Sunday, December 21, 2008

Kill 'Em With Kindness

Mean people suck.

No shortage of unpleasantness exists in this crazy world and I am reminded daily that it takes increasingly more effort to be nice to the malcontents. My goal to take these grouches and "kill 'em with kindness" has nothing to do with needing to be their friend but everything to do with proving that I can.

I have met people who, for no apparent reason (or at least not apparent to me), are convinced that I am not worthy of existing in the same space. The kind of people who make it clear that I am not their favorite person without actually verbalizing it. I just know. I'm not talking about people I pass on the street that I'll never see again. I'm talking about a new neighbor, a friend's significant other, a teacher, etc. People that I will have to see on more than one occasion for the foreseeable future. These are my kindness targets. These folks usually have a reason to need more friends.

Now before you think I stare in my mirror every day invoking the spirit of Stuart Smalley by chanting to myself, "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!" this is not about self-confidence. It's just about being nice. I understand completely when someone is not nice to me because I took their parking space, unintentionally cut them off in traffic (oops) or took 13 items into the 12 items or less lane at the grocery store. I get that. I also understand that I won't have great chemistry with everyone I meet and vice versa. Fair enough.

But people who are simply sad, underappreciated or just plain gloomy, deserve to know that not everyone rides on the misery bandwagon and I, for one, would like to unearth the fragments of niceness that most likely exist. The operative word being "likely." I've made killing with kindness attempts that fail miserably. I can't win 'em all.

I have found, however, that for some of these friendships the hard work really paid off. I had a male friend in college with whom I had a completely platonic relationship. We lived right next door to each other and hung out together all the time. When his girlfriend came to visit our introduction was so chilly I thought for sure that she would break into a million shards of ice if I shook her hand too hard. She was cold. She obviously thought the relationship between her boyfriend and me was more than just platonic but she could not have been farther from the truth. She was a perfect kill with kindness target.

I would tell her stories about her boyfriend and how much he loved her, talked about her, admired her, etc. The more I told her that her boyfriend adored her, the more she realized I was not the enemy. The more we talked the more we realized we had in common. We ended up becoming great friends. We still keep in touch to this day and actually have a lot of fun reminiscing about our first awkward meetings.

I also had a new neighbor whose body language from first meeting screamed, "I intensely dislike you." She would sit with her legs and arms crossed and her body turned completely away from me. She would practically climb onto the arm of the chair she was sitting in to turn her body as far away from me as possible. In conversations she would talk to and make eye contact with everyone except me. My husband even asked me what I could have possibly done to her to make her so obviously revolted by me. I had no idea. What intrigued me, though, was the fact that she seemed very sad, just a really gloomy sort. So, I set in motion my killing with kindness endeavor and set out to get to the bottom of her disgust.

I simply said hello and waved whenever I saw her outside. I would always engage her in conversation when it was just the two of us in our backyards and ask her over for a cup of coffee or iced tea to chat for awhile. The more I listened during our conversations, the more I realized that she really just needed someone to talk to. She was very lonely. Our outside chats became more frequent and her ice cold armor continued to melt. Slowly but surely our relationship turned from scorn to admiration. We never did discuss the reason for her initial dislike because it really didn't matter. She also turned out to be a good friend.

I don't walk around every day trying to make friends with ornery people. I just believe that some people need a little extra prodding or a little more attention to warm up. I will kill them with kindness if it's necessary. I love a good challenge.

It's important to emulate kindness even in the most difficult of situations. I tell my kids all the time that it's a heck of a lot easier being nice to people than being mean. These are sometimes hard lessons to learn when we are the subject of the cruelty. But friendliness begets friendliness and the more often we kill others with kindness the more often we will reap the rewards in our own lives. It's not rocket science.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The 3-Year-Old Oath

This essay appeared in the June 2010 issue of MetroParent.

I have 3-year-old son who likes to push buttons. Not the literal kind, mind you, just the symbolic kind that drives an otherwise sane mommy a little nutty.  He not only pushes the button, he keeps his finger pressed down firmly with the strength of Hercules and the stubbornness of an uncompromising mule. This kid wants to push until he is absolutely certain his requests have been heard and honored and he has all the time in the world to wait. I'm sorry? You didn't understand his request? OK, he will repeat it 7,416 times.

