Friday, April 11, 2014


I wrote this piece many years ago and continue to see each recent survey confirm what I wrote about then. Now the name is "boomerang kids" because they go and then come back. I see that in many households, including ours.

The Birds are Back
            Another study was just released that confirms what most people already knew. Pew Research reported that more and more young adults are now living at home with their parents.  Some can remember those empty nests we used to worry about?  Well, they’re now being refilled. Our kids are renesting, or as one father described it “reinfesting.”
            The reasons for this trend are many but are often due to a transition for the young adults. Living costs are high even if they share a space with a group, so they choose to spend some time back home and regroup before the next step. A visitor to a college blog described it as the only “responsible” choice.
            My husband and I are among those readjusting to this situation. Our son decided it was a waste of money to continue attending a university out of the area. The local college is excellent and held the attraction of a track team he could join. So we, like many families, needed to negotiate the changes that must be made in a nest that had been adequately full with just the two of us. Our son is good company, but it is another body coming and going, doing laundry, inviting friends in and occasionally needing reminders.  Unfortunately he was not gone that long, so my mother mantra that goes, “Did you remember … ?” is still operational. For us and for many families it is necessary to redefine the relationship as one between “adults.”
            Parents observe that kids seem to be maturing slower than they used to and that these returns home are part of that condition. A cartoon on a friend’s refrigerator echoed this with a picture of a father shouting at his son lounging on the sofa, “When I was your age, I was an adult!”
            My husband often says, “60 is the new 40, but 22 is the new 16.” I sometimes wonder if we have abridged their actual childhoods so much that they linger in late adolescents to try to complete the process of growing up.
We can even find reasons in technology. With computers and cell phones there is often constant contact between parents and their children. That could be having some impact on this indirect route to adulthood.
My friend Karen shared that sometimes the birds do not return by themselves.  Her bird brought another with her. The 28-year-old daughter returned from a service project in Central America with her boy friend. The luxury of staying with mom and dad allowed their daughter to hold out for the “right” job.
            That arrangement was acceptable to Karen, but some parents expressed discomfort around the issue of having “romantic companions” spend the night. Perhaps less of a generation gap on this and other issues has made the situation more comfortable for both parents and children, but clarifying conditions prior to the move is critical.
            Whether the reasons are economic, sociological, or technological, as the child in the movie, Poltergeist, once said, “They’re back.” So what do we do to make this new housing arrangement work? After talking to several parents some of the common issues that need to be negotiated are: different schedules, different standards of cleanliness, sharing of housekeeping chores AND a plan to eventually move out.
        A colleague who survived the return advised, “Think ahead to what will make you crazy and make sure that it is a clearly stated condition.” The deal breaker for her was having a lot of the returnee’s possessions lying around in shared spaces. That issue was top of her list when she made arrangements with her “visiting” offspring.
            The key in most successful situations has been a formal effort to create shared expectations. Parents have different priorities and pet peeves, but the consensus is to put them in writing and revisit them on a regular basis.
            Defining a departure time for the renester helps some parents accept the situation with more grace. A plan to move out, even if it needs to be modified, is recommended. Some parents give their youngster a specific time after which rent will be collected.  Some parents collect from the beginning and save the money to eventually give to the youngster for first and last month’s rent in their own place.
            Each family reported different concerns, and also shared some benefits. People had to give up guest rooms, sewing rooms and exercise rooms that had been converted from their child’s room. They had to give up tidy spaces and a few nights of sleep with worries that linger when waiting for a “grown” child to come in at night. But most parents have become accustomed to the kids going out at about the same time they go to bed. They have gained precious time with their young adult to share life lessons and to simply enjoy them.  It was a little surprising to hear the positive things parents had to say about having their youngsters return. It was equally surprising to hear how grateful the youngsters were that the nest was still there to help them gain the strength they needed to fly away again.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Affordable Care -- Just a first step

