Archives for posts with tag: childrearing

I used the plural forms of the nouns for this chapter quite purposefully: especially “cultural backgroundS,” because we have, more than ever, many cultural backgrounds in the United States today, and successful adults in will be those who learned as children how to get along with people from countless backgrounds. A dear friend of mine who made multi-culturalism her specialty back in the 1990s, when many of us were preoccupied by such a thing, trained me about the concentric circles of cultural education: one begins with one’s own family history; then one broadens to one’s community; then one’s state and region; and finally, one’s country. In so doing, one encompasses not only one’s own heritage, but the heritages of all those with whom one comes into contact.

My children, through my husband’s family, are direct descendants of Squire Boone, Daniel Boone’s father.  Daniel Boone’s sister, Sarah Boone Wilcoxson, is their grandmother with too many “greats” before it for me to count accurately.  That provided a lot of interesting school reports and “sharing” moments, as A. and S. would bring in old family artifacts that showed something of like in Kentucky’s frontier days, including historical accounts of life at Fort Boonesborough in the 1770s. Old quilts, a replica coonskin cap, yellowed family written records, and paintings of the fort copied from books or printed from web sites were romantic artifacts that made their family history come to life.

At the same time, other classmates were bringing in examples of very different family histories, and discussing how what brought them to Kentucky, whether hundreds of years before, or in the last decade.  The tapestry woven by such diverse stories revealed the rich cultural landscape of the Unites States, and became the foundation on which A. and S. learned to view others’ stories with respect.

Different faiths can also be discussed  with respect, calmly and yet without losing the educational focus that many parents desire: to explain clearly why we believe as we do, and why we think our beliefs are valid. It’s quite possible to “train up a child in the way he should go” without communicating disrespect for other faiths, and to teach children that they can be friends with people from different faith backgrounds. Indeed, as nearly all nations take on less homogeneous  populations, preparing our children for life beyond the nest of home requires that we teach them how to get along with people from many cultures. What helps is that so many customs from the various people groups are linked to the changing seasons, providing a common thread.  Children love changing seasons and the traditions linked to them. Seasonal traditions are an anchor of  stability and joy through childhood.

As I write this, the air is gaining that autumn chill that evokes football, brilliant orange and yellow leaves, chimney smoke, and in that odd, inexplicable way, nostalgia. We have finished the fall arrangements on the front porch.  Tall bundles of corn shucks, bound together and stuffed into 19th century crockery lard jars handed down from my husband’s family, flank the front door.  In front of them are arranged piles of pumpkins in various sizes, squash and gourds.  On the front door hangs a wreath of dried leaves that each year I swear won’t last one more, but thus far, it’s holding its own.

Since our children are grown, we focus on fall decorations rather than Halloween: fall lasts through Thanksgiving, when everything comes down and is replaced with lit Christmas arrangements in the lard jars, the large, divided Christmas wreath on the door, and spotlights to illuminate everything as the doors grow short.

When we would go through this process as the kids were growing up, with each transition they would become excited all over again.  One is tempted to say, “as if they’d never experienced [fall, or Christmas, or spring, or Easter, or the Fourth of July] before,” except that it is their experience of a small bank of past years, and their memory of those, that fuels their exuberance.

What is it about seasons that bring out the child in us?  The changing air, the changing light, the changing colors, and with it, changing household traditions — all contribute to the evocative shift, harkening memories of years  past, and relationships with loved ones who went before. Indeed, the evocative nature of seasonal changes can overwhelm us with sadness, at times, until we can’t bear to mark the changes, and seasons and holidays become excruciatingly painful.  But children are seldom so stricken by loss. Just feeling the crisp breeze of fall and seeing the leaves start to change, or seeing the ice melt and the first crocuses pop their heads through the snow to greet the early March sun, is enough make a child skip home from the school bus.

We live in a house made for seasonal dress-up, like a beautiful women begging to parade her finery on the town square. It’s not a small job — especially for Christmas — and I have years when I’m not sure I can pull it off.  Many’s the November when I’ve picked up the phone and found help, and if I take the time to put on music, put out snacks, and make it a party where we all work together, as I do some years, those are the most delightful.

We try to restrict ourselves to seasonal decorations that are pulled from nature, or at least look like they were. Not eager to burn my house down, I gave up on fresh Christmas garland the year we had to travel to Florida to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary: using artificial garland and not having hands bloodied from wrestling with fresh holly and magnolia, and seeing the synthetic greenery still look as green and plump on January 3 as it did on December 20, altered something in my soul for the more convenient, if not the better. I’ll be the first to admit to loving the Old-World shabby-chic of the slowly drying and browning live greenery at old-fashioned, rambling country manors like the Greyfield Inn on Cumberland Island off the coast of Georgia. As time marches resolutely toward New Year’s and Epiphany, the fresh garlands change, grow flat and dry, and the slow dissipation of “real” greenery becomes part of the evocative tradition. But I’m not in the country inn business, and Winchester’s Island is not a museum. We live here and it behooves us not to be exhausted, living in a tinder box in danger of spontaneously combusting every year between December 20 and January 6. It’s enough of a nod to tradition that we don’t hang a million and a half colored lights on our house. Indeed, when they were younger, my children were quite heartbroken about that, and thought me a terrible Scrooge.

The beauty of dressing your house in the artistic artifacts found outdoors, or a reasonable simulation thereof, is you can talk to your children as you decorate about nature, its cycles and symbols. Fall leaves, pumpkins and gourds become objects for talking any number of interesting topics from history and the natural world. You can discuss  photosynthesis and leaf oxidation; the summer and winter solstice and how that affects daylight hours; the fall harvest; how people once didn’t have artificial light and what they had to do to deal with that; how they had to provide food for themselves to last through the winter;  the original significance of Halloween, celebrated as it was by Christians to show the devil and all the specters of evil and darkness that those living under the protection of Christ had nothing to fear and could afford to mock them; the history and seasonal practices of Native Americans; the story of the Pilgrims; the first Thanksgiving; how our food traditions during October, November and December partake of all these things.  It’s interesting to point out, for example, that something like bobbing for apples would be that much more popular in a world where apples were available in the months from August through October, as was once the case.

During the December holidays, the rich stories available based on symbols of the season are almost limitless.  Regardless of which winter holiday your family celebrates, great lessons in multi-culturalism and mutual respect can be imparted — without having to do hard-edged moralizing — by simply talking about what different groups believe and practice during these months.  Thus, when December 6th approaches, you can talk about Saint Nicholas, who he was in history, and if your family is Christian, the children can put out shoes the night before and find foil-wrapped chocolate coins inside. (I’ll confess that since I frequently forgot the gold coins, I was always relieved that my children forgot to make note of December 6th and failed to put out shoes!) Similarly, when Chanukah is approaching, you can tell the story of the Maccabees and the drops of oil that lasted eight nights, and look at pictures of menorahs and talk about the eight-day celebration that culminates in the Eighth Night, with potato latkes, dreidels, singing and dancing.  You can teach your children the hymn Ma’oz Tzur, (based on acrostics, which provides another great lesson in that ancient form of poetry), ” The Dreidl Song” and “Oh Chanukah, Oh Chanukah,” make potato pancakes (any excuse to eat those delicious crispy treats!) and find Egypt and Israel on the map and talk about their histories.

