I took a walk yesterday on the trails behind my house, and I thought a lot about Mary who died a few days ago. Mary and Lori were my boys’ first teachers at a Montessori school here in Concord.
Together they created this wonderful place for children—for families, really—where we witnessed and practiced connection, empathy, curiosity and pluck.
Mary was the dropper of pebbles into each of our family ponds. Her pebbles continue to create ripples for my family, impacting how we still parent our boys and how they move through the world.
Several weeks ago, many of us joined Mary to celebrate her life and say goodbye. How amazing it was to reflect and feel so connected to the ripples she had made for each of us. This was the culture she created around her.
So, as I walked alone with thoughts of Mary yesterday, I reflected a lot about parenting culture. I’m sure this is because over the last few weeks, in articles and interviews and at workshops, people have been asking me and worrying about the culture.
“It’s the culture,” parents say.
“Our kids are so impacted by the culture.”
“They can’t handle the culture.”
Here’s the hard truth: when it comes to your children, you ARE the culture.
Both in those early years and even as they grow into teens and adults, our children don’t exist in some other milieu that is separate from us. We are the culture that creates worry.
We want so badly to figure it out, and we want so badly for it to NOT be us.
But it is us.
This is the culture that supports the practice of notifying a parent’s phone whenever a child’s quiz or test grade is posted.
A culture that advertises the ability for a mother to go out with her friends, but still watch her husband as he puts the children to bed. You know, because you can never be too safe.
A culture that is now giving smartphones and antidepressants to kindergarteners.
When we shrug our shoulders and feel overwhelmed by the culture, we are looking and hoping for some explanation outside of ourselves.
I contend that as we look unflinchingly at the increased anxiety and depression that our children and teens are experiencing, we must acknowledge that we aren’t faring much better.
As a therapist, I sit with families that are struggling. The hardest thing—but the most honest and productive thing—that happens when we’re together is an acknowledgment of patterns and of accountability.
It’s powerful to take ownership of the pebbles that we drop and the ripples we send out in our family’s pond.
I asked a dad recently, “Do you think you convey to your children that the world is a dangerous place?”
He looked a bit confused, but his seven-year-old daughter threw herself back onto the couch. “Every second of the day!” she moaned.
No parents arrive at my office and announce that they put undue pressure on their children.
No parents try to make their children anxious.
“We don’t know where she gets it,” they say. “It’s the school. Their peer group. Politics. Is there a diagnosis? We need to discover what’s at the root of all this.” They are sincere. They love their children and would do anything to help.
Only with more open conversation do they reveal how stressed they are about their children’s success in the world. What other people will think of them. What they themselves have been trying to manage the amount of information that comes flying at us daily. That they have been anxious or depressed for several years, too. That a pattern of stress or anxiety or depression or trauma has been lingering in their family culture for generations.
This is the norm. We’re all in this together.
Let’s just agree that culture is all around us, AND it matters. It’s magnetic, and we social beings get sucked in. Groupthink is nothing new.
But when we see our children’s and teens’ culture as some big force, operating over there and distinct from us, we are making the most dangerous error of all: we are dismissing the potential of POSITIVE culture, too.
We can’t have it both ways, blaming culture’s influence, but denying the impact of our own cultural messages. And we shouldn’t forget its benefits.
Schools have cultures. Teams have cultures. Workplaces have cultures. That little Montessori school had a culture.
Most importantly, families have cultures that are extremely powerful. Just like superheroes in comic books, with such power comes awareness, ownership, and evolution.
What’s the culture of your family?
It is fearful? Competitive? Stressed? Cynical? Distracted?
Are you conveying to your child that the world is a dangerous place? Are you supporting independence, or making sure that you know exactly what your child is doing every moment?
How can you create a culture that is a touch warmer, more forgiving, connected, silly, or empathic? How can you promote independence, moxie, and gratitude?
Instead of fretting and wondering about the culture that is causing our children such distress, what if we all turn more attention inward to the little cultural pond of our own families and discover which pebbles to drop lovingly into the water?
This is what Mary wants us to know. She, as one person, took every chance to spread the wisdom of creating a thriving family culture with awareness of its building blocks. It worked. It really did, and I am forever grateful to her.