Teacher Professor

March 29, 2013

The Xers Are Taking Over Parenting

Filed under: Home Things,Parenting — Teacher Professor @ 10:38 am
Tags: , ,

relay handoff

I knew it would be coming… There is a significant shift happening in “parenting rules”. Today, as I drove my daughter to middle school, Kidd Kraddick on the morning show discussed an article from Tim Elmore about the three mistakes that parents are making that are harming our children:

  1. We risk too little
  2. We rescue too quickly
  3. We rave too easily

And I had to laugh.

No, we’re not just waking up and realizing this. The generation in charge of parenting is changing. The Baby Boomers have been in charge, and as they become grandparents, the Generation Xers are taking over. And the “rules of parenting” are changing along with them.  Every generation looks at the excesses of the generation before them, shakes their heads, and says “I won’t make THOSE mistakes!”

Quick academic discussion of terms- I tend to use Howe and Strauss’s divisions, but I also realize that these are approximates.   My loose definition is that new generations are created when there is a cultural shift, based on a significant event.  Generational shifts happen every 20 years or so, so it’s handy to examine them in these chunks.  No one completely fits into a generation, but there are generational norms that tend to peak every 20 years or so.  Quick set of definitions:

  • Greatest Generation, or GI Generation, born approximately 1900-1929, Century to Great Depression
  • Silent Generation, born approximately 1929- 1945, Great Depression to WWII
  • Baby Boomers, born approximately 1945-1961, WWII to Kennedy.
  • Generation Xers born approximately 1961-1981, Kennedy to Reagan
  • Millennials born approximately 1981-2001, Reagan to 9/11. 

leave it to beaverDuring the 1950’s, Baby Boomers were raised by the “Greatest Generation” parents who had just been through the Depression and WWII.  The “Greatest Generation’s” version of love was sacrificing and providing working really hard and providing food on the table.  These parents saw that their parents before had had to go hungry and fight dictators; they were determined to provide and to raise children who would never fall for a Hitler or Stalin.  Baby Boomers were raised with “tough love” and “question authority”.    Their dads never went to baseball games; their moms always cooked home-cooked meals.  Parents rarely engaged with kids, other than to be wise, distant figures.  “Leave it to Beaver” and Andy Griffith extolled the virtues of cute kids and wise grownups.   They were raised in optimistic, economically growing time.

Omen CoverDuring the 1970’s, Xers were raised by Silent Generation parents who had just gone through the Civil Rights Era.  Their parents saw the parents from the 1950s as traditionalists who had certain assigned roles based on gender and race, and this Silent Generation parents were determined to break the status quo.  The Silent Generation parents were culturally allowed to divorce and did so.  Everyone worked, especially moms.  Crime rose.  School drug use rose.  Gas wars increased tension.   The Xers were the “latchkey” kids- who came home from school with no one there. Caring for children was not high on the cultural priority list, and with the advent of birth control, children were optional.   You can see it in the movies of the day “Damien”, “Children of the Corn”, “Rosemary’s Baby”… these are not movies that extol the wonders and virtues of children.  They were raised in pessimistic, economically challenging times.

HighSchoolMusicalDuring the 1990s, Millennials were raised by Baby Boomer parents who had gone through the go-go growth of the 1980’s.  These Boomer parents had seen the neglect of the children earlier, and needed to make sure that children felt cared for.  Millennial children were coddled and protected.  “Baby on Board” signs, seat belts, and child care were put into place.  Parents went to Little League games and gave trophies to everyone who showed up.  Movies went into raptures about the joys of raising and being children- Three Men and a Baby, Big, High School Musical.  Grownups were humorous buffoons who either ruined or went along with their children’s antics.  They were raised in optimistic, economically stable times.

Les misAnd now it’s the 2010’s… and the Xers are coming into parenthood.  The Xers have gone through the 2000’s- fighting a never-ending war, losing faith in government and other large organizations.  This generation of children, sometimes called the “Homeland” generation, are going to be raised by parents who value individualism, who do not trust institutions, who were neglected as children and have an “up from their bootstraps” attitude.  They are looking at these cosssetted darlings from the 1990s and are going to be raising children who are survivalists, entrepreneurs, and tough in the face of uncertain times.  “Les Miserables” about an orphaned child is an early huge hit.  This Homeland generation is being raised in pessimistic, economically unstable times.

As an Xer raising Homelanders, I know that I tend to try to value children who are independent, and who have ideas that they can then act on.  In an earlier post, I remarked how the job of parents is to raise our children not to need us.  That comment is very reflective of my generational position in the cycle of parenting.

So- expect some pretty dramatic parenting statements coming about how to raise children and how to “undo” the mistakes of the past.  Expect a change in movies and media about how children are on their own.  Because the Xers are here, and their parenting style is-to quote the anthem they heard growing up- “Welcome to the Jungle!”

x

March 24, 2013

Testing Anxiety

Filed under: College information,Home Things,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 9:27 pm

Warning- this is long. This is long because I have a lot to say about it. A writer from She Knows Canada (http://www.sheknows.ca) asked me for “some quotes” and I told her that I was afraid that I was going to write a rant. I see a lot of anxious parents at college- and there are so many things I want to tell them.  

I talk a lot about test anxiety to college students- how to breathe through it, how to focus on the positive, and how to manage the rush of anxiety that can block the thinking process. How to focus on how you’re going to answer a question rather than the question itself. But last week, a parent asked me what advice I had for the PARENTS who were waiting for the results of their children’s test scores- or exam results- or grades- or other high-stakes measures that can determine their child’s future. More specifically- “What can I do to help my child with these tests?” And I had to pause for a moment at this challenge of perspective-shifting.

There have always been high-stakes tests that determine a future. Whether the “test” was a dissertation defense that took place between 3-5pm on April 20th that determined whether or not you got a PhD, or taking the PSAT from 8-12 on a lovely day in October that determines National Merit scholarships, or an audition in January that determined whether you were going to Julliard; there have always been moments in life where your whole future determined upon performance for a few hours on a certain day.

