All columns originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Roar of a different tiger mom
May 9, 2013
Every year, Mother’s Day means something different to me. Today I find myself reflecting on how being a mother has changed me.
I’m not just talking about becoming ever more desperately addicted to coffee and never having time to put on makeup. I’m talking about changes at my core and ways I never would have grown if I didn’t have kids. I am stronger, more convicted in my beliefs and willing (maybe for the first time) to stand up for them.
I don’t think this comes from passing age 40 either, though it helps. I could have continued to be wishy-washy and sweet for the rest of my life if I hadn’t had kids. I recently told one of my friends that you can say or do anything to me and I’ll take it. But if you mess with my kids I will come after you.
I guess my son wasn’t lying in the Mother’s Day poem he wrote where he called me “as strong as a tiger.” I would never, ever think of myself that way, but if he sees that in me, I’ll take it!
When you’re a mother, you have to behave all the time. You have to live the way a good and healthy person should live, so your children can learn how to from you. It would be so much easier to walk away and hide from so many difficult challenges we face every day, but when you are setting an example for someone else, you have to be a grown-up and handle it the right way. Knowing that someone is watching or listening is often what pushes me toward being my best. I can handle a lot of things, but never my sons thinking of me as a fraud.
I’ll always remember a documentary I once saw by Richard Attenborough about Princess Diana. He said she never lacked the skills to be a public figure, but didn’t at first have confidence and self-esteem. It was when she had her children that she found the strength to be the powerful woman she became. She fought for her children, so hard that even after she passed away they continued to live the way she wanted them to. Even the big bad English monarchy couldn’t deny her wishes. She changed the world because she had children she needed to fight for.
We mothers are out there changing the world every day. I think we deserve more than one Mother’s Day. Such as it is, we get one beautiful day in spring and it is so delightful — being swarmed with extra love and hugs and gifts. The other day on a walk my son touched my back the way an older man would do. Rather than being haunted by the prospect of him growing up, I thought, someday you’ll be a man, but I hope we will always have these moments.
In the past, “treating myself” on Mother’s Day meant getting away, taking a trip or having time for myself. This year, treating myself will mean cheering my heart out on the sidelines of soccer games. Hopefully snuggling on the couch and watching a show or, if they insist, a baseball game. Maybe going for a hike or getting ice cream and laughing our heads off with all the bad boy jokes they make. Settling down at the end of the night to read some Harry Potter and grabbing a little more blanket time, as much as I can.
I will also take a few minutes to pray for other mothers, especially those who are suffering. I will think about how much we actually can make a difference, and reflect on what part I play in that.
Now more than ever I owe a debt to make things better. I know that there are few creatures on earth stronger and more powerful than a mother. My kids made me this way, and I won’t let them down.
If there’s something that I’ve learned from working with children, it’s this. There are certain things parents can affect in their children, such as good behavior, or a sense of gratitude vs. entitlement. But I’ve also learned that people are who they are. If they are born with anxiety, depression, addiction, or any other host of invisible illnesses, a parent can’t just “fix” it.
But there are many things parents can do, and the way they handle their child’s struggle can be a great support (or sadly, a horrible detriment). I’ve always thought that mental health screening should be part of a child’s regular physical exam, and include necessary follow up treatments.
In fact, my husband and I tell our kids you should have a therapist visit once or twice a year, just like a regular checkup with your doctor. We’ve tried to teach them that their brain is just as important as their body. When you’re sick, you see a doctor and they help you fix it. When you’re mentally sick, you see a therapist.
But our culture doesn’t view mental health care in that way. And we end up where we are right now, wringing our hands over how much we need a better mental health care system, when those are the very programs that we have allowed to be decimated over the last twenty years.
There are many ways for parents to address their child’s state of mind. Obviously, get help from a professional. But how do you incorporate mindfulness into your daily life? It doesn’t have to be complicated.
The easiest way to connect with your kids is to break away from the screens and get out of the house. As long as you’re inside, you will fall into your normal routines that probably don’t include spending time engaged with each other instead of the chores.
Everyone talks about getting their kids in touch with nature. Walk to the store to get the milk instead of going in the car. Take a hike. Or if you really can’t find time, include your kids while you work in the yard (all-season – they can shovel snow just as easily as they can rake!).
They might not want to do the work, but promise a reward, do whatever you have to do get them out there, and be physically close without a lot of distractions. Give them the opportunity to be with you quietly, let their mind work, and eventually they’ll tell you what they’re thinking about. Your most important job at that moment – and I can’t stress this enough – is to shut up and listen.
Younger children love to do yoga. For years I’ve used Kira Willey’s yoga-for-kids CD “Dance for the Sun” and my day care kids have always loved it. But it doesn’t have to be yoga – just put on some music and kids will come running.
The most direct way to teach mindfulness is to share your own practice with your kids. If you do any relaxation exercises or meditation, teach it to them. Involve them in whatever you to do relax. That could be any hobby, or if you’re a more physical person, take them jogging, practice martial arts, or just shoot hoops in the driveway.
Your pre-teen or teenager might not want to hear it from you, but they will connect with a good book. If you are struggling with a specific issue, you can find age-appropriate books for any topic. The author might be saying the exact same thing you’ve been saying all along, but your child will engage with the book differently (i.e. they can listen to a stranger who seems like they’re talking directly to you, rather than Dad who’s been nagging you for years).
If you aren’t comfortable with new age-y ways of doing things, find other quiet activities to do with your kids. Put a large puzzle out on a table and start putting it together over the course of the weekend. Read to them. When they get old enough that they don’t want to read with you anymore, set aside fifteen minutes before bedtime where it’s just the two of you – no distractions at all – and just talk.
Ekhardt Tolle (“The Power of Now”) says we should be teaching kids how to meditate in school, and that it should be as important as reading and math. As I’m trying to get one son through middle school as painlessly as possible, and the other to calm down about MCAS, I realize how important this technique could be for them.
We can’t be in school, where kids face some of their biggest challenges. Practicing relaxation and meditation with your children brings stillness and confidence to them in the place where they need it most.
Most importantly, if you want your children to live it, you have to demonstrate it. The way you want your children to behave is how you should behave. This is really where you have to walk the talk because kids see through us like glass. They won’t learn it if they don’t see it.
Joys of the snow pile
March 14, 2013
As I looked out the window Friday morning and saw snow blowing past I was nothing but grateful – thrilled even. Even in March, after a long, cold winter, the snow was beautiful.
When I was a child I told my mother I felt like I was in a snowglobe whenever the big flakes swirled past, as they were that morning, and there’s still a little girl in me who delights at the sight.
Overall this winter has made me a little less stressed out, to be honest, because it actually felt like winter. Lots of snowfall (though nothing like in the past, when my town used to sustain a ski resort), a real bona-fide blizzard, and normal cold winter temperatures. There were no random 60-degree days in January that made you feel the end of the world was truly creeping ever closer.
My kids used their new snow boots and pants every weekend. These would be the ones we bought last winter, after the freak October storm where we got over two feet of snow. But after that, we didn’t get any snow for the rest of the season. That was unnerving (to put it mildly).
But this year my kids and their friends have been able to go out to the giant snow pile that grows bigger all the time in the empty parking lot across the street. In fact, we’ve had an almost constant stream of requests to come play on that pile. The kids are never happier, and I’m so glad to see it.
While I watched the snow fall on Friday morning I read the headline in the paper: “Study of 11,300 years of weather suggests record warming ahead.” With such dire predictions for the future I wonder if my grandchildren will ever get to feel the joy my kids have on the snow pile. Will they be able to sled or make snow angels, or have snowball fights when they’re supposed to be digging out the car?
If you think about the last few years and the weather events we’ve sustained it’s enough to make your head spin. I never thought I’d be the type of person to prepare for the end of the world, but now there’s a whole shelf in my basement devoted to bottled water and survival gear. It’s become something I just do, checking up on my stock every time the next natural disaster comes, just like I check the batteries in the smoke detector.
This reality depresses me. So instead I’m trying to remember this winter fondly. I don’t join in the complaining when others gripe about being done with the cold and snow. I suppose I’m as ready for spring as anyone else, but I’m feeling the last of the cold with a touch of bittersweet. What will next winter bring? This nice, normal, cold and snowy winter soothed my nerves. It was messy and miserable – just as it should be.
As the outdoor season approaches, my mother’s mind goes over the warm-weather hazards that a natural winter is supposed to balance for us. Was the cold streak long enough to kill the mosquitos who terrorized us with west nile virus and equine encephalitis during fall soccer? Will the ticks hold off for a few more cold weeks before we have to start dousing ourselves with bug spray every time we go out to get the mail?
I admit winter is a long hard season for child care providers. My mentor used to tell me, “February is the make-or-break month.” I’ve made it through ten of them now and haven’t caved, but being trapped inside four walls with little ones is, to put it nicely, a challenge.
In my profession, winter means battling a constant stream of colds and runny noses, bound to catch them no matter how much hand sanitizer you keep in every room. And you can never escape at least one throwup bug.
On beautiful spring days when I’m out in the yard with the kids, rocking somebody in my big swing, parents will say, “I wish I had your job.” What I want to say is, you don’t want it a month ago. But instead I just tell them, “This is my payback for winter.”
I have a memory that keeps flashing in my mind of the blizzard just a few weeks ago. My younger son and I watched a movie together in the dark, then before he went to bed we sat and stared out the window at the blowing snow as it rushed down the driveway and out into the street. It was mesmerizing. The quiet moment we had together marveling at the power and beauty of the storm will stay with me.
I’ll miss this winter. The more quickly and drastically our weather changes, the more I worry. Will we see another real one?
Finding the martial arts way
February 14, 2013
The other day, a man in Easthampton wrote to the Gazette to say it is difficult for people over age 60 to find martial arts classes where they feel welcome.
I was thrilled because we have a tae kwon do class which is open to all, and right here in our own little town.
My son was looking for some sort of self-defense school and a good friend of mine recommended the class at the community center. She said her son had gone there and really enjoyed it.
I called the center, found out that the times worked and the price was excellent, and we simply showed up on a Monday night and began training.
The class ranged from children to adults, and the instructor, Jeff, tailored his exercises to all levels of expertise. He made accommodations for a woman who was injured and often checked in with his students to make sure they both understood the moves and felt comfortable with what they were doing.
While Jeff was working with one or two students, the rest of the class took turns with the higher-color belts teaching the lower. In the education biz we call this peer mentoring, and it is an excellent way to involve both the mentor and student in a different form of learning.
Fellow students can learn from each other in ways that they might not be able to from the lead teacher, and the peer mentor gets the reward of sharing their knowledge with someone else. During these break-out sessions, all ages mixed together, and the students laughed their way through new moves and drills.
The tae kwon do training came to my son at a time when he needed help. Over the course of his time there, I saw other young boys who I guess had similar troubles, and I knew they were in good hands. But I also saw parents and even grandparents coming to take the class, as well as teenagers and young couples just looking to get in better shape.
From observing my son’s classes, I began to learn that tae kwon do is about more than just physical self-defense. People often comment that young boys learn respect from martial arts. I knew that wasn’t quite what it was about, but that it was one aspect of training.
As I watched my son grow in the class, I realized that the respect doesn’t come from “discipline,” as people often think, but that it actually comes from a place of humility. One of the most striking things I remember is when my son started talking about his ego. I didn’t think a nine-year-old would have a good grasp of what that is yet.
He said, “Jeff told me I should have no ego. That way bullies can’t bother me.” I realized what this simple but brilliant idea meant: if you don’t have an over-inflated vision of yourself, then people can’t upset you by poking holes in it. And that attitude is carried through life: no one is better than anyone else, we are fellow travelers here who all deserve respect, and we can always improve.
During the time my son spent with Jeff I wanted to help him promote the class more, such as with a website. He was doing so much for my son, I wanted to repay him in some way. He told me he appreciated it but he saw his teaching as a service to his community.
I realized this was part of the bigger picture, and exactly what I wanted my son to learn. I want him to know that as part of a community, you have a responsibility to those around you. And that by doing good work, in no matter what capacity, you are building community.
When my son tested for his yellow belt, the instructor who came to observe was a man we hadn’t met before. He introduced himself, smiled very kindly and shook my son’s hand, and told him not to worry.
At the end of the ceremony, when the yellow belt had been given to my son by his brother and the class had bowed to my son, the black belt came over and congratulated him. For some reason his age came up, and he smiled broadly as he informed my son that he was over 60 years old. He didn’t look a day over 45.
I don’t know if it was clean living, the effects of tae kwon do, or just good genetics, but we were all floored by his admission. We laughed and joked about it, and my son commented later that he was so encouraging and nice. No matter who you are, and what age or skill level, martial arts are good for the mind, body, and soul.
Setting foundation for child’s success
January 10, 2013
The other day I taught one of my favorite classes for childcare providers. It’s about brain development in young children and the best ways to capture that prime time for learning.
I always start the class with a quote from Pat Wolfe: “Brain research validates what effective teachers have always done.”
I like to point out to the class how dangerous a little brain research is in the hands of civilians. The explosion of information right now is making us re-evaluate how we teach, and in some ways that’s very good.
But unfortunately it is also creating a “Baby Einstein” culture of how we view children, and popularizing the idea that we need to stuff as much information as possible into a child’s brain in the early years of life. This is simply not true.
In fact, children don’t develop an autobiographical memory until they’re over two years old. So anything you “teach” them before that time cannot be recalled. However, what good child care providers do is use those years to build the foundation for future success, and that is the key.
This foundation for true intellectual promise begins with the basic principles that are displayed in any quality child care or early education program. Routines are crucial because the predictability of a schedule gives children a feeling of comfort and safety. Their brain doesn’t have to waste energy worrying about what’s coming next.
Free play and experimentation promote learning, increasing problem-solving and social skills in ways that can’t be measured. My two 11-month-old boys have invented their own language and are learning from each other constantly. They already have sibling rivalry, and that’s OK. Because they’ve also discovered how to share toys with each other.
Experts in education recommend gifted programs for all children, and that’s exactly what child care programs provide. They offer rich environments that address all learning styles, speeds and capabilities. Children are allowed to make mistakes and think about their thinking, which is really what’s going to give them future success.
The pressure to learn and high performance expectations set by the Baby Einstein culture actually hinder brain growth (think MCAS testing). Brain research suggests that pumping children full of information for which they are not ready only develops a sense of helplessness and failure.
The consequences of too much stimulation are great: the child tunes out, and their overwhelmed brain cannot function at a high level or engage in creative thought.
One of the other major points I teach is that true learning and memory are tied to emotion. I do an exercise in which I ask the class to remember three things from their school years. Then I ask, raise your hand if any of those memories were academic?
Very rarely do hands go up. We remember teachers we love, or moments with friends, or incidents of bullying. But the periodic table? Not so much. (Unless you’re a scientist, in which case, rock on.)
What really interests me are these social aspects in childcare, and building a relationship of trust with a young child. Good providers do this by having clear expectations and boundaries, natural consequences for misbehavior, and giving unconditional love.
They don’t use fear or intimidation to deal with children because they know it doesn’t work. Negative treatment damages brain growth instead of fostering it.
Children naturally seek out and thrive in places where caring is present because that’s what their growing brain needs. To really promote cognitive development, toddlers must be invited and encouraged by adults to participate in the world around them.
Good providers understand young children and communicate honestly with them. They don’t shame kids by talking down to them or assuming they can’t understand what adults are talking about.
Providers don’t see the children they work with as “just kids,” but rather small human beings who they respect. In modeling respect for children, providers teach respect for others.
