Friday, 3 August 2012

To ‘Make Sure’


Ran across a great ‘zen’ quote while stumbling yesterday:

Let go… or be dragged

Then, it came up in a conversation about ‘making sure’ –with teenagers.

‘Making sure’ is probably the most alluring, and least effective, form of security a parent can seek.

No parent wants to face the reality of the terrors of freeing a child to the world. As possibly-Phyllis Diller said:

having a child is giving your heart permission to walk around by itself for the rest of your life

Parenting is terrifying, and letting go is even more terrifying. It’s hard to do when a two-year-old wants to wear all their favourite clothes at once…

… without thinking about what they’re allowed to do with a computer.

When a 15-year-old struggles for independence and liberty, it’s not easier to let go. It’s particularly not easier than it would have been when the child was three. But that’s water under the bridge and time can’t flow backwards.

But ‘making sure’ has a synonym. That is: ‘making a mess.’

Trying to control the thoughts, feelings, goals and preferences of a child (especially a teenage child) is pretty much guaranteed to get messy. Some kids can withstand a lot of it, without it affecting who they are, or what they choose, very much… but those kids are rare (and it’s inherently disrespectful to them, too… they just don’t mind so much that their parents are.)

For most kids, the lack of faith in them that this ‘making sure’ demonstrates does real damage to their stability. They react in ways that are surprising even to them: they vandalize things, they sneak out at night, they make cavalier choices with their lives and bodies, they check-out of things they once cared about, they disconnect from the people they need…

Yes, trusting that the world is a safe-enough place for our precious teens is hard. Trust anyhow.

Yes, trusting teens out in the world is hard. Trust anyhow.

Yes, trusting that we’ve been ‘good enough’ parents to this point, so our kids will be able to cope (and maybe even thrive) is hard. Trust anyhow.

Yes, letting go is hard. Let go anyhow.

Let go… or be dragged.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Building a Brain

When I was a new mom, I was learning about neural networks and how memory and learning work in a biomechanical sense. Did you know that every time a newborn has an experience that ‘works’ –they get milk, they get to be close to mom, they get clean, they get sleep—their brains are building synapses? Those are links between neurons that will eventually make neural pathways.

One of the fun pieces of brain development science that has been discovered is that the more you do a thing, the faster and more automatically your brain will replicate the thing. It’s not just ‘training your arm’ to throw a ball, it’s training your brain to build strong neural pathways so ‘throwing a ball’ becomes a high-speed highway of connections that make throwing a ball an act completed without confusion, thought, decisions or concentration.

For newborns, this means that if snuggling this way, and suckling this way results in a warm, fully belly, they are likely to do it again. And tomorrow, they’ll do it again and again and again. Every success strengthens the pathway. So, while the first time they tried it, it was pleasant… and a neural path was ‘walked’ through the grey matter… it’s the fifth or seventieth ‘walk’ down the same pathway that has made it visible as a track.

Initially, the synaptic ‘walk’ might be confusing and hard to retrace (poor little confused baby trying to figure out how to latch on again at 3 days old) but every single success makes the pathway stronger. Stronger pathways make for more-skilled brains…

Practice doesn’t make perfect… but it does make brains more complex.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Evil in the News–and parenting fears

Lots of fodder for the ‘what if I screw it up’ fears, of late… between drug addicts eating other people to narcissists killing kittens and people for fun and fame… what lovely texture to give to a parent’s nightmares of ‘how bad it can go wrong.’

I will never suggest that the fears are irrational: clearly, these charming individuals exist, and clearly at some point they had parents.

Whatever could go so  wrong that the adult product is so much of a mess?

In a lecture given by Dr. Gordon Neufeld, he describes a cultural problem that most people are not even aware is a problem –the generation of children who are not being invited into the generation of adults. While it’s new (he speculates 1960s) and radically different from all that’s come before, it’s already something that most parents feel is normal. How quickly social change becomes normal is astonishing. Two generations, and a completely new way of being in the world is ordinary and old. Today, it’s perfectly ordinary to assume the children will be happier among ‘their own kind’ and routine advice that adults ensure they have child-free time to themselves, to do the real things of real life, uninterrupted by the inconveniences and irrelevancies of childhood.

I noticed a long time ago that the people who spent the most time away from their children during the week were the same people with long lists of babysitters and child-only activities for the evenings and weekends and school breaks –something about not being around children most of the day seems to destroy a parent’s confidence? willingness? ability? their naturally-bonded desire to spend time with their children.

