Early Childhood Education, 1938 version

Preschool learning by doing.

Guest post by Charles Clanton Rogers, pictured here before his blogging days.

“Catch that bird! Don’t let that chicken get away, Charles!”

I was four years old, enrolled in  Grandmother’s Biology & History class.  On that morning we covered the food chain, the hunt, the kill, butchering, anatomy of a hen, and introduction to animal reproduction.

This was 1938 Oklahoma. Money was scarce for everyone. My great inherited fortune was not money, but family. I was an only child and only grandchild of a doting family. I was kind of a “prince” of an infinitely small principality consisting of five adults and one little boy.

I didn’t know it then, but the entire country was mired in the Great Depression. In our state, dust bowl conditions were destroying farms and forcing “Okies” into a desperate exodus in pursuit of California jobs.

vintage unschooling,

Farm equipment buried in dust. Image: americaslibrary.gov

Back to the morning’s Biology & History lesson. Grandma and I were “the hunters.” We caught that chicken, terminated its earthly journey, then plucked and cleaned it. I learned comparative anatomy as Grandmother identified the hen’s internal structures. She talked about the chicken and egg as a circle of life. Then she coated the pieces in egg and flour, and fried it along with fresh okra that we picked from her garden (we were the “gatherers” too). After lunch was my Music lesson, which meant Grandmother sang.

That was just the morning.

My grandmother earned supplemental income by sewing clothes for ladies in the community.  That responsibility couldn’t be neglected.  Her sewing machine was a Singer foot trade model.  She sat with both feet on the treadle. Pumping it back and forth moved a belt from the treadle up to a pulley attached to the needle mechanism. I didn’t realize it then, but observing the mechanical action was itself a Physics lesson.


Image: oldsingersewingmachineblog.files.wordpress.com

Grandmother would spread the material out on the floor and pin the pattern pieces. She trusted me to cut pieces around the patterns with pinking shears. I knew a mistake could cause waste and expense so I took this responsibility very seriously.

While she was making a dress, I had my own little sewing projects. I learned how to thread a needle and sew two pieces of cloth together.  It seemed like a way to pass the time, but that early sewing experience came in handy years later when I became a physician.

When I tired of sewing I passed the time with coloring books and Crayolas . I think I had 8 or 10 colors.

After dinner, Grandmother read to me. (The Little Engine That Could
was my favorite.)

Grandmother had plenty of other things to do, but whatever she was doing I was part of her team.  Often she impressed upon me that I needed to learn my lessons well, because I was going to grow up and have children and students and it would be my sacred responsibility to teach them the things she taught me just as her parents had taught her when she was a girl.

Grandmother’s love was undeniable. She certainly knew, as the poet wrote, “The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world.”

Every waking moment was an education. That suited me just fine.  It did not occur to me that the immersive learning of my early years were in any way unusual.  My “preschool/home school” didn’t have any names or labels. It was just Life. I thought it was what everyone did.

George Gershwin and DuBois Heyward wrote Porgy & Bess in 1934, my birth year. The lyrics of its immortal song, Summertime, could have been the theme of my preschool years:

One of these mornings you’re gonna rise up singing,

And you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky,

But ’til that morning, there ain’t nothin’ can harm you….

hush little baby, don’t you cry.


I came across retired physician and teacher Charles Clanton Rogers through his post Journey of the Human Mind. In it, he describes living with a sense of astonishment. As he puts it,  “I have an idea of what it is like to experience life before a thing is known; and then to witness its deployment. ” Dr. Rogers’ site, The Rogers Post, offers his musings on history, science, art, and much more. I’m grateful he’s sharing this glimpse of a lovingly guided early education with us. Thanks Charles! 

Do Brain Training Games Work?

Nurturing neurons

Nurturing neurons

We listen to a lot of public radio in my house. Shows like RadiolabThis American Life, and Science 360  make chores go faster and often lead to great conversations. But I bristle every time I hear another sponsorship slogan by a certain program underwriter. It goes something like this: “Lumosity, the brain training program to improve memory and performance, for life.”

