Sowing the Seeds of Change in Chicago: The New “Gardeneers”

kids as seeds

Happily cross-posted from the Food Day blog.

About forty children were crouched into small balls on the ground in front of vegetable planters. “Let’s pretend we’re seeds,” Adam Zmick, a former Teach-for-America instructor, told them. “What do seeds need to grow?” Hands shot up eagerly from down near ground level.

On a sunny Tuesday earlier this week, at Rowe Elementary School in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago, I visited a worksite of the new Gardeneers, a small organization started last fall that is bringing gardening services and education to public schools in the Chicago area. The group was founded by Adam and May Tsupros, and has already enrolled five schools. Four of their five locations have 90 percent or higher levels of subsidized lunches.

The conversation that day between the Gardeneers and the students included how to plant seeds and water them, the parts of plants and their functions, and the balance of nitrogen with other nutrients in the soil. Pickling came up, logically connected to the talk of cucumbers, and the kids rated the vegetables that they liked (and didn’t like) to eat.

Gardeneers’ new programs provide consistent support and curriculum on nutrition, biology and health to accompany the planting, nurturing and watering of seedlings by the students, some early in the spring on classroom windowsills. May explained, “About half of the schools that start gardens cannot maintain them through the school year. So we started a program to ensure that unused space is well maintained, all throughout the year.”

The Gardeneers are ambitious, aiming to grow the program to include 25 schools as early as next spring. They also hope, wherever possible, that the garden’s harvests will be used in the schools as supplements to snacks or meals. Because they are certified in Illinois’ Garden to Cafeteria program, they are well able to take the steps to manage food safely and to track their results.

As research shows, they are finding that the programs fill a need. “Many preschoolers don’t know what a root is, and they think that food only comes from a store,” said Adam. “The kids get excited when the radishes appear, and one girl told me that this was the first time she had ever tried lettuce.”

The curriculum is flexible and evolving – the lessons can involve biology, math, art, nutrition or practical skills like cooking. And the close observation and patience that students develop are good practice for scientific endeavors of all kinds. The Gardeneers also send students home with seeds and plants to care for, which invests children in the ups and downs of living organisms.

Their work is supported by foundation grants and funding for wellness programs at several of the schools. They form the latest addition to an active network of organizations in Chicago working to transform the urban landscape. With WBEZ Chicago and other partners, the group is currently planning an upcoming Day of Action in which the students will take their extra plants to houses in the neighborhood, and help residents to install their own small gardens.

One plant at a time and one student at a time, the Gardeneers are increasing awareness of healthier foods and showcasing the simple but practical steps needed to sustain them in the city.

You can read more about their efforts on Food Tank, and support their work here.

GardeneersThe Gardeneers –Margo Mejia, Randy Jamrok. May Tsupros, Amanda Fieldman and Adam Zmick.

FieldmanFieldman working with students at Rowe Elementary.

MejioMejia and students — the vegetable boxes (these were donated by partner Kitchen Community) hold heirloom and organic varieties courtesy of Seed Savers Exhange, including broccoli, lettuce, peas, peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, beets, spinach, eggplants, carrots, and herbs like basil, mint, rosemary, sage and lavender.

JamrokJamrok and students discover grown radishes. There was much excitement.

CompostLeftovers from a meal with the kids provides a lesson in worm composting.

Coming soon: an update on our own gardening adventures at home!

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A Facebook for Federal Bureaucrats, or What Real Government Transparency Might Look Like

LikeWatching Aneesh Chopra rather lamely defend the Obama Administration’s record on its use of information technology on The Daily Show this week, I was struck by the same problem that Stewart was struggling with — the very slow pace of change, and the unmistakeable disappointment that has set in concerning the early promises that were made by the incoming Obama folks way back when about sunshine in government.

More recently, the debacle of the Obamacare rollout became Exhibit A of government’s incompetence at a time when faith in government to take action about Things That Matter was the issue being debated. Of course, those serious hiccups have now been more or less resolved, and millions have used the Web and other means to enroll in the much-demonized health care coverage.

Although not without its flaws, this is a major advance, both for the country and for covered families and individuals. Perhaps one day soon (though presumably not before we all re-live it via the next election cycle), these significant positives will block out our collective trauma over that massive technical fail.

Yet the overall picture — including Stewart’s example of rampant mismanagement of the databases on veterans at the Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs — is dismal. While some groups at the state and federal level like the Sunlight Foundation continue to make progress on interactive tools for impacting proposed legislation in Congress or a statehouse, the federal agencies today remain largely impenetrable fortresses, accessible to lobbyists and others who know the ropes, but inexplicably mysterious for most Americans.

The federal departments, commissions and agencies preside over the details of all the rules that most affect the lives of millions of Americans, deciding everything from auto and consumer safety standards to environmental and business rules. While they do have to conduct a public process (called notice-and-comment rulemaking) on the most significant decisions, much of their internal workings remain shielded from any real public disclosure. Only the true Washington cognoscenti — and the allies they inform — are aware of the timing of rules and the process for commenting.

The text of these proposed rules, and I’ve suffered through more than 70 of them over the years, are written in dense bureacrat-ese, typically with lamentable passive voice and ample application of jargon. Although they all live on-line at regulations.gov, understanding the issues and what’s at stake in particular decisions is a form of inside baseball that is so complex that it almost always gives organized corporate stakeholders an outsized role in decisions.

Even if the public at large would benefit from a decision, they are simply unlikely to know about or be able to join the debate in a manner that evens the playing field. Underpowered non-profits like the ones I’ve worked for struggle along, staging battles on principle and always aware of their limited resources and the political realities.

Of course, the public’s larger interest could be represented by the Congress, which doles out assignments to the agencies. And sometimes a very strongly written law does result in a rule that is not too watered down by the inevitable industry response. But many of the best laws were enacted by a prior version of Congress, often several decades ago or longer, and some are showing their age.

Yet advocates are, for the most part, too frightened by the politics and dysfunction of the current Congress to suggest that they be re-written. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s war on campaign finance limitations, the money of corporate donors speaks even more loudly on the Hill today than it does within the agencies.

Of course, for better or worse, the agencies also answer to an elected official — the President. They could be much more vigorous defenders of the public interest if allowed to be. Although they must heed the language handed to them by Congress, within those terms, they have tremendous power and discretion over their enforcement activities and priorities. But whenever they do wield power in ways that business interests find unreasonable (often with rules that merely require business to internalize the costs of their actions), the conventional script allows them to be accused of unaccountability, facelessness and all the rest.

It occurs to me, then, that the real goal of government’s use of information technology should be to give the government a face. Or Facebook. Or Facebook-like tool, without ads or annoying apps.

The real information gap in Washington is not about databases that should be shared by federal agencies, though that should certainly be addressed forthwith. The problem is that the map of influence and power — identifying the decision makers, their powers, and the ways to engage them — is utterly obscure except to an elite few.

Today, agencies often hide their internal processes behind an exemption in the Freedom of Information Act that covers agency “deliberation.” This is a legal privilege that can be — though need not be — invoked if a federal agency wants the freedom to think about an issue inside the government before coming to a decision. The notion has some merit, as we do want agencies to think.

But it would be no impediment to require the federal agencies that conduct public business to publish information on a Web site about which employees within an agency are tasked with which decisions, and to put all of their meetings and meeting notes with outside parties also on-line as a routine matter. The expertise of government employees, their backgrounds and work history could be included in this “map” of who is thinking about what. Not everyone would need to be listed, of course, just those with decision-making power. And perhaps there’s other information that would belong on these pages as well.

