Saturday, September 25, 2010

Excuse Me?

I had a very interesting conversation recently. A friend of mine, Alexia, who is from Jamaica, was pointing out that American kids are given too many choices, and as an example, she spoke about how odd it is that the little girl she babysits for is allowed to "not like" food. 

She said that back in the Islands where she grew up, nobody even realized that it was possible to "not like" food. The kids just ate whatever they were given, and it never occurred to anyone to refuse. 

I hadn't really thought about it before, but after turning it over in my head for a day or two, I began to realize just how bizarre and harmful this choice is for children. 

I myself have been guilty of letting my son say that he doesn't like whatever I have cooked for dinner. It usually turns into a situation where I find myself making him eat a certain number of bites of whatever the offending food is before he is allowed to leave the table. 

Can you imagine a six year old child in a jungle village telling his mother that he "doesn't like" the food that the family is eating for dinner? Now imagine his mother smiling sweetly and promising that if he finishes two more bites of whatever it is, she will make him something more to his liking. It is ridiculous. 

Parents here lament how much control their kids have over everything. Every night, millions of separate meals are cooked all over the country for children too picky and too indulged to eat whatever mom and dad are eating. 

Among the wealthier circles, nannies and babysitters dutifully make mac and cheese with fish sticks for the pampered children of parents who honestly believe that it is best not to be too hard on the tots they occasionally spend their weekends with.

But does growing up with so much control hurt or help our kids?

From my first-hand observations, it is destructive to children to have so much power. 

Think of how much easier and how much less stressful life is for a kid who doesn't have the chance or experience to throw tantrums about dinner. 

I think that most parents in our culture honestly don't know or understand that it is all in their hands. 

I have been guilty myself. I have allowed my son to "not like" the food he is given. 

But no more. I have changed the rules around here. Starting a few days ago, after my conversation with Alexia, I explained to my son that he is not allowed to say that he doesn't like the food. It is not allowed to even enter his mind as a possibility. I am not a personal chef, and he does not know what his body needs to be healthy. 

So now he eats whatever is on his plate. No questions, no whining, no "four more bites, then you can be done." Just eat it. I am not wasting any more of my life on this nonsense. There cannot be anything fundamentally different about my son--or any of the children in this country--that makes him somehow too delicate to eat whatever his father and I are eating. 

I never threatened any punishment. I feel like even saying "if you don't...." puts it out there that it is possible to refuse. He has just been told that his attitude is changing. Now. 

So for dinner tonight he had chicken, whole wheat couscous, and collard greens. Two weeks ago, there would have been crying, but tonight the only sound was the munching of our family dinner. 

I wish I had thought of this years ago.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Telephone Man

Ah, telephone man, I hear you loud and clear....

Every day, sometimes in the middle of the night, sometimes at the crack of dawn, you stand outside on the stoop of the loony bin across the street having all sorts of imaginary conversations on your imaginary phone. You yell and scream, laugh, and ask "what? what? WHAT?" over and over and over again. 

You never get tired, you never give up. You inspire me with your tenacity and you keep me awake with your staggering volume. 

You are outside right now, screaming into your phone, so I guess you can't be reading this, but just in case you ever do, let me just say this:

Good luck, telephone man, I hope that someone answers you one of these days.

your across-the-street neighbor

On Meditation

For many years, people have been telling me to meditate. 

I admit that I never really got it until recently.

I have been practicing yoga for years and I have even taken a meditation class in the past, but it never clicked, and I always just felt like I was sitting on the floor with my eyes closed trying to be still. I really didn't see any difference between that and sitting waiting for the bus daydreaming about dinner or listening to traffic and screaming kids.

But last week, it happened. I got it. I never realized that meditation really does change a person's state of consciousness. It is almost like falling asleep or being drugged--a distinctly different place unto itself, and it is wonderful. 

I tried it on a particularly stressful day--the kids were driving me nuts and I was exhausted. I sat down on the bed and just tried to really completely absorb myself in all of the sensory experiences that were happening in and around me--the air on my body, the breath filling my lungs, the warmth of the light on my eyelids. In the beginning, it felt pretty much the same as all of the other times I have tried it. Like sitting still and "listening to the breath."

But this time I stayed longer. Soon, I felt like I was splitting into two distinct parts. I could feel the energy that is my mind and my consciousness moving and flowing and vibrating inside the shell of my body. It is a very difficult sensation to describe, almost warm and flowing like water but crackling like electricity, kind of a live, moving, electrified stuffing, filling my hands and feet, my head, back, and throat. 

It was very intense at first, but soon became very soothing and easy. The energy was rose red, and I could feel what I suppose is essentially the part of me that is alive moving and shifting.

It is true that the only way to reach this place is by blocking out all of the extraneous thoughts that are constantly rattling around in all of our heads. I never really understood before, the concept of being present, but it was amazing to remove all of the thoughts, especially the thoughts about what I should be feeling and accomplishing through my meditation. 

