This weekend I watched Ethel, a fantastic documentary on HBO about Ethel Kennedy, which was directed by her daughter Rory, a wonderful documentary filmmaker. ( I have seen other films she has done) Anyway, I had many takeaway's from this extraordinary family of 11 children. I hyperventilate just thinking of raising and having that many bodies and personalities all in one household.
First and foremost, Ethel and Bobby Kennedy loved, loved, loved children. I don't just mean that they loved their children, I assume most parents do. I mean they loved children, hanging with them, talking to them, playing with them, eating with them, going away with them, and seeming to prefer their company to anything else in their life. I'm not sure all kids would say that their parents love being with them. I am reminded of a dinner out a restaurant recently. We were with friends at a lovely, grown upish restaurant, on the early side for dinner. Next to us were two tables, one with 5 young children and two nannies, and at the other, the moms, enjoying a glass of wine while the nannies were hanging with the kids. And did I mention it was one of the kid's birthday?????? See this is what I mean about Ethel and Bobby, dinner with the kids was sacred, playing with the kids was a priority. As these now middle aged adults reminisced, they all individually talked about this as an important part of their lives. Though their dad was obviously engaged with important and serious work, and often away from home, he spoke with them regularly and lovingly even during a crisis moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Those kids knew without question they were loved and the most important people in their parents lives. I have worked with many families where parents have long work hours or travels regularly for work, or parents are separated or divorced, and was surprised at how infrequently they talked to their children. Teens especially need to feel connection to their parents, even if it seems like they are not at all interested. If you are not the custodial parent, or you work late or travel often, make time every single day to connect with your kids.
Another striking element of this family was how important Ethel and Bobby felt it was to make sure that their kids knew that the privileged life they led was NOT how most families lived. When Bobby Kennedy was doing work on the Civil Rights Act, the kids went with him(all 11) to the South, so he could show them make them understand what it meant to be discriminated against. When Bobby Kennedy was fighting with Joseph McCarthy in court about blacklisting, Ethel took the kids to sit in that courtroom, day after day, even the young ones, so they could learn and understand discrimination. These parents did not protect their kids from the evils of the world, they exposed them, and taught them what the world had in store for them.
Dinner time was a protected time, and a time for conversation. The kids were expected to read the newspaper and to be up on current events, and be ready to share their opinions at the table. What an exciting dinner table that must have been, 11 children, 2 parents all fighting for the floor! I am always surprised by how little most teens know about the world. Granted they are not much interested, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't help them to stay informed. Watch the national news together, on a real TV not online, read interesting news stories at the dinner table and generate discussion. Stimulate them, excite them about the world they will be joining!
Ethel and Bobby obviously had a unique life, and were part of a legacy passed down from both their families. But the lessons they teach about family are for everyone. Love being with your kids, stay connected even when it's hard, show them that the world is a much bigger place than your community, and teach them that all people should have rights and dignity. You'll be doing a good thing!
Watch my new short film about the power of understanding!!