Simply put, it should be far simpler for ordinary citizens to understand the arcane workings of an agency on an issue of concern to them, and to contact the right official if they have relevant information. When I worked on automotive safety, one of the best sources of information were retired engineers, a few of whom had worked for automakers and knew how their decisions happened. They sometimes had extraordinary amounts of information about industry’s bad habits, but no one to tell. A truly transparent government structure might similarly elicit troves of surprising and useful information from sources that remain unidentified today.

Unlike combining millions of government records, this system could be built fresh across the agencies as new hires are made. I’m a staunch believer in the idea that most of our government’s civil servants are nobly trying to do the right thing. It would be of great assistance to our tired political debate about the “role of government” if the agencies looked less like blobs and more like real people doing their jobs — you know, the ones that Congress (and therefore, we the people) gave them.

With the unleashing of the money rules for elected officials thanks to SCOTUS, it’s also our next best line of defense. But the agencies today are under siege, and have been for decades. Figuring out how to engage the public far more directly in their important decisions would better equip them to stand up for their legal principles, and defend the actual public interests at stake. Who knows? It might even lead to some stronger health, safety and environmental rules, thereby showing government at its best.

The agencies have breathed life into accomplishments ranging from the Clean Water Act to the rules that took lead out of gasoline. It’s not that they don’t make mistakes (see No Child Left Behind), but we should be able to talk to them when they are screwing it up more directly. We need them to succeed and be understood, and not to be so easily demonized. As long direct conversations with agency officials are generally reserved for issue experts and corporate lobbyists, the democracy part of our project remains an up-hill fight both inside and outside their walls.

So innovate on that, please. Information transparency is nice — all well and good. Figuring out a workable, clear system to create influence transparency, however — now that’s a ticket for institutional transformation.

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A Walk in the Woods and a Poem

IMG_1211When I walk with my daughter Maya in the woods, I’m often torn between two competing impulses. The urge to discover together and to explain — to point out the wonders of a worm or seed or changing leaf — does battle with the need for silence, for soaking it all in.

Letting Maya lead the way is a solution of sorts — she darts about, looking and poking, asking questions or not. Unlike the Waldorf teacher I spoke with this week, I don’t think facts about nature are a burden to the mind, and try to answer her — or look up new information — as I can. She is a budding naturalist, at any rate, always wondering what different animals eat, where seeds live in the dirt, and which sprouts in the lawn are the onion grass she knows she can munch on.

Amidst the lessons, though, there is still the mysterious mystery, as she put it the other day. There is a quiet place where information is not the point. And ensuring that children get into the woods in an unmediated way — and have a direct confrontation with Life (and our relevance or irrelevance to its systems) — is essential.

Years back, I wrote a poetic response to Mary Oliver’s wonderful poem, Wild Geese, that hits upon these themes, and I thought of it again recently as the spring weather has brought us more time playing outdoors.

The argument from design

begins with meticulous veins in this mulberry leaf
and ends with God.  But I say it’s a long way from
lichen to leaf to omniscience, and in that journey one must account

for sea creatures that reproduce without sex, whatever sense that makes,
and for mass extinctions, the great blow-ups and die-offs,
and where does silliness come from in this telling?

It’s so serious to look at an oak and find the how
and why we’re here that I can’t bear to live in such a place,
under a heavy hand signing itself by virtue of its own complexity

mistaking a system which lives and dies with reasons
for living and dying — origins, organs knit together,
entangled like only tautologies are. Too easy lessons stolen

from the absent quiet of the woods, or unwitting peace
of geese and wind above a pond. I fail
to see how it explains the central flaw of us, our

pained self-consciousness.
A garden without us is no feat at all, yet there’s
no hint of plans for us inside

that vague, enormous mind. Instead, the delicate
web, reliant on knowing all reasons.
And why make something so delightful just to hand it,

thoughtlessly, to children,
with our violence, our near-total lack of knowing,
our terrible need to know.

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Welcome to the Plutocracy

PlutocracyAs you may have heard, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled in McCutcheon v. FEC that wealthy individuals cannot be limited in the overall amount they can give to political candidates. The First Amendment, which last time I checked does not mention money at all, allegedly now bars any limitation on the total amount of moola that rich folks can shovel in the direction of elected officials.

The 5-to-4 decision split along political lines and overturned decades of settled law, as well as many state limits grounded in anti-corruption principles. The majority decision is rife with such broad (and utterly daffy) generalizations about the nature of speech and political life that it also makes clear that the Court is frighteningly likely, in the not-so-distant future, to strike down any kind of contribution limit.

The former aggregate contribution limit of merely $123,000 per federal election was such a drag on my own political giving, as I’m sure it was on yours. I totally had more money than that saved up to spend on every election cycle (I’ve been clipping coupons!), and I’m glad to see that all that green stuff I have laying around in piles can finally go to good use buying influence for my pet projects.

In truth, out of a country of 314 million, only 1,300 people maxed out the prior cap on political contributions in the last election cycle. What a crisis! I can see why the Supremes thought this decision was worth their time.

Of course, some of these large donors may be cursing the outcome, as their phones are already ringing off the hook, and now they won’t be able to escape pols’ persistent dial-a-thons until they’ve dished out $3.2 million, or 30 times the old limit. As Lawrence Lessig put it on Diane Rehm this morning, the decision narrowed the number of people who are at all politically relevant in the money race from the old high of a mere 120,000 people to an even smaller pool of 40,000, or about the number of people in the U.S. named Sheldon.

The Court’s majority opinion is an activist one in the classic sense, yet is oddly disingenuous about its impact on established law. The majority is also not above boot-strapping: yesterday’s decision relies on the secret flow of campaign funds created by Citizens United as a basis for taking down yet more limits, without acknowledging the situation was actually created by the Court.

And in a hypocritical break with oft-hyped principles of constitutional textualism, the Court ignored a key brief filed by Lessig that analyzed the Framer’s uses of the term “corruption,” instead delivering a decision out-of-step with the historical record. Indeed, the case is a harbinger of bad decisions to come because it signals that a key idea — that political money can create an “appearance of corruption” — has evaporated as a matter of law.

Even the dissenters appeared surprised that the Court’s official definition of political corruption now contains only outright bribery. (In fact, the erosion began when then-Solicitor General Elana Kagan threw a key case on appearance of corruption under the bus during the oral argument for Citizens United. Now the damage from abandoning a broader description for political corruption is plain.)

Still, cramped legal arguments aside, the level of cluelessness from the conservative majority about how Washington already more-or-less operates is breathtaking. What we all know in our hearts to be true is actually the case, and not just on House of Cards. To state the painfully obvious: I’ve been in a room in the Congress with a handful of big-money political donors, and seen with my own eyes how their influence is greater than that of 1000 mere voters, even when the money is merely in the background, and not on the table. These are the folks that Roberts thinks need protecting because they are despised — you know, like flag-burners and Nazis.

What he fails to acknowledge is that they are at the heart of the system, not its outskirts. The rich get different meetings, including sometimes in the Oval Office or with committee chairs, and with actual elected officials instead of staff flunkies. They get their phone calls returned, promptly. Meanwhile the rest of us, even those lucky Washingtonians who are officially designated advocates working on issues that a member of Congress or two is supposedly interested in, twiddle our thumbs, waiting around nervously for a return call like a shy schoolgirl from the 1950s.

As a 2012 brilliant TAL episode on the Washington shake-down pointed out, the open secret in Washington is that elected officials need donors more than donors (except, perhaps, the most craven ones) need them. The parties impose fundraising quotas on everyone, including specific levels of money to be raised by new members, committee chairs, and for leadership positions, and every lawmaker also must raise their own dough or look like a sitting duck. The post-Citizens United explosion in Super-PAC spending made this considerably worse — making every candidate more insecure because any one of them could face unknown amounts of last-minute spending by shadowy front groups.