Christopher has an aura about him that screams little devil. Even strangers we pass in stores will stop me and make remarks like "ah, this one is a little hard to handle, huh?" pointing to my charming boy with the impish grin. His blond hair and blue eyes alone elicit whispered comments from most passersby, but strangers who don't know even know us feel the need to comment on his apparently obvious resolve. The scary thing is they are right. His vivid, lively blue eyes hold the full story of this little boy whose determination matches no one. Except mine.

My son’s main concern in life right now is complying with his pledge to the 3-Year-Old Oath which states:  "Push parent(s) to the limit and watch seemingly sane adults slowly teeter on the brink of insanity from being asked the same question repeatedly at the highest decibel level the human voice can possibly reach." But, I have an oath too. I pledged to the Mommy Oath which states simply, "win at all costs." I am just as stubborn and optimistic as Christopher is and in no way willing to set a precedent that allows a 3-year-old to outwit, outsmart or outwait me. As a result, battles ensue and lots and lots of Christopher’s tears are shed. If we could turn tears into a viable energy source Christopher could single-handedly solve the current crisis and we would be energy-independent, like, yesterday.

Christopher is the ultimate optimist. He doesn't care if the answer is no after he asks 7,415 times. He asks again and is supremely confident the answer will be yes the 7,416 time.  It reminds me of Thomas Edison's quote, "Many of life's failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up." Because Christopher feels like he inches closer to success with each repetition he has no intention of giving up and for that I give him great kudos. I know his tenacity and perseverance will serve him well later in life but I have to admit that tenacity in a 3-year-old is absolutely, positively exhausting.

Nevertheless, I love that Christopher feels confident in his quests. I love that he stands up for himself and points that little finger in the face of boys (regardless of age) who push him on the playground and tells them that they are “not nice!” I love that he says to me confidently (after many discussions on the topic) “mama, if a boy asks me to put my tongue on a frozen pole I will say no and just walk away.” I love that his determination will lead him on all kinds of great journeys. But, for now, he is learning that he has rules to follow and sometimes no just means, “because I said so.” It’s tough to be 3.

Christopher is just as amusing as he is exasperating. Sometimes I simply cannot hold a straight face when I try to stand firm with him and we both break out in enormous giggles. The crafty looks of innocence/deviousness are too hard to resist without out-and-out belly laughs.  I hope he uses his charm for the greater good when he finally realizes how much persuasion potential he actually owns.

I watched Christopher walk away from me on his way upstairs one night to brush his teeth. He was still talking a mile a minute and animatedly waving his hands.  As he turned the corner and his voice faded off in the distance a tear rolled down my face.  I realized suddenly - I am really going to miss this little boy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

You Don't Get What You Don't Ask For

I have learned over the years that asking for what you want is a sure-fire way of getting it. Not asking for what you want and expecting to get it anyway is a bit like riding a stationary bike; your wheels are going to spin frantically but you aren't going to get anywhere.

In order to get what you want you have to know what it is that you are seeking in the first place. In my old customer service days, I would get countless calls from irate customers who were pissed off that something unjust happened to them, yet when I asked them what I could do to make them feel better they had no idea! I would hear a lot of "ums" and "uhs" while they struggled to articulate a proper settlement. More often than not, people just wanted to vent their frustration and I was the unfortunate ear on the other end of the phone. I often wondered why someone would waste the time to call and complain and hang up without getting anything in return. I was willing to offer compensation of some sort if I just knew what it was the caller was looking for.

I was working in a dead-end job and ready to switch careers into a higher-paying field when my husband asked me what I was looking for in a new job. Honestly, I wanted a higher salary and that was about it. I was ready and able to change fields but my primary motivator was money. My husband suggested a pay range he thought I should ask for based on industry standards and my experience. I thought he was crazy and under no circumstances could I command that kind of salary. I was new to the field for one thing and unsure of my worth for another. However, he was pretty confident that I could do it and I wanted desperately to believe him. He very patiently pointed out over several conversations that I would never know unless I tried. To make a long story short I took a deep breath, put on my best brave face, summoned some buried self-confidence, went into a new job interview and negotiated a suitable salary. I asked for what I wanted and I received it. It works! I have negotiated job salaries, promotions and other extras ever since with that very simple concept in mind. You are not going to get what you don't ask for.

