A Beautiful Life

Illustration by Willa Mead

Long-time readers (I like to think that I have one) will remember when I raved about some of my favorite authors of children’s books.

Well, recently I came across this great appreciation in The Atlantic of Barbara Cooney, probably my favorite of all. Cooney, author of Miss Rumphius, Ox-Cart Man and other classics, has a singular style (her illustrations, always recognizable as her own, graced books by other authors such as Alice McLerran’s Roxaboxen) and a stolid refusal to “talk down to—or draw down to—children.”

Miss Rumphius (1982) has long been my go-to answer when someone asks about my favorite children’s book (I get asked! However, no one asks about my favorite book overall except my own kids; I just say Moby Dick because I have to have an answer. It’s good. You should read it). In the book, a young girl narrates the life of her great-(great?)-aunt Alice Rumphius. Alice, whose own grandfather had tasked her, around the turn of the 20th Century, with “making the world more beautiful,” lived a life that alternated between globetrotting exploration and bookish solitude.

What I love about the book is what separates it from, well, pretty much any other children’s book I can think of. Our heroine spends several pages in the middle of the story recovering from an injured back. This very realistic adult situation is shocking in a quiet way: that can happen, can’t it? And yet she continues, in spite of and around her new limitations, to live a beautiful life.

Though she clearly had friends and companions along the way (one, unmentioned but seen on a snowy mountainside, is a dude), Miss Rumphius remains unmarried and childless and apparently comfortable with the oddness that would have surrounded this situation for a women of her time. In fact, she goes on to be known as “that crazy old lady” due to her carefree pursuit of aesthetic expression (in the form of planting thousands and thousands of lupines across the countryside). At the end, our young narrator herself is given the task of making the world a more beautiful place. How will she do it?

And how, reader, the implication goes, will you?

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The Wheel

In Nurturing Parenting, as I’ve mentioned, there is an emphasis on parents being able to recognize and meet our own needs so that we can do the same for our children. Hopefully by now this is a familiar concept (though I can attest that it doesn’t get any easier with repetition).

There’s more. In the class, we talk about the several areas in which we (as parents, humans, etc) have needs. They are categorized as follows:

Physical. Self explanatory, I would hope. Includes all the things you imagine keep you alive; things that feel good, ya da ya da.

Emotional. Knowing the feelings, feeling the feelings, expressing them in an appropriate and legal way.

Social. Interacting with people; making connections; communicating. I suck at this.

Intellectual. Learning things, developing skills. If reading books covered it, I would win this pie piece. Just don’t ask me how to change a tire.

All of the above tend to have a lot of buy-in with our parents. No disputing their importance or their practical value. But from there it gets a little tricky.

Creative. Some people wonder out loud why this is a category. The most common story is this (perhaps you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve said it!): “I can’t do any of that creative stuff.” Or, “I can’t even draw stick figures.” Or, “Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing.” This is where I start whacking people with (rhetorical) rolled up newspapers.

First of all, none of that is true. It’s just that you don’t think it’s important enough to do it. Or to practice. Then, I point out all the ways in which you probably are meeting (or attempting to meet) your creative needs. What about that story you told at work about your last fishing trip? What about that casserole thing you made last Thursday?

Spiritual. Again, a lot of people have trouble with this one. Sometimes it’s for the same reason that stuff about a higher power in the Twelve-Step programs can bother folks. Look, the takeaway is that whatever higher power it is that you land on, it’s important that it’s not you. The same rule applies to meeting your needs. Your mom and your dad couldn’t do it for you, and you can’t do it by yourself. The spiritual need is the need to plug into something other than our ego. “I go to church” is the automatic answer, and probably that helps.

But what about going fishin’? I am being completely serious. Solitude works to meet this need. So does silence. Taking a walk, outside, without your cell phone, can check all the boxes. Easy peasy. Except it never is.

So it has to become important.

Crucially, this array of needs is not a hierarchy; some are not more important than others. Rather, it’s a wheel. It needs some inflation all around in order to turn properly.

Which of these needs are you meeting on a regular basis? Which need some work? Most importantly, which don’t you want to think about?

Start with those.

Take care!

 

 

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How Not to Disappear Completely

In the great film Winter’s Bone, a girl (played by a pre-Katniss Jennifer Lawrence), is desperately trying to pass on her knowledge of hunting, food preparation and other basic survival skills to her siblings. She is feeling the pressure because, having lost both of their parents, she suspects that her investigation into the disappearance of her criminal father may well get her killed.

I am mostly telling you about this movie because you really need to see it (seriously). But it also paints in bold dramatic terms an example of parentification, which can be defined as “the process through which children are assigned the role of an adult, taking on both emotional and functional responsibilities that typically are performed by the parent.”

