14 Ways to Give Kids the Confidence They Need to Shape the Future

Raising confident kids who will shape the future.

As each generation does, our children will grow up to shape the world. They need plenty of creativity and enthusiasm for the task ahead. Nurturing them in loving relationships with plenty of freedom to play is wonderful preparation. Here are some other positive ways to foster their confidence as they grow.

1. Encourage make-believe worlds. Give kids plenty of unscheduled time where they’re free to daydream and play. Sometimes their make-believe is constructed of nothing you can see, sometimes with blocks or dress-up clothes, sometimes it’s under a blanket thrown over a table. Make-believe builds a connection from the world that is to the world that can be.

2. Tell family stories. Share funny, silly, and hopeful stories of long-gone relatives. Tell stories of your childhood and young adult years, especially the mistakes and hard lessons kids can identify with. Tell them about their own earliest days including what they were like as babies and toddlers. Kids who  know such stories develop a strong sense of belonging, which researchers call best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.”

3. Read stories. Through fiction, children imagine themselves living the lives of characters and begin to grasp what it’s like in different places and different circumstances.  This practice of recognizing other worldviews helps to develop tolerance and empathy.

4. Point out what people are doing every day to bring about a brighter future, both in good times and times of great difficulty. Note your own positive choices — perhaps contacting your legislators, planting a garden, walking instead of driving. When a sudden crisis arises in your area, a house fire or flood, point out how quickly people work together to care for one another. We humans tend to show the best of ourselves in the worst of times.

5. Let current events become a regular topic. Just as you’d bring up any other subject that interests you, talk about topical issues in front of your kids. This is easy to do informally while driving or sitting around the dinner table. In addition to being more aware of issues, studies show that kids develop better reasoning skills when they grow up in families where social and political issues are common topics.

6. Welcome young people’s opinions without overemphasizing your point of view. Dissent equips kids to think for themselves. As they get older, help them see that using facts and approaching discussions logically can help convince others. (Here are some logic resources.)

7. Hang a laminated world map on the wall. Notice where news happens, where friends travel, where their favorite movies and music comes from. Mark places you’d like to go. Whiteboard markers wipe off this surface, so it’s easy to write directly on oceans and continents. (This is also a subversive way to advance geographical knowledge.)

8. Embrace kids’ interests and let them see you pursue your own. Many of us are raising young people whose passions aren’t remotely similar to our own, yet these very passions help advance the possibilities we bring to the future.

9. Get kids to predict the future. This not only provides insight into their hopes and fears, it’s a way of talking about the kind of future they want to live in and what steps can be taken to make it happen.

10. Stay tuned to what’s positive. Avoid a heavy media diet of news or crime shows. Even as little as a few hours a day can result in drastically increased cynicism, fear, and lack of trust in others — what’s been called mean world syndrome

11. Bring quality media into your kids’ lives with magazines such as MuseSkipping StonesOdyssey, New Moon Girls, and Kazoo. Get updates from KarmaTube and Good News Network. Talk about what kids have seen or heard that makes them feel optimistic. For age-appropriate news sources try Scholastic NewsDoGo News, and the similarly named GoGo NewsKid’s Post (offered by The Washington Post), National Geographic KidsNews-o-Matic, and Time for Kids. Teens are likely to enjoy the news-based wit of The Daily Show  and Last Week Tonight.

12. Think globally. Notice where toys, clothing and other household purchases come from, perhaps locating the place of origin on a map. Focus your attention on a specific area in the world that interests you, paying attention to the news, weather, and celebrations taking place there. If at all possible, host an international visitor.

13. Travel and immerse yourselves in local communities as much as possible. Get off the main roads, eat where the locals eat, walk or bike as much as possible. Skip hotels, instead staying in homes through Airbnb, Home Exchange,  or other such programs. According to The New Global Student by Maya Frost, travel provides extraordinary benefits, especially as preteens and teens are forming their identity and sense of agency in the world.

14. Volunteer. This  is a pivotal way to shows kids we can make a better world, right now, directly in our own communities. There are all sorts of ways kids can volunteer, from toddlers to teens.

How do you help kids become world builders?

 

Portions of this post are excerpted from Free Range Learning.

House Undivided

political opposites get along

This isn’t an accurate representation of the house I’m describing! CC by 2.0, photo by Michal Osmenda

When I drive into town, I go past a house that never fails to interest me. The house itself is entirely ordinary. I’ve never met the inhabitants. What’s fascinating is the dichotomy on display out front.

Take the driveway. Most evenings a pickup truck with mud streaks from off-roading is neatly parked next to a fuel-efficient hybrid.

Or take the landscaping. For over a decade and a half, the garden bed under the front window has sported a perennial planting — two equally large logos for rival teams Ohio State Buckeyes and University of Michigan Wolverines. This is a brave statement here in Ohio.

But the lawn is my favorite. Each presidential election season a competition is waged right there on the grass. A regular-sized Gore/Lieberman sign appeared close to the street in early autumn of 2000. The next time I drove by, a Bush/Cheney sign was placed directly in front of that sign. As weeks went by the signs were moved like two parrying chess pieces until a much larger Bush/Cheney sign appeared. That was followed by a larger Gore/Lieberman sign. A similar dance of political signs took place for the Kerry vs Bush race, the Obama vs McCain race, and the Obama vs Romney race. (This year, two very small signs….)

