Some Class

 

What’s that old joke that isn’t as funny as we think it is? About how kids don’t come with a manual? (Also, why are there always a couple of extra grommets? Was it just me?)

A corollary to that joke is a serious question: if there were classes on how to be a parent, would you take them?

I know what you’re thinking. You’re already a parent and you don’t need no outside learnin’. Life is the best teacher. Your child is the best teacher. You are the expert on your kids.

All of those things are true. And that’s exactly why you should consider taking a class.

In a plug of epic shamelessness, I would like to recommend the Nurturing Parenting classes offered at Family Tree Relief Nursery.

Starting this week, they are offering three separate classes.

On Wednesday:

  • is the general Nurturing Parenting class. It is for moms, dads, grandparents, and caretakers of all stripes (even with stripes!).

Thursdays feature two classes:

  • Nurturing Fathers, for dads and male caretakers only and co-facilitated by yours truly, and the
  • Nurturing Parenting class for parents in Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery.

All three classes are FREE, and offer childcare, dinner and bus and transportation assistance.

All three classes focus on doing the work on ourselves that help us to help our kids–nurturing ourselves and each other so that we can nurture them.

To enroll in a class, simply call Family Tree at 541-967-6580.

Hope to see you there!

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Urgent Issues of Our Time, Part II

So, as I was saying. The X-Men were always my jam. They appealed to me because, unlike other superheroes with their fantasies of power that came about usually through accidents (gamma rays, cosmic rays, radioactive bug bites), the X-Men (and -Women, and -Girls and -Boys) were who they were. In the comics, a mutation usually became active with the onset of puberty, which is just about the perfect way of talking about what happens to the adolescent body and brain. Think of Rogue, for whom intimate contact could have deadly consequences for the other person. Or Shadowcat, who in her social awkwardness could become a literal wallflower, fading into the wall and out the other side. Or Cyclops, who had to keep his vision (feelings?) covered up or risk causing limitless damage. Like millions of readers, I identified with these young adults who hadn’t asked for their powers, struggled to understand and control them, and in some cases would give anything to get rid of them.

What happens in adolescence that leads to such perilous places? We have long understood the changes that our bodies go through during puberty, with those new combinations of chemicals; those strange and powerful feelings; that hair.  It would be easy to think that you were going through this by yourself, and were suddenly separate from the human race. A mutant!

Recent work in neuroscience has been trying to understand the changes that take place in the teenage brain. NPR’s Dina Temple-Raston, in her extensive reporting on terrorism, wanted to understand the appeal of extremist groups like ISIS to adolescents. What would make a seemingly “normal” kid from a typical suburban background want to leave everything they knew and enter a life of secrecy and violence? Her excellent piece on reformed ISIS recruit Abdullahi Yusuf (seriously, it’s really good) shows how these questions must lead inevitably into teenage brain development. The teenage feeling of invulnerability, the aggrieved sensitivity to injustice, the penchant for risk-taking, the lack of consideration for consequences, can take an adolescent into any number of far-flung places. What’s missing during this time is that still, quiet voice that (tends to) guide us as adults. In the piece, Temple-Raston identifies it as the “part of the brain that neuroscientists liken to an internal compass, called the insula, can be built up during adolescence through critical thinking and self-reflective practices.”

This kind of strengthening practice, provided in Yusuf’s case through a reading list and assigned poetry, is what the X-Men find under the guidance of Professor X at the School for Gifted Youngsters (having a responsible adult mentor is clearly important as well). With these opportunities for reflection and control, those scary changes can become powers.

Now if only the films could get it right.

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Try This One Weird Trick When You Parent!

I have always been amused by those cheap and vaguely disreputable looking ads that appear at the bottom of the screen on websites. You know, the ones that exhort you to try this “one weird trick” to solve various problems. I’m not sure how effective those ads are, but one can assume that if they didn’t work (for the marketers, that is, if not for the curious clicker) they wouldn’t be there. I have never been intrigued enough to actually click on them (have you?), but fortunately at least one journalist was paid to do so.

Parenting, as you know, rarely lends itself to easy or singular answers (in other words, to “one weird trick”). But sometimes there is a simple solution. I’m going to present not one, fellow parent, not two, but three weird tricks that will actually get results with your kids.

Try this one weird trick to make your kids smarter!

Here it is, without even a dodgy video you can’t skip or pause: get some books. That’s right, according to science, there is a strong correlation between having books in the home and kids’ future academic achievement. That’s it! Of course the assumption is that these books get read at some point. But most important is simply to own them and make them available. Kids who grow up in a home with books will learn to value them and the skills needed to unlock them.

Want to know what your kids are thinking? Try this one weird trick!

This one I got from a parent I worked with a few years ago, who told me her amazing secret: she makes sure that when her daughter and friends are going somewhere, she is the driver. Evidently the act of driving clouds awareness, in the tween/teen brain, of the presence of the parent. Give it 8 or 10 blocks, and those kids will start talking as if there are no adults present. You will learn everything, and they won’t know that you know it! This may actually be true. I don’t know; I’m not science. But research does support the practice of talking to your kids in the car. The casual, pressure-free environment eliminates the need for eye contact and facilitates communication.

This one weird trick will keep your kids from doing drugs!

