Category Archives: Character Development

Now More Than Ever: The Importance of Finding Mentors for Our Children

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Photo Credit: Lauren Hammond, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Tuesday night I had such a vivid and disturbing dream, one that brought up emotions so intense, I was forced to ride the waves of them all day the next day. In the dream I was in a small boat, at night, with an overwhelming sense that I needed to escape. The particulars of the situation are fuzzy, as they so often are in dreams, but there were unidentified people that I urgently needed to get away from. First, though, I needed to find my two boys and get them on the boat with me – I couldn’t leave them behind. Finally, as the three of us were about to take off into the watery darkness, not knowing where we were or where we were going, only aware that we needed to get away, I woke up, heart pounding and mind racing.

Having gone to bed before the official results of the presidential election were announced, but guessing the outcome already, my subconscious had clearly chosen “flight” from its menu of threat responses. As I woke to the sound of rain, the feeling of adrenaline still coursing through my body, my conscious thoughts picked up where my dream left off. We are no longer safe, but where can we go? What can we do? Is it time to make a new life somewhere else? And then sadness set in, thinking of everything we would be leaving behind, all our friends, the boys’ activities, our home. I decided to get up and take the dog for an early walk even though it was raining – I needed to move, to think.

Walking through the streets, passing neighbors out walking their dogs or driving by as they headed to work, I started wondering how others were handling this shocking outcome. I knew there would be some calling out for us to “come together” now that this awful election was over, but that’s not an option I could choose – as much as our divisiveness is hurting so many in our country, I wasn’t sure how to “come together” in an authentic way yet. Likewise, I suspected that others would be encouraging us to “dust ourselves off” and regroup for the next election. As much as I wished I could be, I wasn’t there yet, either.

As I arrived back home, mind still whirling, one of my mentors called me. I expressed my distress to him, my fear of where our country and world are headed, my faltering faith in humanity, and my uncertainty about what to do next.

His advice: “Wind your watch.”

This person is an airline pilot, and he explained to me that when something goes wrong in the cockpit, the first thing he and other pilots are trained to do is pause, to take in everything that’s going on before making any decisions on how to respond. This is his own plan for responding to the current political situation, too – to wait, to watch, and then decide how to respond. So, while I may still decide that “flight” is the best option (or may eventually choose “fight” instead), with time it will likely become more clear which response will be most healthy and constructive. The point is, I don’t have to decide right now, and in fact shouldn’t decide right now.

Wise advice, right? And a perspective I couldn’t have arrived at on my own, especially given the emotional state I was in. My other take-away from the conversation was this: we all need mentors. When we talk about mentors it’s usually in the context of gaining some sort of professional experience, guidance, or connections, and rarely (at least in my experience) about the value of personal or emotional mentors, people who can act as sounding boards, help steady us when we’re lost and confused, and serve as role models. For our children, especially those of us with particularly sensitive and attuned children, mentors are perhaps even more important as our kids work to shape their identity and find their place in the world. As parents struggling to figure out the best way to raise children in our current cultural climate of anger and divisiveness, finding mentors who teach, explicitly and implicitly, the qualities we want our children to develop as they grow into adulthood, and ultimately into leadership roles, is of critical importance. For me, these qualities include tolerance and compassion, first and foremost, and also critical thinking, the differences between facts and feelings, how to listen well, and the importance of reading and educating oneself.

As it turns out, there may be some cause for hope about this younger generation we’re raising. Those who are just a few years older than my kids overwhelmingly voted for a diverse, inclusive vision of our future. So, they’re on the right path, and we can help our future leaders continue to blaze the way. I know that one of my first priorities is going to be connecting my children with constructive personal mentors, people who want to have a positive impact on the world and can help show my boys how to ride their own emotional waves when they inevitably arise and, as Michelle  Obama said, to “go high” even when others don’t. And after that? No idea – probably just more walking, winding and watching for now.

 

If you would like to read more about this topic, click on this graphic to check out related posts at GHF:

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“Bees on the Roof”: A Book Review

“Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking is organized as stories.”

—Daniel Pink

bees-on-the-roofFrom time to time I’m asked to provide a review for a new book, and I almost always say “yes”! I love reading new material and helping to support other writers. Usually the books are written for parents, but recently I was asked to review this one, “Bees on the Roof”, aimed at students in the middle grades. Here’s what I thought of it…

Learning through stories is different than learning by memorizing facts or individual ideas. Stories provide a context for information and, if well-written, create an emotional connection as well, helping our brains understand and retain specific facts and ideas much more easily. This is what Robbie Shell has done with her new book “Bees on the Roof”—she has created a compelling story that also does a wonderful job of educating us about an important environmental issue:  our diminishing number of honeybees.

