Tag Archives: anxiety

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]

New Experiences

Our son got plenty of warnings and reminders that we were going out to dinner last night, whether he needed them or not. We learned a long time ago that our son (now 17) was not comfortable with transitions, often throwing tantrums at the door when we needed to go. He doesn’t do that any more … but we are well-trained. What we learned, by necessity, was that it really helped to draw a map for him, sometimes quite literally, of what was coming, where we would be in a day, or a week, and how we would get there.

Some children can change direction and speed at the drop of a hat, eagerly trying something new, and following their parents with no problem. Others settle into a place and have a mental day-planner carefully laid out (even if the only thing on the schedule is “Keep reading this comic book until I don’t want to anymore”). But all children face new experiences daily and can be easily intimidated by things that adults take for granted.

During the months of May and June, young children are hearing lots about transitions and summer plans that may be exciting and fun for parents but have no meaning for them, because they have no context for new words or new experiences. “You’re graduating!” “Next year you get to go to big kids’ school!” “We’re going to Disneyland this summer!”

By Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By Gustave Doré (1832 – 1883) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For parents, these all seem like good things, but children can be stressed by the sudden change in routine, the pressure of expectations, and the threat of the unknown. And actually, maybe they know more than we think they do. ‘Big kid’s school’ might sound scary until they learn that they are in fact going to be one of the ‘big kids’ and that’s why they are changing schools! And, while Disneyland might seem like a kid’s dream vacation, your child might only be thinking about the terrifying things in the forest that had to be faced before happily ever after (remember, Disney movies can be scary, so why would a child assume that Disney land is fun?). Sometimes we adults simply use new words without explanation (“graduation”, “celebration”, “vacation”, “camp”) and children generally don’t raise their hands to ask for a definition. We get to provide the definitions, and the map of what to expect. And we might have to do it more than once.

Parents can help children understand that they get to bring familiar things with them into new experiences. “There will be kids your age with you,” “you’ll bring your favorite lunch box,” “we will all be together,” “you can do this”. Dave is 48 and working on his second master’s degree, and he still gets stressed thinking about next year’s classes! Sure, he’s old enough to remind himself that when he gets there, he will have what he needs to face new challenges. But it can be very helpful to remind students (of any age), “You can do it! You have what you need to do well!”

Parents will want to remember that life can feel a lot like the forest in a Disney movie, full of mysteries and shadowy threats. We can make the journey much less stressful by helping children understand what to expect and by walking with them through new places, holding their hands and laying bread crumbs along the way. Sure there are times when our little heroes and heroines have to face things alone, but we adults are the ones who teach a child hope and trust by leading them gently into new experiences so that they learn that they can handle new things on their own.

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

On Celebrations

When families participate in important events, kids can be a real wild card. We’ve seen that the likelihood of a meltdown is proportional to the importance of the event. This is not a plot! It’s not the fault of the children. In fact, when there’s a high level of anticipation and expectation, adults communicate stress, often without being aware. When we’re anxious about something, kids pick up on it, and they often internalize the anxiety. Just think about the emotional turmoil that surrounds a birthday, for example: most of the energy is positive, of course, but it’s stressful nonetheless. These can be hard events for kids: since they don’t have the tools to manage their feelings like adults (hopefully) do, their young-but-powerful emotions erupt in ways that can be, shall we say, counterproductive.

You might think that kids should naturally love the parties we throw for them. But graduations, birthdays, mitzvahs and other celebrations often become opportunities for adults to ‘put on a show’ for ourselves, forgetting who the event is for. We invest a lot into these events, we stress about the success we hope for, and young kids feel the strain.

To help young children survive events that are meant for their benefit, here’s a few tips:

  • Remember that these events are supposed to be a blessing for the child, not for us (Simple, but it has to be said).
  • Help your young child know what to expect (“We will do X for a little bit, then we’ll do Y, and then we’ll be all done!”).
  • Give choices whenever possible (“Do you want to sit next to your aunt or next to Dad?”; “What would you like to eat first?” … “Dessert!” is an acceptable answer on certain occasions).
  • Consider their threshold for public humiliation (“You look SOOOO cute in that suit!”) and honor them without embarrassing them.
  • Direct their attention to keep their mind off their own discomfort (“Watch your sister practicing her dance moves”).
  • Don’t compare a child to others (“Look how that little boy is sitting quietly”), rather catch them doing their best and acknowledge their efforts (“Sitting still is so hard, but you’re becoming a real patient kid!”)
  • Be determined to focus your energies on enjoying your child (rather than on the success of the event), and they will feel more special and less stressed.

