Poetry at Dawn

"Your very flesh shall be a great poem." -Walt Whitman

Teaching values is a full-contact sport

(This is the last - for awhile - “throwback” post from prior blogs. I’ve been attempting to merge all of my “writing selves”. And…I needed a break to focus on another writing project. Thanks for being patient. New, original content will resume upon return from my coastal “anniversary” hike…)

In my line of work, I see all kinds of kids, all kinds of parents, and all kinds of families. I see fully involved parents (working, single, privileged and disadvantaged) with well-rounded kids. There are also plenty of kids who struggle in the “building good character” department. And that can be for a number of reasons.

I’ve been teaching for more than 10 years. My first year, I wore myself out planning perfect lessons late into the night…lessons that rarely turned out the way I expected. I struggled to survive and made few personal connections with my students. It concerned me that the content just wasn’t being covered because we never seemed to get anywhere.

Basically, I was playing football as if it were tennis…or long-distance running. Any profession that involves kids, including parenting - because let’s face it…it’s probably the hardest job on the planet, has to be handled like a full-contact team sport. I’m not saying we should literally be tackling each other…but follow my metaphor for a bit.

In a team sport, there’s a coach or a captain and each of the remaining players has a particular function. Everyone has to do his or her part, or the team will fail. We’ve all seen those players who seem to think they are playing the game by themselves. The MVP’s who become the face of the team. It flies in the face of what team sports are about.

Adults who work with kids (or raise them) are the coaches and captains, and the kids are the players. Some players are naturally good. Others take more one-on-one. Some are good leaders and will become captains or coaches themselves. Still others are much better at taking direction and running with it; they are cooperative and know how to succeed as a unit. Some need to be taken down a few notches as their egos grow, and a few need to built up and supported until they find their own abilities.

Our teams benefit from all types of coaches and all types of players. Some are better paired than others, but no matter what our style as parents, as long as we are trying, we are doing the right thing.

Unlike a football team, however, we can’t trade our players, and not all of us have a fantasy team. We have to make the team we have the best one we can. We take them as they are (and ourselves), and we turn them (and us) into the best damn team we can.

History is full of really hard working coaches with heart and determination. Inspirational movies are made about them all the time. And if you’ve seen any of them, it’s hard not to see that creating a successful team is less about playbooks and rules and in-born talent, than it is about trust, connection, and never giving up.

Sort of like families.

And how we train our little players is up to us. We have to mold our coaching style to their needs (even if it means some intense soul-searching on our parts). Some kids need tough coaches. Other kids need patience and a lot of time. Some need a lot of praise. Other need to be left to struggle it out on their own.

And when it comes to values, character building…well, we teach those in the same way we teach anything else. Character is a skill, like any other. We aren’t born knowing right from wrong, how to be empathetic, how to work with others. Without training, I believe we’d, like animals, do whatever we had to survive. We’d lie, cheat, and steal our way to a full belly and a comfortable home.

We have to be taught why we should be good. We need to see what good looks like, not just be told. We have to practice it a million times and see success with it to really understand why it’s better than taking the easier way.

And that’s where we, as coaches, tend to go wrong. We talk a lot. We expect the team to listen. We might even show them our brilliantly drawn out plays. We might tell them loads of stories about how we learned to do it. But, we don’t spend as much time just having them run the plays over and over and over and over.

We’re much better at it when our “players” are young, especially before they can really talk. We play charades and “show” them everything. And then, when they become verbal, we starting talking at them incessantly, but we often stop “showing” them. Or we might assume that now they can speak, they understand our words. But we would be mistaken.

If it were that easy, we could just sit our kids in front of a video about sharing and afterwards they would miraculously just start sharing, willingly.

But, it doesn’t work that way.

Today, my little player wants to sit on his computer and play video games all day. I he were left to his own devices, that’s just what he’d do. I could tell him not to, and just sit here typing away. He’d stop, because he has no choice, but he wouldn’t be internalizing the lesson of why he shouldn’t spend his whole day that way.

It’s my job to physically show him and let him practice it. We can go on a walk or a bike ride, and he feels better, more energized. We can make muffins, learning about fractions and following recipes. Or he can head outside and play with his dogs, climbing trees and playing with sticks and frogs. Anything that gets him away from the computer and shows him that other things are just as fun…or more so…that’s how he will learn why he shouldn’t be on the computer all day. Me just telling him to stop makes me the bad guy…the killer of fun. The rigid authority figure who just doesn’t understand.

I can’t just say stop, and assume the lesson will be learned. I have to say go to something else, and then go with him.

It’s a lot of work, yes. It’s takes patience, which is in short supply in this family. And it takes full contact. Hands-on activity.


