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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She’s Not Me

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

I watched as my 2-year old daughter concentrated on building a tower of blocks. She paused for a moment and swiped her right hand from her eyebrow up above her hairline, brushing hair out of her eyes—except that she didn’t have any hair hanging in her eyes! No, she made that gesture because –since birth—she had seen me do it several times a day. That image has stuck with me as a powerful reminder of the unconscious impact we parents have on our children.

We certainly inherit many things from our parents—from genes to habits. We often find ourselves saying the things our parents said to us to our children, those “OMG I’m turning into my mother!” moments.

Sometimes we see behaviors in our children that we don’t like or that we think will cause problems for them. Sometimes this happens without us being aware that the child is simply imitating us. Usually, we are well aware that we are the source of the behavior. And well aware of the problems it can lead to. So we try to correct it in our child.

But that form of correction is not only ineffectual, I believe it is harmful. Why?

When I’m told not to do something that I am doing unconsciously it feels like an attack on me. And if I know of no way to stop doing it, then I feel stupid.

What can a parent do?

  1. Set a different example. If you want your child to do something—do it yourself. It won’t be easy—quite possibly you behave this way because that’s how your parents behaved. But change is possible.

Share your struggle and your strategies with your child. You may want to ask your child to help by reminding you or praising your progress.

  1. Be aware of your child’s environment and their viewpoint. Be curious (in a non-threatening way). Share your observations—especially of positive things your child does. Ask questions: What do they want do about something? What do they think will happen if they do that? What do they think they can do about a problem.
  2. Use your knowledge of yourself when thinking about your child’s behavior. Try to put yourself into your child’s situation—how would you react? What’s different? What is the same?

It may be helpful to increase your knowledge of yourself. Some behaviors are learned from our parents, but others result from our temperament. Temperamental traits are not good or bad, they are characteristics present from birth—such as sensitivity, activity level, persistence and many others.  A helpful way to think about these traits is to consider whether you are right or left-handed. Handedness is not learned and trying to change it can cause problems. But both right handed and left handed children can learn to write—they just need strategies that work for them. Often, particularly in the past, some traits were viewed as faults that needed correction. If that happened to you as a child, you probably found ways to cope but you still might see that trait as something that ought to be changed—and want to spare your child from the problems you encountered. A trait is NOT an excuse for bad behavior or for avoiding difficult situations, by the way. However, once we recognize a trait as the reason underlying a behavior, we have an easier time modifying our behavior and helping a child modify theirs. For example, a highly sensitive child can learn strategies that help them deal with the barrage of stimulation in school. Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka is an excellent source of information about temperament and strategies.

  1. Recognize that, despite the similarities, your child is a unique individual growing up under different circumstances. Behaviors and traits that caused problems for you, might not do the same for your child. The world is a different place from the world of your childhood. No matter how similar you and your child are they are NOT you.

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.

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The Case of The Pillow

Here’s something that happened.

My second youngest daughter, the quintessential middle child, was turning nine. I, who have never walked by a Star Wars branded product I didn’t stop to examine, came across a pillow case that I thought would be a perfect addition to her bedroom array which includes the following:

One (1) poster from the Whiteside revival showing of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl;

One (1) giant poster of a kitty from a kids’ magazine that reads “Keep Your Head Up,” though my daughter doesn’t understand why it needs to say that;

One (1) color copy of the cover of a Princess Leia comic, given to her by her dad, depicting the character standing over a dispatched storm trooper with a smoking blaster;

One (1) drawing of Legolas the elf and Gimli the dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, wrought by her second oldest sister;

Twenty-three (23) assorted stuffed kitties–including one (1) tiger–in a pile;

One (1) completed coloring page depicting Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia on Jabba’s sail barge.

Like I said, I thought that this pillow case I found at Target, featuring artwork from the original Star Wars: A New Hope film poster (the one that randomly added a pommel and cross-guard to Darth Vader’s lightsaber, I guess because it didn’t look enough like a sword?), would fit in nicely.

So, when the day came, I put the case on her pillow and left it for her to discover. When we got home that day we made up a pretense for her to enter her room. She came in, saw it immediately, said, “Hmmm,” and went about her business.

Later she sat next to me on the couch while I paged through a National Geographic. She began to cry softly. I have been parenting four daughters long enough to not overreact to this and just snuggled her closer. But I already had a pretty good idea of what was up.

Later I came into her room with her toothbrush and, gesturing to the pillow case, asked, “Do you like it, honey, or is it a little much?”

After a moment she replied, “A little,” and burst into tears.