Here is a modern-day loose translation of Ma’oz Tzur into English:

Rock of Ages, let our song, praise Thy saving power;
Thou, amidst the raging foes, wast our sheltering tower.
Furious they assailed us, but Thine arm availed us,
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.
And Thy Word broke their sword, when our own strength failed us.

Kindling new the holy lamps, priests, approved in suffering,
Purified the nation’s shrine, brought to God their offering.
And His courts surrounding, hear, in joy abounding,
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.
Happy throngs, singing songs with a mighty sounding.

Children of the martyr race, whether free or fettered,
Wake the echoes of the songs where ye may be scattered.
Yours the message cheering that the time is nearing
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.
Which will see, all men free, tyrants disappearing.

Linked as holidays are to weather, we’ve never in our house been fans of the cynical creep of Christmas earlier and earlier on the calendar.  The public gratitude expressed to Nordstrom department stores, which doesn’t put up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving, reveals that most people prefer to have autumn and Halloween in October, Thanksgiving in November, and Christmas in December.

For the really stubborn and historically minded, like us, “Christmas” doesn’t begin after Thanksgiving.  That four-week period is Advent, when we prepare ourselves and our homes, inside and out, for the joy of welcoming Emmanuel, “God With Us,” on Christmas Eve. Although decades ago the Christmas tree was not decorated until Christmas Eve, most of us include decorating our homes and putting up Christmas trees as part of our Advent activities — but the preparation is not just for one day, December 25, but for the entire twelve-day season beginning December 24 and concluding on Epiphany, or January 6th.  If we have a party during the Christmas season in our home, we usually have it after Christmas Day, and before New Year’s Eve, perhaps the on Fourth Night (December 28th).  We spread out our gift-opening, too, so when guests come to our Christmas party they still seen wrapped presents under the tree. I began that tradition when A. was nearly three, after seeing how too many gifts on one day was utterly overwhelming to a young child. We never even got around to cooking Christmas dinner, so pressured were we to open all the presents and call all the relatives. The focus for such a special day became the stuff, and it was simply depressing.

The following year I took a hint from our Jewish friends and Chanukah, and had twelve gifts — some special and high on the Christmas wish list, but many as modest as an inexpensive puzzle or box of candy — and each day’s gifts wrapped differently. I spent time matching the size of the gift for both children, so we would have no jealousy: never would one child open a Slinky as the other child open a space rocket. On Christmas Day they opened gifts from grandparents, aunts and uncles who didn’t understand or care for the concept of spreading out the holiday. If they wanted to, they could open one of their matching gifts from us.  Often they chose not to. Then, after Christmas Day, we said nothing.  Every couple of days they would come to us, “May we open a present?” “Yes!” and they would go to the tree together to choose which twin gifts they would open. If they had skipped a day, then there were days when they could open two. I didn’t have to supervise, because I had made sure that gifts of like sizes, values and pizzaz-level were wrapped identically — same paper, same ribbon. We also had, and still have, special meals on all Twelve Nights, keep the Christmas music going, and generally treat the season like an extended party — which it is!

Twelfth Night, or January 5th, is called “Little Christmas” by many who celebrate the Twelve Days, and can include its own evening celebration. The day after, January 6th, is Epiphany, “The Feast of Lights,” when the Magi came to worship the young boy Jesus. In my home, we always had a special dinner either on Twelfth Night or on Epiphany, with plenty of lit candles, more music, and we opened the last of the Christmas presents under the tree.  Yes, it’s true: I’ve never taken my Christmas decorations down before January 7th!

My children loved the languorous pace of the Twelve Days of Christmas, concluding with Epiphany. This kind of slower celebration might be hard to introduce with teenagers, but those with very young children can do so without much consternation from the lower ranks.  You might try it next year! If you don’t like it, you can always return to the standard Christmas Day orgy of gifts.

Even the word suggests a loss of innocence: for the parent as much as the child.

Eternity drops this soft, blanket-swaddled lump of sweet, pink nappy/milky/doughy life into your arms, and from the first moment, he or she begins pushing away.  A friend of ours, an artist with a singularly thoughtful view of life, told my husband and me that one day, as he was walking and rocking his infant son, it dawned on him that the rest of their lives would be spent in essential conflict: he would grow to love his son more and more, while his son would grow more and more to want independence.  Thus, John said, he realized that where being a parent was concerned, he was destined for grief.  (It did have a good effect: it caused him to reconnect with his own father over a sustained period of time.)

John told Tom and me about that in our kitchen over brunch one Sunday morning when our son was halfway through law school, living in his own house, juggling school with a job, and we were lucky to see him once a week.  Our daughter was in England, and wouldn’t be home for 15 months. Not only did I share John’s feeling of tragedy that our children leave us — and if we’ve done our job well, leave us very easily — but also the concomitant realization that as they leave, our longing for them doesn’t. While our birds-flying-the-coop experience only exhilaration at their growing independence, we experience indescribable sadness. We are delighted to see them launched in the world, making a go of it — but their lack of angst and need for us is easily misinterpreted as lack of love, because child love is so very different from parent love. Child love is admiration and gratitude and affection.  Parent love is someone taking a pick-axe, plunging it into your chest and ripping out your beating heart, without anesthesia.

What has this to do with discipline? Everything, because that first moment when the thought enters the child’s head that, though mother said “no,” one might still choose “yes,” represents the free will and individual sovereignty that is, at some very basic level, the foundation of humanity. Mutiny is always an option! And the very premise of discipline is the lie that we can control the environment fully enough that our children will have to submit to our preferences – yet really, it’s a deception, because children always have the ability to defy us, though they endanger themselves seriously to do so. We just hope they don’t figure that out.

We see it at just a few months of age: the baby that once only snuggled in our arms is now pushing back, pushing away, expressing a preference: don’t hold me this way, hold me that way. Don’t cover my eyes! Give me your breast! I want my binky! Put me down! I am going to push up like this with my arms until I have the upper-body strength to roll over.  And then I’ll push my legs at the same time, and I’ll be moving! AND I WILL BE ABLE TO GO WHERE I WANT TO, AND YOU CAN’T STOP ME.