At the end of the class, two of the older ladies in the crowd approached me and said how good the information was. Of course I was thrilled to hear such a nice compliment, but it really just confirmed what I believe about teaching — that it’s the people who’ve been doing the job for a long time who know what’s up.
I ask the class that if nothing else, they remember this quote from Carl Buechner: “They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.” If you make kids feel like they can learn anything, they can.
Our children, our Second Amendment
December 19, 2012
When you are asked to respond to the unthinkable, how do you do it? There are no words.
I’ve heard empty. Helpless. Devastating. A mother’s hell. Unspeakable. Overwhelming grief. A nation in mourning.
Another word is Newtown. Just 8 miles from where I grew up. Where we used to go to dollar movies at the town hall. Where family friends still live. Where one of their sons attends Sandy Hook Elementary school.
My cousin reported his friend’s son was fine after he saw him being taken away from the school by his mother on TV. I felt relief, and pain and confusion, and still couldn’t comprehend it. Couldn’t even imagine that I would ever see such a thing in my life.
At our school pickup that afternoon the same look of shock, relief, and disbelief was on the face of every parent. We all smiled and waved a little longer. We have our differences and battles but we are a community, and we all understand and fear the horror we’ve witnessed.
Three days later, getting over this news is still difficult. Every time I hear my nine-year-old’s voice say “Hi Mommy!” in his cheery way, I feel pain. And relief, and guilt for being relieved that my child is safely with me. We shouldn’t have to feel this way.
One father in Newtown was quoted as saying that you spend so much of your time trying to protect your children – look both ways before you cross the street, wear your helmet, and then this happens. How do you prepare them?
You shouldn’t have to. Perhaps this is why parents are so desperate to provide protection against those things we can control. We realize there are so many variables in the world that we can’t even foresee, let alone prepare for. No one has the luxury of saying “that will never happen here” anymore. And the lockdown drills at school go on.
As parents we thought 9/11 would be the worst of our problems. We have to keep them away from terrorist targets. Now we live with the knowledge that their schools are targets.
Our superintendent called in the evening to say that our schools have safety protocols and secure doors. But we all know anyone who wants to get in will find a way. That was evident before Newtown.
We know that on Monday, when it’s time to send them back to school, we have to do it. We will send them out the door with the usual hopes for their safety and well-being, and then we will add extra prayers. It will be a leap of faith or an act of denial, but we will do it.
On Friday afternoon, the child advocacy groups quickly sent out their suggestions for talking to your kids. But that evening I told my son I wasn’t ready to until I could make sense of it. Will I ever?
It has been like losing a loved one. You cry at any moment, and you try to process the information and accept it, and sometimes you even manage to forget. You rest and sleep. Then you wake up and remember what happened and feel the loss all over again.
Beyond the tragedy itself, the worst part for me has been hearing the immediate reaction of so many people (including media outlets) that say “this isn’t the day to talk about gun control.” I’m sorry. Today is THE day to talk about gun control.
I just saw the movie “Lincoln,” which relates the fight for passage of the 13th Amendment. Lincoln changed the Constitution in the face of much opposition, without even the full support of his own party and cabinet, after a long and bloody war.
Our war has been fought on the battlefields of Columbine. Virginia Tech. Newtown. And too many other places to list. Its victims are children. Today is the day to do more than just talk about gun control. Yes we can do something about the 2nd Amendment.
And today is the day for prayers, and mourning, and trying to get over the feelings of helplessness and dread. I know a whole nation in mourning is not enough to make those families feel less pain today and in the coming weeks, months, years.
At this time of year, when friends and family are reaching out with cards, gifts, and messages of love and community, the loss feels even more unbearable. Our biggest holiday, which is all about the delight and magic of youth, will be missing too many of its children. It is a loss for us all.
Children and news: spare the details
November 8, 2012
During times of crisis, many parents may be unsure of how to talk to their children about what’s going on. And their kids – if they’re anything like mine – can have a variety of unexpected responses.
We had an earthquake a few years ago during a day care day. It was actually naptime so the kids didn’t feel a thing. I checked the news on my computer, called some friends, made sure everything was OK, then went on with the day normally. There was no need for the kids to even hear about it, because at their age they can’t comprehend it and would simply be scared.
When parents came to pick up they were bubbling with the news. Did you feel it? What were you doing? Did you see everything shaking and rocking?
Naturally you want to process this kind of event with friends and make sure everyone is OK. But at that point I wanted to tell everyone, Please stop talking about this. In an episode of “The Simpsons,” the front of the retirement home has a sign that reads, “Please refrain from discussing the outside world.” I think I need that sign.
When children are very young, they really don’t need to be exposed to any type of bad news. Adults sometimes see a 3- or 4-year old child in the room and think they aren’t listening to us. Or we think even if they are, they don’t really understand what we’re saying.
Trust me. They know.
Even when they seem distracted, children are very keyed in to what we’re saying. They’re listening intently and looking at our response to situations to gauge how they should feel.
In middle childhood, from about ages six to ten, kids are going to know what’s going on. You can give them a brief rundown of the facts and explain why they shouldn’t be worried. Beyond that, they don’t need to hear any gory details.
If they ask questions, answer them honestly and directly, but don’t embellish or explain beyond the facts. If they’re scared, acknowledge that it’s a real feeling and it’s OK to be scared, but move on.
By the tween years kids are very aware of danger, and can sometimes become panicky. My husband had some good advice for our son the last time he got scared. He said when you’re in a scary situation, look at the people around you. If they seem calm, then you be calm (and I would add, look at the people around you, and don’t get sucked into panic).
At any stage, don’t approach children with bad news if you don’t have to. If they’re in school, they’ll probably hear it on their own and the rumors may need some straightening out. But if your child is happily playing with their toy trains, resist the temptation to interrupt and explain the statistical probability of a tornado hitting your house.
Before superstorm Sandy, our fire chief posted an excellent comment on Facebook: “Always prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” He called for a measured response and for people to remain calm, as the predictions for our area seemed manageable. Be ready, but no need for panic. It just made me feel better, and our kids need the same.
In this age of overly-intellectual parenting, when we believe that our babies have sprung from our wombs as fully-formed adults, we tend to forget about the magic of childhood. The fact that a child’s imagination can and will picture anything happening, and they will believe it to be real.
To this day there are things I don’t want my kids to see. Heck, there are things I don’t want to see. Some Facebook friends post pictures that I know are well-intentioned but just turn my stomach (i.e. something gruesome to show the horrors of animal testing). If PBS or BBC news comes on, I switch the channel. My kids don’t need to see daily reports from a war zone.
But they need to be informed, some would argue. Children should be informed to the level of what they will comprehend, and what they can process. That is the most important thing to remember when talking about not just disasters, but many difficult topics we find ourselves explaining in life.
As a child, I wanted to know that everything was OK. My father would scoff at my worries and say, “What could go wrong? Nothing bad is gonna happen!” That was the best thing I could hear when I was young. And sometimes, it still is.
Tested to the limit
October 11, 2012
The United States seems to be…taking the decisions about American education out of the hands of American educators and instead placing that sacred trust in the welcoming arms of an industry run entirely without oversight and populated completely with for-profit companies chasing billions of dollars in business. – Todd Farley
I just got my sons’ MCAS test scores in the mail. I’m not happy. I’m not talking about their performance or that my town’s scores are the lowest in our area. I’m not happy that I – or my kids – even have to deal with this ball and chain.
I can’t believe that I have to stand on my porch and look at a computer evaluation of the quality of my sons’ education on a bar graph. I’m not happy that the state has a record of their scores, or that they will use them to compare us to other schools. These charts will decide which school gets more money, and which doesn’t deserve it.
Children can’t be quantified. Knowledge can’t be measured by numbers. But standardized tests have reduced our entire educational system to an attempt at doing just that.
I want my school to teach whole children. I want my sons to go to art class and gym, not “wellness.” I want them to have recess. And I don’t want them to need counseling to deal with the pressure they’ve had since they were eight years old to do well on tests. Many of my friends won’t even show the results to our children because we know it will only upset them.
We lost some teachers this year and simply increased class sizes instead of hiring more. At open house they told us that they have to keep their books in the classroom now, because they lost a couple and can’t replace them.
They’re down to the last of the books. Why don’t we see this as a crisis? But when you consider that we can’t even afford teachers anymore, I guess the books aren’t our biggest concern.
I want the state to stop handing our education budget over to unregulated for-profit testing companies. It’s difficult to find information about them because they keep it very quiet. But in 2002, Frontline estimated the the value of the testing market anywhere between $400 to $700 million. Can you imagine what it is a decade later? And what would our schools be like if we had budgets like that?
Not only does standardized testing decimate education budgets, it also forces teachers to justify their jobs by somehow compelling their students to score high. The numbers on the bar graph don’t show a thing about what my kids have dealt with for the past three years, or how they’ve grown, or the relationships between them and their teachers.
I have a teacher friend who supports the tests because she said it tells her what she needs to work more on and teach more clearly. That’s fine, if the results were only given to her for her own use, and not for the state to evaluate her performance.
There was a time not that long ago when if a student failed it was their fault, not the teacher’s. And not everyone in the school had to be proficient in every subject, because we knew that not everyone could be. And the teacher’s job didn’t depend on it, and they didn’t have to justify their every teaching decision to a computer that’s analyzing a scanned set of bubbles and spitting out meaningless lines on charts.
I don’t have space here to get into privacy issues, or the inherent racism and classism of standardized tests, or the fact that they don’t measure true growth. My dental hygienist told me about taking her state boards: “It was an 8-hour test. After lunch I came back and I literally couldn’t see.” The human brain is simply not designed to perform the function of sitting in a room for hours, answering hundreds of questions in a row.
According to PBS, American students are now the most-tested but least proficient in the world. The decline of the American education system is not in spite of the tests, it’s because of the tests.
I’m a huge believer in public schools. I think they are necessary for the development of a healthy society. But the stress that tests put on the whole system, financial, intellectual, and emotional – for students and teachers alike – is causing school to be an unhealthy place.
I’m not sure how to solve this problem, but it feels like we’re at a tipping point. When we can’t pay teachers or buy books hopefully the politicians will begin to notice. I know some advocates like Diane Ravitch, who once believed in standardized tests but now advocates against them, are gaining ground.
But in the meantime, I wish that my sons would stop paying the price for corporate greed.
This newspaper has been running a very interesting group of articles on our school system. The first was “A new law on learning,” (Aug. 23) discussing the law “that requires (our) schools to provide students who are expelled or suspended with educational opportunities.”
That’s the first paragraph, and that’s all I had to read to think, “Well, that’s nuts.” The editorial wisely went on to say that this effort “will divert from educating the students who want to learn.”
Right next to that editorial was a letter stating that disabled students are suspended too often, and that “to expect a child with learning disabilities to pay the price for poor teaching methods is simply not right.”
True, but is it poor teaching methods, or lack of the support they need that these children are suffering from? Most of the teachers I know fight for every last student, from the behavior problems to the disabled to those who are so smart they’re not being challenged.
Last week, another letter pointed out that as a rule, schools use suspension as a last resort. By the time a student is suspended there have been multiple attempts by the administration to work with caregivers and fix the problem.
We should make the distinction between students who have learning disabilities and those who have behavioral problems. Schools do their best to support every student, but they are underfunded and over-stressed with demands for more services of every kind. Public schools are intended for learning, yet they are becoming a catchall for solving every societal problem.
It is an outrageous burden to expect schools to somehow provide education to a student whose entire support system has failed to help. Of course these kids are the most at-risk and need the most help, but a school can only reach so far. At some point another safety net, such as social services, has to step in, and maybe this is it.
Every notice we get from our kids’ schools – every invitation to open house, teacher conferences, or PTO events, even their homework – begs us to be involved in their education. Teachers and schools need our help. They need us to show our kids how much school means by participating. They know that without parent support, they are fighting an uphill battle.
When I studied to become a teacher I discovered I was entering the most public profession I’d ever been in. I was amazed at the variety of opinions and politics that our schools are subject to. And as I began to understand the system, I was dismayed at the concentration of power in this field. That is, the people doing the job have very little, while the policymakers sitting in offices far away from the schools have it all.
I realized that our schools are plagued with unfunded government mandates. I am 100 percent in support of inclusion for all and never making our children pay for anything the adults are unable to provide. However, the system simply doesn’t work when it is bleeding money and resources. Our schools are crumbling because they are being used in ways they were never intended.
My kids are going back to schools this fall that lost several teachers and aides last year and simply never replaced them. There are more kids in class, fewer people to support their learning and the ever-present need to meet ridiculously high (and arbitrary) testing standards. People complain that my town lowered its failing grade by four points. But really, at this point, what else are they to do?
Providing the proper services for all our students is an essential step toward creating a functional community. But special education aides are required to earn college degrees and then they earn approximately minimum wage. And we’re surprised that the equation is somehow not working?
I am so thankful that there is a group of dedicated parents in my town who banded together to put a tax override on the ballot to replace our educators. I hope that it passes, but I worry about how much we can wring out of our taxpayers. Just last week my Uncle Bill was reminiscing that his father was a bellhop and now his son is a vice president. He said, “Education is everything.”
When will the state finally return with the funding that should be a given for our schools?
Our schools bear the brunt of every law that is passed whether or not it brings in revenue, and mostly they do not. Unfunded mandates are killing us. It’s time for the politicians to step out of the picture and let the educators do their jobs.
Growing up, finding trust
August 9, 2012
This little day care of mine has become a social experiment in so many ways. I’ve learned lesson after fascinating lesson about human behavior. It seems to deepen as the older kids move on and I watch the patterns happen again with new babies. I’m starting to feel quite old and wise about dealing with people. Well, the littles at least.
Recently I’ve been obsessed with trust. It’s always amazing to me to watch the process when I start a new child. The babies are easy. Feed them, love them, smile at them, and within a few days they will beam when they see you. And you beam back, because there is nothing in the world like baby love. It’s probably easiest at this stage because it’s so uncomplicated. Let’s just smile at each other and it’s all good.
For toddlers, the first few days in care are always fun and exciting. They are completely thrilled to play with all the new toys, and they spend a lot of time checking out the other kids. They’re usually a little confused about the routine and they never want to take a nap, but they roll with it. There must be some part of even a very young child that says, if my parents are OK with me being here, then I’m OK too.
By the second week the honeymoon is usually over. They realize that seeing me means they’re here for the duration, and sometimes they’re not so happy with that. But we work through the hard transitions and eventually it just becomes the norm.
What fascinates me is how they decide to like me. I assume that on those first days they’re watching closely to see who I am. I can tell the moment they start to get comfortable and begin to push my boundaries. When I respond calmly, they know I’m a safe person. I also think they learn a lot from how I treat the other kids. If I’m nice to them and they seem to like me, then I’m probably OK.
Recently I had a big sister come and spend a few days. She’d been with me when she was little and always begged to come spend another day with her little brother, who’s still in my care. It was the usual pattern: on the first day she was pretty content, just testing the waters and having a great old time.
On the second day, it was all out: OK, I’m comfortable here, so now you’re in for it. Full-on sibling wars. That was fine – normal behavior – and we dealt with it as we always do. But it was amazing how quickly she decided she was in a safe place and it was time to let her true colors show.
As my boys enter the rotten middle school years, they are learning painful lessons about trust. Some kids who used to be their friends have changed – they’re not such great friends anymore and you usually find that out the hard way. And among the boys who are still great friends, the social dynamics are changing rapidly.
