The Food Post

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If there’s anything to get one in mind of food in families, it’s Thanksgiving. Don’t worry: I’m not going to offer advice about how to present leftovers in endless combinations (though I bet the internet has something to say about that). In fact, the only thing I have to say about our Thanksgiving is that we had four (4) pies. So clearly we won.

No, the reason this came up is that at dinner tonight (a completely non-leftover related affair) our five year-old was displeased by what was on offer and was invited to wait in her room until we were done and I could help her get ready for bed. I later learned that she had changed into her pajamas, brushed her teeth, made her bed, tidied the floor and made a drawing, so she was clearly not malnourished.

I won’t say that this is a common occurrence. It’s not. But nor is it unheard of. I can think of a time in the recent past when three out of four children opted out of a meal because of objections to a dish, an ingredient or a method of preparation. And that’s fine. As we say, “There will be food again at the next meal.” Reliably and regularly. And we will attempt to make that meal as balanced and healthy as possible (with the exception of ice cream for dinner, which I haven’t written about for a few weeks). So if a child refuses offered food, it’s really a drop in the bucket.

Growing up, my nemesis was onions. I would not eat them in any capacity, for any reason (though strangely I always liked onion rings AS LONG as the breading did not come off). My mom, who did most of the cooking, didn’t put a lot of thought into accommodating my prohibition but was pretty good about warning me. As a result, I learned to deal with it as much as I was able and only very rarely gave up on the meal. My dad would marvel at my ability to find every trace of onion in a slice of supreme pizza; I would leave a neat pile on one side for future use in landscaping projects.

The frequency with which we deal with refusals of food is related to the sheer number of new foods we introduce to them. We don’t expect kale or beef liver or spaghetti squash to “take” the first time. Or even the first five. It may not happen ever. But given the variety our kids have seen on their plates over the years, the number of times they felt they had to throw in their napkin and walk away has been statistically quite small.

So, food allergies and sensory issues aside, the reason a child may “only eat chicken nuggets and pizza” or whatever is that this is what keeps ending up on their plate. Might I suggest taking a gamble that they will eventually try something new–if not now, then at the next meal?

 

Silence as Teacher

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The more I think about the great parenting moments that can come out of not saying something, the more I think that maybe we shouldn’t say anything at all. Could we just lay all our words aside and come up with a code using, I don’t know, flags or something?

That’s probably taking it to the extreme (though maybe not, really, because you may have seen how easily babies pick up sign language). But as I’ve written before, children learn just fine on their own; in fact, often it’s us–teachers and well-meaning parents–that get in the way of that. When we ask questions, we’re not comfortable with the silence that may follow. It might have to last a minute, or five. Or a day. I am constantly taken aback by what my daughters recall about events that took place long ago that to me seemed insignificant or routine but which for them unlocked something deep in their world.

Don’t we have moments like that ourselves? One of my earliest memories is of a night that my parents took me to some sort of dude ranch (this was in Colorado. Dude ranches happen) where there was dust, and music, and barbecue…I was so tired out at the end of the night. My mother took me out to the car and I looked out the window, through a fog of exhaustion, at the face of a snarling bobcat.

It took an instant or so. But even my child mind told me that this was not a real cat. It was the logo on an RV parked next to us. Something about that frozen snarl set all the memories around it into permanence.

We clearly don’t choose the experiences that stick with us. It follows that others can’t choose them, either. What matters is that we are given–we give–opportunities for them to happen.

Sometimes we need to use words. For safety: I’m sure you beat me to that one already. And because it’s important what we name things (and what we don’t). But as adults we will always speak louder with our actions. And the silence that we don’t fill will always have more to say.

All the Answers

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One thing that all parents share is that, no matter what we’re doing, there will be people who think what we’re doing is wrong. If we’re lucky, those people won’t bother to tell us about it. If they do, and we’re still lucky, those people won’t be members of our family. If they are, then we’re probably out of luck, but we hope to have the fortitude to ignore them. Or at least to take it in stride.

I sometimes go online to research the trending topics in parenting. This research consists of typing “parenting topics” into the search engine and hitting the return button. There are the inevitable lists of “hottest parenting controversies” and “parenting topics that draw the most heat” (actual headlines that I won’t bother to link to). I can place these topics into one of a few categories.

One category involves practices that simply go against the research about what is effective. An example, about which I’ve posted before, is the question “Should I spank my children?” If you’re asking, my answer will be “Not if you can do something else.” And there are a lot of other things to do, many of which can be found in this blog and elsewhere on the Parenting Success Network. I would encourage you to check it out.

