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© Gail Underwood Parker

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Tempting Fate

Hi there-
Remember yesterday when I said "You never know when...etc.?  Well I will be taking a hiatus or at least making shorter, less frequent posts. A few hours after typing those words I fell and badly broke the two middle fingers of my hand. So, now I am reduced to slow hen-peking with one hand while I wait for the long weekend to pass so that I can meet with a hand surgeon.  [As a pianist and writer I prefer to have all my fingers pointing in the right direction!]  So, if you're reading this --please think good, straight-finger thoughts and wish us luck.  Single-parented families don't have much wiggle room [no pun intended] for the parent being even partly out of commission, much less unable to drive for a while.  On the good side, I have spent far too many months of my life in wheelchairs due to knee injuries, so I am exceedingly grateful that I am mobile. I don't know how much this will improve, or how long it will take, but I know it will be better than yesterday or today, AND I am mobile-- AND it is not my dominant hand. So keep me in your thoughts and I will keep the blog up as I can.  Thanks!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Heat Is On

Yesterday hit 90 degrees. Now for any readers in the South I'm sure that is a walk in the park.  But here in Maine it is rare...and obnoxious because our buildings etc are not built for it.  And in MAY???? ...We had a frost warning three nights ago for crying out loud!  

So there we were, sweating and grumbling, unprepared for the heat.  My hall closet still has winter coats and boots and mittens not packed away. [Yes, even in Maine we do actually pack them away for a bit!] So with the kids home from school yesterday because of a teacher workshop day, I was confronted by red, sweaty faces, with one unhappy voice after another building a crescendo that would rival a symphony orchestra....... "I don't have any shorts!  Can we go buy me a bathing suit?  Have you seen my tank top?  Where are my basketball mesh shorts? I can't find my flip-flops!  Can we go swimming?  I'm gonna die in these jeans if you don't find my shorts!" etc. etc. etc. I thought my head was going to explode!

Where is everything?  In the attic crawl space of course... where it is at least 20 stifling degrees hotter than the rest of the house and no air moves!  So ... that hints at what my yesterday was like. Now it is a new day and with the temperature down to a more seasonable 65 degrees I am reflecting on how often in life we [alright...I]  fail to prepare far enough ahead. I/We pack things farther away than makes sense.  I/We don't always keep what we need handy.  Yes we usually have the things we need, but they may be buried beneath other things we think we need more or will need sooner.  It reminds me of an essay I once wrote about faith and summer fans.  For many people faith is assumed but not guarded, nor tended. Put aside like a summer fan once the heat has passed.  Packed away for "when it's needed."  When a crisis hits, they go hunting for it, to ease the heat of the moment, with its calming breezes. Unfortunately if they haven't used it in ages, it may be out of reach in the attic, or the cord may be broken, or the fan blades rusted, the switch bent, or some similar state of disrepair. 

I did find the shorts, the flip-flops, the tank top and the mesh shorts [though some no longer fit]. But I felt like I went through the firey reaches to find them. Yesterday would have been much simpler, much more peaceful, and far more pleasant if the summer clothes were kept somewhere easily accessible when needed.  If I hadn't had to struggle up the fold-down stairs in the mid-day heat to move things aside to locate the summer box.  if  If IF. Just as you can cool yourself with all kinds of fans, spirituality and faith come in a wide variety as well. But whatever your style or brand of refreshment and renewal.. keep your fan of choice ready. Yesterday was a good reminder for me to make sure that my emotional cooling fans, my fans of faith, are in good repair and right at hand.  Sometimes the heat in life comes at unexpected times and you never know how long it may last.  

Friday, May 22, 2009

"Tell him you're sorry"

"Tell him/her you're sorry" is another common parental command that I don't like. In fact, it is one of the many topics in a book I am currently working on with A. Pat Miller. [The book addresses the problems parents, particularly foster and adoptive parents have with raising children who are chronically dishonest...lying and stealing]. 

The assumed intention of requiring a child to say they are sorry is to build/teach remorse for wrongdoing.  Unfortunately, in our experience, it seldom does.  More often it seems to encourage, sometimes even require, a child to lie.  We have all heard a child spit out a sarcastic... "sor-reeeee" or a barely audible, mumbled "sorry", or a four syllable epithet..."soo-ooo-ree--eee."  None of those even remotely demonstrate remorse.  And almost certainly all are lies.  They don't indicate a child sorry for doing wrong.  They show a child, if anything, sorry they were caught doing wrong.

The irony is that the same parents who struggle to teach their children to tell the truth, in the same household, often insist that children lie by requiring them to say they are sorry. My dictionary says that "sorry" is to "express a feeling of remorse or regret." The same dictionary gives that dictionary as the first meaning of "apology." However, it also gives a second definition of apology that is the one I try to use in parenting. The second definition of  "apology" is  to "acknowledge that something is not as it should be, especially if you are embarrassed or guilty."

So, in my house, I do not require someone to say they are sorry. Further, if they do not demonstrate remorse, but give an insincere "sorry" they are punished for the lie.  So what DO I do?  I require the second definition of apology.  I require them to acknowledge the wrongdoing.  Only when they truly are sorry are they allowed to say they are sorry. What they do instead is tell the person they offended: "What I did was wrong."  This is a true statement.  It does not require the child to be remorseful, only to acknowledge their wrongdoing.

In the beginning it meant me being sure that the children knew that what they did was wrong, and exactly how or why it was wrong. Even with older children I sometimes have to check to be sure they understand what they did that was wrong.  But once they got the hang of it, and I adjusted I really like the benefits of this approach.

