FAMILY MEETINGS

Colbert did a piece on family meetings a few nights ago.

I looked at Garry. “We didn’t have family meetings. The closest thing we had were family fights. I bet you didn’t have family meetings, either.”

He looked at me. “You knew my parents. Can you imagine my mother having a ‘family’ meeting? It boggles the mind,” he commented.

I nodded. “I don’t think our generation had family meetings. The closest thing we had were probably large family get-togethers, during which we tried to keep hostilities from turning into violent shouting matches.”

Our parents told us what to do. We either did it, fought about it until we gave up — and then did it anyway — or said we would do it knowing we would really do the other thing. I don’t know about anyone else, but being sneaky was not considered “lying.” It was more like survival. Making it to adulthood with independence intact required a good deal of prevarication. If you only did what you were “allowed” to do, you would become a pathetic shadow of one or both of your parents.

Growing up meant developing individual opinions and direction. Our parents weren’t necessarily interested in our opinions. About anything. Being sneaky meant you could save the inevitable face-to-face confrontation for something really important.

So, no family meetings. No rational group discussions of what the family should do … or even what we personally could do. Instead of meetings, we had arguments, fights, low and high-level hostilities … and plenty of sneaking around.

Family meetings? Like me, mom, dad, Matt and Ann sitting together and logically — and politely with good humor — discussing our collective and individual futures? Not. Really.

BORN FREE OR AT LEAST INDEPENDENT – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My daughter, Sarah, came out of the womb as her own person. Her independent spirit revealed itself before the age of two and a half. Psychologists I’ve talked to say this is unusual. But does it mean that this aspect of personality is inborn?

Here is an example of what I mean. When Sarah was less than two, she got confused because another little boy had the same name as her brother, David. I told her that the other David was Jan’s (the Mom’s) David, like your brother David is mine and you are mine. She was sitting on my lap. She pulled away from me and emphatically stated “NO! I MINE!”

Sarah at 18 months

That apparently shows an advanced level of separation as a distinct individual from the mother. This usually happens much later in a child’s development.

Another example involved bedtime. At eighteen months, my older son had always needed me to stay with him till he fell asleep. So that’s what I did with Sarah at that age. I stood by her crib and sang to her and told her stories. One night, after I had been with her for a few minutes, Sarah said “You can go now Mommy. I want to go to sleep!” I was surprised but thrilled that she could assert herself and tell me what she wanted. And that she could go to sleep on her own. She was always a self-soother. David never was.

A similar incident occurred with her Dad when Sarah was a little over two years old. Her father was tickling her while she played with his watch. She hated being tickled and asked her dad to stop. He kept tickling. She asked him to stop more emphatically. He didn’t. So she hit him in the face with the watch. Her father was stunned. He asked her why she had hit Daddy and hurt him.

Her answer – “I told you to stop”. Wow! That was a “Make my day” moment!

Sarah at two

Her father never tickled her again. He also treated her with much more respect from that day on. Sarah instinctively knew how to set limits and to protect herself and her space. I wish I had that moxie, even as an adult.

My son had a very different temperament. When I would tell my five-year old son that he had upset me by doing something I didn’t like, his response was usually “I’m sorry Mommy! I won’t do it anymore.” Perfect response from a mother’s perspective. When I said the same thing to my five-year old Sarah, her response was “I’m sorry you’re upset. But you’ll just have to deal with it.” Not exactly a mother’s dream child.

So is this deep sense of self genetic? Are we born either with a sense of boundaries or not? That seems to be the case with my kids. I’ve watched these personality differences continue into adulthood. David has always been more like me and Sarah has always been more like her father in this regard.

After having my own children and watching them develop over time, I now believe that nature may have an edge over nurture when it comes to certain basic characteristics and personality traits. I’m sure there are examples of nurture being the dominant force, but in my experience, I vote for nature over nurture on the basics of who were are.

“PROTECTING” CHILDREN BY LYING – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My father was 26 years older than my mother. He was 58 when they married, a first marriage for him. He was 59 when I was born. He was only five years younger than my grandfather and three years younger than my grandmother.

Mom, Dad and me at two. They were 35 and 61.