Every time I hear it, I think of my dad’s experience. My father moved back to his childhood hometown when he was in his seventies. He was delighted to run across people he’d known decades earlier. They recognized him, asked about his family, reminisced about his mother (who’d been a popular high school teacher), and shared stories of their own lives. It was an absolute thrill for him. He felt rooted, more truly at home than he’d felt for years. “Who you are,” he told me, “is all in what you remember.”

The most gut-wrenching part of moving back, for my dad, was meeting up with his old friend Mitchell.* Our language doesn’t yet have a word for the moment when any of us meets up with someone we’ve known for years, only to realize the other person is suffering from dementia.

Developing dementia of any sort was my father’s worst nightmare. He read every article on prevention and subscribed to various journals so he could keep up with the latest Alzheimer’s disease research. He modified his already stringent diet and intensified his rigorous memory preservation efforts; influenced, in part, by advertisements from “brain training” companies that relentlessly targeted his age group.

He’d recently and very happily remarried, sang in the church choir, went on bike rides, was an enthusiastic bird watcher and gardener. But he’d turn down going to lunch with friends and skip interesting programs at the senior center because he prioritized brain training. He memorized sequential pictures and lists of words, did math problems and crossword puzzles, and clicked through brain training programs for hours every day. He couldn’t have known that his active life would suddenly be cut short by an aneurysm. I’m still saddened by the time he spent indoors hunched over a computer screen instead of letting himself more fully engage in life’s pleasures.

Here’s what’s particularly galling. Experts tell us that more frequent social activities (like the ones my dad kept skipping) offer a protective effect. Studies show that a larger network of regular social contacts is associated with better semantic and working memory well into old age.

Do brain training programs offer similarly protective effects? Not even close.

As the population ages, more and more people are trying to ward off cognitive decline by using brain games like Brain HQ, Dakim Brain Fitness, My Brain Trainer, and of course, Lumosity. (Over 70 million people use Lumosity, many paying $15 a month.) Customers are assured that such programs will improve memory and thinking skills. They’re told these games are backed by scientific evidence. In fact, Lumosity‘s site lists a number of studies.

Those studies, however, may only tangentially relate to the product or cannot be replicated by more exacting researchers. Some of this research is conducted by individuals or institutions with financial links to brain training companies.

And here’s the thing: Improvements in game scores don’t really translate into better cognitive functioning in daily life, especially long-term, even though that’s what motivates people to play in the first place.

A few years ago, the Alzheimer’s Society teamed up with the BBC to launch the Brain Test Britain study. Over 13,000 people participated. The results weren’t promising. People under 60 got better at individual games, but their overall mental fitness didn’t improve. An expanded study to test those over 60 is still being analyzed, but it doesn’t sound like breaking news either.

Sure, players will improve their scores on games they enjoy, but if time spent playing subtracts from other more beneficial activities, it’s time squandered. There’s also worry that when brain training customers believe these games protect them from dementia, they may be less likely to eat right, get enough exercise, and pay attention to other means of prevention.

Scientists are speaking up about this. A joint statement titled “A Consensus on the Brain Training Industry from the Scientific Community” was released last year by the Stanford Center on Longevity and the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin. The 70 scientists who participated summed it up this way,

We object to the claim that brain games offer consumers a scientifically grounded avenue to reduce or reverse cognitive decline when there is no compelling scientific evidence to date that they do. The promise of a magic bullet detracts from the best evidence to date, which is that cognitive health in old age reflects the long-term effects of healthy, engaged lifestyles. In the judgment of the signatories, exaggerated and misleading claims exploit the anxiety of older adults about impending cognitive decline.

All of us are used to companies stretching the truth in order to get more customers. But we live at a time when one in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.  It’s estimated that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease will triple in the next 40 years.  (I’m going to be pretty old in 40 years. I bet you will be too.) It’s particularly heinous when companies exploit very realistic fears. When trusted news outlets accept money from these companies, that’s when I turn off the radio.

