- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 11, 2006

I don’t know if they do this in other churches, but in the Catholic Church, there’s a point in the Mass when many congregations hold hands. We do this when we recite “The Lord’s Prayer,” the beautiful words that Jesus taught his disciples.

Just before we begin this part of our ritual, I can feel my stomach muscles tense. I quickly look to my left and then to my right to check where my four children are positioned in the pew.

I do this because I know that there are certain hand-holding combinations that simply will not work. Though I try to anticipate this moment when we first sit down, I can’t always maneuver the seating arrangement when we take our places. Also, in my heart, I always hold out hope that this will be the week when it’s no longer an issue; they’ll have outgrown it.

But no, not this week. Amy and Jimmy are sitting together. When it’s time to hold hands, they grapple for who has the “under” hand and who has the “over” hand.

I shoot them a dirty look as I speak the words “Hallowed be thy name.” And so it goes.

By the time we get to “Lead us not into temptation,” I am squeezing Amy’s hand hard enough to send the universal “knock it off” signal, a clear but unspoken message that I want her to heed the words she is speaking by rote.

When the prayer is over, I lean in and whisper a maternal admonition that includes guilt-infused phrases such as “even in church” and “while God is watching.”

After Mass, as we drive out of the parking lot, I ask, “Is there any place you two won’t bicker?”

“Is that a rhetorical question?” my 8-year-old daughter replies. Sigh.

I’d like to report that this behavior is confined to the two youngest members of my family, but I can’t.

As recently as two weeks ago, my teenage daughters bickered in public over who rightly should have the use of the only personal music device on hand.

One claimed to own the headphones, giving her priority. The other said that because the CD was hers, she had first rights.

I pointed out that their bickering was meaningless, other than to humiliate me in front of strangers, because the CD player was, in fact, mine. I put it in my bag, and that was that.

My concern isn’t only that people will (correctly) perceive my children to be cranky and argumentative in these situations. Even if I get embarrassed, I remind myself that any parent who sees my children’s poor attitudes on public display and doesn’t empathize with me is either a) unfairly judgmental or b) inexperienced in the ways of restaurant meltdowns over who sits closest to mom. Their days will come.

Embarrassment aside, there’s a cultural shift that’s worth noting: the propensity to emote wherever, whenever and with whomever. What probably started as a novelty years ago on “The Phil Donohue Show” — crying, confessions, confrontations (Phil: “Help me out, audience”) — evolved into a Jerry Springer-style mentality in which we all seem to expect people to explode with an emotional bombshell.

On such a grand emotional stage, a fight with your sister over a CD player is hardly worth noting.

Yet, note it I do. I’m starting to think this is the slippery slope that leads to disputes with strangers over parking spaces and culminates in the horrible episode that appeared recently in the media about a woman who bludgeoned her neighbor to death — and attempted to kill the neighbor’s cat — because the feline had a habit of relieving itself in the hallway of their apartment complex.

Emotions run amok, to be sure.

Call me a dinosaur, accuse me of promoting emotional repression in my offspring, and convict me with evidence of the psychological benefits of self-expression; I’m trying to get my children to be less emotional.

This isn’t easy. I gave birth to three drama queens and a beleaguered, if not oversensitive, son. When the children in my house feel something, they feel it deeply, and they need to talk about it.

I know it’s important to validate their feelings and afford them a safe place to unload, and I would never discourage them from opening their hearts.

Nevertheless, not all emotions are worthy of expression, and sometimes, we can offset them with something nobler. Frustration? Counter it with patience. Anger? Answer with compassion. Self-pity? Conquer it with gratitude.

I’m trying to get the point across that our emotional range has to be a bit wider than happy, sad and mad.

I have a long way to go, to be sure, but I look with hope to the day when there is no poking in the line at the movies, when two or more siblings can choose a flavor of ice cream without attracting the attention of everyone in the grocery store and when the prayer “deliver us from evil” is answered with a peaceful recitation.

Maybe the pendulum will swing back toward decorum and privacy, toward a time when people will be horrified to turn on “The Montel Williams Show” and see an ugly encounter in which raw human emotions serve as unscripted entertainment.

I hope that day comes, but I suspect it won’t until more of us teach our children that every slight need not be important, every thought need not be expressed and self-control is the true mark of emotional maturity.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 18 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.mary bethhicks.com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@ comcast.net.

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