The same concept applies to all areas of life. Keep in mind that what you are asking for needs to make sense, of course, and just because you ask for a million dollars to drop in your lap doesn't necessarily mean you are going to get a million dollars. You must show your value to a company if you are asking for a raise. Just asking for the raise isn't going to help you if you have no evidence of your worth. If you want your spouse, significant other or friend to help you or understand your position, state it clearly instead of assuming that person should instinctively know what you want. If you are calling the customer service department with a complaint, your suggested compensation must be within reasonable limits. But, do ask. It's amazing what people are willing to help you with when they are aware of and understand your requests.

Of course you might ask for things that don't come to fruition. That's OK, too. At least you asked and now you know. Without asking and learning the inevitable outcome you might still be spinning your wheels on an endless ride to nowhere.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

I Believe Therefore I Am

Kids are the ultimate pretenders. They can use their vivid imaginations to conjure up all sorts of superheroes, villains, animals or cartoon characters and they truly believe what they have conjured up is real. All it takes is the mere act of vocalizing the wish for it to be true. My sons can simply say "I am a lion" or "I am Davy Crockett" and it becomes fact. No bells or whistles, no pomp and circumstance, just a simple belief and a statement as such makes it true.

As adults we tend to take things a bit more seriously. We know after a few shattered dreams and unrealized goals that it takes more than mere wishful thinking to make something come true. As we age and become more proficient at amassing failures (whether real of perceived) we leave behind a little of the naiveté of our youth and transform from unapologetic dreamers to cynical bubble-bursters. Our belief systems become altered because they are constantly challenged and as a result we play it safe. I know I typically abide by the rule, "better safe than sorry" but what child do you know that would ever place those kinds of limits on himself? The belief that they are indestructible and can be or do whatever they want to be or do is what we should constantly be reminding ourselves of not trying to bury with idealized notions of what it is to be an adult.

Watch a child at play and learn a lesson or two. Give yourself the ability to use your imagination, dream big, make mistakes and learn from them. Don't we teach our kids to never stop believing they can accomplish any task that they put their minds to? The tasks will take time, energy and effort. It may even take even more time, energy and effort than originally thought but anything is achievable if the belief exists. No obstacles, barriers or naysayers can take away your desires or your dreams without your consent.

It sounds simple, yes, but the bottom line is if you don't believe in yourself, who will?

Sunday, October 26, 2008

No Excuses Just Results

Another lifetime ago, I used to work for a large rental car company in Metro Detroit as the general manager's assistant. To say that an administrative assistant's job is simply clerical is a gross understatement and would likely cost you some serious suck-up points. Whatever the manager can't get to typically falls right into the lap of the administrative assistant. If you want to get anything done be very, very nice to the administrative assistant.

I was expected to do everything from creating training manuals to planning quarterly and yearly managerial parties to handling customer service inquiries, to finding competent and cost-effective vendors, to picking out carpet for our new corporate headquarters. I actually worked side-by-side with an interior designer for months to select carpet, workstation cubicle colors, art and window treatments for our brand spanking-new building and I knew less than nothing about interior design. I was expected to make the decisions because my boss had no time (or inclination) to but needed to sign off on the decisions anyway.

When I first started my job I was a little taken aback by the vast pool of knowledge I was supposed to have. People expected that since I was the GM's assistant I must know about "x" and surely had some insight into "y" and clearly could make x + y =z. My boss was on the road a lot so he would simply ask me to handle whatever came across his desk. The more I completed on my own the more my boss gave me to handle. Whenever I complained to him that I could not complete a task because so-and-so wasn't cooperating, returning my calls, sending an invoice, etc. he would simply say to me "I don't want to hear the excuses, just show me the results." He wasn't necessarily being mean or callous. He just didn't want to hear, nor had the time for, the particulars. The only thing that concerned my boss was that his to-do list was getting shorter. Sometimes I felt overwhelmed by the decisions I was entrusted to make, but the autonomy in my job was the trade-off. I was pretty much allowed to do what I wanted as long as the task was completed on time.

