The Power of Sharing

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope you enjoy it and, as always, we look forward to future posts by Esther. 

I remember facilitating a group once when a parent tentatively brought up the subject of his son’s sensitive feet, “he refuses to wear socks—he says they have bumps that bother him.” To his surprise several parents—including me–spoke up. “Oh yes, my son turns his socks inside out.” “My daughter just wears sandals.” “Sock bumps, I’m very familiar with that phenomenon.”

Sharing about his experience benefited this parent and the other parents in the group. How? They all gained:

  • Perspective on what’s normal
  • Sources of support
  • Insight and options
  • Recognition of strengths

Perspective: Hearing from other parents changed this dad’s perspective. He realized he wasn’t facing a unique situation, nor was his son completely unusual. He wasn’t alone. His story also benefited the other parents—they knew their children weren’t completely unusual. Parents unfamiliar with the phenomenon learned that some children have sensitive feet.

We start our journey as parents with different levels of knowledge and experience with children. It’s worthwhile to hear from other parents (as well as from credible resources) about common behaviors. Parents with children in the same daycare or school can also clue us in to what our children’s social environment is like.

Whether we are conscious of it or not we are always asking: Who is my child? How is my child like others? How is my child different from others?

What if no one else had experienced sock bumps? Trained facilitators can provide perspective based on their knowledge about child development and individual temperament. And provide other resources for that parent and child. Whether the experience is common or unusual, hearing about it benefits all the parents.

No matter how knowledgeable we are about developmental stages, temperamental traits, typical behaviors, and parenting strategies, actually being a parent to our own child(ren) is different from reading, watching, and even caring for other people’s children. Because being a parent brings up our own issues. We need perspective on what it’s like to be a parent. How does it feel when my child refuses to wear socks? What does it mean about me as a parent? Am I somehow causing this behavior? How should I react?

Sources of Support: Many studies of workplaces and employees have found that interaction with fellow workers is an important factor in job satisfaction and performance. Parenting is a relationship, but it is also a job. Classes and groups provide support that is centered on the work of parenting. Does support solve the issues? Not necessarily.  But having someone to talk to (and complain to) who understands what you are going through is a tremendous help. And sharing information about everyday challenges helps create friendships among parents which benefit both them and their children. Many groups focus on specific challenges or ages: breastfeeding; postpartum health; toddlers; teenagers; special needs; and many others.

Insight and options: We often gain insight into a situation simply by talking about it out loud or explaining it to others. Questions from others can lead us to think more deeply about possible causes or contributing factors to a problem. Other parent’s experiences further our understanding and help us consider other approaches to the situation.

Facilitated parenting classes and support groups establish ground rules about sharing. These may include: confidentiality, respect, right to pass (not to share something), no judgement, and sharing from your own experience/background. Participants and facilitators DON’T tell others what to do.

Facilitators provide evidence-based strategies that have proven helpful to others and the rationale behind those strategies. Although most parenting curriculums have suggestions for how to handle specific problems, facilitators recognize that what works for one family and one child may not be right for another.

Sharing experiences and ideas respectfully allows other parents to consider and choose how they want to respond to a situation. Respect also helps give parents more confidence in their ability to deal with the challenges they face.

Hearing about the other parent’s experiences provided that father with ideas about how his situation might be handled: maybe turning the socks inside out would work for his child; perhaps together they could find socks that didn’t seem bumpy; maybe going without socks was normal and acceptable and therefore NOT a problem.

Recognition of strengths: Sharing about problems we have experienced and how we handled them also benefits us as parents. Amidst the endless work of parenting and daily life, we often don’t consider the challenges we have already faced and overcome—we are busy with dealing with the latest challenges! Taking time to reflect on our experiences—and sharing them out loud with other parents helps us recognize our abilities and strengths. Maybe it is simply realizing that we survived a difficult time and that it didn’t last forever. Maybe it was that we figured out a strategy that worked well. Reflecting on things that didn’t go well is helpful, too. Instead of berating ourselves for mistakes we can choose to learn from them. Our parenting abilities are like our muscles—they get stronger the more we work with them.

Parenting provides us with many, many opportunities for learning and growing. Parenting education and parenting support groups help us make the most of those opportunities.

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

Some Thoughts for MLK Day

My habit of listening to podcasts, while driving or while doing the dishes, is usually fruitful (in case you were wondering, I’m a longtime user of Stitcher). But sometimes I come across something that is truly striking. Appropriately for the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, I wanted to share two podcasts featuring journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones on school desegregation.

In 2015, Hannah-Jones narrated a story for the long-running NPR program This American Life, entitled The Problem We All Live With. This episode, which has since aired again, focuses on an issue I had been unaware of, which is that efforts to desegregate public schools, which began with the landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, have been largely abandoned in recent decades. According to the story, school desegregation peaked in the 1980s and has since fallen off dramatically. The result has been a return to conditions seen in schools prior to the decision, in which schools in low-income communities, and populated mostly by non-white students, have fewer resources, less able teachers and administrators, and as a consequence lower test scores and graduation rates. Hannah-Jones points out that the only factor that has been found to alleviate these problems–and did so with amazing effectiveness in the decades following desegregation–was integrated schools. When students from mixed ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds are in school together, everyone benefits. So do the schools themselves, and the communities they serve (and arguably, society as a whole). I urge you to listen to the podcast.