Written for an upper-level elementary school and middle school audience, the story centers on a group of four friends who attend a science-focused junior high school in New York City. The main character, a seventh-grade student named Sam, is new to the city, having recently moved there with his dad who has been hired as a pastry chef at one of the city’s nicest restaurants. When he learns that all students at his school are required to form teams and design a science fair project, it doesn’t take long for Sam and his friends to land on the topic of honeybees. As the story moves along and the main characters begin developing questions and conducting research, the reader learns right beside them about bee colonies and how they produce honey, along with the problem of Colony Collapse Disorder and its potentially-catastrophic consequences. Because of the way the information is presented, woven into the story of these four kids as they confront common family and social challenges over a series of months, it’s unlikely that younger readers will experience a sense of information overload and, in fact, will truly enjoy learning about the important role honeybees play in all of our lives.

Also addressed in this book are the themes of teamwork and bullying, which are relevant with readers of this age group. However, from my perspective as the mother of a seventh grader, I found some of the bullying scenes to be a bit rougher than they needed to be, including one incident where a boy suffered broken ribs and another where a girl was forced into a closet with an older boy – nothing terrible happened, but it was still an unsettling scene. I also found some of the dialogue amongst the main characters to be a bit stilted and a somewhat mature at times for kids of this age, but the story was interesting enough to pull me through these sections.

Overall, the storytelling elements of “Bees on the Roof” are strong, with solid character development of the kids, an engaging plot, and a good balance of scientific information and story-related action. The approach of teaching through story makes it likely that young readers will remember a lot of what they learn about bees and our environment after reading this book, and I look forward to reading future books from this author.

 

 

Reflections in a Pond: Recognizing Giftedness in Our Children and Ourselves

Lori DunlapWhen people ask me where I grew up, I cringe a little. I hate answering that question, more than almost any other, because I didn’t really grow up anywhere. Not in any one place, that is. So it’s hard to give the expected one-word answer and keep the flow of conversation going, when the true answer requires a story, or at the very least a rather long list.

You see, my dad was in the Army the whole time I was growing up, which meant that we moved every six months to three years. Well, except for the year I was in first grade – that year we moved twice in six months, so I ended up going to three different first grades. Throughout elementary school I was sometimes in school with other military kids, but mostly I went to school with non-military ones, especially once I entered junior high and high school. While all of this moving around required me to learn how to fit in and make friends quickly, I still ended up feeling like an outsider most of the time.

Being the “new kid” is hard, no matter how many times you’ve done it. And, no matter how hard I tried, I could never have the history, the shared stories and memories, of kids who had gone to school together their whole lives. Add to this that I had been identified as gifted, and was taken out of my classes on a regular basis to participate in gifted courses, and you can see that any hope of feeling part of the crowd was basically gone.

Jump forward to adulthood, and I still feel on the outside much of the time, although for different reasons now. I love reading, especially books about psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and philosophy, but finding people who are interested in these same things and share my enjoyment of discussing big ideas, of delving into deeper conversations, is hard to do. Also, I don’t do small talk well – it exhausts me and I start feeling restless after just a few minutes. In short, I’m usually the mom sitting to the side of the group of moms during gymnastics lessons and swimming practices, reading while the other moms chat and knit. We’re friendly – we’re just not on the same wavelength.

It didn’t occur to me that I might be a “gifted adult” until fairly recently, though, when I learned that my son is also gifted. Somehow the “gifted” label seemed like something that only applied in school, something that didn’t really have any relevance once I reached adulthood. As I see myself reflected back to me in my son these days, it’s so very clear how much he’s like me when I was his age, and how much we have in common even now. We both love talking about ideas, developing new theories about the world, immersing ourselves in our interests. But, most of all, we both feel things deeply, and incredibly strongly. When we’re in sync, it’s glorious; when we’re not, well…

On those days it’s like pebbles have been thrown into our respective emotional ponds, and the resulting ripples collide and bounce off of each other. Sometimes, I’m the one responsible (albeit unintentionally) for throwing the pebbles in his pond, and other days, vice versa. In short, our separate emotions can set the other off, or intensify what’s already there. And it’s these times when I try to remember that it’s my job, as the adult, to recognize the dynamic and try to calm the waters before “those little wave a-flowing to a great big wave have grown.” While it’s not easy to manage my own emotions in addition to his, with intention and practice, I’m getting better at it. The key is to find my own reflection in the ripples, and then to seek the calmer water underneath. Recognizing and allowing – that’s the goal for both of us.

 

Drop A Pebble in The Water

Drop a pebble in the water:
just a splash, and it is gone;
But there’s half-a-hundred ripples
Circling on and on and on,
Spreading, spreading from the center,
flowing on out to the sea.
And there is no way of telling
where the end is going to be.