The couple in this house surely eat at the same table, sit on the same couch, flush the same toilet, and sleep in the same bed. They’ve managed to live together all these years while holding widely differing opinions. I thought I lived in a household of contradictions but these two are an inspiring example of publicly embracing their differences.

We’re told we live in an ever more divisive country. We tend to choose news sources that amplify our own worldviews. We tend to delete social media friends who don’t share our opinions. We tend to live in areas and move in social circles with people very similar to us. Yet insulating ourselves from those who are different just strengthens the perception that we’re irreconcilably different.

Research shows us that diversity sparks more innovative and energizing approaches to building strong communities and successful businesses.  Diversity can lead to some invigorating soul-searching  and growth on a personal level too. One of the main principles of nonviolence is finding common ground with each other. Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, individual purpose, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.

This house reminds me we can express our differences and still laugh.  We can challenge each other and in doing so, learn from each other. We can get beyond the urge to assert the superiority of our viewpoints by respecting each other, helping each other, and collaborating with each other. This house is who we really are as a nation. May it be so.

“Society evolves not by shouting each other down, but by the unique capacity of unique, individual human beings to comprehend each other.” ~Lewis Thomas

Be Pollyanna

Image by Healzo

“We can only be said to be alive in those moments

when our hearts are conscious of our treasures.”  ~Thornton Wilde

 

The word “pollyanna” is defined as:

  1. an excessively or blindly optimistic person
  2. unreasonably or illogically optimistic

but the character by that name, in the 1913 book by Eleanor H. Porter (and in the 1960 movie version), is far wiser than this.

Pollyanna was the daughter of an idealistic missionary who, in his dying days, taught his daughter the “glad game.”  The game is simple. In a situation that seems unpleasant, even dire, find a reason to feel glad. It’s a courageous way to face overwhelming circumstances.

Pollyanna certainly faced tragedies. She lived in poverty with her parents and relied on the mercy of donated goods. When her parents died, Pollyanna was sent to live with her wealthy, disapproving aunt. The aunt decided her niece should reside in the stifling attic rather than be allowed to use any of the comfortable bedrooms that were available. When the girl opened an attic window to find relief from the unrelenting heat she was punished. But Pollyanna shared the glad game with anyone willing to listen. She explained to her aunt’s servant, Nancy, how her father started the game back when she’d hoped to find a doll in the missionary barrel.

“Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”

“CRUTCHES!”

“Yes. You see I’d wanted a doll, and father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent ‘em along as they might come in handy for some child, sometime. And that’s when we began it….The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about—no matter what ‘twas,” rejoined Pollyanna, earnestly. “And we began right then—on the crutches.”

“Well, goodness me! I can’t see anythin’ ter be glad about—getting’ a pair of crutches when you wanted a doll!”

Pollyanna clapped her hands.

“There is—there is,” she crowed. “But I couldn’t see it, either, Nancy, at first,” she added, with a quick honesty. “Father had to tell it to me.”

“Well, then suppose YOU tell ME,” almost snapped Nancy.

“Goosey! Why, just be glad because you don’t—NEED—‘EM!” exulted Pollyanna, triumphantly.

According to neuroscience, Pollyanna was on to something.

Being mindful of what we’re grateful for helps us pay closer attention to what’s beautiful and meaningful in our daily lives. There’s peace to be found in ripples of rain on a puddle, a neighbor’s smile, birdsong,  the smell of coffee brewing, a child’s hug.

According to research, the practice of writing a daily gratitude list boosts our sense of well-being and gives us a brighter outlook on life while also increasing our pro-social behaviors. An attitude of gratitude makes for happier kids and more satisfying relationships. Gratitude is correlated with more empathy, greater generosity, and less materialistic attitudes. It also helps us handle stress better, sleep better, reduces inflammation, and benefits our hearts.

The power of gratitude is so vast that it persists over time. One study asked participants to write down three things that went well each day, along with what caused them to go well, for one full week. They were only two percent happier that week, but follow-up tests showed their happiness continued to increase for six months afterwards. Symptoms of depression decreased even more, declining by 28 percent in that week and continuing to improve slightly over the next six months.

Even when going through overwhelming difficulties, being mindful of our blessings can retrain our brains to be more positive. Gratitude causes the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters related to pleasure and balanced mood. Focusing on appreciation tunes our minds to feel appreciative more often. As neuroscientist Alex Korb writes in The Upward Spiral

“It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place. Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density in both the ventromedial and lateral prefrontal cortex. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Unlike Pollyanna, we shouldn’t gloss over or ignore our difficulties. Research shows that consciously recognizing and naming our negative feelings actually lessens their impact on us, reducing our emotional reactivity to worry, fear, and despair. And there’s power in letting others know they’ve had a negative effect on us, even after significant time has passed.

Before things got better for Pollyanna, they got worse. A car accident left her in need of those very crutches and even her glad game didn’t save her from despair. But by then, her kindly ways had earned love from many people and the love they returned made the difference.

