Category: The Best Things We All Forget
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
On 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.
This 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
Tomorrow 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
I was reminded of this kind of growth night when my son was heading off to bed and bade me a cursory good night with a wave, a sideways glance, and a quick “g’night.” My son, who loves the long nighttime cuddle, the extended chat in the dark before sleeping, the one, who, at nearly 11, still loves a to sit in my lap. But last night, even though I myself was hoping for the cuddle (or a least a hug), I waved and said “sleep well,” and didn’t bother to follow him as he headed upstairs.
See, we’re on vacation, spending a couple of days with friends, and Per is sleeping in a bunkroom with the other boys. During the day he’s with a group of kids reading situations, feelings and preferences, being resourceful, and thinking about safety as they head down to the beach or into the woods on their own. At night he’s sleeping in a strange room in a strange bed. He’s in a place where he actually needs to be a little bit brave. And in that space, there is no room for the kind of affection that is routine at home.
As his mom, I feel it’s my role to honor this, to take his lead and not force the “come say goodnight your mother.” And it wasn’t that there was an unwanted audience in the kitchen when Per headed up to bed—he and I were the only ones there. But I know this bubble. I know this need for armor as a child heads up to a strange bed, into their camp cabin, or onstage for a show, and that the long hug might just tip things in the wrong direction.
I think we’re mostly wrong when we think that our kids are embarrassed of us in these moments. I think rather that they need to be in the skin of the person the situation requires of them. To the parents who feel that these moments are too-soon signs of independence, parental rejection, or ingratitude, I say take heart! Kids need us to respect their personas in different contexts. “Keeping our distance” is a way of telling them that we understand, we see them, we get it.
I know that cuddle will be back. I know that my son loves me, and by putting aside my desire for his acknowledgement and affection, I can embrace this important way that he’s growing. -t
I was picking up my son from camp yesterday and overheard a boy of about 10, also being picked up and waiting while his dad chatted with another parent, turn to his dad and interrupt with “I’m bored.” Eek. The father replied “Just a second. I have a snack for you in the car.”
OK, so the kid probably wasn’t “bored.” He was restless, wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself, and was probably ready to go home. But it brought to mind the idea of childhood boredom – a quickly disappearing gift in many a plugged-in suburban neighborhood – and the opportunities that lie within.
As parents who try to provide a wide range of opportunities and experiences for our kids, it can be pretty irritating to hear “I’m bored.” A declaration of boredom can hit a nerve when we know the kinds of sacrifices a family makes day to day to enable a child’s social life, education, and entertainment.
Ironically it is often the very children who have so much to do who are most susceptible to “being bored.” They have become used to rushing from one activity to the next, constantly being fed entertainment and direction. And snacks. (Since when do kids need to eat every 20 minutes?) Absent that input, they can feel restless, anxious and desperate to find something to do.
And when they come for help, many-a-parent will oblige, if half-heartedly, with suggestions: “Why don’t you read, or go outside?” Here is something I think is revolutionary: resist even this! Offering a suggestion implies that kids really do need to be doing something every single minute. I think it was Richard Carlson (stress consultant!) whose suggested an awesome response “Great! Be bored!” Not only will a child likely stop asking for ideas, they will also come to know that it is not your job to keep them constantly entertained.
Of course this approach isn’t something to do all the time. Most parents really enjoy playing an active role in what their kids are up to, even love just hanging out with them. To encourage boredom on occasion is in response to the tendency of some kids to be overscheduled and overstimulated to the point where it is actually uncomfortable for them to simply be still.
Some of my own favorite and most vivid childhood memories stem from long stretches of spacing out, of wandering in the woods, of riding in the back of the station wagon for hours and hours and hours. I’m not surprised that, as an adult, I now seek these spaces when I need to unravel a problem, make an important decision, or feel dragged down by the static of the day.
As we try to provide opportunities and experiences for our kids to learn and grow from, keep in mind that the ability to be alone, settled and content with oneself is a gift, a place of fertile ground for creative thought and reflection. Amid the everyday busyness and distraction, it can take some practice. Children need to be able to find, and be in, those quiet spaces. Encouraging boredom on occasion is one way to help them get there. –t
One important way we nurture emotional intelligence in kids is by helping them learn to trust and understand their feelings and perceptions by validating their reality. This can be harder than it sounds.
While we’d all like to believe that we love and accept our kids unconditionally, they will inevitably have opinions, perceptions, or interests that differ from our own. And sometimes that can be hard to accept. Navigating these waters where we disagree or wish them to “see it our way” can be tricky: we want to assert our values and guide them. They need to assert their preferences and own ways in the world. We want to honor who they are and want them to know we believe in them.
