Weight of the World

I recently got involved tangentially in a facebook comment discussion thread started by a status update which implored women (and men!) to stop the negative self-talk related to food, looks, and weight–to stand against a culture which perpetuates self-hate instead of self-love.  Once again, I was struck by the comments of a self proclaimed “skinny goddess” who went on and on about how people who are overweight and ugly really have only themselves to blame.

(Note: If you’re one of these moralizing people, stop reading now and go elsewhere.  This post ain’t gonna be pretty for you.  And you probably don’t want to hear it anyway.)

Besides sitting on my hands to fight the urge to slap some sense into this woman, there wasn’t much for me to do.  I don’t know her and I don’t have the time to get into a battle of words with someone whose lack of compassion and empathy launched itself off of my computer screen and squarely into my lap.  The best revenge in this digital age is a blog post, so here goes.

We have to stop the self-hate.  It’s toxic. We have to stop blaming over-weight and/or unhealthy people as though they are making their choices in a vacuum.  They aren’t. None of us are so independent that we are unaffected (or undirected) by the society in which we live.  Believe what you want–but you are living a lie if you think you are completely autonomous in all your actions and choices.

When it comes to weight and health, I’ve long believed that genetics, hormones, and environment plays a bigger role than the “you are your choices” line of reasoning would have us believe. I’ve read desperate research over the years as well as several sociological/psychological texts which tackle the connection between weight/health and society (most notably Fat is a Feminist Issue by Susie Orbach, The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health by Marion Nestle, and The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan).  Nothing I read, however, synthesized a wider body of scientific research in regards to understanding what our bodies actually DO with food, how our bodies actually regulate our metabolisms.

Enter Fat Chance by Robert Lusting and eureka. Finally, a book which explains in very simple terms the many inputs which factor into how our bodies digest the food we eat. As I suspected, the actual answer to why it is so hard to maintain a healthy body in this society is much more complicated than how may calories we consume and how many we burn.

So what does this issue have to to with raising freethinking children? Everything.

Probably most important, for me, is that I am raising girls. I am raising girls who, genetically, likely did not hit this society’s jackpot of waif-like skinniness.  Many people who struggle with weight related health ailments point to their genetics–and the vast majority are on to something. For me, this point was brought home when I met another woman at the gym who is my age and height. We went through a process of having our body fat, muscle-skeletal, and water mass measured. She is a much more petite woman than I, even though we are the same height; she is simply more narrow (for lack of a better word). We were both at 35% body fat when we did our initial analysis. The analysis suggested her body fat goal is 23-25%, as is mine, but our end weights are very different.  Her goal weight is 140, which is  40 pounds less than mine, because I currently have 50 pounds MORE muscle-skeletal mass than she does.  So while I weighed 40 pounds more than she did, that 40 pounds is entirely composed of muscle-skeletal mass.  I am, quite simply, big boned and big muscled.

Now, if you want to live a long time, big bones and big muscles are a great thing.  They are not, however, a great thing for girls and women in this society.  So both of my girls are very likely to hear what I heard growing up.  They will hear: you are fat, you are unhealthy, you are gross, you are unattractive, you are disgusting, you lack self-control, you are loathsome.  I heard it–and it was wrong.  Eventually, it became fairly accurate because I bought into the negativity and hate I was hearing and turned to food for comfort.  Food is so comforting when you don’t have friends (and the friends you do have shovel toxic garbage your way).  Essentially, what I heard became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My developing mind figured if that’s what people thought, I should make it happen. And so I got into some very bad habits related to food and exercise which I do not want to pass on to my girls. I got into those habits despite the body-positive messaged I got at home, despite my mother’s and father’s commitment to combating the toxicity being shoveled my way by a society which viewed my body-type with contempt.  I am still struggling against these habit–habits so ingrained that changing them takes an immense about of presence and mindfulness.  It is a constant vigil.  It is exhausting.

I look back at photos of myself from this time and I see the truth–I was healthy.  Tall and wide, yes, but not fat.  Not even remotely overweight. If I had known then what I know now about the density of my muscle-skeletal mass, perhaps that would have helped.  It’s hard to know.  Knowing it now is very helpful.  I find myself less worried about the number on the scale and more committed to increasing my strength and endurance.  I take pride in being able to do 10 pullups and a two-minute plank, something I could not have done 10 years ago, because these are a truer reflection of my over-all ability to move and feel good.  The number on the scale? Not so much.

I look at my children now and they are big and wide.  Compared to their peers, they are tall.  They have massive bone structure and well-developed muscles. My oldest can swim halfway across the pool now and my youngest can pull herself up the rock-wall climber at the park.  Their same-aged peers cannot do these things (or can, but not as well) and I have an inkling it is because they do not have the muscle my girls have.  Now, my girls take pride in their strength.  A decade from now? Two? Probably not.  And it makes me sad to think it.

So what can I do, as a parent? How can I help them weather the storms of toxicity, of media driven hate, of nay-sayers and dooms-dayers, better than I was able?