This week I am grateful beyond words. My oldest son had emergency brain surgery last week and after five days in ICU his prognosis is excellent. I’m grateful to live in a time and place when saving him is possible; grateful for skilled and caring medical people at Medina Hospital and Fairview Hospital; grateful for so many wonderful people offering their love, prayers, and help. Every single thing in our lives takes on a sort of luminous glow through the lens of gratitude.  As the mystic Meister Eckhart said back in the 13th century, “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, that would suffice.”

Grateful For The Dark Stuff Too

A handmade Gratitude Tree has hung in our hallway for years. We keep the tree lively by writing on leaves made of brightly colored paper, then tape them to the tree. It’s usually filled with life affirming reminders like hugs from Daddy, going to the library, bike rides, playing cards with Grammy, and yes, winning arguments.  The year my youngest son Sam was six, he got so inspired that he said he was grateful for a hundred things. A bit dubiously I offered to type the list while he dictated. I was astonished as he kept going until the list numbered 117.

Listing what we’re grateful for is increasingly popular. Studies show that those who practice gratitude are healthier, happier, more helpful to others, and even more likely to reach their goals. People post gratitude lists on Facebook and on their blogs, keep gratitude journals, and pray in gratitude each morning. This is undeniably wonderful. Orienting ourselves toward what works in our lives is perpetually rejuvenating.

But perhaps we’re limiting ourselves to a childlike version of gratitude. Are we grateful only for what we deem good and ungrateful for all the rest?

I’m all about emphasizing the positive—heck, I’m pretty sure we amplify what we pay attention to. But that doesn’t mean that the darker sides of our lives aren’t a source of blessings as well. It’s one thing to be grateful for a disease in remission, a distant friend’s visit, or a new job, but there’s much to be grateful for right in the heart of what we consider the worst of times, the worst in ourselves. Maybe mining these experiences for gratitude can get us past the need to separate our lives into good and bad, putting us right into the seamless whole of a fully lived life. Here are a few to consider:

Mistakes

I’m not talking about the little mistakes we make each day, but those big, honking mistakes all of us who are honest with ourselves can admit we’ve made—errors that damaged relationships or changed the future we anticipated. Some of these mistakes were well-intended, while others were careless or downright stupid. 

It’s quite possible to be grateful for what we call mistakes. If nothing else, our fallibility demonstrates the foolishness of being self-righteous about others. Hopefully we learn even more. Our mistakes give us a depth of experience, a dose of humility, and the beginnings of wisdom.

Beware people who claim they have not made significant mistakes—either they haven’t stepped out the door yet, or what they hide from themselves is too dark to be claimed.  Our mistakes are a wonderful part of who we are. Thank goodness for our mistakes in all their falling down, awkward, forgiveness-hungry glory.

Doubt

While doubt seems ruinous, it can actually be a gift. We may doubt choices we’ve made, relationships we’re in, or the faith we have practiced all our lives. Doubt is a powerful motivator. When we look at doubt, using our heads and our hearts, we may not like what we see. It may take us years to find answers. This forces us to tell the truth to ourselves, and that process makes us stronger. Sure it’s painful, but it also leaves us much to be grateful for.

The harsh light cast by doubt can lead, after a time, to a much brighter path. We may find ourselves in stronger relationships and making more conscious choices. We may end up with deeper faith or accept that we don’t know the answers, but that we love the search all thanks to our friend, doubt.

Crisis

I don’t mean to minimize the impact of crisis. Like almost everyone, I’ve been at the mercy of crime, grief, and pain. But no matter the crisis, we have a choice. We can choose which attitude to take, and that alone is worthy of some gratitude.

Beyond that, many people find blessings of all sorts hidden in experiences that, on the surface, seem starkly horrible. They say that cancer woke them up to truly living, or they say that losing everything in a fire helped them choose more authentic priorities. Some people dedicate their energy to helping those who have suffered as they once suffered, thereby transforming their own crisis into a blessing for others.

Throughout history, cultures around the world have told folk tales that not only entertain, but also teach values while offering lessons on growing through difficulty. Too often, we’ve replaced these stories with weaker parables found in popular entertainment. Consider the following:

A man was given a strong horse. Many came to admire it, telling him he was the luckiest man around. He replied, “We’ll see.” A few days later the horse ran away and the neighbors came to console him. “How terrible!” they said. The man replied, “We’ll see.” The next week the horse returned. Following him were six wild horses. The neighbors congratulated him, saying, “You are richer than any of us now.” The man replied, “We’ll see.” When his son tried to train one of the wild horses, it threw him and the young man broke his leg. “Oh, what bad luck,” his neighbors said. The man only replied, “We’ll see.” Then an army swept through the village and conscripted all able-bodied young men, leaving only the man’s son with the broken leg. The neighbors told him how fortunate he was. The man only replied, “We’ll see.”

The next time crisis looms chances are you will stumble, get up, cry, laugh, protest, and argue. But you may also be aware just how grateful you are to be here and living life with all it has to offer. And, as the farmer in the story did, you may step back from your predicament and say to yourself, “We’ll see.”

We don’t bother to give thanks for many aspects of our lives, from the face in the mirror each morning to the minor frustrations of the day. Look again at your mistakes, your doubts, and your crises to see the richness that lies waiting to be discovered. I’ll be doing the same.

