A Reminder For Those Who Need It

“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion”.
~ Dalai Lama

Dear mama (or papa) who feels so much,

It is wonderful that you connect so deeply to your children. It is beautiful how in tune you can be and how you always strive to make sure your children feel “felt”. It is amazing how you allow them to express their needs and feelings so fully and that you really, really listen. I admire you for always wanting to do better.

And I hurt for you when you cry so bitterly and feel you have failed them. I wish I could take away the guilt and sadness you feel. You examine every word you said and worry that although you love your children completely, perhaps they don’t experience it that way. You fear the future. You fear the culmination of all your wrong moves will result in your children bemoaning their childhood in the therapist’s chair. You fear your children will never learn to love each other, to be kind, to be compassionate. I wish you could truly see how much you have done that is wonderful. But what you have done “wrong” clouds your vision. What you remember is your anger, your impatience, your resentment. But what you forget are all the beautiful moments that add up to happiness.

They will remember the patient hands that buttoned up their sweaters and the smell of the oatmeal you made for breakfast. They will remember how you dried their tears when they fell at the park and held them close when they were scared of witches in their bedroom. They will remember the necklaces that you never took off, one with each of their initials. They will remember the feel of curling up with you under soft, white blankets, telling stories by flashlight. They will remember how you painted their toenails and dressed up for Halloween with them. They will remember how they could make you laugh so hard you cried.

Maybe they will remember how you yelled sometimes. Maybe they will remember you were impatient. But more importantly, they will remember you acknowledged that it felt scary for them when that happened and that you apologized afterwards. They may remember your tears of frustration, but more importantly they will remember how you whispered in their ear each night the things that day that made you love them.

Dear mama (or papa) who feels so much, it can be a blessing and a curse to feel as much as you do. Be as kind and compassionate to yourself as you are to your children. Of all the things you are trying to teach them, of utmost importance is modeling to them how to forgive yourself when you make a mistake.

Your children love you.

You are always doing the best you can in every moment.

Take that in.

Believe it.

Feeling The Pressure To Be A Good Parent?

There are so many times, as a parent, when you just feel as though you are doing everything wrong. On those days when your find yourself slamming doors in frustration or muttering under your breath while your children are yelling at each other and you feel as though you’ve botched yet another attempt at remaining cool, calm and connected, it’s pretty easy to feel like a lousy parent.

And there are so many ways in which we compound this feeling by comparing ourselves to other parents and feeling as though someone else is doing all the things we’re not doing. The more we know about parenting and how our children develop, the more we can become painfully aware of our own shortcomings.

This morning in the LA Times there was an article about how much movies that depict parenting have changed because, in fact, parenting itself has changed over the years.

“In the past, people parented based on instincts and how they were raised, but now with technology and the ease of transmittable information, we know so much more about parenting, We do so much more thinking about parenting, You can’t turn on a morning show without an expert talking about college anxiety, how to keep our kids busier…Everyone wants to know how everyone else is doing it.”

reading parenting booksGranted, I tend to be anxious and neurotic at times, but is having so much information at our fingertips always a good thing? In my experience this increased knowledge has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand I feel empowered because the information I have helps me understand why my children behave the way they do, be more conscious of what they need and feel more closely connected to them as people. On the other hand, having so much knowledge about all of the things that can help children blossom (especially during their first 5 years) can, at times, make me feel as though I will never be as good a parent as I want to be.

Logically, of course I know there is no possible way we can all do everything “right”. It could make you insane to try. As one mother in the the LA Times article comments:

“The focus on having the right things and what are they eating…lactation consultants, crib consultants, I swear to God there are curtain consultants. Parenting has become this whole other culture”.

And yet, I do get down on myself for not doing more. Logically I know that I am a good mother and that I do a lot of things really well, but are there areas in which I wish I did things better? Of course. Are there areas in which I look at others and compare myself? Of course. Its that pointless and self-defeating? Of course. But perhaps it’s also human nature to compare and contrast. Would I prefer not to know so much? I’m not sure. I would imagine that our parents and grandparents had a much different experience being parents than we are having. They were probably less self-critical of their parenting and less stressed out. But was ignorance actually bliss? I suppose for some, but I don’t think I’d trade in knowing so much.

The other angle of all of this increased interest in parenting that intrigues me are the parents who see their children as extensions of themselves. As the Times article points out, “It’s almost like keeping up with the Joneses. Instead of who’s got the nicer car, it’s who’s doing better for their kid.” Living in Los Angeles this is an all too common occurrence. A friend of mine told me recently about being snubbed at the park for bringing Doritos for her son to have as a snack by a mom who had brought organic, grilled salmon and quinoa for her own child.

children on the beachHave “good” children become the new status symbol? If your child is seemingly the most well-adjusted, does that mean you have done the best job parenting? Does it mean that your parenting philosophy is the best one? Do we, as parents, get to pat ourselves on the back for a job well done when our child shares or empathizes or eats salmon and quinoa? Well, perhaps. But not if we are simultaneously looking down at someone else for having a different parenting style, or for having a child who is struggling in some area ours has mastered. What, then, are we modeling for our children?

