The Resilience of Children, and All of Us

Photo of Maya by Jay Premack, www.jaypremack.com

Maya…in…space, photo by Jay Premack, http://www.jaypremack.com

From the time a child is born, there is the struggle: to know, to do, to become. As a parent, we spend a baby’s earliest days answering to their cry, becoming trained ourselves in an extraordinary responsiveness.

As infants become toddlers and then, far too quickly, young children, we watch, amazed, as they master new skills, as they alternate between the drive to autonomy that makes them insist on doing something themselves, and their quick collapse into tears and frustration when the button won’t slip through the tiny hole. A certain amount of retraining has to occur for parents, to still our impulse to help them through each small challenge, to step back and wait to see if they call us to act.

I’ve been reflecting recently on several articles, including one which detailed a self-confessed helicopter mom’s struggle to let her child take risks, and another which clarified a crucial question about happiness. In the first, with laudable honesty and self-reflection, the mom works with the author of Free Range Kids, a book about over-parenting in modern life, to recalibrate her family’s boundaries for her two kids.

She makes a list of risks she has disallowed, like using a hammer or playing in their front yard with access to the street, and works with the coach to address her own anxiety. She mentions the exhilaration in her son’s eyes as he tackles each new possibility, and how he perseveres with the hammer even after whacking his thumb.

Her candor provides a ready guide for parents who have gone overboard, as a means to re-introduce reasonable risks to children’s lives. As the research shows (for example, here), there is a widespread concern that some kids — read: children with an attentive family — are being coddled in ways that threaten their development, and even, over the longer term, diminish their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps it’s because we have fewer children per family, or because the 24-hour internet is always tripping our alarms, or perhaps even because so many of us work (indoors, in antiseptic environments) that we both view childhood as more precious and can judge risks with less accuracy.

But it was the second article, on the common confusion between the search for meaning and our quest for happiness, that really clarified my thoughts. The article recalls an important, ancient distinction: between “hedonic” happiness (i.e., satisfaction from acquiring status or stuff) and the more challenging terrain of doing work that is meaningful to you and the larger society. The medical research shows, amazingly, that people pursuing happiness without meaning are creating the same kinds of stressors in their bodies’ immune systems as people experiencing chronic adversity.

This is both an astonishing result and blindingly obvious. Who hasn’t looked at a paunchy investment banker and thought their pallid complexion belied their public success? This is physiological evidence of what creates resilience in our lives.

We know that people who serve others seem more vital and grounded — we admire them for their drive and their service, both. In movies and books, we celebrate them as heroes — as long-toiling, unheralded, creating meaning out of darkness. If so many people did not choose this path of simple respect for hard work and quiet dedication, nothing would work: our mail would never get delivered, scientific discoveries would not be made, and dinner would never get cooked.

This is necessary work, and life is work. Of course, the work of children is play, and exploration. And while they grow, we would like to protect them from harm. Some days, though, we would even like to shield them from fear or disappointment. Balancing our need to protect them with an understanding that resilience is a learned response, and trusting that they are active agents in the co-creation of their lives, both capable and aware, is the challenge.

Complicating the task, as yet a third prescient article pointed out, is the rarely acknowledged fact that living is inherently traumatic. Even now, at two, Maya will worry about Swiper, the most innocent of villains in her (idiotic) Dora books, or bring home concerns about whether the lions in the zoo can come to our house. I reassure her as best I can, but I know that one day relatively soon she will see through the facile surface of my soothing tones, and come to doubt my word if I over-promise. I can tell her today that the lions aren’t coming, but I can’t promise her much else.

Fear of loss is written into our lives, and figuring out what information is appropriate for which child at which age is a constant act of careful judgment and re-balancing. Of course, grief and loss interfere more often than we care to admit with the lives of children, most commonly when they must dealt with the death of a loved one or a beloved pet.