*Name changed to protect identity.

Start a Playgroup in a Retirement Home

seniors and kids, retirement home preschool,

Image: bjwebbiz

I started a playgroup, years ago, that met in a nursing home. Later, when I wrote an article offering six ways we can bypass today’s age-segregation to more fully involve children in their communities, I started the article with the tale of that playgroup. Readers keep asking for more details so they can organize something similar. Here’s my tale again, this time with some helpful hints. 

Surely my baby was as good as a dog.

I’d read that nursing home residents benefited enormously from contact with therapy dogs. During and after dog visits these elders were more alert and happier. So I figured, why not bring my baby to a nursing home?

Initially I’d thought about going room to room with my baby for one-on-one visits. But as I sat at a LeLeche meeting, it occurred to me that more babies might offer a bigger boost.

So I contacted a nursing home around the corner to ask. The administrator had never heard of such an idea but she was wildly enthusiastic. She referred me to the home’s activity director to start planning. That was the easiest part.

Then I starting talking friends with babies into forming a nursing home-based playgroup for our infants and toddlers. It took a LOT of convincing on my part to get them to agree. They were afraid of germs, smells, and their baby’s reactions to people with obvious disabilities.

I wondered about those problems too, particularly the germs. I know that some pretty virulent infections can get passed around in such facilities. So I talked a local store into donating a large carpet remnant for our little ones to crawl and play on. Between visits, the nursing home could roll it up for storage. It was a sort of “safe zone’ so parents felt their kids wouldn’t be exposed to germs or unwanted touching by the seniors.

I also told the staff that I’d call each day before a scheduled playgroup to ensure there weren’t any colds, flu, or other infections going around. And of course, asked that any individual residents who seemed ill would not attend. Parents also agreed to skip a session if they or their little ones seemed at all ill.

The first few playgroup sessions tested us. Not the nursing home residents, but the parents. There were, quite honestly, some seniors whose disabilities seemed a bit scary to us at first. But the babies didn’t care. Safely in a mom’s arms or in her lap they smiled, cooed, and waved to the residents with complete acceptance.

Parents brought a few toys each time and we all sat on the carpet with our babies. At first we felt a little like a zoo exhibit with a ring of wheelchairs around us, but that feeling went away. The elders were clearly delighted simply to see and hear babies.

There were certainly problems getting our group established. We started off with three mothers, one grandmother, and four babies. That’s actually a good number, although to keep the playgroup going we’d need enough people so that absences by one or two members wouldn’t whittle the session down too far.

Quite a few of the parents who initially said they’d attend just couldn’t bring themselves to show up. Only after they heard some glowing reports did a few of them give it a try. Honestly, such a playgroup isn’t for everyone. There’s a distinct pleasure in a playgroup itself, but parents who stayed committed also looked at our sessions as volunteer work.

We met regularly at that nursing home for several years. We held up picture books and read aloud to an audience old and young. We sang songs, played clapping games, and built block towers. Our babies grew into toddlers, elders and staff became our friends. Residents’ families and staff members often told us that our visits stimulated memories, generated activity, even inspired people who were mostly mute to say a few words. One woman who had refused to eat, doing little more than cry since her stroke, started eating again after spending the morning with our playgroup.

We were awed that the simple presence of babies made a difference. Just sitting on the carpet playing with our children helped people whose once full lives were now constricted. We benefited too. We learned the value of advice given by people older than our grandparents. We noticed how completely our toddlers accepted the physical and mental differences around them with natural grace. And we gained a sense of connection across the generations, a sense that’s far too rare in a a disengaged culture.


I had a ready pool of potential parents in my Le Leche group, but you can post information about the idea to all sorts of places, from your food co-op to house of worship. Try a local parent group, start a playgroup Meetup, find a chapter of the Holistic Moms Network or Moms Club.

