Lessons from an amateur parent

Parenting, for all its joys (and they are abundant) is an endeavor fraught with the potential for second-guessing. When children are young, we ask, “Am I a good enough parent? Will I screw it up? Do I do too much for them, or am I doing too little? Am I too tough, or am I not tough enough?” Later, when they’re all grown up, the refrain becomes, “Should I have done things differently? Would he be happier if I had done X, would she have an easier time if I had done Y?”


You begin your life as a parent fooled by the child’s complete dependency into thinking that you are in control; in reality, almost nothing is in your control. Andrew Solomon, in his book “Far From the Tree” says that we think we are reproducing – making a newer, better version of ourselves – when, in fact, we really are producing someone completely different, whose life story is her own to realize.


Solomon’s book focuses on families whose children have what he calls “horizontal” identities, which sometimes become more important for them than the “vertical” identity of the family. In chapters covering children who are deaf, who have Down’s syndrome, autism or dwarfism, for example, he writes about how, for them, the community of people who share their deaf or autistic identity might be more comfortable or necessary than that of the family. He shares the experiences of dozens of parents who have had to completely change their expectations of what their child would be like.


While Solomon writes that many parents “are unprepared for children who present unfamiliar needs,” we don’t have to be talking about very extreme instances of disability or difference to know what he means.  Those parents just realize sooner than the rest of us how little control they have over the outcome of their child’s story. The beauty of life is that each of us is a unique individual, but that can make us feel like mysteries to each other sometimes, or as Solomon says, “Parenthood catapults us into a permanent relationship with a stranger.” Instead of trying to make the stranger into a copy of ourselves, we need to be brave enough to accept the child as he is.SF trip.Monterey_26


When I was growing up, especially as an adolescent, I didn’t think my parents could see me for who I was at all. I chafed under the strictures of the family, craved independence, felt that I belonged someplace else. During my teens and twenties, I would get irritated when I would hear my mother talking to someone about me, partly because she would sooner brag about me than praise me to my face, and partly because she would invariably get some detail of the story wrong. I moved to San Francisco when I was eighteen, where at the time, the local radio station would sign off from the news by saying, “If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own!” That slogan seemed to perfectly convey my own mindset: “Yes, I will write my own story, and it will not be anything like my parents’ story.”


Fast forward to the present. Now I’m not just a daughter and sister, but also a wife and mother. Yes, I have my own story, but I realize that it is inextricably interwoven with the versions other people tell. I can’t ask my mother to get my story right, or not to tell it, because she has her part in it, just as I have my part in my kids’ stories. I try not to cast myself as the hero or the villain of their stories — all I can do now is give them the love and freedom to tell their own version.


I’ve discovered that I can live with the stories as they tell them. When my daughter calls on our anniversary and says, “Thank you for getting married,” or my son acknowledges how much of an influence his father is on him, it tells me that they are comfortable with the identity they got from us, even as they so beautifully establish their own.

How Do You Play?

Is it purposeless, spontaneous, an antidote to boredom or loneliness? Does it involve risk, excitement, pleasure or freedom? If so, you play like a child — and that’s good news.

Childhood play has recently become a target of our attempts to help kids be more physically active, but children themselves have a very different idea of what constitutes play. And their perspective could help us help ourselves as well as them.

IMGIn a child’s view, playing has no goal. It is the ultimate in present moment awareness – there is no desired end result – it is an end in itself. That’s one of the take-aways from a new study conducted at the University of Montreal. Other important findings are that risk-taking is pleasurable for children, helping them learn how to cope with life’s unpredictability; that play doesn’t necessarily have to be active; and that they feel ambiguous about scheduled play activities. For both kids and adults, this is a reminder that the social and emotional benefits of play are every bit as important as the physical benefits.

According to Stuart Brown of the National Institute of Play, being playful helps us be more adaptable, leads to trust and benefits brain development. He has studied the rough-and-tumble play of animals, as well as babies’ early play with their mothers. Play is driven by curiosity about the world and each other, and social play is often the glue that holds us together. Brown says that “The opposite of play isn’t work — it’s depression.”

Play can help us be more creative. John Cleese recommends using humor to enhance creativity, because it makes us more playful and relaxed. Brown says that play is a mediator between the brain and the hand. He has observed that design students who can’t creatively solve problems haven’t worked with their hands enough, doing things like playing and tinkering.

In order to “infuse” your life with more play, Brown recommends spending time with children, surrounding yourself with playful people, and looking back at your “play history“. What kinds of play did you enjoy as a child? Can you make an emotional connection between your childhood play and your life now? What is the story you tell about playing?

When I was a child, much of my play was unstructured. I grew up in a big family, and there was always someone around to play with. Because I didn’t have any brothers, our play often involved dress-up and make-believe rather than physical play. We had a music box that played the wedding march, and we would take turns putting on a bridal “veil” and playing wedding. We would take our large collection of “Little Golden” books and make paths around our bedroom with them, or build a fort or tent with a blanket thrown over a clothesline or picnic table. I also enjoyed solitary activities like reading, paint-by-number and crocheting. Our physical needs were satisfied with bike riding and occasional games of softball with the boys next door.