When I was five or six, my mom got sick. I was scared but comforted myself by saying that only old people died. My parents decided that it would not be a good idea to tell me that my Dad was ‘old’ – he was 64 or 65 at the time, ancient to a little kid.

They made up a story about my parents’ ages. They took ten years off my mother’s age, since she was 33 when she had me and not a young woman in her twenties like most moms of the day. They took 26 years off of my father’s age and said that they were only ten years apart. So when I was ten, I thought my parents were 33 and 43 — not 43 and 69!

When I was 12, a friend’s father read one of my dad’s books. He also read the biographical section on the back cover flap. This said that my father was born in 1891, which would have made him 71 years old. My friend told me and I checked out the book cover. I was appalled that such an egregious error had not been caught on a major publication. I informed my parents that they had to contact the publisher immediately and correct the error.

Mom and Dad when I was about 11. They were around 44 and 70.

My parents had to confess their actual ages. I was in shock. I was also devastated that I had been lied to my whole life. We had celebrated fake birthdays for both parents every year. Even my grandparents had been in on the big lie. I felt manipulated and humiliated.

It got worse. A few months later, in a 7th grade Ethics class, we talked about the issue of ‘old people’, ‘senior citizens’ – people who were over 65. We talked about nursing homes and the obligation to care for the elderly. I suddenly realized that this meant my father, who was already in his 70’s, as well as my grandparents. I remember struggling not to cry in class.

I don’t advocate telling big lies to children. I think if I had grown up knowing my parents’ true ages, it would have been natural to me. No big deal. By lying, my parents made into a big deal. I became obsessed with people’s ages and it lasted for several years.

Mom with Dad at the end of his life. She was 63 and he was 89.

Lies like those my parents told me made me feel betrayed and I never fully trusted my parents again. I didn’t feel my parents had confidence in me. Kids need to know their parents believe they are strong enough to handle the truth. I think lying to your kids to ‘protect’ them, tells kids that you think they need protecting from the world. It makes kids doubt their own ability to cope and creates insecure and suspicious children.

I’m a big fan of truth-telling. I’m not rude, but I try to be honest as much as possible. For example, I didn’t automatically tell my children that everything they did was amazing. I’d tell them if I thought their art work or school project wasn’t the best they’d ever done. I believed they needed to learn to deal with criticism. I also thought they needed to learn that they couldn’t just phone it in and still get super praise.

I may have ended up being too honest with my kids, but i think it’s better than deceit.

SPIRIT OF INQUIRY OR DEFIANCE?

OVERCOMING CHILDHOOD ISN’T ALWAYS ABOUT NICENESS AND OBEDIENCE

So I found this question on Facebook and it brought back a deluge of memories.


Hey moms, I’m in desperate need of  help. I’m at my wit’s end with my lovely little defiant child. I love him lots, but enough is enough. Every morning, my son wakes up at 3 in the morning and refuses to go back to sleep. He will literally be up for the entire day. I’ve repeatedly tried putting him back in his room. I’ve tried time outs, taking away his privileges. Tried having him do chores. Nothing works. He talks back, makes faces, or just laughs at me. I literally don’t know what to do anymore.


My mother used to tell stories about me as a baby. How I’d be up and wide awake by 3 or 4 in the morning. We lived in a crappy apartment on Rose Street in Freeport. She would get up, put on her overcoat and wait until the heat came up, which wasn’t until seven at the earliest.

I was smart child and mentally active. She eventually figured out that the only thing that made life better was keeping me busy. Finding things for me to do that I enjoyed. Crayons, paint, and lots of paper were important items in my world.  I pretty much did whatever I wanted — which fortunately, wasn’t dangerous.

Eventually I learned to read books and write stories. And draw. Life got better for everyone, especially me.

Even as a toddler, I went to bed hours later than the “official” bedtime for little kids. I never slept as many hours as other children. I would read in bed for hours after “lights out.” Even today, I still don’t sleep a lot. If I get six or seven hours, to me that’s a good night’s sleep.

Garry recalls being much the same, too.

I don’t think we were defiant. That term gets rather loosely used today. Defiant often means that this child doesn’t want to do what mom wants him or her to do. Doesn’t sleep enough. And has a great sense of humor.

