Looking Back on The Gift of Experience

There was a lot of talk over the last year about giving experiences instead of gifts, from minimal and cheap (on demand backrubs, drive in the country … the gift of you!) to over-the-top fancy (baloon ride over Everest anyone? Party with a rock star?). Whatever you spend, it’s about how family trips, explorations, and shared projects are the things kids remember, far more than the toy that breaks, runs out of batteries, or just loses its appeal. Kids are adventurers and romantics at heart: just look at many of the toys and games they love. The experience-as-gift movement is an acknowledgement that the world is full of adventure and romance, and kids instantly respond to being out in it, climbing, running, exploring … yes, even learning.

We are parents of adult children (technically, though one is still at home and in school), and we have a complicated perspective on this. As children age, they are less interested in doing things with their parents. I, Dave, ask my 18-year old son almost weekly if he’d like to go for a run, a bike ride, a hike, or even just to “do something”. He says, “No,” a lot these days. If I gave him An Experience for Christmas–say, a “Hike With Dad”–it might not go over too well. He’d rather do other things; gaming with friends, indoors or out. But, honestly his responses would be harder to take if we had never done anything together. Our kids say “No” to such experiences not because they aren’t interested, but because they’ve *been there done that*. And they’ve “been there” because we brought them there. They’ve “done that”, because we did it with them. (And, we know, they aren’t done visiting the places we introduced them to … they’ll keep going back with friends, loved ones.)

Dad can still get the boy out for an experience. It’s hard, but it still happens. The secret is picking an experience that he hasn’t had yet. Two years ago it was a week-long trip to Oregon to race in a triathlon. Next year it’s a trip to the Sierras to climb a peak that dad climbed last when he was 18. Oof. What am I going to follow that with? Space tourism?

But he says “Yes.”

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog.

The Difference A Day Makes

Some days are filled with so many … difficulties, that we wonder how we’ll get through them. In our home, we have a Sunday habit of saying things like, “Ugh, this is going to be a hard week!” to anyone in the house who will listen. We try to remind each other that we work for a living, and work is work. Sure there are down weeks, slow weeks, rare vacation weeks, but not enough to truly decompress. But the days …. there are some days that seem especially volatile. And this is the season of So Much Merriment That We Don’t Think We Can Take An Ounce More Ho-Ho-Holiday Cheer.

We really love the holidays: there’s a lot of beauty in traditional decorations set against the chill of winter, and there are some powerful stories that can anchor us in those traditions, if you fight past the annual anemic television “specials” that are about as meaningful as a greeting card. But the holidays can be stressful too, with all the special events and pressure to buy things that infiltrate our holy days.

Stress makes us impatient and short with one another. Simple statements that would normally be taken at face value can ignite fiery reactions. We’ve seen a couple days of intense personal conflict in our work environments in recent weeks; people getting hurt, missing the meaning of things, over-reacting. We might have been those people.

But time is a great leveler. Some days can be hard, but they are followed by days where the weather is a bit different, the pressure has shifted a little, things are a bit more manageable. New perspectives give us new ways of seeing, and a chance to reflect on yesterday’s trouble with the possibility of a new response. Age or experience has taught us that we can survive rough days, and to look past conflict to see the pressure and loneliness and worry that gives us so much trouble during these seasons. Maybe seeing these things can allow us to forgive the outbursts, and perhaps respond in a way that soothes the real hurt.

Parents know all about tantrums, but it’s not only kids that lose it from time to time. We really hope that, as parents (and friends and coworkers) that we can be a source of calm in difficult times. We aren’t always, but we try.

Dirt

You can tell the children who never get their hands dirty … or the ones who are made to wash their hands as soon as any stain breaks the illusion of cleanliness. When, in preschool, kids are making hand prints for some holiday, a card to bring home to mom or dad, there are those who have no hesitation about getting paint (or clay, or glitter, or whatever) slathered on their hands–they don’t even need a reason to do it. But there are also children who recoil at it … because it feels somehow to them like breaking a rule about keeping their hands clean.

As parents, we’ve passed through all the stages of dirt-worry, from anti-bacterial-wash-everything anxiety to let-them-eat-dirt laissez-faire, embrace-the-biome relaxation. We remember hearing that by age three, it’s estimated that a child has consumed 3 pounds of dirt, just eaten it up. You can’t stop it. They’ve swallowed, digested, and eliminated things you would absolutely want to wash off your hands if you could see it there. And, they’ve survived it. That simple fact was compelling to us as parents. It helped us to realize that dirt is a part of the world and kids are in it for the duration. Certainly, they are going to grow out of picking up things and putting them in their mouths. But historically, we’ve never been able to purify the environment–even we adults eat plenty of things we can’t see (and wouldn’t want to). The more we attempt to isolate children from germs, the greater the potential shock to their system when they finally leave the care of the home and begin to socialize in a more diversely dirty environment.

