For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘parenting

The Lost Mother by Mary McGarry Morris, Viking, 2005, 274 pp.

Lost MotherI keep going to the library and checking out Mary McGarry Morris books, but never getting around to reading them before they are due. (This is what happens when you are a book addict. I can’t leave a library with less than 10 books at a time. Three weeks isn’t long enough to read that many novels, along with my professional reading.) I’m so grateful to have finally made it into this one, and next time I won’t return them unread.

The Lost Mother is the story of the Talcott children surviving the hardship of the Great Depression in Vermont. When the story begins, Thomas and Margaret are living in a tent in the woods, because they have lost their home to debt. Their father Henry works butchering farm animals, but work is scarce and money even more scarce. The loss of their home, however, is a minor inconvenience compared to the searing loss of their mother, who simply abandoned her family, moved to a mill town, and started a new life. The children initially believe she has left to support them and will return when times improve, but slowly they are forced to confront the truth of her abandonment.

There are a host of other characters in the book who step in to take responsibility for Thomas and Margaret, either by choice or by force. The wealthy, greedy Farleys want to take Margaret and make her their own daughter, separating her from her family forever. Aunt Lena (their mother’s sister) and Uncle Max do not want to take the children in, and their alcoholism makes it an unsafe place for the children to be. Gladys is their father’s lifelong friend. She would step in to care for them, and does what she can, but she is caring for her ailing father, whose abuse for the children makes them unable to stay there.

The story is heart-wrenching, but hopeful. Thomas and Margaret have people who want to care for them, but can’t; people who want to own them, but are thwarted; and people who could care for them, but won’t. The plot unfolds as they spend a full year making their way from one terrible situation to another. As a parent, I wonder what it would be like to know you are unable to provide for your children. No one in the story is demonized for failing the children—it is just the way things are. The narrator most often tells the story from Thomas’ perspective, and we watch him grow from a child’s view to a wizened adult one through the course of the story’s one single year.

The Lost Mother was a fast read, and a great story. It left me pondering the millions of children all over the world who are alone in this world. Thomas and Margaret’s story is not unique. Just this week, there have been multiple news stories of unaccompanied children warehoused in terrible conditions having been picked up crossing the border illegally. What is it like to be a child alone in this harsh world? Morris’ novel imagines it in one time and one place, with sorrow and with hope.

 

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The Reading Promise: My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma, Grand Central Publishing, 2011, 288  pp.

Reading PromiseI heard about this book after an interview with the author on NPR. I am parent and a certified book nerd (c’mon, not only do I read like crazy, collect books like personal friends, but I blog about what I read here), so I found it impossible to resist a book about sharing a love of books across generations.

Alice Ozma and her father began what became known as “The Streak” when she was in the fourth grade. They made a commitment to read together every night for 100 consecutive nights. To true readers, 100 nights is far too short–as it was for Alice and her father. The Streak continued for the next eight years, until Ozma left for college. The Reading Promise is not just the story of the books they read, but of their relationship over those years. Alice’s father was a single parent and eccentric elementary school librarian. He and Alice had a particular and sometimes peculiar life together, full of imagination and affection, but not without hardship. It is a touching memoir, full of humorous and touching stories of Alice and her father over the years of The Streak, including the sometimes extraordinary measures they would take to continue it.

I had expected the book to be like an extended book report, a catalog of how art imitates and informs life. I had hoped for advice about how to inculcate a love of reading in my child. I coveted a list of all the books they read, and how they managed to sustain a practice of reading aloud for so long. Those things were there, but they were implicit rather than explicit. She didn’t write about how the books impacted her life, but about how the books became the foundation of her relationship with her father, even through the difficult years of adolescence. And yes, there was also a list of all the books they could remember reading together–which was my favorite part of the book.

I recommend The Reading Promise to anyone wondering why and how reading with your child makes a difference, or looking for inspiration for the work of reading together every night for a sustained time. Alice Ozma is only in her early 20’s, which is young to have produced a memoir. I wonder if there will be more forthcoming books from her.

