A Dinner Conversation

I’ll admit it. There are some weeks I just don’t know what to write about. I thought I’d quiz some of my coworkers (especially the ones that have promised to write a guest post and are still procrastinating) about a topic. There was a lot of interest in aspects of teenagerdom about which I’m simply not qualified. But I thought I’d go with it, and when I got home I tried something that has proved fruitful in the past: I talked to my kids.

At dinner, I asked my older ones (nine and eleven) what they were most looking forward to when they were teenagers. The nine year-old was pretty decisive. “Not a thing.” She went on to explain that she would prefer not to be any older than she is right now.

My eldest daughter equivocated. Finally I made a suggestion: “Learning to drive?” It was something we had been talking about recently. She was unsure. “It just seems so complicated.” This set my wife and I on stories about our misadventures experimenting with independence. Here’s one of mine.

When I was thirteen I was able to bicycle all the way to an area shopping mall, in which there was a diner we had frequented as a family. I was proud to finally have the chance to dine alone, sitting at the table with my book (something I still enjoy whenever I can manage it). I walked out when I was finished, only to realize several hours later that I had forgotten to pay for my meal.

I was mortified. Seized by guilt, I was not able to tell my parents what happened. I barely slept that night. As soon as I thought it might be open for the lunch shift I sped my way to the diner, cash in my pocket, and made my way, panting and dripping sweat, to the counter. I breathlessly explained what had happened and offered to make immediate recompense.

The boy behind the counter, by the looks of it not much older than I was, was not impressed by my story. He did not immediately have me arrested; nor did he seem to know what to do about it. He left me at the counter and returned with a waitress, who said that she had been working yesterday but didn’t remember any criminal activity. They declined to take my money.

At this point my five year-old interjected that she had no concerns about adulthood because she would immediately find a husband, have many children and collect farm animals. The seven year-old looked forward to having the opportunity to dress like a pirate and not have to wait in line, as she would just threaten to run people through.

Surely there’s nothing to worry about. Right?

Tending the Childhood Garden

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Most of us would appreciate having some rules for good parenting; some ironclad procedure to follow in order to give our children the best of what we have. New research in the burgeoning field of neuroscience is taking what we know about the brain, how it works and how it grows, and giving us some clues. But because it’s the brain we’re talking about, there are no simple answers. What has been emerging is some support for certain approaches over others. And often this research brings us back to older ways of thinking about children and what they need to grow, thrive and succeed.

Alison Gopnik, in her new book The Carpenter and the Gardener: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children (say that three times fast) offers this very thing. Her central metaphor contrasts the model of the carpenter–the parent who attempts to construct their child through micromanaging and fine-tuning–with that of the gardener, who allows space and nourishment for a child to grow in the way it naturally wants to. Guess which one is more effective?

I have written about the metaphor of nurturing as cultivating the things we want to grow. We give our positive attention to the traits we want to encourage rather than focusing on the negative traits we would like to see less of. This is both a good and useful thing. However, there is more to it than that, and also less.

As Gopnik tells us, it is easier to allow children to do what they do best–learn–than try to will them into the shapes we want to see.  It sounds great, and quite a relief besides, to just move out of the way and let children grow. But that’s when we see that some approaches work better than others.

I encourage you to read the linked article, which provides a great summary of Gopnik’s research. And, of course, to read the book (I have it on hold at the library). Here’s how it breaks down:

  • Let children under 6 just…play. Academic preparation is just not effective for small children. It’s not a matter of getting them ready earlier, because that’s just not where they’re at. They learn through play. So give them ample opportunity to do so.
  • School age children are ready to learn. So give them things to learn: cooking, building, cleaning, making. Show them, watch them, offer ways to improve the skill.
  • Teenagers benefit from practical skills. Less homework, more real-world experiences. Teens used to enter the adult world through apprenticeships, and we can offer them internships, community service projects, and guided projects such as putting together a newspaper or, heck, starting a garden.

In each of these stages, children learn by doing. Our job as parents is to let them do, in a safe and nurturing environment. Sounds simple, right? Simple work is often the hardest. But really, the hard part for modern parents is just letting it happen.