In these difficult conversations, our own apprehension can mean we just talk too much: interpreting their questions, which can turn out to be quite simple, as a need to understand the whole picture from an adult perspective. Slowing down to really hear what they are asking and assess what they need to know in response turns out to be essential, so that we don’t overshare inadvertently. Often what is required is the simple facts.

We also have to acknowledge that many children live in daily peril of experiencing more tragic events like abuse and violence. Leaving aside awful, sudden tragedies like Newtown, there are entire neighborhoods today that deal with constant trauma from gun violence, as This American Life showed in its stunning two-part investigation into a Chicago high school facing a local epidemic of violence. These kinds of events are, of course, unacceptable, and should be prevented with far more foresight and care than we bring to them currently. Among other needs, what happened with the failure to enact better gun control is shameful.

But if we can set these types of unbearable circumstances to one side, it seems important to allow far more ordinary risks and failures. Imbuing our children with a sense that hard work is essential to success, that some frustration is an inevitable part of pushing through, that even real disappointment is part of the package, strikes me as a key task for parents. To the extent that some philosophies of parenting are interpreted as requiring parents to prevent children from struggling in a healthy, natural way with things that require sustained effort to accomplish, they do a disservice to both parents and kids.

The teachers I have remembered most (Patrice, I mean you) are the ones that invested in me by expecting better of me, all the time. A generous appraisal and belief in one’s capacity is an intensely supportive and empowering form of care, involving as it must such a close assessment of what is enough, and what is too much. And a simple statement of the results following a failure and a discussion of what could change for future attempts is often of more service than cheerleading, brassy dismissiveness, soothing talk or otherwise diminishing the significance of the goals, because any of these provide false comfort and undermine ambition.

Of course, there is a fine line between a show of power and a show of genuine caring. As a guide then, I take a few lessons for my own parenting choices:

1) Fear: Although I will try to keep inappropriately frightening content away from my child, I will also try to address her fears with honesty as appropriate. I will calm myself first, listen carefully to what she is actually asking, and provide a simple, factual response.

2) Disappointment: Although I will never manufacture disappointment (lord knows, children are whimsical enough to do it themselves many times in a day), I will attempt to deal factually and directly with the disappointments that inevitably occur: “No, we don’t have x, you may have y or z.” I will have patience with the melt-down that occurs, and understand it as a lesson in the facts of life: as her new teacher says, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” In this way, I will hope to avoid late-night travels in search of a particular color of strawberry ice cream, as I heard from a friend she once ruefully did…

3) Risk: I will regularly update my assessment of my daughter’s capabilities, allow her real choices, and support my child in doing hard things, because this is where ingenuity can happen and self-confidence can be built. I will make space she needs as she gains independence, and support her ambitions tangibly, without overpraising and without being afraid for her of the always-present possibility of failure.

We should wish for our children that they try and fail at many hard things, to help them discover the things worth working for — and what they are truly good at — from within. As it turns out, sustaining a quest for authentic meaning in our lives, even if doesn’t always lead to happiness, is healthier for both bodies and hearts. If parenting means anything, surely it means this.

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Below is an original poem, from an adult perspective, on the trials of this effort, and its many demands. It’s a bit darker than the above, of course, but I was re-reading it the other day and it struck me that it speaks to resilience as well as hardship.

Creatures of Appetite

There are many ways to be brave.

There is the small fortitude of refusing an invitation,
saying, tonight I will stay at home alone and
do something of no consequence.

There is the tiny  – almost imperceptible – act of not flinching at a threat to someone you love.

There is the courage of yielding gracefully to a moment of inevitability, when it finally fails.

There is this grieving, too much of the time.

There is the stirring of a small obstinacy in the face of incredible tedium,
the getting up, cleaning, the taking down.

There is the fortitude of trying to stay in love or even just
to be kind when love is the farthest
unreachable place.

There is the stubbornness of looking someone in the eye
who is about to hurt you and letting them,
though you will study that hurt like a bone with its secrets.

There is a tacit acknowledgement that what you hoped
is irrelevant, and in the face of such knowledge

there is the strange persistence of how it asks and keeps
asking whatever you have,

how it empties your hands, just to move on.