Parenting Gifted Kids: Tips for Raising Happy and Successful Children by James R. Delisle, Prufrock Press, Waco, Texas, 2006, 213 pp.

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We received this book in the mail, a gift from our school system’s “Advanced Program,” shortly after B completed extensive testing that qualified him for enrichment and advanced curriculum for his grade level. It followed a lengthy conversation with the program director about the opportunities available for him, the potential challenges of his curriculum, and the pros and cons of grade-skipping.

This book was given as an introduction to the meaning of the gifted label, both at home and at school. I have not done extensive reading on this topic, but this book seemed unique in that it approached the meaning of the term “gifted” as a way of seeing and experiencing the world, not only as an intellectual acuity. The first chapter cuts right to one of the most challenging issues: the perception that the gifted label implies “better than,” not simply “better at.” Gifted children and adults are better at learning new facts and concepts, perceiving connections and/or art, music or something else. They are not better than anyone else. Just like some people are better at sports or dance or art, some people are better at problem-solving , thinking and learning. It is a mistake to confuse “better at” with “better than,” both for gifted kids, gifted adults, parents, teachers, those who look at them with envy and those that look at them with disdain.

The book goes on to encourage parents of gifted children to be bold at embracing and encouraging the full pursuit of “better at,” and dispelling any notions of “better than.” Delisle talks through the common challenges of the educational system, the emotional issues of gifted children, the problem of expectations. In every chapter, he also includes the voices of gifted children and teens themselves, speaking directly to the issues he raises.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the book was in the second chapter, which talked about the intensities that come with a gifted IQ. Not only do I often describe B as “intense,” but many of the scenarios Delisle described also reflected my own childhood. He introduced the concept of “overexcitabilities,” (OEs), originally developed by Polish psychologist Michael Piechowski. These are ways in which those with higher IQ’s can experience the world “in ways that are more intense or vivid than most.” (34) They include psychomotor, sensual, intellectual, imaginational and emotional. The one that rung true for both me and for B (and I could see in my spouse too) was the intellectual overexcitability, described as a person who is “a minefield of exploding thoughts. It is someone who is curious, mentally alert even when relaxing, driven to absorb and understand any new idea, and someone who likes any type of intellectual challenge.” (38-39) Our family life is full of time spent challenging one another with some sort of “intellectual challenge,” sorting through a problem or pouring over new information in some way. We love that about each other, and recognize it is a bit unusual and often somewhat obsessive. In other words, over-excitable. What a gift to have language to describe that experience, and know we are not alone.

While I did not agree with everything Delisle said in his forthright and headstrong opinion, the book was a valuable tool to understand not only my son, but myself as well. It introduced the language the educational system will use, pointed to potential challenges and pitfalls, and offered reassurance. Most importantly, Delisle recognizes that each child, with or without a gifted label, will present his or her own challenges, and the best any parent can do is try to negotiate, support and love accordingly.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough, Hougton-Mifflin, 2012, 231 pp.

How-Children-Succeed-by-Paul-ToughI’ll admit it: I was drawn to this book as an anxious parent eager to do everything possible to equip my child for success. I read one of the preliminary excerpts in The New York Times, and I was fascinated. To continue the confessional spirit: I am someone who is highly risk-averse, and fears failure. I would like to teach my child how to take risks and fail boldly, then get up and try again. So far, his natural tendencies match the caution of both his parents. Instruction will be required, and I’m not sure I know how to give it.

Tough’s title might sell a lot of books to people like me (although I borrowed it from the library), but he is writing about children like mine, from relatively stable homes with educated, financially privileged parents. He takes an honest, close look at what we can do as a nation to change the lives of children from low income backgrounds and give them not only the opportunity, but the support they need to succeed. What he discovers is that intellect is not nearly as important as core character traits like grit, self-control, conscientiousness, and curiosity. If you have intellect but not those character strengths, and you come from a disadvantaged starting place, you will not likely overcome those disadvantages. If you do have those strengths, and some critical support along the way, you can overcome all kinds of poor schooling and stressful home situations, even improving intelligence scores, academic success and life opportunities.

