Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Thanksgiving for Gratitude

  • Thanksgiving? Give thanks for gratitude. We think more about this quality during this time of year, but this older piece from the Christian Science Monitor offers parenting strategies that can encourage it throughout the year.

Gratitude training
By Susan DeMersseman / November 24, 2004
            It's a little ironic that the season in which we give thanks and the one in which our children are making their holiday wish lists come so close together.
            We try to give our children so much, but sometimes forget to give them the greatest gift, the capacity to appreciate and to feel grateful. Without that we can never give them enough. We may want to give them many things, but how do we do this and not give them a sense of entitlement? This, like most aspects of parenting, is a fine balance.
            Many of our own parents tried to make us feel grateful by pointing out the starving children in some far-off land. This strategy often resulted in us offering to send those children the horrible casserole or ugly tennis shoes. In spite of those responses, many of us grew up with far less than our children have, but with a greater sense of enjoyment and appreciation. Just a glance at the sea of media in which our children swim gives us a big hint as to how this happened. All around are material things that they (and we) are led to believe we must have - that we have a right to have.
            But there are little ways to swim against this tide. The most important is simply being an example of appreciation for the things in our own lives. It can rub off. The source of gratitude can be anything - the sight of glowing cumulus clouds, our warm home, or a nice meal. They may respond with eye rolling and an, "Oh, Mom/Oh, Dad" (as if we're so sappy). But someday when we say, "Come here a minute, look at that sunset," a big cool teenager might look and say, "Oh, yeah, and I like the way the sun streams from under the edges of the clouds." When that happened to me, I was grateful that I had put up with all the eye rolling.
            In my work as a school psychologist, a mother with a rather crabby 9-year-old came to see me for help. We worked out a way to instill a bit more gratitude - but not with reminders of how fortunate he was as a response to his complaints. Instead, we focused on bedtime. She started by spending a few minutes talking about what had gone on in her day that she was grateful for: a friend who complimented her work, the polite clerk at the store, or the quiet evening with not too much laundry. Then she asked him if anything good happened in his day. He got the idea, shared a few things, and it soon became a ritual. Like the Bing Crosby song:
"When I'm worried and I can't sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep and I fall asleep counting my blessings."
What she most appreciated is that this outlook started seeping into his day.
            I recently worked with a second-grade class at the teacher's request. She was concerned that she seemed to have a lot of complainers in the group and so we started gratitude training with them. One day I began a lesson by reviewing and asked what they remembered from our previous discussions. One little boy said, "Well, gratitude is like a skill that you practice and get better at." I'd never really taught those words, but he had put our lessons together into that sublime understanding, one that takes some of us many years to reach.
            Part of what I do in working with youngsters is to help them be aware of what is good in their lives. With the right perspective, there's so much to appreciate. Without it, there will never be enough. And only the things they don't have will seem important.
            So along with all the "stuff" on the wish lists this year, we can add our own item: appreciation. It might even help to start by letting our kids know that, regardless of their appearance, their SAT scores, or their athletic ability, they are a source of gratitude in our lives.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Kids go off to college (the door swings both ways)

      I wrote this article for the San Francisco Chronicle years ago when my children were going off to college. Friends now dealing with the same situation face the question of what do you do with the room, when the kids go off to college? Here are some ideas. More recently many of us are experiencing the "joy" of their return.  I cover that in an article titled "The birds are back." Our nest is currently full again.

How to gain space when your child goes off to college -- without alienating the previous occupant

Wednesday, July 30, 2003
I overheard a neighbor ask my newly graduated daughter, "Is your mother getting sad about you leaving for college?" Lauren's reply: "Nope, she's already decided on the new paint color for my room."
That wasn't entirely true. I hadn't decided yet. And I, like parents all over the country, have mixed feelings about this big transition.
For most families the departure of a youngster for college brings up all kinds of feelings, but it also presents some very practical issues. One is how to deal with the vacated room. There are moms and dads who, while mourning the passage, are thinking about the wonderful possibility of a home office, exercise room or guest room.
We already had a home office, so our goal was a guest room. The mother of one of Lauren's friends also wanted a guest room but planned few changes. That's because her daughter's room already looked like a guest room. My daughter's room, on the other hand, looks like a sari shop, inhabited by an origami expert who has traveled in Africa and collects bags of all kinds. So significant changes were in order.
My friend Mary Jo recalled how she consoled herself after the departure of her son by enjoying the luxury of a room where she could keep her sewing machine set up all the time.
In contrast, another mother was feeling so sad about her daughter leaving that she hadn't even considered changing the room. Mourning in advance, she seemed to be planning the room as a sort of shrine to the departed college student.
I grew up in a little Midwestern town where we dealt with all emotional matters by doing chores. When someone passed away, we baked for the family; we shoveled the snow, mowed the lawn or raked the leaves. So it seemed only natural to address this emotional event with some practical action.

