First, a true story about “poverty”:
There were two little girls: one Italian, the other Costa Rican. These two girls played together every day for about a month when the girl from Costa Rica invited her friend to come to her house. The house of the Costa Rican girl was made of four pieces of weathered looking wood, a rusty, tin roof,
a thin, wooden door (no lock), and two or three small, cracked windows. While the two girls jumped rope in front of the house, the parents sat
on rocking chairs while they spoke, laughed and relaxed with friends on the simple porch; this too worn, the light, pale green paint chipped here
and there. After entering the home, the Italian girl asked her friend with the pure and wonderful innocence of a child, if her family was poor.
Smiling, the friend answered with a simple and spontaneous “I don’t know”. Nothing more was said about it and they continued playing. The Italian girl was my daughter, Kenia.
Kenia and Havana spend time with so many different kinds of friends. They have played tag with Gretel in the square in Fano, Italy. They have invented stories with Meme and Celeste in their treehouse in the country. They have jumped off extremely tall blocks of hay with Sofia at an Indian ashram. They have skated on Bries Lake and have built snowmen with German speaking friends in the mountains near Austria. They have swam with friends in the pond at the ecovillage in Ithaca, NY. They have played for hours with one-time friends at the trainset in Barnes and Noble in Florida. They have danced and played dress up with Krystel from Guatemala, swung from a rope in the jungle with Jose’ and Carlos, and joined their usual, Sunday friends in a game of anda at the park in Costa Rica. Some richer, some poorer, some better dressed or more “educated” than others. To them there is no difference. They learned something about humanity in all of these places. In each of these situations they were happy and safe and just free to be kids.
Costa Rica is our second home. Things have changed since our first trip here in 2000, but it is still really amazing to watch the faces of these kids as they play. A lot of the games are similar to the ones I used to play with my friends in front of my apartment building on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. They double-dutch. They play tug of war in the sand. They climb trees and have competitions jumping off high steps. They play ball. They get dirty. They get cuts and scrapes. 30 kids just running around like crazy having crazy, simple fun! Does anyone “on our side of the fence” still play like this anymore, or have these games been exchanged for indoor gymborees, Leapfrog (sadly advertised as “preschool adventures” and “educational friends”) and Wii? Do they travel around in herds, enthusiastic to let a new kid join in at any time? Do our kids even know how to have fun without all the hi-tech gadgets and toys (which actually leads to dependency, not fun)? Does modern-style play leave them feeling exhausted, exhilarated and satisfied like an old fashioned game of hide and seek? Were the streets of New York in the 70’s safer than the suburbs nowadays, or have we parents changed? Are we too worried about something happening to them in their own backyard to let them have some authentic fun? Controlled areas, continuous warnings, sunscreen, bug spray, sanitizer, playdates, competitions, smartphones at 5, fear… Can our kids possibly be as free and happy and rich as the girl who does not know if she is poor or not? Can we?
I received an email the other day that brought my attention back again to one mother’s question “What should a 4 year old know?” and even more, got me thinking about what we, as parents, really need to know about raising happy, safe, and peaceful kids? The answer has a lot to do with Kenia’s true lesson about “poverty”…
The email I received was from an old friend who lives in a beautiful house in Seattle with her husband, two kids, golden retriever and Persian cat. She desperately needed to tell me how distraught she was feeling by all the things she had to do and no time to do them: work, laundry, meals, dirty dishes, ballet class, music lessons, basketball practice, homework, phone calls, emails, and the planning of the best sleepover ever for her daughter’s birthday. She had no time for herself. She had missed 3 yoga classes, didn’t have time to go get her hair dyed, and doesn’t remember when she last sat down to eat a real meal with her family. While searching for something through a ton of stuff in her junk drawer she came across some pretty important stuff – 8 hot pink envelopes addressed to her daughter’s friends. She had forgotten to send out the invitations for the birthday party which was planned for the next evening! What ever happened to the former, totally organized person that she knew back then, pre-mom era? It happens to all of us– we alternate between days where our super powers make everything work smoothly, and days where the only power we would like to possess is the power to make ourselves invisible. A mistake like this one is difficult to just brush off as human error, especially for an aspiring-to-be perfect mom! Overwhelmed and exhausted, instead she felt like the worst mother ever! Her poor, 8 year old daughter- how would she feel? And, how would she find the time to contact everyone and prepare everything perfectly?
