Grace Without God

Grace Without God


By Katherine Ozment

Author’s Note: Several years ago, my son asked me what religion we were and I blurted out, “We’re nothing.” I’d long ago left the Christianity I’d grown up in and my husband had left his Jewish faith. We weren’t religious anymore, but what were we? I knew instantly that I needed a better answer for my son, his two sisters, my husband, and myself. So I began to explore how we could create a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging outside the traditional framework of organized religion, a journey that resulted in my first book, Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. For three years I traveled the country to bring back stories of secular pioneers who were creating new communities, forming meaningful rituals, and voicing clear answers their kids’ big questions. From hundreds of interviews and many hours of travels, I started to stitch together a new way to live in the world for myself and my family, which I explain in this, the concluding chapter of my book.


Make Your Own Sunday

Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,

In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else

In any balm or beauty of the earth,

Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?

—Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

From my many trips to learn about people who’d left religion and were creating new secular communities, one couple in particular stays in my mind. I met Allen and Brenda Glendenning, a couple in their fifties, at the American Atheists National Convention. Allen and Brenda live in Great Bend, Kansas, and were once active members of the Church of the Nazarene. They were sitting a few seats down from me in a session on secular grief when Allen raised his hand and shared that he was starting to worry about what he and Brenda would do when one of them died now that they didn’t have a religious community to fall back on. It was something I thought about, too, and after the session I asked him if he’d tell me his story.

We sat in upholstered chairs on the balcony overlooking the hotel lobby. Allen wore a crisp suit and square-framed glasses, and Brenda kept her hair in neat waves. They had met in third grade and were both raised in the church. Allen’s father was a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, and Allen attended a Nazarene university. He and Brenda said that their upbringings were very strict, with their parents training their thoughts on not upsetting God through evils such as social dancing. But Brenda said that her family had always been a bit more open-minded, more welcoming, and less judgmental compared to their very conservative religion.

After losing their faith, Allen and Brenda left the church and began to find fellowship on the road, at conventions like the one where I met them. They remained friends with another couple who had also left the church when they did, and they all got together on weekends and sometimes even took trips together. But they said they missed the larger community bonds they’d grown up with, and the music at the church. For a moment as Allen described how much he enjoyed singing in the choir, I sensed a touch of nostalgia. But then he looked me directly in the eye and said something I’ll never forget: “I wish I had been raised the way you’re raising your kids,” he said. “And I wish I could have raised my kids that way.”

He said that if he had it to do all over again, he would spend his Sundays differently. Instead of going to church, where the kids went into one room for Sunday school and the parents went into another for the main services, and instead of obeying the strict religious culture all around him, he would spend that time with his kids one-on-one, pursuing the things he and his family really enjoyed, not what they were told they had to do. At the end of our interview, before getting up to go, he added, “I wish I could have all those Sundays back.”

It has been four years since my son asked me what we were, and I’d come up short. We have not gone out and joined a church or a synagogue. We haven’t prayed to the four directions or donned Buddhist robes. I didn’t make my kids meditate or prostrate themselves on prayer rugs or study the Torah. Nevertheless, everything in our lives had changed in ways both imperceptible and profound.

In our new neighborhood in Chicago, where we moved a year ago, we are connected to our past in a way that gives us a true sense of belonging. We live a block away from where my husband, Michael, grew up, and our children attend the school he and his brother went to. Our son plays basketball at the same Neighborhood Club where Michael and his brother once played, and our daughters take gymnastics there. The older two kids walk home from school each day past the brick apartment building where their great-grandparents lived after coming to the United States from Germany in the 1930s to escape the Holocaust. They also see their cousins regularly for sleepovers and the kind of hearty family meals I envied in my Catholic friends’ homes growing up. Even here, in a new place, our son has never said that he feels homesick.

Our children continue to try to find their places in the world, both real and imagined. Our youngest has a clutch of invisible friends who keep her company wherever she goes. When I ask her where they are, she looks as me as if I’m blind and says, “Can’t you see them?” Our older daughter recently told me that she has three religions: Judaism, Christianity, and gymnastics. Our son finds the Greek gods and goddesses fascinating, plays basketball, and loves math. This year he joined the school choir, and sometimes I hear him singing the religious songs he’s learned in class. The sweet notes remind me of the boys choir at the Episcopal church on the New Haven Green that I loved so much as a child. Detached from religion, yet somehow still connected to it, they waft through our house and are even more beautiful to me now.

At night when I tuck the kids into bed, we share two things from the day that we are thankful for and one story they want to hear about my childhood—or Michael’s when he tucks them in. They love these stories of their parents as kids, of our families, of who we were and what we did.

This year I joined the board of the Neighborhood Club, and I work to raise money so kids and their families can benefit from the club’s many programs. Our kids like to give, too. On warm weekends they often run a lemonade stand and donate the money they earn to an animal shelter, the Ronald McDonald House, or another worthy cause. We participate in school-led volunteer activities as well, recently packing hundreds of bag lunches for a homeless shelter and cleaning up a community center in an underserved area of our city. Our children seem to be soaking up the values modeled in our tight-knit community, where service, diversity, and giving are prized.

Occasionally, I take myself to church. There’s a United Church of Christ a block from our house, and on the first Friday of each month it holds a Taizé service, based on a form of worship created in a French monastery during World War II as a way to bring Catholics and Protestants together. The ecumenical service lasts an hour and consists of singing simple, repetitive hymns while holding lit candles in the dimmed light of the cavernous church. There are usually only about fifteen of us there, and we sit scattered as pairs and singles through the pews. Beneath the vaulted ceiling, only the sound of our voices lifting up, I feel at once infinitesimal and valuable beyond measure.

We continue to celebrate the Jewish and Christian holidays in our secular way, but with renewed interest in the history of the traditions. This year, on the final night of Hanukkah, Michael’s brother and his family, along with old friends of Michael’s parents and a dear high school friend of his, joined us for brisket, latkes, and kugel. Surrounded by our loved ones, the children took turns lighting the candles and later opened Hanukkah gifts around the Christmas tree.

Though our lives bear all the traces of the modern American family’s trademark busyness—work and school, errands and activities—we create pockets of togetherness, in nature, at home, in our neighborhood. As we make our way forward without religion, I still don’t have answers to all the big questions. But I’m starting to see that becoming more comfortable holding the questions is the only way that makes sense to me. I turn the questions over and over again until they are like smooth, solid stones.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson speaks of grace as a form of reverence for life. Her understanding of grace is based in Christian theology, but I believe I can find that same sort of grace, too. I know that’s what I found one morning when our younger daughter, then four, had risen before dawn and wrangled herself into her glittering blue-and-white princess outfit. The dress had a satiny bodice and a gauzy skirt that puffed out from her waist. A size too big, it hung to her ankles. She wanted to go out to the driveway and get the newspaper, her favorite errand. It was 5:30 AM, and, though I was in my rumpled pajamas and my head was still in its pre-coffee fog, I opened the front door and stood at the top of the steps as she floated down them. With her feet hidden beneath the fabric of her skirt, her movements gave the impression of a fairy-tale figure descending on air, her blond tangle of hair bouncing slightly as she went down the steps. There was no sound in the neighborhood except for a bird chirping in a nearby neighbor’s yard. I froze, suddenly awake. She was a shiny blue jewel rendered all the more brilliant because of the green and brown tones of the trees and yard surrounding her.

As I watched her bend to pick up the newspaper and turn back to face me, the flash of her crystal-blue eyes showing her pride and excitement, I didn’t need her to mean anything more than she was before me. I didn’t need our lives to be part of a divine, unfolding plan. I didn’t need to believe that God’s hand would guide us through that morning and ever after. Meaning came from the intense awareness of the moment itself, from my reverence for her, for this life we were joined in as family. I simply needed to remain still enough to notice.

GraceWithoutGodFlatCover (1) copyThis is an excerpt from Grace Without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age. More of her writing can be found at

Katherine Ozment is an award-winning journalist whose essays and articles have been widely published. Grace Without God is her first book. She lives in Chicago with her husband and three children.



Illustration: Linda Willis






Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

Book Review: Catastrophic Happiness

catastrophichappinessBy Lindsey Mead

Catastrophic Happiness by Catherine Newman is a series of essays, which masterfully combine story and reflection. In the prologue, titled IT GETS BETTER, Newman captures the particular joys and indignities of raising small children – riding in the back of the car with them, distributing string cheese, the way a dental appointment feels like a spa vacation because nobody needs you, the droopy sorrow of a weaned bosom, a toddler inhaling sand at the beach – with her trademark perfection. I laughed out loud several times. And then, in the prologue’s last scene, Newman describes a mother sitting in bed between her sleeping children, “boo-hoo[ing] noiselessly into the kids’ hair because life is so beautiful and you don’t want it to change.” Haven’t we all done that? I know that I have. Newman goes on to introduce the years that come after that sleeping-toddler scene, the messy years of the book’s subtitle, by telling us that “…you will feel exactly the way you feel now. Only better.”

The essays that follow trace this getting-better with stories of Newman’s children, Ben and Birdy. My own children are similar in age to Ben and Birdy, though two years stair-step younger (my older child and Birdy are the same age). I related intensely to this book. Each of the seven chapters in Catastrophic Happiness contains power, sentiment, and visceral emotion.

Newman’s observations run the gamut from deep and profound to hilarious and true. For example, within pages in the first section, she states that “happiness is so precarious,” and that “I don’t always understand the children or what their problem is.” Isn’t this one of the defining features of parenting, the way things can swing from dense feeling to trite confusion in a matter of minutes? The hilariously confounding and overwhelmingly holy coexist, at least for me, in most hours.

Over and over again, the lines of Catastrophic Happiness made me gasp and sigh, underline and laugh, text a friend and say “OMG, read this,” and even email Newman herself and ask: “Are we the same person?” For example:

I am so glad and grateful, I am. But sometimes the orchestra plays something in swelling chords of luck and joy, and all I can hear is that one violin sawing out a thin melody of grief.

Newman’s pieces, just like life itself, touch on, and interweave, the sacred and the mundane. The seven chapters are broken into smaller pieces, each of which revolves around a specific memory of a point in time. These are presented in loose chronological order and all have marvelous “How to” names, like “How to Have Complicated Feelings,” “How to Share a Beating Heart” and “How to Hang On By a Thread.”

My favorite section is “How to See the Light Behind the Trees,” which begins in a damp, unpleasant campground bathroom with Birdy, “her pants pool[ing] around her ankles on the wet cement floor.” What parent doesn’t read that and find themselves immediately thrust back into a situation where they wait for their progeny, if not a cement campground outhouse then in a filthy rest stop toilet stall? This is one of parenting’s universal, largely unpleasant scenarios. Newman and her family visit the same campground every year, which makes it the perfect place to reflect on how quickly time is moving. Her memories remind me of our own annual summer vacation, and of the way that an annual visit to the same place provides a unique lens on both time’s passage and the way that the past is animate in the present. There’s heartache to this experience for me, and Newman captures this brilliantly:

I used to picture time as a rope you followed along, hand over hand, into the distance, but it’s nothing like that. It moves outward but holds everything that’s come before. Cut me open and I’m a tree trunk, rings of nostalgia radiating inward. All the years are nested inside me like I’m my own person one-woman matryoshka doll. I guess that’s true for everybody but then I drive myself crazy with my nostalgia and happiness. I am bittersweet personified.

Yes. Me too. Oh, me too.

In some of Catastrophic Happiness’ later sections my identification with Newman’s writing was even more powerful. When she writes how “privacy and independence come on suddenly, like a sleeper wave of separation, and children experience this with simultaneous relief and dread,” I felt like someone was reading my mind. Yes. With children at 11 and 13, I’m riding that wave right now, alternately grateful to be able to see the horizon for the first time in many years and utterly swamped by seawater.

Newman has a true gift for making the reader feel intimately connected to her family. She draws indelible images that are deeply personal to her family and hugely universal at the same time: Birdy, with unraveling braids, in a doctor’s waiting room; Ben cheerfully helping his mother with a flooded basement, the face of a beloved, well-worn beanbag toy that Birdy sleeps with every night.

In Catastrophic Happiness Newman has trapped lightning in a jar, allowing us all to admire its dazzle. In her book’s short, lovely pages she captures life as a mother, life as a human being, life in general, in all of its gorgeous, complicated grandeur. It’s hard for me to choose a favorite passage, but I’ll try.

Life isn’t about avoiding trouble, is it? It’s about being present, even through the hard stuff, so you don’t miss the very thing you’re trying so hard not to lose.

In Catastrophic Happiness, Catherine Newman both powerfully reminds me of what it is I’m trying so hard not to lose, and helps me stay present to it. In my opinion, there is no surer mark of a great book, or no higher compliment.

Lindsey Mead is a mother, writer, and financial services professional who lives near Boston with her daughter, son, and husband. Her work has appeared in a variety of print and online sources, several anthologies, and she blogs regularly at A Design So Vast.


Top Ten Books To Welcome A New Baby

Top Ten Books To Welcome A New Baby

Your Were the First

By Christina Krost

As I sit at my computer typing, I hear Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood reboot on PBS, singing from the next room: “When a baby makes things different, find a way to make things fun.” It’s good advice even for me, an experienced mom of three who stopped having time to read parenting books before baby #3 came along.

My youngest daughter, Harper, is obsessed with all things Daniel Tiger and baby dolls, so this episode is pretty much on repeat all the live long day. She is my final baby, so she will never know what it’s like to transition from baby to big sister. But after preparing my two older daughters for this life change in the past I know that each girl reacted to the news differently: one with indifference, the other with absolute joy. As the wife of a mainline Christian pastor, I’ve observed many family configurations over the years and since all families are different, I’ve included books that span cultures and include adoption and fostering. So, once you’ve ordered the “I’m a Big Brother/Sister t-shirt,” add a few of these books that have helped my own children with this transition to your bookshelves. Start with some reading just for you and your partner and then move on to kids’ books.

The Connected Child by Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D, David R. Cross, Ph.D, and Wendy Lyons Sunshine (2007)

If I were considering fostering or adopting a child, this would be the first book I picked up. It contains a balance of charts and graphs with narratives about what children may have experienced before coming to their new parent’s home. It’s full of practical solutions to common behavioral and social problems and offers clues about a child’s development that may have led to such behaviors. It’s well organized but might initially seem overwhelming. Note that a quick search through the table of contents might help give timely answers to pressing questions. I find the book to be a gentle, loving, and practical way to welcome your new child into your family.

Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings by Dr. Laura Markham (2015)

If I were looking for a list of ways to help my children adapt to a new sibling through birth or adoption, this would be my absolute first choice. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids has devoted the last third of her newest book to the time before welcoming the new baby and through the baby’s first year (previously reviewed at Brain, Child). She has a gentle approach to parenting that focuses on setting up a peaceful home environment and likens a child’s development to the rings of a tree: daily experiences and interactions are shaping your children into the people they will be for the rest of their lives. She focuses on peer modeling for how to cope with successes and failures so that our children can learn from us, and in turn model appropriate behavior for younger siblings. This is the book I wished I’d had before welcoming my second daughter in 2009.

I’m a Big Sister and I’m a Big Brother by Joanna Cole (1997)

I gave I’m a Big Sister to my oldest daughter when she came to meet her baby sister, Ava, in the hospital. It’s well-worn and loved and served us well when we welcomed daughter #3 almost 5 years later. It’s very light and easy for a toddler or preschooler to understand and attend to. Though it references bottles over breastfeeding, it also features a father in a nurturing role. There is a short note to parents on the last page with tips to ease the new baby transition and ends with, “A caring family has plenty of love to go around.”

My Mom’s Having a Baby! by Dori Hillestad Butler (2005)

This book is for older children and illustrates month-by-month how a baby grows and develops in utero. It is written from a child’s perspective. There is an age-appropriate discussion of how babies are made using correct anatomical names (penis, vagina, cervix, uterus, sperm, egg). The father is seen in a supportive role. This book would have been helpful for my then eight year-old when welcoming her baby sister, but probably would have been too much information for my four year-old.

You Were the First by Patricia MacLachlan (2013)

This beautifully illustrated hardcover from Patricia MacLachlan of Sarah, Plain and Tall fame is gentle and lovely and focuses on milestones in baby’s first year. Both mother and father are featured as loving and nurturing caregivers. The family pet is included on most pages as well, an important part of the transition in many families. The book is not written as if a new baby is imminent but as a reassurance that the first child will always have a special place in the family.

Welcoming Babies by Margy Burns Knight (1994)

This book is a wonderful treasury of global cultural practices around welcoming new babies. It includes activities like singing, kissing, touching, blessing, announcing, and promising. It is very inclusive and features Christian, Muslim, and Jewish traditions. There are pages devoted to premature babies that do not get to come home to their families right away and adopted babies who have two special days: their birth date and their adoption date. Families of many different colors and ages are featured. The text is straightforward and encourages the reader to find commonalities in their birth celebrations. The additional notes section at the back of the book further explains these commonalities.

We Belong Together by Todd Parr (2007)

This book is for those who are expanding their family through adoption, but the book’s message is great for all families: a family is a place to share love. This book is also quite inclusive and includes an author’s note at the beginning instructing families to change pronouns to suit their needs. The illustrations are very bright and colorful and are made to look as if a child had drawn them and the language is very accessible for kids of all ages. This book, like most of Todd Parr’s other books such as The Family Book and It’s Okay to Make Mistakes, are family favorites.

The New Small Person by Lauren Child (2014)

Lauren Child’s characters Charlie and Lola are family favorites, so when I kid-tested this book it was quickly approved. It also sparked an interesting conversation with my oldest about what it was like to become a big sister for the first time. This book describes the transition an older only child, Elmore, makes when his little brother comes on the scene. Elmore loves being the “funniest, cleverist, most adorable person someone has ever seen.” But that all changes when the new small person arrives. He doesn’t like his brother touching his carefully lined-up things or changing the TV channel, but by the end of the story Elmore realizes life is more fun with two.

Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats (1967)

This book by Ezra Jack Keats, author of the classic The Snowy Day (the first full-color picture book to feature an African-American main character), takes on how hard life can be for a preschooler when a new baby arrives. Peter is admonished by his mother for making too much noise knocking over his block tower, so he decides to take what few things haven’t been repurposed for the new baby and run away. He grabs his chair, a picture of himself as a baby, and his dog. He sets up shop outside and realizes he’s too big for his chair. So he returns to his family and happily helps to paint his beloved chair pink for his new little sister. Both mom and dad are featured in nurturing roles. This classic book is a quick read and will hold the attention of preschool children and younger.

101 Things to Do with Baby by Jan Ormerod (1994)

This graphic-novel style book is a perfect way to show young children how to integrate a new baby into their regular routines like mealtime, laundry, playtime, and other small family moments. It is gentle and loving and illustrates how families have enough love for everyone. Both father and mother characters are shown in nurturing roles. There are even pages devoted to what to do when older children feel frustrated or jealous about the attention the new baby receives. This story is driven by the pictures and has limited text, making it suitable for children(and parents!) of all ages.

Christina Krost is teacher, mother, and United Methodist pastor’s wife who works for an Earth care non-profit. She lives with her husband and three young daughters in rural central Illinois and blogs at

Ten Picture Books that Will Always Stay on my Shelf

Ten Picture Books that Will Always Stay on my Shelf





















By Marcelle Soviero

I began collecting picture books well before I had children, not board books, but the odd-sized hardcover books with beautiful illustrations and stories that enthralled me. There are ten I have listed here that has moved me before I was a mother and long after I was a mother. Many were introduced to me by my best friend, Susan, and together we introduced them to our children, often combining a read-aloud with an associated “story” craft. My five children are past picture book stage, but these books, ever-so-worn from rereading, will never leave my shelves.

All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan, Illustrated by Michael Wimmer (1994)

On the day that Eli is born, his grandmother holds him up to the window to see the beauty of the land around him, and his grandfather cries and carves his new grandson’s name into the barn rafters alongside other family names. As Eli grows older, he discovers that each member of the family has a special place that he or she loves best, a place that “makes all the difference” in the world. In sharing these places, they celebrate their connections to each other and to the land that sustains them.

Cherries and Cherry Pits by Vera B. Williams (1986)

Young Bidemmi draws a sequence of pictures all involving people “eating cherries and spitting out the pits.” She tells captivating tales as she draws– a large man in the subway is “so strong… he could carry a piano on his head.” And of course he is holding a little white bag with cherries in it. My children loved to repeat the words “eating cherries and spitting out the pits,” I think yours will too.

Dahlia by Barbara McClintock (2002)

Meet young Charlotte, mud cake maker, tree climber and wagon racer. One morning she gets a package from Aunt Edme. Inside she finds a doll. A frilly doll. Charlotte immediately warns the doll that “we like digging in the dirt and climbing trees. No tea parties. No being pushed around in frilly prams, you’ll just have to get used to the way we do things.” To Charlotte’s surprise, she and Dahlia the doll become fast friends. Although outings with Charlotte have changed Dahlia’s appearance, Aunt Edme is pleased to see Charlotte has given Dahlia plenty of fresh air, excitement and love. A good lesson learned for girls and boys alike.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney (1982)

As a child, Miss Rumphius promises her grandfather that one day she will do something to make the world more beautiful. Never forgetting her words, as an adult she finds a special way to add beauty to the earth. “All that summer Miss Rumphius, her pockets full of seeds, wandered over fields and headlands, sewing lupines. She scattered seeds along the highways and down the country lanes. She tossed them into hollows and along stonewalls.” Be sure to have a handful of seeds ready as you read this one as your child may be inspired to sow flowers in every crack and crevice of your neighborhood.

Mudpies & Other Recipes for Dolls by Marjorie Winslow, Illustrated by Erik Blegvad (1961/1986)

You won’t cozy up and read this one cover to cover, but you will take it outside often with your little one. Just holding this cute little book in your hands will help you recall the outdoor adventures of childhood. Enjoy the wonderful mix of recipes ranging from “Daisy Dip” to “Crabgrass Gumbo.” All of which use only the finest ingredients from outside. This book always inspired my children to make up new recipes to “bake in the sun for the fairies.”

My Mama Had A Dancing Heart by Libba Moore Gray, Illustrated by Raul Colon (1995).

In this story about nature and life, a ballet dancer recalls how she and her mother would welcome each new season with an outdoor dance. “And we’d go into the eye-blinking blue air, with mama leading in a leaf-kicking, leg-lifting, handclapping, hello autumn ballet.” The gentle spirit of the mother and the love this child, now a woman, has for her are palpable. I gave this book to a friend who lost her mother and had recently become a new mother and she said, “I didn’t know a picture book could be this powerful.” Indeed.

Sophie’s Masterpiece: A Spider’s Tale by Eileen Spinelli, illustrated by Jane Dyer (2001)

Sophie is not an ordinary spider. She is an artist. When she ventures into the world and into Beekman’s boarding house, she weaves wondrous webs that go unappreciated. At Beekman’s she tolerates being swatted and called names but is determined to spin webs as her gifts to strangers. She grows older and her last masterpiece, a spun blanket for a baby, is one that readers of all ages will not forget. This book meant so much to my daughter Sophia when she was young that she came home with her pictures from school all month and said “Mommy these are my masterpieces.”

The Quiltmaker’s Gift by Jeff Brombeau, Illustarted by Gail Demarcken (2001)

A feast for the eyes and the heart, The Quiltmaker’s Gift celebrates the spirit of giving through a fable-like story about an old quiltmaker who transforms a greedy unhappy king with her quilts. “Some said there were magic in her fingers. Some whispered her needles and cloth were gifts from the bewitched. And still others said the quilts really fell to the earth from the shoulders of angels…” The subtle message – it is better to give than to receive – is told in a vivid patchwork of pictures.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats (1962)

Young Peter one day wakes to the wonders of a new world. The first snow has fallen and in it Peter finds magic and limitless possibilities. The day of snowmen and sledding leaves such an impression that when Peter wakes up the next morning and the snow still blankets the city, he wants to “do the whole day over again.” Read this one with your brood when you’re stuck inside on a snowy day.

When Lightning Comes in a Jar by Patricia Polacco (2002)

An annual backyard reunion becomes the backdrop for family traditions (Aunt Bertha’s meatloaf with hard boiled egg in the middle) and stories (Aunt Ivah and Aunt Adah compete for who can tell the best tale). The narrator, Trisha, now grown, remembers the year a new tradition was started. “A small burst of starlight puffed out into the grass. Then more and more drifted out of the carpet beneath our feet, ‘fireflies’ we called out. We grabbed the jars and the dash was on to capture lightning and put it in a jar.” Share this one with your little person on a summer night.

Marcelle Soviero is the Editor-in-Chief of Brain, Child, and the author of An Iridescent life: Essays on Motherhood. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

Apocalypse Now

Apocalypse Now

I worry that my son might not understand what I’ve tried to be. And if I were to be killed, Willard, I would want someone to go to my home and tell my son everything—everything I did, everything you saw—because there’s nothing that I detest more than the stench of lies. And if you understand me, Willard, you will do this for me.

—Kurtz to Willard, Apocalypse Now, 1979

I recently asked my kids about their first memories.