Another category involves practices about which it is easy to find research, and strong expert opinions, that go either way. Examples of this are “Should I breastfeed after the age of two?” and “Should I cosleep with my children?” and “Should I find out the sex of my baby beforehand?” These are things which as parents we just kind of have to figure out for ourselves. We have done all three of these in our family: two of our kids continued to nurse into toddlerhood and two did not. Circumstances were different for each. Cosleeping worked for us, but we had to get used to not having a bed to ourselves. And we happened to learn the gender of each but it wasn’t something we sought out; it was just right there in the ultrasound. So, I can’t really tell you one is better than the other.

My favorite category includes controversies that I really couldn’t care about one way or the other. “Should big kids ride in strollers?” Really? Do they want to? Will they break it if they do? Do you want to push them around all day? Personally, I always preferred to keep the stroller empty to leave more room for groceries.

As a parent I am full of opinions. And as a “parenting expert,” a position in which I am actually paid money (I know, it’s wild), I find little need or opportunity to share them. I have never told a family I work with whether or not they should nurse or cosleep or carry a baby in a sling instead of a car carrier, even though they were adamant choices in my family and we would not have done it any other way. The fact is, parents have been raising children for many thousands of years (millions, if they’re not mammals) and those children have tended to mostly survive to have their own.

Is it fun to argue about these things? Only you can answer that. That’s why there is social media. In the meantime, I advise you to just do what works, and avoid what doesn’t.

Not much of an answer, is it?

Tending the Childhood Garden

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Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers. What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (say that three times fast) offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, offer ways to improve the skill.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do, in a safe and nurturing environment. Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

Halloween and the Social Contract

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I have fond memories of Halloween. There was always something magical about the social contract of trick or treating: it was widely agreed upon that a child could build up a surplus of candy through a ritualized exchange of words. It was almost unearned: free candy (or other, let’s face, it, inferior offerings, things that are not candy), just for showing up at someone’s door!

We made the parental decision starting last year that we would not be celebrating the holiday. And this year, partly due to this decision and partly because we’ve just been busy, we didn’t even make our trip to the pumpkin patch. It sort of snuck up on us, and we were of a mind that it would just pass by unnoticed.

And then it happened anyway. The children–oddly proportioned superheroes, little ninjas, junior Sith Lords, the stray Elsa–began to mass in our neighborhood. We had put a friendly sign up on the door: “No trick or treating here. Sorry!” and an enterprising, probably pre-literate child was banging on the door in anticipation of having his end of the social contract fulfilled. “I can see you in there!” By the time I had come home from work my daughters had lobbied successfully to join him. After all, they are already masters of dress-up, and within five minutes they were costumed and geared up from the dress-up basket. I grabbed my coat and hat (they decided I was a sailor) and joined Hermione Granger, Princess Buttercup, Cinderella and unnamed Medieval Lady as we made the rounds of the neighborhood.

We circled a couple of blocks, avoiding houses that a.) had no porch light on and b.) had decorated too enthusiastically (the girls have a strict “no hanging skeletons” rule) and I have to say they made out pretty well. In addition, my take of the non-gluten-free candy (in which the girls are also mysteriously well schooled) rivaled their own. It was…fun.

So, the kids got to experience the peculiar joy of a holiday in which we do not invest. I was reminded of the show of community that takes place on this day and, really, no other in this fragmented and isolated culture. I would love for there to be more of this: for strangers to receive each other on their doorsteps in mutual giving. For the time being, I guess I’ll take trick or treating.

And the next time an enterprising kid in fake muscles shows up, I’ve got some non-gluten-free candy to share.

Decompressing the Home

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There are two kinds of parents (actually, there are at least three, but we are concerned here with those involved in the daily lives of their children). There are parents who work, and there are parents whose work is to parent. And this is, well, work.

As for the kids, they all work. Whether they spend their days at school, learning at home, or involved in some sort of apprenticeship such as ship’s boy or cooper’s assistant, they have been “on” for a long time, and when the family is together at home, everyone is spent.

In her article 7 Ways to Help Your Child Handle Their “After School Restraint Collapse”, Andrea Nair writes, “It takes a great deal of energy, mental motivation, emotional containment, and physical restraint to keep ourselves at our best while at work, daycare, or school for other people.” She goes on,

“One of my children used to love going to public school, but pretty much every day was in tears when he got home. He didn’t have a clue why he was in tears, but I knew that he just needed to decompress after keeping it together all day. I steered away from friend playtime or scheduled activities right after school so that he could have time to regroup.”

