Pride Goeth Before Tiny Bite Marks

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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.

Eat Your Dandelions

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“You EAT them?” a little boy new to the neighborhood asks. He leans forward for the answer, his face ready to constrict in doubt.

Children already well acquainted with our family’s springtime ritual stop picking.

“Yeah!” they eagerly assure him, “They’re really good.”

They aren’t referring to a new vegetable in our garden. They’re talking about dandelions.

Herbalists tell us exactly what we need grows nearby. Those plants we call “weeds” may in fact remedy what ails us. They are so common that their properties are easily overlooked in a culture searching for packaged wellness. Plantain, mullein, comfrey,mint, mugwort,St. John’s wort, chicory and purslane spring up wild in my untreated lawn and garden. Weeds, but also powerful healers.

Today we’re picking dandelions in full flower. It isn’t about finding a remedy. For me the harvest is has to do with celebrating spring and affirming the beauty around us. For my children and our neighbors it’s about fun. I wait until the blooms are at their peak. Then I call friends and neighbors to announce, “Today is the day!”

Children spread out across the yard holding little baskets. A girl squats in front of each plant, pausing a long moment before she reaches out to pluck a flower from its stem. The  oldest boy in the group walks by many dandelion plants to pick only those growing in clusters. And the newest little boy falls silent, as the rest of the children do, taking delight in the seriousness of the harvest.

European settlers brought the dandelion plant to this continent for food and medicinal purposes. The perennial spread easily across most states. It’s a testament to the power of herbicide marketers that such a useful plant became so thoroughly despised. Standing under today’s blue sky, I look at exuberant yellow rosettes growing in bright green grass and feel sheer aesthetic pleasure.

After the children tire of picking we sit together on the porch and snip off the dandelion stems right up to the flower. We mothers look over their busy heads—blonde, brown, black—and smile as we watch them stay at this task with the kind of close attention children give to real work. One girl remarks that the flowers look like the sun. Another child says her grandmother told her that in the Old Country they call the plant by the same name as milk because of its white sap. The newest boy chooses to line the stems neatly along the wide porch planking, arranging and rearranging them by length.

Every aspect of a ritual holds significance so I pay attention to the warm breeze, the comfortable pulse of friendship, and flowers so soft against my fingers they remind me of a newborn’s hair.

When we’re done the flowers are rinsed in a colander, then it’s time to cook them. I’m not a fan of frying. There are better ways to preserve the flavor and nutrients in food. Consequently I’m not very skilled. But this is easy. The children, their mothers and I drop the flowers in a thin batter, scoop them out with slotted spoons and fry them a dozen at a time in shallow pans.

After the blossoms cool slightly on paper towels they’re put on two platters. One is tossed with powdered sugar and cinnamon, the other sprinkled with salt and pepper. Handfuls are eaten in the kitchen while we cook. Then we carry the platters outside. Children run off to play in grass polka dotted with bright yellow flowers. We adults sit on the porch laughing and talking.

It’s suggested that we should be eating healthfully prepared dandelion greens and roots rather than indulging in delectable fried blossoms. That sentence fades into a quiet moment as a breeze stirs new leaves on the trees and lifts our children’s hair. I feel enlivened. Everywhere, around me and inside me, it is spring.

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Gather dandelion flowers from areas free of chemical treatments or fertilizer. Pick in a sunny part of the day so the flowers are fully open, then prepare right away so flowers don’t close.
Cut away stem, as this is bitter, leaving only the green part holding the flower together.
Douse briefly in salt water (to flush out any lurking bugs). Dry flowers on dish towels while you prepare batter.
Ingredients
3 to 4 cups dandelion flowers, prepared as above
1 cup milk (dairy, soy, almond, coconut, any variety)
1 egg (or equivalent egg replacer product)
1 cup flour (slightly smaller amount of any whole grain alternative)
½ teaspoon salt
oil (frying is best with healthful oils which don’t break down at high temperatures, try safflower oil, coconut oil or olive oil)
Method
1. Combine milk, egg, flour and salt in wide bowl. Mix well. Heat an inch or two of oil in skillet (350-375 degrees).
2.  Drop a dozen or so blossoms into the batter, stir gently to coat. Lift out with slotted spoon or fork. It’s best to hold the bowl over the skillet as you drop each blossom into the hot oil.
3. Turn flowers over to brown on both sides. Remove with slotted spatula to drain briefly on paper towels. Continue to fry remaining flowers using same steps. Toss cooked dandelions with sugar and cinnamon. Or salt and your choice of savory flavoring such as garlic, pepper or chili powder.
4. Making flower fritters is a speedier method than frying individual flowers. Simply drop flowers and batter into the oil by the spoonful, then turn like a pancake. Serve with jam, maple syrup or honey. Or try savory toppings like mustard, ketchup or barbeque sauce. These fritters are endlessly adaptable. Try adding sunflower or sesame seeds to the batter and serve with either the sweet or savory toppings.
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What You May Not Know About Dandelions

The common dandelion, Taraxacum officinal, has been used in traditional medical systems around the world to boost nutrition as well as treat conditions of the liver, kidney and spleen; slow abnormal growths; improve digestion and more. Recently science has taken a closer look at this often scorned plant. No surprise, traditional wisdom holds up under scrutiny.

~Dandelion root stimulates the growth of 14 strains of bifidobacteria.1 This is good news, because bifidobacteria aid in digestion. Their presence in the gut is correlated with a lower incidence of allergies.2

~Dandelions appear to fight cancer. Researchers testing for biologically active components to combat cancer proliferation and invasion note that dandelion extracts have value as “novel anti-cancer agent[s].” Their studies show dandelion leaf extract decreases growth of certain breast cancer cells and blocks invasion of prostate cancer. The root extract blocks invasion of other specific breast cancer cells3  and also shows promise inhibiting skin cancer. 4

~Dandelions work as an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent.5

~Dandelion extract lowers cholesterol. This, plus its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant qualities leads some researchers to believe that the plant may reduce the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).6

~The plant’s leaves are an effective diuretic.7

~Dandelion shows promise in diabetic treatment. It slows the glycemic response to carbohydrates, thereby helping to control blood sugar.8

~Dandelion extract increases the action of estrogen and progesterone receptors. It may prove to be a useful treatment for reproductive hormone-related problems including PMS.9

~ Leaves, roots and flowers of the humble dandelion are fully edible. USDA National Nutrient Database analysis proves that a festive array of nutrition awaits any lawn harvester. One cup of chopped fresh dandelion greens are extremely rich in vitamins K, A and C as well as good source of vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6,  calcium, iron, ,magnesium, manganese, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.10

The flavonoids found in dandelions are valuable antioxidants and free radical scavengers.11