This really is similar to the real world. Business contracts are won and lost based on a presentation of 15 minutes. Legal cases are won and lost based on the words that are chosen in the closing arguments. Your ability to get a job is determined on how well you do in an interview. Life’s turning points really do happen in a few minutes.

But here’s the kicker- failure used to be full of potential. If you didn’t get into a college of choice, there was another college available. If you didn’t get the account, you learned, and tried again with another firm. If you failed out of school, you could find another job that didn’t require those skills. Economically, we had a middle class, which meant that if you weren’t at the top of your game, there was a soft landing. There were possibilities there.

These days, parents are very well aware that second chances are few and far between. Good people do go on unemployment because there isn’t another job waiting for them. Smart people do end up working at McDonalds because the job market is so constricted. Your local college will cost a small fortune to attend and the job prospects are limited for those graduates because the only jobs in the area are either only for high-achieving students, or don’t pay well enough to enable your child to move out of your house.

Complicating this pressure is the generation in which many of our young people have been raised. Young college students grew up in a generation that had child care, seat belts and other symbols of care and protection. This generation received trophies merely for showing up to athletic events and there was a great deal of focus on their self-esteem; a focus that has led to record levels of narcissism. They perceived that their wishes could be bought and paid for by their parents, symbolized by bedrooms covered in “Little Princess” pinkness. I see college students bringing in their Disney gear so that they can retain that feeling of being cossetted and loved and protected from that big bad world.

The big bad world is full of pressure. It’s pressure that has grown worse- much worse- over time. It’s why we as adults are the most medicated, the most stressed-out, and the most politically-polarized culture ever. The test really isn’t the pressure- the pressure comes from our culture.

Parents and college faculty often get frustrated with students who appear to be unmotivated and uninterested. This “slacker” attitude is really a response to stress, with the added dollop of helplessness. In other words, kids are unorganized and self-absorbed, not because they don’t care, but because they care too much, but don’t know what to do or where to start. Our stress has become their stress, only they feel powerless to do anything about it.

All of this paints a very bleak picture; it probably doesn’t help to know that high stakes tests really are high stakes. And it certainly doesn’t answer the parent’s question to me- how can we handle the stress ourselves and what can we do? The answer is multi-faceted, but because lists are a helpful strategy (see #3), here are a dozen things that a parent can do to help their child (and themselves) handle high-stakes tests:

  1. Test performance is not something that you can make happen. You can provide guidance, tutors, or incentives, but ultimately, your child is going to perform the way that they are. The key is not what YOU as a parent do, but what your CHILD does. You want your CHILD to have testing strategies, a reward system of their own that they set up and to self-advocate for themselves. YOU cannot go to their teachers and ask what your child needs to do- you need to help your child practice what they’re going to say when THEY come to a teacher to ask what they can do to help learn the material. Don’t teach them the test content.  Teach them how to teach themselves the test content.  You have done your job when your child doesn’t need you.
  2. Understand the difference between Failure and failure. Capital “F” Failure are those things that you cannot fix- ever. Those are few and far between and generally involve life prison sentences. Little “f” failures are those things that you can fix, or bounce back from, or try again. Almost everyone in the Fortune 500 can point to decisions that they made that were wrong. Even Donald Trump has declared bankruptcy over and over again. These people learned from their mistakes and tried something new. There is a wonderful phrase that “insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results.” In other words, while high stakes mean limiting of choices, there are still choices. And there is always trying again.
  3. Teach your child to make lists. Lists of what they have to do, what needs to be done first, what projects are due when. Lists connected to calendars are amazing tools-and often, they involve technology- always a plus! I think about college kids appearing uninvolved and listless- which can indeed, be “list-less”.
  4. Encourage your child not to come home. They need to get involved in their school. They will succeed if they want to be there and if they know others there. If they know the counselors and faculty and other students and understand that they all want them to succeed, they will be more engaged in their classes as well. “Involved” generally does not mean partying or hanging out. A group of uninvolved students leads to less involvement. Involved means being active in formally organized activities in which adults are involved as well.
  5. What would they do if money were no object? Play the game of “Life” with them (there’s an app for that!). Have them plan backwards-what do they want to be DOING when they’re 50? 40? The reason we take money out of the equation is that money comes to those who are passionate about what they do. Otherwise, they are earning money to do something for 8-10 hours a day that they hate so that they can have moments of what they really want to do. Also, realize that with the changing world, interests become careers tomorrow that don’t even exist today. If a kid likes to travel but gets airsick, they can make travel apps. If a kid likes basketball but is too short, they can design virtual games. If a kid likes fashion, they can design the next car. There are so many possibilities in this world that require creativity and interest. The future belongs not to the jobs that can be replaced by computers, but to those who can create new ways of doing things.
  6. Give the right kind of feedback. Carol Dweck’s now famous study gave three different types of feedback to kids who had done well on a test. The first were told how smart they were, the second were given a generic “nice job”, and the third group was told how effective their strategies must have been and how their hard work had paid off. In subsequent tests, the group who had been told how smart they were did worse than any other group.  The highest group?- The group who had been praised on their effort. I see it in kids all the time “If I’m so smart, how come this stuff is hard?” Don’t tell kids that they can do it because of innate abilities. Emphasize the amount of work and the type of work that leads to good results.  Celebrate their “hard work”, not their grades.
  7. Enjoy the journey. My husband, a college administrator, asked me to tell parents that if their child is “undecided” about what they want to be, chances are that they will be highly successful in whatever they finally do choose. Yes, they may take an extra year or two to graduate. But studies have found that they have higher rates of actual graduation than the kids who declared their first semester and realized two years in that they really don’t like that choice after all. As someone who got a business degree before I realized that what I really wanted to be was a teacher, I can attest to years of education wasted. Kids who are interested in lots of things can often become our greatest entrepreneurs. If they fail out of a program, perhaps that is simply a signal that they were really supposed to do something else. Adult lives rarely move in straight lines. These high stakes tests can sometimes guide those lines. For years, I had posted on my desk “This life is a test. It is only a test. Had this been a real life, you would have received further instructions about where to go and what to do”. If we grieve what we failed at, we miss what we’re good at.
  8. Model anxiety-reducing behavior. You can talk about how you face challenges and how you deal with the pressure, but you need to show them. Generally, actions such as drinking, over-eating, and calling incessantly are not good models. They will do as you do, not as you say. Which doesn’t mean that you can’t soothe yourself with a lovely mani-pedi every now and then, but it does mean that you have to show them what resilience looks like.
  9. Learn about other role models. Bill Gates dropped out of college. Yes, it was Harvard, but he still didn’t finish. Look at Steve Jobs who was fired from Apple- a company he himself founded. Look at Oprah who grew up with a single mom. There are lots of role models out there and they all faced adversity, shrugged it off, and found a way to move on. Help your child identify a role model that they can learn from.
  10. Help others. Whether it’s tutoring others, planting a garden at a local elementary school, or volunteering at a clinic, by helping others, children can see that their efforts have value. We know that the happiest people are the people who see value in what they do- who understand that their efforts are making the world a better place. Have your kids make the world a better place.
  11. Be in the moment, but keep your eye on the goal. Life is often a series of hoops to jump through. We will all spend a great deal of time doing things that are not what we would rather be doing. When anxiety gets to us, breathing, and being in the moment, allowing it to happen and knowing that it will pass can help kids deal with the anxiety of testing.  Teaching your child that doing these things allows us to get to where we would rather be is a great gift that comes from delayed gratification. There is a wonderful old test in which little kids are told that they have one marshmallow now or get two marshmallows when the adult comes back. Those who could wait an unspecified amount of time for the reward could handle frustrations better. Angela Duckworth, in her studies of successful kids calls finds that persistence is the most important factor between kids who do well and kids who don’t. It’s not ability. It’s grit.
  12. Back off. Yes, it’s a test. Yes, it’s a high stakes test. Yes, their future depends on it. But it’s their future. And they have to make it. What they need is your belief that they are a good person, and your support if they need a soft spot to land. They are going to make their own direction, and they have to want their future more than you do. Listen to them, ask them questions, but they don’t want you steering, they want you cheering.

