Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thanksgiving for Gratitude

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.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Great Expectations -- Not always reasonable ones

      Every now and then a common theme surfaces in my work with children. It’s a theme that is at the center of many problems. Currently the dominant one is “expectations”. This manifests in two ways, a mis-match problem in two directions.
      One form is unreasonable expectations that children hold about what they are supposed to do or be able to do. The other is confusion between expectations and wishes.
       In the first case, the children seem to think that the bar is set at five feet when it is really set at two. So where do these inflated expectations come from? In some schools the parents have very high expectations. Teachers are also under pressure to prove that they are meeting their own and the district’s expectations. But children are not always good at discerning exactly how to interpret this stew of pressure that they are in. Some few are those blithe spirits who just seem to march to their own drumbeat. They are gleefully unaware of the pressure and just press on. Some like the challenge and have the skills to meet the expanded expectations and understand what they are. Many, on the other hand, either lack the skills or the ability to decipher what actually is expected.
      With my own children, I have sometimes felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at their heels, “Work faster, aim higher.” But my children were blessed with the capacity to completely ignore me and to operate with the “good enough” model of education. It has kept them from some opportunities but served them in other ways.
      Now I see teachers and parents directly and indirectly applying the same pressures. Some children, regardless of their level of competence, interpret the pressure as “You are not measuring up.”The feedback they get often feels quite negative. For example, when they get 18 out of 20 spelling words the question at home is “What about the two you missed?”
      One problem with this trend is that it’s likely to rob children of the highly motivating dynamic of satisfaction. To be able to look at something where they improved in performance, effort or understanding and take satisfaction is sometimes not allowed unless they have met a mystery “criteria.”
      The well-intentioned parent and teacher often say, with all sincerity and the intention to reassure, “Just do your best.” Unfortunately, that too can create anxiety. I’ve had the occasional nervous little children in my office, worried because they weren’t sure what their best was. In response to the “practice makes perfect” pitch that adults often give to children, one wise teacher always says, “Practice makes better.” In my opinion, that’s a better expectation.
      Based on this repeated concern I began doing short classroom presentations on the concept of expectations and on how to understand them and deal with them. Even young children seem to be helped by having this made clearer and more precise.
      The other side of the coin is the unfortunate confusion between wishes and expectations. This is most often a concern expressed by parents of students in Kindergarten and First Grade. These children tend to pitch significant protests when things do not go as they would like. They have wanted something so much that the wish turned into an expectation. Or an unavoidable change of plans did not allow the parent to follow through, and the flexibility needed to roll with that is clouded by the child’s certainty that this expectation is something that absolutely must be fulfilled.
     Some strategies can decrease the problem. It starts with helping the child understand the difference between the two. For this, parents create clear and often silly examples, “You might wish to have a chocolate sundae for breakfast, but you cant expect it. You can expect a nice bowl of cereal or toast and an egg.“ “You might wish that you always win, but you can’t expect it. You can expect to win sometimes.” Parents can even offer examples in their own experiences to help illustrate the difference and the appropriate reaction to each. Simply clarifying the difference and reinforcing children in that understanding has helped to calm many scenes.
     This current issue of expectations highlights the importance of having a shared definition. The lack of it shows up in many situations with children. So often their understanding of a concept and ours is quite different. When I conduct classroom discussions, the observing teachers are often surprised and amused as I ask younger kids to define words like “appropriate” or “bored.” One teacher was especially delighted when one of her students, who had been complaining to his parents that he was “bored”, defined that word as “When things are really hard.”
     So whatever direction we are trying to adjust expectations, it may be helpful to take the time to create a shared definition. Whether it is expecting too much of oneself or too much of one’s environment, there’s room for a little work in the lives of children and adults. 

This and other essays can seen in my book "Parenting? There's Not an App for That." available on

Friday, October 9, 2015

Not just gun "violence" but gun prevalence

An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor. So much danger with so many guns and so much ignorance.

Remembering Kenzo, and still trying to change gun law

The debate over gun laws will return to the news soon, as the Senate considers a bill that would, for the most part, immunize gunmakers and dealers from lawsuits for damages caused by users of their products. For many, only headlines bring the issue to mind, but for some it is a constant concern.
Recently, I was straightening the photos and bits of paper on my refrigerator when I came across a little card. It said, "Raymond, Susan, Lauren, Brian, Kenzo's tree is BLOOMING!" A fixture on my fridge for years, it blended in with the collage of family memories. The little card had been delivered by Kenzo's mother years earlierand was attached to a bag of cookies shaped like maple leaves. The tree that the note referred to was the one the neighborhood planted after Kenzo's death.
Kenzo Dix was killed at the age of 15 by a good friend. He was shot accidentally with a handgun that the youngster thought was unloaded. The boy removed the clip but didn't realize there was still a bullet in the chamber.
My own son is now 15, but when he was little, Kenzo patiently helped him shoot baskets in the portable hoop the big kids put up on our street. Kenzo was a gentle and cheerful boy who never excluded the little ones. As my son grew up, Kenzo was our model of how big boys should be to little kids.