My oldest recently found himself in one of those situations where if he stood up for one friend, he would jeopardize another’s trust in him. We talked about it and at first he felt like a bad person. I said you can never be a bad person if you’re standing up for a friend. Just remember to think about all the consequences before you make your move.
This may be the key to moving through those years as painlessly as possible. But often it’s close to impossible for young teenagers to think before they act. In the heat of the moment, without social skills that have been finessed through years of practice, all hell can break loose. And then there are the times when they walk into something they had no idea was coming – and it’s devastating.
It’s easier for us adults to shrug off those moments. We know that ten years from now you might not even remember the name of that guy you had a crush on. And we can believe our own platitudes: They’re not your friend if you treat them like that. No one believes that stuff. You shouldn’t care what other people think of you.
Faith and trust. This is hard stuff. I watch it being broken and restored every day and there is no rulebook for it. I guess we just have to trust our instincts. No pun intended.
Down time not wasted time
July 12, 2012
I was sad to see the article “After after-school,” (Gazette, June 22) about the closing of three individual Amherst after-school programs in favor of a standardized, more educational format.
While I don’t know the details of the programs, it was plain to see in the pictures accompanying the story and the comments from teachers, students, and parents, that the Crocker Care program was beloved precisely because it wasn’t like school.
I have seen many family-style care settings disappear in recent years because our current educational paradigm ignores the value of downtime and non-measurable activities. After a long day kids need to relax, and making necklaces is a fine pastime.
Parents know that after six hours in a stressful environment, kids have to decompress. I had one kindergartener who would come out of school every day and cry. He needed to release all that pent-up energy – all the noise and conflict of the day, all the pressure he felt to perform and behave – in a safe place with a safe person.
And then, go home and do nothing for a little while, or maybe even an hour or more. We grownups might remember how nice it was to come home from school and have a special sugary treat waiting, or a present from mom. And to talk about the day, or not talk about it, and do something that would let our minds rest. Whether that’s read, watch tv, or run around, kids – and their developing brains – need the break.
As educational requirements increase, so do the schools’ needs to produce students who can perform on quantifiable targets. I get that. But in the race for higher test scores, we’ve lost the ability to teach whole children.
I think of my own teacher preparation and the basic facts that we learned: education is a balancing act. For every worksheet, you should have a hands-on lesson. That the brain can’t tolerate more than seven minutes of lecture, and real learning comes from doing, not being told. That the best way to cement learning is through emotional engagement, not rote memorization and testing.
We learned that there are several learning styles and each child is strong in some and weak in others, but no two learners are alike. And that social skills are just as, if not more, important than intellectual progress. That learning will come if you build a strong foundation for each child. And a large part of that foundation comes from being able to make cookies with a trusted caregiver.
The article also reminded me of the state of career advancement for educators, which for many teachers is this: do a more stressful job with higher demands and extra requirements, be more creative, work harder, and produce better outcomes, but do it all for less pay.
I know how hard it was for Kathy Edgell to walk away from her kids and her program, but she was probably one of the women who isn’t willing to put herself in that position. It’s hard to take a program that has been run family-style, according to the kids’ needs, and fit it into a prescribed educational outline.
As requirements increase and funding for educational and child care programs at all levels disappears, we are asked to do more and more for less and less. Some of us are willing to stick it out because we love what we do, and some are just done with seeing our vital work being de-valued. And, quite simply, we can’t afford to do it.
This shift in educational beliefs from practical to intellectual was caused not only by politics but the idea that all babies are Einsteins and we have to start cramming their heads full of knowledge while they’re still in the womb. But all children are not geniuses (sorry folks).
The worship of higher knowledge denies children who are not intellectually gifted the chance to feel successful in their education. When in fact they may be brilliant at something totally different, but in today’s classroom they don’t get the chance to shine. This is what family-style programs provide.
Recently one of my own day care mentors told me that when you bring your child to care it “should be like dropping them off at Grandma’s house.” I think that is what many parents want for their kids, but unfortunately that choice is becoming less available. Hopefully it will return when testing stops being the only measure of student success.
Perspectives on parenting
June 14, 2012
Some friends were teasing me about how I won’t stop telling everybody how to raise their kids. My husband said, “Do you know how hard it is to live with a parenting guru?” We were discussing the failings of parenting philosophies and one of my friends asked, “Well if they’re wrong, what is the best way to raise kids?”
The first thing is, I don’t believe in philosophies and I’m not trying to put forth a new one. I think parents are overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. You have to find good sources, and then pick and choose what works for you and your family.
But you also have to be aware of raising kids in the bigger picture. My own guru, Pam Clark, told me, “What matters is how they act when they’re out in the world without you.” I keep an eye to this constantly. I work hard every day to teach my kids how to behave, with the hope that they’ll do the right thing when they’re away from me.
The single most important thing I teach my kids, especially in this day and age, is empathy. When one brother hurts another I don’t punish him, I have him apologize. This isn’t forcing him to do something he doesn’t want to do, it’s teaching him how to handle a difficult situation. He doesn’t really want his brother to be hurt, and standing there watching him be upset doesn’t do any good.
I used to walk them through the steps of how to apologize, forgive, and move on. Now I just say, “Fix it!” and they know what I’m talking about, and what to do. Sometimes one will be too upset to talk to the other and I’ll ask, “Do you want me to talk to him for you?” If that’s the case, I model how to approach someone who is mad at you.
Another big problem parents face is how to handle consequences. One of the best resources I’ve found for this is the book “Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child” by Robert J. MacKenzie.
Consequences don’t have to be big, they just have to make sense, and you have to follow through. This was my biggest mistake as the mother of a toddler. I thought the louder and bigger I got, if nothing else, at least my son would be afraid and maybe knock off the annoying behavior. Well when you yell at kids of any age, here’s what happens.
The first couple of times they might be scared. The third or fourth time they’ll laugh, because you just look ridiculous. Then you get enraged because they’re laughing at you. So you scream more and the kids learn to ignore you. And the only next step up from screaming is threats and physical violence.
It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to admit your family life isn’t as peachy as it looks in the magazines. And when you do need help, who do you ask? It’s not like there’s AA for parents.
For me, help came in the form of the first caregivers that my son had. I’d keep them on the phone for hours, analyzing every doubt and question I had. Those women have stayed in my life as my dearest friends, and they’re still with me through the ride as my boys get older. So find someone you trust, stick to them like glue, and get their help.
Have patience. Put yourself in your child’s shoes. Don’t nag. Describe the behavior you want to see instead of getting stuck on the bad. Know that they’re always watching you. Your response to any situation teaches them how to respond, and they want to learn it from you. If you throw a fit because you have a flat tire, how will they handle setbacks? If you’re sarcastic and gossipy, guess how they’re going to act.
Be mindful of how you treat your children, and do it with respect. The only way they’ll learn it is if you give it. What they want more than anything in the whole wide world is attention from you. They’ll get a reaction any way they can, and whether that’s a good or bad reaction, they’ll keep doing it. Whatever you give them attention for is what they’ll do.
So when you see them doing something awesome, or even just a little generous, tell them. “It was so nice that you hugged your friend when you saw she was feeling sad. I was so proud of you.” Do you think they’re going to go and hug somebody again?
Mostly, I think we all take this whole “parenting” business way too seriously. We think we have to be enlightened parents and we objectify our baby Einstein children until they can’t function. Lighten up. Get your nose out of a screen and spend time with your kids. Have fun, laugh, and make it last as long as you can, because you’re going to blink and they’ll be grown.
Reading Into “Hunger Games”
May 10, 2012
With “The Hunger Games” out in theaters, all the kids in my sphere are dying to read the books. Luckily the Scholastic book club is helping us with that by displaying it prominently at book fairs and on the monthly flyers. My son came home waving one at me. “Mom, this book is about kids killing each other! Everybody says it’s great!”
You’re probably not surprised to hear that many of the moms I know are worried about letting their children read these books. At what age is it appropriate for kids to read about slaughtering each other?
I handled this situation in a way that would make any mom proud. I said, “Sure, we can get it next time we go to the book store.” And we haven’t been to the book store since.
But he hasn’t brought it up again, so I’m just letting it lie for now. I know his head is already full of explosions and gushing blood, typical 11-year-old boy death and destruction. But I do worry about filling it with the actual details of children inflicting the damage on each other. It’s usually aliens, bad guys, or supervillians doing that.
And I know the story is an allegory. Having not read it myself I can’t speak with authority, but I’m assuming from the basic plot that it feels pretty similar to the world our kids are actually growing up in. A powerful and wealthy elite concentrated in a centralized city, leaving the mass of the population to fight among themselves for the rest of the resources. And throwing the children to the wolves just for kicks.
Some may think that’s a little extreme but if I remember correctly, that’s what being a teen felt like.
All I can compare it to in my own history is “The Lord of the Flies,” which I vaguely remember reading at some point, and being really angry at the kids who were taking over and playing mind games with everyone, and now thirty years later being unable to remember much more about it. So was I scarred for life? No.
Do I remember feeling like there is injustice in the world and you have to either join it, fight it, or just cruise through as unscathed as possible? Yes. And that’s pretty much how my adult life has played out.
That is the power of stories such as “The Hunger Games.” In one way they show kids a pretty depressing reality. In another way they say, you can be the hero. You can have power, fight, and win.
Also, I read “The Lord of the Flies” in eighth grade. There’s a pretty big difference between ages 11 and 14. Do fifth graders really understand allegory, or will they just be terrified by the gore? Or deeply, profoundly saddened by the death of young people, just as I was at Beth in “Little Women”? That seemingly innocuous tale of feminine domesticity, which all little girls are encouraged to read, devastated me more than much else I read.
There is another possibility. They might enjoy the story, love the suspense, and just want to keep reading more and more books because they create such a vivid and fascinating imaginary world.
Coincidentally, I happened to hear an interview with Judy Blume, one of the most frequently banned children’s authors of all time. She was asked when it’s alright to expose children to inappropriate content. Her answer was, “If they read something and they don’t get it, they read right over it…If they’re uncomfortable they’ll close the book and put it down.”
This felt reassuring to me, and I remembered rainy days of browsing through the shelves in my parent’s home, sometimes putting a book back on the shelf simply because the cover picture looked scary. Blume worried when her daughter wanted to read an adult book, but let her try it. She read it for ten minutes and then told Blume, “It’s boring.” But in Blume’s eyes “she meant, ‘I don’t want to read this. I’m not ready to read this.’”
I love the idea of letting our children make their own choice, and trusting that they know what they’re able to handle. It’s the age-old question: is it time to protect and shelter my child, or time to challenge and let them go a little? I do find it interesting that my son would rather read the book than see the movie. He hasn’t asked for that once, and I wonder if there is a part of him that thinks, or knows, “It’s boring.”
Surviving a workplace bully
April 12, 2012
I had a workplace bully.
I’d worked with men in all manner of jobs: at an auto dealership, in restaurants and bars, office jobs where I was both their assistant and peer. I lived with four male roommates in college. For goodness sake, I grew up as a woman – six feet tall and blonde. I knew how to handle men.
I knew how to overcome a sexist comment with a joke. I knew how to flirt and when to draw the line, and I understood mens’ sense of humor. But I couldn’t get the hook of how to deal with Frank.
His attacks were subtle but manipulative. He would ignore me as I walked past, and then yell out my name to make me come back to his desk. He would criticize my work around our co-workers. In meetings he would talk over me or flat-out tell me, “You’re wrong!”
He often talked about his wife, and I believed it was because he loved her and was so proud. She’d traveled with her brothers from Cuba, had a very difficult start, and worked to become a citizen and build a new life. I sympathized with her story and always listened politely when he told me about her.
But there was an undercurrent to his stories. What I gathered was that she’s a good wife who stays at home, and maybe that’s what I should be doing.
I recognized his pattern of drawing me in just to insult me. I liked to believe it wasn’t intentional, just the insensitivity of a bitter old man. But there was part of me that knew damn well he meant to cut me down.
Our department was half women, even our boss was a woman. I don’t know why it was just me Frank didn’t like. I was engaged to be married, I worked hard, I was dedicated enough to my job that I commuted two hours every day. Maybe it was because I was the youngest, or had the most outspoken personality. We had a nudist, a pot-smoker, a working mother of two, and a crazy old cat lady in the group, but none of them ever seemed to bother Frank.
I started resenting going to work. I began to have flashbacks to traumatic events in my life. One day driving home after a particularly bad meeting, I found myself in tears at the wheel. I pulled into the next parking lot and sobbed. I rifled through my purse until I found my insurance card and called the mental health hotline.
In the course of the next fifteen-minute conversation, the wonderful man at the other end of the phone explained my whole life to me. Frank was clearly treating me wrong, it wasn’t just my imagination. And I wasn’t overreacting. The physical manifestations I was having (head and stomach aches, anxiety attacks) were from traumas I’d had when I was younger. But they were re-surfacing because of the stress I was under now.
Towards the end of my tenure at the company, Frank informed me that he used to live in Northampton. I was stunned. I’d worked with the man for over two years and he never mentioned this. I asked why he moved and I’ll never forget what he said. “Because I didn’t like the people who lived there.”
I don’t even know what the company policy on harassment was. I didn’t bother to find out because at that point I knew I was leaving. I found a job that was closer to home and paid better so I gave my notice without ever filing a formal complaint.
I like to think that now that I’m older and wiser, if I was in that situation again I would have the answer of how to deal with Frank. But honestly, I’m not sure.
The other day my son asked what “slut” meant. Not because of YouTube or MTV, but thanks to that self-proclaimed bastion of good-old American values (or as I call him, He Who Must Not Be Named).
I defined it, told him it was an awful insult to girls, and that he should never use it around them or he’d be sorry. I was half-joking but he turned very serious and asked, “Mom, why are there so many bad names for women?”
I wasn’t sure where to go with that one. It makes me proud to know that my son can tell right from wrong at this young age, and that one of my goals of raising him to respect women may be sticking. I hope that he will never hurt a woman in any of the ways I was hurt at the hands of men. I hope that we as a culture can begin to see that an attack is an attack, there are no subtleties. And that when someone chooses to attack you, it’s their fault, not yours.
An electric future
April 6, 2012
A few weeks ago my son made a model of an electric circuit for a science project. He spent an hour neatly gluing a pile of household junk (bottle caps, yarn, an old jewelry box) to a piece of cardboard, and it really looked good. He was so proud of it that we sent a picture to his grandparents.
Immediately my father – the contractor, electrician, and otherwise all-around genius – responded with techy talk about parallel circuits and DC currents.
My son knew everything Dad was talking about and more. They had a whole conversation about the wiring in my house, information that I’m sure I never learned in fifth grade. They bonded over electricity.
Then my father said, “Food for thought: master electricians make $90 – $110 per hour.”
In the moment, when I was watching my son and father share something they never had before, my heart leapt. Yes! He will be an electrician! Of course! Becoming an electrician suddenly seemed totally probable, and, in fact, like the best idea for his future.
It’s a great job. My own electrician had to come and save us from a scary sparking outlet in my basement a few weeks ago. I watched him re-wire the whole house when we moved in and the work was fascinating.
But the prospect of my son becoming an electrician made me think. What happened to the days when we aspired for our children to be doctors and lawyers? Or even the “You can be anything you want to be!” message of the ’70s when I was raised.
I’ll tell you what happened: reality. In the Great Recession, we have to live pragmatically instead of optimistically.
My husband and I fear that by the time our kids are ready for college, we could still be paying off our own college loans. And who knows what kinds of jobs will be available by the time they’re looking for work?