1- By saying "What I did was wrong," the child is required to take responsibility for what they did in a more concrete way than with a simple "I'm sorry."  

2- By saying "What I did was wrong," the child is being required to tell the truth rather than being tempted or coerced to lie to make things easier. [NOT a lesson we want to teach!]

3- By not allowing them to lie by saying an insincere, inaccurate "I'm sorry," the household standard of truthfulness is reinforced.

4- By providing them a truthful alternative to the easier, commonly stated lie, the children can begin to learn that it is possible to find truthful alternatives to common social lies

5- Once this practice is consistent, when a child truly is sorry and you hear those words, they actually have meaning.  [In my house children are required to do kind acts for the person they wronged. This is to teach them to SHOW that they know what they did was wrong.  It is an apology in action before there is an apology in words. I'll talk more about that in some later entry.]

Unless you are starting fresh with a child, it takes time to switch from "I'm sorry" to "What I did was wrong."  At first it may seem a bit circuitous and awkward, but I think you will find that the above advantages pay off in huge dividends.  Besides.... it eliminates most of those annoying, sarcastic, "sorry" retorts that can be flung around so casually. Try it!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Look at me"

How many times have you heard a parent say to a child they were scolding.... "Look at me when I'm talking to you." ?  Maybe you say it yourself.  When I first began parenting years ago I myself said it more often than I would like to admit.  I no longer believe it is a somewhat mean, and probably unrealistic, and not useful  thing to ask of any child, and particularly if you are raising a foster child who may have been exposed to abuse. 

Think about a time that you as an adult were in the wrong.  Try to recapture the way you felt when you found out that your wrong had been discovered. Maybe it was something you messed up at work and your boss called you into the office.  Do you remember what your stomach felt like? your knees? your hands?  Did you want to meet or avoid the boss' eyes? I know that for myself  one of the hardest things to do is to apologize to someone when I have really screwed up. To do it while looking them in the eyes?  Pure torture. 

My change in heart came when I was a young, beginning teacher and had made some error that ended in a "Please see me as soon as you can" note from my principal.  To this day, over 40 years later, I cannot remember what my "sin" was.  I remember that it turned out not to be anything so awful, but I don't remember the specific error.  I do remember that the principal felt it necessary to "make me sweat" as a teaching tool so that I would learn from my mistake... or at least that is what he said to me years later when I received recognition as a master teacher.  What I DO remember even 40 years later is how horrible , how long, the morning was until I had a break to go see him, how I felt heading down the hall, and waiting to go into his office.  I felt so very small, so humiliated, and wanted to just disappear. When the door to his office finally opened I went in on wooden shaky legs. I remembered how often he bellowed "Look at me when I'm talking to you" to students in trouble  and knew I had to look at him.  Nonetheless my eyes seemed glued to the floor, and almost impossible to raise.  Even now I remember thinking that meeting his eyes was one of the hardest things I had ever done, and even when I met his eyes, they would keep looking away almost of their own volition. It took all my energy to keep bringing them back to meet his eyes and his disapproval and anger.  I can still close my eyes and see his face and when I do, it is the angry face of that one moment more than the relaxed faces that I saw all the other times we chatted. It is burned in my memory.

Later that afternoon I found myself scolding my foster daughter for doing something dangerous [she had run toward the road] and I heard my self say "Look at me."  Suddenly I recognized in her eyes all the things I had felt that morning.   I realized how I must have made her feel, what her insides were going through.  She had been through abuse and neglect and had a right to be fearful of an upset adult.  I, an adult and one who had never had reason to fear for my safety, had felt fearful that morning in the face of an adult's anger. At seven she had survived years of previous abuse and neglect.  She had a right [a need even] to be fearful of an upset adult.  So what was she feeling?  What was I doing???  I remember how when I met my bosses eyes, it felt like an ocean roaring in my head, blotting out everything he was saying. I barely heard a word he was saying it was so hard to get past the embarrassment and the effort to meet his angry gaze. Yes, I needed to correct her. What she had done was dangerous.  But what I was doing was not helping her learn the lesson I was trying to teach. In fact, it was probably getting in the way. It was a pivotal moment.

I can't say that I never said those words again.  I did.  But I tried not to say it.  I tried to remember that my children were hearing my words regardless of whether they were looking at me.  In some ways they could hear my words better if they weren't using all their emotional strength to meet my eyes.  I tried to make it okay to not meet my eyes when they felt embarrassed or ashamed.  I tried to teach myself to make it easier and safer for them to meet my eyes, to make those talks less punitive, more communication.  When I say "Look at me" these days, I want it to be because there is a big smile on my face.  I want them to be able to close their eyes and see a smiling face.  I want to use it not when I am angry or disappointed in them.  I want them to "Look at me" when I am proud of them.  That's the image I want burned in their memories!

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oxygen for the Climb

Ok, so I'm back at it after two days of semi-stupor recovering from the big anniversary prep and event.  Finally I can take OFF that spinning plates [see April 15 blog] and put it down.  It feels good. It feels reeeeally good to be able to let go of something. Now the trick is not to use the empty pole for yet another plate.  It is time to take down plate and pole and all.  If I can do that I will have more time for the other spinning plates.  I need that.  The other plates need that. The extra attention could really help keep those other plates spinning... or .....maybe.... maybe, ...just maybe,  there is something better, something even more important.  Maybe the time should not go to rushing from plate to plate. Maybe the time should go to standing still... to taking a moment to "just" breathe.  

