Category Archives: Parenting

Falling Back and Cleaning Desks

I have been feeling a wee bit overloaded these days. Overloaded in the happy-all-these-cool-opportunities are on my plate kind of way. But, also overloaded in the I-can’t-find-the-time-to-get-the-little-stuff-done kind of way. I am certain all of you know this feeling . My desk is more disheveled than I like. The winter garden (think fava beans) is not completely in. My pile of laundry needing to be folded is reaching epic proportions.

So on Sunday morning I woke up early to try to get a head start on my day. Maybe I was inspired by my European friend for whom daylight savings time started last week. He thought it was some how an inconvenience. I suffered pangs of jealousy.

Spring forward, fall back….

For me that falling backwards has been a mixed experience. In medical school and residency it was really quite the drag. At 2400 instead of being done with that calendar day of call, we had to start the hour over again. As a parent I am quite fond of gaining that extra hour of time. Now it represents a quiet house; an hour of uninterrupted catching up on the small stuff.

This Sunday I created my own falling back by getting up early and used the time to paint a really grubby bathroom. Ceiling done, wall edged, I was starting on the trim – happily painting away and listening to an NPR podcast on my iPod. I was also thinking about how great it was that to have this small piece of time and how nice fall daylight savings is. Maybe in a utopian world we could have a Parent Savings Day when all the children of the world slept for 24 hours while we parents got caught up. Then my reverie was broken by a sound outside the door and I opened it a crack. There was my lovely middle child with a huge happy-to-see me grin. I was deep into  my falling back and getting it done zone and all I could think was “Seriously?” Apparently I said it also.Oops.  #notgreatparentingmoments

p.s. : That podcast I was listening to was a collection of interviews called Desktop Diary reporting on

going into scientists or creative thinker’s workspaces and seeing how they work and what their desk looks like. The idea is that maybe some of the desks can tell us a little bit about the person.

It included the rather irritating desk of physicist Brian Greene who seems to think one thinks better with a clean desk. Hmmph. Now I need another early Sunday. Or, maybe I’ll emulate another physicist, Michio Kaku who said:

it’s pointless to have a nice clean desk, because it means you’re not doing anything.

Now, that’s more like it.

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Bobbleheads, Packaging and Wise Career Choices

Sometimes life presents you with unexpected learning opportunities doesn’t it?

Last Thursday I went with my 12 daughter to see k.d. lang in concert. She needed to write a report for her band class on observations made while seeing a live music performance. We looked around for a local show and stumbled across the listing for k.d. lang’s show. It seemed perfect to me – my daughter could get her report done and I could enjoy some good music.

My daughter’s report had to list the instruments played, comment on sets and costumes.  Critique the music itself. She had to watch the mannerisms of the musicians (apparently some of the trumpet players in band move like bobble heads with each breath).

I hoped that there would be another lesson presented to her that night. A lesson of acceptance. In a review of k.d. lang’s singing, The Times of London declared:

It’s a quirk of the music industry that one of the sexiest, most sensual voices in all of pop music comes not from some raven-tressed siren in a glitter-dress but a middle-aged woman with a utility haircut and a penchant for male tailoring.

Exactly. I wanted my daughter to see that talent and success, wisdom and sexuality present themselves in all kinds of packages. Each worthy of her attention. I felt vaguely guilty for “using” k.d.’s concert as a teaching moment  rather than just an opportunity to listen to fabulous music but – so be it, off we went.

Turns out there was a better lesson waiting for us that night. As I watched k.d. on stage it struck me that although she gives this very same performance night after night it has not grown dull for her. Her songs soar, her feet skip and she smiles. A smile described in the NY Times as being the size of Montana, forms an invitation for us to join in the fun.

The next morning at work I was reminded that my job as pediatrician has some of the same fun worked into the routine. One 9 month old smiled so continuously and contagiously at me that I had to apologize to his mother for my own grin. An autistic boy with an uncontrollable fit of ticklish giggling while I was examining his belly made me give in to the giggles with him. How lucky k.d. and I are! And, what better lesson than showing my daughter that one’s work should feel at least in part, fun?

Lessons learned? Don’t be a bobble head.  Impressive people come in many packages. And careers should be fun. Choose well dear girl!

Nutritional Soundbite #2: You Serve, They Choose.

