Sprouting Plant Advocates

Every growing season our four children choose which crop will be theirs to plant and tend in our vegetable garden. It doesn’t make my work easier. But this tradition helps them understand how intrinsically connected we all are to sunlight, soil, and the lives of growing things.

Claire always insists on sugar snap peas. They grow quickly enough to gratify her restless nature and besides, they’re fun to eat fresh from the vine. Her three brothers aren’t as opinionated. They choose something different each year. Last year Benjamin had a great crop of sweet corn, buzzing with honeybees and taller than his pre-teen shoulders. Little Samuel’s green peppers struggled—perhaps too close to the shadowing tomato plants, but still they produced a gratifying harvest, heavy and large in his preschooler’s hands. Only Kirby’s chosen crop, watermelons, disappointed. He’d picked them out of the seed catalog based on claims of huge size and juicy red flesh. He took personal pride in the resulting vines stretching vigorously across the garden. Yet the flowers never fruited. Instead they turned brown and curled up.

This winter, before we’ve even ordered our spring seeds, Kirby’s second-grade class begins a unit on botany. He comes home and tells us that everyone got to write his or her name on a Styrofoam cup. Then they filled the cups with potting soil and each planted one white bean. Although he’s seen this miracle happen over and over at home he’s excited about the project at school. Daily he supplies progress reports while unloading his book bag containing carefully drawn worksheets with terms like root, stem, leaves, pistol, and stamen.

For nearly a week the cups show only dirt. Then one day Kirby eagerly hurries from the bus with wonderful news. A bean has sprouted! Emily’s cup is the first to show life. “It’s like a little bent green rubber band,” he exclaims.

Every day he reports whose cups are bursting with growth. It has become a competition. Emily’s plant, at first the class wonder, is now no longer the tallest. For a few days Jason’s plant is the tallest, then Kerri’s, then Christoper’s plant takes the lead. Only a few cups show no visible progress. Kirby’s cup is one of those. His enthusiasm is not diminished. He’s seen what happens when a seed awakens, splits its shell, pushes through the dirt, and stands upright. He trusts in the life force of each seed.

That Friday there’s a teacher study day. A three-day weekend with no one at school to water those little cups. I find myself wondering about the tender green beans lined up in the cold window, dry and struggling to live. I’m almost afraid to send my trusting son off to school on Monday.

But Kirby returns home with a shy grin, as if he can hardly believe a long-awaited hope has come true. “It’s this big!” he says, stretching his thumb and forefinger apart. Apparently his little plant mustered up some courage during the long weekend alone. Not only has it burst through the soil, it’s already competing with older seedlings in height.

A few days later I volunteer in the classroom and notice the progress of the seedlings. Standing up from cups – children’s names scrawled proudly across the front – they appear to have identities of their own. But they’re getting gangly, leaning on the window or neighboring plants. They need to be put into bigger pots or, if only they’d been planted at the right time, into a garden. It seems an ill-timed project.

The next day, coming in from errands, I’m disconcerted by a terse phone message from Kirby’s teacher. Something about non-compliance. The teacher wants me to call back to help her determine an appropriate punishment. I can’t imagine what might have gone wrong. I start to call her back, but then I hear the school bus rounding the corner. I’ll wait to hear what Kirby has to say first.

There’s a look children get that’s hard to describe. They appear so full they may burst, but they don’t know if they can let out what has them so overwhelmed. The adult world has them confounded. That’s the look Kirby wears. Misery, anger, guilt, petulance, and defiance as well.  There’s so much emotion on his face that I can only give him a big hug and ask him to tell me.

He can’t sit. He paces as he starts to explain. Today in class his teacher had each pupil take his or her plant, sit at their desks and…. for a minute he can’t go on. He tries again. Finally I understand. The ultimate purpose of the seedling is to serve as an example of plant anatomy. “She wanted me to kill it Mom!” he said, wide-eyed at the injustice of it.

It seems Kirby took the plastic knife he was given but just sat there. He wouldn’t take his plant out of the dirt, he wouldn’t cut it apart. While the other children followed instructions on their worksheets the teacher scolded Kirby.  Then took his plant and put it back on the windowsill where it sat alone, nearly tipping over without other seedlings to lean on. My son waited, knowing he’d done something wrong.

It’s too soon to plant the bean plant in the garden. Repotting might not give it a strong chance either. I have to tell him the truth about his plant’s chances. But I explain that I’m proud of him for doing what he thought was right. The world needs more people who listen to their hearts.

I call his teacher. I try to explain that my kindhearted son felt he was sticking up for a friend of his, that sometimes following the rules doesn’t always serve the higher good. The teacher doesn’t agree. The next day Kirby is punished. He is learning that rules, even the ones we feel are wrong, bear consequences.