Tough researches a wide array of programs aimed at overcoming the disadvantages of poverty, uncertain home life and poor schooling. He looks at research from neuroscientists, educators, educational reform experts, social scientists, and doctors. He diagnoses success and failure in programs to help children and adolescents, and concludes that we have failed as a nation to adequately address these problems. The challenges of poverty, the legacy of racism, poor schools, unstable family life and inadequate support combine to leave millions of young people further and further behind. We must improve all of these things, but if we could start with the most effective, it would be certain strengths of character that would help overcome the rest.

I found the list that Tough uses, drawn from researchers and employed by schools in the successful KIPP charter school program, to be particularly interesting and helpful. The character strengths deemed most important to success are: grit, self-control, zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity (76). Notice that kindness, compassion, respect, honesty, helpfulness and other moral traits are not included. While those are important, they are not the things that lead to success in life. Most schools emphasize those character traits, and do not talk at all about the others. When you are trying to save children from a broken system, those are the strengths that make a difference–and the best news of all is that they can be taught.

Making a Home for Faith: Nurturing the Spiritual Life of Your Children by Elizabeth F. Cardwell, Pilgrim Press, 2000, 118 pp.

Making a homeI bought this book years ago, when it was new, but never got around to reading it. I finally tuned in not simply as a parent seeking advice on how to nurture faith in my child, but as a new contributor to this blog project called Practicing Families. (To be featured in a full introduction in a day or two.)

I was seeking a practical guide with strategies for integrating faith into our home in age-appropriate ways. While this book did contain that information, it was buried in a surprisingly dense, academic style. Caldwell spends a good portion of each chapter providing a literature review, surveying everything from developmental theory to models of faith formation. This is far better suited to religious professionals or academics than parents wondering how to teach their toddler to pray. I like theory, I like academic texts–it’s just not what I was expecting here.

However, if you’re willing to look for it, there is much insight within the book for parents imagining how to pass on their faith to their children. One of the most insightful things she offers are two “top-ten” lists. The first is a list of what every child needs from faithful parents. It includes things like parents who are comfortable living their faith, participation in a faith community, faithful adults outside the family, and help making connections between faith and life. The second is a list of what parents need to know or do in order to pass along faith to their children. This list would make an excellent starting point for parents and church leaders seeking to equip them to be their children’s primary religious educator. It includes things like reading or telling a Bible story, praying, asking and answering questions, maintaining their own spiritual practices, and explaining the sacraments and liturgical year.

Although each chapter comes with questions for reflection and discussion, I would not recommend giving this book to a group of parents for a small group discussion. The tilt toward scholarly sources and away from simple stories would not work in most settings. However, this book would be an excellent starting point and resource for Christian education teams or pastors or religious educators trying to develop strategies to help parents teach faith to their children. The ideas and information it contains could easily be translated into a series of workshops or classes for parents.

outliersOutliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Little, Brown and Company, 2008, 309 pp.

Like Gladwell’s other books, Blink and The Tipping Point, Outliers is a phenomenological analysis of a particular human experience. In The Tipping Point, it was the phenomena of sudden shifts in public opinion, popularity, and perception. In Blink, it was human ability to make accurate, instant decisions. Outliers looks at the phenomena of genius and success. What makes some individuals excel so far beyond the rest of their communities? What is unique about their individual selves or their communities that allows them such great success?