We who have spent so much of our lives caretaking rarely force ourselves to slot time to take care of ourselves.  There always seems to be one more child, one more crisis, another phone call or appointment, one more intervention, [one more load of laundry!] demanding our immediate attention.  The airline stewards always tell us to put our oxygen mask on before putting it on a child or person near us. We need to breathe. We are trying to climb mountains and we are trying to do it carrying children on our backs. We need oxygen for the climb. 

So, I have decided to try NOT to use the extra time to put more effort into my other priorities.  I am going to try my hardest to use that time to build up my own oxygen supply, to gather strength for the tasks at hand, ... to be still....   to breathe.    

Wish me luck!

Sunday, May 17, 2009

150 years

Today my church will celebrate its 150th anniversary.  We have been celebrating it since October of last year. Today is the close of the celebration activities.  As chair of the committee I will be glad to have it done, but am pleased to have accomplished what we have. Just one more day to go and I can take one of my spinning plates off the pole. [see April 15th entry]  Woo hooo!!!!

 Assuming that everything goes well, by evening we will have had a culminating worship service and a luncheon afterwards.  Past pastors will have spoken, old friends returned, a newly commissioned anthem will be sung, and, and, and, and, ...... .   For the last eight months I have been steeped in the transitions and evolving lifestyles of the last 150 years.  It has been fascinating to read the old church records to see the things that concerned early parishioners in the 1850s and all the years since.  Even as we chose hymns for Christmas and Easter and the other Sundays, we have been very aware of how many were written since this church congreagation began.  Things, hymns, traditions, etc that seem to have "always been" that are in fact much newer that it seems.  So much has changed about our lifestyles, our work habits, our schooling, our parenting, in the decades since 1859.  In some ways everything has changed.

And yet, the deeper we looked the more similarities we found.  The more we read and explored, the more the common threads became visible.  The key dreams, the ongoing principles of faith, the dedication and effort, the commitment, the love, the sense of community, the very faith itself,  ..... so much has stayed the same. In some of the most important ways, nothing has changed.  I find myself thinking about whoever will chair the events in 50 years when they look back on the history we have assembled just as we looked back at the materials from the 100th anniversary.  What will have changed?  What will remain.  And how does what each of us do, individually and collectively, affect that future?

I may or may not take a few days off to crash after today. If so, go back and check out some of the early posts, before you joined in.... I'll be back.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Senior year of High School

I have a senior in high school this year.  This will be the ninth graduating senior I will have survived.  Those of you with high school seniors will relate.  I have often commented to friends that senior year is God's way of helping parents let go. As their children start senior year, many a mom moans and sighs about how will they ever let their baby go. Those same moms, by the time June arrives, are ready to help the child pack!  

It may seem flippant to claim this is God's way... but it certainly is an understandable, natural, predictable and important part of the process of acquiring independence.  Anyone who has raised even a middle schooler is painfully familiar with a child pushing away from their support system.  In order to be ready to live without parents close by, kids have to push away, and it is not a fun process.  As they learn good decision making, they practice...often practicing with bad decisions.

I read once that "Good judgment come from experience and experience comes from bad judgment." It was attributed to a Jim Horning in some places and in others to "unknown." Whoever came up with it was on target.  So, whenever one of mine exercises bad judgment I try to convince myself that this is part of the road to good judgment. Do I like it, no.  Can we survive it?  Probably.  I have to hope and believe. Besides, I have three more who will give me their own variations on the senior year challenge in years to come. So, I keep going, keep breathing, and keep praying that the consequences of bad choices won't be too damaging, that the learning process will be quick and sure.  
Oh yes.... and I keep counting down the days to graduation.   

Friday, May 15, 2009

Television Teachers.... part three

Using tv to teach reinforce literature and writing skills offers a benefit I have mentioned previously. Guided television allows kids with learning disabilities to work with literature concepts without being slowed by the process of reading or of writing.  This may seem nonsensical, but it can help them understand and get comfortable with concepts without the stress and frustration of their disability.  

Television Hint Three-- Predictions [especially good with mysteries or dramas]
During the early commercial breaks talk about what has happened so far, what is the problem, what are the clues etc. [This builds on the skills learned in Television Hint One... main idea and summarizing.] Once they have a good idea of the problem and can find some clues, ask them to predict one of the things that might happen next. This helps build their ability to analyze, to use information to form conclusions, and to build creative thinking. 

Sit-Com Variation...You can also ask what situations might come up in future episodes of the series, why, and what might happen. [Note: If it is a school-based show, you may even get some insights into your child's view of what goes on in schools by what they thing could come up.]

Older Kids--
Ask them to predict two possible ideas of what happens next, why each idea is possible, and what the results of each idea might be. 

For Foster Care...
A word of caution about using mysteries or dramas.  If your child has a history of trauma or exposure to violence, focus on comedies instead to avoid triggering painful memories or anxieties.  

[For parts one and two see the April 25 and May 1 blog entries.]

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Here are  few stats:
--Children laugh ten times more per day than adults. [Harvard Medical Study]
--Children laugh an average of 200 times a day, adults only 15 times a day. [I assume each "ha" must count as "a laugh" ????]
--Laughing for 10 minutes aday has been shown to reduce high blood pressure and arthritic pain.
--The deeper the belly laugh the greater the benefit.
--We are 30 times more likely to laugh in pairs or groups than if we are alone.
--In a related study pessimist were found to be twice as likely to develop heart problems as optimists. 

I guess  we need to laugh more. That means sharing ideas for starting laughter, sights and stories.  Here are my contributions and some sites to explore.  Comment back with your favorite jokes, funny pics, websites, etc. ??

