Kitty O’Meara of Tra Publishing On How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected

An interview with Pirie Jones Grossman

Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

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Instead of going deep into conversation, story-telling, and shared family activities, “online children” are thrust into the whole world at once and all the time, where life is presented as surface appearance and conformity through shallow emojis, likes, and sound bytes. There are scant invitations to explore deep listening, reflect, hear one’s own voice, or understand the various shades that issues and experiences present. Children need loving parents to guide their meaning-making.

Parenting is challenging. We all try so hard to give our all to our children. We desperately want them to feel loved and connected. But somehow there is often a disconnect. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, or that we don’t seem to speak the same language as our children, or just all of the “disconnection” that our kids are dealing with in today’s frenetic world. What are steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? As a part of our series about “How to Raise Children Who Feel Loved and Connected” we had the pleasure to interview Kitty O’Meara.

Kitty O’Meara, a lifelong writer and artist, lives near Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband, their five rescue dogs, two cats, gardens, and books. Her hopeful poem about the Covid-19 pandemic went viral, was shared worldwide, and then illustrated and presented in book form as, And the People Stayed Home, a bestseller published by Tra Publishing. The Rare, Tiny Flower, her second book, has been featured in The New York Times Book Review and Publisher’s Weekly. Her forthcoming book Oliver and the Night Giants is set to release in fall 2023.

Thank you so much for joining us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know a bit about you. Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

My two brothers and I were raised by parents who loved us fiercely. Our education, the naming and development of our gifts, and the commitment to live from our spiritual beliefs were very important to them, leaving me with an enduring passion for learning and for carefully tending my spiritual journey. My father’s career led to several relocations, which can be challenging for children, but I think these uprootings and replantings developed my self-reliance, penchant for story-telling and drama, ability to initiate, tend, and keep deep friendships, and to return again and again to my artistic gifts for comfort and for processing changes. Transformation is a theme in my life!

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

I graduated from university with degrees in theater and literature, fully intending to pursue a writing career. Other decisions intervened, as they can, and I was quickly married and responsible for finding work to pay bills, so my gifts and interests led me through three careers: advertising and special events were followed by a return for an education degree. I was not blessed with the children I yearned for, and hoped teaching would allow me to spend my days and creative energy with children. I loved it, but after many years I left teaching to write full time, and was immediately invited by life to provide caregiving for my mother after my father’s death. She was ill and her time with us changed me forever, as great loss and grief can do. I set aside my writing and returned once more for an advanced degree in Servant Leadership and pursued further programs in spiritual direction and spiritual care, working in a Madison hospital and then hospice.

I still and always wrote poems, stories, reflections, for my blog (the-daily-round.com), and after I retired, the pandemic arrived. I posted a little piece I’d written on my Facebook page, and within a week, Deepak Chopra was reciting it in an online video and O, The Oprah Magazine contacted me, requesting an interview…that was just the beginning. I was invited to collaborate with so many artists during the next two years, and formed virtual relationships that once again transformed my life. Tra Publishing, a miraculous collection of collaborative talent and magic headed by Ilona Oppenheim, asked if they could publish the poem as a children’s book. My lifelong dream circled back and became a reality. We’re finishing up production on our third book together, Oliver and the Night Giants, to be published in autumn, 2023.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you explain to us why it is so important to forge a strong connection with our children?

Family is the original art studio for self-creation and our parents/caregivers are our original teachers and models regarding what it means to be a human being. I would push back a bit on the use of the word “connection,” although I understand the intention. But it’s become so overused as a way for describing our electronic devices and their strong, weak, viable, and lost links with the internet…I believe what we’re talking about is building loving, enduring relationships with children. Families are our first communities. All our intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual patterns begin with those we call family.

The steps we learn and follow (and transform) throughout our life’s dance are initiated by what our parents teach us about life, engagement, interaction, creating, healing, celebrating, grieving, forgiving, and acknowledging and expressing our feelings and needs. When a strong and loving relationship is created and tended, children are able to integrate their life experiences more freely and fully, I think; they trust their gifts, recognize their weaknesses, learn from their errors, and — perhaps most importantly — they learn the skills needed to form loving relationships out in the world, using the moral compass their parents have provided.

What happens when children do not have that connection, or only have a weak connection?

Relationships that are not founded on parents who are protective, loving, corrective, and encouraging are damaging and manipulative. They diminish a child’s sense of self-love and capacity for loving others without attaching all the strings and psychological or physical stipulations the parents originally demanded be met for “love” to be offered. How children are treated by their parents will contribute to their understanding of “love.” An unstable relationship teaches them love is unstable and unreliable, that it’s based on one’s adherence to unhealthy stipulations instead of offered because they are blessed, unique, and welcomed.