Highly intelligent children need mentally challenging activities and they can be hard on caretakers.

We were active, curious, and drove our mothers crazy, but it wasn’t defiance. We wanted to do what we wanted to do. We didn’t want to do what we were supposed to want to do. I was never interested in what the rest of the kids found fascinating, though I tried to act interested.

These days, we label kids like this as defiant when maybe what they are is very smart, with a marked desire for information or knowledge. It’s not a character flaw. My mother, having not had the fortune to read modern psychology, read stories to me. Taught me to read. Gave me paints and drawing pencils … and lots of books.

Sometimes pop psychology is a dangerous beast. Don’t label your kids. Saying it might make it true. Just because he or she doesn’t “behave” doesn’t make him or her defiant. Maybe smarter and more creative than other youngsters. Stronger-willed — and not ready to sleep because mom would really appreciate it.


Obedience isn’t always the most important thing you can get from your kid. Being a good little child who always does exactly what he’s told doesn’t show a lot of imagination, creativity, or smarts. Personally, I think obedience is overrated.


I’m 70 now. My mother quite liked me, eventually. I’m sorry she’s gone. We could be good friends today.

MY LASSIE – BY ELLIN CURLEY

My first dog was a magnificent collie who looked just like Lassie. Her name was Bitsy and I was four when we got her as a puppy. Everyone thinks their dog is extraordinary, but this dog did some amazing things.

Bitsy as a puppy and me at four

She understood language commands. For example, she was a herding dog so she would chase me around and nip at my heels. All my socks had holes in the back. I think this foot nipping is part of how dogs herd sheep.

Anyway, if I was outside playing, my mother would tell Bitsy to “Go get Ellin” and “Bring her home”. Bitsy would then find me and herd me home, right to my mother. Sometimes I protested and begged Mom to “Tell Bitsy I can stay out a little longer!” Mom would tell Bitsy it was okay and she’d run off or start to play with me.

We also had a cat, named Beauty. Bitsy and Beauty were good buddies, but my mom was terrified of cats. When Mom went outside to visit her mother’s cottage on the property, she was afraid she’d run into the cat. She’d tell Bitsy to “Go find Beauty”. Bitsy would herd the cat to where Mom was standing and ‘hold’ her in place with her long snout. That way Mom knew it was safe to walk across the grounds.

Me at around 5 with Beauty as a kitten

One night, Bitsy performed a very Lassie like rescue. A small fire broke out in the cottage where the caretakers and Bitsy lived. Bitsy kept barking and scratching on the door until someone came and found the growing fire. Bitsy saved two humans, two dogs and a cat.

Bitsy and me when I was 7 or 8

Once in all the years we had her, my father yelled at Bitsy. Dad was her favorite human and she took it badly. She slunk off and lay down on her bed. She went into a deep depression and wouldn’t move or eat for two days. My Dad was getting frantic. Finally he lay down on the floor with her and kept telling her he loved her. Only then did Bitsy get up. She got so excited, she jumped around Dad and did their characteristic ‘dance’ together – she put her paws up on Dad’s shoulders and he danced her around. Dad never forgot that incredible bonding experience. He also never stopped feeling guilty about yelling at her and he never stopped missing her when she was gone.

Bitsy with Dad and me

But we did not do right by Bitsy. My parents didn’t know much about dogs. So they had Bitsy live at our summer-house in Connecticut with the property’s year round caretakers. She was not allowed in our house. On top of that, we were only there for three months in the summer. So Bitsy had my parents, me and my grandparents in her life for one-quarter of the year. The rest of the year she stayed with the caretakers who were paid to take care of her when we weren’t there. They didn’t mistreat her, but they weren’t real pet parents taking care of a beloved pet. She missed us terribly.

Bitsy was justifiably very neurotic. She was a chronic car chaser. Despite two minor accidents with cars, we could not get her to stop. She was eventually killed by a school bus when she was only five years old.

As a dog savvy dog lover now, I’m horrified that my parents would treat an animal that way, especially one who they supposedly loved. But to them, it was ‘inconvenient’ to have a dog in a New York City apartment. Mom didn’t want a dog shedding all over the house. So why didn’t she get a low shedding dog? So this was how we did things.