Some of my favorite laughs:
So, as my small contribution to our need for laughter, chuckles, and bellylaughs I offer the following options:
Sight gag/pun? ... click this
For a fabulous example of parental "interrogation"s, click on this
I defy anyone not to join in when a baby chuckles, check out this example.
For people who never saw Candid Camera, enjoy this.
My favorites are from my childhood ties watching Carol Burnett, Time Conway and Harvey Korman break each other up laughing while a studio audience roared.  Here is one about a dentist. There are many listed, like their famous elephant clip... enjoy them!
Send me your favorite laugh clips so that we can share!

Some websites to explore:

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

I Have an Idea

Are you sick of trying to calm your child when they are losing it? I have an idea. Do they just get angrier when you give them a suggestion for solving the problem? Does it frustrate you when they seem to resent you trying to help?  Would you like to hear my idea?

Four simple words, but they often can start turning a situation around with almost magical power. I can't claim this idea as my own.  It developed out of a long ago counseling session for one of my more intractable kiddos.  It is a way of injecting calm. It allows you to continue to comfort or calm a child while waiting for an opportunity to help them find a solution.  Without taking over it lets a child know there are possibilities.  It is also a way of sneaking in some advice without it coming across as such. 

1-- Child X is ranting and raving about situation Y, or sobbing and wailing, or whining and complaining, or any number of other annoying reactions.  I say very calmly.... "I have an idea." That's all.  

2--  I wait. I do NOT continue, going on to explain my idea.  I wait.

3-- If the child continues without notice, I wait for a mini-pause and slip in a quiet... "Would you like to hear my idea?"

4-- I wait. I do not go on to offer my idea until a] the child can listen and b] the child indicates they want to hear it. 

5A- When they finish, sniffle, and ask... I share my idea for a solution.  "I was thinking that maybe you could ...."  I always present it as an option they can consider along with their ideas. Sometimes they choose to ignore my idea and go with one of their own.  That's ok.  It theirs works...fine.  If not, they can try mine or another.  The idea is to have them consider options and learn eventually to solve problems themselves. 
5B- If they never ask [and sometimes they don't] I continue to comfort them or help them calm down. At some point before I leave I congratulate them on settling down and say something like... when you think about this later, if you decide you want to hear that idea I had, just let me know. Then I again praise them if they have turned the situation/behavior around.  
5C- If they don't calm down, or if they continue to escalate I suggest that they may need to go to their Calm Spot until they can get back in control of their feelings. [See the description of the Calm Spot strategy in the May 6th and followup in May 7th entries. 

If and when things are calm and there can be a calm discussion, I have been known to do the "I have an idea" etc. cycle up to two times to get in two possibilities.  I never go past two.  Also, I almost never go on to a second idea unless I have gotten the child to come up with an idea also. 

Try this!  I love the subtle way it allows the child to feel in control of the choices while still remaining open to hearing other people's ideas.  It also conveys a subtle confidence that you believe they can find or choose a successful solution. I've had it work with kids as young as two and as old as 22. I sometimes wish I could teach it to some of my adult friends! Let us know how it works when you have tried it a few times.  [And let us know what ages you have tried it with.] 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Good Homework Struggles

Tis the season for kids to be sick of school and parents to be tired of fighting over homework,. The season for final projects and cumulative tests. The end of the school years looms like both a deadline and a prize. I taught for 32 years and countless parent conferences on the teacher side of the table, and 29 years [and counting] of parent conferences on the parent side of the table.  Here is a word that might be some comfort to those whose children struggle with homework and tests.

Struggle is good in the middle and high school years.  The child who has difficulty acquiring knowledge is forced to learn [or at least try] a wide variety of strategies for learning... flash cards, outlines, anagrams, rhymes, silly mental pictures, etc etc.  Compare that to the child who breezes through class, who seems to absorb the material the first time exposed. Some seem so lucky that they could pass [and do well] on the unit tests even without doing the homework. But is this lucky?  The parents get off easier, that is certain. But do the children?  

With very few exceptions everyone will struggle to learn something during their life.  Even the likes of Einstein or the latest wundekinds have areas of learning that are challenging. But when we talk of typical people, sooner or later they come up against something that doesn't come easily.  Many of those students who breezed through middle or junior high school, who aced high school without breaking a sweat, hit a wall sometime in college.  

There are several problems with that.

1- When these students do hit that wall they are now in a time when the grades matter far more than in earlier school years.  When I taught fifth grade, I never had a Harvard admissions office care about that D on the marine mammal project, or that failed Civil War test. I have seen employers turned off by D's in someone's major, or F's on their transcripts. Parents have to let go at some point when their child is learning to walk.  They have to eventually let go of the bike if a child is to learn to ride. Knowing to occasionally NOT bail their child out of a school mess is also an essential if the child is to learn to learn.  Do it judiciously.  Do it compassionately.  Do it AFTER having taught the child the skills to be independent. But do it.  Few children are damaged permanently by falling on their face when learning to walk, or by a skinned knee in a bike fall.  They will also survive falling on their face at school.  But like a child learning to walk or ride, parents should be there to help dust them off, bandage the wounds, and help them see how to do better. And.. it hurts less when you are younger and more resilient.

2- These students have no reservoir of strategies built up over the years. They have no parents to stand over them, helping, even nagging.  These are often the kids who do poorly in college and seem unable to change the trend.  They may have always been able to do everything else and then pull it together for the test and now can't. Or they may have been able to postpone till the last minute and still make it work and now it doesn't work.  Or the information itself may not "stick" just by listening in class, or by reading the material quickly.  Suddenly none of that is working and they may have trouble even recognizing the train wreck coming much less dealing with it. 