Facing our kids’ weaknesses

I’m a realist when it comes to parenting. I don’t expect my son to be good at everything or like to do what every other kid likes to do.

I expect him to be unique, have an opinion (and, oh boy, does he!), and be open to new experiences. I also expect him not to quit something he’s committed to unless he has a damned good reason.

He’s got a lot of strengths: he’s an amazing reader and has the vocabulary to prove it, he’s great at math, he’s pretty darn good at soccer, and he can put a mid-sized Lego set together in no time (and will do it all in one sitting, by himself). He’s got the mind of an engineer. He’s linear, a bit obsessive about the order of his favorite things (everything else, of course, can just end up in a haphazard pile under his bed), and sees things as black and white when it comes to justice.

Yes, he’s got an impressive little list of talents. But…he’s got plenty of weaknesses to balance it out. He’s a sore loser, listens like he’s completely deaf, and can struggle in social situations. And, as it turns out, he’s pretty uncoordinated.

As parents, we accept these things. We know our kids won’t be good at everything, and even if we, are highly competitive ourselves, we know we can’t push them to excel in all areas. Do their best, yes…but not excel. In fact, it’s to everyone’s benefit to find our kids’ talents and interests and let them flourish in those areas, focusing so they get good (after all, isn’t that what we do as adults with our careers?). Of course, we have to try a lot of things and watch our kids fail miserably at some to find out what they really are gifted at. And that can be hard for some of us.

Recently, my son asked to go to a swimming birthday party. I reminded him that he still couldn’t really swim, so he’d have to wait to do things like that until he finished out his swimming lessons. He tried to convince me that he could swim just fine (I, of course, know better…he can stand on his tippy toes and flap his arms around like a duck…he cannot really swim).

We did the parent/child lessons a couple of years back, and last summer he took level 1 and 2 on his own. He did relatively well, though he did plenty of screwing around and could have learned more than he did if he’d just paid more attention (my son always seems to be the kid who’s busy doing jumping jacks underwater while all the other kids are patiently sitting on the edge of the pool waiting for instructions). Focusing isn’t one of his inborn skills.

Regardless of his inattentive behavior, he passed level 2. So this year, I signed right up for level 3. On the day of the first lesson, he followed three other children and his instructor along the side of the pool. I found a spot on the bleachers and prepared to read or waste time on my phone for the 30 minutes his lesson would take.

Instead, I ended up not being able to take my eyes off my son.

I was amazed at his glaring inadequacy. Oh, I know…I could be more positive about it. I could say, “Well, maybe he’s just forgotten what he learned…he’ll come around.” Or, “The instructor is just going to have spend more time with him; I’m paying for lessons and it’s their job to teach him.” Or even, “They’re the ones who passed him out of level 2…what were they thinking?!!!”

But, as a teacher myself, I’m fully aware that the deficiency was with my son’s ability, and both of us were going to have to own it and deal with it. He was simply not prepared for level 3. The other kids in the class were leaps and bounds ahead of him, already swimming fully on their own. The instructor spent a majority of her time holding my son up and pulling him along. Bless her, she tried. And it was painful to watch. I wanted to run right up and interrupt the lesson and take him out of the pool. Not necessarily for his sake, but for mine. I looked around. I knew those other kids’ parents were in the stands, too…watching their own children be neglected for the sake of my son, who literally looked like he’d never been in a pool before. Yes, I’ll admit it…I was embarrassed. For myself and for him, though thankfully he doesn’t have the sense to worry about what others think of him yet. I wish I were more like him in that regard.

As hard as it can be to watch our kids fail, we have to see those failures in the light of reality. I could have left him in level 3. I could’ve used the “wait and see” approach. But, that wouldn’t have been fair to those other kids, or the instructor, or…most of all…my son.

Before the lesson was even over, I was making my way to the front desk to find out if it was too late to move him back to level 2 for a second go. I had to admit to myself that it had been too long, and he’d likely forgotten all they’d taught him. When the manager approached me, I told her, “My son is in that level 3 class out there, but I’m watching him seriously flailing. He’s just plain not ready for it.” She responded so sweetly, “Maybe he’s just a bit behind. Sometimes if we have a whole class that is a bit behind, they catch up quickly together.” I countered, “He’s not just a little behind. He’s so far behind those other kids he’s just going to hold them back, and that’s not good for them or him.” She gave me a look that said “you’re worried about nothing, smiled, and said she’d run out and talk to the instructor, to see what she thought. When she returned, she smiled again, more painfully this time, as if she were giving me some terrible news, “Yeah…she totally agrees.”

