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Parenting with Wit and Wisdom in Times of Chaos and Loss

Julie Allen Shivel
Kennebunkport ME USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 37 No. 5, October-November 2001, pp. 99-100.

On Sunday morning at the LLL International Conference in Chicago, Illinois, USA I had the privilege of attending Barbara Coloroso's session, "Parenting with Wit and Wisdom in Times of Chaos and Loss." Although I didn't anticipate that Barbara would literally be talking about loss, I soon found myself laughing and crying amidst her anecdotes and wisdom. I was surprised to discover how good it feels to examine the ups and downs of life- and in this case, death.

Coloroso conveyed four key messages in her talk-messages that are important for us as well as for our children. They are: Life isn't fair; Life hurts; Life is good; and Life goes on. From that base, she shared both wit and wisdom on how to help our children manage losses. These messages can be useful for parents as they work through their own experiences of disappointment and grief.

She opened by stressing the importance of teaching children how to think rather than teaching them what to think. She asserted that this kind of message would lead youngsters to approach life with these ideas: "I like myself; I can think for myself; and there is no problem that can't be solved." With this foundation, it should be easier for children to avoid pitfalls such as sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, and suicide.

As parents, Coloroso encouraged us to develop a plan so that our children assume adult responsibility (and privileges),as they grow from birth to 18 years of age. She offered a guide for determining when parents must intervene: when something is life threatening, morally threatening, or unhealthy. She also talked about assigning responsibility that is developmentally appropriate.

Her vision for our children is reaching adulthood with the gifts of skepticism and wonder intact, while acting with integrity and being able to speak up.

Coloroso shared three tenets with us. First, "Kids are worth it." This is not only the title of one of her books, but a key premise to dealing with chaos and loss. When we believe that children are worthwhile, then we find ourselves committing our time, energy, and money into helping them succeed. We focus on the content of family life rather than the composition of those families, and we deliver essential messages to our children: "I believe in you; I trust you; You can handle this; You are listened to; I care for you; and You are important to me."

Her second tenet is: "I will not treat another human in a way I don't want to be treated." To accomplish this, she suggests that we teach children to be playful-to play in an unstructured (yet supervised) fashion without adults to resolve the conflicts. She stressed the importance of family rituals-and extended family rituals. She said, "Celebrate in the good times so that children will have something to fall back on in the hard times." For example, a weekly pizza/movie night is a way for a family to connect and celebrate the good times. In the harder times, this same ritual can teach the children that life goes on-and it gives the community (be they family or friends) a script to follow when the parents might be consumed with grief.

She believes that parties should be given freely rather than earned. An earned party (i.e., when grades are good, when a certain number of books have been read) teaches children that when they are good, good things happen, which isn't always true. Celebrations aren't rewards.

She gave an example of a family on report card day. In her example, the parents set the report cards aside, unopened, and went out to celebrate the end of the term. When they return to took at the grades, they have already honored the children for finishing the term-and now can address the secondary issues, like their performance. In this example, the parents show the children that they are valued.

Her third parenting tenet is: "Does it work and leave us both intact?" In other words, does a technique or situation accomplish its goal without damaging any of the parties involved? Although she didn't elaborate on this tenet, she relied upon this principle as she moved into discussing chaos and loss.

In preparing for living a full life, one that includes loss as well as joy, Coloroso spoke about the "TAO" family. Tao means "a path"-and she referred to this as a path through happy and sad times. The T stands for Time. Our children need our time. Being present for them and stopping to listen to them are some of the finer ways we give our time to them. The A stands for Affection, another basic need of children. They thrive on daily humor, smiles, and hugs--and these are important to give even in sad times. And the O stands for our Optimism. Optimism helps them to realize that "We will get through this" - not around it or under it or over it, but through it.

Coloroso listed some of the more common losses today: moving, divorce, remarriage, step families, chronic illness, and death. In speaking with children about these losses, she encourages us to use the correct words rather than mention euphemisms. Her advice is to mention everyday deaths like those of the trees, leaves, animals, and likewise, to speak of illness with the proper terminology - and then break it down into smaller, more easily understood words if necessary. There are three passages of grief that we all experience. She mentioned the five passages of Kubler-Ross as well (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but noted that everyone doesn't always experience those five.

Coloroso's passages begin with piercing grief-the "Oh, No!" phase-which lasts about seven days. During this phase, we may be in shock, and children in this phase may deny reality. There are many ancient faiths that recognized this phase of grief and allowed individuals the time to work through it.

