Saturday, September 12, 2020

More time with our children = new insights


A chapter in "Parenting? There's Not an APP for That."

Originally published at

Friday, September 4, 2020

Reign of Terror Is on Relationships Between Friends and Family Members in Divisive Times

 Thoughts after reading a Facebook post from a friend decrying the "reign of terror" of destructive protests and the desire to take down monuments and statues. 

I’m sad today by the post on FB of a friend. I’m reminded that one of the most heartbreaking divisions in this country is now between friends and family members.  
Some see the burning of government buildings and the desire to bring down statues as the reign of terror. Those terrible actions serve to hijack legitimate complaints about the true reign of terror. The racism that is now more apparent due to cell phone footage. The terror that parents of African American children feel when their kids go out at night. The terror we try to quiet as we give them the “talk” time after time. 
I don’t care about the statues or monuments. Leave them up, but let’s honor our current heroes who protect us in their military service and protect us in the emergency rooms of this country. There is terror in the hearts of people on the streets due to evictions, due to the loss of jobs. Terror in the lines at the food bank. There is terror in dealing with a sick relative who would have been OK if the rights step had been taken months ago to acknowledge the virus as real and to care enough to address it.
There are fools and self-serving individuals in the streets and in the Whitehouse, who have hurt us all and divided us in ways we’ve never seen before. While 99 percent of the demonstrations and protests have been without fires and looting, those few have given fodder to those who would further divide us for their own purposes.
So, leave up all the statues There were very few even "good" people back then who saw and fought against the immorality of slavery. I’m heartened that right now I see an emerging of more good people who see the immorality of the huge inequalities in this country and are trying to make things better. Doctors, food bank staff, police, teachers, government leaders, philanthropists, moms and dads. They won’t get statues, but they deserve our recognition and appreciation and not let the few who are destructive in the streets or in government blind us to those heroes.
The burning of cars or garbage cans or buildings doesn’t help one damn bit. It just further divides and distracts us from the work that needs to be done. Sadly, it strains the ties of caring and affection among us that makes life in this wonderful country so precious and so worth working for.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

My Father Would Have Loved My Children

 My chapter in the book, "Wisdom of Our Fathers" edited by Tim Russert. 2007

My Father Would Have Loved My Children

My father was born in 1889 and was 57 when I was born. Some of his 8 older siblings were born while the family still lived in a sod hut on their Dakota Territory homestead. His world was so different from mine, but my father would have loved my children. This may not seem like such a remarkable statement; most people love their grandchildren. Some do not. Some are not able to overcome the fact that their beloved child chose to marry someone of a different race and have children with tan skin and curly little Afros, but my father would have loved my children.
Even now as my teenage son looks like he just escaped from a rap video, with baggy pants and a big crystal in his ear, my father would have gotten a huge kick out of him. My dad would have loved that my son inherited his gift for Math. He would have appreciated his sense of humor and he would love him because he is mine.
My father would have loved my daughter because she is such a great listener and would sit attentively as he told stories of graduating from high school at 14 -- because he got through all the books in the one room school house. Of his years managing a classic old hotel and having President Roosevelt visit and the man who carved Mount Rushmore live there. He would have been impressed that she can put anything together -- even without the directions. He would have admired her artistic talent and would have made a big fuss over her simplest drawing.
I'm not saying that initially the thought of a racially mixed marriage might not have been a little difficult for him to get used to. After all, I grew up in the fifties in a town where a mixed marriage was one between a Lutheran and a Catholic. And even back then people would ask, "But what about the children?" He would not have taken long to get used to the idea and he would have loved the children.
The hotel my father ran was a classic and in the thirties and forties the destination of many wealthy businessmen from Chicago. Their African American chauffeurs often drove these men to vacation in the Black Hills. The man who built the hotel was a railroad executive and my father sometimes traveled with him, sometimes in his private railroad car. There he met the Pullman employees also of African descent. 
My father was a man of some dignity but he was not cautious with his language. He never hesitated to call someone an SOB if he was one; he never hesitated to identify BS when it was. But the only way I ever heard him describe a black man was as a "colored gentleman". This was long before I ever met anyone who was not white. Somehow his way of saying it and the words he used made a strong impression, one of definite respect.
My dad wasn't especially impressed by facades and surface trappings. He had friends in all the different social strata of our small community. He truly did consider the ''content of one's character " in judging a person.
 What mattered to him most, however, was his family. He adored and respected my mother and thought the sun rose and set upon the heads of his children. He wasn't outwardly competitive like parents tend to be these days, but in-house, we all knew that he thought we were the best. 
His health began to fail when I was in high school. And some days when I came home from school I would find him sitting in his big wing back chair facing the bookshelves. On the shelves were pictures of each of his children. He once told me that he went from picture to picture much of the day stopping at each of the five and saying a prayer for each, because now, that was the only way he could take care of us. He thought we were the best.  My father died a few years after that, but if he had known my children, he would have thought they were the best too.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