The original question was “How can we help our children in college through test pressures?”, which relates more to the parents’ anxiety than the children’s- or relates to the parents’ anxiety about their children’s anxiety.    I’m a parent myself.  I know the heartache and stress.  I know that I worry that my child is going to be living in my basement for the rest of his life.  But I also know that I have to keep my anxiety about their lives to myself and I have to be the rock of support for them.  I have to let them make mistakes, and I have to help them learn from their mistakes.  I have to help them face obstacles, and not shield them from the obstacles.

I’ve described a dozen things, but the most important thing really is this:

Ask them to do their best, and love them no matter the results

Thank you, Mother… 

(more…)

January 22, 2013

The Language of Mothers

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 9:51 am

Greek letters

“Who am I going to speak Greek to?” my husband asked last night in a quiet moment.

My husband’s mother died last week, and while it wasn’t a surprise, it was still a shock. After the hurry of getting her to Ohio to be buried next to her husband and the- hurry, hurry- driving 15 hours up and back and dealing with our car, which chose the day before the drive-hurry, hurry- to hit a pothole and bend the rim, which necessitated expensive car repairs just as we needed to hurry, hurry 600 miles- after the flurry, we were at home, quiet on a cold January night. And my husband realized that he had no one left who understood his language.

Losing a mother is… beyond words. You lose that connection to yourself- to your past- that tether of “Hey, remember the time that we…?” and “What was I like when I was…” and “Where were we when…?” Those questions remain unanswered now. This is the process of becoming an orphan in middle age as the world moves on, leaving you next in the line of succession. In the gradual decline of his mother- as she slipped farther and farther into dementia and into her old memories, he began that gradual grieving process. Her death solidified the beginning of the end of grieving. He expected to miss her. He did not expect to lose his language.

My husband, even though he was born at Camp Lejuene to a Marine father, had Greek as his first language because he and his immigrant mother talked together as he grew up- my husband learned Greek as his mother tongue. It was the language of home, of laughter, of shared jokes and love. They lived in North Carolina. They lived in Ohio. They lived in Massachusetts. And they lived in Greece for many years when she grew tired of being a stranger in a stranger land. But the language they spoke here was their own private communication that connected him to an island far away in the deep turquoise of the Greek sea- an island that was “home”.

It reminded me of the language that all mothers speak to our children- with or without autism, with or without second languages, with or without any discernible differences. We speak a language with our children- we shape their language, we build a language with them that is unique and distinctive from any other language structures around us, and our shared language connects us and our children to “home”.

I somehow think that when my mother-in-law was born in 1924 on an island in Greece, her family never anticipated that she would be buried in a small town in Ohio. She never expected the giant changes in her life that history and politics and love would create. But she endured and she thrived and she raised an amazing son.

I snuggled my own son last night, and he called me “Tom” because “Mommy” is too babyish and “Mom” is too ordinary, and it is our own private name between us and we have our language. Our words tether us to home and home is more than this place. It’s our love and our communication and our frustration and our guidance and the sum of the whole that is so much more than the parts. And although we don’t speak Greek, we speak “us”.

I held my husband last night as well as we cried for the woman who formed his “us”. For the woman with whom he spoke Greek.

April 16, 2012

Happy Sensory Birthday

Filed under: Autism,Home Things,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 6:35 am

Authors note: This was drafted on March 7- a month ago. But not posted… See “Why I don’t blog like I used to” for explanation… Ray spent the evening at his friend’s house, because Elizabeth had decreed this a “Girl Only” party. 

Elizabeth’s birthday party just so captured her essence…Her 11th birthday party just absolutely demonstrated HER-  her spectrum-ness, her abilities, and her humor.