I’m still a fan of make-believe in my preference for dramas and fiction, and my dislike of reality TV. My exercise most often comes in the form of activities I do by myself (running, biking) rather than “team” sports, since I had little of that during childhood. But I try to keep myself open to ways of playing that I’m less comfortable with — partner yoga with my husband expanded my ability to trust; snorkeling and stand-up paddle boarding have helped me enjoy playing in the water; taking more opportunities to laugh and be less serious about life has helped me relax.image

Play is whatever feels like fun and freedom to you: sports, games, puzzles, playing with a pet, laughing at a movie, acting in a play. Play is what makes you feel like your child self again. As George Bernard Shaw said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”

What will you fight for?

There’s a moment in the film “Fed Up” when Dr. Harvey Karp says that if a foreign nation were “doing this to our children, we would defend our families.” He’s talking about the way food manufacturers market products full of sugar to our kids, leading to addiction that is every bit as powerful as that caused by drugs like cocaine. The potential for a lifetime of health problems caused by the resulting obesity is both real and heartbreaking.

He could just as easily be talking about the gun lobby, though, another instance where big money and weak politicians combine to create open season on our children. The parallels between the two industries, and our lack of political will, hit me as I walked by a neighborhood church last week. On their front lawn was a memorial to victims of gun violence – rows of t-shirts with the names and ages of people in the area who died by guns in 2013.

Would we fight an outsider who was doing this to our children? What do we fight for anymore? I feel like we, as a society, are in a state of learned helplessness. That’s a condition where someone stops looking for a way to help himself, or change a bad situation, because experience has taught that nothing but pain or disappointment comes from trying. We’ve just stopped fighting the way we should be.

Sure, there are people like Tom Harkin in the U.S. Senate who have fought the good fight on school nutrition standards and food marketing to kids, just as there are groups and individuals who have passionately worked for tighter gun laws. But both efforts are uphill battles that seem marked by more defeats than successes. Just this week, there were two or three more school shootings. When the news comes on, we can no longer tell if we’re hearing about yesterday’s shooting or a new one today; we’ve become so inured to such news that hardly anyone is even calling for a change in gun laws.

People on the other side of this debate – for both food and guns – say that it’s about individual responsibility. “Kids need to eat less and exercise more.” “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But we can no longer control everything individually. That just doesn’t work in a modern country where everyone is exposed to huge social networks and an unstoppable media barrage. At this point the only changes that will be of significance are the ones that alter the conditions in which we live, that transform the toxic environment for everyone.

Clarence Darrow said that “Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for.” So let’s stop the helplessness. We all need to stand up and say we’re fed up.

You look, but do you see?

Do you ever feel as if you must be invisible? You know the feeling you get when you sit down in a restaurant, and then four different servers walk past you five different times without acknowledging you’re there. Or when you’re walking down the street and you see someone approaching whom you’ve met before – and then they don’t meet your eye and continue walking past you.

Feeling ignored or left out is an awful feeling. Even if we have a strong sense of self, we start to wonder what’s wrong with us. It doesn’t matter if we’re slighted by a friend or snubbed by a total stranger – it still hurts.

Last week I read about a study that demonstrated just how much we look to other people, even strangers, for acceptance. Researchers at Purdue University randomly selected people walking on the campus. A research assistant walked by each of them, and did one of three things: made eye contact, made eye contact and smiled, or just looked in their general direction without eye contact. Each person was then immediately asked by another researcher how connected they felt to other people. Those who did not get any eye contact felt more disconnected from others than did either group who got eye contact.

The reality is that no one wants to feel excluded. We all have a need to be part of a community of some kind. A stranger not making eye contact may only lead to a momentary feeling of disconnection, but what about situations where it happens over and over again with groups we want to be a part of?

It turns out that for children who are left out, that feeling can lead to them being less active. In a study by Jacob Barkley of Kent State University, children played a virtual ball game with each other. Some children got the ball fairly often and others very few times. Then they all went to play in a real gym. The children who had been excluded in the online game ended up being less physically active in the gym. They tended to choose sedentary activities such as drawing or reading alone more of the time.

Previous studies have already shown that being ostracized leads people to eat more. We also know that people who are lonely tend to have weaker immune systems. Now we see that children won’t be as active if they feel excluded. Clearly as humans we are healthiest when we are part of a group, and feel supported and loved by that group.

So why do we ignore each other? Does the message from childhood, “Don’t talk to strangers!” sink in so deeply that we are unable to reach out to others? Are we too afraid of rejection to take a risk?

Flip it around and think about how good it feels when you’re out somewhere, and someone admires what you are wearing. Or imagine that you’re at a social event where you don’t know anyone, and someone comes up and engages you in conversation – don’t you breathe a sigh of relief that you’re no longer standing there looking awkward? Doesn’t it feel good when you walk in a room, and someone greets you by name?