How Racism Hurts Everyone

Collateral Damage
            In war, collateral damage describes the unintended harm that is caused to those who are near the target of the attack. Racism is a lot like that. We, who are white, may not be the targets, but we are harmed. So when the question is asked, “How does racism hurt white people?” an answer, though not previously pondered, is easy to generate.
            There are things that we know, but we don’t realize until someone asks the question. And then we say “Oh, yes  …. “ The question “How does racism harm white people?” is such a question.
            The most immediate thought may be of personal hurts, but there are so many layers of harm. The image I have of the impact on me is like an onion with the layers peeling back to the core of personal hurts. But we all function in a bigger context so are impacted by harm to the outer layers of the society and economy as a whole. 
            It seems counterintuitive to imagine that we white people are harmed by the prejudice against another group, but it takes just a moment to see the many ways. One glaring example is the justice system. The cost is economic, about $40,00 per year per prisoner. There is data in a recent report from the NAACP that  supports the observation that racism hurts white people by overfilling our prisons. “The well-documented disparities in enforcement of our drug laws reveal that current drug policies impact some communities more than others. While Americans of all races and ethnicities use illegal drugs at a rate proportionate to their total population representation, African Americans are imprisoned for drug offenses at 13 times the rate of their white counterparts.”
            Additionally there is a strong correlation between race and the use of smokable or crack cocaine. The sentencing for crack has been far more harsh than for the powdered form. The latter often landing someone in rehab rather than prison. And we, white people, along with everyone else pay.
            Our tax bills remind us of the harm that racism does. Moreover, there are communities that border ours, where disparities in enforcement and sentencing result in a near absence of men and fathers. Many have been incarcerated for crimes that might results in probation in another kind of community. Without men and fathers youngsters may stray further. Again the cost is economic as well as to the heart of a community.
            The layers go deeper to my work as a school psychologist and parent educator. This brings me into schools in all kinds of neighborhoods. I try to help the parents I train in the gated housing developments to see that there are no gates strong enough to protect their children from the children who have grown up in communities where racism has limited their opportunities. My work brings me into these places where the terrible intersection of poverty and racism is the toxic stew many of the youngsters I work with grow up in. I see potential in these children, but I know it will be hard to realize that potential.  I, this white person, may be hurt by the absence of a great doctor, teacher or public servant one of those children could become. A few make it through, but some use those exceptions to judge the others.   I am hurt economically, hurt when youngsters do not grow up to contribute to the community, and I am hurt personally from my attachment to these children.  I try to help and do what I can, but there is a tall barrier that, even with my help, they cannot climb. So I stand with them sad at the bottom of this wall. I am hurt in seeing those I care for in a bad situation that I cannot change. 
            The next layer of personal is in my family. Unlike many families my extended family was not an obstacle to a mixed marriage. My husband had been a friend for years before we got married and so my family was aware of what a fine person he was. For my family the only wish was that my husband be a good person who would treat me well.  They got their wish. Mine is a “no-drama” family and that approach applied to my marriage as well.
            Another layer of this situation was not always so comfortable. As the wife in a racially mixed couple, over the last thirty years I have often been the only white person at various family and social events. While times have changed over the years, there have been several situations in which my presence was clearly not welcome. It was not just me; it was the symbol of me, the symbol of the “ oppressor.” And what’s more, I had done the unforgivable; I had  “stolen” an eligible black man from the community. While the hurt I experienced was not deep, it was there.
            Then to the deepest level, to the people I care most about, my husband and children. My husband is a successful man, a college teacher, a person of great stature and dignity, but it has always hurt to know of the childhood experiences and the indignities that he has dealt with.