It’s not my practice to make gratitude lists, especially one as long as six-year-old Sam’s list of 117 items. If I did, I admit it would include many more of the “easy” ones—birdsong, a bountiful garden, finding a lost book. But I’m inclined to see gratitude as a tree—it not only grows upward with bright leaves, it also grows deep roots in dark soil.

Originally published in Lilipoh.

Links & Updates 3-3-15

great linksEven the date is wrong on this post, because I clicked “publish” before changing the date from two months ago when I thought I’d publish it.

I thought I’d do an update every other month, but I tend to be fueled by many delusions. One is that I’ll magically become more organized and productive any day now. So far this has not happened, as the teetering stacks of Very Important Papers on my desk attests. Heck, I’ve been on the planet quite awhile now and I still don’t manage to behave. Here are a few recent examples.

My hand is on the door to let the dogs out. I just so happen to be belting out Ode to Joy with spontaneous lyrics lauding joys of peeing in the snow. This was meant to encourage canines to go out (perhaps to escape my singing). Unbeknownst to me, an innocent FexEd guy is on the other side of the door, finger poised to ring the doorbell.
I hope this qualifies him for trauma-related workman’s comp.
Learning never ends. I just learned that one should not, when needing an extra hand, grab a corner of packing tape in one’s mouth. That is, unless you’re seeking traumatic lip exfoliation.
We’re trying to teach the dogs to stop barking when someone’s at the door. To do that we brandish a squirt bottle. (No need to actually spray the water, they get the idea.)
Yesterday the doorbell rings. I grab the squirt bottle on my way to answer it. Immediately it starts slipping out of my grasp. I tighten my grip and, in doing so, squirt myself right in the eye. Yes, I was holding it backwards. Yes, I did one of my hyena laughs.
I pity the poor innocents who don’t realize they’re ringing the bell at Awkward House.
 

And then there’s this.

My loved ones and I are enjoying the blue skies and longer days that hint at spring. I’ve been planting seeds in little pots under grow lights with vegetable garden-sized enthusiasm. It’s all fun and games till I’m yanking out weeds on muggy 95 degree August days. On to some links!

A Few Writerly Updates

My short story “Everywhere Stars” was included in Cleveland Scene Magazine’s fiction issue: full text.

My poem “Survivors of Child Abuse Support Group” was published in Literary Mama: full text.

My poem “Fog as Visible Dreams” was published (full text )in the recent edition of Shot Glass Journal  along with a second poem, “What the Onion Teaches:” full text.

My poem “2:37 am” was published in Mothering:  full text.

My poem “Failure Too” was published this month in the print journal Mom Egg Review, issue 13.

I had the pleasure of being featured on Coffee with a Canine, a site for dog-loving writers. Here’s the recent interview and my last one, five years ago when our German shepherd was still with us.

And I had the honor of talking about the books I’ve been reading on Campaign for the American Reader, which was also published on America Reads.

Amusements

If you haven’t seen the way Mallory Ortberg of The Toast re-captions art, you should. See if you don’t smirk at Women Having A Terrible Time At Parties In Western Art History and Women Listening To Men Play Music At Them In Western Art History. Here’s a taste:

a.jp.jp

the-toast.net/2014/10/28/women-terrible-time-parties-western-art-history

get up
it’s weird to lie down when nobody else is lying down
sit up
i’ll sit up when I see something worth sitting up for

If you write, try out the Rejection Generator.  As the folks at The Stoneslide Corrective explain,

The Rejection Generator has helped thousands of established, emerging, and aspiring writers by preemptively exposing them to the pain of rejection, making all subsequent rejection less painful. Now, for the first time, The Generator has been tuned to provide highly personalized pain. Answer a few questions about your writing, and get a rejection letter tailored just for you—instilling maximum healthful preemptive suffering.

a.jp.jp

Day Brighteners

How people are stepping up to undo environmental damage in the YES! magazine article, “Depaving Cities, Undamming Rivers.”

A way to purchase bookish delights while helping to build libraries in Ethiopia, made possible by a wonderful volunteer-run site.

What to do when you’re having a crappy day.

Ethical investors around the world are shifting their money out of fossil fuel. Divestment is happening at colleges, churches, pension funds, and other organizations–effectively rerouting more than 50 billion away from the coal, oil, and gas industry.

Science-y Fascinations

Researcher and intrepid person Jeff Leach is spending a year trying to acquire the healthiest possible gut microbiome. Pretty fascinating and entirely relevant for all of us.

A new documentary on how birth “seeds” us with essential bacteria, and how we can assure every baby benefits whether naturally or surgically born. Here’s more about the film Microbirth.

Information is passed from plant to seed using memory of seasonal fluctuations. Find out more in the (not very scientifically titled) article “How Mom Plants Teach Seeds When to Grow.”

And how great is this? The risk of coming down with the common cold is reduced by hugs.

Learning

A Thousand Rivers: What the modern world has forgotten about children and learning” is, without a doubt, the best essay I’ve ever read about learning. Long, insightful, and worth reading every word. It’s by Carol Black, maker of the must-see documentary film Schooling the World

The Importance of Ancestral Knowledge in the Modern World” is a wonderful article by Neal Ritter in the recent Holistic Parenting Magazine.

