Sunday, April 27, 2014

Milford Strong

My daughter Ciara started kindergarten in the Milford schools on August 28th, 2001. A little trepidatious, she'd enjoyed her few hours of St. Ann's preschool every week but was wary about this whole leave-home-all-day thing. My husband Mark was in college and home with our eight children and she liked being his right hand girl  but we said going to school was good and she's smart so she caught on fast to this truth: Teachers are more fun than parents. 

Within a week, she was deeply in love with her kindergarten teacher and hooked on school in a big way. She trusted that she'd be safe leaving home and ran to the bus stop every day.

One week later was 9/11 and that all changed.

We live an hour from New York but I'm not sure that's important. I'm sure kids her age all over the country were just as confused. She made a "nest" of blankets on our bedroom floor and that's the only way she could sleep for more than a year. By far, she was the most strongly affected of all our kids, and I think it was her age. Our other children were older (by at least five years) and could talk through their feelings, or younger (an infant) and immune, but she was at that impressionable age when her world was still expanding. 

A world that rearranged  to include this truth: Dying is possible--at school, at home, at work--and some violence is random. You can do nothing wrong and still be hurt. 

There was no stronger evidence than the shootings at Sandy Hook, another hour from here, during her junior year. And then, the murder in her school on Friday. Everyone knew both Maren and Chris, and no one understands how even an obsessive crush could have led to his killing her. No one. 

These are shattering events, and yet Ciara is okay. Why? Because along with these harsh lessons, she  also learned that when things are scary, teachers are like parents. You can trust them, and they'll take care of you, and help you find your way.  

In grammar school, her kindergarten teacher hugged every kid, every day that year. Maybe that wasn't usual for her, maybe it was, but it helped. They needed it, and Simon Lake's super-principal Joyce Carroll made sure the kids got what they needed, then and always. 

Her second grade teacher sparked Ciara's love of all things Egyptian, which has given her education purpose, as well as set the agenda for most school vacations because she's a ferociously driven girl--in sports, in academics, in helping her community--and this drive has been fed in all the best ways by countless teachers at Simon Lake, West Shore Middle School, and Jonathan Law High School. They've pushed her, and supported her, and challenged her, and frustrated her, and along with her tight group of friends become the "school family" every kid should have. 

On Friday, Law was deluged with media. Her boyfriend Josh jumped out of Ciara's moving car to berate a reporter getting a close-up of kids grieving at the school rock memorial. She pulled over and got out and when she was sure Josh wasn't going to punch the guy went back to the car. But her steering wheel was locked and she was too upset to fix it. Josh was too angry to come back near the reporter. So Ciara went to the principal, Fran Thompson. Of course she did. Because in the midst of the most horrible day of his life, he stopped whatever he was doing to come and unlock her steering wheel. Then he dealt with the reporter. I'm sure he also made sure Ciara was okay before letting her drive off because that's the kind of man he is. 

Remarkable, and typical of the educators and coaches in the Milford schools. 

Friday morning, the most senior teacher at Law tried  to stop the assault on Maren. There weren't many people around before school, mostly kids. I'm sure some froze in place. Some ran. You never know what you'll do until you're in that situation but Miss R jumped in and fought for Maren's life. She cradled Maren and pressed her hands on the girl's wounds to try to staunch the bleeding and save her while a school nurse and others did CPR. 

Chris was brought to the office, and handcuffed.

There really aren't words to express the grief we feel about Maren's death. She was an incredible sweetheart and her loss is unbelievable. Truly. I'm not sure when that part of the shock will fade. 

And I have no idea what could have been done to prevent this, if anything. I'm not in Chris's head. I don't know why he snapped. The school has adults who reach out to kids who are struggling, as I know well from my own kids. The staff react appropriately to threats. The school has a police safety officer, and this occurred in the stairwell nearest the front office.  Milford doesn't use metal detectors but this assault started as a choking, and then he pushed her down the stairs. The school has scissors, and tools, and a dozen entrances. I'm not sure metal detectors would have helped if Chris was determined and I don't think this was about school safety. He could have stalked her anywhere. 

But since it did happen at school, as a parent, what more could you ask of your child's teachers? In a random and devastating outbreak of violence, the staff at Law treated Maren, and frankly Chris, like family. 

So to the staff at Jonathan Law, thank you. 

I trust you with my children, and appreciate all the good you've done. I think you'll find ways large and small to help the kids through this tragedy. You'll hug them and let them lean on you as much as they need.

Just like I will at home. 

Love, Lisa

Saturday, April 19, 2014

How to raise kids

I know, I know. Everyone is different, and there's no one best way to raise kids. 

Even if there was a "best" way, you couldn't pull it off, not completely. We're all too flawed as parents, and other priorities in life mean we compromise on what common sense tells us to do with the needy little creatures all day and night long. 

Good Life Parenting
So yes, of course, we should be in a strong marriage where we both feed them three healthy meals and two non-sugary snacks and have them exercise in the sun and read every day and go to bed at regular times and enjoy game nights and family activities and quality education and the responsibilities of pet ownership and a secure neighborhood and the challenges of sports and the joys of cooking and the benefits of clear communication and the power of a spiritual center and ceaseless parental love and...