A recent article in The Atlantic highlights in similarly stark terms the long term negative effects of parentification on children: “a form of emotional abuse or neglect where a child becomes the caregiver to their parent or sibling. Researchers are increasingly finding that in addition to upending a child’s development, this role reversal can leave deep emotional scars well into adulthood. Many […] experience severe anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Others report succumbing to eating disorders and substance abuse.”

Put simply, the experience of having to step into a caretaking role as a child can disrupt and even displace the normal course of development. In our culture we have terms for this: a child may have “grown up too fast.” We should therefore “let kids be kids.” Right?

But the situations described above are extreme. As with most things, there is a large middle ground from which we can still see the line no matter which side of it we’re on right now. Parentification happens when a child undertakes a role for which she is not yet ready, specifically taking on responsibility for another’s care or well-being.

Hold on there, cowboy. Isn’t there an appropriate time and place for kids to take on responsibility for others?

Of course! There are ways to know when they are ready. Though laws vary from place to place, generally speaking your child is ready to babysit his siblings around the age of 12. This is assuming that they have willingly, and successfully, practiced this with your proximity and/or partial supervision. Does the child know what to do in case of emergency? How to contact you if you’re not home? How to call emergency services? Who is a safe neighbor? Where are the band aids?

The key, I think, is that you and the child are both confident in their readiness to care for others. Be sure that you give clear parameters regarding where you are and for how long; what is expected of them and what is not. If this is a regular situation, or something that comes up repeatedly without warning, it is probably time to involve another adult (family or a trusted professional).

In the meantime, try not to disappear.

 

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Sick Days Revisited

We have managed to make it nearly two years without a major bout of illness: you know, the kind that circles the family like a brush fire, touching off some of us maybe more than once before it’s spent. My lovely wife claims it was the strictness of our vitamin regimen that did it.

Those vitamins had been notably absent this year, which is maybe partial but certainly not adequate explanation for Coldfest 2017, which currently has its tents and vendors set up in our house, evidently for an extended run.

I have written before about the generous and enlightened illness policy at my work, so I will just say that gosh do I appreciate it. Sick kids + sick parents = one big bubbling pot ‘0’ sickness. As for me, I had been staggering along for a couple of weeks already, going to work and pretending that my cough was actually someone else in the next room. Now, after having ruled out pneumonia and the alarming (but kind of awesomely Victorian-sounding) pleurisy, I understand that I just have a cold. Possibly the biggest, baddest beast of a cold I’ve ever hosted, but still. Nothing to be done.

A sick house still has to function, so even if the normal routines are disrupted we still have to function somehow. Meals mean that we prepare a lot of one thing and eat it all day. Laundry, vacuuming and other pretty important jobs happen when I’ve stored up enough energy from leaning against a wall and moaning (it’s the new sleep).

Having everyone at home all day, with no plans to go anywhere and no energy to do so, can be strangely liberating. “What are we doing today, Daddy?” “Let’s sit around in scarves and drink broth and watch movies.” “Again? Yaaay!”

We did get to watch Singin’ in the Rain for the first time, so it hasn’t been all bad. Who knew that it was, like, about something?

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Play By Play

Here is something that kids should be doing more of:

Playing.

At school they need to double down on:

Recess.

Don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest that they should be eating ice cream for all three meals. I’m not an anarchist. Just thinking about developing brains.

Let’s pull back a little bit. Or zoom in. Whatever. You’ve seen those little announcements on the packaging of toys that claim their product is helping children to advance their motor skills, memory, hand-eye coordination, and what have you? Well, there’s some truth to that, potentially, in the same way that Count Chocula is part of a balanced breakfast (really! Can be!).

Without examining the veracity of any particular products, it has to be admitted that they do help kids develop if kids play with them. But just as the finger that points to the moon is not the moon, it is not the toy that provides the learning but the act of playing itself. In that sense, a rock’s as good as a Leappad for our purposes (a bonus is that if you throw a rock, it won’t break!).

Recently I’ve noticed a phenomenon at our house that illustrates this perfectly. It’s the noticing that new, not the phenomenon. The older girls, ten and twelve, continue to play with our set of wooden blocks as much as, if not more than, the younger ones. They have continued to be available, rather than put aside for more “age-appropriate” (this usually means “more electronic”) toys. So, they’ve just kept playing with ’em.

And, I believe, they continue to hone their spatial recognition and gross and fine motor skills just as much now, at their own level, as they did all those years ago when they first figured out how to stack them (and of course, immediately knock them down again).

Crucially, I think, there has never been any sense that the blocks are something that they could outgrow; that some toys were just “for babies.” They’re just another tool at their disposal.

By the same token, since the picture books are still on full display for the six and eight-year olds, their older sisters continue to put them–new acquisitions and old favorites alike–in rotation along with their endless fantasy novels and 19th Century classics.

