Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Teaching your kids manners when the adults are behaving badly

As any parent can tell you, it's hard to teach manners to kids.  Getting your kids to say 'Please' and 'Thank you' and 'Nice to meet you' without constant prompting requires Herculean effort on a daily basis for years before it finally becomes second nature to them.  And it's near impossible to reinforce the need for manners when popular kids programs feature characters who talk down to the adults in their lives (if there are any around) and get lots of canned laughter for rude behaviour and impertinent remarks.

But what about when it's the adults that are behaving poorly?  How do you deal with an eight-year-old who asks, "Why do I have to take off my hat at the table when (insert loutish adult here) doesn't have to and he's an adult?"

At a recent Thanksgiving dinner with my spouse's large extended family, two of the adults brought their smartphones to the dinner table.  Both are parents.  One tapped quietly, checking emails and texts and ignoring the conversation around her.  The other played a loud video on her device and passed it around for everyone to enjoy.

The device made its way down the table, being passed from person to person along with the creamed corn and the gravy.  As it approached me, I wondered how I would deal with it.  We have a strict 'No smartphones at the dinner table' rule in my house.  My kids don't have their own phones yet so the rule is both a reminder for their father and me in the present and a preemptive strike for my kids in the future. So, face-to-face with something I had sworn to my kids was 'rude', I ran through my options:

  • Take the phone, glance at the screen, smile weakly to safe face, and pass it on? (safe but wimpy)
  • Get up from the table and pretend to go to the restroom just as it was about to be passed to me? (safe but cowardly)
  • Go on a rant about how nothing is sacred anymore and the ancient Mayans were right when they suggested the world should end in 2012 (confronting rudeness with more rudeness)
  • Get over myself, join the fun, laugh at the video and be a good sport (and lose this teaching moment?)

In the end, I mashed all the options together and said, "I'm going to pass because we don't allow phones at our dinner table and if the kids see me with this, they'll use it against me."

I got a few eye rolls from my dinner companions but that's to be expected.  They have already branded me as weird for my insistence that they don't post photos of my kids on Facebook.  But I was slightly concerned that I had hurt the feelings of the smartphone owner.  After all, while she has a different set of etiquette rules than me, she genuinely thought she was providing entertainment value with her Youtube offering.  I glanced  glance down the table to see her reaction but I need not have worried.  She was busy looking at photos on the other phone that was at the table and hadn't even noticed.  Such is the short attention span associated with anything electronic nowadays.

In case you're wondering, the video featured a dancing vegetable...

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Is karma real and should you be worried about it?

I detest loose ends.  I’m not talking about stray threads on hems or flyaway strands in my hairdo.  I refer to tasks that are not complete and have been languishing on my to-do list for days, weeks or even months.  I am tortured by un-purchased birthday presents, unpaid bills and unrealized dreams.

I walk around with an ever-present to-do list – in my notebook and in my head – constantly shedding and adding tasks but never decreasing in length.  Some items get carried over from month to month (stain threshold at back door) and others spend only hours on the list (find son’s hockey helmet).   Still others never seem to see the light of day (learn Mandarin) and exist only in my mind hoping to be transferred onto “the list” once some space frees up.

I can connect my general anxiety level to the amount of loose ends I have following me around and keeping me up at night.  When I strike my pen through a completed item, I experience a physical jolt of satisfaction.  The fewer things on my list, the happier I am and I hold to the belief that if I ever reach a zero balance on my to-do list I will experience a level of nirvana that I can only dream of.  When I explain this to people who do not worry about to-do lists, they think I'm crazy but the world needs all of us.

My obsession with loose ends makes it easy for me to believe in karma. Karma is one of those concepts that everyone kind of understands, like global warming or calculus, but can’t quite explain.  Spiritualists would say it’s an ancient universal balancing system while scientists claim it’s nothing more than basic cause and effect.  It is evident in many religious teachings, modern-day proverbs and motivational teachings: you reap what you sow, you get out of life what you put into it, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and so on.

Cause and effect is easy to quantify – neglect your diet and you gain weight – but the more spiritual side is harder to pin down.  Can it really be true that if you go through the world spreading misery, a universal force will see to it that you get what’s coming to you?  And on the flip side, if you treat everyone with kindness and respect, are you guaranteed a life free of pain?  We know it’s not that simple.  We all know horrible people who seem to carry on, get promotions and accumulate riches while others who behave like angels get more than their fair share of bad luck.

When I have knowingly done something unkind to someone, I feel crappy almost immediately and look for ways to “balance my karma” by doing something good.  The bad karma I’ve created for myself gnaws at me until I even it out.  Sometimes, I don’t have to try very hard and the universe takes care of it for me in the form of a parking ticket, plant that dies or skirt that’s suddenly too tight.   

So, to bring this back to my loose end theory, unbalanced karmic experiences are loose ends, rights that need to be wronged and wrongs that need to be righted so that I’m back on an even keel, with a blank slate and a promise to “only do good from now on”.

I realize that I’m oversimplifying a complicated concept, or maybe overcomplicating a simple concept, but I think I’m a believer in karma. I realize that it’s impossible to go through life without suffering, but my day-to-day life seems to be better when my outlook is positive and empathetic.

What are your thoughts about karma?  Universal law or new age mumbo jumbo?