But we are just parents, not doctors. We don’t really understand how the microscopic parts of the environment work: germs, bugs, and our children’s health. But as parents we can see that our culture has gone through a kind of clean-everything trip, with the rise of anti-bacterial soaps and the ubiquitous pump-bottles filled with germ-killer, and this impulse to purify remains a challenge. The word from the scientific community has been pretty consistent in warning that the more bacteria we kill, the more vulnerable we are to superbugs, of the kind that learn to resist our super-soaps, and the more likely it is that that we are changing the environment in ways that we can’t anticipate. We hear, in fact, that we are helped by the microscopic buggies in our environment more than we are hurt by them. The talk has turned to “healthy biomes” to describe the life-mix in and around each person: the sharing of germs, catching a little sickness to build resistance, and yes, the eating of dirt by young children. The more exposed we are, it seems (remember we are parents, not doctors), the more equipped we are to live in the world.

With dirt, the health question is only part of the equation. Kids who come to preschool with dirt-anxiety are afraid, often, even to play. They are hesitant to “get their hands dirty” even when the opportunity is simply to paint something for mom with their fingers. And this, we think, is almost the greater tragedy. By putting our fear of dirt, such as it is, into our children, we may be scaring them away from more than a risk of disease. We may be scaring them away from life.

 

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

At Attention

A young boy who has difficulty controlling his impulses pushes another student out of his way–he tends to take action without much thought. A nearby teacher witnesses this and quickly moves to the one-who-has-been-pushed to show sympathy and care. The boy-who-pushed wanders away, but not without noticing that the hurt boy gets attention from the teacher. Soon, he falls down, and with a moan, announces that his ‘elbow’ is hurt …. Teacher, not entirely convinced by the performance, nevertheless comes and shows a little love ….

Children shoot from the hip. That is, they act according to gut instinct and experience. They cannot easily imagine new ways of behaving, nor will they be able to easily understand pro-social ideas like how doing good to others is good citizenship and good for all (adults don’t always get this concept either). But children do learn new ways of behaving from what they see and experience. If they see somebody get attention when hurt, their simple takeaway is that adults pay attention to hurt children. If they see adults converge on a child throwing a tantrum, the experience becomes one more piece of data in their education: just below the level of consciousness, wheels are turning …. Maybe a tantrum would work for me. We think we are directing a child’s education, but there is a whole back-alley, underground quality to much of how a child learns about life. Is there something we can do to tip the balance in favor of the positive?

Parents and educators have a general idea that we need to ‘catch’ kids doing things right in order to reinforce good behavior, but sometimes we get caught up chasing the negative behavior around the room … after all, roughhousing, crying, tantrums, toy-snatching all have a way of catching our attention. It’s not easy to catch a child being quiet. It’s not easy noticing when a child walks around someone instead of pushing them (will the child-who-was-not-pushed alert the teachers with a cry of “Hey, she didn’t push me!”?) It isn’t easy seeing impulse control in action, because a controlled impulse is one that is not acted on.

No, the hard truth is that we have to be eagle-eyed observers of barely observable behavior, the kind that is often almost hidden. When a room is quiet and nothing demands our attentions, at the very moment when we are inclined to catch a breather, to rest in anticipation of the next crisis … that is the moment to go to work. Give attention to the thing that isn’t screaming for it. Notice the quiet, small, unobtrusive, simple behavior that you’d like to see more of. Follow the child with impulse control around the room and show her that you notice her pro-social behavior by simply speaking to it. We don’t have to “praise” every little thing as if everyone gets a medal for not causing problems. But praise isn’t necessary: only attention is. Notice, describe, attend. Children will learn what you pay attention to, and will begin to work towards the behaviors that get noticed.

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula blog]

Peek-a-Boo, and The Right Kind of Fright

The best of Halloween (if you measure the holiday by our actual practice, not it’s meaning) is dressing up as someone else, the theater of it all. But the theater is not all about the costume.

It's not all about the costume

It’s not all about the costume

Even if what’s happening among very small children on Halloween is mostly butterflies, superheroes, and farm animals, there has always been an element of fear in this holiday. While this can be ridiculously age-inappropriate, there is a kind of scary theater which allows even the very young to act out being afraid, and that’s not always a bad thing.

