Take Away One

Courtesy Little Rock Family

Courtesy Little Rock Family

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“I hate Thursdays,” Bubbe barked.  “I wake up early for band, go to school, spend two more hours in religious school, come home, and do homework.  I need a break.”

“You’re right,” I sighed.  “But education is not an option.  Band is a commitment and you need to finish what you started.  Please put your clarinet away, get one homework sheet done, and pack a snack for Hebrew school.  We’re leaving in twenty minutes.”

Later that evening, I scrolled through registration emails for the upcoming season’s optional extracurricular activities:

Baseball: League 1 and/or League 2.  Travel team.
Tennis, soccer, swim, lacrosse
Martial Arts
CrossFit Kids
Lego Engineering
Hip Hop
Drama, drawing, Junior Chef…

and thought about the last line of my response to Vicki Abeles’s New York Times’ Sunday Review piece, “Is School Making our Children Ill?”

Let’s resolve to take a step back and give children back their childhood.

In my Letter to the Editor, I complimented the Irvington High School community in Fremont, California for taking steps to rescue students from their high-stakes childhoods by limiting homework requirements and encouraged parents of young learners like me and those of my students to be brave, take ownership and embrace such efforts by curtailing after-school and evening enrichment in an effort to preserve the social, emotional and physical health of our children.

I often fantasize about what might happen if children, from toddlers to teenagers who live in a community laden with a multitude of well intended non-school related activities gave them up.

Would the children be lost; bored and confused by the lack of structure?  At first, until they learned how to organize and occupy themselves.

Would they stare at screens instead of reaching out to each other?  Probably, until an observant grown up or precocious peer stepped in.

Would their resumes suffer, leaving them unable to prosper in a society fixated on success, competition and career?  On the contrary; extra time and space would give them a chance to practice the socialization, thinking, and problem solving skills needed to thrive later in life.

After the initial shock wore off, I think the children would forget how busy their lives once were.

I imagine they would pack the playgrounds,

Courtesy of Getty Images

Courtesy of Getty Images

pick up the sport they previously raced off to play with whoever was nearby,

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

Courtesy Alan Zale for The New York Times

put on shows,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

hang from trees,

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

Paul McDonough Courtesy Sasha Wolf Gallery, NYC

visit with friends,

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

Coney Island Teenagers Harold Feinstein

relax with family,

Courtesy Getty Images

Courtesy Getty Images

get more sleep,

Courtesy Bored Panda

Courtesy Bored Panda

and take that necessary break.

And I’m pretty sure the adults in their lives would come to welcome the change.

Perhaps if these young people had scaled back schedules, their schools would not have to revamp homework policies like in Fremont, delay start times to accommodate the sleep deprived like in Seattle, and implement mindfulness training to battle the growing epidemic of childhood anxiety and depression as did New York City.

While the educational system has a responsibility to promote childhood wellness, we parents and guardians do as well.  Children schlepping from class to practice to workshops and back again offsets the effort made by teachers and administrators and puts additional stress on kids and families.

Still, my under-scheduled fantasy is a daunting reality for this worried mom.

What if my boys are the only ones who opt out?  They’ll feel excluded and alone.

What if they lose a competitive edge?  How can they impress college admissions let alone make any high school team?

Doesn’t formal exposure to the arts, technology, and team play breed well roundedness?

It’s healthy to take risks; sample new and different things.

Besides, Bubbe and Skootch seem happy when they are busily in the mix.

But their childhood is not mine, nor is it about my parental goals, expectations, angst or insecurities.

With that, I marked the registration emails as unread and approached Bubbe.

“Here’s the deal,” I explained.  “You know school and band are a given.  Think about the three other activities you participated in this time last year.  Rank them.  Keep the top two.”

“I definitely want my tennis lesson,” he said.  “And I’d like to try baseball again.  So I guess I’ll stop CrossFit for now.”

I cringed.  Bubbe nixed the one extra I believe physically and mentally benefited him most and chose a sport that requires a greater weekly commitment.  “Okay,” I said.  “Sounds like a plan.”

Gaining a free afternoon may not reflect the childhoods of yesteryear, but it’s a start.