The students who struggled at some point or through high school are not surprised or taken aback when things are hard. They return to some of the strategies that got them through earlier learning challenges. These strategies are familiar, and many students even know exactly which approaches work best for them. 

So, when you are about to pull your hair at one more flash card drill, one more Venn diagram, etc., hold onto the thought that you are helping them develop systems for dealing with learning that will be in their personal learning baskets for the rest of their lives.  And in you are a parent who doesn't have to help their child with homework, consider seeking ways to challenge them before they go out on their own. It is healthy for a child, while still surrounded by supportive parents, to experience that challenge, that panic, that frustration.  Those are opportunities to teach them ways to respond that will help them respond to other challenges, panics, and frustrations long beyond their academic years.  And in the meantime.... gather up all the tricks you can and pass them on to your children.  If they don't need them now, they will some time. 

Monday, May 11, 2009


So, here's what I'm thinking this morning.  I've read a lot about resilience in children and teens as a key factor in success. The current notion seems to be that kids in foster care, especially those who have experienced trauma or neglect, need intensive support from their foster parents to help them develop resilience.  [I always get nervous when I think something radically different that the "experts." They are after all, the experts... in theory better trained, in reality far better paid, far more recognized, and according to somebody's standards more "successful" than lowly ol' us. ....See what I mean, already my opinionated side is showing!] I disagree vehemently. 

A few words about "experts"
 1- I question "somebody's" [whoever they are] definition of successful.  If they mean famous, ok. But that is certainly [and luckily] not my definition of success.  

2- I am not convinced they are better trained.  They undoubtedly have more letters after their name or titles in front of their name.  They surely have spent more hours, and more money on their educations.  But have they lived any of what they are experts about?  I don't mean that you have to live it to become expert.  [suicide comes to mind as an obvious exception]. But in foster care for example I do think that those of us who live day in and day out in this world have at least the right to disagree with those whose study is scientific, written, or read. 

What's the point?
Sooooo...What's my point you may be asking? Back to resilience.  For the most part, I don't think foster children, especially those who have experienced trauma or neglect, need to develop resilience.  I think they have more resilience than most human beings, than most adults, than almost any group of people.  I don't think they need our help to develop it.  I sometimes think I should take lessons from them to build my resilience. Look at what they have survived. If I experienced half of what some of my foster children have at the age they did, I can't imagine how they have done as well as they do. Heavens, if I have a headache, or if its the third rainy day in a row, I want to crawl under my covers and not get up.  But every day kids all over the country who would love to have a headache or the weather be their problem, get up, often take care of themselves, and do their best to be safe. Often they take on the parent role for younger sibs etc.  Do they bear the physical and emotional and developmental scars of their experiences ..of course.  But they get up. They keep going.  And yes, they sometimes do it by fighting.  But they keep going.  When I think about it I am less shocked at the times they cannot be attentive in school, than amazed that they ever manage to put it behind them and focus on science, math etc.  I am less annoyed by their misbehavior, than proud that they ever can move past their grief and loss to function and allow themselves to feel joy. 

So, I for one do not want to hear any "expert" talk about how sad it is that poor pitiable foster children aren't resilient. I salute foster children as the most resilient people I know. 

Anyone want to challenge this perspective?  Anyone want to join the bandwagon? Opinions? Speak up!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Happy Mother's Day !

Happy Mother's Day ! 
God bless us all. Keep us safe and keep us strong. 
Happy Mother's Day to all you single father's who are mother and father to your children.
Happy Mother's Day to all the single mother's doing it all alone.
Happy Mother's Day to all those mother's blessed with a good home, a good husband, and the skills to raise and care for their children.
Happy Mother's Day to all the aunts and uncles who have stepped in to mother their nieces and nephews.
Happy Mother's Day to all the neighbors and teachers and ministers and priests who fill in for missing mothers.
Happy Mother's Day to all the brothers and sisters who care for the children whose mother's don't.
Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers who are trying and loving but just can't seem to make it work.
Happy Mother's Day to all the mothers who are in jail or rehab or hospital desperately working to regain their families. 
Happy Mother's Day to all adoptive mothers who have chosen to love someone else's birth child and make that child their own.
Happy Mother's Day to all the grandmas and grandpas caring for the children of their child.
Happy Mother's Day to all foster moms, who will love and cherish and protect a child for an hour, a day, or however long they can.
Happy Mother's Day to all the moms who are struggling to hang on to their children, to be better parents for the children they have borne.
Happy Mother's Day to all of us.
God bless us all. Keep us safe and keep us strong. 

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Mother's Day Feelings

Mother's Day is this Sunday.  So, as usual, I have spent parts of this week listening to my kiddos talk about what they want to get their mother.  I've helped them pick things out at the store and make things with their hands to give her.  I've given them money to buy the gifts and materials so they could make these gifts of love for their mother. 

I keep thinking that if I were a better person it wouldn't annoy me so much. I wouldn't resent it a bit inside, it wouldn't hurt my feelings a little. But I also recognize that those feelings are understandable and human. I have decided that it is okay to have those feelings, just not okay to acting poorly because of those feelings.  My value to them is not measured by Mother's Day gifts but by far more important things.  Besides, I do NOT want them to feel disloyal to me for giving gifts to their mom, nor do I want to set up a competition that just emphasizes the divided loyalties they already feel and that I talked about in an earlier post [see May 2].  

