ADHD, brain regulation and guided meditation: An actual parenting tip from Arie

I think my readers might tend to cringe, when I mention parenting. No one has told me they do. I’m just guessing because my posts about parenting tend to fall into three categories: 1. how blind people parent, 2. how not to parent and how miserable it can be, or 3. sarcasm and snark.

I really have read dozens of parenting books, actually implemented their methods, found them to work great with 90 percent of kids and occasionally to fail entirely. That has led to a lot of my cynicism.

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

Creative Commons image by Seattle Municipal Archive

It isn’t that the methods don’t work. If you are a frazzled parent and you don’t know about counting in an ominous tone, time outs, making everything out to be your kid’s choice when it actually means you are in charge, avoiding power struggles and teaching through your own example, by all means, go read the experts. I specifically recommend:

Parenting by Temperament,

Pick Up Your Socks,

Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline,

and depending on your circumstances Attachment in Adoption

However, my posts tend to assume you are like me—a parent who is obsessive enough to research and read books before the kid can even walk (or let’s be honest, before the kid is even born). That’s why I don’t generally go on about the methods in these books, which you should most definitely read and practice.

It’s the five percent of the time when they just plain don’t work that will kill you, cause premature hair loss and end your marriage or partnership. And I usually don’t have much beyond commiseration to offer those of you who have run into that wall with me.

But today I do actually have something worth sharing, a technique I have NOT found in any expert parenting book, which actually worked wonders on my out-of-control, neuro-diverse kid.

Bedtime is often a nightmare for parents of neuro-diverse kids. Some kids don’t run on the same schedule as the school bells or even the sun. Some kids can’t just tell their brains it’s time to calm down and go to sleep. Some kids don’t know what to do with exhaustion and instead of winding down, they amp up.

I have kept a very strict routine with my kids, ever since the day we brought them home. Routine helps. Like a train on rails, my daughter will often stumble from one part to another—with hissing steam and screeching noises but in the end shunted from the teeth-brushing track, to the pajamas track to the story track to the bed track. On a good night, the routine takes only an hour and a half, now that she’s ten.

But not every night is a good night. At age ten, my daughter still has frequent meltdowns and needs the kind of supervision usually reserved for the under-three crowd. By the end of the day, whoever has been dealing with her—and her load of homework assigned by the school in hopes of keeping her somewhere in the ballpark of grade level—is staggering on their feet.

There are nights when after all of it, after the hours of one-on-one attention and the lengthy, carefully designed bedtime routine, she won’t go to sleep. She is up and around the house after bedtime. She wants snacks and she shrieks in protest. Getting her into bed is a literal physical battle that we still win by main force but only just. And then nothing can hold her there and no one can sleep with the racket.

This strife goes on anywhere from one to two hours on those nights and they averaged about once a week, up until recently.

I want to be very clear here about what directly preceded this bit of creative parenting. That is I had two full days and two nights at home alone. My husband took the kids on a skiing trip, returning so drunk with exhaustion out of a snowy night that I shuddered to think of how he managed the two-and-a-half-hour drive.

I sent him straight to bed and prepared to do battle alone, well rested as I was.

I got both kids out of their tight, damp skiing clothes and fed them. My eight-year-old son was blinking and crying, he was so tired. I knew I couldn’t physically handle both, so I got his teeth brushed and let him fall into bed first. He was literally asleep within seconds.

Then I tackled the more difficult kid. My daughter was exhausted too, lashing out randomly and swinging wildly from glee to rage. Her entire body hummed with tension. I could feel it as I helped her undress and brush her teeth. I told her a brief story and settled her down with her audio book in hopes that physical exhaustion would do its magic.

But no such luck. Not that night.

Thirty minutes turned into 40 minutes beyond bedtime and even my two-day reserve of regenerated energy was starting to flag. She wouldn’t even stay in bed to listen to her story and when she was up, she was into everything, requiring constant supervision and making nerve-rattling shrieks every one to two seconds. A hand on her shoulder told me that her body still thrummed with pent-up energy.

On most nights, this would have been the point where I started laying down the law and rolling out consequences, “You can choose. Either you stay up and keep me up and you won’t be able to have audio book tomorrow night or you lay down and relax and go to sleep and you’ll still have audio book tomorrow.” And so forth. It only occasionally works anyway.

Many nights the chaos continues for another hour and finally ends in her being locked in her room until she wears herself out—not a stellar parenting performance.

One of the more helpful things I had recently gleaned from rereading a few of the expert books was to focus on the concept of addressing the child’s deeper need. Clearly, my daughter needed sleep. She was exhausted, but she had no idea how to calm her dis-regulated brain and win some peace.

As a high-strung creative person, I do know what it is like to be exhausted after a long day’s work and to lie in bed with nerves jangling, a thousand thoughts whirling around my brain. Prominent among those thoughts is often the desperate need to sleep, in order to be ready for the challenges and trials of the next day.

So, I asked myself, how I get to sleep when I’m in such a state?

“Badly,” came quickly to mind. But also “quietly.” On such nights, I often lie awake in silence after it is clear that no audio book is going to help. I do relaxation exercises, deep breathing and progressive muscle contraction and release, which make me feel virtuous but don’t make me sleep. And then, more than anything I descend into a childhood fantasy and rehash versions of the adventurous and purposeful life I once dreamed of.

And that usually does help.

With that thought and the understanding that much of my daughter’s difficulty comes from an inability to regulate her own brain and do such things for herself, I came and sat on the edge of her bed and began to make up the fantasy for her.

At first, she was too jittery even to listen or lie down. I had to grab her attention mercilessly. I know what she obsesses over after all—preteen YouTube celebrity girls with shopping infomercials and flaunting conspicuous wealth. There isn’t much beyond kinky sex and hard drugs I would less like my child to be delving into at this age but desperate times call for desperate measures.

“Imagine you’re at the most beautiful park you’ve ever seen with all your friends from school and Everly, Ava and Jojo Siwa are there too, just to see you…”

She stopped jerking around and actually settled back on her pillow, her eyes wide and staring. I could still feel her muscles pulsing with nervous energy through the blanket but at least she was in the actual bed.

“It’s your birthday party,” I continued, “and everyone is there to wish you a happy birthday and play with you in the warm sunshine. There are fun things to climb on and the most beautiful cake you can imagine.”

The way my words came out made me think of those relaxation exercises I had so little luck with. I was originally taught those by an eccentric French teacher in my tiny rural high school in Oregon. She had the five kids in her class, me and four ranch kids, lie on the floor of loose wooden boards and do relaxation exercises.

She had also done guided meditation, which the boys had interspersed with rude comments. I had been cooperative but more because I felt a bit sorry for the teacher than anything else. I never did like guided meditation. I encountered it again at a handful of workshops and events over the years.

It didn’t work for me because my brain is entirely capable of paying full attention to the audio meditation, doing the visualizations and thinking of one or two other complex things at the same time. It isn’t relaxing because it doesn’t overwhelm me enough. It is not that other thoughts intrude on the meditation. They simply occur in a different place and the meditation continues without a hitch.

I did eventually find a form of meditation that consumes enough of my consciousness to work as intended but it requires memorized recitation along with practiced movements. Once the words and movements became automatic to me, the meditation worked because it was difficult enough that it took all the excess brain activity with it.

My daughter’s brain is probably the opposite of mine. That has been a large part of our miscommunication. For me, directing my mental attention to something or doing several mental things at the same time is no problem. The only significant problem is prolonged lack of mental activity.

So, it occurred to me that while guided meditation might be boring and insufficient for me, it might be immensely relaxing and freeing to her. Released from the need to try to control her brain, she could coast to sleep on a ready-made fantasy.

I could tell right away that the fantasy I had constructed for her, while successfully capturing her attention was too exciting to induce sleep. Slowly I shifted the focus of the words, describing more the surrounding natural environment and less of the celebrities and then even gently removing the other people from the picture.

“Your friends step into little boats on the lake and start to drift away over the waves. They float slowly up and down, up and down. And they wave back to you calling, ‘Good bye! We love you! Have a good rest!' As they drift away you sit down under the big oak tree. You can feel the warm, smooth bark on your back. You slide down to feel the soft, dry moss under the tree and lay your head on a soft, moss-covered root.”

I could feel her miraculously relaxing. Even her breath was calming. I included some deep breaths in the story and almost magically she took deep breaths as suggested, something that is usually impossible for her

Finally, I concluded the story with my daughter drifting into sleep in the beautiful park by the lake. The entire guided meditation took only about eight minutes. When I stood up, she made one drowsy noise but subsided again. I left the room and didn’t hear from her for the rest of the night.

Since then I’ve used guided fantasy to calm her several times in situations where she used to be unable to calm. Certainly children are as diverse as different species of animals. Just as this type of meditation didn’t work for me, it may not help many children. But what is universal in the technique is the parenting tool of looking at what the child needs on a deeper level and designing something that fits the child’s specific temperament to reach that goal.

How you get the exhausted child to sleep or the frustrated child to calm enough to complete their homework is not that important. We get stuck on having a specific way that such things should be done. There is a standard way that works pretty well with most kids, but not with all neuro-diverse kids.

“Do what works,” a fellow disability rights activist used to tell me. “Just do what works, regardless of how it looks.”

I hope someday my daughter will be able to learn to use guided meditation tapes to steer her own brain and gain a sense of self mastery. I’ve gained a new respect for a technique I previously rejected as too simplistic and manipulative. We all need different things.

