Late one night in January last year the kids came running in the front door thrilled with a fuzzy new find. Percy was an abandoned, dirty, matted and very hungry 2 month old puppy of indeterminate breed. We tried all the usual channels but, no one ever claimed him. Puppies, it turns out, are a bit of work. We (read that as: the grownups in the house) were thrown into a cycle of late night runs for the backyard and endless rainy walks saying (on the advice of a well-respected puppy trainer) “Do it, Percy, Do it” to train him to defecate on command. As if. I started searching for recipes that would separate the meat from all that hair. No luck. It has since then been pointed out to me that I did not actually have to keep the critter that perhaps, I should have told my three beaming children “No”. Right. You try.
Everyone likes to give us their theories about what exactly, he is. Portuguese water dog? Something-a-doodle? Bijon frise? The cat thinks he is a cat. He thinks he is …comfortable here.
The AAP decided recently to use the book The Very Hungry Caterpillar as a tool to promote healthy eating. Great idea! In fact so great it brings me back 7 years ago to a presentation I gave to my daughter’s preschool class. I used the food pyramid and The Very Hungry Caterpillar to explain healthy eating to that group of 3, 4 and 5 year olds.
You know the story right? That little guy starts off well, growing up eating lots of fruit. Then he branches out to the junk. Sausages, lollipops, cake, pie. Not surprisingly he gets a stomach ache which is only cured by a return to his prior plant-based diet. Since that preschool presentation I have time and again explained this story to my patients and given them the book (courtesy of fabulous Reach Out and Read).
When I heard about the AAP’s promotion I tweeted about it “This is great! I have used same book to teach nutrition for years!”. A fellow tweeter was surprised. His response (in 140 characters or less):
I can see the connection, but I would not have made it myself. Are the kids really open to understanding nutrition that young age?
Ah, yes. They are. Here is a little understood fact (one my mother understood well): talk to children just as you would any other human and they rise to the occasion. If they don’t understand they will ask you. If you teach down to them they will tune you out and you will lose their respect.
This point came up again this week while I was in the locker room after a swim. We swimmers solve all the worlds problems in the locker room. I ask the vet about my “dog”. Folks ask me about their kids. The discussion Tuesday was how and when to have “The Talk”. My answer was simple: don’t. I suggested instead, that making sex ed a natural part of their upbringing week in and week out was far more effective. Don’t wait for a big talk at a time when you think they are ready or old enough. Have books to read together. Have books for them to look at alone. Talk early and, talk often. And that brings me back to the caterpillar: answer their questions as they ask them without worry for what material they are old enough to understand. Kids are curious sponges; ready to soak up whatever knowledge you are ready to offer them be about sex or caterpillars.
Since reading the New York Times this Sunday I have been thinking about Glenn Ligon’s quote:
You have to be a bit outside of something to see it
These words have been rolling around a bit in my head. He was describing another artist’s work and these words had a specific meaning. However – like many quotes taken out of perspective we make them our own; we give them our own new meaning. For me they brought to mind the truth that can appear when we have the opportunity to view not only art, but people a step apart from them. There can be such breathtaking beauty found in seeing someone we care about unexpectedly before we realize they are our own.
We are usually so embroiled in the daily work of parenting that we do not often have a chance to see our children (our greatest works of art) from a view a bit outside of the experience of parenting them. A few years back I wrote a brief article about nurturing friendships in young children. Part of the advice I offered was about how to handle the end of a playdate:
When it is over and you deliver the friend to their parent take time to praise their behavior to the parent – this makes both child and parent feel good and ultimately helps strengthen the budding friendship.
Taking time to reflect positively on another child to their parent can share with them one of those magical moments of seeing their child outside their usual perspective – it indeed makes all involved feel great! This advice and Glenn Ligon’s words also came back to me in the office recently. I was seeing an emotionally challenged child and her parents. Somewhere near the end of our visit I commented on what a beautiful person she was and how her strength of character combined with her parent’s incredible support would help her rise above her struggles. As I mentioned her shining nature I saw a glimmer of relief in her mother’s eyes. For a second her haze of stress and worry parted and she could see her daughter there across the room as I did – a beautiful person with a positive future.
These times of seeing our children a bit outside of our usual view are gifts to be savored and shared. Enjoy!
The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. – Albert Einstein
My eldest is almost fifteen and is beginning the process of planning his high school and college “careers”. This proves to be a rather stress-inducing experience; apparently very different from the casual way I approached high school. Late the other night he admitted he was worried about choosing classes for the upcoming years. So, in the spirit of facing our fears we curled up together right then and went the through the high school graduation/college entrance requirements. The school had provided worksheets and lists which we dove into. Amongst scads of science, math, and language requirements I learned that of the 230 units required to graduate only 10 of those need to be in arts education.
