white board

I love my whiteboard. It’s hangs on the refrigerator in the kitchen, and is our family’s place for the running grocery list, the most critical to-dos, the place to find the daily schedule when things need to get done with a high degree of coordination. It’s where we can all Get On The Same Page.

I’ve recently added an additional smaller whiteboard that holds new lists: things for each of the kids to get done or remember. Of course I could have added these lists to the main whiteboard, but, well, there isn’t really room.

I am now loving this other whiteboard for different reasons. (Why did it take me so long to figure this out?) If there is a job in the house–or other things–for each kid to be responsible for (e.g. empty the dishwasher, return a permission slip, practice violin), there it is on their list! Every time they go to the fridge for a snack or a drink, there it is. A reminder! I feel disproportionately unburdened by this small white rectangle that allows me to not have to be the one who has to remember, remind, and yes, occasionally nag to get things done. –t

let them see you cry

Screen Shot 2014-06-03 at 12.41.51 PMI am a sentimental crier. I was crying off and on while watching A Dolphin Tale with my kids. And, um, also during We Bought A Zoo. I well up almost every time I see a parent struggling to do their best by their kids, when I bear witness to someone going through a tough time with grace, or at pretty much any moment that highlights acts of true humanity. There are a couple of children’s books that, no matter how many times I read them, I hear my voice choked with emotion at certain points as I struggle to get to the bottom of the page. (For me these stories include The Summer My Father Was Ten by Pat Brisson, Lobstering with My Papa, by Billie Hancock and Joan Walsh, and Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney.) These are all stories of aging, kids growing up, the passage of time–themes that resonate deeply with me as a parent. My kids’ reactions have been varied, sometimes they’ve just looked over and said nothing, other times they asked, “Mom, why are you crying?”  This has given me a chance to share what I find moving. I am glad for these opportunities with them. They get to see me cry not because I’m hurt or experiencing loss: just because I’m moved. It gives us all a chance to think about the emotions and how we experience and express feelings…good for everyone. –n

the joy of doing one thing

Watching my older children do their homework is fascinating. And a little frightening to me, too. They will routinely have music or something playing through headphones, email or chat windows open, some kind of snack in one hand all while writing a paper. They are, what I guess I’d call, “multitasking.” Funny, though, I feel like I don’t hear that word as much anymore. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think it’s just become the norm.

I don’t believe that that kind of distracted studying is as good as more focused, uninterrupted engagement. I just don’t. And I’m sure that there are plenty of studies to show that I am right, just as there are probably plenty of studies that show that they, too, are developing and practicing useful skills that will serve them well in the future landscape of technology and work. Who knows?

Enter: focus and mindfulness. While I don’t want to be the grumpy older generation suspicious of All Things Progress, I know–I KNOW–that the swirl and busyness that the velocity of our days has created for adults and kids alike is not a good place to be all of the time. Such frenetic activity requires balance. Periods of constant distraction and quick shifts of topic need to be balanced with quiet and stillness. Quiet and stillness, which is not the same as sleep.

For anyone who gets caught up in the buzz of the multitask, here I’d like to make the case for, once in a while, just doing one thing. Just do one thing. For kind of like, a long time. Read a book. Fold some laundry. Go for a walk. Write a paper. Cook something without needing it to be on the table in 25 minutes. It’s amazing how short attention spans can get when we become accustomed to email intrusion at work, Snapchat during study hours, or even the shorter chunks of time new parents get used to with the demands of a new baby. Restore and fight back every so often by just doing one thing. Try to do it without worrying what is coming next or what you’re not doing instead. It’s harder than it seems, and more satisfying than it looks. –t

noticing along the way–a favorite outing activity

The sun is shining today after a long, long cold gray winter in New England. We get a little manic around these times, disproportionately thrilled at our sudden good fortune. It makes me think about getting out again into the world!

I live in the Boston suburbs, and one of my favorite family outings when the kids were younger was to take the T into the city, stroll through the Public Garden, and grab something tasty at a bakery or corner shop. Totally easy, and pretty low-budget.