            In the course of our years together there have been small hurts as I have made plans for trips or vacations. I wondered if we would be welcomed at various places or would there be some awkwardness or insult. I wished that I could call places first and say, “Oh, by the way, are you going to have any trouble with a mixed couple?” A silly wish. It couldn’t happen. So instead I have sometimes made choices to not go certain places or take part in certain events. I might have been wrong, but I could not take the risk that something special would be ruined by a racist gesture or attitude. Though small, the hurt has been in the form of limits I placed upon us to protect us.
            But perhaps the deepest hurt has come from situations my children have had to deal with.  In my work with parents it is clear that we can endure many things, but we cannot endure seeing our children hurt.  My husband and I taught our children, by word and example, not to see racism at the base of every insult or problem. I have seen, in my work and life, that the misperception of racism can be as limiting as racism. It is definitely better to miss an insult than to perceive one where it does not exist and to understand what is clearly racist is usually from ignorance and fear. In spite of this there were incidents that were hard to ignore. 
            Many youngsters of color have had the experience of driving while black.  Our son has had a few of these. The most troubling occurred when he was a teenager parked in an upscale neighborhood in an old family station wagon getting correct directions to a party. Our son and two other boys of color were pulled from the car, handcuffed and pushed on to the curb without explanation. These three six footers were then pushed into the back of the police car. Our na├»ve son said, “Sure you can search the car.” He had nothing to hide, and was probably scared to death. He didn’t realize that one of his passengers had poured a few ounces of dad’s liquor into the water bottle in his gym bag. The anxiety and worry over that incident stretched on for months until the hearing where the police officer did not show. The hurt and worry were, for many months, consuming. 
            In spite of training our children to not perceive racism where it doesn’t exist, there were incidents.  As racially mixed children, there were situations in which teachers had an agenda or maybe a worldview that did not include a child of color writing so well or being so capable.
            Our daughter does not look back at her school experience with any clear memories of prejudice, but I believe, even at my most objective moments, that her shyness was often misperceived as a lack of ability. I wonder if she had been a white child would her strong abilities in math have been recognized and encouraged. 
            The hurt for what our children had to deal with reared it’s ugly head again last winter when my son went through a big paper purge and threw out lots of old school assignments. As I dumped the bags into recycling I came upon a wonderful little book he had done for history in middle school. He was to write about an historic event for each letter of the alphabet and illustrate it. I looked through with great appreciation for his lettering, the pictures, his fine descriptions, and beautiful penmanship. Then, on the last page, the grade, C- and the comment, “Nice illustrations, but those don’t seem like your words”. They were indeed his words, every one. The hurt of that year resurfaced – the hurt of my son being the “usual suspect”, and hearing from other parents that he got in trouble for things other kids got away with. I will never know for sure where the prejudice came from, but I know for sure how much it hurts to have someone you love misjudged or prejudged for whatever reason. 
            It is so important that all children have sources of feedback that are objective and valid. When they are not, the risk is that even the legitimate feedback might be ignored. It hurts to remember that year, and the hurt of wondering stays with me. I look back and wonder not just what I could have done, not just what might have been, but what was. Wondering is its own hurt.
            So, I peel the layers back from the bigger society with cultural and economic problems caused by racism to knowing that in schools there are young people who could solve our health and energy problems if they were in a society where the color of their skin did not matter one bit. But it does and so we white people lose. The layers go to the children I’ve worked with and the harsh situations that they live in, where poverty and racism are intertwined. 
The deepest layer is to my family. All families have their challenges and their joys, mine is no different. But all of us, whether we are close to someone of another race or not, need to operate from a place of enlightened self-interest. The end of racism will benefit all, white people as well as people of color.

From "Combined Destinies", ed. Ann Todd Jealous.