Although his bright green plant isn’t likely to survive, I suspect that, this year, Kirby will decide to plant green beans in our garden. He’ll grow them in memory of his friend and of the fallen green comrades who gave their lives for second-grade science.

First published in Green Prints, a loooong time ago!

Response to Kids’ Misbehavior: “Good Old Days” vs. Now

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Learning from earlier generations. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

Unable to find a job in my field after college, I ended up working as a nursing home activity director. It was the best job in the place. Unlike overworked staff in other departments, I had time to form real relationships with the residents. This was 25-some years ago (yes, I’m that old). Our 100 bed unit was brimming with people too frail to care for themselves but most were otherwise mentally acute. (Not one patient with today’s unnecessary plague, Alzheimer’s disease.)

These elders were in their 80’s and 90’s, born around the 1900’s or slightly before, and always happily reminisced with someone willing to listen. They were extraordinary teachers and gave me perspectives I could have encountered nowhere else. One angle new to me was how differently childhood was viewed by adults back when they were growing up.

Kids worked hard then. They were expected to do heavy chores at home as well as work on the family farm or family business. Some even held jobs in factories. But when their obligations were over they were entirely free. They roamed the streets or woods with their peers, improvised games, put on their own skits and plays, made playthings like twig whistles and soapbox cars, built forts, swung from vines into swimming holes, and indulged in make-believe well into their early teens. They skirted around the adult world in a realm of their own, as children have done throughout human history.

criminalizing children, school-to-prison pipeline,

Costumed kids, skit to come. (image: Virginia Commonwealth University Libraries)

I’m not implying that childhood was remotely easy back then. Aside from hard work there seemed to be very little recognition of a child’s emotional needs. Worse, it was a time of blatant racial, gender, ethnic, and class discrimination. But I’d like to point out that when these elders were kids back in 1910’s and 1920’s many of them caused real trouble. Here are a few of the more extreme stories they told me.

Halloween was a holiday with no real adult involvement or interest. That night kids of all ages went out trick-or-treating, knowing they weren’t likely to get a treat (cookie or apple) from most neighbors. Preteens or teens often played tricks to retaliate. Soaping windows was the mildest trick they described. Most were much worse. Wooden steps were pulled away from doors, gravestones left in yards, pigs let out of pens, fires set in dry cornfields ready for harvest, water pumped into basements. One man told me he and his friends put an elderly widow’s buggy on top of her back porch roof. It wasn’t till a few days later that her plight was noticed and someone strong enough to help could get it down. A common Halloween prank was lifting an outhouse a foot or so to the side. In the dark, an unsuspecting person heading out to use it was likely to fall into the hole.

A 14-year-old stole whiskey from a bootlegger and got shot at as he ran off. Another bootlegger was blamed and never seen again.

A 15-year-old took her older sister’s papers booking passage on a ship to the U.S., saying her sister could better look after their family back home. Once she arrived, she worked as a cook for a family that paid for the ticket, answered to her sisters name, married under that name, and gained citizenship under that name. Her sister used the same name back in Ireland all that time.

There were plenty of other stories. Public drunkenness, fist fights that turned into brawls, runaways who rode the rails and runaways who got married against their parents’ wishes, shoplifting, breaking into school offices to change grades and steal tests, and one story of a school riot over a change in dismissal time.

These people suffered no appreciable consequences from authorities.

Not. One. Of. Them.

Their parents were certainly angry if they found out. The usual punishment? More chores. If police were informed they gave the kids a talking to, in the most extreme cases put them in the back of a squad car for a more serious talking to at the police station. No charges. No jail time. No record of their misdeeds beyond a local cop’s memory. Back then, it was assumed that kids would grow out of it.

All of these people grew up to work stable jobs and own homes. Most were married until death parted them from their spouses. One was a judge, one a career military officer, several were in the skilled trades, several others were business owners, many were homemakers and tireless volunteers, nearly all were proud parents of highly accomplished children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Yet today’s kids are being criminalized.

I’m not for a moment defending any young person’s impulse to wreak mayhem at home or in the community. I am saying that today’s response to (far less drastic) behaviors common during any child’s growing up years is appalling.

These days armed officers roam schools in thousands of districts. Studies show their presence doesn’t actually improve safety. Instead, children are often treated like criminals for common disciplinary issues such as yelling, swearing, or pushing. Here are a few of the more extreme examples.

A seventeen-year-old girl spent 24 hours in jail for truancy. This honors student works two jobs to help support her family and can’t always get to school.

A six-year old boy and avid Cub Scout was suspended for five days after bringing to school his Cub Scout eating utensil containing a fork, spoon, and knife. Due to public pressure, the school board voted to spare him the other punishment he’d received: 45 days in reform school.

A thirteen-year-old boy was handcuffed, arrested, and transported from school to a Juvenile Detention Center although his parents weren’t notified. His crime? He “burped audibly” in gym class.