I’ve already made choices (some different with my second) which I am hoping help.  The book Fat Chance cites some research which makes me think my choices might be of some assistance, though I’m loath to fully understand how much is out of my hands completely.  (I mean, BPA as a hormone disruptor? That wasn’t known widely enough with my first so that I could remove it completely from her environment.)  Lusting’s book makes it very clear that we have some choices, but those choices are very much dictated and constrained by an environment we can never hope to fully control.  Sure, you can control your home environment, but you can’t stay locked in your house forever.  At some point, you have to venture out.

Even so, we have made some choices that I hope will help because doing nothing seems foolish.  What are those choices?

1.Breast Feeding. I made the commitment to breast feed both of my children for as long as they wanted to.  Neither breast fed as long as I wanted, but I didn’t force them to wean.  I let them choose. I realize that breast feeding can be politicized in some vehement and down right mean ways.  I realize I’m beyond fortunate that I could make this happen for them.  And this issue is one that comes down to environment–our society does not support a woman’s choice to breast feed.  It is an uphill battle.  But the benefits? It allows baby to be in tune with her own hunger and hunger cues, and that is certainly a huge benefit when it comes to the endless supply of food in our society.

2. Baby Led Weaning.  We introduced real food from the beginning.  We made sure meals were balanced and portioned correctly to our baby’s age.  We offered more if the initial offering was eaten and baby wanted it, but we didn’t push the “clean plate” which was a hallmark of both of our childhoods. Baby ate, baby didn’t eat–but we let baby be the expert on her hunger.  Again, baby learns to be in tune with her hunger and satiation.  And baby gets a hankering for the taste of real, minimally processed food instead of bland rice cereals, added sugar, and sodium.  This choice also comes down to environment.  The choices available for babies in the baby-food aisle are not BLW friendly, much less baby friendly.  Our pediatrician pushed back, too, until she saw that our oldest neither chocked nor lost massive amounts of weight.  We even got some not-so-kind remarks in the early days if we were eating out of the house.  A less-sure parent would have crumbled in the face of it.

3. Positive Body Talk.  We focus on what our bodies are good at and what they can do.  And, as I’ve been working to lose the pregnancy weight, I’ve framed my transformation as one of increasing my strength and endurance, and therefore my ability to keep up with my children, instead of a weight-loss odyssey.   Any negative talk from outsiders is either re-framed on the spot or shut down. This has been hard for some of our friends, who are used to saying things like, “I’m such a fat cow I shouldn’t have the bun with my burger,” and I think we may have offended people from time to time.  Too bad for them, but our girls will not be subjected to toxic comments.  Eat the bun or not, but don’t put yourself down in the process (or hold yourself up as moral because you avoided the bun).  The problem with maintaining positive body talk is that negative body talk is edemic in our environment. Turn on the radio (or the TV, which we don’t have in our home) and there’s a weight loss ad. Walk down the milk aisle at the store, conveniently located next to the ice cream, and over-hear two women discussing how fat they’re going to feel when they eat the ice cream they’re purchasing–even though they are so skinny you can count their ribs.  Negativity is everywhere.

4. Positive Body Language.  How many times have you looked at yourself in the mirror and frowned?  Your child(ren) sees this nonverbal interaction and it informs the way she looks at herself. I have so many issues with my own body that I have to be very mindful of my nonverbal cues when I’m looking at myself in the mirror and my children are around. It’s been hard, but it’s actually helped me to be less critical and more loving towards myself–which in turn nourishes my ability to make better choices.  Again, environment is a challenge.  Just a cruise through the gym’s locker room with my oldest resulted in an extended conversation about the scowls she observed on the faces of women looking at their bodies in the mirror.  My little girl thought they looked so strong, she was envious of all the things they must be able to do with their body.  She didn’t understand why they looked so mad!

5. Re-framing Body/Looks Comments. People say crazy things to children, especially girls.  Environmentally, it’s ubiquitous. Almost every time I’m out with my children, someone will say, “Oh, what pretty/beautiful/lovely girls you have,” or, (to them directly) “what pretty hair/clothes you have on,” or, “what a lovely princess you are, I’ll bet daddy takes care of you,” or, “be careful walking on that curb/riding your bike.” We try to re-frame these immediately, focusing on things they like to do or expanding a secondary non-looks related comment the person makes. This can be a challenge and we have certainly offended people with our re-framming–but we have also made people actually pause and re-frame their own comments, which brings them heightened awareness at how damaging their message of, “You are what you look like and don’t do anything un-girl-like,” really is to the young girls who hear it.

These ideas are just the start.  My children are still very young and we have a long way to go.  I have no idea if I can instill enough body-love in them now to combat what this society will shovel at them as they mature.  Because that is the reality–we are not parents making choices in a vacuum, we are parents making choices within the specific context of this society.  We’re screwed in two ways.  First, our society hats “fat” people; it hates “big” people, even if they are healthy; it especially hates big women.  Second, and most damning, is it promotes food policies which conversely impact our ability to make healthy choices.  Yes, we can try.  We can even succeed, to some extent; however, the framework of food policy in this society is one of industrialized consumption.  They want us to eat and hate us when we do.

It often feels like a losing battle, one in which the odds are stacked squarely in society’s corner, but it is a battle for my daughters’ very beings.  We cannot afford to back down.