On parenting, as usual, don’t judge other parents and do what works.

How to be a good-enough parent

”This kid was whining, saying his mom’s name over an over again. She couldn’t even get him to stop.”

All it takes is one of those comments, usually about the bad behavior of kids or families with children getting in the way and a flood is unleashed. Whether the person making the original comment was judging the parent or not, most people jump to the conclusion that the child’s parent is to blame.

Parent shaming is more popular than fat shaming. It’s the most socially acceptable form of public shaming in our society.

If you’re like me and not made of dried rawhide, you probably want to avoid it pretty bad. Fortunately, I’ve read just about every parenting book on the market, and according to some flatterers, I have quite a few parenting tricks up my sleeve.

So here is my fool-proof guide to avoiding parent shame and winning the coveted twenty-first-century “good enough” parent medal.

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Creative Commons image via Pixabay

Before you start

  • One of the main reasons parents are shamed is because of overpopulation. Before you start, consider whether or not you should. Our world is suffering from population explosion and ecological collapse. It could be argued… and in practice will be argued that you are selfish for insisting on procreating your own special genes.

  • The easiest way to avoid parent shaming is not to become a parent. Sure, we need to have a next generation to keep the economy going while those virtuous adults who choose not to burden the earth with their off-spring get old, but you might want to leave that up to someone else.

  • Another way to avoid the overpopulation and ecology shamers and still be a parent is to adopt. But you’ll be shamed for adopting too. There are stories about adoptive parents exploiting poor people in other countries and buying children. Even though you personally might not have done that, you can be sure that every time the subject of how you adopted kids is brought up, this issue will be rehashed and you’ll be publicly shamed about it.

  • If you either already have kids or still think you can have kids and avoid shame too, read on.

The loving foundation

  • Most people at least claim that they believe the most important part of parenting is love. It all starts with love and the worst shame any parent can have is to be accused of not loving their kid enough, or heaven forbid, loving one kid more than another. There should be nothing your kid could do that would cause you to stop loving him or her. Well, a school shooting, yeah, then you should stop loving them but other than that. Be unconditionally, unendingly, inexhaustably loving.

  • But not too loving. Don’t smother. Don’t be biased in favor of your kid at public events. Lots of shame comes to those parents who cheer too much or protect their kid from criticism or favor their kid over others.

  • Be loving but know precisely when your child doesn’t want to be kissed or hugged anymore. Physical affection is essential. Just because your child pulls away or shouts obscenities at you doesn’t mean they’ve grown out of the hugging phase. They still need loving hugs, up until the point that they don’t. You have to know where that invisible line is. Stop hugging too early and you’re cold and creating needy sociopathic monsters. Too late and you’re a pathetic cliche.

  • Be loving from a distance when they decide they don’t want to have anything to do with you as young adults. Be loving but have no emotions. Love but don’t expect love back. Be immune to screaming, hateful diatribes. Accept them with equanimity.

Balancing parenting and career

  • Provide for all of your child’s physical and emotional needs. Make sure you have a job that pays well, so that your child never has to be exposed to black mold, a leaky roof, a dangerous neighborhood, cheap and unhealthy food, bully-target clothing or unsafe, cheap toys. Financially poor parents are among the first to be shamed everywhere. If you didn’t have good job prospects, you never should have had the off-spring, so buck up and make money.

  • Moms, be especially sure to have a prestigious job, Set a good example for your daughters. It is unforgivable to give girls the impression that their options are limited. And boys need to see women as powerful and prestigious providers too. Feminists are great at shaming moms who break ranks and don’t get a career. Half-time and place-holding jobs don’t cut it. You’re sending a message that women are limited by their biological childbearing function.

  • Not only must your job be prestigious and keep you out of poverty, it must guarantee a stimulating environment for your child, including expensive educational toys and legos, toddler foreign language and music classes, memberships to sports, arts and crafts clubs and courses, and vacations to exciting places. If your child lags in academics, you clearly missed some of these requirements and it’s all your fault.

  • At the same time, you must be present and attentive to your kids pretty much all the time. If doing this while satisfying the points above requires breaking the space-time continuum, tough beans. Nannies are a lazy-parent trick. Parents who rely on nannies for more than emergencies deserve the shaming they routinely get.

  • Make sure you are home with your kids for at least the first three years of their lives and that you are there when they leave for school and when they get home. In fact, while exercise is good, not driving your kids to school is shame-worthy if you live within a 200-mile radius of any historical child-kidnapping incident, which defines every inhabited place on the planet, except maybe some remote cabins in Greenland.

  • What your kids need more than anything is your constant, reassuring and playful presence. It is the single most important factor in the development of their self-confidence and their educational success. Of course, their day at school needs to be as short as possible and not lengthened by after-school programs, so that you can selfishly work longer hours. They are just children after all and their growing brains cannot handle long days the way adults can. You know who those whispers at pick-up time are about.

Tackling the housework

  • If you were thinking that you can game the previous section by working from home or running a business out of your home, this point is specifically for you.

  • Embrace the mess. Kids are naturally messy and it is unnatural and harmful to deny them the right to be messy or to force them to live in too sterile an environment (defined as spaces in which more than 50 percent of the floor area is walkable). When social workers enter a home on a child-abuse tip, a too-clean home is one of the red flags they are looking for. Shame on those clean-freak parents!

  • Also cleaning does not count as being present and attentive. You need to be playing with your kids, engaging in child-led activities (such as being the evil queen, lady’s made, monster or bad guy running from miniature cops). Cleaning must be kept to a minimum and done only when the kids are asleep, which rules out most home businesses.

  • Ensure a hygienic and stimulating environment for your child. Those same social workers are also looking for cluttered and dirty homes. That goes right on the form. Parents who are slobs and have clearly not washed their floor since it was puked on and who have clutter covering a lot of grime will certainly get shamed.

  • Also clutter doesn’t count as a stimulating environment. If your kids can’t find their educational toys or the pieces to all those games or the wheels of their lego sets, they won’t get the advantages those toys provide.

The care and feeding of littles

  • Ensure that your kids get good nutrition. Processed and prepackaged foods are the worst. Restaurant foods are also highly salted and sugared and full of harmful GMOs, white flour and trans fats. The harm these foods do to a child’s body and brain is truly horrific, including the development of allergies, neurological disorders, obesity, immune disorders and lifelong risks for diabetes and heart disease. (In fact, if your child already has any of those conditions or autism or ADHD, you are pretty much sunk on avoiding parent shame. You will inevitably be told that all they need is a better diet.)

  • You really need to cook from scratch. Bake whole-grain breads, but make sure you test for gluten sensitivities and learn to bake the gluten-free kind, if necessary. Note that cooking, like cleaning, doesn’t count as being present and you’ll need to do it while the kids are asleep or at school.

  • You’ll also have to satisfy both the vegetarian shamers and the “kids need a lot of protein to grow” shamers, but I’ll leave that one up to you.

  • Always keep in mind that sugar and nutrient deficient simple carbohydrates like rice, white bread, noodles and fries must be kept to a minimum. Did I mention that ketchup is mostly sugar? A lot of bad parents around you will be feeding their kids pretty much only these foods—right in front of your kids unless you keep them locked away from society. Because these foods are specifically designed to be attractive and biologically our bodies crave simple carbohydrates, your kids will beg for them. The shame is so easy to slide into.

  • And the most important rule about food is that you must never ever force your kids to eat something. You must provide healthy food, while they watch other kids both in person and on TV consume junk food and fast food. But forcing your kids to eat is one of the easiest things to shame parents about.

  • Food can never become a point of controversy in your home, or you will be “creating eating disorders.”

Fostering education and self-confidence

  • Children are the future and even people who don’t have children will rely on your children’s economic activity when our generation is old, so education is a hugely important part of parenting—the most important part according to many. You must ensure not just adequate but excellent education for your child, if he or she is to have any hope of surviving in the competitive economy these days.

  • As a preschooler, your child needs bright, fun, educational classes in foreign languages, brain development, music and art, and you should be present or right outside the door at all times.

  • You should carefully choose your child’s school. The only consideration allowed when looking at cost or transportation times is the child’s comfort, not yours or your selfish work schedule. You must get your child into a high-quality school or all the rest is your fault.

  • Teachers will expect you to devote several hours to your child’s education every evening, to keep all records and projects in perfect order, to go through backpacks and school materials and replace anything lost in the classroom jumble and to ensure that homework is completed and that the child actually understands what he or she is doing, rather than just parroting answers you gave.

  • Remember while average academic success on an assignment gets a C, which implies that most kids will get that kind of grade, you must make sure your kid isn’t one of them. C students can’t expect professional or academic success and parents of C students are lazy slouchers.

  • Oh, and never pressure your child about academics. The most important thing you can do for your child’s academic success is to boost his or her self-confidence with lots of praise. Praise your child’s every effort and reward good grades but not to the extent that any other child who is not so successful will suffer low self-confidence. Excessive praise would be as unforgivable as pressuring your child to succeed.

  • If they don’t succeed academically, it is your shame, not theirs.

Screen time, consumerism and socialization

  • If a child has social problems at school, it is the parent’s fault. Usually the parent has not provided the right kind of or new enough clothing, school supplies, accessories or toys. That or the parent is extreme and doesn’t allow the child to watch the popular entertainment of the day or play the current video games. Such a child cannot keep up with what the other kids are interested in. Kids will often be unpopular or even experience bullying when they come from extreme households that don’t allow these modern influences.

