A Mother’s Love is a Force of Nature

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Mother and daughter in Nepal

There are more than 2 billion mothers in the world today by some estimates. In my travels, I have seen the special role that mothers play in making the world a better place for all children.

A mother’s love is a force of nature, whether making sacrifices to ensure that her daughter is able to get an education or fighting for justice for their children. The mothers of the disappeared (ANFASEP) in Ayacucho, Peru lost their sons during the long, violent conflict in Peru.   For nearly 30 years, these women have been trying to find out who killed their sons and where their remains are.  

Mothers of the Disappeared in Peru
Mothers of the Disappeared in Peru

With their love, mothers are changing the world – one kid at a time.

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Me with my daughter in Norway.

Happy Mother’s Day – and thank you – to each of you mothers!

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12 1/2 Clichés I Want My Kids to Live By

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You’ve heard ’em all before. Clichés are a popular form of expression used throughout the world.  There are many sayings that are so overused that we barely even notice them anymore.  I started to think about clichés recently because of The Loud Talking Salesman guy who works in the office next to mine.  He seems to speak entirely in clichés. The wall must be thin, because all day long I hear him on the phone with clients telling them that “at the end of the day” “it’s a win-win situation” etc etc.   (I’ve never met him, but if I ever do, I’ve already planned what I’m going to say:  “Working hard?”  To which he will most certainly reply, “Hardly working!”)

Once I started actually paying attention clichés, I noticed that we are not only constantly verbally but also visually blasted with them.  Clichés are plastered all over the place, on everything from bumper stickers to throw pillows to Pintrest. Some clichés are silly or sappy or just plan wrong.  But if you stop and think about it, some of them make a whole lot of sense.

Many clichés are, in fact, the moral equivalent of Tootsie Pops – they have a sweet, chewy truth at their center.  Some of them are actually pithy, shorthand statements of deep wisdom.   Some clichés embody true lessons about living an ethical, fulfilling, righteous and joyful life in community with other humans.  In some ways, these clichés are shorthand for the life lessons that I am trying to teach my children so that they will grow up to be citizens of the world, fully empowered to exercise both their rights and their responsibilities.

So on the theory that “The way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice,” I decided to write down some of the clichés that I want my kids to actually remember and use when I’m no longer around to nag them.

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.” 

One of the most misquoted sayings of all time, I’ve seen this clichés attributed to everyone from Voltaire to Bill Gates’s mom.  While  John F. Kennedy did say,  “For of those to whom much is given, much is required,” the saying actually comes from the Parable of the Faithful Servant (Luke 12:48) in the Bible.  “To whomever much is given, of him will much be required; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked.”

The point for my children is this – you have been blessed with intelligence, a loving family, comfortable home, health and so much more.  You each have different talents and strengths.  It is your responsibility to use  your gifts not just for your own benefit, but also to help others.

“You are what you eat.”

If you eat garbage, you feel like garbage.  I’m serious – eat your fruits and veggies, kids!

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“Think before you speak.”

Or send an email or post something through social media.  Count to 10 in your mind before you open your mouth.   Write it out, but wait until the morning to send that email.  Hurtful words, once said, are hard to take back.  Of course, the corollaries to this cliché are:

“If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all.”

and  

“If you are thinking something nice about someone, go ahead and say it.”

OK, that last one is technically not a cliché since it is not overused.  I count it as half cliché since I made it up myself when I was 18.  I was a camp counselor and I lived in a cabin with another counselor that I didn’t get along with particularly well.  But one day, when I was brushing my teeth, I heard her singing in the shower.  She had a beautiful voice that I had never noticed.  As I brushed my teeth, I remember thinking that I should just tell her.  Why keep those nice thoughts to myself just because I we didn’t like each other?  It was hard for me, but I did tell her.  I was surprised how appreciative she was at the compliment.  And while we never became friends, we did get along fine for the rest of the summer.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”  

Don’t just sit around wishing or waiting for things to change things.  YOU can create change yourself through your own actions.  (This quote is usually attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, although there is no reliable evidence that he actually  said it.  Gandhi did say “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.”)