Hot Reads: Toxics, Parenting and Other Interesting Stuff

Colorado Meadows

Colorado Meadows (Photo credit: QualityFrog)

It’s a two for one! After some radio silence, I’m kicking off a new regular feature with a bonus double-feature. Lucky you. Every Friday or Saturday going forward, I’ll post links from the week before that grabbed my attention from the week.

To make up for my lost time up in the lovely mountains of Colorado last weekend, this week I’m posting two weeks of news you can use.

From last week:

  • Derailed: I’m sure you were as horrified as I was about the deadly train crash in Lac-Megantic involving 46,000 barrels of oil and 47 deaths. I was saddened by the crash, and then angry when I read an op-ed by a former Lac-Megantic locomotive engineer detailing the decay of government regulations and industry practices he witnessed on the job. Could such an awful thing happen here? Sadly, yes. As I learned when I worked at Public Citizen years back, trains carrying hazardous materials pass near city centers every day. Just two months ago, a train operated by the railway-giant CSX exploded in a Baltimore suburb. From my past work, I know that CSX routinely fights common-sense measures to reroute hazardous materials around densely populated areas. Years ago, when we worked with the D.C. city council to ban hazardous materials from tracks passing within four blocks of the Capitol building, CSX sued, successfully, to overturn the measure. The ban would have required CSX to reroute fewer than five percent of its trains in order to safeguard the safety of DC. Let’s just hope that federal regulators are on the case.
  • Explosions in the sky: The U.S. Chemical Safety Board is positioning itself to call out the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA’s) foot-dragging on a number of recommendations concerning chemical plants and refineries. The safety board, an independent federal agency, has issued numerous recommendations disregarded by OSHA (the regulator) for years now. After the fertilizer plant explosion in Texas this past April that killed 14 people, there should be a renewed urgency to act.
  • European make-over: A 2009 European Union rule requiring considerably more transparent labels for personal care products and cosmetics just fully entered into force on July 11th. The rule includes specific restrictions of nano-materials used in products like sunscreens, as coloring agents, or other uses, and requires that where they are used, they must be identified on the label. Given the active scientific debate and level of uncertainty over the safety of nano-particles in products, transparency is really the least that consumers should have. While certain “greener” items here in the U.S. do specify when they do not contain nano-technology, for the most part consumers are in the dark about their use in a wide range of common products. As usual, Europe’s in the lead on an important chemical safety issue: so, er, pass the freedom lotion? Or something…
  • Parents, please follow the directions: While it’s sadly self-evident that kids don’t come with an instruction manual, Resources for Infant Educarers just published a truly wonderful list of tips to help new parents. They suggest common-sense, helpful concepts to guide your approach, including nurturing a child’s innate curiosity, creating a safe play place and connecting with your child through caregiving tasks.
  • Trayvon could have been my child: I was moved to tears by this local mom blogger’s passionate and eloquent response to the verdict in the Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case. She writes: “Like with much of parenting, I suppose I will stumble my way through this with as much love and good intention as I can manage. With Trayvon’s mother in my heart, I can promise that I will do what I can to teach my son and my daughter to not fear different faces. Not to be afraid of someone else’s child. So that child may live with a little less fear that my child might do him harm.”

This past week:

  • The royal treatment? There were lots of babies born, but only one had the whole world squealing. The frenzied, round-the-clock coverage of the royal birth was nothing if not obsessive. Me being me, I began pondering the odd status of women as combination sex symbols and baby-delivery devices, and wondered aloud via Twitter just how long it would be until we would start hearing about Kate’s plans to lose pregnancy weight. The pathetic answer? Not even a day. Within 24 hours of the birth, a British tabloid ran a story detailing the royal regimen to shed pregnancy pounds. At least I wasn’t the only one who found it offensive. And the issues it stirs up run deep: here’s a thoughtful piece on pregnancy, body image and the media obsession with obtaining a “post-baby bod[y],” which, IMHO, is about erasing the procreative possibilities of women’s bodies so as to unburden the male gaze. This attempt to erase the physicality of pregnancy comes at an incredible cost to women in manufactured self-loathing, and forms a bad model for our children, as this daughter writes in yet another tear-jerker of a post, entitled, simply enough, “When Your Mother Says She’s Fat.” For all these reasons, I adored this gorgeous photo-essay of real moms in all their glory, many with their partners and kids. I’d love to see more of that kind of art, please, and less of the mawkish hyper-monitoring of the mom-bod.
  • And nailed down: Having forgone my beloved mani-pedis for several years now due to the serious concerns they trigger about salon workers’ health, I was delighted to hear about a new program in Santa Monica, California, that could produce healthier conditions in nail salons. Many salon products contain dangerous toxins: oluene, dibutyl phthalate, and formaldehyde are the nastiest. Salon workers face long hours of exposure, and even OSHA admits many of them can cause long-term health impacts. The Santa Monica program rewards salons that choose safer alternatives. Let’s hope it signals the beginning of a national trend. (While I’ve found that most so-called “green” nail salons are anything but, there are some exceptions. If you’re ever in downtown Philly, there is a truly organic nail salon there: Mi Cumbia in Rittenhouse Square. Mi Cumbia is a wonderfully relaxing place owned by a pioneering couple in green nail salons. If you know of others like this in your city, please do tell in the comments, as I would love to know when I travel where I might get a truly better pedicure!)
  • Targeting toxins at Target: Basically everyone, including me, occasionally shops at Target. So please consider signing onto this important petition to call on Target to remove toxin-laden products from their shelves. It’s organized by one of my fave coalitions, Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, which tirelessly advocates for toxics reform and also manages to publish a great blog.

Hope this was useful! Feel free to suggest what I’ve missed in the comments…

Talking to Toddlers: A Eureka Moment

Redheaded child mesmerized.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

In a more-or-less crash course on how to deal with a near-two-year-old, I’ve flipped through a significant number of parenting books full of perky, preachy “dos and don’ts” on talking to toddlers. They typically include tips on how to distract toddlers from a sudden obsession by introducing a different new toy, how to be soothing when an injury occurs (“You’re ok“), or how to structure daily routines in the hopes of minimizing conflict.

And yet I had a gnawing sensation that few of my responses to our daily situations were landing right with Maya. Indeed, it seemed her very set-up, which is all about testing boundaries, was to push relentlessly on all of the serious limitations of this paltry toolbox of tricks. After all, if the corny dialogue in these books failed to hold my interest, how rich are they as a structure for a relationship between a parent and child?

On the other hand, when I actually sat down and read some of the latest fascinating explorations of the infant mind, such as Alison Gopnik‘s The Philosophical Baby, it became clear that, with the research that has become available in only the past decade or so, we now know a lot more about the inner lives of pre-verbal toddlers. We know, for example, that even very young infants connect cause and effect, have rich emotional and imaginative lives, and are more like people in miniature than we guess — meaning that the mix of inauthenticity, expectations for performative little moments (“come give mommy a hug”) and condescension we show them much of the time must grate a little, to say the least.

So imagine my delight when the director of Maya’s new preschool sent around an article about a philosophy of infant and child interaction called Resources in Educare, or RIE, which precisely addressed some of the missing pieces of this puzzle.

RIE, as a school of thought, was popularized in the U.S. by Magda Gerber, an author and teacher who brought a distinct philosophical approach to interactions with infants. One RIE disciple, Janet Lansbury, has a blog called Elevating Child Care that includes many interesting posts that I have since found helpful for dealing with older children.

I’m currently reading Gerber’s book, Your Self-Confident Baby, and while, predictably, I don’t agree with everything in it, there’s a lot to like as well. I’ll be posting a fuller review when I’m finished.