Nair presents some very useful tips for helping kids to ease their way back into the home environment. In addition to such universal advice as “Feed Them,” she advocates giving them the space they need to readjust their energy. Sometimes this means leaving them well enough alone for a while. Reducing noise and other stimuli, even conversation (even to the point of avoiding that classic parent question, “How was your day?”) can be helpful. It is important to remember that they are feeling all the accumulated stress and fatigue that we are, but with one crucial difference: they don’t have the resources that we as adults, ideally, possess to deal with it.

My situation is typical for homeschooled families in that when I come home from work, I enter what has been essentially the workplace for the rest of my family; for the mother as well as the kids. I try to be conscientious about this, because while coming home may be a relief for me (especially if I have had the presence of mind to decompress from my workday on the way home), it may well be that no one else has had that chance.

My job, then, is to help transform the space into something less stressful. If there is a way that I can help with dinner, I can do that (more often than not, if dinner is already underway I can be more useful by staying out of the way). In that case I start on preparations for bedtime. This involves finding pajamas, closing curtains, turning on lights. I am usually the audience for whatever artwork or projects the kids have been working on that day. And when dinner is served, their mother is officially clocked out.

I will confess that I sometimes envision the scenario presented in shows like Leave It to Beaver, in which my job would be to read the paper in my recliner while the dog fetches my slippers. However, this is a new century, and anyway I don’t think the world really worked like that in those days either. Also, we don’t have a dog, and the cat does not fetch.

So really, I’ll take this.

 

Family Tripping, Part Two

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Frank Smith, in his classic book on education, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, writes:

“We are learning all the time–about the world and about ourselves. We learn without knowing that we are learning and we learn without effort every moment of the day.”

I was reminded of this premise while we were on our family vacation last week. We had rented a cabin at Silver Falls (in October, because it is our unanimously favorite month and because it was not likely to be crowded; and fortunately, we don’t mind rain). My four daughters took advantage of this time away from school and the routines of ordinary life to learn, vigorously. Here are some of the things they learned.

The five year-old learned to climb up, and eventually down, the ladder to a top bunk. From this vantage point she proceeded to conduct experiments with gravity and velocity using her stuffed animals.

The nine year-old discovered a new species of slug that is exactly the length of a pine needle (she checked) and dubbed it a “pine needle slug.” I think it is more commonly known as a “baby slug.”

She also demonstrated to her sisters that course silt and fine silt could be found in different depths of the stream and they speculated on why this was so.

They all learned the properties of various foods and other substances as they burned in the campfire. They kept “accidentally” depositing them in the fire and took advantage of this opportunity to observe them.

The seven year-old sampled rosehips and found, via droppings, that several different animals had done the same.

Later she found the jawbones of a mouse and declared this to be the coolest thing ever.

Various field sketches were made of the leaves, ferns and rocks along the trail.

Also on the trail they discovered that the mud was actually a fabulous sort of clay, and they brought samples back to the campsite. They fired their sculptures on the grill.

The nice thing about homeschooling is that, depending on how you look at it, you are never really in school and are always in school, whatever you are doing and wherever you go.

And yes, as I had written earlier, vacations are rarely relaxing.

 

A Few Words on Empathy

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If nurturing means watering the plants you want to grow, what is at the root of those plants?

Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s empathy.

In our Nurturing Parenting programs, empathy is the cornerstone, the trigger, the fuel, the baking mix. See? I could have used a lot of different metaphors. But the root sounds good so we’ll go with it.

What is empathy?

It sounds like “sympathy,” but should not be confused with it. Sympathy is the act of feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is the act of feeling what that someone is feeling.

It’s walking in their shoes.

Even if we can’t understand another person’s exact experience (and we probably can’t, most of the time), we can understand the feeling they have. Maybe we have been through something, good, bad or more complicated, that put us in the same state. And the ability to go there with someone else is empathy.

Empathy is learned.

Some things are determined by our genetics and our family history. Things like whether you will cheer for the Beavers or the Ducks. Empathy is a skill that must be learned. It gets stronger with practice, and more powerful with intention.

Which is not to say that we start out with nothing to work with. When a baby sees and hears another baby crying, they will begin to cry too. Is this empathy?

In any case, it can certainly be unlearned. And that’s where Nature passes the ball to Nurture.

So how do we learn it? And how do we teach it?

Like a lot of learned behaviors and skills, we pick it up from the people around us. Or, and this is important, not. As children, we need to see it modeled by other people, particularly adults.

As adults, we can give kids opportunities to act with empathy. We can discuss with them what another person must be feeling. This person can be real or fictional (how does Sleeping Beauty feel when she pricks herself on the spindle? How does Maleficent feel when she is excluded from the birth celebration?).