It’s worth pointing out that Dr. Seuss wrote the same thing more directly in The Lorax: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

“Don’t Postpone Joy”  

No, I don’t mean the “go ahead and buy those really expensive shoes to make yourself happy” kind of joy (although it is important to treat yourself somtimes.  I mean the “Daddy quit his job and moved to Minneapolis to be with me”  kind of joy.   Because your Daddy did do that.  He didn’t have a dramatic boombox scene like Lloyd Dobler in Say Anything, but it was the same kind of going after love and joy thing. (This reminds me to add Say Anything to my list of Movies I Want My Kids to See.)

And while we are on the subject:

‘Tis better to have loved and lost, Than never to have loved at all.  

I know that this one is often up for debate, but I think it is true.  Even if your heart ends up getting broken in the end, the experience of loving another is worth it.  It is worth taking a risk.

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“The best way out is always through.”

Robert Frost is credited with this one.  Rather than avoiding a problem,  it is always best to confront it directly.  You can spend more energy fretting about it than it would take to just deal with it.  In the long run, it is less painful to just do what you need to do to get through it.

“A good laugh and a long sleep are the two best cures for anything.”

I don’t have much to say about this one other than I believe it in, deep down in my bones.  The same goes the the next one:

“Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.”

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“Better late than never.”

It’s never to late to fix past wrongs.  Remember Darth Vader and what happens at the end of Star Wars Episode VI?  Redemption.  But it is also never to late to go down a different path.  Every day has the potential to be a fresh start.  As George Eliot wrote,  “It is never too late to be what you might have been.”

“Always look on the bright side of life.”

It’s been my experience that a positive attitude really does help you in life.  Everyone gets down and has rough patches; that’s perfectly understandable.  You don’t have to be cheerful all the time.  But in the macro sense, try to be an optimist.  It’s a worldview that will get your farther in the long run.  As Sir Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity.  An optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.

 TO BE CONTINUED …

I’ve got more clichés I want my kids to live by, but I’d love to hear from others about clichés that hold important life lessons for them.   I will end with, not a cliché, but a quote from A. A. Milne.  Christopher Robin is talking to Winnie-the-Pooh and he says (in your mother’s voice):

“Promise me you’ll always remember:

You’re braver than you believe,

and stronger than you seem,

and smarter than you think.

P.S. Also remember:

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Rainbow Looming Our Way To Gender Equality

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There are little plastic rubber bands all over our house.  On my way upstairs this morning, I noticed them strewn on the stair treads like colorful flower petals after a spring storm.  That’s because my 11 year-old son spent more than an hour yesterday at the top of the stairs, “where the light is good”, perfecting his starburst bracelet on the Rainbow Loom.   Technically, it’s his 8 year-old sister’s, but his Rainbow Loom will be arriving tomorrow via Amazon Prime.  He used some of his Christmas money to buy one for himself.

Anyone with kids in elementary or middle school will understand what I’m talking about, but this is something worth talking about even if you don’t have kids.   The Rainbow Loom has been popular for months. What is striking for me as a parent, however, is that this is a toy that is equally popular with both boys and girls.  Of the more than $3 million in sales since August, almost half of the Rainbow Looms reportedly were purchased for boys.

I first noticed the Rainbow Loom’s gender-neutral popularity last month at a PeeWee hockey tournament.  Since the tournament was out-of-town, the team and their families were all staying at the same hotel.  I noticed that all of the younger siblings – especially the boys – were prodigious Rainbow Loomers.   A group of younger brothers, all 9 and 10, were Rainbow Looming by the pool.  Later that night, they were Rainbow Looming at the rink before the game.

“Do the guys on your team like to Rainbow Loom, too?”  I asked my son.  He’s one of the youngest on his PeeWee team; most of the boys are already 12.

“Sure,” he said.  “But we didn’t have much time for it this weekend. You know, because we had to focus on hockey.”

Before my oldest son was born 14 years ago, I thought I could raise my kids in a gender-neutral way.  I had a wide range of toys on hand for him to choose from, including a baby doll.  But he and his younger brother showed no interest at all in playing with dolls or stuffed animals or Barbies or anything like that. When I caught them drop-kicking the doll, I finally gave it away to a more loving home.   By the time our daughter was born, we had no toys left that could be characterized as stereotypically female.   That is, until the day that I found her cradling a Darth Vader action figure.  She was kneeling next to a bowling pin that she had put to bed with a Kleenex for a blanket.   The premise of my nurture v. nature theory having been blown out of the water, I took her to Target and let her pick out a baby doll.  At eight, she is still taking excellent care of her “family”.