Bitsy with me, my parents and my grandparents, her whole family

I’ve never stopped feeling guilty about Bitsy, even though I was just a kid at the time. I was nine when she died. To add to the trauma of Bitsy’s death, my parents were afraid to tell me she was dead, so they waited eight months and only told me when we were due to go back to Connecticut for the summer. They lied to me for eight months when I asked about Bitsy throughout the year — which made me feel even worse!

I have to give Bitsy major credit for making me into the good, conscientious, sensitive and knowledgeable pet parent I am today. So all the dogs I’ve had since Bitsy owe her a debt of gratitude. I never want to feel guilty about how I treated a pet ever again!

LONG AGO AND FAR AWAY

PHOTOGRAPHY: GARRY ARMSTRONG


An awful lot of people seem endlessly fascinated by childhood, especially their own childhood. Maybe it was such a wonderful time that they will forever regret leaving it. Maybe it was their best of times. For them, the grown-up world has never been able to compete. Maybe, with the passing years, even if childhood wasn’t all that great, it has achieved a retrospective perfection that was not present during the original experience.

Regardless, it wasn’t the best of times for me. I was glad to get out of it alive. I have never had any interest in revisiting it. At this point, thanks to the passage of time, much of it is a fuzzy around the edges. The earliest memories are just plain fuzzy all the way from beginning to end.

Everyone had a childhood. I think by the time you’re entitled to pensions and senior services, it’s time to move away from the delights of childhood and find something wonderful in the grown up world.

Childhood.

It’s where we all come from, but it’s not where we’re going. Most of life is adulthood. I prefer it. I like the adult me a lot better than the kid me.

DAD STORIES – ELLIN CURLEY

I have two wonderful stories about my father that I’d like to share with you. One happened before I was born and the other is a fond memory from my adolescence.

DAD AND THE FBI

My dad, Abram Kardiner, was a well-known anthropologist and psychoanalyst from the 1930’s to his death in 1981. He was friends and colleagues with another prominent anthropologist of the 1940’s, Ruth Benedict. Benedict was being considered for a government job so she needed to get FBI security clearance. In the ‘40’s, it was de rigueur to be morally upright (and uptight) as well as anti-communist. The FBI asked to interview my Dad as a character witness for Ruth Benedict.

As it happens, Benedict had borrowed my father’s summer house on occasion and used it to have loud, wild parties. She was a lesbian, so no men were involved. But homosexuality was an automatic deal breaker in those days. My Dad was worried about how to handle the ‘morals’ question that was sure to come up in his FBI interview. He didn’t want to ‘out’ Benedict but he wasn’t happy about lying to the FBI either.

Luckily, the FBI agent framed his question very narrowly. He established that Benedict was not married. Then he asked my father, “Does she go out with a lot of different men? Does she party with single men a lot?”

Honestly and with great relief, my Father answered, “Oh, no! She’s not that kind of girl!” The FBI agent diligently wrote down that answer. He went away happy and Benedict got the job. Dad’s cleverness helped both him and Benedict dodge a bullet that day!

DAD AND HIS TEMPER

As I said, my Dad was a well-known psychoanalyst. But he was also a very anxious man with very little self-control. If he was upset, he yelled. He wasn’t mean or demeaning or hostile. He just ranted at top volume a lot. He had no filter and no off button. This drove me crazy.

One day, when I was about 15, Dad went off into one of his hysterical fits. I think he couldn’t find something and he thought that someone had moved it off of his desk (no one was allowed to touch anything in his office). I just snapped. I started yelling back at him, saying things like, “ How can you be a therapist if you can’t control yourself?! How can you tell other people how to live their lives if you can’t get a grip on your own?!”

He stopped dead in his tracks and thought for a few seconds. Then he uttered this classic line: “My dear. I SELL it. I don’t USE it!”

We both burst out laughing and the incident was totally diffused. I always felt that his comment showed some humility about his personal failings. It was one of the few times in his life that he admitted any of his faults to me. After that day, I was a little more tolerant of his outbursts. I’d like to say that they were less frequents but I’d be lying. I just saw them in a different light.