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January 3-9, 2007

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Ask Sydney

This advice column is penned by a Sonoma County resident and our new weekly sage. Go ahead! Ask her anything.

Dear Sydney, how can I be myself without offending people? It seems like time and again I upset people or cross some sort of line, without meaning to. This happens with people I have just met, friends and even family. But this is never my intention. How can I be my exuberant self and get my needs met, without pushing people's buttons? Every time someone reacts negatively to me, I feel so deflated and hurt, but I don't want to stop being me either.--Loudmouth

Dear Loud: We all, every single one of us, offend people. The only way not to offend is to withdraw, to never speak out of turn. In fact, don't speak at all, just keep your mouth shut, dress in plain, unremarkable clothing, drive a small, gas-efficient, anonymous car, make yourself invisible, avoid references to religious beliefs, personal tastes in food and cultural or ethnic biases.

I would rather engage in conversation with an offensive loudmouth than a placid drone who won't speak an opinion for fear of offending. Please, do not become a boring person, I beg of you. Just be more sensitive to those around you--not by holding yourself back, but by making sure that you give them their own space to talk. There is a line between exuberance and being overbearing. Take time to observe it. Locate yourself. If you fall on the overbearing side, then be more aware of other people's body language. Are they pulling away? Nervously twirling their hair and tapping their left foot? Or are they smiling, nodding, laughing?

Your job is to be yourself, but also to pay attention. What you say and how you behave impacts those around you. But this doesn't mean that you must let go of who you are. My guess is, considering the fact that you still have friends and family to offend, your loud mouth isn't as much of a problem as you think. Part of being an outspoken person means putting yourself on the line, and when you do this, you're bound to get hurt. But then, life is so short, there doesn't seem much point in keeping yourself safe at the expense of personal honesty.

Dear Sydney, when I was 17, I was working to help take care of my family in Italy. How do I teach this sort of ethic to my 17-year-old son, who, unlike me, has had everything handed to him? I feel like I've created too much affluence, and now I don't know how to create the need for him to be a man. If I provide everything for him that I can, how will he feel the need to grow up? Sometimes I feel like I have to create an artificial crisis, because crisis is what worked for me. Maybe it doesn't take a crisis, but if not, what does it take? I'm afraid he'll be in his 20s and still be a boy.--Frustrated Father

Dear Dad: It isn't your job to create crises for your son or to make him a man; that's what life is for. Your job is to give him the psychological tools so that when a crisis does present itself, he is better able to deal with it. These days, adolescence can seem to have an extended shelf life, especially for those fortunate enough to be born into a middle- or upper-middle-class existence. Staying in an adolescent state well into one's 20s can be normal, especially if dad is paying for the car, the college and the cell phone. But life deals some dirty cards, and not everyone can always count on a family or money or a college education. Sometimes it's as simple as a broken heart, but at some point your son will feel the bite of failure, and then he will begin to understand what it means to be a man, with or without your assistance. To aid in his education, ask him if he would like to participate in an exchange program, perhaps to a place where people truly know what it means to be poor. Sometimes perspective can be a great teacher.

Ultimately, finding ways to raise a child with integrity when you have so much and your child is in need of nothing doesn't rate very high on my list of life's insurmountable obstacles. Be thankful that you are able to provide so well for your son and that you have made his life, thus far, a safe, well-fed, warm place where he can be a boy for longer then most. This is a great achievement. If only more were so fortunate.

Dear Sydney, My main objection to American society, which I do love in so many ways, is that the children here are not taught to think critically. If you don't have a country of citizens who are critical of what is being said and spoken, then you have a society that is not honest. I have been a teacher in the public school system for the past five years, and I fail to see how having students pass some standardized test in any way shows that they can actually think. The education system in this country baffles and frightens me.--Born in Norway

Dear Nordic: The public school system is an institution of the United States government. This means that in many ways it is not to be trusted. It's the job of parents to teach their children to think critically, especially about school, as this is where they will be spending the majority of their time. They should be taught to understand that ours is a school system with many fine points, but also one that can be so rife with inequalities and mindless pedagogies that it's amazing so many of us are even capable of thought, period, much less critical or imaginative thought.

There's something tempting about sending our children off to school everyday without really giving much consideration to what they are actually learning. But it's important to strive against such an apathetic view toward our children's education. Another duty that falls to parents is to pay attention and teach children how to assess what they are being taught in school, and not to accept it blindly. This way, if the child happens to land an exceptional teacher, one who teaches critical-thinking skills, they will be all the more prepared to excel.

No question too big, too small or too off-the-wall. Ask Sydney.