Are you exhausted yet? I am, and most of my kids are grown. I wouldn't be able to get through this list in a month of midsummer-long Sundays. That's why I'm not talking about the common sense, or the "should's." I'm interested in the qualities of childhood that most strongly predict happy and functional adults. It seems to me that if you keep those in mind and wrap your general family lifestyle around them, you'll be doing a good job as parents, even if you slack off on the laundry-list of "perfect" above. 

This isn't about how to make kids behave, because structure and discipline are a whole other kettle of pickles. This also isn't a guarantee, because judging how good you are (or were) as a parent by how your kids fare in adulthood is cheating. Judge--if you must--only based on your effort and intentions while raising said children because that's all you can control. Random factors like genetics and friends and teachers and temperament will ultimately determine how their life turns out. 

But you can give them the best chance at having a good life by knowing three things: who they are, what's important, and how to help them find their path.

1. Know who they are. There are six life-defining characteristics that are relatively stable and evident early in life, outlined in Your Child's Path: Unlocking the Mysteries of Who Your Child Will Become
  • Intelligence
  • Drive
  • Sociability
  • Capacity for Intimacy
  • Happiness
  • Goodness
Think about these capacities in yourself first, so you understand where you're coming from; and in your partner, because when combined these become the default values of your family. To get an idea of what they look like in adults, you can read this article "6 Clues to Character," and spend more than few minutes pondering. Self-reflection is almost always time very well spent, as is reading, in my opinion ;). 

Then think about your children individually, and in depth. What are their strengths in these areas? You don't have to do much as a parent there. But if they've never been easy to hug, or they lack empathy for those who are struggling, you might help them in those areas while they're young and you still have a large amount of influence. While you both might like watching football side-by-side all Sunday afternoon, an occasional day might be better spent on a charity walk for autism. Or hauling a frazzled cousin's twin toddlers to the playground to give her a break, and allow your child a natural and non-threatening way of hugging and holding and soothing another person. Their success in future relationships may depend on it. 

2. Know what's important.  Adults who are most satisfied with their lives report three common aspects of their childhood, as detailed in The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness: Five Steps to Help Kids Create and Sustain Lifelong Joy:  

  • A sense of community
  • Freedom to explore, and experience "flow"
  • Mastery of something important to them

I'll bet every childhood tale that pops into your mind after reading those lines reinforces their truth. Those summer days you spent on your bike with a friend, going fishing or swimming or to the library or through the woods. Flow is when you are so engaged in what you're doing it seems without effort, and you lose sense of time. It's a kind of joy and mastery in one.

The next thing that you think may well be how different your child's summers are from yours, because you're working so they're at day care, or camp, and your vacation's at Disney, where every step is lock-step planned. 

And that's fine. 

But keep in mind that a child who has had their childhood structured for them is at a loss in adolescence to choose their own way. They're more vulnerable to peer pressure, and clueless about a career. They depend on coaches to develop their athletic skills, and parents to help them choose classes and help with homework. And they expect money so they can buy entertainment--movies and video games and trips to the mall--rather than finding the woman down the street who will pay for a mother's helper at her home-based child care, or the guy who'll pay under the table for a little summer help with his landscaping business for a strong and hard-working eighth grader. 

They're also the 25-year-old living in your basement because they bombed out of college, or graduated with two-new-cars-worth of student loans but without a direction, or a job, or motivation, and is waiting for the next cool plan you have to offer. It's counterintuitive, but praise and love and involvement from parents can lead to less productive and happy kids. For more on how to avoid this common fate, read Nurture Shock

Which brings us to...

3. Know how to help them find their path. Note, if you've read this far, that this is not your problem to solve. Given that it is your problem if they don't solve it, you may want to do a little scaffolding. Finding their passion as early as possible is key, and then not smothering it with expectations, just letting it grow and be "theirs." 

Research supporting the truth that 20% of young people are passionate in their pursuit of their life goals, 25% are rudderless and doing nothing of clear value and the rest fall in between is detailed in The Path to Purpose. The book should make you think twice about discouraging a child who wants to grow up to do something impractical. You don't have to encourage it either, just keep the conversation flowing. The phrase "you'll never make money doing that" should be banished from parental vocabularies.

Including mine. 
from amazon page

When my son Billy tells me he's going to be a professional Pokemon player, well--for a variety of reasons I reserve the right to still nix this--but anything else should be fair game for discussion. Because if you give your child the sense that they're "wrong" in their young, brash statements about a career, they'll assume that you, knowing so much more than them, will provide the most interesting choices at the proper time and all they have to choose is the most exciting option. In truth, all you'll offer them is the vague "what do you want to do with your life?" or the even less helpful "time to get a job." 

Because it's their life, and the earlier they understand this, the better. And if they want help, there are low-tech and high-tech options. For them to do, not you. 

Another note to self :). 

Love, Lisa