I have used the "no excuses, just results" mantra more times than I can count in both my personal and professional life since then. I was forced to own my decisions back then and I have willingly owned them since. It is infinitely easier to take responsibility for your own decisions than to place blame. To place blame you must include others and hope like heck you can really prove they have mistreated you. What a waste of time. Regardless of whether you are right or wrong in your perceived mistreatment, who really cares? Your boss doesn't care. The amount of time it takes to prove your case could have been better spent simply taking responsibility to fix the problem in the first place even if it's not your fault. We all know life isn't fair and in the working world it's even less so. But, it takes self-motivation to get ahead in both work and in life. Rely on yourself to get things done instead of complaining that other people are standing in your way. In the words of George Washington, "It is better to offer no excuse than a bad one."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Don't Confuse "Can't" With "Don't Want To"

I quit smoking when I turned 30. I was a pack-a-day (or more) smoker who so enjoyed the entire act of smoking that I really wasn't sure how I could successfully quit. How do you voluntarily give up something you loved to do? I loved to hear the click of my lighter. I loved to take deep, long drags and hold the smoke in my throat until it just slightly burned. I loved to exhale and watch the puff of smoke vanish into thin air. I loved drinking coffee and smoking. I loved talking on the phone and smoking. Oh, how I loved to smoke.

I would usually think more about smoking than just about anything else. I was always wondering when I could get my hands on my next cigarette. Of course I knew smoking wasn't good for me, but I rationalized the continuation of smoking like shopaholics rationalize shopping or gamblers rationalize gambling. I had an addiction to nicotine and it was, bar none, the most powerful force in my life.

When I actually admitted the power cigarettes had over my life I was able to put it into some perspective. A small, slender inanimate object that is laced with such harmful ingredients as ammonia and hydrogen cyanide was dictating what I did, when I did it and with whom. If smoking wasn't allowed somewhere I just simply wouldn't go. The toxic chemicals I was ingesting were nothing compared to the idea of being without my smokes.

Isn't admitting you have a problem the first step toward addressing it? I slowly began to realize that my rationalizations to continue smoking were utterly ridiculous. I knew that cigarette smoking is directly responsible for 87 percent of lung cancer cases and causes most cases of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. I was avoiding the inevitable. The year I turned 30 I decided that enough was enough.

I quit smoking one day when I finished the last cigarette in my pack and didn't bother to buy another. I remember driving with my window down, inhaling what I knew to be the last burning tinge of smoke and flicking my cigarette butt out of the window. I felt like I had just lost my best friend.

Quitting smoking was the single, hardest thing I have ever had to do in my entire life because I basically had to change my entire life in order to succeed. I stopped going out with friends to the bar after work because it was too tempting. I stopped working my crossword puzzles because it was too painful of a reminder. I didn't talk on the phone as much and I had to actually sit on my hands to keep from continually reaching for my phantom pack of cigarettes. Everywhere I turned I had a reminder of my old friend Marlboro and wondered longingly who was enjoying his company now.

My journey to non-smoker status was extremely difficult, but I have been smoke-free now for eight years and I couldn't be happier. I am healthier than I ever have been in my entire life. I don't miss the chronic coughing, smoking outside in the snow or the dreadful, musty smell. I have since started doing crossword puzzles again and I can drink coffee, talk on the phone and meet friends at a bar without any problems. I wish my friends who still smoke would make smarter health decisions, but some people simply don't want to. The bottom line is they have not made the decision to quit. I hear people say " I can't quit" when what they really mean is "I don't want to." There is a difference. A self-fulfilling prophecy is a prediction that directly or indirectly causes itself to become true. If you tell yourself often enough that something is impossible (can't), it will most certainly become impossible.