Like peek-a-boo or jacks-in-the-box: the anticipation of surprise is a kind of developmental exercise that has its benefits. Through the enacting of shock and “fright” moments, a child can exercise the part of their mind that one day (hopefully not too soon) will have to deal with real fear. The game allows a child to notice their physiological reactions (adrenaline, rapid heartbeat, faster breathing), and to survive the stressful moment, ending it in the catharsis of a good playful yelp.

“Boo” games are a great hit in preschool, as long as they are not threatening or overwhelming: children learn early that Halloween is about “playing” scared. Of course too often they also learn that there are real frightening things in their world, and this one good reason why it might be beneficial to have a safe place where they can play out fears while maintaining control (the ability to say, “Stop”, to seek the comfort of an adult, to influence the script).

So while we have our reservations about the crazy and sometimes horrifying culture of Halloween, we recognize the joy of dress-up, and the very real benefits of this kind of theater game.

The Body Parts Candy Platter: Happy Halloween

We have family friends that love halloween. For these families, this holiday is a time when children are free to run around in public, at night, dressed up as someone else. Ok, this part? Yeah, this is fun. About 15 years ago, one such family, who have since become great friends, converted their entire backyard into a giant Candy Land playing board, complete with friends acting out the characters, so that kids could work their way around the yard in search of King Kandy, the Lost King of Candy Land. And this was all before dark, when families could return to their neighborhoods for the trick or treat candy crawl. Serious fun.

We loved the whole run around the neighborhood thing when we were young. But our thoughts about Halloween are complicated. We have never quite recovered from the experience of our own very young children becoming terrified by the images of angry and lecherous ghouls on billboards advertising the halloween “superstores” … these images hovered over our neighborhood for a full month prior to the holiday. We called out, “Cover your eyes!” whenever we drove that section of El Camino. When we remember the way our innocent children were driven to tears by thoughtless businesses whose target audience seemed to be the more calloused mind of a teenager, we feel something close to fury.

Now, if we’re talking about young children becoming exposed to reality, even hard or disturbing realities, we are not ones to shy away. We are the kind of parents who will speak honestly with children about illness and even death. We don’t think they need to be protected from reality.

halloween2

The question for us, is what exactly is real and true about Halloween? Most people know that Halloween is the evening before All Souls Day in the Christian Church calendar. What used to be called All Hallows Eve became Halloween. All Souls Day is a day to celebrate saints that don’t get a day to themselves, which means every normal person of faith who has died. Traditionally, in the Catholic church, one would pray for the souls of the departed. In the roots of the Halloween tradition the ghosts of the departed, conveniently, knock on the door to remind you to do so: if you give them a prayer, they bless you … withhold the “treat” and they will haunt you. So. Halloween: babies dressed up like pumpkins, 2nd graders in $37.99 Disney costumes, and teenagers in horror-movie masks and hoodies come to your door to demand sugar.

halloween1

The Body Parts Candy Platter: Happy Holidays

In the 21st Century United States, we have a very uneasy relationship with questions of death and what follows. And since we mostly don’t think about it, and don’t know what to say to our children about it, our solution seems to be to abdicate the whole question to candy and costume companies, who seem to take their cues from horror movies that many adults refuse to watch. These companies do know a thing or two about making money, but since young children have no money of their own, their concerns have less to do with the overall tone of the holiday. Halloween is a season populated by imagery that is closer to a teenagers thrill-ride or an adult’s nightmare than anything we want in the mind of our children.

We guess we have to deal with it: halloween is NOT a season to remember those who have died, nor to pray for the departed if that’s your tradition. It’s probably too much to ask that once a year we consider that death is a part of our story and is perhaps worth giving a little thought to. Halloween, in this culture at this time, has become a season to remember that our culture is hopelessly lost in a state of confused horror when it comes to death. We may dress our little ones up as vegetables or baby animals (as if we needed an excuse to do that), but it won’t really shield them from the strange haunted-house culture around them.

Lily the Leopard Frog, RIP

Lily, July 2013 – October 8, 2014

leopard frog

Lily, beloved leopard frog of Sequoia Parents Nursery School, died quietly in the night last Wednesday. Lily was born at a classroom supply house and delivered to what would be her life-long home by the U.S. Mail. She led a full life, from tadpole to adult frog, delighting and educating students and their parents. Lily was a generous frog, always willing to share what she knew about metamorphosis, and inviting kids to observe her life in (and out of) the water. Lily loved crickets!

Even when lily grew legs and the ability to jump great distances, she chose to stay in her aquarium, showing her devotion to her preschool family. Lily is survived by a tadpole named Wonder Fred, a tarantula named Bob, a stick-bug named Groot, and 50 preschoolers who have learned a bit more about life.