Do you think children in this generation are less likely to feel loved and connected? Why do you feel the way you do?

I think they may feel over-connected in the technology sense and less loved in the relationship sense because of the preponderance of electronic devices and excessive engagement with social media. The sacred intimacy and deep memories of how we were present to one another during my childhood would have been lost had we all disassociated with phones and laptops during our precious hours together.

Instead of going deep into conversation, story-telling, and shared family activities, “online children” are thrust into the whole world at once and all the time, where life is presented as surface appearance and conformity through shallow emojis, likes, and sound bytes. There are scant invitations to explore deep listening, reflect, hear one’s own voice, or understand the various shades that issues and experiences present. Children need loving parents to guide their meaning-making.

We live in a world with incessant demands for our time and attention. There is so much distraction and disconnection. Can you share with our readers 5 steps that parents can take to help their children feel loved and connected? Please include examples or stories for each, if you can.

Share your evening meal together. There’s something so precious about feeding our minds, bodies, and spirits together, while sharing stories about our day. So many of my happiest family memories took place around the dinner table.

Parents can guide these dinnertime conversations around a theme when their children are young. What made you happiest today? What did you notice about someone today and how did it make you feel? Did you see anything green today? Etc. And, as the children grow, invite a story describing their own or a witnessed interaction between classmates. Then, ask them to tell it from the other participants’ point of view. Teach empathy, kindness, wide-minded thinking, and ways to develop and sustain healthy relationships.

A second way to deepen parent-child relationships is to tell your own childhood stories and family stories going back generations. Use photographs, videos, etc., to build this concept of family story to help your children understand they belong, they are important to the continuing story of your family, that their parents were young and made mistakes, had silly adventures, and learned how to make good choices. Families are so profoundly bonded through laughter: never neglect an opportunity to be silly and laugh together.

Create a strong moral compass for your children to carry throughout life. Teach values, adhere to them, model them, discuss their importance to relationships and to society. Model peace-making. Point to people who have demonstrated values you admire throughout history and to those who failed to honor and live up to ethical choices. Try to emphasize how much more freely and widely your children’s gifts can expand in the world when they recognize injustice, and the needs of others and of the Earth. Some families have strong faith communities to help enhance and develop these values, but a specific religious perspective isn’t necessary to teach children how to be actively kind in the world. Spend a Thanksgiving serving at a homeless shelter; donate a toy when a new one is gifted; help clean an elderly neighbor’s yard…be creative and match your actions with your child’s gifts.

Learn about deep listening, and practice it till it’s how you listen to everyone, but especially your children. Focus on your child’s every word and begin to study her subtexts and imagery. Notice. Don’t anticipate or interrupt. Let silence do the heavy lifting. Question without judgment, but to clarify your own understanding, and check your own need to correct or compare, then set it aside and get back to listening. Help your child identify and describe his feelings about experiences. Stay present. Invite children to predict how problems might be solved or events could unfold based on their choices. It’s OK to end conversations with unconcluded stories. Just listen.

Finally, do things together, especially outside. Hike a trail, plant and tend a garden, visit museums and theaters. Have a family adventure jar to which everyone contributes their ideas. Make art together, bake cookies, play charades. Read books together. Any of these activities and a thousand others will create lasting memories and bond loving relationships forever.

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

Good parents, I think, actively feed their bodies, minds, and spirits and teach their children to do this, too.

We were encouraged to explore our bodies’ grace and athleticism as children. When we weren’t in school (or in my case, reading library books and writing stories), we were outside playing games, biking, gardening, hiking, and play-acting. This gave me a lifelong need to enjoy my physical being through daily exercise, dance, long walks, etc. The pleasure is enhanced by the understanding that this is a way of loving myself, of tending my physical health.

I mentioned the great importance my parents placed on our education, and that has reinforced my innate love of learning. I love taking classes, joining groups to pursue deeper understanding of a given topic, watching PBS, and reading volumes of books. I love doing creative projects and challenging my imagination. I think good parents help children identify their gifts and passions and do everything possible to encourage their creative pursuit, which contributes to growth, integration, and mental health.

My childhood spirituality was Catholic, especially Fraciscan and Ignatian. I was taught to love and tend the Earth, to see all life on our beautiful planet as equally beautiful and worthy of protection and love, and to recognize we’re all gifted and we’re here to serve each other’s healing and wholeness with those gifts. These spiritual gifts have deepened immeasurably and led me through my life’s shadows and light; I’m so very grateful to my parents for starting me on a path of tending my spiritual health. Good parents do this. They consciously tend their physical, mental, and spiritual health, and equip their children with the means to do so, too.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

Listen to the messages you send your child when she shares her dreams. We all have scars and fears and walls regarding our limitations, errors, and regrets that require our attention and healing so we don’t pass these on and dampen a child’s enthusiasm. (Enthusiasm literally means the Divine within us. Our holy joy is necessary for our gifts and dreams to thrive.)