A twelve-year-old girl was arrested for doodling on a desk with a green marker.

A seventeen-year-old boy who broke up a fight between two girls was shot with a taser by a deputy on duty at the school. The young man suffered a brain hemorrhage, spent 67 days in intensive care, and remains brain injured. The officer wasn’t charged due to lack of evidence.

The Guardian interviewed Deborah Fowler, who authored a 200-page study of the consequences of policing in Texas schools. They report,

…most schools do not face any serious threat of violence and police officers patrolling the corridors and canteens are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior.

What we see often is a real overreaction to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior rather than law breaking,” said Fowler. Tickets are most frequently issued by school police for “disruption of class,” which can mean causing problems during lessons but is also defined as disruptive behavior within 500 ft of school property such as shouting, which is classified as “making an unreasonable noise.”

Minority students are much more likely to be disciplined, fined, or arrested than white students in what’s being called the school-to-prison pipeline. Huge corporations like Corrections Corporation of America and smaller companies like AIM Truancy Solutions lobby for get-tough policies that bring them big profits in tax-payer money.

In some states tickets are issued, even in primary grades. These citations may compel the student to appear in court to face sentences including fines, court costs, and mandatory participation in remedial programs. This means the child is now entered into the judicial system, with police or court records that may or may not be sealed. If students don’t appear or their families can’t afford the fines, an arrest warrant may automatically be issued when they turn 17. This means childish misbehavior can follow young people into their adult lives. There’s a common question on applications for college, the military, and employment “Have you ever been charged with a crime?”  The answer, for these kids, is “yes.”

Heavy-handed tactics used against children may get worse very soon. School districts in 22 states including Texas, California, Florida, Kansas, and Utah are participating in a federal program which provides military surplus to local law enforcement organizations. We’re talking gear like assault rifles, extended magazines, military vehicles, and other weapons intended for combat.

What happened to free range childhood? Why do we act as if every choice a child makes must be the correct one? That risks are always too risky? That freedom of any kind equals danger?

The goal of creating high-achieving young people through unremitting scrutiny, at times backed up by force, is wrong. But today’s treatment of young people isn’t even based on evidence. Ask any high-achieving adult about their youthful high jinks. Better yet, ask the oldest people still left to us. A long look back may be the cure we need.

“We live in a decaying age. Young people no longer respect their parents. They are rude and impatient. They frequently inhabit taverns and have no self-control.”  inscription in an Ancient Egyptian tomb

“I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless… When I was young we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly unwise and impatient.”   -Hesiod, 8th century BC 

“The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest, and unladylike in speech, behavior, and dress.”   -Peter the Hermit, sermon preached 1274 AD

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What our elders can tell us. (CC by 2.0 SimpleInsomnia)

100 Companies Selling U.S. Made Products Only

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The cart stops here.

Shopping is cheaper and more convenient at big box stores. And on that giant site that shares its name with South America’s longest river. But we know more all the time about the environmental and economic impact of our spending choices. Our wallets really do change the marketplace.

Yes, it’s more complicated than making an effort to buy what’s produced in our own country. We live in a globally interdependent world. What we use to communicate, fuel, and enhance our lives is a combination of innovation and resources from around the globe. Yes, I’ve read convincing articles about why people in the developing world need factory jobs to pull their families toward greater prosperity. I just have trouble reconciling that concept with the millions of child laborers still at work today, the grim details about sweatshops turning out electronics and shoes, the conditions at garment factories like those in Bangladesh where over 800 workers recently died in a building fire just one day after owners refused to evacuate when told it was unsafe. Know how much it would cost to afford decent working conditions? About ten cents more per item of clothing.

Besides, that gotta-have outfit on sale doesn’t feel like a great bargain when we look at wages. Most clothes coming to the US are made in China where the minimum wage is 93 cents an hour. Second largest importer is Vietnam, where wages are 52 cents an hour. Third largest is Bangladesh, where it’s 21 cents an hour. Ouch. Gotta have more fairness.

I’m not a fanatic, heck, I buy wonderful imports on purpose, but I’ve also walked out of Bed, Bath, and Beyond when I couldn’t find a single thing on a wedding registry that wasn’t imported from places in the world where working conditions and environmental standards are appalling. And I admit to a personal bias. My husband was unemployed for nearly three and a half years, his job loss related to outsourcing. He’s lucky to be back at work, considering the the US trade deficit set a new record.

In my house, we make our own or repurpose whenever possible. When we can’t, we do our best to buy from artists, craftspeople, and from ethical companies.  We also try to search for products locally as well as in our home country. Buying quality items means we need to purchase fewer goods. It’s a simple effort, really.