The myth of informed consent

In all this back and forth about the Affordable Care Act we are missing what is an equally important issue. -- the cost of health care in general.  There is excellent and detailed writing by Steven Brill on the topic, but it was hard to get through it without an elevation of my own blood pressure. Most remarkable in his reporting is the fact that the cost of most medical procedures is a well-guarded mystery. From one hospital to another the costs vary greatly and the amount that our insurance company covers is also done by some mysterious formula for procedures and medication.
 This brings me to my current shock about the cost of medication. After a persistent cough after a cold my doctor prescribed a steroid inhaler. When I went to pick it up the young pharm tech said apologetically that it was $135.00. It was probably the startled look on my face that caused her to say, “Wait, let me make sure that insurance covered its part.”
When she returned from the computer she looked even more startled than I and reported that the “out-of-pocket” cost was actually $1,017.00. Yikes! I didn’t know whether to be grateful that the insurance (theoretically) covered $882 or still be outraged by what the cost to me was going to be. In addition was concern over someone without insurance who might need such a medication and be unable to pay the “out-of-pocket.”
I support the Affordable Care Act and I urged my twenty something offspring to sign up through the health care exchange. They are not invulnerable and huge bills could come to haunt them and maybe their parents. The situation with existing plans could possibly end up, as it did for our daughter.  She had a minor bike accident and even after two years was still paying off the large part of her bill not covered by insurance.
Even after the exchange works and the benefits are in place, everything is not settled. We must continue to look for more transparency in the pricing of medical care and prescription drugs. Since the ACA is in part a full employment act for insurers, they might become our partners in this quest -- once they start getting more bills for inhalers costing $1,017. People should be compensated for their work and for the product they create, but behind this veil of mystery the consumer has no way of making decisions about the better choices in the medical field.
For every little medical procedure we are asked to sign a form indicating our informed consent. At this point in dealing with the medical system in general we are all operating with uninformed consent. Having health insurance is not going to completely address this and the battles over the ACA are unfortunately taking attention away from some of the real issues in medical care in this country. It’s possible for legislators on both sides of the ACA to work to create a more transparent system of medical costs, if they can resist the pressure and checkbooks of lobbyists. Then, we citizens will finally have the luxury of real informed consent.

Saturday, March 22, 2014


Just a little rain lately has inspired my annual battle with oxalis and sour onions.

Weeding 'in the zone' is a pleasure like no other

There are many gardening chores that the average person might find unpleasant, but to a gardener they are part of the fun. Weeding is one of these -- but not just any weeding. The greatest pleasure is weeding "in the zone." That is a short but wonderful snippet of time that many gardeners recognize. These zones have a lot to do with the condition of the soil. In spring there are a few gentle days that occur between the rainy periods and the dry periods.
Or you can help nature along with a good soaking. The clay soil in my region goes from the texture of cream cheese to terra cotta in about three days. So in between those conditions there is a day when the soil is perfect, dry enough to be workable and moist enough to release the weed willingly -- roots and all. As much as I love plants, I'm equally fond of a freshly weeded and cultivated patch of dark, rich soil.
Even the smell of the earth changes as it opens up and releases the weeds. Pulling up the weed breaks the surface and lets it breathe again after a winter of being pounded by the rain. And almost as satisfying is watching the pile of oxalis and other undesirables fill the weed basket.
When my daughter was a toddler, one of her first words was "oxalis." I was so pleased, because I wanted to raise a gardener, or at least a weeder. She followed me around in the yard getting as muddy as I and asking, "Mommy, is this oxalis?" Tiny hands were good at fitting into the places where this sneaky weed hides, next to the stems of favorite flowers. And when, by the age of 4, my daughter was able to tell the difference between wild onions and emerging freesias, well, I couldn't have been more proud if she'd been giving violin recitals.
My equipment for these events is simple. Sometimes I start off with good intentions, with my foam knee pad, gardener's stool and heavy gloves. But usually it's just me and my trusty Japanese cultivating tool. It would probably be more sensible to use the substantial gardening gloves, but there's something more connected, more part of the process with bare hands. My compromise is often latex surgical gloves. I grab a pocketful of them as I go into the yard. I measure the accomplishments of the day not just by the volume of weeds but by how many gloves I wear out in the process. My other favorite tool is an old paring knife that digs up stubborn roots. Some roots elude me, but not many.
When the job is complete, the remaining plants look so beautiful against the dark, smooth soil. For several days the next pesky weeds in waiting do not emerge, so I can go back into the yard and feel again the satisfaction of hands in the dirt and of creating a little bit of order, where a little bit is just the right amount.
Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator in Berkeley. E-mail her
This article appeared on page HO - 9 of the San Francisco Chronicle

Tuesday, March 4, 2014


This time of year there are many youngsters waiting for the letter. I hope this provides a small bit of perspective -- no matter what the contents. Maybe this piece from the Christian Science Monitor can provide a little perspective long before the time when kids and parents are waiting for college admission letters.