Thursday, May 28, 2020


Sadly this oped piece from the Christian Science Monitor in 2012 is relevant again. When will our sons be safe?


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.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Cleaning as Control

(A timely reprint from the San Francisco Chronicle.)

There are people who can straighten up an entire house in one hour, but that's usually if it's not their own house. Many of us, on the other hand, start out with great intentions, but get sidetracked into elaborate cleaning expeditions. Our goal of a quick surface job evolves into a deep cleaning project. We have to be careful what we start, because it can easily turn into something that borders on remodeling -- but barely shows.
My friend Marti describes this invisible cleaning tendency as a version of the children's book "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie," where one thing inevitably leads to another. In her case, she started with simply rinsing out the toothbrush holder, but before she knew it she'd gotten out the Soft Scrub and an old toothbrush and was cleaning the grunge out from under the faucet handles, from behind the sink and every other place she could think of.
One of my invisible cleaning projects started when I noticed that the cleaning cloths made from old towels and gym socks were outgrowing their small basket by the laundry room sink.
I realized that I needed to store some in the cabinet under the sink. By the time I finished several hours later, I had emptied the entire cabinet, thrown out old bottles and cleanser cans, and found soapy residue in the bottom of the cupboard.
I decided that the bottom surface really needed a better sealer. I cleaned the bottom, dried it with my hair dryer, sanded it and gave it two coats of varnish. I dried it again, put every thing back neatly and finally put away some of the cleaning cloths. That last task took about one minute.
I        t's a shame that when company comes over after such a project you can't bring them into the laundry room, open the cupboard and show off your work. And since the husband, kids and cat are all unimpressed by such an accomplishment, it is up to me to enjoy it by myself. And I do. Several times in the next few days I opened the cupboard and admired the clean, orderly space.
Yes, I am too easily amused.
To see whether others shared this condition, I researched the books on cleaning in the local bookstore. I looked in the index section of many and found nothing on "avoiding distractions" or "maintaining focus." I do appreciate the value of these in-depth projects, but there are times when I try to stay on task. My solution is to use a small kitchen timer. I set it for short time periods so that when it rings I am reminded that I had started out with a specific goal. I often surprise myself when the buzzer goes off and I'm on to the third level of sidetracking.
Sometimes I use the same strategy on myself that I tried on my children when they were little: "Just work for 100 seconds." It will often get me to take on a task I've been avoiding, and other times it reminds me to stay focused since I only have to work for such a limited time. Something as small as finding a mushy peach in the vegetable crisper can turn into the removal of all the refrigerator shelves and a thorough scrubbing of the inside and outside, using every tool from sponges to old toothbrushes to wooden skewers.
People with this tendency also experience times when they're more drawn to in-depth -- and invisible -- cleaning.
My friend Connie found herself completely engrossed in deep-cleaning projects last fall. Not surprisingly it was right after her daughter left for college for the first time. Her husband and son came home at the end of a day and the house looked the same to them, but she knew that underneath it was in perfect order.
She attributed this tendency to the need for a good distraction and the comfort that often comes from such accomplishments.
This deep-cleaning pattern can also be more seductive when there is something else we're putting off. I call it the "Zen of Procrastination.” I wrote about it years ago -- while putting off something else. The year as I wrote my doctoral dissertation I pruned every bush in my yard and in the yards of several neighbors. When my 80-year-old neighbor saw me coming into the garden she would shout, "Look out, fuchsias, here she comes again!"
From listening to the stories of friends, it's clear that the inspiration pulling us into such projects comes from many sources. The need for a sense of control, the need for a distraction, some mild obsessive moment or just an appealing way to avoid another task. The value of these in-depth projects cannot be underestimated, even if their results are invisible -- to everyone but you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