Here’s a list of goods made entirely in the U.S. Please add your own links in the comment section. And don’t forget to bookmark this list!  Continue reading

Changing The World One Choice At A Time


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ArtbyJude CC by 3.0


When I was growing up I was told I could be anything I wanted to be if I worked hard enough. The examples I was given at school and church were daunting. Heroes who did no wrong and martyrs who suffered for a cause without wavering. The media showed me examples too. People who were celebrities because of their talent for acting or playing games or for their appearance alone. All these people seemed larger than life.

I didn’t want fame but I did want to accomplish important things. I wanted to find the source of sorrow, injustice, and suffering so that it could be alleviated. The urge to do this was constantly with me and often overpowering. When I was very small I wanted to bring peace to every caged puppy or crying baby I encountered. I couldn’t, although I did absorb the misery I perceived, turning it into questions that the adults around me couldn’t answer. As I approached my teen years I searched for my own answers. I learned all I could about the world’s wrongs, hoping to find out why greed and cruelty happened. I committed myself to do something important. An ordinary life that did nothing to turn the world around seemed unthinkable. Whatever I did, it had to be big. My time on earth had to make a difference.

My quest to understand all that was wrong turned me in the opposite direction from hope. It showed me the worst of humanity. Slowly I came to realize that building on what’s positive brings greater possibilities into being. My days as an adult have proceeded without accomplishing anything Big. But I’ve come to think it’s the countless small actions, even thoughts, that truly have significance. We’re faced with these choices every day.

  • Do I wave to my neighbor, the one who condemns me?
  • Do I give the cash in my pocket to a street person or do I look away?
  • Will I cook tonight’s dinner from scratch, perhaps making enough to bring some to a friend recovering from an illness?
  • Do I turn from what I’m doing to truly look and listen when someone talks to me?
  • Should I go to yet another activist meeting, surrounded by often despairing people? Would it be better to write an article about the issue or simply to focus my energy on new possibilities that make the issue obsolete?
  • Do I fritter away time on tasks that feel like “shoulds” even though time seems to be slipping away like escalator stairs?
  • Do I read too much, blotting out my own experiences, or is it fine to indulge this obsession of mine?
  • Do I believe that humanity is becoming more aware, more kindly, more open?
  • And because my answer is yes, do I live that yes?

None of these are major challenges, but how I answer such questions is how I live my life. They have to do with how I conduct myself and how I see the world around me. The questions aren’t clear-cut, so it’s not always easy to discern where on the scale my answer falls. Leaning toward loving attention or apathy? Joy or bitterness? Eagerness or weary resignation? Considering larger implications or thinking only of my whims?

I’m undisciplined and prone to stubbornness, so I make plenty of choices that wouldn’t pass an ethical stink test. Still, each one matters.

We’ve been taught that only Big people with “real” influence make a difference. That makes us feel powerless. Chances are, that’s what Big money and those who control it want us to think. If we feel powerless we give up before we try. After all, the advertisements surrounding us insist our major choices have to do with what we wear, the cell phones we use, the cars we drive, the vacations we take. Oh and having teeth so white they shine like LED lights each time we smile. Larger social, environmental, and political concerns may keep us in a state of anxiety but are nothing we have any control over. Or so we’re told. Hush about unemployment and income disparity. Hush about erosion of Constitutional rights, climate change, drone strikes. Just stimulate the economy like a nice shopper. As soon as the Big experts are done distracting us with their divisiveness they’ll handle it.

That’s true only if we agree with the idea that Big matters. Because all around us is the present, which appears little and inconsequential, but isn’t. Acting in the present may mean choosing to slow down, to meet our neighbors, to take a deep breath and be grateful, to speak up against a wrong, to step outside and look at the sky, to turn off all devices and spend time with someone, to eat while savoring each bite, to do something difficult with no assured outcome. It doesn’t mean ignoring injustice or wastefulness.

A response in the present is corrective. Even fixing the largest problems requires small steps. Incremental progress, both in attitude and action, is behind great social and environmental change.  In fact, the idea that only Big change can fix problems is part of the problem. When bureaucrats or corporations institute top-down changes they often make situations worse. Real progress happens when the same people who are affected by a problem take power over the choices and act on that power. This rises from small choices, values elevated to action.

We’ve all heard of the butterfly effect. A butterfly flaps its wings in the rainforest, as a consequence weeks later there are tornadoes in Texas instead of clear skies. The effect, coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, basically says that small change in one place can result in large differences later. It’s a fascinating look at chaos theory, but it also means nothing we or anyone (even a butterfly) does is without consequence. Just as a butterfly in Brazil has no way of knowing it may affect weather patterns a continent away, we often can’t predict the consequences of our choices let alone understand the long term impact. Our choices are those butterfly wings. Who I am today might be a disappointment to the determined child I once was, but I know now that worthwhile doesn’t have to mean big. How I fill a day is how I fill a life.