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Dear Daughters: We have Failed You

Dearest Daughters,

A moment must have existed at some point in the U.S. fight for Women’s Rights when the women and men who were working so tirelessly thought the tide might truly turn. Was it when Elizabeth Blackwell graduated with a medical degree in 1849? Or when Victoria Woodhull ran for president in 1872? Or when Susanna Medora Salter became mayor in Argonia, Kansas, in 1887? Or when Elizabeth Cady Stanton challenged the patriarchal orthodoxy with her Women’s Bible in 1895? Or when Juanita Kreps became the director of the New York Stock Exchange in 1897? Or when Marie Curie won her two Nobels, the first in 1903?  Or in 1916 when Jeannette Rankin, of Montana was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives?

Surely women everywhere in this country much have gasped in joy on August 24, 1920, when Tennessee cast the deciding vote ratifying the 19th Amendment to secure women’s right to vote.  But perhaps we needed more.  Perhaps we needed to break more barriers, so was it when Edith Wharton won the Pulitzer in 1921? Or in 1925 when Nellie Tayloe Ross became governor of Wyoming? Or when Norma Merrick Sklarek broke into the old-boys architect network in 1962? Or when we achieved full control of our bodies in 1973 with Roe v. Wade? Or  was it Patricia Bath’s invention, and subsequent patent of, the procedure to remove cataracts in 1981? Or, also in 1981, when Sandra Day O’Connor was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court?  Or when Janet Reno was appointed in 1993 as U.S. Attorney General?  Or Madeline Albright’s 1997 appointment as U.S. Secretary of State? Or 2007 when Nancy Pelosi becomes the Speaker of the House of Representatives?

Or maybe the moment we held our collective breaths was in 2009 when Hillary Clinton became the first woman in U.S. history to win a presidential primary.  Perhaps that moment was the moment which made us think that anything was truly possible for women, when we might truly be able to tell our daughters, “If you dream it, you can do it.  Nothing will stand in your way.”

But that’s not true, is it my dear daughters? Would that it were.

Don’t get me wrong, my hearts.  Women have made considerable progress since the inception of the U.S. You have more possibility in your lives than your great-great-great-great-great grandmothers could have conceived. Women have broken barriers your fore-mothers were told could never be broken because women were weak-willed and weak-minded. With each victory, no matter how small, women and girls have proven again and again that we are equal to men.  So why is it that I worry for you?

Why?

I worry because the Women’s Movement has failed you. We have changed women.  We have changed what women believe is possible, what women believe they are capable of.  But we have not changed men.  We raise intelligent daughters, strong daughters, capable daughters, because we have challenged patriarchy’s view of women and girls and subsequently changed the way we raise daughters.  We have not collectively, however, changed the way we raise our sons.  We have not effectively challenged the role of patriarchy in their lives.  Certainly, some parents have, but as a society we continue to nurture our sons in a way which confirms their superiority and impenetrability vis-a-vis the patriarchy.  We nurture them to be tough. We tell them they are OK even when they are physically or emotionally hurting.  We tell them not to cry. We tell them to dominate.  We tell them to win. We are less likely to ask our sons to share; we are less likely to pick up our sons when they cry. We are more likely to emotionally withdraw from our sons, more likely to physically punish them. We are less likely to stick up for them when they are bullied, more likely to encourage physical solutions in lieu of conversation. We give them a pass on bad behavior–boys will be boys after all–and tell them that picking on girls is an acceptable way to show interest. Such a view point ultimately translates to a culture wherein all men can be viewed as predators and rapists in all contexts, be they professional, social, or familial.  We set the bar very low for our sons.  Essentially, they are raised for a society that no longer exists while our daughters are raised for a society we hope to achieve.

How do I know this is true, my  dear hearts? The most recent example is the sexist tone of the Oscars, as hosted by Seth MacFarlane.  No female–be she fully grown woman or young girl–was safe from his sexist attack. When society gives a free pass for a nine-year-old girl, Quvenzhané Wallis, to be sexualized as one of George Clooney’s play things, when some of the most accomplished actresses’ accomplishments are downplayed because, “we saw your boobs,” something has gone seriously wrong.  Men bring women down by focusing on their sexual proclivities or on their outward appearance, the underlying assumption being that no woman with an ounce of sexuality can possibly have a brain, no woman who looks remotely stylish can be taken seriously (but woe be to you if you “hide” your sexuality or fail to be impeccably dressed as a woman–they’ll discount you then too because you can’t “win” at this game).  Consider the travesty which was the media’s characterization of Hillary Clinton during her Presidential campaign.   No one gave a fig what the men were wearing, but innumerable pages of text and hours of news videos were devoted to Clinton’s wardrobe and hair style choices. Never mind her intellect or accomplishments–can you believe what she’s wearing?  Sarah Palin, the eventual VP candidate for the Republican ticket, fared no better, with men practically howling at the moon in response to her “sex appeal.”

And don’t get me started on the list of states we can’t move to because they are willy-nilly implementing laws which impede your ability to control your body as though they have nothing better to do, like address the economy or education or job creation.