Redefine 'success' for kids

By  / May 15, 2002
I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University – and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.

Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys – all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.
Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.
Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.
I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.
But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.
In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.
Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.
Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.
In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?
Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.
The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.
I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.
After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.
I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.
It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?
There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.
• Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


The plum tree is in full bloom again. From my office window I watch a troupe of bees doing a dizzy dance of plenty around the fluffy branches.


For most of the year the plum tree in our back yard is a nuisance. It hangs over the driveway and drops its seasonal debris on my car. In the fall the leaves drop. In the summer the tasteless plums drop or are thrown down by the squirrels. And at random times the raccoons break off a branch that lands on the car hood and causes a small dent or scratch. BUT for a few glorious days in the spring the tree completely redeems itself.
If we are really fortunate and the rain or wind don’t come at this time we are treated to a wonderful event, the tree in full bloom. The tree makes the yard smell divine and it looks like a giant party dress made of white lace.
 From my office window I have a special treat when the sun is setting. The light is warm gold on the top of the Oak behind the bright white plum. The pictures here are a feeble attempt to capture and share this moment.
So when the leaves fall and the sticky plums cover my car I remember these few days. It’s all worth it.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Substitute Teachers

Substitute Teachers: challenges and student perspective

         Substitute teachers are near and dear to my heart. One of my jobs as a psychologist in a large urban school district was training substitute teachers on classroom management. And now my son is a substitute teacher, while getting his teaching credential.  
         There are many myths about subbing, like "Don't smile for the first day." I advise the opposite.  Even if you are facing a challenging group of adolescents, smile and tell them that you're so happy to be there, because this is your favorite age group and the teacher has said so many great things about them. It's hard to be evil to someone who likes you.
         One of the many strategies is to put a few sample notes home on the board, e.g. "________________ was so helpful today in the class. I appreciate the positive attitude and helpful behavior." The sub states that he or she loves to send positive notes home or to leave them for the regular teacher. The sub then invites students who want such a note to let him or her know at sometime during the day. Amazing what this motivates in a classroom.
         So, I was very impressed by the letter that my niece's fifth grade daughter wrote about a long-term sub when the teacher was out with knee surgery. Granted, she is an exceptionally thoughtful and bright child, but I thought the information and perspective would be valuable to anyone who is doing substitute teaching (and to teachers selecting a long-term sub)
         Thanks to Sophia.

Dear Mrs. G.,
We are writing this letter first to welcome you back, and we are very delighted to see you again as our fifth grade teacher!  We hope you had a full recovery and are feeling much better.
The second reason we write this letter is to express our concern regarding the atmosphere of the class during your absence.  While we understand that filling in as a substitute teacher is not an easy job, we feel that there was a very high level of stress.  This stress made learning difficult and made the classroom very unpleasant at times. We believe many of our actions were interpreted as misbehavior, and numerous pink slips were distributed to students who have never been reprimanded for behavioral issues. For example, good-hearted joking and fun was not tolerated and was regarded as bad behavior. The threat of receiving the punishment of pink slips added a lot of tension on us, and some of us took it very hard. The class felt controlled by the fear of earning a pink slip. Even for those of us who were not the subject of a pink slip, the situation of seeing our classmates being treated unfairly and our classmates’ reactions to the punishment were upsetting to the point of deep sorrow for each other.
I, as our anonymous writer, felt this sorrow throughout your absence. Though I didn’t get a pink slip during this period of time, I did watch many of my classmates receive them. I watched sobbing out of agony after class, recognition to everyone that you need to stop talking, even if you were trying to work and your tablemate wants to start a conversation, groups drawing together on the back of their papers while waiting for others to finish their sprints, but then misinterpreted for passing notes. Also, as mentioned before, humor was not accepted.
I am still very stressed from what happened the Thursday this paragraph is being written. I also keep this name anonymous. I felt as if I needed to converse this issue with a group of students. Because of this I felt compelled to write this letter. Honestly, I feel we tried really hard to be on our best behavior and show respect in the beginning, but every day class got stricter and stricter, and we slowly became restless. Finally I realized that it wasn’t that we were bad students, but that we actually really missed you and we wanted our normal routine. I personally feel that the class was not run by reward and kept calm, as you would do.
Thank you for taking this time to read this letter, you have no idea how incredibly pleased we are to have you back. Next time you have a sub, we would appreciate it if you were able to vary it with different people, if you have a choice. We look forward for better times with you this school year.