Lifting the aggregate limits, as the Court just did in McCutcheon, may be even more damaging than the inevitable move to eliminate the remaining limits on direct contributions to candidates. Why? Because it substantially raises the potential value of very wealthy donors for larger groups of party electeds. The value of a donor, in the mind of every politician, is their ability to give early and often to the enterprise. Being able to turn-key a political gift to another pol through a joint fund-raising committee or other means is almost as good — and in some cases, might be even better — than collecting it for yourself, because it creates a new ally and obligation while supporting the party. Back-scratching, log-rolling, call it what you will — that’s the actual coin of the realm.

These factors also explain the inherent limits in the power of small donors under the current set of operating rules. And while the growth in smaller donors has been significant in Presidential elections, smaller gifts are harder to collect in less-publicized races. Even the recent efforts to organize smaller donations would have been unlikely to take root without many of the very reforms being struck down by the Court, reforms that, for a brief time, required political parties to look elsewhere besides to the rich and powerful for funds.

The major push for collecting political money emanates from and around Washington, not from individuals clamoring in the marketplace of ideas to be heard, as Roberts and his ilk conjure up in the opinion. When I was, briefly, a legislative director for an organization with a small PAC, I suddenly started getting voicemails from elected officials on my personal cell phone. “Hi, I’m Representative So-and-so,” they would say. “I would really love to talk with you about coming to my event next week.” After a decade of working around Washington advocating on important issues of public health, it was gratifying that actual members of Congress were now so keenly interested in my “political speech”!

I actually don’t fault politicians: it’s currently impossible to know who is really in Congress for the right reasons, because this is how we define their job. But the notion that this kind of routine exchange between two functionaries — sickening, undignified, and clearly self-interested in the narrowest sense — is about anybody’s First Amendment freedom is ludicrous. It’s a classic shake-down, often loathed by both sides, and legalized by an elaborate tap-dance that keeps everyone, barely, on the right side of what otherwise might look a lot like bribery.

Thankfully, in our own dear country (unlike in many places around the world) there is no shortage of political speech, either through money or the more traditional act of actually speaking. If anything, we talk our problems to death, until the solutions expire of boredom and inaction. Instead, the problem with the ineffectiveness of our politics has been, to mangle George Orwell, that some folks’ speech is more equal than others’.

Those who oppose change are often the ones who have the most to gain from stasis. So it makes sense that amassed wealth is inherently anti-reform, both because money represents a victory under the current rules of the game, and because the wealthy have the most — quite literally — to lose. When lawmakers’ livelihoods are roped inextricably to the continued success of the wealthy donors they must court to stay in office and keep their standing in Congress, there is little doubt that democracy has been replaced with something else, and that real change, no matter how justified, will be far harder to achieve.

It’s hard to see why a democracy captured by a few billionaires would care about the callousness of auto companies that fail to repair a defect that would have cost 90 cents per vehicle to fix and cost at least 13 people their lives, as in the recent case of the Chevy Cobalt. Or begin to address the pending catastrophe of climate change, or enact meaningful chemical reform, or do a thousand other difficult things that need to be done but impose real costs on the current economic winners in our system as it is.

Already in America, rich folks live more than a decade longer than the poor. While Roberts is waxing poetic about the First Amendment needing to pad further protections around the wealthiest .0004 percent (or 1300 out of 314 million), we must be building a movement for real and lasting change.

Although I’d been a skeptic on this strategy prior to this moment, I’m now hoping that the Court’s latest boneheaded decision will be enough to jump-start a social movement for a Constitutional Amendment clarifying that corporations really are not people and that the First Amendment doesn’t mean “freedom of money” when it clearly just says “freedom of speech.”

Without these eminently reasonable clarifications, we’ll have a Constitution and a Congress that only work for corporations and the very, very rich. While it’s a long haul to get an Amendment passed, where the Court is headed is clear. We can start to fight today, or lose our country as we know it someday soon.

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Let the Wild Rumpus Start: 100+ Dazzling Literary Adventures for Young Children

Where-the-wild-things-areVery few books are as perfect as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.  That classic tale of naughtiness combines slightly unsettling images with an imaginative adventure story and a comforting return home for Max at the end. It’s a delicious, bittersweet puff of a tale, with an undercurrent of menace, just as it should be.

Here’s what I like in a book for kids ages 3 to 5: an economy of words that starts the story in the middle or at least in some wonderful, surprising place; incredible illustrations from an artistic point of view; and a clever storyline with some emotional truth to it. Children, like adults, need books that help them work through their concerns, feel brave and scared at the same time, and lift their spirits. Is this too much to ask? I don’t think so.

It makes such a difference, as I’ve mentioned, having wonderful stuff to read rather than plowing through a pile of mediocre pablum produced for younger kids as a way to inaugurate them into a Disneyfied, Dora-land marketing juggernaut. The point is that the books you choose should show your kids all the amazing things that books can do — and that you should not merely endure your time spent reading with your child, you should be delighted by it.

So I’ve pulled together a list of books (and authors) I’ve stumbled across that deliver nicely in a least some of these areas. As you’ll notice, I’m fond of gorgeous illustrations and simple but surprising stories. I tried to include a mix of well-known (read: blindingly obvious) books or authors with a few of our own discoveries, so that the list is a cheat sheet for folks new to the world of kiddie lit as well as those with more familiarity (none of the links are commissioned):

No-Miss Authors

For the Youngest Set (0-2 years)

  • Mother Goose (some traditional forms of this include bits that are dated or odd)
  • Everywhere Babies, by Susan Meyers: One of the cutest books ever. I still choke up at the end. Every. Time.
  • Good Night Gorilla, by Peggy Rathman: An insomniac gorilla liberates the zoo.
  • Owl Babies, by Martin Waddell: Baby owls think a lot. And miss their mommy.
  • The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats: This quiet classic still casts a magical spell.
  • Harold and the Purple Crayon, by Crockett Johnson: The original draw-a-world adventure.
  • A Splendid Friend, Indeed, by Suzanne Bloom: Who hasn’t been annoyed by an intrusive goose at one time or another?
  • The Midnight Farm, by Reeve Lindberg and Susan Jeffers: A lovely late-night tour of a farm and all the sleeping animals.
  • You Are My I Love You, by Maryann Cusimano Love: A love poem to a child.
  • Kitten’s First Full Moon, by Kevin Henkes: The moon is a bowl of milk.
  • First the Egg, by Laura Vaccaro Seeger: Cut-outs create a narrative about the origins of life.
  • Honey, Honey, Lion or The Umbrella, by Jan Brett: Two vividly drawn tales featuring a wide array of wonderfully exotic animals.
  • Books by Eric Carle: His wonderful illustrations lift up the simplest stories.
  • Gossie, by Olivier Dunrea: The Gossie books are both succinct and sweet.
  • Hopper Hunts for Spring, by Marcus Pfister: Soft focus watercolors, a bunny and a bear looking for a new friend.
  • Where’s the Cat? by Stella Blackstone: Maya adored this bright and funky book with its hidden, playful cat.
  • Sometimes I Like to Curl Up in a Ball, by Vicki Churchill and Charles Fuge: So no one can see me/because I’m so small. The whole series of wombat books by these two is adorable.