  • But of course you shouldn’t allow your child to be indoctrinated by consumerism either. There is nothing worse than a whiny, consumerist brat, constantly demanding this and that and thinking only of themselves. You need to identify the exact amount of toys, clothes and consumer items your kids need to survive socially and yet not become spoiled brats. It’s up to you and shame on you if you miss the mark!

  • You’ve no doubt seen the studies about the harmful effects of too much screen time on kids. You must carefully limit your child’s exposure to television, movies, video games and social media. Fifteen to thirty minutes per day might not be harmful but you have got to shut it off after that.

  • Also make sure the experience of shutting off the screens isn’t traumatizing to your child. That’s another reason parents get shamed.

  • And make sure that the denial of this forbidden fruit doesn’t result in your child being obsessed with screen-based entertainment. One more reason.

Morality without forced religion

  • Instead of consumerism and entertainment, make sure your child has a spiritual grounding and a healthy desire to help others. Involve your child in groups and communities which are focused on spiritual values. And above all teach your child right from wrong. This is one of many areas that parents are shamed for neglecting when their children get into trouble.

  • But never ever force a religion or spiritual beliefs on your child. Spiritual abuse is real and often turns kids away from spirituality entirely, which is also the parent’s fault. You can take them to a place of worship a couple of times, but don’t force them to go once they are old enough to wish to play video games instead. They will have to develop altruism and ethics without the structures that every previous generation of humanity relied upon for their spiritual development, and it’s your job to make sure they do (without the help of clergy).

The big one: Behavior and discipline

  • When it comes to separating right from wrong, it is important that you understand the difference between discipline and punishment. You must ensure that your child is disciplined but never punished. Punishment destroys self-confidence and thus higher brain functions.

  • You must teach your child how to behave well, or you will certainly be shamed. But you must never be harsh or punitive. You’ll not only be shamed. You could even be investigated by the authorities, the ultimate shame.

  • There are truck-loads of parenting books about how to ensure respectful and responsible behavior without harsh measures. They all rely on the idea that if you approach your child properly, they will inevitably respond reasonably and logically. Any childish lack of logic or other abnormality that causes your child to misbehave despite the expert strategies. reward charts and carefully phrased respectful reminders is probably your fault too, possibly something you did during pregnancy.

  • You may remind your children of the rules, ask them to sit in “time out” if they become too upset, ask them to ‘do over” whatever they did with poor behavior and provide positive reinforcement when they do behave well.

  • You will be held personally, legally and morally responsible for each and every one of your child’s misdeeds, but you are never allowed to punish them for it. You must be consistent with your rules and guarantee their sanctity, but you must never physically force or confine your child. You can gently remind them of the benefits of following your hard-and-fast, but punitively revoking privileges is no different from punishment.

  • You must at all times treat your child with the same respect you accord to well-behaved adults, even while your child is screaming insults, throwing food in your face and poking his or her siblings in the eye for fun. Respect, say the parenting rules of logic and reason, begets respect, and if it doesn’t, you must have done it wrong.

  • Don’t be a helicopter parent. Allow your child to take risks, so that they understand natural consequences. Natural consequences are the key part of non-punitive discipline. Instead of your punishments, your child should incur the natural consequences of their actions.

  • Of course, you should not allow your child to incur any of the consequences on the following list, or you are a criminally neglectful parent: physical harm, cold, dangerous heat, sunburn, tooth decay, malnutrition, allergic reactions, exposure to dangerous organisms, illness, exposure to dangerous substances, consumption of unhealthy food and its long-term health effects, sleep deprivation, educational failure, social ostracism, emotional trauma or public shame and disgrace. The public shame must be all yours when you fail at parenting. You must protect your child from all of the real consequences while not punishing and not helicoptering.

  • When your child does something even mildly annoying in public, you will be shamed. You need to ensure that your child does not annoy others. After all, you cannot impose your life choices to have a child on those who chose not to have children, even if they are counting on the next generation to keep the Social Security system ticking when they’re old. If your child whines, repeats annoying words, pesters you for attention, fidgets, taps things or otherwise is seen or heard in an annoying fashion, it is clearly because you failed at the point on discipline. You must be attentive and stop the annoying behavior one way or another immediately. However, you must remember to never be punitive or harsh. Otherwise you will not only be publicly shamed but reported to the authorities.

Keeping it all together

  • If doing all this, while working a sufficiently lucrative job, cooking from scratch and making sure your kids’ homework gets done, sounds tough, have no fear. Today people also shame parents for not doing self-care and taking time for their marriages.

  • You must take time for yourself. Go away for at least a couple of days per month with your spouse to ensure your family is rock solid. If your marriage falls apart, your kids will suffer and you’ll never live down the parent shame. (While planning this mandatory self-care, remember what happens to parents who hire nannies and sitters.)

  • If you’re stressed out, harried and gray-haired as a parent, your tone of voice will not be loving enough. Get enough sleep after the kids are in bed, the cleaning and cooking that you can’t do when they’re awake is done and the bills are paid. That’s the only way to avoid the shame of being willfully sleep deprived. You’ll need to use your skills with physics to stretch time in order to make time for reading novels, massage and other quality me-time activities. Remember there’s no excuse for not taking care of yourself, so you can be a good-enough parent.

My best tip is that the next time someone parent-shames you, make them read this.

Good luck! You’ll need it.

In the hurricane: How one child's storm can swamp a family

Snapshot

Rain patters on the roof on a Saturday morning. The comforting, homey sounds of pouring cereal and my seven-year-old’s chatter lull me.

My nine-year-old daughter cruises around the room, poking at objects, shifting things around randomly, dropping things, babbling in the toddler syllables that take over at home from her fairly normal speech in public.

After a few minutes, she disappears outside. I will need to corral her soon and ensure that she takes her supplements, brushes her hair and eats something, preferably something with protein, but I put it off for a few more minutes. We almost never have a relaxed weekend morning at home.

The seven-year-old starts his piano practice and homework. The nine-year-old has been in and out several times. I manage to get her to swallow the supplements and she only screams a little when she has to sit and brush her hair. They have been really good this morning and I remember that there is the last of a cobbler in the oven.

I talk my daughter into an egg for breakfast, as brain ballast, and then tell them we’ll have a morning treat—cobbler with some spray whipped cream from the can that Papa got yesterday.

Creative Commons image by Hamid Najafi

Creative Commons image by Hamid Najafi

I know this is one of my daughter’s favorites. With its contents of sugar and preservatives, canned whipped cream isn’t great for her and it could cause a bit of chaos and mental fragility today, but she’ll be able to blow off steam outside.

The kids both cheer, united for once, and I go to the fridge to get the coveted can.

A quick glance doesn’t reveal it so I start shifting containers. Then I start a systematic search, top to bottom. No whipped cream. I

know it was there last night and I know my husband doesn’t like it. I ask my daughter, who is most invested in it to come and look. She scours the fridge and sounds completely baffled by the missing whipped cream, though not upset.

“I’m going outside,” she says with a resigned shrug. “I give up.” No baby talk in that at least.

I notice when she’s at the door. She’s headed out the door away from the trampoline and the swing. “Where are you going? “ I ask absently, my head still in the fridge.

“To see the chickens,” she says and slams the door.

A few minutes later she is back, buzzing around, her vibe becoming more frantic as the morning progresses. She knocks books off the table and scatters bits of broken plastic from a toy across the floor. She puts muddy hands on the food I’m making for lunch. She won’t either do her homework or play. She refuses cobbler with no whipped cream. Too much fruit. “Yucky.”

Then she says she’s going to visit the chickens again.

“What are you doing with the chickens? “ A jolt of alarm goes into me. Our chickens are large, tough and utilitarian. I am only a little concerned for their safety, but she has never shown any interest in the chickens before, except for the one day when we brought home somewhat cute, half-grown chicks.

“I just really like the chickens. I really really like them,” she calls back as she slams the door again.

Suspicion blooms inside me. I meet my seven-year-old’s gaze. He doesn’t say a word but slides off his chair and dashes to the door. Not a word has passed between us on the subject but I know he is going to spy out what she is doing at the chicken coop. It will no doubt result in conflict and very possibly a fist fight.

I’m too exhausted to stop him though. The past few days have been a whirlwind—an endless string of work, her meltdowns, doctor’s appointments and school problems. The relative calm of cooking while dealing with kids has me groggy. And anyway it’s seventy yards up a steep hill to the chicken coop and I have onions frying in a pan for soup and a dishpan full of soapy dishes.

Someone needs to check on what is going on at the chicken coop, so I let the seven-year-old do it.

Image by Arie Farnam

Image by Arie Farnam

In two minutes, he’s back, the empty whipped cream can held up demonstratively. “Yup, she was squirting it into her mouth,” he says, confirming both of our unspoken suspicions.

I am grateful that he doesn’t care that much about canned whipped cream. One less bickering fight between siblings. I’m also impressed to see that he managed to get custody of the canister without physical injury… hopefully to either of them. The can is entirely empty, so she probably abandoned it to the chickens.

Confession

I’m going to write about life and parenting with a neuro-diverse child. There will be people who judge me for even mentioning children in my writing. The new thinking is that one should wait until they are adults and then ask for their consent before writing about them.

There will also be those who curse me for telling the harder side of living with a neuro-diverse person. There is a heavy push for parents to gush about how privileged and honored we are to parent this specific child. It comes after several decades in which parents of neuro-diverse kids were sainted and considered to be charitable saviors of mental invalids. Now the pendulum has swung the other direction, and we are required to abase ourselves in gratitude for a life that is in most cases still both physically and psychologically exhausting but also just part of life.