For several of these outings I created simple scavenger hunts that kept the kids engaged along our low-key adventure. Not yet readers, I sketched out things that they could spot on the journey: the T logo, a Red Sox hat, a squirrel, a vendor cart…the kids loved it, a spark of magic each time something was spotted. There was no keeping score or tracking what was found, just noticing. Looking and noticing details.

I am a big fan of noticing details–really taking the time and explicitly noticing–which requires a certain kind of attention and focus. For children, nurturing that skill helps to develop increased ability to be aware of one’s surroundings (safety! beauty!), as well as tuning into others’ emotions and expressions (friendship! empathy!).

While every encounter with our kids needn’t be a “learning moment,” this activity tied to our downtown adventure was fun for all and educational, too. While I know it’s sometimes desirable to plug a child into any available technology–for even just 30 freakin’ minutes!!!–for everyone’s sanity (I have done it myself plenty of times), hooray for the moments when kids can look around and really take it all in.–t

P.S. This kind of general “find it” checklist can work for any adventure and for all ages. On a more recent day we set out with a list that included an afternoon coffee in an independent café; the wackiest candy we could find in a convenient store; and a photo in front of a random monument…so fun!

best friends

Screen shot 2014-03-04 at 2.16.53 PMI got shut out of my medical benefits login the other day because 1) I couldn’t remember my password, and 2) when I tried to reset it, I was unable to answer the three security questions correctly: my mother’s maiden name. My favorite vacation spot. My best friend’s last name. Hmmm… I’m pretty sure I got the first one right, but I simply don’t know where I went wrong with the others. It could have easily been the one that asked something about “my best friend.”

A lot in our culture suggests that we all should have a best friend, that we should find our soulmate, that we should settle for nothing less. For children and adults alike, this can be a difficult and damaging message, particularly for kids who may not feel like they have a best friend, or who cling desperately to a friend for fear of losing that relationship to be be cast adrift.

When kids struggle with the “best friend” question, one thing to do is help them think about the contextual nature of friendship. Start with your own—I, myself, have friends who I enjoy talking about my family with. I have other friends who I will call to go running, share art, or who love to have a drink and listen to live music. I have friends who make me laugh all the time and some who will always have good advice. There are some great people who I really like spending time with, but with whom I probably would never share a deep secret. These are not one person. Sure, there is a lot of overlap, and a very special few who are many kinds of “friends” to me. But they each have their place, and my life is richer because of every single one of them. Does your child have someone special they like to play with on the playground, and another who they like to do crafts with? Is someone particularly fun at imaginative play, and another good at building?  Is there one friend who is fun to meet for lunch and another who is a great homework buddy?

Feeling like we have to find everything in one person is unrealistic. It puts pressure on relationships and makes us look too critically at what someone isn’t giving us. Better to focus on and value what each person brings to a friendship and what parts of ourselves we enjoy when we are with them. –t

how can i help?

Screen shot 2013-12-17 at 11.47.28 AMOn a recent trip we stayed in a hotel in a small town in western Pennsylvania near where I grew up. At least one person in our family is particular about their morning coffee, so we had brought some along to make in the room. Most in-room hotel coffee service now has single use self-contained brewing pods to put in the basket over the carafe, but what we needed was a filter.

I went down to the breakfast area and asked one of the employees, named Cindy, if they had any coffee filters. The desk clerk overheard, and quickly offered more packages of pods. I clarified what I was after, but neither Cindy or the woman at the front desk knew if they had them, or if so, where they were kept. “I know where they keep them in the other hotel,” Cindy mentioned, “I work over there too,” she said, pointing out the front door to another hotel across the way. “Give me a minute…” she said, and headed out the door.

A few minutes later, she was back with a small stack of filters.

Call me cynical, but these days I so often I hear “I’m not authorized” “I wish I could help you,” or “Let me connect you with someone who can assist you (only to encounter someone with a gentler voice and greater patience who, in the end, is only says “I wish I could help you” in a nicer way), that this woman’s simple gesture of seeing a solution to a problem and making it happen nearly brought me to tears.