Enduring Classics

Fables

  • The Woodcutter’s Coat, by Ferida Wolff: Maya adores the ridiculous illustrations in this healing journey that a coat takes.
  • Puff the Magic Dragon, by Peter Yarrow and Lenny Lipton: The words of the song, with fantastical illustrations to match its bittersweet tune.
  • Mr. Lucky Straw, by Elizabeth Lane: Unexpected blessings spring from generosity of spirit.
  • Christopher’s Harvest Time and Pelle’s New Suit, by Elsa Beskow: Garden plants each have their own song in this slightly affected, but daffy-enough-to-charm tale. Pelle’s ingenuity and hard work, not the sheep, earns him a new blue suit.
  • Milo and the Magical Stones, by Marcus Pfister: A story with two endings that highlight the value of gratitude.
  • Kaito’s Cloth, by Glenda Millard: A whimsical, poetic story of a girl and her kite.
  • Mirandy and Brother Wind, by Patricia McKissack: Mirandy needs Brother Wind for a dance partner.
  • The Tomten, by Astrid Lindgren: Having a Tomten protecting the farm at night brings comfort.
  • Anansi and the Magic Stick, by Eric Kimmel and Janet Stevens: The Anansi stories are terrific trickster tales, and this one doesn’t disappoint.
  • Annie and the Wild Animals, by Jan Brett: Annie wants a pet, not these wild creatures that keep coming around.
  • The Tale of Tricky Fox, by Jim Aylesworth and Barbara McClintock: Maya loves the sing-song taunt of Mr. Tricky, and his come-uppance too.
  • Strega Nona, by Tomie de Paola: A pasta pot, a witch and a spell that won’t quit. Basically, Anansi as your Grandma.

Christmas Favorites

Celebrating Family, Culture and Connection

  • Three Cheers for Catherine the Great, by Cari Best: A birthday party for a Russian Grandma shows the best present is a loving family.
  • Paperwhite, by Nancy Elizabeth Wallace: A sweet story of a little girl, her neighbor, and a bulb that marks the coming of spring.
  • The Palace of Stars, by Patricia Lakin: Amanda and her Uncle Max have an outing, and it’s Amanda’s treat.
  • Wild Rose’s Weaving, by Ginger Churchill: Weaving together the earth and the art.
  • Osa’s Pride, by Ann Grifalconi: Osa learns what’s really important about pride.
  • Nonna’s Birthday Surprise, by Lidia Bastianich: What could be better than a visit to a farmer’s market and teaching a gaggle of grandkids to make pasta primavera?
  • Dream Carver, by Diana Cohn: Mateo has a vision for carving and painting animals that he hopes his father will like.
  • Thunder Cake, by Patricia Polacco: The gumption needed to make a Thunder Cake is just what’s required to brave the weather. Plus a recipe for chocolate cake that uses overripe tomatoes!
  • Mole Music, by David McPhail: With hard work and persistence, Mole’s music works miracles.
  • Little Mouse’s Painting, by Diane Wolkstein: Intricate, colorful illustrations for a story that manages to be about both artistic perspective and friendship.

Working it Through: Funny, Thoughtful Books on Fears and Obsessions

Out in the World

  • The Zoom trilogy, by Tim Wynne-Jones: Zoom the cat surfs the ocean, goes to the Arctic, and visits ancient Egypt in this gorgeous Canadian trilogy.
  • The Garden of Abdul Ghasazi, by Chris Van Allsburg: A dog strays into the wrong garden, and a little boy has to muster the courage to follow.
  • The Stone Wall Dragon, by Rochelle Draper: A boy takes a tour to the shore after a stone wall comes alive and becomes a friendly dragon.
  • Stellaluna, by Janell Cannon: Stunning illustrations make this story about difference and identity magical.
  • My Friend Rabbit, by Eric Rohmann: Rabbit always makes trouble. But he has good ideas, like stacking hippos on elephants. A clever Caldecott Honor book.
  • Owl Moon, by Jane Yolen: Owling in the snow by moonlight with a girl and her dad.
  • Sophy and Auntie Pearl, by Jeanne Titherington: A daft, light-hearted spree about Sophy’s flying adventures with her aunt.
  • Library Lion, by Michelle Knudsen: There’s a lion in the library. And he’s quite a sensitive helpmate, for a lion.
  • Mossy, by Jan Brett: One of the most beautifully illustrated books ever, about a turtle with a garden on its carapace and art as imitation of nature.
  • The Olivia books, by Ian Falconer: So much personality, so little time.
  • The Ghost Library, by David Melling: A cartoonish romp with stories nestled inside stories that ends up teaching kids how to write their own book.
  • The Empty Pot, by Demi: The empty truth trumps the most fabulous flower.
  • Miss Rumphius, by Barbara Cooney: An Independent Woman, spreading lupines.
  • Merlina and the Magic Spell, by Daniel Drescher: Haunting illustrations by Drescher make this odd little book about a sorceress and her dragon memorable.

Historical Interest

  • The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder: We love every one of this series of beautifully illustrated parts of the classic books edited and drawn for preschoolers.
  • Thy Friend, Obediah, by Brinton Turkle: Obediah has a new feathered friend and he’s not sure what he thinks about it. A period piece set in colonial Boston.
  • Warm as Wool, by Scott Russell Sanders: This honest take on early settler life has some hard truths (and dead sheep) in it, but ends up rewarding the risk.
  • William’s House, by Ginger Howard: William designs a house better suited for his family’s new home in the New World.
  • Dandelions,by Eve Bunting and Greg Shed: Perhaps better for slightly older children, a story of loneliness and home-making on the wide, empty prairie.

Wordless Wonders

  • Flotsam, by David Wiesner: A spectacular visual tour of ocean wonders no one has ever seen before.
  • The Snowman, by Raymond Briggs: A boy takes flight with his snowman friend.
  • Journey, by Aaron Becker: A girl slips through a door into a new kingdom with just her magic crayon in hand, liberating a magical bird along the way.
  • The Lion and the Mouse, by Jerry Pinkney: The classic Aesop’s fable, told vividly through images.

For Kindergartners and Up

  • The Tunnel, by Anthony Browne: An edgy sibling rivalry turns into an inspired rescue. Truly creepy images in several spots.
  • Blow Away Soon, by Betsy James: To deal with loss we must appease the wind.
  • The Peaceable Kingdom, by Ewa Zadrynska: Animals escape from the paintings in the Brooklyn Museum. What can be done?
  • Weslandia, by Paul Fleischman: Nerds rule, finally. I adore this triumphant recreation of a new micro-world of self-sufficiency in the heart of suburbia.
  • Emily, by Michael Bedard: A girl dares to speak to a reclusive poet named Emily. Yes, that one.
  • Klara’s New World, by Jeanette Winter: The story of a crossing to the New World by Swedish immigrants, from a young girl’s perspective. Some mature topics like death are covered.
  • The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery: A fox who delivers a lecture on love. An evening of many sunsets. There is little better than this classic, once your child is old enough to love it like you do.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne: As soon as you can get away with it, ditch the numerous fake versions of these stories and go for the real deal.
  • The Evening King, by David LaRochelle: No one can get in the way of the imagination when a young boy wants to dream.
  • The Three Questions, by Jon J. Muth: A gorgeous story based on Tolstoy.
  • The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams: Perfection, of course.
  • Snowflake Bentley, by Jacqueline Briggs Martin: An amateur photographer is the first one to figure out how to photograph a snowflake and their crystalline variations.
  • A Symphony of Whales, by Steve Schuch: Trapped whales and the song that sets them free.
  • Sector 7, by David Wiesner: Another wordless wonder of a tale about the power of art to remake reality.
  • The Brave Little Tailor, by Olga Dugina and Andrej Dugin: A fantastical version of the Grimms story about the tailor and his seven dead flies.
  • Maria Molina and the Days of the Dead, by Kathleen Krull: A Mexican family celebrates the Day of the Dead with their community.
  • Fu Finds the Way, by John Rocco: A tea ceremony done with purpose, flow and patience saves the day.
  • Books by Graeme Base: Vivid, exquisite, animal stories that are a feast for the senses, sometimes involving a visual puzzle or two.