More importantly, we can approach them empathetically. We do this by helping them to identify their feelings (“Your words sound angry.” “You must be very disappointed.” “That’s scary.”) and to–and I like how the Nurturing Parenting curriculum puts it–to honor those feelings.

When children know that what they are feeling is acceptable, and normal (even if they don’t know why), it helps them to respond empathetically to others.

Telling this to ourselves doesn’t hurt, either.

Family Tripping

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For a family (and a parent) that relies so much on routines, going on vacation can be…complicated. A vacation means that, almost by definition, the rhythms and the certainties of day-to-day life are going to be altered, for the benefit of a new setting and a new set of experiences. One could argue that this is kind of the point. Nevertheless, this perfectly appealing and reasonable argument is going to fill me with anxiety.

Cardinal among the routines that drive our family’s engine has been bedtime. Our kids like their own beds, their own ways of arranging their covers and stuffed animals (and in the case of the oldest daughter, stacking her books next to her head so that they will not topple onto her face in the night but so that, I guess, she can smell them?). They do not as a rule share beds well. This came through during our big trip to my parents’ house in Colorado a couple of years ago, during which we all shared an upstairs room. Much sleep was lost. I still haven’t found it anywhere.

This year, we have planned a week in a cabin in a local State Park. Our goal has been to allow for as much relaxation as possible. There are no timetables; no obligatory trips to see things; no appointments with other relatives. We plan to hike, and play, and read, and that’s about it.

The planning itself has been underway since February. We spent an afternoon checking out all the rental cabins and picking just the one we wanted. We placed our reservation right away and deliberately set it out past Labor Day to our mutually favorite month in the Northwest, October. Once this was done, we slipped back into life and the year sort of whooshed by. Now here we are, on the cusp of our reasonably-sized adventure (State Park camping is just about my speed: a heated cabin, with paved paths and showers nearby. In a previous life I was a British officer who shaved and took tea every day in my tent).

All this leisure and sloth takes a surprising amount of preparation. There are meals to plan, supplies to gather, batteries to replace, books to decide on. And there is the question of keeping our cat fed and to be reasonably sure that she will be alive and still like us when we return.

One thing that was important to us was to get buy-in from the kids. As they know exactly what we are getting into, from the location and layout of the cabin to their fond familiarity with the park, they are excited to help shape our trip and to contribute to its fruition. They spent the weekend polishing boots, washing out coolers, cleaning out the car, and gathering books on birds, animals, flowers and mushrooms we are likely to encounter. They have been practicing being in the same room and making sounds and looking and breathing in each other’s direction without freaking out (more drills will be needed).

Regardless of the outcome, we will only be an hour away from home. We have picked the day with the highest probability of rain to come back into town, check on the cat, and replenish our groceries.

This trip is for them, after all, and their vision made it happen. As for me, I have books to read. And I won’t be checking my email.

The Boat Shaped Bookshelf

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The nine year-old has been asking for a bookshelf for Christmas. When I came across one at work–a wooden shelf in the shape of an upturned boat, which knowing her was literally the most perfect bookshelf that had ever existed–and got permission to take it home, there was no way I was going to be able to save it until then. So I set it up against the dining table so that she would find it in the morning.

She has the best reaction to gifts she really likes. I remember her fifth birthday, on which her older sister, aged seven, had bought her a miniature plastic Schleich unicorn that was very fancy, with rainbows blazing in its mane. The birthday girl silently took it out of its wrapping and, after a pause, ran into her room to introduce it to its new friends. After five or so minutes, she ran back to her sister, hugged her silently but firmly, and ran back into her room, where she stayed for some time.

I tried not to have an expectation for the bookshelf, but her reaction did not disappoint. She stopped in front of it and gazed at it silently. Within 15 minutes, she and her sister had set it up between their beds, under the window, having miraculously rearranged their entire room to accommodate its placement.

I had hoped that she would share it, and had been prepared to dictate to her that she would do so. My big parenting moment was that, taking her cue, I had remained silent. She decided on her own to offer one of its three shelves to the older girl, and to preserve the third for decorations, to be mutually selected (they chose a seasonal theme, as you can see).

Having faith in the grace of which my children are capable (at least when they are not engaged in an endless war of attrition over who was looking at whom the wrong way), is an act I can stand to do more of. These are the children, after all, who routinely use their birthday money to buy each other gifts or take us all out for frozen yogurt. It made me wonder how often my expectation that they would not be up to this affects their behavior. For once, I left the door open and kept my expectations to myself.

Now I have no idea what to get her for Christmas. But she says she just wants to spend time with her family. And, you know, to read.