Everyone wants to be noticed, to be appreciated, even by strangers. We all need someone who says, either with words or actions, “I see you.” Can you make an effort to be that person?  As William Butler Yeats once said, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

“We owe our children”*

Nelson Mandela once said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” When I consider the somber headlines of the past week or so, I wonder about our soul:

  • Census data show that one in six Americans is living in poverty, including 22% of children last year (40% of black children).
  • Poverty has increased for four years in a row.
  • The proportion of children with at least one unemployed parent doubled between 2007 and 2010, and there is evidence that a parent’s job loss can have a negative effect on children’s academic performance.
  • A new study showed an increase in child abuse, specifically against infants, linked to the recession.

When children grow up in poverty, they grow up with chronic stress. Constant change and uncertainty in their lives causes biological responses that result in wear and tear on their bodies and minds. Long-term stress can damage the part of the brain called the hippocampus, which is essential to learning and memory.

This helps explain why many children who come from poverty don’t do as well in school, and are less likely to graduate from high school. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, they lag in both intellectual and emotional development, and they are more likely to become the poor parents of the future.

Even if your only interest is your self-interest, you should care about these statistics. The longer we have so many children living in poverty, the more our country loses economically from lower productivity, poorer health and higher crime rates.

Last Sunday’s Washington Post ran an editorial titled “Debt Reduction with Compassion”. It argued that we cannot reduce the deficit on the backs of the most vulnerable in society. We have to recognize how much people have suffered and lost during the recession, and not cut off the safety net for them. But how often do we hear the word “compassion” in the current political climate?

I’ve been thinking about what any one of us can do to make a difference for children. Here are some ideas:

  • Think about who and what you vote for. Which candidates are committed to keeping funding in place for programs that benefit children?
  • Be an advocate, in your community and beyond. Speak out about legislation and programs that are important for ensuring a happy and healthy next generation
  • Support teachers and education in your community.
  • Support the organizations that are working to change lives, such as:

Children’s Defense Fund – In existence for 35 years, this organization works to “ensure a level playing field for all children” and to “lift children out of poverty”

Feeding America – Works with a network of food banks to eliminate hunger in America; child hunger is a priority.

HIPPY (Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters) – A parent-involvement, school-readiness program that operates on the idea that parents are their children’s first teachers.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America – Their mission is “To enable all young people, especially those who need us most, to reach their full potential as productive, caring, responsible citizens,” through programs in leadership, education, life skills, sports and fitness, and the arts

What do we want the soul of our society to look like? If we truly care about giving our children and grandchildren a decent life, then “all of us have to recognize that we owe our children more than we have been giving them”.*


*Hillary Clinton

Natural Wonders

Sitting at my desk this week, all I hear is the sound of birds chirping, singing and calling to each other. The distant sounds of the highway fade away to the background. Even the neighborhood dogs can’t compete with the birds in springtime.

I was so taken with the bird sounds a few days ago that I found a web site where you can click on the name of the bird and hear a recording of its song. Check it out at http://www.enature.com/birding/audio.asp

Relaxing sounds can soothe people, lower our heart rates and stimulate production of endorphins. Of course “relaxing” is in the ear of the beholder; but for me, the sounds of the birds are in that category. There is a reason why so many recordings of guided meditations tend to focus on images of nature, such as waterfalls, mountains, beaches and forests. The natural world has the capacity to nurture us, make us feel calm and supported, even improve our sleep. But thinking about connecting with nature leads to the unfortunate fact that many of us just don’t spend enough time outdoors.

Most alarming is the fact that children don’t spend nearly as much time outdoors as they used to, in fact only half as much time as they did twenty years ago. Very few play outside on their own, yet research shows that unstructured free play in the outdoors has many benefits to them – ranging from doing better in school, to being more cooperative, to just being healthier overall.

Something as simple as a view of nature helps to reduce stress in children who are highly stressed, and daily proximity to nature can help children focus, even reducing symptoms of attention deficit disorder. Playing in nature also serves the important purpose of giving children the opportunity to take appropriate risks, solve problems and develop creativity, which can lead to enhanced self-esteem.

So many benefits! Yet finding the time, a safe space, adults who are comfortable enough in nature to guide children – all are barriers. Luckily, a few organizations are working to make sure that the next generation has a taste for nature:

  • The Children & Nature Network, whose mission aims to “give every child in every community a wide range of opportunities to experience nature directly”, has tips on their web site for starting your own family nature club, along with other ideas.
  •  The No Child Left Inside Coalition is an advocacy group with almost 2,000 member organizations from across the country that seeks to raise awareness in Congress and among the public of the need for more environmental education in schools. The coalition was formed after many programs were cut in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act.

As Thoreau once wrote, “We need the tonic of wildness … We can never have enough of nature.”