 
1 I. Trojanova, V. Rada, L. Kokoska, E. Vikova, “The Bifidogenic Effect of Taraxacum Officinale Root,”  Fitoterapia vol 75 issue 7/8 (December 2004), 760-763.  http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15567259  (accessed 8-29-09)
2  Bengt Bjorksten, Epp Sepp, Kaja Julge, Tiia Voor, Marika Mikelsaar, “Allergy Development and the Intestinal Microflora During the First Year of Life,” The Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology vol 108 issue 4 (October 2001), 516-520. http://www.jacionline.org/article/S0091-6749(01)96140-8/abstract  (accessed 8-29-09)
3 S.C.Sigstedt, C.J. Hooten, M.C. Callewaert, A.R. Jenkins, A.E. Romera, M.J. Pullin, A. Korneinko, T.K. Lowrey, S.V. Slambrouck, W.F. Steelant, “Evaluation of Aqueous Extracts of Taraxacum Officinale on Growth and Invasion of Breast and Prostate Cancer Cells,” International Journal of Oncologyvol 32, num 5 (May 2008), 1085-1090.  http://www.spandidos-publications.com/ijo/article.jsp?article_id=ijo_32_5_1085  (accessed 8-30-09).
4 M. Takasaki, T. Konoshima, H. Tokuda, K. Masuda, Y. Arai, K. Shiojima, H. Ageta,  “Anti-carcinogenic Activity of Taraxacum Plant,” Biological & Pharmaceutical Bulletin vol 22, 6 (June 1999), 602-605.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=b7ce94b0-1484-4aef-a5a8-73e1efddb194%40sessionmgr104&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=10408234  (accessed 9-1-09).
5 H.J. Jeon, H.J. Kang, H.J. Jung, Y.S. Kang, C.J. Lim, Y.M Kim, E.H. Park, Anti-inflammatory Activity of Taraxacum Officinale,”  Journal of Ethnopharmacology vol. 115, 1 (January 2008), 82-88.  http://web.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.cpl.org/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=108&sid=4b56dd3a-f9b3-4444-b85d-80d79eb1f3ce%40replicon103&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=cmedm&AN=17949929  (accessed 9-1-09).
6 Jinju Kim, Kyunghee Noh, Mikyung Cho, Jihyun Jang, Youngsun Song, “Anti-oxidative, Anti-inflammatory and Anti-Atherogenic Effects of Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Extracts in c57BL/6 Mice Fed Atherogenic Diet,”  FASEB Journal vol 21, issue 6 (April 2007), 1122.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=5&sid=a168be9f-0a5c-41c6-b86d-2a9c3677c6f4%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=25598840   (accessed 9-1-09).
7 Bevin A. Clare, Richard S. Conroy, Kevin Spelman, “The Diuretic Effect in Human Subjects of an Extract of Taraxacum Officinale Rolium Over a Single Day,” Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine vol 15, issue 8 (August 2009), 929-934.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM14/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=1&hid=9&sid=a26346e7-f010-44fc-88ea-891214f7539a%40sessionmgr10&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=43671001     (accessed 9-1-09).
8 Secil Onal, Suna Timur, Burcu Okutucu, Figen Zihnioglu, “Inhibition of a-Glucosidase by Aqueous Extracts of Some Potent Antidiabetic Medicinal Herbs,” Preparative Biochemistry & Biotechnology vol 35, issue 1 (February 2005), 29-36.  http://wf2dnvr17.webfeat.org/aNuiM141/url=http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail?vid=8&hid=104&sid=982fd009-501c-4a90-9ce3-7d5475b2ed05%40sessionmgr4&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=16133864    (accessed 9-1-09).
9 Zhi Xu, Ken-Ichi Honda, Koji Ozaki, Takuya Misugi, Toshiyuki Sumi, Osamu Ishiko, “Dandelioin T-1 Extract Up-regulates Reproductive Hormone Receptor Expression in Mice,” International Journal of Molecular Medicine volume 20, 3 (2007) 287-292.  http://cat.inist.fr/?aModele=afficheN&cpsidt=19007317   (accessed 8-27-09).
10 USDA Agricultural Research Service, USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 21, (2008) NDB # 11207  http://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/foodcomp/cgi-bin/list_nut_edit.pl  (accessed 9-1-09).
 11 Hu C. Kitts, “Dandelion (Taraxacum Officinale) Flower Extract Suppresses Both Reactive Oxygen Species and Nitric Oxide and Prevents Lipid Oxidation in Vitro,” Phytomedicine 12, 8 (August 2005), 588-597. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16121519?ordinalpos=1&itool=EntrezSystem2.PEntrez.Pubmed.Pubmed_ResultsPanel.Pubmed_DiscoveryPanel.Pubmed_Discovery_RA&linkpos=2&log$=relatedarticles&logdbfrom=pubmed  (accessed 9-1-09).

This post is reprinted from an article that first appeared in Natural Life Magazine

The Boy With No Toys

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Before he was born, his mother decided her son would have no toys. Abandoned by the father, she was already a single parent. She made a living cleaning for other people. Most days she took the bus to affluent streets where children never seemed to play outside. As she vacuumed and scrubbed beautiful homes overfilled with possessions she paid close attention to what children did all day. Often they were gone at lessons, after school programs, or playdates. When they were home they usually sat staring at screens. Toys in their carefully decorated rooms appeared to be tossed around as if the small owners had no idea how to play, only how to root restlessly for entertainment.

She thought about it, talked to the oldest people she knew, and read everything she could. Then she informed anyone who cared to listen that her child would not have toys. Not a single purchased plaything.

Will (name changed) and his mother live in a small mobile home park. By most standards they are poor. Their income is well below the poverty line. They don’t have a TV or computer (although Will uses the computer at the library and watches the occasional TV program at babysitters’ homes). But their lives are rich in what matters. Together Will and his mom grow food on several shares of a community garden, bartering when they have extra produce. They make all their meals from scratch. These routines activate a whole array of learning opportunities for Will, quite naturally.

They are close to most of their neighbors in proximity as well as in friendliness. While his mother is working Will is cared for by several different seniors in their trailer park. He not only likes to help his mother garden, cook, and take care of their small home but he also likes to take part in helping his neighbors with small tasks. He carries groceries for certain ladies, helps an older gentleman with a birdhouse building hobby, and sometimes gets to assist another neighbor in automotive repairs.  He gets a lot out of these meaningful tasks.  Children long to take on real responsibility and make useful contributions. Giving them these opportunities promotes their development in important ways.

Sounds nice. But what about play?

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When Will was a baby his mother made all sorts of toys. Most took no time at all. Food containers became stacking toys, a small water bottle with beans inside became a rattle, a sock stuffed with drier fuzz and tied in knots became a soft animal.

Will is now six years old. He plays as any child naturally does. He makes up games and turns all sorts of objects into toys. His mother saves money by not owning a car, so Will has commandeered a large portion of the shed that would normally be used as a garage. Mostly he uses it to stockpile his own resources. He has scrap wood, a few tools, and cans of nails. He likes to straighten bent nails for future projects, working carefully now that he recently discovered what smacking his fingers with a hammer feels like. Recently he found a discarded lawn mower tire, so he’s looking for three more tires to make a go-cart. In the evenings he likes to draw elaborate pictures of this upcoming project. He particularly enjoys playing in the soft dirt along the side of the shed where “robot men” he makes out of kitchen utensils use their potato peeler and wisk limbs to churn through the soil, leaving tracks as they clink. When he visits friends he happily plays with their toys, although he doesn’t always “get” that certain TV or movie-themed toys are limited to the plot-related storylines. So far he seems to have no urge to possess the same toys.