Let’s bring back rest, play, and old-fashioned fun.  This season resolve to take away one.

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.

A Mother’s Mantra

The bunk

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I stand behind the ironing board affixing labels to socks

and watch

you weave Stampy Cat from yellow bands

The knot in my throat

grows

An adventure looms

For each of us

Soon to camp

One month away

Your first time

Reminders simmer

Stay in groups.  Be modest.  Don’t let anyone take advantage.

Use your voice

Use soap

Use a tissue

Never spoken

Instead,

A mother’s mantra

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

We drive the twisted parkway

Duffle in trunk

You stare beyond the glass

Wondering

Raindrops camouflage my tears

Focus.  Don’t dawdle.  Clean up.

Take a risk

Trim those nails

Try the baked ziti

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

I stuff sheets into a top bunk

You flip cards with new mates

throw a glance

and disappear with the pack

It’s almost time

Brush your teeth. Wear glasses. Spray for bugs.

Be organized

Be flexible

Be you

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

The Gaga pit

A kiss good-bye

Stay a boy forever

One more squeeze

Experience it all

“I love you.  I’m proud.  Have fun.”

Define Interesting

Richard Scarry Busytown

Life in urban suburbia is all amped up.

Working, parenting, schlepping, socializing, shopping, exercising, creating, competing, volunteering, networking, hiring, reinventing, and renovating; we residents don’t quit.  At any given moment, look above the head of the person in the crosswalk or the parent at school drop off and you’ll see a swirling cloud of thoughts polluting the air.

From nannies and nursery schools, tennis and travel teams, hot yoga and country clubs, the café with the best salad and the coffee house with the best scene to dinner parties and day camp, cliques and careers, book clubs and PTAs, local arts and big city connections, even casual conversation at the playground feels wired and burdened by the need for it to be about something.

I liken this way of life to Richard Scary’s, What Do People Do All Day? Just slap some riding boots on Lowly worm, switch out Mr. Frumble’s bananamobile for a luxury SUV, and squeeze Mommy Cat into a pair of Lululemons , and you have it; the Urb-Burb version of Busytown.

Where everybody is looking good; doing something; being interesting.

So when some Urb-Burb families take a vacation, the getaway destination becomes increasingly attractive if the activities and environment is simplified, back to basic, and dare I say, normal.

One day, I was chatting with a couple from the community about summer family vacations. They were gushing about a country retreat that they and their children take every year.

I grew up in the country and my husband likes anything rural, so I was excited to learn more. “What’s it like?” I asked.

“It’s a great place to visit,” the wife explained. “Nothing too fancy, very low key, with activities for everyone. Plus the same families try and go back the same week each summer, so you really get to know people.” Then with her face as serious as stone she said it, “Interesting people, too.”

“Interesting people? What the hell does that mean?” I thought.

This wasn’t the first time I’d heard the term, Interesting People used as a qualifier. Tongue tied, I didn’t ask what she meant. Instead, I cocked my head and gave a standard Urb-Burb response, “Aah, is that right?”

Let’s define interesting. What attracts you to a person that makes you want to learn more?

Is it financial success, formal education, knowledge of the arts, volunteer efforts, travel experience, fashion style, dedication to the environment, fitness regime, family background, social prowess, or whatever the local majority decides?

If so, then we’re too caught up in our busy towns, swirling clouds, and skinny jeans to realize that we are missing the mark.

Interesting is found on the inside. It is goodness, generosity of spirit, integrity, courage, decency, positive intention, and kindness. And our communities, Urb-Burb or otherwise are teeming with people just like this.

Unfortunately, interesting is not always easy to see. It requires us to go below the surface, strip away insecurities, dial it down, stop trying so hard, extinguish formalities, examine priorities and perceptions, reach out, branch out, and be inclusive.

And that’s scary.

With October on the horizon, it is safe to say that we are back to the usual routine and are out and about in the community. So the next time you’re waiting to cross the street, buying time at the swings, or kicking back at that café try taking a page out of a preschool handbook.

Stop. Look. Listen. And then talk to someone.

Perhaps then we’ll begin to appreciate that everyone is interesting.