Death is a hard topic for any of us, but especially for young children–it is a great challenge for them to grasp the meaning of the end of a relationship. Often, adults do not help, attempting to neutralize painful news by using inappropriate language: “Lily’s gone away“; “We’ve lost her”; or “Lily has gone to sleep“. All we are doing in such a situation is delaying the pain of realization (and possibly making a child afraid to sleep or wander too far from parents … “what if they lose me too?!”). There is no way to sugar coat the finality of death, and if we don’t do our best to address it clearly in the moment, we will only leave children confused as they struggle to understand what’s happened.

The death of a pet can be hard, but of course it’s nothing compared to the loss of a family member or friend. Our task is not to instill fear about the future, but to talk about death in plain and literal ways, making every effort to answer a child’s current questions simply. We don’t need to say more than we know, or to answer questions that kids aren’t asking, but we should choose language that helps them understand the truth of the situation. “Lily’s body has stopped working and we don’t get to play with her any more.”

One reason we speak about death in euphemisms is that we’re afraid to make our children sad: “Maybe if we use nicer language it won’t hurt so much.” Don’t be fooled. It will hurt a lot more when kids get the message that grief and other big emotions are somehow not allowed. That never makes grief go away, but adds a burden to never show it. Allow these feelings, and name them so that children know the feelings are normal: “We’re so sad that she died.” To do otherwise makes more confusion, because death is sad and hard and we can’t rush children (or adults for that matter) to feel differently about it.

These are the reasons we invite animals into our classrooms. Because even though it is sad when they die, we are in the business of teaching children about life, and not only the happy parts.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Long Lasting Lessons

Many of the first things we learned about childhood and parenting are lessons that still have meaning for us today, as we parent our near-adult children. Sure, in the beginning we learned things about breastfeeding and diapers and how to juggle energetic and very needy kids (sometimes we really juggled them, right dads? But that’s another story). Some of these skills we may hope never to use again. (Really. No more diapers. Thank you.) But we also learned about what goes into making people out of these little creatures …. We learned about the stages of development and how a strong thread runs through the life of a child, a thread of love that we offer and never impose, a thread of care and assistance that we never force, but is always at the ready.

We learned that children change as they grow, and we are seeing changes today that we learned about 18 years ago, changes that we anticipated and prepared for, and in some ways orchestrated, thanks to the things we learned in our first parent ed classes.

When a young parent attends a mandatory evening of a parent education, and listens to the experts talk, what are they learning? It’s tempting to view such required events as wasted time. “How important is it to become an expert on this stage in my child’s life anyway?”, we might think. “I don’t need anyone to tell me how to parent my kids, and besides I’ve got fifteen more years of education (and meetings) to go! Shouldn’t I be saving up for the teenage years?”

But at these meetings, especially the early ones, we’re not just learning how to parent preschoolers. We are learning how to parent. And many of the lessons are for life. It’s not just because the early childhood experts get to teach you first, but because they understand the foundational aspect of what we offer our kids at this age.

Some of the lessons that last: how to talk to your kids so they will listen; positive discipline; setting limits; developmental milestones; conflict resolution; temperament; screen time; sibling rivalry; healthy parenting partnerships; and, how the brain grows and works.

Susan Stone Belton, parent coach and early childhood development specialist at Parents Place, spoke at one such mandatory parent education meeting last night. As she delivered her list of best practices to the room of preschool parents, she cautioned against thinking that this was all about preschool: “I would give the same talk to parents of 8th graders!”

We can vouch for that, and add that much of what we learned back in the day still means a lot to us as we watch our almost 18-year-old son finish high school and face the future. That is we still see him as a growing person who needs us (in a different way than he did when he was 4, to be sure) and who we love, as much as we can. But the really great thing is that we are also seeing the man that we laid the foundation for 15 years ago, thanks to the people who taught us what they know about how people grow.

 

This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

A Designed Life

A nugget from the Challenge Success lectures at Stanford University last weekend. The event was called, “Success By Design: Is It Possible?”

Dave Evans, ex-tech leader and professor in Stanford’s design school, where students are learning how to design their lives, not just products, answers the question in the title of the event counter-intuitively. Note that the wisdom-message at this conference was that too much anxiety about crafting a path to success (which equals admission to a top college) does no good, and that 90% of the time we take a highly circuitous path to our bliss, not the direct and carefully curated path that most people think leads to, and follows from, a degree from Stanford (or whatever).

