Wednesday, August 13, 2014

African American sons

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


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

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

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

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

Friday, August 8, 2014

What is Home?


I just got home from home. I know, that does sound odd, but it is what is (odd again).

I’ve lived in the same town for over 40 years and in the same house for over 30 years, but I’m not from here. I’m from the Black Hills of South Dakota and I always will be. I just returned from a wonderful trip there.

When someone asks, "Where are you from?" I have always found it hard to describe myself as from here. So I go home to where I’m from and come back to where I live. But now, after all these years, when we leave South Dakota I can finally say and feel like I’m on my way home.

My husband and children were born and raised here. They live among the familiar images and locations that shaped them.  However, my children have spent such good times with family in the summers and winters in South Dakota that they feel a little like they are from there as well.

For me it takes being back on those streets to conjure and revive the images and often the emotions. It feels so familiar and so affirming. And coming from a place that has in many ways stayed the same insures that comfort.

A photographer friend, Amanda Boe, provided a quote from Wallace Stegner for one of her shows. “Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in shapes of that environment until he dies.”

For me it is more than perception of shapes, I am drawn back to that environment and will be until I die.

I once wrote about my belief that you can go home again, “Home is not an historical construct, home is always under construction.” And now I feel, that in spite of my heart drifting back, the construction has been continuing here too and my concept of home has expanded. So, it makes perfect sense that I can now say, “I just got home from home.”

Thursday, July 24, 2014

You can go home again -- again

       I believe the saying, "You can't go home again." is not always true. I am home again in South Dakota, not in the house I grew up in, but with the people I grew up with. For me that's what makes it home, that and the streets so familiar in the way they look and even the way they smell that I sometimes feel tears bubbling up on my morning walks.
      I am grateful for the memories that come surging back as I pass my childhood home and the houses of close friends. And I'm equally grateful for the sense of home that continues to grow as I build new memories with my brothers, their wonderful wives and  wonderful children. Home, I believe, is a work in progress, not just an historical construct.
     My grown children are not here this summer, but I appreciate that for them this place will always be part of their sense of home. They have memories of running through the sprinkler on hot summer nights and at Christmas sledding down the hill by my mother's house in the moonlight. They have memories of happy and sad times with their family here. They have created home in this place and with these people and I'm comforted in knowing that "home" for them, as it is for me, is always under construction.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Butterfly Midwife on her own flight path

This older piece from the Chronicle comes to mind when the Swallow tails show up again in our yard.

415-609-9602 Photo: Kat Wade / SF

  • GLOBAL_BUTTERFLIES_594_KW_.jpg Papilio zelicaon Anise Swallowtail butterfly shot in Oakland, Ca, but flown in from Asland, Or. on June 2, 2006.. Kat Wade/The Chronicle ** Mandatory Credit for San Francisco Chronicle and photographer, Kat Wade, No Sales Mags out Photo: Kat Wade

During one of our hotter summer days I opened the window in my daughter's room and saw a swallowtail fluttering through the top of the birch trees just outside her window. I wondered for a minute if it might be the offspring of one of the butterflies my daughter raised many years ago when she was in high school.
In her room she had created a huge butterfly habitat of cereal boxes, duct tape and large "windows" of plastic wrap. She spent an entire afternoon making it after the caterpillars outgrew the jar she'd been using. She filled the habitat with small twigs and fresh fennel sprigs and the nine caterpillars she had found on the plants across the street. Each day she put fresh fennel in and waited patiently.
Weeks later, in the same low-key way that she created the incubator, she released the emerging swallowtails. She held one dangling on a twig out her window. "It doesn't seem ready to fly yet," she said and put it back into its safe, temporary home. It got another chance the next day.
It was comforting to watch her nurture the caterpillars and to get a glimpse below the surly teenage surface. The tenderness she sometimes tried to hide was still there, still growing. The little things that made her unique had not been neutralized by this stage of conforming with the peer group. I have sometimes thought that the phrase "sweet sixteen" was an oxymoron. Every mother of a teenage girl has prayed for patience. But the connection between her journey of transformation and that of the butterflies was clear and poignant. It was a subtle exercise of faith in nature and in her own emergence.
Fewer and fewer children these days are experiencing the luxury - no, the necessity - of this connection with nature.
There's a wonderful book on this topic, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder." The author, Richard Louv, describes the growing research indicating that exposure to nature is essential to the healthy development of children.
A related organization, the Children & Nature Network, encourages projects that help create the valuable connection between children and nature, They are part of the "Leave No Child Inside" movement.
Kids need this faith in growth and transformation. Though not all connections are as transparent as that of my butterfly midwife, children have a huge need to see their relationship to the ever-changing natural environment and to see how they can be part of it in a positive way.
My wondering about the swallowtails hovering outside my daughter's window led me to do some research. Was I being too romantic in thinking that these butterflies might be seeking their ancestral home in a contraption of cereal boxes, plastic wrap and duct tape? I was pleased to learn that swallowtails do in fact return to lay their eggs in the place of their hatching. The butterflies will find fennel plants across the street, but the habitat is long gone and the girl who created it has flown now too. She's moved to Seattle, where she volunteers at an urban nature center for children. And like the butterflies, I'm pretty sure she knows how to find her way back.

