Tag Archives: childhood


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]

The Preschool’s Secret Weapon

There is a prejudice about learning that preschool teachers face, especially in our hard-driving academic culture.

This prejudice is the belief that an environment designed around play and exploration is not academically stimulating enough to prepare children for later school success. Couple this belief with the slippery slope of always wanting to start “preparing” our children at earlier and earlier ages so that they will never be behind, so that they will always be ahead of the game, and preschools come under a great deal of pressure to introduce more and more conventional academics.

But the secret weapon of the preschool is that early childhood education is a holistic deal—learning happens in a social/emotional/intellectual landscape. Young children learn (find meaning) through their senses, relationships, perceptions, and emotions. There is no way at this age to isolate an academic subject from this contextual field and present it as symbols on a piece of paper (as is common in later education).

Take language: when many children first encounter preschool at around age two, they have a vocabulary of roughly 350 words. As they enter the ‘school’ world, they find themselves in new environments, they face new problems, and they experience a sudden increase in the number of relationships, all of which leads to an explosion of language. By the time this two-year old reaches 1st grade, they will have multiplied their vocabulary by 4 or 5 times.

But it makes no sense to say that academics don’t start until elementary school, or that preschools don’t focus on cognitive development. The foundations of later cognitive success are laid in the holistic learning environment of the preschool. In fact some of a person’s most important cognitive growth is happening during these early years. Language itself is the basis for communication, and communication is the basis for learning. Communication skills are first learned in relationships, because relationships require young children to make sense of competing agendas, and language is the essential skill here, because the way that children negotiate emotional and social complexity is with words. Language won’t be mastered unless it is first mastered in the context of developing relationships and social interaction, which are the first and best curricula of the preschool classroom.

Even solo fantasy play is critical to the development of these social/emotional/intellectual skills … because it provides the social and relational contexts denied to a child by reality, enabling them to practice at things that are not possible in the ‘real world’. Where else, after all, can a child practice being a hero, a warrior, part of the royal court, or that most challenging role … a parent. In fantasy play, the child is learning the basic languages (social, emotional, and yes, academic) of roles they will not be qualified to fill for decades. Talk about being ahead of the game!

So, as the debate on academics continues, look on the giant playroom of the preschool as a laboratory for the scientific advancement of foundational cognitive skills. You can see the beginning of a great education here. You just need to know what to look for.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog

Conversations Without Answers

Imagine helping kids to start a conversation without worrying about where it will end up. As adults we often think we know where a conversation should go, think we know the answers. But do we always know best?

In a previous post, we wrote about conversations without questions. We suggested avoiding questions in hard talks with kids, teens, and significant others. In these circumstances, questions often seem pedantic and can put the other person on the spot (“Why would you do that?”, “What were you thinking?”) … not a good strategy for achieving mutual understanding when talking about something of importance. In this post, we want to talk about conversations without answers.

Parents often struggle when there is conflict between kids because they feel they need to find answers, to fix problems. They either avoid the tension by separating the kids, or push an imposed resolution that makes little sense to young ones. What if we grown-ups enter into conversations about conflict without being responsible for finding the answer? Are we really the ones most qualified to find the answers anyhow?

When there is a conflict, one of the great gifts we can give our kids is simply to help them acknowledge feelings and make sure everyone feels heard and understood. From this place of understanding, it is easy (and enlightening) to then invite all involved to consider a solution. Help children be heard and understood, and then stand back to watch their natural problem-solving skills kick in. Sometimes the answers come easily, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes it is enough merely to acknowledge that there has been a conflict and exchange apologies. There doesn’t always have to be an answer; but there can always be reconciliation.

If we are the kinds of people who don’t like uncertainty, then we are likely to push for answers in order to put ourselves at ease. By relaxing our impulse to fix problems, we are able to cultivate more open conversations between kids, in which they are more free to discover solutions for themselves. If we’re honest with ourselves, we also sometimes carry around our own memories of personal conflict. When this is true, it’s even more important to help kids work out problems in their own power, so that we don’t press them inappropriately to a conclusion meant to satisfy us.

Make room for more creative solutions in conversations between children by not assuming that we know the answers to their problems: a conversation begun without an answer in mind is one that encourages full participation. The wise grown-up will recognize that this strategy is not only suitable for children.

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

Take a Moment

The Great Season has come to an end. Whether we celebrated one of several holy days, or just enjoyed a break from school and work schedules, the time has come for regularity to return and for us to say goodbye to uninterrupted time with our children. You may be sad about this, or (secretly) thrilled to have some time to yourself again! But it’s here.