But, I think it is unrealistic to expect ourselves not to feel twinges on days like Mother's Day and Father's Day etc.  Divorced parents face some of the same twinges, children of divorce face some of the same divided loyalties.  I've talked to enough foster, kinship, adoptive, and divorced parents to know I am not alone in these twinges.  I am more fortunate than some in that I have my first family who love me dearly and both say it and show it often.  

I think the kind of take-away thought is not just that everyone wants to be loved and valued. We know deep down that we ARE loved and ARE [or in the case of little ones will be] appreciated. The thing I think we miss is being told that we are loved. We miss seeing or hearing that we are appreciated.  And that we share with people far beyond the world of foster care.  Every parent of a teen or adolescent has those same moments.  It's okay.  We aren't bad for feeling those things.  More important, we know inside that whether we ever hear it or not, whether we ever see it or not, whether we ever feel it or not...even regardless of whether THEY ever see it or say it or feel it.....we are helping, we are protecting, we are raising, we are loving these children.   With or without the title or the Hallmark card....We are mothering them.  

Friday, May 8, 2009

Why can't I live with my REAL mother?

I used to dread it when I got this question.  I hated it because it had no simple answer. I hated it ever more because I knew it took such courage for them to ask it.  Since then I've learned a few ways to answer it that seem to feel comfortable for the kiddos.  It depends on the age of the child, the temperment of the child, the situation from which they came, etc. etc.   If you are doing foster care, you are probably better than most at "sensing" where kids are emotionally, whether you realize it or not. I've found some helpful books that I will recommend in other posts one of these days. But the real comfort I found was in a workshop by A. Pat Miller several years ago. Since then I no longer dread the question. Her strategy not only helps ME answer the child's question, but I can offer a variation to young children to answer when young friends ask them why they don't live with their mom. 

My favorite answer to the child:    [courtesy of Pat Miller's workshops]
"Everybody is good at some things and not so good at some things."  [Here I use examples they are already aware of like a sister that's good at riding a bike, not at bowling; a friend who is good at soccer, but not science; a brother that is brave about shots, but afraid of spiders, etc.]Then I explain that the same is true about grownups.  I give examples of people they know and things they are good and not good at.  Then I connect it to parenting. " I'm not so good at xxxxx. But, I am really good at keeping kids safe and loved" [For older kids I add "and helping them grow up and learn to be good people."]  Your mother was really good at making beautiful, wonderful babies... like you. [I often mention the child's hair, or eyes, or smile etc.] But, she isn't as good at keeping children safe.  She has a hard time doing that.  And all kids need to be safe and loved. So, you are living with me, all beautiful like your mother made you, but staying with me so you can always feel safe and loved. "

If reunification is a possibility, I continue with something about "while your mother is trying to learn how to be better at keeping children safe and helping them grow up."  

If neglect and abuse were not from the mother I can also say that she was good at loving them, but not as good at keeping them safe, or not as good at helping them grow, etc. 

If visitation and contact will continue I can add something about that also.  One of the reasons I like this approach is because it doesn't villify the parent that the child still misses and is drawn to.  It is a simple statement of fact.  It doesn't put me in place of the parent either. It opens the door for later discussions about being able to love the parent and still having room in their heart for someone else.  Kids who suffer from FAS or other repercussions from seriously poor prenatal choices may require some extra thought and care in answering if they are aware of those issues. 

My favorite answer a child can give:    [courtesy of Pat Miller's workshops]
All young children understand people going to school to learn things.  They go to school themselves and they see lots of young people and adults who take classes and attend school. 
When friends ask why they don't live with their mom, but with me I teach them several possible answers.

1- XXX really likes taking care of kids , so she is taking care of me while my mom can't.   [Sometimes that is enough of an answer and the friend's curiosity is satisfied.] If they ask why the mom can't.....they can go to #2 or #3

2- It's private and I don't want to talk about it.  [A great chance to teach children that privacy is ok, that you don't have to answer a question just because it is asked.]

3- I'm staying with XXX while my mom and dad are studying about being parents.  [If they understand the "all people are better at some things than other things" this doesn't seem strange and kids can usually explain it easily.]

All of these help a child out of a socially awkward situation, one where they might normally make up a lie to avoid a question they can't answer.  Children need to be taught how to handle social situations without lying. 

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Timing is Everything

Today I have been thinking about timing.  Timing seems so much more crucial in parenting kids with challenges.  Kids who are so called "typical" [whatever that is!] seem to be able to roll with things so much better.  Kids who are challenged by behaviors or developmental struggles don't seem to have the same flexibility.  This means that as parents we need to be so much more conscious of what we do.  not that we always manage it, mind you.  Remember the need to recognize that we all will drop a few plates no matter how hard we try.  [See my April 15th blog entry about spinning plates.]

But back to timing.  Looking for a "teachable moment" is crucial.  Teachable moments are NOT when a behavior or event comes up where some teaching is needed.  That happens all too often!  However, that is probably the LEAST teachable moment. 

Why not?
The moment that a child has been "caught" doing something wrong is a moment when the child is likely to be in a completely unteachable state.  In my experience kids seem to go in one of two directions.  One: Some become totally defensive.  They often show this by going on a strident offense behaviorally and verbally, often escalating the situation the more you ry to talk them down.  Two: They say "Whatever!" or "Who cares?" or something equally annoying trying to convince you that it doesn't matter at all to them.   

While they are portraying this don't-care-attitude outside or exploding all over the place, inside they are likely to be experiencing anything from a simply knotted stomach, to a full-out fight-flight response.  Either way, this is NOT a moment when they can listen, much less learn. [P.S.  Also, this might not be your best moment to teach!] This is the time to keep it simple.  