They were happy to accommodate the change, and even allowed him to stay for the next lesson. It meant a full hour in the pool, but I figured we’d talk about it and he’d be okay with it. When he came splashing, bare-footed, over to the stands, I threw the towel around his shoulders. I pulled him over by me and told him that I’d moved him to a different class. He looked disappointed. But, I assured him that he’d be happier and more confident in level two and that we’d sign him up for level three again just as soon as he passed it. But his face was still sad. “I don’t want to stay for the next lesson…I want to go home.” “What’s the matter?” “I can’t swim.” “I know…that’s why we’re here, silly. And if you take level two, you’ll be swimming in no time.” He looked at me skeptically and nodded reluctantly. “Okay.”

I knew he’d be happier, and that his confidence would build quickly if he were more appropriately placed. Leaving him in level 3, where his frustration and disappointment were likely to make him simply give up, or hate swimming, would have been wrong. I know parents who would have chosen that course of action. The “suck it up…and don’t let those other kids beat you…I won’t accept defeat” kinds of parents. Don’t get me wrong, I push my kid when he’s just giving up without trying. I don’t let him walk out on commitments to his team (or himself) or stop doing things just because they’re “hard”. But this wasn’t one of those times. He really had no idea what he was doing, and no amount of pushing or encouragement was going to suddenly make him succeed.

After his level 2 lesson, he walked back to the bleachers. I wrapped him in the towel and asked him what he thought. “Was that better?” He smiled slowly, “Yes.” “Was it more fun?” Again, he said, “Yes.”

Now three days later, he actually swam, all by himself…about 10 feet. He still messed around and struggled to pay attention. He spent more time playing with the goggles than he did swimming, but he did it! And when he came to retrieve his towel and clothes to head off to the locker room and change, he was smiling. “You swam today! All by yourself!” He blushed a little and grinned wide enough for me to see the gap left by his two missing teeth. “I know, mom.” “You’ll totally be ready for level 3 after next week!”

Sometimes, our kids just don’t learn things as quickly as others…or at all. Sometimes, they need to practice something 43 times before the light bulb turns on. That’s sort of how my son learns. He tries, and fails, tries, and fails, tries, and finally gets it…really gets it. What’s important is that he doesn’t give up. And that he still has his dignity. I’m coming to terms with the fact that he’s not “athletically” gifted in most areas. He’s not the fastest runner, he’s not likely to be a basketball star, it took him weeks to start riding a bike without training wheels, and quite obviously he’s going to be slow to pick up swimming. But, he can’t be good at everything. Oh, sure…his grandparents think he’s the best at everything. But, me…I’m a realist. And I know what he’s good at.

We all fail at things. None of us are good at everything. But we sometimes have a tendency to treat our kids as if they should be. All through school, we expect good grades. We hope they “get involved”. We hope they’ll play sports. But the reality is that they might just be “adequate” in school (or maybe even struggle), terrible at sports, and brilliant with interpersonal relationships. Or some other combination of gifted and not-so-gifted. The fact is, there are many things I can’t do and don’t want to try. So why would I expect any different from my kid? Swimming, unfortunately, isn’t a choice for him. It’s a safety issue and he has to learn. But, do I expect him to be a competitive swimmer? Nope. I simply expect him not to drown. And by that measure, he’s well on his way to success.

(Almost) all my son needs to know he can learn from his dogs (and cats)

We own a zoo.

Not literally. But we have two dogs, three cats, and three tiny little catfish that are quite likely going to live forever.

I realize that not everyone has the space, the time, or the desire to rescue that many furry lives and allow them to “decorate” their home to fit their own tastes. I put up with fur…everywhere, scratches on the table tops, stains, well-“loved” furniture. I trip over dog toys and have unattractive cat scratchers all over the house. 

When I leave town, I have to find a pet sitter. During the day, I have to have someone come and let the puppies out. It can be a huge pain the butt. 

And it can be expensive. Healthy foods (especially for one very finicky feline who, for awhile, was on a grain-free diet), vet visits, toys, crates, kennels, fences, collars, tags, microchips, grooming…Yes, I know…it’s a huge commitment. 

But honestly, I’m not sure there’s a better way to teach a child all of the things that owning a pet, especially a dog or a cat, can:

1) Unconditional Love, Empathy, Patience, and Kindness:

There is little a child can do wrong that a dog won’t forgive…if a bond has been formed between them. When we first brought our son home from the hospital, we placed his car seat in the middle of the living room and let each of our two dogs “inspect” him, one at a time. The first dog took one sniff and high-tailed it to the corner, unimpressed, nose forever out of joint (there would be no bond formed there). But, Kira, the husky, the one we thought would have the jealousy issues, smelled and smelled and then lay down beside him. She had already decided to keep him. 

Over the first few years, she put up with him pulling her fur, crawling on her, tugging at her, hitting her with his toys, chasing her…you name it. She seemed to get it: he was a pup, and she was willing to accept him as such. As they both got older, her patience grew thinner. But she taught him a lot about empathy and responsibility. He received many the talking to for treating her poorly or unfairly. He had to apologize to her and give her hugs to show he was sorry. And she forgave him. Every time. Mostly.