Drop a pebble in the water:
in a minute you forget,
But there’s little waves a-flowing,
and there’s ripples circling yet,
And those little waves a-flowing
to a great big wave have grown;
You’ve disturbed a mighty river
just by dropping in a stone.

~ James W. Foley ~

 

 

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March Blog Hop

Coming of Age: Helping Teens Unlock Their Potential

Sam WeldingAmidst all of the joys and rewards of homeschooling older kids, there are some challenges, too, one of which has been at the forefront for my family lately. No, it’s not higher math and science that we’re struggling with, nor is it teenage angst and mood swings, either. For these we have found classes or tutors, read books, or sympathized with other parents. This particular challenge exists solely, and squarely, in that time-limited space where teens attempt to merge with the adult world.

This challenge is lack of opportunity.

For over a year now my fourteen-year-old son, Sam, has been wanting to spread his wings – he wants to build things, he wants to earn money, he wants to be useful. He wants these things so badly, he’s been like a tiger in a cage, pacing and anxious and, yes, even depressed sometimes. But where are opportunities like this available to a boy his age? He can’t legally work, and he doesn’t have the knowledge or skills he needs to design and build the things he envisions making (he outgrew Legos and got bored with models years ago). He wants to do real things, not kid things, and this is the problem — most adults expect kids his age to be in school all day and, even worse, assume these young adults are incapable of providing much value when they do have free time.

As my husband and I have been wrestling with this issue, I was beginning to think that somehow we were missing something. What are other teens doing? Are we the only ones with a child who wants real experiences?

So, it was with great relief, and more than a few enthusiastic shouts of “Yes!”, that I recently read Marie Goodwin’s post, “A Peculiar Problem of Homeschooling Teens”. She describes this situation (and some of its causes) perfectly, calling this the “mentor seeking” phase, when a young person “begins to find focus in their understanding of the world, is seeking a higher purpose to learning, and is no longer interested in play-based activities. They actively wish to find mentors outside the family for their particular learning aspirations.” Perfectly described. Mentoring, apprenticeships, and jobs – these are what developing adults, and not just the homeschooled ones, truly want and need.

Before compulsory schooling, it used to be that boys the ages of both of my sons (12 and 14) would apprentice with a master of a trade, learning the skills and gaining the knowledge they would need as an adult. Girls would also spend more time with the women in their family, learning the domestic skills they would need to manage families and houses of their own. While this model of gender separation is certainly outdated, the apprentice model is one we need to consider resurrecting. Learning while spending time with adults is a natural way to learn and grow – it’s how children have mostly been raised for thousands of years.

And yet…

For some reason we’ve decided that a system that locks our young adults away every day is the best model. Even among those of us who have rejected this form of education, many of us still assume that standard curriculum and kids’ activities should be enough until college or adulthood. What so many of us fail to understand is that our teens need more, that much of the angst and rebellion assumed to be natural and unavoidable part of adolescence is not just hormones – it’s the result of limited freedom, of underestimated potential, of separation from what’s meaningful and important in the world.

We can do better.

While I see some hopeful signs that more internships and apprenticeships are becoming available for teenagers (there are one or two small programs in my city), for my sons I’m realizing that my focus will need to shift from directly facilitating their learning to facilitating connections and opportunities. And I’m happy to report that we’ve had some successes. Both of my sons love music and have found a community, comprised of both adults and kids, at our local School of Rock. Their music teachers are really more like coaches, and they set high expectations for the boys (which they’re happy to rise to!) Also, there’s a fairly new maker space in our city that is almost exclusively for adults, but with some discussions and an interview, they agreed to make an exception for my fourteen-year-old. He’s been learning to cut and weld metal there, and will be taking a wood working class next week. Finally, we also found a programming tutor who’s just the right combination of instructor and mentor.

I know there are other families out there who are also struggling with this issue, even if they haven’t realized that this is the issue yet. If yours is one of them, I encourage you to seek out and develop options for your kids. And don’t be afraid to be creative. Just because a special program or position doesn’t exist doesn’t mean it isn’t possible to create an opportunity. Sure, you can expect to be met with some confusion and resistance, and you’ll certainly need to do some explaining, but it will be truly worth it knowing that you’re not only supporting the growth and development of your child, but you’re also planting seeds of opportunity for others, too.

An Epidemic of Passive Acceptance

Ben Calling 2Calling all those with “a contrarian spirit and a dash of up-yours rebelliousness”!

We have an epidemic on our hands, people. We are raising another generation of students who learn “passive acceptance” at school, and grow up to be adults who passively accept terrible jobs, horrible bosses, and a generally lower quality of life than what they yearn for.