Keep a sense of humor while dressing up and celebrating your child, and the likelihood grows that you will all take good memories from these special events.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting on The Peninsula Blog

An Education

Recently a young girl of 4 1/2 sat on her own in a corner of the preschool room. She had a little dish and little tongs and she was feeding little plastic counting bears to a great big stuffed animal. She was totally focused. She was gentle, patting and cooing to the dog. She whispered to her charge inaudibly. She took her time.

Was this big stuffed dog (easily as big as the girl) a proxy for a pet at home? Or was the floppy toy reminding her of a sibling, and was she playing parent or big sister? Was the dog a ‘friend’ who needed love? Or was it a stand in for herself? What relationship (friendship or family) or what needs (loneliness, hunger, or security) were being worked out? Are these questions surprising?

For a child, play is not separate from life. Play like this is a kind of theater, where a child rehearses … everything. And for a child, everything is relational: children learn who–and how lovable–they are from those they relate to; and they learn about the relative trustworthiness and goodness of the world from those they interact with. Since childhood can be fraught with uncertainty, often children work out their own responses to relational anxieties through play.

Who knew that plastic bears, tongs, and a stuffed animal could engage a child’s attention exclusively for long periods of time? And who knew that spontaneous dramatic play could be so rich and meaningful? In fact, the meaning of this brief vignette goes beyond the sweet implications of a young child working out compassion, or whatever.

When we think about the skills our kids will need to be successful, it’s normal to want to be able to check off requirements. In fact we usually want to check them off early (so they will never be behind!). For example, we want the kids in our charge to learn writing, spelling, and language– skills that get a disproportionate level of attention from new parents who feel an intense responsibility to give their child every academic advantage. So we look at this kind of quiet play with a touch of anxiety … shouldn’t we be preparing her for the challenges of Kindergarten? Shouldn’t we be spending more time laying a foundation for later language requirements?

But what if she was laying that foundation already … with no intervention from a teacher or a parent?

Practically speaking, this little one was encompassing a well-rounded preschool curriculum, one perfectly suited to her age. She was manipulating small toys using a tool, and working her fine motor skills, which are the essential precursor skills to writing (using tongs to accomplish a concrete task, this girl was getting ready to hold a pencil to accomplish something more abstract, using symbols to represent language). She was verbalizing her thoughts to another, working out the communication of feelings in a low pressure environment (stuffed animals are known to be very good conversation partners). She was building relational confidence. And all of this was happening in the context of a drama largely hidden to the observer. What thoughts or feelings drove the girl to minister to this creature in this way? It doesn’t matter. They were important enough to require special attention, and that in turn became an occasion for her to accidentally practice a number of really useful skills.

Good preschool curriculum should always allow for a child to choose, as often as they like, their own self-directed play. In this context, children are learning how to learn. Such play always—always—encompasses a rich and multi-layered assortment of learning opportunities. How is this possible? Because a child will call on all their skills, even new and unrefined skills, to accomplish the tasks that they care about. This is where the best learning happens.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Academic Anxiety

We parents want the best for our kids, right? When we put them in school we want the experience to be positive, and we want our child to excel. The good news is that the simple experience of moving through the school year almost always prepares a child for what comes next: they get smarter and find social situations easier.

The bad news is that our anxiety about our children’s success always defaults to academics. We worry about giving them an advantage for future academic challenges, and that leads to our desire to have more academics now. This is a erosive trend. If we always press to get our children ahead of the curve in anticipation of next year’s challenges, we will have to do more and more academic prep earlier and earlier. The logical conclusion of this trend is flash cards for infants, or beaming lessons into the womb with strap-on speakers, or maybe a little something at the genetic level. Junior should have every advantage.

What’s the rush? How about instead of worrying so much about getting our children ahead before the lessons even start, we simply help them to arrive ready?

What Preschool Is For

We love preschools. We love all they give to children, and all the ways children bring their own awesome energy to new experiences. The reason to put a child in preschool is so that they can begin to learn how to be with people and understand the rhythms of group life. It is a preparation for school.

There is a common misconception that from the very beginning preschool is about sitting at the table and learning academics. It is almost never about that. In a good preschool we prepare the child for the moment when they are ready to sit down and write or count or read.