When There Is Any Question About the "Purpose" of the Elderly

My neighbor, Miriam, is dying.  I have lived next door to her for 25 years.  She is 97 and now spends most of her time in bed.  There is some kind of abdominal tumor, but with a history of congestive heart failure and her age, no extreme measures are indicated.
            Hospice care started last week, but Miriam’s devoted daughter continues to come over several times a day, and she or her son spend each night.  Miriam is well cared for.  
Miriam reminds me of my mother, who died last year at the age of 90.  They are of the “can’t complain” generation.  They grew up in a time when life’s trials seemed to strengthen people and made them appreciate the basics more.   And they grew up in a time when their own amusement did not seem the focal point of their lives.
Miriam has always been a lovable, good-humored woman, appreciative of the little favors one does for an older neighbor and clever in her commentary.  During the year I wrote my dissertation I sought refuge in pruning during my breaks. She must have noticed, because one day as I walked into the yard, pruning shears in hand, she shouted from her porch, “Look out fuchsias, here she comes again!”
But now she is often confused.  She says she feels like her brain is evaporating and sometimes says she wishes she could die.  I know my mother felt that way near the end of her life.  She was never self pitying or maudlin in these declaration, nor is Miriam. 
They were both great readers until eyesight failed and then each found other sources of pleasure and purpose, until even those had faded.
When my mother needed more care in the last year of her life, she lived in the Good Samaritan Center. The staff was attentive and respectful and I will always be grateful to them.  My mother had spent her life as a nurse.  She was renowned for her goodness and at the center some of that was returned to her.
Like Miriam, my mother wondered, “What’s my purpose now? I’m ready to go.” I never wanted my mother to endure any pain, but as long as she was comfortable I wanted her to stay.  At times I knew that was selfish, but only those who’ve been in this situation, understand the comfort in making someone you love more comfortable.  Part of her purpose was to give me the opportunity to feel that I could still give to her.
One day I visited during bath time and the young aid asked if I wanted to come in.    By then my mom was just a fragile little creature. Her bones showed through her translucent skin.  The young woman was starting nurses training in the fall, and she was so tender and gentle as she bathed my mother that I felt like I was observing a sacrament. 
            I left that day even more convinced of my mother’s purpose at this time in her life.  What she was giving was the opportunity for others to express love and care.   To this day I am comforted by that memory and by memories of brushing her hair, putting lotion on her hands and telling her stories of her life that she could barely follow and had long ago forgotten.
We are such a fast –paced, product oriented society that we have a skewed concept of purpose. Miriam can no longer shout clever things from her porch, or tell me stories of her travels to Sumatra.  Even her basic pleasures are fading with the loss of eyesight and appetite, but I hope at some level she can appreciate that she does have an important purpose. She is here for us now in a different way.  Not to dofor us, but to allow us the time and opportunity to express our love.  Someday when she is no longer here, I will be grateful that the purpose of her last months was fulfilled.  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020


        Working at home presents some real challenges for those of us who tend to be distractible. As a psychologist, working with children who present with ADD, I’ve come up with some strategies to help them stay on task. I created many of these for myself, since I have often found it difficult to concentrate for long periods of time. As a youngster, in elementary school, my Ritalin was Sister Mary Agnes Claire. As an adult I’ve had to create my own SMAC in the form of structures to keep myself focused and productive. 
I offer suggestions from these experiences.