Evans says, we can design our lives. But, he says, what we usually mean when we use that language is that we hope to be able to engineer our lives. Design, he says, is far less specific and rigid than engineering. Design, among other things, involves lots of failure. By the time a project is ready to be engineered, one hopes the failures have all been played out. Engineering is rule-bound and inflexible. Design is messy and has to come first.

The design process includes such soft and sketchy elements as Empathy (feeling the realities of the ‘user’, who might be yourself); Definition (naming the problems well); ideation (throwing lots of ideas at the wall, seeing what sticks); prototyping (this is where failure comes in … and lots of it); testing (ok, now, try it!).

Evans says, “Fail often to succeed sooner.” Embrace the years before college as chances for a student to try lots of different things, fail at many of them, and try some more. Rename, reframe, and rethink a lot. Don’t make the mistake of assuming every effort has to be an “A” effort, because that creates a fear of failure, which makes for lousy design.

We loved the message of Challenge Success, a research-fueled, humane and encouraging perspective on raising awesome and joyful kids, and recommend a browse of their offerings in the area. Preschool parents can start with this page of video responses to frequently asked questions that leaders hear over and over again at their conferences:

Preschool FAQs

Do you worry about how well you are preparing your child for success?

 

[This post originally appeared on The Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

What We Say, What We Teach

We want our children to know our values. For example, we want them to hear our opinions about justice, peace, war, nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.

But there are times when our opinions might not be very helpful to a child, like when those opinions are about the child. Consider the way we talk to and about our children, and how our opinions, both positive and negative, can effect them.

Most of us assume that when we talk to our kids, we should be positive: “I like that drawing!” “What a good job you did with that project!” “I’m so proud of you!” We give children our opinions, and though we make an attempt to keep our opinions positive, there’s a good chance that the overall effect is not always positive. The problem with opinions is they establish a kind of merit system that is unsustainable. Because either you only give positive opinions (which sets your child up to imagine they only do great work), or you respond honestly to their efforts, with legitimate criticism, which is not really the best role for a parent to play (and can be exhausting for the child). Think about it: would you criticize according to adult standards (harsh!), or would you compare your child’s work to that of their peers? “The immaturity of your drawing can be excused, but it isn’t really showing the depth of emotional understanding that is common among your classmates.” Yeah, weird.

The other side of the coin is when we talk about our children with other adults, when we think we’re out of earshot. Here we can be a bit negative, because this is where we voice our anxieties, our frustrations, our fears. We think we are out of earshot, but it isn’t easy avoiding the curious, listening ear of a child. Children pay very close attention to what their parents say. And what is it like to hear your parents talk about you with other adults? Even things we might think are not essentially negative can sound negative in this context: “He’s very shy! I can’t get him to play with other kids!”; “She can’t handle much more of this event … I can tell she’s about to melt down; we’ll be leaving soon!”; “He’ll never eat that, he hates vegetables!” ….

What kind of communication can we replace these examples with? Are there better ways to talk to and about our children?

When a child is working hard on a task, and an adult says, “Wow, what a great outcome!”, what does this do? If their work is indeed great beyond expectation, then … wow, great! … But what will we say when it isn’t?. Rather than express an opinion (which is akin to a judgment), better to speak to the child’s experience. “You are being so careful with your work!”, or “Drawing is hard, but you’re working at it.” Speaking to the experience is judgement-free, and can be a real encouragement to a child, even helping them find words they can use to describe their own complex feelings. But kids can be pretty judgmental toward themselves. Without going along with the judgement, we can validate their feelings. When they are frustrated, or tear up a picture they’ve been working on, we shouldn’t be afraid of their strong feelings or try to make them feel better. Instead of “But that was a great drawing!”, we might say, “You’re very frustrated and you wanted to tear that picture up! … Maybe you’ll draw another one.” Agreeing with a frustrated child validates and encourages them in a way that misplaced praise (“But I loved that picture”) can never do.

And, talking about a child to others when that child is around? How about just not doing it. Don’t express opinions about your child when they are nearby, for all the reasons we’ve mentioned so far. Either you will reveal your anxieties in a way that they shouldn’t have to bear, or you will be tempted to false enthusiasm. If you are about to leave an event because you know your child is about to melt down, how about instead of blaming them for needing to leave, express some solidarity with them … “I’m feeling kind of tired, this has been fun, but I think we’re going to go home.” Children will pick up on their impact on your life, and if you are able to speak to the experience of a tiring day, without naming them as the reason it has to end, they will be less burdened. Less, “He’s about to blow! We’d better go!”; more “This has been a long day, let’s go home and have some family time. I’m ready to relax!”

One of the great things we get to teach our children is that life is not all about performance. Life is about experience, and the way we talk to and about our children is one of our great teaching tools.

 

[This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]