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?

Share

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.

 

Share

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?

 

Share

Right Now, in a Galaxy Right Here

Let this complete a trilogy of posts in which I fret about whether and when to introduce my daughters to various works of art/media that I loved growing up. As you recall, I have spent way too much time and effort feeling ambivalent about this, because what really happens is that we can’t make our kids like what we like anyway.

Anyway, now that Star Trek had been met with one enthusiastic embrace (my 12 year-old, who genuinely loves the story lines and is now reading science fiction, which I never thought would happen), and three blank stares (the other three kids), I decided to give in to their curiosity about Star Wars.

After all, it’s not just a retro phenomenon, in the way that you can find a replica (of inferior quality; I’ve tried it) of the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game at Target. No, Star Wars has been loosed from the bonds of nostalgia and time and is now part of the genuine background fabric of our culture. Which is exactly what George Lucas was shooting for (and I promise I won’t get into what I think about how Lucas has, um…managed his own artistic legacy because 1:) we don’t have time and 2.) I would have to use language that is not acceptable in this forum. You can dig up my old LiveJournal feed if you really want to know what I think).

Face it, Star Wars is everywhere. People have stickers of the insignia of the Rebellion on their cars and either you get it or you don’t, but Darth Vader is now at least as recognizable an icon as Santa Claus. Remember when we thought it was quaint that Ronald Reagan called his anti-missile defense system after the franchise?  Nobody blinks anymore.

But how much longer could I let my kids exist in a veritable cave of cultural ignorance while all this stuff was going on? So, I thought we’d give it a go. I had a couple of goals in transitioning my kids into the filmic world. One was to explain the difference between science fiction (“in the future, we might…” which is what Star Trek is, at least at its best) and science fantasy (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” which is what Star Wars clearly is). This was more or less successful.

Next was to try to find a VCR because I still have video copies of the original trilogy–you know exactly what I mean when I say “original trilogy,” don’t you? Even if you’re not at all nerdy–pre-Special Edition (ie: pre-all the extraneous CGI effects that got crammed into every corner of every frame of the old movies). In this I did not succeed. But the local library had the DVDs and they weren’t too scratched up, so off we went, with Episode IV: A New Hope (otherwise known as Just Star Wars).

Here’s how it shook down: all were riveted, though my six year-old kept turning to me with her eyes crossed and shrugging in an exaggerated way; she later said that it was mostly just things flashing by really fast. Which I guess is true.

Yesterday we watched The Empire Strikes Back, which as you know is probably the only film in the entire series that could conceivably make someone cry. I found that it still gets me just as deeply as it did the first time (“Luke, Luke, don’t–it’s a trap! It’s a trap!” “I love you.” “I know.” “I am your father.” “Nooooooaaaahghghghhh”). Etc. This is why it’s important to pay attention to what your kids are watching. That stuff sticks with you.

I debriefed with my two oldest daughters after the viewing. I asked if they were totally shocked to learn that Vader was Luke’s father. The ten year-old replied, “I wasn’t, really. I’ve read tons of stories where all kinds of things happen.” I didn’t know what to say. Except that for these girls, who have read  The Odyssey and Beowulf and The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Lord of the Rings before watching Star Wars, these films are not, as they were for me, founding myths. They’re just all the old stories in a blender, flashing by really fast.

Which, you know? Is still pretty cool.

Share

Girls, Boys and Books

“It is a good rule after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”

::C.S. Lewis

I had a friend whose grandmother was a bit of an icon in the early Feminist movement. She used to make frequent book recommendations for her granddaughter, who was a voracious and curious reader. Among them were a number of science fiction novels by the likes of John Wyndham (including Day of the Triffids, about a doomsday invasion of intelligent alien plants. It was a movie; knock yourself out). Reporting back to her grandmother, my friend asked how she could stand the way women were regarded in these novels, with their hoary gender roles and casual misogyny. Mostly, she wanted to know what to make of the absence of women as protagonists or characters with agency. Her grandmother replied with genuine surprise: she said she had never noticed, because she just identified with the male characters.

I have always kept that in mind as my daughters begin to read widely across genres. The fact is, books written in the past reflect the political and cultural limitations in which they were written (and for some reason science fiction, supposedly dealing with the future and the perfection of human societies, tends to be the worst offender). There’s no way around it, really.

Driving around today, we were listening to an audiobook my wife had selected because it was Fourth of July-themed: a recent book about a girl growing up in the era of the American Revolution. In the book, our young heroine neglects her studies, her housework and her etiquette and her baking–in fact, all the markers of femininity in the 18th Century–in favor of more “boyish” pursuits (namely, mud and horses). Which is fine, because surely there were tomboys in every age. But this is a marker of contemporary historical fiction written for girls and young women: in order for modern readers to identify with the protagonist, the assumption goes, she will have to escape or reject the gender roles we now regard as confining (in some cases literally: these women don’t wear corsets). But as my wife pointed out, there were many ways for girls and women to be strong in the lives and times in which they lived. It is unfortunate that today’s writers and publishers don’t trust that we can go there.

And let me be clear that there is nothing wrong with swashbuckling heroines. My daughters will meet Katniss soon enough, and I am sure they will get along. But in new fiction for young people they are crowding out all the regular girls.