Dr. Neufeld’s point is that these are children growing up attached to their peers –they look to their peers for ‘how to be people’ and are virtually uninfluencable by the adults who a mere half century ago would have been the guiding stars of their lives, who they strove to be like and to be accepted by.

Today, when the charming youngsters, like Luka Magnotta and Karla Homolka are learning from each other’s company ‘how to be human,’ you can readily see what the core problem is.

It’s long been known that factors like unwantedness (just the fact that a child was unexpected and unwanted), single parenthood, unwed mothers, absentee fathers, poverty … it’s long been known that these are linked in much higher numbers to anti-social youths, and violent crime.

Today, we have ‘nice families’ producing the monsters of tomorrow, within stable and often wealthy wedlock, where the children were often not only wanted but sought after with tens of thousands of dollars worth of fertility treatments and international adoptions… and the chain that links these kids with the poor, inner-city teenage mothers of the past is peer attachment.

The child born of a 16 year old mother is not guaranteed to be raised without attachment to the adults in the world, in fact, that child may have far more stable collection of caring adults who stay close and care deeply about how the child lives than many children who move from suburb to suburb, with upwardly mobile (wealthy) parents –and a long chain of strangers providing daycare and education and sports coaching for the vast majority of their days.

Children need to know that they are cared for by the important adults in their world –parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents–so that their primary concern as they grow up is that they fit in with them, not whether or not they ‘fit in’ with kids like Karla and Luka…

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Relationships with Humans



Relationships with humans are hard.

I’ve been having interesting conversations with folks about teens, rebellion and the ‘need’ (experts tell us it’s a need, so it must be, right?) for children to butt heads with their parents in order to leave the nest.

I’ve written about this before, but today I’m thinking about it from a slightly different angle… in a conversation about ‘normal teens,’ in response to this:

Some children really DO need to "butt heads to leave".

I said this:

In the same way that people who are genuinely frightened (the result of a break-in, or even a physical attack) start arguing when they don’t know what else to do with their fear, people who are leaving or on the verge of being left will often lash out, because they simply don’t know how to handle the fears or the overwhelming feelings that come with large life changes.

I’ve lived in a navy family my whole life, first as the daughter of a sailor, and later married to one (still). I am experienced in the leavings (and returns) of loved ones… and I’m familiar with the dysfunctional and the enlightened ways of handling both.

Dysfunctional is what is considered the norm: depression, lashing out, infidelity, worry, ptsd, insomnia, ocd… the list goes on and on. But however ordinary and common those responses are, they’re hardly enlightened or even helpful. They are simply what people do with overwhelmingly large emotions when they don’t know what else to do.

It’s not surprising that people don’t know what to do –culturally, we don’t know what to do, we have few models of more enlightened or mature responses, and few teachers who could pass that information on. If I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, ‘I could never cope with my partner leaving’ or ‘how do you manage?’ I’d have a room full of nickels. And, it took me a long time to stumble across healthier ways of handling it.

Children leaving home brings up the same kinds of overwhelm, for themselves and their parents –and their friends, and their siblings… and we end up with the Freshman 15 (kids who eat to displace their feelings when they’re at college the first year) and Empty Nest Syndrome (for parents who can’t sit through long-distance ads without bursting into tears), et cetera.

There are two keys, I found, to understand comings and goings:

1. worry and,

2. control

There are two primary reasons people mind so much, life transitions of this kind: they don’t know what’s going to happen, and they don’t like feeling out of control of what’s going to happen. So they worry –that’s personal and internal stress that just adds to the real issues in their world—and they seek to control what they can reach, which is generally the other people close by. [I think it’s hilarious how rarely most people think of themselves when they’re looking around for something to control.]

Now, how to avoid and minimize both of those is a completely other post for another day, but that’s the core of it: children who express an apparent need to butt heads are picking #2. Parents who become depressed, teary or insomniac are using #1. Lashing out and ocd are #2. PTSD is #1.

Handling comings and goings with equanimity is hard:

  • it’s hard to lean into the pain of separations, to know that the pain is not just okay, but perfect
  • it’s hard to open a lifestyle up when someone comes home after the heartspace they had lived in has healed

Neither are anywhere near as hard as the results of lashing out, butting heads, depression… et cetera.

Monday, 21 May 2012

Year-Round Education


Here comes the same-old same-old again: kids need continuous instruction lest they ‘lose’ what they’ve learned so far, over the 9 week summer break.

