Sunday, November 29, 2009


I can't believe it's been almost a year since Amanda's tragedy.  Amanda is a sweet teenager in our church.  I've known her since she was a little girl.  When I was the children's choir director a few years ago,  Amanda was always the most enthusiastic singer, always thrilled with everything we sang.  Every Sunday Amanda bounded up to me to share her excitement about learning to play a musical instrument,  getting a part in a school play, or learning a new song.  She loved music, loved life, loved people of all ages, and loved herself. Amanda sparkled. 

A year ago next week, Amanda tried to take her own life. She was depressed and distraught because of peer pressure and emotional aggression that had been occurring at school for quite awhile.   I guess she felt there was no way out. 

Now, Amanda suffers from acute brain damage from this suicide attempt. She is unable to communicate, and needs constant physical care.   She is surrounded by loving family and friends all the time, and is cared for in a group home.  But the emotional abuse that she suffered has taken its toll, and changed her life and the lives of her family forever. 

Why do children and teens behave aggressively toward each other?  What can we do about it?  Better yet, what should we be doing to prevent it? 

The excellent book, Taking Back Childhood, by Nancy Carlsson-Paige, argues that exposure to violence in the media changes the life-expectations and brain structure of children and young people.  Through TV, movies, and games,  children are being inundated with images of aggression, and are given no message about the actual consequences of it.

Dr. Bruce Perry, a child development expert, has identified "Six Core Strengths"  that children need to have in order to be compassionate and humane:

1.  Attachment.  The capacity to form and maintain healthy emotional bonds. This begins in infancy, and needs to be nurtured by parents and teachers all through childhood. Unfortunately, many things in our society, including our child care and education systems, fail to support attachment in children, and many adults do not know the importance of it. 

2.  Self-Regulation.  Learning to control your feelings, urges, and behaviors.  This process takes a long time.  Most of us adults would not say we have fully mastered it.  Positive discipline methods, rather than punishment, build the brain structures that help children learn to self-regulate.  Healthy imaginative play has also been found to be a crucial part of the development of self-regulation.  Yet all around us we see schools and families using punitive discipline, which does not help a child learn to make positive choices.  Adding insult to injury, pretend play is being replaced by screen-time, so children have fewer opportunities to actively learn and practice self-regulation. 

3.  Affiliation.  Enjoying being part of a group.  Again, when children spend long hours in front of a TV or computer instead of playing with peers, they do not experience the warm and wonderful feelings associated with being a part of a group. And when children interact more with machines than with other people, they fail to learn the social skills necessary for satisfying human interactions.

4.  Awareness.  Thinking of others.  Nature designed infants to be egocentric for a purpose:  that's the best way to make sure their needs are met so our species can survive.  But, as infants grow into young children, the self-absorption should gradually be replaced by an increasing awareness of the feelings, needs, and points of view of others.  This de-centering takes a lifetime to achieve, but children who are treated with empathy when they are young will gradually learn to have empathy for others. 

5.  Tolerance.  Accepting and appreciating differences.  There are so many factors in our society, starting with the popular media, that undermine this strength.  Children are taught from an early age by advertisements, movies, and tv shows,  that people should all look and act the way the media portrays them.   It takes a lot of effort on the part of wise, caring adults to counteract this powerful message, and to open children's minds to the value of human diversity. 

6.  Respect.  Appreciating your own self-worth and the value of others.  When children are treated with respect, they learn to respect others.  When children are treated disrespectfully by adults, they learn to treat other people the same way.  

At preschool, we work on these six things every day.  It's what preschool is all about. Children are not born aggressive, but without patient and caring role models in the early years, aggressive tendencies can develop.  So  what about all the kids who somehow miss out on this essential learning when they are very young?  Perhaps some of the kids who sent all those emotionally abusive message to Amanda had gaps in their lives where these Six Core Strengths should have been. Perhaps the adults in their lives failed to teach them the important things in life.  

Amanda's family and friends have begun an effort to combat bullying in schools as a result of this tragedy. They are working to raise awareness of the problem and to seek solutions. I hope that as a society, our solutions include finding more ways to build strong and caring people from birth. In my opinion, this requires a great nationwide effort at parent education, and improvement in our care and education systems for infants and young children.  It's useless to just punish kids who are mean to each other.

 Friday, Dec. 11th there will be a candlelight vigil in front of City Hall at 4:00 p.m. to commemorate the one- year anniversary of Amanda's tragic incident, and to help San Jose become more aware and concerned about the problem of bullying.  For more information:

Amanda's attempted suicide is a great tragedy.  It's also tragic that millions and millions of infants, children, and teens are growing up in environments bereft of respect and compassion, and are learning to be abusive to themselves and to one another. How can we fix this?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009


What about "venting?"  Does that count as complaining?  This has been bugging me since I wrote the previous post.

I'm not sure that good mental health is possible without taking advantage of opportunities to verbally let off steam. This only works if you are venting to a great friend who knows you don't mean most of what you're saying at that moment. And who won't repeat it to anyone. And who won't think any less of you for spouting off.  Most of us have a few people in our lives that we can do this with, and I think it's essential to vent to a safe "ventee" now and then. Expressing ourselves and our feelings, even if our expressions are somewhat more extreme than the actual feelings themselves are, can free us to move forward into problem-solving and collaboration, and all those other positive behaviors.  Sometimes, until you have had a chance to launch into that tirade to just the right (safe, trusted) person, you're just not ready to play nicely.

So:  I hereby declare that venting, when done appropriately, with discretion, and to the right people at the right times, does not count as "complaining."  If you're joining me in an effort to avoid complaining from now until Valentine's Day, you are allowed to vent, as long as it doesn't become just an excuse for being negative, or another name for complaining.  You'll know the difference.

So: KJ, Josefina, Konne, Jackie, Mom, Marlin, and all my other ventees- you're not off the hook.  I still need you.  And I'm here for you, too.

Hmmm..... I'm thinking about myself and other grownups as I write this, but I can't help but think about the toddlers in my classes.  Don't they need to vent to a safe person too?

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Today at church, Pastor Charlotte told us she had made a covenant with other local pastors to avoid complaining for at least ninety days.  She told us about  and asked us if we wanted to join her in this quest. Then she passed out purple Complaint-Free bracelets for everyone to wear as reminders. Wow- this is just what I need right now! I enthusiastically raised my hand and accepted the bracelet and the challenge. (And guess what, Honey, since you couldn't be there today, I picked up a purple bracelet for you too! After twenty-nine years of marriage, just let me say, birds of a feather.....) 

Complaining is a nice polite word for activities such as whining, criticizing, nagging, and a few others that we all know well.  Where does all this negativity come from?  And where does it lead?