negotiating change

My daughter and I decided to embark upon the adventure in a systematic way and to negotiate the changes so that she would feel comfortable when she returned and the room could be used in her absence.
We did this by talking to other people who were going through this change, or who had already passed through this phase. We made our individual wish lists and compromised on changes. We considered the many issues involved, such as storage, furniture changes and repainting.

my wish list

-- A palette that would allow me to use a collection of vintage linens.
-- To use the beautiful antique bed from my mother.
-- To repaint.
-- Twenty-four inches of hanging space in the closet and two empty drawers in the dresser.
-- The posters to come down.
-- The 3-foot tall stuffed dog to be placed in storage.

lauren's wish list

-- A place for Poppy to sleep. (This is the resident of the room who will be staying and like most cats requires a place to take her 10-hour daily nap.)
-- My tall desk to stay.
-- My room color sky blue.
-- My goldfish to stay.
-- Some of my artwork to be framed and hung.

work with each other

In surveying her classmates, Lauren found that the opinions were very mixed about what should be done with their rooms. Given this, it is important to make no assumption and to be explicit on both sides about how it will be done. From our research and our own process we came up with these suggestions and considerations:
-- Be aware of the temperament of the departing student. Some may not care what happens once they're out the door and others may need the comfort of a safe harbor.
-- Do talk about the changes each party would like and be specific. There may be little things that mean a lot.
-- A lot of important stuff is quite portable and can be stored in the room and brought back out during return visits.
-- If the student is going to school nearby, go slow on major changes.
-- Invest in lots of clear plastic storage boxes and label each in detail.
-- Have a "going to college" garage sale with a group of friends to thin out possessions.
-- If a younger sibling will finally be getting his or her own room, make specific provisions for a welcoming and personal space for the return visits of the college student. Be sensitive about this transfer of turf.
-- If the room becomes an office, include a daybed and keep a favorite comforter in the closet.
The mother of a son has always wanted a Laura Ashley/Country French guest room. She devised a plan to have that and still let her son return to his denim den.
She has a new floral duvet cover and shams, a pretty lamp and framed prints.
In his closet will be a space to store his comforter, sports trophies and NBA posters. She figures it will take about 30 minutes to switch the accessories when her son is coming home.
That's my plan too. I can change the comforter, stick up some posters, throw a few stuffed animals on the bed, fill the laundry basket to overflowing,
and my daughter will feel right at home.

it's still home

It's fairly common knowledge that people often create conflict to make parting easier. By talking about these things ahead of time, what could be a tumultuous departure can be made smoother. Most youngsters, like their parents,
have mixed feelings. They are eager to go, but want a nest to return to.
As a devoted nester I believe it is important to provide our big kids with a sense of belonging. Most valuable is the care and acceptance that families give us, but it is also the comfort of the familiar, whether it's a Tim Duncan poster, a stuffed turtle or a Power Puff Girl lamp. If it's important to your child, it's important.
A Web survey of graduating college students found that 62 percent planned to return and spend some significant time living back at home. Depending upon the parents and child, that might prompt a more or less significant remodel of the room.
One mother of a college senior cautioned, "Just make sure that you take the bed out of the room." On the other hand, parents of a twentysomething son said that the time he spent back home after college was the most fun they'd had with him since he was a toddler.
All parents said that kids who come home after being away at college seem to appreciate home more. I'm going with that report and believe it will be true no matter what shade of blue we paint the room.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator in Berkeley. E-mail her at home@sfchronicle.com.