One day when I was a resident in Pediatrics I was assigned to work in the gastroenterology clinic. There were not many children to be seen that day.  As I waited for a small person with a stomach issue to arrive I picked a book off the shelf and started reading. It was small, had a friendly cover and looked approachable. Indeed, it was a gem. I passed my time that morning reading and the words I soaked up then have stuck with me as I have mothered my three and as I have talked with scores of parents through the years.

The words from this book by childhood nutrition guru Ellyn Satter form the basis of Soundbite #2.

There is an important division of labor in feeding children. Their adults should choose what food they are served. The children choose what to eat and how much. At times parents find it very hard to trust in nature: children are built for success, if trusted they will eat the right amount of food for their bodies. Only the child knows when she is hungry.

Your child will get hungry, eat, get filled up, and stop eating (even in the middle of a bowl of ice cream). Whether your child needs a lot or a little, she instinctively eats as much as she needs. If you follow the division of responsibility with feeding she will automatically eat the right amount of food to grow and be as active as is right for her.

However, if we as parents interfere with this natural rhythm we risk raising children who are either too heavy or too thin for what nature intended. Imagine how confusing it may be to a young child when on one hand her brain knows they are not hungry but their parent is telling them to eat more! Repeat this enough times and the child no longer listens to her body but eats beyond hunger and fills with unneeded calories.

So, fill her plate with good choices. You are obviously not offering soda, chips and sugary cereal all day long. Instead lay out fruits, veggies, cheese, yogurt, milk and whole grains. Then sit back, relax, and trust your very smart child. ©

Nutritional Soundbite #1: Make Snacks Count

Young children often need to snack frequently as they go through the day. They have small tummies and high energy needs. Big kids need lots of healthy food to keep up with their incredibly rapid growth through the teen years (you should see my 15 y/o athlete eat).  It may at times seem hard to get all the nutrients that are needed into your child! Many parents feel that it is a challenge to get their child to eat all of the recommended servings of fruits, veggies and whole grains.  You can use your child’s need to snack to help you meet his nutritional goals. In other words, make snacks count!

Ways to do this are to provide snacks that are healthy and fun. Make sure that snacks you offer are not junk or processed food but, good, simple, real food. Some examples include:

  • Celery sticks with a side of cream cheese and raisins – young kids can create “ants on a log” and eat them!
  • Apples and peanut butter-tofu dip (1/2 cup tofu, 1/2 cottage cheese, 3 TBS peanut butter, 1TBS honey, 1TSP vanilla – processed till smooth)
  • Tortilla chips and salsa
  • Dried fruit
  • Pretzels and small chunks of cheese – they can form building units by sticking the pretzels into the cheese before popping them in his mouth
  • Popcorn (preferably what you pop yourself in canola or other healthy oil or low-fat microwave popcorn).
  • Cut up fresh seasonal fruit
  • Carrots, snap peas, cucumbers and a little low-fat ranch dressing for dipping
  • Applesauce or yogurt (look for lower sugar versions, try greek yogurt for extra protein)
  • Smoothies made of yogurt, frozen bananas, a little orange juice and berries.
  • banana bread, zucchini bread or pumpkin muffins

Children love to help you in the kitchen – they also think it is fun to eat what they cook! So, you can use this willingness as a tool to help them get some healthy snacks in. For example, bake some pumpkin mini-muffins or zucchini bread (use 1/2 whole wheat flour, use canola oil and add some flax meal to up the nutritional worth) together and enjoy some together with a glass of skim milk. Try adding pureed white beans to your favorite cookie recipe to add protein and fiber.  Then if you have made a double batch, you can freeze some and stick them in his school lunches.

Using these baked treats as snack can help address the issue of forbidden foods. I discussed this in my post “Sugary Cereal, Cornchips and S’Mores or, Moderation in All Things” – if we occasionally allow our kids to eat foods we view as nutritionally unsound for regular intake then they crave them less. Research has shown that they in the end, eat less of these forbidden foods. So, if you occasionally greet them after school with a plate of chocolate chip cookies they will be better off for it. And who’s to know that the cookies are high fiber?

When you do let them watch TV use that as a good snacking opportunity. Hand your child a bowl filled with an assortment of fresh fruits and veggies. Try carrot pieces, strawberries, black olives, bell peppers and cucumbers. It is amazing how much  they will devour without even noticing!