I want so much for this society to be able to respond, to change the way it raises its sons.  For I think this is the answer.  As I think about how I raise you, about the choices I make day in and day out to help you become intelligent, empathic, poised, strong, resourceful, and creative women, I can’t help but wonder why so many of the parents of sons are not.  So many are choosing (purposefully or not) to allow society to dictate to them how to raise their sons. I cannot, in good conscience, throw in the proverbial towel and raise you as your fore-mothers were raised.  I cannot raise you to believe that you are less intelligent than any man simply because you are a woman, to believe that your worth is far less simply because you are a woman.  I cannot and will not.  But this society cannot and will not change until more parents of sons take a very long and hard look at how they are raising their sons–and then do something about it.  Do something to change how they are raising their sons.  Do something to challenge the role of the patriarchy in their son’s lives.

Sometimes I think their path is the harder one.  We know patriarchy is detrimental for our daughters, but for some reason we continue to believe it is beneficial for our sons.

For you, my loves, you are my heart.  And I will raise you so you can fully realize, fully grasp, every iota of your potential, every dream, every hope.  I will raise you to have agency and power in your life–to take ownership of it, to fly.

Love, Your Mama

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Much Ado about Preschool Bullying

When I was in school, both as a student and an educator, no one really talked about bullying until children were middle and high school aged.  Even then, the focus was on physical bullying.  No one wanted to believe that snide remarks and evil glances could constitute bullying.  This was all before Columbine.  Columbine was a wake-up call.  It showed us that bad things can happen when we allow young people to non-verbally and psychologically torture their peers.

Recently, bullying  has been back in the news and the new focus is on younger children–as in preschool age children. At first glance, you might think, “Seriously? No way!”  But yes way.  The research that’s been done in the past decade clearly indicates that bullies learn to bully early on, though not necessarily in the way you might think.  The research also indicates that parents and educators can do a lot to help children.
Let’s take a look at a few of the resources online.

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Jamie M. Ostrov, out of the University of Buffalo, has appeared on Sesame Street (note to self/parents: he gives high praise for how they address bullying on the show).  This article summarizes his Sesame Street experience and gives a brief glimpse into his work.
From the article: “His research addresses what Ostrov calls “forms and functions” of aggressive behavior. “Forms” of aggression are ways aggression is displayed. “Functions” are the reasons why children behave in aggressive ways.  Distinguishing between the various forms and functions of aggression has important implications for understanding the development of aggression and bullying in children,” Ostrov says.   Ostrov’s research also examines the developmental origins, processes and outcomes of physical and relational aggression (e.g., social exclusion) in children and adolescents. Some of this work has documented the processes or mechanisms by which aggression and peer victimization are linked across development.  Previous studies in the UB Social Development Laboratory, which Ostrov directs, have shown that children who are victimized by their peers become the aggressors over time, and that the type of victimization that they experience predicts the type of aggression that they display with their peers over time.  Thus, children are likely learning from peer victimization experiences how to become an aggressor,” says Ostrov. Ostrov believes that with UB’s new Jean M. Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence, the university is well-positioned to become a leading institution in the field.”

Two things to note in this excerpt.  The first is distinguishing between bullying behavior and bullying intent.  Especially in very young children, ages birth to 2 or 3 years, the intent of aggressive behavior is more often to simply get what they want.  They don’t intend to hurt other children, but they don’t have sufficient language skills to get their needs met in another way.  They also don’t understand that other children actually feel physical and emotional pain.  So we actually have to teach them those skills. The best way to teach them skills is by  modeling them.

So when your 13 month old hits your face, you say something like, “Oh, ouch, that hurts.  We use gentle touches,” and then show baby how to be gentle.  The crux of this? You’ll have to do the same thing over and over again AND you’ll have to catch them being gentle and verbally acknowledge them for it.  As your child gets a little older, you can say things like, “Ouch, that hurts.  Mommy doesn’t like to be hit,” and then offer an alternative item they can hit, “If you want to practice hitting, hit the floor/couch/pillow.”  They’ll stop soon enough because what they really want is YOUR reaction at being hit.  So if you keep it low-key and then re-direct the behavior, you’ve modeled a clear boundary and given then an alternative behavior.

This changes as your child gets older. You can begin building empathy by talking about how other people feel.  And when your child does hit a peer, you can check in with the peer first (taking away the negative attention your child would get otherwise) and model for your child how to resolve the resulting hurt their friend has. “Oh my, so-and-so hit you.  That hurts.  Are you OK?  What can I do to help you?”  Focusing on resolving the hurt the victim feels before then addressing the does a couple of things.  First, you take away any (negative) attention the aggressor would get, which makes it a lot less fun to hit someone. It also gives both children a chance to calm down before then helping them repair their relationship.  The aggressor can be encouraged to ask for forgiveness and ask if the victim would still like to play.  This shifts the power back to the victim–they victim chooses to continue play or not, and either way is fine.  In this way, both children learn that hitting isn’t acceptable and the focus is on the behavior and relationship, not on the aggressor being “bad.”

The second thing this excerpt highlights is that children who are repeatedly made victims are more likely to become bullies in the future. So if we notice that our child is being victimized, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that their experiences don’t translate into bullying in the future.  There are lots of resources, if you do an online search, which talk about how to “bully proof” your child.  The ones I’ve looked at appear to offer sound advice.  My caution in some of the advice is that it’s not appropriate for younger children (birth-3ish) to have to “stick up” for themselves.  When we see younger children experiencing aggressive or bully-type behavior, we need to ensure that their resulting needs are met and they are cared for.  We also need to use the experience to model, for them, how to interact with another child when that child is being aggressive or behaving in a mean way.

