Tag Archives: expectations

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 Education

We find that it’s hard to advocate for any single kind of education, because we have encountered a multitude. We’ve experienced it all: home school, co-ops, charter schools, and private prep-schools; public high schools, tiny liberal-arts colleges, city colleges, and universities. We’ve taught and learned in all contexts.

Dave grew up on the Peninsula, starting his local education with Montessori and public elementary school, finishing at a 6-12th grade prep school. In Athens, Greece, Anghelika attended an international/bilingual preschool, and continued in international schools throughout her education (finishing with High School at TASIS Hellenic) before coming to the U.S.. 30 years ago, we met at a college of 600 in Bennington, Vermont, where we designed our own education. Dave went on to get a Masters of Divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary, while Anghelika began working for preschools and studying early childhood education at Pasadena City College.

Our children joined Redwood Parents Preschool in Redwood City after we settled back in the area, Anghelika began a lifelong relationship with parent-participation schools, and Dave began to teach and work with adults in churches. Today, Dave continues to work with adults, but is also a student again, in Santa Clara University’s clinical psychology program, and teaches homeschool enrichment classes for kids aged 6-18.

During the elementary years, our kids went to alternative/charter schools. Then we moved to Los Altos, and our 2nd- and 6th-graders began a march through the public system again with a real focus on testing and academic success. By the time our kids got to high school, we didn’t know it, but there were four choices. The only choice we could see was the one ten feet from our back door: our back gate opens up to the fields of Los Altos High. Our daughter spent two years there before transferring to the alternative arts- and project-based program in the district called Freestyle … a no-brainer for our brilliantly talented artist who would go on to art college. Our son, who we always thought would benefit from Freestyle’s alternative style, would claim “I’m not an artist” and end the conversation.

But after years of struggling with the academic culture of LAHS, he (with our support) finally took the advice of his advisors, and moved to Alta Vista, the continuation High School in our district, for his last year-and-a-half of high school. It seems like the independent-study model at Alta Vista will be perfect for him, as we have a suspicion that he will do part of his college education via independent study, while testing for credit though the college board’s CLEP tests. He’s also working with a tutor.

Is there a kind of education that we haven’t come in contact with? We’ve seen a lot of models, and it would make little sense for us to tell anyone they should learn anything from the way we did it. Our own education and that of our kids’ has been eclectic, to say the least.

But having tasted from just about the whole buffet, we can say how important it feels (with our son, for example), not to settle into a rut and do only what’s in front of you. Our guy is beginning to get a lot more traction right now, and we kind of wish we’d made some changes earlier in his high school career. If we could go back, we would tell our less wrinkly selves to never believe that one school can provide all that a child needs.

We are fortunate that within our district there are a variety of options, and we really see them as options now. We might have thought that we were at the ‘best’ school in the district and that there were ‘other’ schools where you might end up if you can’t handle the ‘best’. This makes little sense to us now. The best school is where you have success in learning. Our son seems to have found that. For now.

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

Christmas Fail

Dave tells the story of how he once almost ruined Christmas:

Our family loves the holidays. We have always embraced the full experience of this cultural mash-up of a season: cozy-winter-and-sparkly-light-gorgeousness, gift-giving and -getting, and religious re-centering. We have always had, on balance, positive feelings about the season.

But you’d have to be asleep not to see that there is a shady side to it all. At a certain point, our children began to pick up on some of the absurd ironies of the season. It’s a strange moment for a parent when their child calls out the human race because they’ve witnessed crowds of sparkly-peace-on-earth-sweater wearing people trample each other in order to save 40% on a new widescreen TV. Are we proud of our blossoming cynics? Or do we grieve their loss of innocence?

I myself have always been kind of a cynic when it comes to commercialism [“Kind of?” -Anghelika], and for me it was definitely pride. The kids began to realize that happiness was not inside the wrapped presents, that the extreme levels of anticipation around the holiday were near impossible to satisfy, even when their hot little hands finally held The Toy. Post Christmas Crash was becoming a thing. But these realizations did little to reduce the intensity of gift-time on Christmas day. And so, a few years ago, I hatched A Plan. And I thought the family was ready.

It was cooly brilliant. Part of me still thinks it was a master stroke against the spirit of the age, and that it was destined to become a viral phenomenon after I blogged about its inevitable success. It was that good. Except that it almost ruined Christmas.

The Plan hinged on surgically separating Christmas from its evil twin, Xmas. We all know what Christmas is. Christmas is where the whole peace on earth deal comes from—a time to remember the arrival of God in the form of an infant child with a timeless message of peace and reconciliation for all people. Xmas? Xmas put that timeless message on an ugly sweater in sparkly cursive under a soft-sculpture of Rudolf. The time had come to put Xmas in its place.

I proposed the Plan to the family some years back just as the Muzak in the stores was starting to transition to endless loops of Los Vegas Lounge-Gospel. I might as well have used Power Point:

  • X-mas has taken over the holiday. We aim to take it back.
  • No presents on Christmas, only Christ.
  • Christmas morning is for family: nice breakfast, fire in the fireplace, family prayers, walks … Peace On Earth.

Then, in the days after Christmas, we can have X-mas:

  • Hit the malls while the rest of humanity is still sorting and recycling wrapping paper.
  • Everything will be on super sale!
  • Buy each other stuff, see a movie, go out to dinner … Merry X-mas!

The plan had it all: Christmas day without the madness (nobody’s ever been trampled in our living room, but emotions can run high); family excursions during the vacation days after Christmas; a relaxed trip to the stores where we all get to buy something special; and big savings. I felt like a genius. But there was a problem. Nobody else liked the idea.