Halloween and the Social Contract

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I have fond memories of Halloween. There was always something magical about the social contract of trick or treating: it was widely agreed upon that a child could build up a surplus of candy through a ritualized exchange of words. It was almost unearned: free candy (or other, let’s face, it, inferior offerings, things that are not candy), just for showing up at someone’s door!

We made the parental decision starting last year that we would not be celebrating the holiday. And this year, partly due to this decision and partly because we’ve just been busy, we didn’t even make our trip to the pumpkin patch. It sort of snuck up on us, and we were of a mind that it would just pass by unnoticed.

And then it happened anyway. The children–oddly proportioned superheroes, little ninjas, junior Sith Lords, the stray Elsa–began to mass in our neighborhood. We had put a friendly sign up on the door: “No trick or treating here. Sorry!” and an enterprising, probably pre-literate child was banging on the door in anticipation of having his end of the social contract fulfilled. “I can see you in there!” By the time I had come home from work my daughters had lobbied successfully to join him. After all, they are already masters of dress-up, and within five minutes they were costumed and geared up from the dress-up basket. I grabbed my coat and hat (they decided I was a sailor) and joined Hermione Granger, Princess Buttercup, Cinderella and unnamed Medieval Lady as we made the rounds of the neighborhood.

We circled a couple of blocks, avoiding houses that a.) had no porch light on and b.) had decorated too enthusiastically (the girls have a strict “no hanging skeletons” rule) and I have to say they made out pretty well. In addition, my take of the non-gluten-free candy (in which the girls are also mysteriously well schooled) rivaled their own. It was…fun.

So, the kids got to experience the peculiar joy of a holiday in which we do not invest. I was reminded of the show of community that takes place on this day and, really, no other in this fragmented and isolated culture. I would love for there to be more of this: for strangers to receive each other on their doorsteps in mutual giving. For the time being, I guess I’ll take trick or treating.

And the next time an enterprising kid in fake muscles shows up, I’ve got some non-gluten-free candy to share.

Bored Games

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A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the importance of giving your children the opportunity to learn during the Summer. I hope that I did not give the impression that this should be, like, work. There is a real temptation to fill the days up with all those activities—soccer, swimming, camp, workshops, playgroups—that would normally be taken up by school. For one thing, someone is going to have to do all of the driving. But more importantly, all of that busy-ness may keep our kids from discovering for themselves what it really is they want to do.

From where does this tendency to fill up Summer days come? The intentions are good, to be sure. We want to provide them with something like the structure that supported them through the school year. Structure is good, right? That’s all I ever write about. Also, we might be used to our own schedule, which does not include having the kids around us at all times. And you might remind me that there is a thing called childcare, and we still have to work (otherwise, how could we afford childcare?).

Finally, there is another noble impulse at work here: we don’t want our kids to be bored. Because that would be…what? Bad? Sometime back in the mists of parenting history boredom became a dirty word. But is it really?

Looking back at my childhood, I remember things like swim lessons and even, one magical year, art school. But mostly I remember days and days filled with the imperative to simply go play outside. Those days, endless and each much like the other, left it up to me to wander the yard and the neighborhood, awash in the backdrop of changing light. There was so much time, and this was a gift I simply did not have during the school year. As idyllic as this seems to me now, looking back, I am sure that being left to my own devices involved a great deal of boredom.

A recent article extols the benefits of letting kids be bored. Though this is hardly a new idea (the author cites a book from 1930 by philosopher Bertrand Russell), there has been plenty of contemporary research into the richness of boredom:

“Your role as a parent is to prepare children to take their place in society. Being an adult means occupying yourself and filling up your leisure time in a way that will make you happy,” says Lyn Fry, a child psychologist in London with a focus on education. “If parents spend all their time filling up their child’s spare time, then the child’s never going to learn to do this for themselves.”

The author suggests sitting down with your kids at the start of the Summer and helping them to come up with a list of things to do when boredom arises. We did this at home, and have a long list that includes the following:

Go outside

Play a board game

Draw

Paint

Knit

Write a letter

Make a map

Stage a play

Make a code

Read

Listen to an audiobook

Bake

Do math practice (no, really)

Create something out of recycling

Some of these require more adult intervention than others. But all are on the list with my childrens’ blessing, and all are free will activities that engage the mind and the imagination. It is working well, but one thing I’ve noticed is that it often doesn’t come up, because they have decided to spend an hour in the grass watching bugs.