When did it become so difficult to be helpful? Why did this feel like such an exception?

In addition to the coffee we were hoping for that morning, it reminded me how much better it is, in SO many ways, to come from a place of “how can I help?” rather than “not my problem” or “not my job.” I would argue retrieving coffee filters created no more additional work burden for this woman, and in a few short moments many people were warmed and bouyed by her kindness. It was an opportunity to appreciate someone’s simple effort to be helpful, to notice how much it affected me and my outlook that day, and realize the value of being able to pass it along.

As we kick off this new year, here’s to looking for places where we can help others.
Cheers, –t

the truth about santa this year

Yes, there is a Santa ClausLast year around this time I shared a favorite Santa story (below). Several people mentioned being glad to have heard it, glad to have thought about what is wondrous and special and real in childhood, and how to navigate the times when others’ beliefs challenge what is important to us.

We all know that it is so important to be honest with kids. How else can we as parents build and maintain trust, establish ourselves as a resource for our kids, someone they can depend on? I never wanted to be one of those parents backed into a corner, stuck behind some expedient fib, having to reinterpret where babies come from. And so, for all of you thinking about Santa, a wish for a wondrous holiday and the chance to enjoy all the magic of the season. And now, the truth about Santa.

My son has a friend who grew up in a proud and pragmatic family free of fairies and magic. For them, there was never any Santa. One evening we were sitting around the dinner table and my son, then 5, asked directly, “Is Santa Claus real? Because Ethan told me it’s just your parents.” A silence came over the room as everyone—including my older children and my husband—waited for an answer. At that moment, taken off guard, there was no choice really but to tell the truth. “Santa is real,” I replied, “but when kids stop believing, their parents usually do take over.” Everyone, with relief and what seemed like renewed hope, happily returned to their dinner. –t

questions vs. answers

bears fishingIn our book we talk about the value of asking good questions of kids in order to get better information and to help them think about different perspectives. Many times over the last week – as my kids have encountered bumps in homework and relationships with friends, teachers, or coaches – I’ve offered them answers and advice. Offering solutions and sharing my thinking is one of my roles as a mother, and I do so gladly and I hope, for the most part, with balance and insight.

But I’ve also been working on balancing suggesting solutions with asking questions.  And here is why: questions help kids explore options and become better problem solvers. Even when the solution might be clear to you, there is great value in your child being able to consider a problem and possible solutions with you as a guide.

“What else have you tried?” “What might happen if you make that choice?” “What other information would be useful here?” Compare these types of questions with what a child learns when you offer “Just go play with someone else” right out of the gate.

With questions, you also communicate your confidence in your kid’s ability to problem solve, and give him responsibility in finding a solution. You help him anticipate outcomes and evaluate choices. Your role isn’t one of rescuer, but facilitator.

Yes, facilitating is harder work. Every parent wants to stop the hurt, frustration, or complaining as quickly as possible, and engaging a child in wading through it all, in the short term, prolongs it. “Just ignore him when he’s being that way” can feel a lot more expedient than “How would you like him to treat you?” and following the conversation where it might lead. “That’s not the kind of friendship you need” takes much less time than the discussion that might ensue from “That’s a complicated relationship. What are the good things that you’re getting out of it? What is challenging?”

Of course there are many times that I so clearly and passionately want to take my kids’ side, and my instinct is to get right up there with them when they are indignant or hurt and be the Mama Bear, growling and gnashing at whatever offends. While that retaliatory roar is really gratifying (and maybe sometimes the right response), grinding through the occasional messy problem solving doesn’t mean that you’re not taking their side. In the long run, it fortifies and deepens their own problem solving skills, enhances self-knowledge, and promotes self-advocacy. You’re standing next to them in the stream and teaching them how to fish.  -t

just do it!

playmeThis weekend I walked by a guy playing music on the street in Cambridge. Street musicians are a common site in Harvard Square, but the difference this time was that it wasn’t guitar or violin, or even that famous urhu I heard, but a piano.  The piano was part of the “Play Me, I’m Yours” project by artist Luke Jerram, an installation that’s been travelling internationally since 2008 putting whimsically painted pianos in public spaces for anyone to play and enjoy.  There have been 75 pianos around the greater Boston area over most of the past month.