Don’t Deprive Kids Of Risk

let kids take risks, don't overprotect,

jessicareeder’s flickr photostream

I publicly admitted to letting my teen take risks that would make most parents shudder. I’m not talking about the month long backpacking trip my 16-year-old took with his older brother and a friend. Nope, I’m talking about letting him meet up with middle-aged guys he talks to online.

The circumstances were perfectly suited to advancing his maturity as well as his skills. But to most parents, that decision marks me as a very bad mother. I’ll take that risk. Parenting has a lot to do with drawing the line between safe and unsafe. And then there’s that pesky line between good and bad.

It found it easier to see absolutes when my kids were babies. Bottle or breast, free play or playpen, guiding or scolding. The choices seemed easy. As they got older I didn’t lose my cherished parenting philosophies and obnoxiously healthy dietary scruples, but I did relax into the gray area. Some would say I’ve gotten too relaxed.

Every day I watch as parents pile their cars with their darling backpack-laden children, then transport them all the way to the end of the driveway where they sit, engines idling, until the school bus arrives. The reverse process takes place in the afternoon. These kids are spared more than the exercise required to get from house to curb. Presumably they’re also kept safe from potential child abduction. I don’t know if this is the case in your neighborhood but it’s a standard practice around here, even though I live in a rural township so small that it doesn’t have a single traffic light. (It’s rumored we may get lines painted on the streets.)

Despite the pastoral beauty of our area, kids rarely play outside. Clearly their parents are quite a bit more cautious than I am. Apparently this is a major trend. With the very best intentions kids are kept indoorswatched closely, even monitored. But why?

According to How to Live Dangerously by Warwick Cairns, “stranger danger” is so vastly overblown that you’d have to leave your child outside (statistically speaking) for about 500,000 years before he or she would be abducted by a stranger.

Violence against kids has markedly decreased and the overall crime rate continues to plummet. A teen is three times safer today than a teen in 1979. Sure, there was no Internet in the 70’s but online, the real danger to kids tends to be peer harassment. A larger danger? Kids who have no experience with real challenges.

Kids require escalating responsibility as well as escalating risk in order to grow toward a healthy adulthood. The common practice of delaying risk (and often responsibility as well) stems from the best motivations: love, concern for their safety, interest in staying closely involved. But today’s highly cautious approach to parenting actually inhibits a young person’s healthy development, according to Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by resilience expert Michael Ungar. It can result in young people who are overly anxious or who take unnecessarily dangerous risks. It can also leave them unprepared for adulthood.

The decisions I make for my family probably aren’t the ones you make for yours. I give my kids the go-ahead to build spud cannons in the name of science but I wouldn’t dream of giving them non-organic celery. I encourage them to join online special interest forums but abhor movies with gratuitous violence. It’s not easy to keep looking at where we draw the line, but just like you, I’ll risk anything for my kids.

Pride Goeth Before Tiny Bite Marks

raising non-compliant kids, non-conformist kids, when kids bite, biting toddler, kids labeled, parents learn from kids, parents don't know everything,

Image courtesy of biohazard-101.deviantart.com

I don’t take credit for my children’s many accomplishments. They are their own remarkable people.

As a new mother I didn’t have this quite figured out. Yes, I recognized that babies arrive on this planet with all sorts of traits wired in. I knew it’s up to us to gently nurture them, shelter them from harm (including the damage cynicism can do), allow them to take on challenges, help them learn to trust themselves, and let learning unfold in delight.

But I had a few early years when I thought, probably with obnoxious smugness, that my wonderful parenting had something to do with how well my kids were turning out. They were very young and so was I.

My oldest, a boy, was thoughtful and clever. He liked to take my face between his little hands and call me every superlative he could think of (“dear, sweet, wonderful Mama). Isn’t this positively swoonable? He rescued insects from the sidewalk, telling them “go in peace little brother,” a line he picked up from one of his favorite picture books. When his father and I tried to talk over our little one’s head about issues we thought he shouldn’t hear, we used Shakespearean language to obscure our meaning. We had to stop, because our toddler began regularly using words like “doth” and “whence.”  What made things work fascinated this little boy, from the bones in our bodies to the engine in our cars, and he insisted on learning about them.

My next child, a daughter, was assertive and talented. She drew, danced, and sang made-up songs of such pure wonder that, I kid you not, birds clustered in trees near her. The force of personality in that tiny girl led us all to laugh at her improbable jokes and enter into her complicated realms of make-believe. Born into a home without pets, her drive to be close to animals was so intense that she kept trying to make worms her friends. Entirely due to her persistence we ended up with several pets by the time she was three.

Although our beautiful little children had medical problems, we had money problems, and other crises kept popping up I felt as if I lived in paradise each day. There’s something remarkable about seeing the world anew through the eyes of the planet’s most recent inhabitants. It’s like using an awe-shaped lens.