This made me start thinking again about the lack of value we place on arts education and the consequence of this devaluing. This is evident in the currently proposed national budget; some members of the House of Representatives have proposed deep cuts or even total elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts. This represents a huge loss nationally. On a more local level our school systems face severe budget crises and are viewing arts education as expendable – Leaving it acceptable to require only 10 units out of 230 for a young person to graduate from high school and enter college.
What is the cost of this devaluing? Put differently – what is the value in teaching kids arts? We teach art and teach about art because doing so:
- sharpens critical thinking skills. Cassandra Whyte is credited with early work showing that artistic experiences develop creative and independent thought processes that are important throughout an individual’s lifetime
- teaches innovative thought
- widens perspective, encourages acceptance of generational, cultural, social and geographic diversity
- teaches empathy and sensitivity to other’s experiences by exposing them to other world views, brings about a deeper understanding of the world
- Therefore, teaching the arts nurtures skills that improve our kid’s future ability to work successfully in the global marketplace
- calm the soul and brings beauty to daily life
Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life – Pablo Picasso
- preserves our cultural history and heritage; preserves our collective memory
My son and I filled in the worksheet with lots of science, language and math. And art? Well, not so much. He moaned at my suggestion of various art classes let alone art history. His groaning made me realize that I had before me, fodder for another great dinnertime conversation. Tonight I am going to ask them why I talk so much about the arts. Why I drag them to museums? Why we have lots of paint, pastels and paper? Why are our walls covered with art? They may generate some new ideas from my list above. I’ll get back to you with them.
If you want to help promote arts education yes, of course generate your own dinner table conversation. You can also look at the work of the Americans for the Arts Action Fund.
Posted in Art
Tagged Americans for the Arts Action Fund, art, art education, arts education, creative thought, creativity, education, Einstein, family meals, parenting, Picasso, talking with kids
I have tried hard to avoid adding to the general buzz surrounding the “Tiger Mother”. I resolved to stay out of the fray. Really I did. But, a convergence of discussions with reading a review of the book has pushed me into adding my thoughts to the collective. I’ll be brief.
Twice this week I have had conversations about girls feeling the pressure of attempting to be “perfect”. One girl was in tears telling me that she was trying hard in all she does (arts, sports, school) to literally be perfect. The pressure had brought her in to see me. The mother of another talked with relief about how her junior high aged girl was moving away from a friend who on the surface seemed so very “together” that her child had been feeling the strain of trying to keep up.
I had heard of the Tiger Mom; she sounded quite awful when I listened to the general hub bub. Then one day earlier this week I found myself stuck in a waiting room reading a review of her book in Time magazine. A review that was surprising. I tend to try to look at life from all sides and enjoyed finding through this review that perhaps the feline had some good ideas for raising children after all. Do I agree with them all? Well no, of course not. However, she has some powerful theories about the value of hard work and repetitive practice. I went home that evening and announced to my kiddos that from now on they were going to practice their instruments longer. Everyday. No more nice mom.
However what is clear to me about her child raising technique is that it is fraught with danger. The danger that comes when a child is held up to perfection as the yardstick by which they are being judged and by which they judge themselves. So the question becomes how to find the balance. How to push our children to work hard, really hard so that they become the best versions of themselves they can be, while also teaching them of unconditional love. For with this love comes an innate self-confidence and strength that will allow them to use their hard-won skills in creative and meaningful ways.
Perhaps we explain to them that perfection is not obtainable. It is defined individually and changes with the viewer’s perspective. That it does not actually exist. Nor would it be desirable if it were found. Our children need to accept that life is messy and people are complex. The friend who seems so together, so perfect, may have hidden flaws. The people we most enjoy being with, those that most fill us with joy, are often those that are flawed. Take one of my dearest friends. She is great looking, can make any item of clothing look like haute couture, is kind as the day is long, a great athlete and, a bit of a slob. Yes, a slob. But, we all love that about her. It makes it easier to be with her. Her house is great to be in – enter there and immediately relax for, while there you know what really matters the most to her: your friendship.
Our challenge as parents is to endorse maximum effort and to teach the embrace of the diverse, unexpected and messier parts of living life. How do we proceed? Perhaps by opening this dialog with our kids. Ask if perfection is a goal? Is “perfect” possible? At what cost? Let me know what you learn.
What do Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tino Sehgal and Andrew Goldsworthy have in common?
Well, I didn’t really expect you to get that one. But the answer to this question is one worth discussing (in the ongoing dinner-table conversation with your kids that I have by now stirred up).