What about birthdays and holidays? Will’s mother does give him gifts. But she limits her gifts to useful items—crayons, clothes, tools, a compass. Each weekend her folk band practices at their mobile home. Will quickly mastered the harmonica and begged for time on the fiddle, so her big gift to him this year was a used child-sized fiddle. She urges the other adults in his life to gift him with experiences—a trip to the beach, a day of horseback riding, a visit to a museum. Out-of-town relatives now renew a children’s magazine subscription and send him regular snail mail letters, both of which are helping him learn to read with very little prompting.

natural child development,

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Will’s childhood has a lot in common with the way children have learned and grown throughout history. As historian Howard Chudacoff notes in Children at Play: An American History, play is vital to development. It’s has everything to do with autonomy, exploration, imagination, and fun. It has very little to do with purchased playthings. In fact, structured programs and commercial toys actually tend to co-opt play.

Studies with rodents show those raised in enriched environments (toys and changing items in cage) have enhanced brain development compared to rats raised in a standard environment (plain cage, unchanging). We’ve misinterpreted these results. Rats don’t naturally live in boring, unchanging cages. They live in nature, which is by definition a challenging often constantly changing environment. In nature rats have far more complex lives than they ever might in a cage. Such an interesting life IS an enriched environment. It’s the same for children.

Sure there are devices that will “read” to a child. These are not more enriching than being read to by a responsive adult. And there are all sorts of adult-designed games. They’re not more fun or enticing than games kids make up on their own or with friends.

In fact, the overstimulation of blinking, beeping, passive entertainment isn’t beneficial for children. Joseph Chilton Pearce wrote in Evolution’s End: Claiming the Potential of Our Intelligence that the overload of television, electronics, and too many toys dooms children to limited sensory awareness. Their brains and nervous systems accommodate intense bursts of sound, light, and color during their earliest years. Rather than developing the subtle awareness fostered by time spent in nature, in conversation, and in play they instead are wired to expect overstimulation. Without they’re bored.

And yet, so many people are amused when tiny children are clearly pushed to the limits by a toy too overwhelming for them

The children Will’s mother cleans for, who are kept busy in adult-run programs and spend their spare time with electronic distractions, don’t have Will’s advantages. As he plays and innovates he’s actually promoting the kind of learning that translates to a lifetime of passionate interests. Studies show that children who are free to explore their interests without adult pressure and interference  are more autonomous, eagerly pursuing excellence through healthy engagement rather than heavy-handed adult pressure.

Ask the oldest person you know to share some memories about play from his or her childhood. Chances are you’ll hear about pick-up games, handmade toys, and free time that spun long summer days into marvels of imagination. That’s what Will’s mother wants for her child.

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Published in Natural Life Magazine Nov/Dec 2011

School ADD Isn’t Homeschool ADD

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I hesitated at the heavy glass doors of my son’s school. I’d cheerfully walked in these doors many times. I volunteered here, served on the PTA board, joked with the principal and teachers, even helped start an annual all-school tradition called Art Day. But now I fought the urge to grab him from his first grade classroom, never to return.

I’d come in that morning hoping to discuss the angry outbursts my son’s teacher directed at several students, including my little boy. But I entered no ordinary meeting. It was an ambush.  Sides had clearly been chosen. The principal, guidance counselor, and my son’s teacher sat in a clump together along one side of the table. Feeling oddly hollow, I pulled out a chair and sat down. Since I led conflict resolution workshops in my working life, I was confident that we could talk over any issues and come to an understanding.

I was wrong.

The counselor read aloud from a list of ADHD behavioral symptoms my son’s teacher had been tracking over the past few weeks. My little boy’s major transgressions were messy work, lack of organization, and distractibility. The teacher nodded with satisfaction and crossed her arms.

No one who spent time with him had ever mentioned ADHD before. I breathed deeply to calm myself. I knew it was best to repeat what I was hearing in order to clarify, but the counselor barreled ahead, saying they had a significant “ADHD population” in the school system who showed excellent results with medication.

After giving the teacher kudos for dealing with a classroom full of children and acknowledging the difficulty of meeting all their needs, I tried to stand up for my child (although I felt like a mother bear defending her cub from nicely dressed predators). I said the behaviors she noted actually seemed normal for a six-year-old boy, after all, children are in the process of maturing and are not naturally inclined to do paperwork. The teacher shook her head and whispered to the principal. The counselor said first grade children have had ample time to adapt to classroom standards.

I asked if any of my son’s behaviors had ever disrupted the class. The teacher didn’t answer the question. Instead she sighed and said, looking at the principal, “I’ve been teaching for 15 years. This doesn’t get better on its own. I’m telling you this child can be helped by medication.”

When I asked about alternatives such as modifying his diet the teacher actually rolled her eyes, saying, “Plenty of parents believe there are all sorts of things they can do on their own. But students on restricted diets don’t fit in too well in the lunchroom.”

There was no real discussion. No chance to bring up her teaching style. No opportunity  for better collaboration between home and school. A conclusion had been reached without consulting me, my husband, or a mental health professional. My son required one vital ingredient in order to flourish in school: pharmaceuticals.

As I stood at the door, my heart pounding in distress, I vowed to solve this problem rationally. I told myself such an approach would help my child and other misunderstood students. I made it all the way to the car without crying.

Over the next few weeks I took my child to all sorts of appointments. A psychologist diagnosed him with ADD (no H). Her report was tucked in a stack of handouts from a national non-profit organization known for its ties to the pharmaceutical industry. An allergist diagnosed our little boy with multiple food allergies including almost every fruit and grain he liked to eat (my research showed that diet can indeed affect behavior even for kids without allergies). A pediatric pulmonologist determined that his asthma was much worse than we’d known. In fact his oxygen intake was so poor the doctor said it was likely our son would change position frequently, lift his arms to expand his lungs, and have trouble concentrating. Right away I started the process of eliminating allergens in his life and following other advice given me by these professionals.

I also read about learning. I began to see childhood learning in a wider way as I studied authors such as Joseph Chilton PearceDavid Elkind , James Hillman, and Bill Plotkin. I talked to other parents who described managing ADHD using star charts, privilege restriction, close communication with teachers, and immediate consequences for behavior. Many told me their child’s problems got worse during the teen years. Some described sons and daughters they’d “lost” to drug abuse, delinquency, chronic depression and dangerous rage. One woman told me her 14-year-old son was caught dealing. The boy sold amphetamines so strong they were regulated by the Controlled Substance Act—his own prescription for ADHD.

And I spent a lot of time observing my son’s behavior. Yes, he was disorganized with his schoolwork. His room was often a mess too, but only because he had so many interests. I saw no lack of focus as he drew designs for imaginary vehicles, pored over diagrams in adult reference books, or created elaborate make-believe scenarios. I knew that he was easily frustrated by flash cards and timed math tests, methods that did little to advance his understanding. But I also knew that he used math easily for projects such as designing his own models out of scrap wood. And of course he was distractible. He resisted rote tasks as most small children do. Their minds and bodies are naturally inclined toward more engaging ways to advance their natural gifts. Mostly I noticed how cooperative and cheerful he was. He didn’t whine, easily waited for his own turn, and loved to help with chores. As a biased observer I found him to be a marvelous six-year-old.

