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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Well, That Happened

…And it was just as amazing as advertised. Really, how often does that happen these days?

Now that we are back in full daylight (a day that does not look like I imagine one on Mars would look like) and we are recovering from our eclipse ice cream sundaes (trademark), I wanted to offer a couple of brief thoughts. Because there’s just no way I’m going to be able to write about anything else today.

First, I want to say that I think it’s hilarious that the Total Solar Eclipse has turned every home into a homeschool. Without any guidance from public school science classrooms or sent-home flyers, families (whether led by the adults or the children), have had to get educated on both the physics of the phenomenon and the tools with which to experience it. If only we could do this all the time!

Second, I was thinking today about how in our society we rarely experience the same things at the same time. This is the age, after all, of niche TV, personalized music curation, and the Google Bubble. There have been very few unifying events in recent years; things that we all saw or felt as a people. September 11th was one. The last few presidential elections (for sure the most recent one).

Maybe this is due to our living in this part of the country, in the sweet spot of totality, but I can’t remember one thing being on the minds and lips of pretty much everyone I met in the way this has. I have to say, it makes me feel nostalgic for the way things used to be, when what we watched was whatever was on tonight and what we did was whatever was going on down the street. I understand that this makes me sound old.

This morning we sat at the picnic table on the front lawn (or the white sheet we had put down to catch the radiation shadows) and saw that everyone on our street was doing the same thing. Everyone making frequent sun checks with their eclipse glasses; oohing and aahing at the (very) appropriate moments; getting the same emergency alerts on their phones about why we shouldn’t look at the sun without our glasses or park on the dry grass. I didn’t have to look at mine because someone on the corner was reading them out loud.

Later, as the moon was easing itself back out of the way, I took the girls for a walk in the neighborhood and found that mostly people were still home, and outside: watering flowers, sitting in tailgater chairs. A typical conversation, as I overheard: “Well, that was pretty neat.” “What?” “That was pretty neat.” “Sure was.”

It’s so heartening that we can still agree on things.

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Wait, What Happened?

This photo is totally out of date.

Time for another one of those periodic parenting reality checks. This one’s not so focused on mortality, but as always it’s surprising. What happens is this: I realize that some time has passed, and that my children are all…different. Somehow. And I feel like I have been shirking my duties. How did I miss the changes?

Case in point: my twelve year-old is, first of all, twelve. Missed it. Secondly, she is ready to set off for a week of summer camp in Washington like it’s just what you do. And apparently it is! My ten year-old, who suddenly looks like a miniature woman, has decided not to go. “Too many people.” I get it. All she wants to do is listen to The Lord of the Rings for the I’m not even sure how manyth time because I missed it.

My eight year-old has learned to make bread from her mother. She is doing so as we speak. Most tragic of all is that I think she may be losing her childhood habit of running back and forth a short distance when she is thinking of something. No, no. Never mind. She just did it. Also, she will be a full-blown reader just as soon as she decides it is worth her while.

The most confounding transformation has taken place with the six year-old. There is a gangly, long-legged creature galloping about the house that bears an eerie resemblance to my youngest daughter. She can get herself in and out of the bath. She has picked up an entire package of new facial expressions, hand gestures and vocal intonations that belong to a much older and more world-weary person. It’s as if she downloaded the software.

This happens every once in a while: things aren’t changing, but suddenly they appeared to have already changed. For once, I’m not thinking about how little time I have left to live. Though now that I mention it, that’s a good point. Mostly I’m just glad that I am here to see it, even if I’m clearly not paying enough attention. And if they are able to do more things every day without asking for help. Or permission. Or for that matter, push notifications.

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That Eclipse Thing

So, you might have heard about this big solar eclipse thingamajig. A once in a lifetime event, an epic phenomenon of nature! And according to the Oregon Department of Transportation, the “biggest traffic event in Oregon history.” Which is something to keep in mind if you have any plans on the several days on either side of August 21, 2017.