As usual, I am not much influenced by the trends. I am writing about this because there is a crisis in judgment of and pressure on families with neuro-diverse members. Services and educational adaptation are minimal and the vast majority of the blame for any difficulties is shunted onto families, who are almost always struggling as hard as they can to help those with neuro-diverse conditions survive and thrive in a brutally neuro-typical world.

Another reason is that once the years have passed, it is unlikely that I or anyone else will remember what these years were like. Middle childhood can be a very difficult period for many neuro-diverse children and their families. Most outsiders have no clue and are quick to jump to judgment when they see the outward manifestations. Even neuro-diverse adults often forget what the day-to-day reality was like. This is a world that rarely gets a detailed accounting.

For that reason as well, I will write.

Snapshot

“I want it! Now! Now! Now! I hate you! You’re the worst parents! I hate you! I want it! Please! Please! I’ll be good! I’ll be sooo good! I hate you! No! No! I want it!”

My nine-year-old daughter shrieks as my husband and I pull her out of the mall by gripping her upper arms on either side, careful not to injure her but firm in our refusal to let her topple displays or persist in a demand-based tantrum.

This was meant to be a quick stop for groceries but things have derailed. She is twisting between us, kicking at our legs with her sharp little princess heels, interspersed with frantic promises to be perfect and manic screeches of hatred. She turns to sink her teeth into my hands, but I am still stronger and quicker than her. I shift my grip and deftly avoid the bite.

The meltdown was most directly sparked because she saw the round pink globes of LOL dolls in a toy store window and insisted that she must have one. These collector’s dolls come in opaque round packages. You cannot tell which one you’re getting. That apparently is the fun in it or maybe just the profit in it for the manufacturer. They are only a tad more complex than the toys in a Happy Meal but they cost a solid $25 per secret package where we live.

My husband and I aren’t impressed by the dolls in the first place and we generally don’t buy toys for the kids during random shopping trips, let alone anything that expensive. Her name day is coming up in a few weeks and I suggested that she could ask for one of these dolls for her name-day gift. That started the whining, yelling and kicking, though it was still at a somewhat subdued wheedling level and was mostly directed at Papa, who is more amenable to impulsive purchases than I am.

But he has been practicing sticking to his statements with her and he had already said no. He repeated himself more firmly and that sparked the all-out revolt.

We finally pass through the automatic doors of the mall and my husband releases her arm, apparently assuming that she’ll stamp her feet, sulk and eventually recover. But instead she wrenches her other arm out of my grip and spins toward the doors with lightning speed. I catch her round the middle, glad that I’m still relatively agile. My husband turns, slower to react and stares. Then she tears herself away from me and sprints into the parking lot, across lanes of traffic, heading in a straight line away from us.

“Get the car!” I yell over my shoulder and dash after her.

I’m very nearsighted and I dare not let her get too far away, but I know that the only way we’ll contain this situation is if we can get her in the car. She reaches the end of the parking lot without slowing down and disappears through a line of shrubs still a hundred feet in front of me. I break through the shrubbery and find myself on the exit ramp of a gas station.

I don’t see my nine-year-old as I dash across it and come around the pillars of a giant gas station sign. There is another line of denser shrubbery behind it. I run past it but then turn, real fear hitting my breathless body as I survey the gas pumps and cars. There are now many directions she could have gone and I can’t see any sign of her purple shirt and turquoise mini-skirt.

Fortunately, I’m seriously winded by this time though and my feet don’t carry me far beyond the shrubs. I hear a tiny noise and spin to see her crouching low under the branches. She stares for a split second before she leaps away and that’s all it takes. I grab and latch onto her arm with an iron grip. I pull her back around to the exit ramp and my husband drives up in our car, which is something between a hatch back and a mini-van with sliding doors in the back. He opens a door from the inside and I wrestle our struggling, screaming daughter inside.

No one appears to have noticed and I’m momentarily torn between relief and cynicism, considering that to any bystander the scene just played out looked exactly like the classic Hollywood portrayal of a child kidnapping.

Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Kontur

Creative Commons image by Jeffrey Kontur

She is still screaming and kicking in the back seat. We can’t stay on the exit ramp with cars behind us, so my husband drives two blocks to find a place to pull over, so that we can wrestle her into her seat belt. She seems moderately calmer and we reiterate that she can ask for a toy for her name day but she will not get this toy today or anytime soon, due to her current behavior.

We have to keep going. We’ve had dinner and it’s nearly bedtime. If she doesn’t get into bed at the right time, she will meltdown in the morning and not get to school and then someone won’t get to work. “Just wait them out” is almost universal parenting advice. It’s meant well but it often doesn’t work in the real world.

We get back into the front and my husband pulls the car onto the freeway. It seems unlikely that she could actually plan this, but as soon as we’re in heavy traffic she starts up again, kicking my seat and hitting her brother, yelling insults at him. I reach back and seize her hands, keeping her from physically tormenting the seven-year-old.

By this time we’re on a freeway bridge and there is nothing more to do. I meet his eyes and talk in a low, calm voice under the screeching.

“I know this isn’t fair. I’m sorry. I need you to be a big kid and be calm,” I tell him. I explain that the nine-year-old is having a really hard time and has a problem in her brain that makes it very hard for her to regain control. She screams insults and bullying names at him and starts to cry a bit. I hold him with my gaze and he keeps his hands away from her.

By the time we reach the next exit, she is a bit calmer. We discuss stopping in low tones but it won’t help. She will see it as power if the whole family has to stop and wait. Both my husband and I are still relatively calm and this alone is a major victory. We have managed to keep our cool despite a pretty extreme scene.

I lay out the consequences of further physical attacks to the nine-year-old, while still containing her hands. I don’t kid myself that this will have much effect. When she’s in this kind of state, her ability to process cause and effect is nearly nonexistent.

Even so, she is quiet enough that I release her hands, which turns out to be a mistake. She seizes the nearest hard object, her large plastic doll and throws it at my husband’s head. Since he didn’t take that exit, he’s wrestling with a snarl of fast, big-city traffic. I mange to knock the doll aside so that it hits the headrest instead of his head and falls onto the seven-year-old.

I give him a quick apology and make a left-handed sweep of the back seat, removing every hard object I can reach that she could throw and piling them at my feet in the front. She’s screeching at top volume again, hurling most of her insults at me and Papa. The seven-year-old has flattened himself against the door on his side.

I turn back to the front and check to make sure that my husband is undisturbed while driving. The small shocks of her feet slamming into the back of my seat irritate me, but it is mostly the greediness of her demand for immediate toys that makes me seethe with anger inside. I am hanging onto my calm by a ragged thread.

I spare a moment to think about parents with other types of disabilities and single parents. What if my husband was driving alone with them when this happened? What if I didn’t have above-average physical strength and speed for a woman or what if my eyes were just a bit worse? The thought of the judgement of people who would see us and think we were being overly harsh and that we should somehow magically find a way to handle the situation with grace and sweetness fill me with disgust.

Then the seven-year-old cries out a warning and I turn just in time to fling up a hand as the nine-year-old launches her booster seat, which she has managed to get out from under her, at my husband’s head.

I don’t catch it and she seizes it again when it falls. She draws back for another throw.

“Don’t!” My husband’s strangled voice indicates that he’s struggling with a major freeway interpass and he can’t even have me twisting in my seat and waving my arms around. I hold my hand up grimly, ready to take whatever she has got to keep it from hitting the driver in the head.

Exhaustion

Every day is exhausting and hard. Some days I feel like I'm in a war zone. 

I don't say that lightly because I worked in war zones years ago. At the end of the day my ears are ringing, my vision is fading in and out and I am staggering on my feet. Every inch of my body aches and my shoulders and cheeks are bruised from blows. My husband's face is blank and his eyes are glazed after only being in it for a few hours after work. My son lies in bed in a fetal position. 

The screaming hurricane is finally down at nine in the evening but we don't have a glass of wine and watch TV. I don't write on evenings like this. We just totter off to bed, separately, sometimes without even a word or a touch. 

It isn't every day but it is like this most days.

I recently read The Little Monster: Growing up with ADHD by Robert Jergen. The author, a man with severe ADHD and auditory processing disorder (the same categories of disability as our daughter), describes growing up in a fog, unaware of many of his actions, unable to remember what happened, what he said, what others said, moment to moment. He wasn't just in trouble. His parents, even used to four rambunctious boys before him, were desperate. 

I listened to it as an audio book on a rare day at home alone while my husband was out with the kids. During the portion of the book focused on Jergen's childhood, I gritted my teeth and muttered angry words at him and sympathy for his parents. The book does a good job of helping the reader understand his experience and he didn't describe his parents nicely, but I knew what it was like for them.

He did accurately describe the endless hurricane of chaos, destruction, obliviousness and carelessness with which he filled their home. He was the youngest of five boys, so it is possible that his presence wasn’t as all consuming as this hurricane is in our home.

Here there is often only one person who is allowed to be human on many days, only one person who is allowed to have needs. Nothing and no one can exist beyond her when she's in meltdown. And yet it isn’t her fault any more than my bad eyesight is my fault. And in rare quiet times, she promises to try not to be a hurricane.