I really love this piano project–I mean, pianos! In random places! Outside! What’s not to love!? And I really loved seeing and hearing this guy play, and not because he was particularly impressive or exceptionally talented. He was about 30, on his way to or from somewhere that required the backpack at his feet. His eyes were closed, he was smiling, and he was playing a tune. Nothing I recognized, but some tune. He wasn’t commanding a crowd of admirers, but he was totally into it. And it totally lit up my day. I loved that this guy was playing in a very public space just because he wanted to.  And it got me thinking about how there’s not enough of that kind of “just do it” spirit, particularly among us adults.

When our kids were little, we encouraged almost everything creative they did–plunking out notes, tapping out a rhythm, mixing colors with paint, drawing pictures of family or favorite animals–and being “good” at these things was simply not relevant. We applauded the effort, and we were able to see the joy they got simply from the exploration and expression.

But somewhere along the line, for many of us, artistic pursuits became connected to talent, tethered to achievement. If you weren’t good at something, couldn’t produce something worthy of sharing or display or admiration, it was just kind of embarrassing to keep at it. Why play if you couldn’t draw a crowd? Somewhere along the line, for so many people, they get the message that it’s a waste of time to continue to play.  And that is really, really sad.

We play because it’s therapeutic, because there’s something inherently important and healthy in different kinds of expression. We play–or paint or draw–because it is fun, which is it’s own reward.

So I’d like to thank that 30-something dude for reminding me to think about things worth “just doing,” where engagement alone brings joy without the need for particular talent or set goal. And from the parent perspective, I am grateful for the fine reminder about how to think about our kids’ activities and interests, and where value lies. -t


ready for school

space shuttle launchTomorrow is the first day of school. Over these last weeks of summer we’ve been getting ready for the transition, making lists, cleaning out closets, shopping, organizing the house, getting up a little earlier than the looser days of August required. This process is always such a deep and reflective one for me, marking time passing and the children growing, a process that brings into focus our family’s goals and priorities, a time filled with excitement, anxiety, and hope.

I find myself behaving a little like someone at NASA, trying to optimize for success and safety in the details along the way: the lunch and lunchbox plan that will increase the likelihood of nourishment in the hours away; organizing supplies and spaces to minimize distraction at home; paying more-than-I-had-planned-to for shoes that may well be the piece of armor that will let my child walk into something new with a boost of confidence. Every action seems somehow consequential, a systematic effort of stacking the cards.

Internally it’s about settling and bracing my own spirit to be ready for change as the kids take flight into something new. I try to be solid and centered and still, a mooring for all the chaotic wind that will blow through the next month or so before we all hit a rhythm. Because of course there will be turbulence, and it’s always good to have someone paying attention who’s rested and fed and ready to nonchalantly take the helm when we hit the bumps.

Something to keep in mind, too, as the school year begins: there are very few kids who feel 100% ready to be in the next grade. The kindergarteners worry about how well the first graders could read. The sixth graders marvel at how the seventh graders knew what to wear. The juniors can’t quite yet figure out how the seniors knew what they had to know to get themselves to college. I think this fear is a little shadow that keeps the end of summer from burning too brightly for so many kids. It’s a good thing to remember when a child seems to overreact or feel quickly overwhelmed—often little bumps attach themselves unwittingly to this buried and larger fear. A case, then, to be gentle and patient. To be that reassuring anchor. To listen without judgement, offer ideas, and help them find their own way. It’s how we all rise to the next level, and grow into the next grade.

And it’s T minus-10. 9. 8. 7. 6. 5. 4. 3. 2. 1… –t

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