So let’s take a moment. The holidays are a time of real beauty (pretty lights and all) and also a time of real busyness. We get swept along for much of the holiday, working to get gifts together to make the Special Day really special, prepping for family dinners, and following the whims of kids now home with nothing to do (while older kids and empty nesters do not need our help filling a schedule, they still impact how we live our lives when they are in the house). Everything is kind of upended—mostly in a great way—and it takes some adjusting to return to … what shall we call it? Normality?

From a psychological perspective, stress doesn’t care whether events are good or bad: promotions and layoffs have the same effect on our physical and mental stability, because they knock us off-balance. It’s helpful to recognize that no matter how good the last several weeks have been, we are coming down off of a stressful season. And even if the events themselves were not stressful, the new year is full of transitions, and these alone can be difficult, especially for our children.

If it all possible, take that moment with your children. Sometime in the midst of the transition from holiday time to regular-time, carve out some time to sit in a comfortable place with them, and slow down for a bit. Or, plan on lingering a bit over breakfast, or while dressing before you go out the door. During this time, you can share with your kid what you and she liked about the last several weeks, or what they are looking forward to in the coming weeks. Have a little quiet time: for our teen, questions don’t work so well, so we’ll just grab him and chill on the couch for a bit (we’ll tell him it’s for us, though we suspect he likes it too). You know what will work in your home—clear a little space, make a little time to ease the transition.

To introduce a little ritual at times of transition helps us acknowledge things that often get lost in the shuffle. For some, it’s important to express sadness at the end of a period of special family time. Others, eager for the return to routine and busy work, may need help not leaving family-time too quickly behind. A pause to reflect, be thankful, and look forward … helps family members of all ages ease from one season to another.

This post first appeared on Parenting On The Peninsula’s Blog

Rain Days

We enjoy long stretches of mild weather here on the San Francisco Peninsula. You would think we’d be excited about the rain when it came, and the chance to introduce our little ones to something different. But it’s clear that rain messes with our quality of life, judging from the way normally good drivers go to pieces and act like they just got their learner’s permit. We are an indoor culture, used to being dry. Rain is an inconvenience, and our children pick up on our frustrations when it gets wet.

rainday_Anghelika recently visited friends in rural Washington State, and saw the “outdoor school”, where their 3-year old attends. For four hours, in temperatures in the 40s and drizzle, the students learned, among other things, how to howl like coyotes.

But for both parents and teachers in our neck of the woods, rain days evoke images of stir-crazy kids bouncing off the walls and provoke fantasies of eight-hour Disney video marathons. We’re here to help. Our prescription for surviving rainy-day madness? Send your kids outside.

From a kid’s perspective, rain is not an inconvenience … it’s just exciting. They want to understand it; they want to experience it; they want to play in it. We say let them.

Of course, when a child is sick, they should be protected against extreme weather. But, in general, there is nothing wrong with a cold, wet child. Some facts: being cold and wet is not a threat to a child’s health; ‘cold’ and ‘wet’ are reversible conditions; and, if they are having fun, then they are not too cold or too wet. You will know when your kids have had enough, because they will tell you, and that’s the time to get them dry and warm. Bonus advice—you only get to ask this question once: “Would you like a jacket?”. If the answer is “No!”, let them go. Think about it: if your child goes out without a jacket and gets cold, they can always come back for one. Two things we love: an empowered child, and a child learning the consequences of their choices.

We tried to take every opportunity to go out whenever storms came through. I (Dave) took our oldest up Windy Hill in Portola Valley during a particularly big blow. We summited at the peak of the storm, and spent about 5 nervy minutes braced against a horizontal rain, before she said, “I’d like to go home now!”. But facing the wildness of nature gets under your skin. It wasn’t long before she was coming to us to ask, “Let’s go for a hike in the rain.” But fair warning! If you send your kids outside in the rain, they will probably keep going. Today, our daughter (pictured above) lives in Seattle, and is probably still making that face in the rain.

[Originally posted on the Parenting On The Peninsula blog]

How Big Of A Spill Do You Want To Clean Up

At one of the schools where Anghelika works, a dad helping with the 2 year olds approached the teacher with a question before snack time. “How much water should I put in the children’s cups?” The expert response? … “How big of a spill do you want to clean up?”