Jergen writes that he believes everyone in the future will hope their children have ADHD. That is the only thing in the book that is truly wrong and infuriating. I have great sympathy for him and honor his experience and his admirable truth telling about having these disabilities, but the truth is also that he has never parented a child, let alone a child with his type of disabilities. 

I am glad for the hope that at least someone with these types of disabilities has found a measure of happiness and independence as an adult, though it is clearly noted that Jergen tested as highly intelligent on standardized tests even as a child and many children with these disabilities do not.

As a person with a significant visual disability, I know all too well that adaptation can be done and yet that it takes a great deal of mental resources. I have watched the vast majority of blind and visually impaired adults sink in to poverty and isolation, while I battled my way to a life with a family and a middle class lifestyle. 

Some kids with ADHD are also very intelligent, just as there are people with autism who are high functioning with genius-level intelligence. That has, in fact, become a kind of stereotype for ADHD, but it isn’t actually the norm.

Those people with disabilities who get a voice to speak about their experiences are those with abnormally high intelligence who manage to find coping mechanisms. They are not the ones who are destroyed and sentenced to failure. poverty and the astronomical ADHD-in-prison statistics. Coping mechanisms may be beyond the reach of many.

Snapshot

The house is a disaster. There are toys and clothes scattered all over the kitchen and hall floors. The kitchen is piled high with dishes. I’m cooking two major meals at once because the next day is jammed with doctor’s appointments and school events for kids.

My seven-year-old gets up from the early lunch I heated for him and goes to get his own backpack ready for a soccer tournament. I call out items he shouldn’t forget and I manage to fill his water bottle in between stirring veggies on the stove and putting breakfast things back in the fridge.

I put a kiss on the top of his head. I know there are benefits to hardship and having to be moderately capable at almost eight will put him ahead of his peers in many ways. But it still makes me sad that he gets no more than this hurried send off for the first soccer tournament of the season. All the other kids have devoted parents cheering from the sidelines at every game.

But it isn’t going to happen for us. For now I’m just grateful that the nine-year-old is letting me cook very briefly. She is actually doing something nice for once. I put the box of washable kid-safe paints where she can access it near the drawing supplies, and she has the contents spread out by the fireplace. Hopefully she’ll paint and I’ll get thirty minutes of cooking done.

Creative Commons image by Dylan Parker

Creative Commons image by Dylan Parker

On my way to the freezer I walk by and notice that she has opened every single color of the washable paints, which are used not just by her and her brother but also by my ESL students. I stop to make a quick check and find to my dismay that the damage has already been done.

Every single color has been squeezed out of the bottles into a plastic large container and she now has a half gallon of dark gray paint. There are dregs in the bottoms of a few bottles, which she didn’t squeeze hard enough but mostly the paint supply—at least $50 worth—is gone. That is the price paid for the last twenty minutes of uninterrupted cooking.

Snapshot

“I don’t know that letter! I don’t know it! Let me go! No! No1 No! I won’t do it! I don’t know how to read!”

The nine-year-old is throwing a tantrum because she momentarily cannot remember the sound made by the letter A. She can actually read, though dyslexia makes it a struggle. But her short-term memory issues, a common part of ADHD, makes it so sometimes she truly cannot remember the sound of a letter.

The bigger problem is that she knows this happens and she is not above pretending to have such a memory attack in order to get out of homework. My husband is close to tears and this has only been going on for one hour.

The day is yet young at 5:00 pm.

By 6;00 pm they have switched to math, giving up on today’s reading assignment. Dinner is ready and I take over from my husband.

“How in the world am I supposed to explain algebra to her?” he fumes at the textbook. The problem reads 42 - ? = 14.

Our nine-year-old can—on a good day--just barely work out 42 - 14 = ? with help. But my husband never needed to work at math as a kid, so he doesn’t remember how you get from that to the real problem. I wasn’t as good in math and I still remember the agonizing steps.

I spend the next two hours trying to coax her into the basics needed to get to where her classmates are, while she screams and thrashes around on the floor.

Snapshot:

I have to get to physical therapy as soon as I get the kids off to school in the morning. I prepared extra well the night before, so all I have to do is slip snacks and water bottles into their backpacks.

The nine-year-old insists on wearing leggings with half a dozen holes in them and a halter top even though it froze last night and the forecast is chilly. I know the judgement I’ll get and I force a long-sleeved shirt on over her halter top, even though I know she’ll just take it off. I can’t physically get the halter top off of her with out injury to one or both of us.

She starts screaming ten minutes before it is time to leave for school and she continues well past the time they usually leave. I let the seven-year-old go on his own. She seizes a log off of the woodpile and hurls it against the glass back door of the house. The glass doesn’t break but I doubt it can take much more.

I open the door a crack and tell her to stop hitting the glass and go to school. She grabs a longer piece and tries to strike me with it. I close the door and it lands against the door jamb. I open it a crack again and tell her that every time she hits the door she will lose a day of television privileges. We’ve been through this before.

I count fifteen strikes of logs against the glass before I leave by the other door, locking it behind me. She comes raging around the house, screaming at me.

She still has some nervousness about getting in trouble with her teacher. I tell her that she will be late for school at this point but if she goes right away she will not get in big trouble. It makes no difference. She continues to rage and scream, her face covered with snot and her hair stringy at the sides.

There is no waiting it out. I either have to leave or I will miss an appointment that took six months to get. The irritated doctor, who didn’t believe me the last time I postponed an appointment, might not even allow me to get another.

Snapshot

I whisper “Good morning” into the children’s ears as the first streaks of dawn make silver in the east. They need time to get up slowly. Given that they have to walk to school because I can’t drive, we rise pretty early here.

I turn on lights, scratch and rub backs, exchange a few words with the seven-year-old and smile noncommittally at the pretend baby talk of the nine-year-old while I give her a reassuring hug and kiss. Then I go down stairs to get snacks and vitamin supplements ready.

“She’s in Papa’s room messing with his office!” the seven-year-old calls down a few minutes later.

Yesterday, she climbed up on the stove to get candy out of the stash on the shelf just below the ceiling and then refused to eat any dinner because she already had her sugar fix. She took non-washable dye and hid it in her room when I did an art project with her and then lied when I was looking for it. She got into my room and made off with my phone and my scissors.

I have to go to physical therapy again this morning. In a flash, I am so angry I can’t think straight.

I run up the stairs and pull her away from my husband’s desk, where she is rummaging. I take her downstairs and my voice cracks with strain as I demand that she tell me what she was doing, what she had taken or what she was looking to take. I am pretty sure it is either sweets, money to buy sweets or something electronic she wants to distract with at school.

She refuses to say, as usual. She doesn’t tell the truth anymore the way she once did. It is hard to blame her, since she often gets in trouble and now is often accused of fibbing.

My voice cracks and I start yelling, shattering the peace of the pink-tinged morning. My voice is hoarse and scratchy for the rest of the day and I feel like a bad parent for ruining the morning for everyone.

I am too tired, too worn out. I am sick and tired of lies and commercial demands and unkindness.

Judgement:

“You just have to give her some positive reinforcement.”

“Well, you know ADHD doesn’t really exist. It’s just something they say to excuse lazy parenting.”

“I know what it’s like. My kids are all really active. They’re great in sports. You should get her playing sports.”

“It’s about diet. I’ll bet you always eat out at McDonald’s”

“I’m sure it isn’t really that bad. And she’ll probably be a genius in art or something.”

These are all real statements that people have said to me in just the past month. Neuro-diversity is terribly complex and you’ll never find another child exactly like mine. Some neuro-diverse children are exactly the opposite. There is no way that most people can truly understand people with hidden disabilities.

But there is one thing that everyone should know that would actually help neuro-diverse people and their families. That is that hidden disabilities are real and they are very difficult to deal with. Assume you don’t know.

And don’t judge.

My child and my whole family eats a more healthful and careful diet than 90 percent of the population today. My child gets lots of exercise, taking multiple aerobic dance classes, walking too and from school and bouncing a giant trampoline most afternoons. It isn’t “all in the diet” or “lack of exercise.”

It’s a disability. It exists and it appears from the outside like a very bad, very spoiled child. Our walls are covered with more reward charts than any household I’ve ever seen. I have studied and tried dozens of strategies and parenting styles.

Most work fine with my seven-year-old. He is known for being a very active and even a “wild” boy but he doesn’t have ADHD. None of the parenting techniques actually “work” with my nine-year-old. A few help a little.

i used to think I could tell if a child was being parented well by observation. I now know that I can’t. I wish I had been able to learn to be less judgmental in an easier fashion.

Why I'm wary of inspirational quotes

According to the going social media trends in inspirational quotes, everyone is responsible for their own actions, you should never put off until tomorrow the fun you could have today, the worst mistakes in life are made by being too cautious and good parents are those who stick around and provide unconditional love.

I get the impression that our western social standards are schizophrenic. 

I sometimes wonder what other cultures think of these western social ideals. Take my Vietnamese relatives and the Vietnamese shop keepers down the street. They would give short shrift to ideals of seizing the day and following your heart's desire for the sake of you-the shining individual.

In fact, women, especially young women, in many cultures seem to get the brunt of collective and long-range modes of thinking. 

In many cultures, it is a person's ultimate duty to stand by their family and create stability. Beauty is found in these cultures, but it is often the beauty of elegance and home. This may be seen as an old-fashioned and oppressive worldview by modern westerners. But it is at least a coherent one.

I'm not actually advocating the oppression of women or the suppression of individuality. But I'm not certain that our own cultural norms offer us the healthiest possible alternative. 