What do you do all day? is a question faced by many homeschooling families. Here are all sorts of ways to answer that question.

In what’s now a classic, The Book of Learning and Forgetting, Frank Smith explains how our culture systematically obstructs the powerful inherent learning abilities of children, creating handicaps that often persist through life. The author eloquently contrasts a false and fabricated “official theory” that learning is work (used to justify excessive regulation and massive testing) with a correct but officially suppressed “classic view” that learning is a social process that can occur naturally and continually through collaborative activities. Here’s a chart from the book.

child 2

Visual & Auditory Yes

Ophir Kutiel, who goes by Kutiman, is a musician and editor who took lots of YouTube clips of amateur music performances, from different people, different years, different places, and different songs, and edited them together into a new song. The vocals are by KarMaRedd, singing a cappella. Kutiman listed the source videos at the YouTube page.

Tony Orrico has been called a “human spirograph” but his work is much more. He is a visual artist and performer who uses his own body to inscribe geometries on paper. Through physically exhausting performances involving highly choreographed motions, Orrico creates works of visual art that record his own motion.

a

This poem was featured at the opening of the Climate 2014 summit in NYC. The poem was written and read by Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, a 26-year-old native of the Marshall Islands. It was spoken as a promise to her new baby, a commitment to create a just and sustainable world. After her recitation in front of 120 heads of state, her daughter and husband joined her on stage, to a standing ovation. An official U.N. Twitter account said many world leaders were moved to tears.

And here’s a new piece by Michael Franti.

Superstupiditis, philosophies that divide us.
Keep us in fear from one another
so we can’t recognize a brother from another mother.
No way, we can’t live this way,
that’s why so many people stand up and say:
One love, one blood, one heart, one soul and
one drum and only one rhythm,
One tribe and all of us singing.

 

 

Make a List of Non-Resolutions

no resolutions, non-resolutions, no New Year's resolutions,

image: unsplash

Resolutions are traditionally meant to fix what we think is wrong with our lives, as if it’s necessary to hammer ourselves into someone society finds more attractive and more successful.

I say meh.

Seems to me the more significant challenges are to discover greater depths in ourselves and to cultivate more joy in our daily lives. Maybe we need to replace New Year’s resolutions with delight-enhancing non-resolutions. If you need ideas for your own list, here are some things I hope to nurture in my life, .

Prioritize time for daydreaming.

Sigh loudly whenever you want to. It stimulates the vagus nerve.

Pursue the urge to know more, no matter how obscure your fascinations.

Tune in to sensory pleasure: birdsong, soft blankets, wind in the trees, warm soup.

Accept all apologies as you wish those you apologize to might accept yours.

Give your machines names,  especially your car.

Send oddities via snail mail, it’s ridiculously fun.

Eat something different, often.

Talk about your traumas as a stand-up comedian might.

Greet the same tree every day.

Each time you take a first sip of ice water, pay attention as it slides down your throat.

Allow yourself to become a library addict.

Lie on the grass whenever you can. Also sand. And snow. It’s like accepting a hug from Ma Nature.

Try sketching for fun.

Listen.

Collect poems that speak to you.

When you take a walk, just walk. No phone, no earbuds, simply let your legs move you forward.

Talk to insects.

Look at yourself tenderly, as an angelic being might see you, adoring every moment of the amazing mortal life you lead.

Play!

Worst Christmas Became Most Memorable Christmas

kindness turns around misery, heartwarming family Christmas, poor family Christmas gets better,

Photo by doortoriver via Flickr, CC by 2.0

One year it seemed we were having the worst Christmas ever. That autumn my husband had been in a car accident. His broken neck was healing, but it left him with severe migraines and what doctors thought might be a seizure disorder. Because he wasn’t medically cleared to return to work, we had to pay for health insurance through COBRA (which cost more than our mortgage) while not receiving a paycheck. In addition, my mother was fighting cancer, my brother-in-law was recovering from open heart surgery, and my son was struggling with asthma so severe that his oxygen intake regularly hovered at the “go to emergency room” level.

We were broke and worried. But I insisted on a normal Christmas. I put up our usual decorations, baked the same goodies, and managed to wrap plenty of inexpensive gifts for our kids. Everyone else on my list would be getting something homemade.

Each night after getting my four children tucked in, I sat at the sewing machine making gifts for friends and family. The evening of December 23rd as I was finishing up the last few sewing projects I realized I didn’t have a single item for the kid’s stockings and absolutely no funds to buy even a pack of gum. I put my head down, too tired to cry. I was so overwhelmed by the bigger issues going on that the stocking problem pushed me right to the edge. I don’t know how long I sat there unable to get back to sewing, but when I lifted my head my eleven-year-old daughter stood next to me. When she asked what was wrong I admitted that I had nothing for any of their stockings. Her response lightened up my mood then and still does every time I think of it.

“All that matters is we’re a family,” she said. “ I don’t care if you squat over my stocking and poop in it.”

I laughed so loudly and for so long that something cleared out in me. I felt better than I had in months. She and I stayed up at least another hour together, restarting the giggles with just a look or more hilariously, a squatting motion.