Their relationship became much like that of siblings. They “fought” from time to time (“Mom…she’s biting me for no reason!”…yeah, right…), and there were days they had to be sent to opposite corners. But ultimately, they were tight, and she’ll always be his first animal companion and animal teacher.

2) Dealing with Loss and Grief:

We’ve lost several pets during our son’s short life. Three cats have just “disappeared” (we live in the woods and have a coyote problem), and one dog was hit by a car (none of us actually saw her before we buried her…it would have been a terrible last image of her). 

Those losses were surreal for him. He never saw them, so the potential for their return was still possible in his mind. After watching “Frankenweenie” he was convinced we could dig Emma up and reanimate her. Thankfully, he didn’t try to follow up on that.

When Kira, the husky, recently died (peacefully at home), my husband kept her in the house until my son and I got home. Believe me, we talked quite a bit about what would be best for him. Would seeing her body freak him out or scare him? Or would it show him death in as understandable a way as possible for a child? We opted to be as honest and open about it as we could. We let him pet her. We let him see us cry. He got to pet her and hug her goodbye. And he knew she was in the garden nearby…next to her friend Emma.

Later, when he had bad dreams or cried because he missed her, we had something real to refer to. He had an image. He knew she was really not coming back. There was closure. It wasn’t like flushing a fish down the toilet…it was serious grief over the loss of a hugely important being in his life. Not a fun lesson to learn, but surely an unavoidable one.

3) Not Taking Advantage of Those Who Are Weaker Than You:

The relationships can be just as strong between kids and cats (surprisingly). Not too long ago, we brought home a brand new kitten. He was tiny, and fragile, and my son had to learn to be careful and gentle. He had to learn to respect the kitten’s sleep, how to hold him, how to play with him. And for some reason, though he drags the cat around everywhere and pesters him incessantly, the cat loves him more than anyone else in the house. It’s confusing to all of us…but it goes to show that the love of an animal knows no bounds. 

Now that we have two new young canines, we’re back to learning how to treat baby animals…with patience, and thoughtfulness. Our son is continuing to learn how to empathize with and care for something other than himself who depends on him and loves him no matter what. And in return for his sometimes messy and failed attempts at being a good pet owner, he has earned the undying loyalty of at least one of our new pups.

4) Responsibility and Reliability:

We’ve given our son the job of feeding the animals. Partially, so they learn to respect him because they need him, but also, so he learns to be responsible to something that depends on him completely. Every morning and every night, he has to think about the needs of someone other than himself. He has to fulfill those needs, even when he’s cranky, or tired, or doesn’t want to. Sometimes, there isn’t a choice. Sometimes we just have to suck it up and fulfill our obligations. Period.

5) Building Trust and Earning Affection:

Our newest addition came with a few neuroses. And she distrusts the boy. She shies away and doesn’t want to go outside with him. Quite honestly, he hasn’t been that welcoming. I’m pretty sure he likes his puppy more than mommy’s puppy (let’s face it…animals make their own decisions about us, too, and bond with whomever they want…or not). Now he’s learning to build her trust, how to encourage her, how to be patient with her fears, how to accept the fact that she doesn’t like him best. He’s going to have to work a lot harder for her love. If he thinks it’s worth it, he’ll do whatever it takes. And eventually, she’ll come around. Not all relationships start well or come easily. Sometimes one has to repair and patch and make do. But even though the bond might be a bit rough around the edges, it will be that much more special for all the work that it took. Maybe she’s just playing hard to get.

6) How to Lead with Confidence, Consistency, and Fairness:

Our dogs are usually hard-headed, stubborn breeds. The kinds of dogs that need firm and consistent guidance. We spend at least as much time training our son how to train the dogs as we do actually training the dogs. He has to learn not to let them walk all over him, how to control them on a leash, how to make them follow commands. Basically, he has to assert his place in the pack. It takes calm strength, and the ability to reward and correct behavior quickly and fairly. 

He fails at this on a regular basis, to be honest. He loses his patience, pulls too hard on their leashes, plays too rough, gets mad and jealous when they choose each other over him. He plays favorites and intentionally leaves out the newest dog (two’s company, three’s a crowd?).

But these actions provide opportunities to correct that behavior and show how he should treat them. It’s a learning process…one with natural consequences and rewards - fear, nervousness, and unwillingness to follow or undying loyalty of a type no human could replicate. 