One of the great stresses that parents (and their helpers) face when hanging around small children is the way that those small children insist on a not acting like adults. So we adults have a choice. We can either 1) force them, 2) freak out, or 3) adjust. We’re going with #3. For maximum happiness at the snack table, craft table, or playground, there are a couple of essential adjustments we can all make—first, to our expectations, and then to the environment we share with kids.

Adjusting expectations is as simple as remembering that young kids are messy. Children spill stuff. Plan on it.

Adjusting the environment is not so simple, because we have to straddle two worlds … the kids’ and our own. We find that kids always want to do things that are a little too hard for them—“No sippy cups for me!” And we like to encourage these mini revolutions of childhood so they can finish the day saying, “I did it!”. But we also have to keep a foot in our own world and remember that we will be cleaning up after the revolution. A well-designed environment honors the desire of children to do it themselves, and it also honors the physical limitation of the cleanup crew. If I don’t have a ton of patience for clean up, it’s better for me and for the child if I set up the environment in such a way that it will be close to impossible to make a bigger mess than I am willing to clean up.

We’ve always been impressed with parents who are not (overly) frustrated by their children. We suspect that part of the secret is designing children’s environments to minimize frustration, for child and parent. Children will be less frustrated when they can do what they want. Parents will be less frustrated when “what the child wants” does not create extra trouble for them. Keep in mind that kids have (nearly) unlimited energy, and parents have (increasingly) limited energy. Set up your child’s environment with both in mind.

How big of a spill do you want to clean up today?


[Originally posted on Parenting On The Peninsula]

Attachment 101-What Infants Want To Know

There is a moment repeated hundreds of times in the first months of life, each a connection between mother and child, each one a building block adding up to a child’s sense of self. This is attachment Attachment is an infant’s emotional connection with their principal caretaker that is the basis for the capacity to love and live together. It’s essential.

In the middle of last century, a psychologist named John Bowlby proposed the theory that attachment is not a way to get other essential needs met: attachment is a need all its own. Infants need to eat, we know this: an early view of attachment was that bonding with mother ensured survival by making sure a child was fed and cared for. Bowlby’s insight was that an infant may be fed and cared for by anyone, no attachment required. Children who left London during the bombing raids of WWII were fed and cared for by extended family members in the countryside, but often became severely depressed and unwell. Babies raised in orphanages who are fed and have their basic needs met may nevertheless fail to thrive and sometimes simply perish for lack of meaningful attachment to a caretaker. The need for attachment is as essential to survival as food.

Why is attachment so essential? Althea Horner, in her way-cool book, Being and Loving, notes five questions that need answering in the earliest season of life. The answers to these questions are provided by parents, depend on the nature of the attachment, and become the basis for essential belief systems about the child’s self:

  1. What am I like? … Am I worthy of love and care?
  2. What are others like? … Are people for me? Are people caring and safe?
  3. What are relationships like? … Can relationships be sources of good?
  4. What do I have to do to be safe? … Is it safe to cry out? Is it safer to be invisible?
  5. What do I have to do to feel good about myself? … Will soothing come from outside of me, or am I responsible for my own comfort?

Attachment is the process by which we form mental models that remain our primary way of seeing ourselves and others. These early ‘models’ stay with us and influence a lifetime of decision making.


 a rare perspectiveYes it’s a rare moment, and no, these two did not always sit in quiet, reverent meditation. But we like the picture of two children looking out and having their own moment. We have a kind of reverence for the attention that children give to anything. And, we think that such a moment should not be interrupted except for a really good reason.

Childhood and Adulthood

Let’s say there are three kinds of grown-ups. It’s not true, but let’s pretend.

On one side of the scale (that doesn’t really exist) is the grown up who has no time for kids; couldn’t wait to grow up, and has no interest in being reminded of what it was like to be small, weak, and dependent.

On the other side of the scale is the grown up who will always choose to hang out with kids over adults. With a purity of motivation, they prefer the ‘innocence’ of children, the lack of irony, and the willingness to have fun. They aren’t sure they trust the big people.

We’re not sure we trust either of these made-up adult-types. We would prefer the one who lives somewhere in between. The one who loves to kneel down to look a child in the eye, ready to offer some wisdom, but also ready to receive some gift that only a child can give. But this grown up doesn’t reject other adults in favor of kids. They know that the best thing a child can do is grow, and that what we grow into is adults. So they enjoy both the aged and the young, and they have no trouble moving between the two.

After all, if you don’t love adults (and adulthood), then you can’t very well shepherd a little one as they grow. And while we grown-ups always need to be reminded what it means to be child-like, we also need celebrate our own maturity and wisdom, and welcome growing children to join us there.