When I woke up the next morning I still felt good. Until the phone rang. It was Katy* who said she needed to talk to someone. The mother of one of my children’s friends, she always seemed like a super women who did everything with panache. It was hard to imagine her with anything but a big smile. She said she didn’t want to tell anyone who might feel obligated to help her but, oddly, said she felt free to talk to me because she knew of my family’s dire financial straits. “We’re in the same boat I guess,” she said, “sinking.”

Katy revealed that her husband had been abusive and she’d finally worked up the courage to ask him to leave. He did, but not before emptying their bank accounts, turning off their utilities, disabling her car, and taking every single Christmas gift for their four children. Utility companies had promised to restore power to their cold, dark home but she was left with no money for groceries and no gifts for her kids. Katy said she was going to talk to her priest, hoping he’d find someone willing to drive her family to the Christmas service. She said her problems would be public knowledge soon enough. The neighbors would notice that her husband had punched a hole in the door on his way out.

Heartsick at her situation, my husband and I agreed we had to do something. I spent that day in eager anticipation of the plan we hatched. I went through the gifts I’d wrapped for our kids and took out about a third, putting on new gift tags for Katy’s children. I rewrapped gifts that friends and relatives had sent for me, putting Katy’s name on them. While I was happily engaged, my friend Rachel* called, someone who didn’t know Katy. I told her about the situation without revealing Katy’s identity. A few hours later Rachel showed up at my door with a tin of homemade cookies and a card with $100 tucked inside. She said she’d told her mother about the situation, and her mother insisted on supplying grocery bags full of holiday treats including a large ham.

Close to midnight my husband and I loaded up our car and drove quietly to Katy’s street. Snow was falling and the moon was full, like a movie set Christmas Eve. He turned off the headlights and cut the engine as we coasted into her drive. We quietly stacked groceries and piles of gifts on her porch, then pounded on her door yelling “Merry Christmas!” before dashing to make our getaway. By the time our car was a few houses down I could see that Katy had opened the door. Her hands were up in the air in a classic gesture of surprise and delight.

Katy called the next day. She told me there’d been a late night interruption. She thought to herself, what now, but when she got to her door her porch was full of gifts and groceries.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” she said. “The gifts had the kids’ names on them and were just right for their ages and there were even gifts for me. We can’t figure out who might have done that. I know it couldn’t have been you but why wouldn’t someone leave their name so I could thank them?”

I could only tell her that whoever left her porch that night must have wanted the gesture to remain a simple gift of love. She said her kids were calling it their Christmas miracle.

A small gesture of kindness hardly makes up for what Katy’s family endured that Christmas. But as we drove away, my husband and I felt a lift of euphoria that our own circumstances couldn’t diminish. That feeling stuck with us. It held us through problems that got worse before they got better. Even when our situation seemed intractable my husband and I could easily summon the sense of complete peace we felt in those moments at Katy’s door. I’m not sure if a word has been coined that encompasses that feeling: a mix of peace, and possibility, and complete happiness. But it’s far more precious than any wrapped package.

Oh, and that Christmas my brother gave my daughter, who at that time was an aspiring paleontologist, the perfect gift. Coprolite. Basically a hunk of fossilized poop. He thought it was a funny present but never understood why seeing it made me laugh until tears came to my eyes.

*Names changed to protect privacy.

act of Christmas kindness, heartwarming Christmas, poor helping poor on Christmas, lesson of giving,

Photo by andrewmalone via Flickr, CC by 2.0

Recognizing Each Child’s Particular Genius

 

Free Range Learning, children's gifts,

A child’s gifts can be difficult to recognize, perhaps because they tend to unfold in mysterious ways. What we might consider idiosyncrasies or problems may very well indicate a child’s strengths. Oftentimes we can’t see the whole picture until long after the child has grown into adulthood. It’s worth remembering we can’t easily see our own gifts either, even though they have whispered to us of destiny or wounded us where they were denied.

A little girl creates chaos with her toys. She won’t put blocks away with other blocks nor put socks in her dresser drawer. As a preschooler she creates groupings that go together with logic only she understands. One such collection is made up of red blocks, a striped sock, spoons, and marbles. She sings to herself while she rearranges these items over and over. The girl is punished when she refuses to put her puzzles away in the correct box or her tea set dishes back together. She continues making and playing with these strangely ordered sets but hides them to avoid getting in trouble. This phase passes when she is about nine years old. Now an adult, she is conducting post-doctoral studies relating to string theory. She explains her work as a physicist has to do with finding common equations among disparate natural forces.

A young boy’s high energy frustrates his parents. As a preschooler he climbs on furniture and curtain rods, even repeatedly tries to scale the kitchen cabinets. When he becomes a preteen he breaks his collarbone skateboarding. He is caught shoplifting at 13. His parents are frightened when he says he “only feels alive on the edge.” Around the age of 15 he becomes fascinated with rock-climbing. His fellow climbers, mostly in their 20’s, also love the adrenaline rush that comes from adventure sports but help him gain perspective about his responsibility to himself and other climbers. His ability to focus on the cliff face boosts his confidence on the ground. At 19 he is already certified as a mountain search and rescue volunteer. He is thinking of going to school to become an emergency medical technician.