Yes, I'm a whiner. And worse, upon reflection, I'm realizing that I complain about the same things over and over and over. I complain about little things, big things, silly things, important things, things that do need to be changed, and things that no one could change. I even complain about things that are none of my business. What good is this doing me or anyone else?   I know that I don't want to continue adding negativity to the world, and I do pledge to try to improve. 

I think complaining stems from a sense of powerlessness.  We whine when we feel as if we have too little power in our world, and sometimes this gives us a boost of temporary, negative power, as we gleefully find we have the magical ability to ruin someone else's day. I'm talking about adults now, but you all know that it starts in toddlerhood, and the power dynamics are exactly the same. 

When I use most of my energy expressing complaints, I find that I've got little energy left over to work on positive things. And this, I think, is the best reason for wearing this purple bracelet and trying to keep up with Pastor Charlotte in her efforts to become complaint-free. 

It doesn't work very well to eliminate a behavior without replacing it with a new, more positive one.  Just saying to myself, "Don't complain" wouldn't be very helpful to me unless I think about what I could do instead. So I've spent the afternoon thinking about what I can do instead of all my complaining.  

But some things do need to be criticized, and some things do need to be changed. I wouldn't want to stop complaining, if that meant I had to become a person who never thinks about things deeply enough to see the problems. But here are a few things I think could be more effective than complaining:  

Think and talk about the issues from a "how might we solve this?" viewpoint, rather than a complaining one.

I often need to be reminded to shut up and listen. When I'm complaining, I'm taking up more than my share of air-time.

I will learn more and accomplish more when I open up the "curiosity" part of my brain, and learn to ask the right questions.

No, I cannot do it all better myself.  I've learned over and over that I need the help, ideas, input, and nudging of other people in my life, even when I disagree with them.  It's just the control-freak in me that wants to be the lone-wolf sometimes. Come on, Annie, you do NOT know everything.  Get over it! 

Use the creative genius inside for more than home decorating and great curriculum activities.  Use it to help accomplish real good in the world, and to help other people.

How can I know where I'm trying to end up, if I can't visualize it?

There are many other ways to connect with people and to express myself.  I need to discover them and practice them.

To me this is the most important thing.  For me, when I am in a grateful attitude, it leads me right toward items 1 through 7, above. When I'm being thankful, I have no time left over to complain and I just don't feel like complaining then, anyway. So our choir’s music today was very appropriate:  we sang For The Beauty Of The Earth, by John Rutter. It’s always been one of my favorite pieces, but  today it meant a little more.

Ok, Charlotte.  The challenge is on. Thanks for the kick in the pants.  I'm pretty sure that I can be a better teacher,  parent,  friend,  neighbor, and citizen if I work on this. It sure makes me think about what amazing things we could accomplish if large numbers of us work on it together.

Anyone interested in joining me as I try to avoid complaining between now and Valentines Day? I ordered a few more purple  bracelets.  Let me know if you want one.

Monday, November 16, 2009


People have always said, "Don't cry" to other people for years and years, and all it has ever meant is, 
"I'm too uncomfortable when you show your feelings. Don't cry." 
I'd rather have them say,
"Go ahead and cry.  I'm here to be with you." 
-Fred Rogers

There were a few sad toddlers today during Together Time.  That fifteen minutes when mom or dad went next door for the parent discussion seemed like an eternity to some of the children.  These one-year-olds are new to a group play experience, and many have not experienced being left by their parent very much yet.  Moms and dads at this stage are often not very comfortable with the separation yet either.  But they bravely trust us with their precious child, square their shoulders, say goodbye to their little one, and go to the next room for what may seem like the longest fifteen minutes of the whole day. Many of the children are perfectly fine, but it's unpredictable! You just never know how it's going to feel.

Today, this endless separation didn't feel great for several of them. There was quite a bit of crying. Since our class is still rather new, everyone is still getting used to each other and to the routine.  The parents whose turn it was to stay in the classroom with me and the children today were very determined to help ease the pain. They tried cuddling, distracting, holding, singing, toys, books, and of course the "big guns," WATER PLAY. (If anything is going to make a toddler feel better it's turning on the hose. If that doesn't help, nothing will!)

The three or so sad children responded in various ways to these attempts to cheer them up. Sometimes the crying slowed down for awhile, and a few times it actually stopped.  But what the children really needed was simply to cry. Crying is the best way these young toddlers have to express their very strong feelings.  When their parent left for those few minutes, they probably experienced many emotions, such as anger, frustration, fear, sadness, loss, and others. They are not very verbal yet, so they don't have quite as many avenues for expressing themselves. Crying is an important way to get their message across, as well as to bring their feelings to the surface.  Crying helps them to cope.

As much as possible, I try to tell toddlers that it's ok to cry, and that if they want me to, I can help them cry or they can sit on my lap while they cry.  And I try to remember to tell them that when they are all done crying I'll help them find something to play. They tend to need that reminder that they won't feel this bad forever.

I have learned never to say, "You're OK" to a child who is upset.  Obviously, the child is not ok.

Yes, children do need to be reminded once or twice that Mom will come back. And sometimes they need to be reminded briefly about all the fun options available for them at school, so they don't get stuck in their sadness. But over the years I've really learned that there is not short-cut for crying when you're sad. Distracting children away from their feelings isn't the best approach. Experiencing real emotions, and coping with them with the help of loving and supportive adults is the best way for children to mature emotionally.

When I got home from school today, still thinking about all of this, I found that my best friend had sent in the mail a book of quotes from my dear Mr. Rogers.  (Thanks Bethy! Perfect timing!) The first page I opened it to was the page with the above quote about letting people cry.  What a helpful and gentle reminder for all of us.

At every age, people need to cry, to be sad, to be angry, to be upset, and to be scared. Sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is to sit beside them and let them know we care.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


Whew.  As many of my know, I just survived a Big Birthday. The good news is that the mean neighbor across the back fence didn't complain (yet) about all the noise and revelry while friends helped me cope with this birthday.  The bad news is that right on schedule, my knee started acting up the day after I turned this new older age.  I've never had knee problems before!  I'm falling apart!

Oh well.  Ages and stages...... we enter new stages and find new challenges all through life.  But I have to believe that we gain more than we lose.  Well, weight-wise at this age, yes.... but even more so in terms of emotional growth. I've been fussing and worrying and grieving about aging and loss and change for the past year, as I prepared for this milestone. But the better parts of me have been getting ready for it in a smarter way. My inner self is getting ready for a wonderful time in my life.

Now I think I'm ready to be this age, and to enjoy it.

I'm a firm believer in human development theory as a force for good.  I think if everyone had a very solid foundation in child development, say in high school, and then if it was reinforced and expanded in college general ed. requirements,  the world would be a better place.  For example, reading a little bit about the theories of Arnold Gesell we learn that people go through periods of equilibrium and disequilibrium as a normal and expected part of the developmental process. Disequilibrium consists of discomfort and difficulty, but is often very necessary in order for an individual to progress to a new stage of development. Depending on temperament and other factors, disequilibrium is more dramatic for some people than it is for others. We have to go through the storm to get to the sunshine on the other side. And soaking up the sun during the relatively easy stages of life helps prepare and strengthen us for the next developmental storm.