Sure these are values he could learn in other ways. With siblings if he had any. With friends at school. With other family members. I’m not saying that if you can’t provide your child with a pet you’re a bad parent who should be strung up and judged. No, no. I get it that some children are allergic, some of us have schedules too busy to incorporate a dog or cat responsibly. The landlord says no, or it’s cost-prohibitive. Maybe you just don’t like animals. They are messy and they do ruin stuff. A lot. Obviously, a child can be raised well without animals. 

My argument is this…if it’s possible…children gain a lot from animal relationships that they don’t from human relationships. They don’t feel judged, they don’t feel pressured. They know they are accepted, no matter what.  Even when the whole world seems to be against them.

My son, standing in the corner, with the ever-present companionship of his dog, who doesn’t know he did a thing a wrong and wonders why on earth the boy is facing the wall and not playing with him. But he patiently waits at his feet.

I have this terrible picture in my head of him heading off to college, leaving one very depressed cat and one very depressed dog behind. The companionship of animals is like no other. It changes us. It molds us. And hopefully, it will make him a better human…one who loves, empathizes, shows patience and kindness, is responsible and dependable, knows how to build and keep trust, and can lead confidently and successfully.

Getting a child a dog or cat isn’t just buying him a pet. It’s providing him a one-of-a-kind, hands-on education about relationships and what it takes to sustain them and nurture them.

What matters most about reading… (Or…why “reader-response” criticism is at the center of my classroom and my own reading life.)

Monday’s “Literary Fortune” is a little bit late (sorry)…but here you go - take from it what you will (after all, you are the reader).

"…your humor’s a tough dialect

for me to master, a tempo-drunk song

with a jazz of laughter

I can’t quite catch

the rhythm and swing to.”

(from Diane Ackerman’s I Praise My Destroyer)

Literature should speak to us. It should tell us secrets that only we can hear. The story or the poem isn’t the words we see on the page, it’s what we fill in between them. Our own stories. Our own needs. Our own history.

Reading is a full contact mental sport. It requires that both the reader and the thing being read have something to share. And sometimes, it requires that the reader find the thing being read at the “right time”. Like maybe, you only get the key to this particular book when you have done or seen or felt “x”. Reading is also an intimate activity. One between you and the author, what the author has written and what it means to you.  A person can read a book when she is 15 and then again when she is 25 and quite literally have read a completely different story… because her story is different. What the reader brings to the table is paramount. 

I remember sitting in literary criticism classes in college. I also very vividly remember the professors slamming “reader-response” as being completely useless when explaining or analyzing a text. Seriously? How can one possibly take the reader (and the reader’s interpretation) out of the equation? Literary critics are human (I think), so there is no real way to take human emotion, human error, background knowledge, or personal opinion out of an analysis of a book. And why would anyone want to. A book isn’t a lifeless artifact to be explained by a scientist. It is a living thing waiting to be changed and explored by a reader. Even if a book could be explained scientifically (and believe me, in those lit. crit. classes, I had to attempt it several times in long, boring papers that almost made me hate reading), it makes the book into a patient to be diagnosed. And then what? We cure it? We share our research with the world, expose the book’s “meaning” to potential readers who will now have no reason to read the book other than to share or refute the former scientist’s findings?

Ugh. No, I’ll take my book of poetry with tea, please. And my novel with a glass of wine. And I’ll construct my own meaning, thank you. And yes, over a beer, I’ll talk with you about what I think it means…what I liked…what I found. But, in all reality, when I do so, I’m telling you more about myself than about the book or the author’s intention. 

And I’ll continue to teach reader-response in my classroom, too (English Department be damned!). Don’t worry, I’ll teach the substance of literature as well…the history that surrounds the story (because, after all…if I am a literary critic at all, I believe most in the ideals of  Biographical criticism, New Historical criticism, or Sociological criticism), the beauty of the structure of text, literary devices and techniques, etc. I know my content. And I support the Common Core (believe me, it give teachers a hell of a lot more freedom than most standards-based programs to be the artists they really are), which encourages looking at a text objectively as an artifact and using text as evidence for claims. That’s perfectly fine and useful.

But, I know most that what makes people want to read is the relationship they build with the text…the fun the have…the adventures they go on…the characters they come to care about…the information they learn…the secrets they find out…the escape the story provides.

That, ultimately, is what matters most about reading. 

Turning a child’s failure into opportunity

(This is a throwback post from a prior blog, published on 6/4/2014. Original, new content will resume on 8/9/2014.)

My son does well in school. We expect it. As an educator myself, I’ve done everything I can to prepare him for the requirements of school and set him up to be successful and responsible for his own learning. Lucky for me, he’s a natural “learner.” He likes school. He likes his teachers. And he does well enough socially (he’s a bit on the young side and an only child, so he struggles from time to time in that arena). Plus, he’s unbelievably kind and accepting of other kids, which makes him easy to take advantage of (something we are working on). 