Don’t be afraid to start a playgroup with only a friend or two. It’ll grow. Once you’re comfortable and have established a routine, start sharing your experiences on social media. And don’t forget traditional media. Our local paper wrote a short piece about our nursing home-based playgroup and ran a great picture of a profoundly wrinkled lady smiling at a baby. After that ran we had up to 12 parents who came to our sessions (the carpet piece was barely big enough).

You may prefer to organize a playgroup at an assisted living facility or senior center rather than a nursing home. These elders are healthier and much more able to engage in conversation with the kids.

Don’t limit yourself to the concept of a baby/toddler playgroup. A nearby senior center or assisted living facility may agree to set up any number of programs. Here are a few ideas.

  • I write in Free Range Learning about several initiatives such as a skills clinic where seniors offer workshops to kids, and Girlfriend Circle where a girls attend a monthly tea party with seniors.
  • Set up co-learning events, where kids and seniors together learn something new to them like whittling, cartooning, or pot throwing.
  • You might also start a program for preteens and teens to teach their elders tech skills, from downloading music to mastering a new smart phone.
  • Right now a documentary about a preschool housed in a retirement home is in the works. Present Perfect is still raising funds on Kickstarter for post production.
  • A senior retirement community not far from me offers a free apartment to music students who agree to offer concerts. It’s working beautifully.
start nursing home playgroup, preschool in retirement home,

Image: bjwebbiz

Are You Eccentric?

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

Being yourself. (image: Irish_Eyes)

I met Betty years ago when I moved to a place teeming with all sorts of progressive people. Still, Betty stood out. She was a large lady dressed in layers of brightly colored clothes who walked with the help of a carved walking stick. Because her eyesight was so poor she often asked for help reading street signs. I was the lucky person she asked one day.

We hit it off immediately, riffing on words and laughing wryly about politics. But when I made a banal comment (probably about the weather or something equally trite) Betty wanted none of it. She asked why I bothered to say it. While I was busy thinking about her question she moved on to far more fascinating topics. Her honestly was more overt than the huge pendant dangling around her neck. I admired her for it. I was newly married at 18, attending college full time, plus working and volunteering. Sometimes I felt as if I were playacting in all these unfamiliar roles. Simply by example Betty made it clear that playacting didn’t cut it.

Until her last days Betty was a fascinating woman. She could talk knowledgeably about religion, politics, and literature as well as motorcycle racing and vintage cars. She read avidly even though her poor eyesight forced her to hold a book inches away from her face. Known in the area as a white witch, she cast spells for many notable people and organizations. (Her attempts on behalf of the Cleveland Indians to lift the Curse of Rocky Colavito weren’t one of her successes.) In the early 2000’s the city of Lakewood asked her to clean up what they considered an overgrown yard. When an inspector showed up she walked him through her herb gardens, explaining what each plant could cure. Perhaps she was never cited for those unruly gardens because she gave him a homemade insomnia remedy.

The truly eccentric people I know don’t try to stand out. They don’t affect certain behaviors, clothes, or interests in order to be seen as non-conformists. They do their best to live in a world of conventions while simply being themselves.

We live in a marvelous time, when we’re far freer to be who we are than perhaps in any other time in history. That’s great for us as individuals but also great for humanity, since eccentrics seem to play a larger role than others in advancing exploration, the arts, and sciences. Their differences stretch the possibilities for all of us.

In Eccentrics: A Study of Sanity and Strangeness,  psychiatrist David Weeks explains that eccentrics are physically healthier and significantly happier than “normal” people. He notes that eccentrics are wildly diverse yet share common characteristics. Here are his 25 descriptors of eccentricity, listed in descending order of importance. (Dr. Weeks says the first five are the most significant characteristics.)