British Columbia has recently moved to allow schools to step out of the traditional 180 days between September and June model that we all grew up on and think of as ‘normal’.

There is going to be fallout. It is not going to be pretty.

And, from Ontario, appears this study from which comes this hilarious quote:

However, the Second Career students achieved significantly higher grades than any of the others. The Second Career program was designed by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities to provide laid off workers with skills training to assist them in finding employment in high demand occupations. Individual received government grants to support them in their studies. Since most members of this group have probably been out of school for some time, this is a result of particular interest. It should certainly stimulate further deliberation over the factors that affect achievement in college mathematics most significantly.

Where oh where is my sarcasm font? Hmm… this one looks good: The longer students are out of school, the better they perform in math?! Could it be that living and working in the real world is better for learning real math skills than learning from teachers in schools? Get away!

Now, what are the Educating Eyeores (thank you, Benjamin Hoff, and The Te of Piglet!!) going to do with this? The EEs say ‘ooh, it’s not working –start it earlier!’ ‘Oh, no, it’s not working –do it longer!’ ‘Eeek, it’s not working –try it harder!’

Which part of ‘it’s not working’ is failing to get through?

I’m not as darkly cynical (if you can imagine!) as some of my friends. One of them claims the reason it doesn’t matter that the entire school system has been a proven failure for decades, because it’s primary mandate is a total success: jobs for adults.

A young adult I know claims it’s worse than that: free babysitting.

Well, at least it will be year-round babysitting jobs for adults.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Messy Bedrooms –by design


If anyone is ever wondering why it is that kids’ rooms today tend to be (a lot) messier than they were in Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, allow me to make a list:

  • musical instruments
  • computers
  • software
  • peripherals
  • game systems
  • games
  • tvs
  • dvd players
  • dvds
  • books and magazines
  • 81 pairs of underwear and shirts, more than 12 pairs of jeans, multiple sets of every season’s outerwear
  • multiple pairs of shoes (more than 2)
  • sports equipment
  • cds
  • accessories (hats, necklaces, jewelery, belts)
  • arts, crafts and school supplies
  • decor items
  • gifts from every holiday and event throughout the year, including one from every single party they took a gift to this year

In 1955, most kids would have owned play clothes and ‘good’ clothes, possibly enough shirts and underwear to make it through a whole week without having to wear anything but pants twice. They would have worn their ‘good’ clothes to any special event requiring them, from weekly church to weddings and funerals.

In 1955, kids would have, with rare exception, owned nothing but the gifts they received for their birthdays (supposing it wasn’t clothing or bath supplies) and Christmas, usually only from three or four people. Bikes lived outside, ski gear lived in the attic or the basement with the (solitary) box of seasonal decorations.

The TV Distortion

Watching M*A*S*H reruns so many times meant that I realized TV is different from real life in one really important way: props storage.

Within a couple of seasons of that show, they had so many silly costumes (gorilla suit, kimonos, everyone in pinstripes, Klinger’s dress collection), strange props (the bathtub, the party props, art supplies, Radar’s animals, horse tack) and new things (Christmas gifts, presents for BJ’s birthday, Margaret’s growing collection of things from gentlemen callers) run through the hands of those characters, they could (and probably did) fill a warehouse. Not a set of tents made to collapse, put in trucks, and drive down the road on two days’ notice.

Old Time Design Today

Today’s kids’ bedrooms have not be dramatically re-designed, with 50 times the amount of storage as the houses built in 1955. In fact, it’s the opposite: bedrooms are smaller, and there is less storage space built into homes today –no unfinished basements, no attics, linen closets are a rarity –than those of the 1950s and 60s.

Today, kids have less drawer-space per wardrobe item they own, less closet space per sports team they play on and less shelf-space per category of toys than kids had in 1955. The Beav played baseball with nothing but a glove, a bat and a ball –the softball girls I umpire have sliders, cleats, gloves, batting gloves, uniforms, batting helmets and a great many of them have their own bat. The Beav could leave his glove on the top of his high-boy bureau; these girls can’t even fit all their equipment for this sport on a 6-drawer dresser… supposing they don’t also play hockey, soccer… et cetera.

Until bedrooms (playrooms, rec rooms and houses) are re-designed with the volume of objects a ‘normal’ child owns in mind, the idea that an over-filled room can be kept incidentally-clean is irrational. By ‘incidentally clean’ I mean that without spending a great deal of the day carefully stacking, and re-stacking everything in piles alongside the woefully-lacking storage available, to keep it all neat.

