my youth, we had a recording of a comedian named David Frye who did impressions of President Nixon. I may not have understood all the references but some of the issues sunk in. I also had a favorite book about Abe Lincoln. I loved it that he was called “honest Abe” and that he wore the simplest clothes. Somehow, that book gave me an image of what I thought “WE THE PEOPLE” should mean.

These stories might conjure up more than just thoughts about presidents past. Your child might be inspired to declare he or she will be president one day. Maybe explore your child’s Presidential agenda – sometimes an eye opener. Your child might rhapsodize about world peace. Or maybe about making school for kids optional.

Get involved with your kids. These days, my email box is flooded with suggestions of how to get involved. Right now, for example, our representatives are headed back to their hometowns, providing us, their constituents, a chance to meet with them, ask questions, raise our concerns. If you decide to attend, maybe take your child with you. Then stop for a smoothie or milk and cookies and talk about what happened.

Share your suggestions for teaching love of country.