But I don’t want to wait, because right away, I have found her and Lansbury’s analysis of toddler psychology to be revealing and incredibly useful in my conversations with Maya. My instant take-aways to her writing and Lansbury’s thoughtful posts thus far include the following:

  1. It’s preferable to be authentic than falsely cheerful in that “toddler tone.”
  2. Distracting a child who is focused on a task, even a frustrating or inappropriate one, may encourage a lack of sustained attention.
  3. You can usefully (and thankfully!) drop the urge to entertain and allow child-directed play instead. (Given the literature on the importance of relationship-building and engagement, I sometimes feel Gerber takes the “do not teach” imperative a bit too far, but I get her point: parents, including me, play “the expert” all too much and fail to let children just learn for themselves.)
  4. Resist the impulse to always correct a toddler’s verbal mistakes — language acquisition is hard enough without fear of being caught in a mistake!
  5. Don’t say “you’re ok” impulsively whenever there is an injury or perceive hurt — it’s minimizing and mostly serves the interests of the parent, who needs the child to be ok. Instead, ask, “what happened?” first, which is far more respectful, and may actually give you information you may need.
  6. Call out the intention of the child in a conflict and set boundaries clearly instead of just saying “no” loudly and repeatedly, which is the “technique” we had been trying. LOL. (Most exciting is that this actually works, mostly, as you’ll see below — Eureka!)

The overall point is that parents unwittingly and with all good intentions over-ride and blot out children’s own particular intentions, emotions, and useful frustrations in an attempt to make behavior more manageable, acceptable and pleasant. Yet these confrontations with the facts of the world are incredible learning moments.

While we must not ignore the social expectations others will have for toddlers, and we should communicate clearly about boundaries, we also don’t have to let them know “the rules” in a way that dishonors or denies their feelings or motivations.

Cockily, I thought that we were doing pretty well by allowing Maya child-directed play as her main activity, and that we were respectful in our dealings with her. But when I had this “aha” moment, I was actually shocked to reflect upon how much of my dialogue with Maya still revolved around an attempt to conform her behavior through manipulation, often against her obstinate will to do some other thing instead.

In these tiny but powerful struggles, I would tell her “no” to something and witness the internal battle that raged within her, as she struggled to alter her desires to match mine. Mostly, of course, that struggle placed my request for compliance firmly on the losing side. And then had to be reinforced again, more loudly. You can see why this “strategy” was destined for failure.

But the other night, at the pool, with RIE in my pocket, things were different. The stage for an epic battle was set when Maya wandered 10 or so feet away from me close to some large steps leading up a hill, and I was still in the water. It was the ultimate test — could I control her with my voice alone?

I summoned my calmest, most determined voice, and tried the RIE approach, saying clearly, “Maya, I can see you want to go up the stairs [naming her intention]. But you may not go up the stairs because I am still in the pool, and you may not go up the stairs without me. That is the rule. [naming the rule and reason]. Please walk back to me.”

A woman was standing nearby, and I would swear that when these words came out of my mouth she looked over at Maya and shook her head, ever so slightly. Yeah, right, lady, I could almost see her thinking, that’ll work.

But here’s the thing that truly shocked me: it did!

Maya gave out an involuntary little squeal like a angry pterodactyl, balled and unballed her fists, then turned and walked back to me. By the time she got back, she was actually smiling. (I may have, though I can’t really be sure, shot the lady a brief, smug look as Maya was heading back my way.)

I’ve since tried this approach at other times, and I would have to say that even when it doesn’t work perfectly, it’s still far better than the former tactic of escalating “no’s” or even, threatened consequences, Supernanny style. It feels more respectful, recognizes Maya’s intentions and desires, and forces me to articulate our roles and whatever principle may be stake. As a geek and lawyer, I can’t help but think of it as basic due process for children.

As this implies, when Maya is fully verbal, I may need new tools to avoid her lawyering everything to death. But for now, I would say, I’ve finally stumbled across a set of working guidelines that serve our family interactions far better than our former muddling-through.

I hope these few insights are useful to you as well, and I would encourage anyone working through similar issues to check out RIE and Lansbury’s site. If you have techniques you like, please do share as well.