So my mind wanders to the trades and service jobs that people will always need. Contractors – well, you need a good economy for that and we already have too many buildings. When the boys got haircuts last week I thought, we’ll always need hairdressers. Yeah, not their style.
Green energy was supposed to be the next wave, but it takes political support that doesn’t exist. Starting your own business? With banks hoarding all the investment capital that’s harder and harder to do.
Of course we’ll always need doctors, but the cards are stacked against even this revered profession. I’ve watched the family practice we go to straining under the stranglehold of insurance companies. And their tuition bills? Fuggedaboudit.
So what careers do I envision for my kids? My older son could be a video game programmer. That’s one industry that seems to be going strong, and he certainly loves his games.
My younger son is a socially conscious artist at the tender age of eight, so my friend suggested he work in social justice. That’s not a bad idea, but the rich don’t want to hire people who advocate taking their money away.
So what’s left: grocers, mechanics, plumbers. Anything that will survive a recession and pay the bills, and doesn’t require a degree that costs a fortune.
And at heart I still want my children to “follow their dreams.” So today I would tell them this: Boys – you can be anything you want to be. Just find a day job that supports it.
Wanting safer world for young
March 8, 2012
Tears actually began to roll down my cheeks when I saw the report of yet another school shooting last week. My heart sank, my stomach felt sick, and I felt nothing but deep sadness for the mothers. The women who sent their kids to school like we all do, every day, because it’s normal daily life.
We never even consider that something this inconceivable could happen to our kids. We have so much trust and faith that they’ll come home just fine every day. Of course we worry, we all have terrible fears about what could happen to our kids out in the big bad world. But we put them aside and call ourselves silly to think that way. Because how else would we get through the days?
We can’t help but try to find someone or something to blame for such horrendous violence. Gun activists. Abusive parents. School bullies. Social media. TV news. Video games. The bully culture. A government obsessed with war.
What we find so disturbing about violence of this nature, besides its unpredictability and senselessness, is that it is child on child. But our culture is rife with violence toward children. I think of what I’ve seen as a child care provider. Kids who are not only verbally and physically abused, but sexually as well. Children with broken bones from beatings at the hands of their family. Four-year-olds who’ve been duct-taped and left in a closet. These things happen in the real world, in our neighborhoods, not just in the news.
I want people to see the results of anti-choice activism and cutting budgets for family services for women and children. I’ve seen the outcome of what happens when we leave these most vulnerable people behind. The state is over-burdened with caring for the abandoned and helpless, and some of those children grow up with a very sad story.
Of course they won’t all turn out to be violent, and we can’t say “this is why school shootings happen.” So when I think of how to address childhood violence, all I can speak to is what I know, and what I believe is that we have lost our way when it comes to raising emotionally healthy children.
I want nothing short of a revolution in how we treat our kids. We need to re-evaluate a parenting culture that is either over-indulgent or bullying.
Nagging, yelling, and threatening make children to think it’s OK to treat other people badly. Our example teaches our kids how to behave. We, as parents and adults, need to behave with respect to show our children how to respect others.
On the other hand, raising children without the word “No” or any boundaries at all creates a culture of arrogance and entitlement that also allows bullies to flourish. We need to find our way to a balanced center: treating our kids with love as much as possible, and seeing when they need firm boundaries.
We can say it’s just those parents who actually abuse their children who are to blame, but at some point we’ve all done something to hurt our kids. Even something as simple as rolling our eyes at them, or saying we can’t wait for school to start to get them out of the house can make kids feel unwanted.
I want mentors and parenting classes. We all spend lots of time on childbirth classes that have no bearing on our lives as soon as the baby is born. I had no other guidance whatsoever on how to raise a child, and when I got home with my baby all I could think was, “Now what do I do with it?”
I want more family leave and part-time jobs. I want parents to spend more time raising their kids instead of having to put them in full-time child care and go to work. And instead of “Take your child to work” days, how about “Take your parent to school” days? What better way to show parents the stresses that their children face every day?
I still don’t know or claim to have answers for how to address school shootings. All I can do is keep speaking for children. I can pray for the mothers who have had to live this hell. I can pray that my children will come home safe to me. It’s tragic to know that we’re not even at war, yet our mothers must pray for their childrens’ safety. But wait – we are at war. And maybe after ten years of it, our children are learning by the example set by our leaders: when all else fails, solve your problems with a gun.
How should an adult address youth’s racism?
February 9, 2012
The other day before school I heard an 8th-grade boy drop the n-word.
He didn’t know I was close enough to hear him, or I doubt he would have said it. And I didn’t reveal myself to him, I just listened. I didn’t want to run over and say, “Never use that word!” until I heard what the context was.
Like the time I did that to a cowboy I knew in Kansas. When I told him how despicable it was and that he should never say it. Let’s just say there wasn’t any violence, but there wasn’t any agreement either.
This time, I stayed back because the situation was so different. This was a young boy, adolescent, hanging with some other boys. They’re at the age when kids are trying so hard to fit in and be cool – or at least protect themselves from the daily onslaught that is middle school. This means attempts to shock: freeing themselves from the constraints of childhood and trying on new attitudes, sometimes bad.
He was talking about how his friend had called him a name so he responded in a teasing way with the n-word (his friend’s race was unclear). He was trying to show that he and the other boy were that close, that they could insult each other and still be friends.
Just repeating it in my mind and writing about it is difficult. But if we can’t look at the fact that kids pepper their conversations with all kinds of slurs – and are exposed to them almost every day – we won’t be able to address it. And we have to address this.
Teens are going through a part of adolescent development called identification. During this stage, they strive for autonomy and independence from their parents and try harder to fit in with their peers. It’s about defining themselves, sometimes through shocking others.
So how do you respond when a teenager shows that ugly side of rebellion, or does something so inappropriate that your first instinct is to scream at them?
If it was an act of bullying of course I would have stepped in (and if it was my own child my response would have been vastly different), but this was a grey area. We can’t just say “You’re bad and wrong!” or the child will shut down. Instead we have to address the unacceptable behavior. And with an overly sensitive teenager we have to do it gently, so they don’t feel like we’re judging or condemning them.
If I worked with this boy or had a closer relationship with him, I would wait until I could pull him aside without a lot of fuss. I would tell him that I heard what he said and that it upset me, but he’s not in trouble.
I would ask him if he’s sure his friend is OK with him using that word, or if they’ve ever really talked about it. Without lecturing, I would try to help him understand the magnitude of that word in particular.
You never know – he might be feeling strange and guilty about saying it. It might give him a chance to say “Yeah, I really didn’t like the way that felt.” Or, he could just tell you what you want to hear and repeat the word again later. But hopefully you’ve let him know that at least he should be more careful about using it.
Some people would say he knew damn well what he was doing and should be punished. Others would say I’m wrong about teenage behavior and they don’t really act this way. Some would say I was wrong to stand aside quietly. But when kids are in their element, out of earshot of adults, trying on all the different poses, they will say things that are wrong.
If we want to educate our teens and keep communication open, we have to be willing to listen even if we don’t like what we hear. We have to accept that they will make stupid mistakes and then be there to help them survive the fallout.
Our best response is not to overreact. Just turn it back on them – Where have you heard that? Why do you say it? How would you feel if someone heard you saying it? How do you think they would feel? Do you understand what it really means? Give them space to work it out and guide the conversation, but let them come to a better conclusion (if you’re sneaky enough) as if it was their idea.
Maya Angelou once heard a young woman say something that upset her. Her response was, “It’s poison and it diminishes us both.” If we can help our teenagers understand that, we’re creating a truly positive influence in our community.
Doing wrong by making right?
Thursday, January 12, 2012
I am a professional who works with children. I know everything about how to handle their moods, how to motivate them, how to make a roomful of kids get along with each other peacefully. I have a master’s degree in education. And yet, when my oldest son throws a fit, I have no idea what to do.
It’s the most painful thing in the world for a parent to see their child suffering. I can handle any physical pain like a champ (well, I might pass out a little). But when my child is sad I’m completely lost.
I’ve had more than a few reminders of this now that we’re playing two winter sports. Even when my son has a good game he can come home and find fault with his performance and rarely see the good things he did for his team. So you can imagine what he does when he’s had a bad game.
But just in case you can’t imagine it, I’ll tell you. After storming out of the facility, sulking all the way home, and hiding under a blanket, he grabs a battle axe (Nerf), starts bashing the punching bag with it, and I actually have to use tae kwon do moves I’ve stolen from them to deflect the axe and reach around to grab him and hug him. Then he writhes and spins away and continues to mope about the issue.
But why am I up in his face? I have no restraint. Any time he has a problem I’m relentless, trying to give him a hundred ways to fix it. If it was my younger son I would know exactly what to do. Just go into listening mode: “That must be really hard. What can we do about it?”
If he was too angry I’d walk away and let him handle it. Of course, he takes hardship a little differently than his brother. He drapes himself on me like a blanket and says, “Mommy, I’m sad,” and lets me hug and hold him until his tears are done.
So I don’t get to practice my awesome stress-handling skills with him as often as my older son. When I complain to my mentor, Carol, that I keep messing it up with him, she asks, “Amy, which child is he?” and I know exactly what she means.
We make all the mistakes with our firstborn. And hopefully we learn a lot from them, but we forget to use our skills with them because…why? Is it birth order? Personality? They carry the expectations of their parents? When he’s upset, I just get into some crazy mama bear mode that I can’t resist even when I recognize it and try to snap out of it.
Still, I can try to fix those mistakes and handle his anger better after the next blowout soccer match. If I can just remember what to do when I see him curled up in that ball, ashamed to show his face to the world and blaming himself for every bad thing that happened, and all I want to do is make it right for him.
My friends give me all the advice I would give to any other parent in my situation: You can’t change how he feels. Just let him get over it. Be there, listen, support. Just keep shaking your head Yes and let him say whatever he needs to get it out. Or let him go hide in his room and come out when he’s ready, and DON’T MENTION IT again until he does. Stop making such a big deal out of it. Know that he’ll get over it, and he needs to learn the coping skills for how to do that.
So the bottom line is, no matter how hard we try to train ourselves, all the parenting books we read and the advice we hear, we still sometimes have blinders when it comes to our own children. We cannot resist the actual physical pull that we still feel to rush to their aid when they need us. And that’s OK. But the next time he’s beating something with an axe, I’m just going to stay out of the way until it’s over.
Steps that can protect children from abuse
Thursday, December 8, 2011
My last column about the Penn State sex abuse case (“Sports legacies vs. the law,” Nov. 18) generated enough of a response that I felt the topic needed more attention. It seems many people want to understand more, are curious about how to help and are concerned they wouldn’t know how to respond if faced with reporting alleged sexual abuse.
Some readers were upset about the language used by the media – that terms such as “performing sexual acts on” or “sexual assault” can hint at consensual sex, rather than rape. We should be clear that no part of any sexual act performed on or by a child can be consensual.
Many who got in touch pointed out that reporting a predator is easier said than done. Unless we actually see the act being perpetrated, we can be afraid to accuse someone, knowing that if we are wrong, we would severely damage the life and reputation of someone who may be innocent.
And even if we did see it happening, the shock might be enough that we couldn’t respond at all, rather than responding the right way. We all have an incredible capacity for denial. We want to give people the benefit of the doubt. No one wants to see a hero or loved one brought down.
Wayne McNeil of Respect Group Inc. says part of the problem is that “people are not given the right tools to deal with the bad people … to look over their shoulder, see something and say ‘that just didn’t feel right.’”
The first step is to trust your instincts. Then work on gaining the confidence to know that you could do what needs to be done.
Predators know how to hide in plain sight and rely on others to look away. It is sad to recognize that when a case like this happens, it’s often the people we trusted the most. Chronic abusers work slowly to build trust within the family of their victim. They will test to see how far they can go with a child by touching, telling secrets and sometimes shaming or threatening.
They watch to see how the child reacts and if their parents or caregivers will respond.
How do we recognize abuse? The difficult part of recognizing sexual abuse is that many of the symptoms of a child who is being victimized (mood swings, fear, refusal to eat, keeping secrets) are the same ones that can be displayed during any stressful time in their lives. Others are more obvious, such as refusing to get undressed, an expanded sexual vocabulary, refusal to talk about a new friend, viewing themselves as “dirty” or “bad,” or engaging in sexual play that is inappropriate for their age. If you have suspicions, keep a journal of your observations and reach out for help from a professional.
Be aware of adults in a position of power who seem to be overly interested in children. Red flags include not respecting personal space or physical boundaries, telling inappropriate sexual jokes or commenting on body development, keeping secrets with and calling or texting the child, giving gifts or always offering to babysit or take the child on outings.
What can we do to help prevent abuse? Talk to kids about what’s appropriate. Involve the whole family in the discussion, and be honest. Don’t be squeamish because the topic is sensitive. Be open about the names of body parts, what is considered normal sexual behavior and setting boundaries and limits over who is allowed to touch your body and when.
Empower your children. Teach them they have the right to say “no” to any adult who makes them feel uncomfortable. And most importantly, tell them they can defend themselves. Teach them how to fight back or get away from someone who is hurting them.
Children are raised to behave and listen to grownups, and a predator can play on this. Sometimes parents can be complicit in this behavior, for instance by making a child hug an uncle who makes them uncomfortable. If your child shows resistance to being with someone, follow their lead and give them the power to control what happens to their body.
Be careful about your own response when talking to your child about sexuality, especially if and when your child confides in you. Listen attentively without responding in an emotional way. If your response is an overreaction, they may not feel comfortable opening the discussion again. Listen, let it sit, walk away if you have to, and compose a healthy response before returning to the conversation.
Finally, know where to turn if you need help. The Valley-based organization Stop It Now has excellent information and resources. Keep your eyes and ears open and follow the advice of professional hockey player (and victim of sexual abuse) Sheldon Kennedy: “Trust your gut.” The best way to shine a light on an unspeakable crime is by getting it out in the open.
Sports legacies vs. the law
Friday, November 18, 2011
Americans have a strange relationship with our sports heroes. We forgive drunk driving, spousal abuse, firing guns in public, drug use and various other offenses all in the name of not tarnishing a hero’s reputation. But it is possible that we’ve finally reached the point of saying “enough is enough” when the alleged offense involves children being raped.
This wasn’t an accusation or a whispered rumor. We are informed that it was a witnessed act. The failure on all levels of someone – anyone – in the Penn State organization to simply act like a decent person was astounding.
Here’s what you do when you see the most violating of all acts being done to a child: You call the police.
And if someone else saw it and told you about it but failed to take action themselves: You call the police.
You don’t weigh your options, or think about your legacy, or worry about your position in the organization. You call the police.
Imagine what would happen if this incident occurred in any arena other than a successful college football program. In a summer camp. A scouting group. Your child’s school. Take these circumstances out of the realm of “Joe Paterno’s legacy at Penn State” and think about what should have been done.
I don’t care if you’re Joe Paterno. I don’t care if you’ve coached for 50 years. I don’t care if you’re worried about your friend’s reputation. I don’t care if you have designs on being the next coach and are willing to throw a child under the bus in order to keep those aspirations alive. You protect children who are being violated. If you don’t, you’re nothing more than an accomplice.
And I have to wonder, even if you’re caught in the middle of a cover-up of this proportion, how do you, as a human being, stand next to a person who you know has committed such an unspeakable act and pretend that everything’s OK?
Our sports idolatry begins early. At a peewee football game this fall I was stunned by how ridiculously the adults were behaving. One fifth-grade boy, a nice kid and decent athlete but still an 11-year-old child, ran for a touchdown. The grown men in the audience were screaming their heads off and couldn’t wait to get a piece of him. “Turn around! Let me get your picture!”