We as western women (and men too actually) are told that we are simply uninspired and lack gumption if we are not out fulfilling our dreams of creative work, travel and romance. But at the same time, in the same culture and often in the next meme, we are told that we bear full and merciless responsibility for our every impulsive action. And heaven forbid, we have children and then decide that our heart's desire and creative passion isn't devoting our every waking moment to molding our children into prodigies. 

The cultural ideals in some places may be restrictive. Ours are crazy-making. And I think we can do better.

I've seen plenty  of these inspirational quotes, but today's rant was sparked by this little gem, "The greatest mistakes we make are the risks we don't take. If you think something will make you happy, go for it, so that you don't live your life asking 'what if" and telling yourself 'If only.'"

Before you nod compulsively to this seemingly wise and motivational statement, take a closer look: "If you think something will make you happy..."

Indeed? Happy for how long? For five minutes? For five days? For as long as it takes to raise the resulting child, break the resulting addiction or pay off the resulting debt? 

Okay, I sound like an overcautious curmudgeon there and I have taken more than my share of hair-brained risks in my day, so I really shouldn't be championing the conservative side of whatever argument might be perceived. 

It isn't even just the poor phrasing, of this quote that got way too many glowing comments and adoring likes on social media for my stomach. It is merely the hypocritical social expectations of our times. 

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

Creative commons image by Stròlic Furlàn - Davide Gabino

If a friend asked me for advice when weighing whether or not to take a risky leap (though I assure you no one has asked me), this would be my advice or my version of feet-on-the-ground inspiration:

Periodically we come to crossroads in life where we have a choice. In fact, we pass through more crossroads than we usually realize, missing possible turn-offs, detours, dead-ends and short cuts due to forward momentum and habit. Often we don't know how major the crossroads is even when we do stop to take notice. We only know that in retrospect.

I remember one such crossroads I encountered, when I was about to graduate from university. The president of the university called me into his office. I had never personally met him before and had no family connections, so this was really kind of a big deal. I was graduating first in my class, but I didn't know that at the time.

Anyway, he sat me down and tried very hard to convince me to apply for a Rhodes scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford with the backing of my university. I turned the opportunity down on the spot, politely enough I recall, but not really with an understanding of how major it was to be asked to do this by the president of the university. I was twenty-two and pretty darn naive.

Oh, it was tempting. I loved universities and I can get lost in academic inquiry. I had romantic visions about the ivy-covered walls of Oxford. And I did want to travel. 

Still, I turned down the chance to continue my education debt free in a wonderful environment because I wanted to be an international journalist. I saw opportunities slipping through my fingers and I wanted to enter the world of work NOW.

I got on a bus to New York City and from there a plane to Prague and a train over the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Kazakhstan. In the next ten years, I made two shoestring documentaries, wrote for national newspapers and magazines, covered a small war, traveled in 30 countries, lived on 5 continents, led a successful protest movement against a needless military incursion into one small country and wrote my brains out.

After ten years, I was broke, still almost entirely unknown, without any graduate degree and without a stable job or career. I had kids and I'm still without a stable job or career. I write and teach English and have a pretty mundane life. Journalism has changed and the kind of international stringer work I did in 1999 pretty much no longer exists.

If I had taken the Rhodes opportunity, which was more tempting than I wanted to admit at the time, I would have missed the end of a journalism era--a time when freelancers really could go out, grab a story, pitch it and write the national headlines.

And what I did I give up? I really don't know what wonders I might have found on that other road, but I still love research and universities. I probably could have really done something cool at Oxford if I had tried for it and won the scholarship (not a certainty but I had a good shot). I probably would be a lot better off today and have a lot more prospects for my future.

But the experiences and work that made me who I am? How could I give that up? 

This is the thing. If you ask me "what if" or tell me "if only," I can sometimes feel almost sick that I didn't take certain chances or in some cases didn't let other chances lie. Knowing what I know now, I might just go for the Rhodes scholarship. Knowing that journalism as we knew it would be over by 2004. I had only a few years to do that anyway and I had to give up... well, everything else really. My brief journalism career came at the expense of all the glowing opportunities of my twenties.

And if I knew what I would have gained on that other road--which I don't even now--I might well want to go back and change the past. BUT I didn't know those things. I stood at the crossroads and knowing only what I knew then, I still stand by that decision.

You have to take the best shot you can at happiness and a fulfilling life.

Sometimes you can't take certain opportunities. Sometimes being an ethical person means you stay and take care of a sick person or a child and don't pursue your dreams of travel right then. Sometimes caution causes you not to quit your job and sell your house to become an artist and go eat, pray, love for a year. Sometimes the leap of faith you take may land you in a situation much more restrictive than the one you left. And sometimes... just sometimes a completely illogical and incautious risk leads to the most wonderful results.

And you can look back and think "Oh, I should have listened to those inspiration quotes and taken the plunge." (Or if your hardships came from listening to inspirational quotes, you can cry, "Oh, if only I hadn't listened to such drivel and taken such risks?")

Alternatively, you could look back and say "I did the best I could with what I knew at the time."

And if that statement is really true and you weren't making decisions under the twin spells of fear or delusion, you've got nothing to regret. 

Learning interconnection: Where did we go wrong in trying to eradicate racism through education?

"She's kind of brown!" my daughter's friend from first-grade giggles, holding her hands over her mouth. 

My daughter giggles along with her, but covers her drawing with her hand. I'm glad to see my daughter adding realistic skin tones to her drawings, but also frustrated at how quickly she is getting an embarrassing reaction from peers. What are the chances she's going to draw a brown-skinned figure the next time she draws with a friend?

We live in the Czech Republic where political correctness and multicultural education has never been a societal or political priority. Until recently, I had difficulty explaining the confused and even outright racist comments of many Czechs when writing for American readers. Even last summer, comments on my posts about racist or ableist problems in the Czech Republic were met with shocked disbelief. 

But this past winter that has changed for painful reasons.

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Creative Commons image by Guilherme Jofili

Jewish landmarks have been vandalized in the US. The winning presidential candidate called Mexicans "rapists and criminals" and publicly mocked a disabled journalist. The numbers of people killed by white supremacist vigilantes because they are or were mistaken to be of Middle Eastern background grows every other day. And of course, there hasn't been this open a display of racism against African Americans or Native Americans in decades.

We are no longer shocked by what used to be almost unthinkable. We thought our system of multicultural education was enough, that general social norms had shifted and that racism, ableism and faith-based discrimination was fading, if not entirely gone.

We've been rather rudely awakened to reality as Americans. The situation begs the question. If racism is still so alive and well in the US after so many years of celebrating Black History Month. teaching a unit on the Holocaust and a chapter on Native American history in elementary school, where did we go wrong and what should we do differently in the future?

I have thought a lot about these issues for the past ten years because I have been living in a country where racism is much closer to the surface and I am the adoptive mother of children who are among the primary targets. Their situation is like being an Arab Muslim in America. I worked as a journalist for years before I adopted children and I knew very well what I was getting into. I had seen Romani children harassed in schools, segregated by teachers and sometimes physically attacked.  I had seen them bravely and cheerily go off to first grade only to be beaten down and in complete despair by third grade. 

I knew that if I made my family this way, I would have to deal with the issues daily. I would have to educate teachers, schools, other parents and even my children's classmates. I have now begun that work, talking to teachers and volunteering to do multicultural education in the schools. The situation is so tense that I am lucky to be allowed to broach these subjects in a classroom at all. 

I know that my efforts are too little alone, but my experience has given me some understanding of what can actually change attitudes. Here then is my recommendation from the trenches on what can and should be done to provide real diversity education: I call this model "interconnection education."