As Alfie Kohn points out in his article “The Value of Negative Learning” (an article that is brimming with truth, overflowing with insight):

“Lots of people grow up and subject their own children to the same kind of schooling that they themselves barely endured. Some of these parents do so with enthusiasm (and flash cards), which is alarming; others just resign themselves to the inevitability of watching their children act out an excruciating slow-motion exercise in déjà vu, which is even worse. Apparently their mantra is: “If it was bad enough for me, it’s bad enough for my kids.”

If this is you, or was you when you were a kid, or sounds like somebody you know, read on… and then find your inner rebel!

http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/edweek/negativelearning.htm

From the Outside Looking In

000_0308My feet felt like they were on fire.  The stands were surprisingly full, and I was glad I’d arrived early enough to grab a seat that was mostly in the shade.  My sandal-clad feet were in the sun, though, and I noticed that the skin on top was already turning red – I’d need to move soon, probably to a place where I’d have to stand.  I decided to relax for a few more minutes as I looked out over the inner field of the high school track, looking for Sam, my 7th grade son, who was about to run in the first meet of the season.

I scanned the various clusters of boys in his team’s black t-shirts, and looked for his coach’s signature bright-orange hat. Where was he?  Finally, I spotted a single figure sauntering along the perimeter, gazing off into the distance, hand tracing along the yellow tape separating the discus area from the rest of the field.  There he was.  My heart squeezed a little, taking my mind off my feet temporarily. I wasn’t surprised that he was off on the side by himself, alone in the crowd, but it panged me nonetheless.  My sweetly earnest, creative, introverted son – how I wished he were part of the group.

This wasn’t the first time I’d watched from the sidelines as Sam separated himself from the others on the field.  When he was four we signed him up for soccer, thinking it would be a good way for him to run off some of his little-boy energy and meet some kids his age.  That was during his dinosaur phase, the years when he had memorized the names of every dinosaur in every picture book we had (more than most libraries), and would spend hours a day setting up elaborate scenes for his brightly-colored, hard plastic T-rexes and Stegosauruses.  Soccer, it turned out, held little appeal for him – the ball and net were basically invisible. Instead, he ran up and down the field following the herd of other children who were chasing the ball, hunched over in a T-rex pose, elbows pressed in, ”claws” facing forward.

At the time my husband and I were both very frustrated – we wanted him to be part of the team and make friends with the other kids.  We encouraged him to practice for the games, and spent many afternoons kicking the ball with him in the back yard, and running and dribbling it around the park.  He always went along with us, and listened respectfully as we talked about his responsibility to the team, but it never “took” – at the first opportunity he was back to stomping and roaring.  These days we laughed about those times, wishing we’d lightened up about the silly soccer game, but now I was feeling those familiar feelings of frustration again.  I still wanted him to be part of the team, to make friends.

Finally, too hot to stay where I was, I walked up to the shaded area at the top of the stands where I could still see the track but, as I suspected, had to stand.  I shifted my attention to the other shade-seeking people packed into the viewing area with me and noticed how increasingly noisy it was – the many animated conversations, the clapping and cheering, happy voices calling out to each other.  And it was in that moment, as I stood there quietly in the middle of all that commotion, that I suddenly realized that I, like Sam, was also alone in the crowd.

Growing up as an introvert was hard for me, and I had hoped that neither of my boys would face this particular challenge. My younger son is more outgoing and social, like his dad, so navigating social situations comes easily for him. Sam, however, is like me and prefers to be alone most of the time, quietly reading or working on his own projects – this is how we recharge our batteries.  In an extroverted culture like ours we are often misunderstood, and often feel separate and different.  Watching Sam wander alone around the field that day, waiting for his track events to start, my heart ached.  I didn’t know how to help him.

As we drove home after the meet, Sam told me how much he liked running, even though he was “really, really nervous” before each of his events. “Running is one of my things,” he happily declared.  While pleased to hear this, I was still carrying the weight of the worry and anxiety that had begun earlier, still trying to figure out what I could do.  I decided to ask about whether he was getting to know any of the other boys on the team, whether there were any he liked particularly. “Mom, I’m there to run. I talk to the other guys sometimes, but mostly I’m focusing on running.”  His tone told me that he knew I was going somewhere with this.  I pushed ahead anyway, insisting how nice it would be to make a friend on the team, how he could try to talk to the boys before practice or on the bus on the way to the meets. “They’re usually playing games on their phones, or horsing around. Stop worrying, Mom, I’m fine.” In other words:  end of conversation.

So, I did what I do:  I sat and felt all of my heavy emotions and noticed all of the roiling thoughts about it over the next few days.  And as I sat, I began (slowly) to realize that Sam was teaching me something I needed to learn and, in truth, had needed to learn for quite a while:  to allow him to be who he is. Instead of imposing my “stuff” on him, all of my worries and terrible visions of the future, I needed to trust and allow.  In my desire for him to have a better life than mine, to avoid the particular suffering I have known, I was projecting my wishes onto him and inadvertently sending the message that something was wrong with him. My ego had gotten in the way (again).