Outliers, again like Gladwell’s other books, has been wildly successful, and the ideas it contains well-circulated in the few years since the book was published.  It has gained a wide audience among anxious and ambitious parents in the upper-middle class. Parents at my son’s preschool discussed the advantage of being born in January, and whether they should wait to start their children in elementary school to give them an advantage—all based on Gladwell’s chapter on the Matthew effect, looking at the impact of birth month on Canadian hockey players. A mom started her child’s violin lessons at age 3, based on Gladwell’s chapter on the 10,000 hour rule, in which expertise requires 10,000 hours of practice. The sooner you reach those hours, the more ready you are to seize an opportunity for your expertise to shine. Gladwell’s analysis of Christopher Langan has been seen as a cautionary tale for parents of young gifted children about the importance of parents in pushing them into success. Langan has an enormous IQ and little to show for it, compared to stars with lesser IQ. Gladwell argues that his lack of social and familial support have made it difficult for him to make use of the gift of his intellect.

What I had not heard other people discuss are the later chapters, which explore the complex confluence of luck, cultural wisdom (or cultural blindness), natural ability, practice and grit that combine to make someone an outlier. His chapters on airline pilots’ communication styles, the cultivation of rice paddies and math skills, the success of Jewish lawyers and violence in Harlan, Kentucky point to things that are beyond our control—wider webs of social, linguistic and cultural patterns that shape us to be successful in some ways and not in others. These are the things that we cannot control, or at least not easily. These are the things that over-anxious, over-ambitious parents do not like to discuss.

Gladwell’s book shows that success in this life has no single cause. It is a coming together of luck, preparation, hard work, grit, social and cultural wisdom, and timing. Are there things we can do to be more successful or help our children be more successful? Of course. Can we create stunningly successful outliers? No–unless we happen to be at the right place at the right time.

I find Gladwell interesting, insightful and entertaining, and I recommend him to you in that spirit. If you are looking for self-help, parenting advice or secrets of the universe, look elsewhere.

The two most discussed and posted parenting articles among my Facebook friends this week have been Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior”, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal,  and Mayim Bialik’s (aka “Blossom“) introduction to Attachment Parenting for the Today Show blog.

Amy Chua with her daughters. (Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien, Wall Street Journal)

Chua’s article has unleashed a firestorm of angry and wounded responses, calling her whole approach to parenting abusive and psychologically damaging. She basically argues that the role of a parent is to push their child toward perfection, even if it means hounding, fighting, resisting the child’s own desires, even to extremes. In her understanding, this enables the child to achieve greatness. Labeling herself a “tiger mom,” she believes that the child’s ego is resilient and strong, and that parental aggressiveness builds the child’s confidence that they can do the impossible. Her article analyzes the differences between what she labels as “Chinese” and “Western” parenting, and argues why her hard-nosed style is better. (As a side note, I can’t help but wonder about the timing of this article, which coincides with the state visit by China’s President Hu and elaborate news coverage of economic ties and cultural dissonances between the U.S. and China.)

Mayim Bialik (Photo by Denise Herrick Borchert, The Today Show)

Mayim Bialik’s article talks more about the “what” than the “why,” but the case for attachment parenting is well known. Bialik and other attached parents argue the opposite of Chua: that the role of a parent is to be responsive to a child’s needs, to listen and nurture the whims and desires of the child, so that they might gain confidence in themselves in a supportive and nurturing environment. Bialik describes a constellation of parenting decisions usually labeled “attachment parenting,” such as extended nursing, co-sleeping, babywearing and gentle discipline. Following the lead of Dr. Sears, attachment parenting advocates believe that what children need most is unconditional love, emotional security and sensitive attention in order to develop confidence and security in their own identities.

Among my friends, Chua’s article has mostly received expressions of horror, outrage and scorn.  Bialik’s article has been lauded as a validation of “crunchy-granola” attachment parenting values from the mainstream media. (After all, it doesn’t get much more mainstream media than the Today Show.) In the interest of full disclosure, I also objected to many of the ideas in Chua’s article, and I support many of the ideas in Bialik’s article. Although we did not/do not follow all of the attachment parenting practices, I have a strong leaning in that direction.