Creative Commons image by Oregon Department of Transportation

Creative Commons image by Oregon Department of Transportation

  • Start in preschool. This is the time for multicultural exposure programs. Use holidays and events from various faiths and peoples to create a lively and fun multicultural curriculum that will serve students well both in understanding the society they live in and in future history and geography courses that are crucial to general education and responsible citizenship.
  • Require teacher training in bullying-prevention, understanding the roots of prejudice and cultural sensitivity from preschool on up. In designing such programs both the perspectives of people of color and of those who have experienced a shift in understanding from isolation to diversity must be heard in order to design programs that are both sensitive to vulnerable groups and accessible to those without much experience in multiculturalism. A moralistic "we are multicultural because we're not bad racists" approach may silence prejudice temporarily, but it will not erase it from the classroom or from society. Teachers must be the first to understand how interconnection works and why we take these issues seriously is a matter of self-preservation.
  • When conflicts arise between children over sensitive cultural, racial or faith-based issues, avoid an immediate punitive reaction and call parents from all involved sides in to discuss the issues with involved children and trained teachers present. Be staunch in support of vulnerable groups in these situations, but ensure that complaints by parents and students of majority groups are addressed fully rather than being quashed and swept under the carpet without discussion. We will not solve prejudice by labeling those who have less cultural experience as bad and further isolating them.
  • Many holidays are primarily religious and so they are a difficult point in non-religious, diverse schools. There is always the issue of holiday programs in elementary school. We want our children to experience community holidays and yet it is logistically difficult to include the holidays of all groups. One way to ensure a better balance is to focus on a given holiday fully for a day and move on to another the next day, rather than spending weeks on majority holidays. Another way is to have a general seasonal holiday program and assign students or small groups to learn about and reflect a holiday from a particular culture through art, costumes, food and song that can be shared with the rest of the class.
  • While holidays extend beyond the individual and thus must be dealt with by the group in some way, individual differences that point to culture, race or faith must be allowed expression by individuals. There have been extensive arguments about the wearing of garments required by one's faith in public schools. One argument is that allowing, for instance, Islamic head coverings for girls promotes the oppression of women. If other parts of the program are open and diverse, it must be noted that whereas it is possible that a girl might be pressured to wear religious clothing by a family, being included in a diverse school would certainly provide greater multicultural education than a requirement to conform to a dress code would. I still see no reason for the restriction and significant harm can come from imposing it. In many other cases, the wearing of identity-specific jewelry or other symbols is simply a means of ensuring confidence and should be encouraged rather than discouraged. 
  • In elementary school and high school, diversity education need not be a separate program. It should be an integral part of language arts, social studies, history and geography programs. If we hope to have a democratic and multi-racial society and if we hope to weather the currents of international relations as a nation, the next generations must have an understanding of history and geography that is balanced. rather than focused through the lens of immigrants to our nation from one particular continent and their struggle for freedom from Britain. Each piece of the puzzle that is history and geography should be set in its context. History is not about blame or victimhood, but rather about an understanding of social, economic,religious and political currents that affect us today. Historians from a wide variety of backgrounds MUST have real and active input. A balanced account of history would require significant changes in history textbooks and teacher education. But it is crucial. Without that our current troubles will recur. 
  • In each of these tactics it is crucial that we recognize the need for identity concepts for all students, not only those from backgrounds outside the majority of a given community. A healthy sense of one's own cultural roots and appreciation for one's traditions as specific rather than "the way everyone does it" is the best defense against resentment of other groups. Students should recognize specific origins within larger continental or racial backgrounds. Africa is not one culture, any more than Europe is. People of European descent differ in cultural perspective, just as various groups from Africa differ. An understanding of culture as the complex ecosystem in which the various parts move and affect one another will go a long way toward practical understanding in the social sciences as well as diversity education. In music, language and art, students should be encouraged to combine cultural influences consciously rather than by automatic cultural appropriation and learn about the natural mixing and divergence processes of human history. 

Clearly these methods and strategies are far beyond our current capabilities. We must have clear-eyed goals. We can also use the concepts of this type of "interconnection education" even on the smallest scale. 

One of my current projects in this direction is the Children's Wheel of the Year series. This is a set of books aimed at families in the earth-based or Neopagan traditions. This is the fastest growing religious group in the United States and Europe and in many areas has more adherents than more widely recognized groups such as Buddhists. This is also a group struggling internally with racial and historical tensions. 

The stories in the Children's Wheel of the Year series are first and foremost engaging and fun for children. High quality educational materials are those that encourage learning through genuine interest. Secondly, they provide a realistic, modern view of how families in the swiftly growing earth-centered religions may celebrate eight major holidays. Each holiday embodies important cultural and ethical values that are important to the adventure story of the book. 

Throughout these stories there runs a common thread of interconnected diversity. While the stories focus on one particular faith, they are inclusive and irrepressible in the joy of connections to others and supporting others in their own strong and unique identities. The Children's Wheel of the Year attempts to provide a model for addressing specifics within an overall interconnected diversity program.

The story Shanna and the Pentacle specifically addresses the issues of multicultural and diversity education in the schools, while focusing on a practical issue many earth-based families report encountering in the United States--namely the banning in some schools of pentacle jewelry. While this story addresses a difficulty encountered by one group and the responsible methods children and adults can use to solve such difficulties, it does so while bringing the reader closer to the perspectives of other cultures in the story, emphasizing the need for mutual support. 

Our need is clear. We must foster an interconnected openness and the strength of diverse identities in our society and in our schools. No matter which group we belong to, we need this and our safety depends upon it. If any group is marginalized or denied expression of their identity, we know it is only a matter of time before that same marginalization and denial is visited upon others. 

The 2017 List: 13 things to bring into the new year

With some truly depressing 2017 lists out there, I want to add a couple that might actually come in handy... or at least crack a smile.

Here is the Rebel With a Pen list of what to take with you when leaping into 2017:

  1. Chocolate
  2. A solar panel
  3. A manual for communicating with racists
  4. A Canadian passport or at least least a maple leaf bumper sticker
  5. Your entire library of books
  6. Wool socks
  7. A couple of 1960s protest albums
  8. Food stockpiles
  9. A bomb shelter
  10. Your family and near neighbors
  11. A first aid kit with extra bandages
  12. Your ability to laugh in the face of disaster
  13. Your generosity of spirit when it comes to people you might feel like judging

And with some of the bizarre wish lists out there, I figured that my brand of fantasy wouldn't seem far fetched at all. Here's my wish list for 2017:

  1. I wish Donald Trump would get on TV, laugh really loud and say, "Just kidding!" And then go back to his moocher lifestyle and leave us in peace.
  2. I wish everyone in the media would suddenly realize they should actually listen to scientists. Then science and climate discussions would be at the top of the news cycle all year long.
  3. I wish oil executives would realize the Indians own that land in North Dakota and that squeezing every last drop of oil out of the sand in Texas is not going to prolong their gluttonous lifestyle for very long anyway so they might as well start thinking about long-term survival.
  4. I wish my kids would wake up January 1 and realize that bickering defeats fun.
  5. I wish the next president would declare a new New Deal consisting of building solar panels to go on every roof and a light-rail system serving the entire country.
  6. I wish all the teenage ISIS fighters would get a deep hankering to go live with their mothers and watch TV until they're forty. 
  7. I wish all bombs, missiles and munitions as well as all guns not in a safe under lock and key would mysteriously disappear on January 1.
  8. I wish someone brilliant would invent a way for writers and artists to make a living at their craft.
  9. I wish Microsoft would go bankrupt and have to sell off all of its parts to independent programmers who want to make an honest living.
  10. I wish our society would begin taxing the use of natural resources instead of the labor of the working poor and the funds would be put toward educational opportunity, urban greenspaces, rural public transit and subsidies for high quality cottage industries. 
  11. I wish a benign virus would evolve and spread among humans which deactivates the part of the brain that categorizes according to skin color, speech pattern and the appearance of a person's eyes.

With those sweet and optimistic thoughts in mind, I wish you a very happy (and peaceful) new year!

What kids need during the holidays

I woke up one winter morning in middle childhood to the sound of gunshots on the other side of a thin wooden wall. The light coming through the window was eerie, pale and wavering like a cold candle. 

I jumped out of bed and searched for my parents, who slept in the bed next to mine. Their covers were rumpled and they were gone. I raced to the loft where my brothers slept. My little brother was sitting up in his blankets while my older brother struggled quickly into his shirt.

"What's that noise?" I cried. 

"Pa's shooting his gun," my older brother said.

The front door to our cabin slammed and I could hear Mama coming in below. We scrambled to the railing and demanded to know what was going on. Mama explained with a tone somewhere between resignation and reassurance that all the deep heavy snow we had thought was melting the night before had frozen solid as a rock over night and Pa was shooting clumps of ice out of the giant fir tree next to our house... so that it wouldn't fall and crush our house. 

This memory, one of the clearest I have from childhood, is oddly tinged with brilliant sparkle. There is almost no fear in my memory, as if I thought all this was terribly exciting. Beyond the first shock of waking up alone with the frightening noise outside, I seem to have been in a state of giddy delight. Pa was like Pa in Little House on the Prairie. There was no natural or human threat to big for him in my view. We were clearly safe in his hands.

While we were getting dressed in the loft there was a tremendous crash that shook the whole cabin and the sound of wood grating against metal. Something had clearly fallen onto our tin roof. It was prevented from crushing us only by a few beams, some insulation and a couple of layers of plywood. 

Excited to see a fallen tree and glad that the house had apparently survived, my brothers and I pulled on our snow gear and scrambled up the steps cut into the ice outside the front door to get outside. Pa was still out by the large fir tree to the north of the house and it had clearly not fallen. We told him about the crash on the roof and suggested that it must have been the tree on the south side of the house.

He told us to go check, so we ran around the front of the house... or attempted to. I got to the front yard where the ground sloped gently downhill and my feet flew out from under me. My head struck the sheer sheet of ice under me with a loud "crack!"

My brothers went down a bit more gracefully and scrambled back across the ice to help check on me as I groggily shook the stars out of my eyes. 

We'd had several feet of heavy snow the day before. But in the evening the temperature had climbed and the whole mass had started to melt, water running across the surface and down onto the county road below. But in the night a cold snap had come, so hard and fast that the melting slush had turned to ice, a thick, rock-hard layer covering everything for miles around us. It did not have the crusty appearance of old snow with a frozen top layer. It was slick, shiny and impenetrable. 

It's likely that anyone forty or over from the Pacific Northwest will know what I'm talking about. It is still generally referred to as the Great Ice Storm. Electrical lines were down for days, phones and water pumps didn't work, every branch and twig was coated in a thick layer of clear ice, a snow plow was broken trying to clear our county road and we were completely cut off from the outside world for three days. 

My brothers and I didn't know the extent of the "disaster" yet but we already loved it. We were on an important mission from Pa to check the south side of the house, so despite the ringing in my head and the large knot swelling behind my ear, my big brother helped me up and we staggered the rest of the way around the cabin, joking about how my head was so hard that it cracked the ice. 

As it turned out, it was a disappointingly small branch that had crashed onto our roof and made such an enormous noise. But by midday Pa had finished shooting ice out of the trees and he had time to pull us on our giant toboggan. We slid our way over to our nearest neighbors, to make sure everyone was all right. Then we slid home again. 

