Disparate Youth

Sullen tee w/dad

An interesting issue came up in our Nurturing Fathers class recently: is there a right time to introduce a concept to your child when they might not otherwise know about it? Some examples: terrorism, drugs, political protest, gender ambiguity, racism.

Granted, this is a disparate list of topics, and the answer is going to be different for each situation (and for each family). But in each case, the parent did not know what, or how much, the child knew or from whom they might have learned it.

I described the scenario a few weeks ago in which I took my daughter, 12, to the doctor and she got tangled up in a list of questions about substance use. She didn’t know what they were about, but knew enough about how drugs could be harmful that she was upset by the questions. I felt like I should have prepared the ground for her, given her more of a context for what she was being asked to think about (she doesn’t go to public school, by the by). But what should I have told her? And how much? And when?

So many questions! What’s the best way to approach a difficult topic with your kids?

The first step, because it can determine what course to follow, is to turn it around:

Ask your kids what they know about it. What do they think? How does it make them feel? What’s important here is not to identify the source or cast blame, but to find out what your child has to work with. Listen non-judgmentally, for content and for emotion. You might be surprised at what you learn!

Now, remember not to render value judgments on what they have told you, even if it is inaccurate or offensive. You don’t what them to shut down and quit sharing. Instead, offer to help them to find out the truth behind the subject: look it up together on the internet or at the library. While you do this you can teach them how to discern good sources of information from bad (we know how to do that, right?).

What if your conversation is not pure research, but touches you or your family directly? How do you give difficult information? I came across a helpful post on this very thing.

By approaching the problem in this way, you get to teach your that it’s possible to learn and process challenging or even scary topics. And you get to spend some time together, to boot.

Thanks to Santigold for the title of this post.

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Between the Brick Wall and the Jellyfish

As we experience the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world, please read carefully as I suggest that what we need is more authoritative ones.

That suffix makes all the difference, even according to Google’s dictionary function : an authoritarian is one who goes around “favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government, at the expense of personal freedom.” One who is authoritative, on the other hand, is “commanding and self-confident; likely to be respected and obeyed.”

These are also, as you may know, two of the three parenting styles identified by psychologist Diana Baumrind back in the 1960s.

As venerable as they are, Baumrind’s observations are still widely cited in research today. They break down as follows:

The Authoritarian, or Brick Wall, parent works from a model of rules and convictions to which the child is expected to conform. Because children (much like adults) are all different and have changing needs and temperaments, this does not tend to work very well. Therefore, the Authoritarian parent is compelled to use punishment and force to make it happen. This parent wants obedience and respect, and while the application of “power over” others can generate the former, at least in the short term, the future relationship will hold disillusionment, resentment and possibly trauma.

The Permissive parent, therefore, moves as far from this model as possible, at the cost of providing too little structure and guidance. The child’s response to this Jellyfish parent is that she hungers for limits and healthy boundaries and has no one able to guide them through the vicissitudes of growing up. This is problematic enough; in addition, though, when the chips are down the Jellyfish will often snap, in a panic, into Brick Wall mode.

The healthy middle way is undertaken by the Authoritative parent. Unlike the Permissive parent he has clear rules and limits and is willing to hold them; unlike the Authoritarian, she is sensitive to the cues and adaptive to the needs of the child as they present themselves. The Authoritarian provides choices when appropriate and sets limits when needed. He also “encourages verbal give and take, shares with the child the reasoning behind her policy, and solicits his objections when he refuses to conform. Both autonomous self-will and disciplined conformity are valued.”

The Authoritative parent is like a spine: firm, strong and upright, yet flexible. I urge you to stand with other vertebrate parents in their important work.

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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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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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An Invitation

Psst. Hey. Ever thought of taking a parenting class?

Why would you do such a thing? For many who do, the answer is that someone has said you’ve gotta. That’s not necessarily a bad reason, as these things go, but I would like to make a case for just taking one anyway.

Here’s why:

  1. You’re always going to learn something. Even if you already supposedly know it all. Because your perspective is yours and though it may be working 60-87% of the time (I don’t know anyone who claims to be an A parent), it will benefit you to step out of your point of view and into another one. Any other one, really. Heck, even if you’ve already taken an parenting class it will be different this time because things change. Your kids have changed; they have different needs now and different things are coming up. Things might be challenging now that weren’t even on your radar last time.
  2. Other people will be there. Probably people with whom you aren’t friends on Facebook. They most likely haven’t had you over for dinner (at least not yet). These people have a variety of backgrounds and experiences to offer you, and they will almost certainly learn something from you too. Plus, one of them might know how to fix your dishwasher. But seriously (that was serious too). Networking and community-building are two of the most valuable things that can come out of a parenting class.
  3. They’re everywhere. Just look at this very website. Starting in January, there is a veritable cornucopia (an overflowing horn thing!) of classes, offered in Corvallis, Albany and Lebanon, Sweet Home, Philomath and Scio. You can barely drive on the street without passing one. Also, there are the Collaborative Problem Solving workshops, described by people I know as life-changing. And, ahem, the place where I work  offers a full rack o’ classes in the Nurturing Parenting program, something I write about a lot. And I teach Nurturing Fathers, which is the only thing going just for dads, as far as I know, anywhere around. Though I would love to have some competition. Finally, I can’t speak for everyone else, but ours are free, and will feed you and take care of your kids to boot.

I don’t even know what you’re waiting for. See you next year!