I could see the look on the boy’s face. He was excited that he’d done this great thing, and a bit bemused by the adulation being heaped on him. He seemed confused that grownups were all clamoring to congratulate him, and was realizing that this was a very good thing. In that moment, during a beautiful fall day on a football field, this boy learned that all he has to do is keep scoring and people are going to worship him.
In our culture a great athlete is very quickly going to find themselves above the law. We create monsters and are then shocked when they behave like monsters. If you treat someone as an idol for most of their lives, what other outcome can you expect?
I have a message for the scores of people rushing to the defense of these men. Being good at sports does not make you a god. Having a winning legacy does not allow you to protect a sociopath. And regret does nothing for the little boys who you allowed to be attacked.
One mom’s sick day reflections
Thursday, October 13, 2011
I lost my voice last week and started writing about how amusing it was to lose my voice and try to run a day care center. Ha ha, it is SO hilarious when kids are climbing on things and you can’t even tell them to get down!
And then that little sore throat turned into pneumonia.
I’ve had pneumonia before and know enough not to mess with it. I went right to the doctor, got my meds, came home and laid down.
I had to close the day care for two days. On the first day, all I had to do was get my younger son to school and then I could crash. Those alone and quiet hours were so sweet, but the boys came home from school and I had to function again.
Surprisingly, the afternoon was amazing. As soon as the boys got home they had a snack and we did their homework. We talked about the day and prepared their backpacks for tomorrow. We even baked brownies. (What?!) I made a nice dinner for my husband and it was ready to be served a few minutes after he got home. All the laundry was washed (not folded, let’s not get crazy now), and we unbelievably had time to play not one, but two board games after dinner.
This was sublime to me! Heaven! No rushing around, cleaning for what feels like hours, throwing together a lame dinner, then doing homework until bedtime and hearing the whining of the boys who didn’t get to finish watching their show because we’re always behind no matter how we try to get ahead. It was a happy, leisurely, calm night in the serenity of home.
This perfect day got me thinking about the stay-at-home moms of the ’50s and ’60s who were so desperate to break out. I’ve always wondered about their ennui and tried to understand why it would be so bad to stay home and clean up while my husband had to face the soul-draining office work.
I suppose it was because they didn’t have the option to work. I don’t have the option not to work. I’m not sure if that’s good or bad, it just is. We live with the hand we’re dealt.
By the second sick day I was itching for something to do. I have the whole day ahead! I could run to the drug store and create a little get well soon package for my mother-in-law, who needs hip surgery next week, and mail it today. I could sort the boys’ schoolwork into storage boxes, flip their summer clothes for winter ones, and organize their bookshelf. I could clean the bathrooms!
But I was getting way ahead of my pneumonia. Just going upstairs left me winded. So instead I took a hot bath and made Spaghettios. I caught up on Season 7 of “The Office” (what happened after Jim & Pam had the baby? Did they jump the shark?). Even my plans to simply go sit outside in the sun and get some fresh air didn’t happen. Nope. Couch. TV. Tea. Done.
Still, the pull of everything I should be doing kept calling me. Wouldn’t it be nice if I didn’t have to work? If I was a ’50s mom, I’d come up with fun dinners. The boys would be well-cared for every day, with all the personal attention they need, instead of having instructions yelled to them while I feed other kids snack. My house would be organized and my projects done. I’d be able to scrub that nasty cabinet above the stove clean.
And at some point during that scrubbing, I’m sure the thought would cross my mind: Why me? Why is it my job to stay home and scrub the damn cabinet when a monkey could do it, and there is so much more to me?
I went back to the grind though I was afraid of how I’d keep up. And I knew at the end of the day when the dishes weren’t done and the projects piled up that if I didn’t have a full-time job, in my house, things might run a little smoother. I’m not a failure, I do my best, my family is happy, and I can’t be held to the standards of a world that doesn’t exist anymore. I just have to keep my head above water.
Just one more chocolate croissant…
Thursday, September 15, 2011
Life after ‘nick of time’ baby
Thursday, September 8, 2011
I’m feeling really old today and it’s all Beyonce’s fault. I heard the big news that she was pregnant. I’m not that into pop culture, but it was everywhere this morning.
But then they said she wanted to have kids by the time she was 30 and she’s just going to make it. Then I got interested because that was me. I wanted them by 30 and had my first just in the nick of time (my husband, the procrastinator).
And now that baby is going to middle school. And oh yeah, I’m not in my thirties anymore. I’m only starting to feel 40 more than nine months into it. I guess it took some time to sink in. And now it’s sunk: into my sore shoulder, my bad knee, my aching feet…
I just saw an article about how MTV is having its 30th anniversary. Zoink? And when MTV got started, President Obama was still a teenager. I had no idea I was that close in age to the president. And wait, I’m not supposed to be NEARLY as old as the president.
Then I noticed a 10-year reunion of “The Lord of the Rings” movie cast and thought, no way. Why do they look so old? They’re not cute little hobbits anymore. I remembered the day we handed the baby boy off to our friend so we could have our first date away from him, to see that movie. And how I went even though I had a splitting headache because I was desperate to get out of the house and have a few hours away from a nursing baby.
And then I saw someone’s home video of their baby who was born at the same time as mine, and the footage was actually grainy. The fashions were old. How can this be? I remembered being my son’s age, looking back at my own baby pictures and thinking, God, that was FOREVER ago. Look at those plaid pants and sideburns. Was it forever ago?
But I am grateful that I had my kids in this decade, because I’m old enough to really appreciate it. To see how time passes and know that I need to soak up these moments with my boys. If I’d had them in my twenties they would’ve just been caught up in the rush. The thirties is when we slow down and savor. And the forties, well, I guess that’s when we start to ache.
The baby boy said goodbye to me and marched himself off to the bus stop for the first time last week – alone. He insisted no parents and we let him go with confidence. I wasn’t even sad. Then my younger one wanted to be picked up at the end of his first day of school by his brother instead of me.
There are times like these when my kids choose their brother over me and of course I get a bit miffed (though I am so grateful that they like each other). A wise friend of mine once said that “siblings need each other. You need someone to gang up on your parents with.”
So I let my first baby walk the second one home from school. Luckily my youngest chose me for pickup the next day so I felt loved once again. (I don’t know if he really wanted me or was just trying to be fair by giving us each a turn.)
I saw some moms leaving school on the first day with tears in their eyes and thought, for the first time that’s NOT me. I know my sons are ready, I know it’s time for them to stretch, and it’s easier to walk away when you have this confidence.
In a couple of weeks we’ll be taking them to see our favorite band, which I just found out has been playing together for twenty years. As long as my husband and I have been together and listening to them. I was just a girl with the rush of the twenties and the blur of the raising-babies thirties ahead of her. I can’t wait to see what the forties have in store, all except for the sending my kids off to college part. Middle school I can handle, for now.
Days of fresh ice and milk
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Loading the bases of life
Thursday, July 14, 2011
Helping kids ride out life’s bumps
Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Sending your child off to school every morning takes guts. There are so many bad things that could happen to them, I often wonder how I’m able to watch their backs as they walk away without panicking or running screaming to get them. But I have chosen the caretakers and teachers who work with them because I trust them. So I have to rely on that faith when I start to worry.
Life isn’t easy or fair. My kids have been bullied, mistreated by other adults, and not supported when they needed help. It’s hard to have a sad little guy come home at the end of the day and contain the anger and disappointment at the people who were supposed to be there for him.
Then you listen, and talk, and try to ease their pain, and know that the teacher has twenty students to take care of so she can’t really be everywhere all the time, and she’s doing the best she can. And that life is life. We have it pretty good. But there will always be bumps in the road, and being a parent means riding them out. And hopefully, giving your kids the ability to navigate them alone.
As my sons’ preschool teacher would tell me, this is just another learning opportunity. Our children will have bad experiences that we can’t be there to protect them from, but we can help them afterward. We can figure out what happened and how to handle it better the next time. Because there will be a next time. Bad things can happen anytime, anywhere, when a child is with their parent or with another caregiver.
When a little girl in my day care fell down and broke a bone, her mother came to me feeling guilt and shame for what had happened. I took her by the shoulders and said, “Honey, all I can say is thank God it didn’t happen on my time.”
I’ve been on both sides of this equation. I’ve had to trust others and now I am the one who is trusted. I think more than a fair amount of the job stress I have is that constant worry – what if something bad happens? I am always responsible for six children. I joked with a client that I could not only re-trace my own steps, but the steps of all the kids as well. It is kind of an odd skill, but there’s a reason for it. Because in my head, even though I may be paying attention to whatever’s right in front of me, I’m tracking all those kids who are in my care (like a little radar in my brain). I won’t lie – it’s exhausting.
I worry about taking them in the car. I worry that they’ll stop breathing in their sleep. I worry about walking them to school. I hear babies crying in my dreams. I worry that parents will find a stray bruise and suspect me of something. That my licensor could show up at any minute and make a list of everything I’m doing wrong. I worry when I take them out in public that someone will see something they don’t like and call the police on me. I worry that, God forbid, if something bad happened – and I pray it never would – but it could, that I might be sued and lose everything. My husband would tell me to calm down and then quietly call the insurance agent to up our coverage.
Last week I had to take the kids out on an errand and suddenly I realized that I really needed to use the bathroom. I knew there wasn’t one where we were going so in my head I began calculating how to relieve myself. As we passed gas stations and restaurants where I knew I could just quickly run in and go, the temptation to stop became almost overwhelming. I didn’t do it, for obvious reasons, but I had to laugh when I envisioned the headline: “Day Care Provider Abandons Children in McDonald’s Parking Lot.”
There will always be things out there to fear. The day you sign the permission slip for the trip to Connecticut, you hear about a school bus that crashed on the highway. You read about the school lockdown when someone thought they saw a man with a gun and think, if my kid was in that school, wouldn’t I want them to flee? And more importantly, why do I even have to think about this kind of stuff?
The bright side is, for the most part, life is pretty safe, and though we all earn our scars, we get through it pretty well. When I used to worry about kidnappers and child molesters my friend would repeatedly tell me that it’s almost always someone you know, and our streets are safer than ever. I can honestly say that I still haven’t reached her level of confidence, but it comforts me when I start to worry. And being a natural worrier makes me a good day care provider, so I guess I can count it as a life skill.
In many ways, life is a leap of faith. Being a parent magnifies that leap – like jumping off a skyscraper instead of just a big rock. I take risks every day, by working with children and by having them. One small mistake can be devastating. When my children leave home each morning, I have to have faith that the grownups will do what they should, that my boys will be able to handle what comes or talk to me about it, and that we can get through it together. Otherwise, in all honesty, I probably wouldn’t be able to get out of bed in the morning.
After nap time, let’s stop time
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
What tax receipts bring back
Monday, April 18, 2011
On court, resisting bad lessons
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
We just went through basketball playoffs with our kids. Ah, youth sports. A breeding ground of bad behavior. And I ain’t just talkin bout the kids, folks.
During our last game things got really intense. I was there with my friend, who works with kids and has an instinctive ability to know exactly what they need. At one point she turned to me, eyes wide, and squeaked, “What life lessons is this teaching?!”
I didn’t have a good answer for her. All I could think of was, if all else fails, start bullying everyone?
At the end of the game there were some tears. I was steeling myself for the pain my son would be feeling. He was upset but he quickly put it aside. Unbelievably to both of us, our kids were over it before the end of the car ride home.
I guess there’s real meaning to the phrase, “they left it all on the court.” We adults were fuming about all the bad behavior we’d seen, re-hashing it and looking for justice. But the boys just said, “Those parents are messed up. Worse than the kids!” and let it go.
I was stunned, but so proud of their reaction. Look at the coping skills we’re giving our kids. They do it so much better than we do! I was never an athlete myself, and now I’m the mama bear protecting my kid, so I probably have the worst possible reaction to stress during a game.
But my son and I talked about it later and we decided there were a lot of positives to be learned from the situation. There’s the obvious – that challenges make us stronger. We grow through difficulty rather than success.
I also told him that I’ve had to deal with the challenge of being really mad a people’s behavior, but still having to work with them and be part of the community. My son seemed glad that we shared this connection. For me it’s on the grown-up level, but he has to do it every time he walks through the front doors of his school.
Finally, as it always does, we moms were talking about how to protect our kids from bullying and bad behavior on all levels (adult and child alike). The most interesting discovery to come out of this is that for my kids to survive the next few (really hard) years of school, it’s all about friendship.
So many times when we talk about how to protect our kids the answer is, “He needs a good friend to rely on.” If my son is struggling with a bully in his class, I ask the teacher to steer him toward another friend. There are three elementary schools in our town, and I’m working with moms from the other schools to build relationships among our kids. Our hope is that when they get to middle school they’ll have some friends and be less afraid of the unknown.
And I realized at the same time, that’s exactly what I do when things get tough. I have a group of trusted friends who I go to for help. I’m having this problem, has it ever happened to you? What did you do to fix it? And my friends will reassure me that they will help me figure it out.
I hope every day that my sons will have this. I know boys are different and maybe don’t process everything as much as girls do, but I see how they interact with each other. When my younger son has trouble with a friend his older brother tells him, “You tell him if he keeps doing that to you then he’s not your true friend and you’re done with him!”
Somehow, my sons are brilliant at this. They’re able to walk away when they need to protect themselves. They know what’s right and they face bullies with bravery. We all hope that our kids will go out in the world and be good friends, and what they put out will come back to them when they need it.
When a bully on the playground went after my older son last week, I saw one of his best friends saying, “That’s not cool,” and his other best friend coming over to give him a pat on the back.
And when I got home there was a message from my dear friend who also saw the incident. It said, “We love you.” And it was enough to make us all feel better.
When war is like wallpaper
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Back in my college radio days, I became a fan of Public Enemy and I still have some of their music on my iPod (even though I know it’s embarrassing when a white suburban mom has rap blasting out the window of her minivan). The other day one of their songs came on and they were rapping about young black men being sent to war, and a general named Norman, and it hit me: Weren’t we here before?
And wasn’t that 20 years ago? And we’re still here, but it seems that suddenly everyone has stopped talking about it.
You might say we’re not technically at war, since President Obama claimed that the war in Iraq is over and we are in an advisory rather than a combat role. Supposedly we are “advising” in Afghanistan as well. In my view, as long as American soldiers are dying in these countries and our purpose there continues to be as ill-defined as it has been, we’re still at war.
And I’ve had many reminders that we are at war lately. Soldiers home on leave for the holidays, walking around in their uniforms. I want to approach and say thank you, and what’s really going on, and when do you think it will end, and what can we do to get you home for good?
I’m reminded too by the fighter jets that have always flown over my house, sometimes so low that it’s actually frightening to be under them. These machines are truly a technological marvel, incredibly fast and maneuverable and mesmerizing to watch. But I was torn the first time I saw one fly over after we had declared (the most recent) war on Iraq. I had a sense of safety knowing that they were protecting me, but as a mother, I had a visceral feeling of doom and panic.
All I could think was, how do the mothers in Baghdad feel when they see these planes coming?
And what is the legacy the U.S. is leaving with those mothers and families? What of the reportedly 100,000-plus Iraqi citizens who died in this war? Has Obama really not ended it, as he said he would, because he doesn’t want to walk away from an unstable quagmire? I’m not sure that we left the country in any better shape the first time. But a little cursory research shows that the first Gulf War has already been burnished with a shiny happy ending, a success for the first President Bush.