What are your favorites to read to your child? I can’t wait to hear, so please do share in the comments!

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Dump Dora, and 7 More Tips to Help You Enjoy Reading to Your Young Child

IMG_2974 We all know we’re supposed to read to our kids. And while I often truly love our snuggle time with a book, reading to a child — let’s be honest — can also sometimes feel like a bit of a chore. Especially the third time that we’re both plodding through the same book in a row.

And I’m a notorious bookworm! As a child, I was such an avid reader that I would walk and read at the same time, floating obliviously through the hallways of my elementary school like a bespectacled nerd zombie.

Still, reading is one of those no-compromise parental duties. Despite decades of programs like “Stop, Drop and Read,” many children are not read to enough by parents or caregivers, and the richness of the “print environment” for kids varies widely and tragically among neighborhoods and income levels.

James Trelease’s classic, “The Read-Aloud Handbook,”  notes these differences in fairly stark terms according to social class. He writes about a 2005 study of 42 families over 1,300 hours of observations, and starts with the similarities:

Regardless of socioeconomic level, all 42 families said and did the same things with their children…. [But] when the daily number of words for each group of children is projected across four years, the four-year-old from the “professional” family will have heard 45 million words, the “working-class” child 26 million, and the “welfare” child only 13 million.

That’s a gap of 32 million words, which is a lot for schools to cope with when kids start kindergarten. Trelease goes on to explain that although all those conversations help to develop the brain and interest kids in what can be accomplished with language, spoken words are not enough.

Turns out that kids need exposure to words, images and concepts outside of things like “where are your shoes?” and “finish your spinach.” To better stoke their imagination, equip children with a wide range of “background knowledge,” and keep pace with the fact that kids’ comprehension far outstrips their ability to speak, we must expose them to all the “rare” words in books:

Whereas an adult uses only nine rare words (per thousand) when talking with a three-year-old, there are three times as many in a children’s book and more than seven times as many in a newspaper.

So, how should we think about the job of reading to our kids in a way that makes it fun for both parents and children? And what really matters in the act of reading a book, anyway? While I found Trelease’s book was mostly a screed on educational policies about reading, he did have a few good tips (and includes helpful reading lists by age group at the back).

IMG_2978

Here’s his useful insights plus a few of my own, picked up along the way:

  1. The most important: Make reading a snuggly, relaxed time from the very start. Beginning with your newborn, read as many books as they seem interested in with an easygoing manner. Spread focused times for reading out across the day, and extend the time as the child remains interested. (By the time Maya was 10 months old, we were looking at books for at least an hour a day. It’s easier to find and make this time if TV and other screens are not in the equation.) Don’t force reading time, and discontinue it if your child becomes uninterested. As they get older, talk with them about how nice it is to read together, and make it a habit. We snuggle with books first thing in the morning, before dinner, and at bedtime, at a minimum. Singing your way through Mother Goose is a nice way to be with a toddler, and the rhymes are contagious and help with memory development to boot.
  2. Create a text-rich environment: Leave baskets of books near play areas and around the house where they are easily accessible without adult help. For toddlers, books near the potty areas are a no-brainer. Keep a mix of books, including board books, around, but focus on reading the ones that are more challenging to your child at that developmental moment, and let them look through the simpler ones by themselves unless asked you’re specifically to read those, more or less for old times’ sake. And think about playing with letters and text! Put magnet letters on the fridge, make felt shapes in letter forms for a felt board, play with tracing letters and building them (here’s a nifty set I really like, despite the plastic!), print your names and trace them, etc.
  3. Build patience and stamina for stories by sustaining interest: According to Trelease, by the age of three, most children should be able to endure some stories with longer blocks of age-appropriate text on one page of a two-page spread. Alternate picture books with more textually dense, but well-paced, stories. Audiobooks can also be used to build patience for listening, as they ask kids to use their imagination: start with books they know (we like both The Polar Express, and Blueberries for Sal), and then branch off into new books. When reading, ask questions about the text, prompting your child for predictions about the contents of a new book based on the cover to develop observational skills, or connecting the subjects to something they know (“we picked blueberries, didn’t we?”). Be ambitious in picking stories that keep introducing new subjects, places and kinds of people, and that ask for patience from your child. They will let you know when you’ve gone too far!
  4. Introduce books as beloved creations: Read the name of the author or illustrator, explaining that’s who wrote or drew in the book. Insist that books be treated with care and respect, and ask your child to help keep them neat and organized. Three- and four-year-olds can make books as an easy craft, drawing pictures on folded paper and “binding” them with yarn tied through two punched holes. You can act as scribe for their book ideas, and help them write out a story, talk about and do illustrations, and read it aloud back to them.
  5. Change it up: To combat boredom (mostly for me!) and maintain interest, I like to have a lot of books around to choose from. (While I liked many of the suggestions in the parenting book, Simplicity Parenting, I was staggered by the suggestion that a child needs only 12 books! That’s just absurd.) If you’re like me, you’ll need to find ready sources for cheap books (or time for weekly trips to the library). Luckily, book and library sales, garage and yard sales, thrift stores and used books from online sources are all good options. I like to circulate books, moving them from the playroom to the bedroom and back again about every three months, and getting rid of the ones that are no longer needed. A little re-org on a Saturday morning does wonders for making our collection “new.” Because we have storage space and to keep our many books affordable, books are another thing I buy ahead when I see classics on sale for pennies at the thrift store. When you have limited time to ascertain a book’s quality (or attend as Darwinian a library sale as the one here in Takoma Park — LOL), I’ve found it’s helpful to eyeball the quality of the illustrations. Beautifully designed images or drawings, often by someone other than the author, are a tell-tale sign of more thoughtful execution and expense by publishers.
  6. Dump Dora. Really. Yes, my dear daughter also is drawn to the unnaturally wide-eyed perky wonder that is Dora the Explorer. But over time, I have painstakingly weeded out all of those books, as well as ones starring “The Wiggles,” or containing any Disney princess-y BS or other objectionably idiotic, marketing-driven nonsense. Why? Because they are painfully unpleasant and dull to read, lack a plot or any character development, and are poorly drawn to boot. Anything I don’t enjoy reading is out. I can’t tell you how much this simple principle has improved both our lives since I became a merciless hard-liner for quality reading material. Do it! You won’t regret it one minute. (Still need convincing? Just order or borrow any book by Jan Brett and read it aloud back-to-back with some commercialized dreck that found its way onto your bookshelf like an unwelcome house-guest, and then you tell me.)
  7. Re-write as you read: Since I have a daughter, I can’t help noticing that most books are stuck in, say, 1975, when it comes to gender pronouns. The default of a male persona for animals and other characters is irritating. So I just read them as “she.” I’ll also soften some scary parts of fairy tales a bit to lessen the blow. More fun, though, is playing silly games with substitutions when I find myself reading the same book six times in two days. I’ll sub in preposterous first letters for the existing words (so it becomes “Bleen Beggs and Bam”), and make Maya correct me. Or I’ll add in odd adjectives, nouns or verbs (“Purple Eggs and Spam” ) and insist that they are right. Sometimes pickles just appear at odd moments in the story. The wackier, the better. On occasion, Maya wants the comfort of repetition rather than a game, and she lets me know! But other times, this silliness keeps familiar books alive for both of us, and makes her giggle at me while showing off what she knows better than mommy.
  8. Let imitation be flattery:  When your child talks, don’t correct their language, but do repeat, like a parenting parrot, what they say much of the time by subtly filling in their intentions. For example: “Mom, park today.” becomes, in your words, “You went to the park today?” Fill in and translate emotions for them as well (“Were you sad about that?  You seem sad. You were sad at the park today.”) I’ve used repetition consistently since Maya started speaking until now (she is 3 and a half). While it seemed strange at first to repeat nearly everything she said in a conversational tone, after a little while it felt perfectly natural, and the impact on her vocabulary and grammar is obvious. This modeling of course works the way ’round as well, so let your child catch you reading. Obviously, it’s more difficult to raise a reader if you are not reading books, with interest, yourself. In this age of the digital, young children won’t connect your time in front of a laptop with reading a book. Making sure that books are a feature of your own free time when possible (including reading aloud from recipe books when you cook together!) will bring home the message that books and reading are a life-long pleasure, and a key to life in the larger world.

