Monday, May 14, 2018


During my years as a school psychologist I’ve worked with thousands of families. I often counseled the children who had some kind of problem or who had made some kind of mistake. Many wise parents cooperated with the school and supported the consequences, sometimes with reservations about the seriousness of the situation and sometimes with reservations about the consequences. But they did not rob the child of the experience of accepting responsibility for a bad choice. They allowed the child to incorporate into their thinking the wonderful deterrent value of consequences
I’ve also observed kids who had a very hard time admitting their mistakes. The pressures in society seem to have increased this pattern. Often the parents of these children also had elaborate excuses for why the child was not responsible -- It was the other child’s idea, they thought they were doing right, the teacher is biased, they hadn’t eaten breakfast. The list was long and varied, but what was consistent was the need for the child to be perfect or the need for the parent to have them be seen as faultless. In some cases, the parent had their own experience of feeling that they had been treated unfairly and this added to the dynamic.
In one situation I recounted to a teacher the immediate confession of a fifth grade girl who had only been partly involved in some mischief. The teacher’s response, “She must really trust the world.” It made me think about this child and others who are able to acknowledge their errors and be honest. This girl has had her share of trips to the principal’s office, but she has generally been quite honest. Moreover, her parents have supported the school and backed up the consequences. Usually these are fairly mild ones -- missing recess, writing sorry notes or little essays about why their infraction was a bad idea. The teacher’s comment was profound. Not only did she trust the world, she trusted the unconditional love of her parents, annoyed and upset as they might be.
I worry about children who have had the opposite experience. In the principal’s office, they were the ones who came up with excuses or stories that minimized their role in a situation. And when the parents got the note that their daughter or son would miss a few days of recess or would need to do the “better judgment” essay, the phone would ring and the excuses and qualifications would start again.
For those children I have wondered, “Is being imperfect so forbidden? Is being seen as having done something dumb or naughty so difficult to accept?” My worries for those children are two fold. One is that they will be able, with the help of parents, to wriggle out of the consequences and be robbed of that valuable deterrent potential of those consequences. They will always get away with it and will thus take bigger risks and make bigger mistakes. My other worry is that unlike the girl earlier described, they do not trust the world. Or they do not trust the acceptance they will find in their own homes if they tell the truth and accept responsibility. A sadder worry I believe.
We all want our children to be treated fairly, so the instinct to be their defense attorney can be powerful. But children are impulsive and egocentric little creature and even wonderful kids can do dumb things. We do them no service to defend against being ac- countable.
So let your child be wrong, even if it was “the other child’s idea” or if “they only did it once and the others did it twice.” Help them understand that con- sequences also apply for following a bad idea or for doing even part of it.

It’s a gift to a child to disapprove of what they have done and to still love them. It’s important to separate approval and love and to never make them think they must be perfect to earn the latter.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Who is Ripping Your Jeans?

Have we had enough of this yet?

Who Rips Your Jeans?