We live in a ‘grab and go’ culture, with kids often racing between activities. That they (also) drop things in the hallway or on the floor of their rooms before rifling through the pile that’s already growing to find the stuff needed for the next thing… well, it’s simply a design flaw.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Scary Child


There is certainly a trend of parents seeking help with what one author called ‘explosive’ children… while discussing the subject on a mom’s forum, I wrote this:

“Did you notice the creepy smile on his face? Doesn't that just scare the hair off you?
“Only their diligence and creativity in ensuring they find a way to get attention is more amazing than the emotional flatness and the smile. this child is certainly exhibiting diligence and creativity. The hyper-focus and flatness is the diligence (he's really working hard at this problem) and the smile or giggliness is just the relief in having succeeded.”

Harkening back to Don C. Dinkmeyer’s inimitable STEP –Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, I remind parents: all behaviour has goals.

Those goals are noble, upstanding and decent. No matter what the resulting behaviour looks like.

In STEP, Dinkmeyer points out that the ‘goal’ of behaviour that irritates parents is always attention. When parents want revenge, it’s power.  When a parent feels hurt, the goal is revenge for hurts the child’s experienced. When parents feel like giving up, the child needs to feel like he measures up. I think he missed one, though: when a child’s behaviour scares parents –in its intensity, its diligence, its incredible focus – that’s the one that gets trotted off to the child psychologist for a round of tests and a collection of labels.

But there is a way of dealing with this, without the experts and without the labels and programs and dietary changes and supplements and coloured chairs and tinted glasses…

Parents often ask ‘why is my child so angry?’ I think this is the best of all possible questions, but the answer is unwelcome. It’s unflattering, insulting and cruel:

… because our culture is vicious to children, dismisses their needs and generally treats them in a completely reprehensible manner, which understandably makes them mad.

A few examples:

  • what possible difference can it make to anything in a child’s care or life, how many times the planet has gone around the sun?
  • what possible relevance is the hour on the clock to any bodily function –from eating to sleeping, if the body needs it what has the time to do with it?
  • when did humans become machines, required to withstand scheduled repetition regardless of their individual pace, needs or growth patterns?
  • when did a child’s need for parents get replaced with ‘anyone’ who was ‘qualified’ to care for them?
  • where did the idea of ‘fun’ or ‘kids’ food come from, and why is it always the least nutritious of any possible option?
  • why are children required to make adult decisions, or deal with adult situations alone, but not held capable of being children without direction?
  • when even the slow-moving, inherently-dense laws recognize the developmental inability of children to understand things like contract law and the intent to harm required for legal culpability, why is it we still think a 3-year-old (or even a 9 year old) needs to participate in negotiations, and suffer imposed, artificial ‘consequences’ for their actions?
  • when did nurturing our families go out of style –and why is it the mantra of every sophisticated adult in the Western world ‘me time’ and ‘getting away from the kids’? Do we think they’re deaf, or just stupid?

But What to Do?!?

The answer is simple (which is not to say, or imply, ‘easy’) – back up the bus.

Eliminate a lot of the schedule, even while saying ‘all our other kids had no trouble handling this much’ –because this child is not coping with it.

Slow down. One outing a day… or less. One visitor a day… or less. Select a school with smaller class sizes… or skip it entirely. Yes, some children thrive on lots. This is not that child.

Was there a time in this child’s life when s/he thrived? What was different about that? Was it outdoors? Was it summer holidays? Was it a small, cooperative preschool? Was it life at home with mom and siblings only?

For some people, getting up early and having to be somewhere on time and not having their loving people around them for a sense of security through a long day or sitting still indoors and  being in a crowd of 24 or 31 other kids who all want and need a variety of things and the terrors of the schoolyard and the demands of the classwork that may be completely misunderstood, too early, too late or just in a room filled with distractions and the teacher’s changing mood, impatience, shouting, confusing mixed messages even when directed at someone else in the room and the stress of waiting a few extra minutes to be picked up when someone’s running late and a different collection of kids and adults at afterschool care or activities and homework demanding they sit still indoors some more, or work some more on work that is too challenging or too easy and having to go to bed ‘on time’ after having had no liberty, no pause, no free time… maybe after a tense dinner of unfamiliar flavours, or demands to eat unpalatable food, or feeling kind of ill from being over-hungry or overtired or having too much sugar earlier…

We think all of that is ‘normal’ for kids to be able to just buck up and deal with… and for a lot of children, it may even seem completely fine (regardless of how common nervous habits are in 8 year olds, or how many resistant, rebellious teens it seems to create).