What’s missing from this list? I don’t think (and research agrees) that pushing academic-style phonics lessons on children is a good idea, unless the child repeatedly asks for more information about learning to read without parental prompting. Fostering a sense of self-directed intellectual curiosity is the point, and that can be stifled by pressure to learn.

While a few very young children do pick up reading easily on their own, and that’s fine, the goal of all this is to ensure that reading is exciting, pleasurable and a point of connection for parents and kids. Stay tuned for my next post on dazzling adventure stories for young children!

Do you have tips for me? I’d love to hear them!

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Foxy: An Easy Tutorial for a Needle Felted Fox

IMG_2577In legends and myths from cultures around the world, the trickster is always the most interesting character. And they are often a fox, as in the book, The Tale of Tricky Fox, which features an addictive little sing-song and dance by the fellow.

So having a fox around to make trouble is useful. For one, if someone happens to do something naughty, both parent and child can blame it on that wily vulpine visitor.

Making a fox toy for your child is a fun little project as well. Below are simple instructions for needle felting your own personal trickster. I would estimate the project takes about ten hours or so, so it’s best tackled in front of some TV series you’ve been waiting to dive into. (I suggest Downton Abbey, so you can poke yourself with the needle every time Matthew is on-screen, to get used to the pain. Or you could just watch the Bill-and-Ted dance Foxy Lady on an endless loop. Totally up to you.)

As I’ve mentioned, I find needle felting a rewarding craft in which it’s shockingly easy to make something adorable, like this sheep or other animals. Once you’ve tackled the fundamentals a few times, you can make almost anything. It’s also very forgiving: you can easily change your mind about an addition or reshape the object as you go. The popularity of the sheep tutorial is what inspired me to offer up another one for this fox, but the principles are similar for both furry creatures.

Children — those over around 5 or 6 years old, depending on their level of patience and coordination — would also be able to make something this way, though you should probably start them on small cookie cutters and flat shapes first. Wet felting — like these Easter eggs — is great for that age and for younger crafters.

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A block of some material that can be poked (since I bought this poly foam, which is really the only un-green thing about the craft, I found a shop selling foam rubber, which I have not used but would be greener);
  • A few felting needles (they break easily, so you’ll want a few to start, from Amazon or far better priced in bulk from wool shops like one, which usefully color coats their needle sets, or this shop on Etsy). Definitely pick up some larger needles, like a 38 gauge, as well as finer ones for finishing. As a favorite supplier explains:

    The needles are available in several sizes or “gauges.”  Most dry felting work, done with medium grade wool, uses 36 or 38 gauge.  For finer surface work, or finer fibers, move up to 38 star or 40 gauge.  For coarser fibers, move down to 32 gauge.

  • A wooden handle for the needle if you like;
  • Some sharp scissors or wire cutters;
  • Some roving in colors suited for your project (on Amazon here, or from a much better and cheaper selection on Etsy, e.g., here or here; you can also find even more eco-friendly plant dyed selections). Avoid superwash roving, which is used in spinning but which is not good for needle felting. To make the fox, you’ll need a fair amount of rusty red and off-white and a little black; and
  •  Two pipecleaners. Any color will work for this project.

The concept is straightforward: the needles are barbed, and each poke knits the roving together, eventually becoming more solid. The only rule is to keep the needle moving straight up and down, as the tip breaks easily.

The other precaution is to try to keep from poking your fingers, as the needles are super-sharp. This does not keep me from doing it in front of the television, though, so some injury is likely inevitable. Tant pis.

How to make the fox:

IMG_2519Start by forming an oblong ball in off-white roving and using the larger gauge needle to poke it into shape for the body. Continue turning the oblong over as you felt the roving, keeping the level of felting roughly uniform on all sides and front and back ends. Our fox was about four inches long and two inches high on the sides of the body. As it shrinks from being poked, lay more flat strands of felt around it to maintain the same approximate size. Leave the neck area a little less worked than the other portions of the body.

IMG_2520When you have a shape with the basic dimensions you’d like, but before it gets too tight and packed in, thread two pipecleaners through the approximate front and hind quarters of the fox-to-be, cut them at the appropriate leg length plus a smidge to allow for bending the tips in, and fold the wire tips over to make feet. Stand it up a few times to make sure you’ve gotten the lengths right, and adjust as needed.

IMG_2522Then make the head by forming and poking a ball separate from the body. Start with a oval, and as you work with it and it starts to respond better to the needle, angle the front and sides to create an elongated triangle. Foxes are all angles and snout in the front. Keeping a ridge where the eyes and ears will go is important as well, as above. Again, leave the neck less worked so as to allow for it to be easily attached to the body.

IMG_2523Add the formed head to the body, layering strips of additional wool around the ridge on the top of the head and the neck as needed.

IMG_2524Layer on the red by pulling to extract flattened pieces of roving, laying them onto the body and poking into place where you want it. Where you put your needle is where the wool will go. Look at images of foxes on-line as you may need: foxes have white underbellies, and red coats on top, with red markings on the top of their heads and white jaws below their noses.

IMG_2527IMG_2528 After you get the wool tacked onto the body as you need, add a layer of red wool to the legs as well, taking care not to break your needle on the wire inside the pipecleaner. Poke to the side of the wire, and around.

IMG_2531 IMG_2530Next make the ears by poking a small amount of red roving into a pointy triangle and leaving the bottom less worked. Attach to each side of the head at an angle. Finish all four legs and both ears.
IMG_2535IMG_2529IMG_2536Next, add a less-worked long clump of roving for the basic part of the tail. Work the attached part well into the body.

IMG_2539 IMG_2563Add a layer of black roving to the feet, with less density as it goes up the leg. In the uppermost picture, the left leg shows the worked roving and the right leg shows the work-in-progress.

IMG_2567Add black to the tail, and then a white tip.

IMG_2564 IMG_2565Needle features from very small amounts of roving into the face, including black and white touches in the ears and above the eyes. Add a little more red to the back of the ears if necessary to keep the black from showing through. Add white to fill out the belly and create a nice line.

Adjust the head shape as you like, checking it against pictures. Pay close attention to felting the details — there is a moment when the felt starts to respond to each poke, allowing you to shape your creature’s character and look. Don’t fret if things are perfectly symmetrical, as some differences add to the life-like imperfections.

You can always attempt a more artistic version than I did — many of the most life-like needle-felted foxes on-line have more loose roving to mimic fur on top. Since I intended it to take some damage as a toy, I made it more felted than this gorgeous artisan furball of a fox, for example. You can also get more fancy with adding small glass eyes from craft stores or on-line sources, as you wish.

IMG_2569Ready for mischief!

(As usual, none of the above links are commissioned.)

