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

More On Making Feelings OK

Last week we wrote about the important role that adults play in helping children to be OK with feelings. We have a few more things to say about this, befitting the huge impact emotions have on our lives. 7655456286_073299fa81_z It feels like a fools errand to talk about a subject so complex as emotions in a short blog post. The impact of emotions on our experience of life is huge. The great majority of psychological disorders that can be diagnosed today have at their root problems with emotional regulation. But everyone has emotions and you don’t have to have a disorder to be affected. And what are we talking about anyways? Emotions and their effect might be connected to the experience of a family escaping a war zone (who feel anxiety, vulnerability, dread, fear …), or celebrating a wedding (… joy, happiness, delight, hope) or saying goodbye to a beloved grandparent (… sorrow, grief, loneliness).

We can’t make simple assumptions about what emotions run hot in your home, but we can say, simply, that big emotions have big effects: those who study stress tell us that we are equally stressed by weddings and divorces. And as we said last week, children can be pretty taxed by even simple emotions, though we can expect that situations that make us emotional can have a greater effect on them. Hopefully the balance of situations a child faces will be positive! Even then, don’t think positive emotions only add up to peace and serenity.

We remember the day that our daughter first laughed. She was so young that she was barely able to role over on the bed. We tickled her with a blue and white plaid stuffed bear from France (that we called Trés Bear). She began to giggle uncontrollably, and we laughed along with her. It was perfectly cute … until she started crying. It had become too stressful on her little body, and she didn’t know if this new feeling would ever end! She got tired and, we guess, afraid. So we stopped, of course, and tried to meet her in this new emotion, offering some comfort. We said last week that adults play a great role in helping children come to accept and understand that their emotions are a part of their life.

But what to do if an adult can’t regulate their own emotions? What if we had no one to meet us and to help us with our emotions when we were young? If we never learned to be comfortable in our own emotional skins, then the raw and unbridled emotions of our little ones are likely to be a bit of a threat to us. But anybody reading this would agree that we want better for our kids than we got, and that we don’t want to pass on the wrong kinds of lessons. What’s an adult with emotional troubles to do?

Emotional regulation is a great problem for adults who did not feel safe being emotional when young. It is hard to replicate the great classroom of a loving family, but if we grew into adulthood without that advantage, we are not doomed to constant troubled feelings. The truth is that we need the same help that our young ones need, only we might be our own first line of defense. Can we acknowledge that we feel, sometimes quite strongly? Can we tell ourselves that emotions are OK? One of the things that we offer a child is to name the emotion they feel, and we also name the cause of it; “you were scared by that big dog!” But we adults are a bit more complicated: our emotions are somewhat more loaded because we have longer histories of emotional trauma, memories that get stirred up when we face stressful situations today. This means that we may find it hard to understand why we feel huge emotions in a situation … are the emotions linked exclusively to the present moment? If so, we can reassure ourselves that our feelings match the situation. If our fear is greater than the current situation warrants, we may not understand why.

For the adult with big emotions, who struggles to understand their feelings, or who is not comfortable in their own emotional skin, it can be a great help to seek out someone to do for us what our parents might not have been able to. To help us name the things we feel, to help us understand the complex origins of our big emotions, to help us be OK with our feelings. By the time we reach adulthood, we don’t like to be treated like children. But, really, most of us could use a little loving care now and then. We may have a friend who can help us talk through our responses to the stressors in our lives. We may seek the help of professionals. The point we are trying to make is that it isn’t only children who need to understand that feelings are OK.

Image by Flickr user marvelousRoland

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

Making Feelings OK

Adults who spend time with young children teach terribly important lessons about emotions. The “lesson” might be, “You’re feeling strong emotions and strong emotions are OK to feel!”, which is to say (in a child’s logic) that the child is OK, that they are healthy and respond appropriately to life. Or we might teach a child, “Your feelings are upsetting or unwelcome to me!”, which is to say (in a child’s logic) that the child is upsetting or unwelcome.


Of course when we talk about feelings, we are not talking about something essential about a child’s nature, but about simple emotional reactions to a situation. Emotions are not under our control, are not individually part of what is essential to us (that is, just because we are ‘sad’ doesn’t mean we are a sad person, just that sad is what we are feeling in response to a situation). But, of course, a child does not know this: when a young child feels strong emotions it can be frightening, like something is wrong with them and maybe even with the universe, and an adult’s reaction helps the child understand how to accept and think about their own feelings. Adults who are comfortable with strong feelings, knowing that they come and go, are able to simply acknowledge their presence (“You’re very angry.”) without being threatened by them, which validates the child’s inner world, helping them understand that their feelings are not a cause for alarm.