The bigger lesson for me was that kids will choose to play with what is interesting to them.   My kids inherited a substantial Hotwheels collection from my brother, but the boys never played with them much.   My daughter has always enjoyed playing with the cars, although she often plays with them differently.   Sometimes I’ll find them all lined up by color, for example.  Instead of making car noises like “Vroom! Vroom!”, the conversations I’ve overheard coming out her room are about relationships.  “Oh, Baby car!  Are you lonely? Do you want to park by Mommy car?”

Toy choice is the single most sex-typed behavior that children display.   Sure, my daughter chooses the stereotypical feminine toy most of the time.But the point is that she should be able to play with any toy and in any way that she wants to, regardless of what our society traditionally dictates as the appropriate gender-based toys.  And that goes for her brothers, too.

This holiday season, my daughter and I talked a lot about the gender-based marketing of toys.  It’s especially noticeable in the toy section – some stores even have aisles blatantly identified with pink for girls and blue for boys.   On the same toy aisle where she picked out her first baby doll, we noticed a ultra-pink display for “Lego Friends”.  My daughter, unimpressed at this new line of Legos marketed to girls, observed that,  “I don’t get it. It seems like they should just sell all the Legos in the same aisle.”

Which brings me back to the Rainbow Loom, a toy that has grown tremendously popular without much marketing at all. Rainbow Loom is popular because of word of mouth and YouTube.  Kids decided it is cool and fun to Rainbow Loom, and they shared that information (along with the colorful, plastic bracelets) with each other.

I witnessed something similar last summer when my son and the other boys at camp were obsessed with fingerweaving.  I have a mental picture of a group of them, all 11 and 12 years old, sitting around and fingerweaving during their free time.  In the middle of the circle was a huge mound – yards and yards and yards – of their collective fingerweaving.  Every once in a while, someone would call out, “I need more yarn!” and someone else would make a run for the craft room.  Fingerweaving was cool and fun in their social context and everyone, regardless of sex, was doing it.

I see the same phenomenon with the Rainbow Loom.  When tween boys are making jewelry at the hockey rink, you know it is not a popularity bogged down by gender-stereotypes.

“Why do you like to make things on your Rainbow Loom?”  I asked my daughter.   “Because it is creative and fun!” she replied.

When I asked my son the same question, he replied,  “Because it’s fun.  And creative.”

That pretty much says it all.   In a gender-biased world, they found a gender-neutral toy that they both love for the same reasons.   So I ordered them each a new package of 1800 colorful little rubber bands.  I won’t even mind picking them up off the floor.

The Rainbow Loom – and the kids that have made it wildly popular – give me hope.  Hope that this generation will keep our society moving, slowly but surely,  towards gender equality.

The Human Rights Lesson

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I spent some time in my daughter’s classroom last week talking to the second graders about human rights.  I’ve been a guest speaker in all of my kids’ classrooms and have done this presentation (a kind of human rightsy mash-up of show-and-tell and career day) pretty much every year since my oldest was in second grade.  But this time was different.  I discovered the night before I was scheduled to speak in her class that my daughter, who just turned 8, was planning to do the presentation on human rights WITH me.

I have a more-or-less standard routine and she knew it well.  (I wrote a post called Same and Different about doing this human rights lesson in my sons’ classrooms.)  First, I do an activity that I call Same and Different.  I have several photos from West Africa that I had blown up and mounted on foamcore.  I show the kids a photo and have them point out what they see in the picture that is the same in their lives and what is different.  It always generates great discussion and often the kids see things in the photos and make connections that I never did.  Hopefully, by showing that all humans have similarities in spite of our differences, it also plants some seeds of respect and tolerance.

