Pass the Pierogis, Please.

Courtesy: R. Anscher

To experience the goodness of childhood through middle-aged eyes, to take a break from adulting and just get to be a kid again is a welcomed and sometimes needed escape.

Feeling drenched in joy during a stroll down Disneyland’s Main Street washed away the stress of cross country travel with young boys.

Watching Wonder Woman climb out of a fox hole and on to the battlefield left me invincible and ready to challenge any injustice.

And sitting nestled between the arms of a captain’s chair at my grandparent’s dining table snapping green beans and sneaking Italian chocolate dipped sprinkle cookies in earshot of my Gram as she masterfully labored over an anticipated holiday meal served in tight quarters to a dozen, boisterous relatives reaffirmed I was in the safest place in the world.

That wooden chair was a constant; as a young professional, newlywed and even a mom, always waiting on the edge of Gram’s small, square kitchen which opened into a dining area and an adjacent living room. Thick carpet, knitted afghans, framed needlepoint, family photographs and my Pop’s collection of electronic gadgets, projects and tools added to the cozy vibe. During the holidays, the air was warmer still thanks to a baking oven, charged discussions over football and war and shifting bodies in search of a seat.

When the meal was ready, generations crammed around the table in folding chairs, high chairs and stools. There was little room for lingering elephants. The trauma, addiction, abuse, divorce and rivalries that ran through my family’s veins were diluted by the pungent smell of eggplant, the sweet glaze of ribs and deep fried golden pierogis, Eastern European dumplings stuffed with potato and served with a side of sour cream. Holiday meals with Gram made each of us forget the rumblings in our world for a few hours. Unfortunately, after the pierogis ran out, the dysfunction remained.

Which is why, after she passed away a few years ago, holiday gatherings grew increasingly disjointed. Relatives branched off to do their own thing. My grandmother had been the glue holding the house together.

The week leading up to this Thanksgiving, I longed for a taste of childhood goodness. Really, I longed for my grandmother. I missed the lady who darted about her kitchen, supervising every boiling pot and baking pan. The butterfly who loved to gather with the women around the table and talk between basting, chops and stirs. The hostess who was happy to set an extra place or cook for a crowd. And the woman who helped me to feel connected and loved anytime I would have preferred to drift away.

This was definitely a drifting year. The heaviness in the world and the infected state of our country outside of my idyllic, suburban bubble compounded by typical life challenges and general parental angst has weighed on me. More than anything this Thanksgiving, I wished for my grandmother to drag me to shore, pull out a chair and hand me a bowl of unsnapped beans.

My husband, Mac suggested I fill the void by hosting a holiday meal for our entire extended family. I told him, “No.” I retired the art of pretend play after my grandmother died and have no desire to assume her role. The elephant figurines perched on my fireplace mantle are plenty enough. Besides, I wouldn’t even know where to buy Polish dumplings.

Then he proposed we visit my aunt and uncle’s farm on Black Friday since my grandfather, mom and a few regulars from Thanksgivings past would be spending the weekend there. Of my grandparent’s three daughters, my aunt is most like my grandmother: even, generous and welcoming. Turns out, she and my uncle were happy to have us.

Acres of space but as cozy as a three room apartment, their farm oozed with the goodness of childhood. A place with chickens to feed, barns to explore, orchards to roam and a wood burning stove to warm up with, Bubbe and Skootch dripped with joy as they talked to the animals, circled the pond, played darts with cousins and marveled over the Sgt. Pepper album spinning on a record player. They raced their parents down a gravel road and climbed the barn’s ladders to the highest loft, leaping from bales of hay to the floor below like Spiderman on a mission. And sat with ease amongst relatives nibbling on eggplant parmesan, gravy soaked turkey, beef stew and yes, potato pierogis fresh off the skillet.

For a few hours, rumblings disappeared and hearts filled. On the farm, Gram’s spirit was very much alive.

This holiday season, I’m grateful to my aunt and uncle; for sharing their home with us, for contributing to the goodness of Bubbe and Skootch’s childhood and for throwing me a life preserver by simply pulling out a chair.

Wishing you and your loved ones a wonderful holiday season!

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What Children Need in Lieu of Mindfulness

Mindfulness quote

The practice of mindfulness has crept its way into elementary and preschools.

Biologist, Jon Kabat-Zinn, coined the term “mindfulness” in the 1970s to describe the act of “paying attention on purpose” to the present moment, with a “non-judgmental” attitude.

Mindfulness techniques are being used in the classroom to help children cope with stress and anxiety as well as to help them calm their mind, find center, and focus attention.  Advocates believe designating school time to such training leads to improved behavior and academic performance.

As a teacher, I appreciate learning the art of mindfulness to enhance my classroom management repertoire.  As a mom, I welcome a daily dose of meditation as a respite for harried parenthood.  But I am a grown up.

Teaching preschool and elementary school aged children mindfulness is both redundant and a band-aid.  Why?  Because they are mindful by design and their stress is not self imposed.

Children live in the present.  Watch a 4 year old mix a leaf, grass and stone soup for the missing class tortoise or his classmate run wildly away from an invisible queen across the school yard.  Stop to observe a pair of nine year olds twirl until dizzy or a crew of fifth graders so engrossed in conversation they forget to heed a busy crossing guard and it will become apparent that children are led by heart and body in the moment.

Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded children’s understanding of time and capacity to think in abstract terms are driven by cognitive development.

A preschooler’s foundation for time begins with a sense of what happens before and after a concrete experience.  His understanding of duration and the future does not match that of an adult.  That’s why a child under 4 is confused by words like “tonight” “later” “today” and “tomorrow,” and will often create ones like “yestertime.”   Even a child nearing Kindergarten will understand the phrase, “we are having lunch after I pick you up from school” over “we will have lunch at 12 o’clock.”  By elementary school, a first grader learns to tell time only to the hour and half hour.  Minutes are not introduced until second grade.

While children between ages 7-10 have a more mature sense of time, abstract, hypothetical thought is not fully developed until age eleven.  Up until early middle school, young people still benefit from a personal connection or concrete experience in order to make sense of a sophisticated idea.

For example, after reading Crenshaw, a middle grade novel which tackles the theme of homelessness, my ten year old went on to ask questions about our family’s financial condition and whether we have enough money to pay the rent in an effort to make sense of this cruel reality.  Even after I reassured him, the boy worried.

Encouraging my son to read a book I, the adult with my adult view of the world, thought would benefit his growth only produced anxiety.  He was not cognitively ready.

Adults can minimize the stress we create for and impose upon children by limiting its source.  But with poverty, trauma, and violence not as straightforward and repairable as developmentally rigorous academic standards, competitive athletic expectations, over scheduling, and the pressure to be well liked, well rounded and successful, we need to nurture their emotional health while simultaneously addressing the larger issues.

But meditation, deep breaths, and mantras are not the answer.

Children need love.

A veteran teaching colleague recently reminded me it is consistent love from a trusted adult whether it is a parent, relative, community member, or teacher that makes the difference for a child regardless of external forces.

Even as the family in the story Crenshaw struggled through hunger and financial hardship my son observed, “Living in a van didn’t seem so bad because the family loved each other.”

Children need time.

Time to move, play and socialize; time to create, discover and stretch their imagination; time to get from point A to B, be bored and to wonder.

The time scheduled for mindfulness  in school should be allocated to these activities because this is how children find their center.  This is what helps them focus.  This is what teaches body and environmental awareness.  This is how they were intended to manage stress.

Children are inherently present, non judgmental, and stress free.  So let’s give them love.  Give them time.  And then, let them be.