There were 10 girls invited- all but Emily came.. Emily who has been a best friend for years.  Emily who has traveled with us, gone through drama together, and understood Elizabeth and her quirks.  Emily who has new friends now on a travel athletic team and is growing faster and faster ahead.  Emily who decided that she didn’t want to come because she didn’t like some of activities or the other girls.  There was grief that Emily didn’t come, but for the night, it was pushed to the background.  In protective Elizabeth fashion, when strong emotion threatens, she is able to put it aside and blank it out. Autism as emotional armor.  When there are no words and the grief is too big, Emily retreats into a happy, stimmy place.

The theme was a “Spa Party”- and there were enough happy, stimmy, sensory activities to drown out the sadness.  There were facials- homemade of course.  Oatmeal mixed with honey and smeared on faces to dry.  Elizabeth happily smeared hers on and lay down with a blissful smile.  The other girls were… not as excited, but interested in the novelty.  There were lots of little jewels and sticky things to glue onto glass jars and make “beauty organizers” while putting little things into rows and columns.  There was a soap-making station in which girls mixed and poured and added smelly things to make soap.  And there was a bow-making station where girls could make a bow and pin them in their hair- and redo it, over and over again.

I use the word “station” in the teacher-meaning of the word.  Elizabeth organized her party like a differentiated classroom- and I mean she did it all.  I made suggestions, but she came up with the process.

  • She put 9 girls into 3 groups- thinking about who got along with whom, who was more sensitive and who would encourage others.  She analyzed the dynamics and made placement decisions and provided each girl with a card as they came in to let them know their individual schedules.
  • She arranged the stations around the house so that there could be movement between stations and allow room for activities.
  • She had timers at each station so that girls would rotate through 4 stations in an hour.
  • She provided materials at each station that were selected for the girls in that group- Tracy got a red bow, Faith got a blue bow, etc.
  • She provided choices, but allocated out the supplies- each group got the same number of jewels to share among the three girls in that group.
  • She started with a whole group spa eating activity (yogurt and strawberries) as girls showed up, had the stations, pizza, a whole group movie- “13 going on 30” and and then games as girls were picked up.

James and I were used as monitors and supervisors, but she came up with the ideas and was clearly in charge of everything.  I have seen teachers with 10 years of experience with less organization.

Another Author’s note-  I fell more in love with my husband as I watched him working with 3 pre-teen girls at a time, calmly helping them pour smelly soap stuff and trying to figure out directions at the same time, and then moving them on to the next station when his timer went off.  The world of Girldom is not a comfortable one for him and he handled it like a pro. 

And as I worked , much as a paraprofessional might, handling the tasks of the facial station, I thought about her future- how clearly, teaching or wedding planning or something where she can move people around and engage in happy stimmy activities might be in her future.  I thought about how turning 11 was so much less scary for me than her turning 3.  I thought about how much things change- and how much they stay the same.

She’s 11- and she is finally, finally growing into herself where autism has become part of who she is- where autism that used to be a challenge to overcome has been hurtled and is now sometimes a strength- rather than interfering with who she is becoming.  I marvel at her journey she has accomplished- and where she is going.  I can look forward with hope and anticipation now, rather than with fear.

April 12, 2012

Underneath the Water- Or Why I Don’t Blog Like I Used To

Filed under: ADHD,Autism,Home Things,Tourette's Syndrome,Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 11:39 am

Ray’s guidance counselor described it perfectly the other day as we were determining the need for a 504 Plan for him.  “If you’re working this hard to keep everything ok, perhaps we should document it.”

There’s a phrase that goes something like this “Be like the duck- Calm on the surface and paddling like hell underneath“.  Yes.  And oh yes.

Here’s the thing- things ARE “ok”.  Ray is getting Bs in school,he’s got a few really good friends, and life is not a series of dramatic challenges.  And we’re working really, really, really hard to manage the environment so that he’s doing all right.  When I describe how things are, I get a lot of “Oh, that’s him being 9!… Sounds like he’s being a boy!… Ease up on him, Mom!…”

I have come to realize that his anxiety disorder has created one in me.  Every time we leave the house- to go to the movies, to go to eat, to go to the beach, it’s resistance.  He doesn’t want to leave the house.  Ever.  If we force him, however, he goes.  He doesn’t throw a screaming, hysterical fit.  What he does do is get mean and ugly and “irritable”.  But he goes.  He either relaxes and we have a good time or he doesn’t, and manages to ruin it with his “hmphing”s and growlings and nasty comments.  Until the next time we leave the house again and it never gets easier.  Never.  My husband and I have discussions “Is this worth the fight we’re going to have?”  Every single time, it’s a fight.  And the simplest of errands becomes a battle of wills.

We pick our battles carefully, because it’s important to be consistent.  It’s important to win the important ones, “Yes, you have to go to your cousin’s wedding.. yes, you have to eat three pieces of spinach” and give choices in the unimportant ones, “Do you want to go see ‘The Return of the Titans’?… Do you want spaghetti or tacos tonight?”.  And then there are the “Is this worth the scene it’s going to cause?” issues.  Should we force him to do a sport?  Should we ignore the incessant dribbling basketball in the house?  Should we provide incentives for him to sleep in his room when he wants to sleep in the living room or at the door to our room?  Should we …?  Every thing we do, we have to plan out with the forethought of a general- “What choices can we provide?  Is this worth the battle it’s going to be?  What is causing this resistance and how do we work with this?”  We have to steel ourselves to being stronger and more positive than he is going to be.  Every time.  Except when he’s not.  And we’re tired.  We’re so tired.

The thing that gets me is that these issues are not unique to Ray.  I know 9-year boys.  I taught 9 and 10-year old boys for years.  They are contrary, wonderful, on-the-brink-of-teenagers-but still rational and snuggly.  It’s not the types of challenges- it’s the intensity of challenge that he poses.  I often feel like a whiny, paranoid parent, because these are not unusual issues.  I constantly have to judge- “Is this MY problem or Ray’s problem?”