  • Enduring non-conformity
  • Creativity
  • Strongly motivated by an exceedingly powerful curiosity and related exploratory behavior
  • An enduring and distinct feeling of differentness from others
  • Idealism
  • Happily obsessed with a number of long-lasting preoccupations (usually about five or six)
  • Intelligent, in the upper fifteen per cent of the population on tests of intelligence
  • Opinionated and outspoken, convinced of being right and that the rest of the of the world is out of step with them
  • Non-competitive
  • Not necessarily in need of reassurance or reinforcement from the rest of society
  • Unusual eating habits and living arrangements
  • Not particularly interested in the opinions or company of other people, except perhaps in order to persuade them to their contrary point of view
  • Possessed of a mischievous sense of humor, charm, whimsy, and wit
  • More frequently an eldest or an only child
  • Eccentricity observed in at least 36% of detailed family histories, usually a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. (It should be noted that the family history method of estimating hereditary similarities and resemblances usually provides rather conservative estimates.)
  • Eccentrics prefer to talk about their thoughts rather than their feelings. There is a frequent use of the psychological defense mechanisms of rationalization and intellectualization.
  • Slightly abrasive
  • Midlife changes in career or lifestyle
  • Feelings of “invisibility” which means that they believe other people did not seem to hear them or see them, or take their ideas seriously
  • Feel that others can only take them in small doses
  • Feel that others have stolen, or would like to steal, their ideas. In some cases, this is well-founded.
  • Dislike small talk or other apparently inconsequential conversation
  • A degree of social awkwardness
  • More likely to be single, separated, or divorced, or multiply separated or divorced
  • A poor speller, in relation to their above average general intellectual functioning

See yourself here? A family member or friend?

The documentary “A Different Drummer” highlights people more overtly unusual than Betty. In fact, Dr. Weeks claims only one in 10,000 people are truly eccentric. I suspect the number is much higher.

Sure, some eccentrics are more flamboyant than others but I think the Bettys of the world qualify. So does a toddler obsessed with vacuums who grew into a little boy driven to fix broken appliances and equipment he rescued from the trash. So does a girl so fascinated by forensics that she spent weeks sketching the decomposition of a muskrat and recently assembled an entire deer skeleton in the driveway. So do many of the interesting people around all of us. My family tree is well leafed out with eccentrics and my friends are orchards of eccentricity. Maybe I’m eccentric too. How about you?

are you eccentric?

What gorilla suit? (image:Greyerbaby)

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

older generation of kids, historical comparison of children,

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

what your great-grandparents did, oral history,

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

Angry Stranger’s Gift

angry stranger, gift of impatience, tolerance, soul moment,

Years ago I waited in a convenience store line in complete desperation. I was still bleeding after giving birth to my daughter and needed pads. The customer ahead of me was working her way into a snit because the store was out of an item she wanted. She refused to buy similar products the clerk offered. I stood behind this customer trying to keep from judging her (and failing). She was middle-aged or older, wearing expensive clothes and fussily styled hair, but what really defined her was the kind of self-absorption that turns a minor inconvenience into a personal offense. She demanded someone check the back room where she was sure the product languished due to employee laziness. She demanded to see the manager, who wasn’t there. She. Wouldn’t. Leave.

I was so exhausted that I simply wanted to curl up on the floor. It was the first time I’d left my baby’s hospital bed for more than a few minutes. My newborn suffered from a serious malady that hadn’t yet been diagnosed. She was increasingly losing weight and vigor. All the while I missed my three-year-old fiercely. I hadn’t seen him for days aside from brief hugs in the parking lot. I spent all my time by my baby’s side. It was a triumph when I could get her to nurse for a few moments. Sleep deprived and terrified for my baby girl, I clung onto hope like a parasite.

The customer ahead of me was now yelling. I assumed she’d had no greater trouble in her life than being deprived of a convenience store product. I realized that she may have been older than my own mother, but she had less maturity than my firstborn who knew enough to respect other people and more importantly, to care about them.