         At my gym there’s a stack of magazines to keep us distracted as we pedal away on the stationary bikes. Aside from “Golf Digest” most are women’s and fashion magazines or ones that cover trashy celebrity gossip. Some days I find one with a story interesting enough to keep me from boredom for my 20-minute spin. Other days I find a magazine that leads me into a world that is truly bizarre. On one of those days a magazine featured page after page of women in jeans that were torn and shredded in multiple ways. And the most remarkable part -- the little caption next to the photograph with a price, usually somewhere between three and four hundred dollars. No lie.
         At some level I “get” fashion. Enough at least to know that it is not about being attractive and often about being bold enough to wear something quite unattractive but “in style” -- at least for a minute until it’s not in style anymore and then it is embarrassingly passé or a case of fashion victimhood.
I’m only mildly annoyed by this shredding trend, but I started wondering about the people who have to rip those jeans. Are there little shops in Bangladesh or China where generic jeans are delivered to workers who tear them up and then put in whatever “designer” label is in the order for that day?
         I wondered if the designers send a pattern of how they want the jeans torn up. Does the order from one maker read “Small holes below the pockets in back, large holes on both knees, some shredding at the hem?” Does another order read, “Six holes placed randomly from front to back, except near the bottom of the right leg?” Is that how the pattern is created? Or are the directions simply, “Have at it?”
         Above all I wonder about what these people must be thinking as they do this job. As they earn their meager wage, do they try to figure out what the customers could possibly be thinking? Are they amused, resentful or simply wishing that they could own a pair of those jeans -- still intact? Do they think, “What kind of people hire others to wear out their clothes for them? “Do they have people who chew their food for them?”
There is definitely an appeal to a well-worn pair of jeans. For decades people have found ways to accomplish this. Multiple washings, even a few gentle passes over with the car, but most often by simply wearing them.
         As with so many things, context creates meaning. In most cities one can see a fashion “conscious” young woman parading proudly in her expensive shredded jeans, while around the corner there is a panhandler wearing a similar pair. And on another corner might be a homeless person in a pair with no holes at all. Maybe he needs them intact to stay warm or maybe he just has too much pride to wear torn-up jeans.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Following this terrible tragedy in Las Vegas there will be those who argue that laws couldn't have stopped this tragedy. What is seldom noted is that new laws might prevent the NEXT one. There will be attempts at better laws and there will be lawsuits.  This article from the Christian Science Monitor almost  12 years ago was about the families of Sandy Hook who brought a suit, like the suit  brought years ago by my neighbor. I pray that the result of new laws and lawsuits will be that many more people will be able, in the future, to be with the people they love.

One family's effort to make guns safer


Congress has just passed legislation providing special protection from liability lawsuits for the gun industry. This may seem like a win for people concerned about ridiculous legal claims and outrageous financial awards as well as for the gun industry. One often hears the complaint of "too many frivolous lawsuits." It fits in with the mythic suspicion of trial lawyers and may sometimes be true. But a tragic incident many years ago has given me a clear perspective on this issue. I now believe that when human life is involved, the matter is never frivolous.
On our street back then was the dearest 15-year-old boy a neighbor could want, kind to the smaller children and helpful to the older neighbors. This boy was accidentally killed by a friend. His friend wanted to show the gun and first removed the ammunition magazine. He did not realize that a bullet was still in the chamber. He thought he was showing off with an unloaded gun. When the bullet remaining in the chamber discharged, he shattered the life of his friend - and his own.
The parents of the child who was killed sued the gunmaker. The contention of the lawsuit was that the absence of an effective way to indicate that a bullet was in the chamber constituted a product liability claim - that being one of the reasons for the boy's death. It has been almost 10 years since the accident.
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One trial ended with a hung jury, one trial had juror misconduct, and, with the usual workings of our legal system, the last trial was completed just last year. The family lost the case. To some, the decision in favor of the gunmaker may seem like a total loss. But what became apparent is that even bringing a suit can have a powerful impact. During these 10 years there have been significant changes. Three states now have laws that require more safety features, the gunmaker in question now makes guns with a safety feature they originally said wouldn't work, and other manufacturers now make guns with internal locks.

These are just some of the concrete and tangible results. Of equal importance are the thousands of people who have read about the case or heard about it on the news and have taken personal steps with regard to their own guns. Maybe they have purchased ones with a prominent chamber load indicator. Maybe now they store their guns unloaded. Maybe they lock them up more carefully. Or maybe, as my friend once said, they simply draw their own children close and realize how blessed they are to see them grow up.
My neighbor is a modest, reserved woman. She would never say it, but I hope that she knows that as painful and heart wrenching as these years of litigation have been, the battle has won the lives of many other children. Regret is just part of the job of being a parent, but her struggle has saved many parents from the ultimate regret.
Sometimes critics focus on the amount of money in the suit, as if the family is trying to benefit in some way from the loss. Just looking into one's own heart is enough to know that the money is so clearly not the issue. Money is simply the leverage that an individual has in trying to bring about a change in a product or policy - a change that those bringing the suit hope will protect others. The true currency in these matters is not a financial one, but the hope that their loss not be in vain - that a young life lost before it could bring about good in the world can still bring about good.
The companies that are sued are in the business to make money and to hold on to that money. It is not remarkable that they wage a battle to maintain their position. Yet many of the people in these companies may know in their hearts that they and their own children are safer because of previous lawsuits.
What is remarkable is that there are families willing to put themselves through the reliving of a tragedy and to deal with the suspicions and criticisms to accomplish an outcome that benefits the rest of us. There are no doubt some frivolous lawsuits and ridiculous awards, but for every one of those there is a family who is fighting through their anguish to make sure that others do not have to suffer the same.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017


This is the first chapter in my book. I just realized that I hadn't posted it on the blog. Please share with new parents and new grandparents.