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Here’s one of the articles, from Building Blocks for a Better Future, which provides some insight into what bullying is, who bullies, who gets bullied, and what you can do about it.  What I like about this site is that it offers several links to other resources, including activities you can do with your child or ask your child’s teacher to consider doing in the classroom.

From the article: “Research has shown that children who bully often suffer from psychosocial problems and may have difficulties adjusting to social situations. Some studies have even indicated that bullies may suffer from depression, which may cause them to engage in aggressive behaviors, especially towards their peers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some bullies are often seen as popular at school and may suffer from too much self-confidence, which often leads to choosing bullying victims that suffer from isolation and low self-esteem.  The general theme that lies within bullying behavior is the lack of ability in dealing with problem-solving and social situations. This may stem from developmental and adjustment issues with the child and it is important to address this issue early on.”

This excerpt is referencing a wide body of research.  What I appreciate about this particular excerpt is it’s insistence that “dealing” with a bullying problem requires we address the inherent reasons a bully is bullying other children.  Many of the sites I’ve encountered focus on dealing with the victim’s needs–which is absolutely the first priority–but the responsibility of addressing bullying behavior extends to assessing the bully as well. Bullies got that way for a reason and punitive measures (while sometimes appropriate and necessary) aren’t going to stop the bully from engaging in bullying in the future. Parents and educators would do themselves a huge favor to ensure that anytime a victim reports being bullied, that victim’s report is taken seriously and the bully is fully assessed to uncover why s/he is doing what s/he is doing.  Once we know the why we can begin to take steps to help the bully heal.  Imagine how differently some of the very sad incidents in our schools would play out if bullying behavior was taken seriously from the get-go, when children were young, and addressed fully.  We’d live in an entirely different society.

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Another way adults can re-frame this issue of bullying is to consider what they are doing, vis-a-vis their actions and how they set-up the physical environments in which children live and play, to either encourage or impeded bullying.  In this article, Dr. Vicki Folds provides some insights.

From the article: “So what does an engaging playground look like? Dr. Vicki Folds, Ed.D, Director of Curriculum Development for childcare provider Children of America, agrees with Learning Through Landscapes that the focus should be on providing space for collaborative, active play. “Instead of purchasing expensive stationary playground equipment think physical activities and what portable elements you need to accomplish those activities,” she says. “Organize at least two different daily choices of activities to do that teachers take to the playground such as ball bouncing, chasing bubbles, bean bag toss, hula hoops, shoot the hoop, jump ropes, etc.”

This excerpt focuses on schools, but I think the general gist is applicable to homes and public play spaces as well. It challenges educators, specifically, to re-think how they are using outside space and (what’s left of) recess time.  If we can make some simple changes to how this space and time is used, changes which will discourage bullying and encourage exploration and empathy, then what are we waiting for?  Even with very young children, having more than one of a certain kind of toy is all it takes to stem the tide of aggressive behavior.  If you’re touring a preschool and they only have one trike or one ball, you ought to look elsewhere.

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These links scratch the surface of what is available online.  Certainly, some resources are more reputable than others.  I would encourage anyone looking at these resources to consider where any advice is coming from before implementing it.  Research-based ideas are likely to be more effective.  Vetting how often you see a certain kind of advice is helpful too.  If you only see one resource suggesting something, you might want to think twice about the suggestion.  That said, sometimes “group think” can be incorrect, so mindfulness is important.

For me, this issue is an important one.  As an educator, I saw far too much bullying in schools.  The most insidious are the non-verbal and psychological  attacks which leave children and young people feeling “less than” the full human beings they are. These type of attacks fly below the adult-radar–catching a bully utilizing this approach is next to impossible. So when a young person tells you they are being bullied, it’s important to take their report seriously.  Yes, you may need to start watching to see if you can catch the bully in the act, but do so knowing that it will be very difficult indeed.  For the victim, it’s essential to be heard and trusted.  For the bully, it’s essential to be confronted in a caring way.  I’ve taught thousands of kids and very, very few were “ugly on the inside”–most were just trying to get by whatever way they could and they sometimes lost the path of empathy.  Our charge, then, is to help guide our children towards empathy and compassion.

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The Passing of a Generation

I know, it’s been a bit since I’ve posted. Between vacations and recent family events, I have a serious case of, “don’t want to do anything,” which basically applies to anything unrelated to my children.  If you’re my children, you’re all good.  If you’re not, the line is over there.

My grandmother recently died.  Her passing was not entirely unexpected.  Even so, the speed at which it occurred served as a stark reminder of how temporal this gig on Earth actually is.  We’re here for such a short time and gone for an eternity.

Several things are going through my mind right now and this post will be a bit eclectic.  I’m going to create sections just to help me stay a little more on point.