When I got to her classroom, my daughter brought her small plastic chair to the front of the class and set it down firmly right next to mine.  After introducing me (with the class microphone), she sat down beside me.  She had assigned herself the assistant’s job of holding the photos for all to see while I led the discussion.  A couple of times I had to remind her to hold the photo out so that all the kids could see, but overall she did a great job.

The next activity I do is to pass around a selection of items that I have picked up on my travels for work.  As we pass them around so that everyone gets a chance to touch them, we again discuss what is the same and different in our lives.  This time, I didn’t gather a thing for the activity; my daughter collected everything the night before our presentation.  A yak wool blanket from Nepal, a wooden statue of  a traditional palava hut from Liberia, coins and bills from Cameroon – all went into a bag I had brought her from Ghana.  She even added her pink beaded pointy-toed slippers from Morocco.  When I reminded her that she would have to share and let everyone touch them and try them on,  she hesitated for a moment.  In the end, though, her slippers went into the bag.

To close out the presentation, I usually read a children’s book or two about human rights.  I have a couple of favorites.  For Every Child, A Better World by Kermit the Frog is one that we own two copies of, but of course we couldn’t find either when we needed it.  I went to library to check out a copy and discovered shelved right beside it I Have the Right to Be a Child by Alain Serres.  This beautifully illustrated book presents the concept of human rights, especially those of children as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When I brought the books home from the library, I asked my daughter,

“Which do you want me to read to your class?”

“I want to read them both,” she said.

She did a beautiful job of reading both books to the class.  I was so proud that I teared up, right there in front of all the second graders and their teacher.

In some ways, it is easier to talk to kids about human rights than adults.  Because children generally see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong, it is easy for them to understand that we all have rights – the right to voice our opinions, to go to school, to be free from violence.  The right to have food and shelter and clean air and water.  The thing about kids is that they have a very strong natural sense of justice (as it applies to them, at least) they understand the inequities of a world where not everyone is able to access those rights.

One girl  came up and hugged me after the human rights lesson.

“It makes me sad,” she said, “to think that not all kids have enough to eat.”

“What you are feeling is empathy,” said the teacher.  “And that’s good.”

Knowing about the problem – caring about it and wanting to do something about it – is the first step towards change.

The last thing I heard as I left the classroom was another little girl saying,

“I think I am going to write a letter to President Obama and ask him why we are not part of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

There are a lot of things about working in human rights that are not easy, but this was a very  good day!

More ideas for human rights activities to do with children:

10 Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

10 More Things to Do With Your Kids on Human Rights Day

Same and Different

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004
Photo by my colleague Rosalyn Park, taken during our trip to Sierra Leone in 2004

Nelson Mandela read Chinua Achebe when he was in prison and reportedly described him as a writer “in whose company the prison walls fell down.”  I read Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in college, three decades after it was written, required reading on a syllabus that only included one African author.  I read his other books later, as well as some of his essays.  The obituaries describe him as an African Literary Titan and a “towering man of letters”.  True words, but he was more than that.  Much has and will be written about Chinua Achebe as the writer that wrested writing about Africa – that vast and varied Africa, as if one writer could ever represent it – back from the West.

There is one poem by Chinua Achebe that has stayed with me for many years, not because it captures the global themes of colonialism or tradition v. Western values, but because it captures so perfectly the small moments of heartbreak and love that I myself have seen in the refugee camps I have visited in Sierra Leone and Ghana.  That Chinua Achebe could capture the small moments of human connection along with the global themes was a mark of his genius.  Upon reading the news of Chinua Achebe’s passing today, I read A Mother In A Refugee Camp again.  I share it now, my own way of  saying thank you, “like putting flowers on a tiny grave”.

A Mother In A Refugee Camp

No Madonna and Child could touch
Her tenderness for a son
She soon would have to forget. . . .
The air was heavy with odors of diarrhea,
Of unwashed children with washed-out ribs
And dried-up bottoms waddling in labored steps
Behind blown-empty bellies. Other mothers there
Had long ceased to care, but not this one:
She held a ghost-smile between her teeth,
And in her eyes the memory
Of a mother’s pride. . . . She had bathed him
And rubbed him down with bare palms.
She took from their bundle of possessions
A broken comb and combed
The rust-colored hair left on his skull
And then—humming in her eyes—began carefully to part it.
In their former life this was perhaps
A little daily act of no consequence
Before his breakfast and school; now she did it
Like putting flowers on a tiny grave.