It’s cute and endearing and we’re so proud, until we see Junior about to tumble down the stairs, or hear him yell “NO, YOU BIG FAT UGLY!” at the preschool teacher, or suffer through his engaging us in that necessary process of testing: “I have to know who will win the battle between you and me.” And where some children will respond with laconic submission to “no, Johnny!” others will narrow their eyes as if to say, “oh, yeah?!?”, elevate the battle to a war, and suddenly your heavenly, pink dough-ball has become a rebellious heretic. Mutiny! How dare he?! Doesn’t this only happen to “bad parents”?

It happens to everyone. The only parents who don’t go through this phase of dismay are those whose children are. . .what can I say?. . . weird. Trust me: you don’t want weirdly obedient children.  Ecclesiastes says there is a time and a place for all things, and weirdly obedient children at age 3, or age 15, end up dumping their wives or husbands at age 42, embezzling office funds, buying a Lamborghini, and running off with a pole dancer.

So your dismay that instead of a pink angel from heaven, you have procreated a demon from the pits of hell is normal. And your demon is normal. But your proper normal response is not to shrug your shoulders and let the demon behave demonically.  I’m sorry to say that your only option is to do your job. You must parent. You must put on your armor and resolve that this little hellion will not get the best of you. You can stir love and intelligence and creativity into the pot. Often those ingredients help. Humor always helps. Especially because you are not going to know what the **** you are doing. It’s like trying to hit a bull’s eye blindfolded.

You can read books, including this one, and sometimes books can help. The best books are written by people who understand that not all children are alike, and they won’t all respond to the same kind of discipline. It has nothing to do with intelligence, talent, or your ability or worth as a parent. Most children respond well to definite rules and clear consequences. These “linear” children frankly make it a lot easier on their parents, I think. I have one of each: a linear child and a free spirit. Parents of linear children can be a bit judgmental of children who are more willful and have to be persuaded.  Who hasn’t watched Supernanny or any other shows of its ilk on TV, both for the satisfaction of seeing little tyrants learn to behave, but also to pick up some strategies for gaining control over your own obstreperous kids? The nanny shows make liberal use of timeouts, but in my experience, timeouts have limited effectiveness. (Have you ever seen a bedroom filled with tiny shreds of Kleenex, torn up during a 15 minute timeout? or had a child dismantle an un-mortared brick sidewalk because she didn’t like having to sit on a step for 16 minutes? Do you really want to go for round two after that? Maybe Grandma’s switch chosen from the backyard is a better idea.) Some children would rather sit for the rest of their lives than give in to you. The truant officers won’t take kindly to that when the morning class bell rings, and it will be your fault. You are the parent.

I recommend starting with the linear approach: straightforward, not too many edicts but enough to ensure safety and courtesy, teaching “we don’t do that,” then using sharp, simple words; then timeouts, then bottom pops. (Oh, yes! where would we be without those mini-spankings that kids almost seem to crave, and will keep misbehaving until, driven half out of your mind, you administer one?) Remembering to “catch them being good” can be great, but it requires always imagining the terrors you child might be committing at any given moment, and if our brains don’t work like that, maybe it’s a blessing. If you do see un-pre-meditated (that is, sincere and uncynical) remarkably good behavior, I think quietly giving a treat in private is okay once in a while – but you don’t want to instill self-consciousness. “Suzie, I saw you picking flowers for your Grandma, and that was so sweet.  Here’s a Hershey’s Kiss for my sweet girl.” We don’t want Suzie to start picking flowers just to get the chocolate. The fact that she does it naturally, on her own, is what is lovely.

But whether taking the positive rewards approach or the negative consequences method, or — best — some combination thereof, discipline is hard, and breezy recommendations imply a binary good/bad, black/white ecosystem that never exists in real life.

If disciplining “linear” children isn’t easy, guiding free-spirit, non-linear children can fill you with paroxysms of self-doubt. Self-doubt, dear parent, is lethal, and some children quickly learn to plant its seeds in you. Once the child knows you’re doubting yourself, you’re in trouble. I recommend being very chary of making broad and loud early pronouncements with strong-willed children about specific things that absolutely will not be tolerated, because all they have to do is overcome one absolute stricture one time, and your authority is compromised. A smart, wily child will rise to the challenge and test you, or engage you in manipulative reasoning, leading you down a twisting rabbit-path until the standard that seemed so all-important has now been reduced through a series of “except when’s” to a mere nicety. While we teach niceties, if we punish free-spirited children for not observing them, they will never be in our good graces. Linear or free-spirited, our children must feel like they are mostly getting it right. It was a sad day when my linear son, aged five, announced miserably, “I am the worst one in this family!” It was a conclusion he had drawn from my constant barrage of correction, and it broke my heart. I stopped, backed up, held him on my lap, reassured him, relaxed some of my mandates, let go of some obsessions and generally softened my approach.  Granted, parenting is not a democracy, but it is a relationship, and not a dictatorship. Every child needs to feel like success is in his reach.

I’m a strong-willed person, but I had to accept at a certain point with my free-spirited child that if it came down to a battle of wills, I would lose. She would out-starve me, outwit me, out-manipulate me, and out-charm me. If willfulness were won in an arm-wrestling match, the backside of my hand was flat on the table before we ever started. If I were going to be successful teaching her discipline, it would have to be done some other way.   Yet we were still responsible for her in the eyes of God, the state, her school, and we wanted a future full of possibility for this very bright, precocious child. We could see how some of her habits could create havoc in her life and the lives of others. The last thing we wanted was to launch a “spoiled” child on the world, for others to have to clean up after.

If I had it to do over today, given a non-linear child who would choose anything over losing a war of wills, I would spend less time laying down the law and more time trying gently to “sell” the right behavior. I would do less yelling and reacting with cynicism when she erred (I know! It’s awful!  You see, anyone can write a book about childrearing!), and appeal more to her desire to honor us. I would express more concern and optimism and less anger. Confronting my own undergirding, my edicts and bitterness and anger and accusations were spawned by fear and despair: fear that I would find no measures to instill better habits in her, and despair for what her life might be if she never learned to defer gratification. In reacting with fear and despair I forfeited faith and trust in God, and at some level, respect for her, even in her undisciplined choices. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that one of the five foundational truths is the dignity of man. I think it’s very important for parents to remember to treat even their misbehaving children with dignity: that alone is proof that we have faith that God will eventually teach them and steer them right. While they live with us, we can and will do all in our power to guide them, but reacting with despair or harsh remarks shows a lack of faith in Providence and the future. It hurts our children terribly when we reveal no confidence in their ability to improve. If we’re praying for them, we should have every confidence in the world that things will turn out beautifully in the end.

Households with a combination of linear children and free spirits have their own challenges: linear children rightfully think that the free spirited child is getting away with murder, and that you simply aren’t putting your foot down as you should. They probably don’t know about all the times you tried to be authoritarian that failed.  They think you should just be tougher — because your being tough worked with them.  Their sense of justice is offended. This is understandable.  All I can recommend is talking with them, explaining about different learning styles, how some people don’t respond well to authoritarianism.  You can point out that you tried it again and again, and it simply did not work — and because we love her, we have to try every approach until we find something that works.