“What was it?” I asked. “What’s the first thing you can remember?” Without thinking, both recalled early images of bold blue macaroni and cheese boxes. They had consumed Kraft by the case at daycare.

“You don’t remember anything before eating macaroni and cheese?” I pressed. I was fishing for proof my parenting fuck-ups weren’t set in stone, floating around in their psyches like a laminated list already prepared for their future therapists.

“Nope,” Andrew, my youngest, assured me. “I just remember playing at Amy’s house and eating mac and cheese.”

Relief set in. Thank God for the hypnotic effect of video games, Finding Nemo, and processed cheese products. I hadn’t been discovered. They don’t know.

I hate babies. I fucking hate ’em. Though I birthed a couple, was one, and acknowledge that everyone I know must have been a baby, I’d rather take my rotund shape out bikini shopping in bright fluorescent lighting with my mother-in-law after eating three helpings of shrimp and broccoli Alfredo than coo over babies, pretend they’re cute, or lie to unsuspecting parents that their baby looks any different than every other swaddled and gurgling creature at the hospital. Babies, I’ve learned, rob us of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; they’re anti-constitutional.


I’ve always hated babies. I didn’t even enjoy being a baby. My first memory is of standing in my own crib screaming my lungs out at my tired mother. Perhaps this explains why I’m an only child.

I grew up in Georgia, where the only moneymaking options for a gangly preteen girl were babysitting or prostitution. Since the latter was illegal and possibly dangerous, I chose the former to earn the money to buy a second copy of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, having thoroughly worn out and scratched up my first one. I learned early on that babysitting young kids wasn’t so bad. After all, they’re easily placated with television and macaroni and cheese. Babysitting actual babies, on the other hand, plunged one into the eighth circle of hell, which I believe is only one step above being frozen in your own shit.

Babies do one thing: they demand. Whether it’s food, wiping, shoulders to puke on, or pacifiers, they pull you into their own shit and demand more. After one particularly harrowing session of babysitting, Baby-in-Crib (whose name I’ve either forgotten or deliberately purged) screamed at me so loudly that I all I could do was curl up, fetal position, in the corner of its nursery. I pulled myself together enough to feed it and change it and keep it safe for a couple of hours until its owners returned from their date night. I stopped babysitting babies after that. Later, in college, I worked briefly as a nanny. There was a standoff with a six-month-old. I lost. That’s all I’m legally obliged to say.

I don’t have a good explanation for most of what I’ve done, including becoming a mother. Some primordial urge must have set in when I was three years into an otherwise blissful marriage. At least I think it was blissful. I’ve got kids now. I can’t remember.

A craving to propagate the species infects some of us at a vulnerable age for reasons that only God and Darwin understand. The copulating part of this whole process is great—over too soon, but great. However, the forty-eight-week gestation period followed by infancy? That first time around, it’s boot camp. You’ve got this outside force compelling you to obey, bending your will, breaking you down. That first tour of duty is the longest.


“The Horror! The Horror!”

William was born in the middle of a hell-hot August to parents with too few skills, living in a steamy, two-bedroom apartment near the University of Illinois. My husband Bryan and I were graduate students, working our way through various degree programs to put off the inevitability of real life. But real life can’t be delayed when you’re carrying nearly ten pounds of dude inside of you, a dude who eventually attempts an exit just below the left lung. William never turned, never got into position, never did anything but suck his thumb in utero, urinate, and kick the piss out of my bladder. He couldn’t even manage to get out on time. Two weeks past his due date, he was content just to sit there, contorting my torso and rewiring my colon to suit his emerging limbs. My OB/GYN was on vacation the week William was due, so I consoled myself that managing to hang on in the sweltering heat was good, since it meant Dr. Shepherd would be back to facilitate the “blessed event.”

The details of birth are redundant and repetitive: push, breathe, scream, curse, try not to take the sharp objects away from the medical professionals so you can stab the responsible party.

William didn’t cooperate, so they shot me up with Pitocin, the induction cocktail, which I endured for about twenty-two hours. Thankfully, Dr. Shepherd needed to get to a party that night, and when he decided he was bored waiting for me to deliver, the nurses pitched the Pitocin and slapped me down on the table for a speedy C-section. Actually, the chatter between Dr. Shepherd and his nurses about his impending party kept me preternaturally calm in the middle of the chaos that is surgical delivery. Emergency sections are very different beasts from planned ones; my second son, Andrew, with the giant-but-healthy head, arrived via a planned and particularly organized C-section. Those are downright leisurely. I’d do that again any morning: have baby extracted, do some mild nursing by midday, then enjoy a little happy-hour gin and tonic at four. But the last-minute emergency variety left me resentful of William, who necessitated the drugs, the shaving, the strapping down of my arms, and the colon cleanse a nurse performed on me because my bowels had shut down after the trauma. We were not on good terms when he got here, and his incessant screaming upon arrival didn’t endear him to us immediately. Yet we managed to get this squirming pile of flesh into the infant car seat and safely back to our suddenly tinier apartment.

As in my early babysitting endeavors, I managed to feed him, change him, and keep him healthy and safe—except this time, no parents were coming back after date night. No one was coming to relieve me. He stayed with us, curdling our nerves from five every afternoon until he passed out just before ten at night. He was inconsolable. What to Expect When You’re Expecting doesn’t inform the reader that the life-sucking malady known as colic will steal your soul and tempt you to make a deal with the devil at the crossroads if only this kid will shut the fuck up. Seriously, editors, get that into the updated fifth edition.


“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.”

Gas drops. Baby Tylenol. Rocking. Nursing. Nursing upside down, on the left side. Sleeping with the head in an upright position. Sleeping in the bouncy seat. Putting the baby down. Letting him cry it out. Picking the baby up. Driving around the neighborhood. Sound machines with whooshes of the ocean or a mother’s wombed-up heartbeat. Special bottles that limit air in the baby’s tummy. Trips to the pediatrician. (They love those, at $250 a visit). Listening to a mother-in-law, who claims everything will be fine, and talking to helpful neighbors, who prescribe shots of whiskey.

We tried them all. Some remedies worked for a tiny bit of time, but escape was the only consistent antidote. I resorted to making multiple trips to the grocery store between five and ten in the evening. I dashed to the store at 5:45 p.m. for diapers and again at 6:15 for gas drops, followed by a final 8:30 trip to get some toilet paper. Anything to avoid the baby. My husband would remember we needed milk and then, two hours later, he’d go back for a box of Cocoa Puffs. Between excursions, we managed. Barely. But only because of the Cocoa Puffs and The Waltons reruns, with their infectious family bonding. And boxed wine, left over from our friends’ wedding.

Late one hot August night, about two weeks after William was delivered, Bryan and I sat sobbing on the edge of our bed, the very same bed that had conspired with us in this act of procreation, wondering when those proverbial “real parents” would come and get him. We were grateful he was healthy and normal and had all those feelings parents are supposed to feel. But we wept.

“Damn it,” I cried, sobbing so hard the bed rocked. “This . . . feels . . . like . . . a war zone.”

“I know,” was all Bryan could get out through his own broken sobs. Bryan is quiet, introverted. He never complains because that would draw attention and take effort. Agreeing with me that he felt we had made a huge mistake was like Mother Teresa admitting publicly that cleaning the lepers in Calcutta sucked.

We were sure we were inadequate and inept. William was a perfect baby, except for the colic, and he deserved parents who knew what the fuck they were doing. Not us. We were losers.

“Saigon. Shit. I’m still only in Saigon.” Martin Sheen’s improvised madness at the beginning of Apocalypse Now kept replaying in our heads day and night. They—in-laws, midwives, people from Walton’s Mountain—tell you that having a baby is the greatest moment in your life, a real turning point. That’s true. It is a turning point, but one with innumerable casualties. Bryan and I had to face the fact that we’d been attacked. We’d never been so vulnerable.


“Horror . . . Horror has a face . . . And you must make a friend of horror.”

Not only did I get hit from the front with William’s colic, I was flanked from the rear by postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is the face of horror.

Like a good scholar-mom, I researched solutions. My favorite helpful advice comes from the Mayo Clinic’s website: “Postpartum depression isn’t a character flaw or a weakness. Sometimes it’s simply a complication of giving birth. If you have postpartum depression, prompt treatment can help you manage your symptoms—and enjoy your baby.” Indeed, postpartum depression is a complication of birth. Enjoy your baby? You mean the blood-curdling screams, the engorged breasts that have to be pumped at work, the spit-up perma-stains on every article of your clothing, and the bondage to a colicky creature who keeps you from date night? I’ll be sure to remember all of that during my leisurely stay in rehab. Thanks, Mayo.

Friends, you think. You’ll call friends. Good idea. Wait, but your friends all adore rocking their little ones at two in the morning, quietly singing them back to a gentle sleep after nursing, listening to Baby Bach, and finally turning on the plastic fish aquarium that swirls magical realism all over the freshly painted nursery like an acid trip with Hunter S. Thompson. Your friends and family already think you’re an asshole because you’re not finding that the joys of infancy match the charming version of babyhood perpetuated by America’s Disney-addicted culture.

As a last resort, I checked with my doctor. After a month of uncontrollable crying, I figured this was beyond the “baby blues” What to Expect had described. This was dark. I was in the shit. Dr. Shepherd said it was normal and offered me a mild antidepressant. But again, I did my research, and—like my other new-mom friends—I was nervous about drugs in my breast milk. Even though it’s supposedly safe for babies, this particular antidepressant’s ever-increasing list of side effects includes sleepiness, nervousness, insomnia, dizziness, nausea, skin rash, headache, diarrhea, upset stomach, loss of appetite, abnormal ejaculation, dry mouth, and weight loss. Great. So I’d be less sad but abnormally ejaculating. No thanks.


“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Babyhood invites mothers—the good ones—to spontaneously visit. Friends, your Episcopal priest’s wife, and your sweet cousin all seem to find their way to a mother in need. Babies can provoke terror in those of us under the influence of postpartum depression, but they can also inspire pure unadulterated kindness in people who have survived the Burroughsian Interzone of infancy and lived to tell about it. That is how we have survived as a species. Evolution be damned: we’ve survived because of the tenacity of hearty Episcopalian women.

It was week four of hell. I’d turned down Dr. Shepherd’s antidepressants. I was suffering from a horrific rash under my swollen, nursing breasts. I had already gone back to work just three weeks after William was delivered; I had no maternal leave, just a handful of sick days.

I was grading a set of papers on a Saturday in late September when I heard a quiet knock on our apartment door. It was Mary Hallett, the hearty, no-nonsense wife of Father Tim Hallett, pastor at St. John’s Episcopal Church on campus, where Bryan and I had been wed three years earlier. I expected the pastor’s wife to come calling. A few of the kindhearted church ladies had already delivered pans of lasagna and chicken casseroles, and I guessed (correctly) that Mary was here with her signature chicken-noodle soup, a particularly tasty version of the classic healing brew. She handed me the pot of soup and some fresh bread, nodded toward William in his bouncy seat, then turned to me and offered, “Let me grab your laundry while I’m here and I’ll take it home for a wash and fold.”

It struck me that, unlike all the other visitors, Mary wasn’t here to coo at the baby; she was here for me.

“Lord no,” I replied, blearily. “That’s okay, Mary. I got it. Bry and I are fine.”

She looked at me with her gray eyes, brushed her salt-and-pepper bangs to one side, and stated in her efficient Episcopalian voice, “No one is fine after they’ve had a baby.” She pulled out a big mesh bag she’d brought over.

I could see she was serious. I scurried and grabbed Bry’s jeans and my bra from the bathroom floor, underwear from a cardboard box in the closet currently serving as a laundry basket, and random shirts thrown off near the bed by two dazed parents flopping down at night in defeated exhaustion. I put everything in the mesh bag and sheepishly gave it all to this woman, my pastor’s wife, a woman I knew well but not well enough, I thought, to hand her our undies.

When Mary returned the next day with our fragrant, sorted, and neatly folded laundry, I nearly sobbed. It wasn’t anything like the war-zone feeling Bryan and I had a few weeks earlier in our bedroom. Mary handed over the mesh bag of laundry and hugged me. I was overwhelmed by her kindness, unable to even utter a “thank you.” I think she could tell I didn’t want to let go of her. But I did let go, my eyes welling with gratitude.

“I’ll be back next Saturday,” she said. And sure enough, there she was with her determined smile and her laundry bag.

I have never forgotten Mary’s matter-of-fact benevolence. I felt saved by soup and fresh laundry. Fortified with this reminder that the human heart heals, and nurtured by something as simple as the fresh scent of Tide mixed with a hint of lavender Snuggle, Bryan and I managed to get through those first months without binge drinking, overdosing on antidepressants, or running away to a cabin in Maine. We managed. I hadn’t conquered parenting, but I at least felt like this episode had ended with the kind of neighborly kindness so ubiquitous on Walton’s Mountain.

Parents get their lives back only if they stop at one baby. Few do. Most of us are possessed by a demon that attacks when your kid is about two or three, infecting your soul and whispering: Your life can be like The Waltons. Every week a new adventure in which John Boy, accompanied by apprehensive younger brother Ben, pulls Elizabeth out of yet another creek while Mama makes her a new dress out of love, grandma’s old quilt scraps, and used kitchen towels. Have more kids. Have even more kids. It’ll be just like The Waltons.

The Dark Lord loves seventies television in syndication; it’s one of his favorite weapons of mass destruction. I couldn’t fight off the demon possession that talked us into a second one. He may have had colic too, I can’t remember. The second time around, I said to hell with the side effects and took the damn drugs. I was much happier.

Incredibly, there are moms who thrive on infancy, who continue making babies and manage to can ten quarts of pickles and tomatoes in the process. The Spillmans down the street made seven babies, and each one was a natural-born caretaker for the next brother or sister in line. The Spillmans do great babies; we don’t. Bryan and I stopped at two. (Actually, The Waltons’ demon encouraged me to go for more, but my body couldn’t, or wouldn’t, sustain another.)

But here’s the thing: Babies evolve into smart-ass kids who talk, memorize the track listing to Led Zeppelin IV by age three, learn piano, collect football cards, make heart models in sixth grade, and finally learn how not to trump their partners in euchre. Both of mine, now fourteen and eleven, weathered both infancy and toddlerhood and are nicely settled into the hormonal cauldron of high school and middle school, which is, compared to the flashback-inducing horror of babyhood, a cakewalk. (For me, at least, if not for them.)

Toward the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Willard hears on tape Kurtz narrating his symbolic nightmare/dream of a snail “crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor . . . and surviving.” I’ve lived on that straight edge, and let me tell you, it’s scary but bearable—if only you can laugh and let a nice Episcopalian lady do your laundry.

Amy Penne earned her PhD from the University of Illinois while carrying her son William—who inspired this essay—in her gut. She teaches, writes, and takes care of her husband and two boys in a frigid old house on the prairie. Even though she hates babies, she thinks being a mom is probably worth it.

This piece has been excerpted from Oh Baby! – Available now.

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Excerpt: Situation Momedy

Excerpt: Situation Momedy

Situation Momedy CoverThe following is an excerpt from Situation Momedy by Jenna von Oy (2015 Medallion Press)

Chapter 1

Houston, We Have a Pregnancy!

A scenic view of my past

It was season four of The Parkers, the black sitcom on UPN on which I’d been costarring since episode one, and I still felt totally out of place. I didn’t fit in, and it made me insecure. You know the old Sesame Street song that went, “One of these things is not like the other”? I was “one of these things,” and I was having trouble letting that roll off my back. They could talk about things I couldn’t. They had stories to tell that I couldn’t relate to and special inside jokes to share that proved I wasn’t “one of them.” I wasn’t a member of their exclusive club. Every now and then, Countess Vaughn would even make a comment like, “You can’t possibly understand. You just haven’t been through the same struggles we have.” Gee, thanks. Way to make a girl feel like an outcast. Way to make me feel like . . . the nonparent I was. What, you thought I was referring to being the only white cast member? Ha! Not a chance. Skin color never made an ounce of difference to any of us. In fact, Mo’Nique often quipped that I wasn’t Caucasian, just “light-skinned.”

Being the only cast member on The Parkers without a kid made me feel like a petulant child in a roomful of working adults. I was the only one who didn’t have a family to go home to, who didn’t know what it was to be a parent and have that special love in my heart for a tiny human being. And I wanted it desperately.

So desperately, in fact, that I started adopting dogs. Lots of them. Which led me to believe, in all my twentysomething wisdom, that I knew what it meant to be a parent. Why alienate me just because my kids had four legs instead of two? Because they barked instead of crying? Because they left their toys strewn across every room of my house and drooled all over my furniture? (Technically the latter two examples cover both dogs and children, but you get the idea.) I thought parenting puppies should at least grant me a pass for their elite clique, but no one else seemed to take that notion seriously.

Single life was sucking big-time, and my biological clock was spinning out of control. I wanted a family to ground me; I wanted to finally belong . . .

Cut to . . .

So much for a feeling of belonging. Turns out I had no clue what to expect when I was expecting, dogs or no dogs. After all, my canine kids go to sleep when I tell them to, clean up any food that gets dropped on the floor, and were potty trained by two months old.

And wanting a family to ground me? What was I thinking? Impending mommydom made me feel like I’d been sent to orbit the moon for a while, armed with only fuzzy pink slippers and a casserole dish . . .

But hey, at least I was finally in on all the jokes.


My cradle chronicles

“So you’re having a baby.” In my experience, most instructional pregnancy books start out with this phrase or some equivalent of it. Thank you, faceless authors, for stating the obvious and handing me my sign. After peeing on a stick (or four), racing to the doctor faster than I could say “biological clock,” throwing out a refrigerator’s worth of soft cheese and deli meat, flagging every baby name site on the Internet, reading all the back issues of Parenting magazine, prematurely plotting a nursery design, and indulging my urge to tell every pregnant woman I saw that I was becoming a member of her club, I’m pretty sure I’d already established the fact that I was bringing a child into the world.

Or had I? It’s amazing how long it took my head to catch up to my heart.

But still, “So you’re having a baby” seemed like such an unceremonious introduction. After waiting for so many years to get knocked up (I was thirty-five when I gave birth to my first daughter, Gray), I wanted a parade in my honor, dammit! But one has to start somewhere, right? Parades take time to plan, and I suppose a float in the shape of a uterus would be a little weird. Also, “So you’re about to spend the next eighteen years letting a tiny human be the CEO of your life, huh?” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

In retrospect, I guess there’s really no better conversation starter than the one they’ve all resorted to. But how about adding a little enthusiasm to the mix so it sinks in? I know it isn’t feasible to be showered in confetti or offered a congratulatory neon marquis via book pages, but some amount of excitement is nice. You know, slightly more than one might experience when one’s bologna is ready at the supermarket meat counter.

How about trying this version on for size: “So you’re having a baby. Holy hell!”

Or “So you’re having a baby? You did it! You got the little guy to swim upstream! Go kiss your spouse and celebrate with a pint of peanut-butter-and-chocolate ice cream, for heaven’s sake. You deserve it! Here’s a coupon for a complimentary cream puff!” I swear I’d send you all a bottle of champagne right this minute if it were feasible. On second thought, perhaps I’d send a nonalcoholic beverage such as sparkling apple cider, so the pediatric police don’t hunt me down. Either way, consider this my written version of a celebratory rally for you. I’m whistling “Hail to the Chief” as I type this.


Situation Momedy CoverClick here to read our Q&A with author Jenna von Oy

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Author Q&A: Jonathan Fast PhD

Author Q&A: Jonathan Fast PhD

Jonathan Fast, Wurztweiler School of Social Work - faculty headshots

We posed some questions for Jonathan about his new book Beyond Bullying.  Here is what he had to say.

What inspired you to write Beyond Bullying?

In 2008 I wrote a book called, Ceremonial Violence, about the “epidemic” of school rampage shootings that occurred between 1974 and 1999 (the year of the Columbine high school shooting.) In the course of writing it, I realized that there was some commonality between cases that had eluded me and others who had written about these tragic events, but I was having trouble articulating it. It was very frustrating! Soon after publication, my research led me to the works of Tom Scheff, James Gilligan, Donald Nathanson and others who suggested that violence was the result of mismanaged shame. I realized that these school shootings were examples of children accumulating massive amounts of shame (mostly from bullying), which they were unable to manage because of problems in communicating. These ideas shaped the first, second and seventh chapter of Beyond Bullying. It took me about six years to turn them into a coherent theory. Once I had worked out the principles involved, I saw that I could also apply it to the scapegoating of vulnerable populations such as LGBTQ teens, Blacks, immigrants, and victims of domestic violence. Those became the subjects of the remaining chapters of my book.

What was the hardest part of writing the book?

The hardest part for me was writing about the LGBTQ teenagers who had committed suicide as a result of being bullied. For me there is nothing more tragic than parents losing an adolescent child to suicide. When I write about it, I try to ignore the grief and concentrate on the facts and the ideas I am trying to convey. But then, when I least expect it, the utter sadness of it hits me in the gut. Then I go talk about it with my wife, who is a minister and a wonderful therapist.

What was the greatest challenge bringing the book to market?

Of the 10 or so books I’ve written, this was the easiest to publish. Dana Bliss, the editor who acquired it, was extremely encouraging from the very start. It’s hard to publicize any book if you’re not a celebrity, but I am fortunate to have two terrific publicists, Bruce Bobbins, from DKC Public Relations, who works with Yeshiva University, where I teach, and Marlena Brown who is a publicist at OUP.

What do you wish the reader to take away after reading Beyond Bullying?

  1. Shame and status are two forbidden topics in our culture. This is no coincidence. They are closely related. Shame is what we experience when our membership in a group or community becomes tenuous, or when we try to enter a group of a higher status and fail. If we can recognize this process for what it is, it’s easier to understand what’s going on. Life becomes less fraught.
  2. If your kid is being viciously bullied and the school won’t do anything about it, put him or her in another school. If the bullying continues, home school. Someday they will thank you.
  3. Affirmative action isn’t a gift; it’s reparations for all the crap that blacks have had to endure over the past centuries. Support it.
  4. When your son or daughter announces that they are “trans,” that is the time for heaps of unquestioning, non-judgmental love and support on your part. As hard as it may be for you to accept it, it’s going to be that much harder for them. God bless Caitlyn Jenner.

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

Different books in different periods of my life. I’ve always loved Charles Dickens because his characters are incredibly entertaining, his language is beautiful and vivid, deals with social problems and advocates for the poor and downtrodden. I discovered Thomas Hardy while I was developing my theory of shame management. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and Jude the Obscure all deal with unsuccessful attempts to improve the protagonist’s status in life, and managing the shame that results from the failure to do so.

How do you balance fatherhood and writing?

Actually, I stopped writing novels soon after my second son was born because I could no longer support my family on my meager advances. I haven’t written narrative fiction since then. I did work as a contract writer for Disney feature animation for two years, which was great fun. These days my children all support themselves, and are all successful in their chosen careers. My wife and I both have full time jobs, but my teaching schedule allows me time to write. And of course writing non-fiction is a very different activity from writing fiction.

What is your advice to mother parents who are writers?

It’s a difficult balancing act when your children are pre-school and it does not get much easier when they are in school. It’s not simply schlepping them from one activity to the next, it’s having the freedom to devote your thoughts completely to the project at hand. I grew up with a father who some consider a Great Writer (I am among them). He was often there, in the house with us, but his mind and formidable imagination were elsewhere. This was even the case when he was driving, which made being in a car with him at the wheel a terrifying experience.

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Excerpt: Beyond Bullying

Excerpt: Beyond Bullying

Beyond BullyingBelow is an excerpt from Beyond Bullying by Jonathan Fast, PhD.

Bullying In and Out of Schools

What Makes a Bully?

The Swedish psychologist Dan Olweus, long associated with the University of Bergen in Norway, is considered the foremost authority on bullying. In 1970 he conducted the first large-scale scientific study of the subject. In 1983, when three adolescent boys in Northern Norway committed suicide in response to bullying, Olweus was recruited to create an intervention to stop bullying. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program has subsequently been used throughout Norway with some success (30 to 70 percent). Its results have been less impressive in the United States, Germany, and Belgium (5 to 30 percent), possibly because of cultural differences. Despite this, his research regarding bullies remains the gold standard. Olweus sees bullying as a “component of a more generally antisocial and rule-breaking (‘conduct-disordered’) behavior pattern.” Aggressive behavior is a stabile trait, meaning that an aggressive child usually grows up to be an aggressive adult. Bullies have an increased risk of alcoholism and criminality later in life. A Finnish study, “From a Boy to a Man,” followed 2,540 boys from the age of eight for a decade. Boys identified as bullies in middle school often exhibited antisocial personality disorder (criminal behavior), substance abuse, and problems of anxiety and depression as young adults. Olweus, following 87 boys from age 12 to age 24, found that over half of those who were bullies in grades 6 through 9 had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24, and over a third had three or more convictions (this compared to a criminal conviction rate among non-bullies of about 1 out of 10).