But then there are the “Things are just not right” moments.  Today, as I took him to the doctor for a bronchitis diagnosis, and I watched him with his arms wrapped completely around himself, rocking with anxiety, avoiding eye contact, and growling at me when the doctor or I tried to talk to him, my heart broke a little bit, but I feel validated that “No, it’s not just me”.  There’s a strong-willed child, and then, there’s… this.  When things are not “right”, he retreats into his own area of misery, rocking and growling and losing his language.  And getting things right is constant juggling, balancing, paddling like hell.

I haven’t been blogging about this because I’ve been very carefully constructing his environment and planning the battles.  He’s hanging in there.  He’s getting Bs because he gets 100s when things are well-balanced, or he gets 20s when something is off.  He has a few friends and their families tell me how sweet and nice he is.  He’s polite.  Teachers tell me they don’t see any real behavior problems other than he’s a little active.  He’s not aggressive and has never hurt himself, anyone or anything.  But I haven’t been able to blog because it feels like it would be a continual litany of “This is so hard… this is so hard… this is so hard…” and I can’t go there.  I can’t let myself sink into the morass of sadness and frustration and depression that lurks- under the surface of “Everything’s ok”.

But I’m tired after this year of keeping things as even as possible, as managed as possible and as positive as I can be.

To hear the guidance counselor support the work that we’ve been doing felt good.  I cried when I heard someone recognize that although things look calm on the surface, we’re paddling like hell underneath.

January 24, 2012

Fighting Fog

Filed under: Bipolar,Gifted,Home Things,Medication issues,Tourette's Syndrome — Teacher Professor @ 12:14 am

This evening, holding my son- who has been quiet and subdued all evening.  

Me: What’s wrong, Ray?

silence.

Me: Anything you want to talk about?

silence- the silence gets to me.  It’s not a loaded silence.  Just a still.  

Ray: What do you want to talk about?

Me: Any words in your head?

Ray: No

Me: Any feelings in your head?

Ray: No

silence

Me: If you were a color, what color would you be?

Ray: Gray

Me: If you were a shape, what shape would you be?

Ray: A sphere

Me: If you were weather, what kind of weather would you be?

Ray: A cloud

Me: A stormy cloud, a gray cloud, or a big puffy cloud?

Ray: A rain cloud.

Silence. 

Me: What does the rain cloud want to do?  Feel better?  Get some sleep?  Feel happy?

Ray: You know.

***************

The problem is that I don’t know.  I’m never quite sure what son I’m going to have on a day-to-day basis: Do we get the angry, resistant, black mood Ray; the quiet, not-really-there Ray; the run-around and talk a mile-a-minute Ray; the anxious and wring his hands Ray, the focused scholar and look-how-smart-I-am Ray?  While all kids go through “moods”, his are intense.  Even when he’s gray.

Jess, from Diary of a Mom, talks about fighting “dragons with rubber swords”.  I feel like I’m fighting fog with pointed sticks.  We have the “stick” of medication, which nibbles around the edges of issues– creating other issues in the wake.   We have the pointed stick of therapy, in which he refuses to engage- or worse, pretends to be completely normal (a play therapist told us that it was our problem, not his when he was 4).  We have safety and structure in our house, which leads to agoraphobia.  We sortof have labels: Anxiety Disorder, mild Tourette’s, mild giftedness, not quite autism, not quite bipolar, not schizophrenia. In dark times, James and I have to remind each other- he has special needs.  And just because there’s no good label doesn’t mean that the needs aren’t there.

I’m grateful for many things: I’m grateful that he has never tried to hurt himself or anyone or anything.  I’m grateful that he has never talked about not wanting to be here.  I’m grateful that he’s smart and funny and that he can do academics well enough that everyone around him is frustrated that he’s underachieving- but not failing.  I’m grateful that he has a few good friends.  I’m grateful that I have enough background to have consistency, behavior charts, and metaphors to help him.

But I’m terrified.   I feel like I’m keeping him from falling off the edge through pure will- and he’s only 9.  I’m terrified of adolescence.  I’m terrified of his genetics.  I’m terrified of losing my child to alcoholism, to suicide, to a place where he won’t let us help him. I’m terrified to speak possibilities aloud for fear of them coming true.

And I don’t know what to do about the monsters in the fog that never quite reveal themselves enough to fight.  If you can’t see something well enough to fight, it can’t be vanquished.  It just shifts and morphs.

Into the gray.

Ray, I have no idea what to do.  But I’ll do anything to help you.

September 8, 2011

Becoming History

Filed under: Home Things,Schools — Teacher Professor @ 7:04 pm

Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?
Were you teaching a class full of innocent children
Or driving down some cold interstate?
Did you feel guilty ’cause you’re a survivor
In a crowded room did you feel alone?
Did you call up your mother and tell her you loved her?
Did you dust off that Bible at home?

—Alan Jackson

I didn’t know anyone who died in September 11th.  We know people who knew people, and we know one man who missed American Flight 77- the one from Dulles that crashed into the Pentagon.  He missed the flight because he had just received a phone call from his wife telling him that she was pregnant with their first child- a child who is now my son’s best friend.  But we were not directly impacted.

We have stories, though- along with all of the Americans that day- we all know where we were, what we were doing when we first heard, or saw it.  The horror of that day- and the shared horror of it- are all seared into our awareness of ourselves as Americans.  Such moments are called “flashbulb moments” as we remember clearly exactly where we were and what we were doing because of the intensity of the emotion. I’ve been listening to other people’s stories this week- along with so many others- and I read the stories in the newspaper and online.  In the words of Alan Jackson, “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”  We are grieving as a collective nation share our individual stories.

My children are 15 months apart- Elizabeth born in March, 2001 and Ray born in June, 2002.  They have hit developmental milestones very close together.  They learned how to talk by talking to each other.  They both learned how to ride a bike together.  They both started loving and then hating Barney at the same time.  We call them the “Almost Twins”.

