The Lesson of the Geese
by Richard and Linda Eyre
Editor’s Note: Richard and Linda, in many of their recent parenting lectures have been emphasizing the importance of following our best natural instincts as parents. Along those lines, they present several “natural lessons from nature.” One of these is “The Lesson of the Geese.” The Eyres welcome direct feedback on their website, valuesparenting.com.
Near the small town in Idaho where I (Linda) grew up, there is a bird refuge frequented in the warmer months by Canadian Geese. I first remember being aware of the big birds each fall when I would hear their distant honking and look up to see their perfect V formations high above me, heading south. I learned from biology lectures and text books that in their yearly migration they fly high enough to find the jet streams, that they fly in a V formation to cut wind resistence, taking turns in the taxing position at the front of the V, and that they can fly thousands of miles without coming down. I also learned that by some kind of inner biological radar or global positioning, they return in the spring to the precise spot from which they left, the spot where they were born, their home.
A couple of times in the early spring, I think I saw the actual moment when some of the geese returned to our bird refuge. They swooped in looking exhausted but delighted to be home, landing smoothly on the water and noisily and joyously paddling around as though they were opening a house that had been closed for the winter.
As much as I enjoyed those early spring and late fall glimpses of migration, it was the later spring that became my favorite time for geese watching. When one of my parents drove me through the marsh lands, we would see the fluffy, brown babies paddling along in a line behind their mothers, with father always swimming close by in watchful protection. If it was windy or stormy, the mother would slow down and look back as if counting and keeping track, and the father would move into closer formation to help any that might stray. When the babies climbed out onto a steep bank, both mom and dad would help boost them up.
When I got older, further research taught me that Canadian Geese parents not only work together, they stay together, mating for life and living as long as sixty or seventy years. They stay with their children too, until they are grown, their love illustrated by their habits.
One day as we drove through the marsh we saw a mature female who at first we thought was hurt. She was making a lot of noise and swimming frantically and erratically. As we watched, we realized that she had lost one of her babies. She had the others grouped together on a bank and she would check on them and then dart off into the various passages through the marsh grass, looking for the missing one. We thought her loud, frequent honks were calls for the lost chick, but she looked up as she called and we realized she was calling for her mate. He swooped in a moment or two later and together they found the missing chick, and then hovered over it until it was re-integrated into the family. Whatever it was that he’d been doing, the dad left it immediately when his family needed him. After that minor goose-family crisis, both parents swam busily from chick to chick, nuzzling and clucking to them incessantly as if to reassure them beyond doubt that they would be cared for and never lost.
I recently read of a similar experience with a family of geese trying to cross a road. A driver came upon a father goose who had walked to the middle of the road, turned to face potential oncoming traffic, and spread his wings wide like a crossing guard. Then the mother and children began to cross. The driver, who had pulled to a stop, said she could see that the father goose was not watching her car but actually looking into her eyes to see if she was going to move toward them. When he was sure she was not, he left his sentinel position to hurry the rest of the struggling kids across the road.
Maybe it was because of the simplicity and beauty of that childhood setting and the memories I have there, but I came to love those Canadian Geese and to be awed by how far they could travel and yet always come home. To me they came to represent the commitment of families – parents who do their best to stay together, who are always there for their children, who help each other and who are predictably where they are supposed to be.
The lesson of the geese is commitment and priority. Commitment by married spouses to each other. Deep, obvious commitment of parents to children. And the clear and consistent prioritizing of children and family above all other priorities.
The trust and confidence that we all want for our children comes naturally and directly from the open and obvious commitment of parents and from children seeing and trusting that commitment – knowing they are our first priority and that nothing matters as much to us as they do. Once children feel this, deeply and truly feel it, they will forgive us for our mistakes, for our tempers, for our inconsistencies, for all our inadequacies as parents.
But we need to learn not to assume they know of our commitment and of their priority. Children’s natural tendencies are often toward insecurity rather than security and toward doubt and guilt rather than toward confidence. We need to tell them more often of our total commitment and of how much more important they are to us than anything else.
Like the geese, we must always come home.
Like the geese, we must put our children first.
Like the geese, we must let them know by what we say and what we do that they are our highest priority and tell them often of our commitment to them.
Like the geese we must understand that commitment is the most complete expression of love.
Like the geese, we must frequently reassure our children of our love and loyalty to them.