Another reminder was a story I heard on NPR discussing the fact that many people are unable to pass the written tests to get into the army. Wouldn’t it be ironic – but not surprising – if it takes military quotas to improve our public schools? Maybe that’s the sad bargain we have to make in order to actually funnel our taxpayer money toward our children instead of directly to the military.
The Treasury is considering raising the debt ceiling for our country because of the recession. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said this month, “We just need to … do something about the biggest problem in the country – other than joblessness.”
The wars received scant mention in the president’s State of the Union address this week. Why isn’t the war our biggest problem, and why wouldn’t ending it and bringing our desperately needed money back home be a viable solution?
And wouldn’t having that money back on our shores allow us to stimulate industry? I’m just sayin.
And finally, the new Republican House of Representatives would rather repeal health care for our citizens than stop sending them to war. I have never, ever been able to rationalize the logic of spending trillions of dollars on sending people to die rather than getting them a flu shot. But I guess that’s why I’m more of a dove than a hawk.
But hanging over all these thoughts about the war is my son, who has lately been trying very hard to understand the concept. It started when a friend told him his great-grandfather had served in World War II so he knew all about “what Germany did to us.” Hence, my son has been walking around talking about how much “I hate Germany!!”
I try to explain that there’s no reason to hate Germany, but my 10-year-old who sees the world in absolutes has a hard time grasping the subtleties.
I’m not sure if he understands that we are at war now, and I don’t know if I should explain the full extent of it to him. I probably won’t. I remember being a child and wanting desperately to feel safe and secure, and know that my family would be too.
To have an idea that all the wars were over now and we had learned our lessons and could live peacefully. But today, my country has been at war for the entire length of my son’s life, and I find it intolerable. We have gotten far, far too complacent in accepting this fact.
Seeking that Christmas magic
Thursday, December 23, 2010
December can be panic time for mothers. I don’t even have time to write a to-do list, so I don’t know exactly what I have to do, I just know there’s a lot of it.
Christmas cards, wish lists, holiday parties and strolls and craft fairs, getting the tree, the pile of gifts to wrap (if you have bought them yet – and many of us haven’t) baking, decorating, teacher gifts, charity donations, visiting the cousins.
And my son is crying because everyone in his class says Santa is not real. Fa la la la laa!
Speaking of Santa, the only items my kids are asking for this year are an iPad and a full-size bounce house. They are banding together, too.
Forming a united front of wishing. If it’s all they ask for, they’re convinced they’ll get it. How did I create this monster? I have to appreciate the teamwork, but still. How do I burst this bubble without causing permanent damage?
We’ve all been here – trying to keep up with the very high holiday expectations.
Like the other day, when I realized my children didn’t have advent calendars (because of how smoothly my life is run). You would think that the day before December began you’d be able to find them easily, but you would be wrong.
So we spent an entire evening going to four stores to find them, and they were the bottom-of-the-barrel leftovers and “we wanted the ones with the chocolate inside,” and we got home at bedtime and the boys were giving me grief because they wanted to play but had to go straight up to bed.
And I heard: “This is why we hate going shopping with you mommy.”
Fa la la la frickin la.
I don’t think the stress comes from the idea of the holidays, which I still love. I go mushy at Christmas songs. But it’s the feeling when the song is over and you come back to reality: It will never be that good.
It’s the feeling of one hundred things that are not done, some of which can’t be done until the days before Christmas. So it doesn’t matter how prepared you are (which is not at all, if you’re me), you will still feel the expectations of what you have to be able to create on that one sanctified day.
It kills me to know that my son will not get a bounce house from Santa this year, and I already anticipate the feeling of despair when he comes downstairs on Christmas morning and realizes that Santa let him down. My husband is totally calm and reasonable about all this, telling the boys that you don’t just get everything you ask for automatically. He will state with one hundred percent conviction that Santa is real, but there are limits to even his magic.
We all try to re-create our own childhood magic for our kids. But maybe it doesn’t take so much effort. As long as our families are together and some presents are under the tree, they will have the magic. So my husband is even better than me at creating it. While I’m running myself ragged and wringing my hands and processing my son’s emotional outbursts, he’s happily hanging the Christmas lights and humming carols.
So just grind through it, my friends. Enjoy the little moments and let go of the worry. Be in the moment with your family instead of ticking off your to-do list in your mind, and, with luck, you will find the magic.
Straight allies needed in gays’ struggle for acceptance
Monday, December 13, 2010
In recent months we have heard of a spate of suicides among young people who were gay, lesbian, questioning, or just being accused of these things by others. I thought about how bad it must be, how constant and awful the torment, that would lead someone to just give up in this way, and the shock and grief their families and friends must feel.
I read the eloquent and heartfelt tributes in newspapers and all over the web. But I never felt compelled to write about it because I didn’t feel like it was my place. I’m straight – who wants to hear my opinion? I haven’t had to suffer. I thought it would ring hollow and could even be offensive. “Hey, look at me! I’m OK with the gays! And I have a black friend, too!”
But I was finally moved by J. Mary Sorrell’s piece, “‘Better’ a relative term” in the Gazette (Nov. 18). She writes of the devastation we all feel when someone takes his or her life, and the hard work ahead if we’re truly going to make things “better.” And, she says, “Heterosexual allies are as integral to this process as white allies were and are in racial-based civil rights movements.”
I never thought of it that way, but she’s right.
For a long time I wondered if just being supportive of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and queer (GLBTQ) people counted. It’s not like I’m taking to the streets – but I do feel it when I go out in public with my cousin Sheri and her partner Teri (seriously. It’s kinda cute). Or when I choose to do parenting trainings with a lesbian and it doesn’t hit me until we’re standing in front of a room of people: She’s queer, and there are people in the world who wouldn’t come to see us just because of that.
It doesn’t inform my every movement, but slowly I realize how it does for them.
Recently we had a wedding in our clan and Sheri chose it to be her first “public appearance” with Teri. I was so proud of their bravery – and annoyed at the fact that they had to be. I was proud to sit next to them in the church and joke about when the lightning bolts would strike them down. I asked Teri why she rejected communion despite being raised Catholic and she gave me a look that said, “Do you even have to ask?”
Later we were having a discussion about their experiences coming out when Teri said, “No parent would choose this for their child.” I tried to express how I will love my sons with everything I am no matter what they become (for me, it’s a biological imperative). And felt so sad that we live in a world that makes children think their parents wouldn’t.
I hated how much it hurts for people who have to be afraid to come out, and all the ridiculous social repercussions they face. I hoped that if we work together through this time, when the world is learning to “accept” its GLBTQ sons and daughters, that it might someday really be “better” – that if one of my sons discovered that maybe he is gay, he wouldn’t have to endure the pain. But I’m not naive.
I know that the term “gay” as a pejorative has snuck into the lexicon among my sons’ friends. When I first heard them using it I lectured them in my I-mean-business-and-I-am-NOT-kidding voice, about how “Your cousin Sheri – who you love – is gay and I will not have that word used in my house!”
But did I blow it by overreacting so much? Will it become their favorite word out of rebellion, or did I scare them straight? (No pun intended.) I couldn’t help myself. It came from my core and I couldn’t stop it.
My husband pointed out to Teri that “where we live it’s normal,” and I know I take that for granted. In the very same newspaper with Sorrell’s article there was an ad for a lesbian love story movie with two women kissing and I didn’t even bat an eyelash. But talking to Sherri and Teri reminded me that in the world outside of the Happy Valley, that sort of thing doesn’t fly.
I think about how we did make a difference when Sheri and Teri came out. They needed us to love them no matter what because the rest of the world wasn’t going to do that anymore, despite the fact that they are both brilliant, beautiful, loving women who give so much of themselves to others.
So here I sit, a confirmed hetero ally warrior. I will continue to walk with pride next to my GLBTQ friends. Or just do what I do now – walk with my friends, and not think about how their sexual preference matters to me. And I will remember Teri’s words, “If you don’t want to be with us, it’s your loss because you’re missing a hell of a fun ride.”
Count me in, sister.
For more information on the topics raised in this essay, visit www.straightforequality.org.
Teens seem to have trouble empathizing? It’s all in the brain
Monday, November 8, 2010
I’ve written for the Aspire Project about dealing with bullying in younger children and how using direct and clear communication, natural consequences and consistent reinforcement of your expectations will eventually stop bullying.
So why doesn’t it work with teenagers?
You might be relieved to hear that it’s about brain development. I don’t have all the answers for stopping teenage bullying, but maybe we can have a better understanding of it if we begin with the fact that teens are operating with pudding for brains.
That’s right, all the hard work you put into raising your child is down the drain. You spent many long years guiding your child into becoming a healthy, functioning member of society. The toddler years - when you had to keep them from burning their hands on the stove and running out into traffic. Elementary school – where you conquered lost lunch money and forgotten homework.
You thought you had it made, and you wouldn’t have to repeat yourself incessantly anymore.
And then your child hit puberty and started acting like a lunatic.
But you must remember – this is no one’s fault! It’s biology, and the best thing we can do is take deep breaths and ride it out.
At around age 12, the brain begins to literally rewire itself. I often tell parents in my child care program that they can’t relate to their young children because they literally have a different brain. This is when the pudding stage begins.
It takes a great deal of energy to re-grow a brain, so it reverts to a very instinctive state. Your child goes into fight or flight mode. This can mean lashing out, hiding in their room and having vicious fights over nothing. Sound familiar?
The brain is doing much of this work beginning at midnight, while the body is in a state of deep sleep, and needs almost 11 hours of sleep per day (that’s the sleeping-all-day thing).
Now, unfortunately for every parent who has ever had a teenager, this development happens in a totally illogical and disorderly way. The emotional centers begin to develop first, so your child goes from high to low to childish to mature in the course of one evening meal (aka: mood swings).
Next come hormones! When a teenager sees a loved one, their brain literally has the same reaction as if they were on cocaine. Ah, the “high” of young love.
Now here’s the best part, and what brings us back to the bullying issue. The moral centers in the brain do not develop until almost 17, even though the emotions and hormones have been churning. Teens have an adult body with all the capabilities, but they are still using a child’s brain, and the teenage brain often cannot see the consequences of actions.
Teens also can’t always tell what others are feeling because the brain hasn’t fully developed social intelligence. In a famous study, three-quarters of the teenage subjects couldn’t see fear on another person’s face. They would identify the person as “angry” or “sad,” but never used the word “fear” to describe any expression.
Now imagine a teen who can’t see their target feeling fear while they’re staring them in the face – let alone berating them over a website or handheld.
To top that off, the capability for empathy fluctuates widely in the brain from infancy to almost 18 years old. When we are teaching parents and educators to combat bullying, we often say that empathy is the key to helping kids connect. If they are in one of these low swings, it may be difficult to comprehend someone else’s feelings (the whole world revolves around me. ME!!!).
South Hadley High School Principal Daniel Smith pointed out this fall in The Gazette that “you will be talking to a student and you can see by their face that they understand and agree, but minutes later you see them in the hallway acting in contrary to what they just agreed to. It’s something that happens with teenagers.” (“No magic bullet on bullying,” Sept. 13, 2010)
Never were truer words spoken.
The final brain development does not occur until the end of the teenage years. The parts of the brain that control logic and reasoning develop last, at around age 18. The very last brain centers that develop deal with insight, understanding and self-control. Now why couldn’t they have been the first ones? (In my uneducated view, that’s all about biology too, because Mother Nature wants more babies, but that’s another topic.)
None of this information is meant to let teens off the hook for bad behavior. In fact, it means that we should be more rigorous in our discussions with them. They need our support and understanding, clear and consistent expectations and boundaries, and natural consequences.
Most importantly, they need us to stick it out even when they are telling us to get out of their lives.
So picture yourself parenting that toddler all over again. You can’t just say something once and expect your teen to live their life by it. It’s something you have to talk about all the time.
Add it to the list of tough topics: sex, drugs and alcohol, the F they got in chemistry, and bullying. And when you find out they’ve been involved in a bullying incident, be a good listener. Know that they don’t really understand what’s going on either, and get them talking to someone who can help.
Recasting grim message that hitting a child sends
Monday, September 6, 2010
Here’s a recent headline that caught my eye: “Baby slapping onboard flight sets off debate.”
This is my best guess at the truth, according to what I’ve gleaned from news reports: the parents were fighting loudly over how to quiet the baby (13 months), the flight attendant saw the slap and took the baby without force, the father followed her to the back of the plane and held the baby until it calmed down. The parents were interviewed by officials and released.
Of course the incident set off a discussion on talk shows and websites. Everyone has an opinion on corporal punishment of children, and some people think a spank now and then is a useful tool. As a mother, I think it’s really wrong. As a child care provider, it is against the law for me to ever lay a hand on a child, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I have a 13-month-old in my care right now. I can imagine the look on his face — the hurt in his eyes — if I was to ever violate his trust in this way. This baby looks to me to protect him.
The last line of the Gazette article was a quote from the spokeswoman for the Washington Council of Children and Families. Her comment on the plane situation was that “Simply put, most people don’t know what to do.” At first I wasn’t sure if she was talking about the bystanders or the parents of the screaming baby.
It’s true: nobody knows what to do in these situations. How many times have you heard someone berating their child? Have you wished you could stop it but didn’t know how? Have you wondered if it was the right thing to do? Or feared the repercussions from the parent if you did?
On the other hand, as the embarassed parent of the screaming child, especially trapped in an airplane, what do you do as a last resort?
Unfortunately, it sounds like this mother is stuck in the vicious cycle of hitting. She claims that her daughter saw another child slap someone “…and I guess she thinks it’s OK. And I’m trying to teach her that it’s not…and the only reason I popped her is so she knows it’s not.”
How do you teach a child that hitting is wrong by hitting the child?
Here’s what happens when you hit a child, or even yell at them viciously for that matter. The child feels humiliated, scared, and hurt. (And the mother thought that this would calm her down?) Ultimately, as the child gets older and begins to better understand the underlying power struggle, they simply lose a little more respect for the parent every time it happens.
As my mentor taught me, when an adult hits a child, it is the adult having a temper tantrum and losing control. The only message the child gets is that I am bigger and stronger than you and I can hurt you if I want. Is that how we want to rule our children, with threats of physical pain? Sounds a lot like bullying to me.
Another expert who commented on the story was psychologist Dale Atkins: “When someone raises a hand to a child and someone else sees it, it is in fact our responsibilty as a bystander to stand up for that child. It also gives the child a message…that someone is going to stand up for me and that it’s not OK to be hit.”
Right on, sister.
Dr. Atkins suggested that bystanders should intervene in the most positive way possible. “Offer assistance…say ‘Is there anyway I can be helpful?’” She said you can try to acknowledge that it’s hard to raise a child, and support the person “rather than be judgemental.” It seems that this is just what the flight attendent did and it was the right thing to do. I hope I can remember it the next time I’m in the heat of the moment.
I also agree with Albuquerque Police Chief Marshall Katz, who said, “I think it was a solid move on the part of the flight attendent to take custody of the child. It neutralized the situation. It calmed everybody down.”
This is the key, as any emergency responder will tell you. The first thing you do is try to de-escalate. That’s what I do constantly when I’m working with kids. I intervene quickly. I calm them down. I forgive and move on. I wish we all had the ability to do this, and to do it with adults when necessary.
If you are still not convinced that hitting a child is wrong, I have one final question for you. How would you feel if it was someone hitting you?
Aspire Project participants to lead free September program for parents
Friday, August 27, 2010
By LYNNE MARIE WANAMAKER
and AMY PYBUS
A parent’s first job is to keep her child safe. In the beginning it’s a fairly simple, if overwhelming, responsibility. She squalls; you pick her up.