But that day, September 11th, separates them.  Elizabeth was there.  She was the baby we held on to tightly that terrible, terrible day and the quiet, horrible days afterwards.  Ray… Ray was perhaps a result of September 11th as I forgot my medications- all of my medications- that week, and James and I held tightly to each other.  He was part of a little “baby boomlet” that occurred in June and July of 2002.  September 11th is a dark demarcation line between the shared childhoods of my children.

Last weekend, in rememberance of the 10 year anniversary, I started educating them about September 11th.  I wanted them to know.  We watched “United Flight 93” and “World Trade Center“, and we talked about it.  It was an… odd experience.

Elizabeth wanted to know exactly what she was doing on that day.  “Chewing your toes” wasn’t the answer she was looking for, and so she kept asking- hoping that somehow the gravity and horror of the day would have been recognized by an infant.  She wanted to add her part to the stories that our friends and I have been sharing around the dinner table or in quiet moments. She wants it to be recognized that she was there, too.

Ray wasn’t there and felt left out.  He wanted to talk about the facts and the details of the planes and the process.  He wanted to know the fear and the panic of those who were on the planes and in the Towers, but he was much less interested in the experience of us, those who weren’t directly impacted.  He wanted to understand it as a movie, as a documentary.  As something that was real, but not personal.

Seeing the difference in my two children, I began to think about history- and the way we understand history.  Every generation has their “horrible” moment- a moment where everyone at that point knew where they were.  For this generation, it was September 11th.  For my parents’, the assasination of JFK. For my grandparents, the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Moments at which fear and anxiety and a need to come together and grieve and appreciate life are shared by an entire country.  Moments of pure living that remind us of how tenuous living can be.  Moments that shaped history.

I have always loved history.  I love reading historical novels; I love going to historical places; and I love getting to understand how and why people were like at different times.  I can’t go visit battlefields because I can sense the horror and the fear that still lingers around places that are calm and peaceful now.

And yet, I have no direct feelings about the assasination of JFK.  I can watch movies and think “Oh how awful that must have been“, but it’s theoretical.  It’s from a long time ago.  And they dressed funny.     It’s not disrespect.  It’s not lack of imagination.   It’s just that it’s not my reality.  They aren’t my emotions.  It’s history.

For Ray, there have never been Twin Towers.  He can look at my pictures of my first visit to New York with the Towers in the background, and they’re from a long time ago when people dressed funny.  I cried at the memory of that day as I watched the movies.  He wanted to know what happened afterwards.

September 11th is a 5th grade standard in the Georgia Performance Social Studies Standards.  It’s in there along with the Civil War, World War I, Vietnam and the Cold War.  This year’s fifth grade class is the last class who was alive on that day- and they were infants.

September 11th is a dark demarcation line between the shared childhoods of my children.  It’s a line between my life and my son’s.  It was my reality… and next year, when Ray is in fifth grade, September 11th will truly start to become history.

*********

There is a poem by Carl Sandberg that expresses this better than I can.  I grieve, and I respect and honor those who lost loved ones.  And in my child, I see the Grass beginning to grow…

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo,
Shovel them under and let me work–I am the grass; I cover all. 
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:What place is this?Where are we now? 
I am the grass.
Let me work

— Carl Sandberg

September 6, 2011

Memory Quilt

Filed under: Home Things — Teacher Professor @ 9:10 am

This Labor Day, I spent an hour up on a ladder, finding four large boxes stored in the garage closet with Elizabeth, who was helping me in a project planned for a decade.

When Elizabeth was a baby and started outgrowing her baby clothes, there were some that I just couldn’t give away.  I couldn’t pack them up in the plastic garbage sacks and haul them off to Goodwill for some stranger to look at with a critical eye.  Those other people might not be able to see:

  • How precious that faded little blue jean dress was- the one Elizabeth wore when she was six months old,  and sitting next to her teddy bear who was the same size she was- and she was still wearing when she welcomed her new baby brother home.  
  • They wouldn’t understand how sweet the smell of fuzzy white footie pajamas with just a hint of sweet potato stain on the collar is- the perfect combination of Tide and Johnson’s baby shampooed little girl.  
  • And strangers definitely wouldn’t appreciate the newborn onesie with the little pink hearts on it that was the bane of my existence to snap up correctly and James never did manage to fasten correctly.  

I just couldn’t give them to Goodwill.  And since I was pregnant again when Elizabeth was six months old, maybe I would keep them for our next little girl.

Only the next baby was Ray- and onesies with hearts on them were not really considered acceptable.  And so, they stayed in their bag.  To be joined along the way by:

  • That sweet green dress in which Elizabeth hopped around the lawns of the lighthouse at St. Augustine when she was 18 months, laughing so hard that her tow-headed curls shook with her.  
  • And I just had to add the pink-and-white  Oshkosh overall dress when she was 2 -that was a larger version of the dress we brought her home in- and she wore everywhere for a year.  The original dress went in the bag, too.  
  • And the coat that she got when we visited Mamamum for a fall weekend that had little Pooh ears on the hood and she kept petting over and over.  She wore it three more times that winter in Florida- and every time the sweetness of my baby took my breath away.

The bag became a box the summer Ray was two, because we were moving, and I had to go through his baby clothes as well.  I scoured the clothes that were too small to leave behind, to give to Goodwill, to hand down to friends.  But I found myself smiling at the tiny Hawaiian shirt that reflected the blue snap in my son’s laughing eyes, and I couldn’t let those moments go.  The box metamorphed into a bin.

And so, I decided on a Project.  A Project that I would get to- someday.  Someday when we stopped moving.  Someday when I wasn’t starting a new job.  Someday when I wasn’t researching about autism, writing about autism, or presenting about autism.  Someday…I would turn all of those wonderful baby moments captured in these clothes into a quilt- one for each child- so that they could take a part of those moments with them.