What advice could I possibly offer to sooth her guilt? She wrote to me, her friend who has happily abandoned a whole lot since our days together as carefree New Yorkers. To most, my family’s lifestyle seems adventurous, courageous, somewhat scary and ecologically correct. We choose the less driven road and in return we have tons of freedom. I wouldn’t change this journey we are on for anything, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy or that we have everything neatly figured out. I don’t have all the answers. With all the yoga and breathing, family “meetings” and mental presence techniques I make mistakes every single day. But, two things I do know. First, I know that I don’t want to be the same person tomorrow as I am today. The moment I resist change, think that I do have all the answers, or try to take the easy way out is the moment that I cease to truly live. Suffering is inevitable. Easy is not always better (and not even easier for that matter). And, we don’t have to become Buddhists to have faith in these very wise words: we must embrace the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sufferings.
Secondly, I know that our kids are born Zen by nature. Good intentions are not always enough. Neither are lists and promises. You brush their hair in fancy braids, bring them to school dressed to perfection, accompany them to music and dance classes, don’t miss a soccer practice, and even sit on the bleachers and watch them while texting, posting and liking. Todays kids have the best of everything, and there are tons of photos and videos to prove it. But, are you achieving the fundamental goal of being a parent? Are you effectively using your super mom powers by using them to satisfy mostly physical “needs”? Much of the time, isn’t the most fundamental part of being a parent- total and unlimited attention- missing? Ask yourself if you are truly sharing their day with them, keeping them company, having fun with them, stopping a minute to really listen to them while looking into eyes full of innocence and enthusiasm for life. They don’t care about the clean clothes, the manis and pedis, the handmade Halloween costume, how many girl scout cookies you are able to sell for them, or even the perfect birthday party. It may sound harsh, but the truth is that you think that you need these things because someone else convinced you that you do. Our kids don’t need them. They just want us. They need us to complete them and give them what they actually need, both emotionally and spiritually. I have no doubt that each and every one of us loves their children dearly, but we need to choose how we want to express it. As my husband, Andrea, writes: Love cannot be produced in a factory. It cannot be bought in a store. It cannot be gift wrapped and after a short period of time, thoughtlessly discarded. Whether given or received, love, is the one thing that you can never, ever get enough of. All this running from here to there and all the stuff we do all day long takes us away from our true loving nature, and leaves us feeling tired, stressed, controlling and fearful. Ambitious attempts to do everything a perfect parent is supposed to do overrides what is really important for our kids, our family, our sense of wellbeing, our freedom. It makes our lives poorer despite all the nice things that surround us.
Maybe it is time to create a new definition of poverty and decide for ourselves what it really means to be poor:
According to Wikipedia, poverty is defined as the general scarcity, or the state of one who lacks a certain amount of material possessions or money (as opposed to wealth which is defined as the abundance of valuable resources or valuable material possessions). Whereas, absolute poverty (that which, due to our wealthy lifestyles, is devastating more and more people in countries all over the world, including the USA) is considered the deprivation of basic human needs, which commonly includes food, water, sanitation, clothing, shelter and health care. Furthermore, poverty is usually judged based on economic inequality in the location or society in which people live. There is a huge difference between the two, isn’t there? Using this definition of poverty as our model requires us to look at what our neighbors have in order to know if we are poor or not. If your neighbors have a new car, a pool and a week vacation in some exotic resort once a year, so should you (otherwise you will most probably be considered poor!). Do you actually want your entire existence to be decided for you based on an incorrect (and stupid) definition? I certainly do not. I refuse to allow someone else to define my sense of worth as a human being (and as a parent) and limit it to economic terms and how many material things I possess. Quality of life, levels of stress and amount of freed time (Which is an innate necessity to tranquilly enjoy the here and now without distractions. We have substituted this with our concept of “free” time which is time often spent in a mall or some other noisy environment spending the money earned during our not free time) are among the elements that matter most to me. This new definition of poverty needs to be based on the amount of happiness, wellness and freedom we enjoy on a daily basis.
POVERTY = the freedom to choose a simple, value oriented life without the risk of being judged.
This is the type of poverty that I see every day in Costa Rica
(which by the way is often referred to as the happiest country in the world!).