For goodness’ sake, I said, it’s okay if she doesn’t like it. It doesn’t hurt my feelings!

I emphasized that if she got a gift from some other adult it was best to at least pretend that she liked it, but that she didn’t need to worry about that stuff with me. I appreciate that she likes what she likes. Once she understood that this was true, she felt better.

And really, it doesn’t hurt my feelings. What could be better than knowing that she takes our shared fandom very seriously?

 

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Friending

Being a parent can be…absorbing. So much so, in fact, that it’s possible to lose track of the things that make up a non-parenting life. Case in point: today I am home with the kids while my wife left to spend the afternoon with her friend, who had managed to find someone to watch her own. Our kids were genuinely puzzled by what was happening. “Where did Mom go?”

“To hang out with her friend.”

“But…what are they doing?”

“I don’t know. Going to lunch. Going to a bookstore. Whatever they want to do, I guess.”

“But…why?”

Etc.

Clearly we don’t spend enough time with our friends. Outside of church or other family-related functions, it just doesn’t happen. For our first several years as parents, it was just hard to manage. One is busy, what with the children and all. It’s hard to spend time with other adults who aren’t also parents. Eventually, it got easier, but I guess it just hadn’t occurred to us until recently. And we’re both relatively (and happily) antisocial anyway. Evenings in this house are a flurry of knitting and book-reading.

And yet…friends! They’re kind of important, aren’t they? From a parenting standpoint, it’s good to model this kind of social interaction (as became clear when my daughters were baffled by the idea of adults hanging out together away from children).

But there’s more! Last night we had accepted a long-standing invitation for dinner at the home of some people we knew from church. It was fun. I forgot. Other people: fun! On the way home, the 12 year-old pointed out what a different sort of household this was, with an open invitation to whomever needed a place to go. People in and out all the time. Long dinner table, guest bedrooms. Stay as long as you like. Definitely different from our rather more insular household (plus, short dinner table, no spare anything).

But again, good to model the interactions. And good for kids to know about other kinds of family.

Sounds like a project! In the new year, I resolve to have some friends. Wish me luck.

 

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The Wheel

In Nurturing Parenting, as I’ve mentioned, there is an emphasis on parents being able to recognize and meet our own needs so that we can do the same for our children. Hopefully by now this is a familiar concept (though I can attest that it doesn’t get any easier with repetition).

There’s more. In the class, we talk about the several areas in which we (as parents, humans, etc) have needs. They are categorized as follows:

Physical. Self explanatory, I would hope. Includes all the things you imagine keep you alive; things that feel good, ya da ya da.

Emotional. Knowing the feelings, feeling the feelings, expressing them in an appropriate and legal way.

Social. Interacting with people; making connections; communicating. I suck at this.

Intellectual. Learning things, developing skills. If reading books covered it, I would win this pie piece. Just don’t ask me how to change a tire.

All of the above tend to have a lot of buy-in with our parents. No disputing their importance or their practical value. But from there it gets a little tricky.

Creative. Some people wonder out loud why this is a category. The most common story is this (perhaps you’ve heard it. Perhaps you’ve said it!): “I can’t do any of that creative stuff.” Or, “I can’t even draw stick figures.” Or, “Trust me, you don’t want to hear me sing.” This is where I start whacking people with (rhetorical) rolled up newspapers.

First of all, none of that is true. It’s just that you don’t think it’s important enough to do it. Or to practice. Then, I point out all the ways in which you probably are meeting (or attempting to meet) your creative needs. What about that story you told at work about your last fishing trip? What about that casserole thing you made last Thursday?

Spiritual. Again, a lot of people have trouble with this one. Sometimes it’s for the same reason that stuff about a higher power in the Twelve-Step programs can bother folks. Look, the takeaway is that whatever higher power it is that you land on, it’s important that it’s not you. The same rule applies to meeting your needs. Your mom and your dad couldn’t do it for you, and you can’t do it by yourself. The spiritual need is the need to plug into something other than our ego. “I go to church” is the automatic answer, and probably that helps.

But what about going fishin’? I am being completely serious. Solitude works to meet this need. So does silence. Taking a walk, outside, without your cell phone, can check all the boxes. Easy peasy. Except it never is.

So it has to become important.

Crucially, this array of needs is not a hierarchy; some are not more important than others. Rather, it’s a wheel. It needs some inflation all around in order to turn properly.

Which of these needs are you meeting on a regular basis? Which need some work? Most importantly, which don’t you want to think about?

Start with those.

Take care!