THE PASSING OF A GENERATION

My grandmother was my last living grandparent. I think, more than anything, I am mourning this new lack of grandparents the most.  I’ve tried to share this concept with other people, but I think people are a bit aghast that I’m not completely torn up over my grandmother’s death.  What it comes down to are two things: 1. I was never that close to this grandmother, as she and my grandpa chose to move closer to my Aunt’s family; she didn’t spend much time with me; and 2. my grandmother had a really bad habit–she liked to compare me to my cousin and I was always lacking and “less than” him (I found out years later she did the same thing with him, comparing him to me).  So there are two things working against my complete devastation that she’s gone.

Do not mistake me–I am sad.  I loved her, even with her faults. And I am grieving her death.  But I do not feel nearly the anguish and devastation I did when my other grandma passed away.  That grandma was like my second mom; it took me over a year to get to a place where I could think of her and not burst into a torrent of tears.

I think, for me, my grief is made more awful by the guilt I feel that I’m not nearly as sad as I should be.  And then it’s complicated further by the fact that she was my last grandparent. And even more further by the anger I feel that my other grandma couldn’t live a little bit longer (she died quite unexpectedly).

And no one–my  mom being the only exception–wants to talk about these feelings with me.  I get it.  There’s a social contract around death and grieving and, really, people just don’t talk about it (or want you to, even if they offer their condolences). But I’m finding it hard to think, “Gosh, I have no more grandparents.” It makes me feel old and vulnerable.  It makes me scared for my own children–will I live to see my grandbabies? My great-grandbabies? Will I be able to be the kind of mom and grandma whose survivors are devastated in their grief.

Gosh, I hope so!

I think, also, her death serves to remind me that we are here such a very short time.  We spend a lot of this time on petty things and petty feelings–we should spend more of it loving one another.  This life is all we get, so why waste it on sowing seeds of discord?  Love more. Laugh more. Live more.

SOMETIMES, PEOPLE ARE JUST PLAIN RUDE

And so, my next train of thought. I am seriously about to pull my hair out with all the rude comments being made to my family on Facebook.  Most of my friends have been gracious in their responses and support of me and I am very grateful for their mindfulness in expressing their support and condolences.

Then I go and read some of the things being written on other family members’ Facebook pages and I hear some of the things said to me by people who don’t know me well and it makes me want to scream.

“I lost my mom when I was young. You should be happy your mom lived so long instead of sad she’s dead.” (said to my Aunt)

“God needed her more than you do now.”

“If you accept Jesus, you’ll see her again in the Kingdom of God.”

“God has bigger plans for her.”

“She wasn’t in any pain when she died.  You should be happy she died that way.”

I mean, seriously? Ser-i-ous-ly?

I get it–people are trying to express feelings that are difficult to express.  It’s really hard. I understand that, I do.  But no one–and I mean no one–who has just lost someone they love wants to hear that kind of claptrap.  I wish people would just say, “I’m really sorry. Is there anything I can do to help?” and then shut up.  Yes, I know, rude of me to say it.  But if you don’t have something nice to say, please just shut up. And don’t tell anyone to be happy that someone they love is dead. That is just crass.

Yes, I realize this is probably me in the anger stage of grieving (and yes, I am grieving her death).  And I am trying very hard not to reply in a curt, mean way because that isn’t the answer either.  But it can be very hard to bite my tongue (or still my fingers on the key board) in this instance.  So if you say something I find insensitive while I’m grieving, just consider this my public apology and also consider it a suggestion to go check out some other things you could say to grieving people in the future.

I SIMPLY DON’T WANT TO DO ANYTHING

The title of this section pretty much says it all.  I have no desire–none–to do anything.  If you’re my children, you are good go go.  Your needs are being met.  I am striving to be patient and mindful and kind to you.  If you’re in my immediate family, I’m also doing my best to take care of your needs.

But my house!  Oh, my house.  It is a wreck. I weep just to think about what I’m going to have to do when I emerge from this funk. My outside responsibilities? Oh, those are so not being met.  I just keep putting everything off.  Just one.more.day.  Or two. Or three. Or…well, you get the idea.

Why does grief make some people go into deep-clean mode and make me go into I-could-give-a-damn mode?  It certainly doesn’t help to look around and see the endless variety of tasks which need to be done.

I’ll do them tomorrow.

In all seriousness, though, I do think that having children when you’re grieving does change the topography of grief.  To me, grief is a selfish (but necessary) act. You grieve because you don’t want the person you’ve lost to be dead. You want them back.  And you feel just awful about it, so you wallow in it a bit. You work the stages. You deny. You get angry. You negotiate. You kind of accept, then you do it again.  And again.  Until, finally, you do accept it and you can go on with your life.  But with kids, who has time to be this selfish? I suppose it does happen, if you get into a deep enough depression, that you can’t get out of it.  But for me, I am finding that I simply to not have time to be fully selfish in my grief.  I’ve got kids who need my care and they aren’t going to wait 30 minutes for mommy to get her butt in gear in the morning. Yes, I’ve explained to them what’s going on, but it’s all very abstract for them.  They never met their great-grandma and we were not able to travel back for the funeral.  Frankly, they were much more upset (and understanding) about our dog dying, but that’s to be expected really, given the circumstances.