Knowing this does not make letting go any easier, at least not yet.  However, in the moments when I can observe my sons or listen to them without attachment or the need to control, I experience a deep and genuine sense of peace, and know that I am on the right path. In the moments when I just can’t achieve this, it helps to remember the words from Kahlil Gibran’s poem, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.”  This may be the hardest truth of parenting, but this is the job we signed up for – we need to be “the bow that is stable” so our children “may go swift and far.”  And that’s what Sam was both showing and telling me that day as he ran around the track – he wants to go swift and far.  All I need to worry about is getting there earlier – oh, and remembering to bring sun block.

 

On Children
 Kahlil Gibran

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

You are the bows from which your children
as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might
that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
so He loves also the bow that is stable.

 

The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Your Child Be Successful

I realized this week that I’ve fallen into a common (and all-to-familiar) parenting trap again – I’ve allowed urgent issues to crowd out the important ones.  Once again, homework, housework, and sports practices have crowded out time for meaningful conversations and the quiet time I need for reflecting and planning.  The good news is that I’m not alone (yes, I see you over there).  The even better news is that I’ve been here before, and I know how we can get out.

Our escape hinges on this:  we need to focus on just one thing.

I’m often overwhelmed when I think about big issues like climate change, poverty, and our warped healthcare system.  I’m too busy to get my hair cut, so how am I supposed to help the polar bears?  But even things that are closer to home and more immediately relevant, like thinking deeply about what I want my sons to know before they go out into the world, and what I can do to help them develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need, can feel too daunting to consider.  But here’s the key I don’t have to make an enormous list and do a lot of planning, because even one thing can be enough to make a world of difference. 

Fortunately, figuring out what our kids need to be successful has been the subject of much research lately.  And while there are many character traits and experiences that can help them grow into healthy, happy adults, the experts pretty much agree that there’s one thing in particular that will ensure their success in life:  persistence. 

Persistence is the ability to stay focused and committed to something, regardless of challenges and setbacks, and it’s an even stronger predictor of success than natural talent or intelligence.  Sometimes this trait is called “grit”, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us in every moment.   But we can cultivate it through our beliefs and habits, and we can help our kids learn to do this, too.  Here’s how: 

  • Teach a “growth mindset”.   Teach your child that intelligence and abilities are not “fixed” – they can be cultivated with effort.   As reported in “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has found that, “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
  • Encourage inquiry and curiosity.  Once kids adopt a growth mindset, self-motivation for learning and curiosity will naturally emerge.  Asking meaningful questions will help stimulate curiosity, according to Daniel Willingham in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, and will support students in staying engaged and focused. 
  • Plan for failure.  Failure is certainly difficult, but learning to embrace it as a natural part of the learning and growing process, and seizing it as an opportunity to reflect and develop even more meaningful questions, will support our kids in persevering through it.  In fact, in his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg suggests that those of us who make an actual plan for failure consistently respond more effectively when it happens. 
  • Foster emotional awareness.  Frustration and other negative emotions can throw anyone off track.  According to Dan Siegel in “The Whole Brain Child”, the simple act of recognizing and naming these emotions when they flood our children’s pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, allows our kids to “make sense of the experience and feel more in control” so they can make better choices and continue to move forward.

So this is the one thing we can do, need to do, to help our kids be successful:  teach them how to persevere.  Even those of us who are severely limited by time and energy can weave the messages about the value of effort, inquiry, failure, and emotional awareness into every-day activities – no special planning, tools, or classes required!  However, if you do find that you have a few minutes and are interested in learning more about any of these areas, I highly recommend picking up any of the books mentioned above – each is worthy of your time.

And who knows? Just maybe, with a little luck, our persevering kids will actually solve the problems of climate change, poverty, and healthcare so I can stop worrying about polar bears and finally focus on cleaning out my kitchen pantry.


(Note:  This is a repost from April, 2013.  Given all of the recent public discussions about this topic, I thought it would be relevant for my newer readers to see.)

Mindfulness Blooming




Meditation, Week 3

Spring has felt more like summer in the Pacific Northwest this week, so my family and I have been spending a lot of time out on the back deck soaking in the sunshine.  A couple of days ago I was sitting outside reading and got up to come inside just as my nine-year-old son, Ben, was coming out to tell me something.  We ended up standing a talking for a moment about whatever it was, and as we turned to come back in the house, Ben startled me when he suddenly exclaimed “Mama, look!” 

Turning and expecting to see some problem I would have to deal with (usually the cause of such exclamations), I was surprised to realize he was pointing to the trees.  The leaves are that beautiful bright shade of spring green right now, and the angle of the sun at that moment was catching the leaves in a way that made them particularly brilliant, with a light breeze moving the leaves just enough to enhance the sparkling effect.  He reached out to hold my hand, and we stood silently for a minute, admiring the view.  