 Precision Parenting: There’s not an app for that!

Many baby boomers are becoming grandparents and are gathering stories about the “new rules” of raising children. They are taught these rules by their own offspring. As a psychologist working in schools and conducting parent workshops I too see the pressure new parents experience to abide by these rules. It’s given me an appreciation for what an intense “occupation” being a parent has become.
            There is an unfortunate belief that there’s a perfect way to do the job. Most people in my generation were just raised when parent was a noun! There was sometimes a bit of input from Dr. Spock, but we weren’t “parented”  -- so we meet this new trend with a mixture of humor and resignation.
            One illustration was a recent email from a friend after she was “allowed” to take care of her baby grandson for the first time.

“After a week of rigorous training from both parents on how to change diapers-- (they go on their bottoms) and how to feed the baby with a bottle (the bottle goes into the baby's mouth) I am “ready”. They have all kinds of baby monitoring devises--I feel like I am in the Pentagon-- Oh--and don't let me get started on proper swaddling--I have to admit I never did that since we all kept our babies on their tummies so they didn't thrash about--but now, since babies are kept on their backs they have to be wrapped up like a Cuban cigar.“

            The perfection assumption has either been spawned by or has led to a whole slew of books on the “proper“ way to perform every aspect of childcare. Some new parents also come from career paths that include specific management strategies and performance reviews. This might impact their perspective. Others have had challenging fertility issues that increase the anxiety about the perfect way to raise the baby.
 The pressure is evident at each age. The prenatal group often gives way to a parent group where the precise how to's are shared with fervor. Parents can feel pressure about breastfeeding, sleeping, swaddling, etc., with all elements presented as doctrine.
Next, the perfect preschool is essential and then they hit school age and there are a whole lot of perfect enrichment activities. The poor parent who sits next to the perfect parent at soccer practice and finds that this person’s child is taking violin, chess and French lessons. Many well-adjusted, successful adults were not Renaissance children. But when you’re just taking your child home after school to hang out and play with the dog in the backyard you can feel a twinge, as your child’s classmate is escorted to multiple activities.
            With “parenting” almost morphing into a competitive sport the process becomes more intense as the children approach junior high and other children are already building their resumes for college admission. Yikes! And who is all this for? It is for our kids, but also for or us to be viewed as good parents and even better -- the parents of successful children.
            In workshops I often share my own experience of being a new parent and seeing all those neat little stickers in the back windows of cars – the ones that say “Harvard”, “Yale”, “Stanford” and the like. Back then I thought, “Hmmm, I’d like to have one of those some day.” As it turned out I did not have a child in one of those schools and that’s been fine. People say that God laughs when man makes plans, but I believe God really cracks up when we make plans for our children. So I advise parents with this aspiration to do the following,
“While your child is very little, go get one of those stickers of your choice. Put it in the back window of your car. Get it out of your system now, so that when your children inevitably take a different route you’ve already gotten the sticker and you can be more comfortable with their choices.”
            To new grandparents, I suggest they continue with the resignation and humor approach. They can even be supportive or at least appear to be.
 Children have survived very well with cloth diapers and disposable diapers. Children have thrived on breast milk, commercial food and home made food. They have developed by playing in the back yard and by taking classes.
Perhaps the greatest risk in this precision parenting trend is that in trying to be perfect parents we might also be trying to create perfect children. In spite of my occasional efforts at perfect parenting my children often adopted a “good enough” approach to many things -- so much so that “good enough” became equal to a four-letter word in our house. After so many years as a psychologist and parent I’ve come to understand that the value of being a good enough parent is that we can then appreciate our children as “good enough.”

There’s a lot of pressure on everyone involved. Reasonable expectations of our children and ourselves are central in this child rearing process.  I’ve come to believe that good intentions, good sense and good humor count for more than anything. These are good enough.