The second passage is intense sorrow-which can last six months to two fears. During this phase, everything is colored steel cold grey by the loss and the realization that life is forever changed.

The third passage is sadness, tempered with the joy of getting on with one's own life, because life is good. She stressed that "tempered" doesn't mean moderated. For example, the joy of having a second child after losing a first child often heightens the sorrow of the first loss rather than diminishing the grief. These passages are circled around and often revisited at later times.

In talking with our children about loss, she recommended giving, the headlines first-for example: "Grandma died." Then follow with the facts: "She had a heart attack; the ambulance took her to the hospital where she died this afternoon." Then, Coloroso suggested simply being present for the child. She stated that anticipating the child's questions or needs is a waste of time. Children interpret and respond in unique ways, and the finest gift we can give them is to hear their questions and respond appropriately. She also cautioned against interpreting the news for our children. If we begin with "I have some very bad news..." we are subtly telling the children how they should react to the news.

With loss, she asserted that children need to be a part of our grieving circle so that they can then be part of our healing circle. She described how children of different ages respond differently to the same loss. An eight-year- old may want the gory details, while a 10-year-old only wants the facts. A 15- year-old will most likely respond with feelings of responsibility, "I should have done something to prevent this" She indicated that an accidental death, suicide, or homicide is more likely to bring up anger in teenagers. In dealing with the anger, parents might choose to listen and even to state their own angry feelings.

Responding to the question of "Should children attend funerals?" Coloroso believes they should, although they need to understand what to expect and to be able to make decisions about their own participation (i.e. whether or not to view a body, whether or not to speak, share, or cry during the service).

Coloroso often emphasized the importance of language, and gave many examples. She urged us not to forget a sibling in death. For example, if a brother dies in a family of four children, then the remaining children have three siblings, with two alive. When talking about a divorce, we "get through" it, rather than "handle" it or "get over/under" it. And lastly, when we use language to describe ourselves, avoid describing yourself by your losses. She maintained that there's a big difference between a "Cancer Survivor" and a "Woman who has had cancer" - or a "Down Syndrome baby" and "My son, who has Down Syndrome."

Lastly, she addressed three categories of chaos in our lives. They are mistake, mischief, and mayhem. In the case of mistakes, she advised a policy of "fix it and learn." She talked about the different approaches a parent can use with a mistake and the very different messages we can convey with our spoken and body language. In the case of mischief, she emphasized discipline. She reminded us that the definition of discipline is "to give life to children's learning" - rather than punitive punishment. And thirdly, she talked about mayhem. When mayhem occurs, it requires restitution, resolution, and reconciliation. These steps require the responsible person to fix the situation, to figure out how to avoid future incidents, and then to heal with the people they have harmed. In her vision for addressing mayhem, restraint and compassion are prerequisites.

She completed her presentation by reminding us that our children aren't the only ones who need our love messages. She encouraged each of us to take 30 minutes in daily renewal, so that we can say to ourselves, "I like myself; I can think for myself, and there's no problem I face that can't be solved."

Barbara Coloroso is an incredibly inspirational and wise woman. She delivers many of her messages in short lists that contain action-oriented steps. This type of presentation leaves you feeling as if you can live through anything with humor, in action, and with courage. Courage is especially important when we want to honestly face the joy, sorrow, and pain that are intertwined in loving others. As I laughed and cried through her excellent presentation, I was reminded of the nature of life itself.

This presentation was based largely on ideas found in Coloroso's new book, Parenting Through Crisis (Available from LLLI, No. 1105-7, $14.00). Coloroso's insights, tempered with her experience of living near the 1999 tragedy at Columbine High School, in Littleton, Colorado, USA, will help parents talk to their children in the wake of any loss or tragedy. For more information on Barbara Coloroso and her work, visit:

Julie Allen Shivel is wife to Glen Shivel, and mother to son, Quinn (5) and daughter, Elly (3). She is a Leader for LLL of the Kennebunks, in Kennebunkport, Maine, USA and District Advisor for Southern Maine, USA.

Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized speaker and author in the areas of parenting, teaching, school discipline, nonviolent conflict resolution, and reconciliatory justice. She is an educational consultant for school districts, the medical and business community, the criminal justice system and other educational associations in the United States, Canada, Europe, South America, Asia, New Zealand, Australia, and Iceland.

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