Lessons from Christmas Carp

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By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

As we are working our way through the Advent season and getting ready for Christmas, our lives are filled with festivities, yearly chores and eager anticipation of activities which may include decorating a Christmas tree, listening to carols, watching Christmas movies, baking cookies, buying presents and getting ourselves into the holiday mood. But, for me, growing up in the Czech Republic, one essential Christmas tradition was all about the Christmas carp. Yes, the bottom-feeding creature that, in my part of the world, has been elevated from the humble fish family to a status of freshwater rockstar, raised in the carp farms of South Bohemia. (A little history lesson: supposedly the tradition of the Christmas carp dates back to 1253 and the missionary activity of Vilem of Rubruk. The popularity of carp is credited to lakes being built outside of Catholic monasteries during the Middle Ages to supply fish for the Catholic tradition of fasting from eating meat on certain days.).

So, you are likely wondering, how does a carp make it from a lake to your plate? It is an arduous and emotional journey for all. A few days before Christmas we would venture out to the city market with our crocheted bags and choose two or three fish for our family. Then, we would quickly walk home and release our new family members into our bathtub (keep in mind that the majority of families had only one bathtub in their homes). Honestly, I have a convenient amnesia regarding the lack of national showering for a few days as the entire country was renting out their bathtubs to these sweet freshwater creatures.

On Christmas Eve my dad would quietly disappear (to spare us from a traumatizing farewell to our new fish friend) and would take on the unpleasant task assigned to the man of the house: putting an end to the poor carp’s life. The next we saw of our recent bathtub visitor was as fillets of fish doused in milk marinade. My favorite responsibility was breading the fish, frying it, and serving it with a slice of lemon and potato salad during Christmas dinner. As I approach the Christmas season, I am reminded that of some of the most valuable lessons I learned from my beloved carp.

Lesson number 1: Sometimes it is okay to miss out on experiences. Now and then we need to give ourselves permission to sit out and be spared from certain events. Although I used to be curious about the actual “farewell” as my dad would club the carp, I realized that my fish was much tastier without the accompanying visual images of the fish’s ultimate fate. Sometimes there are events in our life that, despite our curiosity, are better left not experienced directly. We may, in fact, benefit from leaving some experiences unlived. Living our lives with intentionality means that we are guided by the questions: What am I trying to accomplish here? What is the purpose? If we are mindlessly wandering or rushing through life, we run the risk of missing the big picture, the bigger lesson, the meaning behind our experiences. Life is not about collecting or accumulating a multitude of experiences, but rather about living selectively and processing life with clear intention and purpose in mind.

Lesson number 2: Don’t take more than you can handle. Every year I would learn this lesson over and over again. My eyes would get big as I salivated over my piece of carp, but what I would often not remember is that carp is super bony and even the smallest piece takes forever to dissect and eat. Of course, this becomes a real issue for children who cannot open their first gift on Christmas Eve until all their fish is gone. Similarly, in life, we are prone to quickly commit to activities, events, and obligations only to later realize that we have overloaded and overextended ourselves. We are then left to feel like we are headed down a one-way street towards a brick wall. An event that seemed like so much fun all of a sudden turns into a burden and something to endure instead of something to enjoy. Especially during the holiday season, prioritize, prioritize, prioritize and then decide to do one less thing. Then thoroughly enjoy that one less holiday party, one less batch of cookies to bake, one less gift to make the season of celebration. Christmas season is something to be enjoyed, not something to check off our to-do list.

Lesson number 3: Taking shortcuts rarely works out. What do ER doctors do on Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic? Mini surgeries with their special tweezers as they are removing pesky carp bones lodged in the throats of folks who were trying to take the shortcut by consuming undissected bites, not taking the time to analyze each bite to deem it safe for chewing, swallowing and digesting. We can all relate to the little temptation to do something boring quickly so that we can move to the next, more enjoyable part, but that strategy of time management rarely works. Most of the time we pay for it in lost time, sometimes lost money, and often with our nerves bubbling over. Deep down inside we had a feeling that it was not a good idea to cut corners but we did it anyway, just to pay for it later. There is a false promise in shortcuts, making us believe that the process is unimportant and that reaching the end product quickly is paramount. Based on our experiences, we all know that often the course towards something can be just as enjoyable, enlightening and joy-filled as the final result.

So as we walk (yes, walk, don’t run) through this holiday season, let’s embrace each Christmas moment and experience as one of a kind because, in fact, that is what it really is. Each Christmas holiday will represent an amalgamation of the season of life in which we find ourselves, impacted by our current circumstances and the people with whom we are now close. Trying to replicate the Christmas magic of our childhood or years past will only leave us feeling unfulfilled and disappointed. Putting expectations on ourselves or others will make us vulnerable to feelings of frustration and emptiness. As we prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas, let us always remember the reason for the season. Veselé Vánoce a šťastný nový rok!

Praise vs. encouragement

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By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

I can remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday even though it was nearly twenty-five years ago. I was in High School babysitting for an American family when I overheard the American mom say, “Honey, I am so proud of you. Great job!” praising her young son. I remember thinking to myself how strange it was to hear such (in my mind)  exaggerated praise for some routine kid behavior. I paused for a moment realizing how odd this praise sounded to my ear. Then the curtain opened to the endless inner dialog. Wait a minute. My parents never praised me like that? Does it mean they were not good parents? Did they not love me? Is this parenting behavior normal? Is this really strange? Why is she talking in such a high pitched voice? I managed to calm down and proceeded to walk down  memory lane, recalling all the parental behaviors that showed me that indeed my parents loved me. I lived in a culture where the implicit mantra was “talk is cheap,” but as I have become more acculturated, I must admit to having picked up a some of the more postmodern  and admittedly hyperbolic buzzwords like fantastic, fabulous and epic and have embraced the land of great job, terrific work, and what an amazing accomplishment. So, why am I experiencing such a conflicted relationship with praise?