As for my own free spirit, on her own, now that she’s a young adult, her faith in God and her sense of personal identity has helped her create a magnificent life. Somehow, with the cover of living with her parents removed, now that it’s obvious to all the world that her errors are her responsibility, she crosses most of the i’s and dots most of the t’s that were ignored in high school.  Today her brother is as proud of her as she is of him.

And what her parents don’t know won’t hurt us.

Now, really. What kind of mother would I be if I took pictures of my kids in time out?

In terms of created or natural attractions and the concept of “quality lasts,” a really fun long-term activity to engage in with your child is to make a timeline.  A timeline can include everything and be limitless in scope, or it can be topically focused and zero in just one episode of history, such as the interactive timeline of World War II (and many more) found here:

http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/

The British Library has an online timeline resource that includes a central timeline beginning in 1210 and goes to the present day.  One can also choose timelines focusing on politics, literature and language, the arts, science, and other topical emphases. http://www.bl.uk/timeline

Another fascinating timeline project, focused on science, evolution, and the humanities, can be found online at ChronoZoom.

http://www.chronozoomproject.com/#/t55@x=-5.081114107674926e-11&y=4.744970943672262e-11&w=1.0379146920486675&h=1.3200491146606408

Here’s their description of the project:

ChronoZoom is an open source community project dedicated to visualizing the history of everything to bridge the gap between the humanities and sciences using the story of Big History to easily understand all this information. This project has been funded and supported by Microsoft Research Connections in collaboration with University California at Berkeley and Moscow State University.

You can browse through history on ChronoZoom to find data in the form of articles, images, video, sound, and other multimedia. ChronoZoom links a wealth of information from five major regimes that unifies all historical knowledge collectively known as Big History.

By drawing upon the latest discoveries from many different disciplines, you can visualize the temporal relationships between events, trends, and themes. Some of the disciplines that contribute information to ChronoZoom include biology, astronomy, geology, climatology, prehistory, archeology, anthropology, economics, cosmology, natural history, and population and environmental studies.

Less graphically sophisticated but comprising a wealth of information and  people biographies is the web site Hyperhistory, with timelines for a myriad of historical events and movements:

http://www.hyperhistory.com/online_n2/History_n2/a.html

In our family, we happened to live in an older home – probably no accident, given my early attraction to historic architecture.  But since our house was built in 1850, it provided a very handy way to date many other things that our children saw or learned about: “This piece of music was written ten years before our house was built.” Or “This painting was painted 20 years after our house was built.”  We resounded that theme over and over – not anticipating that we would ever quiz our kids about the chronology of architectural of artistic periods and styles, but just using something with which they were very familiar – our hybrid Federal/Italianate Victorian house – as a baseline against which many other creative outgrowths could be marked.  Maybe it was pointless, but I had a deep belief that if we continued to mark everything we saw historically by something we knew so intimately, something of that chronology would soak in to our childrens’ understandings of art, architecture, style periods, and cultural context.

You can simply discuss events verbally using the timeline concept, as we did using our house as the pivot-point, but even more fun is to make your own timelines, whether computer-generated, or by hand.

Here are the top ten programs for creating timelines, as compiled by David Kapuler, an educational consultant with more than 10 years of experience working in the K-12 environment:

http://www.techlearning.com/default.aspx?tabid=67&entryid=592

You’ll find that in creating timelines, both you and your child will gain a deeper understanding of the unfolding of events. You can include illustrations, photographs, sound clips, videos, and other links and inserts — and as you go out in your community or travel on vacation, you’ll find that any number of things you come across have pertinence and can launch an interesting conversation.

So buildings and their history and construction became somewhat of a preoccupation in our home.  We would talk about them as we went places in the car, as we drove through other towns, as we traveled to new cities. We would talk about construction materials, historical styles, roof materials, what was durable and what wasn’t, what we liked and didn’t like, and why.

When Andrew was four and our godson was being baptized at a local Orthodox Church with a massive yellow brick dome, Andrew got out of the car, gazed solemnly at the enormous brick edifice, and proclaimed, “The big bad wolf sure couldn’t blow this church down!”  The dome has since been sheathed in metal, but I’m sure to a small child at that time, it looked something like this: 

Real building at home (as opposed to stacking) always started with colored wooden blocks, which, in spite of their low-tech nature, provided endless hours of joy. 

Another happy accident almost as pivotal as the blue table came the year that Santa Claus somehow shorted Andrew by one gift.  The line-up, when inspected on Christmas Eve, looked decidedly and unacceptably unbalanced.  How had it happened? It wouldn’t do. So dear father went out to Toys R Us for a late-night foray to even the score and came back with an off-brand castle kit of small Lego-like pieces.  “But — the recommended age is eight!” I said.  Andrew was not quite five.  “Don’t worry — I’ll do it with him.  It’s so cool — he’ll love it.” And he did.  And they did.  And it became one of the great activities in our house for several years.  That very intricate castle, with parapets and flags and knights and guards and a mote, was built and rebuilt, first by father and son, and later by son alone, and in the weeks when it was going on our whole house seemed consumed by medieval romance.

Who could forget Camp Hi-Ho? Twenty miles out in the country, where the kids had days of totally unstructured playtime, and dear camp owner Karen Lawrence always made sure they had piles of plywood, two-by-fours, hammers, saws, nails, and a sturdy tree on which to build their own tree house. Before each session when they were enrolled, Karen would call to say that she had their building supplies ready.

A few years later, when we were contemplating leaving our 1850s house for something with more modern amenities, we took both children house-hunting with us.  It seemed only fair that they should have a voice in the decision, since it would be their home during their most formative years.  One day after spending a great deal of time in a circa 1970s home with a large indoor pool, a lovely gathering kitchen, spa-sized bathrooms, an entire floor for the teenagers, a finished basement, and closets that would hold everyone’s clothes in-season and out  (in our 150-year-old home, we had to teach the kids what the word “closet” meant by showing them pictures in magazines), we walked back into our front hall flushed with excitement over the lavish social life we could enjoy in such a spread.  The next thing I knew, Andrew was lying spread eagle on his back in our vast front hall, arms outstretched on the black-and-white terrazo floor staring up at the ceilings 15 feet over his head. “What are you doing?” I asked.  After a few beats of silence his young voice emerged, oh so quietly.

“We can’t leave this house.”