At the end of the day, one of our big fat parenting goals is to let them know that we see them. We see THEM—as who they are—not only when they shine as who we want them to be. This simple act of recognition is critical to validate their reality and to help them be in touch with their feelings. As we take on this hard work, here are a few ideas to help keep things in perspective:
Respect your child’s right to experience and see things differently from you. (“That movie was awesome!” “I hate family picnics.”)
Remember that you don’t need to agree to validate their feelings. (“So you feel your teacher was unfair.” “You really like that show.” “I’m sorry you don’t enjoy picnics.”)
Take them seriously. This is particularly important when they are upset, frustrated, or angry. We can often jump too quickly into “wanting to make it better” or showing them they’re wrong by minimizing their feelings or trying to add context and perspective. If you’ve ever been on the other end of this kind of often well-meaning condescension, you know well that there is nothing more enraging! (“It’s just a toy car. You’ve got so many others.” “There will be other parties you can go to.”) Everyone is entitled to their disappointments.
Be careful of statements that inadvertently undermine the reality of their experience. (“Big boys aren’t afraid of the dentist.” “Your sister isn’t mean.”)
Connect experiences they’ve had to help explain other perspectives. (“Remember when you were disappointed about missing the game? That’s kind of how I’m feeling now.”)
And in instances where you really need for them to try and see it your way, there’s no better place to start the conversation than by recognizing the place they are starting from. –t
The other day I watched as my son pitched a ball way too hard to his little sister. I felt the tension mount as I prepared to fling open the back door to yell at him once again for being too rough and inconsiderate of others.
As parents, we often see a negative behavior in our kids that sets off an alarm, a warning that can take us to a place of “that-may-just-be-who-he-is” kind of panic and despair. Oh no…he’s mean. He’s a rule breaker. He excludes kids. If he’s breaking the rules now, how bad is it going to be in a few years? We may overreact to our children’s negative behaviors because we worry it’s a sign of things to come, a peek into tendencies that may only become more deeply entrenched as they get older.
In these difficult moments, remember that kids try things on. They experiment with different behavior as they figure out what is acceptable, what’s not, how people react, and how they feel–and are made to feel–about a situation.
Instead of simply calling out your kid’s transgressions, ask a few questions. Ask a question that demonstrates that you are giving him the benefit of the doubt. “Wow, you probably didn’t realize it, but you have gotten to be a pretty fast pitcher!” Introduce the other child’s feelings, and the impact his behavior might have had. “I don’t know about Kate, but it can be pretty nerve wracking for me to catch when I’m not expecting such a hard pitch…Kate, what do you think?” When you treat your child as a learning, developing being rather than a set of fixed characteristics, you operate within a framework that supports growth and change. Negative behaviors are an opportunity for teaching, for helping a child to see another’s perspective, and a chance to suggest another way. –n
I once I saw a girl at the park with her dad learning how to ride a bike. She was fierce and determined in her impossibly large glittery pink and white helmet. After one particularly successful launch down the path from her dad, her front wheel caught the edge of the grass a little further down, she wobbled, veered off into the grass, and crashed at the edge of a hedge. As she was getting herself up, her dad sprinted toward her, repeatedly yelling her name. She looked at him and started crying, and was soon engulfed by the big parental hug and flurry of concern and checking of teeth and knees and elbows.
“Are you OK?!” the dad blurted, out of breath and at high volume. She nodded, the big helmet wagging forward and back.
“Where are you hurt?” he asked, and finally through her sobs, she managed,
“Daddy, you scared me.”
Children take cues from us to understand and contextualize situations, and about how to react. Not only do we adults help them to gauge the relative severity of a situation, in instances of learning, we convey expectation as well. Is falling down going to be a huge setback, or is it part of learning to ride a bike? In what I say and how I say it, does my child sense my confidence in her, or does she sense my fear and misgivings? Does she feel capable and strong, or overly fragile?
While it is easily argued that parental concern comes from a place of caring and love, raising our kids to be resilient and confident in the face of challenge often requires us to dig deep, push back our own worries, and put on a brave face. In our body language, tone of voice, what we say and what we don’t say, we help them get back on that bike. –t
This is a reminder to us all about what is coming down the pike in these next few weeks. The longer days and warm afternoons are a promise of the summer to come, and for those of us with school-aged kids, the end of a school year. In this time that can often be frenetic and packed with class gatherings and field trips and special events, keep in mind how complicated and deep the feelings can be for kids as they get ready to wrap up the year. As they clean out cubbies and take down classroom artwork, share plans for summer or gather their courage for a new camp, kids are in an incredibly vulnerable and fragile place. There’s something in the bright colors and sunny images everywhere that scream “Yay! Summer!” and the age-old posturing of kids who delight in “no more school!” that can drown out and eclipse these tender and important emotions. Give them time and create space where children can talk about things they might be experiencing, and find extra patience for the short temper, the rough bedtime, the grumpy morning…
We’ll be right there with you, –n&t