This was one of those rare and precious parenting moments when I had the feeling “Hey, I’m really on the right track here.”  You see, I have an addiction that I wasn’t even aware of until fairly recently that would have previously made this moment unlikely, and I’ve been working hard to recover from it. No, not alcohol, not drugs, not gambling – the addiction tohurrying.  For years now, even in situations when I’m not under any time pressure to get someplace or meet some sort of deadline, I still hurry, rushing myself and everyone else along to do whatever we’re doing quickly so we don’t waste any time.  

The irony of the situation, in retrospect, is that even though I’ve had a regular meditation practice for a while now, remaining mindful throughout the day is still a challenge.  Regularly hurrying through my days, I know that I’ve rushed past many potential moments of connection like the one I had looking at the leaves with Ben, which is really the whole point of meditation and mindfulness, right? Being in the present moment.  And what’s more, given that energy and emotions are contagious, I’ve also been infecting my family with my “hurry up” energy.

But lately I’ve been practicing being more mindful throughout the day, and I’ve been trying to help my kids do this, too.  Just role-modeling mindfulness would not be enough, however, because implicit learning, or learning without the awareness that we’re learning something, is fairly weak.  So, I’ve been talking to the boys a lot about mindfulness, and I’ve also made a habit of saying out loud things like, “Wow, I’m feeling a little scattered here. Let me take a breath and try to focus.”  Much better than snapping at everyone to be quiet, or hurry up! In short, I’ve been developing my mindful parenting skills.


Mindful Parenting

So what does it mean to mindfully parent?  Mindfulness, as described by Dr. Dan Siegel, is “paying attention, in the present moment, on purpose, without grasping onto judgments.”  Which means that we can think of mindful parenting as the practice of intentionally bringing purposeful awareness to everyday parenting situations in order to cultivate and deepen the parent-child connection.  And there is a clear benefit to mindful parenting, too – a significant and growing body of research showing that kids who are deeply connected to their parents demonstrate higher levels of:
  • Self-esteem
  • Confidence to explore and experiment
  • Communication skills with people of all ages
  • Academic performance
  • Adaptability to change
As Susan Kaiser Greenland, author of The Mindful Child, so beautifully describes it:

“Making the choice to exercise restraint, empathy, compassion and even-handedness time and time again is how these qualities become habitual in both parent and child. When our kids see us being kind to others, we’re both practicing kindness ourselves and modeling it for them; when they watch us exercise patience while waiting our turn in the grocery line or when stuck in traffic, we’re both modeling patience to our kids and practicing it ourselves.”


Mindful Children

So in addition to role modeling mindfulness, how can we teach it to our kids?  How can we become mindful families?  Here are a few ideas:
  • If you meditate, practice where your kids can see you.  Never force them to join, and don’t even say anything about it. Just let them be curious and ask on their own.
  • Create mindful moments.  Finding opportunities to be mindful is simple, no matter how busy you are, because mindfulness can be woven into common daily experiences (see some suggestions in “Activities” below). When you’re feeling overwhelmed or distracted by your own emotions, name the feeling you’re having, and say what you’re doing (out loud if your kids are nearby).  For example, “I’m so frustrated – I didn’t expect this traffic and I’m worried we’re going to be late. I need to take a breath and calm down.” 
  • Focus on the small stuff.  It’s the small moments that matter, not the big exciting ones. Pointing out an interesting cloud, or sitting quietly together having a snack – these are the experiences that make your kids feel connected. 
  • Give your undivided attention.  This is what your kids want (even teenagers!) more than anything.  Let them choose the moment, and be ready to seize the opportunity when it arrives.  Make eye contact, listen more than you speak, and stay as open as possible — no judging! Even if it’s just for a few minutes, it matters.

Activities for Meditation, Week3


This week’s activities have been selected to help you:
  1. Practice incorporating mindfulness into your regular daily routine,
  2. Share your meditation and/or mindfulness practice with your kids,
  3. Experience other forms of meditation, including an eating and walking.

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When you have five minutes…

1.  On your own:   Sign up for “interrupters” from Mindful.  You can choose to have regular “mindful interruptors” sent to you by Twitter or email that remind you to be aware of your present moment.  An example of one:  “Get out of your chair. Stand up straight. Slowly bend forward from your waist. Let your hands dangle and your head drop. Ah.”