In elementary school, there are daily assignments, quizzes, tests, math timings (like the one above), recess (his favorite thing, of course), art projects, field trips (not as many as he’d like), and fun days that the class earns through good behavior. The kids get awards and recognition, fair treatment for transgressions. All in all, he’s happy there, and I’m happy that he’s happy. He’s moved right along this year, even excelled in certain areas…mainly reading and math. That’s why, on Monday, when he brought me his math timing (which earned a 10/21…the worst he’s done all year - his last “not so great” score was 17/21), my eyebrows raised and my brow furrowed. Now, these timings don’t mean much. It’s not like he’ll fail first grade if he doesn’t pass it. But, I was surprised. Actually, I’ll admit it - I was downright shocked. Maybe I shouldn’t care so much, but my jaw dropped, and the overbearing parent in me was about to say, “What the hell happened here? We’re you spacing off? Daydreaming? Drawing pictures on the desk?” But the objective teacher in me looked at his paper and saw an opportunity.

"What happened here?" I said, in a soft concerned voice.

"I don’t know…" he responded. 

"You know this stuff. You’ve done it on homework a hundred times. Were you tired or confused?"

"I just can’t do it." His bottom lip began to quiver and his eyes filled with tears.

"Buddy, you know how I feel about the word can’t. It’s a dirty word in this house."

"But I just couldn’t figure these out. I did my best."

So I looked carefully at his paper. It wasn’t just that he’d not been “fast enough” (I get the whole concept of math fluency with basic facts), he’d actually gotten 3 of them wrong. So I asked him about the ones he got wrong, just to prove that he knew how to do it. I figured it must just be the stress of the timer that had gotten him. 

"What’s 9-7?" I said, with a look on my face that said ‘come on, you know this’.

He gave me a hopeful and questioning look as he answered, “4?”

My mind began to reel…. Seriously? He excelled on the subtraction unit earlier in the year. He did well on the assessment at the end of the unit. Where did all his knowledge go?  As a teacher, I had to consider this, because I see it all the time as younger kids develop. All of the sudden, a student who has done typically well, hits a wall, or falls backwards a few steps. The parents freak out, wonder if they need a tutor, wonder if their child has been hit in the head and unknowingly contracted a concussion. 

I’m not a doctor, so I can’t give a scientific explanation, but developmentally, this appears to be normal. Kids who jump ahead fast sometimes suffer from what I call “peaks and valleys” syndrome. Some students plug along at a turtle’s pace and get to the finish line with little fanfare and few major disappointments or overwhelming successes. Other students seem to take years to “get it” and then everything just clicks and a whole year’s worth of curriculum is suddenly at their fingertips. And still others, like mine, seem to make these amazing leaps and then suffer from what I can only conclude is academic amnesia on a regular basis. I think what happens is that a part of their subconscious brain gets it. But, their conscious mind blocks it from really settling, so it sort of floats in and out until it finally finds a home and decides to stay.

Anyhow, rather than chastising him for not paying attention (which he probably wasn’t) or not applying himself, I decided to try a different approach.

"Do you think you need some help?"

With his bottom lip prominently pronounced, he replied, “Yes.”

"I could practice with you. When is your next timing?"

He told me he had two more chances to pass this timing before the end of the school year. Basically, the kids are given timings and they pass as many as they can before the end of the year. Not all kids are on the same timing. Some are working on addition, others are working on subtraction, some are working on review. So, I’m actually pretty proud that he made it through all of them, since it’s a goal, not a requirement. He doesn’t know that, though, and is determined to finish ALL of the timings. So…two more chances.

I sat down and made several worksheets with 21 problems, set the timer on the stove, and watched him struggle, slowly, to make sense of the problems, even when they repeated. It wasn’t working, and he was getting frustrated.

So, instead (and I’m no math teacher…but this seemed to work!), I just wrote out the 10’s (10-1, 10-2, 10-3…etc.). Then, I pointed at each one and asked him for the answer. Then I sped it up. I repeated the questioning, moving faster and faster, until he didn’t hesitate with any of the answers. This morning when I quizzed him in the car, he remembered them all, without a problem. 

I remember whole class choral recitations of the multiplication tables. That “kill and drill” boring memorization stuff I did in school. But, guess what? I learned my math facts. 

Sometimes, the old way is the best way. And it doesn’t always have to be fun. Last night, as I watched my son sweat his way through the practice, fail, tear up, and ask for another try. I saw something in him that I wish I saw in more kids (hell, I’d like to see it in more adults): determination. He didn’t care if he was having fun. It wasn’t about that. He didn’t care if he wasn’t being entertained (we do way too much of that nowadays). He just wanted to conquer the task set before him. It was internal motivation, propelled completely by his own disappointment in himself.

Quite often, the boy just plain amazes me.