This article appeared on page HO - 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The first weeks of school -- after the excitement wears off

Kids are often pretty excited about the beginning of the school year, then some common issues arise. This older article from the San Francisco Chronicle will give some perspective, I hope.

Surviving bad socks and permission slips

Published 4:00 a.m., Wednesday, September 3, 2008
In the front hall of a grade school one morning, I heard one mother say to another, "She's the person you should talk to." She was pointing at me. The woman she spoke to was upset. As the school psychologist, I am often sought out in such situations. After 20 years in this school, I'm asked for advice on everything from how to cure nose picking to easing the hurt of family breakups.
In this case I found that the mother was upset over one of the most common parental struggles: "the morning wars," those upsetting conflicts over getting children off to school on time.
The first mother was right. I was the person to talk to. Not just because I was the school psychologist but also because I was a veteran of the morning wars. In fact, that very morning I had just come from the front - with my own children.
These battles arise for all kinds of reason. Often it is finding, as you run out of the house, that a permission slip is missing or a special supply is required for that day. I'm sure I'm not the only mother who has learned, at the last second, that an empty milk carton was needed for that day's art activity. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has scrambled around pouring a half gallon of milk into every little jar I could find.

Prepare the night before

Over the years I've heard many stories from parents, most about clothing, breakfast and papers. From these parents I have also learned a few solutions. The overriding one is to do everything you possibly can the night before. A common clothing issue is having only the scratchy T-shirt clean enough to wear, then having to dig in the dirty clothes basket for the least dirty soft T-shirt. Or it may be the wrong socks.
I'm certain there were knights who spent less time looking for the Holy Grail than I have spent looking for socks that didn't have that uncomfortable seam in just the wrong place. Wearing them inside out helped a little. Then my daughter turned 6, which seemed to cure a lot of things.
Years ago I heard a well-known psychologist speak about his own children's resistance to getting dressed and how he once took them to school in their pajamas (no wonder we psychologists have the reputation we do). Nowadays such a strategy might get you reported to the authorities, even if it made you a hero to other parents.

Choose your battles

At a recent parenting workshop, a mother offered, almost apologetically, that she warms her daughter's clothes in the dryer. It makes them feel cozy and makes the child hurry to get them on before they cool off. The mother of a middle school student subscribing to the "choose your battles" approach occasionally allowed him to sleep in his clothes. She noted that he looked no different from his rumpled peers, and he passed the sniff test. Following the "do everything you can the night before" policy, a father shared his tip with glee: "My daughters have to set their clothes out the night before, or else I pick what they wear that day. And they know I don't have very good taste."
Battles over what to wear can sometimes be addressed by a simple housekeeping task. The mother of a first-grader rearranged the closet and drawers. Having a party section and a school section allowed the child to choose without being lured by one of those pretty little organza numbers.
The mother who was in the hall that morning did come talk to me. There had been a battle, with mom and daughter parting in tears. "I know it's silly, but I want to go into class and see that she's OK and tell her that I love her and that we'll work this out." I understood how she felt, but I couldn't offer her that option. Instead I went into the class and found her child playing happily with a classmate. The mother was relieved, and said she would try later to collaborate with her daughter on ways to make mornings go more smoothly.
Kids often have good ideas about the morning routine, though one mom reported that her child's suggestion was to put the toothpaste on the brush the night before (points for good intentions). Getting homework papers into the backpack the night before can prevent battles. Special places for such things as schedules and permission slips also help. Some families have a resource folder with information they will keep and a separate one for forms that need to go back to school.
Getting kids to eat something nutritious is the battleground in many homes. One friend found a partial solution in the container section of the supermarket. She bought little plastic containers and measured out servings of cereal in some and ingredients for smoothies in others. It helped to have the children participate in choosing and preparing their breakfasts ahead of time.