Our dreams unite us with the universe, the call of stars, and eternity; they should be as big and bright as we can imagine. Allow your child to try and fail and try again. And again. Sometimes dreams adapt, transform and evolve…watch the journey of your child’s dreams and encourage him at every step. Praise her creativity, her choices, her quest to acquire expertise. Help her develop self-confidence and a willingness to discern her path on her own timetable. Guide her towards other teachers. Give her space and, always, your love. And sometimes, achieving little dreams is a helpful way to build confidence.

There are examples of people who have achieved amazing dreams everywhere; use them to inspire your children. One that I recommend is the story of Vivien Thomas, who discovered the lifesaving procedure for treating cyanotic heart syndrome in infants. I admire his character, perseverance, and life story profoundly. His story was told in the HBO film, Something the Lord Made. People like Vivien Thomas want me to be a better person, which is something big dreams should do.

How would you define “success” when it comes to raising children?

As they mature, are they kind and loving people? Can they discern their way through moral questions and ethical dilemmas using the moral compass you’ve exemplified? Are they developing and using their gifts in ways that give them deep joy and serve the greater world? Do they meet adversity with stamina and creativity? Do they tend their bodies, minds, and spirits?

Do your eyes and hearts light up when you meet each other? Congratulations! That sounds like success to me.

This is a huge topic in itself, but it would be worthwhile to touch upon it here. What are some ideal social media and digital habits that you think parents should teach to their children?

As I mentioned earlier, I think all of this needs to be limited in favor of real-life interaction, especially through a child’s middle school years. Driving too much of our human interaction solely, or mostly, through digital connections is potentially over-stimulating. I don’t think our nervous systems are meant to be in the middle of a Tokyo intersection 24 hours a day; it’s certainly not where children’s minds and emotions should be left unattended. Social media is a wonderful way to stay in touch but for young children, it can become an unsupervised playground of bullies and predators. It’s not the only/best place to develop a child’s unique personality or growing expertise in their gifts, although sometimes it’s a perfect place to connect with fellow artists and co-create together. Parents need to monitor and supervise these interactions, limit their time, and encourage divergent creative activities.

It’s best, I think, to put devices away during family time, and to discuss and model their functional, educational, and worthy benefits as well as the drawbacks to relationships they present. It makes me sad to see a family at a restaurant or social function together, with each person staring into and stabbing at a phone.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

I would defer to my many friends who are excellent parents and grandparents for this advice. But I’ve been told that my three books have inspired children’s caregivers. (And The People Stayed Home; The Rare, Tiny Flower; and Oliver and the Night Giants, about a boy and his big dreams, to be published in autumn, 2023.)

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I’ve collected inspirational quotes for decades, but one that I return to often these days is from Joanna Macy, who wrote, “It is a privilege to be alive in this time when we can choose to take part in the self-healing of our world.”

We’re in the midst of great changes on our planet and some will challenge our utmost creativity and strength. The task before us can be daunting and discouraging. Parents may feel anxiety about their children’s futures in ways past generations have not experienced, although I realize that to be a parent is to worry. Some days, I feel such despair about the choices being made, or neglected, by the world’s leaders, but when I read Macy’s quote I always re-center and reorient: It is a privilege to be here, now. Our gifts and those of the Earth’s wonderful, beautiful children can help the planet and her people heal, if we remain hopeful, creative, grateful, and united in our humanity. This is our time, and our Earth needs everyone here to act on behalf of her healing. What a privilege!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would implement a daily global practice called Namaste Your Day. It would be a conscious and intentional promise, renewed each morning, to co-create our best world together.

To gently bow and offer someone the greeting, “Namaste,” means to acknowledge your awareness that the Sacred abides in him; you see and honor his holy light. I invite all of us to offer such awareness to our new day at her beginning. “I see the holy potential in your minutes and hours and I’ll join all others in serving them with my gifts to the best of my ability.”

It would perhaps keep us both grateful for the privilege of being here, as Macy urges, but also aware that we must use our given sacred moments to act in the service of the Earth and all life. Bow to the day’s power, to the light and love you’ll co-create with her. And then do it. Namaste Your Day!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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Pirie Jones Grossman
Authority Magazine

TedX Speaker, Influencer, Bestselling Author and former TV host for E! Entertainment Television, Fox Television, NBC, CBS and ABC.