That works, too.

You’re a Poet

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Kids like words. They use them all the time. They put them together in different combinations. Some are funny. Some are very serious, because they describe how they think and feel and see the world. Some are magic, because they make things happen (“what’s the magic word?” We know it, right?).

Thus kids like poetry. They may not know it, but they do. After all, poetry is made of up words that are funny and very serious and, most of all, magic. So why not read and say and write poetry with them?

Wait. You like poetry, right? Oh, did you have to learn poetry in school? Right. Sorry about that. I hope you like poetry. You like songs, anyway, right? That’s poetry. You like jokes and Quentin Tarantino movies. I know you do, because. Poetry.

According to Merriam-Webster, poetry is “writing that formulates a concentrated imaginative awareness of experience in language chosen and arranged to create a specific emotional response through meaning, sound, and rhythm.” Hmm. Not very poetic.

According to Emily Dickinson, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” That’s more like it. It sounds pretty alarming and painful, but imagine that it is painless, and there’s no mess, and then the sky can get in. There.

Where to start with kids? You have probably passed along those nursery rhymes that you learned inexplicably yourself, and which are also poetry. You may have played the game in which you and your child try to one-up each other with how much you love each other: “I love you to the moon and back.” “Well I love YOU to the end of the universe and back.” “Yeah? Well I love you infinity.” And so on. That’s poetry and also math! There’s math in poetry, but that’s okay.

Here’s an easy way to make poetry: start with a formula. There are many ways to do this, and some of them have been used for hundreds of years. You can try a haiku. Haiku are Japanese nature poems, and there are a lot of rules that would apply to you if you were an ancient Japanese poet, and I don’t want to make any assumptions, but for our purposes it’s all about the meter.

It goes:

Five syllables

Seven syllables

Five syllables.

 

Without getting into what a syllable is, if you’re with your kids you can tap it out together.

 

Try one yourself.

 

Is this my new friend,

Nodding with its hornless head?

No, snail. It’s my toe!

 

Cat on the rampage

Flips backwards off the sofa:

“I meant to do that.”

 

We’re getting hungry

But it’s too hot for cooking

Ice cream for dinner

Summer School

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So, school is almost out. Summer is almost upon us. What are you going to do with your children now that they are home every day? Allow me to make a suggestion: start them in school.

Okay, let’s take a few deep breaths. I’ll take them with you. Ready? Now let me explain. What better time for your kids to learn than when they don’t have to go to school all day? If anything, all of the structure of their school day—all the moving from one place to another, all the sitting down and lining up and walking and standing and waiting, not to mention all of those other kids—has been in the way of their learning all along. Heck, even the teachers have been distracting them from their natural inclination to learn.

Don’t take it from me. Here’s what educator John Holt has to say about it, in his book Learning All The Time:

“I can sum up in five to seven words what I eventually learned as a teacher. The seven-word version is: Learning is not the product of teaching. The five-word version is: Teaching does not make learning. As I mentioned before, organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false.”

What makes children learn, then? Having opportunities to do so. Having the time, and space, and materials to gather information, observe their world, experiment, try out ideas, make things. And as a parent, you are the ideal person to provide these opportunities. Writes Holt:

“What adults can do for children is to make more and more of that world and the people in it accessible and transparent to them. The key word is access: to people, places, experiences, the places where we work, other places we go—cities, countries, streets, buildings. We can also make available tools, books, records, toys, and other resources. On the whole, kids are more interested in the things that adults really use than in the little things we buy especially for them. I mean, anyone who has seen little kids in the kitchen knows that they would rather play with the pots and pans than anything made by Fisher-Price or Lego or name whatever you will.”

So there you go: you can be the one to provide this access to learning. And Summer vacation is best time to do it. You can take them outside: on neighborhood walks, to the park, to the swimming pool, to the river, to the beach, to the city. And you can provide their textbooks and visual aids and tools: at the library, at the museum. In the backyard, in the kitchen. In the garage.