For many years, our preschool has been recommending that parents read the little books about these theories so that they can fully understand what to expect. (Your One Year Old by Louise Bates Ames.  Then Your Two Year Old.  Your Three Year Old.  Etc.  The series goes up to age 9, then Your Ten to Fourteen Year Old.  You can get these books at libraries, or find them used on Amazon or other places for next to nothing.) These books are published by the nonprofit Gesell Institute and could stand some updating in terms of the examples they use, but the main content is based on solid longitudinal research and will always offer extremely sound advice.

Adults are not immune to disequilibrium. I've been thrashing around in it again for a couple of years, but I think I'm seeing the sun breaking through the clouds now, and I'm looking forward to the next decade with a lot of joy.

I'm so glad I know at least a little bit about this stuff, because it helps me understand myself better.  And guess what:  when I understand myself better, I'm much less toxic to other people, especially children, while I'm in disequilibrium. I'm still a big pain in the neck sometimes (ask my husband and kids and a few close friends) but I think I'd be worse if I understood less about the process I'm going through.

See why this should be part of our general education curriculum? It's powerful knowledge.

When I go to preschool tomorrow I know that some of the children will be in the process of finding life extremely difficult right now.  Others will be very, very happy to be two! The rest will be somewhere in-between.  It fascinates me to know that all their parents, like me, have not "arrived," now that they are adults, but are also following their own unique and often difficult developmental path which includes occasional periods of disequilibrium. I hope I can be of at least a little bit of help to them as well as to the children.

But right now I gotta go- I still have some balloons and streamers to clean up, and probably should go take something for this aching knee......

Tuesday, November 3, 2009


As I was driving to the preschool meeting tonight, the moon was at its biggest and most beautiful. Just a month ago, the moon and the light it shed on the earth was shiny and silver, but tonight, this huge Harvest Moon has become the ripe-cheese color it's always supposed to be this time of year. Golden-yellow, and casting a golden glow.  Perfect!  It's beautiful and peaceful and awe-inspiring. 

I think tomorrow I'll read Kitten's First Full Moon to the 2-year-olds!  This lovely book by Kevin Henkes is  one of a small handful of books that have become my very favorite children's books, especially for toddlers and 2's. I'm picky about kids' books, but even so, sometimes I don't get them "right." A book that I think will be perfect for the children holds no interest for them.  Or a book that I think has nothing to offer becomes a class favorite!  What do I know, anyway?  Kids know what they need and like. 

But this one, and a few others are tried and true favorites. It's Kitten's first full moon!  He mistakes it for a little bowl of milk-- and looking at it sitting up there in the sky makes him thirsty. Kitten tries everything he can think of to reach that imaginary bowl of milk, to disastrous results. Reminds me a lot of toddlers and their misperceptions and their bold quests. 

I think the reason toddlers, 2's, and even preschoolers love this book so much is that Kitten also reminds them of themselves.  In Kitten's mistake, they see reflected many of the mistakes that they make in understanding the world. They identify with his strong need to get the milk by any means necessary!  And they feel his pain when he ends up wet, cold, tired, lonely, and hungry. 

But of course the best part is the happy ending, because we all want to infuse our children with a sense of hope.  We want them to know that the world is a hopeful, positive place, where small miracles happen every day.  Every time I read this book, it always makes adults AND children happy that the story ends with a kitten who has a full tummy and feels loved. 

Take your child outside at bedtime to see this beautiful moon!  Maybe even let her stay up a little bit late to enjoy it and watch it move in the sky.   It might be her First Full Moon too, at least in her conscious memory.  Take a moon-walk in your neighborhood, have a moon-picnic, and then enjoy this lovely story together.  But be ready to read it many, many times.  Once will never be enough!

(Another day:  I'll tell you about my Favorite Children's Book Of All Time, also a Kevin Henkes book.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


As James approaches the step-down on the patio, he is eager to practice his new walking skills.  He readies himself to balance on one foot, while stepping down  the four-inches to the ground. It’s tricky for a 13-month-old, but he’s READY! He’s been working up to this for months!  Here goes…… But at the last second, a giant hand scoops down, picks him up, and places him on the lower level. “Watch it, Buddy!  You almost fell!”

What did James learn from this?  What is the message that came through as a result of the well-intentioned grown-up’s actions? “You’re not capable.”  “You’re too little.” “I have to help you.”  “Without me, you can’t do very much.”  “Taking risks isn’t a good idea.”  “Getting hurt is a disaster!”

Jessica felt a wave of sadness when her mom said goodbye and left her on Teacher’s lap. Being two, Jessica’ s preferred way of coping with, and expressing strong emotions is to cry.  After ten seconds of loud wailing, Mom bundled Jessica into a big bear hug, and smothered her with kisses, promising not to leave, after all. 

This emotional rescue made Jessica happy- sort of. But it also gave her some other, more complicated feelings.  She felt a little disappointed that she wasn’t going to get to try to be ok without her mom.  She felt a little scared about being able to control a big person like Mom with such a simple action as crying. She felt a little confused because Mom had told her that Teacher could take care of her, but now Mom is giving the message that only MOM can take care of her.  

Lots of mixed messages here, and none of them really give Jessica a can-do feeling about herself. Most of it is all tangled up in Mom’s complicated feelings of not wanting Jessica to ever feel any pain or discomfort. But isn’t experiencing reasonable discomfort, and learning that you can cope with it and survive it a big part of life?

We grown-ups often don't take responsibility for some of the confusing and disempowering messages we give children.  We're all guilty, because we’re human.  Adults have emotional needs too. We want to give our children a sense of being loved and nurtured.  We want to make sure they feel safe and secure. Most of all, we want to feel that we are doing everything we can to make them happy and safe. 

But maybe if we can learn to think about what messages our actions are conveying to our children, we will sometimes be able to choose better ways to help our children grow.  

Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Don't tell me that young children have a short attention span.

This morning I watched  2 year old Ricky spend between 12 and 15 minutes scooping up water and seashells into a container, and collecting the shells into another bucket. I don't know if I could pay attention to a tedious task like that for 12 minutes.   Could you?

Last week,   I observed Marshall sweeping every last grain of birdseed off the floor with a little broom and dustpan when it was time to clean up our sensory play.

I also saw Mindy spend at least 5 minutes washing her hands, scrubbing every bit of paint off them when she was finished working at the art table.

Don't tell me that toddlers have no empathy.

This morning I observed Sally, Jose, and Tommy bringing toy after toy to Nakhir when he was sad after his mom left. They didn't give up on him, even when their first few offerings were refused.  And sure enough, after awhile, the love and generosity of those two-year-olds did help cheer up Nakhir and he was soon ready to play.