Don't confuse "can't" with "don't want to." If you want to do something badly enough you will make the decision to do it and follow through on that decision by whatever means necessary. No excuses, no whining, no rationalizations. It's that simple. Make your decision and just do it.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Manager

My boys are no different than other kids when it comes to listening to their parents. We get the runaround, the hems, the haws, the sighs, the rolled eyes and all of the other typical, defiant behavior associated with "the rules." I explain that we have rules to follow to make our world a little more reasonable and our society a little more fit for human habitation. As long as we have rules, we have some semblance of order. To a toddler, however, that sounds more like, "rules really stink."

I found out really early on that when I tried to enforce the rules I had to repeat myself too many times for it to take effect. My boys would simply push boundaries until we were both exhausted from stating our cause. My voice would get louder as my kids got wilder. I was sick and tired of being the bad guy. Something had to change. My light bulb moment occurred when almost pushing a button on a plane trip to North Carolina. I discovered the power of blaming someone else for the rules.

My son Nicholas was kicking the seat in front of him to the intense irritation of the occupant. He was only 2 years old at the time and keeping those little legs perfectly still is next to impossible short of hogtying the boy to the flight attendant's drink cart. The aforementioned seat occupant was getting really hot under the collar and I wasn't in the mood to rationalize a 2-year old's behavior to a sneering, ornery old coot. I showed Nicholas the flight attendant's call button and said, "if you don't stop kicking that seat in front of you I will push this button and call the pilot. If the pilot has to come out of the cockpit to talk to you, you will be in b-iiiiii-gggggg trouble." I put my finger next to the button and Nicholas stopped kicking immediately. He looked at me with wide eyes darting back and forth to the front of the plane and said, breathing heavily, "is the pilot coming out?" I explained that I wouldn't have to push the button if he did as I said and behaved for the remainder of the flight. Let's just say we had a smooth landing.

I told the pilot story often. What a simple concept! The more I told the story, the more I realized I could use the pilot analogy in other situations as well. If we are at the grocery store and the boys can't keep their hands to themselves I threaten to call the grocery store manager. I tell the boys he is watching them from his hidden cameras in the store and the grocery store manager does not like boys who misbehave in his store! As we are walking down the aisles the boys point to a stranger and say, "is that the manager?" By the time they determine who they think is the manager our shopping is done. When we are at a restaurant and the boys are misbehaving I threaten to call the chef. I clarify that if the chef has to stop preparing meals for everyone in this restaurant to come out and talk to the boys not only will the chef be angry but so will everyone else who is waiting for their food. Don't make me call the chef! My younger son usually asks me, "is the chef the manager?" I always say yes because it's much easier to relate to a "manager" since most stores or businesses have managers. Most of the time I threaten to call "the manager" and my boys know exactly what I am talking about regardless of what type of business we are frequenting.

I have had so much fun blaming the manager and equally as much fun watching my boys look around and try to figure out just exactly who this elusive figure is. Is that the manager over there in the red shirt? Is that the manager behind the counter talking on the phone? Is that the manager in the suit wearing a tie? The "manager" has saved my sanity on numerous occasions where my simple, "because I said so!" isn't working.

In all the years we have been using this ruse, I have never actually had to place the call. The threatening gesture of simply picking up my phone is enough. My oldest son is so enamored with the supreme authority of the manager and the allure that comes with that much power. It's not rocket science to figure out what he wants to be when he grows up. When Nicholas is asked this question he answers without hesitation; the manager!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

What You See Is What You Thought Before You Looked

My two boys and I took a drive out to Kensington Metropark one afternoon to go for a bike ride. My older son, Nicholas, loves to ride his bike fast. The first time we went to Kensington he grinned from ear to ear and said, "I am having so much fun!" as he enjoyed the thrilling hills and seemingly unending bike path. Our goal on this day was to have a nice, leisurely afternoon in the park since fall has arrived and we won't get too many more indian summer days. Because my younger son, Christopher, is not so fast on his bike, I plopped him in the toddler seat on the back of my bike and let Nicholas ride with reckless abandon. He was in seventh heaven.

Kensington Metropark's bike path is an eight-mile loop around a beautiful lake. The scenery and atmsophere is breathtaking. We stumbled upon cranes, muskrats, turtles, chipmunks, swans, and other incredible wildlife as we meandered our way around the path. We were so enjoying our ride that we found ourselves at the four-mile marker or halfway point without realizing we had gone so far. I panicked when I realized that we were basically at the point of no return. Either way we had to complete another four miles to get back to our starting point.

