Story Makers Podcast: A Writer’s Salon in Your Living Room

cover170x170My conversation with Elizabeth Stark and Angie Powers of Book Writing World, in which we discuss the writing process, memoir, and my first book, Parenting in the Here and Now (which had just been released in the UK at the time of the recording and is available now in the US). Elizabeth teaches in-person and online writing classes that are worth their weight in gold, not just for the craft lessons but because she creates such a welcoming and affirming community. Her Story Makers Podcast is just another way of opening doors for writers. As a new writer, I needed to hear, over and over and over, from other writers. Still do. There are 8 other conversations available. I’ve listened to them all. Don’t miss them. It’s like having a writer’s salon right in your own living room.

 

The Pitfalls of “Please.”

In a recent article in the Washington Post’s On Parenting Blog, “PLEASE: the downside of teaching our kids manners,” writer Emily Flake points, with wry humor, to the downside of teaching her young daughter to use the word “please.”

By teaching her daughter that “please” was the magic word, Flake realized that she had made a strategic error: she always said “yes” in response.

Unwittingly, she had trained her daughter to equate a request with a demand, and that is the antithesis of good manners. And that is because Flake overlooked half of the equation.

A request involves the asking: “May I please….” or “Would you please…”

But that is only the first half. The second half involves the answer from the other party: some version of yes, no or maybe. Remember: “please” is short for “if you please.” If it pleases you, but not if it doesn’t.

Have you taught your child to have good manners in receiving their answer? A “no” should be accepted with as much grace as a “yes.” A request, by definition, must inherently include permission for and acceptance of a denial, regardless of how nicely you ask. If it doesn’t, the request is a demand wearing sheep’s clothing, which is most often the word “please.”

Yes. I am pushing back on our culture’s constant drive to push–hard, harder!– for yes: “Don’t take no for an answer!” There is a fine line between advocating and imposing. Does your child know it? Do you?

It is harder to parse out than you would think.

Most parents, admirably, try to teach their children good manners. And most know that modeling is one of their most powerful tools. The parent models good manners, and the child imitates the parent. It is a slow way of teaching, but an effective one, except for one hidden pitfall with that word, “please.”

In their laudable efforts to model good manners, and often in an attempt to soften the blow of an announcement or expectation, parents will add in the word “please: “Would you please ________ (fill in the blank: brush your teeth, pick up your toys, get out of the bathtub, etc.)

The problem with this is that the parent is not really requesting that their child get out of the tub. They expect their child to get out of the tub. The only acceptable answer is a “yes.” And that means that the request is not really a request. It has been worded like one to sound “nicer” and hopefully garner less resistance.

I have no problem with a parent deciding that it is time for the child to get out of the tub. (There are better ways to manage it than making a demand: a song, a rhyme, pulling the plug and holding out the towel to wrap her in– emphasis on actions, in other words.)

But if we parents “request” that our child do something when we really mean “do it,” we are sending mixed messages.

We need to have good manners in asking, but we need equally good if not better manners in accepting a no.

Please is conditional.

 

 

 

 

Vacuuming: A Lesson in Devotion

Let me tell you about me and the vacuum. We’re not pals. We don’t get along. When the hose twists and makes that high-pitched whining sound, it takes all of my self-control to not yank it as I straighten it—OK, I do yank it. When the vacuum gets hung up behind the door, I take it as a personal affront.

For a while, I was granted a reprieve by my son, who vacuumed the house every weekend for years—with good cheer. I still haven’t figured out how he managed that. But he is off and away now, and I am back at it (I do the downstairs, my husband does the upstairs). And clearly, I have not developed a more mature approach. I open up the closet door, and I swear, that vacuum is leaning against the corner with a surly look in its eye.

I know this is nuts.

And that is what I told a group of parents recently, who had gathered to hear me talk about the crisis of will.

We were discussing chores—how important they are to the child’s developing will—and I had spoken about how the parent can set a good example by doing his or her own chores in the presence of the small child and by doing them with care, with joy, but mostly with devotion.

At one point in the discussion, I asked the parents what “devotion” meant to them: joy, attention, taking time to slow down, gratitude, love.

But I also wanted those parents to know that they didn’t have to set a perfect example, just a good one. And I always seem to have a ready anecdote to show them how that works: being imperfect. The vacuuming could be Exhibit A. Any other chore—no problem—I can find something to love about it. But the vacuuming is just a hurdle that I haven’t been able to jump. Yet.

But then it occurred to me that we had missed an important element of devotion, and the story about my utter disgust and admitted bad attitude about vacuuming held a little grain of important truth.

I hate vacuuming, but I still do it, and I do it reasonably well. I don’t pretend to not hate it—I’m not that good an actor. But I do it, nevertheless. And my kids know that.

And that is part of devotion, maybe the most basic part: showing up. Showing up every time, when you want to, but even when you don’t. And that is part of a healthy will: learning to balance want with need.

