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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To Boldly Go

There’s a topic I keep coming around to because evidently I think about it a lot. Namely, what parts of ourselves do we share with our kids? What’s appropriate? How much should we try to guide their tastes and interests? Previously, as in the post linked above, I was critical of those parents who wanted their children to like the things they liked at the same age. I think about this every time that I’m in Target and I see shelves of retro-styled board games and toys from my childhood. In this case, Star Wars was the main example. Not that I have received any angry emails or anything, but you should know that, as my daughters get older, I find myself shifting my position.

Case in point: a few weeks ago I told them about Star Trek (the Original Series, or TOS, as the nerds term it) (and I’m enough of a nerd to know that we like to be called Trekkers rather than the pejorative Trekkies) (but not enough to, like, dress up and go to a convention or anything, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Where was I? Right. Well, surprisingly, they told me last night at dinner that they were very interested in watching Star Trek. So I counted it as a win and went to work.

What was the best way to introduce kids–who had limited experience with a.) science fiction, and b.) TV shows that aren’t documentaries about wildlife or running a Medieval farm–to this pillar of mid-Twentieth Century popular culture? Going through synopses of the episodes, I settled on “The Trouble with Tribbles,” one of the lighter and more humorous ones, and we watched it in the evening after they got into their jammies. It was a hit.

What do I want my kids to get out of this artifact that had given me so much pleasure and food for thought in my own upbringing? Given that I habitually watched it in the afternoons while doing my math homework, I could make an argument that I was trying to stimulate their left-brain functioning. Or, I could cite the liberal humanist framework of the show that presents a multiracial, (sort of) gender-integrated crew working together to examine ethical dilemmas across the galaxy.

But who am I fooling? What I really wanted to do is to introduce them to one of my heroes, one Mr. Spock. His relentless logic, vacuum-dry sense of humor and valiant attempts to master his half-human emotions are ideals that I had long since absorbed into my personality. Maybe I want them to know in some small way where I’m coming from.

During bedtime my eight year-old, after determining that his ears must be prosthetic, pronounced him “pretty cool.” I’ll take it.

And I promise to not be so dismissive of Star Wars dads (and moms). Even though Star Trek is way better.

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Tell Me When to Panic

I keep coming across a study that makes a remarkable correlation. Namely, that drug use among teenagers has gone down across the board in the last few years, just as use of personal technology such as smartphones and tablets has gone up. According to a New York Times article about the study, “researchers are starting to ponder an intriguing question: Are teenagers using drugs less in part because they are constantly stimulated and entertained by their computers and phones?” The piece sort of stumbles around a bit, assuring us that correlation is not causation (it’s not) before suggesting, “it might be that gadgets simply absorb a lot of time that could be used for other pursuits, including partying.” Which is a sentence guaranteed to make teenagers laugh.

An interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with Adam Alter, the author of a new book about the perils of media saturation called Irresistible, builds on this study to present a case for the increasing prevalence of addiction to devices that connect to the internet. Alter, who has done work in this field, makes the argument that online games and other content are “designed to be addictive and that the gratification it provides is similar to that of other addictive behaviors, such as drug abuse or gambling.”

So far, so alarming. This is not a post about how we should rip iPhones from the hands of our teen children (I’ve sort of done that already). I do think that we should consider not putting them in the hands of anyone under 10 (and definitely under two, no matter what doctors now say). If anything, I think the most important thing for us parents to consider is our own use of those devices. What sort of behavior are we modeling? What are we presenting as acceptable? Etc. You know, the old “walk the walk” line (just heard Johnny Cash as I typed that).

No, what I found really interesting was this article in Teen Vogue, which has been enjoying a reputation of late as the source of some astute, if unconventional, journalism. The short piece presents the correlation between the fall of teenage drug use and the rise of phone-and-tablet use, and finds…nothing alarming whatsoever. “So next time you’re at a party and passing on that drink, joint, or something far worse, don’t feel bad about looking down at your phone — playing a quick game of Words With Friends could be exactly what you need to stay sober and on track.”

Yeah, but. Nevertheless, shouldn’t we. What about. How can we not consider.

Oh, forget it. I’m packing it in. With a book. That doesn’t light up.

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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.

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Climbing Streaked Mountain

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. 

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I had a bit of a panic attack this summer. I was hiking with relatives in Maine up a steep trail when the path disappeared into a bare expanse of rock, dotted occasionally by shrubs, boulders, pine needles and lichen. It wasn’t clear what was the best route up and it was a long way down. To fully understand my emotional state, you need to know that: 1. I don’t like heights, 2. I have slipped on rocks and hurt myself several times while hiking, 3. My knees were still recovering from my having tripped over a suitcase while entering the airport at the beginning of this trip.

Now the reason I have slipped and tripped numerous times is because I get distracted (I had a full bladder and was looking for the restroom sign in the airport incident). I get distracted by other things as well—sights, sounds, my own thoughts– just about anything. It’s part of my temperament.