Consistency is helpful

On some mornings, no matter what strategies you have in place, separation may be difficult. Transitions can be a big issue for little kids. From the comfort of their bed, from the dream world surrounded by their stuffed animals, from the familiar warmth of their home, from the arms of their loving family into what can be a challenging and stressful place - yikes! For these children, a consistent routine is often helpful. Set out clothing, have little containers of breakfast ready, have a special spot for backpacks and permission slips.
But on some days, no matter how well you are prepared, there will be morning wars. On those days the best strategy is to simply hold on to your sense of proportion. Life is short; childhood is shorter. Keep in mind that one morning, years from now, in a very quiet house, you'll wish you had a permission slip to sign at the last minute or a milk carton to empty into a dozen small jars.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

African American sons

Some articles, like this one from the Christian Science Monitor in 2012, remain relevant -- unfortunately.


How to raise African-American boys like Trayvon Martin to be careful, not paranoid

No matter the outcome of the controversy surrounding the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida late this February, the tragedy has opened a dialogue on broader issues. One is the unique challenge parents face in teaching African-American children to be safe but not fearful.

Over the past few weeks, Americans are hearing from the parents of African-American children and even national figures about what special cautions go into raising their children.

My son was just seven when he climbed into the car one day after school, sat in silence for a minute, then said, “Something really unfair happened at school today.” He was so calm that I expected to hear about something that happened to someone else.
He had left his lunch tray outside while he went into the bathroom. When he returned he found that someone had stepped on his tray. The orange juice had spilled and the hot dog had been “smushed.” As he carried the remains to the garbage can, some juice dripped on the back of a classmate’s sweatshirt.
He apologized, but the girl’s little friend decided this was something worth telling the yard supervisor about. The yard supervisor, probably busy and distracted, sent him up to the principal.
What bothered my son the most was that the yard person didn’t listen to him. “I kept telling her it was an accident and that I said ‘sorry.’” No one was in the office, so he waited for a while, then went next door to his classroom, in a self-imposed time-out.
My son’s goal at that age was to grow up and be a comedian on TV, so he was no stranger to consequences. Spilling juice on someone, however, was not something he would consider amusing.
I did my best job as mother-detective and discerned that the situation had unfolded pretty much as he described it. I asked if he wanted me to do anything about it, and he thought for a minute. “I guess not,” he decided.
“You don’t want me to call about the yard teacher?”
“No,” he said. “Her son is nice, but she’s strict as a whip.”
It was clear from the reaction that, for him, the incident was unfair, but it was over. He seemed to understand, at his young age, that there would be some random unfairness in life.
And I was deeply grateful for that mature realization. As an African-American male, if he feels he must go toe to toe over every such situation, he will not survive.
In the urban community where I work as a psychologist, I am concerned about many of the young men I’ve worked with. They seem so ready to jump into conflicts over the smallest things. Some of it seems related to a sense of self worth so fragile that the smallest insult or perceived insult seems worth risking everything.
The incident with my son came in the same week that a friend at work expressed her relief that her son had just turned 22 and was now out of the most vulnerable demographic group – African-American males between 13 and 21. Statistics indicate that this is the group most vulnerable to violent death.
After several stops by policemen, her son quit driving his nice car on some trips. Instead he used the little family sedan to travel into certain neighborhoods. Though it was not fair, she was relieved that he had found a practical, simple way to avoid some of the risks of his life.
I have tried to teach my children not to interpret every random irritation as a personal injustice. When my children were little and said, “That’s not fair,” I reminded them that there is a difference between “not fair” and “I don’t like it.” We don’t like a lot of things that have little to do with fairness, and even unfairness can be pretty random.
The more I thought about my son’s reaction, the more comforted I was. I thought that as a teenager, if he encountered a biased policeman, he would be calm and would not bring on some possible wrath the officer had to unload. He would know how to avoid dangerous conflicts with other teenagers.
He would survive and I hope become a peacemaker and a fighter for bigger causes – not just a petty scrapper, making sure that every person he encountered treated him the way he wanted. I don’t know if our son was just blessed with a sense of proportion or if his father and I had done something right.
Life doesn’t provide a smooth path no matter what our heritage. A sense of self worth and basic good sense will help all kids navigate their experiences more peacefully, regardless of the obstacles, but even this will not always insure their safety.
We, like the parents of many African-American children, have had to teach our son specific strategies to be safe. We have tried to impart a perspective that is careful but not paranoid. We pray it will be enough.
Our son has “made it” to 25, and I am so grateful. But I still worry about him and all the other young men without his kind of family support and without his good luck. How will they stay safe?
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.