I’d been in the hospital environment for so many days that simply driving to the store was a sensory overload. Bright sunlight, traffic, people engaged in daily activities were all so overwhelming that I felt like a tourist visiting for the first time. Maybe that’s why I felt a sudden tenderness for the customer ahead of me. It was as if some surface reality melted away to expose this woman’s beautiful soul. I didn’t know if she was going through a difficulty that left her frantic to have her needs, any needs, recognized. Or if she had experienced so few difficulties that she hadn’t developed any tolerance for disappointment. It didn’t matter. I saw her as utterly perfect. In that moment I felt nothing less than love.

Just then she whirled around and left. I exchanged a look of solidarity with the clerk, made my purchase, and drove back to the hospital. That encounter not only gave me a powerful surge of energy, it also boosted my spirits in a way I can’t explain. It was a boost that lasted. All these years later I remain grateful.

What’s The Perfect Age?

what is the perfect age,growing older is perfect, child is not an ungrown adult, baby is not an unformed child,


There must be an ideal age floating around in our collective unconscious. This is such a fixed part of our media-driven culture that it’s hard to focus on it. But let’s give it a try. Allow a number come to you as you consider the following questions.

 What age do parents have in mind as they groom their kids for success?

 What age do kids have in mind as they imagine growing up?

 What age do older adults have in mind as they try to look and act younger?

I’m guessing it’s somewhere between 21 and 35, a time when we’re supposed to be brimming with youthful good looks and potential. Or maybe it’s not a number but just a fundamental belief that young adulthood is some sort of peak. Everything before that is preparation, everything after a slide toward old age.

Consciously or unconsciously, believing in this ideal age uses up a large part of all our other ages.

Consider how relentlessly the adult world prods children to get (or at least act) older. I know I’m somewhat guilty. I did my very best to savor the baby and toddler years but honestly, it’s hard. I found myself thinking that it would just get better after they finished teething, or could talk, or finally mastered toilet training. Even the most sainted in-the-moment parent will find him or herself bombarded with well-intended, future-oriented inquiries from others like, “Is she sleeping through the night?” and “Does he talk in sentences yet?” Such questions don’t stop as the child gets older, instead they have to do with bigger topics like academic abilities, athletic achievement, even popularity. Admiration is heaped on little ones who act much older than their developmental age, especially those children who exhibit social poise beyond their years, as if six-year-olds who act like six-year-olds are already somehow behind.

The pressure becomes more intense with each passing year. Parents often find themselves buying all sorts of educational toys and electronics, filling what could be free time with an ambitious schedule of practices and enrichment programs, and of course, pushing educational achievement. We’re told that these efforts “count” as if there’s a permanent record for eight-year-olds or 13-year-olds. There isn’t.

We’re assured that getting kids ahead in sports or hobbies will create passionate engagement, but research affirms that children build rewardingly intense interests when they are free to explore activities without adult pressure and interference

We’re led to believe that early academic accomplishment is the path to later success. Too often, that’s not true either. Success is closely linked to much more nuanced personal factors which develop quite nicely, research tells us, during free play, early participation in household tasks, conversation, and other experiences that foster self- control as well as an internal locus of control

Pushing our children toward adulthood takes us (and them) away from seeing that each of us are whole people exactly as we are. A baby is not an unformed child, a child is not an ungrown adult, an elder is not an age-ruined version of a once younger self.

Each of us is wonderfully unique. Of course we’re flawed and often foundering. But at the same time we are also brimming with emerging possibilities. We don’t have to paddle away from the moment we live in toward some ideal age. Doing so doesn’t just wish away right now, it also condemns every other age we live in to be something less.

Truly seeing our children and our elders as complete and whole, right now, means seeing ourselves that way too.