Resolutely I tried to make school workable. I let the teacher know how my son’s allergies and asthma might impact his classroom abilities. I shared the psychologist’s report. And I tried to explain my son’s stressful home situation. In the past year our family had been victimized by crime, his father had been injured in a car accident and left unable to work, and several other loved ones had been hospitalized. His schoolwork may have reflected a life that suddenly seemed messy and disorganized.

The teacher, however, only told me what my son did wrong. She was particularly incensed that he rushed through his work or left it incomplete, only to spend time cleaning up scraps from the floor. She did not find his efforts helpful. In clipped tones she said, “Each student is supposed to pick up only his or her scraps. Nothing more.”

My son’s backpack sagged each day with 10 or more preprinted and vaguely educational papers, all with fussy instructions.  Cut out the flower on the dotted lines, cut two slits here, color the flower, cut and paste this face on the flower, insert the flower in the two slots, write three sentences about the flower using at least five words from the “st” list.  I’d have been looking for scraps on the floor to clean up too, anything to get away from a day filled with such assignments.

It took almost two years of watching my child try to please his teachers and be himself in two different school systems that were, by necessity, not designed to handle individual differences. His schoolwork habits deteriorated except when the project at hand intrigued him. He appreciated the cheerful demeanor of his third grade teacher even though she told me she didn’t expect much from him until his Iowa Test results came back with overall scores at the 99th percentile.  Then she deemed him an underachiever and pulled his desk next to hers, right in front of the whole class, to make sure he paid attention to his paperwork rather than look out the window or fiddle with odd and ends he’d found. That’s where he stayed.

When he was eight years old I took my children out of school forever.

Homeschooling didn’t “fix” everything for my son, at least right away. I made many of the same mistakes teachers made with him. I enthusiastically offered projects that meant nothing to him, expecting him to sit still and complete them. And I saw the same behaviors his teachers described. My son sat at the kitchen table, a few pages to finish before we headed off to the park or some other adventure. But every day he dropped his pencil so he could climb under the table after it, erased holes in his paper, found a focal spot out the window for his daydreams, complained as if math problems were mental thumbscrews. I used to lie awake at night afraid that he’d never be able to do long division.

Yet every time I stepped back, allowing him to pursue his own interests he picked up complicated concepts beautifully. I watched him design his own rockets. He figured out materials he needed, built them carefully and cheerfully started over with his own carefully considered improvements when he made mistakes. I realized his “problem” was my insistence he learn as I had done—from a static page. Homeschooling showed me that children don’t fare well as passive recipients of education. They want to take part in meaningful activities relevant to their own lives. They develop greater skills by building on their gifts, not focusing on abilities they lack.

The more I stepped back, the more I saw how much my son accomplished when fueled by his own curiosity. This little boy played chess, took apart broken appliances, carefully observed nature, helped on our farm, checked out piles of books at the library each week, memorized the names of historic aircraft and the scientific principles explaining flight, filled notebooks with cartoons and designs—-learning every moment.

Gradually I recognized that he learned in a complex, deeply focused and yes, apparently disorganized manner. It wasn’t the way I’d learned in school but it was the way he learned best. His whole life taught him in ways magnificently and perfectly structured to suit him and him alone. As I relaxed in our homeschooling life he flourished. Sometimes his intense interests fueled busy days. Sometimes it seemed he did very little— those were times that richer wells of understanding developed.

I sank back into worrying about academic topics during his last year at home before college. Although his homeschool years had been filled with a wealth of learning experiences I suddenly worried that he’d done too little writing, not enough math, minimal formal science. My anxiety about his success in college wasn’t helpful, but by then his confidence in himself wasn’t swayed.

His greatest surprise in college has been how disinterested his fellow students are in learning. Now in his sophomore year, my Renaissance man has knowledge and abilities spanning many fields. Of his own volition, he’s writing a scholarly article for a science publication (staying up late tonight to interview a researcher by phone in Chile). Self taught in acoustic design, he created an electronic component for amplifiers that he sells online. He also raises tarantulas, is restoring a vintage car, and plays the bagpipes. He’s still the wonderfully cooperative and cheerful boy I once knew, now with delightfully dry wit.

My son taught me that distractible, messy, disorganized children are perfectly suited to learn in their own way. It was my mistake keeping him in school as long as we did. I’m glad we finally walked away from those doors to enjoy free range learning.

learn freely, benefit of homeschooling, ADHD homeschooling, eclectic homeschooling, unschooling,

Wikimedia Commons

 Find out more about Free Range Learning here

Healing The Next Generation

reducing parental stress, epigenics, improving the future,

Image courtesy of corazondedios.deviantart.com

The science of epigenetics shows that the choices we make today will resonate in the minds and bodies of our grandchildren.

How? Each of us has biochemical markers that signal our genes in response to input such as nutrients, toxins, even behavior. As a result potential gene expression is switched on or off.

epigenic healing, epigenics and society, parental stress and children,

Nucleosome Wikipedia

These epigenetic changes persist well after the original stimulus for change is gone. Some of them pass on through generations like biologic memories of what our ancestors ate and breathed, as well has how they felt about their experiences. This also means that our personal choices today can become a living inheritance sent on to those we won’t live to see.

As Duke University genetics researcher Randy Jirtle, Ph. D recently commented,

We can no longer argue whether genes or environment has a greater impact on our health and development, because both are inextricably linked. Each nutrient, each interaction, each experience can manifest itself through biochemical changes that ultimately dictate gene expression, whether at birth or 40 years down the road.

epigenic changes, effects of parental nurturance,

Image courtesy of corazondedios.deviantart.com

Much of the research about epigenetics correlates to earlier studies showing that parental stress has a negative and long-lasting effect on their children, often well into adulthood. That’s true of the effect of prenatal stress, parental stress during early childhood,  parental depression, conflict in the home, unemployment, poverty, and homelessness. Epigenetics may, in part, explain the strong correlation between these stressors and resulting poor mental and physical health in the next generation.

But there’s good news too. Studies have shown that early nurturance can flip “dimmer switches” on genes related to stress, permanently shaping offspring to be calmer and better able to handle new situations. Healthier too.

healing generational depression, healing generational anxiety,

Chances are good that I was born with genes predisposing me to anxiety or depression.  My sorrowful grandmother nurtured my own mother as best she could despite very stressful circumstances. In turn, I was lovingly nurtured and well attached to my parents. As a result, these predispositions were more likely to be dimmed or switched off in me. I hope to carry on this legacy of positive epigenetic changes by gently parenting my children. Epigenetics show us that grandparents and parents can bless children to come (including foster children and adopted children) even if they don’t live to see those children.