One of my (amazing) professors in the Education program at Western advocates for the use of picture books all the way through high school (and by extension college, given that she, you know, used them. In a college class). Once we get over the stigma of directing our attention to something that was made for younger people, their value and beauty are simply obvious.

 

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Post-Fest Family Debrief

Shortish post today because I’m sore. This weekend (including cleanup, today) consisted entirely of our annual Greek Fest event at St. Anne. For the last two years, I have not been able to volunteer as much as I would like because I was with all the kids. Which is fine, because that remains my favorite job of all. This year, however, we were able to work out supervision with family members so that my wife and I could both work at the event on Saturday.

On the second day, I brought all the girls for the first couple hours, and they were able to hang out in my line of sight while I worked. This was new: when they get older, it turns out, they are able to do things! They develop, like discipline and stuff.

As a special bonus, my oldest, now twelve, was totally gung ho about volunteering. She worked most of the two days (though I pointed out that if we were paying her she would have to quit after six hours). The youngest, six and eight, were fine for the time they were there but definitely ready to go back home.

That leaves one child. The ten year-old has little patience or tolerance for big crowds (even less than I do!) and it quickly became apparent that she was not going to be able to stay.  Pretty much not for another 30 seconds.

So, she hid out in the business office with her mom while I brought her some (fabulous) Greek food and arranged a discreet exit. She was fine as soon as we were gone, thank you very much.

Her anxiety is not always at this level. It seems to come and go according to whatever age she’s at. That’s one of the interesting things about having multiple children. Their capabilities and tolerance levels can move up and down at several different points in time. What they can or cannot do now is as subject to change as their needs.

Sometimes, however, everything aligns. What we can all use right now is a nap.

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(Small) People Who Need People

How do we know, beyond a doubt, that humans are social animals?

1.) Archaeological evidence of milkshakes with two straws.

2.) Can’t read anything without sharing it on Facebook.

3.) Babies have “critical windows” for development during which parts of the brain need to be stimulated through interaction with others.

The first two are self-evident, but the third answer I  learned from our Nurturing Parenting class. What does it mean, though?

As I understand it (and keep in mind that I’m not an expert, but I play one on this blog), infant’s brains have an optimal period–anywhere between 6 months, in the case of vision, and four years, for logic and math skills–in which to make crucial connections that will carry them through the rest of their lives.

That’s one of those double-edged sword things. Clearly the stakes are pretty high, as children that don’t get what they need in the first few years–affection, interaction, a sense of stability and safety, opportunities to move and learn–will not have the skills they need to function as adults. That’s a bit scary.

To be clear, just because those connections aren’t formed in the brain during those critical windows doesn’t mean that it’s too late. What it does mean is that it will take a lot of work. And probably long-term (as in lifelong) support. See what I mean about being dependent on others? There’s just no way around it.

But this presents a great opportunity. Parents have a vision of the sort of people their children will be as adults (even if that vision is not always articulated, or even consciously crafted). Most often what we come up with is that we want our adult kids to be confident, capable, creative and well-rounded.

Those attributes don’t have to be shaped in school, or daycare, or summer camp, or anywhere outside the family. If we give them what they need when they need it (we’re talking birth to age four), they’ll be good to go.

The rest is just writing checks.

 

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Growth Mind-what?

All this research going on in neuroscience is pretty, ahem, mind-blowing.

Some of the latest studies on student achievement are focused around what is called a child’s “mindset:” their beliefs around how their mind works and whether it can grow and change. According to research by Dr. Carol Dweck, a person can have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. And the mindset we have depends largely on what we were raised to believe about ourselves and our abilities.

Writer Sarah McKay explains, “Kids with a fixed mindset believe they’re ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, talented at something: painting, music or football, or not. They may believe the world is made of some gifted people, whom the rest admire from the sidelines. Conversely, kids with a growth mindset appreciate anyone can build themselves into anything they want to be. They recognise [sic] that people aren’t ‘smart’ or ‘dumb’, that there are no talented geniuses; only hard-working people who have chosen to take their abilities to the next level.”

As you can see, clearly it is more useful for a child to work from a growth mindset, with the belief that practice and hard work will allow them to develop. What came to mind for me was the state of music in the mid-70s.* On the one hand, virtuoso rock bands like Emerson, Lake and Palmer and major-label powerhouses like Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin gave fans the impression that there were two kinds of people: rock stars and everyone else. For fans, no amount of virtuosity, charisma or sheer woodshedding would bridge the gap between the audience and the demigods onstage. On the other hand, the punk explosion (and if I may, the much more interesting long tail of post-punk and new wave) exposed the radical principle that anyone could make music. The number of bands whose members admitted they couldn’t play their instruments when they joined bears this out. Not only did it underline the power of confidence combined with practice, it engendered a great deal of experimentation, as artists played “incorrectly” either through naivety or by design (or both). This resulted in a lot of great music.