But I still had plenty to learn about parenting.

I recall being quietly horrified at a Le Leche League meeting when one toddler bit another. I thought about it for days, wondering what sort of parenting resulted in such an impulsive child. All the parenting books I read, all the non-violence courses I taught assured me there was a right way. Of course my comeuppance would arrive.

My third child was born soon after. This endearing, curious, and constantly cheerful little boy possessed relentless energy. By the time he was 14 months old we had to twine rope around all the chairs, lashing them to the table between meals, otherwise this diapered chap would drag a chair across the room to climb on top of furniture in the few seconds it took me to fill a teakettle. Before he could say more than a few words he’d learned to slide open our windows, unclip the safety latches on the screens, and toss the screens to the ground. He liked to grab the hand vacuum for experiments on his sister’s hair, houseplants, and other normally non-suckable items. He watched with fascination as drips from his sippy cup fell into heat vents, the hamster cage, the pile of laundry I was folding. We had no idea he could climb out of his crib till the evening he opened all the wrapped Christmas presents I had hidden in my room (keeping them safe from him) while we thought he was in bed. The look of complete joy on his face nearly made up for the hours of work it took me to rewrap. I found myself making up new rules I never thought I’d utter, like:

“Don’t poop in Daddy’s hat.”

“We never run with straws up our noses.”

He became a little more civilized by the time he was three, but not, as you might imagine, before he bit a few children.

Utterly besotted by the bright-eyed charm and endless curiosity of this dear little boy, I never suspected the labels doctors and schools so easily affix on non-conformist kids might be slapped on my child.  I never realized how much he would teach me about what real motivation and learning look like. And I never imagined how much he’d show me about what it means to pursue success on one’s own terms.

Today he is one accomplished young man, in part because he continues to see the world through an awe-shaped lens. And I am still learning from the remarkable people who came to this world as my children.

We Choose Our Own Role Models

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Image courtesy of s2-s2.deviantart.com

There’s no predicting who we choose as our role models. Teachers, coaches, and religious leaders are held out as exemplary choices and for good reason, since mentors are linked to greater success in adulthood. Despite adults’ well-meaning efforts to foster or even assign mentors, each one of us is drawn to people we find inspiring. It’s only in looking back that we can see more clearly how our childhood role models play a part in shaping who we become.

This is obvious looking at my husband’s growing up years. He wanted to understand how the world around him worked, and like most children, he wanted to find out by getting right in the midst of what fascinated him rather than play with plastic hammers and screwdrivers. So he sought out neighbors who let him fix cars alongside them and who welcomed his help running their small businesses. What he gained from these experiences still benefit him.

It’s not as obvious in my life so I have to strain to make those connections. I had plenty of freedom to ride my bike and play without too much parental supervision, but seeking out other grown-ups never occurred to me. In fact I can only think of a single adult outside my family who made a lasting impression. Her name was Mrs. Dosey.

I met her during a criminal investigation. Well, sort of.

When I was around eight, my older sister developed a brief infatuation with espionage. She deemed herself a private investigator and permitted me to be her sidekick. We practiced sidling around without being seen, took notes on people’s behavior, and looked for a mystery to solve. My sister hit the jackpot when she discovered bones in a field across the street. Bones! This could be dangerous. My sister identified the house in closest proximity to the bones. It seemed like a strange place. The yard had almost no grass. Instead the front was crowded with strangely cropped trees and the back sported a clothesline (unheard of in our suburban neighborhood) and a jumble of fenced-in areas—sinister indeed. We practically trembled with fearful anticipation.  My sister instructed me to remain completely silent, she’d question the suspect.

When she rang the doorbell it was promptly opened by a sturdy middle-aged woman wearing an apron and orthopedic shoes, her hair mashed down by a hairnet. When she invited us in I noticed she had a trace of an accent. Against all parental advice about strangers, we walked meekly inside.

Mrs. Dosey was busy in the kitchen but gladly welcomed two girl detectives. She didn’t raise an eyebrow when questioned about bones. She explained that she raised ducks, which she slaughtered for meals on special occasions. Although it wasn’t the murder we anticipated, it was death nonetheless. My sister and I shivered.

Mrs. Dosey talked to us as she went back to her culinary project. We learned that the cropped trees in her front yard were an apple orchard and the back yard was crowded with vegetable gardens, berry bushes, and poultry pens. She served us milk and homemade cookies. We stayed quite a while, curiously watching her work.

Mrs. Dosey was assembling a wedding cake she’d made from scratch. She showed us how she was separating the layers using tiny soda bottles between them, to be covered by flowers from her yard. Finally she said we could come back another time, she had a few more things to finish before her daughter’s wedding that was taking place the next day. My sister and I weren’t even disappointed that our murder case had collapsed. We’d met someone who seemed like a different creature than the frosted hair moms of our generation.