As a society, we’ve known for a long time that serious parental stress leaves a legacy of pain into the next generation. Maybe the science of epigenetics will be enough to convince us that parental support and nurturance doesn’t just benefit the child. It also benefits society as a whole.

healing future generations,

Image courtesy of corazondedios.deviantart.com

Additional resources

Epigenetics: The Ultimate Mystery of Inheritance by Richard C. Francis

The Genie in Your Genes by Dawson Church

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk

Do YOU Have A Choice?

stay at home mothering choice,
 
 
Today’s guest post is by Karyn Van Der Zwet from New Zealand. Her parenting advice is brilliant, based on science and loving interaction, and I can’t wait until her e-book is ready.  
 

When Germaine Greer wrote  The Female Eunuch, at the height of The Feminist Revolution, she suggested that motherhood should not be considered a substitute to a career. By the time she wrote The Whole Woman in 1999, she had done a complete 180 degree turn and called for proper state-funding for Stay at Home Mums.

She realised full-time mothering is as valuable to many women as being in paid work. She also realised there were benefits to society as a whole.

Children who feel well attached to their mothers do better at life. They make better decisions; they chose more mature friends and partners, and their relationships are more likely to last; they have a work ethic which is balanced with a sense of play; they are physically healthier and they have a stronger sense of community. And becoming properly attached takes intense commitment from one main carer for a long time.

Of course, just being at home doesn’t automatically mean that we’re doing the job that our children need us to do. Likewise, being at home doesn’t have to mean being a house-slave or turning off our brains. Attachment Theory (the science) suggests that a great mother is one who understands (intellectually or not) what her children need, according to their biology, and does her best to provide it. When she can’t manage  the full-time commitment (or chooses not to make it), she is the one who finds nurturing care for her child and does what she can to connect when she is at home. Great attachment can happen, and often does, but it’s a much more emotionally demanding experience for mothers when they aren’t around 24/7 for the first few years.

Truly giving children the emotional support their biology demands, especially in the first three years, is tough going for many of us. What we can give emotionally and consistently is largely dependent on the amount and degree of positive emotional experiences we have received. It’s the difference between intellectually understanding that we are loved by our parents, and feeling/knowing/living that experience of love. Remembering that our mothers had their own burdens to carry, and as adults we can make sense of their stories and understand they did the best they could at the time.

It’s much easier to understand how difficult things may have been for our mothers, when we’ve been mothers ourselves. We’ve all lived it: the act of mothering can be overwhelming, intense and, at times, threatening to our sense of self.

It seems odd to our modern-day western lives that the biology of human babies is so intensely demanding of their mothers. Of us. For many women it seems unfair. But equally, human biology never expected that we would have to mother in isolation or that we would have to do everything. Alone. Or that we would have to make the unnatural choice between our children and social isolation, and paid work and social contact.

Modern women were told we could do anything.

Which evolved into – we should do everything.

And now many of us have no option: we have to do everything.

The point? Well, to me, the main tenents of feminism are: honouring and respect women’s bodies; equity; and choice. Western women did not have the choice to work or to be educated in the past. Now many of us do not have the choice to stay at home as full-time mothers for as long as we want to.

Ten years ago in New Zealand when I was pregnant with our eldest son, the average single income could service a mortgage or pay the rent and still feed and clothe a family. Because of this, we have a much smaller mortgage than most people, and I have been able to choose to stay at home. It’s been tough going at times and luxuries are definitely luxuries – but I am content with my decision. Since we bought, house prices have more than doubled. Most New Zealand women cannot be at home with their children beyond basic maternity-leave for financial reasons. I understand this means we have ‘caught up’ with the rest of the western world. I am not convinced it’s progress.

In light of all this, here’s my questions for you all:

Have we traded supression by men for suppression by economics?

Did you have the choice to stay at home with your children for as long as you wished?

time crazed moms, lack of choice for mothers,

This was originally posted to World Moms Blog by Karyn Van Der Zwet of Napier, New Zealand. Karyn can also be found on her blog, kloppenmum on twitter @kloppenmum and on facebook: Karyn At Kloppenmum. 

References:
The Whole Woman, Germaine Greer, Anchor Books 1999
The Developing Mind, Daniel J Siegel, Guilford Press, 1999
Becoming Attached, Robert Karen, Oxford University Press, 1994

Meaning of Life According To A Laundry Wench

 

Laundry Zen

I don’t meditate at an ashram or study ancient tracts.

I do laundry.

I’ve found a certain peace in this mundane task. When my family cries out, “Where are you?” I answer from the laundry room, “I’m looking for the meaning of life.”  (If I’m cooking, I answer, “Saving the world.”)  I used to say this sarcastically.

Sure, sometimes I resent the messy parts of motherhood. I was raised to believe I could be anything I wanted to be. Right now I want to be right where I am, but when I’m gripping a pair of mud-encrusted socks my United Nations career aspirations do provide a stark contrast.

Wisdom gathers slowly. Very gradually I’ve learned that meaning can be encountered in everyday tasks. Even laundering. Gratitude comes to mind first. Conveniences do the real work. Right now my washing machine is purposefully churning away dirt and worse with my homemade laundry soap. Being clean is a luxury I take for granted.  I don’t have to haul and boil water, then scrub clothes with caustic lye soap. Generations before me labored this way. What’s saved is the most precious resource, time. It’s up to me to honor that resource by the way I spend my time elsewhere.

I’ve found that doing for others without expecting notice, let alone acclaim, also deepens my perspective. The simple physical act of sorting and folding causes my thoughts to drift effortlessly to my family.  As our children grow, laundry tasks change.  Booties give way to socks. Diapers to undies. We tuck matching outfits together for one child, clean away evidence of bedwetting for another, soak out menstrual blood for the newest of women. Their hand-me-downs remind us cousins and friends. The fibers themselves hold the bodies we love.

We may loathe inside out shirts and socks wadded into tight fists, but turning them right side out again is a simple gesture of kindness. The cycle of reciprocity may be largely invisible when children are small but my children are old enough to be of real service around our home and farm. Yes, I unfold their shirts but they bring in the eggs, stack firewood, wash the floors, and shovel manure. It’s a good trade off.

Sometimes symbolism pops up as a teacher.  My underwear works its way into a sleeve of my mate’s shirt, asking me how much closeness we have shared recently.  A disregarded sock toy hides behind the laundry basket till missed and appreciated again.  My oldest son, a man now, keeps T-shirts that are too small.  They mark the path behind him as he forges ahead in his quiet, earnest manner.  Sometimes the lint tray is resplendent with fuschia or blue fluff when a new towel graces the drier.  We’ve made clay from this dryer lint which, when cured, looks like artfully molded felt.  I guess meaning is wherever we see it.

Oddly, I was pleased when our drier kept giving out.  The repair guy came to our house so often that the company gave up and exchanged the machine for a new one.  By then I was used to hanging laundry outside. It didn’t take much extra time.  I loved to see the clothes swaying in the wind, them fold them against my belly as my grandmother used to do.  There is a cycle apparent in laundry just as there is in nature.  As clothes wear out in that circle of wear-wash-fold, wear-wash-fold, they remind me of eternity. I try to repurpose old pillowcases and jeans to give them a better shot at that eternity. And I still hang clothes most of the year.

