Mike Matthews photo

Mike Matthews

It’s sleep-over weekend for the grandchildren with us and it’s the coldest weekend this winter. The kids were promised they could choose the agenda and activities for this weekend and they want to go to the zoo then want to go for a hike. Again, the coldest weekend of the season, but a promise is a promise. The kids have been cooped-up all week in the classroom or at home and they are ready to commune with nature. This will be interesting, but my goal, as always, will be to provide some teachable moments for the kids and myself.

Yes, the zoo is open in the winter, however, many exhibits are closed for the season (mercifully for me). The “mane” events were the maned wolf, the lions, and especially the huge tiger who looked lonely (because there was only a few customers there willing to brave the weather) and he was glad to cozy up to the glass barrier to pose for pictures with the kids. The younger grandchild (her first trip to the zoo) was startled until she realized the tiger could not escape the barrier.

In a teachable moment, I explained to the older kids that our ancient ancestors did not have a glass barrier between them and the tigers, so they had to be constantly on guard to assure they lived another day to have lunch and that they would not be lunch for the tiger that day. Most tigers are in cages or safe areas today, but evolution has given us an anxious brain that is wired for fight or flight, even though most of the time we are not faced with an eminent danger. We are usually inundated today with paper tiger threats such as being worried about a big test, being late for school or work, or falling victim to a saturation of media warnings about violence, disasters, diseases, or pablum about political dribble. For kids and adults, awareness can be a key to avoid the harmful effects of paper tigers.

After the zoo visit, we enjoyed a nutritious lunch. Our middle granddaughter had somewhat of a meltdown because the crust of the bread was cut off (at her request) instead of pinched off, which offered a teachable moment about gratitude. I explained to all the kids why we always say a prayer of gratitude for our meals and how extremely blessed we are to have food at all. Even in our country, many people do not have a home or enough food to eat and some people want to complain that their food order at a fast food restaurant is taking too long. Children need to know and adults reminded how privileged we are to have the the luxuries my grandparents could not even imagine.

I recommend a 2018 book by A.J. Jacobs titled, “Thanks a Thousand,” a well-researched book that found Jacobs had 968 people involved with just providing his morning cup of coffee. I believe many people have lost perspective regarding the incredible things we take for granted every day. We live in a challenging but also a remarkable time where we generally can choose our own destiny in life, most of us in America have indoor plumbing, electricity, appliances, and the list of amenities that is endless. Our children can benefit from knowing the serendipity, opportunities, and responsibilities of living in this very special time.

It was still freezing, but my offer to watch the National Geographic channel instead of hiking did not fly, so we were off for a walk at our favorite park and more reasons for gratitude and more teachable moments. First was a stop at the pond to watch the ducks in action. We were humored when we saw one duck dare to enter into the space of another duck. They briefly flapped their wings and quacked to shake off the negative energy, but then they were back on their own way as if nothing happened. If only humans could shake off their aggression so fast instead of holding onto grudges for months, years, lifetimes, or generations. I told my grandchildren that ongoing disagreements are not good for your physical and mental health, and hope for them and everybody a sense of being at peace with the world without a quarrel with anyone or anything.

We ended the first day with a delicious and nutritious dinner enjoyed with gratitude, an incredible sunset, and a group reading with the older children reading to the younger ones, and a discussion of all the good things the children had taken in that day. I gave the older kids a calendar so they can mark the highlights of every day of the year and celebrate a great year at the end of it. I explained to them that it is just the human predicament that if there are 10,000 good things they could be happy for in the day and just one bad thing, people tend to focus on the one bad thing because of the propensity toward a negativity bias, so it takes consistent effort to live a happy, functional life.

The next morning, we watched a beautiful sunrise, enjoyed a great breakfast and went to the back yard to bathe again in the miracle of nature. Our raised flower bed had some old yard waste to pull, which offered another teachable moment. I explained to my grandchildren that, although I’m an optimist, I never ignore the weeds in the garden or they will overcome it. Just like in the garden of our minds, the formula is to pull weeds and plant flowers. The sooner children start to develop these tools for positive states, the more likely they will be able to install them in their brains for a lifetime of enduring positive traits.

It was a great weekend with no ordinary or boring moments and it ended too soon as always. The teachable moments for all of us revolved around the opportunity to spend focused time together and the gratitude for the beauty, wisdom and power of nature. Life is getting more and more complex and it seems children often are provided with insufficient guidelines to navigate it. In a time when we are losing faith in the sources we used to believe we could trust and when our culture is so focused on superficial and inconsequential things, it is time for dedicated adults to awaken as elders to teach about the sacredness and miracle of this amazing blessing called life.

Mike Matthews is a retired teacher, counselor and mental health administrator with a mission of creating a healthy and cohesive community.

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