 

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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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(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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Toying with Gender

I get into interesting conversations sometimes about children and gender.

As a father of four daughters, I can’t speak with any authority on how little boys pick up on certain cultural cues and end up inevitably drawn to trucks and firearms (though as a former little boy I can tell you that certain things just seemed to, as it were, stick out). My brother took on all the truck love but we could both distinguish among the national handguns of WWI-WWII. I preferred the German Mauser, with its obvious influence on the design of Han Solo’s blaster*, and the .45 Colt automatic brandished one in each hand by The Shadow (I had my grandparents’ taste in pop culture**) while my brother was partial to the Luger pistol and the British Sten gun. We learned about these things, pre-internet, because we needed to. Guns emerged into our boy-consciousness somewhere between dinosaurs and heavy metal in what seemed like an inevitable progression.

*Okay, it’s clearly just a Mauser with some extra spacey bits glued to it.

**No, really. I once dressed as Groucho Marx for Halloween and only the teacher knew who I was.

Where do these things come from? Did we like guns because we were raised in a patriarchal culture? Was it really that simple? Maybe it was all those war movies and westerns on TV. Our dad, a Viet Nam vet, actually banned any toy that was remotely gunlike until we were older. We had to make do with the most Mauser- and Luger-shaped sticks we could find.

Fast forward to parenthood, with four girls who were hit hard, one by one, by Princess Fever. How did it happen? I can only tell you what we did and didn’t do. We did not, at least at first, screen the Disney princess canon (you know how it is, though: when the eight year-old watches it later, the four year-old is on the same sofa). We did not obey the harsh gender strictures of the toy aisle at Target. We managed to block many of those toys that well-meaning family tried to send their way (they will all have grown up without seeing a Barbie outside of its package).

I’m not going to tell you that we attempted a quarantine or anything. Obviously these half-hearted measures are not going to keep the culture out. And say what you will (I’m glad to discuss it), we raised our girls as girls.

Anyway, they did grow up with the archetype of the princess. It’s just that they got it from pre-20th Century and non-Hollywood sources. The fairy tales of Grimm, as well as Russia, Sweden and even China, have surprisingly concomitant story elements and themes. The princess goes way back, and is from everywhere. Guess what? My daughters noticed. Also, they are way into history, so they know a lot about actual princesses. They are not impressed.

Were they exposed to construction equipment? Yes, they were made aware. My oldest two did spend the better part of a month watching road improvement in front of our apartment in Portland. However, they did not, at any point, ask for a Tonka truck.

What about guns? My pirate-obsessed eight year-old has a pistol but hasn’t bothered to research its provenance. Mostly, these princesses do swords, daggers and (non-Katniss-related) bows and arrows. Not the same thing at all!

So what I’m saying about all this is…really, I guess I don’t know. In the enduring Nature vs. Nurture debate, asking whether our behavior and predilections spring from our genetic legacy or our cultural surround, science currently says, “Yes.” And then says, “We’re closed!”

 

 

 

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Screens Revisited

It’s time to raise my quarterly alarm about the effects of screen time on children. Don’t worry, I’ve already laid the basic foundation of ranting, so I won’t get into that here.  Moreover, I have offered up an alternative use for a smart phone or pad that will allow you to make dinner unhindered while eliminating the perils of the screen (ie: cover it up and let it talk).

Well, it’s time to be alarmist again. New research as presented by psychologist Sue Palmer supports previous warnings about “links between excessive screen-time and obesity, sleep disorders, aggression, poor social skills, depression and academic under-achievement.” Along with this, “a rise in prescriptions for Ritalin, a drug for attention deficit and hyperactivity – a four-fold increase in less than a decade.”

So much, so familiar (at least, I hope it’s familiar: enough so that parents would not put their child/toddler/oh-my-gosh infant to bed with a tablet). But here’s what I found interesting about this particular article.

Writes Palmer, “It’s not just what children get up to onscreen that affects their overall development. It’s what screens displace – all the activities they’re not doing in the real world.” In other words, if they’re swiping a screen they’re not interacting with others. They’re not looking around at the inscrutable people and things around them. They’re not experiencing (take a deep breath) boredom, that charmed state that has led, historically, to all the great artistic and scientific breakthroughs (and not a few of its greatest crimes). In other words, if your small children are captivated by and absorbed in the screen in front of them (we know how that works, don’t we, fellow addicts?), then they are missing out on all the perception, interaction and processing that makes a brain grow, and that prompts them to seek out new information and challenges in the world.

Perhaps most important of all, they’re missing out on that most essential element in child development: play. Writes Palmer, “Each time babies or toddlers make something happen on screen, they get the same sort of pleasure hit as they would from a cuddle or a splash in the bath. When they can get instant rewards by swiping a screen, why bother with play that demands physical, social and cognitive effort?”

I recently picked up a used copy of Neil Postman’s classic work of cultural critique, Amusing Ourselves to Death. I saw that it was published in 1985, long before civilian use of email, and looong before social media, search engines and streaming claimed victory over the 21st Century human cortex. Postman’s dire prognostications about the melding of public life and entertainment technology are becoming more relevant by the second. Not bad for a grumpy old cuss.

At the risk of sharing in the general grumpiness, I imagine that our children will be at least as resentful of our current compulsive phone-gazing behavior as previous generations were about growing up with the TV as the altar of the house. Let me just raise my hand right now.

Guilty!

I can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

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