Monthly Archives: July 2014

Lifetime Learning

Everybody’s heard one adult or another say something like, “education never stops!” It might’ve been a teacher, encouraging students to see education as a part of life, rather than something in the way of their summertime. It might have been a commencement speaker, challenging graduates to see their recent success as ‘just the beginning’ of a lifetime of learning. Wherever you heard it first, we bet you’ve thought about it since. If you’re a parent, you want your child to learn good study habits in order to become a lifetime learner. If you’re a teacher, you want people to embrace every day as another opportunity to grow in wisdom and skill. If you’re a human being, you want to work and live with people who never stop learning.

It says, "Don't stop now!"

It says, “Don’t stop now!”

Sure it can seem a bit of a cliché, or trite. But it’s also true: the world never stops teaching us. We never reach the end of the great lesson that life is. We never do graduate into any kind of real expertise. We just get better … but we never really feel smart enough. We’re thinking about these things, because of Dave’s summer job. He’s working at a clinic in Menlo Park for students in need of a boost with their spelling, reading, and comprehension skills. Usually he works with school-age children, but occasionally someone older will come through the doors, a late high schooler or a college-age kid. This week he’s begun to work with a 32-year-old PhD candidate. This gentleman already has a masters under his belt, but testing reveals some weaknesses in certain comprehension areas, and he wants to up his game before he starts his doctoral program.

And though he’s chosen to submit to the process offered in the clinic, it’s been a struggle for him to begin with basic instruction, a necessity in this clinic’s process, as we build a new way for students to perceive and express information. Dave was particularly excited to work with him, primarily because they are studying in the same field. But in addition to shared interests, Dave was also able to offer this: even though he didn’t come to the clinic in need of remedial help, the training and subsequent work has been extraordinarily helpful in his own learning process. So here we have another aspect of that old trope: there’s always something new to learn. You can be working on a second Masters degree, doing fine in school, getting all the information you need in your field, and still have plenty to learn about how to learn. That’s been Dave’s experience.

Maybe there’s no way to convince a child that endless education is a good thing, but we can always model it for them.

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

In Defense of The Blankey

Most of us can remember that special object that traveled with us through the years (usually between ages 1 and 6 or older), spent as much time near our skin as a piece of clothing, was privy to secrets and confidences like a good friend, and had an unparalleled power to derail a day’s plans if it went missing. Yes, we are talking about the humble blankey. Our security blanket, stuffed animal, or whatever it was that gave us that feeling of comfort when we held it to our faces, was at its post, steadfast, right there next to our thumbs, whenever we needed it. We may or may not remember how much it meant to us when we were children … but it is always a bit jarring to see how powerful this connection can be in a child, when we look at it from an adult perspective.

To see a child panic and freeze just when you need to get out the door for a day of errands–or worse, just after the car is packed for vacation–is to to witness a force of nature: “OH NO! Where’s Blankey?!”. We might be tempted at times like this to gently argue the relative unimportance of a piece of cloth when compared with the exciting wonders of the world that await just outside the door, or, when that utterly fails, to weakly suggest that we’ll look for a stuffed animal at the gift shop. Woe to the parent who leaks out the very adult perspective: “It’s only a piece of fabric (and one that seriously needs a wash)!”

It is never ‘only a piece of fabric’.

Donald Winnicott, the English pediatrician famous for his psychoanalytic insights into relationships, wrote about these Transitional objects–blankets, teddy bears or whatnot–and how important they are. Transitional objects, he taught, serve as bridges between that time when a child could magically summon a parent with a cry (he used the word, omnipotence to describe the child’s role in this amazing stage) and the later times, marked by a more a more realistic understanding about our separateness as individuals.

At some point every child recognizes that things are changing: parents respond with less promptness, and perhaps a little less unbridled joy when baby cries out. Whether this transition is gradual (as it should be) or sudden and traumatic (as it can be for a number of reasons), it will be hard for a young mind to adjust. And while it is a normal kind of stress for an infant to face, many children need extra comfort to ease this transition.

For a child, the blanket is there to make the transition from omnipotence a little easier. The chosen object is infused with the qualities that are needed: comfort, availability, protection, love. Objects are always satiny soft, furry, or fleecy to match the comforting touch of mother or her clothes. And they become a surrogate for parents who can’t be on soothing-duty 24/7. The presence of a blanket or other transitional object is a sign that a child is learning to soothe themselves.

Parents shouldn’t question their meaning or value, at least not in the presence of the child for whom they have significance. Though we may think, “It’s just a blanket, silly”, let’s remember that life can be a challenge at any age, and we often reach outside of ourselves for comfort. In fact, consider some of the things adults reach for when stressed. Could reaching for a blanket really be that wrong?


[Post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog]

With Great Power

Today at the preschool, it’s superhero day! Kids will be picking superhero names, discovering their super-powers, and making all-important costume choices. But it’s not all about dress up.