Unexpected acts of kindness


There are those moments, when I truly wonder if what I’m saying is getting through to my son. Am I teaching him to be kind enough, brave enough? Am I teaching him how to be skeptical when necessary and caring when he should be?

I try to model it. Just the other day, I let a man in front of us at the check out. I had about 20 items, and he only had a container of potato salad. He was a large man, at least 6’ 5”, wearing an orange vest and a transit badge. But, he had a kind face, and I had nowhere special to be. So, I asked if he’d like to go ahead. His face lit up, and he thanked me profusely, several times, and then told me he hoped I had a wonderful day and that I’d just made his. Which made me think, have we really gotten to the point where people are shocked by kindness?

Obviously so…because just tonight, my son walked out to my husband and I on the couch with two dollars in quarters. He reminded me that we needed to put money in his envelope for a field trip his class is taking on Friday. And then he informed us that he was going to get another two dollars, of his own money, because he wanted to pay for his friend. He continued on, telling us how his friend says he doesn’t have a lot of money and that his dad needs to buy groceries. Holy cow! These guys are six! And they are already sorting through the problems of the world.

I immediately teared up. And my husband looked at me out of the side of his eyes. The empathy sort of took us by surprise. We told him how proud we were of his caring nature and that it was wonderful that he wanted to pay for his friend…that this is how we take care of the people who are close to us. It is just this sort of selfless friendship that the world needs more of. The kind that children can teach us, apparently better than anyone else.

So yes, I teach my son to be a good person through actions every day. But he reminds me through actions like this, that what I do does matter, and that simple kindnesses are amazingly important.


(This was a throwback post from a prior blog, published on 5/20/2014. New content will resume on 8/9/2014.)

Bittersweet Firsts

There’s the first word, the first step, the first time he says, “I’ll do it myself!” with an air of such determined independence that you’re taken aback. The first skinned knee, the first solo bike ride (sans training wheels), the first day of school, the first lost tooth (see above).

A string of firsts that are amazing, bewildering, and uplifting. A string of firsts that also break your heart, just a tiny bit, because you know, there will never be another first word, or first step, or first lost tooth. And…it means he’s growing up.

With every first, he moves just a few steps further into the real world, and just a few steps further away from the nest.

Ultimately, that’s the goal, right? To help them find their wings, raise them in just the right way that they know when it’s time to fly on their own, welcome them back when they need a rest.

But, it’s hard.

Right now, I know about all the firsts…and most of them are positive…though of course there’s the first fall, the first time he got grounded, the first time he said a naughty word, the first time another kid pushed him and made him cry. The first time I held him after surgery, the first bug bite, the first joke he made up by himself, the first time he was defeated on the wrestling mat.

There are hundreds still coming…the first broken bone, the first sleepover, the first crush, the first time behind the wheel, the first broken heart.

I collect all of his firsts in the back of my mind. They aren’t the totality of his existence, after all, they are only firsts…but they are the stepping stones of his life. Some are solid and dry. Others are slippery and dangerous. Some are easy to find…and still others are almost too deep in the water to find. But, they are all there. Waiting. Waiting to be found and tried.

(This is a throwback post from a prior blog, published 5/18/2014. Original “new” content will resume on 8/9/2014.)

The beauty of independent, introverted children

I have a very independent little boy.

He’s smart, stubborn, determined, and less affectionate, in some regards, than a lot of kids his age. Sometimes that’s hard to swallow. In the drop-off zone in front of his school each morning, he might return my “I love you” if I say it with the request for the reply built in…my tone, drawing low like an admonition. But at other times, the words roll off his tongue like butter, smooth and unexpected.

With a child like mine, whose moments of affection are sporadic and sometimes rare, they remain a constant and sweet surprise. I almost prefer it to a steady stream of kisses and hugs, because his “moments” seem to come out of nowhere, at just the right time. And they seem to mean so much more because of it.

Once, on a stressful morning where nothing seemed to be going right, I rolled up to the school just as the bell was ringing for kids to go into the building. I was agitated, felt rushed, and certainly wasn’t focusing on my relationship with my son. He grabbed his things, and slipped out of the backseat onto the sidewalk, an apple in one hand, his hair still disheveled by sleep, his shoe laces dragging, as usual. At a dead run, he turned, stopped ever so briefly, and blew me a kiss.

I was so taken aback, so surprised, that it didn’t even occur to me to blow one back. I wouldn’t have had time, anyway, as he’d already turned back around to disappear behind the chain link fence and enter the school.

As a toddler, he wasn’t the child who constantly asked to be picked up and carried. No, he wanted his freedom as soon as he was mobile. I’m not sure if it was due to the rather unconventional and harried experience of his birth, but he seems to have been born this way.