It is ironic that while our parents' generation remembers it as a natural disaster, my brothers and I remember those days of candlelight and ice as some of the best moments of our childhood.

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

Creative Commons image by David Lytle 

We spent our days sliding on the snow or helping our parents with the tasks of daily survival, such as cutting blocks of ice out of the frozen slush to heat on the wood stove. (That was our only source of water with our well 60 feet deep and the pump out of operation.( And we spent the long winter evenings, playing games and telling stories by candlelight. 

Anyone who remembers a night without electricity as a child can probably relate to some degree. Without the TV, computers, oven, food processor or phone working and with the roads closed, the one thing we children had was... our parents' attention.

We often feel that the past must have been simpler and by extension better, because in those times they did not have electricity and all of those things on a regular basis. So, we envision it like an endless snow day. But in reality, the children of the past did not have their parents' attention because their parents' daily routine did not require electricity. 

The truth is that we cannot really give our children an endless snow day. We cannot always give them our full attention. We have to work and cook and keep our lives together and that takes up the majority of our time and energy. Most of the time, what is left for real attention to children is the crumbs. 

But this is still what I think of during the holidays and when facing the week of winter break. Our children can remember the holidays as a magical time of sparkle, even if the reality is that we are stressed out and the extended family is fighting and money is tight and crises loom. The key to it is amazingly simple. Times of comfort and attention. 

We can create it for our children, by declaring our own great ice storm. It doesn't actually take a disaster to make a time that children will remember forever. 

Here is a recipe. It need not be every moment of the holiday season, but as much as possible, as often as possible, allow and if necessary schedule family times with these elements:

  1. Nothing urgent that adults must get done.
  2. Nothing urgent that the kids must get done.
  3. No set schedule or a very simple schedule
  4. Few or no visitors outside immediate family, who are very familiar to children
  5. A pleasant and familiar environment
  6. The attention of adults being at least partly on things of interest to the child
  7. A low level of excitement for something in the future or an understanding of this as a special time
  8. A balance of sugar versus protein in food.
  9. Low use of electronics by children and adults alike
  10. Opportunities for activities like playing games, reading, building things, coloring, crafting, cooking, playing in nature, moving around
  11. Any conflicts that arise expressed and handled with mutual compassion

Number ten--the apparent activity involved--is actually the least important thing on the list. It doesn't really matter what you're doing as much as the environment is good, necessities are taken care of and there is no urgent agenda. It is almost like magic. This really will create the most memorable moments for children without anything special or flashy added.

Certainly we also want to do special, fun and meaningful things with our children but doing them one at a time and allowing for spaces without a schedule in between will matter most. 

Inside the house of the model parent

"You're such an amazing mother! Your kids are so lucky!"

I couldn't believe my ears. And then I felt awful inside. Not only am I a bad parent, I'm a liar. Either that or I'm only "inspirational" because I'm legally blind but not a real "good mother."

That's how it feels when people tell me I'm a wonderful mother because I know what it really looks like at our house. I do something--one little thing--well and people are so impressed. But I know how much hair pulling, screaming and yelling, fighting with my husband and so forth it took to get that one thing done. And I know about the piles of laundry, the dirty dishes and the cobwebs that have fossil layers.

The parenting feat that attracted this latest gush of praise was the time I managed to put together a cooperative reward chart for the family that ended in homemade pizza. Not exactly super mom. More like lesson one from a parenting book. 

But I also know that looking from the outside it might well look pretty impressive. Things like that look impressive to me when other people do them. So, I'm going to let you peek inside this particular "model parent" moment.

Here's how it REALLY happened.

Problem 1: My husband and I are really out of shape. This is primarily caused by stress, jobs, kids, the demands of society, our kids' school and so forth. He has high blood pressure and I'm developing joint problems. 

Problem 2: We want our kids to learn responsibility. Our kids want to have animals but take no responsibility for them. The parents are tired of doing all the work and the remembering.

Solution: I made a chart that looks like a board game. At the start of it there were four stick figures. That's us. At the end, there was a crude picture of a pizza in a square pan (i.e. homemade, not going out). In between, there were about thirty little colored squares. The deal was that every time my seven-year-old daughter fed the cat in the morning without being reminded our little family star moved forward one place, every time my five-year-old son fed the ducks in the afternoon with only one reminder the star moved another place and every time a parent did an agreed-upon daily workout it moved forward. That's a total of four possible moves per day. 

It took us well over two weeks. Not a perfect score by a long shot. Mama and Papa got less than seven hours of sleep a night, any night they got up early to exercise. There was cat food all over the back veranda at least six times. Everyone forgot the ducks at least two nights, but they did live. They just ate the cabbages instead of getting fed, so the cabbage from the garden is full of holes.

But we got there.

The day of the pizza arrived. It started with a fight between Mama and Papa about who had to go to the store to buy the salami Papa had forgotten to buy because Mama had forgotten his second reminder. The fight lasted 45 minutes and was loud and stressful. I cried in front of the kids again.

Then in order to fit making homemade pizza into the preparations for lunch, cooking for the week ahead and the harvest feast with friends planned for Sunday, I was chained to the kitchen stove for the entire Saturday. This, of course, made me a bit grumpy. I mostly spent the morning, trying to cook and clean while telling the kids to go outside and generally not doing quality time.

The kids hit and kicked each other, got time-out, ran away from time-out, got a reasoning talk about conflict resolution, unwillingly role-played talking out their needs, banged on the piano, hung onto my legs, got into the pantry and tried to eat cookies right before lunch while knocking two glass spice jars off the shelf, got sent outside again... and again.

Photo by Ember Farnam

Photo by Ember Farnam

I hoped to make the pizza with the children, but the seven-year-old was invited to a birthday party that afternoon. So, I planned to do it with just the five-year-old. But then the five-year-old collapsed on the floor screaming and crying for no discernible reason, while I was finishing up the dough. Trying to be a good mother, I put the dough aside, washed my hands and carried him upstairs, kicking and screaming.

We settled down in his bed to read three story books and by the end of the reading he was drifting off to sleep. He doesn't usually sleep in the afternoon but I was rejoicing inside. This would avoid the inevitable meltdown when the seven-year-old departed with Papa for the birthday party while he was left at home with me.

I returned to the pizza making.

The seven-year-old party goer went outside and started to screech with feigned glee directly under the window of the sleeping five-year-old. 

Mama came unglued. 

I force-marched the seven-year-old into the play room and ordered her to lay down on the couch and sleep, or else. I wasn't going to threaten to not let her go to the birthday party because 1. that would be punishing me as I was hugely looking forward to some peace and 2. this was the first non-parent initiated birthday party invitation she'd ever gotten and I never got even one such in my childhood, so going to the party was just law. 

The five-year-old woke up and came downstairs crying after only sleeping for five minutes, because he had been woken up. I put him back in bed.

And went back to rolling out the pizza.

The seven-year-old came out of the playroom. I made angry silent motions at her with a raised fist and she went back in and shut the door... hard.

The five-year-old came down the stairs shrieking that his sister gets to play and go to a party and it isn't fair. Then he ran into the stair railing from sheer exhaustion and bruised his knee.

I washed the flour off my hands again and took him back upstairs again. He continued to shriek. I put him in bed and left with him still shrieking. 

The seven-year-old ran out of the playroom and made it outside before I could do anything. The five-year-old continued to shriek. I got the dough rolled out and started to cut up things to go on it. 

After listening to shrieking from upstairs for ten minutes, I went upstairs and yelled at the five year old. Then I was consumed with guilt because yelling doesn't help and even so he was being punished for what--essentially--the seven-year-old had done. I let him come downstairs and be tired. 

The seven-year-old went to the birthday party, the five-year-old's neighbor friend showed up in time to cut the resulting tantrum short. I went to the store and got the salami. I finished the pizza. I had no bonding moment making pizza with my children. The kitchen was an utter disaster with dishes and half-eaten lunches piled on every available surface and flour in small drifts on the floor.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

But the pizza was hot out of the oven when the seven-year-old returned home from the short afternoon party. There's that perfect parenting moment you were envisioning when I first mentioned the chart and the pizza. 

But it only lasted about ten seconds, barely long enough for me to take the potholders off my hands. Then the five-year-old came running in reporting that some neighbors were having an outdoor yard party and they said he could have a hot dog. He no longer wanted pizza.

Papa came up with the idea that we would take one pan of pizza to the neighbors and the kids could share it there with the neighbor kids. So, I took the pizza over to the neighbors with the kids.

The two moms organizing the party gave me grim, unfriendly looks when we approached. Then they told me this was their party and they hadn't really wanted a bunch of people, regardless of offering my son a hot dog. I offered to take my kids home. They feigned indifference. I started herding my kids out of their yard despite the beginnings of a double tantrum. But one of the moms questioned why I was making the kids leave as if she hadn't just shamed me for coming and the other gave my kids juice. I couldn't very well spill the juice, wrestle two screaming children out of there over the host's protests (feigned or not) and carry the giant pan of pizza at the same time, so I left both pizza and children and went home.

I ate the other pizza alone with my husband and thought grim thoughts about perfect parenting.

That, my friends, is the true story of my super mom moment. For me, the lesson is to be careful what I assume about the parenting of others. Perhaps the little yard party put on by my grumpy neighbors was the fruit of hours of frustration and frantic juggling too. That might explain a few things.