So we didn’t.  We hired an architect, then a contractor, and created some of the conveniences that we had thought we would buy.  And during the process the kids spent hours designing their own fantasy additions. They drew floor plans that were unusual in their. . .unusualness.  Scores of rooms led one to another in dizzying spirals. Only a fire marshall imported from Ukraine and a very large bribe would have give us code passage. One design featured mile-long, parallel wings with special rooms for any number of particular activities: the board game room; the painting room; the doll room; the bouncing room; the sewing room, the music room, the movie room, the dancing room, the ping-pong room. (Actually, that floor plan might be used for executive homes to this day.)

Then there was the time during our construction period when we visited my first cousin in Vienna, Virginia.  As Tom and I enjoyed a quiet anniversary dinner at the Willard Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, my cousin John pulled into his garage with Andrew and Sidney in the car.  Sidney, age six, emitted a contented sigh and John caught her smile.

“What is it, Sidney?”

“A garage is nice.” And she added conspiratorially, as if she had recently been admitted to a very special club,We’re building a garage.”

No one can live in Louisville, Kentucky without being aware of our city’s impressive collection of Victorian cast-iron store fronts — the biggest collection outside Manhattan.  My husband insists that we have the best Main Street on earth. And going regularly to restaurants and cultural events in that environment leaves one with a certain mental and spiritual imprint, as does going to a high school built in 1934, or going to a church built in 1888. And if your father works in a building designed by Michael Graves, well, that’s just the cream. 

We bought books to celebrate our fascination with architecture: the greatest, the absolute greatest, was What It Feels Like to Be a Building, by Forrest Wilson, published by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, now sadly out of print, but still available used.

Housebuilding for Children by Lester Walker is still in print, and gives detailed instructions in how a group of primary-school children can build a small house using easily available tools and materials. Seriously, what child would want to play video games when he could build his own little house? This book was on the market when my children were young, and I’m dreadfully sorry I never knew about it.  They and their father set out to build their own house, which remained in our backyard for many unhappy months.  It was not an architectural gem, and the fact that a toddler potty somehow ended up inside, and the house didn’t have a door, rendered it. . .well, not the epitome of couth.

Another treasure was Dorling Kindersley’s Open House,  “lift-the-flap” book that revealed the behind-the-door secrets of a Roman street, a 16th-century Scottish tower, a 17th century Dutch home, , an 18th century English country mansion, an 1800s French farmhouse, early 19th-century Japanese house, and a mid 19th century  American country store.

All this must have soaked in with both kids, because when they were looking at colleges, the architecture became a surprisingly weighty factor in their preferences.  One look at the inside of student housing at Duke caused Andrew to change his mind about the desirability of that school forever, and sent him racing over to neighboring Chapel Hill for an admissions form.  And I think Sidney would have worked as a barrista for the rest of her life rather than go to a school without quintessential Gothic architecture.  Such hyper sensitivity to architecture seemed a little silly to me at first, but when I remembered that I once told a friend that I’d rather live in a tent in Mozambique than in a certain subdivision not far from my home, I had to admit being at least half responsible.

Thinking about your town and its architecture — whether built to last or not — what could you do to raise your child’s awareness of his built environment?

(Photo Credit: Colin Dixon/Arcaid/Corbis)

When I first was taken with great architecture in my life, I began to reflect on great structures. It dawned on me that great structures last. In time, it began to dawn on me that not only do great structures last, but perhaps all great things last.  As I observed life around me, I could see a marked difference among that which had only been around a few years, that which had been around decades but was fading into disrepair or obscurity, or that which had survived centuries or even millennia.

Thus, my first observation about how to pursue a quality life was born:

To gain insight into the best of human life, study and absorb the things that have stood the test of time, and have lasted.

At first I thought primarily about the built environment, but as time went on, I realized that once could broaden that philosophy to include music, literature, art, and religion. And ever since that time, I have gained my great moments of spiritual exhilaration when learning at the feet of great masters of all these disciplines, whose work has had to endure a few decades of being buffeted by the course of events, societal distractions, even ridicule, and then emerged again showing forth a wisdom that people at first overlooked or even scorned.

But this is not a blog, or eventually a book, about my life, but about your child, and how you can broaden your child’s spirit and vision, as it were, to recognize quality in the midst of all the noise in our world.  I can give you a lot of practical tips, but underlying those has to be your bedrock conviction that there is something worth shooting for, high above the diet fed by the Disney Channel and MTV. You have to believe that some things, the really good things, are everlasting.  If they weren’t, it would be rather cruel to force-feed them to our children: I don’t think our goal is to create creatures of utter cultural anachronism, weirdos and nerds destined to be mocked and bullied.

What’s more, truly to raise a Renaissance child doesn’t mean sequestering him or her from all of the cultural junk food that comprises most of young Americans’ media diet.  If you do that, he will have no way to discern quality from candy, and once he gets his first taste of Cheetos, if you will, it’ll be good bye caviar (figuratively speaking). The allure of forbidden fruit is real, so a little bit of age-appropriate cotton candy  can be used to teach the difference between shallowness and depth, and the occasional joy of cuddling up in bed and watching one’s favorite prince or princess outwit the evil villain. Later you can find seek out the age-appropriate version of the real Pocahontas, who was not in love with John Smith but sacrificed herself more heroically simply from an inner sense of fairness. 

It all goes back to your own convictions, and communicating them calmly and respectfully to your child, trusting that if you can take the most advanced concept and put it into simple language and render it understandable.

So what are we trying to produce, if not weirdos and nerds? I think for me, my desire 24 years ago when my first child was born, was summed up in a documentary my husband saw about a Japanese woman raising her children in the aftermath of Hiroshima.  As she put her children to bed each night, she told the camera that she tried to teach them “to look beneath the surface of things.”  Above all, we will have prepared our children for life, and they will be better citizens of the world, if they know how to do that – and culture that has lasted through time is only a tool to teach our children to go deep, question the prevailing wisdom (which so often is only herd-think) and have the courage to stand alone if one must. I’m not sure one can do that without being inspired by stories of others who have, and by having the messages of courage and nobility instilled in us. So we expose our children to heroicism in the arts and history and the world – large things that capture their minds and hearts and inspire them to dream big dreams. Because one will never sacrifice without a dream as a promise to back it up.

But you can’t fake it: you have to believe at some very elemental level that the universe is on your side in this endeavor: that for all the seeming dominance of bedazzled plastic, it will ultimately turn to dust, and the good and the heroic will remain.  For some of us, this is not hard.  We believe it – we know it. For others, you may have to spend some time contemplating this concept and asking yourself what you really believe, and what is really important to you.  If you really believe that it’s more important for a girl to be popular at her school than for her to have self-respect, then you will never be able to persuade her that you aren’t just as devastated as she when she has been abandoned by the cool kids on the weekend. If you really believe that winning the football game is all-important, your son will know that when he misses the last-second field goal that you are ashamed of him and he will imagine that you prefer another child to him.