The teachers know that a day of making superhero costumes won’t be like a quiet sewing circle, with kids sharing ideas for color combinations and snappy logo designs. No, superhero day means that the planet is in trouble and we need our super-kids to call on all their powers to help! And if we’ve learned anything from recent superhero movies, our heroes will win the day, but bystanders better run for cover because it’s highly likely there will be some collateral damage. Parents are excited for superhero day; kids are excited for superhero day; teachers are thinking crowd control.

Ok, not really. If there’s anybody rooting for the inner superhero, even as all that inner super-power comes busting out, it’s preschool teachers, who’ve always known the power is there, and are all about training it.

And the kids? Yes, they love the dress up, they love the make believe, and they love the drama of it all. But it’s also true that young children are drawn to superhero play when they feel weak, or frightened, as when events in the world are overwhelming. They’ll try out their power to resist, experiment with moral choices, and even practice forming ad-hoc super-groups: the Fantabulous Four, the Super-Duper Friends. They will learn, in the words of Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, that “With great power comes great responsibility.” (Sure he’s probably quoting Voltaire, but try teaching Voltaire to 5 year olds.)

If we believe that play is how young children learn (and we do) … then Superhero Day is when they get to learn what resources they have inside of them, to discover their own responses to the great challenges of this life, and have a chance to practice acts of kindness, justice, and protection. And they will do it all anonymously, letting an idea win the day while keeping their not-so-secret identities under the mask and cape, and just out of the spotlight.


Post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Picture Yourself Here

Our daughter is home for a week this summer. She is a senior attending an art college in Seattle, where she has a job that keeps her working through the summer.

She has not been home in six months.

Anticipating her arrival, Anghelika scanned photo albums of when she was a toddler and preschooler.

I (Anghelika) love remembering her at that age. But then I also remember how tired I was. How I never, ever, was alone, how sleep seemed like a thin wisp of time. I remember how much I looked forward to the time after she went to bed. A little time to think about … nothing. Watch some junky TV. Do a crossword. Just give the ol’ heart and mind a rest.

However, now I can’t be around her enough.

For this visit, I planned … nothing for the time she is home for these 5 days. All I could imagine is sitting and holding her on the couch. The day before she arrived she texts me, “Are we gonna see Gram & Grandpa?”

My first thought was … “What? You want to see other people?”

And then realizing she has a whole family excited to see her, and friends in the neighborhood. I can’t keep her on the couch for myself … I have to share her!

Preschool teachers, by way of encouragement tell parents, sure these preschool years are hard, but that they don’t last. And parents roll their eyes. Preschool parents are in the thick of diapers, spills, sleeplessness, food fights and potty dramas. How can they even lift their heads to see outside of that.

But all that comes to an end.

I won’t stop reminding parents of preschoolers that it does end, and (even though they roll their eyes when I say it) to savor today even though they are so dang tired.

Because when you get to the future, its better to feel nostalgic for the drama and raw emotionality of the preschool years then feel sorry that you were too tired to savor it.

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

Gray Matters


As a part of Dave’s clinical psychology studies, he’s learning about the brain. In a class recently, students toured the structures of the brain and got a peek into how they grow and what they do. Much of our brain (parts that are shared with certain animals) develops fully by a few years of age, enabling us to move and eat and communicate enough to get along. But there are a few bits and pieces that undergo a second growth spurt around the time of puberty, and continue to develop throughout the teen years. The most notable of these is the prefrontal cortex, which, when healthy, handles functions like attention span, judgement, impulse control, organization, critical thinking, and self awareness. This part of our brain (the front, top part) might not fully mature until the mid twenties. When the prefrontal cortex is injured (by stroke) or undeveloped, we see problems that include short attention span, distractibility, impulsivity, disorganization, etc. These might be symptoms of a problem in a healthy adult. Should we even call these “symptoms” in a child?

A student in that class raised a concern: can current childhood psychiatric diagnoses be explained partly as a response to children simply not fitting into adult structures and expectations that require a level of brain function that they don’t have the brain structure to support? To put the problem another way: we are finding more fault than ever in our kids (if the increase in diagnoses is any measure) … Do we expect too much of them? Do we expect adult control and attention from a brain that is not neurologically optimized for these things?

But kids are smart, and they have a killer ability to learn. So even while we recognize that they don’t think like us, they can think deeply and intelligently, and are capable of great leaps of insight (sometimes even greater than in adults, we must admit). We don’t think we should treat children like children, if you know what we mean. But while we challenge them, and expect great things from them, and lead them into adulthood, we want to remember that our standards of behavior tend to be, in fact, adult standards. Kid’s are wired for growth and challenge, but not necessarily wired for constraint and consistency. As educators and parents we want to remember to challenge our children to take on more difficult things, while giving them the freedom to still be children.

What do you think? Are we expecting our children to exercise adult restraint? Do we diagnose lack of adult control in our children? Give us your opinion in the comments.

[Post first appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula blog]