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Parenting Through the Fog: 8 of My Personal “Truths”

IMG_0505 No one can tell you what kind of parent to be. Instead, it’s a long performance, consisting of attempts, failures, mistakes, experiments, accidents, snips, scrapes and sniffles and — when you’re lucky — unexpected harmony and delirious puffs of joy.

So it’s with that humility in mind that I offer up some insights from the scads of parenting books I’ve perused over the past few years. Through the mist of what made sense to me (an arbitrary lens if ever there was one), I have managed to discern what I could now call a sketchy and ever-subject-to-revision Parenting Approach. Taking all this uncertainty into account, below are a few guideposts from the research I’ve managed to get under my belt that I use currently to light my way.

Some of them may surprise any loyal reader who knows I’m a sucker for fuzzy crafts, because they are not very fuzzy-wuzzy. I’m a strict-ish parent, actually, on matter of behavior. And I’ll be the first to admit that any or all of the below may not work for your family. Every child and parent is different. If one lesson is clear, it’s that paying close attention to our particular child trumps a set of written instructions, any day.

IMG_0503Nonetheless, and for whatever they may be worth to you, I find the following insights both helpful and difficult, often at the same time:

1) Permissive parenting is actually harmful. Several major studies are really almost unanimous on this point: Authoritarian parenting — or overly strict parenting — is actually less damaging than parenting that is overly permissive. Authoritarian (though not abusive) parents generally communicate a lesson to kids that they are cared for and safe, while permissive parents, despite perhaps their best intentions, can leave kids wondering if they are the ones in charge and why. But of course authoritarian parenting also does damage: it undermines self-esteem, and can create life-long scars. The goal is a middle ground: authoritative parenting, which communicates love while holding its ground and conveying firm and consistent expectations for behavior.

2) Emotional intelligence — including hard-to-define and achieve qualities like character, grit, and capacity for failure — will be more important to your child’s success than IQ. Put down the flashcards! What will more likely matter to your child is whether they have the social skills to succeed and the inner resources to keep trying. And parents of young children should not wait for a child to mature to work on these essential skills, because the neural networks in the brain that form the infrastructure for emotional reasoning basically take shape by six years old. Even if you’ve missed this window, though, programs providing coaching to troubled adolescents show that new habits like resilience and resourcefulness can be taught, albeit with a lot of work to catch up to their peers.

3) Attachment is only half the job. It is indisputably critical that parents create an emotional bond with their child, called attachment. This is formed by early and attentive responsiveness to the needs of a new infant. This foundation of trust and mutual love, however, is insufficient by itself as a child grows. The purpose of attachment — to make children feel sufficiently safe in the world — can be undermined if parents do not also encourage and foster responsibility, independence and sound judgment. Being endlessly attentive and nurturing to a needy three-year-old is a recipe for both exhausted parents and bratty kids.

Balancing attachment by making space to say a respectful version of “no” to children is critical. Indeed, helping them create a robust capacity for emotional self-regulation is essential. Emotional regulation is also important to cognitive development, because the more time that kids spend in an agitated state, the less time they have for calm receptivity to input from the world.

4) Too much praise can send the wrong signal and cut off the conversation. This is a hard one, given our need to recognize our child’s achievements as part of our own: empty words like “good job” come out of my mouth far more often than I would like. Substituting acknowledgment for appraisal is a subtle but important shift that can mostly fill in when kids ask us. For example, by saying, “I see you.” instead of “good work.” Or even just engaging in a real conversation by observing the facts: “You’ve used a lot of yellow here.” Praise is a conversation-stopper, after all, leaving nothing more to say, while facts leave room for more facts, and for the child to play observer as well. If you must praise, complimenting effort rather than result is a better thing to say: “You are working so hard on that!”

You can also subtly ask your child to internalize their own framework for self-appraisal by focusing on the child’s feelings rather than the parents: “Did that make you feel proud?” Asking questions and making comparisons to their own past can be another way to engage: “Was that scary?” “Did you climb that part faster than you did yesterday?”

IMG_05075) Our own emotional responses — even negative ones — can be put to use. We  generally do not do kids a favor when we overlook confrontational or obnoxious behavior and ask ourselves, as parents, to exhibit super-human restraint. Irritating behavior can sometimes be a good way to understand when a child needs more limits. So long as we are not clinically depressed, super-tired, sick, or otherwise overly prone to irritability, our own response to our child’s behavior can be a sound guide for imposing a set of (age-appropriate and individualized) expectations for that child.

I also believe this to be the case: As parents, we will spend a significant part of our lives in conversation with our child, and it helps with the sometimes-oppressive tedium of parenting if we enjoy more of this time, rather than less.

While we don’t need to lash out, certainly, and a calm response is preferable to an angry one, noticing our child’s behavior is a clue that something needs to change. A child who is constantly stirring the pot, behaving selfishly or taunting, who often lacks emotional and bodily self-control and can never take no for an answer, is a child who will have difficulty forming friendships, and who may repeatedly “check out” of opportunities for calm attention and learning. These emotionally sensitive and volatile children may need more sensible and consistent boundaries than other kids in order to thrive. At the same time, that child may need more connection with the parent in order to tolerate the new boundaries, so both limits and time together will be critical.

Of course, a rapid uptick in outbursts in an otherwise calm child may also provide a valuable clue that something is wrong, and require investigation. One of my favorite parenting books, Simplicity Parenting, calls on parents to look for signs of soul-sickness and approach these with the gentle healing we might a cold. Again, this kind of judgment call has to come from knowing our kid and what’s normal and needed for them.

IMG_05026) Our specific language and choices as parents matter a ton to the development of our child. The brain is surprisingly elastic and supple, and is so deeply responsive to parenting cues that the brains of children actually resembles those of their parents in scans. So what kinds of intentional communication with them should we have?

Words that seem oddly “corporate” have sometimes been helpful to me, because they do the work of making a difference of opinion seem less personal: “My agenda here is to get you to put on your clothes, while your agenda is to play. What can we do?” or “I’m trying to understand your goals here.” They can also be useful for asking for more resilience and generating options: “That seemed like a good strategy. What would be another one?” “What’s your plan to fix this problem?” “I would like you to make a different choice.”

Picture-language that paints a clear image of concrete aspirations for behavior also works well for me: “I would like you to have a big, open, generous heart with your friends.”Or, after a fall: “I hope you have a scrambly time at the playground, and climb all over the jungle gym like a brave spider.” And specifically encouraging them to overcome frustration, even through time-worn clichés like, “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again,” can be helpful to establish a “mental voice” for old-fashioned stick-to-itive-ness.

Rather than barking orders, owning our own perspective is more respectful of a child’s still-developing sense of agency. While it can feel a bit bulky, saying: “I am asking you to do put that down” in lieu of “put that down!” is what I aim for. Similarly, saying “I don’t like it when you stand on your chair because I’m concerned you might fall and hurt yourself, and it’s my job to keep you safe.” clues kids on your motives and role. Even owning our more unpleasant emotions can be helpful: “I’m irritated that you are doing that right now, as I have asked you two times to make a different choice.” (Just don’t be surprised when your child also is able to identify that she is “irritated” by something you do!)

Using please and thank you when making a request is also important in my view, though some books advise against it. As I want my child to use good manners, I personally feel it’s only fair to use them myself when addressing her.

IMG_05067) Getting out of a child’s way is sometimes the best thing we can do. All of us have experienced a state that scientists now call “flow:” a state of productive engagement in which we feel relaxed and time seems to disappear. Creating an environment in the home which allows children to play in a way that facilitates this kind of moment — and being sure not to interrupt them when it is happening as cooperative or solo play — is essential to putting them in touch with their deepest capacities for self-engagement.