While those who were bullied as children can often escape their tormentors as adults, they cannot escape themselves. They are likely to suffer from depression and low self-esteem. While girls are bullied less frequently than boys, their outcomes are worse. A Finnish study found them more likely to have had at least one psychiatric hospitalization and been prescribed antipsychotic, antidepressant, and antianxiety drugs as adults.

Olweus has identified five risk factors that predispose a child to becoming a bully:

  1. Parents did not bond with the child when he or she was an infant.
  2. Parents failed to inhibit the child’s aggression.
  3. Parents model aggression and physical violence as their pri¬mary problem-solving strategies (Olweus calls it “power-assertive child-rearing methods”).
  4. The child has an inborn penchant toward aggressive and impulsive behavior (Olweus calls it “an active and ‘hot-headed’ temperament”).
  5. The child is larger and stronger than other children his age.

Let’s examine these risk factors more closely.

Lack of a Parental Bond

Olweus refers to parental bonding as the “basic emotional attitude of the primary caretaker” to the infant. He goes on to say that this kind of parent-child relationship is “characterized by lack of warmth and involvement.” John Bowlby, who wrote copiously about this subject, calls it “insecure attachment.” In prefeminist writings, the caregiver is always assumed to be the mother, but in the current culture we believe it can as easily be the father, grandparent, nanny, or adoptive parent. In chapter 1 we talked about the human longing to be part of a group. The parent-child “dyad” (a group of two) is everyone’s first experience of a group. Most children first show awareness of this around six months of age when the architecture of the brain has reached a certain level of complexity, about the same time that infants become toddlers. Before that age, children seem equally happy with any caretaker who comforts or amuses them. After that, they want and need their mothers and become anxious around strangers. The importance of the mother-child dyad may seem obvious to us but was more or less ignored by the scientific community prior to the twentieth century. It only became a worthy object of investigation because of society’s changing attitude toward children after World War I and public concern over the many children orphaned and displaced by that terrible conflict.

Orphaned infants who had been hospitalized during the war lost weight on diets that should have helped them grow, grew quiet and sad despite their clean and organized surroundings, and had a shockingly high mortality rate (as high as 75 percent for two-year-olds in a report from 1915).Such children also showed language deficits and lower IQs than their nonhospitalized peers. The condition was referred to as “hospitalism” and, later, “failure to thrive.” The cause was thought to be malnutrition or infection of some kind. Efforts were made to further isolate babies to prevent the spread of infection, but that only made them more listless. In 1931 Harry Bakwin, a doctor in charge of the pediatric unit at Bellevue Hospital in New York City and a professor at New York University Medical School, reasoned that these infants were responding to a lack of human contact. He took down signs that had been placed around the ward emphasizing antisepsis (“Wash your hands twice before entering this ward”) and replaced them with signs encouraging cuddling and cooing (“Do not enter this nursery without picking up a baby”).

The problems of maternal deprivation were not only physiological. Psychological damage was also evident, not just in the form of depression, which was often obvious, but more subtly in a lack of empathy. An early example of this was noted in a scientific paper by David Levy published in 1937. Levy, a prominent New York psychoanalyst and one of the leaders of the child guidance movement, described an eight-year-old girl who had been adopted after years of being shuttled between foster homes who showed antisocial traits such as lying, manipulation, and superficial emotionality. He speculated as to whether there might be a “deficiency disease of the emotional life, comparable to a deficiency of vital nutritional elements within the developing organism.” Many child welfare workers reported that they were familiar with this kind of behavior in children separated from their mothers at an early age or shuttled between foster homes.

Meanwhile in England, John Bowlby, a perceptive and gifted psychiatrist, graduate of the Tavistock Psychoanalytic Institute, and director of the London Child Guidance Clinic, had noticed commonalities in 44 children who had been referred to his agency for thievery. In his own words:

in several cases sympathetic discussions with the mothers of the children revealed that their apparent love for their child was only one aspect of their feelings about him. Often an intense, though perhaps unadmitted, dislike and rejection of him also came to light. Furthermore very careful enquiries showed a remarkable proportion of children who, for one reason or another, had not lived securely in one home all their lives but had spent long periods away from home.

Every new mother wants to be part of the group that might be called Good Mothers. The first rule for membership is that the Good Mother loves her child so much that she would give up her life for him or her. Some of these mothers did not feel that way about their children, although they hid the truth beneath a layer of socially acceptable patter. In other cases, chaotic family lives and frequent relocations had interfered with the creation of a stabile caregiver bond.

Other caregivers may substitute for mothers, an issue that is becoming more pertinent as our culture comes to accept the idea that a same-sex couple can successfully raise a family. Neither a blood relationship nor a particular gender is necessary. For centuries the children of the British upper class have been raised by devoted nannies. In situations where parents are preoccupied with other concerns, grandparents and aunts and uncles are often successful substitutes. Extended families, a rarity in this country, offer a variety of individuals who are willing to form a strong attachment with an infant.

Shortly after the publication of my previous book on school shooters, I received an email from a young man (we will call him Carter). I include the letter verbatim because the process of his writing it was as important as its content.

Dear Dr. Fast,

[Your book] dredged up an old memory, one whose details I could stand to be free of. I must apologize, but I need to tell someone this, and you may be in a position to appreciate my story. If not, I am sorry for wasting your time, and I wish you the best of luck with your book.

I almost disemboweled Matt P. in seventh grade, and I’ve spent years regretting it.

For the first few years, I regretted being unable to carry out the act; later I was upset that I was willing to do such a thing. My motivations switched one hundred eighty degrees, but the guilt was constant.

Matt P. was a year older than I was, bigger, and less bookish. I wasn’t particularly sociable or charismatic in middle school, and was physically dominated by those further along in puberty, like Matt. I suppose this is the wont of every teenager in my position, but I was frightened and furious. I had fully expected that the adults, who I had imagined up until that time controlled the universe, would have in their foresight forbidden such actions, but they had failed … and I got beat up. Every time I was bounced off the lockers or shoved to the ground or called a faggot, I kept thinking that it was an unsympathetic Fate, in the person of Matt P., challenging me to do something about the apparent insouciance of the universe.

“I’m going to kick your ass, and what are you going to do about it?” he asked.

So, after getting socked in the gut one time too many after gym class, I went home, and by accident, I found the knife. When my dad left, he hadn’t taken all of his tools. Under his workbench, I found a Buck Special with a drop point and a nine-inch blade, sharp as the day it was bought, lying dusty and forgotten in its sheath next to the spackle and the block planes.

I cannot explain how comforting it was to pull the knife from its sheath, and to feel the cool mass of it in my hand, and to hear the soft ringing of the blade when I brushed my thumb-tip against it. I knew then that I found my answer for Matt.

Nobody noticed that I had taken the knife. I put it in my gym bag, next to my socks and my cup, and I immediately felt better. I kept it there for a few weeks. I knew, I just knew, that I’d get assaulted again, and I just had to have the bag next to me, and be curled up on the ground at the feet of my attacker, where I could draw the knife forth.

I thought about a stab to the heart second. I first thought of the throat, which I immediately deprecated—Matt was taller than I was, and I hadn’t the length of arm. I had little arm of any sort. We had learned that the heart was behind a heavy curtain of ribs, and inside a tough pericardial sac—our Life Science teacher, an ex-nurse, taught us about how tough the chest cavity was for surgeons with skill and the right tools to get through. Let alone amateurs acting under duress with hunting knives.

No, it’d have to be the gut.

My plan was to let him hit me. I’d curl up around my gym bag, with my right hand slid inside, gripping the knife. Knowing Matt, a helpless victim in a fetal position would be an invitation to lean over and deliver a wedgie or a just a thin filament of spit down the back of the neck, or perhaps just a whispered invidious remark about one’s parentage. Then, I would pull the knife, brace the heel of my left hand against the pommel, and, rolling back onto my heels and standing up, I’d drive the point of the knife into his stomach, right below the xiphoid process. The trick then would be to keep the blade angled down, and let him stand up to complete the evisceration. He’d be surprised, and then he’d die, painfully.

My thoughts past this point weren’t terribly clear. Matt P. would be dead, and I wouldn’t have to worry about him anymore. I had very little concern for the future, which was for me at least a foreshortened and not terribly interesting place. I had the present to worry about.

I was never able to do it. Mostly, the opportunity was never right. My plan was predicated on a particular choreography of bully and bully-ee that never came out quite right. At first, I was waiting for the perfect place and time … and then, there was the dinner.

My school had a Grandparent’s Dinner every year. Students were expected to bring their grandparents or great-aunts or uncles in for a rubber chicken dinner and a speech from the Principle. There was an exhibit of athletic trophies and academic awards and student artwork. Everybody left with a better feeling of community and some indigestion. My grandparents would not have missed Grandparent’s Dinner for the world, and so I went to sign up. The reservation sheet was tacked to the Principle’s door, and Matt P.’s name was on it.

Up until that point, I really didn’t consider Matt to be human. He was just the entity who made my life miserable Monday through Friday, eight to two-fifteen. The notion of him having grandparents was an epiphany, pregnant with implications, like NASA finding an empty Fresca can on Mars. Were I to kill, or seriously injure Matt, some old Italian Nana I’d never met would likely be very upset. Unlike her grandson, I didn’t wish her any harm at all.

To say nothing of the reaction from my own grandparents …

Then, as now, the thought of sorrowful old people upsets me terribly. I realized with growing frustration that I could endure more bullying than I could the thought of weeping old ladies. The knife stayed in the bottom of my locker until the last day of school, when I brought it home in a shoebox underneath a stack of old quizzes.

I’d like to say that Matt P. had a similar revelation, and he made up with me and everyone else he had kicked the shit out of. To the best of my knowledge, he didn’t. The funny thing was, even as I got beat up, I’d think about why I could never make Matt regret what he was doing; and I’d start to laugh. Sometimes that made him hit me harder, but eventually he started to think me laughing was funny too. I learned, quite by accident, that comedy could keep the bullies off me, and that worked until I was big enough to take care of myself.

I could never hurt him, but at the same time, I could never stop hating him. I’m a coward for never going through with it, and I’m a lunatic for how intent I was on killing him for so long. I know I chose right, but I can see how tremendously appealing the wrong choice is.

As for the mechanism—eh. My dad kept his guns locked up. I’d have used ’em in a heartbeat, but I didn’t want to drag my parents into it, and I figured the gun would’ve drawn more attention than the knife. Besides, guns were a little too impersonal. I wanted to be able to see him die, and for him to know that it was me that killed him. Had I two dozen bullies to make an end of, expediency would’ve pushed me towards firearms.

This would have been a ceremony indeed; for whatever psychological or societal reasons I came close to killing for (and others DID kill for), these will always be feasts for Baal; if this kind of action is so horrible, why was his cult once so popular?

Thank you Doctor, for listening to me.

The letter itself is an example of positively managing shame by processing, or confessing. Carter wrote about “an old memory, one whose details I could stand to be free of” and how he “needed to tell someone this.” Even now, years after the event, he still needed to talk about it, to manage it. Because I seemed knowledgeable, sympathetic, and nonjudgmental regarding people with violent impulses, Carter decided to confide in me. According to his letter, he was small and a late bloomer, and was repeatedly bullied by Matt, who was “bigger and less bookish.” This is an example of the unequal power differential that is always present in bullying. For Carter, his father’s knife promised a way of managing the shame through “attack other.” Carter seems to have strongly bonded with his grandparents, and the fact that Matt had grandparents too humanized him. One could speculate that if Carter had grown up with no adult bond, Matt might have remained less than human, and a target for Carter’s father’s knife. Carter also learned that shame can be managed through humor.

A few questions occurred to me while reading this, and I wrote back asking him about resilience factors, such as friendships and memberships in groups. This was his response:

I didn’t have that many friends growing up. Most of the time, the problem is me. I didn’t like social occasions from an early age, and to this day I have a problem with people. I can deal with one or two other persons in a room with me at an informal gathering, but any more than that, and I start to get nervous. Classrooms are a little easier (only a little), but parties are torture. Given the choice, I’d rather go someplace quiet and read a book. I hate doing that though, I don’t want people to think I’m rude or haughty. So I smile, and endure. So I made few friends—what ones I had I was (and am) very attached to.

I also asked Carter about his connection with his parents. Carter replied that his home life had been chaotic. His parents did not earn enough money to support a family and were often in conflict. During the first eight years of Carter’s life, they moved three times. He rarely saw his father, who worked double shifts through the night, or his mother, who worked part-time and had gone back to college.

Very often, they would be tired, and frustrated and angry. My sister and I were hit when necessary, but sometimes Mom or Dad would fly off the handle and start throwing things, or slamming doors or Mom would be crying and Dad would peel out of the driveway, and come home very late at night. There would be much weeping and shouting, especially as I got older. I was never certain what mood either of my parents was going to be in when I got home from school. Depression? Hair-trigger rage? Something like ordinary moods?

Carter and his younger sister often stayed with their maternal or paternal grandparents, who were loving and attentive. Another source of resilience for him was a golden retriever he got when he was eight.

For the next sixteen years, he [the golden retriever] was the most even-tempered and reliable member of my family, even though he couldn’t speak English and had trouble answering the phone. He was often the only one my sister and I could go to when we were upset, and while he couldn’t give advice, he was a good listener.

Years later, reflecting on my mother’s depression throughout my childhood and adolescence, and my father’s long absence, someone remarked that, effectively, I had been raised by the dog.

I still prefer golden retrievers to people, most of the time.

So while his parental bond may have been fragile, his attachment to his grandparents was robust, and he could use it as a basis for understanding the sentience and humanity of another human being. Once he had experienced this revelation, he could transfer his empathic feelings to others.

The dependability of the caregiver bond also shapes our response to temporary loss of the caregiver, a common event in everyone’s life. Consider a toddler who has formed a successful bond with his father. He approaches his father with the expectation of a piggyback ride around the backyard. The father, who is engrossed by a phone call about the bake sale he is organizing for daycare, gently pushes him aside.

Depending on his temperament, he may cry and scream as though his heart is broken. Rejection seems tragic and permanent for a little guy with a foggy sense of past and future. When his father gets off the phone, he comforts him and takes him for a piggyback ride around the yard. Soon the child is giggling, and the temporary rejection is forgotten. The child has learned that people are reliable, that a few moments of being ignored may not be a sign of permanent abandonment, that hugging and comforting by a close companion can ease the pain. The next time, separation will be easier for him. A year from now he will be able to think to himself, Well, Daddy is busy right now but he will play with me later, with only a hint of sadness and no shame at all. He knows, after a number of repetitions, that his membership in the dyad of Me and My Dad is secure.

Now imagine a different kind of caregiver, a woman who, for whatever reasons, numbs herself to her shame with some kind of addiction. Her toddler may never learn how to properly manage the discomfort of temporary separation because the addiction has made her unreliable. Her judgment may be impaired, her memory subject to lapses, her perception of reality altered. She says, I’ll be with you in a minute, but often the minutes stretch into hours, and sometimes she remains emotionally or physically unavailable for days. Other people, alleged providers of childcare, come and go but do not stay long enough to create a real caregiver bond. To complicate matters, this mother’s feelings toward her toddler may be ambivalent or resentful. Children may be viewed as nothing more than an impediment to her getting high.

All children realize that they should be loved by their caregivers. Toddlers blame the absence of this love on themselves and attribute it to a personal deficit: I am not loved because something is wrong with me. As a result, toddlers may find it difficult to believe that any person would love someone as damaged as they are. This kind of shame is not easily managed. It may endure for a lifetime, shaping one’s personality in myriad ways that spoil the quality of life. Such people may consider themselves unworthy of a good job, a loving spouse, or other satisfactions. Their anger toward the hand they have been dealt may be turned against themselves in the form of anorexia, cutting, and suicide attempts. If the anger is turned outward, they may be unable to accept responsibility for their own failures and shortcomings. They may come to resent those who might have aided and befriended them. In the worst cases, their thoughts may become confused, they may harm others for reasons that temporarily seem logical with no sense of the consequences, as was very nearly the case with Carter.

Which of these scenarios becomes the reality depends on the balance of risk factors and resilience factors. Having an extended family is often a resilience factor because many adults are available for the child to attach to, if the parents are in crisis of some kind. Special talent in the arts or sports is also a resilience factor because they increase a child’s sense of self-worth. Being born into a middle-class or wealthy family is a resilience factor because parents have more resources when a crisis arises. When Donald Trump was expelled from high school, for example, his parents had the resources to send him to a military academy where experienced teachers “straightened him out.” Unfortunately, resilience factors do not balance out risk factors in a tidy or calculable way. There are no algorithms to predict who will become a delinquent and who an asset to society. James Garbarino, an authority on violence and children, reminds us that “Rarely, if ever, does one single risk factor tell the whole story or determine a person’s future. Rather, it is the buildup of negative influences and experiences that accounts for differences in how youth turn out.” He likens dealing with risk factors to juggling balls. One can manage two easily, or three with a little practice, but add a fourth and keeping the balls in the air becomes a challenge. The more risk factors, the greater the likelihood of dropping the ball.

Parents’ Failure to Inhibit Child’s Aggression

Little children naturally express themselves physically, and sometimes violently, because their responses are unfiltered, quick, and thoughtless. Because they the patience, self-moderation, impulse control, and verbal skills required to identify and articulate what they are experiencing, they act out. They perform a mime show choreographed by anger or frustration. When a parent tells a child to “Use your words,” rather than to strike out, he or she is acknowledging that talk is a safer, more socially acceptable and precise means of communicating feelings—including negative, frightening feelings like shame and anger—and one that, when it becomes habit, will help the child attain a better life. Children who have learned to identify their own feelings and have the self-control to step back and formulate their thoughts—and the vocabulary to express them—are less likely to engage in a violent act than children who do not have these resources.

If the parent tolerates a child’s acts of aggression, or encourages them, the aggression is likely to increase. Some children are harder to rein in because of developmental delays, autism, impulsivity, or attention deficit disorder. Again, wealthy parents have the advantage in obtaining specialized help. Some children may consider parental tolerance of their aggression as an expression of indifference, a lack of love and caring, or even rejection. Children who feel unloved are willing to go anywhere for a sense of family. They may obtain this in school, if they are appealing to teachers and have a hunger to learn, or they might find it in a neighborhood street gang, often a stepping stone to a criminal career.

Parents Model Aggression and Physical Violence

Some parents model aggression and physical violence as their primary problem-solving strategy (“power-assertive child-rearing methods” in Olweus’s words). Such parents are often raised “by the stick” themselves. The way our parents disciplined us is imprinted in our own child minds as the “right way,” and it is often difficult, despite our best intentions, to avoid falling under their spell when we ourselves become parents. The distinguished criminologist Cathy Widom has demonstrated convincingly that violent parents do, more often than not, rear violent children, but how much of that is genetic, or related to parenting style, remains unclear.

A parent who responds violently to provocations is modeling a style of problem-solving based on superior size and strength and the power to intimidate. Violent behavior comes with a beguiling reward—an intoxicating sense of power—but one gained at a high price. The writings of extremely violent people continually describe the self-respect they attain through their misbehavior. An act of violence makes the offender feel that he is acting in a decisive way, that he or she has taken control of the situation through his or her own strength, directly, immediately, and incontestably. Shame is replaced by a feeling of grandiosity. A second, neurological process occurs at the same time. The body is pumped up with adrenalin and neurotransmitters are released, creating a highly pleasurable sensation that indiscriminately obliterates bad feelings in the same way as alcohol or drugs. On Nathanson’s compass of shame, it combines two poles, avoidance and attack other. Caregivers who violently enforce their dictums are attempting to manage their own shame at the expense of their family. They reinforce a cycle of violence and a cycle of shame.

Child Has an Inborn Penchant Toward Aggressive and Impulsive Behavior

Some children are born more aggressive or headstrong than others. Whether children are ever born without any capacity for empathy and what we call conscience remains to be seen. At certain times in history, psychologists have espoused a “bed seed” theory of antisocial behavior. There seems to be a pendulum in thinking about this subject that swings back and forth between the decades. In 1954, when the pendulum was in full swing toward nature (as opposed to nurture), William March wrote a best-selling novel called The Bad Seed28 about a little girl, the product of an affluent home and loving parents, who murders a playmate out of spite. People found the idea creepy enough to propel it to best-sellerdom. It became a hit Broadway show and a popular movie.

Authorities on antisocial behavior, including Hervey Cleckly, who wrote the classic treatise on the subject,29 and Robert Hare, who created the “psychopath checklist,” agree that both biological and environmental factors contribute to the making of the psychopath or sociopath (a term used informally to identify a milder level of the problem).

The best evidence for this comes from an area of research called “twin studies.” In a twin study, researchers locate pairs of identical and non-identical twins who were separated at birth and adopted by different families. The quality in question—in this case psychopathic—is measured for each of the twins, often by a questionnaire, and the results are compared. If the scores are more equal between identical twins than fraternal twins, that suggests that the problem is genetic, since identical twins share all their DNA while fraternal twins share only half. If their scores vary randomly, it suggests that the effect may be due to the environment. Twin studies of psychopathic behavior suggest that psychopathy is biological and environmental, nature and half nurture. However, we do not know what genes, or combinations of genes (alleles), are responsible and precisely how they affect behavior to bring about these conditions.

The idea that children are born with a criminal inclination is offensive to some who choose to believe, based on experience or ideology, that all children are born good or are blank slates upon which any future can be writ. Some years ago I gave a lecture at New York City’s Administration for Children’s Services, the organization that provides services to children of families who have been reported for violent or neglectful treatment of their children. I spoke to a group of 20 women employees who had dedicated their lives to working with children who had been taken from their homes because of conditions dreadful beyond what most of us can imagine. I asked them how many believed that some children were born bad. Not one raised her hand.

When Olweus writes of this factor, he emphasizes that the “temperament of the child… is in part inherited… The effect of this factor is less powerful than those of the [previously] mentioned conditions” (my italics). I believe he makes this point because he does not want to give the impression that any child, regardless of the temperament with which he or she is born, lacks the potential to be a worthy and productive adult.

Size and Strength of the Child

The fifth factor concerns the size and strength of the child. A male bully is usually physically stronger and larger than others his age. That is usually the source of his authority.

Angus Watson, a British journalist who writes on a variety of subjects, described his own experience as a school bully when he was nine. While he appeared as a good citizen to his teachers and older students, he was feared by his classmates—and rightly so. He was bigger and stronger than others in his class and, by his own admission, nastier.

I discovered that one way of amusing my friends was to taunt other children. I became a ringleader and people began to look up to me, which suited me just fine.

I became an expert at giving boys dead arms, dead legs and knuckle dusters (a stiff rap to the skull with the central knuckle). I could hit an earlobe from five yards with a high-velocity elastic band, push a boy over in the mud and mock him for any physical defect. Several boys would look up nervously when I came into a teacher-free room.

It’s possible I helped make life a misery for several other children. Weaker boys were just accessories to my fun. My cronies and I didn’t think of ourselves as unpleasant thugs but as heroes: as far as we could see, we were the winners and weaker people were there for our amusement, to add glory to our adventures. What to an observer may have seemed horrific was, for us, innocent fun. It didn’t seem we were doing anything wrong; it was just how things worked. I was a bigger boy fulfilling his role in child culture. Violence was currency passed from strong to weak.

After describing a particularly nasty and theatrical act of cruelty committed by a fellow bully, Watson escalated his aggression.

Bullying took on a crueller and more imaginative twist. Breaking expensive Caran d’Ache pencils while their owners watched, teasing them about their mothers’ hairstyles, throwing sticks dipped in sheep-poo at them, and so on. Pretty horrible stuff, and certainly nothing to remember with pride. So why did I do it? …

It was part of my childhood culture. My big brother whacked me with happy regularity, as did all my dormitory captains at boarding school. One particular prefect would make us drink water until we were sick. Another made my friend cut me with an army tin opener.

My friends and I used to stab each other, and ourselves, with compasses for amusement. We used to spray deodorant from very close on to our skin, making it blister. I still have scars from that. Pain was all around. Bullying, I suppose, was a way of passing this on to the weaker boys.

Watson had been shamed by a variety of older children, and this was his opportunity to manage the emotion by inflicting it on other, smaller children and also on his friends and himself. Using one shame management strategy (attack other) does not stop a bully from occasionally using another (attack self).

By his own account, the event that cured Watson of his bullying involved the discovery of girls.

Then, in the summer holidays when I was 12, I hung out with a group of girls for the first time, in the seaside village where we used to go on holiday … For their amusement, I roughed up a couple of younger boys down on the seafront. The girls pointed out what an idiot I was and said they didn’t want to be friends with someone who behaved like this … Whether it was a sudden revelation, growing older or, more likely, an increasing desire to impress girls, everything became clear.

The long-term taunting and physical bullying stopped, and I encouraged my friends not to bully, too. I suddenly saw how awful I looked.34

Watson wanted to join a group of higher status, Boys Who Socialize With Girls, but was rejected because of his bullying behavior. He changed his behavior in response to “reintegrative shaming”—the shame that brings one back into a group. He was not simply pretending to change: the shaming brought about a change of consciousness, an awakening of empathy.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Jonathan.