Last week when Allison pinched her finger,  two-year-old Michael's face mirrored the distress on her face.  It was almost hard to tell which child had the hurt finger-- Michael looked so upset.   He offered multiple times to go get her an ice pack, and he stayed near her until she felt better.

When Raymond saw that Azir needed to use the big truck even more than Raymond did, Raymond willingly gave it to Azir and patiently waited for a turn.  (Yes, these children are TWO!)

Multiply these little snapshots times a thousand, and you'll see what I see every week, as the teacher of toddlers:  the most complex, wonderful, and baffling people on the planet. Just remember that toddlers will always prove you wrong, so forget everything you've ever heard about them.  Just enjoy them for who they are.  Observe them and learn from them.

We don't need to do a whole lot of direct teaching with young children. A lot of what they need to know is already inside them. When we simply build on the wonderful natural attributes of children, we help them become their best selves.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009


Jason was busy with the trains, and Tyler wanted one of the trains Jason was using.  In typical toddler fashion, Tyler simply picked it up and walked away. It makes sense...... from a toddler world view.  Naturally, Jason was upset and thus began one of several minor train-table-skirmishes that would occur that day at preschool.  I love the trains!  Toddlers feel such intense love and ownership for them that this one area of the classroom prompts many opportunities for social learning every day.

I could have responded by solving the problem for the boys.  I could have responded by ignoring the situation entirely.  Instead I tried using what seems to be the best way to help toddlers learn to get along with one another.

I handed Tyler another (very attractive) train while gently removing "Jason's" train from his grasp. While handing the disputed train back to Jason, I quietly explained that Jason was using it right now but that he would share it with Tyler when he was all done.  Then I turned to Jason, and said, "Tyler would like a turn with that train when you're all done, but you can play until you're ready to share. "Please note that I just had to ignore a little bit of fussing during the few seconds it took to accomplish this.

Then I immediately turned my attention to Tyler, and said, "What would you like to play with while you're waiting for your turn?" Then I helped him find some other, very exciting trains and other toys.  I gave him my full attention for a minute or two while  he got through the discomfort of not getting THE train right now, and soon he was playing happily.

At about that time,  Jason magnanimously handed the magical, much-wanted train to Tyler, in a grand gesture of sharing, saying, "Here."  I didn't make a big production of this, but simply said (so that both boys heard me,) "Thank you for sharing, Jason."

Joy, pride, and deep learning were the result.  Both boys felt good about themselves, and moved a little further in their journey of social learning.  They learned a little bit about how to imagine how someone else was feeling, they learned a little bit about waiting, and they learned that it can feel good to share with someone.

The Magic Words are "when you're all done,"and "when you're ready." A child who is using something needs to feel respected, and should not be rushed to finish his play just because another child is interested in using the same toy. It's important to make sure the child feels ownership of the sharing process, and at least temporary ownership of the toy in question. No one can share something they don't feel is theirs to share.

Another key part of the formula is my giving quality attention to the person who is waiting.  "What would you like to do while you're waiting for your turn?" are magic words as well. It's not my intention to distract Tyler, so that he will forget about the train that Jason has.  I don't believe in distracting toddlers, although sometimes that can be effective. I prefer to allow them to feel difficult emotions, and to be right there with them while they are feeling them. I think that's how emotional growth happens.

Learning to share is gradual. It's really not easy for any of us, at any age.  Yet we often expect toddlers to  be able to do it beautifully, even though they have just jumped onto this long, long learning curve.   All children will share when they are ready.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


It's so hard to tell where you end, and they begin.  Where is the boundary between parent and child?  Presumably, there is one, but sometimes it's hard to find it. When you're pregnant, you learn to cope with the mind-boggling sensation of a tiny parasite living inside you (and in my case, sapping most of your physical and mental energy.) You truly ARE one person for those months.  There literally is no separation, although at moments during those last few weeks, you really wish you could just have your body back. And then your child is born,  and SNIP, doctor or Dad cuts the cord, and you begin the long process of letting go.

If I weren't a toddler teacher, I could just focus on my own parenting.  I could reflect on my own journey, and think about how far down that path of letting-go I've finally made it in these twenty-two years. I could realize that my job as a mom is sort of close to "ending," but not really, because it never does.  And then I could focus on other, more adult issues, such as, say, the latest episode of Grey's Anatomy. But I get to be immersed in the same struggle every day with my preschool families, and this causes me to look at the world a little differently than I would if I were an accountant, an editor,  or a stock broker. I see everything through the lens of ATTACHMENT. I can't help it. It's the only lens I have now, after all these years with toddlers and their parents. And I guess I'm glad that I see the world this way.

The most important thing I've learned is that attachment is real and it's essential.  Everyone needs to be the center of someone's universe.  Child-parent attachment and its implications have been well-studied and documented, and a strong attachment early in life is widely accepted as being foundational to life-long mental, physical, and emotional health.  Ok, good-- so our urgent impulses to protect and nurture are accomplishing what nature intends.  Our desire for close connection with our offspring serves a purpose in their development.

BUT:  the second most important thing I've learned is that healthy attachment includes a component of de-tachment. The healthiest family relationships are based on the changing needs of the child as the child grows and develops. It's not good to get stuck in one spot and stay there.  A newborn needs constant close contact for survival, but a two-year-old really does need a bit of physical and emotional space. Many parents in my programs are struggling with this change:  it felt really good to be everything to that child for two years. Even though it's now becoming obvious that it's time to step back a bit and let the child work on a few things on her own, Mom or Dad often are not ready for this step in their own adult development. They don’t know how to re-tool and reconfigure their parent-child roles and relationship. So they hover over the child at school, they remind the child that they are “my baby,” they speak for the child, they speak TO the child instead of letting other adults speak to them, they make excuses for the child's behavior, and they insulate the child from as much frustration as possible.  Sometimes, the toddler's developmental mandates will take over, and the will to be his own person will manifest itself in tantrums, fussing, and rebelling.

Fortunately, many parents begin to get the message at this point, and start learning to gradually detach: they stand back physically so that the child can interact with other people on her own, they wait 20 seconds before intervening in a toddler squabble over a toy, they refrain from saying, "he's tired," or "she's getting her molars" to explain the child's fussy behavior, and instead let the child and her behavior speak for itself. When parents are able to adapt and change their connection gradually to meet the changing needs of the child, they reap the benefits of a constantly changing and ever-strenthening bond with their child.

My young-adult daughters still need a close connection and a young-adult form of attachment to their mom, but it doesn't work for them at this stage of development when I try to pull them as close to me as I did when the were little. And frankly, it doesn't work for me, either!  As they have grown and found their own path in life, so have I. They want their space, and I do too.  It feels good for all of us to be right where we are in our own development, and we greatly enjoy each other's company when we converge our individual paths to spend time together. I can only imagine how frustrating and stressful life might be if we were still trying to be as merged as we were when they were much younger.