2.  With your child:  Try an eating meditation (a classic!).  Here’s the process, as described by Christopher Willard in “A Child’s Mind”.  All you need are some grapes (or raisins are often used, too):

“…study the grapes for a few minutes, examining them in the light, playing with them in your fingers, bringing them to your lips… notice if you salivate.  Then, gently, without biting into it, place the grape on your tongue, and notice any urges that come up.  Notice what your tongue and mouth do, or want to do, as you taste the grape.  When you are ready, bite into the grape, noticing the flavors and textures. How is your stomach feeling? And the rest of your body? After swallowing, notice any left over flavor remaining in your mouth… and thoughts in your mind.”

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When you have 15 minutes… 

  
1.  On your own:  Watch this 10 minute video with Susan Kaiser Greenland talking about how to incorporate mindfulness practices into your child’s life. Think about mindfulness activities you would like to include in your schedule this week.

2.  With your child:  Find one opportunity to give each child your undivided attention. Wait until they seem to be interested in talking about something, and be prepared to stop whatever your doing to give them your full and undivided attention.

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When you have 30 minutes or more…

1.  On your own:  Do a walking meditation.  There are different ways to do walking meditations, and this is a simple set of instructions for one form from Mindful.  As they describe it: “This one relies on a pace that is close to how we might walk in everyday life, and in fact it can be adapted for walking in the street—just as long as you remember to pay attention to street lights, other people, and not looking like a zombie.”

2.  With your child:  Do a body scan (great to do before going to bed!)  Here’s how:

  • Lie down on a bed or some other comfortable place.
  • Take a few minutes to breathe slowly and deeply; feel gravity pulling you down.
  • When you’re ready, bring your awareness to your face, including your eyes, nose, and mouth, and squeeze your face muscles together as tightly as you can, holding for a count of 10. 
  • Release and breathe.
  • Bring your awareness to your neck and shoulders.  Squeeze these muscles, bringing your shoulders as close to your ears as possible for a count of 10.
  • Release and breathe.
  • Continue moving down your body, progressively tightening and releasing the muscles in your arms and hands, abdomen, buttocks, thighs and calves, and finally feet, holding each for 10 beats.
  • Relax and breathe deeply.


Want to learn more? Go further?  There are several great books that I highly recommend, two of which include CDs with guided mindfulness and meditation exercises.  You can click on the titles below to transfer to the “Teach Your Own” store at Amazon, read descriptions of each, and order any that are of interest.

  1. The Mindful Child, by Susan Kaiser Greenland
  2. The Whole-Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegel
  3. Building Emotional Intelligence, by Linda Lantieri and Daniel Goleman (includes CD)
  4. Planting Seeds, by Thich Nhat Hanh  (includes CD)
  5. Child’s Mind, by Christopher Willard

When mindfulness embraces the ones we love,
they bloom like flowers.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh


The Most Important Thing You Can Do To Help Your Child Be Successful


I realized this week that I’ve fallen into a common (and all-to-familiar) parenting trap again – I’ve allowed urgent issues to crowd out the important ones.  Once again, homework, housework, and sports practices have crowded out time for meaningful conversations and the quiet time I need for reflecting and planning.  The good news is that I’m not alone (yes, I see you over there).  The even better news is that I’ve been here before, and I know how we can get out.

Our escape hinges on this:  we need to focus on just one thing.

I’m often overwhelmed when I think about big issues like climate change, poverty, and our warped healthcare system.  I’m too busy to get my hair cut, so how am I supposed to help the polar bears?  But even things that are closer to home and more immediately relevant, like thinking deeply about what I want my sons to know before they go out into the world, and what I can do to help them develop the knowledge and skills they’ll need, can feel too daunting to consider.  But here’s the key I don’t have to make an enormous list and do a lot of planning, because even one thing can be enough to make a world of difference. 

Fortunately, figuring out what our kids need to be successful has been the subject of much research lately.  And while there are many character traits and experiences that can help them grow into healthy, happy adults, the experts pretty much agree that there’s one thing in particular that will ensure their success in life:  persistence. 

Persistence is the ability to stay focused and committed to something, regardless of challenges and setbacks, and it’s an even stronger predictor of success than natural talent or intelligence.  Sometimes this trait is called “grit”, and it isn’t something that comes naturally to all of us in every moment.   But we can cultivate it through our beliefs and habits, and we can help our kids learn to do this, too.  Here’s how: 

  • Teach a “growth mindset”.   Teach your child that intelligence and abilities are not “fixed” – they can be cultivated with effort.   As reported in “Mindset, The New Psychology of Success”, Stanford researcher Carol Dweck has found that, “Although people may differ in every which way – in their initial talents and aptitudes, interests, or temperaments – everyone can change and grow through application and experience.”
    • Encourage inquiry and curiosity.  Once kids adopt a growth mindset, self-motivation for learning and curiosity will naturally emerge.  Asking meaningful questions will help stimulate curiosity, according to Daniel Willingham in “Why Don’t Students Like School?”, and will support students in staying engaged and focused. 
    • Plan for failure.  Failure is certainly difficult, but learning to embrace it as a natural part of the learning and growing process, and seizing it as an opportunity to reflect and develop even more meaningful questions, will support our kids in persevering through it.  In fact, in his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg suggests that those of us who make an actual plan for failure consistently respond more effectively when it happens. 
    • Foster emotional awareness.  Frustration and other negative emotions can throw anyone off track.  According to Dan Siegel in “The Whole Brain Child”, the simple act of recognizing and naming these emotions when they flood our children’s pre-frontal cortex, the decision-making area of the brain, allows our kids to “make sense of the experience and feel more in control” so they can make better choices and continue to move forward.