Engage The Window Box Effect

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When I was in college my professors enjoyed crushing what was left of our youthful optimism with miserable statistics about how bad everything was and how rapidly it was getting worse. (Even their cynicism was too small to envision our current issues.) I remember a semester-long course that had to do with reversing urban blight. After being taught about this dire and growing problem we were introduced to the standard remedies. Our professor scornfully dismissed every effort to reverse urban blight. The worst thing that could be done? Coming in from outside the community to impose a do-gooder solution. The only right thing to do was a vast overhaul of our economic structures. (Those structures are even shakier today.) I wrote sufficiently miserable papers to get an A but was left with quiet despair in my ever-hopeful heart.

Soon after that class I read about one woman’s experience of urban blight. She’d lived in the same house for decades, watching her neighborhood decline. There were few jobs and the ones available paid poorly, with no benefits or job security. She sadly listed the local businesses that had left, leaving her area with no grocery, beauty shop, or movie theater. The only places that remained were bars and corner stores selling little in the way of real food. People lost their homes and landlords took over, rarely keeping up the property. The city lost revenue, doing little to keep up with residents’ complaints. It seemed to her that young people were lost too. They swore in front of tiny children and their elders, hung out all hours on street corners, got into public fights, abused drugs. She was quoted as saying that people complained they got no respect from young people, when really the young people had no respect for themselves.

The reason she was being interviewed? She was credited with beginning a tiny urban renaissance that was evident on her street and slowly spreading through the neighborhood.

Here’s how it happened. She’d been in poor health and adjusting to widowhood. Her home had been well maintained over the years but like many wood-sided homes, it began to look shabby when too much time went by without new paint. After her husband died she didn’t do well keeping up with yard work and because the street had changed she rarely sat on the porch as she used to do in years past, chatting with neighbors and greeting young people by name as they went by. It wasn’t just friendliness. When everyone knows everyone, word of misdeeds travels home quicker than an unruly child can get in the door. And when a child really knows the elders on his or her street, they have many more potential role models to benefit them as they grow up. That’s the proverbial “village” it takes to raise a child.

This woman wanted to do something. All she could afford was a few packets of flower seeds. She got out on a spring day to plant the seeds in her long-unused window boxes. She started sitting on her porch every afternoon after watering them, greeting those who went by even though she didn’t know them. Renters in houses where her friends once lived began talking to her. By the time the flowers were in bloom she noticed a difference on the street. She said that people were sweeping their porches and planting flowers of their own. Because they were trying, she got out there to do her part, attempting to take better care of her lawn, telling people who passed by that it was a good way to get exercise she needed. Every time she couldn’t get her mower to start she’d ask a teenager walking down the street to help her. Then before starting to mow, she’d ask for his or her name, shake hands, and thank that youth for doing a good deed by helping her. She made sure to greet those young people by name every time she saw them afterwards.

That summer one family painted their front door. Someone else cleaned up an empty lot that had been a dumping place for trash. People started sitting on their porches, waving to each other, stopping for conversation. It began to feel like a neighborhood again. Building on what’s positive is powerful indeed.

There are plenty of ways people are revitalizing their communities these days. They’re reclaiming empty lots as gardens or play places for their kids, running micro-businesses out of their homes, starting up tool-shares and neighborhood work groups. They’re using social media to connect and collaborate with each other. They’re mentoring kids in the neighborhood and finding ways to get kids more involved in the larger community.  Studies show that urban gardens and other revitalizing efforts make a difference, reducing the crime rate and fostering all sorts of positive relationships. An old theory, kind of the flip side of what I’m calling the Window Box Effect, was called Broken Windows Theory. It posited that minor examples of breakdown (like a few broken windows) leads to greater disorder, dragging down not only the appearance of an area but also leading to crime and property damage. This has largely been disproven because crime is actually deterred when people know they have the power to affect their communities and benefit from strong networks within those communities.

Sure, we have a lot to work to do rebuilding our sorry infrastructure and easing the ever-widening income gap. But it doesn’t hurt to remember that noticing a little beauty can amplify the greater beauty that’s everywhere, waiting to bloom.

There are plenty of ways to apply the Window Box Effect.

Tell me how the Window Box Effect works in your life.

We Choose Our Own Role Models

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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?