My sense is that no matter your philosophy, we’re all doing our best to raise happy, healthy children. The fact that there is so much information out there on how to do it is both wonderful and overwhelming. I think the best we can all do for the children involved is to choose what information resonates in our hearts, be gentle with ourselves when we mess up and just be as loving, kind and respectful as you can be…in my experience, when I do those things, I find that I am a pretty awesome parent.

Will Our Children Succeed In Spite Of Our Education System?

“Few parents have the courage and independence to care more for their children’s happiness than for their success.” ~ Erich Fromm

“Here’s a bumper sticker I’d like to see: “We are the proud parents of a child who’s self-esteem is sufficient that he doesn’t need us promoting his minor scholastic achievements on the back of our car.”
~ George Carlin

alfie kohnIn the 5 or so years that I have been a parent there have been a few people I have come in contact with whose philosophy about children spoke to me so completely that I instantly felt a bond. I have been so fortunate in my time as a blogger to have found an amazing group of like-minded people whose writings and teachings continuously open my eyes to better ways of being with children. Last week I went to a lecture given by Alfie Kohn titled “Pushed Too Hard: Parenting in an Achievement Crazy Culture” which not only opened my eyes, it blew my mind.

I’d heard of Alfie Kohn for a number of years which is not surprising given that he is the author of a dozen books and over 100 articles on human behavior, education and parenting. When the opportunity came up to hear his lecture, I jumped at it because I knew it was going to be something interesting. What I didn’t realize was how dynamic a speaker he was, how he would push me to re-think beliefs I had held as fact and how persuasive the arguments for his line of thinking would be. There is no way I can do his lecture justice here, but I do want to try and sum up a few of the brilliant points he made that evening.

The lecture began with the audience being asked what their long-term goals are for their children. The answers included self-reliant, creative, curious, compassionate, fulfilled, vital members of their community, happy in their own skin and so forth. You get the drift. Mr. Kohn made the observation that one thing all of these ideals had in common was that none of these descriptions had anything to do with what kind of learners our kids would be, but rather what kind of people they will become.

Our practices are at odds with what we want for our children.

Most parents and educators use some combination of rewards and praise in an effort to build self-esteem and encourage children to succeed. Mr. Kohn has written extensively on the subject of rewards and praise in numerous articles and books like Punished By Rewards and Unconditional Parenting. We want our children to be generous and kind, so we reward them when they behave that way. But studies show that these rewards actually have the reverse effect of what we want! From Alfie Kohn’s article 5 Reasons To Stop Saying “Good Job”:

“Very much like tangible rewards – or, for that matter, punishments – it’s a way of doing something to children to get them to comply with our wishes. It may be effective at producing this result (at least for a while), but it’s very different from working with kids – for example, by engaging them in conversation about what makes a classroom (or family) function smoothly, or how other people are affected by what we have done — or failed to do. The latter approach is not only more respectful but more likely to help kids become thoughtful people.”

good jobRewards and praise (and even punishments) teach children to behave in the desired way only when there is the possibility of being rewarded. It doesn’t teach them to connect to their inner sense of kindness and generosity and to simply be that way because they are intrinsically motivated to do so.

We want our students to work hard and do their best, so we test them and praise good performance. But research shows that, again, this only serves to motivate students to want to get good grades, not become the lifelong learners we all hope for! As I wrote last year about the ideas of intrinsic motivation and praise in a post about the groundbreaking book, NurtureShock:

“In other words, giving your children money for doing chores, extra computer time for doing well on a test or saying ‘good job’ whenever they put away their toys simply keeps them needing those “rewards” to be motivated. They have not learned to do things simply for the joy of just doing them”.

The more you reward people for doing something, the more they lose interest in doing it.

As parents (or educators, I would imagine), we may feel that we need to reinforce good behavior as if that good behavior is simply a fluke. But praise is ultimately a judgment. And since we know that no one likes to be judged, we can, instead of praising, use a phrase like “I noticed”:

  • I noticed that you helped your friend when she fell down.
  • I noticed that you gave half your lunch to your friend who forgot his.
  • I noticed that you put a lot of effort into your science project.

But what about rewarding children for doing well in school?

The main way children are rewarded in school is by receiving grades for their work. Alfie Kohn makes the argument that grades in school actually do the opposite of what we would hope they do. The research shows that not only don’t grades motivate people, they actually do something much worse:

  1. Students actually find the task less interesting once grades are introduced. Thus, they are less likely to return to the subject on their own time (loss of intrinsic motivation) and many simply lose interest in the subject entirely.
  2. Assigning grades leads students to avoid risk. What does this mean? That our children will choose the easiest classes, the simplest book for a book report, study a foreign language they already know in order to get a better grade. Kids aren’t stupid, if adults tell them that grades are what is important, then they will find the best way to ensure they get the best grade.
  3. Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. As Alfie Kohn writes, “They may skim books for what they’ll “need to know.” They’re less likely to wonder, say, “How can we be sure that’s true?” than to ask “Is this going to be on the test?”