One last word, while young kids do often need a snack, some days they don’t. Children do not grow as much some days as they do on other days – therefore their appetite changes. Your job is to offer the healthy snacks and his job is to decide if he is hungry enough to eat it. If not – it is okay, he will want some another day. Which perfectly introduces my nutritional soundbite #2 …

My Top 10 Nutritional Soundbites

  1. make snacks count
  2. you serve, they choose
  3. limit drinks that taste sweet
  4. don’t worry
  5. don’t be a short order chef
  6. go with their strong suits; average nutrition over a week or month
  7. talk with your kids about nutrition
  8. allow treats
  9. raise cooks
  10. family meals

What’s a parent to do? The news is so full of nutritional advice it can seem impossible to know where to begin an attempt to feed children well. Sugar is increasingly viewed as a dietary mistake. Fiber is fantastic for preventing constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and is linked to a reduction in colon cancer. Blueberries and walnuts have antioxidants, salmon and tuna have vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Too much tuna has too much mercury. Too much cow’s milk can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Too much soy milk is risky as well. How does a parent put all of this advice into action?

My patients’ parents often ask questions about nutrition. I offer them a collection of nutritional advice soundbites. Over the next few days I will share details of my top 10 of these soundbites. Please, comment and join in with yours!

Sugary Cereal, Cornchips and S’Mores or, Moderation in All Things

What’s a parent to do? The news is so full of nutritional advice it can seem impossible to know where to begin an attempt to feed children well. Sugar is increasingly viewed as dietary suicide. Fiber is fantastic for preventing constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and is linked to a reduction in colon cancer. Blueberries and walnuts have antioxidants, salmon and tuna have vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids. Too much tuna has too much mercury. Too much cow’s milk can lead to iron-deficiency anemia. Too much soy milk is risky as well. How does a parent put all of this advice into action?

My patients’ parents often ask questions about nutrition. I offer them a collection of nutritional advice soundbites; the top ten of which may form my next blog posts. One bit of “wisdom” I have always put out there is this: “Make snacks count”. Snacks are a great chance to get in the foods we most want our kids to eat. As a mom of 15, 12 and 10 year old kids I certainly try to practice what I preach. Sometimes though, I fail. It struck me today as I watched the 12 year old gleefully eat her bowl of very sugary cereal complete with colored marshmallow bits,  that there is something about summer vacation that seems programmed to allow these failures.

My childhood summer vacations were spent on the beaches of Virginia, North and South Carolina, in the woods around my grandparents home on the Chesapeake bay and on a lake in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They were formed of long days of freedom, swimming, exploring and happiness. Sand and heat, mosquitoes, crabs and fireflies, lemonade and Fritos formed the texture of the days.

Fritos? Yes. Now looking back on those days I realize how much of my summertime memories center around foods enjoyed only then. Some of course were healthy summertime treats, some were not. S’mores, Fritos and the occasional bowl of sugary cereal were a wonderful break from the extremely healthy diet my mother usually fed me. Now I realize that I have programmed my own children to expect the same sort of nutritional holiday. Sugary cereal never enters my house and to their credit, the kids don’t ask for it either. They know though, that on vacation away from home they are allowed to get a box of the junkiest cereal their little hearts desire. It seems to me that this kind of holiday has a place in their lives.

I may have benefited from being allowed to lie in a sunny spot on a houseboat with my bowl of chips. How? It taught me moderation. As the Roman writer Petronius said:

moderation in all things, including moderation.

Perhaps if we allow our kids the occasional nutritional holiday they will crave the junk less regularly. Outright prohibition doesn’t seem to work well, for adults or for children.  Allowing junk food holidays at times provides us an opportunity to discuss why it is usually not allowed. Maybe they will appreciate it more. I do know for certain that as I sit here now I am certainly enjoying my bowl of Fritos.

The Rothko Story

Let me tell you a tale. A tale of the depth of emotion that art can evoke. A tale that will make you pause. A tale I hope will demonstrate why art history is valuable.

As trite as it sounds, I have a favorite artist, Mark Rothko. And, speaking of trite, I was looking at a You Tube compilation of his work today. At the end were comments, lots of comments. I started to read a few but got hung up on the first one. A comment so glaring for demonstrating the author’s complete lack of understanding of the history behind the art that it catapulted me here to write.

