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 Such resisters are called all sorts of names: underachieving, non-compliant, difficult, withdrawn, eccentric, or worse.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

Learning Disabilities Linked To Environmental Toxins

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Parents of children who struggle with learning disabilities or health problems are familiar with questions that keep us awake at night. Is it genetic, congenital, dietary? Is it my parenting? It is fate? While helping our kids every day to gain new strengths we still search for the cause, hoping we’ll find lasting solutions.

Of course, learning problems have been observed in children for generations, but evidence is mounting that toxins in our highly industrial world are a contributing factor. Today, one out of every six children has a developmental disability. Many of these conditions affect the nervous system: developmental delays, learning disorders, sensory deficits, autism, and cerebral palsy.

Most of us are familiar with studies linking lead (largely from old paint dust and chips) and mercury (from coal-fired power plants, certain fish) to cognitive and behavioral problems.

We’re also aware that BPA found in plastics like food containers, toys, lining of metal cans, and beverage bottles can impair brain function in mammals, via hormone signaling in areas of the brain related to forming memories and retaining information. Choosing only eco-friendly versions of these products doesn’t remove the danger entirely. Even goods marked “BPA-free” can contain damaging chemicals.  And this exposure isn’t just linked to plastics. It’s also found on store receipts!  While debate continues over the effect of these chemicals on our health, it’s interesting to note that studies conducted by independent scientists show adverse effect while those financed by BPA-using industries tend to show the risk is negligible.

Some of the newest research points to cadmium as another potential culprit. This heavy metal naturally occurs in the earth’s crust, but cadmium is released through smelting, burning fossil fuel, incinerating waste, and using phosphate fertilizer—where it’s taken up by food crops such as root vegetables and grains. Cadmium exposure also comes through tobacco smoke, even some toys and jewelry. Children with high levels of cadmium in their urine were found to have more learning disabilities and special education needs. These neurocognitive problems were reported by parents in a study of  2,200 children ages 6 to 15, and more studies with data directly from schools and physicians are needed. Although we can modify our habits to limit exposure to most toxins, the presence of cadmium is largely out of individual control.

We’re also discovering that exposure to all sorts of modern-day chemicals before birth and during the formative years may be related to later learning problems. These chemicals are ubiquitous. An article in the medical journal The Lancet, titled “Developmental Neurotoxicity of Industrial Chemicals –A Silent Pandemic,” reports that half of 201 chemicals identified as neurotoxic are produced in high volume (more than 1 million pounds each year) and over 20 are often found in chemical waste.

follow-up report by Harvard School of Public Health identifies 278 additional neurotoxic chemicals. A multi-national effort is underway to test for developmental toxicity. Experts estimate that up to a quarter of the 80,000 to 100,000 chemicals in use around the world may show neurotoxic properties.

For those of us who know the hope and hard work required to raise children who have additional burdens, such test results are only the beginning. We want action to protect the brains and bodies of every child.

Take Action

Follow EPA advice and information about protecting kids from toxins in the home

Check out specifics about toxins in skin care products your children use.

Get involved in the Environmental Working Group‘s Kid-Safe Chemical Campaign

Support the Clean Air Council‘s push to reduce the emission of mercury, arsenic, and dioxin from coal-fired plants

Contact your legislators to support the Safe Chemicals Act

Use the Open Secrets database to find out how your elected officials are funded by lobbying groups.

Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis

Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too

Smart Mama’s Green Guide: Simple Steps to Reduce Your Child’s Toxic Chemical Exposure

Super Natural Home: Improve Your Health, Home, and Planet–One Room at a Time

The Newman’s Own Organics Guide to a Good Life: Simple Measures That Benefit You and the Place You Live

Slow Death by Rubber Duck: The Secret Danger of Everyday Things

Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy

Unacceptable Levels

1,000 Ways To Play With A Cardboard Box

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A large appliance box waiting at the curb has always been a call to action. We’ve done whatever is necessary to get it home, mostly dragging it behind our bikes or lashing it to the car roof. That because every refrigerator or washing machine box (as well as every smaller box) has another life waiting for it. One dreamed up by children.

When I was a little girl, we played for months with a tall furniture box. My mother fashioned a door and windows that opened like shutters. It stood in our basement ready to serve as a palace, fort, or playhouse. This box was large enough to fit my sister and me and a few of our friends. It lasted through the winter before sagging into uselessness. (Check out a wonderful gallery of cardboard creations on MyMakeDo.)

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One of my favorite events to throw for the kids of friends and neighbors is a BYOB gathering. As in Bring Your Own Box. Guests are invited to show up with cardboard boxes of all sizes. We supply masking tape, duct tape, markers, paint, and plenty of room on our property. The adults wield mat knifes, cutting where the kids direct. Sometimes more than a dozen huge boxes are transformed into cardboard rooms featuring turrets and rope-opening drawbridges. Sometimes they are a connected series of tunnels leading to a fort under a tree. Once the kids made a child-sized passageway they invited to adults to enter, giggling as we stooped and crawled and squeezed our way through. The biggest thrill for kids seems to be in the planning, arguing for one vision or another, then working together to make the project a reality. Of course, playing in it afterwards is fun too. The benefit of hosting it here? Plenty of days to play in the box creation after the event is over.

A cardboard box-related program we ran at enrichment classes was a hit. We called it Junk Science. We saved cardboard boxes and cardboard tubes of all sizes, along with string, rubber bands, lids, paper clips, yogurt cups, and so on. Each child or team was given equal amounts of this “junk” and on free days allowed to build whatever he or she choose. On other days they were given a specific challenge, similar to the old TV series Junkyard Wars.  The kids built sorters that sent pennies down one chute and dimes down another, bridges that held weight, catapults that tossed ping pong balls, and much more. They preferred the specific challenges to free days, perhaps enjoying the way their ideas took off while solving a problem.

I know a boy who used to make vehicles and trains out of cardboard boxes. He hitched them together with ropes and dragged them around. This made cleaning up toys more fun, and conveying groceries from the front door to the cupboards became his favorite job. And I know a girl who used to make mazes out of boxes for her pet rats to scurry through, kissing them on their pink noses when they emerged to find a treat at the end.

I also know a child who made a world out of a refrigerator box, a world that continutes to absorb his interest for hours on end day after day.

You may have thought I’d list 955 other ways to play with cardboard boxes but any child can do that. Who wants to limit creativity to a list anyway? Start saving those free toys called boxes.

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.

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 lodged in my esophagus. When my worried mother called the doctor he said it couldn’t possibly still be stuck hours later, I was just overreacting. I 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. The next morning my parents took me to the ER where a surgeon removed a very stuck bit of food. The year I turned nine my grandparents all died, catapulting me into years of obsessive worry that everyone else I loved would die too. I was assaulted by an adult when I was 13, telling no one until years later. 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 resided 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 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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