It is a true gift to be able to make the doing of mundane household tasks meaningful, to invite a young child to sink his hands into the soapy dishwater or to teach him to master the trick of folding a shirt. Done with devotion, those tasks can be nourishing instead of draining.

But showing up to do something necessary and important (I like a clean house, so vacuuming is therefore necessary and important to me) even when you don’t want to, is a sign of devotion, even if it is only in an infant stage.

So all is not lost for me and the vacuum. And not only because my son will be home for the summer and might be convinced to take up that chore again.

What do you show up for, even when you don’t feel like it? Are there any areas in your life where you haven’t really shown up? What about other people in your life? When/where have they shown up?

Why Won’t My Children Listen to Me?

“Kids. They just don’t listen.”

It really does seem that way, but only because we have a fundamental misunderstanding about how children listen.

Why don’t our children listen to us?

Because children don’t listen with their ears. At least not in an actionable way. Oh, the sound waves of our voices do enter their ear canals and the little bones in their middle ears vibrate and send the sensation of our words to their brains. But that is not the resonance we are really after—the actual hearing. We want—and need—our children to respond to what we say.

Most of the time, when parents complain that their children don’t listen, what they really mean is that their children don’t obey. They believe that their words and their children’s reactions should somehow be on the same sympathetic frequency. And to that end, there is a plethora of advice about how to say the right words in the right way in order to get our children to do what we reasonably expect them to do: clear their places after dinner, brush their teeth, stop hitting their little brothers, etc.

But this well-meaning advice misses the whole point.

Small children—those under age seven—are imitators. They learn by watching and imitating what others do. Oh, they are listening, too! That’s why, when they drop something, they blurt out, “Sh*t!” with just the same force and inflection we give it when we drop something. Similarly, our children will learn to greet the neighbors with a friendly wave and a “Hi, how are you?” if they see and hear us doing it that way consistently.

Children listen with their whole bodies, not just their ears. Their operating language is action. It is all about what we do, not what we say. Children need to be shown what to do—over and over and over—not told what to do.

So if you are rushing to send off a last email and wolf down a last bite of toast while calling out that it is time to get jackets and mittens on, your children will likely continue “their” play, until you get up and put on your own jacket and mittens.

And just as children learn by imitating what we do, they also learn that our words don’t really mean anything when we do not match our words with our actions. When a parent tells her child that it is time to leave the playground but then stands in the parking lot chatting with a friend for a few more minutes, her words may have said, “Go,” but her actions have said, resoundingly, “Stay.”

The real answer to the question, “Why don’t my children listen to me?” is: because you are talking.

If you want your child to hear what you say, by all means, speak. If you want your child to do what you say, act.

Four Obscure Children’s Books—And One Classic—That Every Adult Should Read

Great children’s literature captures the wisdom of human truth in a manner so simple, even grown-ups can understand. I started reading these aloud to my children over twenty years ago, and I have returned to them again and again. For maximum benefit, I suggest reading them aloud. To yourself, if you don’t have the benefit of a young listener.

  1. The Animal Family, by Randall Jarrell.

Except for this first, the books are not listed in order of importance, but if you can read only one, make it this one. Jarrell is a poet, and so every word in this story resonates with exquisite light and tone. If you want to understand grief and joy, longing and love, if you want to learn how to accept what comes into your life and what doesn’t, then you need seek no further than this beautiful and tiny—it quite literally fits into the palm of your hand—story. Or is it a poem? Or a song? A whisper on the breeze? No matter. Call it what you will, it will live in your heart forever.

  1. The Wheel on the School, by Meidert Dejong.

A question is born out of wonder. That seed is planted in the fertile imagination of those who are willing to consider possibilities—even impossibilities. With cultivation, a devotion to explore unfolds, where the known is sifted through for the overlooked and where the unknown is braved for the unexpected treasures it holds. Discovery leads to awe. This is a journey we all must take, at least once. Why not begin here, with storks and wagon wheels?

  1. Fox in Socks, by Dr. Seuss

Read this for the sheer joy of its hyper-kinetic velocity and its gleeful linguistic Dadaism. And because it features tweetle beetles. In a battle. With paddles. In a bottle.

  1. Wolf Story, by William McCleery.

It is always about the story. The story within the story, and the story within that story. The different permutations of the same story. The telling of the story and the listening to the story and way the one affects the other. Never doubt again the necessity of story or your ability to change the story.

  1. Walk When the Moon is Full, by Frances Hammerstrom.

As we all carry on with our days—and our nights—there are other lives being led right among us, but it is so easy—too easy—to not see. To not know. This gentle chronicle of twelve walks on twelve moonlit nights is a reminder to us all that we can travel to a whole new world without ever leaving our own. All we need do is make one small shift in our own perspective—in this case: change the time—and see with child’s eyes. In other words: look with curiosity at the people and the landscape that we encounter every day.

 

We Are Only as Good as the Mistakes We Allow Ourselves to Make

Last week, I was sitting in the bleachers during the intermission of one of my son’s hockey games, talking with the team’s skating coach. She is the real deal. She used to coach in the National Hockey League: the pros.