I have to say that it is incredible to reduce yourself to what are essentially the component parts-the mind/consciousness/soul/energy part and the physical body part. It is such an experiential practice. I listened to hours of discussions about meditation. Hours of lamas and geshes and gurus going on and on about the benefits and the idea of stillness and oneness and energy. But after all of those talks, I don't think that I can remember anyone telling me what, exactly, I was supposed to be feeling or how turning off the mind is only the first step towards reaching that place. 

Then comes the question of why splitting the mind and body is a good thing. Basically it is the most soothing, calming, and healing thing I have ever experienced. The longer you can stay in that place, the more calm and relaxed you become. 

Thinking about this later, I realized that the mind never gets to rest. Even when we sleep, when the body is resting, the mind is active, dreaming, remembering, laying down networks, and regenerating itself. 

I think that meditation is essentially a way to truly rest the mind. It is a wonderful and much needed break for our brains. These days it seems like everyone is on medication for depression or anxiety, and we walk around feeling overwhelmed and stressed all the time. There is so much stimulation--phones, tv, cars, people, and noise. 

There have been several studies lately about the benefits of meditation. People can fundamentally change the physical structure of their brains. They can heal traumas, deal with mental illnesses, and recover energy that has been missing for years. 

It makes sense that especially now, when we are so constantly saturated with stimuli, we could all use some meditation in our lives. It just takes practice...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I am starting this thing.

I guess I made the decision this morning while I was at the playground with my daughter. She is a little over a year old, my second child, and it is such an interesting experience to just sit and watch different people interact with their kids at the park when I am there with her.

First of all, I am one of the only mothers who does not actually climb up onto the playground equipment or into the sandbox with my child. I never did. Apparently this makes me something of a freak of nature in modern American culture. I sit on the comfy bench drinking my coffee and my daughter pretty much does what she does. If she can't climb up somewhere that she wants to go, she either eventually figures it out on her own, or she doesn't go up there. I think that in the quest to insure that children achieve their "milestones", parents and nannies give them a helping hand...with everything...

This goal of achievement and fear of failure based on performance starts during pregnancy and seems to continue unabated until mothers are comparing which internships their 25 year old child is competing for-and how mom is helping them succeed.

It is fascinating to watch the beginnings of this pattern as parents of 9 month old infants hold their babies upright and drag them around the playground, "helping" them learn to walk, because they know other moms whose babies are already well on their way to completing this vital milestone and they already feel twinges of failure.

It seems like so much these days is measured quantitatively in terms of how we raise our kids. Mothers compare notes on the best afterschool activities and on when their kids sat, walked, potty trained, ate, read, etc. There is some sort of huge checklist and the pressure is on to have a kid who achieves and performs. Kids are pushed into so many activities that they essentially don't have a childhood.

But what about teaching independence? What is a child really learning when their mother choreographs every step they take, aiming to craft an experience that maximizes their "success"? I see it every single day. Mothers who stand next to their kids on playground equipment, putting their child's foot in the right place so that he can learn to climb up the ladder before he is a late bloomer, a failure--thus making the mom a failure.

They stand on top of their children saying "do you want to slide now? Let's slide. No, come back here, we are going down the slide now. Put your hand here. Now sit down on your bottom so you are safe. Now get ready...go! Wheee!!! So much fun!"

How can a child learn to be independent this way? How can they learn to learn? Learn that it's not a big de
al if it takes a little longer to figure something out?

So many kids have problems with attention, problems with resilience, problems with problem solving, patience, confidence. Is it any wonder?

My son is six. While I was at the park this afternoon with my daughter, he was bike riding with my husband. I raised my son the same way that I am raising my daughter, and he took a lot longer than most kids to figure out the slide, the swings, climbing, etc, but he learned independence, focus, and resilience. Now he is a happy and healthy boy who is up for every challenge. When my husband took him to rent bikes at Battery Park today after school, they only had adult bikes which were huge for him, and they only had hand breaks. He has never ridden anything but coaster.

So this afternoon, while I was sitting around watching scores of adult women negotiate the toddler playground at Union Square, climbing up tiny ladders, sliding down slides, and shoveling in the sand box, my son was riding an enormous bike (his feet didn't touch the ground when he was on the seat) with breaks he had never used before. He wiped out a few times, but (he proudly
told me) he didn't rip his school pants and he was happy as a clam. He rode more
than 100 blocks and is ready for more.

It would be a great thing if people could understand that teaching kids independence happens only when they are left alone to be kids. It is not something that is actively taught like piano
or ballet. It is something that kids are programmed
for from birth and is an essential part of growing up that is missing more and more. It seems so counterintuitive in our neglect or failure or incompetence...but it is essential for the health and happiness of our kids.