However some adults are threatened by strong emotions. They may experience emotions as a judgement against them or as destabilizing (or, just exhausting), and reject or threaten a child’s feelings (“You’re not really sad!” or “You’d better calm down!”). There are times when every adult wishes a child could regulate their emotions, turning down the intensity. But the hard reality is that causing a child to feel that their emotional responses are not OK makes regulation so much more difficult. At any age, having our feelings acknowledged, which is to say validated, effectively makes the emotions themselves less powerful. But when a young child is given the impression that their emotions are wrong, that causes a whole other range of complicated emotions to arise: shame, fear, anxiety, etc.

When a child is having a tantrum, we might naturally think that if we “validate” all this emotion it will simply encourage it. However, to validate an emotion is to acknowledge a child’s predicament, which has the effect of reducing the fear, shame, and anxiety that comes along with strong feelings.

A common occurrence on a preschool playground: child A is riding a trike on the track, gets off to go get a toy that needs to be held or put on the passenger seat of the trike; child B sees trike is free and gets on; child A returns to continue the trike ride, sees child B on the trike and screams and grabs handles pushing child B off the bike. Yowza.

There can be a lot of emotion swirling by the time an adult steps in to help. Before there can be any kind of reasonable-ness, justice, or fairness, you have to deal with emotions. In fact, while most of us grown-ups will think that our main job is to enforce an environment of fairness or justice on the playground, often all we need to do is help children recognize the strong emotions at play. In a conflict, naming the feelings of both parties, and helping each to consider the other’s, not only makes it OK to feel, but empowers each child to come up with their own plan to help the other child feel better. Justice and fairness is a tough sell to any pre-schooler. But helping another child who is feeling bad? Easy (and priceless).

Image by Flickr user Mindaugas Danys

Post first appeared on the Parenting on the Peninsula Blog


We were visiting Dave’s parents this last weekend, and mooching their nice fat weekend newspaper. While Dave honed in on the comics page, Anghelika announced her find: a couple articles on what makes a great teacher. Before she got a chance to read them, Dave’s father asked her what she thought the secret was. The answer: “Engagement”. A great teacher is one that engages kids’ interest. We believe you can teach kids simple, mundane, even dull things in an interesting way. That’s the magic behind the best lessons. Indeed this was the essence of one of the articles, but it went on to highlight several key skills of a great teacher. (adapted from Building a Better Teacher by Elizabeth Green, out this month.)

We’re going to focus on one of the key skills – the one that caught us. (To read the whole article go to http://parade.condenast.com)

The rule: a great teacher should never say, “Shhh!”

According to the article, when a teacher says, “Shhh!” it could mean a number of things. It might mean “Don’t talk now”. Or, it might mean that the teacher simply wants the student to talk quieter.

But what does it do when a teacher says, “Shhh”?

According to the article, shushing is ambiguous. Is it meant to be instruction or a correction? Is it about setting a mood, or is it about one child’s interruption or misbehavior?. One thing is certain: it’s rarely clear what positive behavior a shushing adult is expecting. Imagine a child excitedly blurting out an answer only to be corrected for their disruption with nothing but a “Shhh!” Will that child be excited to try again? … be motivated to continue to participate? … be encouraged?

How can a teacher keep an excited student engaged?

Both parents and teachers in training learn that encouraging and guiding children towards positive behavior is more effective than highlighting bad behavior. So when a child has an enthusiastic, noisy eruption, what is an adult to do? Avoid the ambiguity of the “Shhh!”, and go for specific, positive, and direct. Encourage a child to share their enthusiasm in a way that helps you hear them. Think through the environment that you want, the environment that provides the best chance for the most success for the greatest number and then describe that environment positively as often as possible. How loud or quiet will work? How wild or mellow? Describe, model and reinforce successes with your attention.

And if you are ever tempted to let loose a great “Shhh!”, we think it’s ok to say it, once … to yourself!

[This post originally appeared on Parenting on The Peninsula’s blog]

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]