Kenia didn’t ask her friend what she thinks being poor is. My daughter’s question was based on a learned perception of the term and what kind of house she lived in, and once given a response it really made no difference in the end. Rich or poor, this new friend was fun to be with. Her friend didn’t know or seem to care if she was considered poor. Neither did her parents. It is not a concept that defines their lives. They feel comfortable with their modest salaries and houses and lifestyle- for them being rich is all about Pura Vida. They don’t rush and don’t have to. They have enough food, clean clothes and very few bills to keep track of. They have no social pressures, no pressure to appear any different from what or who they are. Their kids go to school and are active, but they aren’t encouraged to compete. Their kids can walk to school alone without being harmed. Their kids can play outside and feel safe. They are not guided by fear. They have time to enjoy the sunrise and the sunset. They have time to be parents. Much different from many of the parents I know who have progress and double mortgages, fast internet connection and too many emails, two car driveways, a groomed front lawn, alarm systems and no time.
So, I continue to ask myself who is really the “poorer” one? What does it actually mean to be poor? And most of all, what can I learn from these parents about raising my children? What should a parent know about raising happy, free and peacefully rich kids?
- We need to know how to slow down and not rush by the early years. Every child learns to walk and talk and read and count at his or her own pace. They don’t need to be constantly stimulated. A child that learns something earlier will not necessarily be brighter or better. Let them be kids. They have their entire lives to be big, serious people like us.
- We need to know that real intelligence begins by exposing our children to nature and encouraging them to participate in activities that enhance their creativity and natural instinct to explore such as building, cooking, molding, painting, playing outdoors, interacting with animals and other elements of nature.
- We need to know that the most intelligent kid in the class is not necessarily the happiest one. We are so concerned about our children’s future. We want to offer them all the Start them off right. Grades, competitions and test results dominate much of their childhood and adolescence. Shouldn’t our focus be on ways to raise a happy child? All these possibilities are setting them up for a life dominated by stress and multi-tasking (like ours). A happy child grows into a happy adult and ultimately, leads to a happier world. This all begins with a simple and less “motivated” childhood.
- We need to know how to trust our children. Kids want to help and be given responsibility. It isn’t important if the bed is made perfectly, if your daughter still has knots in her hair after brushing it by herself, if the dishes don’t sparkle. Praise them for what they do. Give them the freedom to figure things out on their own. We need to learn not to control how they do everything (enjoy your free time instead). They will gain self-confidence and with time, they will learn and do things better than we do!
- We need to know that we don’t have to be perfect and that we need not try to make our kids think we are. We need to know how to teach them how to forgive by forgiving ourselves, and being able to say to them that we are sorry and admitting when we make mistakes, or have done or said something wrong.
- We need to know how to take responsibility for our own lives. What is right for me, probably won’t be right for you. No one can have the answers that are right for you and your family except for you. We can learn something from everyone and every experience we encounter. The ultimate decision, however, is yours. And, even when we are SURE to know what is right, don’t ever stop exploring other possibilities. Life is a journey, not a destination.
- We need to know how to live fearlessly and transmit this to fearlessness to our children. Our lives are dominated by fear (just watch the news). Fear of being harmed. Fear of economic instability. Fear of ageing and death. Fear of what is different. Fear of change. Fear of silence. Fear of what others may think. Think in the positive by asking “why not”, instead of “why”. A life guided by fear is not life.
- We need to know that the most important thing we can offer our kids is our time. They need us to really listen to them and to really see them. They need us to be present. They know when we are faking, when we are there without being there. We need to learn to stop separating our time- my time, husband/wife time, kid Learn to appreciate these fast passing years, and kid time magically becomes part of our time. In the end, you will find that every single moment of each day is your time!
- We need to know that our wealth cannot be determined by material things, impressive jobs or large salaries, and begin to live our lives accordingly. We need to teach our kids the value of family and friends, and the importance of having time to do absolutely nothing. Many people are poor because the only thing they focus on is the amount of money they have. Many people are slaves because they are afraid of being free. Poverty and freedom are not always a choice, but sometimes they are…
And remember, freedom starts where desire (to be someone else’s idea of the perfect parent) ends!
So, here is to your fearlessness and your freedom to be free…
Peace, kindness, courage and Pura Vida to all!