The last gift of insight offered by laundry? Humor, a hint that one is on the right path, is often present when I pay attention to ordinary life.  I ‘lost’ something the other day. It wasn’t something I’d go around asking about.  I’d been wearing rayon pants at the time. I laundered them without a thought to my missing item.  I noticed nothing different when I pulled them on at the start of another busy day.  But then in a crowded elevator I saw something white creeping from the inside of my pant leg and, in a moment of ill advised curiosity, pulled it out.  It was my missing pantyliner, adhesive backing now mottled with lint. Apparently it had survived the rigors of laundering and nestled in my pant’s leg the whole day waiting for the right moment to give me the gift of laughter and humility. (I don’t think anyone on the elevator noticed what I was doing, but my snickering was hard to miss.)

Every task has truth to teach, something I hope my children learn from weekly chores.  The other day while my youngest child was washing the kitchen floor he said, “I can see pictures in the tiles that aren’t there from farther away.  It makes a difference how you look at things doesn’t it?”

Yes, yes it does.

Reprinted from The Mother

Gentle Nurturance=Gentle World?

why we shouldn't spank

Image courtesy of courtnee.deviantart.com

A little girl about three years old trails behind her mother in the store. She seems tired and distracted, as if it’s difficult for her to keep up. Her mother is busily shopping while pushing a cart with a baby in a carrier at the front, oblivious as her daughter lags farther behind. Every minute or so the girl says, “Mommy,” but her mother doesn’t look back so the girl hurries to catch up. Not long after the mother turns to another aisle the little girl loses sight of her and wails loudly. Her mother, surely distracted and now embarrassed, hustles back to grab the child, shakes her, and through clenched teeth issues a threat. The child cries quietly and resumes following, more closely at first but again lags behind in the crowded store. A few aisles over she loses sight of her mother again. This time the mother picks the child up by the arm to smack her fiercely.

The problem continues to escalate. The entire time this family is in the store the mother repeatedly threatens and hits a child who may be ill, or needing a nap, or simply isn’t able to keep up. No one intervenes. In the checkout line they stand under an overhead TV screen blaring with news. Crime, war, and looting at the scene of a disaster are shown in vivid video clips. The little girl, tears still drying on her face, reaches up to the baby sleeping in the carrier and squeezes his toes until he too is crying.

Many of us probably see such scenes on a regular basis. Those of us who are parents know full well that gently nurturing a child’s growing body and mind isn’t always easy. Sometime days it feels as if good parenting requires sainthood. But gentle nurturance is the way that we adults constantly demonstrate, in hundreds of seemingly insignificant ways, that a child is a person worthy of love and consideration. We wipe a face softly rather than harshly, we take an extra moment to see what a child sees, we find ways to distract a grumpy toddler or a moody teenager, we share real work with our children so they know the satisfaction of a job well done, we turn away from our own amusements to take part in what delights our children, we teach our children to wait their turn, we cuddle and guide and care.

raise children tenderly for a more peaceful world

Image courtesy of faondejade.deviantart.com

This doesn’t mean we empower children to do whatever they want or raise them without limits. It simply means that it’s possible to touch a child with kindness and respect, to consider situations from the child’s point of view, and whenever possible, to listen to what a child has to say.

Gentle nurturance resounds through a child’s entire life, bringing forth a greater potential for happiness and success. Children treated with love and consideration become adults who treat others well too.

no spanking leads to better behavior

Image courtesy of clauclic.deviantart.com/a

There’s plenty of evidence that this is the case. Let’s take one example, that of corporal punishment. Ninety percent of American parents say they have spanked a toddler, 61 percent in the same week they were asked. If it “worked” parents who spank would have more compliant children. But that’s not the case. In fact, children tended to act out again within a few minutes after being spanked or hit by a parent.

Spanking leads to children who are more easily frustrated, have more frequent temper tantrums, demonstrate greater defiance, and who are more likely to physically harm others.

Spanking is also associated with lowered IQ scores. A U.S. study found children who were spanked had lower IQs four years later compared to those who were not spanked. The more frequently the children were spanked, the slower their intellectual development. Researchers speculate one factor may be that regular physical punishment is a chronic stressor for young children.

Negative consequences aren’t limited to childhood. Children who are punished by spanking, slapping, or grabbing even occasionally run a higher risk of growing up to have mental health problems, according to a study of nearly 35,000 people. Those issues include depression, anxiety, and drug or alcohol abuse as well as more complex illnesses such as narcissism and antisocial behavior.  

Even crime is associated with physical punishment. Take time to read this linked article, titled “The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime” by Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (courtesy of The Natural Child Project) which features data including the following chart:

Degree of physical punishment

Never

Rare

Moderate

Severe

Extreme

Violent inmates
at San Quentin

0%

0%

0%

0%

100%

Juvenile
Delinquents

0%

2%

3%

31%

64%

High School
drop-outs

0%

7%

23%

69%

0%

College
freshmen

2%

23%

40%

33%

0%

Professionals

5%

40%

36%

17%

0%

Corporal punishment is just one factor among many. There are plenty of other elements to consider as we raise children to respect themselves and others.

raising children peacefully

Image courtesy of melaniumom.deviantart.com

It has to do with consistent and fair discipline. (See Positive Discipline)

It has to do with understanding a child’s temperament and informed parenting as Kloppenmum so aptly explains.

It has to do with free play  and plenty of time in nature.

It has to do with our expectations and our ability to listen.

It has to do with responsible media exposure.

It has to do with an understanding that we as a species are innately kind and cooperative.

And so much more.

Image courtesy of cellists.deviantart.com

But corporal punishment is the example I’ve used because there are larger cultural factors to consider when force is used on children, whether physical or other forms of coercion. There’s a connection between harsh treatment of children and harsh societies. Researchers Carol and Melvin Ember, in a journal article titled “Explaining Corporal Punishment of Children: A Cross-Cultural Study” conclude that force is commonly used against children in highly stratified societies, societies with low levels of democracy, and those with a propensity toward violence.

And there’s more evidence. James W. Prescott, former administrator at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, analyzed cross cultural data using 20,000 statistically significant correlations from 400 studies. The information included presence of physical punishment, freedom or repression of sexual practices, social status of women, degree of affection toward children. He concluded that societies based on affection were highly unlikely to be violent.

These conclusions are of global significance to you, me, and everyone else in today’s world.

peaceful world starts with parenting

Image courtesy of gel2.deviantart.com

This isn’t easy to see on an individual basis. Plenty of anecdotal accounts contradict these assertions, but individual exceptions don’t prove the point. I was raised by loving parents who, yes, spanked a few times and yes, tended to lose me in stores. I don’t see many after effects . (Well, I detest shopping.) The point remains. A gentler world can emerge from gently raised children.

This starts in our homes, stores, everywhere. I know what it’s like to shop with kids (I have four) so I can understand the time pressure and distraction the mother of that three-year-old girl must have been under. But each moment of parenting provides us with an opportunity to help our kids find positive solutions. This builds inner strength and fosters skills they’ll need to deal with future difficulties. Trouble is, parenting skills take patience, conscious attention, and lots of opportunities to observe other parents we admire. The time required is exactly what’s missing in the lives of busy parents. What are some things that could have helped when the little girl couldn’t keep up with her mother?

Connect. “Mommy needs to see where you are. I miss you when you lag behind.”