His parents had done a great job with him and his brother. They were vigilant and conscientious parents, but not smothering. Their love and kindness was evident in their boys.
The funeral was the most profound event I've ever attended. The church was filled with teenagers, including the boy who shot Kenzo. A Buddhist priest delivered the eulogy. The priest spoke about the three poisons or evils according to Buddhism: greed, anger, and ignorance. The priest gently and clearly explained the impact that mindlessness or ignorance can have. Kenzo did not die because of someone's greed or anger, but because of someone's ignorance.
In my work as a psychologist, I present workshops to adolescents. Since that day, I have often told Kenzo's story. It provides such powerful insight: Youngsters need to understand that bad intentions aren't necessary to cause enormous harm. A few mindless seconds with a gun, or behind a wheel, can be equally damaging. Every time I've told Kenzo's story, there has been pin-drop silence in the room. It somehow helps youngsters see how fragile life can be and how we need to protect it with both goodwill and mindfulness.
When a young person dies, people struggle to make sure the death is not in vain. And in my work with teenagers I try to see that Kenzo's life was not in vain. I believe those who loved him find a bit of comfort in knowing that the goodness of Kenzo continues to grow and bring goodness into the world.
Hardly a day passes when I don't think about him. I drive by the maple tree on my way to work. I see his mother and wonder at her ability to cope. I hear a basketball bouncing in the street. I think of him when I see my son extend a kind gesture to a little child, as Kenzo had done to him.
I read about gun issues in the paper and wonder how peoples' hearts might be changed had they known, and then lost, Kenzo. I wonder if the "freedom" of some might create a prison of loss and sadness for others.
The gun lobbyists argue that they fear "frivolous lawsuits." In this case, it is an oxymoron. No person who has lost a loved one when a gun was not carefully made or carefully sold feels the least bit of frivolity. They are, unfortunately, very serious. Kenzo's loss is still sad beyond explanation - but Kenzo's tree is still blooming.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist

Tuesday, August 18, 2015



        I’ve watched first days of Kindergarten as a mother and as a school psychologist for almost 40 years. On these days I've seen events that were heart rending, humorous, embarrassing and inspiring.
        Some schools allow parents to stay for a while. Others  forbid them to even enter the room. That usually moves the drama to the hall. I’ve watched teachers skillfully gather the group to a circle for a story and others deal helplessly with three or four crying five year olds.  Sometimes I have had to usher the crying 35 year olds out of the room and to my office. 
Many kids these days have had lots of preschool so the separation is less traumatic, but not for mom and dad camcorder in hand, and tears in their eyes. For this event I’ve never been able to maintain that professional psychological distance we’re supposed to have. I’ve often shed a few tears even before the parents and the kids, so I took my own babes into this monumental transition wondering if I would fall apart when it was our turn.  I did -- just a little. Some were tears of joy when a friend took my shy daughter under her wing (they are still friends 25 years later). With my son the tears quickly dried with shock when he introduced himself as “junkyard dog”. He was the happiest Kindergartener you’ve ever seen. He saved all his tears for the last day of Kindergarten when he clung to his sweet young teacher and sobbed at the prospect of leaving her.
            I've often thought that I should take my own camcorder and film what takes place 10 minutes after the parents leave, so they could see how quickly kids adjust. Instead I have made many phone calls reporting how well their child recovered to ease the hearts of parents suffering their own separation.
            At one school the PTA has a coffee and rolls event in the auditorium with lots of tables for signups and information. It is the grown up version of gathering them for a story and usually eases the parental transition.
            I always treasure this little part of my work. To be present at such a significant moment for so many families is a gift.  When called upon for advice I encourage parents to send their child into the big world with the simple message, “I will miss you too. I know this is a little scary, but I know you can do it. I believe in you, and I can’t wait to hear all about your day.”      
           Life is short; childhood is shorter. I believe we should honor this precious time and its painful and joyful steps.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


This piece, printed three years ago in the Chicago Tribune, continues to be relevant.