In my parenting, letting-go has been a gradual process, and I've had to work hard to figure it out along the way.  I've gotten it wrong a lot of times: I've clung too tightly to them many times, and let go too quickly at other times.  I'll always get it wrong sometimes, I'm sure.  But I cling to the hope that trying hard really does count for something in parenting.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


She just drove away. She's heading back to school for her last year of college. She's happy and excited, and a little bit nervous. She loves school and she's anxious to see her friends.

And here I am, curled up on the couch, crippled by spasms of crying and sadness that come in waves, the way the pain comes in waves after you burn your finger or stub your toe or smash your finger in a door. Missing someone hurts, even before they leave. At this moment, there is no way to separate the physical pain from the emotional pain. I know that both are only momentary, and that in a few minutes I'll get busy cleaning up all the messes she left behind, and happily diving into projects I've been wishing I had time for.  I've been looking forward to some me-time.

But first: give me a few minutes to cry.

When moms and dads say goodbye to toddlers at my school, the pain for some of those children and parents is no less intense, even though this separation is only for a couple of hours. It's just one of those things, part of life. Some of us experience it more intensely than others, and at times in our development it can be more intense than at other times. But there is no fixing it, and no rushing it.

I started feeling this "separation anxiety" when I occasionally had to be away from my own mother for a little while when I was very young. I remember feeling as if my arm had been ripped off when I was pulled away from my mom for an hour while she went to the grocery store. I continued feeling it when my daughters were little and we occasionally had difficult goodbyes,  and I still experience it very strongly now every time I say goodbye to my daughters or my mother after a visit. Maybe this is why I'm a toddler teacher.

While I've learned that I can't run from the sadness, I've learned that some things can help those waves of pain to pass a bit more easily and quickly:

-Go ahead and feel it, and cry as long and hard as I need to. Holding it in or hiding it hurts more.
(So, I always give "permission" to my toddlers in school to do the same.)

-Talk about it if I can, or express it in some other way, such as through art, music, or writing.
(At school, the children usually need to paint, work with clay or sand, scribble with crayons, dictate a note, build with blocks, or play in water.)

-Fresh air and exercise will make me feel better.
(Kids already know this, and often head outside with no prompting when they are sad.)

-Hugs and comfort from others help a lot.
(That's what teachers are for.)

-When I'm ready, I need to get busy doing something meaningful and interesting.
(At school, I learn what each child loves the most, and I help them head toward their favorite activity when they are ready.)

Ok-- now I've cried and I've written about my feelings. I'm doing a little better. I think I'm ready to go for a walk. Then I think I'll plant some flowers, and after that I'll get busy on all the work that's piled up lately. I'm ready for a good day. Maybe I'll call her later and see if she's all moved into her new room.

I was sad, but I'm all better now.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Yesterday at a Town Hall meeting regarding health care reform, here are some behaviors I observed in people in their 40's, 50's, and 60's:

-Loudly interrupting the speaker, repeatedly
-Yelling rudely at other people with whom they disagree
-Ignoring instructions
-Refusal to listen to others, even those in authority

Today at this year's very first day of preschool, here are some behaviors I observed among the young two year olds:

-G. handed a toy to another child at the water table, saying, "Here. For you." With no prompting.
-K. said "Sorry!" to A. when she accidentally splashed water on him, which momentarily upset him. Again, no adult prompting.
-When two boys both wanted the same book, a brief tugging match ensued.  When teacher assisted by saying, "Would you like me to read the book to both of you?"  both boys settled in to happily listen to the story together, forgetting their squabble.
-Everyone willingly listened to what the teacher said, and readily complied with the few instructions.  They washed their hands, went to the picnic table for snack, and rang bells for Goodbye Time.
-One boy served a new friend a plastic pear at the tea party he had set up in the housekeeping area.
-Four of the toddlers easily negotiated turn-taking with the doll-strollers.
-Several children began learning everyone's names, and using them correctly.
-Everyone seemed happy to be together, even though they don't know each other yet.

What a contrast from my experience at the Town Hall yesterday.  It reminds me of why I work with toddlers instead of working in politics. Toddlers are so much more civilized.

Thursday, September 10, 2009


Emily was busy stacking blocks, and seeing how high they could go.  This playgroup was a challenging experience for both Emily, and for me, her mom.  She was almost two, and her behavior had never been more difficult.  So as Brandon approached Emily's block tower, I was on edge, waiting for the tantrum.

Sure enough- as soon as Brandon reached Emily's invisible force field of six feet, the shrieking started. Feeling pressure from the other moms, I thought I needed to "do something." I took some of the blocks and gave them to Brandon, saying, "Emily, we need to share with Brandon." Needless to say, the screaming did not decrease in intensity.

What was learned that day?

Emily learned that sharing is a bad thing.  It's a bad word, I don't like sharing, I don't want to share. (It takes awhile to un-learn these things if you have enough of these lessons.)

Maybe Brandon learned that when you want something someone else has, they have to give it to you even if they don't want to.  (That can take some serious un-learning too.)

I learned that I am too easily influenced by my perceptions of what other adults are thinking of ME.  Because I feared the other moms would think I was a bad mom, I made the mistake of forcing my toddler to do something she was not developmentally ready to do.

When Emily was ready to share, she shared. Today, she is a loving and very social twenty-two year old who spends hours creating hand-made birthday cards and gifts for each of her dozens of best friends. She would give anything she has to anyone who wants or needs it.   But when I tried to rush her readiness, I was actually defeating my goals of raising a generous, sharing child.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009


Toddlers have a bad reputation for selfishness.  But are they really selfish?

Toby is busy playing with a large collection of animals and people.  Several children are watching, and because Toby is so absorbed in his play, it really looks like fun!  Of course, the other kids want to have fun, too. When Katrina reaches out for a zebra, naturally, Toby reacts with a loud, "NO!  Mine!"

Is this being selfish?  I don't think so.  Toby needed all of those particular toys for the elaborate scenario that was playing out in his head at that moment.

I explained to Katrina that Toby was using those toys, and I mentioned to Toby that he could use them until he was all done, and then he could share them when he was ready.  Then I helped Katrina find other things to play with.

A few minutes later, I observed Toby give a deep, contented sigh, and look up from his play.  Then he looked over and saw Katrina nearby.  I saw an "Aha" look cross Toby's face. He picked up the zebra Katrina had reached for earlier,  then walked over and handed it to her.  I said, "Thanks for sharing, Toby.  It looks like you're all done now."  Toby smiled broadly and walked away.

This is the way that sharing is learned. Toddlers are very capable of sharing, as long as they are allowed to feel ownership first.  If you don't feel that you own something, it's not yours to share.