Temperament refers to traits that are present in us from birth on. While they may be more pronounced at certain developmental stages, they persist throughout our lives. They aren’t the result of experience or training. They aren’t good or bad. Raising Your Spirited Child author Mary Sheedy Kurcinka renamed “Distractibility” as “Perceptiveness” to emphasize that this trait has positive as well as negative aspects.

Being able to let my mind wander brings me great joy. It’s a source of creativity. Allowing myself to be distracted and perceptive helps me to define and solve problems in my life. I particularly like to let my mind wander when I’m hiking. But up on that mountain I couldn’t do that. (Just so you don’t get the wrong impression– it wasn’t much of a mountain: about half the height of Marys Peak).

Being born with a temperamental trait doesn’t mean I can’t increase my ability to act in a different way. I can’t do that by force of will—anymore than I can increase my arm muscles by saying “my arms are strong!” It also doesn’t help to insult myself “I’m a total space cadet!” Instead, by accepting that this trait is part of my nature, I’ve been able to come up with some strategies that enable me to manage situations when I need to focus. On Streaked Mountain, I had to concentrate on where I put my feet to avoid potentially slippery spots. But just looking down frequently led me to dead ends—places where I couldn’t figure out where would be the best place to go next. (Remember that the path was no longer visible and we were trying to ascend by zigzagging gradually up.) My in-laws were ahead of me, but it wasn’t always apparent which way they had gone. Sometimes they had taken routes I didn’t think I could manage. I had to figure out what would work for me. And I had to keep myself from panicking. So, for a while I progressed like this: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. Repeat.

I had to keep focused on each piece of this process: breathe, tell myself I can do this, look up and ahead to see where I want to go, look down to locate a stable spot to put my foot, take a step. It took time. It took a lot of energy.

The crucial thing to remember about temperamental traits is that when people act differently from their natural inclinations, it takes more energy. A helpful comparison is writing with one’s non-dominant hand: unless you are ambidextrous, writing with your other hand takes more energy and effort than writing with the hand you usually use.  When we use energy for something we may not be able to do it for very long. Using a lot of energy for one thing means we will have less energy available to do other things.

When we ask or encourage anyone (child or adult or ourselves) to do something that is energy-draining it helps to:

  •  Acknowledge that it is hard
  • If needed, point out the advantages (or the necessity) of doing that hard thing
  •  Encourage the person to think of strategies they might use. Remind them of past successes. Offer suggestions tentatively “what would you think about trying ____?”
  •  Be patient. If possible, allow more time or take breaks. Often the time needed is less than we expect.Notice and praise each step along the way
  •  Congratulate successes. It helps to acknowledge again the difficulty, mention the strategies used, and celebrate the accomplishment.
  • Avoid making too many demands at once

It helped me on the hike that my husband was supportive and understanding. He acknowledged that it was hard for me; offered me some suggestions but respected my choices; and congratulated me when I reached the top. I did make it and was able to relax and enjoy the fabulous view. And made it back down!

The next steep rocky climb (different set of relatives, but similar tastes in recreation) was easier. Whew.

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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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.

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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.

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The Boat Shaped Bookshelf

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The nine year-old has been asking for a bookshelf for Christmas. When I came across one at work–a wooden shelf in the shape of an upturned boat, which knowing her was literally the most perfect bookshelf that had ever existed–and got permission to take it home, there was no way I was going to be able to save it until then. So I set it up against the dining table so that she would find it in the morning.

She has the best reaction to gifts she really likes. I remember her fifth birthday, on which her older sister, aged seven, had bought her a miniature plastic Schleich unicorn that was very fancy, with rainbows blazing in its mane. The birthday girl silently took it out of its wrapping and, after a pause, ran into her room to introduce it to its new friends. After five or so minutes, she ran back to her sister, hugged her silently but firmly, and ran back into her room, where she stayed for some time.

I tried not to have an expectation for the bookshelf, but her reaction did not disappoint. She stopped in front of it and gazed at it silently. Within 15 minutes, she and her sister had set it up between their beds, under the window, having miraculously rearranged their entire room to accommodate its placement.

I had hoped that she would share it, and had been prepared to dictate to her that she would do so. My big parenting moment was that, taking her cue, I had remained silent. She decided on her own to offer one of its three shelves to the older girl, and to preserve the third for decorations, to be mutually selected (they chose a seasonal theme, as you can see).

Having faith in the grace of which my children are capable (at least when they are not engaged in an endless war of attrition over who was looking at whom the wrong way), is an act I can stand to do more of. These are the children, after all, who routinely use their birthday money to buy each other gifts or take us all out for frozen yogurt. It made me wonder how often my expectation that they would not be up to this affects their behavior. For once, I left the door open and kept my expectations to myself.

Now I have no idea what to get her for Christmas. But she says she just wants to spend time with her family. And, you know, to read.

 

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Voting for Kids

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I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s an election coming up. No, really!

Even if our kids aren’t exposed to the back-and-forth of politics at home, whether from discussions between adults (they listen) or from TV news (they watch), they are taking in the political climate. It’s almost ubiquitous this year. My daughters are pointing out signs along the road for the various candidates, both local and national. If your kids are going to school, they may well be privy to instruction about the election in their classes, but they are certainly getting it from other kids, who are absorbing what they can from (again) discussions at home and from TV, radio and social media.

