Monthly Archives: September 2014

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]

Quittin’ Time

Even though we have grown kids, we can’t speak to every aspect of parenting with wisdom and calm. There are a few things we see in young parents that still perplex us, and have us looking back on our own early parenting with questions. One of these stumpers is how much to encourage kids to participate in extracurricular activities. Parents want kids to be Well Rounded, and we want them to Have Fun, and, most importantly, we want them to Learn The Valuable Lessons that they can only learn doing that thing after school. What happens when our child isn’t into it? What happens when our child wants to quit?

In an era when high school tutoring centers are beginning to guarantee college admission by custom-crafting a resume of clubs and activities for your child, our culture seems to take for granted that every child needs to be an extracurricular exemplar. Not just a musician like every other kid, but the founding member of their high-school’s avant-garde jazz band; not just into sports like every other kid, but a star player who sits on the board of the “Child Athletes For Change” missionary organization that brings footballs to the favela; not only interested in building robots like every other kid, but winner of the Western States Robot Demolition Derby with their fusion powered Destroyer-bot.

Whatever you are hearing about what colleges want from your child, and whatever you think your child should do to supplement their education, every parent knows that children don’t need to be forced to try things. Kids are generally game to pick up an instrument and try to play it, or join a team and knock a ball around, or build a robot that can smash things. But kids also, inevitably, get tired of things and announce that they are finished.

Our kids played soccer, football, and baseball; they wrestled and danced; learned to play cello, piano, and saxophone; and they flirted with archery, robots, rockets, and nature science in various summer programs. Today they are both nationally ranked and on scholarship at top schools in none of these activities. For each extracurricular activity there came the day when they announced in one way or another that it wasn’t what they wanted. In some cases they didn’t like the coaching (too-intense), in others they just didn’t click (the boy only tolerated the piano), or it was obvious to all that a redirection was in order (our daughter displayed an exceptional ability to remain ten or more feet away from soccer balls at all times).

But every now and then, we felt a conviction that we should be helping our children push through, to stick with an activity, in order to … to … learn that valuable lesson, to develop that “other” part of their brain, to get something interesting on their resume. We’d be lying if we said that we didn’t feel that pressure. Sometimes we just wanted them to finish something they’d started. But our kids (like every other kid) knew what they wanted to do and what they didn’t. It wasn’t always easy for them to assert themselves and ask for what they wanted, but they did.

What we did, was let them choose. We let them quit things. We didn’t make it very easy all the time. We made deals with them about finishing a season, or sticking it out for a couple more lessons. We asked them to talk to coaches themselves and generally gave them the responsibility to extract themselves from situations where they were depended on, as when our son chose not to continue playing high school football.

But we’re not certain we did it right. We wonder if we raised kids with enough stick-to-it-edness. We have lots of questions still, but we also have a few insights.

  1. kids know what works for them, and forcing them to do something they don’t love is likely to make them bitter, even if they are learning important skills.
  2. kids do need to learn to finish things, to follow through on commitments. But extracurricular activities are just that: extra. The -curricular part of things actually does a good job of teaching follow through. Students are not allowed to quit school. That is, over twelve-plus years they are learning the lesson that if you keep working and finish reasonably well, you get to advance. If you quit or slack off, you will not advance unless you circle back and fulfill basic requirements. This lesson is covered pretty well by the school system.
  3. Fencing club and mission trips and teenage entrepreneurship are all interesting and exciting, but if you force such exotic features onto your child’s resume to “get them into college”, you may be successful, but will they? After all, at some point your child will need to start choosing their own path. What happens if they haven’t learned that valuable skill?

But when the time comes and a child is asking to be released from some activity, how do we know what’s best? Do they need a little push to follow through on something that is really good for them, but is testing their endurance? It’s OK to help kids push through a fit of laziness. Or are they really being asked to do something that doesn’t fit their personality, or match their true desires? How do you decide when to go with your child’s impulse? How do you know when to help them finish what they’ve started?

This is where we don’t have answers! Share your insights in the comments ….


This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

Children and Pets, and The Adults Who Love Them

Anghelika came home from the first day of preschool today, excited to have handed off zoo-keeper duties to a new dad. His job will include feeding crickets to two young frogs and a tarantula named Bob. The new zookeeper happens to be a veterinarian, and his first question was, “Do you feed your crickets calcium?” Anghelika’s blank response only served to excite The Zookeeper more, who simply said, “I’m going to love this.”


Anghelika was excited too. The joy of working in a co-op is sharing such duties with qualified and excited parents. Lots of expertise is needed to support an active classroom, especially when there are animals around. Caring for living things is not child’s play.

When Dave turned six, as the story goes, he asked his parents for either a) a boa constrictor, or b) an iguana. His mom did a little research into care and feeding, and chose the vegetarian option: “Howard” the green iguana was that year’s birthday present of note. Mom thought that it would live a few months and that would be the end of it, but, when Dave left for college, Howard was still there in his cage, in the dining room, adding his particular je ne sais quoi to evening mealtimes. By the time Howard joined us at our home in Southern California, he was a 20-year-old, 5-foot-long, 5 pound reminder to choose your children’s pets carefully.

What tipped the scales in Howard’s favor so many years ago was that somebody told Dave’s mom that she just needed to tear up some lettuce for him and he’d be fine. In Dave’s home, that meant Howard ‘survived’ for 20 years on iceberg lettuce, probably the least nutritious food on the planet. When Howard finally left home to live with us, we picked up a  book on herpetology, just because. This book, no surprise, described a slightly more complex diet than watery lettuce as being ideal. As we got our heads around feeding Howard a complete diet, we marveled that he’d survived so long with so little nutrition, and theorized that he might have been in a coma for most of his life.

While his new diet lead to increased energy, and a good last chapter to his life, he also suffered from a few significant gastrointestinal difficulties. We stewed squash, mashed tofu, ground up various other foodstuffs, and served it all to the surprised creature. Of course his health went downhill pretty quickly, but we attributed that to his newly awakened metabolism. (For  any aspiring herpetologists out there, iguana enemas are not cheap.)

We could have used a good veterinarian back then. Dave’s mom was not by any stretch negligent, just lacking information … information along the lines of how to load your crickets with calcium, or how to feed your green iguana a square meal. Maybe it takes a village to raise the animals in your children’s lives too. The simple truth is, we are thankful for the enthusiasm of co-op parents, who bring their unique expertise to enrich our children’s learning environment. We think Bob the tarantula is probably pretty grateful too.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula Blog