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was an intelligent and philosophically inclined man who won a scholarship to Yale but left New Haven after two years to join the Manhattan art scene (he was later awarded a degree from Yale). There he began his art education with classes in representational drawing and painting. Ultimately however, he became known for abstract painting and would be placed in the group of artists working in the 1950’s called the Abstract Expressionists. Rothko filled huge canvases with large blocks of vibrant colors.

I paint very large pictures because I want to create a state of intimacy. A large picture is an immediate transaction. It takes you into it.

His technique was novel and refined; he painstakingly applied series of layers of thin washes of colors that added up to creating a luminescence and a remarkable shimmering effect.

Rothko disliked giving up these masterpieces of scale and light and color.

It’s a risky business to send a picture out into the world. How often it must be impaired by the eyes of the unfeeling and the cruelty of the impotent who could extend their affliction universally!

In an attempt to control the fate of his canvases he became famous for exerting control over how they were displayed. They were to be hung so that there was little white wall surrounding them; preferably in a room with only other paintings of his. The paintings were to be hung as low as possible and in quite dim light. He meant the paintings to be  ideally viewed at a distance of only 18 inches so that the (single) viewer would be enveloped by the experience as Rothko had been enveloped while painting them (he wanted to create a feeling that the painting was not static but, continuing to evolve as it was viewed). And, he intended the viewer to have quite the experience. In his fabulous book The Power of Art, Simon Schama says “no other painter in the history of modern art – perhaps in the entire history of painting – was so obsessed with the relationship between the artist and his audience”.  His goal was that we would be transported by his art. Once when a reviewer commented that Rothko was simply a master of color he scathingly responded:

I am not an abstractionist. … I am not interested in the relationship of colour or form or anything else. … I’m interested only in expressing basic human emotions — tragedy, ecstasy, doom and so on — and the fact that a lot of people break down and cry when confronted with my pictures show that I communicate those basic human emotions. … The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them. And if you, as you say, are moved only by their color relationships, then you miss the point!

In 1958 Rothko was offered an enormous (for the day) retaining fee to produce a set of murals to hang on the walls of the new Four Seasons restaurant in the building designed by architect Mies van de Rohe and owned by the Seagram’s distilling company.  He then rented an old gymnasium and erected scaffolding to model the space at the Four Seasons and began working. In a short time there were dozens of canvases of red, maroon, black, brown and flaming orange. From these he planned to choose the best nine to completely cover the walls all around the main dining. They would thus become more like murals, than individual paintings.

Rothko’s works became sought after, his income soared to 60,000 in 1959 and yet, he mistrusted the wealth that bought his work. Simon Schama explained that Rothko’s fear was having the paintings become “overmantels” or expensive wallpaper for the rich. Perhaps it was this fear that motivated Rothko to go with his wife to the newly completed Four Seasons restaurant one night in the summer of 1959. There they dined amongst the glittering decor, clinking glasses and stylish Manhattanites. There it suddenly be came clear to Rothko that his murals were not meant to hang on those rarefied walls. He felt, likely rightly so, that the diners would not understand his work let alone have the sort of emotional experience he intended for a viewer to have. He turned down the money – approximately $2 million.

Anyone who would eat that kind of food for that kind of money will never look at a painting of mine.

Then followed years of struggle with alcohol and creation of paintings of an progressively dark palette. These  somber paintings seem to represent a final step down into a darkening of spirit. His health failed, his marriage failed and he continued to drink and smoke. He became increasingly depressed.

On February 25th, 1970 Mark Rothko was found dead in his studio, his wrists slit. Hours later on the very same day, a shipment of nine Seagram murals arrived at the Tate Gallery in London to be hung in a room alone according to strict specifications.  Jonathon Jones wrote in a recent blog post for the Guardian that “Rothko was fascinated by the idea of shaping a room with art, using abstract painting as a type of architecture”. He meant to create a physical space where his canvases could work with the surrounding architecture to move viewers to meditate. He meant to induce a religious experience. Upon his death he had created just this.