On the night I proposed the Plan, I was so convinced of its greatness, I was blind to my family’s increasing discomfort. I was like a bargain hunter on black friday: nothing was going to stop me from pulling off my Plan, and if a few traditions need to be trampled on the way to the prize, that would be an acceptable sacrifice. I might as well have been that guy in the news report clawing past less-motivated shoppers, knocking stuffed-flannel reindeer antlers off left and right.

After some extremely tense discussion, there was grudging acceptance. After all, how do you argue with Saving Christmas? I had essentially described a crusade against gifts on the biggest gift-giving day of the year, and backed it up with religious zeal—resistance was futile (or at least suspect). The family had little choice but to try my idea. But Anghelika was sad to have our kids wake up to no gifts on Christmas morning, and the kids, who probably did not know what to make of the whole thing, backed her up when they saw that she was the one who might actually be able to save Christmas. A compromise was agreed upon. We would open stocking gifts on Christmas morning, and implement the Plan for our main gifts. Of course, here in America, our stockings are not small. These are nothing like socks: they are mini burlap sacks decorated by the same people that brought you the sparkly peace-on-earth sweaters. You could say the stockings were the Trojan Horse that let X-mas back into our home on December 25th and spoiled my Plan. But, today I am willing to admit what should have been clear at the start … the Plan was already spoiled.

We followed through with it as best we could. We opened stocking gifts on Christmas morning, followed by a big cooked breakfast, a warm fire, some readings from scripture, and family walks outside in the chill. If everyone was mildly depressed, I chose to see it as a much-needed reduction of emotional intensity. A couple days later, we hit the mall for Xmas, where we found that either the multitudes were getting a head start on next year’s shopping, or that each and every one of them had the exact same idea as me. It was crowded, noisy, and the salespeople were not very happy to be there. The worst part was that it wasn’t much fun just buying things for each other. This was not gift-giving … it was shopping. It was a day at the mall. Merry Xmas.

Where did it all go wrong? The assumption behind my scheme was that family is more important than tradition, and I could change the tradition at will for the good of our family. Sounds reasonable. Except that family is not separate from tradition … the two are intertwined. The removal of one threatens the other. Without family, there can be no tradition, of course. But the opposite is true as well: adding or removing a tradition arbitrarily can harm the bonds of family. Traditions are the expression of generations of family practice. Whether they are the beautiful rituals passed down from our ancestors, or the quirky habits that are only a generation old (jellied cranberry sauce in a can, I’m looking at you), traditions are connections to our past, and do a lot to keep us connected in the present. Traditions are part of family, and should not be trifled with.

I do not love the crass commercialism of the holidays. But I do love me some wonderful people who love giving and getting gifts. So who am I to take away an important part of their holiday because I have a gripe with the world?

The Plan has been retired, buried under a mountain somewhere to make it safe for families to celebrate the holidays again. I won’t be messing around with Christmas anymore. I’ve learned that it’s not my job to critique and do away with the traditions of the past. Maybe now that my head is a little more clear, I can begin to think about what traditions I’d like add for my grandchildren to enjoy, along with their other gifts.


This post originally appeared on the Parenting On The Peninsula Blog


We’ve often observed our kids, who are now 17 and 20, going through seasons of growth and coping, and we’ve used different kinds of language to describe the experience: mood swings, expansion and contraction, equilibrium and disequalibrium. Anghelika describes the way a child can feel stretched and challenged in uncomfortable ways by a world that seems too big, and then soon after can come to a place of feeling more comfortable ‘in their skin’. When children are being challenged and stretched, it can be hard times for families.

We have been through innumerable such cycles with our children. We’ve suffered through the tense times when our child seems to hate everything, wants no help, chooses to be alone. These are terrible times, because, of course, she can’t be alone—she lives with you. And she can’t really go without help, because she’s dependent. And when someone you live with hates everything, that’s kind of a downer, because you’re going to be collateral damage. We found these times really hard, and we celebrated the return to equilibrium. As we learned a bit about how these things worked, we began to ‘tolerate’ the down times because we knew that better times were coming. But what if we were missing an opportunity to celebrate the hard times too?

After twenty years of parenting we can say that family is a lifestyle of challenge and change. Family is not a formula to master, or a parenting book to finish, or some season to get through. It’s life: we change our children and they change us. In our experience, families (our own included) tend to get labeled … as healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional. But looking back, no family qualifies exclusively for a single prize. Family is not a race where you either win or you don’t. It’s a scrimmage, where every player gets a little better by the end of the day … and gets a few bruises to help them remember the day’s work.

We might have been too quick to wish our way past the bad-mood days. We might have taken them too personally, as a sign of our faulty parenting, or of a child’s rebellion against our ideals. Even when we recognized that it wasn’t about us, we might have looked forward to a child ‘getting over it’ so we could be a “happy family” again. But we are starting to recognize that families are not supposed to be … anything really. They are not validated by the amount of happiness enjoyed by its members, or by any other ideal. They are a place where life happens, and that means whatever we bring to the party, that’s the life we are going to have, and the family that we are. And if we can accept that family is not some ideal that we have to achieve, but is the very mechanism by which we will grow together, then we may embrace the struggles as the way we all, parents and children alike, get better at living this life. To look at it another way, family holds us together when we might otherwise drift apart in trying times: it’s a mechanism of love.

If we could go back and give our younger selves advice, we’d say, for every lesson you think you need to teach your child, there is probably a lesson or two you need to learn yourself, so slow down and don’t be in such a hurry to fix the problem of the day. A child in distress, in rebellion, or in a bad mood, is not an obstacle on your path to a perfect family. On the contrary: this is what families are perfect for. Responding in love and patience when one of us is in danger of falling away.


This post originally appeared 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]