Eat dinner together! Several studies over the last 10-15 years have demonstrated that kids who eat meals with their family are significantly less likely to engage in drug use or other risky behaviors. As I looked into this weird trick, I found that its veracity has been challenged by recent research. It just goes to show that magic is always more complicated than we think (see Harry Potter). But even if you can’t sit together for meals, you can find some other opportunity to connect regularly with your kids and nurture trust and communication.

There, now you’ve got it all figured out. Parents, send no money!

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The Force Awakens

(No spoilers below)

It’s past time to keep you updated on the ongoing saga of introducing my four daughters to pursuits from my childhood. I had felt some ambivalence about this, as is well documented. However, while some of my childhood obsessions–Tintin comics, Jonny Quest cartoons, prog rock–had met with, shall we say, spotty reception, my decision to show the Star Wars films (Ep. IV-VI, of course) set off a lil’ bit of a pop culture bomb in our house.

Observe: within three months of first viewing, the eight year-old was dressed as Princess Leia for Halloween. She is in possession of a lightsaber (which her sisters have protested Leia wouldn’t have, prompting a conversation about how she might have started training after Return of the Jedi: after all, she is Luke’s sister [spoiler! Just kidding. I hope]). She once sent me off to a day of work with the phrase “May the Force Be With You.” She’s got it bad. And the others are right there with her.

My wife, who, though she is of an age with me, was never exposed to the Star Wars phenomenon and is inoculated against geekiness in general, has been very patient with this (while making clear that any consequences of Star Wars-itis are on me alone). But what a benefit this has been, with its opportunities to talk about heroism, morality, the power of spiritual fortitude, the importance of speaking out against injustice. Plus, thanks to her Star Wars workbooks, my daughter’s enthusiasm for math has gone up considerably.

So, we’ve now got a Star Wars Christmas (without, mind you, the Star Wars Christmas Special) lined up. The Original Trilogy DVDs, a new upgraded Leia costume, a cloth Leia doll handmade by the 10 year-old, now that she’s finished her Hobbit collection. We’re cleared for lightspeed, right?

Then I went a parsec too far (unbeknownst to Han, a parsec is a measure of distance, not time). With the new movie The Last Jedi coming out soon, and my indignation over the prequels having finally settled enough to countenance the idea of a new trilogy, I decided to watch The Force Awakens. Which I had not yet seen. And with my children.

Was this a bad idea? Well, let me tell you about it. I had not screened it beforehand, which I heartily recommend for any film not made expressly for children (and frankly, many that are. Ask me sometime for my feelings about the Shrek franchise). And it is PG-13. I consulted the Parents’ Guide on Imdb, but this was not very helpful. And really, my six year-old might have gotten caught up in the mythology of the series as much as anyone–that’s her pretending to be a droid in the photo–but to her this is all just a mass of zooming and flashing and explosions. I should have approached it more carefully.

They…liked it. So did I, though I had some real problems with it that I won’t go into. We each emitted audible gasps and whoops at various points in the film (even me!).

However. For my eight year-old, who so loves the characters from the original trilogy, there is something that happens in the film–and I’m not going to give it away, as I can’t be the only one who hadn’t seen it yet–that is potentially upsetting.

Potentially very upsetting.

And it was. Very upsetting. As in bursting into tears at regular intervals.

So, I failed at parenting for all time.

I was afraid that everything had been ruined for my daughter, and that she would cast Star Wars aside as vehemently as she had Frozen (seriously, don’t even mention Frozen in her presence).

I gave it a few days, then we had a little talk. It was about the theory of multiple universes. In the particular universe portrayed in that film, the upsetting thing happened. In others, it didn’t. In others, Leia trained as a Jedi and carries a lightsaber. In still others, Lucas never made the prequels. That’s right. In those universes, Jar-Jar is fake news.

I think we’ll be able to watch those DVDs come Christmas.

 

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Game Theory

A funny thing happened on the way to Thanksgiving this year. We had been saving two games intended for our four girls for Christmas. However, the prospect of a long weekend with a lot of digestion prompted us to give them out early. For the younger set we had the whimsical card game Sleeping Queens, and for the eldest the strategic board game Dominion. We had anticipated some interest, but not the full-blown obsession, with both games, that ensued.

What struck me was not the (relatively) recent yen for formal games that has manifested in our house. Rather, it was the way they took to it with so little guidance from the grownups. They just figured it out. For those of you not nerdy enough to know it, Dominion is a game intended for ages 14 and up. And granted, I had to study the instruction booklet (a fat one) for a couple hours and take some notes before I figured out how to set it all up. But once we got going, all were in, even the eight year-old as she sprung her bandit on our unsuspecting parties and the six year-old as her witch bestowed curses on our now doomed estates.

Now, the point of this is not that they’re especially smart or anything (though of course they are, writes their dad). It’s that they’re all increasingly independent. It’s another one of those lines that have been crossed without anyone taking note of the crossing. First no more diapers, then reading, and now this! Strategizing, scheming, abstract thinking in full bloom.

It shows up in other areas as well. Doing chores without prompting. Cleaning and organizing of their own volition. Finding and replacing new rolls of toilet paper. Plans for making or acquiring Christmas gifts that are, from me anyway, completely secret. Once again, it’s apparent that they’re getting older. What next?

What if they decide to take over?

 

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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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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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