So how and when DO we teach?

Here are a few ideas I try [not always successfully] to remember:

1. Stay calm. Keep an even tone of voice and calm, matter-of-fact exterior.  [NO, you may not scream, yell, or turn purple, despite the temptation, perhaps even the justification.]

2. Clearly and simply label the mistake. Keep it short and specific Ex:  "In our home, NO one is allowed to hit someone." Do NOT get into character bashing.   [In other words, no "I am so sick and tired of you xxxx-ing."] 

3. Keep everyone safe.  If possible give the child a safe out-- a place or time to keep others safe and the child safe while he or she regains calm.  [Ex: Why don't you go in the den until you feel a little quieter inside?"]  If you read yesterday's blog entry ab out a Calm Spot, this is the perfect time to use it. I often add something like "I 'll be there in a little bit to help you."  [Yes, I know this may b e followed by a screamed "I don't NEED your help, etc. etc".... but  they have still heard me.

4. LATER.. This might be in 15 minutes, or an hour, or even a few days.  How do you know when?  It is a time when the possibility of talking [prefera bly in private] is possible.  It is a time when the mood is calm and the child is on an even keel. It is a time when YOU have also calmed down enough to think clearly, be fair, listen, and be reasoned in your plan.  THAT is the teachable moment.  This is the time when you AND the child can talk and think about what happened.  That is when you can talk calmly and matter-of-factly together about the event. What other choices were there? How could it go better the next time? You believe the child can do better. You will help them learn how to do better etc. etc.  This is not a parent punishing a child. This is not a time for berating, or belittling, or battling. These are the times when you become a team working on the problem together, finding solutions together. 

Timing is everything.  Timing is hard. 

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Calm Spot

I live near the ocean and as a child spent some time each summer by the ocean.  Somehow over the years, I began to equate watching the water [especially waves] with calm.  If I am having a terrible day, the most healing place to go is to sit [in my car if it is December!] by the ocean and watch the waves for even just 5 minutes.  Somehow as each wave recedes it takes away some of my anger and frustration, and as each fresh wave comes in it brings me a bit of resilience and renewal. 

Perhaps because of that I came to believe that everyone needs a calm spot.  That concept has helped me with some of the kids who tend to be explosive, or defensive, or any of the other types of high emotion that seem to be beyond their ability to control. 

What is a Calm Spot?
I have asked each of my kiddos to chose a Calm Spot.  They can try out different ones to find the best.  Sometimes they need to change their spot. What is a calm spot?  I tell them it is a place they can go when they feel like their insides are going too fast, their feelings are going to explode, etc. It should be a place where they can calm themselves down and be safe until they do.  

How do you set up a Calm Spot?
Some of my kids even have a Calm Box in their Calm Spot.  One child's calm box has clay for pounding or stretching, a coloring book and crayons, a maze book and pen, kleenex, and scrap paper for ripping or scrunching....all needed for different stages of calming down. [My older kids put in a cheap CD player with a favorite CD.] 

It is important that the child help pick the spot and the items for the box and that you do it at a time when all is well with the child.  That's when you explain that when he needs to calm down he can go to his spot and use her box until he feels calm or until she thinks she can come back and be ok. They can ask to use the calm spot if they think they need it.  Tell them that if you are watching them and think that maybe they need it you might ask them if they need it. They may say no once.  But if in a few minutes you see that they still need it, you, as the grownup in charge, might insist that they spend at least some time in their calm spot.  

How do you use a Calm Spot?
When a child begins to seem out of control, you use a very calm, matter-if-fact tone and ask them if s/he would like to use their Calm Spot for a few minutes. 
If s/he does great.  When s/he comes back, ask "Did your Calm Spot help?" "Are your ready to xxx now?" and praise them for using their calm spot!!

If they choose not to go to their calm spot, say something like "That's fine. If you can calm down by yourself, great. But if you change your mind, go ahead and use your calm spot if you need to."
If they calm down... celebrate their success.  If they don't after a bit, or if things escalate, then explain that you insist that they go to their Calm Spot for a few minutes to get back in control of their feelings. Still stay calm.  Still be matter-of-fact rather than punitive.  Re-state that when you pick him up and move her to a quiet spot it isn't a punishment, it's because you understand s/he needs some time and space to calm down. If your attitude or words are punitive, they will view it as punishment.  It is up to you to always treat it as an opportunity for them to regain the control they need. The message they get is that you believe they can control their feelings, given the time, space, and support they need.  A powerful message.  

P.S.  Sometimes when they have done something that really upsets me, I will tell them [often as I help them to their Calm Spot, that I need to calm down too. That I am going to MY Calm Spot. I go to a quiet place in the house [assuming I can find one!] and do something to calm myself, whether calling a friend, reading a meditation, listening to music, etc.

Everyone needs a Calm Spot.  

Monday, May 4, 2009

Put it Behind You

Quick Homework Strategy-

Are your kids overwhelmed by the amount of homework each night? Do they start fighting as soon as they see the stack of work to be done? Do they shut down after the first 15 minutes?This won't change the amount, but it may help manage the burden. 

Have your child stack their assignments and books behind them or under the table while they work. Take out a timer and the top-of-the-pile assignment and work for 15 minutes.  Then stop, put that assignment at the bottom of the pile and take out the new top assignment and work for 15 minutes. Continue until all assignments are done or homework time is used up.  