You provide all her basic needs: food, a safe place to sleep, a clean diaper.
We feel a natural protectiveness for our baby. We think, “I never want her to be hurt. I never want her to suffer. I never want her to feel anything but joy and contentment.”
We see that beautiful, new, innocent creature and want to somehow preserve that baby magic.
But things get dicier when that infant becomes a toddler, pre-schooler and big kid. We can try to keep her in that pristine wonderland where all her needs are met by omniscient gentle parents. Or we can start to teach her the skills she’ll need to navigate a world that is not always as safe and magical as we might hope.
We are realists when it comes to our kids. We know the world won’t always meet them with snuggles and rainbows. And we’re realists when it comes to ourselves. We won’t always be there to keep discomfort away from them.
And we will lose our minds if we define good parenting as satisfying their every whim. In fact, we might be working against their bigger safety interests.
If we are committed to teaching our kids the skills they need to be safe and successful in the world, we must model effective boundary-setting early.
This means we won’t meet their every need. Instead, we’ll clearly and consistently express our boundaries and expectations.
This can be as simple as using a declarative statement: “It’s time to put on your shoes,” instead of a question: “Would you like to put on your shoes now?” It can be as hard as saying “No” to a 2-year-old in a tantrum.
Our kids are watching us, constantly, with hawk eyes, to learn how to relate to the world.
Our job is to show them that each and every one of us is a valuable being who deserves respect. We must be ready to model this in every aspect of family life.
If Amy gives her son an ice cream because he threw a fit, she teaches him he’ll get a reward for bad behavior.
If Lynne Marie berates her partner in front of her child, she demonstrates that disrespect is OK in intimate relationships. If we are badgered into doing things we don’t want to do, we show our kids that it’s OK to let a bully make choices for us.
Here’s the secret payoff: a family with calm, consistent parents offering clear boundaries and expectations is a more peaceful family to live in day-to-day.
As we have talked and worked together, we’ve been delighted to discover the ways that building self-protection skills for young children incorporates parenting strategies that improve communication and contentment in the home.
We’re excited to talk to parents about these intersections and how they can teach, model and rehearse effective boundary setting with their young children.
We’re hosting an evening for parents Sept. 28 from 6-7:30 p.m. at the Lilly Library Community Room in Florence to explore these ideas.
There is no fee for the session, but pre-registration is requested. To sign up, send an email message to firstname.lastname@example.org or call Lynne Marie Wanamaker at at 527-8317.
We hope to see you there.
Lynne Marie Wanamaker is a National Women’s Martial Arts certified self-defense instructor. She blogs about the intersection of self defense and parenting at
Amy Pybus, an Easthampton child care provider, is a Gazette columnist and blogs at www.sittingonthebaby.com.
Let’s find the fight inside of us
August 20, 2010
As a teenager of the ’80s, I would lament that I wasn’t born to be a hippie in the ’60s: that storied decade when young people took to the streets to fight the power and force social change for the greater good!
My teenage years were spent trying to master cutting the neck out of my sweatshirt so it would have the proper Flashdance swoop.
Sure we were mad about stuff, and would’ve liked to change it, but we had no idea what to do or how to do it. And if we had, it certainly wouldn’t have been by ditching our Saabs and living off the land. That would be seriously uncool.
As I grew older this mindset became more entrenched. I experienced financial success and got my own cushy house and cars and lifestyle. There were world issues that bothered me, but still, I was too busy doing my corporate thing to find the time to argue. Things were going good for me – why rock the boat?
But today, and especially because I have children, I look around and think, Wow. The world is really seriously screwed up. And what have I done about it? What would I do about it if I was so inclined?
My generation, or maybe all of us, have lost the ability to protest. We keep taking it and taking it but instead of doing something about it, we shrug our shoulders and head off to work (if we’re lucky enough to hold a job, and then we say thank you very much sir, instead of demanding better treatment as loyal employees). It seems like admitting defeat, every day.
We should be outraged that this country has been at war for the entire length of my sons’ lives – almost a decade now – and nearly bankrupted ourselves over it.
We should be outraged that the Gulf of Mexico was destroyed while the company’s CEO was too busy going to yacht races to try to fix the problem for “the little people.”
We should be outraged that the medical insurance industry has created an environment where companies are forced to fire their employees and hire contractors because they can no longer afford to pay their insurance.
We should be outraged that decades of political policy and corporate greed have created the richest upper class in American history, the largest divide between rich and poor, and gutted the working middle class.
I admit that I haven’t been more active because of that old defeatist attitude: I don’t have the time, energy or resources to run off and scream about everything. And protesters usually look like, or are painted as, just that – crazies. While it’s nice to see people on the corners in Northampton and the effort they’re making, my husband will often remark that “If you’re in Northampton, you’re preaching to the choir.”
It may be that they’re in the only place where they’re allowed to protest in peace. In recent years, people at rallies in major cities have been attacked by police or forced to remain in one area rather than march past the very places they are trying to reach.
So what do we do? March on Washington and watch while Fox News and the National Park Service debate the actual number of protesters? Donate to a pet cause (after determining which ones are legit)? Volunteer time, which none of us have because we’re too busy working multiple jobs?
I’ve had many conversations with state Rep. John Scibak, who still believes in a representative government and that we should be communicating with all our elected officials. As he told me, “The best way to ensure that elected officials are representing you is to let them know your views.” Unfortunately, he also added that “On most issues, if I hear from five constituents, that’s a lot.”
So please, write to your elected officials and your newspaper. Protest, but outside of Northampton. Find something positive that you can give your energy to.
“‘The time has come,’ the walrus said,” in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” and the naive young oysters think they’re going to have a lovely chat. But I feel like the oldest oyster. I’m afraid we’re about to be devoured.
Situations that need adults: Gentle ways to turn young people away from bullying
July 25, 2010
Recently I wrote about having an anti-bullying curriculum as part of my childcare program. I do this because young children can be naturally aggressive and hurt each other, and the victim feels bullied no matter how old the aggressor.
My definition of a bully includes anyone, at any time, who makes someone else feel bad either physically or emotionally.
So today I’d like to discuss how I handle these situations, especially for those who might be struggling with young children and their sometimes completely irrational behavior.
I will refer to the aggressor as the “bully,” but don’t get hung up on that. It’s not a label, it’s a behavior. We’re all bullies occasionally; it’s OK to admit it.
How else can we stop it?
And keep in mind that your best response is to remain calm. Kids have a hard enough time dealing with the pressures of growing up. They want to know that the grown-ups can handle it. It is reassuring for them to see that we’re not going to lose it every time some little thing happens.
The first thing I do when a bullying incident occurs is determine the severity. Which kids were involved, what was the intent, can the victim defend him/herself or do I need to step in? Then I can decide my course of action. This will include any of the following:
• Have the bully look at the victim’s face and say, “Look how you made him feel!” This helps them realize they’ve hurt the other child. Explain what they’ve done. “Did you know that you really hurt Sarah? I would be really sad if someone did that to me.”
• Sympathize with the victim. “Oh Jane! How sad!” Connect with her, give her a hug and label the emotions she might be feeling. I will sometimes ignore the bully to show them that they’re not going to get the spotlight for being a bully (I use this sparingly, but it can be effective if I know the child is motivated to do better by being left out).
• Help them work the problem out. If they’re fighting over a toy, have them ask for a turn when the other is done. If someone was pushed down, have the bully help the victim get up. Rather than sending the bully away to be punished, get them involved in helping to make it better. What better way to teach a child how to show someone that they regret hurting them?
• Have the bully say they’re sorry. This is a tricky subject and everybody has an opinion. If the bully is willing to say it in a nice way, it really does lighten the moment. If they don’t want to, I will tell them that after we’ve hurt our friend, sometimes saying “I’m sorry” is the only way to make them feel better (and a “sorry” tossed over the shoulder as they go on to the next thing doesn’t count!).
If they refuse, I continue to sympathize with the victim, and help them deal with the reality that sometimes they aren’t going to get that apology. I have seen kids who are not willing to say they’re sorry, and it’s not a pretty sight. Learning to be humble and empathetic is a vital part of growing up and it really does begin at this young age.
• Wait and see if they’re able to work it out by themselves. Sometimes, the bully might realize that she shouldn’t have done that. If she tries to remedy the problem in any way, I stay back and let it play. It’s a beautiful thing if they can do it.
• As soon as the kids are speaking, I start teaching them the words they need to know to protect themselves. I’ll tell a child, “You can tell her ‘Stop!’” and put their hand out. I’ll make them practice with me.
• Praise, praise, praise and label good behavior when you see it. It doesn’t have to be gushing, just taking note: “Otis, I saw you give half your snack to Charlotte. That was really generous of you.” Do it as often as possible.
Sometimes kids will act like they haven’t heard you, but you better believe they are feeling really good about themselves when they hear you loving them.
• Often bullying comes from a feeling that a child can’t express. We talk about emotions all the time, especially anger. That’s our favorite one. I have a song chart that lists several ways to release your anger: “If you’re angry and you know it stomp your feet … tell a friend … walk away … take deep breaths,” etc.
Much of my work involves the teachable moment; that is, recognizing and dealing with bad behaviors in a healthy way. I spend most of my day literally giving kids words to say to each other and acting out better ways to handle tough situations. Learning how to relate to other people is not an easy skill. I model good behavior for them so they can try it out.
Being a child involves a good deal of bumping around and behavior that we grown-ups see as ugly and wrong, but to them is the only way they know how to relate. Our role in the situation is to help them walk through the process of making it better: you made a mistake and it hurt someone, so now we’re going to figure out how to fix it, and hopefully do it better next time.
Why even toddlers benefit from an anti-bullying program
July 5, 2010
I was pleased to see the Gazette article about local elementary schools using the Steps to Respect anti-bullying program (“Conway third-graders step up for bullying prevention,” May 31, 2010). After reading that article I had an immense feeling of relief: someone is finally getting it right.
My sons have been lucky enough to have this excellent curriculum since preschool. But even before that, they were learning how to spot and stop a bully in my family child care program.
Yes, it’s true, I have an anti-bullying curriculum for toddlers. I admit this is a slightly radical way to look at bullying, and maybe it stretches the definition of the word in the emotionally heated way that we’ve come to view it lately. But in my house, we call a spade a spade. No one gets away with abusing someone else, no matter how old they are.
A young child may not be a bully with a capital B, but a victim is still a victim. When a child has a toy ripped from their hands, gets hit or pushed, or even shoved aside in the rush to get out the door, they have been bullied. And they feel like they’ve been bullied.
This behavior happens all the time, even in the very best of child care programs.
Oh no! Have I just let the dirty little secret of day care slip? No. It happens because kids are kids. They are instinctive animals who want what they want and don’t have the capacity for good citizenship yet. But we have to teach them that they are not allowed to hurt other people in order to get what they want.
In the article, school psychologist Cindy Burch said that we should have compassion for kids’ normal behavior, accept that they make mistakes, and recognize normal peer conflicts that are not necessarily bullying. Good teachers and care providers do all of these things all of the time.
Believe it or not, I even spend a good deal of time protecting myself from being bullied – yes, by these little kids. They bully me when they demand service (“Amy, I’m thirsty. I said I’m THIRSTY!”). My sons bully me when they don’t want to go to school and spend half an hour whining about all the reasons why they shouldn’t have to.
Even the baby bullies me. Just the other day he was screaming and I told him, “Stop yelling at me!” And it worked! He looked at me, whined a little disappointedly, and crawled off to find a toy. He wasn’t in distress – he was mad that I wasn’t picking him up, and by following me around hollering at me, he was trying to bully me into doing so. (Don’t start thinking I’m a crazy child-abuser: his father feels the same way.)
The single most important part of my job is to teach my kids how to behave, and how to treat others in a civil way. In my world, a child of any age who does not show some remorse or empathy toward a person they have victimized is acting like a bully.
I see this as being very open and honest about childrens’ behavior. Maybe I’m a little more strict about the term “bully” than some people would like. But when I face this behavior head-on and respond in an appropriate manner, I’m showing kids that we don’t look away.
I see it as standing up for a child who can’t do it themselves. I see it as the chance to show a bystander how to step in, and to teach children how to work out conflicts among themselves. And most importantly, I see it as the chance for a naturally aggressive child to learn how to get along with other people.
Every incident is a learning opportunity. My kids should be able to work it out and learn how to protect themselves in a safe environment. I need to stop bullying behavior on the front lines, any time I see it. Zero tolerance. Because I don’t want to allow any child to get in the habit of hurting others.
Keep it a Sunny Field of Dreams
June 29, 2010
It’s Little League baseball time again in our house and I’m on that emotional roller coaster ride. My stomach knots every time one of my kids is the center of attention, either batting, pitching, or making a play in the field. Logically I know they want to play and this is supposed to be fun. But the mommy in me wonders how much pressure we should be putting on our 6-year-olds.
What is the point of this tradition, in which we get them all dressed up, tell them to listen to coach, send them into the arena and then scream at them from the sidelines? We put our kids in a really stressful situation. And then we comment on their every move, in voices loud enough for everyone to hear. Something tells me this is not good parenting.
The organization’s mission states that it is “developing the qualities of citizenship, discipline, teamwork and physical well-being … espousing the virtues of character, courage and loyalty … to develop superior citizens rather than superior athletes.”
OK, that’s all good stuff. But how do we make it happen? On the field we have coaches trying to teach, parents trying to teach over them, natural athletes, goofy kids who just like baseball, some people who are out to win and some who just want to have a good time. Combining all these personalities and expectations is a very delicate balance.
My sons are in two different levels this year. Younger is in the American League, where runs still don’t count. We all just have fun and play ball. We have very loud moms who yell and scream for everybody, not just their own kids, and not just their own teams. They know every kid on the team’s name, and they yell heartily for each child. It’s fun.
We guess we’re getting to be known as “the loud team,” but why not? We are cheering for – and loving – all the kids equally.
In the Nationals, where my older son plays, things are different. Suddenly outs and runs count. If you root for one team it means rooting against the other. I have noticed that the cheering stops at this level.
I can’t root against my son’s best friends! I’ve been raising these boys (alongside their moms) for five years. They’re like my own, and I would protect them like my own if it came down to it. People laugh, or maybe even get annoyed at this behavior, but I won’t cheer against any of “my” kids.
So in the tensest moments I just stop yelling altogether. Of course Older hates that because he wants people cheering. But how can I rejoice that we got a run because somebody on the other team made an error? And rejoicing in somebody’s failure is OK? And that failure may be any one of my boys?
From what I’ve seen, the kids handle it amazingly well. They’re developing those self-defense mechanisms. Sometimes you see the crushed spirit and know that kid is hurting, and that’s the nature of competitive sports so they have to learn to live with it.
Ultimately baseball is teaching kids how to fail. When either of our boys is upset about not getting a hit, we tell them the best players in baseball only hit three out of ten times at bat. And they’re the best.
If we follow our rule to keep it light, like we try to do with any problem our kids face, things seem to go much smoother. Many times I see the kids mixing together as soon as the game is over, laughing and chasing each other around the bases.
Still. I’m pretty sure we haven’t reached the bloodthirsty level yet.
It seems we’re all a little confused about our roles. One of my teenage jock friends observed that when adults yell out, “You’ll be great,” what they’re really saying is, “I’m worried you’re going to fail.” He didn’t like it, but learned to cope. And it’s very true that while we moms on the sidelines yell to try to encourage our kids, in the same breath we feel the (literally) painful fear of their failure.