One solution in the interest of widening the experience of girlhood in literature is to go backwards. Books about girls written a century or more ago–including heavy hitters Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, the Little House books, and as they get a bit older, invincible O.G. Jane Austen–are about girls who live as girls, and grow up to live as women, within the circumstances of their time and place. There is much of value to be gained from this.

What else are they reading, as long as we are rummaging about in the past for entertainment? Robinson Crusoe! The Three Musketeers. Around the World in 80 Days. These stories have hardly a girl among them, but it’s okay. Like my friend’s grandmother, they see themselves. After all, they’re only human.

Share

Crossing the Threshold

The other morning I was doing what I usually do for the first hour of my waking existence (or at least what’s left of the hour after making coffee and preparing breakfast), which was to read on the sofa. As my four daughters emerge one by one, they generally grab a book from the shelves and sit next to me, until we’re a wire full of birds.

The other morning, though, it was just me and the eight year-old. She was sitting silently by my side with one of the lesser known works of Dr. Seuss: the title escapes me, but it was something he had written under sub-pseudonym Theo LeSieg. At some point she turned to me and said “Daddy” (she puts the emphasis on the second syllable, which just kills me).

When she had my attention, she said, “I think I’m reading now?”

She proceeded to demonstrate. Yup, no doubt. She was reading.

This has been a frustrating process for her, especially since she knew perfectly well that her two older sisters were both younger when they started. She had asked me one night after she got into bed: “Daddy? Do you think I’ll be able to read when I’m a grownup?”

Like most things we learn, the final hurdle is one of confidence. And she’s not quite there yet. The elder girls, by contrast, took to reading like a leap out of a plane. It was as if they had finally found the key to the handcuffs. This one is taking it slow.

I try not to imagine my kids in future professions, but occasionally the mind does drift. Of the four, it’s the eight year-old I can see becoming a writer. Not because of her reading, but because of her drawing; the way she renders people in her pictures–in their gestures, expressions, positions, hair, clothing, orientation to one another–casts each of them as utterly distinct and alive. They are characters as realized as any in a novel. Of course, she could be an artist and that would be okay too.

But not a pirate. And that’s final.

Share

To Boldly Go

There’s a topic I keep coming around to because evidently I think about it a lot. Namely, what parts of ourselves do we share with our kids? What’s appropriate? How much should we try to guide their tastes and interests? Previously, as in the post linked above, I was critical of those parents who wanted their children to like the things they liked at the same age. I think about this every time that I’m in Target and I see shelves of retro-styled board games and toys from my childhood. In this case, Star Wars was the main example. Not that I have received any angry emails or anything, but you should know that, as my daughters get older, I find myself shifting my position.

Case in point: a few weeks ago I told them about Star Trek (the Original Series, or TOS, as the nerds term it) (and I’m enough of a nerd to know that we like to be called Trekkers rather than the pejorative Trekkies) (but not enough to, like, dress up and go to a convention or anything, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Where was I? Right. Well, surprisingly, they told me last night at dinner that they were very interested in watching Star Trek. So I counted it as a win and went to work.

What was the best way to introduce kids–who had limited experience with a.) science fiction, and b.) TV shows that aren’t documentaries about wildlife or running a Medieval farm–to this pillar of mid-Twentieth Century popular culture? Going through synopses of the episodes, I settled on “The Trouble with Tribbles,” one of the lighter and more humorous ones, and we watched it in the evening after they got into their jammies. It was a hit.

What do I want my kids to get out of this artifact that had given me so much pleasure and food for thought in my own upbringing? Given that I habitually watched it in the afternoons while doing my math homework, I could make an argument that I was trying to stimulate their left-brain functioning. Or, I could cite the liberal humanist framework of the show that presents a multiracial, (sort of) gender-integrated crew working together to examine ethical dilemmas across the galaxy.

But who am I fooling? What I really wanted to do is to introduce them to one of my heroes, one Mr. Spock. His relentless logic, vacuum-dry sense of humor and valiant attempts to master his half-human emotions are ideals that I had long since absorbed into my personality. Maybe I want them to know in some small way where I’m coming from.

During bedtime my eight year-old, after determining that his ears must be prosthetic, pronounced him “pretty cool.” I’ll take it.

And I promise to not be so dismissive of Star Wars dads (and moms). Even though Star Trek is way better.

Share

Stir it Up

This week’s post includes a recipe by guest contributor Jessica Sager. We hope you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Jessica.

One should never underestimate the power of activities when interacting with children. They want to feel a connection with us, and making them the focus of our time and attention, even for a short period, has lasting value.

Jessica Sager shares a favorite activity for use in the classroom, on home visits, and for families to use on their own. It is quick and simple and the process of making it can be as fun as working with it afterward. I can also attest that gluten free flour works just as well.

***

1 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup Salt
2 Teaspoon Cream of Tartar
1 Cup Water
2 Tablespoons Vegetable Oil
Cook over medium heat until thickened. Add a few drops of food coloring. Stir, cool slightly, then knead and have fun. Cookie cutters and rolling pins make play-dough more enjoyable!
Jessica Sager is a Family Support Specialist in the East Linn Toddler classroom at Family Tree Relief Nursery. 
Share

The Family Taste

dad_son_read

A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

Share

Bored Games

iStock_000016342292XSmall

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

Share