For dear reader, now that you have heard this tale, you can see that art history is powerful. That an understanding of the history of a work of art can create a heightened appreciation of it. To the uneducated You Tube viewer, Rothko’s paintings may look easy (they are not – remember the groundbreaking layering of pigment he developed and the precision with which he displayed them). To the uninformed viewer they may appear an attempt to generate exorbitant sums of money (they were not– remember his mistrust of wealth and that his constant desire to have the viewer emotionally connected led him to turn down $2 million). So, the moral of this story might be that one should ask about art before you judge. And then with your knowledge, enjoy.

~

This is a powerful tale and by telling it to your children over dinner and showing them some of Rothko’s art (try the youtube compilation) you will begin to hook them on the world of art. You may worry about telling them about Rothko’s suicide but then, you could view this part of the tale as a “teachable moment”. It presents to you an open door to start further dinner discussions about depression, addiction and suicide. These are all parts of the world experience that we hope our children avoid. You have a powerful ability to influence their choices if you are willing to discuss these difficult topics. It has been sown that children whose parents frequently talk with them and clearly convey their expectations regarding drug and alcohol use are much less likely to end up abusing substances. Feel your power and start talking. To help here are a few resources.

Learning to Sit Still on a Spinning World

When I was first a mom I was astounded on a daily basis by the experience. Not to mention, exhausted. The now 15 y/o then wanted to nurse constantly.  For hours on end, day and night we would sit together – him happily suckling and me? Well, honestly I was bored. There was a certain low-level trapped feeling; a feeling of being stuck yet again sitting tethered to the little creature. Don’t get me wrong, I loved breast-feeding and we made a great team. It did however, take a while to settle into the experience. That settling came when I learned to enjoy those moments of enforced peace.

There is great beauty to sitting absolutely still and giving into the process of nursing. I had to relax and let the world spin around me – the clothes unwashed, the dinner cold, the business of life unattended to. And in those moments of peace I would often think my clearest thoughts.

Again I find myself forced to sit still on a spinning planet. Forced by an injured leg, to let go of the multitasking productivity the working mother in me prizes. My family laughed at me last night as they scurried around on their good legs and I sat on my hurt bum watching them. They laughed because I mentioned that having my hamstring tendon torn is a lot like breastfeeding. Huh? No one stayed around long enough to hear why; but I kept thinking about this idea. My life is so full of mothering and work. So full of electronic medical records, blogging and Twitter. So filled out by friendship. So full that I lack, almost completely, time for quiet reflection. Now, in a space without the ability to scurry I am left sitting and relaxing. A novel experience? No, but one that is nice to return to.

I am reading Twila Tharp’s book The Creative Habit. She has taught me much about my own developing creative habit. One of the first chapters talks about the squelching effect on creativity of background noise. Noise both literal and figurative. She suggests turning off our computers, our music and skipping the newspaper for a period of time to understand the effect they have on us. That was hard advice to swallow; I have always worked with music playing. I started to drive my 20 min to and from work without the radio. At first the silence was a bit uncomfortable but as the days passed I found that my mind was productively wandering. Bits and pieces of my days were knitting themselves into coherent stories as I drove quietly along.

Breast feeding, healing and silent driving. Less tweeting, less laundry, simpler dinners. Soon I may be positively Zen-like sitting here watching them all run around. Hopefully I will at least, synthesize a few blog ideas while I watch.

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Water to Wine

After spending an afternoon writing a brief article for work about how to discuss and prevent alcohol use in preteens I brought the topic up at dinner. The responses from the two preteens present were gratifying (whew!). I asked them why they think some kids try alcohol. The 11 y/o said simply “stupid peer pressure”. The 9 y/o said simply and emphatically “ew!”. The 14 y/o was not there but, the discussion reminded me of a similar chat we had with him years ago.

We were sitting around the dinner table with another couple and their child. The two boys were probably about 7. Somehow the topic of drinking alcohol came up and my son asked why grownups were allowed to drink but kids weren’t. This is a good question that your preteen may ask you if you open this topic up at the table tonight. The societal messages around drinking can be confusing for kids. We tell them they can’t drink until 21. However, many people seem to think that alcohol use in teens is better than drug use (this despite the scary statistics to the contrary). TV shows, movies and video games can make it look like everyone drinks. That night we explained to the kids that one reason kids are not allowed to drink is that young bodies do not metabolize alcohol the same way as adults. That it is much more dangerous for  a young child. The next morning, my son used this information to point out another mixed message in his world.