Thursday, September 3, 2009


"My toddler is cranky, even when we're out doing fun things just for him."

"Why is she so fussy even when we're at a park or playdate?"

"I don't know what else I could be doing to entertain my kids: I take them to the children's museum, parks, hikes, the beach, trips, parties, friends' houses, and all kind of other activities, but they are still whiny most of the time!"

Most of the parents I know want to provide a rich, full life for their young children. So they take them out into the community almost every day to see and do things, and to interact with other children. Parents believe that children who are exposed to a wide variety of experiences will have a head start in terms of academic learning, social skills, and general happiness. And many parents base this belief on the fact that they, themselves, thrive on being out and about. They love going, seeing, and doing, and they want to share these enriching experiences with their children. There is great demand for these activities, so you can find baby gym classes and swim classes, preschool sports camps, infant/parent music classes, and amusement parks geared toward the infant-through-preschool set in almost every community. Surely, all these opportunities for fun and learning lead to happy, well adjusted children, right?

So why do so many parents find that their well-traveled toddlers and preschoolers are still fussy and grumpy, even with all these fun things to do?

Everyone is different. Surprisingly, you may find that your own child is very different from you.

Perhaps you find it energizing and calming to take daily trips to the park, or to attend frequent playgroups with other parents and kids. But perhaps your child is having an experience that is different from yours. Some people, who may be considered to be more extroverted, do thrive on a lot of social interaction. Being around people "re-charges their batteries," and makes them feel happy and alive. Other people are more introverted, and find that even if they are having fun, being around people tends to tire them. Their "batteries" must be re-charged by being alone. Sometimes it's hard for parents to understand that their children's feelings and experiences may be very different from their own, and extroverted, energetic parents assume that their children need as much stimulation as they do. A toddler isn't capable of expressing his need for alone-time. But he will make his feelings obvious by his behaviors. A whiny, cranky child may be a child who is in need of more solitude.

All children, even those more on the "extroverted" end of the spectrum, need some down-time to play alone, think, observe, do nothing, and just BE. This is when the most intense brain development is actually taking place, because the child is having time to reflect and construct his own knowledge. It's important to realize, however, that TV, movies, computer games, and other electronic media-based activities do not count as "alone time." These activities do not actually provide the emotional or cognitive benefits that children need, even though they may beg parents for them. (More about that at another time.)

"But when I try to have a stay-at-home day with my toddler, she whines at me all day! She wants to go out. She gets bored."

In my experience, children who have been trained to expect the constant stimulation of trips and activities (or electronic entertainment) sometimes have to adjust to the idea of entertaining themselves at home. It may take a day or two of practice before they can settle in and begin spending long periods of time playing with their toys or puttering around their own back yard. But once children have the opportunity to experience some healthy down-time, parents often tell me that the child seems much happier and cooperative. I think they feel that they have breathing room now-- space in their heads for their own thoughts.

Finding the right balance between down-time and activity isn't always easy, especially when family members' needs are quite different from each other. But it's an important goal, and it can be achieved when parents are tuned in to their children's behavioral cues and are creative about making sure everyone's needs are met, including their own.

Later, we'll talk about some of the simple things that toddlers like to do at home when they are given time to slow down and set their own schedule. Childhood is very short! Rushing from one activity to another is not always the best way to enjoy the special gift of childhood.

Down-time is learning time!

Friday, August 28, 2009


My kid's sad..... I feel guilty I couldn't somehow prevent this unhappiness.
My kid's happy.... I feel guilty I'm not able to stop what I'm doing to enjoy it more, to be "in the moment."
My kid spends a lot of time reading books........ I feel guilty I'm not encouraging more outdoor play.
My kid is running around outside from morning to night....... I feel guilty I'm not making sure we are reading more.
I have a close relationship with my child......... I feel guilty that maybe I'm "babying her."
My child is very independent........ I feel guilty that somehow I may have caused "attachment problems."

I think I'm seeing a pattern here: no matter what happens, I will feel guilty. What's the deal? Did this come with the parenting package? Or is being guilt-ridden just a part of my flawed psyche, something else I should feel guilty about?

When I was a younger mom I believed, deep down to my bones, that if I wasn't feeling deeply responsible for all aspects of my child's life, I just wasn't doing my job. And of course, that had to lead to guilt. Who can be everywhere, know everything, and always cover all the bases? I truly thought I could, and should be able to do all that, but I always seemed to come up short.

Because, guess what: I'm human. My unfortunate children did not have a supernatural being for a mom, poor little things.

I did not always know what they wanted for breakfast and I could not always avoid being one minute late picking them up from Kindergarten. Additionally, I could not always hide my feelings of fatigue and irritation, nor could I always creatively solve all of their problems or improve their moods for them. The birthday parties I planned for my children were not, unfortunately, the cutest and and most fun parties on the block.

By my own standards, I was often a failure.

The thing is, my standards and my feelings of accomplishment or failure had very little to do with meeting my children's actual needs. You guessed it: it was all about me.

Guilt is a selfish emotion. It focuses us inward, and forces us to ignore those around us. While we are involved in the egocentric frenzy of gnashing our teeth over allowing our child to forget their homework, we are ignoring the more important event: the "teachable moment" that our child could be experiencing, if we were available to help just a little. When we are wallowing in guilt because we were unable to prevent our toddler from a little boo-boo, we are elevating our own needs above the needs that the child has for a little comfort, a bandaid, and a hug. And often, our guilt makes the child feel even worse because they read the distress on our face, and through the psycho-social phenomenon call "social referencing" they think they should be very upset, just because we are.

It's easier to be a mom if you have less of these "guilt genes." But since my culture, upbringing, and temperament have predisposed me to guilt, I have learned that the best thing I can do for myself and my kids is to be aware of it. I am finally learning to notice when I am laying a guilt trip on myself, and I am usually able to force myself to look at things a little more rationally. Then I can relax and be more authentic and more available to my children, which is ultimately what I want for all of us.

Now if I could just stop feeling guilty about feeling guilty.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I remember feeling little. I was only two or three, but I didn't like that feeling of needing to grow into my skin. This feeling always seemed to have a lot to do with the way other people were making me feel about myself.

For example I recall feeling small when I said something that was serious to me, but the big people laughed because it was "cute."

I remember feeling small when I tried to do something challenging- carry a heavy bucket of sand- but failed, and the people around me laughed.

I felt small and insignificant when I was thrilled about a brand-new accomplishment- I climbed to the top of the fence!- but the grownups scolded me for climbing.

I felt little when my emotions suddenly overcame my bravery, and I cried for my mother, and the teacher told me not to be "a baby."

I felt way too small when I wanted to be a Big Girl and do something new for myself- walk next door to my friend's- and the grownups laughed and said I was too little.

Now that I am an adult, with personal power, autonomy, and a voice of my own, I realize that children are very often belittled by well-meaning adults.