What strikes me as far more interesting, however, are the striking similarities between the two articles. While the daily parenting styles seem completely opposed to one another, there are some fundamental identity issues and assumptions that they both share. First, both mothers are smart, well-educated and financially secure. Chua is a professor at Yale Law School, and Bialik has a Ph.D. in neuroscience and an ongoing acting career. Second, both mothers are passionately invested in the work of parenting. They are thoughtful and intentional about their relationships with their children. Third, they both clearly love their children and want what’s best for them, even if they have very different views of “what’s best.”

Most compelling, they share a fundamental assumption about raising children. Both approaches—the Tiger Mom and the Attached Parent—seem to believe that the child cannot thrive without constant parental attention.  Both perceive the child as a fragile creature, likely to collapse without constant intervention. The fears themselves are different: Tiger Moms fear laziness, disorganization, and lack of achievement; Attached Parents fear loss of self-esteem and a broken ego unable to form relationships. The remedies and interventions are also different: Tiger Moms believe in the power of constant nagging and force; Attached Parents believe in the power of constant reassurance and sensitivity. But, fundamentally, they both seem to work on the premise that children are fragile and incapable of growing into normal, healthy, successful adults (however you define that) without intense attention from their parents (whether direct focus or in the creation of a certain environment). I would also infer that they both share a huge weight of anxiety and responsibility over their children’s development, whether parent-led or child-led.

Observing the connection between the two articles made me realize something about my own style of parenting. Like both Chua and Bialik, I am smart, well-educated and financially secure (for the most part, although far below their income brackets). I am thoughtful and intentional in my parenting, even taking time to write about it here. I obviously love my son and want what’s best for him. I have experienced plenty of fear and anxiety over whether or not I am doing the right things as his mother. I have often felt guilty for not being more “attached,” more intense and attentive in my interactions with B. I have even occasionally felt guilty for not pushing him harder to try new things or attempt things that are difficult.

The difference is: I get over those feelings pretty quickly because I just don’t believe, like they seem to, that B is fundamentally fragile, and that the intensity of my attention (strict or sensitive) will make or break his security and success into adulthood. Part of the reason I was never very good at attached parenting is because I valued B’s independence (and my own) too much to offer him constant attention, even as an infant. Like Chua, I believe that children are strong and resilient and not easily crushed. However, like Bialik, I believe that listening responding to my child’s needs is essential to good parenting, and I could never ignore or belittle his own desires and expressed needs. We tend to strike somewhere in between–it’s what works for our family.

For B, even the sky's no limit. (Photo by revjmk)

Most importantly, I just believe that all B really needs is to know that he is loved, that we will provide for him as best as we are able, that there are clear boundaries for behavior and safety, and that we trust him with the rest. If we offer him those things, he will be alright. D.H. Lawrence once said there were three rules for raising children: “First rule: leave him alone. Second rule: leave him alone. Third rule: leave him alone.” While that’s obviously a bit extreme, I think there is some wisdom there, especially for over-anxious, over-educated, over-intentional parents like Bialik, Chua and me. I think, in the end, children need both less coddling and less prodding, less protection and less pushing than either hard core Tiger Moms or committed Attached Parents are ready to offer.

It makes me suspicious that those two styles of parenting and most others are more about our needs than about our children’s. Like our need to believe we can protect our children from all hurt and harm. Or our need to believe that our efforts can somehow create ideal children–whether that ideal is success, brilliance, happiness, creativity, freedom or anything else.  Or our need to control our lives, and by extension our children’s, to ward off fear and anxiety about the unknown. Or our need to heal the wounds of our own childhood. Or our need to prove our worth through the accomplishments of our children. Or any other variety of normal adult longings and anxieties.

But children are people too. From an early age, they show their own preferences and choices, their own fears and desires, and their own ways of being in the world. They will all grow up to make their own mistakes and carry their own wounds, including some from their parents, no matter what we do. We love them, listen to them, be there for them, try to do what we think is best for them, pray we are right about what is best for them, and trust they will be O.K. in the end. Amazingly, most of them are.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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