Not my father's Grand Old Party 
By Susan DeMersseman
May 27, 2012

I miss the GOP, the Grand Old Party. I grew up in a Republican household in a Republican state. My dad was an adviser to the governor; my brother was a Republican state legislator. When I was little I wore an "I Like Ike" button. I'm registered in the Democratic Party now, but I miss the GOP, the grandness of the GOP. I am sometimes embarrassed for my family and friends who are Republicans in the old way, the thoughtful, principled way — the grand way. They were people who paid attention in history class, in science class and to the well-being of their neighbors.
It sometimes seems as if the party has been hijacked by groups of narrow-interest voters or ones so angry they would sacrifice their countrymen to beat an opponent. The natural and healthy differences within the party seem to be forbidden.
Some leaders in the party behave as if their job as legislators is to make sure that the rich stay rich or get richer. I know many people of exceptional wealth and very few have backed politicians to make sure that they are protected from paying their fair share. Many appreciate the system that has allowed them to maintain or gain their wealth and they realize (those with enlightened self-interest) that a society in which all have opportunity benefits them as well. They see it as a bubble-up rather than a trickle-down economy.
Some political leaders and commentators like to call it "class warfare" when those on the lower rungs want a better chance, but I do not see most at the top wanting to engage in that mythic battle. For a small group financial domination has become a sort of sport, but in the corporations and government there are thoughtful people who want all to do better. I want them to step up and to speak up.
I miss the days when I could watch a debate based upon thoughtful differences, rather than one in which debaters are simply trying to score points or pander. The Democrats are by no means perfect. I believe even their discourse could be elevated if the worthy opposition were indeed worthy. Currently, the extreme behavior of some in the GOP makes the Democrats look more dignified and sensible. But I would sacrifice that for sensible dialogue.
I once wrote about how politics has morphed into a sport where we cheer for our team and celebrate the fouls and missteps of the other. Now, I think the sport has descended into mud wrestling. I miss the grand part of the GOP. If there is a silent majority, I hope it is those who will soon step up, speak up and take it back.
When my brother gave into the cajoling of his children and opened a Facebook page, he described himself as a "Big Tent Republican" and the "me too" responses poured in. Those thoughtful, generous, dignified members of the GOP still exist in my family and I believe in other families too. Our country will be better when their voices are heard again.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist who lives in Oakland, Calif. She grew up in South Dakota.
Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune
or online

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Guns AND Mental Health

It's heartbreaking that some articles continue to be relevant. This one from the Christian Science Monitor 10 years ago is again. The current cases will find those who seek solutions from both approaches -- fewer guns and more mental health awareness. It doesn't need to be an either or.

Both matter.

It's not too late to stop the next shooter

By  / March 31, 2005
A youngster in Minnesota shot and killed a teacher, classmates, and himself last week. Shocked, Americans are wondering, "How could such a thing happen?"

Yet his story will soon fade from the national news. When the next shooting occurs it will be dredged up and included as background along with the previous three or four.
But what about the potential next shooter? What is going on with him right now?
It's not unlikely that right now, in a school near you, elements of this dangerous social equation are building.
There is a child who feels left out. He is often teased by other kids who don't realize how deeply their words cut. He doesn't have the maturity to know that his tormentors are just thoughtless, miserable adolescents, too.
The boy - because, it seems, it is almost always a boy - doesn't have the family support or sense of self worth to deflect the teasing. When he goes home after school, he is usually alone.
He has grown to love angry music. It makes him feel a little better to connect with the power in the performer's chants of rage. His unresolved grief transforms into the rage he admires. He wants to feel angry. It feels less weak than the sadness. The boy fantasizes about getting even - about showing "them."
Some days he thinks, "I'll grow up and be so successful, famous, and rich." Then they'll be sorry that they ignored him or put him down.
But he lives in a world that does not value long-range solutions - even when they're the right ones.
It may take too long to find a way to relieve the pain - the media he surrounds himself with seem to offer a quicker fix.
The people who are making money from the music, video games, and movies he hears, plays, and sees refuse to question the content or accept the ways they affect the boy.
Instead they go about their business providing training in immediate, sensational "solutions." They provide heroes for the boy, never mind that they are antiheroes.
And, the boy has access to a gun!
But it might not be too late for him.
Events like the Red Lake, Minn., high school shooting last week (10 left dead) and the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in 1999 (15 total dead) cause people to wonder what could have been done to prevent this.
We need only look at the history of the last few for clues.
There could be a teacher who is willing and able to see through the fa├žade to the pain; another student who might stand up for him; a neighbor who might notice him and find a way to help him feel worthwhile; a family member who might stop and realize that the cover of self-reliance is so thin.
Maybe there is someone who reads the paper every day and worries about what the world is coming to. This person might stop wringing his or her hands and start looking more closely at young people and find ways to help them navigate through their difficult periods, in these difficult times.
The story of the last shooter has been written.
But the story of the next shooter is still not finished.
It may not be too late for this child or for those he could destroy in his chaos of pain. It might not be too late for one of us to make a difference.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015



The title is "Parenting? There's Not an App for That." or you can see if this address works,

It contains some articles from this blog and many more. I look forward to hearing feedback (especially if it's positive). If you are so inclined a review on Amazon is very helpful.