She said that she wanted our boys to shoot more on the power play– a common coaching refrain– and specifically, she wanted them to try one particular shot.

But, she said, they were all afraid to do it, to take the shot and risk losing possession, so they passed the puck instead.

My son signed a contract with a Junior Hockey team this year– in the NA3-EHL for those of you who know and care. This is how most hockey players make it onto college teams. The players are mostly 18-20 years old, and they are good. Some of them are really good.

But that doesn’t stop them from being afraid.

From being limited by their fear of making a mistake.

Fear really can be a good ally. There are some mistakes that you just don’t ever want to make.

But there is a fine line between maximum effort and a mistake. And I believe that we, as parents and educators, need to encourage, allow–celebrate!– mistakes more. Yes. I am pointing a big accusatory finger at our school system, where everything is graded and god forbid anyone do something that isn’t “up to standard.”

But the truth about learning is that there is always a period when we are awkward in applying a new skill or concept. When we need to explore what works– and what doesn’t.

When our children were little, we used to pass the time on road trips by telling stories and jokes. When my son was a toddler, he decided to join in with “knock-knock” jokes.

“Knock, knock,” he’d say.

“Who’s there?” we’d answer.

“Parrot.”

“Parrot who?”

“Parrot DUMPTRUCK! Bwaaa ha ha haaaa!”

And we laughed, too, because it was funny how not-funny it was.

He totally did not get it. The point of the joke was lost on him. No grasp of anything but the most basic rhythm and pacing.

But.

The essence of comedy isn’t words. It’s rhythm and pacing. I know this because when my husband tells a joke, everyone is rolling on the floor, and when I tell the same joke–same words– well, we’ll just be generous and say it doesn’t work out as well.

So our son had a hold on one piece of the process, but it would be years of practice before he would finally grasp the play on words. And we laughed at every single one of his jokes. The flops. The ones that almost worked, and then the ones that were successful zingers.

Can you imagine if he had been graded on his early performance? If he had been held to a standard that someone somewhere decided was representative of the entire population of two year olds?

OK– deep breaths. This is not about standards. Not. About. Standards.

No. It’s about mistakes.

If even the guys who are really good at what they do are afraid of messing up– are afraid that they CAN’T AFFORD to mess up, we have a problem with how we respond to mistakes.

What if we considered a mistake as an effort needing some refinement. Yeah, yeah. I know. Eventually, we need to see results. But I challenge you to find one mistake today–that you or someone else makes– and let it shine in the light of your approval. Just for a moment, before you go about “refining.”

Mama Bear: An Example of Parental Authority in Action

Watch this little clip of film. (Warning: in the last second, one of the people filming says sh*t, so mute if you want to avoid hearing it. The sound of the clip is not relevant.)

Notice Mama Bear’s weight. She is a Big Mama. Her years of loping through meadows and browsing through forests to find grubs and berries and all the other nourishments her world has to offer her shows—she has gravitas. Not just because she is large and there is more mass for the forces of gravity to work upon, but because she KNOWS. She has been around the block—or the lake.

She does not doubt what she knows. And in this case, she knows that little bearcubs do not belong on the highway with vehicle traffic. And Big Mama not only knows this, but she acts on what she knows. There is no doubt, no drama, no denial.

This is such a wonderful visual example of Ho Hum in action: acting calmly with parental authority (Ho Hum is a central part of Parenting in the Here and Now.

I am not suggesting that when your children are troublesome, you should pick them up by their heads. I am suggesting that it might help to remember Big Mama: the weight of her calmness and the resoluteness of her action.

Story and Curiosity

This is a re-post from 2013, but it feels relevant now:

My husband gave me my Christmas present early this year: a recording of Bruce McKee reading out loud an abridged version of his book, Story.  We had a six-hour drive to Philadelphia, so we listened while my husband drove and I took feverish notes. The book is geared specifically for screenwriting, but the basic structural foundation for a screenplay differs little from that of a book or a play.

My husband wanted a deeper understanding of the elements of story because, as a lawyer, part of his job is listening to his client’s story, and then re-telling that story to a judge or jury.

I appreciated Mr. McKee’s analysis because I had just finished the first draft of a memoir—and a primer on story structure was just what I needed before I embarked on the hard work of revision.

We were reminded of how important story is to humans. It is the primary way we learn about and understand our world—something I only understood after we began homeschooling.

And it reminded me how closely tied story is to judgment. A rush to judgment allows no time, no consideration for the story behind an apparent fact. That is what prejudice is—a pre-judging—based on the assumption that one already knows the story. Judgment is the end of the story—the period that says this sentence is over. No more questions. No more curiosity.

I used to think that love was the antidote for prejudice, but now I am considering that curiosity would be a better cure. Curiosity is just a hunger to know the story. And to love something that you don’t really know—that has always seemed a bit patronizing to me, or maybe it is just too abstract. But to be curious, to want to know the story, to be interested—My kids might say “Nosy, Mom. Admit it: you are nosy.”– that to me is a great blessing to bestow on another.