Empathize. “Oh Sweetie, you’re having trouble keeping up with Mommy.”

Problem solve. “How can we stay together?”

Engage her help. “Can you help me find the cereal you like? Do you remember if it’s in a yellow package?”

Distract her. “Let’s count all the other _____ in the store today (little girls, women with hats, times the loudspeaker interrupts, etc).”

Celebrate and appreciate. “I’m so glad you’re staying with Mommy and helping me watch the baby. Let’s _____ after we get home.”

And it would have helped if this mother had the resources to avoid taking a child to the store who was tired, or sick, or needing closer attention.

Image courtesy of lilangelsg2.deviantart.com

It’s important to recognize that in our society, parents tend to be isolated. A whole tribe of extended friends and family aren’t there to watch, guide, nurture, and enjoy each other’s children. Cultural forces of work and time pressure and distance divide us. Parenting is too often a solitary venture, performed under the gaze of strangers who judge one’s parenting in every store and sidewalk.

As Urie Bronfenbrenner noted, we need to understand what forces affect family so we can to best enable them  “to perform the magic feat of which they alone are capable: making  and keeping  human beings  human.”

Image courtesy of shikigamis.deviantart.com

Imaginary Motherhood

Belakane und Feirefil by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

I’m a much better mother in my imagination than in reality.

That imaginary mother has casual grace and unflappable calm. She doesn’t speak in funny accents or talk to inanimate objects. She also has the confidence to wear a bathing suit. In public. Without scuttling around using a small hut as a beach wrap. But I digress.

In my imagination I sparkle with enthusiasm for trigonometry and better yet, can explain it. I drive everywhere for everyone without grumbling about contributing to global warming. In fact, I am the mother my teens long for. I tell them I’ve secretly been saving up for one son’s trip to New Zealand to study spiders and another son’s year long trek along the Pan-American trail. As they leave I wave goodbye cheerfully.

The real me doesn’t sparkle unless craft supplies get loose.

I’m guilty of excusing myself to hide in the bathroom when my offspring go into lengthy monologues about topics I’ll never fathom. I ply my family with goodies in a not-so-subtle way of getting them to watch the documentaries I want to watch, even though it is entirely necessity after that endless German film about Mongolian salt miners. The stories retold with great hilarity by my kids usually feature my tendency to trip over invisible objects and my exaggerated startle reflex.

In my imagination I cook using recipes instead of improvising. When my children ask, “What are we having for dinner?” I’m able to answer with the names of actual dishes. This reassures them that someone, somewhere has taste-tested the food before them. This also spares me the daily trauma of watching my offspring tolerate meals made with home grown vegetables, dark scary grains, spontaneously seasoned sauces, and no names for anything.

“Why,” my son once asked, “can’t we try the kind of macaroni and cheese that comes in a box? It’s really bright yellow!” He regretted the question instantly, because unlike that imaginary mother who laughs sweetly at such questions, the real mother explains things. Or according to the daughter in the family, she rants.

In my imagination I am never preoccupied, never busy. When sought out I’m fully attentive. When my children look up from their pursuits they find my adoring eyes, but not often enough that they think I’m creepy and plot to institutionalize me. My wonderfully creative life inspires my children to live their own dreams (while still getting their omega-3 fatty acids and sufficient rest).

The real me falls terribly short.

I kvetch. I get tears in my eyes easily, even from poignant long distance ads. I juggle obligations badly while tossing out sarcastic asides like a performing seal. I plot giant world-saving accomplishments while forgetting to water the plants. I fuss and grumble and speaking of short, I’m also shorter than everyone in the house. That can’t be right. In my imagination I am tall.

In my imagination our family spends every evening together as we used to when the kids were small, back when we snuggled on the couch reading books, making puppets out of our socks, and making up games out of nothing. Although now we wouldn’t all fit on the same couch and the kids would suffer withdrawal symptoms away from glowing screens and friends.

But still, the vision of togetherness keeps the imaginary mother in me happy. She is able to hold on to every moment of the kids’ earliest years. She builds precise memories of each squabble and laugh and each child’s way of drifting slowly toward his or her larger self because she knows the actual mother, me, never could have imagined how fast time would go by. For real.

bittersweet motherhood, children nearly grown, being a better mom,

Nachtgespräch by Margret Hofheinz-Döring

                

How The Secret Garden Saved Me

inner life of children, kids' religious worries, what kids hide from their parents,

My mother gave me an old clothbound book when I was nine years old.  It was her childhood copy of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.  I felt a sudden tug of connection to the little girl my mother once was, especially when I found her name carefully penciled on the inside cover.  Right away, I signed my name under hers.

Although written in 1911 and clotted with Yorkshire dialect, that book became an essential nutrient to me.  It told the story of orphaned Mary Lennox who was sent to live with her silent brooding uncle on the English moor. Little Mary had no lessons imposed on her and was given the opportunity to explore.  I envied her freedom.  A character named Dickon befriended animals so easily that they gathered at his feet and ate from his hand. I, too, liked to go in the forest behind our house in hopes that woodland creatures there would come to accept me.  And I understood Mary’s response when her uncle inquired if she wanted anything. He suggested toys or dolls.  Instead she asked, “Might I have a bit of earth?”

More than my favorite book, The Secret Garden provided comfort at a time when I could find no other solace.  The year I received my mother’s copy was also the year that one after another of my grandparents succumbed to long, painful illnesses. By the time I turned ten, all my grandparents had died.

I’d watched them struggle for each breath but it hadn’t occurred to me that they wouldn’t get better. That’s what doctors and medicine were for. That’s what prayer was for. Now we would never have Sunday dinner together again. The seasons would come and go without canning applesauce or planting bulbs or going to the lake with my grandparents as we always did. I couldn’t stop thinking about death.

children's literature and positive mental health, saved by a book, children find meaning in fiction,

Other children probably weather grief with more resilience but that year was a dividing line for me. The blithe happiness of my childhood came to a halt. I couldn’t bear the idea that everyone I loved would die some day—my pet rabbits, my friends, and worst of all, my parents. My mother assured me that God simply called people home to heaven when it was their time. I kept asking why, if God were all-powerful, would He allow people like my grandparents to suffer so horribly before they died. She said His wisdom was beyond our understanding. Her answers left me with more and more questions. I could see asking them only intensified the sorrow she felt. So I tried to keep my worries to myself.

Now added to my fear of this unknown thing called death a new bleakness was added. Where I once prayed and worshipped without doubts, I was set adrift somewhere beyond my parents’ beliefs. Religion seemed piteously small when confronted with bigger dilemmas. And more of them occurred to me each day. What was the purpose of existence in a universe of unimaginably vast time and space? How did everything start when it had to come from somewhere? How did our tiny lives matter? I didn’t like the thought that adults believed in something that made no sense. I felt I was standing in a blizzard outside the warmth of answers that faith provided. It was lonely.

I tried to reconstruct my comfortably safe worldview with the tools I’d been taught were the most powerful: good behavior and prayer. I knew I wasn’t really the good girl I seemed to be. I was a picky eater, I argued with my sister, and I was lazy about chores. So I tried hard to be better, to be so worthy that no one else I loved would be taken away. The effort was a useful distraction from my preoccupation with big questions about death, meaninglessness, and infinity.