I was reminded of this story by the latest episode of Fresh Air, featuring an interview with Hannah-Jones about her schooling choices for her own child. She wrote about this in an article for the New York Times Magazine, which is also well worth reading. She relates her experience as a parent witnessing the adamant resistance to integration of the mostly Black and Latino school her daughter attends. The interview is worth a listen for a variety of reasons, but what really brought me up short was her explanation for why she decided to keep her daughter in the school rather than exercise her available privilege to place her elsewhere:

“The original mission of public schools … is this understanding that no matter where you come from, you will go into the doors of a school and every child will receive the same education.

“And I say this — and it always feels weird when I say it as a parent, because a lot of other parents look at you a little like you’re maybe not as good of a parent — I don’t think she’s deserving of more than other kids. I just don’t. I think that we can’t say ‘This school is not good enough for my child’ and then sustain that system. I think that that’s just morally wrong. If it’s not good enough for my child, then why are we putting any children in those schools?

As a parent, I do find myself making choices for my children based on what I think will give them the “best” advantage. What Hannah-Jones is advocating for is simply to think about the needs of our kids in a broader, more big-picture way. What if giving our own children the best education means fighting for all children to do so? More importantly, how crucial is it to our children that their parents really live according to their values?

That’s the hard thing. I’m going to be thinking about this for a while. Happy MLK Day.

Home for the Holidays (Postscript)

Happy New Year, everyone!

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about taking an extended vacation at home with my family. I wasn’t sure how it would work to have crash-landed into what, in my house, is a pretty stable set of routines and rhythms. I also saw a parallel between my experience of being at home in a homeschooling family and having kids home from school for the long haul (I understand, from social media, my own childhood, etc, that sometimes the haul seems looong for parents).

So, how did it go? I’m sitting here in the middle of the last day before work (weather permitting) and I have to say, quite peachy, thank you. Luckily my interventions in cooking, dishes and errands were well received. I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult it is for a homeschooling mom to be “on” at all times. I would now like to arrange for a full-time teaching assistant as we start the new year. Any takers? I’m not paying.

I also learned that two weeks is a long time. As in, it is quite possible to settle into new routines in that time. Do I have a job? Do I know anyone else? I’m still going to be able to read two books a week, right?

What I’m worried about now (because there has to be something) is how we will all get back on track now that I’ve fixed my ship and I’m leaving the planet. Transitions are always difficult.

Plus, I’ve been sleeping in every morning until at least 7:00. Sinful!

Home for the Holidays

Through reasons that are mysterious to me, I had grouped all my vacation time into the last three months of the year. This year I was able to take two full weeks off for Christmas. It seems excessive in some ways, though my workplace, source of the generous time off policies, insists that this is the best way to take it. So, this will be an experiment.

As I have written recently, taking a vacation can be more work than leisure, at least on the sheer planning end. This holiday break will be much more…domestic. Where normally it’s the kids who are strangely home for several days, this time it’s me! (my kids are always home). Don’t get me wrong; I am looking forward to the change of pace, and I’m as much a homebody as anyone I know. And anyway, my taking more time off was a specific Christmas request from my daughters.

So why am I complaining? I think it comes down to the uncomfortable realization that my being home can be an unwitting disruption of my wife’s well-oiled routines. I can only imagine how I would go about my job with my spouse just sort of hanging around all day. I would be glad to see here, sure, but– my job is my job. This must be what it is like for a homeschooling homemaker (or, as Roseanne Barr once put it, “domestic goddess”) with the breadwinning husband at home. Sure, I’m around to “help.” Whether she likes it or not.

I’m going to try and make up for my presence by getting the kids out of the house for a couple of days. This way my wife can finish all the Christmas sewing, knitting, felting, Instagramming, online shopping with coupon codes, etc.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Happy Holidays to you!

Kitchen Think

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I had one of those moments the other day. I had asked my eleven year-old to help prepare lunch, something involving the stove and the broiler, and was giving her instructions when I realized that I didn’t need to be telling her what to do. Not only was she perfectly capable of measuring the ingredients, watching the time, and reasonably avoid burning herself, she was already carrying out the instructions. My continuing to “help,” in fact, was only going to get in the way.

I stopped short. I felt pride, and a little bit of shock, and found myself pulling back from the moment–to what a journalist would call a higher elevation–and saw that the little girl I had been raising and guiding was now at least as competent a cook as I am. And I didn’t learn any of this until I was in my thirties.

While I was up there, above the kitchen at around 10,000 feet, I started thinking about how my role as a parent had been shifting and reconfiguring itself all along. Those tasks, those bits of information and those thought processes which used to require close supervision and physical proximity were now hers to explore, to push against and expand to the limits of her new older self. My gosh, I thought, she’s approaching adulthood before my eyes.

As I have come through my own journey as a parent raising four daughters, I have been through a similar process. With each new stage and new situation I come up against my limits and have to start again, a beginner on a new level. Some parents I know talk about having favorite ages, or conversely, struggling in particular ways with the developmental challenges of three, or seven, or twelve. I can’t say that I have a favorite age (or one that throws me for a loop). I like babies. I like toddlers. And so far, so good in the interim between that and teenagerdom.

I do look forward to being able to share more of my life and my self with my children as they become old enough to process it. To someday have adult conversations about how we got there, and what we took with us or left behind. Standing in the kitchen with my large-hearted, sensitive, stolid, quietly competent eldest daughter, I realized that teaching her to make a tuna melt was no longer enough. So what’s next? Will she tell me? Or do I need to spend some time here, at the edge of myself?

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.

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.

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.