From day one, he slept through the night. He didn’t cling to me, he didn’t look back and cry every time I left him at daycare (maybe for the first week, but that was more about his unwillingness to accept the “new” or to handle transitions with aplomb).

Last year, when I took him to the North Olympic Kids’ Marathon, I came ready to run along with him. That sea of children, many with accompanying parents, lined up at the starting gate. I looked down at him and asked if he wanted me to run with him (because of his nature, I never assume he’ll want me or need me to do things with him and I don’t press myself on him). He looked up at me, smiled (happy I was there to support him), and said, “I got this, mommy. I don’t need you to run with me.”

So I let him run, and I waited, camera poised, to get a picture as soon as he came into view on the return lap. As soon as he saw me waving, he waved back, smiled, and yelled, “I did it! All by myself!”

So, yes, I guess I could be sad that my child doesn’t “need” me all the time. But, since I don’t base my identity on him, that sadness is also sweet. He’s not an extension of me. He’s his own little person. We are separate beings held forever close by blood. He’s a lot like me. Introverted, and inwardly affectionate. He loves me. He loves his family. He loves his pets. He cares for his friends. But, he keeps his circle small, and he reserves his reservoir of affection. He comes by it honestly, as do I. A long line of "you know I love you…you know I’m proud of you…" folks who show what they feel in their eyes rather than saying it.

It’s not optimal. I know I should be more verbal about my feelings for others (it drives my husband crazy, as he’s a much more openly affectionate person than I am), and I try show my affection through words and actions as often as I can. Encouraging him to offer a more outward show of his love for others. But, in the long run, he is who he is.

And that’s okay with me.

Telling kids to “Do it yourself!”

Years ago, I remember watching this particular episode of The Simpsons where Marge has just had it with her family, books herself a vacation, and takes off for a little unencumbered down time. Of course, the stereotypical results at home (dad can’t - and doesn’t - handle the children and sort of falls apart without his wife, whom he relies on for most everything having to do with his home life) and the expected outcome (she enjoys her escape for a day or two, but then begins to miss her kids and husband, no matter how much they drive her crazy).

I can relate. My family drives me crazy sometimes, but I wouldn’t trade them. Oh, sure, a break now and then might be nice, but being needed (all the time) - while exhausting - is better than not being needed at all. And when I stop to think about it, even though children often take their needs being met for granted, I know that I am showing my son I love him but simply making sure I “show up” in some way whenever I hear, “Moooooommmy!” shouted from some corner of the house or yard…even if “showing up” just means yelling back, “What!?!” and continuing the conversation in this way until he realizes I’m not going to come running every time he calls my name…because I have faith he can solve a lot of his own problems…and because I don’t want him to get in the habit of relying on me for everything. I’ve raised him to be independent, and while I almost always “show up” that doesn’t mean I follow the requests. “Mommy, will you get me a glass of water please?”…just as I sit down at the table to eat. “Honey, you know where the glasses are and are perfectly capable of using the water cooler.” He rolls his eyes (because he expected me to say this), gets up, and takes care of it himself.

I know some women pride themselves on taking care of all their children’s needs. But, as someone who works with preteens and young teens (“tweens”) on a daily basis, I’m here to say that this habit can be debilitating to children. Fulfilling their every whim, picking them up whenever they cry, not letting them self-soothe themselves to sleep, making sure they are never bored, keeping them from ever feeling pain or loss or disappointment, ensuring their constant happiness…while these things might sound good, in the long run, they may just ruin our kids’ lives.

I’ve read some pretty good articles about this recently.

"How to Land Your Kid in Therapy" (Atlantic Monthly) 

The Pursuit of Happiness (more affectionately known as “I don’t want my kids to be happy”) - Huffington Post

I actually linked both articles on my school website as “parent reading” recommendations. I realize we all have our own parenting styles, and some of my favorite parents are what I affectionately call “helicopter” parents (almost always, these are mothers…trained to fly by their family’s insistent and never-ending requests —- some of us are easily trained…others of us are very stubborn and resist.)

For some parents (moms, especially), I think catering to our family’s every need provides a sense of purpose and proves to us that we are necessary. But, there is a big difference between meeting a child’s (or a spouse’s) needs and being a slave. And when we take on the role of a slave, we help create “slave owners” who don’t seem to be aware that anything is wrong with how they take advantage of their world at home. At first, this only affects the home. But, eventually, our little people won’t be little anymore…and they’ll head on off into the great abyss, looking for companions to join them on their journey. This is where it will become difficult. Because finding a life partner who wants to sign on as a servant won’t be easy. And, according to the Atlantic article linked above, it may likely lead to depression.

So telling our kids do things for themselves isn’t neglectful. Quite the contrary…it’s one of the best things we can do to ensure their happy and successful futures.


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