Let’s be honest–praise is often not about the object of our praise, but rather more about us. Praising our children makes us feel like we are good parents, nurturing and caring. Lack of praise is almost equated to emotional neglect. Quick “great job” does not require much mental energy. We can quickly throw a speedy superlative without spending much time inwardly deliberating. We become praise junkies.

So what is the difference between praise and encouragement? Frequently thoughtless praise is like driving through McDonald’s–picking up a quick burger, some fries and a milkshake. It quickly and mindlessly takes care of the hunger in exchange for a stuffed tummy and a food coma. Quick praise can leave our children with inflated heads or egos, but with no real emotional nutrition.  Encouragement, on the other hand, is like concocting a gourmet meal–it takes time, effort, and quality ingredients. Besides, it requires some thinking too. But the reward of that effort is that your child’s spirit will be nourished.

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Jazz Band

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By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

Over the weekend I was talking to my husband who is a fellow child psychologist and knows our community well. I was preparing a talk for parents and staff and looking for a musical metaphor to describe the St. James Academy community.  I said “I think that SJA is like a large orchestra” and he looked at me and said “No way, orchestra is way too prescribed.  St. James is more like a jazz band.” So, SJA is like a large jazz band.  The more I thought about it, the more the description seemed to fit.

So what do we know about playing in a jazz band?

— There’s the band leader, the player most in charge.

— There are different instruments, gifts and talents of the musicians, and parts of the music, but one melodious musical sound. We’re all different, but we play together and produce music.

— This beautiful music does not happen without following certain rules and structure. Everyone plays together in the same key and the same time signature but NOT the same notes. We have the SJA Honor Code, Handbook etc.. to provide the structure within which we get to improvise and play our individual parts.

— There’s time to solo and time to be play a supporting role while attentively and sensitively listening to our fellow band members.

— Every player has an equal value but a different role producing a balance between individuality and conformity. So on one hand… we have the beautiful individuality of each talent and on the other hand we have the conformity of following the rules, structure and boundaries as we all listen to and follow our band leader and fellow musicians.

— There’s a fine balance between focusing on ourselves and our own contribution to the music and noticing (not criticizing) what others are doing. When we mess up or others mess up, we extend grace to ourselves and others.

— This is also a good time to realize and respect that not everyone will make music the same way you do or the way you would like them to.  There’s always the squeaky saxophone that may annoy you, but it might be liberating to know that sometimes we get to be the squeaky saxophone to somebody else.  You will likely meet some members of the community that may not be your cup of tea. And that’s okay. You don’t have to be best friends, you just need to play well together.

— So no good music comes from chaos, everyone doing as they wish, showing little consideration for others. The “we” is more important than the “I”.

As we start another year, let’s be a great jazz band. Let’s make beautiful “cool” music together.

On Stage Parenting

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By: Dr. Lucie Pentz

A few summers ago my husband and I were vacationing outside of Bar Harbor, Maine. We took a nice, leisurely hike up Flying Mountain and were enamoured by the beauty of coastal Maine. Once we reached the summit, we found a comfortable spot to sit down and bask in the quietness that only nature can provide, that is until our little silent nature party was crashed. The peacefulness was suddenly disturbed by a loud conversation, though, to be honest, more like a monologue, specifically an apparently well-meaning mom giving a lecture to her two young children. Her intended audience seemed more interested in digging in the dirt than listening to her oration on the intricate structure of a centipede. The mom’s lesson went on and on and on. My husband leaned over and whispered into my ear, “She’s not talking to them (referring to her children); she’s doing that for our benefit.” I cracked up. He was probably right. As parents, we’re always trying to prove, defend, perform and convince. We think we’re on an invisible stage or trial. We are trying to prove that we are not just good enough parents, we are striving for perfection. We’ve all been there when fellow parents are overhearing our conversations, and we hope to sound appropriately parental, striking just the right balance between not being too much of a pushover but still validating our children’s feelings. We’ve all been there when our children are openly (and maybe proudly) misbehaving in the middle of the supermarket after we’ve given them a hundred of gentle reminders. Suddenly we find ourselves thrust under a gigantic spotlight with every shopper in the store (or so it feels) anticipating our next action. We’ve all been there when our child picks just the perfect time to ask us about a sleepover in front of his friends, and we have to decide in split seconds how to react. That’s what I call on stage parenting. It gets even worse. The actor and the critic are in one body. We are our own worst critics. In the world where good enough is no longer good enough, we have bought into the lie that perfection is attainable. I honestly don’t recall my parents losing sleep at night soul searching whether my math grade truly captured my mathematical potential or whether my play date with my little friends went according to parents’ expectations.

But on stage parenting requires lots of mental rehearsing, revisiting, stressing over and environmental engineering. In those moments of stressing, we all need an arm around us that will say, “Listen, you’re doing your best. It’s not like all of a sudden your child will morph into a monster. Trust the process. It will all work out. Sooner or later.” It’s not really about the individual moments, but rather the patterns and the trends of our children consistently bearing the good fruit of our parenting labors. Growing children is like growing a garden. Sure, it takes a lot of attention and care. But it also takes a lot of patience, acceptance that there are elements of the weather that we can’t control, and recognition that all our consistent care taking is going to pay off in the end. Just remember that sometimes it takes a few windy storms to strengthen the roots. We ultimately enjoy the rewards of what we’ve produced, and it doesn’t require winning a blue ribbon at the State Fair!