And above all, when it seems that your teenager is rejecting everything you have tried assiduously to teach him, can you keep from throwing it over yourself in your own mini-popularity contest with your own beloved child? Because although we can be flexible, we can’t be hypocrites and keep our childrens’ respect.  They will push and test and torment us, and we have to be stronger than they are.  We have to win their love by risking their scorn. We can’t tell them that reading Black Beauty is better than reading A Diamond for Tammy, and four years later ourselves be caught reading a dime-store bodice-ripper under the covers with a flashlight. 

When I was six, my father was offered a professorship at the University of Florida, and we moved from Storrs, Connecticut, to balmy and laconic Gainesville, Florida.  While north Florida lacked the intense educational focus of New England — where the plethora of historic Ivy League universities surrounding gave the entire region an intellectual quality unlike anywhere else in the nation, any university town provides countless offerings that can help parents in providing cultural experiences to children. For me, the first glimpse I had of what would eventually become a fixed mental ideal took place when I was seven.

My parents, always trying to bring culture into my brother’s and my young lives, brought us to UF’s University Auditorium for a performance. This was the first visit of many for me to that old-world-looking edifice.  The performance we went to see might have been The Messiah, or a visiting operatic production, or the annual reading of Dickens’ Christmas Carol by Dean Lester Hale – for these and many other performances were things we regularly saw at University Auditorium.  But it was less the production, and more the gothic arches of that towering space, the worn red velvet cushions on the seats, the scuffed and dinged mahogany newels and pilasters, that filled me with wonder.  I felt like I had come home to something that I hadn’t known existed before – but something that was created for me – or I for it.  What was it?  It was the echo of history, and the grandeur of the immense height and cavernous space, the ghosts of past lives represented by every trailing velvet thread and center-worn step, the dim light and the vast stage – everything about that historic building spoke to me, as if to say, “Here is inspiration. Here is something that worth living for.”  

Of course, when you’re seven the elevations of early 1900s faux-gothicism seem magnificent, indeed – and I still pause and smile when I see University Auditorium on the University of Florida campus.  No one could have told me at that time that far grander gothic cathedrals from the first iteration of that architectural style were an ocean away, and that this neo-rendition of something done more authentically centuries before might be a bit contrived. In all honesty, that didn’t matter. What mattered in terms of making an impression on my young spirit was that University Auditorium was older and more magical than any other buildings I had been in, and I loved it.   It had withstood something – a lot of things – and for that reason it was a very reassuring presence in a town of 1960s cinder-block ranch homes.  (In fact, Memorial Auditorium, as it was called at that time, had been sensitively designed in the early 1920s by William Augustus Edwards, who clearly was evoking Westminster Hall and the Central Lobby of London’s Houses of Parliament, as well as Princeton’s Proctor Hall, designed in 1913 by Ralph Adams Cram. The interior includes feature an important 14th-century-style hammerbeam ceiling — a unique application in a cruciform structure. Each hammerbeam culminates with one of the four land-grant quadriviums: the Scholar, the Musician, the Engineer, and the Athlete. Above the east and west balconies, two large windows showcase six more scholars, these presented in early 20th-century Art Deco style, who have gazed with sanguine detachment on the many performances and events held there through the decades.)

So when my children came along, I wanted them to know the exhilaration and wonder of being confronted with the towering grandeur that some buildings lend. As a result, we have a lot of great stories about how that worked out that I’ll share in a subsequent post. My love for historic architecture began with that first trip to University Auditorium in 1962. It continued with an assortment of serendipitous moments: a visit to the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. while on a sixth-grade school trip; a horseback ride through the Garden of the Gods in Colorado at the age of 13; a lucky assignment to live in a 1939 dormitory my first year of college rather than in a  soulless, concrete, steel and glass highrise.  From all these snapshots indelibly engraved on my mind, I learned about the deepening impact that our structural environment can have on us, and I found myself gravitating toward structures – manmade or natural – that seemed to have stories embedded in their substance.

In the meantime, what are the buildings in your child’s life — or in your life — that have contributed to a sense of awe, of wonder, of romance?

Where to begin? Is there any way to describe the importance of reading in the life of a child? Can one start it too young?

I will confess that my mother thought perhaps she started it too young with me.  At least she thought she  caved to my desire to learn to read when I was too young.  Like every younger brother or sister, I wanted to do what my older brother was doing.  So naturally when he started to school and was learning to read, I wanted to learn to read, too. But I was only three, and my mother worried that if I learned too early, I would be bored when I reached grade school.  She had just cause to be concerned, too: in those days, first grade consisted of a rigidly constructed curriculum, and if it was repetition for a child, tant pis, as the French would say: tough luck.  Teachers had no idea how to adjust for individual needs, which surely has been the difficulty of teaching a classroom of diverse children throughout history.  But in the early 1960s, it was unheard of to alter curriculum for individual needs. So my mother tried everything she could think of to put me off.  She assigned my father the job of teaching me to read music and to play the piano, and I went along for a short time, but it wasn’t what I wanted.  They tried to distract me with art supplies, craft supplies, play dates, nursery school, anything, until my mother succumbed to my misery and pulled out the “easy to read” books and started in on phonics.

The inevitable happened, and for first, second, third and fourth grades I was bored, bored, bored — and spent much of my time sitting at a desk out in the hall, because bored, curious children. . .well, it isn’t a good thing. I think my mother decided that teaching me to read early backfired in all the ways she had feared, and in many ways she was right.

So I had a few trepidations about early reading when my children came along, but I suppose not enough, because as soon as I saw that little glimmer in their eyes — that intellectual connection between the words on the page and the words I was speaking — and they began to tilt toward literacy by learning their ABCs, and then learning to write their ABCs, and then writing books with titles like PREWEO REWO and reading them outloud, good old mom was right there, bouncing up and down with a nauseatingly goofy smile, bending forward in the way mothers do when they are terribly excited, nodding vigorously, and stage whispering, “Do you want to learn to read? do you want to learn to read??”

It was all over, then. Of course, the older child came first.  I think he was four. Lest anyone think this requires extraordinary intelligence on the part of the parent or the child, it does not. It’s really quite Pavlovian.  It begins with identifying the shapes of the letters, perhaps on wooden blocks or other toys, and repeating the letter sound at the same time.  Of course, today one can get V-Tech toys to do all of this, but I doubt there is any substitute for physical closeness with a parent or another trusted adult in the process.  (My daughter used to fairly pound the floor with her little fat hand as she played: “Mama, sit! Play!” as I raced through, invariably on the way to the washing machine. Would a V-Tech toy have answered that desire for human proximity? Of course not. Did I? Let’s just say that even “renaissance parents” have strains of guilt years later over various failings and personal propensities. And the kids are all right.)

But I do think that half of learning to read is about snuggling, lap sitting, or just being side-by-side on a sofa or in a big, cushy chair: which may have something to do with the decline in public school literacy in the primary years, but I am no expert about that.