Nicholas started complaining around this point that he was tired and his legs hurt. Crap...I thought. How in the hell am I going to get him to do another four miles? He's only five years old for pete's sake! My mind was racing with thoughts of who I could call to come and pick us up or how I could walk a bike four miles. We really didn't have a choice at this point...we had to get back on our bikes and ride. We had to get back to our car because no other viable options existed.

I told Nicholas we were pushing forward. He started to whine and complain and I realized that I needed to think of some serioulsy creative way to get him back on his bike. After realizing I had nothing creative to offer, I just basically told him that he could complain and be grumpy and make the last four miles really freakin' miserable or he could appreciate the beautiful day and realize how lucky he was to be out riding his bike amid this amazing scenery. We talked some more about our situation and I casually mentioned some really huge hills that were coming up and some fun zig zags ahead. His face brightened and with a deep breath he said, "Ok, mom, I can do this."

I love this kid.

Nicholas ended up flying down some fast hills, learned how to coast (preserve that energy!), raced with the butterflies and even earned some praise along the way. Several bikers who passed us more than once on our journey said, "good job, buddy!" and raised his spirits even more. What a great day!

When we returned to the car I told Nicholas that he has earned the distinction of being the only boy I know his age who ever rode eight miles at Kensington and lived to tell about it! We called his dad and his grandparents and told everyone within earshot when we got home. Nicholas was very deservedly proud of himself and I was even prouder. He decided to take a positive approach to a seemingly undesirable situation and completed the task without (more) complaint.

Preconceived notions are our worst enemy. What you see is what you thought before you looked. How many times have you "thought" something was going to be hard, miserable, worthless, difficult, etc. and it turned out to be just that? How could it be otherwise? You felt it was going to be hard and it was. You felt it was going to be miserable and it was. You felt it was going to be worthless and it was. You felt it was going to be difficult and it was. But, put on a happy face and put a positive spin on it and the outcome is completely different. Look for the silver lining even if you have to look really, really hard. It's really that simple. Think positive thoughts and positive things will happen. It's not rocket science.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Good Manners

Ahhhh....good manners. A mother's dream. I get goose bumps every time someone says to me, "your children are so polite." I turn cartwheels when I hear my sons say, "yes, please" or "no thank you." I drift off to sleep with a smile on my face realizing that some of what my husband and I do on a daily basis is actually sinking in.

I will never forget a playgroup I attended with my then 2 1/2 year old during which I reminded him about 50 times to say please and thank you. The hostess was offering cookies and crackers to all of the kids and when my son was offered and took a cookie I had to remind him to first say please and then say thank you. Several times. Maybe not 50, I could be exaggerating, but I did remind him several times. I will never forget the incredulous stares from the mothers who commented more than once about my son's politeness. For some reason they seemed to think that he was born with the polite gene that was initiated at birth and just grew more apparent as his vocabulary increased.

Did these other mothers not see the parenting that was going on? The reminders, the nudges, the eye-contact messages? My sons are polite, yes, and for that I am grateful. But, my sons are polite because their father and I have worked diligently on this particular aspect of child-rearing. We say please and thank you at home, out to dinner, at the grocery store, at Grandma's house, etc. It takes a lot of work to raise a polite child. It's downright exhausting! However, the end result is more than worth the work. I am extremely proud of my boys.

It's really not rocket science. Children learn by example. Do the parenting. Continue to do the parenting. Repeat the parenting lesson 50 times. And, get up the next morning and start all over again.

Friday, October 3, 2008

My Place In This World

I have had so many different jobs and lived in so many different places that I never thought I would truly find my place on this world. That all changed the day my first son was born. I quit my job and embraced my new life as a stay-at-home mom. I have never looked back. I now have two beautiful boys and my place in this world is obvious every day that I look into their enthusiastic eyes and see a little soul in need of guidance. They may not think they need guidance, (I get a lot of "I know, mom") but it is still my job to help that soul find and keep its genuine goodness, its curiosity, its good, its bad and its indifference. It's an awesome task....


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