Advantages:  1-Each teacher's or subject's assignment gets some work. 2-The teacher will see what your child can accomplish in 15 minutes. 3-Your child learns the habit of breaking tough projects into smaller, more manageable chunks. 4-Your child learns to focus on one thing at a time, giving it his/her best instead of getting frozen by the perceived enormity of what is to be done.

Hint- Talk to your child's teacher in advance [good parent conference topic] and explain what you are doing and why.  Most teachers will support this approach whole heartedly. Just be sure that your child doesn't always leave their least favorite topic until last "conveniently" running out of time before getting to it. 

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Divided Loyalties

Children in foster care miss their parents.  Adoptees may miss their birth parents. Whether children being raised by others miss the parents they had or the parents they wish they had, they miss their parents.  Even when a parent has abused or neglected or traumatized their child, that child will still miss them when separated.  They are still their parents. As hard as it is for new foster parents to understand, all children want to be loved by their birth parents.  Yes, their birth parent may have abandoned them, have given them up for adoption, or even have been taken away for their own safety.  But they still want to be loved by them. 

This desire is almost like a primal drive, a primitive need, that all children have. When you stop and think about it, how wonderful it is that the drive to love and be loved can survive so much.  But as foster or adoptive parents, we must remember that these children still want birth parents to love and have loved them. 

Imagine how this interferes with attachment and bonding for adoptive children, long term foster children, or even temporary placements!  The more they begin to connect and attach to a new set of parents, the more they may feel torn. They may feel guilty for loving or attaching to new caregivers, thinking it is disloyal to their birth parents. This may result in anger, resentment, detachment, and more.  If there is still an ongoing connection with the birth parents it is more in your face perhaps, but don't think that if there is not an ongoing connection that the feelings aren't still there.  Even children who were adopted basically at birth often experience some of these feelings when they become aware of birth parents somewhere "out there." 

Remember... No matter how much you love you give your foster or adoptive child, no matter how attached you become, no matter how much they love you or attach to you, you cannot expect to erase the place in their heart or mind that still wants to be loved or have been loved by their birth parents.  

The good news... Just as any parent of more than one child will tell you, love is expandable. Just because you love your first child, doesn't mean you love your second child less.  Each child is loved for his or herself. There is no more or less, just different.  Why should it not be true for caregivers and parents as well?  Your adoptive child may always have a part that wishes and wonders what it would have been like if the birth parents had kept him/her and may hold a fantasy of it. But that does not have to take away an iota of the love they hold for the people who did raise them, did care for them, did hold a long term place in their heart. True, it will be reality based, rather than fantasy. They will remember the arguments in adolescence, the toy you didn't buy them as a child, etc.  Few fantasies include such details. But the love and connection between you is also more real and [even when they may fight it] will be remembered.

Friday, May 1, 2009

May Day Flowers

This is just a quick post to salute the fact that it is May Day.  I somehow missed that fact until an hour ago, maybe because I was rushing a science project to school for one child, dropping off the overnight sleeping bag etc for the Boston Science Museum overnight for my Girl Scout, and following up on PET with the school for another, and meeting with my minister about special music for this Sunday. Nonetheless, May Day arrived, regardless of my schedule or my kids. What has happened?  

When I was a child [which apparently was shortly after dinosaurs roamed the earth] I remember rolling construction paper cones and taping them, then attaching pipe cleaner handles. Next my brother and I would happily gather forget-me-nots and other wild flowers to fill our improvised "May Baskets." Once we arranged our blossoms in the 'baskets' we would tiptoe up onto a neighbors porch, hang the basket on the doorknob, ring the bell, and run to hide, watching to see their surprise when they found their May flowers.  Even to me it now seems like an era long gone, a nicety lost, and innocence and delight that somehow seems foreign in the era of I-pods and Wiis, Science Museum field trips, and elaborate science projects.    

I don't remember if I delivered homemade May Baskets every year as a child or only once... but the memory is strong and joyful. So today I decided to acknowledge May Day as more than a passing date on a crowded calendar. Today I sent May Baskets to my daughters, and will help my kiddos make May Baskets when the bus gets home.  The laundry and vacuuming and dishes can [and sadly will] wait.  Sometimes we have to interrupt our schedules for a moment of peaceful, more innocent, even outdated pleasures with our children so that they too will have something to look back and remember.  Happy May Day!

Television Teachers...part two

Picking up on the television as visual literature here is another way to use that time watching tv with your child to boost reading skills.  It is also wonderful if you have a child with learning disabilities that make reading a struggle.  This lets them work with literature concepts beyond their reading level abilities. 

TV Hint Two:  Characters and Description
Talk during commercial breaks about which characters are the "main" characters.  Who is the hero [for older kids... the protagonist]? the villain [antagonist]? What actors were just minor characters to fill out the story scene [ex: students in a school scene, diners in a restaurant, etc.] Ask them to pick a character and describe that character as many ways as possible... first physically, then by their behavior, their moods, their actions, etc. 

Older Kids:
Try to ask questions that might help them put the characters in a new situation. [Ex: a teen show... how would character X fit into your school?  If X were a new student at your school what kind of reaction would s/he get?  Would s/he be likely to fit in best with the sports kids, the drama club? where? ] Extend your child's thinking by exploring the what ifs.  If X had done Y instead of what s/he did in the show, how would the story have changed?

For Foster Care....
Foster children often struggle with reading and find themselves reading at a grade level below their peers.  But their interests and their thinking are often right with their peers. Using television as literature gives these kids a chance to explore and discuss concepts like plot and character at their grade level and thinking level instead of their lower reading level. Try it!