It's one thing to enjoy them while they are little, but it's another thing entirely to make them feel small.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


The little boy is always very happy sitting and playing with his trucks and toys. Even though he is only two, sometimes he will concentrate on his play for forty-five minutes at a time. Sometimes he likes to lie on the floor with a toy in his hand, talking quietly to himself. His mother finds herself frustrated and impatient with his inactivity, and worried about his health. She is very active, and values exercise. She wants her son to be healthy and fit. She had looked forward to having a child to play soccer and other sports with, but when she tries to engage him in physical activity, he usually shies away and heads back to his toys.

The toddler enjoys familiar places the most. When she is taken to new places, she is uncomfortable, and it takes her quite awhile for her to settle in to her new surroundings. Her parents find this difficult, because they like to take their family to lots of new places and they want to expose her to many new adventures. But she is so unhappy during these outings that her fussing makes it unpleasant for everyone.

The father is worried because his young son seems to have few friends. The toddler likes to play with only one other child, and hasn't yet formed friendships with anyone else, even though the parents have taken the him to playgroups since he was an infant. This dad finds that his many friendships are one of the most important parts of his life. He wants his children to find the joy in friendship that has been so important to him. He is worried that his son will not have very many friends and will be lonely.

Sometimes the little girl is downright "difficult." This is ok at home, but when the child expresses her strong opinions when other people are around, her mother gets very uncomfortable. She was raised to believe that it's important to fit in with others, and to put others' needs ahead of your own. She wants her daughter to have good social skills so that she will have friends, and be accepted. She worries that other children, as well as adults, will find this strong-willed child unlikeable. But she doesn't know what to do about it: her daughter simply has very intense feelings and expresses them very loudly!

In each of these families, the parents want the best for their children, but are worried because the child does not seem to be what the parents expected. They all wonder if there is something more they could or should be doing about it: can they somehow "make" their child more active, more adaptable, more social, or more calm?

Do these parents' struggles mirror anything that you have been through as a parent? Before their first child is born, most parents have ideas of what parenthood will be like, what their child "should" be like, and what their values are as a family. This is all normal and natural. The only problem is, eventually the child comes along and shows us that all these ideas just don't seem to apply anymore!

Every child is unique, and we have limited power to mold them into something that they are not. An low-activity person, such as the first toddler described above, cannot be shaped into a highly active child at the parent's insistence. And all the wishes and willpower in the world will not make a slow-to-adapt child "hurry up" and get used to a new environment more quickly.

Children are who they are. As you slowly get to know them over the first three years of your lives together, you may or may not recognize them as being similar to you. But whether they share many temperament traits with either parent or not, they are going to be themselves, no matter what.

We parents waste quite a lot of relationship-energy on trying to "change" our kids. We would be better off using all that energy to observe and learn about our kids as they are. And then we could offer the best of ourselves to them, offer them experiences and opportunities that both challenge them and match their strengths, and most of all, accept them for the unique and irreplaceable person that they are.

We can't change our children, but face it: our children change us.

Sunday, August 2, 2009



"I LOVE it!"

"This is the best picture I've ever seen!"

"You're the best artist in the class!"

"You're amazing!"


"You worked hard on this for a very long time!"

"I noticed that you used red paint in one hand and yellow paint in another hand, and painted with both at the same time. And in the middle, I saw that the red and the yellow mixed together to make a new color!"

"When you were drawing, you looked like you were thinking very hard, and then when you were finished, you looked very happy!"

"What can you tell me about your picture? I'd like to hear all about it."

"You used two pairs of scissors at the same time when you were cutting that paper! That seems like an interesting idea. How did that feel?"

"I can see a lot of colors and a lot of shapes in this picture."

"You had a smile on your face the whole time you were drawing this picture. Can you tell me what you were thinking and feeling?"

Which type of comment gives a toddler more information about themselves and their skills?

When parents and teachers are busy and distracted, we offer the first type: "Awesome!" Even though they gush enthusiasm, these comments require no thought at all. We can make these statements without any observation or personal engagement with the child. It's easy. It's also useless. What can a toddler learn about their emerging identity and blossoming skills from "Amazing!"? Especially when every child in the class gets the same comment from Teacher, or when Mom always says every picture I paint is "Awesome!"?

When adults take time to be truly engaged, and to observe children's creative process in detail, we can provide them with information that will assist them in their development. When we tell them that we noticed they worked hard on the project, they learn that they are a person who can stick to a task. When we point out unique ways that they use tools, they learn that they are a person with creative ideas. When we ask them open-ended questions about their work, it teaches them that their ideas are of value to others. Gradually, these respectful interactions can accumulate in a child's experience, and result in positive self-esteem, as well as creative and critical thinking skills. And think about the higher-level language skills that are being modeled, as well!

Like most other positive parenting/teaching skills, offering genuine feedback to children takes practice. Maybe thinking of it this way will help: if an adult friend asked you for feedback on a project that was important to them, you wouldn't say "It's terrific!" without even thinking, would you? You would take the time to really look at the work and give genuinely helpful feedback. It's simply the respectful thing to do. Children deserve at least this much effort from us.

Let's take the time to be engaged with our children's creative work, and give them the genuine and respectful feedback they need.

Saturday, August 1, 2009


We're walking in the redwood forest... ancient trees are swaying lightly as the breeze stirs the lowest branches. The sunlight filters down through the high canopy and creates an ever-changing mosaic of light on the pathway. The only sounds are the songs of birds, the chattering of chipmunks, the scolding of jays, and the whisper of the wind. These trees are fifteen feet in diameter and a thousand years old! This is a sacred and beautiful place and it feels wonderful to be here. "There are so many things to see, hear, feel, and experience here," I'm thinking as I walk along.

And then.

Along comes a young mother with her baby in a stroller. The baby's eyes are glued to a portable video player in the stroller, and the baby is watching the movie "Shrek." On the tiny video screen I could glimpse images of cartoon trees and animals in a pretend forest. The baby was seeing, hearing, and experiencing nothing in the real world around her. I wanted to scream, I wanted to shake that misguided young mom, I wanted to throw that video player in the creek! But of course I didn't do anything. I just cried later as I told my husband about it, and I ranted about this incident to my college students and parenting classes for the rest of the year.

This seems like a very obvious Crime Against Natural Childhood. But think. What kinds of things did I do when my kids were little that may have been similar "crimes," although not as egregious? What kinds of crimes do you commit? Video player in the minivan? So many of us are willing to sacrifice our children's learning for a little peace and quiet while in the car. TV or videos late in the afternoon because "we're all tired?" Why wouldn't simple water play in the back yard provide a more relaxing and productive remedy for exhaustion and still allow you to get your chores done? The trip to Disneyland might be better spent at the beach. The kids would really rather just play in the sand anyway, wouldn't they? Planting seeds in cups and watching them grow with your toddler and his friend might be a better learning experience than signing up for another "enrichment" class.