It was Sunday and although not always faithful church-goers, we went that morning. Early on in the service there was “discovery time” when the young children come forward for a brief lesson directed at their level from the minister. That morning it happened to be a talk about turning water to wine. The kids were captivated and fascinated when the minister poured plain water ceremoniously into a pitcher (with some powdered purple drink mix hidden on the bottom) and then poured out the “wine” into cups to share with the kids. My child gasped and gave me a mortified look from the front of the church. He then proceeded to run down the aisle, jump into my lap and rather loudly exclaim “He’s trying to kill me Mom”!

Indeed, society promotes alcohol to our children and they find many mixed messages around them but, ministers are usually not in the business of scaring small boys! Your preteen though, is still at an age where he believes in you and your abilities to teach him are miraculous; start talking tonight!

Spring Has a New Name

Sure, every mom does lots of laundry. I too do lots of laundry. It used to really bug me. I would try different systems of managing the endlessness of it. My sister-in-law swears by an only one day a week system. No laundry for 6 days did sound like a dream come true….problem was that the seventh day was hell.

It is the folding that really kills me. I don’t seem to be able to stay on top of it. My best friend suggested her trick: don’t. She hucks the load of clean laundry on her bed and the kids sort through and grab their own stuff and…stuff that in their drawers. My mother was horrified when I tried this; she straightened their drawers and folded every thing in the house for the whole week she visited.

I came to peace with the laundry some time ago. I decided to try a zen-thing with it. Tried to focus on the moment, to feel the cloth as I folded. Enjoyed the peace of the laundry room alone. Started listening to NPR podcasts to get me through. I developed a nifty system of organization in my laundry room. It was, as they say, all good. For a while. Then, spring hit.

Spring came last year and involved one baseball player, one softball player, one lacrosse player, two swimmers, five skiers and a new puppy. Wet towels, muddy pants and smelly socks piling up day after day threatened to take me down the path to insanity. How is a mom supposed to keep up with spring in the laundry room? Well, I think I found an answer. Make that three answers, a boy, a girl and their brother.

Spring has come again. I call it Laundry Season. This time it involves three lacrosse players, two swimmers, the ?dog and five skiers. Yesterday one of them came to me and asked what setting was right for his lacrosse pads. Cool.

Hungry Caterpillars and Hungry Minds

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.

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“You have to be a bit outside of something to see it.”

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!

©

Perfection. Pressure. Price.

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.

TV dinners

I enjoyed Dr Vs post about writing being a habit despite the kids and puppy (oh I know that combination all too well).  I read his link to The Myth of the Perfect Writing Environment … I took his message to heart. I tried to get up at 5 AM like him. Really I did….but eww? It was dark out? And cold? Ick.

So, to get my writing in tonight I let the kids watch Home Alone 3 and eat dinner on the floor in front of the TV.  I’m guessing that is not what he meant me to do? But, they don’t watch very much TV really, and most of the time they are sitting with me at the table being force-fed art history so its okay – right?

Dinnertime Art Continued: Art in the Moment

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).

Help dealing with your child’s habits: Knowledge and Humor

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.

Lice again? It is nice to know we learn.

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!

Is Graffiti ART?

This question has been often debated at my house. I like looking at well done graffiti. I enjoy thinking about graffiti on trains. The pairing of this art form (meant to be temporary and fleeting) painted on trains that move through time and space with their roving art exhibits can often be quite spectacular! nd yet, graffiti is often done in an illegal, defacing manner that is obviously, hard to support wholeheartedly.

You might open this discussion in your house by watching this video with your kids. There is much to talk about. The end project is striking in its beauty; the means to the end may be objectionable. What do your kids think?

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/18/how-street-art-is-made-fr_n_810613.html

Is THAT art?

Perhaps now you have asked the kiddos at your dinner table “what IS art” and gathered them up to head off to a museum together to look at some art. When there you will surely find yourselves standing in front of something wondering “is THAT really art”? Often these thoughts challenge people when in front of “modern art”. I find they come to me just as often when with my mother in front of some byzantine or renaissance works with a lot of gilt…those thoughts I have learned, are better kept to myself! However, as parents convinced of the value of teaching our children about art, this question is one worth embracing and examining with our kids.

So what defines art? You will develop your own working definition. We worked over ours and have come up with a reasonable if slippery concept.