James Hillman explains in his book, The Soul’s Code,

I want us to envision that what children go through has to do with finding a place in the world for their specific calling. They are trying to live two lives at once, the one they were born with and the one of the place and among the people they were born into. The entire image of a destiny is packed into a tiny acorn, the seed of a huge oak on small shoulders. And its call rings loud and persistent and is as demanding as any scolding voice from the surroundings. The call shows in the tantrums and obstinacies, in the shyness and retreats, that seem to set the child against our world but that may be protections of the world it comes with and comes from.

Yehudi Menuhin, one of the preeminent violinists of the 20th century, became fascinated when he heard classical music on the radio as a three year old. He wanted to feel the same rich notes coming out of a violin in his hands. His parents lovingly presented him with a toy fiddle. He drew the bow across the strings and was horrified at the cheap squawk the toy made. Enraged, he threw the instrument across the room and broke it. His imagination had already taken him to the place in himself where beautiful music was made and he was unable to bear that awful sound. We normally call that behavior a “tantrum.”

Then there’s R. Buckminster Fuller, whose young adult years were marked with struggle. As a college student he hired an entire dance troupe to entertain a party, and in that one night of excess he squandered all the tuition money his family saved to send him to school. In his 20’s he was a mechanic, meat-packer, and Navy commander before starting a business that left him bankrupt. After his daughter died of polio he began drinking heavily. By conventional wisdom he’d be considered a total failure at this point. But while contemplating suicide, Fuller decided instead to live his life as an experiment to find out if one penniless individual could benefit humanity. He called himself Guinea Pig B. Without credentials or training Fuller worked as an engineer and architect, inventing such designs as the geodesic dome and advancing the concept of sustainable development. He wrote more than 30 books and registered dozens of patents. Fuller once said, “Everybody is born a genius. Society de-geniuses them.”

Few young people have clear indications of their gifts. Most have multiple abilities. A single true calling is rarely anyone’s lot in life as it is for a legendary artist or inventor. Instead, a mix of ready potential waits, offering a life of balance among many options. When we emphasize a child’s particular strengths we help that child to flourish, no matter if those gifts fall within mainstream academic subjects or broader personal capacities. Traits such as a highly developed sense of justice, a way with animals, a love of organization, a contemplative nature, the knack for getting others to cooperate—-these are of inestimable value, far more important skills than good grades on a spelling test.

Free Range Learning, all kids geniuses,

Although society confuses genius with IQ scores, such scores don’t determine what an individual will do with his or her intelligence. In fact, studies have shown that specific personality traits are better predictors of success than I.Q. scores. Genius has more to do with using one’s gifts. In Roman mythology each man was seen as having a genius within (and each woman its corollary, a juno) which functioned like a guardian of intellectual powers or ancestral talent.

What today’s innovators bring to any discipline, whether history or art or technology, is a sort of persistent childlike wonder. They are able to see with fresh eyes. They can’t be dissuaded from what they want to do and often what they do is highly original. Sometimes these people have a difficult personal journey before using their gifts. Their paths are not easy or risk-free, but the lessons learned from making mistakes can lead to strength of character.

We must leave ample space for these gifts to unfold. This takes time and understanding. The alternative deprives not only the child, it also deprives our world of what that child might become.

Acknowledging that each person is born with innate abilities waiting to manifest doesn’t imply our children are destined for greatness in the popular sense of power or wealth. It means that children are cued to develop their own personal greatness. This unfolding is a lifelong process for each of us as we work toward our capabilities for fulfillment, joy, health, meaning, and that intangible sense of well-being that comes of using one’s gifts.

 

This article is an excerpt from the book Free Range Learning. It was also published in Life Learning Magazine

April’s Energy Fingerprint

April tragedy, energy fingerprint, life energy,

image: andrewpoison.deviantart.com

April is a month for blooms unfurling and songbirds hatching. A month when gray skies turn blue. It’s a changeable month that promises new life.

Or not. A friend recently asked, “What is it about mid-April that brings so much tragedy?” She offered plenty of evidence. Even looking at tragedy specifically affecting the U.S., there’s a lot of it.

April 15

– Abraham Lincoln assassinated

– Titanic sank

– Great Mississippi Flood (1927, worst flood in US history)

-Boston Marathon bombing

April 16

– VA Tech shooting

April 17

-USS Iowa Explosion

-West Fertilizer Plant explosion

April 18

– 1906 earthquake in San Francisco

-US Embassy bombing in Lebanon

April 19

– Lethal end of the Branch Davidian standoff

– Oklahoma City bombing

April 20

– Columbine school shooting

– Deepwater Horizon explosion

Horrific events, every one. It’s entirely natural that our attention is drawn to such disasters, especially as they’re happening. Way back in prehistory, those who paid close attention when others were injured or killed were more likely to avoid the same fate. Their bodies and minds were primed with vividly awful but useful information, helping them to survive and pass along disaster-attentive genes. These days our attention is pulled toward all sorts of disasters, although the information isn’t useful in the same way. Too much attention to what’s wrong in the world, and we’re likely to end up with Mean World Syndrome.

Threat also compels us to engage our full potential, to “rise to the occasion” whatever it might be. No wonder that those who want us to marshal our resources for their own purposes try to convince us there’s a grave threat. This is done by football coaches trying to motivate teams right up to political pundits spewing angry conspiracy theories, because it works.