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Author Q&A: Joshua Straub

Author Q&A: Joshua Straub

afe house Author PhotoWe posed some questions for Joshua about his new book Safe House: How Emotional Safety is the Key to Raising Kids Who Live, Love, and Lead Well Here is what he had to say.

What was your inspiration for writing Safe House?

Inspirationally, it began with my own children. I understood the power of attachment and emotional safety from my doctoral research and counseling juvenile delinquents and troubled families for the past 15 years. Helping other families and knowing the research is one thing; applying it in your own home is quite another. The book came into fruition as a result of trying to figure out how to get our children to sleep at night! I’m not kidding!

Our firstborn was colicky and had acid reflux. Our second born had unknown stomach allergies. Neither amounted in any sleep for a long time. So from day one of bringing our first born home, we were already dealing with a major issue most parents struggle with—sleep. I knew the research on babies and brain development, particularly that babies don’t have the capacity to self-soothe in those first few months of life. I also knew our kids were in pain. Yet, my wife and I were exhausted, and quite honestly, bickering more frequently at each other. The rubber was meeting the road.

I remember during this time trying my best to pull myself out of the moment and keep the end in mind—meaning, at the end of the day, what qualities am I looking for in my son when he leaves our home as an adult?

My first answer was, I want to launch an 18-year-old adult, not an 18-year-old child.

As I looked more into the research, I found that the outcomes our generation (Millennials) reports to want for our children—happiness, good grades, or empathy, for instance—all are a result of the healthy development of the prefrontal cortex—problem solving, emotion regulation, cognitive flexibility, self-control, etc. And all of these brain outcomes best grow in an emotionally safe environment.

From that point on then we began to filter every difficult parenting decision through the lens of one filter: “What is my infant/ child / teenager feeling right now? How can I respond in the an emotionally safe way so my child knows she is loved?”

I believe if we can come together as a generation of parents willing to filter our parenting through this lens, we can together raise a generation of kids who come after us who live, love and lead well as adults. That’s a legacy worth leaving as a generation.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

Ironically, I often found myself writing on topics Christi and I were struggling with in the moment. I’m convinced nothing has the power to simultaneously enliven and exhaust a person more than parenthood. Becoming a dad is the most rewarding task I ever signed up for, but it’s also the most difficult. I was exposed even more to how wretched my own heart really can be.

Because we struggled so much in the first few years with our two very “spirited” children, my heart was drawn to the struggles of being a parent. I think that was reflected in my writing. The book, though informational, became much stronger because it became more inspirational as well.

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

That it’s the posture from which we parent, not the techniques that matters most. Think about it, one “technique” today may not work tomorrow. And a “technique” that works on one child may not work on another. So discipline strategies and techniques will always look different, but the posture from which we apply the techniques shouldn’t waver.

Our ability to be emotionally safe with our children, especially in their most stressful and overwhelmed moments, is the foundation necessary for our kids’ brains to grow. Parenting is hard, but getting the outcomes we’re looking for can be simpler than we think. Parenting really isn’t rocket science; it’s just brain surgery.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

While I was writing the book my dad was in the hospital fighting for his life. He had two heart pumps (LVAD’s) during the time I was writing the book, so a good bit of it was written from Hershey Medical Center in PA. Thankfully, my dad, after three heart pumps, is recovering fairly well.

During this time, our daughter was just a few months old (so nobody was sleeping) and our son happened to hit his “terrible twos,” so we were very stressed. We even lived part of this time with my mom and stepdad so we were closer to my dad. Let me clarify, my wife was living with her mother-in-law with a terrible two and a non-sleeping newborn. Try that for emotional safety J

Once we were home, our two-year-old found my home office, which meant I had to relocate. Most of the book was written in our frigid garage in the middle of winter with a screaming infant and a whiny toddler as background music. I complemented keyboard time with bouncing our newborn in an Ergobaby carrier while speaking into Dragon Dictation, occasionally interrupted midsentence to help Christi wrangle our son into compliance.

And you thought writers frolicked in cozy coffee shops to consoling downtempo? Not this guy. At least not for this book.

What part of your career has had the greatest influence on you?

Helping other families for sure. Seeing the real life day-to-day struggles of others certainly informs my work. It’s one thing to know the research, it’s quite another to help make it relate to the everyday mom or dad who learns to apply it in such a way that it changes how they parent.

I must say though, a very close second are the researchers, professors, and counseling leaders who have not only taught and trained me, but who graciously allowed me into their lives enough to see them live what they teach and do. That integrity matters and it’s something I strive for each day.

As a trauma counselor, you must’ve heard about some awful incidences. Is that how you came to become passionate about the concept of emotional safety as a primary need?

It definitely informed it, for sure. I remember meeting with a group of people from a village in Rwanda. One of the ladies in the group watched her husband and children murdered before her eyes in the 1994 genocide. The man who killed them was no longer jailed. He was sitting next to me in that group. Today, those two live in the same village. They told us how he often helps her with tasks, including carrying water to her home. Their story of forgiveness and reconciliation didn’t develop overnight, but trust continues to be restored.

Our brains become wired, or not, for relational safety. When we’re traumatized, especially in a relational nature (sexual abuse, interpartner violence, etc) not only will it impact what we believe and how we behave in relationships, but it can take a long time to rewire the brain. However, our brains can be rewired for safety, and that woman is a real life example. We’re broken in relationships, but we’re also healed in relationships.

How do you balance fatherhood and your career? Does one negatively impact the other or have they been mostly symbiotic?

We try to live in such a way that we would wish our lives on our children. I’m privileged to work from home most of the time. The challenge is that kids don’t fully understand work time from playtime. In saying that, neither do adults very well either.

I certainly don’t do it perfectly but I try each day to make sure that 1. Our kids learn the value of hard work and 2. They learn the value of playing without distractions. Work hard; play hard. This means putting the phone away during mealtimes. That’s a hard and fast rule in the Straub home. It also means once I’m with the kids, I’m with the kids. Emails, text messages, and push notifications don’t care about our moments, relationships, or your kids. They only care that we prioritize them right away. I want my kids to learn the value of hard work, but I want them to know they were always my priority.

SafeHouse-1 copyBuy the Book

Excerpt: Safe House

Excerpt: Safe House

SafeHouse-1 copyBelow is an excerpt from Safe House, by Joshua Straub (WaterBrook Press 2015)

The Beauty in Being Safe

I had a few shocking revelations when I first became a parent. First, as ill-prepared as we were for the chaos about to invade our home, I couldn’t believe my wife, Christi, and I were allowed to walk out of the hospital with a living, breathing, screaming, hungry, sleepless, restless, 100-percent-dependent-upon-us human being. Second, I was overwhelmed by all the books written on sleeping techniques, discipline strategies, parenting styles, and on and on, many of them contradicting one another. Last, I was amazed that no matter what kind of parent someone was or how successfully they raised their own kids, everybody, including those who never tried it, had an opinion.

One day, after receiving unsolicited advice from a woman whose kids were either in jail or having affairs, I asked my mother-in-law what the deal was with all of the advice.


She said, “Well, it’s the one thing nearly everybody has actually done. So they believe their way was the best way, even if it wasn’t.”

I guess that’s one of the side effects of free speech.

As I continued to read and research techniques and consider everyone’s advice, I needed a filter. It was becoming all too complicated for me. I’m sure you can relate.

Parenting in the twenty-first century is filled with choices. I counsel with and talk to parents all the time who are trying to negotiate different points of view about raising kids.

· “Should our baby sleep in bed with us?”
· “Should we let our baby cry it out?”
· “Should we spank our kids, and if so, when?”
· “How do I respond to a temper tantrum?”
· “Should I stay home with the kids or put them in day care?”
· “Should we home school or send our kids to a private or public school?” · “How much screen time do I let my kids have?”

How many of these questions have you wrestled with? If you’re like us, probably most of them. That’s because parenting in the real world is about the countless choices we make to give our kids the best chance to develop and grow.

But there’s a problem.

We live in a culture where the latest sermon, data, research results, and trends present themselves as the way (and often the only way, if you really love your kids) to raise them right. As guilt-prone parents who genuinely want what’s best for our kids, it’s easy to fall prey to the latest marketing ploys, product biases, and contradicting messages that cloud our journey to finding the beauty in our parenting story.

Add to this the pressure of the choices we see our parenting friends make. A quick glance at Facebook or Pinterest, and you see their picture-perfect kids, DIY family activities, unrealistically joyful vacations, and gluten-free gourmet dinners. No wonder parenting insecurity is at an all-time high.

There’s absolutely no beauty in striving for perfection or keeping up with the Joneses.

Let me encourage you, we don’t have to struggle over all of these choices. What we need is an approach to parenting that’s much less complicated and passes the test of trusted research.

Thankfully, in spite of all of the other parenting debates, there is one primary factor across all the domains of research (psychology, sociology, neuroscience) necessary for raising kids who thrive: emotional safety.

We’re all very aware that physical safety is important for kids. But have you considered the importance of emotional safety?

If you’re like a lot of parents, that’s probably not a term you’ve even heard before.

It’s not hard to see why: physical safety is a multibillion-dollar industry that can be resolved with products. In media and advertising we see an exorbitant focus on the physical safety of our children: electrical outlet plugs, childproof locks, stairway gates, BPA-free products, child safety seats, “no-touch” playground rules, green cleaning products, organic food diets, and all-natural toys. Emotional safety, on the other hand, is more elusive and requires just one thing: parents. No product on a shelf can create emotional safety in a child the way we—as her parents—can. Perhaps that’s why the industry remains quiet on it. Though I appreciate the reasoning behind all of the physical safety measures, the time and attention spent on them is out of balance.

Emotional safety is related to outcomes in the following areas:

· children’s academic scores · behaviors
· brain development
· social skills

· problem-solving skills
· relationship formation
· adult-relationship satisfaction
· healthy identity formation
· self-esteem
· athletic and extracurricular success · a sense of morality
· established values

You won’t find either the breadth or depth of outcome research for kids in any other parenting philosophy or strategy. Simply put, emotional safety is the key to raising kids who thrive in all areas of life.

That’s because emotionally safe homes are the breeding ground for kids who live, love, and lead well. Emotional safety becomes the filter for all other parenting decisions. If there’s any one phrase you take away from this book, remember this: It is the posture from which
we parent, not the technique, that matters most.

It really is that simple.

Do You Really Have What It Takes to Be a Parent?

Parenting in the twenty-first century is ripe with challenges, many the result of the happiness culture we find ourselves in. If you question this idea of happiness in our culture, just listen to Pharrell Williams’s hit song “Happy”: a message proclaiming “happiness is the truth.” Chances are you’re singing it right now in your head. I am.

I love to be happy. We actually hold little family dance parties some evenings in our living room with our kiddos dancing around to this song. But when we allow happiness to be placed as the highest order of truth in a culture, and it becomes our ultimate pursuit, what happens when we’re not happy? The marketplace capitalizes on it. For parents, the formula works something like this: create more choices for parents to enhance their quality of parenting and raise happy kids. When the natural frustrations that come along with parenting turn to exhaustion, and the initial offering of choices overwhelms them all the more, offer more products to help them feel less overwhelmed by the choices they already have. As journalist Eric Sevareid wrote in 1964, “The biggest big business in America is not steel, automobiles or television. It is the manufacture, refinement and distribution of anxiety.”

Nowhere is this more true than in the marketplace of modern-day parenting.

If our pursuit of happiness or our children’s pursuit of happiness is our highest truth, we will not raise kids who live, love, and lead well. Happiness is a shallow truth that defies the most basic parenting principle: sacrifice. Caring about our child’s life story means there are times (though not all of the time) we sacrifice happiness. If we don’t, we’ll sacrifice our kids’ ability to live, love, and lead well.

That’s because on the other side of sacrifice is joy, and joy is a much higher level of truth than happiness.

In fact, if we, as parents, focus on character, then higher achievement and happiness will follow. And there’s nothing more powerful in instilling these values than your loving and safe presence. Especially your spending time with your children in face-to-face eye contact (particularly infants and preschoolers under the age of five). Will it be easy? Not always.

That’s why it’s important to remind ourselves that we have what it takes.

Research shows you build the brain and character of your children more than any electronic device or educational video on the market by simply

· reading to your kids (and infants)
· singing to and with your kids (and infants)
· talking to your kids about their day
· laughing and joking with your kids (creating a positive environment has an amazing

impact on brain development)
· playing outside in the dirt with your kids
· eating dinner regularly with your kids
· roughhousing with your kids (especially dads)

Do we want our kids to get good grades? Of course we do. Do we want them to be happy? I most definitely do.

But I also realize that true happiness and joy stem not from personal success or feeling good but from the sacrifice of loving and caring for other people.

And the most powerful way for that to grow in our kids is to simply be with them. Mom and Dad, stop exhausting yourself trying to give your kids an advantage. You are the advantage.

Excerpted from Safe House by Joshua Straub Copyright © 2015 by Joshua Straub. Excerpted by permission of WaterBrook Press, a division of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Read Brain Child’s Q&A with Joshua.

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Book Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Book Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceFinding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior

By Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.

PART TWO : Stories of Parental intelligence in Practice

Chapter Seven: Jealousy in an Identical Twin


Mr. and Mrs. Richards give birth to identical twin boys, Clive and Ari. Clive, the more vulnerable infant receives primary care from his mother while his father cares for the more robust Ari. Unaware of continuing this pattern, the parents tended to favor each of these twins as the boys grew older.

By kindergarten, amiable Clive begins hitting his loved brother, Ari, in school and at home. The teacher and parents are befuddled by this unexpected, puzzling behavior. The parents decide to use their Parental Intelligence to figure things out.

Mr. Richards realizes that the hitting started after he began taking long business trips. He also realized Clive hit his brother after Dad spent time with Ari alone. Reflecting on his feelings, Dad considered that Clive was distant before and after his business trips. Dad felt rebuffed and rejected and wondered if that was a clue to how Clive felt, too. By then Dad believed that the hitting had meaning.

Parental Intelligence Photo 1

Understanding Your Child’s Mind

During the month he was working from home before his next trip, Mr. Richards decided to observe Clive more closely. Kindergarten homework took longer than he had ever imagined and parent participation was involved. An example was timing each boy as he read a long list of sight words. He watched as his wife timed Ari who completed the list quickly. When she called Clive into the kitchen, he procrastinated, claiming he was busy with his Legos. She purposefully did not have the boys do their work together because she didn’t want Clive to watch Ari’s performance, which was better than Clive’s would be. Clive struggled with about half the words, so Mrs. Richards stopped timing; it only made him anxious. He eventually read the list and went back in the other room to join his brother and complete the other assignment. In a notebook, the boys had to draw a picture of whatever they chose and dictate a story about the picture, which a parent would write for them on a separate sheet of paper.

When Clive was working on the second assignment, Mr. Richards noticed him get up several times to look over Ari’s shoulder. He realized Clive wasn’t trying to copy his brother’s work; instead, he wanted to see how far Ari had gotten. It was evident to Clive that his brother had no difficulty completing the exercise. Clive left the room with his head down. His notebook was left open on the dining room table, his work unfinished.

Mr. Richards waited a few minutes, then looked around to find Clive. He saw him working intently at the computer in a small office that everyone used. He stood back, curious about what Clive was doing. He could see from a distance that he had located a painting program and was busy engineering a picture. Mr. Richards didn’t know that Clive was capable of using the computer, let alone navigating a painting application. He realized how much he didn’t know about his son’s abilities. He didn’t want to disturb him, so he left the room and came back twenty minutes later to find Clive still busy with his design. He asked Clive if he could look at his painting, but Clive quickly shut down the computer.

“Clive,” Mr. Richards said, “I didn’t know you were such a computer guy. You’re quite the tech wizard. Can I ask what program you were using?”

“Oh, it’s just Microsoft Paint,” Clive replied and turned his head to the side, away from his father.

“How’d you learn to use it?” Mr. Richards asked with excitement.

“I don’t know. I just did it. It shows you paintbrushes and colors, and you just choose and draw,” said Clive softly.

“That’s amazing, Clive! Could I take a little peek at your painting?”

“I don’t know. You might get mad at me,” answered Clive timidly.

Mr. Richards was surprised. He’d never had a real conversation with either boy about their feelings. Clive was so direct about this that Mr. Richards was taken aback. He’d never gotten mad at either boy. He didn’t even raise his voice, except when he was having a good time. But that’s usually with Ari, Mr. Richards thought with regret. It wasn’t like he never played with Clive, but he just didn’t enjoy Legos as much and found it hard to play with him. He recalled they did like biking together. Why didn’t he do more of that?

Mr. Richards responded the only way he knew how. “Clive, I’m never mad at you. I can’t think of anything you could do to get me mad. A painting won’t make me mad. I promise.”

Clive looked straight at his father. He paused for quite a while, as if what his father said might not be true. He was still worried, but he knew that his father never yelled at him, so he hesitantly opened the computer and, with a click, his drawing popped up.

Parental Intelligence art 3

Mr. Richards was shocked when he looked and saw his name on Clive’s picture. He didn’t know anything about children’s drawings, but clearly this was about him and Clive.

“Clive, I see your name and my name. Yours is so big. Mine is so small. What am I doing? Can you tell me?” Mr. Richards asked.

“You are going away for a long time,” whispered Clive.

“Okay,” Mr. Richards said, worried. “Where am I going?”

“I don’t know,” Clive replied, his brow wrinkled.

“Well, if you don’t know, does anyone know?” Mr. Richards wondered out loud, trying to be as sensitive as he knew how. Actually, Mr. Richards was a very sensitive guy, not only to others but also about himself. He had his own feelings hurt quite easily, and that was why he had felt rebuffed by Clive when he came home from his trip. He assumed Clive wasn’t particularly interested in him; his son’s picture showed him that he was wrong.

His name was written in small letters, while the daddy figure was big. Something about that struck him as important. He’d have to think more about that later because although Clive had paused to consider his father’s question, he was answering it now:

“I think Mommy knows,” Clive answered, slumping in his seat. “She knows why, and she won’t tell me.”

“Why won’t she tell you?” Mr. Richards asked quietly, totally confounded, and even scared. He thought that his little son was shouldering something of momentous importance, and here they were alone, without his wife, who would definitely be more understanding about all this.

“Because I’m bad, and she doesn’t want to hurt my feelings,” Clive replied. “She’s nice even when I’m bad. But my teacher isn’t anymore.”

“Oh. What did your teacher do?” Mr. Richards felt that the conversation was going well, but he didn’t know where it was leading. All he knew was that he felt incredibly sad for his little boy. He was only six and had such big, upsetting ideas.

“She told me I couldn’t paint. I like to paint. I like to paint very much. Daddy, I want to paint in school.” Clive started to cry and climbed onto his father’s lap.

Clive had never climbed into his lap before. This was a mommy thing. Mr. Richards sensed his son was beside himself with grief. He suddenly felt so close to Clive, and even though he knew his son was so distressed, he knew something positive was happening between them. From the classes on Parental Intelligence, he knew that understanding his son’s mind was paramount.

Mr. Richards looked back at the picture for more clues. He was very tempted to call his wife but sensed he shouldn’t. This was between Clive and himself. He plunged in. “Clive, why did the teacher say you couldn’t paint?”

“It’s because I’m bad like I told you.” Clive paused and then blurted out, “I hit Ari. More than once, too. That is bad. Really bad. And you went away. Far away.”

“Clive, do you think I went away because you hit Ari?” Mr. Richards asked in fear.

“No. You went away because I can’t read. You don’t like boys who can’t read. You like smart boys like Ari.”

Mr. Richards found himself rocking Clive very slowly like a baby. He was speechless, having trouble following his son’s gloomy logic. He didn’t know what he had done to cause Clive to think he didn’t like him. But then he thought again. It wasn’t what he had done. It was what he hadn’t done. He had never paid enough attention to Clive, so Clive drew the conclusion that he didn’t like him. Then, he speculated, when Clive had a problem reading—which wasn’t really a problem, except in comparison to Ari—Clive imagined that his father didn’t like him because of the reading, and had therefore gone away. It was an outlandish conclusion, but it followed the logic of a child’s mind.

Then, before he could speak, Clive added another part of the puzzle. “Daddy, it’s okay. Don’t be upset. I don’t like me either because I can’t read.”

Mr. Richards was tearing up. His son, his remarkably sensitive son, was consoling him! He had to speak now and be very clear.

“Clive,” he said slowly. “I went away to make money for all of us. I never go away because I don’t like you. I like you very much. I love you very much.”

Clive stared at his father, who continued, “Lots of kids don’t read when they are in kindergarten. You can take as long as you need to learn. It’s not a race to see who can read first.”

“But the teacher said I couldn’t paint because I can’t read.”

“Clive, she didn’t say that,” Mr. Richards explained. “She didn’t know why you were hitting and thought if you didn’t get to paint, you would stop hitting.”

“What does painting have to do with hitting?” Clive asked, befuddled. “I don’t hit when I paint. That’s impossible!”

Mr. Richards couldn’t restrain himself. He laughed, and Clive smiled, relieved his father found something, anything, funny about all this. Clive’s body relaxed, and he looked at his father with curiosity.

“Clive,” Mr. Richards asked, “did you hit Ari because the teacher would call on him to read?”

“My teacher was always my friend, but then she started calling on Ari a lot. More than on me. I thought she liked him more because he could read so well. That made me mad, so I hit Ari.”

“Gotcha,” his father said. Pointing at the picture, he asked. “Clive, what are you doing here?”

“Will you write the story if I tell it to you?”

“Absolutely. Let’s do it,” Mr. Richards responded, immediately standing up to get some paper and a pen. “Go for it, pal.”

Clive began telling his story. “There was a boy falling off his chair because he couldn’t read the words in his notebook. His brother knew more words than he did. He felt like crying, and he did. Little tears.”

Mr. Richards instantly saw the little tears coming from his son’s eyes in the picture that he had missed before.

Clive continued. “He thought his father was mad at him. He thought he was leaving because he was mad that his twin son didn’t know his words. But he thought wrong. His daddy was going to work. The end.”

Mr. Richards wrote as fast as he could to keep up with Clive’s rapid dictation. He smiled. Clive knew that he wasn’t mad and he was going to work. Terrific! Clive had understood their talk. He was incredibly pleased. But he heard the word twin, which was unexpected, and he became very curious.

“Clive,” Mr. Richards asked, “what does being a ‘twin’ mean?”

Clive’s forehead became furrowed as he stared into space.

“I think other people think it means two brothers are the same when they’re not. Brothers can look alike to people even when they look different to each other. But, anyway, looking alike and being alike aren’t the same thing. I think, because Ari is my twin, my teacher expects me to read like he does. I don’t. Kids think Ari can draw and paint because I do. He can’t. Daddy, did you know all that?”

“Yes, Clive, I know all that,” Mr. Richards replied. “But I don’t expect you and Ari to be the same. You can like some of the same things and not like other things. You can each find some things easier to do than other things. You are brothers in the same family with the same mommy and daddy and—”

“Daddy,” Clive interrupted, “I know we are in the same family with you and Mommy. Duh!”

Mr. Richards laughed. “Sorry. Of course, you know that. So being twins means you are the same age, but everything else isn’t the same all the time.”

“Right,” Clive said. “I’m hungry. Can I finish my homework after we eat dinner?” Clive was ending their discussion. He found out what he needed to know. Relieved, he could attend to being hungry.

“Sure,” Mr. Richards said, grinning. “Would you like me to sit with you when you finish your notebook after dinner?”

“Will you? Okay,” Clive crowed. “And then I have to draw another picture, too. Can we write another story?”

“You got it.”

Clive gave his father a big hug; he had never left his lap. Later in the evening, after the boys had gone to sleep, Mr. Richards told his wife about his talk with Clive, what he had learned about Clive’s incorrect conclusions, and how his assumptions were changed by their discussion. He told her that, in Clive’s picture, his name was written in small letters. He said he had wondered what it meant. With careful thought, he shared with her that he speculated that Clive drew the letters of his name so tiny because he hadn’t been around that much lately. It touched him deeply. He believed that writing his name that way was a result of his frequent absences combined with his emotional distance from Clive when he was at home. She was deeply moved and complimented him on being such a perceptive father. She added that she now understood Clive’s reluctance to talk to him on the phone or when he returned from the trip. From Clive’s perspective, his father was too mad at him to want to talk with him.

Both parents were certain that understanding their son’s mind would guide them with his future struggles. They became much more alert to Clive’s jealousy of Ari. It appeared to be his precocious reading ability that led to his false conclusion that his father liked Ari more, but maybe there was more to it than that. They had a lot to think about. Because the twins got along so well generally, they had missed the importance of hidden jealousies that they would now be more sensitive to.

Read another excerpt from Parental Intelligence:

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Laurie Hollman, Ph.D.


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Author’s Note: it is  with gratitude that I thank Marcelle Soviero, Editor-in-Chief of Brain,Child Magazine for her encouragement of my writing of this book.


Book Excerpt: Swimming Upstream

Book Excerpt: Swimming Upstream

Swimming Upstream CoverThis is an excerpt from Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Laura H. Choate.