These ‘explosive’ children are not those children.

Nor should they be.


Photo ‘Concentrado’ by Eduardo Mueses Used with permission Creative Commons Attrib/Comm

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Risky Business

Children’s needs are really very simple –as are all humans’. Children need what we all need (thank you, William Glasser!):

  • security
  • love and a sense of belonging (attention)
  • power
  • freedom
  • fun

What I’ve noticed is that from a child’s point of view, it doesn’t matter very much what it is, because all of them can be fixed by returning to the top.

It seems almost as if a child’s making deals with the universe, as their behaviour deteriorates: Fine. If I can’t have security, I’ll take a sense of belonging. Which flows down the list almost naturally: Fine, if I can’t have love, I’ll take power… if I can’t have power, I’ll have freedom… if I can’t have freedom, I’ll take fun.

Fun is the end where kids light their houses on fire, or find themselves being featured on Web Soup because their friends are having ‘fun’ too…

'… wish I’d overheard the conversation that led up to this …

These kids are seriously missing something, and while ‘brain cells’ is the obvious answer, I’ll offer the ‘not so obvious’ answer instead:


They need it, and they will get it, even if it means the kind of negative attention idiotic stunts like this garner. They might appear to be suicidal, but to the twit child involved, it’s essential to life that they get what they need, so risking a little life and limb in the process is totally fine.

For a while, this is going to look a lot like ‘blame the parents’ except it’s a more textured point than that. For now, let me say: a child who is acting out on this scale is screaming a desperate need for attention that child is not getting.

Starving children cry in hunger. Exhausted children stumble around and whimper at the least thing. Thirsty children beg for water. No one would say ‘oh, the child is clearly hungry, exhausted and thirsty, give her a Barbie.’

But somehow, when it’s attention, almost anything else will be thrown at the child instead. It’s like attention is the most valuable and scarce commodity on the planet, so there is simply no way of ever meeting a child’s frivolous and insatiable demand for it.

Parents will say ‘I was right there with them, the whole time!’ Yes? Doing what? Quietly watching them without personal distractions, activities or ‘important work’ to complete?

Nattering non-stop at a child is not ‘attention’. Talking about children isn’t attention, either. Neither is shopping them around to any expert you can find in the neighbourhood who might be able to ‘fix’ or ‘prescribe’ or, with any luck at all, ‘take away’ the problem/child. Worrying about the child while lying in bed awake half the night isn’t either. Ordering a child around isn’t. Neither is looking up for 4 seconds while distracted by the paper, tv, computer, game, magazine, cooking, cleaning, phone conversation, only to drift slowly back to whatever it is while vaguely saying ‘uh-hunh…’

We often mistake 'doing things with' or worse, 'doing things alongside' or worst of all 'always doing whatever he wants' as the same as 'attention.' Nothing could be further from reality. It is possible to pay attention to someone else in the room while they are occupied in a solitary endeavour, while you get on with your own stuff. It takes practice, and awareness of what it really is about --but attention is actually a lot less draining than 'agreeing,' 'loyalty,' and 'unceasing participation in identical activities' --the substitutes that often stand in for genuine attention…

What Works is Simple

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That's because it is nothing more than standing (or sitting, or lying down) in a space of willingness to see the child, whole, here and now... to listen with patience and attention to what the child needs to say, completely, here and now... to feel the child's emotional expression as it is, in its entirety, here and now. If that means 'yes, I can see that frustrating you enormously, and I was thinking about you while I was watching... I wonder what you want to do about that...'  or 'I hear you telling me about all the differences between the 376,541 pokemon cards available and how they fascinate you completely,' then that's what is needed now. If that means sensing the increasing need to be seen and meeting it with placid eye contact, while the child looks from you to what he's doing and back to you and back to what he's doing 10 times in 3 minutes in silence --do you have any experience of having someone who loves you just seeing you, whatever you're doing, and making eye contact whenever you happen to look up?

Just here and now, as it really is right here and right now. In a moment or three, you'll be free to get back to whatever you were doing, with a rejuvenated child feeling filled up again..."

Photo used with permission: Creative Commons Comm/Attrib Raphael Goetter 'Monde'