Thanks for all the encouragement and interest in my writing. It helped propel me to complete this project.
Cheers, Susan

Friday, June 12, 2015

Summer Activities for Kids -- Pretending

Each year as parents plan their busy summers, it is worth considering the value of doing "nothing."


Summer is here and many children will spend much of it in wonderful, enriching camps and classes. Lucky kids. And other lucky kids will just putter around their yards pretending. “Let’s pretend” were the words that commenced most of childhood play for generations. With rich imaginations children created exotic and fantastic worlds in which they were the main players.
            Empty packing boxes became all kinds of little shops and vehicles.  A line of chairs in the dining room became a bus or train. A bedspread thrown over a sawhorse became our tent on the Amazon.  In our own attic was a box of fancy dresses, suits, hats and old jewelry. We became Mom and Dad or duke and duchess.
            I have nothing against the kind of “enriched childhood” many parents are trying to create. I just don’t want kids to miss the richness that comes from their own unique imaginations.
            When I see the Kindergarten children in a school where I'm the psychologist with baskets of dress-ups in their play area, I am grateful. This may be one of the few places where these developing minds get to exercise the capacity to imagine. Too often these days children’s imaginations are hijacked by television or by toys that require a specific story line.
As children we often had as much fun making our toys as we did playing with them.  When I wanted to play secretary, I spent an entire afternoon making a typewriter from a little black box and circles of paper that I carefully cut out, labeled with appropriate letters and glued on the box. When we wanted a swimming pool we spent a whole day digging a hole, placing a tarp and running water.  All for about 30 minutes of splashing.   Our mother had suggested the location of the "swimming pool" and a few days later a big lilac bush was planted there. (Guess mom had a little imagination too.)
            Children still have these impulses and with a little unstructured time will organize an activity, create and pretend. My daughter was one of those children who absorbed all the tape and cardboard in the house into her creations.  One year I gave her a shoebox filled with tape, scissors, cardboard etc. as a Christmas gift.  She loved it, managed to use it all up in short order and continued to gather the tape from her parents' secret hiding places.
            I became convinced that one of the ways we encourage imagination is by tolerating messes. Sometimes the imagination of my children resulted in chaos in the living room, where every stuffed animal and piece of doll equipment became part of some elaborate setting.  I must confess that it was often tempting to just let them watch cartoons because it created less mess. On the other hand the mess created from too much media can be in their heads rather that on the living room floor.  Much harder to clean up.
Some children are natural directors in pretend plays. "You be the princess, and you be the horse and you be the dad." My daughter was one of those directors, and to be allowed to play with her and her friends she would tell her little brother, "You be the monster". It's hard to know what impact her training had on him, but there were times when he played that role too well. Fortunately he escaped the type casting and is now the most wonderful grown son a mother could want.
Toys that have multiple uses and, even better, time in the great outdoors can spark the “pretend potential” in children. I hope every child gets to make mud pies at some point in their childhood.  Even pretending with them can help. I’m certain that our now grown children became the creative cooks they are because of the hours we spent pretending to be restaurant patrons and ordering wildly exotic dishes. 
One of the best friends of imagination is boredom. We have to let kids be bored every now and then and let them find inspiring materials around to create there own fun. In these critical times we need rich imaginations to solve our many problems and equally important to bring joy and laughter into the world. Even if it means more messes in the living room -- it's a small price to pay.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

"Use your words?"

A script might help.

     The phrase "Use your words," is very common from adults working with young children. It is usually in response to a conflict among children or in response to some unacceptable behavior. The hope among the adults is that the child will say, "Can I please have a turn." Rather than snatching a toy or bopping a peer on the head to get what they want. The hope is that the child will generally use language rather than some kind of aggressive or tantrum-like behavior. It's great advice and guidance IF the child has the words. Saying, "use your words" assumes that the child has them, but in my experience working in schools I've found that this is often not the case. Or they may have the "wrong" words.
      Children don't automatically develop effective communication skills. They need guidance and sometimes very explicit training. Even older kids often benefit from developing effective scripts for a variety of situations. In my work with children individually and in classroom discussions, we generate and practice a number of scripts to deal with a range of experiences. Some of the common scripts are for ways to express a request such as, "Can I have a turn with that toy." Or to set boundaries on a peer with something like, "I don't like it when you pull on me, please stop." Even the script for a proper apology is useful and can include many parts. An elaborate version might be something like, "I'm sorry I did that. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'll be more careful from now on." 
         If I ever get punched while in the supermarket it will be because I gave in to the temptation to offer unsolicited parenting advice. When I see an adult haranguing a little child with, “What do you say? What do you say”? What do you say?” Presumably they are asking the child to say something like, “Thank you.” Or “Please.” My strong urge is to advise them to simply remind the child to say. ”Please “ or “Thank you.”
     So when we ask them to use their words, it’s a great idea to make sure that they have those words and have both practice and support in using them.