It didn’t occur to me till years later that Mrs. Dosey was completely matter-of-fact about two little girls sitting at her kitchen table, inches from this towering confection. She was entirely unruffled on a day most mothers of the bride are harried, even though she’d made the dress, the cake, and if memory serves, was making the reception food as well.

I never knocked on Mrs. Dosey’s door again. My sister and I dropped the private eye business to become girl scientists. We waded into the pond in sight of Mrs. Dosey’s house observing duck behavior and slogged home covered with what we optimistically called “duck muck.” My mother, who began buying apples from Mrs. Dosey every fall, seemed to regard the woman as an oppressed version of her gender. She pointed out Mrs. Dosey’s heavy labor around the house and yard, noting that this woman rode a bike with a basket to the store every few days for groceries. The emphasis seemed to rest on evidence that Mr. Dosey didn’t share those burdens. To me, Mrs. Dosey seemed remarkably happy. And savvy as well. She waved when my sister and I were out but was wise enough to spare us that social indignity if we were waiting with friends at the school crossing near her house. I saw her on that bike for years after I left home. She never looked any older or any less cheerful.

I credit my husband’s role models for helping him grow up to be capable, positive, and wonderfully open-hearted. But not for a single moment have I ever linked my own life choices to Mrs. Dosey’s example. After all, I planned to change the world by elevating peace, ecological harmony, and justice. If I had time I hoped to fit in writing novels. And parenting. Okay, I also wanted thick hair and thin thighs.

None of that happened. I’m not a UN peace negotiator, my activism is local and my writing is gentle. I’m not blocking whaling ships with my fellow Greenpeace buddies, instead I tend to vegetable gardens and haul buckets of kitchen scraps to our livestock. My choices look more like Mrs. Dosey’s, although I can’t pretend for a moment that I’ll ever have her patience. I was raised to believe I could be accomplish anything if I worked hard enough but I’m learning that we can save the world right where we are. In part, that means opening the door on our busiest day ever to welcome the questions of little girls.

Who in your growing years made an impression on you and how do you see their impact in your life today?

Natural Antidote To Bullying

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Children are drawn to challenge themselves. They need to take risks of all kinds—physical, social, emotional, intellectual—in order to grow into mature self-reliance.

Where do such challenges most naturally occur? Outdoors. As detailed in Last Child in the Woods, when children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savannah, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Regular outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances. Free outdoor play with others, especially when it’s not hampered by adult interference, teaches kids to interact with others while also maintaining self-control. Otherwise, no one wants to play with them. It’s the best sort of learning because it’s fun. Sounds like the perfect way to raise bully-proof kids doesn’t it?

But the opportunity for free play and risk is funneled into very narrow options for today’s children. They are shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. Time between these obligations is often spent indoors. And children’s outdoor play is restricted by excessive rules designed to keep them safe from dangers out of proportion to any real safety issue.

So kids don’t get natural challenges like climbing trees, exploring fields, building forts. They are deprived of the rich lessons of cooperation and self-control found in free play. And they don’t develop biophilia, that essential sense of connection with nature. Then we expect them to get along and recognize real risk. Any wonder that bullying is a growing problem?

Here are examples of playground designs that, in institutions like schools and daycare programs, foster free play using natural materials. Sensory play, places for solitude, and opportunities for physical risk are built in and, no surprise, children get along better.

It’s a step in the right direction. A few steps farther and we’ll let kids back in nature herself, playing in woods and fields and beaches. Too bad all the money thrown at anti-bullying programs aren’t used to fling open the doors to the natural world. “Go out and play,” may very well be the best anti-bullying advice yet.

Give Em The Finger

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“Self-trust is the first secret of success.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

No one wants to be cajoled, forced, or coerced. Some of us resist mightily. Such resisters are called all sorts of names: underachieving, non-compliant, difficult, withdrawn, eccentric, or worse.

Human beings naturally resist when our autonomy is threatened. And autonomy is most threatened in childhood because many adults (particularly in the western world) believe children require moment-to-moment instruction, advice, and entertainment. Unlike most of previous human history, children’s lives today are heavily monitored and controlled. Adults keep kids in pre-planned activities,  insist that education proceed in a linear fashion, intervene to minimize difficulties, and provide distractions to prevent even momentary boredom. They do so assuming these efforts will advance learning and boost success.

Yet this puts character development at risk, because children are attracted to dilemmas that help them learn. Learning from mistakes, taking on challenges,  and developing a growth mindset are pivotal for success. So is preservation of a trait found in people at the top of their fields in science, the arts, and entrepreneurship—curiosity. And curiosity arises in unique and unpredictable ways, often appearing after a child has traveled from boredom to inspiration on his or her own.