And I prayed, fiercely and in my own way, using pictures in my head and silent words. It was a gamble because I was no longer sure that God existed or if He did how on the job He was, but I had to do my best to keep my family alive. Here’s how my keep-them-alive game worked. If I thought of people I loved I had to pray for them. This was somewhat less burdensome at school because I was busy. It was overwhelming when my parents went out for the evening. I thought of my mother and father constantly, each time silently praying that they would come home safely. I summoned up images of my parents driving, chatting with their friends, driving home, then walking in the door. My whole body could feel the relief of their imaginary return. But as the evening wore on my prayers got more fervent and I took up a position watching cars go down the street. Their return was always later than I expected, probably because I was constantly willing them home. As soon as their car pulled in the driveway I ran to bed, feeling a sense of blessed completeness I couldn’t explain. They were back. Everything was okay.

It was exhausting.

importance of stories to girls, what books mean to kids,

I couldn’t imagine how but my parents weren’t fooled by the cheery act I put on. My mother told me that sometimes people need more help getting over their grief. She made an appointment for me to see a psychotherapist. I knew full well what this meant. I’d read my share of children’s books where unfortunate characters are locked up in institutions or sent away for their own good. It rarely went well for them. I was determined to act as un-crazy as possible. The day of my first appointment my mother made me wear a summer dress, sweater, and saddle shoes—the clunkiest fashion statement imaginable even to my ten-year-old sensibilities.

My mother usually stayed with me in the pediatrician’s office so I expected the same. Instead I was ushered in to see the doctor by myself. An older lady sat behind a large desk. She asked me to sit facing her in a chair much too large for me. I sat, my throat clenched with so much tension that it was hard to swallow. She asked me how I felt about coming in. I knew it wasn’t polite to admit my true feelings. Kids constantly have to filter what they do and say to please adults. So even though I feared and despised everything about the appointment I told her I was fine and didn’t need to be there and I was perfectly happy except for the embarrassing outfit I was wearing. I said it nicely. In fact I thought my comment about the outfit was a light-hearted joke. The doctor turned it into the topic of a lengthy question and answer session. She seemed to think I hated my mother for making me wear clothes I didn’t like. I couldn’t imagine that she’d had a mother recently or she would know that mothers make you do all sorts of things you don’t want to do. Eat all your dinner, clean your room, write thank you notes, well the list was endless. Frankly a dorky outfit was the least of it. Clearly I would have to filter what I said even more carefully.

Next she got out a series of large black and white photographs. She said it was a fun kind of test. I always got good grades on tests at school but the rules were pretty flimsy for this one. All I had to do was look at the pictures and tell her a story about what was happening. That included what happened right before the picture was taken and what would happen immediately afterwards. The first picture showed a dark-haired woman walking by herself on a beach. She didn’t look all that happy.Right behind her was a man with his arms reaching up in such a way that he seemed ready to choke her. The look on his face was creepy as well as dangerous. But I put the lightest tone possible in my voice and told the doctor that it was the woman’s birthday and she didn’t know her friend had come to surprise her. He was going to put his hands over her eyes and ask her to guess who and she’d be delighted. Nearly every picture was equally disturbing. I churned through them with Pollyanna-ish stories in my attempt to demonstrate just how mentally healthy I could be.

Next she brought up my grandparents’ deaths. The questions she asked were so upsetting and intrusive that I couldn’t answer. I shouldn’t have been shocked but I was. Having a stranger try to get me to tell her things about those who were dead alarmed my whole body. I could feel every inch of the chair touching me. The smell of the office, dusty and airless, made me want to choke. Although I willed them away, tears kept springing up in my eyes, and I set my mouth as tightly closed as I could.

The doctor changed her tactics back to the earlier conversation about my mother. I tried to unlock my mouth into a polite smile but I desperately wanted to run out the door. I knew my mother would be waiting and ready with a comforting hug. All I needed to do was just hold on until the appointment was over. Then the doctor made a statement so insane that it seemed whole adult world might be slipping away on a raft built without logic. She said I was upset because I wanted my mother dead.

That was it. I was willing to sacrifice the time I’d invested in good girl behavior but I would never go back there. I would do whatever it took. I would throw fits if necessary but I would not speak to that doctor again. On the drive home and all through supper I tried to figure out how to best make my stand. I decided to be logical and calm, although I wanted more than anything else to climb into my mother’s lap. That evening I sat with my mother, the person I prayed for most often, and lost my struggle to keeping from crying. I told her the unspeakable thing the doctor had said. My mother was gratifyingly appalled. She hugged me for a long time and then we talked as if we were on one side and the doctor on the other. It was delicious.

My mother called the doctor the next day and afterwards confirmed that I was a good judge of character. I would not have to go back. I overheard her telling my father that the doctor “didn’t have her head screwed on tight.” But my mother did think the doctor was right about one thing. I wasn’t getting over my grandparents’ deaths.

That wasn’t it. The loss of my grandparents had tossed me into a realm of questions I couldn’t ask and worries that faith couldn’t explain. I knew my parents were concerned about me so I ramped up the cheerful act. Masking my fears actually helped, at least during the day. But at night I couldn’t sleep. If I didn’t work hard to steer my mind relentlessly toward peaceful thoughts I’d feel as if I were falling into dark nothingness. The galaxies we learned about in fourth grade, black and endless, seemed like a void that would swallow up everything I knew. On the worst nights I could feel the fabric of the ordinary world stretched thin over a much larger unknown. Then I couldn’t even cry myself to sleep.

So I resorted to the distraction of reading. As soon as the rest of my family went to bed I turned my light back on. Most often I chose The Secret Garden. I turned to the same passages over and over. I read about the garden that seemed dead in the early spring chill until Mary cleared away branches and leaves to find tender green sprouts in the soil. I read about the crippled boy whose limitations Mary refused to accept and of his triumphant recovery in that garden. I read about her sorrowful uncle who awakened to joy after years of despair. Then I could sleep.

~

I don’t regret the fears and doubts of my childhood. They set me on a richly rewarding lifelong path of seeking answers to big questions. But I didn’t realize why I turned to The Secret Garden until I found the book years later. I opened it to see two childish signatures, my mother’s and my own. Rereading it, I recognized the passages that sustained me when I felt most lost. Each one was about about redemption, nature’s wisdom, and offered what I needed most of all, simple hope.

If I could meet a person from history I’d choose Frances Hodgson Burnett. I now know about the losses she suffered, the despair she fought, and the writing that was her life’s work. I’d tell her, a bit shyly, that I make a living as a writer too. I don’t think I could express how profoundly her book calmed a little girl too upset to sleep but I’d want her to know that her words were a soothing balm during those dark nights.

And I’d tell her that The Secret Garden didn’t just save me, it also shaped my future. Today I live on a small farm where my children have no lessons imposed, just like Mary. The animals here eat from my hand, as those in the book did from Dickon’s hand. Maybe I’d simply say, “Frances, our land is named after lines you wrote. We call it Bit of Earth Farm.”

Laura Grace Weldon