This is the main reason why we limit screens in our house. Although we make some exceptions for special circumstances (getting her to sit still for nail-cutting, for example, or for travel on a plane), in general there are no videos or TV at home. This has been helpful with our busy days, as it forces all of us to relax, to have play time or reading or craft time instead.

Some of the job is just creating open space for children to self-direct their activities. Being sure to leave kids alone when they are “in flow” is important. It’s also important, to belabor this point from above a bit, that when they (inevitably) ask for us to look over what they’ve created, we respond with something deeper than a slap-dash pat on the head. The conversation should lead naturally to what could be a follow-on project, and thereby provide them with the next compelling invitation to enter this particular window onto human happiness.

8) Bargaining is bad — except when it isn’t. Capitulation during a meltdown or due to the fear of a meltdown is not a good idea, as it provides the wrong incentives for emotional outbursts. In our house, we think that never bending due to the intensity of an emotional response is sound policy. And reasoning with a child in the midst of a meltdown or temper tantrum, when their responses are coming from their lizard brain, is asking the impossible, because their executive functioning has literally been cut off by the emotional surge to those flight-or-fights parts of their primitive brain.

On the other hand, allowing problem solving that engages the executive functioning of the brain — called the cerebral cortex — is good. So when a child is calmly suggesting alternatives that also meet the objectives of the parent (“Can I take two bites of carrot instead of broccoli?”), that is to be encouraged. This kind of logical negotiation is a basic skill, and may provide a way out before a melt-down gets triggered, even though at times it may drive me a bit batty.

Toxic Hot Seat on HBO tonight!

Red sofa

Red sofa (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hallelujah! A new film about the struggle to understand and address the hidden poisons in our sofas — Toxic Hot Seat — airs for the first time tonight on HBO. Slate has a preview with a couple tantalizing clips. You can also see it on HBO-Go, the on-demand service.

This is exciting, as it appears it will tell the story the Chicago Tribune first unearthed over a year ago in its epic Playing with Fire series.  In sum, flacks from the chemical industry lied to California lawmakers about the reasons babies were killed in household fires in order to guilt them into maintaining a requirement for toxic flame retardants in furniture. The Trib also unearthed seedy connections to Big Tobacco and ripped the mask off a “fire-safety” front group that had been backed by the chemical manufacturers.

As we now know, we’ve now poisoned a generation or two with these chemicals. One study showed 97 percent of Americans have flame retardant chemicals in their bloodstreams, which are linked to health risks including cancer, infertility, obesity, neurodevelopmental delays and even behavior issues and lowered IQ levels. In a tragically ironic twist, the brave men and women who protect us in fires have been hit particularly hard, and now can face dire health consequences from the exposures to toxic smoke.

The film comes on the heels of an excellent but frightening study published last week by the Center for Environmental Health, Playing on Poisons, that showed that 90 percent of children’s furniture is laced with flame retardant chemicals. Because they crawl around on dusty floors and put things in their mouths, studies show kids have higher levels in their bodies of these chemicals than adults do. Thankfully, even recent action in California to ban one class of flame retardants chemicals produced a precipitous drop in the chemical in pregnant women, as measured in September of this year.

I’m glad the word is getting out. I imagine we’ll see a lot more couches on curbs in the coming days. Parents should also toss those adorable fuzzy pjs (which are often sprayed with the chemicals), and replace them with old cotton clothes or tight-fitting cotton jammies. A full post on that is coming soon. And here’s more information — including tips to avoid flame retardants — from Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families.

While it’s true that the California requirement is no longer on the books, many manufacturers will be slow to change their products, and there are state laws in many places requiring any public accommodations to purchase furniture containing flame retardant chemicals, as well as standards that require them in heavy doses in airplanes and children’s car seats. What we really need is chemical reform at the federal level to ensure that chemicals are tested thoroughly before we are all made into the guinea pigs of the chemical industry.

In the meantime, here’s my posts on this for folks new to the issue or blog:

What I Told EPA About the Climate Crisis and Parenting

IMG_0753We ask our kids to be responsible. Brave, even. To venture out into the world with a sense that it is theirs — to explore, to learn about, and also to care for.

So today I asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to do the same when it comes to developing new standards for carbon emissions for power plants. Working with the incredible Molly Rauch from Moms Clean Air Force, I testified at a public listening session downtown.

Here is what I said:

Good morning. My name is Laura MacCleery and I’m a public interest lawyer and blogger. But I’m here today as the mom of a wonderful three-year-old girl to tell you why the EPA should act for her and the other children here and around the world to quickly issue strong rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants.

Forty percent of U.S. emissions – 2.3 billion tons – come from power plants. This rule has tremendous power to address one of the major sources of climate disruption. It is an opportunity not to be wasted. Real leadership from EPA would allow the U.S. to act responsibly to address our role in causing a rapid, incipient change in global temperatures.

We don’t have much time. A study in the journal Nature last month found that by the year 2047 – when my daughter Maya is only 37 years old – Washington, D.C., will have a radically altered climate, in which even the coldest monthly dips will be warmer than over the past 150 years. Oxford researchers recently found the ocean’s rate of acidification is the fastest in 300 million years. An Australian researcher showed that by the time my daughter is middle-aged, large parts of the oceans will have slimy cynobacteria – basically black goop – where coral reefs should be. This is not the world I would like to pass on to my daughter.

I try to be a conscientious parent raising a responsible child. One who picks up after herself, and shares her toys without too many complaints. But I wonder, how will she look at me – how will our children think about any of us – if we don’t do what we can to stop climate change, right now? What will it mean to be human on this altered planet? And how will our children see themselves if we don’t act today: if we don’t do the most we can, using what we know, to curb climate change and to reduce the threat it poses to the systems that sustain our lives?

I’ll be 76 years old in 2047 – assuming I’m still around. Should I just tell Maya, then: sorry, we didn’t think it was worthwhile to even try to save your pleasant weather, or prevent asthma, or help prevent catastrophe to our agriculture, our wildlife and to the millions of people living in the tropics displaced by rising tides and violent weather?

I won’t be able to say we didn’t see it coming. The policy case, the scientific case, even the economic case have all been amply made. So I’m asking the EPA, on behalf of the many parents who couldn’t be here today, to act with real political gumption. To look past industry’s predictable objections and the facile compromises that could weaken a standard.

To make this moment – this rule – transformative, much like the fuel economy standards set in the 1970s that were aggressively front-loaded and ended up weaning the U.S. off its dependence on foreign oil for several decades. There is no progress without some disruption, but we are choosing between reform today and catastrophe tomorrow.

Decisive government action in this area would be smart and responsible, but it would also be – and I’ll just say it out loud – an act of love. Your job on this one is clear, and has high stakes. We always tell toddlers to use their words. So here are mine for you: Be bold. Brave. Creative. Visionary. Carpe Diem. Change our lives, and those of our children. Use your words for good.

Basically, I’m saying, make us proud, EPA. Make me proud. Don’t muddle along. Don’t accept half-measures that cut our future short.

Instead, be a super-hero. Get right to work to save this world for my child, and for all the other children who are looking up to us to do the right thing.

Laura at EPA###

My panel partner was terrific — he actually sang his comments in a moving, minor-key ballad on climate disruption. It rocked.

You can weigh in too. There are still sessions this week on November 8th in Chicago and Philadelphia. Here’s how to sign up. There are also instructions at that link about how to submit online written comments if you can’t appear in person.

Please, join me in telling the EPA that it must seize this moment to act to reduce carbon emissions, for our children and our planet. Let them know you’re watching, and you care about this enormous opportunity to do something substantial to help prevent a climate crisis.

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