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.)