      So this is the one thing we can do, need to do, to help our kids be successful:  teach them how to persevere.  Even those of us who are severely limited by time and energy can weave the messages about the value of effort, inquiry, failure, and emotional awareness into every-day activities – no special planning, tools, or classes required!  However, if you do find that you have a few minutes and are interested in learning more about any of these areas, I highly recommend picking up any of the books mentioned above – each is worthy of your time.

      And who knows? Just maybe, with a little luck, our persevering kids will actually solve the problems of climate change, poverty, and healthcare so I can stop worrying about polar bears and finally focus on cleaning out my kitchen pantry.





      Learning to Say "Go Ahead!"

      I have a confession to make — I don’t pay my kids an allowance.  I know this may sound surprising given that something like 80% of kids in this country earn allowances for doing chores. This doesn’t mean that my boys are off the hook, though — they do daily chores, too, and are experts at setting the table, loading and unloading the dishwasher, sorting laundry, taking out the trash.  I just don’t pay them for it.  My philosophy is that we are all part of the family and, as such, have a role in taking care of our house. 

      Without an allowance, the logical assumption would be that my husband and I buy everything for them.  Well, not so much.  We certainly provide everything they need and, for birthdays and holidays, some of what they want.  But otherwise, they cover most of their own expenses now.  Cool new Nerf gun? Ninja t-shirt? Mats for their “warrior training” space?  It’s all on them.  For something expensive, like a new bike or the Trackers’ Earth apprenticeship program that Sam is interested in, we negotiate a cost-sharing split — sometimes it’s 50/50, sometimes it’s 80/20. 

      So how do they come up with the money to pay for these things?  They have their own business.  Last year, when Sam was 10, he started asking questions about jobs and how people earn money.  We explained that most people work for someone else, but that some people start their own businesses.  Around that same time the opportunity came up to participate in an Entrepreneur’s Fair through our homeschooling group, so we signed both boys up immediately, thinking this would give them a deeper understanding of business concepts.  They each decided what they wanted to make, purchased their own materials (with a loan from their parents), made their own products (holiday decorations), and sold them at the fair.  They learned first-hand about cost of goods sold, labor, marketing and sales, loan debt (yes, we charged them interest!), and profit.  But surprisingly, what they really came away with, was an enthusiasm for entrepreneurship.  In fact, we barely made it to the car after the fair before both boys were brainstorming other businesses they could start!

      Now, I should pause here for a moment because, if you know anything about our family, you’re probably guessing that my husband and I had a significant role in encouraging this idea of starting a business, given that we’ve both have a history of starting our own businesses.  You’ll just have to take my word for it — the idea never crossed my mind.  Yes, I wanted them to learn about business, and apply some math concepts in the process, and Dave wanted them to see what it’s like to really work. But neither of us had any ideas about an ongoing venture.  

      So, we followed their lead, and helped them brainstorm ideas for a couple of weeks, until we finally landed on the idea that is now the company called “The Can Men”. Every Tuesday night the boys take their clients’ trash and recycling cans to the curb, and then return them to their original places the next day after the trash trucks have come through the neighborhood. To start, they had to figure out their own pricing, develop their own flyer, and then knock on doors to find clients.  Most of the people in our neighborhood signed on, and now the boys make a nice monthly income.  Sam is technically the business owner, which means he took the lead on the sales, does the monthly invoicing, and earns 60% of the revenue.  Tips (which they get regularly) are split 50/50.  And best of all, there were no start-up costs!

      Now that “The Can Men” has been in business for about six months, I know that what they’re learning is immeasurable — there’s absolutely nothing I could teach them, or that a teacher in a classroom could teach them, that would compare.  And whatever they choose to do professionally in their lives, whether they work for someone else or not, there’s no doubt that they’re forming the foundation for their choices now.  If your kids have entrepreneurial leanings, or even if you’re not sure, I highly encourage you to consider and explore the possibilities with them.  There’s no doubt that you’ll be opening new doors into their future.  Still not sure?  Take five minutes to check out this video of young entrepreneurs talking about their families:  Entrepreneurs Love Their Parents 

      Getting started may be as simple as just learning to say “Go ahead!”