Okay, steel yourself: I have talked about the complex world of girls’ friendships; now it is time to dive into even deeper waters—their romantic relationships. It is normal for girls to be driven toward romantic relationships starting in early adolescence. Remember, as reviewed in Chapter Two, part of this need for a relationship stems from an awakening physiological drive for relational closeness.

Does this mean that she is biologically driven toward romance craziness? In a way, yes. But if biology is what lights the match, it is cultural, media-driven messages that fuel the spark that then causes a wildfire. Cultural pressures are quite strong in this life dimension: Consider the fact that girls regularly receive the following messages: (1) romantic relationships should take precedence over friendships, (2) other girls are competitors in the serious game of finding a romantic partner, and (3) most important of all, your success and worth as a person is tied up in finding and keeping a romantic relationship.

If she buys in to these cultural messages, a romantic interest can supersede her priorities in all other areas, including her friends, interests, and personal goals. How ironic that when girls need true, supportive friendships the most, they often drop their friends at the first sign of male or female attention. Sadly, girls become distrustful of other girls who might potentially “steal” a boyfriend or girlfriend. Being “in a relationship” becomes intertwined with self-worth; it is a status symbol that is seen as worth almost any sacrifice.It should be acknowledged from the outset that although all girls receive cultural pressures about prioritizing romantic relationships and most are starting to explore their emerging sexual identities during this developmental period, their experiences in this area are not at all uniform. Although many girls are drawn to heterosexual relationships, others are questioning and exploring their identities as individuals who might be lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. I certainly do not want to ignore their particular concerns and challenges. Although specific parenting strategies for girls who are exploring same-sex romantic attraction is beyond the scope of this chapter, some recommended readings to help you and your daughter are included at the end of this book. Because cultural messages primarily revolve around the importance of girls’ success in seeking and maintaining attention from a romantic partner (whether male or female), many of the issues discussed throughout this chapter apply regardless of a girl’s sexual orientation. For ease of discussion, though, I will sometimes use the term “boyfriend” or use a male pronoun in referring to a romantic interest while remaining aware that it does not apply in every case.

If a girl soaks in the cultural pressure that she must be in a relationship, it follows that she might compromise her beliefs and values in order to stay in that relationship. If she is looking to others for approval, trying to grasp a sense of being affirmed and valued, she will be vulnerable in the relationship and will have trouble saying no to the person who is providing that affirmation. As an obvious example and one that many parents fear is that in order to maintain their relationships, some girls engage in sexual activity only because they believe that their partner will break up with them if they say no. Many girls say that they regret their first sexual experience and report that they had sex only because they didn’t want to upset their boyfriends (saying things like “I didn’t want my boyfriend to be mad at me”). Others have sex in order to try to obtain a relationship in the first place, mistakenly believing that this will make the other person like them. A girl may be so in need of validation that she would rather accept brief sexual attention rather than feel alone, empty, and unworthy of acceptance. Unfortunately the very feelings she is trying to avoid are only intensified when the sexual encounter does not bring her the lasting acceptance she craves.

A Word About Sexting

These concepts and statistics help us better understand a current phenomenon sweeping through middle and high schools today: sexting. In a recent national study, 22 percent of middle-schoolers (yes, that is ages 12 to 14) admitted to sexting. If you are like me, at first thought it is hard to imagine why a girl in middle school would send someone a partially nude picture of herself via cell phone, knowing that it would likely be shared with others around the school (and even the world) within a matter of seconds. After reading these paragraphs, however, you grasp the context in which this happens. For example, Whitney has a boyfriend and feels that she has finally obtained the approval and status she was searching for, but then he asks her to send some pictures. She doesn’t want to, but he threatens to go find another girl who is willing and promises that he won’t show the pictures to anyone else. She wants to please him, to make sure he likes her. And so she sends the pictures.

Other girls sext in order to get others’ attention in the first place. They believe it is the price they have to pay in order to get the attention they are seeking. We know that if a girl is unable to say no to sexting, she is also less likely to say no in real life, and surveys of students bear this out. Studies of middle school students who sext found that these students were four to seven times more likely to be sexually active (this includes kissing, having oral sex, or sexual intercourse) than those who did not participate in sex- ting. In particular, girls who sext are more likely to have multiple sexual partners and to use illicit substances. Heavy cell phone use is also related to sexting and sexual activity: those students who text 100 or times per day are more likely to have sent or received a sext and to be sexually active than those who text less frequently.34 Again, this is happening regularly in the world of middle-schoolers. The numbers are even higher for high school students. To be able to swim upstream, your daughter clearly needs your support and guidance in this area; consider the resilience strategies that follow.

What to Do: Resilience Strategies for Healthy, Romantic Relationships

Love, approve, validate. As discussed extensively in Chapter Four, it is vitally important for your daughter to feel loved and accepted just for who she is. W hen she believes that she has your approval, she won’t feel desperate to seek out others’ validation to prove that she has value. She will not need the validation that comes from romantic attention or from having a boyfriend (or girlfriend) in order to feel good about herself. She won’t be as vulnerable to losing herself in a romantic relationship.

Dad, you are the model. A girl’s relationship with her father is generally the first one she has with a male, and it sets the standard for how she will expect to be treated by boys and men (or any romantic interest) in the future. First, observe your interactions with the women in your life; your daughter is watching you, her father, to see how you treat women and especially how you interact with her mother. Next, consider your current relationship with your daughter. She wants to have a special relationship with you, one in which she knows she has your approval. She needs to hear you say you love her, but she also needs to see it through your actions. She feels valued when you spend time with her. This occurs when you clear your calendar to take her on a father-daughter outing, when you hug her and show her affection, when you listen to her problems, when she knows without a doubt that you are on her side and that you are her biggest fan. When she feels that you love and like her, she will feel less need to frantically search for validation from other males.

Make space for conversation. The stereotype of having “the talk” with our adolescents is one of mumbling, awkwardness, and relief when it is over. In reality, what our daughters need is not a one-time lecture about relationships, sexuality, and sexual pressures but an open atmosphere of trust characterized by ongoing conversation. Madeline Levine writes that we as parents are responsible for being the sex educators of our children, for “if we don’t discuss the most critical issues our kids will face—new bodies, sexual choices, intimacy—then the information is likely to come from their equally confused peers.”

Therefore, as uncomfortable as it may feel, you have to deal with reality: Your daughter will be faced with sexual pressures, and probably a lot sooner than you think. Rather than ignore it and wishing it would go away, you need to clarify certain issues for yourself: What are your expectations and standards in this regard? What are your values? (Revisit the list you created in Chapter Four).

Second, once you are clear on where you stand, you need to communicate your values to your daughter in multiple conversations and over time. You should communicate your expectations in a clear manner, but you also don’t want to become too dogmatic so that your daughter will be reluctant to ever approach you with questions. Instead, she needs to know that you want her to come to you when she is confused or feeling pressured; she won’t do this if she fears that you will demean or punish her in some way. As Kathy Masarie recommends, be an askable parent; demonstrate that you are open to questions. Your goal should be to make your daughter feel comfortable in coming to you when she is actually facing a dilemma or decision.

Some parents mistakenly believe that talking about sexuality and relationships will encourage their daughters to actually engage in sexual activity. Instead, research shows that girls who have had ongoing conversations about sexuality and dealing with sexual pressures are more resilient and make better choices than other girls when actually faced with pressures in these areas. This is because they have information, they know how to assert their boundaries, and they are able to make informed decisions grounded in their parents’ belief systems.

Establish rules for dating. As already stated, decide in advance how old your daughter should be in order to be allowed to go on group dates and then one-to-one dates (see Box 6.8). Many experts recommend the age of 16 as a safe age to begin one-to-one dating. They also recommend that you should have a rule against dating someone who is more than one school grade above or below her. In this way she is more likely to be on an equal footing psychologically and mentally with her romantic interest when inevitable sexual pressures do arise. Meg Meeker—pediatrician, parenting expert, and author of the blog “Family Matters”—claims that teen dating should be discouraged until the later years of high school.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Laura H. Choate.

Swimming Upstream CoverBuy the Book

A guide to help parents teach their daughters to resist negative cultural messages.

Never before have adolescent girls faced so many confusing and contradictory expectations. From a young age, popular culture teaches girls that their worth is based on their appearance, their ability to gain attention, and an ever-increasing accrual of accomplishments. With such unattainable standards, it is no wonder that many girls experience stress, self-doubt, and even mental health problems. Girls struggle to develop an authentic sense of self, even as they attempt to meet a set of impossible cultural expectations.

Many parents feel helpless against the onslaught of negative influences targeting their daughters, but in Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, Laura Choate offers a message of reassurance. This book provides parents with a set of straightforward tools they can use to help their daughters navigate the trials and demands of contemporary girlhood. Choate draws upon years of research and counseling literature to teach parents how to instill the power of resilience in their daughters, including developing a positive body image, maintaining healthy relationships with friends and romantic partners, and navigating high-pressure academic environments. Based on cutting-edge research, this book contains the strategies that parents need to prepare their daughters with the life skills they need to resist destructive cultural influences.

Though the journey through modern girlhood may be complicated – and even treacherous – this guide offers a user-friendly way for parents to help their daughters thrive in the midst of the negative pressures of modern culture. Practical and engaging, Swimming Upstream is a must-read for parents of girls of all ages.

SWIMMING UPSTREAM: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture by Laura H. Choate with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright © 2016 by Oxford University Press.

Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Excerpt: Unlocking Parental Intelligence

Unlocking Parental IntelligenceIntroduction

By Dr. Laurie Hollman

Do you ever wonder why your child behaves the way she does? How many times in a single day do you ask yourself, “Why did she do that?” Even little things can throw you. Your three-year-old lies about brushing his teeth. He lied? At age three? Sometimes it’s subtle. For example, your teenage daughter tells you about her day, something she rarely does. Why now? Is she just feeling chatty or did something happen that she’s not quite ready to tell you yet? Sitting in a parent-teacher conference, or even a principal’s office, you may ask yourself, “Why did my child behave that way? How am I supposed to handle this?”

We’ve all experienced that awful feeling of fear, surprise, or incomprehension when our kids do something unusual, unimaginable, or outright distressing. And when nothing changes, despite our best efforts to address the behavior, all we can do is wonder, “Why?”

It’s common to have moments of despair, when you feel that parenting is beyond you; when you believe that the job requires a special kind of intelligence that wasn’t encrypted on your brain and you’re waiting for the time when you can sustain—for just one day—that important parent-child bond psychologists say is necessary for a healthy family life.

In this book, I am going to give you a new perspective on behaviors that may confound you and cause you powerful inner pressure or even panic. I’m going to lead you up a path that enlightens, uplifts, and relieves you as you learn how to unmask the meanings behind your child’s behavior. As you continue to practice this process, you will become a meaning-maker, empowered to read your child’s actions like an open book. Using the tools I provide, I will help you experience the heightened energy and deep satisfaction that come with unlocking your Parental Intelligence.

Parenting offers many humorous, precious situations—like the time you invited fifty people to your daughter’s first birthday party and she pressed her chubby fingers into the center of the chocolate cake you baked, swirled them around, and then happily put them into your mouth like there was no distance between the two of you. If only it could stay that way; if only that instant could last forever, like a memento that reminds you of the cow that jumped over the moon. You hoped she could have a dreamy childhood and never stop believing that family life is all chocolate cake. We all wish it could stay simple—all good humor and pure joy.

But parenting can have a difficult side, too—like the time your eight-year-old fled the house yelling, “I’m running away! Why do you ruin everything? You never get it.” He came back, exhausted after fifteen tortuous minutes speeding around the front yard like a freight train that had gone off its track and landed in a deep ditch. You stood by the window, watching him, heart pounding, worried and scared. You felt winded, as if you were the locomotive spinning off the track. Tears pushed out from your tired eyes. And your son came in defeated and spent. Even though he returned, you knew there was some deeper meaning behind what he did. But what do you do when you’re afraid that whatever is wrong will shadow you and your child everywhere? The stakes are high.

The circumstances and backgrounds of the parents I’ve worked with as a psychoanalyst vary greatly—yet, I discovered that they had some crucial things in common. They were conscientious, thinking parents. And most importantly, they all wanted to understand their kids. This was key.

They were all searching for that special intelligence needed for respectful parenting, even if they didn’t quite know how to ask for it. What they were searching for is what I call Parental Intelligence. I coined this term because I believe parenting requires the persistence and rigor of an intelligence that can be honed with the right tools and life experience.

I believe parents should never be underestimated—even when they doubt themselves. With a clearly designed pathway, you can unlock your Parental Intelligence, access and harness your parenting capacities, and solve the most important problems your children are facing.

With Parental Intelligence, you will figure out the whys behind your child’s behavior. Knowing why your child behaves a certain way will allow you to find the best approach to dealing with the behavior. Understanding why your child acts out, disobeys, or behaves in disruptive and disturbing ways is the key to preventing the recurrence of the behavior. Parental Intelligence provides that understanding.

I have narrowed down and systemized the learning process into five steps that will unlock your Parental Intelligence. And I will illustrate—through examples of many difficult scenarios of compelling family situations—how to use these positive parenting steps in order to achieve the outcomes you desire.

With Parental Intelligence, you enter the inner world of your child and understand where he or she is coming from. You will no longer focus initially on stopping misbehavior, but you will first try to understand the meaning behind the misbehavior, and even consider it a useful communication. This approach not only prevents undesired behavior more effectively, it also strengthens parent-child relationships. You and your child grow together.

Three basic interrelated tenets lie behind Parental Intelligence: (1) behaviors have underlying meanings; (2) once parents understand how their own minds are working, they are liberated to understand their child—how their child’s mind is working; (3) once meanings are clear, options surface by which to change unwanted behaviors. When the three core concepts come into play, the ambiance of family life fundamentally changes.

This means that parents no longer focus on the child’s specific misbehavior as the overarching troubles and problems emerge. When those problems are addressed, the original misbehavior loses importance and usually stops.

The book is divided into three parts. “Part One: Developing Your Parental Intelligence” describes the theory behind Parental Intelligence and the five steps toward creating it: Stepping Back, Self-Reflecting, Understanding Your Child’s Mind, Understanding Your Child’s

Development, and Problem Solving. The five steps are geared to parents who look to support their children’s growth, and happiness. In today’s society, there is a broad array of roles that mothers and fathers take on as they participate in parenting. These varied roles are readily adapted to family life as parents use their Parental Intelligence.

“Part Two: Stories of Parental Intelligence in Practice” offers eight short stories about parents using Parental Intelligence with their children. Each family portrait reveals that as parents understand themselves, they can better understand their children. With these understandings, misbehaviors become a catalyst to change. As open dialogue evolves, parents discover and clarify the meanings behind the behaviors. In turn, parents and children grapple with the underlying struggles that, though not apparent at first, were hidden behind the behaviors. Once brought to light, problems can be solved.

These stories about infants, children, and adolescents—including three with special needs: ADHD, a pervasive developmental disorder, and depression—demonstrate the broad spectrum to which the five steps of Parental Intelligence apply. The eight stories focus on the pivotal roles fathers and mothers can have in their child’s behavior and development.

“Part Three: The Future with Parental Intelligence” describes a world where Parental Intelligence has become commonplace. This philosophy of parenting has ramifications at familial and societal levels. I discuss how this parenting approach provides a meeting ground where parents and children get to know each other in profound ways as they solve present

problems that affect their future values and directions. Children of such families will have the skills to work through conflicts in their daily lives and future relationships.

This book doesn’t have an ending. Many mothers and fathers raising their children with Parental Intelligence have told me that using these principles as a guide have led to a new way of being together—a new parenting life.

Chapter One

The New Parenting Mindset

 The voices of empathetic parents become the inner voices of self-assured, secure children.

The major premise behind Parental Intelligence is that a child’s behavior or misbehavior has meaning—and often more than one. Once the treasure trove of meanings emerges, we realize that there are many possible reactions to misbehavior. If these ideas are new and even challenging to you, the following journey will take you to a positive and satisfying stage in your parenting life.

This important parenting mindset is founded on the belief that external behavior has internal causes. Parents and children alike behave based on what they think and feel. Using my approach, parents begin to learn how to hold in mind their own thoughts and feelings as well as their child’s thoughts and feelings simultaneously.

Let’s fast forward to two of the parents and children you will meet in this book: Clive and his father, and Olivia and her mother. Let’s assume that Clive’s father and Olivia’s mother have completed this book and have acquired a secure parenting mindset.

One morning, when Clive’s father told him to put on his shoes to get ready for school, the six-year-old threw them across the room. Clive’s father learned a great deal about parenting by following a series of steps about effective parenting (which will soon become apparent as we get to know him later). Therefore, he was able to experience Clive’s impulsive reaction and his own annoyance with Clive’s behavior simultaneously. He learned that holding both his and Clive’s feelings in mind was a requisite for understanding what may be going on when they are working at cross purposes.

He wanted Clive to get ready for school, but he didn’t know yet that Clive didn’t even want to go to school, something that had never happened before. Clive’s father knew he had to look for meaning behind his son’s behavior. He understood that if he jumped in and insisted that Clive put the shoes on immediately, he might miss an important opportunity at real and true communication. He held back from giving an immediate consequence to Clive’s action. He held his breath and forced himself to wait for Clive to calm down.

Because he and Clive had worked on this approach for months, Clive’s father was able to ask Clive if something was upsetting him about putting on his shoes to get ready for school. Eventually, Clive was able to explain what was bothering him. Clive told his dad that during an arithmetic lesson in his kindergarten class, he gave a wrong answer to a simple addition problem and a classmate laughed. In response, Clive poked the boy with the eraser end of his pencil. The boy cried out and the teacher, who is generally quite sensitive to kindhearted Clive, took a most unusual but spontaneous action—she yelled at him. Clive didn’t know that was the reason he threw the shoes, but his father was able to make the connection in his mind.

The father’s awareness that his child’s impulsive behavior must have a reason enabled him to take a step back and create space for Clive to explain what happened at school the day before. The parenting mindset that asks the parent to hold both himself and his child in mind creates a sense of safety for both child and parent. An atmosphere of safety allows children to communicate feelings and events that are most distressing, exciting, and important to them without embarrassment or self-consciousness. Using Parental Intelligence, misbehavior becomes a catalyst for communication.

On the way to the kitchen, thirteen-year-old Olivia said to her mother, who was not yet in sight, “Mommy, I have something to tell you, but I don’t want you to be mad.” Implementing the principles of Parental Intelligence, her mother immediately adopted the nonjudgmental, empathic mindset needed to help Olivia feel safe enough to talk to her. “Whatever it is,” her mother said, “we can work it out.”

Olivia, head down, walked into the kitchen where she raised her face to show her mother a golden ring piercing her lower lip. Her mother was shocked, but she worked hard at reserving her feelings, holding Olivia’s worry in mind as well. It was important to Olivia’s mother that Olivia could tell her about this without fearing her reaction. Olivia started to cry and explained that her best friend convinced her to go to the mall where they each got a lip ring. At first, they thought it would be fun to have a new look, but as soon as it was done, they knew it was a big mistake.

“How big a mistake could this be?” Olivia’s mother asked. “If you don’t want to leave it in, take it out, and the hole will close up in a few days.”

Even though Olivia already knew this, her mother’s response allowed her to experience her mother as a safe parent, someone she could approach with her problems. She and her mother discussed as openly as they could why Olivia experimented with the lip piercing, learning together that there may be several reasons. Olivia wanted to feel prettier: her self-image was uncertain, and she wanted to experiment with a new look that she thought was more mature. She also wanted to do something independently from her mother. The conversation with her

mother allowed her to feel her mother’s acceptance, which, in turn, supported her attempt at independence, even though it didn’t turn out well. Keeping her shock to herself, Olivia’s mother reaped tremendous rewards. She learned much more about Olivia than she had imagined was possible, and she suffered along with her daughter as Olivia poured out her lack of confidence and desire to be independent.

Olivia’s mother knew that keeping both herself and her daughter in mind would provide the safe environment her daughter needed to truthfully explain what had happened. This led to greater understanding, not only of this experience, but also of their relationship as a whole. The sense of safety between Olivia and her mother didn’t come with this one incident, but with hundreds of such encounters in everyday life.

These examples show that a parent is not only responding to physical, but also to psychological reality. Throwing the shoes or getting the lip ring constituted physical reality. Clive’s desire to be liked by his teacher, to be a good child, to not be embarrassed at school, and for his father to take his side constituted Clive’s psychological reality. Olivia’s psychological reality included her fear of making her mother angry, her worry over her self-image, and her wish to do something independently.

This parenting mindset can and will affect your daily life and give you and your child a greater sense of well-being. Olivia and her mother felt safe and comfortable enough to be discussing Olivia’s problems. This reinforced their relationship, giving them a feeling of strength and comfort within themselves and a feeling of being grounded and secure. Olivia’s mother’s self-image as an effective parent grew, and Olivia’s self-image as a daughter who can safely experiment and trust her mother despite a mistake was affirmed. Clive and his father felt a strong connection because Clive’s empathic father recognized and understood Clive’s conflicts. Both children felt accepted by their parents as they worked out their troubles together.

Parental Intelligence allows a hopeful outlook. You are ready to learn the steps that are necessary to evolve as effective and loving parents who listen to their children through words and actions. This orientation, once established, stays inside of you.

Read Brain, Child’s exclusive interview with author Dr. Laurie Hollman

Unlocking Parental Intelligence, published by Familius, is available now.

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Excerpt: The Science of Mom

Excerpt: The Science of Mom

 Scince of Mom CoverA Note from the Author:  The Science of Mom, is about how science can help us make smart parenting decisions, particularly in the first year of a baby’s life. It focuses on some of the major questions of infancy, including those of newborn health, sleep, and feeding. There are lots of controversies among these topics, and parents often debate what is right. Sometimes, science can help us settle those debates. Other times, the science is still evolving, and the complexities of families leave plenty of room for us to make different choices. The following excerpt is the start of Chapter 5, entitled “Milk and Motherhood: Breast Milk, Formula, and Feeding in the Real World.” The remainder of the chapter delves into the science of both the benefits of and very real challenges to breastfeeding. It was one of the most challenging chapters for me to research and write, but it is also one of which I’m most proud.


When Cee was handed to me just after birth, she came screaming and red-faced, with her eyes squinted shut. I said hello to her, and she stopped crying, opened her eyes wide, and gazed alertly into mine. And then, within a couple of minutes, she started moving her cheek against my breast, rooting for milk. I opened the hospital gown and held her clumsily, trying to remember the holds I’d practiced with a baby doll in my two hours of breastfeeding class a month before. A nurse confidently arranged a pillow under my arms and guided my hands in place. Cee did all the rest. She latched on and started nursing with the confidence of a pro. It was good that her instincts were so strong, because I’m not sure mine had kicked in yet.

I was determined to get everything right about motherhood, and feeding was no exception. I always planned to breastfeed, and between the two of us, Cee and I figured it out pretty quickly. After the first couple of weeks of nipple soreness and constant nursing, we settled into pleasant feeding routines. I loved this time with her, and it was empowering to know that my body could make this perfect food that could nourish her so completely. Breastfeeding was a big part of my identity as a new mother, and it was a source of pride. I relished the approval from my pediatrician, family, and friends, and I enjoyed the supportive glances from strangers. (I know many moms experience an overt lack of support when they breastfeed in public, so I consider myself lucky that I never did.) Because my experience was so positive, it was easy for me to be a little judgmental of women who didn’t breastfeed, given the long list of benefits for both mother and baby.

Three years later, my brother and sister-in-law, Jordan and Cheryl Green, welcomed their own baby girl, Amy Bell. Cheryl planned to breastfeed and, like me, was surrounded by support, from Jordan, her grandmother, and her friends, among them lots of moms experienced with breastfeeding.1 But beginning at the hospital, Cheryl’s plans quickly unraveled. Amy Bell struggled to latch on correctly, and although she appeared to be feeding, her weight was dropping rapidly. Within her first couple of days of life, she lost 12% of her birth weight, and a lactation consultant urged Cheryl and Jordan to supplement with formula. For the next three weeks, Cheryl kept up a labor-intensive cycle of attempting to breastfeed, pumping, and supplementing with formula. Everyone–nurses, lactation consultants, and her friends–told her to keep trying, that it took time and practice, but still, Amy Bell didn’t latch on, and very little milk came through the pump. Cheryl was scheduled to return to work at four weeks postpartum, and she didn’t know how she would keep up these efforts on the job. Reluctantly, she and Jordan began exclusively feeding formula to Amy Bell.

Cheryl says she still feels a little guilty about not breastfeeding for longer, and she wonders if she missed out on a special bond with Amy Bell. But, she told me, it was also really helpful to be able to share feeding responsibilities with Jordan as they both learned the routines of new parenthood. For Jordan’s part, he had been very attached to the idea of Cheryl breastfeeding their daughter. He grew up around breastfeeding, and he saw it as the normative and natural way for babies to be fed. But Jordan told me that he now appreciates that feeding, like all of parenting, is a “balance between ideals and practical realities.” Thinking about Amy Bell, he said: “Now that I’ve watched her grow into an active, alert, engaged, and advanced baby, I feel confident that her needs are being met.”2

Jordan is only bragging a little when he says that his daughter is advanced. Amy Bell is now 10 months old. It seems like she’s hit nearly every milestone a little ahead of schedule, and she’s never really been sick.3 She and Cee are both beloved in our family, and nobody would ever think to wonder whether they’d been fed differently as babies.

