The upside of a downturn

The passion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ invite us to reflect on the upside of a downturn, when the great victory of Easter brings meaning to the apparent failure of the cross. As we negotiate the very real stresses brought on by economic uncertainty, job loss, and a climate of despair, what lessons can we offer our children? Children need to be reminded frequently that it’s not economic stability, net worth or professional prestige that matters most. It’s who you are and who you are striving to be that have lasting value. Amidst the recession, parents can seize the character building moments this Easter season.

-- Encourage your children to exercise good judgment and responsibility. The recession has helped to reveal the dangers of greed, mismanagement and lack of foresight. Next time your teenager proposes a major purchase, ask him to get back to you with answers to a few questions: Do you need this? Why is it worthwhile? How will you pay for it? Helping your children to distinguish real needs from mere wants frees them from the trap of materialism.

-- Teach your children courage in the face of fear. Fear is a powerful motivational force--fear of failure, of being rejected, laughed at; the list goes on. Fear of not fitting in can provoke an unhealthy preoccupation with having a designer wardrobe, carrying the newest cell phone, buying the latest game systems. Children need courage to define themselves in terms of who they are rather than what they have.

-- Explode the myth that happiness is the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you please. Real happiness is not a luxury item. It is about learning to use our freedom well. How do we teach children to use their freedom well? By giving them opportunities to invest their time, talent and energy in worthwhile activities at home and school. Whether it is playing a board game with the family, building a shed, planting a garden, learning to fish, throwing a family party, writing a paper, playing lacrosse, singing in a choir, there are countless low cost, high interest ways to engage young people and enable them to make a positive difference.

-- Empower them to choose their attitude. In ‘‘Man’s Search for Meaning,’’ Viktor Frankl writes about the extraordinary prisoners in the concentration camp “who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread” and concludes that “the last of the human freedoms [is] to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” Parents can help their children develop greatness through self-giving. When your children feel powerless or become saddened by going without, direct them to serve someone in need--an elderly neighbor, a grandparent, a friend who is struggling in school.

-- Cultivate a disposition of gratitude. Teach your children to count their blessings small and large. Psychologists explain that we are happier and healthier when we thank people and reflect on all the things going well in our lives. The results suggest that young people who are grateful are more resilient, capable of pursuing worthy goals, more likely to help or support others and more likely to have a positive attitude toward family (Froh, Sefik, Emmons, 2008, “The Psychology of Gratitude”).

Above all, tell your children often that God has a plan for them. Their hope has to come from knowing that they are sons and daughters of God and that something greater, truer and more lasting than financial security awaits them in heaven.

Holy Week and Easter bring the economy of salvation into sharp relief. God calls us not to fear but to love. He calls us not to despair but to hope. He calls us not to the “stuff” of this world, but to Himself. This is the upside of the downturn.

Dr. Karen E. Bohlin is Head of the Montrose School in Medfield, MA and Senior Scholar at Boston University’s Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character.