1.           Start the day with a handwritten list that includes some items that will be easier to accomplish. Checking those off helps build momentum. 
2.           Respect the rhythm of your work. Some people do better in segments of 30 minutes and then need to step away to assimilate what they’ve accumulated in the work period. Taking breaks is important and works better when we find a stopping point at a place that will be easier to reenter and then move forward.
3.           Consider your visual space. Classrooms with lots of ADD kids sometimes use cardboard partitions. The work at home version of that may just be clearing a space of interesting or distracting items. 
4.           Use a timer, kitchen or smart phone, for both time on task and break time. If I could get a timer that would holler, “Susan, you’re wasting time get back to work.” I would buy it. Clever smart phone users can probably rig up some version for themselves. My timer is currently jarring enough to remind me to get back on task.
5.           Find a listener for brain storming or talking through a roadblock. Some of us think better when our mouths are moving, so run it by someone.
6.           Talking yourself through a task can also be helpful in establishing greater clarity. For many of us who have difficulty concentrating, ambiguity is a huge impediment. The talking through helps identify specific goals and obstacles and increase clarity.
7.           Self coaching is an additional support for some. It’s like the old practice of doing affirmations. “I can stick with this until I……”
8.           Scaffolding is a strategy practiced by my young clients. Set up all the supports, structure and materials to proceed, so that glitches, neglected materials or information don’t throw you off task.
9.           I’ve written about what I labeled as a “yabut” list. Being explicit about why you can’t do something right a way and turning obstacles into steps, e.g. “Yabut I can’t do this until I get that.” So the step is get whatever “that” is. You can even put the goal at the bottom of the page and work your way up with a series of “yabuts” to possible immediate action and avoid procrastination.
10.      Have a list of tasks you’ve been avoiding, when you need to step away take on one of those and you will be more inspired to get back to the task you are originally avoiding. (Did my taxes this way.)
11.      Reward yourself. Completion of the task can be quite rewarding, but something more tangible and pleasant can also be part of the structure. Like most species we respond to positive reinforcement. Implement an “As soon as” policy, e.g. “As soon as I finish this letter (or report or session) then I can ....” This could also help to compartmentalize what is work and not work.
12.      Dealing with children requires its own set of strategies, but their presence can even serve to provide some of the structure to accomplish work tasks. Specific times and activities for them can create a plan that helps us focus and help them increase their concentration. An example “Read quietly for 25 minutes and when the timer rings I’ll play a board game with you.” (But it’s hard to imagine any task worse than a session of Candy Land.)
13.      Experiment with music. Some people have their own musical pairings for different activities. I’m sure Pandora has a special play list for working at home.
14.      The time honored practice of breaking a job into specific parts helps one have a clearer pathway. It helps with clarity and the sense of accomplishment as parts are completed.

  Even people who aren’t distractible find structure and procedures helpful. For some laboring in a whole new setting, it’s probably even more important. In this context it’s worth a bit of thought about ways in which the elements of space, time, and reinforcers can function to create our own personal structure -- making working at home work for us.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Creativity Within Limits

Years ago I had an art professor who gave us assignments with very specific limits. His position was that limits inspired creatvity. He gave such assignments as only shades of blue, only straight  lines, only pallet knife. It often had the desired outcome. 
I accepted this outlook from the get go, because I grew up in South Dakota, where snow storms often created significant limits. Days stuck inside required some pretty creative solutions to cabin fever and sibling “interactions.”
My mother was a creative and resourceful person, but a lot of the solutions to days inside were up to us kids. We sometimes begged to go outside and make tunnels in the snow drifts. The time to get bundled up was about equal to the time we could spend outdoors. And it often took two sessions at dressing, because little bladders were frequently inspired by four layers of clothing. 
Games inside sometimes involved major messes. Others were inspired by my mother’s playfulness. On days inside she occasionally decided it was a perfect time to wax the floors. She pulled out all the heavy wool socks and we “skated” over the floors, polishing as we went. 
We are now facing a new set of limitations in the face of the virus and it’s inspiring a new set of creative solutions in many lives. So often we are delayed in going forward with certain projects or activities by the weighing of many options. When one major option is removed we are often able to move forward more smoothly. People are taking on long-avoided projects or doing things they’d been wanting to do but were “too busy”. 
In my own family there are examples. My son teaches Kindergarten and has set up his apartment with a giant white board, has created YouTube videos and holds “office hours” with individual students and their parents. He is going for walks where he writes positive messages with sidewalk chalk and sends photos of these to his students. My daughter is a chef who works for a catering company. She is reviewing, organizing and recording recipes and resources. She is on a dedicated exercise routine and is keeping her grateful parents well fed. My husband is digitizing 50 years of daily journals. I am cleaning the basement, gardening and putting to paper, things that have been on my mind for some time.  
In addition to the clarity that comes when choices are removed, we get to experience the “make do” mentality that was often part of our ancestor’s experience. Flexibility and novel uses for existing materials often made life possible in the past. 
When I’ve worked with kids who tend to worry, one strategy was to designate a certain bit of time each day for worry and then to spend the rest of the day less distracted. Perhaps this can apply now. Spend a certain time for handwringing and the rest of the day looking for creative ways to “make the best” out of this situation for our families and communities.