I love quilting.  I haven’t quilted in 12 years because I hand-sew- each square, each whorl, each section I stitch by hand.  It takes me a year to make a quilt and I’ve only made three.  I don’t sew for the final product.  I sew for the joy of the doing.  But sewing a quilt takes time.  And time for a quilt would be something that I would have… someday.

I realized last week, that, amazingly, Someday was here.  This fall, for the first time in 10 years, I am not up to my eyebrows in some project.  My book is turned in, I know what I’m teaching and I’m merely tinkering with the classes, and the children are in the same school they’ve been in for three years.  No one is dying.  We’re not moving.  We have time to deal with small things, big things.  We have time to be.  I’ll be doing some traveling and some consulting and I can sew on the plane.  And I have time for the first time in a decade to get out the boxes- grown now to 4 large bins.

Four large plastic Rubbermaid tubs that have been dragged with us through 8 houses, 5 states, a summer in limbo in a storage unit, a tornado, and even a fire.  They take up a good chunk of a closet in our garage.  And they were brought down this past Monday with the help of my 10-year old baby who was strong enough to lift them and carry them inside the house.

I found out, that despite my good intentions, and the new sewing basket from Michaels, that I still couldn’t do it.  Elizabeth and I unpacked those dresses and those onesies and those smocked Christmas dresses and I just couldn’t lay scissors to them.  It rained hard as we got the edges of Tropical Storm Lee, and I told stories. I told stories of “Oh, you wore this when…” and “At this age, you were…”, and “Remember that picture when you were wearing this?”  Elizabeth carefully examined and folded each smock, each dress and each footie pajama and repeated like a mantra, “What was I doing in this one?”, as if each one connected her with her past- a past in which she was loved and adored and there was always laughter.  A past with no ghosts, no sorrow, no autism and no issues- a past that was only full of joy.  We reveled in the memories of her babyhood- the best parts that are all I want to remember.

I have some things for the quilt.  I have some of the baby blankets and some dresses with vivid colors and patterns.  I have a couple of swim suits.  But the yellow swim suit in size 6 months that had lemon patterns on the shoulders and the matching hat?  How on earth could a little yellow square capture the memory of her sitting in her play pool on our back deck in her bouncy chair as she kicked the water with laughing squeals?  Elizabeth pointed out that her baby doll, the original Lily (they’re all named Lily.  We just have Lily 1, Lily 2, etc.) would be able to wear most of the clothes.  So the little yellow swim suit with lemons on the shoulder went into “Lily’s Bin”.  

  • So did the red velvet dress with the white lace collar that she wore her first Christmas.  
  • And the darling pink and white gingham dress with the big strawberries on the pockets into which she would stop and put things on our walks.  
  • And the jean jacket with the red and white checked ruffles that she wore on her first airplane trip to Seattle.  

I looked at each article of clothing and fell in love with my daughter all over again.  She looked at each article of clothing and began to construct her sense of today with herself from yesterday.

I finally decided that a quilt just can’t capture those moments- small bits of fabric with the edges sheared off.  With Elizabeth’s assistance, we packed almost everything back into three of the tubs- rechristened “Lily’s Tubs”.  They went back into the closet, with the assurances that they would be used to dress up her doll, or to be worn with her own daughter.  Someday.  I can’t help but wonder where we’ll be dragging those tubs to next.  I know that my husband and my mother will roll their eyes at Elizabeth and me as we find space in our crowded house for 3 tubs of outgrown clothing.

I will still make a quilt of the fabrics that evoke memory through its pattern or its texture.  I will still work on this project that is 10 years in the making.  But I have a clearer understanding that sometimes, memory is formed by the details.

June 30, 2011

Expanding and Tethering

Filed under: Autism,Gifted,Home Things,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 8:48 pm

Last night, for the first time ever, I put my little girl, my baby, my first-born, on a plane that took her across the ocean- far, far away from me. And for the first time, I understood what my mother felt when she hugged me goodbye as I took my first steps away from her. My daughter may be across the ocean, but I am tethered to her in a way I never quite understood before.

Back in January, I was looking for ways to celebrate James’ 50th birthday. “0″ birthdays are big deals in our family.  I was playing with the idea of using fabulous deals available on travelzoo.com, a site that is designed to torture me.  And then… the car died.  Big bills came due.  Money became tighter.  So- no family trip to Ireland or San Diego, or really even Disney, a relatively close 3 hours away.  At the same time, Vicki decided to go and visit her uncle who is a scientist at Cambridge… in England.. for a month.  And she invited all of us to go… All of us.  For a month.

Heck, YES!  An opportunity to stay in England for FREE?!  I was all over that- until I looked at airline prices.  For all of us.  Which, given our financial limitations, meant that there was enough money for… one.

I briefly considered going.  Running away from it all, leaving the children, leaving James to take care of them.  For a month.  Leaving autism and Tourette’s and tantrums and book due dates and deadlines and…. all of behind… for a month.  Far away- across the sea…. ahhhh.

And the responsible mommy, the one who adores her children, the one who knows that such a break would break too much had to decline. But I could give Elizabeth the opportunity.

For Elizabeth, you see, is a traveler.  She has been on planes since was 3 months old.  She adores the planning, the organization, the feeling of airplanes.  New places do not scare her.  I have distinct memories of her interpreting the symbols in Switzerland and navigating us through the maze of an international airport.  At the age of 3.  She can filter out noise and extraneous “stuff” and find the important details.  Similar to her abilities with hidden pictures and puzzles, she is able to visually locate and identify what she wants to find.  In so many ways, autism works for her now and highlights her abilities.

For months, she and Vicki have been planning this.  She was excited that she would miss the 4th of July- fireworks are not her thing.  They will go punting on the Thames.  They will take tea. They’ll go see Phantom of the Opera- live- in London.  They’re going to see “Much Ado About Nothing”- at the Globe Theater.  And then, Vicki found an opportunity to go to Paris.  As in, not Texas.  As in France.  Paris- the romance of it is just amazing.  I found Grace Potter’s song “Ooo la la” to become her anthem.    And they’re going over Bastille Day- which means that Elizabeth won’t miss the fireworks- they’ll just be in a French accent.  She’s been practicing French- badly, but learning that there are different ways to say “Hello”.  I am now “Maman”.

