Monday, December 15, 2014

Sandy Hook families sue gun manufacturer

Amid my posts about the season and heartwarming traditions I must post this article from the Christian Science Monitor from over nine years ago. For too many families this time of year just amplifies their tragic loss. The families of Sandy Hook have just brought a law suit. Like the suit  brought years ago by my neighbor and friend, I pray that the result is many more people able to celebrate this season in the future 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.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Jesus' birthday, not yours.

I think this piece is worth sharing each year. This and the advice a wise man offered  years ago -- to not live in "the kingdom of thingdom."

“It’s Jesus' birthday, not yours.”

That statement was once said gently by my Grandfather, Ralph Kochenderfer, and repeated for years by other family members. Ralph was a reserved and kind man, but he had his priorities straight. He never missed an event his four children took part in and he would even let them play hooky on good fishing days. With a lunch of oatmeal cookies and cheese they would spend the day by the creek. But Christmas traditions were different.
Grandfather was Pennsylvania Dutch with what seemed like a significant Amish streak. A dignified and honorable man he kept all the secrets of his little town in South Dakota. As the railroad depot agent he was the telegrapher in town in the twenties and thirties, so he knew the contents of every message sent and received.
While he did not believe in the frenzy over gifts he enjoyed the celebration. The depot waiting room was the largest site in town and every year was the location for wonderful holiday parties – food, music, and spirit provided by everyone in town.
I’m grateful that this simple statement became part of the family culture. While others scurry around purchasing for people close and not so close to them, most of us are decorating our homes or arranging little (or sometimes big) parties. There’s a lot of empty space under our tree, but our homes are filled with friends and festivities.
My husband and I started early with our own children, not to expect volume. Our family event on Christmas Eve takes very little time for package opening with only a few small thoughtful gifts. Now that our children are grown we give them a little money to add to their savings for a special purchase. And there is sometimes a handmade gift card for a special activity for the family. One year when they were younger we took them for dinner at a nice French restaurant. That experience was so special and memorable it has become a point of reference for them. I just made reservations at the same restaurant and am certain the memory of the upcoming dinner will stay with them longer than anything they could unwrap from under the tree.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving traditions

Holiday traditions strengthen family ties

Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, November 26, 2008
  • It wouldn't be Thanksgiving at Susan DeMersseman's house without the turkey-shaped candle holder of painted wood. Photo: Raymond Holbert
    It wouldn't be Thanksgiving at Susan DeMersseman's house without the turkey-shaped candle holder of painted wood. Photo: Raymond Holbert

This year I was reminded of the power of tradition when my daughter, Lauren, was looking for the turkey-shaped candleholder that we "needed" to put on the Thanksgivingtable. This candleholder is special in no other way than that it has been on our table for all the Thanksgivings I can remember. On our table, too, will always be stuffing from the recipe of the children's grandmother Carolyn. And for as long as I am at the table, there will be a short prayer of thanksgiving; I'm grateful most for the ability to see the things that we can be grateful for.
In good or bad times, the holidays can be intense periods in peoples' lives. The holidays can create all kinds of expectations, often fueled by commercial interest, some by family pressures. Regardless of the elements that surround one's holiday, there is a powerful and comforting role that tradition can play. There is something grounding in the familiarity and continuity that traditions bring to a family. More are present around the holidays, but in many families there are regular practices that give strength to the fabric of that family.
Years ago, after spending every Christmas with my family in South Dakota, we spent our first Christmas in California. My mother, who had been the center of the family, was no longer living, and it seemed like the right time to make the change. Many of the traditions of that first year were what might be considered recycled. That year, I yearned to see the Black Hills turn white beneath a blanket of snow. But that would not be, so that Christmas was drenched in Dakota tradition - the menus, the parties and the decorations. Fake snow on the windows and a sympathetic husband helped, but it was celebrating in ways that were familiar to all of us that made this transition easier.
Many of the most precious traditions cost very little or nothing, important in these challenging economic times. Some families take walks before or after dinner, get together with the same friends, or as a family perform acts of charity. Tradition does not draw its power from a price tag, but from the sense of continuity that can come from something as small as a 23-year-old daughter who remembers a turkey-shaped candleholder for the Thanksgiving table.

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
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.