Comparing my and Cheryl’s breastfeeding stories, however, there is an impulse to call one a success and one a failure. That haunted me as I started working on this chapter. Cheryl’s experience was riddled with challenges that I never had to face, and she tried harder than I ever had to. Her story of struggling to make enough milk is just as common as my happy story of breastfeeding for two years. And by most reasonable measures, Amy Bell and Cee are both big successes: They’re happy, healthy, and well-nourished children, and both of our families have found our own ways of adjusting to new parenthood.

But for new mothers, it can be hard to find that perspective. Beginning in pregnancy (and often before), we all hear the same message: good mothers breastfeed–it’s one of the most important gifts you can give your baby. This message translates into tremendous pressure to breastfeed, and we’re quick to judge ourselves and each other if it doesn’t work out. It is because of this pressure and judgment that how we feed our babies has become one of the battles in the “mommy wars.” This is an unfortunate way to talk about feeding, one of the most important ways we care for our babies, whether by breast or by bottle.

Breastfeeding and its role in modern parenting is in part a story about science: how science has paved the way for good substitutes for breast milk while at the same time revealing the intricacies of breast milk, which no substitute is likely to replicate. But it’s also about how science is translated to real life. How is it molded into public health messages intended to alter women’s behavior? And what happens if breastfeeding, which should be the most natural way to feed babies, just doesn’t work?

A Short History of the Science of Infant Feeding

The ability to make milk to feed our young is what makes us mammals, and as humans, we evolved to produce a milk uniquely suited to meeting the nutritional and immunological needs of human babies. Breastfeeding is the biological norm, and it is how the majority of young infants have been fed throughout most of the history of our species.

There have always been substitutes for breastfeeding, though, and following their history is a fascinating way to follow the science of milk. For a long time, there was no science to guide infant feeding strategies; mothers and other caregivers just pieced together what they could. If a mother didn’t make enough milk, had to work away from home, or died in childbirth, or if a baby had an oral handicap that impeded nursing, then other options were needed. Sometimes this meant another lactating woman, maybe a family member or friend, would help nurse the baby, and sometimes a wet nurse was hired expressly for this purpose. Records of wet nurses go back at least as far as the third or fourth century BC.4

But if human milk wasn’t available, substitutes were used. Since wet nurses were being paid to feed another woman’s baby, sometimes their own babies would be denied enough milk from their moms and would need these substitutes.5 Almost as soon as cows and other dairy animals were domesticated, their milk was used for infants, sometimes placing babies directly on the teat to nurse.6 Infant feeding vessels have been found in children’s graves throughout the Roman Empire, dating back to 4000 BC.7 By the 1400s, soon after the invention of the printing press, printed books offered advice and recipes for homemade supplements called pap or panada. These usually contained a cooked combination of several ingredients, including cow’s or goat’s milk, bread crumbs, flour, meat broth, honey, egg, and sometimes even wine or beer.8 These concoctions could be used as the primary food for a baby or as a supplement to breast milk. Cross-cultural historical records indicate that two-thirds of preindustrialized societies introduced some solid foods to babies before 6 months of age, sometimes as early as a few weeks of life.9

Throughout most of history, it was probably self-evident that substitutes were inferior to breast milk and often resulted in illness. Ironically, this situation became especially dire in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when it was a common belief that boiling cow’s milk made it less nutritious. Raw milk was usually swimming in bacteria by the time it traveled, unrefrigerated, from farm to baby.10 During this time, babies fed breast milk substitutes suffered and died disproportionately from diarrhea, particularly during the summer months. In the late 1800s, nearly all bottle-fed infants in New York City orphanages died.11

Enter science. In the late 1800s, Louis Pasteur’s work showed that bacteria caused disease and that they could be killed with pasteurization. Water chlorination and modern sewage systems meant clean water for feeding and for cleaning bottles and nipples. By the early 1900s, the availability of kitchen iceboxes and canned evaporated milk meant that relatively safe formulas could be made at home.12

The study of nutrition was also exploding. By the late 1800s, scientists understood that not all milks are alike. Cow’s milk has more protein and less sugar than human milk, so scientists and pediatricians began recommending recipes meant to be a closer match. A common recipe that could be made at home called for one 13-ounce can of evaporated cow’s milk, 19 ounces of water, and 1 ounce of Karo corn syrup. Scurvy and rickets were common problems, but by the 1920s, supplementation with fruit or vegetable juice and cod liver oil decreased the incidence of these vitamin deficiency diseases.13

As science revealed more and more about nutrition, the recommended formula recipes grew more complex. Food companies stepped in to offer commercial products, relieving hospitals, institutions, and moms of having to make their own and creating a huge, profitable market. By the 1950s, commercial formulas had gained popularity and began to replace homemade recipes.14 These products were, for the most part, nutritionally adequate, clean, and consistent. For the first time in human history, babies could be exclusively fed a breast milk substitute without a noticeable risk to their health. Most parents and pediatricians assumed that formula was just as good as, if not better (being more “scientific”) than, breast milk. Mothers increasingly turned to doctors for advice, and doctors recommended that breastfeeding moms feed their infants on a schedule, typically every four hours. If that didn’t seem to satisfy the baby, then supplementation with formula was needed.15

Other societal changes made formula feeding the preferred choice for modern women. By the mid-1900s, most women were giving birth in hospitals, where they were separated from their babies soon after birth and allowed only brief, scheduled visits for feeding, making it difficult to establish breastfeeding.16 But women were also looking to break free of their duties as full-time mother and housewife. Particularly during World War II, formula allowed women to fill important jobs in the workforce, and after the war, they didn’t want to give up their careers.17 Breastfeeding went from necessary to optional to out of style. By 1970, it had reached an all-time low: only one in four infants were breastfed past one week of age.18

But around the same time, women began fighting for more freedom from medical authority in childbirth and parenting, and a renewed appreciation for breastfeeding was part of this movement.19 Scientists, meanwhile, were beginning to take a closer look at breast milk and were finding that it was much more than just a collection of nutrients. While formulas based on cow’s milk or soy can be made to contain a similar amount of protein, fat, and carbohydrate, these nutrients are of better quality and more easily digested in breast milk than in formulas.20 Breast milk also provides a dynamic suite of immunological proteins, growth factors, stem cells, digestive enzymes, hormones, and prebiotics.21 We can now appreciate that breast milk probably evolved to include many of these components because they’re good for babies, and investigating health outcomes in breastfed and formula-fed babies has been a very active area of research for the past several decades.

The history of breast milk substitutes is a reminder that they’ve always been needed, but only in very recent human history has science allowed for a safe alternative. That there is even a debate over breast versus bottle is made possible by science. It’s also fueled by the science examining potential benefits of breastfeeding. This science, however, is difficult to do and even harder to interpret in a meaningful way.


Read Brain, Child’s exclusive Q&A with Alice Callahan, PhD.

Alice Callahan, PhD is a former research scientist and now a writer and teacher. You can find more of her writing about parenting and science at her blog, Science of Mom.


Scince of Mom CoverBUY THE BOOK

Excerpt: The Bear’s Surprise

Excerpt: The Bear’s Surprise


9781452140285The Bear’s Surprise, written and illustrated by Benjamin Chaud

About the book:

Hibernation is over and Little Bear is ready for another adventure! But where is Papa Bear? Never fear, Little Bear will find him! Follow the curious cub through interactive cutouts on every page of this detail-rich extravaganza: into a bustling forest, deep beneath a mysterious cave, and en route to a rollicking circus in full swing. What will Little Bear discover when he finally locates his high-flying papa? The ultimate showstopping, sweet surprise awaits in this third installment of Benjamin Chaud’s acclaimed series that includes the New York Times Notable Book The Bear’s Song and The Bear’s Sea Escape.




Bear's Surprise_Int_HiRes_II


Pages from BearsSurprise_INT1

Deep in the forest, Little Bear awakens to the sounds of spring. Outside his cozy den, birds are chirping, animals are scurrying, and Little Bear smells the sweet scent of flowers.

What a joy to stretch his legs after a long winter’s sleep! But, wait! Where is Papa Bear? Suddenly, Little Bear notices something shining and shimmering behind the trees. What could it be?

About Benjamin Chaud: Benjamin Chaud is the author and illustrator of The Bear’s Song, The Bear’s Sea Escape, The Bear’s Surprise, and Farewell Floppy, and he is the illustrator of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to School. . . , I Didn’t Do My Homework Because. . . , and I Didn’t Do My Homework Because Doodle Book of Excuses. He lives in the South of France.

Click here to read Brain, Child’s Q&A with Benjamin.



BearsSurprise_JKT_1G.indd9781452114248Bear's Sea Escape_FC_LoRes

Childhood and Society: A Book Review

Childhood and Society: A Book Review

By Julie Schwietert Collazo

Erickson cover againTwelve years ago, I was a graduate student in social work, eyeball deep reading the seminal texts of attachment and developmental theories—those ideas about how our infantile and childhood experiences set the stage (or not) for the rest of our lives and how we become (hopefully) mature adults. I could find something of value in every text, but so much of the writing was unnecessarily dense. There were some exceptions, but professors didn’t seem to give them as much weight, as if the readability of a theory was inversely proportionate to its value.

One of those exceptional texts was Childhood and Society, a book written by the German-born psychoanalyst, Erik Erikson. First published in 1950 for a mainstream audience, the book nevertheless got picked up and added to developmental psychology curricula. Unlike so many of the parenting books of today, which focus on the adult’s philosophy and techniques, and how to apply these to kids, Erikson focuses on the child first. He suggests that if adults just understood the stages of human development better, they’d discover a parenting style most appropriate for their children.

Childhood and Society’s primary contribution to developmental theory is found in Chapter 7, “Eight Ages of Man.” There, Erikson lays out an idea that is remarkable in its lucidity and, in a way, revolutionary in its philosophy. He explains that human beings go through eight stages during the lifespan, and each of those stages presents us with a core need and dilemma that can frustrate our achievement of it. Resolve it, and we proceed to the next stage, well-adjusted and prepared for its challenge. Stumble or fumble, and we move forward with an earlier need left unresolved, a situation that’s likely to stymie our future efforts.

Though I wouldn’t go on to work with children, I kept Erikson’s book close at hand. It was plenty useful in my work with adults because his revolutionary idea was this: We never stop growing. It seems obvious enough, but other developmental theorists suggested that human growth “ended” when one made it through adolescence and stood on the threshold of adulthood. Even when I left social work, I found myself referencing Childhood and Society often, and when I finally had children of my own—three of them within five years—Erikson’s book enjoyed pride of place on my bedside table, thumbed through regularly, even obsessively.

This is especially true now, as my middle child approaches the age of two and has begun exhibiting epic tantrums, usually in public places. “What need is he trying to meet?” I ask myself, turning to Erikson to answer the question. The psychoanalyst is always there with a reliable answer, his Chapter 7 like a parental decoder ring. My two-year-old, he says, is entering a new phase, which he labels “Initiative vs. Guilt.” Erikson guides me into the folds of little Orion’s brain, inviting me to work on cultivating patience by empathizing wholly with me. This age is full of “dangerous potentials” (and I can imagine every single one of them as Orion flails, red-faced and raging, face-down on the sidewalk on the corner of 42nd Street and Broadway). But, he notes encouragingly, “the child is at no time more ready to learn quickly and avidly, to become bigger in the sense of sharing obligation and performance….”

And this is precisely why I love Erikson so much: He is certain of his theory and the utility of its application, but he also acknowledges without judgment that shepherding a child into healthy adulthood is damn hard work, especially when you’re still working on yourself. He is empathic with both children and adults, seeming to offer warm encouragement: We’re all in this together. We need each other. We’ll be okay. Try to keep things simple… or at least don’t make them harder than they need to be.

It’s a message worth reading over and over again, which is probably why the most recent edition of Erikson’s Childhood and Society was published in 2014. Though other chapters of the book feel quite dated, especially the chapters about the childhoods of Adolf Hitler and Maxim Gorky, the core contribution of this book is evergreen, a welcome reminder and encouragement that we’re all really just trying to meet our needs the best we can and that to the greatest extent possible, we must be kind and patient with one another and ourselves in the process. Which is why I often gift this book to new parents, and keep my own dog-eared copy close at hand.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a former psychotherapist. She currently lives in NYC where she is raising her three children while working as a journalist and writer. 

Excerpt: The Intuitive Parent

Excerpt: The Intuitive Parent

An excerpt from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD


How and How Not to Hardwire Your Child’s Brain

The human brain is an incredibly complex organ. There’s a lot we don’t yet know, and many discoveries still to be made. The inherently complex and often confusing nature of brain science can lead people to misunderstand, misinterpret, or oversimplify findings—including marketers who want to sell new products that seem to have “scientifically proven” value. Parents who want to ensure their child receives the latest, most up?to?date learning opportunities can be vulnerable to claims that this or that product has been developed in light of new neuroscientific findings. Based on my research for my new book The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You. I have found extensive brain science supporting intuitive parenting. One of the guiding principles of this parenting style is that parents should cultivate a healthy skepticism about marketers’ and others’ claims about products and practices “scientifically based” to “wire the brain,” as these myths can be highly damaging to the development of their child.

Perhaps the most damaging myth is that brain development has a fixed “critical period” that requires specialized input—or else. Many parents seem to believe that they have to wire their child’s brain before the third birthday, or risk dooming them to go through the rest of their life with a brain that never realized its potential. The truth is that although the brain does indeed need input to become properly wired, this input does not have to be specialized. Even better, “wiring the brain” is a lifelong process and fundamental brain architecture is not completed until the end of the teenage years—or even later.

Another myth is that children can be accurately classified into “right brain” or “left brain” learners. As you are probably aware, the human brain is divided into right and left sides. These cerebral hemispheres are connected by thick bundles of nerve axons (white matter) called the corpus callosum. The frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, and occipital lobe are duplicated on both sides of the brain but are not totally identical, and the right and left sides perform slightly different activities within the same regions.

Much has been made of “right brain” and “left brain” thinking and differences between “auditory” learners and “visual” learners, particularly in child development. The belief is that because the left brain is associated with language skills in most people (especially boys), there must be a parallel function with auditory learning. The right brain is thought to be responsible for visual learning. Although there is some validity to the idea that certain areas of the brain are better for tasks such as seeing and listening, it is grossly misleading to assert broad functions as the sole responsibility of one side or the other of the brain. Studies of thinking and other tasks show that both sides of our brains are engaged and activated all the time. Additionally, the entire purpose (and function) of the corpus callosum “bridge” between the brain hemispheres is for each side of the brain to share information with the other so as to coordinate their activities.

Despite this, myths based on oversimplification persist and have inspired the development of child educational programs and special products that supposedly target and train specific left-or right-brained skills. For example, Thomas Biesanz’s Right Brain Math book, DVDs and videos are marketed as a teaching approach “based on pattern recognition (right brain)” that “bypasses many of the misunderstandings caused by language,” even though there is no evidence that the activities selectively activate the right side of the brain—nor that there is even a right brain-left brain difference in learning math! Biesanz’s strategies may help some kids, but the label is a marketing gimmick.

Dianne Craft is a certified special-education teacher and learning consultant who also markets a number of products that distinguish “right brain kids” from “left brain kids” and offer “right brain methods” for struggling learners. “Fifty percent of the population is right-brain dominant,” she claims, and “80% of the struggling learners I see are right-brain dominant.” Marketing copy for her right brain flash cards says that “right brain kids learn best with picture, color, emotion, and humor.” Do “left brain kids” learn best without any of those things? Whether or not her teaching strategies are helpful to some kids, her emphasis on left-or right-brained “dominance” is profoundly oversimplified.

Parents should never fall victim to the mythology that certain activities or computer games are necessary for right brain or left brain development. Rather, it is important to focus on the activity itself and let the child’s brain wire itself in the most efficient way for that individual child in the real world. Provide an opportunity to learn, respond appropriately (as in dialogic reading), and let nature take its course. This will allocate the neural resources to the locations and hemispheres that are best for your child’s brain. Moreover, there is tremendous individuality (and individual difference) in the way brains are wired. As an example, understanding what people say is completed in an area of the brain called “Wernicke’s area,” named after the scientist who discovered where the brain processes spoken language. A study of the location of Wernicke’s area in individual patients indicated that everyone who could understand spoken language has a Wernicke’s area. However, while some were located in the upper temporal lobe, others were found in the posterior part of the temporal lobe, and still others were found in the parietal lobe. The key point here is that everyone who understands spoken language has a functioning Wernicke’s area, but it can be in different locations that fit an individual’s unique brain map. It is foolhardy to try to force this function into a specific brain region, or to assume that everyone should have Wernicke’s area in exactly the same location in their brain.

Similarly, there can be very significant differences as to which side of an individual’s brain is used for processing tasks. For some people, a creative endeavor may activate primarily the right brain, whereas in others it is the left brain that becomes more activated.

Creativity is an important ability that parents should continually nurture in their children. Studies of creativity show that this can be a left brain activity when telling stories or listening to stories, or a right brain activity when filling in pieces to a missing puzzle or having a flash of insight. A parent’s job is to facilitate the development of creativity by reading stories and encouraging their children to make up and tell stories of their own.

Parents should also provide children with blocks, artist’s materials, clay, Play- Doh, and other toys and materials that allow them to create. Who cares whether a child’s brain does this on the right side or the left side, just as long as they learn to be creative? In reality, as brain studies show, creativity uses both sides of the brain, and there is no specific “creativity center” where creativity occurs. Rather, multiple brain regions are recruited during creative activities and creative thinking.

Over and over again, I have seen that attempts to take shortcuts with regard to learning and wiring the brain in the name of “fast-tracking” the wiring of a child’s brain. These simply cannot hold a candle to intuitive parenting. Removing the anxiety and stress of milestones or a “critical period” and using the tools of intuitive parenting that I spell out in my book will ensure that your child’s mind is hardwired for learning and thinking well into teen years and adulthood.

Adapted from The Intuitive Parent: Why the Best Thing for Your Child Is You by Stephen Camarata, PhD with permission of Current, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Stephen Camarata, 2015.

Read Brain, Child’s  interview with author Stephen Camarata.


Author Q&A: Stephen Camarata

Author Q&A: Stephen Camarata

Stephen C. PhotoStephen Camarata is the author of The Intuitive Parent

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

One of the real tragedies in modern society is that misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and outright hucksterism are undermining parents’ self-confidence. Marketers and the media are creating needless anxiety, and stealing the fun and joy out of raising children.  Worse, the national push to artificially accelerate learning and brain development is actually derailing healthy natural parenting that insures children will be confident, happy–and intelligent. I wrote this book to provide parents with accurate, up-to-date, scientifically grounded information that supports their own intuition and common sense of how best to raise their child. My hope is that the book will empower parents to filter out all the noise, marketing, and latest fad so they can focus on their child, respond to them naturally, and become an effective nurturer and learning partner.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

My youngest son, Vincent, was slow to develop spoken language skills. When he was in preschool, we were told by a special education team that he should be educated in a segregated classroom for children with intellectual disabilities. We were led to believe that because his third birthday had passed, we had missed the critical period for wiring his brain and that he was now doomed to be a slow learner across the board from here on out. Worse, we were told that he would never be able to go to college. Our intuition told us that this couldn’t be true.

We knew that his language skills lagged compared to other kids his age. On the other hand, his ability to do puzzles, comprehend numbers and draw were all far advanced compared to other children his age. He loved to explore the world beyond the boundaries of our fenced in yard and would often wait for one of his older siblings to open the door so that he could dart into the front yard and run up the street!

These precocious abilities did not square with what we were being told by the school. Thankfully, we listened to our inner voice and kept him in the regular classroom, and spent many hours tutoring him in reading at home.

By the time Vincent started middle school, he was above grade level in math and science. His reading ability did not catch up until he entered high school, but he is now an excellent—and avid reader.

We were sometimes told that we were “in denial” about Vincent’s abilities, and given questionable advice along the way. For example, a second grade recommended ADHD-medication because Vincent would not sit still during story time. I pointed out that he would sit still for hours when drawing pictures or working math problems and that the reason he was wiggly during reading time was because his ability to understand what the teacher was saying was below the other children in the classroom.

Despite the dire predictions from “experts,” my son graduated from college and is now an air traffic controller in the Air Force. Instead of listening to the so-called experts, we followed our intuition and nurtured his gifts in math, science and art—he won a city wide art contest while in high school—while patiently teaching him to read, which took nearly a decade. But what would’ve happened if we had taken the advice that was against our own common sense?

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

Every parent already has what it takes to raise a happy, confident, resilient and intelligent child. Be confident in your own ability as a parent. Don’t let any educational program, early intervention expert, or marketing scheme interfere with that special relationship. Pay attention to your child, read to them, talk to them, and play with them and be sure to heed your own ample store of common sense.

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

The toughest part of writing was actually choosing what would be included in the book. There have been so many wonderful adventures raising my own children, so many scientific discoveries on brain plasticity and neural development that support intuitive parenting, and a plethora of parenting fads and baby genius products pushed on parents so that integrating this information into a practical message was a bit daunting. On the other hand, writing brought back so many amazing experiences and memories!

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

Of Children by Guy Lefrancois was an excellent introduction to the wonder of child development, which I read even before I had any children. Of course, the work of Jean Piaget (The psychology of the child) and BF Skinner (science and human behavior) also had a profound influence. More recently, books by Steven Pinker (The language instinct and Words and rules) and Einstein Never used flash cards by Roberta Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek have been very influential. Finally, the neuroscience aspects of development were influenced by Neurons to Neighborhoods (by Jack Shonkoff) and by the Myth of the first three years (by John Bruer).

How do you balance fatherhood and writing?

The key is focusing on your child when you get home and leaving job worries and stress at the door. Even if you only have 15 or 20 minutes, you—and your baby can connect and enjoy one another’s company. I have found that being with my children is a nice counter weight to the stresses and pressure of the workplace. And is a whole lot of fun!



Author Q&A: Laurel Snyder

Author Q&A: Laurel Snyder

Swan Author headshotLaurel Snyder is the author of Swan, the Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

What inspired you to write Swan?

It’s a funny story.  On a visit home to my mom’s, I found an old book in the basement, about Anna Pavlova.  In it were notes I’d scribbled about how much I loved her, when I was about ten years old.  Staring at my own messy handwriting, I was sort of overwhelmed by memories of my childhood obsession, and the story followed from there.  In a sense, feel like I time traveled, and  collaborated with my ten-year-old self!

How close do you work with the illustrator?  How does the process work?

Not very  closely, to be honest.  She works from my text, and I respond to her artwork, make suggestions, but we never really interact in person. I think if we did it would take about a decade to finish a book.  That said, it’s an amazing experience to see my thoughts drawn on the page. It’s amazing how that can happen– how an illustrator can peer into an author’s brain. I cried when I saw the early sketches.

What was the biggest challenge in writing this book?

Trusting myself to write the real story.  Pavlova’s life was challenging, as well as inspiring.    I wanted this to be a beautiful ballerina book, but I wanted it to be more than that.  I wanted it to feel true.  I didn’t want to leave out the hard parts.

What do you want a young reader to take away after reading Swan?

Oh, good question!  I think the main thing  is that it’s okay for kids to take themselves seriously. Sometimes we adults treat childhood feelings and passions as thought they’re “cute” or “funny,” when what a kid is feeling is actually very intense.  Anna is a great example of a kid choosing a path, and making sacrifices for her choice.  Living a life with great meaning, from a young age.  The world is full of cute funny books for kids. With this book, I wanted to value their other experiences.

Were you a dancer or a writer first?

Aren’t we all dancers first? The power of movement comes long before the power of language.  Watching babies respond to music is amazing.  I can recall spinning in circles when I was about five, feeling my arms float.  I’m a better writer than dancer, but I danced first, for sure!

What do you love best about writing for children?

Writers are explorers, and in a sense,  we get to live infinite lives. Really, this book is a perfect example of that!   As a kid, I wanted to grow up to be a professional ballerina and unicorn trainer.  I failed miserably at both endeavors, but as a writer, I can explore ballet, participate in it. I will never  be Anna Pavlova, but in writing about her, I get to pretend for a little while.  It’s a wonderful thing!

I guess that means I should write a unicorn-training book next, huh?

wan Cover ArtRead more about Swan: The Life and Times of Anna Pavlova, available now.


Excerpt: Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

Excerpt: Swan, The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova

Written by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Julie Morstad


“A tender, delicate recounting.” — Publishers Weekly

“Young ballet lovers will be smitten with the story.”– Kirkus Reviews

“Exquisite.” — The Horn Book Magazine  


The following is a short excerpt and peek inside Swan, The Life and Times of Anna Pavlova


Swan Cover 3D

The world is big

Anna is small.