*I’ve been reading a lot of books about music in the mid-70s. If I had been reading about the history of fisheries, then mindset studies would probably remind me of salmon.

Let us encourage a growth mindset in our children by taking it on ourselves. Start by setting aside the cliche of “I can’t draw” or “I can’t cook” or “I can’t sing.” Instead, just start doing it alongside your kids. What you’re doing may not work at first, but as far as they know, this is all just healthy and normal.

Wouldn’t that be nice?

 

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The Big Reshuffle

I never did believe it, not really: that rearranging your space can help you to rejigger the rest of your life. Sure, I thought, it’s nice to see things looking a little neater and more symmetrical, but with four kids in a two-and-a-half bedroom house one can’t expect this new state to last more than a day or so.

So when I volunteered (after about six months of “mulling it over”) to take a full day to tackle our “spare room” (there is no room to spare in our house; the term refers to its former life as a garage), my wife undertook to remove herself and the girls from the premises for the duration. I had thought this was a little extreme, but appreciated the lack of distraction and the chance to queue up several of my Spotify playlists and crank them at unsettling volume.

After an indeterminate period that passed like a drugged dream in which I was forced to play Tetris with boulders attached to my limbs, I emerged covered with sweat to find that a vast, unmanageable pile of objects had been assembled into something approaching order.

I rested on my laurels for as long as it took for my family to return home, convinced that I would not have to do any more of this kind of work for months (providing I could spend a few minutes each day assuring that my arrangement of the spare room remained intact). I soon learned, though, that my efforts, greatly appreciated they may be, were only the beginning. It would be a new, glorious era of rearranging in our land.

Now that the spare room–our primary storage space–was in order, my wife could shift all the furniture everywhere else. We could clean the girls’ rooms and wash all the bedding. And then the real work could start: changing out the hundreds of books that double as the interior walls of our living room.

I dreaded the prospect, and asked if we could save the book wrangling for the next weekend. I continued, to say the least, to not look forward to the work. I had boxed and meticulously sealed all the books in the spare room, and they were stacked just the way I wanted them. To bring them out again would erase the sense of order I was holding in my mind like a fragile egg. Why did one good deed have to lead to a deluxe economy pack of new ones?

You know what? It was fine. In fact, it was really, really great. The bookshelves are pristine with room to grow and the spare room looks better than ever. The peace of mind we have gained is no mean thing.

For a close, largish, homeschooling family, this kind of organization amounts to a total reset. I have undertaken projects like this before. But finally I think that I get it, and can genuinely enjoy the results.

Also, I should mention that no one is allowed to touch anything from now on. Wish us luck!

 

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Giving in to Self-Care

Are you taking care of yourself?

This question, along with the equally earnest “So what do you do for fun,” never fails to elicit a guffaw of disbelief from parents when I ask it.

Of course we’re not taking care of ourselves. If we’re doing our job then we are putting the needs of the children before our own, every time. This is our lot, our destiny, and admit it, kind of a badge of honor, right? The more we have to suffer for our work the more points we get against other moms and dads. Also, and this is crucial, the more we can justify the poor decisions we make about our  self-care.  By the end of the day we might be incapable of anything other than another one more Chocodile, one more Marlboro, and one more level on Plants vs. Zombies. I was not compensated by the makers of any of those products. Just tellin’ it like it is.

The thing about that is, it’s a vicious circle that tightens right quick. If we don’t devote some energy to replenishing ourselves, we won’t have what we need to do the parenting in the first place. We can’t pour from an empty cup. And if we fly without fuel we crash, hard.

I work in a helping profession, so I count myself among the worst offenders on the self-care front. We even have workshops on the topic, and the very words “self care workshop” make me shudder. Those paper bags full of pipe cleaners and lavender scented erasers and a balloon “for funny.” I would rather do paperwork.

Why? How come it’s so hard for us to make the right decision?

There’s the guilt, for one. Taking time out for ourselves can feel like we’re snatching food directly out of kids’ mouths. Sorry for that image. Plus, you might not be able to relax and leave the work (and the control) to your spouse while you take a break.

More than that, though, there’s just the fact that being healthy is hard. Late-stage consumer capitalism got pretty good at putting the fast, easy empty thing, in whatever form that might take, at our fingertips. Self-care is slow. It is quiet. Unassuming. In other words, the direct opposite of what we’re immersed in all day.

Walking away and taking some deep breaths? That takes getting up and walking. Drinking a glass of water? Finding a faucet. Going to bed early instead of letting the next episode unspool on Netflix? You’d have to– well, close the cover the laptop. You could strain a muscle.

I’m being facetious (the kind way of putting it) because I’m largely addressing myself. It does take effort, and it doesn’t immediately shoot endorphins into your eyeball. Self-care is a hard sell.

A bath, on the other hand. That sounds alright.

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