—Chinua Achebe

16 November 1930 – 22 March 2013

HUMAN RIGHTS: Speaking the Language

I’m over at World Moms Blog with this post today.  Check it out!

Sometimes I have trouble finding the words to talk to my kids about the violence that hear about in the news, the injustices that they see in our own community.  As a human rights lawyer, it is my job is to document and expose human rights abuses. But I have always struggled with how to communicate to my kids what human rights are and why they should care about them.

Recently, however, I was preparing for a project that involved interviewing children about their experiences.  Experts advise that interviewers use simple language when speaking with children about difficult topics.  “Simple language” means avoiding big words, of  course, but it also means using simple, direct sentences.  Straight-forward grammar – subject and predicate in sentences; basic speech parts – nouns and verbs and adjectives.  I suddenly realized what I was doing wrong in talking about human rights with my kids. Rather than explaining complicated concepts, what I needed to do was break it down to the core values that everyone needs to live fully in this world. I needed to start with the basic building blocks of language: words.

Once I realized this, I started to see human rights words all around me!  Words like:

and

and

Verbs like

and


and

and

Nouns were all around me!

and

and

and

I saw adjectives, too!

and

I started pointing out these words to my daughter, who is seven. Just last week, she was running past the table in the entryway where we put our mail.  Suddenly, she came to a screeching halt in front of the stamps.

“Look, mommy,” she said.  “The stamps are speaking the language of human rights!”

My daughter was exactly right.  The stamps said: equality, justice, freedom, liberty.  Powerful words that convey basic human rights concepts.

What human rights words do you see around you? Take a picture and post them on the World Moms Blog facebook page.

We can’t wait to see the human rights words in your community!

Mind The Gap: Would You Bring Your Child(ren) To Work?

Image source: Reuters

The current Weekly Writing Challenge got me thinking about children in one of the most adult-oriented of all places – the workplace.  Yes, I admit that I have brought each of my three children to work with me at various times, usually because of an unlucky confluence of sickness and pressing work deadlines.  It certainly isn’t my first choice, but in my experience it has worked out fine for short periods of time.  (Unless you count the unfortunate incident when my co-worker Peder accidentally got his finger chomped by my oldest son, who was teething.  New baby teeth are razor sharp. Peder claims that he saw stars, just like in the cartoons.)

But whether or not to bring children to work is an issue that many working mothers have grappled with at one time or other.  It is, in fact, the issue that has made European Parliament Member Licia Ronzulli so popular with moms like me. The photo above, taken in September 2010, of Ms. Ronzulli at work with her baby has made her a cause célèbre for working mothers around the world. 

Although she doesn’t bring her daughter to the European Parliament regularly, there are other photos of Ms. Ronzulli and her daughter Vittoria.  During a vote on the Eurozone debt crisis on February 15, 2012, reporters snapped several photos of Vittoria with her mom at the European Parliament.

Image source: AFP/Getty Images

Now two years old, Vittoria was back in Strausborg – and the European media – just this week.

European Parliament, October 2012
Voting at the European Parliament, October 2012

I think that the reasons that these photos resonate so much with moms here in America is that they symbolize so perfectly the work-family balance that all of us working moms struggle with every day. Ms. Ronzulli’s employer, the European Parliament, has rules that allow women to take their baby with them to work. Unfortunately, this is just not an option for most working moms. So we share the photos on Facebook and hope for a day when working mothers have better support. 

Support such as adequate parenting leave, for example, is important.  But Ms. Ronzulli herself was entitled to a parenting leave, but chose to take only 1 month of it.  She makes the point that it is about personal choice.  In 2010, she told The Guardian “It’s a very personal choice. A woman should be free to choose to come back after 48 hours. But if she wants to stay at home for six months, or a year, we should create the conditions to make that possible,” she said.   

I think that Ms. Ronzulli is right. I think that we should create the conditions to make it possible for a woman to choose the best thing for both her family and her career.  Sometimes, that might mean bringing the kids to work with her.  (And yes, I think this goes for dads as well.)

So what do YOU think?