School’s out! Now finally they can get down to some learning.

Just Playing

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In the novel The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins), the protagonist, an extremely dignified but emotionally repressed English butler, resolves to learn the art of bantering in order to better relate to his cheeky American employer. Observing a group of strangers who are soon talking and laughing together as friends, the butler writes, “It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly… Listening to them now, I can hear them exchange one bantering remark after another. It is, I would suppose, the way many people like to proceed…Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically.”

For similar reasons, when I am working with a family and meeting kids who are unfamiliar to me, the first thing I often do is invite them to play a card game (a favorite, which I learned at a residential treatment facility for children, is King’s Corners). I have found that it is the quickest and most efficient way to put a young stranger at ease. Perhaps more importantly, it allows me to talk to them in a comfortable, casual and gently joking way (in other words, to banter) that forms an instant sort of bond. It is then easier to draw the parents, who may be feeling the weight of their own expectations and anxieties, into this comfort zone as well.

I encourage parents to do this in their own families. Kids want to spend time with their parents, and playing card games, board games, charades, etc. (there are a variety of games appropriate for every age level) is a safe, pressure-free way to teach, converse, encourage, make jokes, and practice skills and simply, as I said, to be together. Which is always a valuable thing.

The benefits of playing games with our kids are many and varied. According to this article on the Scholastic website, games that are designed “only” for fun are also rich in educational opportunities:

They satisfy your child’s competitive urges and the desire to master new skills and concepts, such as:

  • number and shape recognition, grouping, and counting
  • letter recognition and reading
  • visual perception and color recognition
  • eye-hand coordination and manual dexterity

The aptly named Geek Dad identifies some of the higher level skills that occur while playing games, among them Taking Turns, Thinking Ahead, learning Actions and Consequences, and Making Tough Choices. All of these skills are essential to social-emotional development and will serve kids well as adults finding their way in the world.

One thing I learned early on is that kids know, always, when an adult is “letting them win.” I am of the opinion that this is not only unhelpful and deceptive, but can actually get in the way of practicing those other skills. I was pleased to find support for this elsewhere. Also, I like to win as much as the next guy. But somehow, it doesn’t always turn out that way. If nothing else, I can keep working on my bantering skills.

The Parent as Coach

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I mentioned that I’m managing a softball team, and that this is a completely new thing for me. In this post, I wrote in pretty vague terms about how a family can work as a team. This week, I have some thoughts about that, from the other side of the fence.

One of my duties as manager is to place the players in the most effective positions on the field. In softball, this will ideally be based upon each team member’s talents, limitations, and dynamics when playing with others. Let me just say that there has been a steep learning curve for me. But it got me to thinking about how the creation of a team relates to the shape of a family.

In debriefing with my coach about our last game, I came across some examples.

  • One of the first rules of coaching a sport is to always use positive language. To exhort a player to, say, “stop twisting the bat at the end of the swing,” is not nearly as respectful, or effective, as giving the positive direction to “swing level.” In the same way, reminding our children to put their “feet on the floor” is preferable to “don’t you lean back in that chair!”
  • Some players have more knowledge of the game and its workings than others. Sometimes this knowledge will lead a player to take on the role of “micro-coach” and tell other players what to do. When we talked about this, I immediately thought of my oldest daughter, who often takes on the responsibility, usually unasked and without—to put it lightly—the appreciation of her younger siblings, to impart the Family Rules to them. I try to remind her gently that this is not her job, and that there are already two parents here to take care of it. It’s a matter of appropriate roles in the family. When her mom or dad, as coaches, ask her to watch her sisters or put her in charge of a task, this is an appropriate role. When she takes it upon herself to do so, not so much.
  • Finally, trying to figure out what is not working with a player might be a matter of determining what their unmet need might be. Does the infielder who misses a grounder need glasses? Or maybe to switch corners so the sun is not in her eyes? Does the third place hitter need more time in the inning to prepare? Could he go to bat further down the lineup? Did the manager (ahem) decide to eat a heavy dinner before the game, thus giving him a poor chance to run bases today? Similarly, when our children are not doing what we expect, or what we know they’re capable of, are they tired, hungry, feeling unappreciated? Have they outgrown their shoes?