The snow is


and all around

But one night…

One night her mother takes her to the ballet, and everything is changed – Anna finds beauty inside herself that she cannot contain.

So begins the journey of a girl who will one day grow up to be the most famous prima ballerina of all time, and who will inspire legions of dancers after her: The brave, the generous, the transcendently gifted Anna Pavlova.


Swan 3


Swan Cover 3DBuy the Book

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with author Laurel Snyder.

Author Q&A: Amy McCready

Author Q&A: Amy McCready

Me ME Me Author PhotoAmy McCready is the author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World

What was your inspiration for writing The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic?

I originally planned for my second book to be a guide for parenting tweens and teens. However, in my conversations with parents, the topic of entitlement came up again and again. It was almost as if we’d hit a tipping point in which weary moms and dads would bemoan the fact that their kids expected special treatment, wouldn’t help around the house, assumed they would be rescued from poor choices, and always want more, more, MORE! These kids believe they are the center of the world and that the world – or at least their corner of it – owes them something (or worse, everything.) As a parent of teens, I’ve certainly worried about the same thing. No one intends to raise an entitled child. Entitlement is born out of love and wanting to do the very best and most for our kids. My goal for The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic was to give parents concrete tools to inspire their kids’ best behavior (no more chore wars, homework battles, and sassy attitudes) and help them develop the responsibility, resilience, and respectfulness they need to lead a successful adult life.

How did your own experience as a parent inform your writing?

As a mom of teenagers, I see the influence of social media. I see the pressure to own the hot, new gadget. I see how kids get new cars for their 16th birthday (not mine!) and how that can be perceived as “normal.”

I also understand why we do things for our children that they are perfectly capable of doing for themselves. How we rescue them when they should learn from their mistakes. How we over-indulge them with wants rather than needs. How we put them at the center of our world.  I’ve made all of these mistakes – just like most parents. And I’ve learned from them

The good news is…whether you have toddlers or teens, or a child somewhere in the middle, this book can help. And whether you have a mild case of the entitlement bug or a full-blown epidemic in your home – the 35 simple to use tools in this book will give you everything you need to turn that around.

What message would you like the reader to take away after reading your book?

Thank you for choosing this book! Trust me, it is not too late to turn the tide of entitlement and make your home a haven of peace in a world of entitled attitudes. The 35 tools in this book will give you the confidence, know-how, and even words to extinguish the “Me, Me, Me” bug and raise capable, responsible, resilient, grateful people who are ready to take on a world where it’s not all about them.  This dream is within your reach, and your kids will be better off for it!

What was the toughest part of the writing process?

That’s easy! Containing the book to 312 pages! Parents have been sharing their stories with me for years.  I spotlighted a few examples in The “Over-The-Top” Parent video on my website (www.  With so many stories and examples to draw upon, I could have written about this topic forever. The good news is that parents can find me and connect in our online community so the learning doesn’t have to end when they read the last chapter of the book. In fact, I tried to write a book that isn’t a “one and done” read – but something parents can pull out whenever they need a “booster shot” of strategies to keep their kids, their home – and sometimes even their “sanity” – on course.

What books have had the greatest influence on you?

The greatest influences on my work and on my job as a parent are those based on positive parenting philosophies, such as Children: the Challenge, one of the original texts based on the work of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, the more recent texts from Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author and co-author of the Positive Discipline series, as well as Siblings Without Rivalry and How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. There are many excellent parenting books out there, and I’ve learned valuable lessons from all of these wonderful authors: Dr. Shefali Tsabury, Dr. Laura Markham, Susan Cain, Bruce Feiler, Christine Carter, Rachel Macy Stafford, and so many more!

How do you balance motherhood and writing?

Well, my kids are a bit older now, so I’m able to work a standard day while they are at school, but I really rely on prioritization.  If I put them first and make sure I’m meeting their needs for emotional connection – everything else works itself out.  We’re a team, and that’s a great feeling. Even when they know I’m a “donkey on the ledge” because of a big deadline, they support and encourage me, and somehow it all gets done!

My bigger challenge was finding a balance between working on the book and running my business, Positive Parenting Solutions.  I’m blessed however to have an amazing team of committed people behind me! With a special nod to my husband Dave, who is my business partner and a marvel at keeping all the plates spinning and the organization running smoothly. And that’s exactly what I needed more days than I can count so I could go underground (or more accurately to a quiet corner of the public library) and work on the book.  It’s been a great experience, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to write this book and for the parents who will read it.

51fzBnHiAmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Learn more about Amy and her new book The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World

The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: Excerpt

The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: Excerpt


Adapted from The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic: A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World by Amy McCready. (Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House).

51fzBnHiAmL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The Entitlement Epidemic

You couldn’t afford your own makeup this month because thirteen-year-old Johnny’s fluorescent orange must-have sneakers cost your entire discretionary budget. You keep a spare McDonald’s bag on hand so you can pretend to three-year-old Emma that her peanut-butter sandwich was made under the golden arches. And in order to get eight-year-old Daryl into bed, you have to let him fall asleep in front of the television, and carry him there.

Since when do parents jump through hoops at all costs to keep children happy? Since when do kids get to call the shots? The truth is kids everywhere—from toddlers to teens—are ruling the roost and they’re not about to abandon their posts without a fight.

Entitlement isn’t really a disease, but it has hit epidemic levels in our society. And it’s certainly not only rich kids who are afflicted. The entitlement problem spans classes and cultures. It’s also not only about stuff. Entitled kids believe the world revolves around them. They expect things to be done for them, a path to happiness cleared and smoothed, without putting in much effort themselves. They feel that something is wrong if they’re not happy. At any given minute they should be having the time of their lives because after all, you only live once.

How does the entitlement epidemic present in the typical household? Here are a few clues you might have an entitlement problem in your home:

You find yourself exasperated at your children’s demands but caving anyway.

You’re exhausted keeping up with the house, but everyone’s too busy watching TV to help.

You can’t make it through the grocery store without buying a treat.

You’re frequently supplementing your kids’ allowance.

You take responsibility for your kids by doing things for them that you know they should be able to do for themselves.

You resort to bribes or rewards to get cooperation from your kids.

You frequently rescue your kids by driving forgotten items to school or reminding them about their deadlines.

Your child frequently takes issue with rules and expectations at school or in activities.

Your child is quick to blame others for anything that goes wrong.

Your child tries to manipulate others to get his way.

Your child commonly sulks or pitches a fit when she doesn’t get her way.

Your child often complains of being bored and wants to be entertained by you.

Your child finds it really difficult to wait patiently for something he wants.

Sound like a child you know? In truth, there’s not a kid alive who doesn’t exhibit some of these symptoms from time to time. Whether you’ve got a big entitlement outbreak at your house or only a minor case, you’ll soon be able to move your kids toward greater independence, responsibility and contentment.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with author Amy McCready

Parenting expert Amy McCready is the author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic (Perigee, 2015) and the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. She is also the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time (Perigee, 2011). A champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids, she reaches a worldwide audience with her Positive Parenting Solutions Online parenting course, web and print articles, live webinars, and media appearances. Amy is a frequent guest on the TODAY show and has also appeared on Rachael Ray, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, and elsewhere. She lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with her husband and two sons. Learn more at

© 2015 by Amy McCready. Jeremy P. Tarcher, Penguin Group USA, Penguin Random House.

For permission to share this excerpt, please contact Keely Platte at



The Gift of Failure: Excerpt

The Gift of Failure: Excerpt

Excerpt from THE GIFT OF FAILURE by Jessica Lahey

On Sale August 11, 2015; Harper

Gift of Failure Cover

Introduction: How I Learned To Let Go

I became a parent and a middle school teacher in the same year, and these twin roles have shaped the way I’ve raised my children and educated my students. Over the course of my first decade raising two boys and teaching hundreds of students, I began to feel a creeping sense of unease, a suspicion that something was rotten in the state of my parenting. But it was only when my elder child entered middle school that my worlds collided and the source of the problem became clear to me: today’s overprotective, failure-avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation. From my vantage point at the front of a classroom, I’d long viewed myself as part of the solution, a champion of my student’s intellectual and emotional bravery. However, as the same caution and fear I witnessed in my students began to show up in my own children’s lives, I had to admit that I was part of the problem, too.

We have taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success. That’s certainly not what we meant to do, and we did it for all the best and well-intentioned reasons, but it’s what we have wrought nevertheless. Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens of this world.

As I stood there in my middle school classroom on the day of my personal epiphany, looking at the students before me and seeing my own parenting clearly for the first time, I resolved to do what I needed to do to guide both my children and my students back toward the path to competence and independence. The way isn’t smooth, and the going certainly isn’t easy, but that’s kind of the point. We parents are going to have to step back, leave those scary obstacles lying in the road, and allow our children to face them head-on. Given our support, love, and a lot of restraint, our kids can learn how to engineer their own solutions and pave their way toward success that is truly of their own making.

The discomfort I’d been feeling in my own parenting had been growing for a while, but I could not put my finger on where I’d gone wrong. I read all the parenting blogs, from the austere to the zealous, and read books by the experts on how to raise happy, healthy children. However, as I watched my boys approach their teenage years, something was amiss in the state of my parenting. They were good, well-adjusted kids, but I couldn’t shake the sense that when it came time for them to head out on their own and make their way in the world, they were ill-prepared. As long as they stayed inside the safe haven I’d created for them, they were confident and successful, but when forced to venture outside, would they know how to function? I’d so successfully researched, planned, and constructed their comfortable childhoods that I’d failed to teach them how to adapt to the world on its terms.

I never meant to teach my children to be helpless or fear failure, and a life of anxiety is certainly not what I envisioned for them. On the contrary, I thought my kids would grow up brave, in the sort of wild, free idyll I experienced as a child. I wanted to them to explore the woods with a pocketknife and a couple of cookies shoved in their pockets, build tree forts, shoot handmade arrows at imaginary enemies, and swim in the local watering hole. I wanted them to have the time and the courage to try new things, explore their boundaries, and climb one branch beyond the edge of their comfort zones..

But somehow, somewhere, that idyllic version of childhood morphed into something very different, a high-stakes, cutthroat race to the top. Today, careless afternoons in the woods seem like a quaint throwback because the pressure to succeed from an early age has ramped up for both parents and kids. It never lets up, and there is no longer time in our children’s schedules for leisure time in the woods, let alone opportunities to problem-solve their way out of the muck and mire they encounter out there. In the new normal, every moment counts, and the more successful our kids are as students, athletes, and musicians, the more successful we judge ourselves as parents. The race to the top starts when children take their first steps and does not end until a six-figure income and socio-economic upward mobility is secured. And, come on, what kind of negligent mother allows their kids to play alone in the woods during homework time, with pockets full of gluten and sugar, armed to the teeth with pocketknives and arrows?

Standing in my middle school classroom, frozen in that horrible realization of my own culpability in the epidemic of overparenting, I finally understood just how far off the path we parents have strayed.

We bring a beautiful, precious child into the world, and after those first moments of bliss wear off, we realize that our new purpose in life is to protect this fragile human being from harm. And if we are to believe the fear-mongering mass media, that harm is all around us. Baby snatchers disguised as maternity nurses, antibiotic-resistant germs, toxic chemicals, disease-carrying ticks, bullying kids, unfair teachers, murderous school shooters…no wonder we’ve gone nuts where our children are concerned.

However, this fear doesn’t just cause us to overparent, it makes us feel overwhelmed, myopic, and much too credulous of those who seek to stoke our parental fears. It’s easier to self-soothe by shielding our kids from all risk than to take a pause and figure out which risks are necessary to their development and emotional health. We protect our kids from all threats, whether real or imagined, and when we tuck our kids in bed at night, free of cuts, bruises, or emotional hurt, we have, for one more day, found tangible evidence of our parenting success.

We revel in their safety and reassure ourselves that there’s plenty of time to teach them how to deal with risk and failure. Maybe tomorrow I’ll let them walk to school, but today, they got to school safely. Maybe tomorrow they will do their own homework, but today, they are successful in math. Maybe tomorrow continues until it’s time for them to leave home, and by then, they have learned that we will always be there to save them from themselves.

I am as guilty as the next parent; I have inadvertently extended my children’s dependence in order to appropriate their successes as evidence and validation of my parenting. Every time I pack my child’s lunch for him or drive his forgotten homework to school, I am rewarded with tangible proof of my conscientious mothering. I love, therefore I provide. I provide, therefore I love. While I know, somewhere in the back of my mind, that my children really should be doing these kinds of tasks for themselves, it makes me feel good to give them these small displays of my deep, unconditional love. I reassure myself with what feels like a vast expanse of childhood, stretching out for years, its eventual end invisible over the horizon. My kids will have their entire lives to pack their lunches and remember their backpacks, but I only have a very brief window of time to be able to do these things for them.

There’s a term for this behavior in psychiatric circles. It’s called enmeshment, and it’s not healthy for kids or parents. It’s a maladaptive state of symbiosis that makes for unhappy, resentful parents and “failure to launch” children who move back in to their bedrooms after college graduation. In 2012, 36% of adults age 18-31 still lived in their parents’ home, and while some of that figure is due to declining employment and marriage statistics, these numbers are part of a trend that’s been rising for decades. In order to raise healthy, happy kids who can begin to build their own adulthood separate from us, we are going to have to extricate our egos from our children’s lives and allow them to feel the pride of their own accomplishments as well as the pain of their own failures.

We are also going to have to knock it off with the competitive parenting, because we have managed to whip ourselves up into a frenzy of anxiety and paranoia. Our Facebook posts and soccer tournament sideline chat is jam-packed with passive-aggressive tales of academic honors and athletic glory. As our kids get older, we spin tales of coast-to-coast college tours, SAT prep and AP tutoring, because didn’t you hear? According to the news, today’s college degree counts as much as our high school diplomas…and in order to get that college degree, our kids will have to jump through all sorts of hoops we never had to deal with because colleges have become more expensive and selective…and there is no such thing as a safety school anymore…and as the economy is in the toilet, once our kids graduate from whatever college will deign to take them, they may have to work as minimum-wage baristas in order to be able to afford to share an apartment with sixteen of their friends.

We need to stop and take a very deep breath. Research shows that this behavior, this “Pressured Parents Phenomenon,” is extremely contagious. Even when I’ve vaccinated myself against it ahead of time, I have fallen victim to it as well. Consequently, I am not the mother I hoped I would be. I hover over homework and obsess about grade point averages as the specter of college admission looms large on the horizon. It is as if the better angels of my nature have been cowed into silence, and I’ve bought into the hype: unless I push my kids to do more, be more, they will fail, and, by logical extension, I will have failed as a mother.

In my darker moments, I’ve cast around for others to blame for my plight, and I’ve found plenty of scapegoats. Reaction against the hands-off parenting of the fifties and sixties, extension of the attachment parenting we employed when our children were in infancy, and guilt over our failed attempts to strike an impossible balance between work and family. There does not seem to be a middle ground anymore, a safe harbor between having it all and having nothing.

The parenting pendulum swings back and forth over time, so the fact that it is currently hanging at its apex at the extreme end of the overparenting arc isn’t really anyone’s fault. It’s part of the action and reaction that constitutes the history of our species. Early in the 20th century, parents were instructed not to touch their children at all lest we spoil them, but by the time the 90’s swung into view, experts had latched on to attachment parenting, in which we were instructed to sleep, eat, bathe, urinate, and breathe without ever letting go of our kangaroo-style infants. Sure, the pendulum swung through a sane, middle ground between 1970 and 1980, and I am forever grateful I was allowed to play in its gentle shade as it passed overhead. However, that golden moment of equilibrium was over much too soon, and we began our upward swing toward the place we find ourselves in today.

If you grew up in the 1970s, some of you more than likely were latch-key kids, with both parents working outside the home . While some of us associate the term with a childhood lit with a rosy, romantic hue, others recall the lack of supervision as near-abandonment, and have begun making reparations to their children accordingly. In our efforts to make up for our own perceived lack of guidance, we are ever-present, ever-helpful, ever-reminding, ever-rescuing. As part of this reparation effort, some parents—mostly women—abandoned their executive offices for home, determined to mindfully parent their children as full-time caregivers. Often, mothers dove in to full-time parenting armed with the skills they had earned in higher education and in the business world, and they took no prisoners. How hard could parenting be? Guiding children into Ivy League colleges, like making partner in a Wall Street law firm, was simply a matter of organization, drive, and the meticulous management of academic and extracurricular resources.

Parents who remained in the workforce, meanwhile, were made to feel deficient for prioritizing work over their children, and felt obligated to show the world that they could do it all. Again, success was just a matter of scheduling and some sleight of hand. Cupcakes here, boardroom there. Parent-teacher conference here, Bluetooth Skype with clients on the way home in the car. Besides, the mortgage and childcare payments required two incomes to maintain, and as the economy tanked, the suggestion that one parent could simply kiss the stability of a paycheck and benefits goodbye in order to parent full-time seemed ludicrous.

We did the best we could with the skills we’d worked so hard to acquire. Schedules of meetings and project management schemes were repurposed into color-coded school activity and carpool calendars, scheduled down to the minute. Management skills formerly used to guide teams of employees toward quarterly sales goals were appropriated to plan semester-long campaigns to help children improve their grades. I know this, because I’ve used every trick in my college- and law school-educated quiver. When I returned to work after my elder son, Ben, was born, I used spreadsheets and database software to chronicle his first words, the input and output of his digestive system, and his reading progress. These were the tools at my disposal, and since I’d worked long and hard to acquire them, it hardly seemed right to let them go to waste. I took comfort in these measures when faced with the silent, sucking void I found when I searched for clues that would validate my parenting. The only other ally I found in this endeavor was my son’s pediatrician, who at least provided me with growth charts that plotted my infant’s progress against all the other rival babies out there. If his weight and height were just above the 50th percentile on the growth chart, great. I’d done some good, solid mothering. If his BMI was a little lower than average, well done, me; I got some bonus points for staving off the epidemic of childhood obesity. At the end of the appointment, though, I needed the good doctor to bestow judgment and answer my unspoken plea: Do I qualify for honors or is this parenting business pass/fail? What about those other parents out there in the waiting room, did I beat them? Come on, help me out here, Doc: What’s my grade?

Of course, the strategies that make us successful in the business world do not translate to the business of parenting. Reams of research papers on child development and behavioral psychology reveal that while these methods may work to motivate assembly line workers, they are terrible tools for motivating children to engage in creative problem-solving, and they actually undermine long-term motivation and investment in learning. Even more damaging, the use of rewards and incentives prioritize scores and grades over exploration and experimentation, which undermines a teacher’s ability to foster self-directed and intrinsically motivated learning.

Despite the wealth of evidence regarding the folly of these methods, we continue to incorporate them into our parenting, and lacking regular performance reviews from some higher authority, many of us look to our children to provide the feedback we need in order to feel as if we are doing our jobs well. If our children are on the honor roll and make varsity soccer as a freshman, we must be great parents. Conversely, when a child fails a test or receives detention for neglecting to hand in his science paper, we must have done something wrong. Parents, after all, are judged by their children’s accomplishments rather than their happiness, so when our children fail, we appropriate those failures as our own.

This is not only disastrous for parents’ self-worth, it’s short-sighted and unimaginative. Failure—from small mistakes to huge miscalculations—is a necessary and critical part of our child development. Failure is too often characterized as a negative; an F in math or a suspension from school. However, all sorts of disappointments, rejections, corrections and criticisms are small failures, all opportunities in disguise, valuable gifts misidentified as tragedy. Sadly, when we avoid or dismiss these opportunities, in order to preserve children’s sense of ease and short-term happiness, we deprive them of the experiences they need to have in order to become capable, competent adults.

Failure is frightening enough when faced firsthand, but when our children wander too close to its jaws, we are overcome with a primal, overpowering need to protect. From an evolutionary perspective, this response makes perfect sense. We are programmed in our hearts and our DNA to shield our offspring from harm so when tasked with shepherding our genetic offspring safely to adulthood, we are prepared to fight anything that threatens their success with all the ferocity our nails and teeth and smarts can muster. Unfortunately, when we are all hopped up on adrenaline and cortisol, our brains can’t distinguish between genuine, mortal threats to life and limb, and the manageable threat of a soccer opponent flying downfield to steal the ball away from our child. Leaping in front of an attacking predator on the savannah and screaming at the referee for a bad call are just two different manifestations of the same biological trigger. So when you want to push that little girl who tossed sand in your child’s face or punch that teacher who threatened your child with a D on her science project, remember that while these actions are not sane, socially appropriate responses to minor stressors, their genesis comes from our shared biological nature. We all want our children to make it safely to adulthood, and it often feels as if it is all on us to make that happen.

Lacking saber-toothed tigers and precarious cliffs, failure feels like the greatest threat of all, the one danger our children can’t afford to encounter in these times of academic pressure and exclusionary admissions. Yet history is filled with stories of extraordinary people, inventors and innovators, who learned how to appropriate the gifts of failure to their own advantage, who did not run from it, but stayed in its company long enough to become comfortable amidst the jumbled wreckage of their dashed hopes and flawed plans. They learned how to salvage what was working while leaving flawed plans behind only to regroup and rebuild. As recent MacArthur Fellow and former middle school teacher Angela Duckworth has found, the ability to attend to a task and stick to long-term goals is the greatest predictor of success, greater than academic achievement, extracurricular involvement, test scores, and IQ. She calls this grit, and first discovered its power in the classroom, while teaching seventh grade math. She left teaching to pursue research on her hunch, and her findings have changed the way educators perceive student potential. Gritty students succeed, and failure strengthens grit like no other crucible.

Every time we rescue, hover, or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust. Further, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down.

But here’s the truth, what research has shown over and over again: the children of parents who don’t allow their children to fail are less engaged, less enthusiastic about their education, less motivated, and ultimately less successful than parents who support their children’s autonomy.

Decades of studies and hundreds of pages of scientific point to one conclusion that sounds crazy, but it absolutely works. If parents back off the pressure and anxiety over grades and achievement and focus on the bigger picture—a love of learning and independent inquiry—grades will improve and test scores will go up. Children of controlling and directive parents are much less able to deal with intellectual and physical challenges than peers who benefit from parents who stand back and allow their children to try, and fail, and try again. Furthermore, the failure our children experience when we back off and allow them to make their own mistakes is not only a necessary part of learning, it’s the very experience that teaches them how to be resilient, capable, creative problem-solvers.

The United States has been criticized for producing a generation of inflexible thinkers, students who can memorize and regurgitate, but who are incapable of manipulating information in order to answer questions in novel and innovative ways. This is due in part to the fact that our educational system relies on high-stakes standardized testing as a measure of its efficacy, and because today’s parents simply are not allowing their child to muck about in the unpleasant, messy, experience of failure long enough to come to terms with the shortcomings of plan A and formulate plans B, C, D, and E. Lots of kids can ace a test using Plan A, but it’s going to be the kid who has tried and failed and re-grouped in order to try again with twenty-five other plans who will create true innovation and change in our world. That kid is not only creative and innovative in his thinking, he is unafraid to try out new strategies. He will have the courage and resolve to work through thousands of miscalculations as he pursues a working solution. He will be able to regroup in the face of repeated failures and like Thomas Edison, he will learn the lessons inherent in discovering the thousands of ways a light bulb does not work before inventing the one light bulb that does.

My flash of insight had been a long time coming. Yes, I’d been uncomfortable with my own overparenting for a while, but I have to credit my students (again) for teaching me what I was too blind to see. Each year, my eighth graders write essays about an experience that has shaped their education, and after much struggle, one of my most tightly wound and anxiety-ridden students handed in the following paragraph:

Some people are afraid of heights, some are afraid of water; I am afraid of failure; which, for the record, is called atychiphobia. I am so afraid of failing that I lose focus on what actually matters; learning. In focusing on the outcome, I lose the value of the actual assignment and deprive myself of learning.

She went on to recount all the ways this fear has held her back in school and athletics, but those first few sentences stopped me cold. Her experience as a student, my professional experience with her parents, my own parenting, and my son’s fears all came together in her admission. This student’s parents are wonderful, kind, and caring, and they never intended to create this sort of fear in their child. And frankly, the fallout would be their own problem to deal with save for the fact that the private choices parents make that undermine their child’s social, academic, and emotional development eventually come in conflict with a teacher’s ability to educate their child.

Despite the unbridled optimism and energy of the thousands of new teachers who enter the educational workforce every year, the National Education Association reports that one-third of these teachers will quit after three years, and 46 percent will be gone within five years. According to Ron Clark, the winner of a Disney American Teacher Award, many of these fleeing educators cite “issues with parents” as one of their main reasons for abandoning the profession. In a 2011 interview with CNN, Clark related an exchange with a principal who had been named the administrator of the year in her state but had chosen to leave education. “I screamed, ‘You can’t leave us,’ and she quite bluntly replied, ‘Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can’t deal with parents anymore; they are killing us.” I love teaching dearly, but “issues with parents” have inspired elaborate fantasies in which I abandon the profession forever, move to Alaska, and raise sled dogs. “Issues with parents” are the stuff of my nightmares.