I think we – kids and parents alike – all know that they have to go through it. It’s part of growing up. Every day we release them into life a little bit more and have to let them face what’s out there waiting for them.
So maybe that’s it: Little League is a baby step into the big bad world. And as the adults, we need to lead our children through this experience kindly. I find myself wishing that people would yell more at Older’s games, but the nice yelling, like we do in the American league. Full-throated, joyful bellowing, for every kid out there. And when they fail, just a simple, “That’s OK, you’ll get it next time.”
And when they succeed, we clap nicely, and save the real celebrating – that would be with Mt. Tom’s ice cream, in my boys’ opinion – until after the final handshakes.
See it. Hear it. Stop it.
May 19, 2010
A few weeks ago on my son’s school playground I witnessed behavior that I found unacceptable. I don’t usually insert myself into the school culture, but I felt this incident couldn’t go by unnoticed.
When I got home I emailed the student’s teacher and the principal. The teacher soon wrote me back that she was taking it to the principal and he called me later to get more details.
I was very pleased by their immediate and concerned response. However, I admitted to both of them that I somehow felt like a tattletale, and I wouldn’t normally do something like that.
It’s strange that I, a trained professional who spends a lot of time and energy trying to stop unacceptable behavior, would have this reaction. Why do we as a culture treat the people who report bad behavior like “rats”? Do we all think we’re in The Sopranos?
Recently we have become more familiar with the concept that bullying is actually a triangle including the bully, the victim, and the bystander.
When I first ran a training about bullies a few years ago, this idea was new to many in the audience. The bystander was portrayed as a victim as well as the bully’s target. Many people now feel that the bystander should get involved and stop the bullying. In my experience, this is easier said than done.
In the playground situation I had the luxury of several things. For one, my complaint was filed anonymously so no one involved knows who called the principal. I’m removed from the situation and don’t have to worry about retribution.
For another, I’m an adult and was reporting on a child who has no influence over me.
And finally, I don’t have to attend this school every day. I can “tattle” on the bully and never have to see her again.
In his wonderful book “Bullyproof Your Child for Life,” Joel Haber talks about the ridiculous position in which our children often find themselves while at school. As an adult we can make the choice to avoid a bully.
Our children, who have the least coping skills, are forced to live in close quarters with their bullies every day. Not only that, but there is a potential for them to be left alone with these bullies at many times during the day.
So what can we do to change our collective feelings about tattling? If we want to increase the importance of the bystander role, we have to differentiate, and teach children how to differentiate, between tattling and reporting.
What we traditionally call tattling is simply a young child’s way of trying to get your attention. They want to talk to you but they don’t know how to on an adult level.
In their world, you talk to someone by telling them you have Tinkerbell on your shirt. So to start a conversation with a grown-up, they have to tell us what’s happening in their world.
Of course we as grown-up with Really Important Things on our Minds couldn’t care less about this news, so we tell them to stop bothering us. It becomes labeled as an annoying behavior and the child feels bad or wrong for trying.
Some teacher friends I’ve worked with had great ways of deflecting these little invitations. One had a picture of the president on her wall and when a child approached her she would respond, “You better go tell the president!”
Another would say, “Thank you, I’ll make a note of that,” and write it on a pad she kept nearby. I have one child who I call my reporter. I tell her, “Thank you for keeping me updated on all this news!”
Just this morning one of the girls wanted me to take action against an aggressor. She told me, “Amy! She scratched me with her long toenails!”
And I have to admit I answered from the heart: “Ew! Gross!”
It is our challenge to help kids realize that we’re not going to react every time they tell us something trivial, but at the same time encourage them to report real danger. Then it’s up to us to show them we will handle the situation appropriately, so they can report without fear of retribution.
Anonymity has been the best rule for me. I try to never use the bystander’s name when I’m dealing with a bullying issue, and the kids have learned that they can trust me. Actually, the best thing to do is just pretend that you knew it anyway and didn’t have to hear it from the bystander. That way they start to think that you really do know everything.
By the way, the teacher at school thanked me profusely for being involved in the bullying incident. She said teachers can’t be everywhere and they don’t see everything that happens. She also told me, “We rely on any eyes we can for help.”
So I have to say I ultimately felt empowered by the experience. I’m going to try to remember that feeling, as well as a bullying mantra created by the father of a 16-year-old boy who killed himself: See it. Hear it. Stop it.
Making Peace Amid Play-doh
April 16, 2010
When I first opened my childcare program I had no idea how to handle aggressive behavior in children. I had been through a master’s program in education and done hundreds of hours of student teaching. But when you stuck me in a room with a bunch of little ones, I had no idea how to be in charge.
The first time a teacher left me alone in the room I couldn’t stop the panic rising in my stomach. I immediately felt the tension shifting in the room (they can smell fear!). Luckily we got out of the situation with nothing more than a few overly loud remarks (the student’s first strike on the teacher’s battlements).
Once he assigned me to watch Destiny, a bright, beautiful child who wouldn’t. Sit. Down. She danced around the room climbing on and over whatever furniture was in her path as I followed her around begging her to join the lesson. The other student teacher, looking on with amusement, remarked that I was “chasing Destiny.” At that moment I knew: I had really made a very bad career choice.
But it wasn’t that I was in the wrong place, the problem was that I never got the proper training. Trying to teach someone how to handle behavior is a delicate balance. It cannot be taught through books and studying. It has to be done in action, and the teacher has to be willing and able to reflect on how to adjust their approach to working with children. Often with everything else student teachers must learn, there’s simply not enough time to learn this incredibly complex skill.
So if I was such a screw-up at the beginning, how did I learn to handle bad behavior? I was lucky enough to find my fabulous mentor, Pam. When she saw how much I was struggling with my child care kids she took pity. She came over and spent hours working with them, and I watched her work her magic.
Pam never lost her temper. She stayed connected with and focused on the kids. She saw everything that was happening in the room. If someone did something wrong she immediately addressed it, but in a very calm way. “Sharon, you just hit Jonathan. We don’t hit people.” (Label the behavior. Set the limit.)
When and if Sharon hit Jonathan again, she was asked to leave the group (consequence). She had the choice to go and be mad or come back and play nicely when she was ready (put the power back in the child’s hands).
I wanted the mix of calmness and control that Pam had. She was not intimidated by the kids acting out, and she didn’t have to be big and dramatic to get them to listen. My idea of discipline had been so distorted. Being in charge isn’t about being the big, scary, powerful adult. It’s about being firm and clear, but also consistent, fair and trustworthy.
Bad behavior is almost always a child looking for your attention. When you set a limit for a child you are telling them you’re paying attention. You are in charge and will keep them safe, and this frees them up to worry about other things. When the rules and consequences are always the same and they always apply, the kids know what to expect. They trust you because they don’t have to worry about testing you.
As soon as you meet a child they are judging you. They are watching how you handle yourself, and how you deal with other children. How is this person going to treat me? I think I’ll push a few buttons and see how they respond. Will they fail or can I trust them? From that moment on, you are setting the tone of the relationship that you will have with this child.
Recently in my son’s class the teacher asked me to take some students for a math lesson. Little Timmy decided to test me by fiddling with his pencil, making the other kids laugh, doing everything he could to cause general chaos. I could see the thoughts going through his head. What will she do, can I make her lose it?
Ten years ago I would have been furious at this boy. Why is he trying to undermine me? I must stop him! But today I just chuckled and thought, is that all you got, kiddo?
When he tapped the ruler I gently took it out of his hand. When he made goofy noises I kindly asked if he would listen to my words. When he tried to write with his pencil upside down I rolled my eyes and said, “Timmy, I think you know how to use a pencil!”
By addressing every one of his behaviors in a non-confrontational way, I showed all the kids that I could be trusted. Timmy won’t upset me, I will keep things on track and I want you all involved. I am paying attention and this is a safe environment.
Kids want to know that you are protecting them. They want to be reassured that everything’s under control. The most important message you can give them is that I’m the grown-up but I respect you, and I’m not walking away no matter how difficult things get. This is what kids – of all ages – are craving from the adults around them.
Give Me News I Can Use
March 25, 2010
EDITOR’S NOTE: Today, the Gazette introduces a monthly column by Amy Pybus on family life issues. Pybus works in the childcare field, holds a master’s degree in elementary education and with her husband is raising two boys in Easthampton.
A couple of weeks ago while the Olympics were still on, my 9-year-old told me the results of an event I hadn’t heard yet. I asked how he knew that and he said, “It was on my iPod.”
What? “Yeah, I get the Olympics on my iPod.” I looked and there was the icon: “NBC Olympics” with the mountain logo and everything. Besides the implications of some corporation having a direct line to him, I realized my son was getting his own news from a source I didn’t even know existed.
So now, conveniently, my son can get news in the same place where he watches Austin Powers videos. Shudder.
I was recently talking with a newspaperman about the state of the industry and he said he’s run into a strange new problem in his life. He finds himself remembering some bit of information and then thinking, “Where did I learn that?” I know the feeling. Maybe it was your iPod?
With so many outlets reporting news instantly I have adapted skills for processing what I hear. First I decide if I believe it – balloon boy, anyone? I might check online and see what people are saying. And by people I mean sources that I trust, not the crazy commenters at the end of the story (I just read them for fun). I’ll wait for the newspaper the next day and see what they have to say about it. And of course I end up asking my husband what he thinks.
So I spend a lot of time deciding how I feel about one news story. Wouldn’t it be easier to just believe what I hear? But my natural response is to doubt it, because I know that anything I am getting from most news sources has been filtered through the presenter’s agenda.
All the news companies are competing for ad revenue and viewers. So they need something to draw that audience in – more sensational news! If there isn’t enough news, let’s make some! And let’s get some lunatic to become our “expert commentator” and tell us how we should feel about this news! The news quickly becomes less fact and more opinion, and the opinions become louder and more polarized. Often I can’t even listen to the opposing viewpoint because it is too biased to tolerate.
You know I’m not alone. Here’s proof: A new State of the Media report from the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism found, in a survey, that 70 percent of Americans say they’re overwhelmed – not informed – by the volume of news and information they see. About the same number – 71 percent – say they believe most news reports contain bias.
Here’s how you can tell we’ve reached the saturation point. We have news and meta-news. In some broadcasts the anchor announces the story and then the camera switches to a picture of a TV screen with another news report playing on that screen. I can search a topic on Google and come up with 3,325 stories posted in the last 24 hours (Sandra Bullock’s breakup, sorry Sandy). And I know that the next time I stop for gas on the Mass Pike, I’ll be able to hear who’s advancing in the NCAA tournament, right there, at the pump!
Just in case you’re still not convinced that there is far too much news coverage in our lives, and it has gotten to the point of dissecting every ridiculous story until your head hurts, I have two words for you: Tiger Woods.
As an adult I’ve learned to be smart about news reporting, but that was before cable TV, before the internet even existed (hey kids, I remember the days when it didn’t have pictures yet!). But I worry about how my sons will process the information being presented to them. Will they be smart enough to understand that they’re being lied to a great deal of the time?
I know my boys are learning some understanding of the news at school because the board of education has an “Analysis of Media” requirement. So that’s comforting. And yet, disturbing in its necessity.
Maybe my kids will be more savvy than me. Some researchers say that these forms of information processing, rather than hindering us, are actually helping our brains evolve. Now that’s exciting stuff. But does my brain have the time and energy to evolve on top of everything else it’s expected to do?
I want to hear fact first, opinion later. So here is my new list of rules for when I get overwhelmed by the white noise of voices blaring at me from every side. 1. Entertainment news is not news. 2. Sports stars are not role models. 3. The Senator from Nevada’s opinion on health care is not fact. 4. Poll results and Top 10 lists are not accurate. 5. If it happened 10 minutes ago, nobody knows what the heck is going on yet, so just wait a while.
I could go on, but that’s a decent start. I will continue to seek out the true investigative reporter (they’re becoming harder to find these days). Stick with PBS, NPR and my good ol’ local newspaper. And realize that at some point, you just have to laugh at it all. Like I did last night, when the gas pump gave me the Tiger Woods update, just hours after I wrote that it would.
Our Power Over Bullying
February 16, 2010
I have been following the coverage of school bullying in the Gazette with great interest. Many people believe that if we talk about it or punish the bullies or write policies or take away their Facebook pages, it will go away.
But in truth, bullying is a part of life. Whether it’s a school bully, an aggressive coach or even a future boss, this situation is going to happen in our kids’ lives and they need to be prepared. The best thing we can do for our children is to accept this unfortunate fact and teach them how to respond.
As a child care provider, I spend most of my day handling bullying situations. On an instinctual level, our brains are not built for selflessness and compassion. We are emotional animals who are wired for fight or flight. Aggression and strong emotions are our go-to methods of handling a situation, while empathy and kindness are learned behaviors.
Much of the work I do with the kids is to talk about anger, show them how they hurt each other and give them healthy ways to handle their feelings. These are the tools they will need in life.
This instruction shouldn’t end in school because kids are too busy learning how to master standardized tests. But sadly it does, so parents need to take ownership. We are a child’s first and most important role model when it comes to behavior. They look to us to figure out how to handle ourselves in the world, and if we don’t behave, neither will they. Kids learn and mimic what they see, so here’s what we parents need to work on.
* Take a good look at how you treat your kids. If you have ever grabbed your child, pulled them too hard, or hit them, you have bullied them. Do you consistently nag, yell, and lose your temper at them? Do you let your children fight with each other unchecked? Have you had a screaming match with your spouse? All of these incidents teach children how to behave.
OK, so you were human and had a fight. But often we don’t know how to follow up after something like this happens. Discuss the consequences of the fight with your kids. Show them how much you hurt each other and that you apologized afterward. Talk about how you’re going to work to resolve the problem so it won’t happen again.
* Say “I’m sorry.” It’s OK — not just OK, but in fact very powerful — to apologize to your kids. “I’m sorry. I was angry because I asked you to put your shoes on four times and you didn’t. I shouldn’t have yelled, and I know I made you feel bad. But next time, could you put them on when I ask you?” Listen to their response and work with them. Respect your kids so they know they are respectable beings.
* Avoid gossip. In general, boys bully in a physical way and because of this the problem can be addressed sooner. It’s pretty obvious when a child comes home with a bruise or scrape and the situation can be dealt with right away. But girls relate and function in a social realm. They use gossip, rumors and social power to undermine others. This type of bullying doesn’t leave a mark, and that’s why it can go unchecked for so long.
You may not realize that you are engaging in this type of behavior if you have compared your child to another or made derogatory comments about a child or their parents. It creates a climate for bullying because your child hears, “We are better than those people. Their feelings don’t matter to us, and there are no consequences if you hurt them.”
* Channel your inner preschool teacher. I remember thinking that my son’s preschool teacher was totally unreal. How could anyone be so calm, collected and sunshiny all the time, especially when they are surrounded by twenty 3-year-olds? But I realized that she was showing us how you have to treat children if you want them to behave the same way.
She was clear with her expectations, consistent and firm, and she followed up when it was needed. If she did get angry, she calmly told them that she was angry and needed a minute to calm herself down (I told you she was unreal). At first I thought it was ridiculous but when I tried it with my own kids, I realized how effective I could be.
* Get educated. Read “Bullyproof Your Child for Life” by Haber & Glatzer. If you have a hard time connecting with your kids, read “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk” by Faber & Mazlish. Acknowledge that part of being a parent is teaching your child about what’s out there, not just waiting for something bad to happen and then responding.
The opposite of bullying is empathy, and we have the power to create it. Treat those closest to you with respect and your children will learn to do the same. If we want to raise children who behave, we need to behave ourselves.