The article is here

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Kids and Chores -- a great combination

My grown son was recently helping me in the yard, and as we worked we had a really nice visit. No longer about skate board tricks or a girl in his class, now grown up interests I'm glad to know about. It reminded me of this older article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Getting kids to do chores is more than barking orders

Published 04:00 a.m., Wednesday, April 9, 2003
I heard it a thousand times growing up, "It's easier to do it myself." It came from my mom during an attempt to get one of us four kids to do a chore.
She was a patient and gentle woman, so it came out as a statement of fact, rather than an expression of anger.
As a child, it made no sense to me. Now, as a mom, it makes perfect sense. It is so tempting to do it yourself, rather than spending twice the time and energy instructing, guiding and doing quality control. Unfortunately, with that approach, you will always be "doing it yourself." And you will be sending young adults into the world who can't take care of themselves.
I have come to view the money I pay my children for chores not as a wage, but as a stipend for attending, "Mother's School of Housecleaning and Life Maintenance."
Parents are often surprised that simply telling or showing isn't enough to get kids to do their chores properly. It takes a lot of thought, talk and most of all patience. I confess there have been times when I have given up and done it myself or when I've gone back and redone a task. And I've often readjusted my standards or focused upon the process rather than the outcome. In spite of these lapses, I've collaborated with the families I work with and found methods to help get chores accomplished and help youngsters become more competent.
First, do whatever it takes to help your child understand how to do the task, or what is meant by a request like "Clean your room." The chances are very good that your idea of a clean room and your child's idea of a clean room are not the same.
With little children who cannot yet read, a list that consists of pictures is helpful. Tidy up the room with the child, then sit together and describe what you see. Getting them to see what needs to be done is half the job.
Older children are famous for saying, "Looks OK to me." Or for using the laundry basket as storage for something they plan to wear again. The list in words or pictures can be posted in the room and when the parent says, "Clean up your room," the child has the list to follow.
My children alternate Saturdays for cleaning their bathroom. Inside the door of their medicine cabinet is a list of tasks and the recommended sequence,
e.g., spraying the walls in the shower and letting the cleanser sit while doing another chore in the sequence.
Another method of getting the "how" across is to give the children a clipboard and ask them to take notes as the parent straightens up the room and describes what is being done. Kids get a kick out of this, and it helps to illustrate how little time it takes if one sticks to it.
When my children were little, I would often ask them to devote just 100 seconds to straightening their rooms. It is amazing what can be accomplished in a focused 100 seconds. Avoidance or resistance are directly related to the perceived size of the job. If it's only 100 seconds, it's easy to jump right in.
My son was rather distractible when he was young, so mowing the lawn, including side trips to follow a lizard or to take apart a pinecone, took a long time. One day, instead of asking him to mow our small lawn for his usual wage, I asked him to time me as I did it. He is a good sport and counted aloud as I completed the task in about five minutes. We figured that working at a speedier rate, he'd be getting $36 per hour.
It is also important to choose tasks that the child can do. For example, one family I know stores their dishes on a low shelf so that the youngest child can do the chore of emptying the dishwasher. Often some little modification of storage makes a task accessible for a child.
When teaching anything, it's important to praise effort as well as outcome. If we withhold praise until the job is perfect, the child will be working for a long time without encouragement. Research indicates that children in school who are praised for effort rather than product do better in the long run. I believe the same applies at home.
Families have different policies on paying for chores. Many different systems work. One that works in our house is making chores done "independently" worth more. If they complete the job without any coaching or reminding, the wage is higher.
The kids no longer really need supervision, but working together creates a nice opportunity to talk. My son sometimes stops, leans on the rake and says. "Mom, there is this flip kick where you take your skateboard and . . ." Or, "the other day in class . . ." When this happens, I stop too -- and listen.
Each family will create its own system, but for many families, these guiding principles help. Make chores doable and clear. Reward a good effort. And try, whenever you can, to do chores together. You may find that it accomplishes something even more important than chores.