Now that I understand the root cause of parents’ fears and worries, I do what I can to convince them that a small blip in their child’s journey means so little in the big picture, and can actually serve as a great opportunity to teach their child about resilience. I back up, let those anxious parents slow their breathing, and help them see that they have a fantastic, kind, generous, and curious child. I reassure them that he will be fine, indeed, he will do wonderful and interesting things in his life and no one will remember whatever transgression or failure triggered our conference. Some parents believe me, but many more do not, and leave my office convinced that the B- their child received for the semester spells the end of their dreams for educational excellence, economic security, and a lifetime of happiness.

It’s always been hard to be a teacher and equally difficult to be a parent, and there should be plenty of common ground for mutual sympathy. We are, after all, working toward a shared goal: the education of our children. Unfortunately, parents who put a priority on saving kids from frustration and teachers who put a priority on challenging their students often butt heads, and consequently, the parent-teacher partnership has reached a breaking point. Teaching has become a push-and-pull between opposing forces in which parents want teachers to educate their children with increasing rigor, but reject those rigorous lessons as “too hard” or “too frustrating” for their children to endure. Parents rightly feel protective of their children’s self-esteem, but teachers too often bear the brunt of parental ire.

I’ve struggled to find the best way to support parents in their efforts to love and nurture their children while teaching them how to step back a bit and allow children the safe space they need in order to fail, particularly when those kids hit middle school. Middle school is prime time for failure, even among kids who have sailed through school up to that point. The combined stressors of puberty, heightened academic expectations, and increased workload are a set-up for failure. How parents, teachers, and students work together to overcome those inevitable failures predicts so much about how children will fare in high school, college, and beyond.

And that way forward? In order to help children make the most of their education, parents must begin to relinquish control and focus on three goals: Embracing opportunities to fail, finding ways to learn from that failure, and creating positive home-school relationships. In the chapters to follow, I’ll explain each of these goals in depth and give you strategies that will help you achieve them.

The day I finally came to terms with my overparenting, I was determined to start making amends at home with my own children. I needed to do something immediate, something symbolic, and I knew just where to start. My younger son, then a third grader, had never learned to tie his shoes. I blamed this oversight on the invention of Velcro and his preference for slip-on shoes, but if I’m completely honest, I knew I was falling down on the job. He freaked out when I mentioned the situation, even in my most enthusiastic, “Won’t this be a fun project we can do together?” voice. He got frustrated with my instruction, I got frustrated with his helplessness, and the entire endeavor dissolved into anger and tears. Tears. Over shoelaces. When I began to look closely at the source of his issue with the shoelaces, it all boiled down to his feelings of frustration and helplessness, which was my fault, not his. I taught him that.

For every time I tied his shoes, rather than teach him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him. Eventually he and I both began to wonder whether he’d ever prevail. One day before school, when he’d left his Velcro shoes at a friend’s house and had to wear the backup pair with laces, he said he’d rather wear his rain boots than try to tie his shoes. He didn’t even care that wearing boots meant he’d have to sit out PE all by himself.

This, right here, is what I had wrought: my son was so convinced of his inability that he was willing to forfeit an hour of playtime with his friends.

So that afternoon, I took out his backup sneakers, and prepared to remedy the situation. Over a snack, I told him I’d make a mistake, and that I thought I’d figured out how to be a better mom. I empathized with his worry and told him that while the task might be hard for him at first, with some effort and perseverance, I knew he could conquer the task. I was so confident that we were going to stick with it until he mastered those darn shoelaces. In less than an hour, the embarrassment he’d felt about being the only third grader who could not tie his shoes was gone. He had succeeded and I’ve hardly ever seen him so proud of himself. I felt like a SuperMom, and all it took was a little time, a little faith in each other, and the patience to work through the tangle of knots and loops.

No, it’s not always going to be this simple. The stakes get higher and the consequences get bigger as our children get older. Lumpy knots and uneven shoelaces give way to flawed college essays and botched job interviews in the blink of an eye, and there’s only so much time available to instill confidence and resilience in our children. The work begins the first moment our babies fail to grasp a toy or fall as they toddle across the room and continues until they head out into their own lives. The sooner parents learn to appreciate the positive aspects of hardship and allow children to benefit from the upside of failure in childhood, the sooner all of us will have the opportunity to share in the moments of pride like the one I saw in my son’s face as he secured those laces.

It’s up to us. Parents have the power to grant this freedom to fail. Teachers have the ability to transform that failure into an education. And together? Together, we have the potential to nurture a generation of confident, competent adults.

Let’s get started.

Read Brain, Child’s Q&A with author Jessica Lahey.

Gift of Failure CoverBUY THE BOOK

Book Birthday Parties

Book Birthday Parties

By Hilary Levey FriedmanBook Column Book Party ART

In a recent book review I wrote about how much stuff my kids have and wondered how we can best discuss inequality with our children. Like many parents I want to raise nice boys, who understand and know how to show gratitude.

So for my son’s first and third birthdays this year (celebrated just 10 days apart), I decided that we would have a no-gifts party. Believe me, they don’t need more things! Instead, we asked people to bring in books we would then donate. Why books? I considered other types of donations, and while coats and clothes are undoubtedly important, books are crucial when it comes to that long-term inequality.

Also, I am fundamentally a book person. We had a library themed wedding and at baby showers, brises, birthdays, etc. our favors are always bookmarks. So I searched online and found this great non-profit, Milk + Bookies, who helped me make it happen.

Milk + Bookies sent me a list of organizations in my area (Boston) in need of books and we selected Horizons for Homeless Children. Horizons shared more specific needs with us (like board books, books with Spanish and those that depict diverse families and needs, etc.) and I passed on the info to those invited to the birthday celebration.

Milk + Bookies book-raiser kit included bookmarks (Yes! Less work for me, but I then made some stickers to personalize them), stickers for kids, balloons, bookplates (our crowd was a bit young for these, so we skipped them, but would use them in the future), and tips for creating banners and other decorations.

At the party we were excited to collect 122 books, and I was even more excited that my older son, Carston, was not at all upset he didn’t get presents at his party (the youngest really didn’t understand everything going on). It probably helped that on the day of their actual birthdays they each got one present from each set of grandparents, a book from us as parents, and a gift from one another.

Still, I wondered about how to talk to Carston about why we were collecting books. Again, Milk + Bookies’ kit helped by having a sheet I could fill in with my sons’ names and how it made them feel to donate books to others. I explained that some kids didn’t have any books at home, or many toys, but that we were going to give them some. I then asked Carston how it made him feel to give the books to other kids and he promptly replied, “Happy!” (My mom heart grew three sizes). Admittedly it took a bit more doing to get him to think about how the other kids might feel—at first he thought, “sad”—but he settled again on “happy” so we went with that.

On my younger son, Quenton’s, actual first birthday we loaded everything into the car and drove into the city together. I had also purchased some “Future Philanthropist” and “Giving is Nice” shirts for the boys (a size too big so they last longer!) from Milk + Bookies.

While admittedly the shirts meant spending more money for something they didn’t “need,” I liked the idea that we can talk about the shirts and what they mean each time they wear them. Plus, more shirts with books on them is a-ok for me!

I hope this becomes a birthday tradition for our family—collecting and donating books on their birthdays—wherever we live each year. And a bonus for Mom here was that I learned about some favorite stories of friends that I will eventually add to our own home library.

What book would you donate to other kids every year if you could?


Hilary Levey Friedman is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child, the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture, and a professor in the Department of American Studies at Brown University.


Glitter and Glue: A Book Review

Glitter and Glue: A Book Review

By Rebecca Luber Sullivan

Glitter and Glue Paperback coverAn Amazon search for humor parenting books relies on the shock factor; drinking during playdates and calling whiny toddlers a-holes and letting children watch TV all day while drinking Mountain Dew out of a sippy cup. These books are a departure from the parenting books on the other extreme that put pressure on mothers to breastfeed exclusively, sleep train with military precision, and only feed kids wild raised salmon, organic berries, and quinoa. There’s something in between those extremes, which is what Kelly Corrigan recalls in her funny, yet realistic, memoir Glitter and Glue.

There are mothering memoirs and there are memoirs about mothers. The mothers I tend to read about are dramatic, glamorous, neglectful and manic: mothers of authors Jeannette Walls in The Glass Castle, Wendy Lawless in Chanel Bonfire and Diana Welch and Liz Welch in The Kids Are All Right. But Kelly Corrigan’s mom, Mary Corrigan, is as steady as can be, a middle class, devout Catholic, strict and serious mother. Practical, predictable and judgmental and sometimes cold, Mary Corrigan as a mom is the opposite of Greenie, Kelly’s fun loving dad, who she adoringly wrote about in her first memoir, The Middle Place. She looked at motherhood less as a joy to be relished than as a job to be done.”

“Glitter” and “Glue” refers to Mary’s description of parenthood in the Corrigan household. She was the glue and Greenie was the glitter. Even now, in the most progressive parenting dynamics, Mom is typically the one enforcing bedtime, while Dad is the fun one, wrestling and riling up the kids when they should be calmed down. (It’s maddening!) Dads can be more fun, but moms get things done. Most Moms will be able to relate.

After college in the early 90s, Kelly decided there was no way she was going to “be just another apple rotting at the base of my mother’s tree,” or the glue, and decided to leave her entry level job to travel to Australia. Plans for glittery adventure and working abroad don’t turn out like Kelly envisions, and she ends up taking a job as a live-in nanny to care for the young children of John Tanner, a recent widower. John Tanner does his best, but the kids need their mom, or a mom-like figure.

Through his grief for his wife who died from cancer months before, John Tanner tries to hold it together for Milly (who is wary of Kelly) and little Martin (who laps up affection from Kelly). Kelly realizes what these children need is the steadiness of a mother to cook meals, check homework, and drive them to school and her twentysomething self conjures up memories of her mother to help her get the Tanner family back on track as best as she can. Kelly realizes, through caring for the family, how much her mother taught her and how she needs her mother.

Turns out that every family needs some glue, even though that glue can be so judgmental that she grouses about non-serious churchgoers who just want to see who is at Mass or only show up at Easter and Christmas to show off their outfits. Mary Corrigan’s grumpy diligence as the glue of the family and no-frills attitude, often foiled by Kelly’s desire to be a fun loving young woman, are part of what makes the book as witty as it is heartfelt.

The humor in Glitter and Glue comes not just from experiences, but Corrigan’s telling of them. When Kelly decides to start feeding the Tanner family homecooked meals, she buys ground chuck on sale at the grocery store, remembering: Once or twice a month after a sale, she’d pull a block of anemic brown turds from the freezer, slap it against the Formica to break the patties apart and voila- dinner for five!

Throughout her time with the Tanner family, Kelly reflects on her relationship with her mother. When Kelly wonders who will tell Milly about her period, Kelly remembers Mary giving her the talk and asking if Kelly had any questions. I had noticed something in the Reilly master bathroom the last time I babysat… “What’s a douche?” “Oh, Kelly!” She shrieked like I’d put a centipede on her leg. “That is dis-GUS-ting!” “It is? Even Summer’s Eve?” Mary goes on to describe a douche and then exclaims, “And to think Susan Reilly is a Catholic!”

Glitter and Glue reflects on motherhood and being mothered through the eyes of a woman in her 20s, who thinks she knows everything, but realizes how much her mother really knew all along. Someday our kids will realize this, too… Hopefully all the glue and glitter will look back with humor and love together someday.

Rebecca Luber Sullivan is the mom of a middle school girl and 2 boys (elementary school and preschool-aged). She handles PR for companies in the advertising industry, and would love to do more creative writing instead of writing press releases.

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control – A Book Review

The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self Control – A Book Review

By Hilary Levey Friedman

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 1.55.17 PMI have a favorite kind of parenting book (some of which appear on my recent Top 10 list): It’s a book that doesn’t live in the Parents section of the bookstore. I like the books that help us learn not just about childhood and families, but about how we can all, regardless of our ages, live better. Walter Mischel’s recently released The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control resides in the Psychology section of your bookstore, but it belongs on your parenthood shelf.

You have probably heard of the “marshmallow experiment.” The simplest version is that you take a preschooler into an empty room and present her with a marshmallow. You tell the preschooler that she can choose to eat the one marshmallow now, or earn two marshmallows if she waits while the adult is out of the room for an unspecified amount of time. Preschoolers who can wait at age 4 have higher SAT scores in high school, lower BMI in their 30s, and are generally happier. It’s considered one of the best predictors of future life success among all social science research.

When Mischel started his research on self-control in the 1960s as a professor at Stanford University (at the nursery school his three daughters attended) the experiment didn’t have a catchy title. In fact, it had the cumbersome name “The preschool self-imposed delay of immediate gratification for the sake of delayed but more valued rewards paradigm.” David Brooks popularized the work in a New York Times column, dubbing it the “marshmallow experiment” in 2006. While marshmallows weren’t the only rewards used (kids could select from a number of options including cookies and M&Ms), the name stuck.

In The Marshmallow Test Mischel pulls together the findings from over five decades of research on self-control and delayed gratification while offering practical advice about how we can cultivate self-control in ourselves and in children. According to him, “The ability to delay immediate gratification for the sake of future consequences is an acquirable cognitive skill.”

Mischel and other researchers have found that kids wait longer when the reward is covered (ten times longer!), when they are primed with fun thoughts (three times longer than sad thoughts), and when they are shown an image of the reward instead of the actual reward (also three times longer). To delay kids displayed a variety of techniques including averting their gazes, whispering to themselves, reaffirming intention to wait aloud, making up a song, picking noses, and some simply slept. Another technique the researchers found to help delay gratification is imagining how someone else—like a smart child—might behave.

The book is divided into three parts; Part I describes the experiments with preschoolers and the strategies they develop to control themselves, Part II shows these same strategies can help adults, and Part III applies the findings to public policy. If I had to pick a few chapters I highly recommend Chapter 3 in Part I, “Thinking Hot and Cool,” which discusses our brain systems in a remarkably clear way and Chapter 13 in Part II, “The Psychological Immune System.”

The Marshmallow Test is very comprehensive when it comes to discussing self-control. For instance, at one point I asked myself, “I wonder if boys and girls behave differently while waiting for the marshmallow?” And, then, he tells you on pages 47-8 that girls usually wait longer than boys and their strategies may differ, with boys using physical strategies like rocking or pushing temptations away while girls seem to sing or tune out (note that when rewards were only imagined girls delayed longer, but once it became a real choice the differences between boys’ and girls’ wait time went away). I also started wondering about the role of genetics—turns out that is what Chapter 7 is all about (not surprisingly it’s neither genes nor environment but a mix of both and Mischel mounts a compelling case that the nature vs. nurture debate isn’t very fruitful for anyone).

The writing in The Marshmallow Test is crisp, clear, and engaging. Mischel shares anecdotes about himself (like a cigarette addiction and a struggle with celiac disease), which adds a richness to the book. He also shares a joy in his work and a true respect for children captured in this sentence, “By the time they reach their fifth birthday, their minds have become wonderfully sophisticated.”

My biggest complaint is that we don’t always know a lot about how many participants there were in each experiment, and over time, and how representative they may be. Children who attend a preschool at Stanford are likely different from children on the South Side of Chicago. He does reveal that more than 550 kids took the marshmallow test from 1968-74, and that follow-up surveys began in 1982, but we have no sense of how many responded. The book is well annotated, but without notes on the page it can sometimes be tricky to find the desired reference.

As holiday season approaches considering buying your child a Cookie Monster—or at least the new version Mischel is helping to develop with Sesame Street Workshop who learns to wait for more cookies—or a copy for your child’s teachers, who play a key role in helping develop the skills children need to delay gratification and cultivate self-control.

Now, I wonder what it says about me that I had little self-control while reading The Marshmallow Test and couldn’t stop reading?

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is the Book Review Editor at Brain, Child and the author of Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture.

Book Review: The Price of Silence

Book Review: The Price of Silence

By Hilary Levey Friedman

The Price of Silence coverLike Dara-Lynn Weiss before her, writing a negative piece about her child secured Liza Long a book deal. Her emotionally raw blog post, “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” (originally published anonymously on her blog The Anarchist Soccer Mom as “Thinking the Unthinkable”), penned in response to the Newtown shootings, quickly went viral after appearing on The Blue Review and then The Huffington Post. The reaction was extreme in both directions, with some applauding Long’s courage and identifying with her family’s struggle and others calling her an imposter and suggesting she is the one who needs mental health monitoring.

Her just-published book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, is an expansion of that polarizing post. According to the Introduction this is a book for two different audiences. The first is those families who have a child with a mental illness to let them know they aren’t alone by sharing her family’s experience. The second is for those who are “surprised to learn that one in five children in the United States has a serious and debilitating mental disorder, an audience that believes mental illness is something we still shouldn’t talk about except behind closed doors in private rooms.” The Price of Silence succeeds in addressing the latter audience more than the former.

Long is at her best when describing the labyrinth families must navigate when they have a child with a mental illness. A myriad of acronyms must be decoded, reports must be written, and parents have to accustom themselves to the idea of dealing first with administrators and educators in public schools and then with first responders like police officers before frequently turning to the juvenile justice system. Though “institutions” no longer exist (in many cases, happily so), no good system has developed to figure out how to take care of the mentally ill, especially children. Many have to enter juvenile detention and hope to stay on parole to get actual treatment at an affordable price. Long writes of parents divorcing so their child can access services with a reduced family income, and poverty in general is a big issue when it comes to children’s mental health. She explains, “In some states, this transition from school to prison is so regular that it’s been called a ‘pipeline,’ one that disproportionately affects poor children and their families.”

One of the most practical suggestions Long makes in The Price of Silence is that pediatricians need to be better trained to identify the warning signs of various forms of mental illness, and not just autism. Though it is true that there is much still unknown about the science of mental illness, more is being understood every day through new imaging techniques and DNA analysis. Because Long discusses a lot of of-the-moment research, the book might not hold up well over time. But her message that there is a complex interplay between genetics, parenting, and the environment, and her reminder that people with mental illness are usually the victims of violence (and when they are violent it is usually against themselves) ensure that The Price of Silence is an important book.

The book falls flat in describing what it is like in Long’s family, which clearly has a complicated dynamic with four children, an ex-husband, and a new partner, along with a change of family religion. She refers to an acrimonious divorce and custody battles, but doesn’t get into specifics and if anything is clear it is that the situation isn’t resolved. That murkiness dulls the larger messages of her book and it may have been more effective to limit the more personal to one chapter.

While Long’s blog post did net her a book deal, it also caused a lot of anguish as her ex-husband had their two youngest children removed from her home on the basis of the violence described. At the same time because her piece reached so many it ultimately led her to a child psychiatrist who seems to have at long last provided a diagnosis and treatment for her son. Now diagnosed with juvenile bipolar disorder with a “Fear of Harm” phenotype, “Michael” is doing better and spending more time with his younger siblings. In many ways Liza Long is not like Adam Lanza’s mom because she acknowledges her son’s illness and will never have guns in the house. And hopefully her message and suggestions can help other mothers avoid the sad fate of Nancy Lanza and those impacted by acts of violence by sick young men.

Hilary Levey Friedman, PhD is a sociologist and writer. You can learn more about her work at

Book Review: Overwhelmed

Book Review: Overwhelmed

By Susan Sapiro

WO Book Review Overwhelmed artA few years ago, Washington Post journalist Brigid Schulte, by her own admission, would not have had time to read this book review, or pieces in Brain, Child. Like many other busy mothers, Schulte blamed herself for the frantic pace of her life—a state she calls “time confetti—one big, chaotic burst of exploding slivers, bits, and scraps.” Yet, as she began to research for her book Overwhelmed, she soon identified external forces that have changed the way almost everyone loves, works, and plays (or tries to) in twenty-first century America.

In sections on “Work” “Love” and “Play,” Schulte introduces readers to how modern life has created time crises in each of these areas. She also features organizations and individuals with missions to help people create the right fit between personal and work or volunteer commitments.

Technology is one of the main culprits. Expectations of constant connectivity from both our jobs (work emails at night and on weekends) and our social circles (how many times a day do you check and update your Facebook status?) can lead to mental exhaustion. Women’s brains, in particular, find it hard to turn off all the things they have to remember, plan, delegate, and do. This “contaminated time,” according to time-use researchers cited by Schulte, is why women often feel like they have little to no free or uncluttered time.

Schulte explains (based on the pioneering work of scholar/advocates like Joan C. Williams and others) one of the main problems with our work culture is that when women entered the modern labor force, they entered a workplace with attitudes, cultures and policies calcified and staffed with a 1950’s un-reality: the Ideal Worker—the person who seemingly has no outside responsibilities or commitments and can be endlessly responsive to the demands of his (and yes, the model is a man) employer or clients. This Ideal Worker model affects assessments of working mothers who, researchers have discovered, are perceived by both men and women as less committed and less competent than women without children and fathers.

While Schulte does focus on women (mostly mothers) and their often pressured lives (there is a whole chapter on the “Cult of Intensive Motherhood,”) she notes the number of fathers surveyed feeling harried, nearly doubled from 1982 to 2004. She devotes a short chapter to hands-on, involved fathers, some of whom have scaled back their careers, and some who have left the workforce to care for their children while their wives are breadwinners in often demanding jobs. And despite the fact that so many more mothers are working (even full-time) outside the home, time-use researchers discovered that American mothers spend more time taking care of their children now than in the 1960s. Yet, Schulte notes that this increase in caretaking time has coincided with concurrent rising cultural expectations about being a “good/involved parent.”

While not exclusively an American phenomenon, Schulte notes that being mental and physical slaves to the cult of busyness is more prevalent in the United States than the rest of the world, mostly due the U.S.’s well-known lack of supportive family policies. As a Canadian in the U.S., I’ve spent many recent child-bearing years listening wistfully to friends in Canada recall their year-long maternity leaves (at least partially paid, and often shared with their husbands). Yet as I read Overwhelmed, I found a new country to envy—Denmark. Denmark, Schulte writes with amazement, seems like a paradise for working families. Most Danes work flexible schedules, finish work by 4:30 p.m., and the hours between 5 and 8 p.m. (AKA the “Witching Hours” in North American families) are considered “sacred family time” in Denmark. Danish mothers have more leisure time than women in all other industrialized countries, and Denmark has one of the highest rates globally of maternal employment. With a standard 37-hour work week and six weeks of paid vacation a year, most Danes fill their generous leisure time with sports, exercise, and adult education programs. When Schulte asked students in one class if they felt selfish or guilty taking time for themselves with these classes, they looked at her quizzically and laughed.

Back in the U.S., Schulte profiles a few progressive companies, such as a completely virtual law firm called Clearspire, Stanford University Medical School, and the Pentagon, all of which offer flextime and other work-life benefits for their employees. More importantly, these organizations provide the cultural support for their employees to actually use them.

Schulte’s writing is clear, engaging, and deeply personal. One of the book’s great strengths are her personal stories—arguments with her husband over chores, scrambling frantically to find childcare, missing work deadlines, and making painful choices (choosing to go a field trip with her daughter’s class, illicitly checking her Blackberry in the woods, and then working late into the evening after her daughter went to bed)—these will resonate with readers. Schulte’s angry musings on her relationship with her husband and what seemed like the inexorable (inevitable?) descent into traditional gender roles once their children were born reveal many working mother’s frustrations: “Why did I feel like he had a career while I just tried not to get fired?”

One of the most unique contributions of Schulte’s book to the work-life field is her discussion of play.  Women, she notes, have never had a history of leisure. Men have almost always had longer, uninterrupted times of both work and leisure, while women’s leisure time is usually fragmented. And since women are often usually responsible for coordinating the logistics—technical and social-emotional—of everyone else’s play time, they never really end up truly relaxing. But play is an integral part of being human, and without play, scholars have found, we can’t truly be creative, smart and happy. Schulte profiles an innovative group called Mice at Play (as in, what they do when the cat is away), a group of women in New York who meet regularly for various dynamic and creative activities, by themselves, just for fun. This shouldn’t be such a radical concept, but Schulte shows as she reviews research on women and leisure time, women choosing respite without children or family is considered a truly subversive act. Musing on this knowledge, she asks the poignant question: “Did I somehow absorb the idea that becoming an adult, a mother, meant giving up time for the things that give you joy?”

I snuck in small, scattered chunks of time to read the book, something that I found ironic as I read Schulte’s analysis of women’s (lack of) leisure time. Should reading a book in order to write a book review be counted as leisure time or work? Reading Overwhelmed reinforced for me that we will all continue to be overwhelmed unless policymakers and employers realize that both men and women, mothers and fathers, need time for life outside of work.

For an interview with author Brigid Schulte, see Brain Child contributing writer Valerie Young’s posts on her Your (Wo)Man in Washington blog:

Interview Part 1

Interview Part 2

Susan Sapiro is a Westchester, NY based grant proposal writer and fundraising strategy researcher for nonprofits.  She has been reviewing books about work-life issues, motherhood and feminist issues for fifteen years.

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