Like the geese, if we are married, we must let our commitment to each other be obvious, letting our children see our affection and see us talking together about them and working together for them. Single parents can devote all their family commitment to their children.
Like the geese, we must relish home and enjoy being there more than any other place.
Learn the lesson of the geese. Make your commitment obvious and let your spouse and your children bask in the security it will give them. Here are some ideas tried by other families. You’ll notice that each of these “snapshots” begin with the word “one,” suggesting that one parent can make a difference; that if one family can do it, so you can; that each family is unique and individual and what worked for one family might not work for you, but might stimulate a related idea for your one family. A picture is worth a thousand words, and some of these little “snapshots” may give you ideas or inspire you to try similar things. Don’t try them all! Just pick things that appeal to you or that you feel would “work” with your situation. Let them prompt your own ideas. The point is to show how many ways there are to work on and implement each lesson.
One family with elementary-school-age children, in a simple effort to make commitment more obvious and constant, decided together on something called “commitment hugs.” It was a simple, two-part idea: 1. That they would give each other more physical hugs (the goal was at least one per day from each to each) and 2. That the unspoken message of each hug (to be consciously thought of every time a hug was given or received) was, “I am committed to you as my highest priority. You matter to me more than anything else and I love you.” They even had a calligrapher put the commitment hug message on a plaque which they hung in their kitchen.
One dad who’s work required a lot of travel decided to call his two adolescent daughters every single evening that he was gone to ask about their day and to tell them he was thinking of them and that they were more important to him than his work – in fact, that the reason for work was to support them and their mother.
One father, in the middle of some important projects at his office, was feeling guilty for getting home late most nights, after his seven-year-old daughter was already in bed. He explained to the girl that the late nights wouldn’t last too long and that in the meantime she could have a secret password to call him. The password was “number one” because she was the most important person to him. She knew his office number and when she called, she was to just say, “number one,” and the secretary would either find her dad right then or put her on the message list as the number one or very first person her dad would call back.
One couple decided to try to reserve Monday nights for some kind of family activity with their three small children, even if it was just a quick trip to the ice cream store. They liked to say (to their kids, as often as possible), “first weeknight for the first priority,” and they tried to let the children decide where to go and what to do.
They also taught their four and six year olds the words “commitment” (defined as a promise) and “priority ” (defined as a very important thing). The kids felt cool using “big words,” sometimes in unique ways like, “But mom, that candy bar is a priority and you committed I could have it.”
One busy working mom just made a rule for herself that she wouldn’t fill in her daily “to do” list until she had asked herself, “What do my children need today?”
One family decided to quit saying goodbye on the phone or when someone left for work or school. Instead, they just said, “Love you.”
One couple officially “remarried” – holding a second ceremony later in their lives to repeat and re-emphasize their marriage vows and commitments to each other and to their children. They wrote out “commitment documents” to each other (which they also shared with the children). Part of the husband’s read like this:
“I hereby recommit myself, my resources, my gifts, and my soul to you as my highest priority, as my wife, and as the only romantic love of my life. While I am far from perfect as a husband, there are many things you can absolutely and always count on from me. One is that I will put you and your interests first in every choice or decision I face. Two is that I will always be completely honest with you and have no secrets from you. Third is that I will be a full partner with you in the raising of our children. Fourth is that I will never let other priorities (work, sports, etc.) get ahead of you and the kids in my mind or cause me to do anything that would damage or impact negatively on you or on your happiness. Fifth is that I will remember and keep our marriage vows. . . .”
As a final method for each lesson, consider simply reading the abbreviated animal story lesson to your child while he or she looks at the illustration.
The particular methods we use to show our commitment – to remind ourselves and our families that they are our priorities – are not as important as the simple fact that we do it, and do it often. Children who feel our commitment will, as they grow up, talk to us more, listen to us more, and trust us more. The constant re-establishment of commitment is the lesson that creates the atmosphere and the environment where the other eight lessons have the best chance of flourishing.
Why let spouses and children assume our love when it’s so easy to tell them? Why withhold the nourishment and security that we can give through the simple expression of our commitment?
Some will say, “Well, words are cheap,” or “It’s no good to talk the talk if you don’t walk the walk,” and they are right. But the point is that our words and our talk can remind us to walk like we talk and to live like we commit. Finding frequent ways to express our commitments is what keeps us from gradually forgetting or straying from those commitments.
Read the next article “The Lesson of the Crabs: Praise, Support, and Positive Affirmation”
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