Jean-Michel Basquiat was an American who began as a graffiti artist and developed into a respected painter of canvases hung in galleries and museums. I was fortunate this year to see an extensive retrospective of his work in a museum. His paintings have an Afro-Carribean influence and also show hints of the influence of other artists of his time. But, for the purposes of our conversation, think of him as a graffiti artist. Andrew Goldsworthy is a british sculptor who works primarily in the outdoors making site-specific and land art. He makes art created out of what he finds in nature. Breathtaking, monumental art made of icicles, twigs, leaves and piled rocks. Tino Sehgal is an artist who creates situations meant to move his audience, meant to make them think but – not meant to be preserved. His work occurs in museums but is not documented in anyway. I recently saw his work “This Progress” – an installation of progressive encounters with people who walked with me, asking me questions (“what is progress?” “is progress always good”) as I ascended the spiral at the Guggenheim museum in New York. While my memories are sharp, there is no image to link here for you to see.
The answer to my question is that all three men created in part, art meant to be temporary. Graffiti and land art are to more or less degree ephemeral in nature. Sehgal’s work is designed to be such. When you look at each of these art forms you find an unarguably appealing nature to them. Certainly Goldsworthy’s is the most widely approachable so, start there. What is it about the fleeting nature of his work that adds to its beauty?
I asked my children this tonight at dinner. I admit, the 15 y/o rolled his eye a bit but then, even he joined in the conversation. They all agree that Goldsworthy’s installments are “really cool” but we struggled with the question of what their impermanence adds to the art. Does its fleeting nature make it more precious and therefore simply more valued (volunteered by the 9 y/o)? Do the changes that occur as Goldsworthy’s sculptures are decayed by the forces of nature (tides, wind, heat) allow for our own interpretations; our own artistic input in how we see them? Do my memories of Seghals situations similarly add to the interpretation of his art? Questions of vandalism aside, I find something magical about the creation of a graffiti mural that will soon simply become a canvas for the next artist.
Is there something about art meant to be physically transitory that makes us pause and stretch our mind’s eye to really take it in? We are perhaps, encouraged to be really in the moment with this art that is by nature of the moment.
To start your own discussion at home try watching these two very different but equally moving videos: Goldsworthy in action and graffiti being created. Consider making some of your own art at home as Meg Schiffler and her son did described in her terrific blog post for the SFMOMA Andy Goldsworthy: Big Tears (Part 1) and A Gift to the Backyard (Part 2).
Posted in Art, Parenting
Tagged Andrew Goldsworthy, art, art education, arts education, graffiti, Jean-Michel Basquiat, kids, parenting, SFMOMA, talking with kids, Tino Sehgal
On Twitter this morning I saw several tweets about how to deal with undesirable habits in children. These started me wondering why, exactly we are so bothered by our kids habits. For the most part nail-biting, hair twiddling, lip licking and their ilk are not harmful. Sure – there are some undesirable consequences (raw little fingers, frazzled hair, dry lips…) but I am guessing that really, our parental reactions come from a different category of worry. It may be that when we watch our child fidget, pick at their scab or chew absent-mindedly on their shirt, some of our reaction is based on a worry that perhaps they will never grow out of these habits and we will fail by sending little nail-biters into the world. We wonder if perhaps Dostoevsky was right when he wrote:
The second half of a man’s life is made up of nothing but the habits he has acquired during the first half.
And, if he is right we feel there is so little time to shape our children into successful adults; will we cram in all the lessons in time? Do we also react so strongly out of concern about how our parenting skills will be judged when others see their little habits? It seems a difficult time to be raising children; we are surrounded by a constant influx of pressure and “advice” about how to parent.
There was another, well done article posted on Twitter this morning – Kids Affected by Parent Stress More Than We Recognize. This talked of the consequences of our stress and worry on our children. It is true, there is much to legitimately worry about (jobs, health, finances, world affairs, etc) and given this I would challenge us all to look hard for the spaces in our days where we can let things slide. One good place to start is with our reactions to our children’s habits. I find that when reassuring parents in my office two things seem to help the most: knowledge and humor. For knowledge there are many places to turn, here I have gathered some basic information about habits and their counterpart, tics. I find the best advice is to try to not nag instead, to talk calmly and directly with your child about his habit. After all he may not be aware of doing it; as Agatha Christie said:
Curious things, habits. People themselves never knew they had them
Awareness is the first step to breaking the habit. Have the conversation at a quiet moment. At that time explain you have noticed that he sometimes has the habit and that you would like him to think about stopping and why. Brainstorm with him a list of ways to learn to stop. Even very young children respond well to being included and respected in this way!
And now, for some humor:
My problem lies in reconciling my gross habits with my net income – Errol Flynn
Zoo: An excellent place to study the habits of human beings – Evan Esar
Or, as I tried last night when watching my handsome near-15 y/o absent-mindedly chew on his t-shirt – just smile at your sweet monsters and have a private giggle. They will have grown up and out of most childhood habits so quickly (I hope… the T-shirts are suffering) that letting them slide at times may be the best approach.