 

 

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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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Three Scenes

Sullen tee w/dad

Here’s a specific problem that has been coming up for me lately, at work and at home. I thought I’d find out more about it and share it with you.

Close your eyes and take a journey with me. You are in a room. A clean, well-lighted place. You are calm and relaxed. Take a few breaths in and out. Good. Now, open your eyes.

Before you is a child. Your child. The child is rolling her eyes in disbelief that you have just expected her to do something that you regard as perfectly reasonable. She intends to ignore you and go on with what she was doing before.

Close your eyes. Take another breath. Now open them.

Now your child is throwing his younger brother’s half-constructed Attack of the Clones Lego playset down the stairs. When you ask him why he has done this, he explains that his brother was being, and in fact is, a “butt.”

Close your eyes. Feel around for the ibuprofen in the medicine cabinet. Take two and be sure to drink a whole glass of water. Open your eyes.

Now your child, as you watch, is saying “$@%#.” You are positive that you have heard the word crisply and clearly and have watched the precise mouth movements required to form the word. When you ask the child to repeat the word, she insists that she was using the euphemistic spelling employed by Norman Mailer in his WWII novel The Naked and the Dead.  You do not believe her (though I also made a Hemingway reference in this post. Can you spot it?).

Oh, boy. We’re done. Come back to your body and shake yourself out.

These children are engaging in what is known by scientists as disrespectful behavior. Now, you might be asking, “Where did they learn this kind of thing?” The answer is a.) You, b.) Their peers, c.) Their uncle Steve, d.) YouTube, e.) It doesn’t matter. The answer is e.)

There are some definite do’s and don’ts in common to these scenes:

  • Stay calm. Do not respond with the kind of words or behavior they are presenting to you.
  • Ignore provocation. Do not be drawn into a power struggle, which is exactly what will happen if you attempt to assert your power right now. Walk away if you have to.
  • Speak your expectations clearly. “I don’t want to hear that kind of language.” “I expect you to listen when I give you a direction.” Stick to it but don’t feel you need to explain or defend it. Don’t negotiate.
  • Give encouragement when you see or hear things you like.
  • Spend some time with them. Let the relationship do the repairing.

Now. What was the child feeling? Probably frustration and a need for power. Now that everyone is calm, you can work with your child on ways to have (age-appropriate) input into rules and routines in order to feel more in control. Can you arrange for he and his brother to have separate play time? Can she choose when she does her chores, with the promise of an activity she enjoys at the end (or even while she does the work; music, an audiobook)? Can she practice deep breathing with you so she can learn to express her feelings appropriately?

Alright. Now close your eyes again. And have a nice long nap.

 

 

 

 

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Girls, Boys and Books

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

::C.S. Lewis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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With Teeth, and Without

I’ve been a little distracted lately. I was finally ambushed by twenty years of dental inaction when the crown on one of my front-and-center teeth snapped off. It was exactly as horrifying as it sounds. After scheduling an appointment and working out with my parents a plan to pay for the backlog of dental work that needed to be done all at once, I tried to become accustomed to making it through my work days with a gaping tunnel in my teeth. Turns out I am both too lazy to take care of these things in time and too vain to suffer the consequences with grace.

But enough about me. Let’s talk about my kids, none of which have ever had a cavity. Heck, I don’t even know if the older two even brush their teeth, and whenever I ask about it I learn that they have “lost” their toothbrush at some indeterminate point in the past. I’m sure it’s fine. Anyway, they have been surprisingly accepting of my temporary defacement; which is interesting, considering that when I periodically shave my beard there is crying in their ranks.

Also interesting is that my experience has paralleled that of my six year-old, who is just about to lose her first baby tooth. Right now, thanks to a temporary bridge that feels to me like a slightly modified version of those plastic fangs we used to wear on Halloween, my daughter and I are both contending with a disconcertingly flapping hinge in our gums that could come tumbling out at any moment.

If I have learned anything from this fiasco, other than not to eat anything crunchy ever again, it is to have rediscovered what it is like to be in a place my children know all too well: that changes are happening that are at the edge of our understanding and out of our control. Every time I attempt to chew something in the only intact corner of my mouth, I experience the helpless fear that a morsel will roll itself between my center teeth and pull my silly fake smile right out. That kind of helplessness is part and parcel of childhood, with its routine lack of answers and its sudden, jarring transformations.

To be adult is to live increasingly in a place where, ideally, the incidences of helplessness and uncertainty dwindle if not entirely disappear. It is humbling to be back in that position. I can only hope to handle it as well as my six year-old.

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