But then I wonder–is part of my “ennui” in this loss directly correlated with the fact that I simply do not have time for this?  And if I don’t have time now, when is this grief doing to wake up and bite me in the butt?

Because even though grief may be selfish, it IS necessary.  Grieve now or pay later is pretty much what I’ve learned about the grieving process.  So, I’m trying to make space to grieve and think about all these complicated feelings I have that no one wants to talk about.

 

And those are my thoughts for today.  I’m trying to be a better person throughout all of this, truly I am. And I am trying to treasure each day and become a more mindful and conscientious parent and partner. Really, I am trying.

This life is too precious to do anything else but try to make it the best life I can. If I’ve learned anything, I’ve learned that.

 

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Santa, Santa Everywhere (But Here)

This Santa dude is pervasive.

Let me back up. My parenting partner and I have chosen to be honest with our children in a developmentally appropriate way.  If you’ve read my past posts about losing our dog, you know that we didn’t lie to our children. We didn’t use euphemisms, we didn’t say she was “on vacation” or “in heaven” or “sleeping.” We explained it all in simple, honest terms.

The people in our lives who know we value honesty and who understand how we addressed the death of our dog with our children aren’t surprised to discover that we don’t *do* Santa; we don’t sell him as real.  I could spend quite a bit of time pontificating about the various reasons for our choice, but what it comes down to is that Santa and the Santa tradition is about selling a lie to your children.  Sure, we can dress it up–we can say it’s about celebrating the magic of the season or helping Christmas be a magical time for children.  But when it comes down to it, selling Santa as real means lying to your children in all kinds of ways.  And the older children get, the more likely they are to question the lie.  And the more they question, the greater lengths you have to go to sell him as real. Eventually, though, they will discover that he’s not real.  And no matter what you think, you will not be able to control the “how” of that discovery. I’ve known more than one person who has been truly traumatized to discover their parents have lied–and lied extensively–about something they held so near and dear to their heart.  When I was a high school teacher, I was told by dozens of students that Santa was one reason they didn’t feel they could trust their parents.  In true teenage fashion, they felt if their parents could lie about Santa they could lie about anything.  And if their parents were lying to them, what was the big deal if they lied to their parents?

You can see where this might get you–in a whole heap of trouble.  But, still, parents across the world persist in selling the Santa myth. And, really, if you want to lie to your children, I suppose that’s your purview.  But if you lie to mine–well, that’s NOT your purview.

And now we get back to it.  This Santa dude is everywhere.  Preschool? Check. Mall? Check. Holiday Lights lighting? Check. Airport? Check. Every adult my children and I interacted with as we engaged in holiday shopping and travels inevitably asked my oldest some variation of, “Are you getting excited about Santa’s visit to your house?” generally followed by, “Are you going to leave some cookies out for him?”  They took her silence to be shyness.  What they really should have taken it for was the squelching of a really rude question: “Are you nuts?”

After we would part ways, I would get questions.  Why would mommies and daddies let a strange man in to the house? Which Santa would the mommies and daddies let in–the one from the mall or the one from the airport? Why would she leave real cookies out for a pretend character? The list goes on. And, actually, these encounters engendered some insightful discussions about honesty, lying, and pretending, so I should probably thank some of these strangers for trying to sell a lie to my children.

Santa has been insightful for me as well. I now realize how easy it is to sell a lie to young children–be that lie Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, or God. I know two other freethinking parents who don’t want to do Santa as real but whose children have been sold the lie by their child care providers who think they know better than the parents (that’s another post, I think).  Young children have this magical quality to their thinking–the line between real and pretend is very transparent, almost gossameric.  It’s too easy to get them to believe a lie and then it’s very hard to get them back to the truth.

I can see more clearly, now, the truth behind the maxim attributed to Jesuit Francis Xavier, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.”  The truth behind who children will become as adults is more complicated, perhaps, but traditions and habits are certainly vital building blocks for the adults our children will become.  So we have worked very hard to create a Christmas celebration which is about family and love and gratitude and giving, which celebrates the changing of the seasons and the apex of the darkened days in the march towards Spring. The true reality of the season is that its traditions are more pagan than christian anyway and, frankly, some of those pagan traditions aren’t all that great either.  (In fact, Santa may actually be one of the more innocuous pagan traditions.)

So, we try to take what is best about the holiday and focus on that. The rest can–and should–fall away.

In the spirit of taking what is best and of creating our own traditions, here are two great articles:

Lisa Sinclair Finding your Fitness: Make Holiday Memories by Getting Outdoors

Kit Yarrow Parent Holiday Conundrum: How to Walk the Fine Line Between Treating and Spoiling Your Kids

Posted in Atheism, Childrearing, Education, Ethics and Morals, Freethinking | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Just for a Moment, Let’s Be Human

Today, I was with my youngest daughter at school when our teacher told us about the tragedy in Connecticut.  For a moment, time stopped.  I remembered the previous times–Columbine, my first year teaching; the Amish school shooting; Virgina Tech; Deer Creek Middle School, again in Littleton. And those are the ones which came immediately to mind. So many others, in the intervening years; too many others.