What is the best way for parents to approach this? According to a Time article, it depends on their age:

“[I]n elementary school classes, ‘kids parrot back everything’ parents say. So setting the right tone from a young age is important… Kids may also have deep emotional responses to political conversations, like hearing that a candidate will be bad for women, or get the country into a war. Parents can help by asking kids what they’ve heard about the election, and talking through their reactions.”

If they’re in middle school, we can help “by asking kids what they think, which lets kids know two key things: it’s important to think through political decisions, and it’s O.K. to come to your own conclusions.” Again, it’s important to let them lead with their own interests. In another article, politics professor Steve Snow says, “The thing about kids is, if you start talking about something they haven’t asked about—if they don’t open up the conversation themselves—it turns into a sort of lecture and they’ll tune you out.”

By high school kids are at the ideal age to become invested in the process. After all, they will ideally be informed enough to vote when they come of age: “‘knowing the candidates, how they’re different.’ Kids may form different opinions than parents around this age… or hold similar positions, but for different reasons. But for parents, the goal is to keep kids engaged, both with the political process, and in conversation.”

In Oregon, we have mail-in ballots, and I like to present mine as an exciting piece of mail (who doesn’t like mail?) and an opportunity to affect the world with my choices (without getting into the whole Electoral College thing. Not there yet). Talking about why I would choose one candidate over another should ideally reflect values that are already practiced in our family. Not that there isn’t room for polite but spirited debate. From the Time article:

“While a nonpartisan approach may seem ideal, recent studies show that growing up in a bipartisan household may have its benefits, as well. According to a study published earlier this year in The Journal of Politics, ‘Those whose parents are divided politically tend to become more, not less, engaged in politics…’ the fact that two sides of an issue are represented equally in the home, sparking discussion and greater awareness and understanding of the issues.”

The key thing for me takes us back to the point about “polite conversations.” We are living through the most contentious, volatile and sometimes downright nasty political campaign of our lifetime. And regardless of who or what we may be voting for, it shows our kids that America is a free and pluralistic society, with room for a full spectrum of views. I like to remind them–and myself–that these views go straight to what is important in peoples’ lives. Whatever the outcome, our democracy is something to be celebrated. And who doesn’t like to celebrate?

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The Family Taste

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A while ago, I wrote as a music geek about which music I’ve introduced to my kids, and which I haven’t. As I mentioned, I disagree with a lot of my peers who find it important to pass along their “good” taste to their children. In our house, music tends to be functional rather than ornamental: I play the same recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (by Kremerata Baltica, in case you were wondering) pretty much every Saturday morning, because of the way it tends to complement quiet productivity. And my current go-to bedtime music is From Sleep by composer Max Richter: it is literally music made to sleep to. And as a further sleep aid I have dug up my Buddha Machine, which plays repeated short loops of ambient music. This recently backfired when my nine year-0ld pointed out that something was wrong with the Buddha: “Dad, can’t you hear that undercurrent of dread?” Turns out the battery was running down.

For the most part, we try to let our kids find their own taste, in music as with books (we tend to keep a tight reign on what they watch, which is maybe another post). Having come across this article, however, I’ve been thinking some more about the topic. I was struck in particular by the pull quote from the piece by film critic Peter Bradshaw, which read “Watch a movie with a five-year-old and it becomes more potent.” Though they tend to cycle through a collection of favorites, mostly Disney fare, or shows like The Magic School Bus–whose value I acknowledge, though it makes me want to rip my eyeballs out–there are a few films I will always watch with them. Last weekend, at home alone with the kids, we sat in a pile and watched Muppet Treasure Island. Yesterday it was The Princess Bride*. I realized that these films had taken on a special significance for my kids because of the fact that I was present with them. I hadn’t meant them to take on this weight, but it happened anyway. I don’t think I could have done it on purpose.

A similar thing happened with The Lord of the Rings (the books, not the movies) because I had been saving a boxed set of the trilogy for years, in case my eldest daughter wanted to read them. They had become a long-time topic of conversation, and by the time she had come of age (we had decided she would have to be in double digits), she couldn’t wait another minute. By now she’s worn the bindings off the original set and the new ones aren’t long for this world. I feel proud and nerdily triumphant that she loves the books so much, but here’s the irony: I’ve never gotten through them myself.

A few months ago, on a whim, I took home a Tintin book to show to my girls. For those not familiar, The Adventures of Tintin is a series of boys’ comics published in French in the 1960s and translated into Enlish. I had checked them all out from my school library and they still hold nostalgic real estate in my heart. My kids had not been introduced to comics (though they had discovered Garfield, which was probably inevitable), so I thought this might be a good way in. All four of my daughters, from age five on up, jumped in immediately. Now it’s all Tintin all the time. This had been a casual experiment, but it was wildly successful; so much so that I’m getting a bit worried.

I still haven’t touched Star Wars. But I’ll keep you posted.

*I fast-forward through the Wesley torture scenes, by covenant with my wife; however, I still let them see Inigo Montoya take his bloody vengeance. Someday we will be able to talk about the moral problems of revenge. But not now.

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