Having a lot of books around is also critical. But they don’t have to be new books from the bookstore or Amazon, if the budget is tight.  They can be from the library, they can be from used booksellers, they can be exchanged with friends.  And of course, children will want to read if they see their parents reading — so even if you don’t have the habit, develop it.  Even if you find it the hardest thing in the world to do, fake it for your kid! Sit with a book in front of you and turn the pages in the child’s presence, rather than let him or her always see you watching television or playing on the computer.  I will be assaulted by parental feedback for that — for encouraging deception — and of course, part of me is being facetious when I recommend faking anything, but I am only trying to impress upon you how good it is — like Vitamin D and Vitamin C and broccoli and protein and fiber and baths and hugs and kisses — for your child to see you using books and deriving benefit from them.  A lot.

From there it’s really quite simple.  What does the “C” sound like? “kuh-kuh-kuh”  What is the next letter?  “A”  What sounds does that make?  “ah” or sometimes?  “ay” What is the last letter?  “T” And what sounds does it make”  “tuh-tuh-tuh” So we put it together to make? “kuuh. . .ahhhh. . . .tuh. . .CAT!!!”

Now, here’s the critical part: if there’s a picture of a cat on the page, the next time, the child will say, “CAT!” immediately, from the picture — BUT HE WON’T HAVE READ THE WORD.  So if you are really trying to teach him to read and not just to find reasons to load him up with empty praises, you have to force him to slow down, and repeat the whole exercise: dismantling the word letter by letter, sounding out each letter, and putting it together.  Because kids can memorize books very, very easily, and they and you can tell yourselves that they are reading.  There is nothing wrong with that, but don’t be fooled by it. Reading comes when they recognize the individual letters on the page, identify their corresponding letter sounds, and string them together to create the words.  And yes, it gets a bit complicated with short and long vowels and “e’s” on the end of words, combined vowel sounds, and similar English peculiarities. It requires a lot of faith and patience, but if your child really wants to do it, you can do it.

Should you? Oh, that depends. I would say it depends on the primary educational offerings where you live, and your willingness to advocate (read: fight) your way through them. In our case, I was pretty sure that I could find what my children needed when they entered school, even if they went in reading chapter books fluently. And I was even more certain of my own dedication to making sure that they got what they needed, smash-mouth mother that I was.  And I knew the law, which is vastly different than it was in the early 1960s. Today, special needs children have to be given the education they need in the public system. Is it wrong to make them outliers by teaching them past grade level, and then to insist that the public school system meet their needs? Well, let me answer that question with another question: Is it right to discourage one’s children from learning when they are ready to and want to, simply to save government resources?

I told myself that if I weren’t able to find a classroom that could receive them exactly where they were in terms of learning, and move them forward enough that they weren’t bored, as I was in the primary grades, then I would teach them at home.  I didn’t especially want to homeschool, because I’m independent by nature and have always enjoyed having my own life separate from my kids, and we were blessed that I never had to. I know that both of my children are grateful that they were able to go to “regular schools” (public all the way through for my son and parochial most of the way through for my daughter) and get a good education.  But I wasn’t going to hold them back academically because it might require homeschooling. If they wanted to learn, I wanted them to and was determined to facilitate or even lead the process. If we had to drive one beat-up car, if we had to forego a lot of other perks and pleasures, and I had to sell cosmetics in the evenings, we would do it. (Okay, I lied: I don’t think I could have sold cosmetics, or even plastic leftover dishes, or even encyclopedias. These days, some moms learn to pole dance. I would not be good at that. I guess I could have sung at weddings: “The Lord’s Prayer” and Paul Stuckey’s “There is Love,”  over and over and over and over and over again, Saturday after Saturday, $50 a pop, two per weekend, $400 a month: saved from a life of pink Cadillacs or cash tucked in a G-string. Whew!)

How did it all this early learning work? Remarkably well, for us. Yes, school shopping was a bit of a project at every juncture — kindergarten, primary, middle and high school. Much of that is due to our city and how the schools are organized, as people have told me who have relocated here from other cities, where you simply enroll at and go to the nearest neighborhood school.  I was glad we had a lot of choices; school shopping was a great pleasure for us.  People told me for years that we could have published and sold our “kindergarten notebook” to parents after we were done with the shopping process. I could always find a school that was offering curriculum at the right level.  In the primary grades, that was a Montessori school, which we were blessed to find in a public school setting.

Today my children are both avid readers. They seem to love reading, and to consider it part of their identity, their gestalt, almost their obligation in carrying out a cherished family tradition. They seem to know that reading is nearly as good as travel, and in some ways a good bit better: the water is potable, the bed is your own, there are no suitcases to pack and unpack, you don’t have to worry about forgetting your toothbrush, and you can always find a bathroom.

I remember the Sunday afternoon represented in this picture very well.  We had come home from church and lunch out, and I promised Andrew, who had finished his weekend homework and had no scheduled games or other obligations, that I would set him up in front of the fire with a book. I don’t think it was his idea, and I’m pretty sure I described it using unfairly delectable phrases. But I was trying to create a certain delight in him: a cherishing of a free afternoon or evening to just sit in peace and read. Since he hadn’t yet reached the recalcitrant middle school years, he was enthusiastic about the idea. We asked his dad to drag the old wing chair in front of the dining room fireplace — the only working downstairs fireplace at the time.  From the looks of it, Dad also built the fire. Andrew chose whatever book he was reading that had him entranced, and I got a blanket for him to snuggle up in. Everyone tiptoed past the room all afternoon, and he stayed there for hours.  No music, no TV, no talk.  Just the crackling fire, a cozy chair, a blanket and a good book.  Bliss, right?

But not for many modern-day children, and why is that? I suspect it’s because they haven’t grown up ever experiencing such moments, because anymore, such moments have to be created almost artificially.  Is the TV on more than you suspect it should be? Pause a moment and think about what that constant background noise is doing to your childrens’ sensibilities. Today, at 24 and 20, my children have many friends who cannot go to sleep without the television on — because they have no experience with silence, with quiet. Then we have to ask ourselves: were people built to perform their best with a steady diet of background noise? Consider for a moment today’s epidemic levels of child and adult medication.  Is it possible that the constant drone or blare of percussive noise causes depression in people?  Think about a walk through the woods, with only the rustle of leaves or the distant sounds of rushing water?   Does that not sound soothing, therapeutic, almost like a day at the spa?  Is it any accident that “spa music” so often includes water sounds, bird sounds, ocean wave sounds — and does not, if it isn’t too elementary to point it out — include the sounds of television commercials or nighttime police dramas?