I don’t know how to make sense of these deaths, of the grief the parents must feel, of the horror the community must be enduring. How does one get up in the morning, go about one’s day in an environment which is supposed to be safe, and not make it home at night? I could expect this kind of stress from a law enforcement job or the like, but when a tragedy hits so close to home, in a place that is supposed to be safe, how does one begin to understand, to fathom it?

Immediately, the social media outlets lit up.  Most of the posts I saw were respectful or factual.  People passed along news updates amidst a flurry of moving memes and photos memorializing the victims. Within a few hours, the niceties were devolving slightly, with some people posting items along the lines of, “Mental health services are harder to obtain than guns.”  Still, not too bad (and that point is a true one). But then people started getting nasty.  They blamed the shooter’s parents (also victims, it appears at this point). They blamed the slow response of emergency personnel (still trying to figure that one out). They blamed the lack of God in schools and nation. They said it was God’s judgement against atheists.

Isn’t this how it works? Something really bad happens and the way fundamentalists explain it is a lack of God or as God’s judgement/dislike of something. Hurricane Sandy? Oh, God hates America. Katrina? God hates America. Virginia Tech? God wants to be in schools. Amish school shooting? They believe in the wrong God. Columbine? Atheists and death metal mock God and he’s really angry.

I can’t even begin to understand the logic leap it takes to go from a tragic event to God is judging or hates -fill in the blank here-.

So I have a challenge of sorts.  Let’s all take a step back right now.  Let’s publicly condemn those who try to use this moment to spread a message of hate and judgement and let’s reach out.  Let’s reach out to the victims and the community. Let’s reach out to our families and friends. Let’s reach out to our own communities.  And, yes, let’s reach out to our leaders and say, “Enough with the hate and judgement. Take action so that those in need of help in our communities are provided that help, take action so that we can prevent these types of tragedies from happening in the future.”

If we do this–if we live, in whatever creed we chose, as humans who are connected and dependent on one another without judgement, without malice–perhaps we can get to a day when we can see one another as humans first.  Humans, deserving of love, compassion, and support. Because good things happen to bad people, bad things happen to good people, and we can’t really make sense of it.  We can’t. There’s no sense to make.  It is a tragedy of epic proportions, a tragedy which likely could have been prevented in a number of ways, none of which are related to who believes what in the spiritual realm.

So let’s put aside this hot-air-exercise of judgement and hate.  Let’s get down to building a better world, a safer world, for ourselves, for our children.

Posted in Atheism, Ethics and Morals, Politics, Theists, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Change?

I haven’t posted in a while.  Finding the time has been a challenge lately because I’ve been moderating several social media sites for my children’s preschools.  I’ve had to do a lot of research for these sites, and I feel frustrated that my work is largely being “lost” to the ever-forward-marching pace of the the social internet.

I need a permanent spot for this work and this blog is going to be it for a while.

My plan is to post links to articles which will sometimes be accompanied by my own thoughts and ideas.  I will also use my blog to reflect upon what I’m learning in the Parent Education component of these preschools.

I know this will be helpful for me.  I hope it will be helpful for others.

In the spirit of change, this post includes my first stab at it.

FRIENDSHIP:

We were discussing friendship in class.  Friendship for our young children is very important.  This article, Early Friendships Profoundly Effect Development, gives a brief overview of why.  From the article: “Friends also have a powerful influence on a child’s positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage, or discourage, deviant behaviors, such as delinquency or drug use. Compared to children who lack friends, children with “good” friends have higher self-esteem. They are less likely to be lonely and act more pro socially. They are able to cope with life stresses and normal transitions and are also less victimized by peers. Interestingly, children with friends of both sexes, as a group, are more well adjusted and have greater social skills than children who have only same sex friendships.”

My oldest is fortunate enough to have a very best friend in the entire world and I’m very grateful that this child’s mom has been such a wonderful friend to me as well. They are so close they really are like siblings–which is wonderful and challenging at the same time.  But few of my child’s peers have similar friendships because there just isn’t time.  My child and her friend spend upwards of 12 hours a week together, between school and play dates, and this has helped to solidify their friendship in a way that is just marvelous.

LEARNING TO SAY NO

“No,” is the first word (or among them) for so many children.  No is important and we, as parents, need to help children learn to say No to protect themselves and to respect No when they hear it.  Kid Power offers some great advice here, pointing out that, “No,” and, “Stop,” translates to helping kids keep themselves safe when they are on their own or when adults are nearby but not actively involved.

No has to be respected. Certainly, a child might say “No” when asked to clear the table after dinner.  We, as parents, have to respect their right to say No and then help them to figure out whether or not they will like the consequences/effects of a No to our request to clear the table.  They might not.  But they might.  And that’s OK.

Because a No here translates to them being able to say No in other places and at other times we want them to say No.  We want them to say No when another child pushes them or says something mean.  We want them to say No if someone tries to get them to do something unsafe.  And, ultimately, we want them to say No if someone tries to abuse or molest them. For that reason, we have a very hard line in our house about No when physical play or contact is involved.  I have no problem with my child wrestling, for example, but if my child or anyone else involved says No, then that No must be heard and respected.  Further, if my child doesn’t want to hug someone or shake hands, I respect the No.  It’s my child’s body–and my child doesn’t have to allow it to be touched by anyone without permission.

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