raising kids

Optimism in Overdrive


Parenting requires a huge dose of optimism. Who else but the glass-half-full crowd would dare bring children into a world fraught with injustices, Kardashians and high-fructose syrup? It can be an uphill battle to keep focused on the bright side.

I have a naturally Pollyanna personality, but I still need frequent reminders to help stay the course. I seek them out in stories, images, blips of conversation. I’m a heat-seeking missile when it comes to examples of the power of positive thinking.

Last week a reminder came from an icon in the world of optimism. I had the great pleasure to meet Bert Jacobs, co-founder and Chief Executive Optimist of the Life is Good Company. Jacobs was in Austin to wow a crowd of 7,000 at the Texas Conference for Women. His speech was everything you’d hope it would be: energizing, inspiring, tear-jerking and funny.

Afterwards I had the opportunity for a quick interview with him, and I went straight to the topic closest to my heart: family life.

Me: Cynicism seems a little too cool in our culture right now. How do we raise children to be optimists? Bert Jacobs: Tell your kids to look through history and find us the great pessimists. Find us the great cynics. You’ll be done with your assignment in 10 minutes. Then go through and find the great optimists, and you can do it for the next 3 years. Every hero you’ve ever had was an optimist, because they see things before they happen. In order to be optimistic, you have to be open-minded and ambitious.

My work is focused on the “small moments that tell the big stories of family life.” What’s one small moment in your life that tells your big story? I would say my mom at the dinner table saying, “Tell me something good that happened today.” That could look on a given day like a very small thing, but it changed our lives. It changed the trajectory of our whole path. It led us to greater business. It led us to a great kids foundation. And look how lucky we are, doing all the things we are doing. All from one thing that Mom said at the dinner table. The interesting thing is...and it’s not even in the book...is that she had huge challenges in her 20s. My mom was put in a mental institute and was told that she would never amount to anything or have a family. So I think her heightened appreciation for life, and never taking a day for granted, and teaching us “Tell me something good” came from a place where she was really challenged.

What did you want to be when you were 10 years old? A stuntman. I was a typical boy.

I went home and told the kids about my day, and we had a lively discussion about great people in history, about how we can all inject more optimism into our lives, and how (high five!) we are already doing the dinnertime sharing ritual, although ours comes in the form of “What are you thankful for?”

The interview and the conversations that followed with my family were both such lovely gifts. I enjoy any opportunity to talk with the kids about my inspirations as a parent and our goals as a family. The entire day was a great reminder that one small conversation can make an impression well beyond the people who initially shared it.

Knowing the power of that ripple effect, I have to admit one thing, my friends: I kept the stuntman detail to myself. The kids don’t need to know everything. I’m optimistic, not crazy.

Keep calm and party on

2013.07.partystore-2Remember those several minutes at the party store? The ones in between choosing party favors and picking up balloons? Remember how we walked by the rows and rows of crazy hats and of course had to try on every last one? Remember how each hat solicited a ridiculous accent: an Arrghh matey or a Take me to your master or an I say ole chap? Remember how y’all skipped and sang and wanted to put on an impromptu play?  Remember how I was right there with you, in the thick of it, ignoring both my lice phobia and the raised eyebrows of employees? Remember how much we laughed? Remember spinning and curtseying and doh-see-dohing? Remember how easy it was? Remember how it felt just like summer should feel and that we weren’t in a rush to do anything besides goof around in someone else’s air conditioning? I remember. I also remember what happened only minutes later, though honestly I’d rather forget it. Can we go ahead and forget about it? Let’s forget about the mother of all tantrums that happened in the balloon line. Let’s forget about standing in the SLOWEST BALLOON LINE IN THE HISTORY OF ALL BALLOON LINES with a 4-year-old at my ankles kicking and screaming like a lunatic while dozens of families try not to stare. Let’s forget about the sweat beading up on my forehead and dripping down my shirt as I tried to stand firm and not overreact to the animal-child clawing at my feet. Let's forget about how trapped I felt--wanting to bolt but knowing this was our last chance to buy Very Important Birthday Balloons. Let's forget how much I hated my life right then. Let’s forget about the obscenities I screamed in my head. Let’s forget that I was That Mom.

Let’s forget about exiting the store with a gnashing, thrashing child slung over my shoulder, the sun bright on the cheery bouquet of balloons dancing above our heads. Let’s forget about waiting in the car until the screaming stopped. Let’s forget it was 103 degrees and that half the air conditioner vents were inexplicably blowing hot air on us.

Can we agree to forget about it all? I didn’t think so. Because really, who are we kidding? It will go down in my memory with spectacular and horrifying detail. And honestly the only reason that’s fine is because I also remember, with equal clarity, a summer afternoon a mere six years ago, in a similar store with a similar 4-year-old throwing an eerily similar tantrum.

And that child outgrew the fits. That child learned to be mostly reasonable. That child was eventually allowed to return to shopping centers with me. And you, my little Tasmanian devil, will learn too. And some day, in the very, very distant future, I will take you back to the party store. And when I do, we will head straight for the crazy hat aisle.

Last Day

2013.05.Caution-1318-2In the weeks leading up to today...I sketched out a summer mix of spontaneity and structure, forked over hundreds of dollars for camps, panicked that the schedule was too much, then panicked that it was not enough. Then panicked that I was panicking.

I blocked off vacation days, secured lodging, cashed in airline miles, and made plans for puppy camp. I rspv’d to four weddings, bought china, and found a perfect pair of dress shoes for my pickiest child. I purchased new swimsuits and fresh flip flops. Loaded up on sunscreen, hats and water guns.

I attended school parties, spelling bees and poetry readings. I navigated end-of-year nostalgia and tears...both theirs and mine. I hugged one child through a “I’m growing up too fast” breakdown and managed not to fall apart until I had left the room.

I made countless lists, crossed them off, then made even longer ones.

And tonight... We unloaded the mountains of artwork, pencils, notebooks and report cards. We stashed the lunchboxes and hung the backpacks. Over french fries and salad, we toasted the day, then made a Summer of Fun list on scratch paper. On a whim, we climbed to the highest point in town and watched the sun fall on another school year.

I am mostly ready for this new season.

Yes, my "make it happen" list is still long. The closets are an unbearable mess. The artwork litters the house. The family photo albums remain unfinished. Several work projects linger.

I have no idea how or if my list will shrink during a season notorious for stealing my alone time. But I can't argue with the calendar. The kids are ready for lazy days, late nights, fewer rules and more ice cream.

Summer is definitely here. And there is nothing left to do but dive in and play along.