Even music can sometimes become intrusive — an unnecessary distraction from the rare calming moment of reflection and sharing with others. After a day or two of keeping with everyones’ demands — for any of us, but especially for a young child, who surely already feels a small cog in the machinery of the world — just to sit quietly with a book or one’s thoughts, and carve out the time to become inwardly centered — in short, to become friends with one’s self, and not to fear an afternoon spent only with a crackling fire and a book for companionship — is surely an antidote to the social desperation we see in so many teenagers and even, sadly, their parents. If being alone is tolerable, then we needn’t be so frightened by the possibility of friends who turn out to be fickle. If being alone is acceptable, then when the rest of the world is caving to moral expediency, we stand a chance of being the one person who won’t: we might even have a shot at being noble, even heroic.

But for a parent to create such moments in a child’s life is a militant act in our world.  It’s decidedly counter-culture, whether one swings left, right, or center. Certainly in American life, horrific noise is on all sides of the political landscape. Just look at both the Democratic and the Republican presidential conventions: the noise is so thick and deep that obviously, real thinking endangers the goals.  Noise drums up fears, hatred and anger. Noise raises money! Quiet encourages thought, tempers reactions, and quells individuals who are one step from joining the mob. Yet from casual restaurants to Hollywood special-effects extravaganzas, from 100,000-seat football stadia (which I do love!) and sold-out concert arenas, we are saturated in noise. I cannot state it more plainly: if you want your children to cherish quiet, you will have to go to some extraordinary lengths.

But the message in doing so could not be more clear: your mind and spirit are worth cultivating. I trust you to be alone with your thoughts and be nurtured by them. You are worth investing time in, all by yourself. You don’t have to have a group around to be of value. You don’t have to be living according to the agenda of histrionics set by the world.  I read recently about people building dream homes with a dozen television screens installed in a media wall, all of them running on different cable channels concurrently, like the monitors in a television newsroom.  Why do they feel the need to absorb 12 news stations simultaneously? “I might miss something,” one such homeowner said. “I don’t want to miss anything.”

But he is missing something.  He is missing the priceless treasure of his own spirit. I wonder how it might all have been different for that impoverished soul if his mother or father had just once wrapped him in a blanket, put him in a cozy chair, lit a fire in the fireplace, handed him an entrancing book, and tiptoed around him on a Sunday afternoon.

How have you encouraged quiet in the life of your child? 

I was reading a book for our book club the other day, about a man who was on trial for murder, and the case the prosecution built to establish the man’s sanity.  The assistant Attorney General asked an expert witness in psychiatry to compare the accused with  someone who is diagnosed with schizophrenia.  The physician asserted that one quality in particular spoke to the man’s sanity: “This is a man who enjoys a good joke.”

“…laughter is always something that is a shared experience. . . .One thing I can tell you in working with hundreds of schizophrenics over my lifetime, is schizophrenics don’t have shared humor with people around them.  Most of the time they are quite humorless.  Once in a , they’ll have their own idiosyncratic humor, laughing with themselves at things that have nothing to do with their environment. But a rather sensitive marker of psychosis is whether people have enough of the same shared reality to not only understand the facts of one’s reality, but the subtle and social meaning and significance that is irony.”1

I had to contemplate that for a while, especially as it pertains to raising children and family dynamics.  What dawned on me was the importance of shared humor in family life: those little moments of silliness that others might not think funny at all, because (we’ll all said it) you had to be there.  But that’s just the thing: in a family, you were there when the joke first came into being.  The off-the-wall comment that becomes an anecdote told over and over again; the games we make up at the dinner table, like the time our family composed native American names for each other: “Runs Like a Grandmother;” “Hates to Lose Candyland,”  “Counts on her Fingers,” and (although my husband is loathe to admit it) “Sleeps While He’s Driving;” the odd gesture that hits everyone’s funny bone and is replayed endlessly for years later;  secret languages brothers and sisters make up to communicate with one another — “patchouli” meant yes, “patchouka” meant no, “bar-bar” meant something really, really sad or bad; and something multisyllabic and complicated that we tragically no longer can remember meant. . .the withering of a pine tree.  (“The withering of a pine tree” in a four-word language? Ah, but yes! With that one word, this developing but nevertheless four-word language implied promise! It was destined to be far superior to English, with its limited description of the stresses undergone by conifers.) Although it isn’t funny, I still remember with maternal poignance the moment my daughter, age 8, learned that friend in her ballet class was getting promoted to the intermediate level.  I told her quietly as she sat in the backseat of the car, and there was utter silence for thirty seconds.  When I turned to look at her, her big brown eyes were filled with tears. “Bar-bar,” she whispered.

Every night when our two had finished dinner and weren’t allowed to be excused while their parents were still eating, they would ask if they could put on a play for us to make the waiting less agonizing.  The large pocket doors would be slid shut between the dining room and the family room, and we would hear endless whispering and giggling from the next room as award-worthy theatrical productions were plotted and staged. Finally the pocket doors were slid back (Dad had to assist with that) and the play would begin.Invariably the entire performance would dissolve into shrieks of laughter shared by youngsters and adults alike. No two plays were alike, but they were all equally ridiculous.  

As the kids got older and we would travel together, we would hear them in the adjoining hotel bedroom, laughing uproariously at some silliness or another.  Is there anything more delightful than hearing your children make each other laugh hysterically?  I often imagine how God must feel when He sees us enjoying each other in that regard — and how He must grieve when we refuse to.

If shared humor is a sign of sanity, then surely shared humor in a family is the foundation of mental health for life.  Pray to have it in your family, and when you catch a glimpse of it, or hear those giggles in the next room, cherish it as the antidote to much of the world’s psychosis.

Going through old papers recently I found the letter posted below, about which we have laughed as a family several times in the years since. It was written when my son was in the fifth grade, to his music teacher at the time. Obviously, he had reported the injustice to me, and I was determined to make it right. Check out the attachments at the bottom — I’m laughing today, but we had no more trouble out of that teacher the rest of the year. Sometimes a mom’s got to fight.
________________________________________________________________

2-24-99 midnight

Dear Dr. L——,

My son, [name], did not understand that he was to copy verbatim all the information you had on the board in your class on Tuesday. Therefore, he was not able to re-copy information that he had not written in the first place.

As he was not among the students creating a disruption, I expect there to be no negative consequences for him. I also expect him not to be ridiculed or humiliated, in class or out, for any reason. I have no problem with fair discipline, calmly communicated.

Thank you.

Vivian Ruth Sawyer

cc: David B—–, principal
Sally G——, teacher

Att: 1998-99 Uniform Code of Student Conduct and the Student Bill of Rights
p. 4 — student responsibilities — no violation
p. 5 — B — staff’s resonsibilities — violation of items # 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 10 & 13
p. 7 — “Harrassment. . . .is intimidation by threats. . . .or the expression of hatred, contempt, or prejudice toward an individual.”
p. 12 — The Right to Freedom from Harrassment and Discrimination
p. 38 — violation of #8 The Right to Freedom from Abuse

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