I have marveled watching her expand her horizons.  So many people have asked me “How could you let her go?” and my response has always been, “How could I not let her go?”  I trust Vicki a whole lot more than I would trust some sleep-away camp counselor.  Vicki understands her need to sleep, her need to reduce stimulation when she’s overwhelmed, her need to plan and have structure. And it’s LONDON!  And PARIS!!   It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And I’ve been battling wild envy at the same time that I’m feeling so grateful that my daughter has come this far that she can do this- and that the opportunity came at a time when she is ready to learn about a bigger world.  I can’t allow my own fears to get in the way of her growing up.

I helped her pack, full of pride, full of joy, tinged with “Can I go, too?” and a small dribble of sadness at missing her.  So many people expressed that they would be afraid; that they would be lonely; that they couldn’t let their daughter go.

Somehow, I am strangely not anxious.  I realized why when I was hugging her goodbye, and I realized that I was acting like my mother- and I finally understand the mix of emotions.

**********

When I was 10 years old, I spent two weeks with my father, my step-mother, and my half-brother. I went off for the longest I had ever been away from home.  I was nervous, but it ended up being a lovely summer of learning how to play tennis, learning that you can drink tea with cream, the movies “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “Superman”, and staring in the mirror with my brother as we marveled over how similar our faces were.  I got letters from my mother almost every day- letters that were full of the small details of our home.  Stories about the cat, stories about the weather.  Stories that let me know that she loved me, she was thinking of me, and that I always had a place at home.  Even as I was exploring new places, I always had a place of my own.  That level of security grounded me.  It never occurred to me that my mother was very consciously letting me explore at my own pace.

****

As I followed Elizabeth and Vicki at the airport last night- close, but not hovering; there if she needed me, but far enough away to let her try it on her own, I realized I must be feeling what my mother felt.  It’s the same feeling I had when I let her climb the slide at 10 months old- surrounding her with my arms, but not touching.  Letting her know that I was there if she fell, but that she could stretch and explore at the same time.  I was alert; I was proud, but I was never really scared because I knew that she would be all right.  We are tethered together in such a way that mere distance- whether it’s inches from the almost-a-toddler as she crawls up a slide ladder, or across an ocean from the almost-a-teenager- cannot disconnect me from my baby, or my baby from her place.

All day today, I have been aware of her- not her absence, but her presence… elsewhere.  “Oh, now she’s landing.”  “They must be getting on the train now.” I can sense her tiredness, her clinginess to Vicki and her interest in everything she’s seeing.  I can sense her need to hold on to Bunny, her stuffed pink bunny, and Bear, her stuffed pink bear (names have never been her strength).  I have been sending her “Mama’s here.  Mama’s always here” feelings all day.  She’s tired; she’s inundated with the newness- but she’s not overwhelmed.  She’s with Vicki, and she’s with Bear- and I’m there for her when she needs to reach out to me.  We’re tethered, but not tied.

Instead of letters like my mother wrote, I send her emails.  Instead of phone calls, we Facetime.  Technology may change, but not the mother instinct – that remains constant.

So- to my mother- I get it now.  I get it that our job as a parent is to let them explore their world, while letting them know that we are always there for them.  To quote the old phrase, for giving me- and now her- “wings with which to fly and roots from which to grow”.  Thank you for giving me that- and giving me a role model to let my daughter explore the slide then- and Paris now.

But I have to admit, I do miss her. And I really, really wish I could experience Paris with her.  

*************

If you want to read about her adventures, she’s blogging them at http://allieinternational.wordpress.com.  I may be a proud, scared, slightly envious mommy, but I’m still a teacher!

June 1, 2011

39 Clues About Who is the Worst Mommy in the World

Filed under: Home Things,Uncategorized — Teacher Professor @ 2:44 pm

I win the Worst Mommy in the World Award- at least, according to my son.  Turns out, however, it’s an award that several moms around here share.

I win this coveted award because school ended last Friday- and I started requiring the children to read for half an hour and do math for half an hour before they can go and play with friends, watch TV or get on the computer on Tuesday.  Last year, I had all kinds of plans– wonderfully structured and interesting summer lessons in language arts and math.  Complete with mini-field trips.  It was a wonderful plan- and it worked- for about a week.  Summer school classes that I was teaching, camp, and visits soon ended our formal summer learning.

One of the things that frustrates me to no end is that I LOVE teaching- I love devising activities for kids to engage in the material, I love making kids think, and I fancy that I’m pretty good explaining things- and my son (and daughter to a lesser extent) will have none of it.  “NO!” is the feedback I get when I suggest “What if we try it this way?”  “That’s not the way Ms.-So -Much -Smarter -Than -Mommy -Because -She’s -A -REAL -3/4th -Grade -Teacher does it” is the other favorite retort.  My reply of “You know, I used to teach 3rd/4th grade” gives me a little credibility, but not much.  But when I try to create an experience, take them beyond, or even explain, I get resistance.  A LOT of resistance.

So, our plans this summer are much simpler- much less dependent on Mommy and more dependent on the workbook.  I hate it, but at least the workbook is on Singapore Math and at least I can drop in small amounts of instruction.

And- it turns out, Abel- Ray’s new best buddy’s- Mom is doing something quite similar.  So, we got our heads together, and Ray and Abel are going to be reading the 39 Clues series together.  The boy in the series, Dan, is active, anxious, and good at math.  The series is written by a group of male authors (Rick Riordan is one of them!) who wrote a continuing series.  I read the first one and got completely hooked.  If the boys were in my class, I would totally have them start writing their own continuing story, starting with their own adventures.

But of course, I can’t- I’m only Mommy.  And the Worst Mommy in the World, at that.  It’s an award I treasure this summer, as I watch my son learn that friends can share even adventure stories together.

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