Coercion also puts the child in an uncomfortable position, because all this control comes from adults with the best intentions. Usually adults who love them. So children, who don’t like overt control any more than you do, typically react somewhere on the spectrum between compliance and resistance. Extreme compliance and they’re less likely to think for themselves, developing an external rather than internal locus of control.  Extreme resistance and they’re likely to face ever more punitive efforts to get them to comply. Neither reaction is what adults want or expect.

Which leads me to a story about Transcendentalist writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson. He and his son Edward were trying to get a calf through a barn door. Emerson pushed from behind while his son pulled on the calf’s ear. The heifer wouldn’t move an inch despite a great deal of effort exerted by the two men. Emerson thought back over his scientific and literary readings in hopes of figuring out some way of getting the reluctant animal to move but didn’t come up with any solutions. They continued trying, to the amusement of a servant woman who was passing by. She offered a finger to the calf. Easily led by its desire to suckle, the calf followed her at once.

The wisdom of capitalizing on natural tendencies is the key to good animal husbandry. It’s probably a key to decent human relationships as well. I’m not for a moment suggesting that children are calves. (In fact, I’d rather see calves left with their mothers to suckle than led into a barn by capitalizing on that unmet need.) Children need rules, responsibilities, and the expectation that they’ll treat others with compassion. They need to be nurtured by adults who understand that pushing and pulling aren’t useful ways to help children mature. And they need the freedom to learn in ways that are best for them. At any age, those of us who aren’t oppressed by coercive relationships or controlling institutions gladly seek out advice as we need it, find role models who inspire us, and advance in the direction of our greatest gifts.

“No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.” John Holt

Staring Down Worry

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Something happened the night Worry appeared to me.

Some of us are chronic worriers. There’s probably an adaptive reason for this, since humans who envisioned potential dangers would be more likely to survive and pass on their genes. But saber-toothed tigers aren’t lurking by our front doors these days. I know for a fact that worry generates misery while producing absolutely no benefit. Giving it up, however, isn’t an easy matter. Worry runs in our heads like movies of disaster to come, unbidden yet powerful, making some of us wary of the smallest choices and some of us heedless of real danger.

I worried from the earliest time I can remember. It may have an adaptive start in my life too. As a tiny child I spent many nights struggling to breathe through asthma attacks. When I was five years old I got a bit of food caught in my esophagus and stayed awake all night spitting my saliva into a bowl, since even a moment’s inattention caused it to run down my windpipe and sent me into fits of choking, until a surgeon removed it the next day. The year I turned nine my grandparents all died, catapulting me into years of obsessive worry that everyone else I loved would die too. At 13 I was assaulted by an adult and the focus of my worry widened as I spent years searching for the causes of evil and suffering. Worry continued to be my companion when I hit my 20’s. Each of my babies were born with medical problems. The unknown dangers threatening even the most innocent lives suddenly lived in my house. Chances are my chronic insomnia has roots in all this worry.

One night as I lay awake worrying I had an experience that profoundly changed me. That night I had plenty of things to worry about: serious concerns about my children’s health, our finances, and other problems. Normally I fought off worry with gratitude—focusing on the comfort of my family sleeping safely nearby and the many blessings in my life. But worry was there haunting my mind and hollowing my body.

Sudden as a car crash, something happened.

I know it sounds bizarre but it was as real as the lamp on my desk is now. I became aware of a huge black column next to my bed. It was comprised of the most immense energy I’d ever experienced. It was dark and powerful with a presence that seemed alive and completely aware of my thoughts. I had the sense that it was of such infinite size and strength that it went through the floor and out the roof, stretching far in both directions. I should have been more frightened, but the moment this column appeared I realized, as if the message hit all my cells at once, that I had summoned this darkness.

It was born of my own intense worry. It was a profound lesson that went through me in the way wisdom does, filling not just our brains but also our bodies and souls. Lying there, I resolved to bring forth every ounce of light I could muster.

The instant I thought to do this, whatever that column was disappeared.

I woke my husband to tell him. He kindly assured me that I was nuts. Until this post I’ve only told one other friend. But in today’s atmosphere of worry, I wanted to share this image—of fear so huge that it manifests next to you. It taught me that worry is a kind of unintentional evil. It presupposes things will go wrong. It’s the opposite of faith.

I’m not entirely cured of worrying nor would I ever change those earlier years of worry. They’ve made me stronger, more open to the beauty found just beyond despair, and left me with a positive quest. But ever since that moment, years ago, I have made a conscious effort to reorient myself.

Ironically, my family has been through times more difficult than I could have imagined back when this happened—crime, financial hardship, loss, and grief. But I know the antidote—to shine forth with all the light I can. Some days I’m practically optimism’s parasite.

But really, if all my moments of hope coalesce into some kind of vision, I can’t wait to see it.

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