  • Art is created by an artist because it moves them emotionally or triggers them to think (ie: they use it to make a statement) or – art moves or intellectually stimulates the observer.

Whew. Let me try to explain by beginning with a discussion of Marcel Duchamp’s famous piece Fountain. Duchamp was a french artist who anonymously submitted a standard urinal albeit turned 90 degrees on it’s head and signed “R. Mutt 1917” to an art exhibition. The exhibition was held by the Society of Independent Artists (of which Duchamp was a board member) that had stated any work of art would be admitted to the show (very unlike exhibitions were usually run). Well, they did not know exactly what to do with Duchamp’s toilet. Was it art? History would later emphatically say yes. In fact 87 years later in 2004 a group of 500 art experts named it the most influential work of modern art of all time. You may ask “why on earth”? The answer lies in the concept that art is art if the artist says it is. Art is therefore in the eye of the artist. Duchamp was shifting the focus from the process of making art to the thoughts that it evokes. An editorial in defense of the urinal stated:

Whether [Duchamp] made the fountain with his own hands or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view – created a new thought for that object.

A new thought. That is what it became all about as modern art evolved. Art was shifted to be in the eye of the artist – to be about the thoughts they wanted to evoke. Hmmmm, interesting isn’t it?

But, then we, here around our dinner table asked about the viewer…isn’t art sometimes all about the viewer’s perspective? Of course! During one of our dinner-table art discussions it was pointed out that a machine, a car or plane for example, could move its viewer enough to be called art. I pointed out that the perception of everyday items was up for discussion in the movie American Beauty (of note: NOT a kids movie). In it there is a scene that perpetually sticks in my mind when one of the main characters films an ordinary plastic grocery bag caught in a swirling updraft of air. The humble bag becomes beautiful. Here, art is in the eye of the beholder.

Try these concepts of art out with your kids. Ask, for example, is a building art? Can graffiti be art? Is a well-muscled body art? Are tattoos?And when you are asked “is THAT art” the answer is likely yes it is! Or better put – “why might it be considered art”?

What IS art? Asking to stimulate creative thought in our children.

An article titled The Creativity Crisis published in Newsweek last year brings much to the discussion of why we should teach our children about art.

American creativity scores are falling…It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”

The article explains the obvious importance of raising our children to be creative thinkers; the nation’s challenges will be better solved by leaders capable of creative thought. Approaches generated by creative minds and by those willing to listen to and build upon diverse ideas brought forth by others. Raising a generation of creative thinkers who enjoy and appreciate diversity seems an insurance policy for the success of our country.

Why has creativity dropped so significantly in the U.S.?

One likely culprit is the number of hours kids now spend in front of the TV and playing videogames rather than engaging in creative activities. Another is the lack of creativity development in our schools. In effect, it’s left to the luck of the draw who becomes creative: there’s no concerted effort to nurture the creativity of all children….American teachers warn there’s no room in the day for a creativity class. Kids are fortunate if they get an art class once or twice a week.

Focusing on art classes as the place where creativity is taught is certainly a bias.  It would be best to integrate creative thought into all points of learning. As parents, we can do much at home to stimulate and encourage creative thought. When asked a question by your child, pause before answering. Ask one back. Encourage your child to think of as many possible answers as possible. Use dinner time to ask questions of your own. Accepting this as a bias, art understanding and thought is a great place to start when teaching our children creativity and acceptance of diversity. It gives us a good place to begin as parents. I suggest you open a dinner conversation with this question:

What IS art?

I asked my family this about a year ago. We have returned to the discussion throughout during many meals with family and friends. The answers are varied and in themselves form a great discussion; they became more developed as the conversation went on:

  • something you see
  • with color and shape
  • has history
  • ages well and people appreciate it over time
  • evokes feeling
  • created
  • engages your senses
  • makes a statement; the artist is trying to say something
  • something beautiful

We felt that art can include many mediums. When I asked which I was given the following list: paint, sculpture (both stabiles and mobiles), music, film, architecture, TV, nature (both as art and as inspiration), food, clothing (my 9 y/o boy added armor), the human body and literature. The list may be endless.

This discussion brought me to ask next whether they considered specific works of art to be indeed, art. I challenged them with Marcel Duchamp’s urinal. Indeed, that in turn brings me to the next blog post idea:

Is THAT art?