But rising to our full potential actually means we humans pull together in a crisis. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a close look at large-scale disasters including earthquakes, floods, and explosions in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She finds tragedy and grief, but something else too, something rarely noticed. During and after horrific crises there shines from the wreckage something extraordinary. People rise up as if liberated, regardless of their differences, to act out of deep regard for one another. They improvise, coordinate, create new social ties, and pour themselves into work that has no personal gain other than a sense of meaning. Such people express strangely transcendent feelings of joy, envisioning a greater and more altruistic community in the making. Even those suffering the greatest misfortune often turn around to aid others and later remember it as the defining moment of their lives. This is a testament to the human spirit, as if disaster cracks us open to our better selves. Solnit says, “The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

By some counts, mid-April leans closer to tragedy than many other times of the year. But let’s remember, this month is isn’t defined by disaster. Instead, like every moment on Earth, it’s packed with constant, unsung acts of cooperation and beauty.

I dreamed once that what each of us contribute to this world, maybe to worlds beyond, is an energy fingerprint. All our striving and accomplishments are wisps, quickly lost to time, but this fingerprint of energy remains and affects all other energy. It’s the overall attitude that matters—grateful or bitter, loving or hateful, aware or dismissive.

Whether my dream has any truth or not, I do believe that even in the midst of tragedy we can choose an attitude of hope and compassion. Anger, fear, and vindictiveness isn’t the fingerprint I want to leave.

April tragedy, April curse, energy imprint,

Image:michammer.deviantart.com

This is a repost from our farm blog

I Heckle, You Heckle, Let’s All Heckle

heckle, roots of word heckle, change the world,

I just got back from a workshop teaching us how to research injection wells for a citizen’s audit project. It’s boring and difficult. I’m appalled when I look closely at the data. I don’t want to do it, although I will because we’re currently mired in a struggle over fracking.

That may not be your issue but of course there are plenty of others that jab at our consciences. Drone strikes, refugees, melting polar regions and burning rainforests, poisons in our food, toxic tactics wielded by the powerful. The list goes on and on. We feel like screaming in the streets, but there are bills to pay and meals to make.

I haven’t thrown open my window to yell, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” But I want to affirm the heckling all of us do. These days the word “heckle” has entirely negative connotations. It conjures up images of rude people who interrupt performers and ruin the experience for everyone. Instead, lets hop on a wagon to the past where this word meant much more (as explained by Mark Forsyth in The Etymologicon).

Heckling originally referred to the process of combing sticks, burrs, and knots from sheep’s wool so it could be spun into usable fibers. Sheep tend to ramble around without any concern for fleece-related loveliness, so this is quite a task.  People who did the combing were naturally called hecklers.

Back in the eighteenth century, the wool trade flourished in the town of Dundee, Scotland. Hecklers worked long hours together. In the morning as they set to work heckling, one of their fellow hecklers read aloud from the day’s news.  There was plenty to read, since this was an era when all sorts of publishers put out lots of newspapers, broadsheets, and handbills. The hecklers were thus well-informed in many subjects.

When politicians and power brokers of the day addressed the public, the hecklers combed over their speeches as thoroughly as they combed wool. They raised objections, pointed out contradictory facts, called people to account for their behavior. In other words, they heckled. These hecklers formed what would now be called trade unions, using their collective efforts to bargain for better pay and perks. They also stirred up awareness of worker’s rights while empowering ordinary people to speak up against injustice.

Hecklers were people who were knowledgeable and alert to hypocrisy. They were aware how easily something nasty can snag what’s useful into uselessness until it’s pulled free, no matter how arduous and smelly the process.

Heckling is a potent way to question the powerful. Over the centuries the term implied thoughtful questions from the audience which a speaker would answer before going on. In parliamentary proceedings it remains a method of engaging in open discourse with a speaker by someone who isn’t entitled to the floor.

Nearly everyone I know is actually a heckler. We’re well-informed. We care. We lean toward positive change, willing it into being by our words and thoughts as well as our actions.

The poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti joins other writers and thinkers who claim the masses are sheep, as he does in this evocative poem.

PITY THE NATION
(After Khalil Gibran)

Pity the nation whose people are sheep
and whose shepherds mislead them.
Pity the nation whose leaders are liars,
whose sages are silenced
and whose bigots haunt the airwaves.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice
except  to praise conquerors
and acclaim the bully as hero
and aims to rule the world
by force and by torture.
Pity the nation that knows
no other language but its own
and no other culture but its own.
Pity the nation whose breath is money
and sleeps the sleep of the too well fed.
Pity the nation—oh pity the people
who allow their rights to  erode
and their freedoms to be washed away.
My country, tears of thee
Sweet land of liberty!

With respect to Mr. Ferlinghetti, I disagree. His poem is packed with truth but it doesn’t acknowledge how these exact circumstances also propel people to deeper understanding and stronger commitment to change.

I see eyes opening. I see loving hearts broken by Earth’s sorrows, knitted back together with hope. I see the sort of consciousness rising that wakens more and more people.

We aren’t the sheep. We’re the hecklers.

social change, heckler,

Heckling combs. Image: nimpsu.deviantart.com