Nature is the best playmate, the best teacher and the best playground. We just need to put away our gadgets and be ready to play.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Empowering Problems

Crash! The tower of blocks falls over, and the toddler screams in frustration. At this point Mom, Dad, or Teacher has several options for how to respond:

1. Do or say nothing.

2. Be sympathetic, try to console the child. "Don't cry. It's ok."

3. Distract the child. "Come on! Let's go play with the bubbles!"

4. Fix the problem. "Here- let me build it back up for you."

5. Look for ways to empower the child to solve the problem herself. "I wonder why it fell down. Can you figure out how to build it better? I'll watch you work on it."

Which of these methods will result in the most positive long-term outcomes?

I think most of us would agree that number 5 would be more likely to result in the child developing life-long problem-solving skills, and feelings of self-confidence. This is especially true if this type of scenario is repeated many times every day. (And with young children, aren't there always zillions of problems to solve?)

But ask yourself: Which method do you most often use? Why?

It does not necessarily come naturally to all adults to use empowering language with children. For many of us, it is a bit of a "foreign language" which must be learned and rehearsed. Many of us fall very easily and naturally into responding with numbers 1 through 4, especially if we were raised that way ourselves.

Try practicing a little. Experiment by very deliberately using empowering language with a child in one or two situations, and see how it feels. You may find that the pay-off in increased self-esteem for both you and the child is well worth the effort.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Perfect Imperfection

Why is it so hard? Why is parenting so exhausting and frustrating sometimes? Especially when it's one of those days? Or one of those weeks.... No naps, no cooperation, lots of whining and problems, nothing goes well, everything is just.... hard.

Sometimes there is no way to explain the difficulty. It just is. Too bad we can't just accept that, and live with it. If we could, it would eventually get easier again for awhile, and life would move forward. Instead, we tend to focus on the negative, and stay in the bad place longer than we have to, and wallow in blame. We blame ourselves for being bad parents. We blame our kids for spoiled and demanding, our partners for not being helpful enough. But blame doesn't help anyone.

But looking back over the years at my own parenting struggles, I think the main thing that made it hard at times was my own unrealistic expectations for my kids and for myself. I wanted them to be a certain way, a certain thing. I wanted myself to be a certain type of parent. I wanted us to be a particular type of family, and I wanted us to achieve an unrealistic level of perfection. Well, needless to say, we never made it. And most of the time that I spent focusing on those crazy goals was not only wasted, but was responsible for creating an unhappy atmosphere in our family and anxiety within myself. I see now that my desires for some sort of unattainable perfection were all based on trying to please or impress other people, and had nothing to do with meeting the needs of my children or myself. Of course I had no idea of this at the time.

I'm thinking that if I were to raise my kids all over again I would want to try to just let them be. Just let them be who they are, and do what they need to do. I would also try to offer myself the same courtesies: allow myself to be un-impressive. Make "who cares" my motto. Try to make enjoying my kids my daily goal. What a difference that would have made in the level of my stress as a young mom 20 years ago!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Learning from Living

Flowers and Petunia. They were tiny baby skunks, barely old enough to have their eyes opened. Dad found them by the pond, abandoned by their mother. They became "ours" for awhile. We fed them and loved them, and I think we even dressed them in doll clothes once or twice. I was only three, but I still remember vividly the sweet skunky smell of them, and the way they cuddled against my chest. I never did understand what people have against skunks. I think most people have just never known one personally.

There was a long parade of animals in my childhood, both wild and tame. Each one of them taught me many fascinating and important things.

I learned that you can have Dog School with a group of dogs, if the grownups leave you alone, and if you are patient.

I learned that chickens grow faster than anything else: one day they are sweet and soft, and the next day they are big and scary and attacking my feet.

I learned that some rabbits prefer to stay in the hutch, but that some rabbits will let you walk them on a leash.

Baby possums look exactly like grown up possums, except they are smaller. They smell differently from baby skunks, but are almost as cuddly.

Baby mice and baby birds prefer to be left alone as much as possible: there is such a thing as too much love.

Sometimes a goose just has to be free.

Raccoons will play with anything. The young raccoon that stole all our hearts one year always washed dog food in the water dish until it dissolved, and helped Dad work on the car engine by sticking his paws into every nook and cranny, examining every bolt and screw. Dad cried a little when it was time to take him back out to the country to let him live his life in the wild.

The summer that I raised my baby goat, Cottonwood, he followed me all over our small town, loping to keep up with me, bleating my name, "Aaaannnnie...." The neighbors embarrassed me when they would sing, "Annie has a little goat, little goat, little goat..."

The day we brought the new puppy home from the kennel, I won the fight with my brother about who got to hold her in the car for the thirty minute drive home. By the time we got home, my dog and I had permanently bonded, and she was my best friend for nearly two decades.

When our grumpy cat had kittens in the front seat of the car, we all discovered her and her new family when we were on our way to swimming lessons. We still talk about the big happy smile she gave us as she showed off her beautiful litter. This cat never was a bundle of joy, but we loved her. For the remaining 16 years of her life, we fondly remembered the joyful kittens-in-the-car day, and we often wondered if she would ever smile at us again. She didn't, but she seemed content enough.

When children are not exposed to non-human living things, how to they learn the important lessons of life? Computer games and videos can't hard-wire a brain to appreciate the nuances of empathy the way that caring for another living being can. Enrichment classes and organized sports may not prepare a person to discern the minute differences between individuals, the way raising a batch of identical baby chicks or bunnies will do. Reading the best descriptive and well-illustrated books in the world cannot give a child the vivid sensory input that my baby skunks gave me.

Most children do not have access to skunks, possums, raccoons, and goats on a daily basis. But what about bugs, snails and worms? They make wonderful temporary pets and provide amazing lessons in science and in life. Another one of my favorite pets from childhood was a little bug I named Joe. I had him in a shoe box for a day or two. I cared for him, observed him, learned from him, and offered him his freedom. Would I remember Joe for all these years if his presence in my life hadn't been important and instructive? He, and all the other animals in my life taught me that everyone is different, that each individual is remarkable.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

"Would you like to walk by yourself, or do you want me to help you?"

If I am a toddler, this in an intriguing choice. It gives me the power to choose, and the comfort of knowing that the big person will help me if I prefer. Sometimes I just don't want to walk by myself, and sometimes i really, really really do. But I know what I want, so it's an easy decision, even if I am very young. If Mom, Dad, or Teacher has truly offered only choices that are perfectly ok with them, everyone is getting what they want and need.

Within seconds, the child, the whole situation, is un-stuck. We're now on our way to bed, to the car, to wash our hands, wherever it was we were going when we decided to veer of course.


Simple. Easy. Effective. Respectful.