My interest in the ball game started as a way to teach family dynamics to fathers. This father, at least, has already learned a lot more than he bargained for. And there are still eight games to go.

Extra Inning (Family Rules, Part 3)

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I’ve been writing about the process of coming up with Family Rules. Last week I was stuck with the consequences of my family’s Values as they showed up in my actions, whether or not I intended to model them. This time I want to pull back and tell you what I’ve been doing lately.

The genesis of this was in a post I wrote I few weeks ago about how I haven’t introduced my girls to sports. As a consequence, they can’t throw or catch a ball, and I had a bit of an existential Daddy crisis about this. I got over it, sort of. But in preparation for the upcoming Nurturing Fathers training, which uses sports as a metaphor that runs throughout the program, I started thinking about this again. If I’m going to teach this program, I thought, I need to set aside my lifelong lack of interest in sports and, basically, pick one and become interested.

I grew up in a house of football fans, but for a variety of reasons this never clicked with me (to be honest, the game just makes no sense to my brain. Don’t be offended; it’s not you, it’s me). I’ve learned in recent years, in my work with children, how to lob a basketball into a hoop, but again, not much about the sport resonates with me. Soccer is fine, hockey is fun, and I’ve always enjoyed the Winter Olympics. Whatever.

But then there’s baseball. Still the National Pastime, at least in name, and a sport with a long and hallowed place in American history and culture. The rules make sense; the gameplay is elegant and aesthetically pleasing. There’s no clock. It’s a nice way to enjoy an idyllic Summer day. It’s full of unwritten rules, superstitions, traditions, stories and lore, and plus I’ve seen The Sandlot more times than I can count. The more I thought about it the more I realized I was ready to become a baseball fan.

Somehow in the midst of this newfound hobby I volunteered to organize a softball team at work. I just kind of pitched the idea (see what I did there?) and to my surprise was met with overwhelming interest. Suddenly I am occupied with putting together a team roster, ordering t-shirts, commissioning artwork for the mascot, and cramming to learn the rules of the game. I’ll let you know how we do this year.

What does all this have to do with Family Rules? If we accept the premise that a family is a team, we understand that everyone’s contribution is essential. Everyone’s efforts are needed and valued. This is as true in setting up a regimen of chores as it is in the routines of getting ready for school, taking a bath, visiting grandparents, playing with siblings. Everyone has different talents and abilities (especially if they’re all different ages) and we have to figure out, as a team, how best to use them, and how to support each other in areas in which we’re not so proficient.

And just like in baseball (or softball), everyone has to go up to bat eventually.

Free, and Priceless

This week’s guest post is by Julie Whitus. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts from Julie.

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The other night I stopped and looked at my children playing. My youngest was dancing with a lampshade on her head while my nine-year-old was singing into a remote control. Then, my 11 year-old popped out of the clothes hamper to surprise me. I laughed to myself thinking how ridiculous this might have looked to an outsider, while admiring my children for their imaginations.

I thought back to my childhood and played back some happy memories. I remember walking outside in the rain catching earthworms for fishing, playing in a cardboard house, climbing trees, painting the garage with my dad, and exploring the empty field by my house. I realize that all these memories had two things in common: 1. My parents were spending time with me; and 2. these activities were free.

As a parent of six I know that having children is costly. However, spending time with them isn’t. I have to admit that sometimes I get caught up with wanting to give my children expensive toys or take them on grandiose outings. The reality is I really cannot afford it and would regret it later on. As I evaluate my childhood I realize that the most memorable moments involved my parents spending quality time with me for free.

Right now, with Summer vacation coming up, I am challenging myself to schedule time for free activities. Also, I challenge myself to forget the guilt of being unable to afford Disneyland, to picture my childrens’ carefree play with a lampshade and a remote control, and remember that making memories costs nothing and is priceless.

I encourage parents to respond to this blog by posting some low cost Summer activities that your family has enjoyed.

Julie Whitus is a Family Navigator at Family Tree Relief Nursery.