Mr. Kohn pushed the point further last week and made the statement that the only thing worse than a reward is an award. That is, what contests do is to make our children view others as potential obstacles to success. How does this fit in with our desire to teach our children to be kind and compassionate? Can one be simultaneously competitive and altruistic?

competitive parentsFor parents who grew up in families that were either very competitive or where achievement was paramount, the ideas that Mr. Kohn puts forth might seem really “out there”. Lest you dismiss him entirely, I urge you to actually read his articles like The Case Against Grades or Well, Duh! 10 Obvious Truths We Shouldn’t Be Ignoring. And, perhaps, consider his statement that he sees only 3 reasons why grades should be given:

  1. To satisfy parents
  2. It allows teachers to compel kids to do what the teachers want them to do.
  3. People are going to give your children grades later, so they might as well get used to it now.

None of those feel like very good reasons to me. And don’t even get him started on tests and homework. Suffice it to say that he quoted research that basically says that tests measure what matters least: how many forgettable facts you’ve crammed into short term memory. And homework? Research shows that it has no benefit for children until High School. Before then, Mr. Kohn just sees it as requiring our children to do a “second shift” after 7 hours of school.

Still, it takes courage to do right by kids in an era when the quantitative matters more than the qualitative, when meeting (someone else’s) standards counts for more than exploring ideas, and when anything “rigorous” is automatically assumed to be valuable. We have to be willing to challenge the conventional wisdom, which in this case means asking not how to improve grades but how to jettison them once and for all. ~ Alfie Kohn

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, I was graded from Kindergarten through Law School, had loads of homework every night, played competitive sports and I turned out just fine”. But, as my friend, Wendy said on my Facebook page yesterday, did you turn out fine BECAUSE of all of that? Or in spite of it?

Just something to think about.

I know this may be controversial to some. It also may be frustrating, especially if your local school is more traditional in nature and you don’t have a choice as to where to send your child. But if any of this strikes you as making some sense then I urge you to investigate further and find a way to make some changes for the sake of your children. And, as always, I’d love to know your thoughts about all of this. Leave your comments below!

Discovering The Joy Of Reading (Plus A Giveaway)!

“The habit of reading is the only enjoyment in which there is no alloy;
it lasts when all other pleasures fade.”
~ Anthony Trollope

“The more you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
~ Dr. Seuss

My fondest childhood memories revolve around the love of reading, writing and story-telling my parents shared with me. This passion for words and expression meant there were books everywhere in our house, librettos were read before going to an opera, deeply personal diaries were kept and long, detailed stories were told before bed. Now that I am a mother myself, I am doing my best to create this love of reading and story telling with my own kids.

We’ve read to our children from day one, kept books everywhere from our cars to our bathrooms, and let our children see us reading books for enjoyment. In our home our children know that books are important. We inscribe them with the kids’ names, who the book was from and what occasion the book was given for. This year I started using these personalized, vintage bookplates from Oiseaux in the children’s favorite books. When we read aloud we try to make it exciting, using different voices, hushed whispers and lots of expression. As children’s book author, Mem Fox, says,

“When I say to a parent, ‘read to a child’, I don’t want it to sound like medicine. I want it to sound like chocolate.”

bob books learning to readWe never have tried to teach our children to read. Rather, we have tried to impart a love for books and what they offer. Because we laid this foundation, when I brought home a box of Bob Books about 4 months ago and asked my 4 1/2-year old son if he wanted to try and read the books on his own, he dove right in.

To my amazement, this boy who deeply loves books, but who had never even tried to read on his own, was reading these books within minutes. The look on his face when he realized this was priceless!

For Christmas he got lots of cool gifts, but the one he’s enjoyed most so far are his set of the next level of Bob Books. He’s figuring out words he’s never seen before, understanding simple stories and totally encouraged to try more. He’s even ventured into reading some of his regular books and is making his way through some of the simpler Dr. Seuss stories.

I would never recommend pushing a child to read before they’re ready. Like anything else with early childhood, pushing too soon can often backfire. I merely offered the books and was available whenever he wanted to try. But because of the way they’re designed, he felt successful right off the bat. I think it’s our son’s passion for really wanting to read, coupled with his excitement to be doing something before his sister, that has spurred him on. And it is absolutely this amazing series of books that has given him the confidence to say “I can read”! That’s him, below, reading one of the new books, “O.K., Kids”.

I hadn’t heard of Bob Books until stumbling upon them via a connection on Twitter, but since having such success with them I have told everyone I know how well they work and how much both my children love them. As with just about everything else in my life, that means I also share it on my blog with you! But even better than just telling you about how well they work, this post is a chance for you to win a set of Bob Books Set 1. These books make a great gift or, if your child is too young to start, win them and keep them until the time is right!

Winning is simple. All you need to do is leave a comment below and tell me what the first book is that you remember reading. I will pick a winner at random (thank you, Random.org) on Monday, January 9th at noon, PST. Please be sure to leave your email address so I can notify you if you win!