Last year I wrote an article for patients at work incorporating the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendations for the treatment of head lice. Their recommendations and my article we aimed at being calming and reassuring. Lice are indeed gross but – they are not harmful so we mothers need to calm down a bit. As I was writing it I remembered a certain mother’s day I had and changed the article to include this introduction and summary:
Picture this: 0630 Mother’s Day 2008 morning …my dear daughter climbs into bed with me to read a book and snuggles up in the crook of my arm. I decide I will have to do without the dream of sleeping in on mother’s day in order to well, enjoy being a mother. I give into the joy of her good morning love and snuggle in with a nuzzle of the top of her sweet head…only to find….Arrrggghhh! Lice nits! Good grief, what a way to start the day, any day let alone Mother’s Day! So, I did what most mothers would do jumped up and entered into panic/action mode and spent the day (btw that was supposed to be my day) washing, picking nits, combing, doing laundry, vacuuming and cleaning. Let me emphasize the laundry; I totally went overboard with the laundry and did dozens of loads!
And that is really where we need to begin here. So, let’s take a few deep cleansing breaths together (lice tend to reduce the most composed mothers to crazed hyperventilating insane people – me included). Now I know and believe much of what I put my self through that day was unnecessary. We as a nation are too afraid of lice. Yes, they are really, really yucky. Yes, we don’t want them on our children’s heads. However – lice do not hurt our kids (deep breath) and they do not live well or long off of a human head so huge cleaning efforts are unnecessary (deep breath). Having lice is common, does not mean you or your house is dirty and, happens to the best of us (breath).
My Mother’s Day 2008 ended up with a very clean house, 3 slightly traumatized children and 1 exhausted mother. Next time we have lice, and there will likely be a next time, I hope to be able to breathe my way through a more rational response!
So, this week when yet again I was reading and snuggling the very same child and looked below to see…could it really be? Nits? I was able to indeed breathe, relax and not go so overboard. She and I both survived relatively unstressed which made me realize that I too learned in the process of interpreting information for my patients. Glad to know that the deep, subconscious part of my brain that reacts in horror to the idea of bugs on my child was soothed by learning the facts. Education is indeed powerful.
It of course also helped that after a good shampooing the white stuff went away – proving the point that even the “professionals” mistake dandruff for lice!
I spent a thoughtful few days after first reading Chop, Fry, Boil: Eating for One, or 6 Billion from the 12/31/10 New York Times followed by seeing a blog post from KevinMD.com entitled Childhood obesity and chronic illnesses that result from being overweight. Of course, I read much about childhood obesity and have a seemingly endless stream of conversations in the office about this topic. With parents and kids I try to navigate this delicate but medically urgent issue. With fellow pediatricians we express frustration over the mounting problem and despair of being efficacious in our attempts to help parents and children carve a healthier path through the mess that it seems our society has created.
Results from the 2007-2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), using measured heights and weights, indicate that an estimated 17 percent of children and adolescents ages 2-19 years are obese.
The blog post outlines the problem of childhood obesity and examines some suggested remedies: limits on the sales of sodas and educational initiatives for parents and doctors alike. These add to what is necessarily a multi-pronged approach. Physicians need to educate and discuss, schools need to examine what is in their vending machines and in their lunches, food manufacturers, store and restaurant chains need to have a conscience that examines their role in this nation-wide crisis.
What can we as parents add to the mix? Among many small steps we can take (pack lunches, serve water, model exercise), falls the idea so well outlined in Chop, Fry and Boil. We can and should, raise a nation of cooks. No, not chefs – no perfection or creativity required. We can raise our kids ready to go forth able to provide for themselves simple, tasty, home-cooked meals. Giving the next generation of Americans basic cooking skills gives them the ability to avoid the cycle of fast food consumption and its inherent physical and economic costs. The author provides us three basic recipes to learn. I am an avid cook but, somehow have never learned how to make an edible stir fry. I thoroughly enjoyed Mark Bittman’s Broccoli Stir-Fry with Chicken and Mushrooms; enjoyed the learning, the cooking and the eating. Better yet – I invited my 11 y/o daughter to learn with me and she joined in; the recipe was indeed that approachable.
We teach our children so much. We feed them well. Many of us let our kids play in the kitchen…here we call this baking “experiments”. Let’s also arm them with some basic dinner-making skills;
By becoming a cook, (they) can leave processed foods behind, creating more healthful, less expensive and better-tasting food that requires less energy, water and land per calorie and reduces our carbon footprint. Not a bad result for us — or the planet.
Then we can start on the next step suggested in a recent interview with our Surgeon General Regina Benjamin: that we as a nation maybe need to dance more.
That exercise is medicine. It’s better than most pills.