As you know, we in the Willamette Valley are extremely fortunate to be living right in the very heavy-metal-band-sounding Path of Totality. All we have to do is go outside! If you have groceries or gas to buy that weekend, I suggest you do it early. If you are of an entrepreneurial bent, maybe you can pay for them with the profit you make for selling parking spots and/or campsites. It’s up to you. Just be aware.

I don’t, like, watch TV, so I don’t know how widely knowledge of how widely education about the eclipse has been disseminated in public. I have been seeing more and more eclipse glasses for sale in grocery stores (and in one case, from a table run by a very nice young boy).

But unless your kids’ teachers planned ahead and did a unit on the eclipse before school got out for Summer, they may not be as up on it as they should be. Who knows, maybe your kids are the ones who told you about it. In which case, smart kids, and you can stop reading.

I would argue that they should bring a good basic understanding with them on that day, and here’s why: the eclipse is going to be extremely freaky. I’m talking day becomes night, the temperature drops, the bats come out, the dark void swallows the source of light and life, dogs and cats living together. Mass hysteria!

Here’s an easy way to explain the eclipse to your kids, if they need a model.

Get a flashlight and turn it on. That’s the sun. Shine the sun on an orange, or a baseball or whatever, which will represent the Earth. The spot where the sun is shining is Oregon. Now find a different round object, a mango, say. Move it slowly into place between the sun and the Earth. Voila! Eclipse.

Now go out with your family and have fun! It’s not the end of the world.

 

 

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Parenting From the Bleachers

My favorite week of the Nurturing Fathers class is the one I spent a year preparing for. When it came up in my training, I knew I would be in trouble if I didn’t bone up on a sport. Any sport. This was desperate.

Let me back up a little. Usually when discipline is brought up in a parenting class it’s on the level of, “how do I fix this behavior? How do I stop it? How do I get more of this or less of that?” There’s probably a bit about how discipline is not the same thing as punishment, as we tend to conflate them in our culture. And this class, just like its parent curriculum of Nurturing Parenting, takes care to emphasize that the root of discipline is disciple: it’s about teaching and learning, not retaliation. There will probably be time to discuss the merits of spanking (there are none) and time outs (it depends).

All that is well and good. Where Nurturing Fathers tips over from “well” and “good” into “genius” is the part where it taps into the male brain just tells it like it is. Namely, that discipline is a sport. Your family is a team. The parents are coaches (player-coaches, to be precise). Behold:

Just like any team sport, your family has rules. Ways to win and ways to score points. There are do’s and there are don’ts; the don’ts are the penalties and fouls. And because you’re a team, you all want to win. Right? So as a coach, Mom and/or Dad, you want to be sure that everyone knows the rules.

And, um, they should probably make sense.

From this model, the game of discipline becomes ridiculously simple.

  1. Explain what the rule is. For example, “Be home by 10 pm.”
  2. Name the consequence for breaking the rule. “You won’t be able to go out next weekend.” Note that this is logical and follows from the rule itself.
  3. Follow through.

If each player follows the rules, it benefits the whole team.

Cool, right? The only problem is that we (as in, the class facilitators) are supposed to talk about this stuff in terms of the sport of our choice. And that’s where I was in trouble. Nothing is more an impediment to learning than a teacher who is obviously full of crap (as I learned trying to score points with some metal-savvy high schoolers with some discipline issues when I misidentified “Rainbow in the Dark” as Dokken [obviously it’s Dio!!]. Seriously, I still cringe when I think about it).

And I literally do not know anything about any sports. So I had to do some homework. I decided that baseball had the most going for it, socioculturally and aesthetically (I’ve always liked baseball movies, anyway). I read some books, watched some Ken Burns. Then I mentioned casually at work that we should start a softball team. Interest was high (immediately and alarmingly so) and even more alarming was that somehow I ended up as head coach and manager. I started reading faster.

Our team is in its second season now, and going strong (the fact that I am no longer in any way involved with its functioning has, I’m sure, a lot to do with it). And in the bargain, I am now able to talk about discipline as baseball for a whole class period.

That’s all I have to say. Let’s get out there and win!

 

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