Monday, August 20, 2018

Life's A Beach

I know I'm neither alone nor exaggerating when I say that I love the beach.   As I resident of Long Island, I am never far from the beach, and even in winter will often walk the boardwalk.  And as much as I enjoy all the seasons, I can't deny feeling that most of the year is a prelude to summer, when I can finally sit in the sun, on the sand, and dip in the water.  Experiences at  the beach are multi-sensory and for me, intensely spiritual.

Growing up, my family went to the beach almost weekly every summer.  My father liked to fish, but got seasick, so he fished off the shore at Jones Beach.  We would get there early in the morning and stay all day.  I was mesmerized by the beauty and power of the ocean and would make up songs to sing to the waves (okay, I was that kind of kid), just describing its strength, sounds, taste, sparkles from the sun.  And at some point I realized that those songs were a form of prayer.  That in admiring the ocean, I was praising its Creator.  If the ocean is so stunningly beautiful and majestic, imagine what its Creator must be like!  And now that I think of it, look at the interplay between heaven and earth, the way the waves reach up to the sky, how the sky uses tides to pull the waves heavenward.  Isn't that what we're all reaching for?  I'll never forget a Donavan concert I went to years ago (anyone remember him?  "Mellow Yellow").  It was the late 60's  and he was advising the audience not to do drugs.  He said he understood the desire to get high because "we're all fallen angels and we want to get back to heaven".

As a parent and grandparent, one of my greatest joys is sharing my love of the beach with my children, and in doing so, teaching them how to navigate the ocean.  As it turns out, this is an excellent metaphor for living a meaningful life.  For example, we start with our toddlers standing at the shoreline to feel the water reaching for their feet.  But they quickly learn that standing still puts them in a rut.  At the ocean and in life it's important to keep moving, keep trying, choose a direction.  Otherwise we can get stuck in meaningless routines and feel like we're going nowhere.   Once our children are old enough to wade in a little deeper,  we teach them to pay attention to their surroundings.  I tell my kids to look for our beach blanket and to keep it directly in their line of vision.  The water tends to pull us sideways and often we need to  wade back from where it carries us.  In life too, we learn to keep our sights on our goals and values.  It's easy to get carried away by life's distractions and we often need to realign our actions with our true intentions.  

An older child is ready to ride the waves.  At first, this can be terrifying.  The waves are tall and strong and our instinct is to run from them.  But running from them will cause them to fall on us and knock us down.  Instead, we need to move toward the incoming wave, to face it and meet it before it breaks.  Then, it lifts us off our feet and sets us down again.  It's exhilarating!  In the same way, as hard as it is, we must face our fears head-on.  Forcing ourselves to try something that seems scary will only make us stronger.  As a new early childhood director, there were many times when I had to fight my nature to do my job; things like disciplining teachers, alerting parents to potential special needs, advocating to the board or other administrators for appropriate class size, best practice, etc.  To accomplish this, I followed the advice I gave above, ie., I kept my eye on my highest value, which was the best interests of the children.  And in doing so, I became stronger and better able to handle more complex and troubling issues as they arose.  (And they always do.)

Just like time, the ocean is always moving, never still.  Nothing lasts forever.  If we get knocked down by a wave, we know that it will eventually recede so we can get back up again.  We go through scary times in life, we feel pain.   But hard times recede, pain ebbs or we learn to manage it.  When I was in labor with my first child, I was shocked and frightened by the intensity of the pain.  The midwife told me to ride it like a wave.  She said it will grow and crest, and then finally recede.  She was right, and I managed fine.

The ocean is mysterious.  There's a whole world underneath it, about which we know very little.  And even though we know the ocean ends at another shore, we can't see it.  We can't see the other side.  Like life.  We don't know everything.  We believe there's more on the other side of life but we can't see it or touch it.  The best we can do is make the most of what we can see and to continue learning as much as possible to make our experience, on the beach and in life, as safe, fun, and meaningful as possible.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Nonverbal Communication

 I  volunteer at the Long Island Children's Museum, a magical place where children actively engage in tons of fascinating and fun exhibits. Week after week, I have a blast interacting with children of all ages and entering their world of wonder, curiosity and play.  This week, I worked in Tot Spot, a play space dedicated to the youngest museum visitors.  While a facilitator conducted conversations with parents in a separate area, I and other volunteers monitored the babies and toddlers.  I connected with two youngsters in particular, a 9 month old girl and a 2 year old boy.  Each of them had some difficulty separating from their parents, but I managed to win them over and they both became attached to me.  The boy had only a few words and the girl was non-verbal.  Yet we communicated with ease and  really enjoyed each other.   That got me thinking about nonverbal communication.  I know it's essential  to children's sense of security and connection, but how specifically does it work?

For the most part, our interactions with others, including children, are natural and spontaneous.  We initiate or respond to conversations and actions freely, without lots of forethought.  So it's difficult to look back and identify the specific behaviors that led to my connection with the two small children at the museum. But that's what I've tried to do because I think it can help us learn a lot.  

I met the girl first.  She was sitting in a stroller while her older sister moved around playing.  I suggested to the mom that she put the baby in the cushioned pit with infant toys.  I got into the pit with her and starting rolling a toy to her, saying "Whee!" We made eye contact.  She grabbed the toy and tossed it.  I used simple language to talk about what we were doing as we continued this game, and that was it!  We connected!  Eventually another baby bumped into her and she cried, so I scooped her up and took her to another area.  That's where I  met the boy.

I sat the baby on the floor right next to me, near some shelves of plastic foods.  I took the foods out one by one, named them, and gave them to her to hold.  As she dropped them, I put them in a basket and she continued to explore.  The little boy was also taking food from the shelves.  I asked his father his name, and used that often in speaking to him.  I made eye contact, and basically narrated what he was doing.  "You're putting broccoli in your basket...Your basket is almost full.."  I challenged him to try new things "Can you walk in the garden?  Would you like to plant the banana..etc." (you had to be there).  Anyway, I continued chatting with him and the baby, and they both played near me.  The baby was bouncing up and down as she grabbed new toys, and the boy and I were laughing as he tried new activities.  

I've identified 5 strategies that helped me communicate with these nonverbal children: 

1.  Enter their world.  With the girl, I got into the infant pit and played with the toys.  With the boy, I narrated his actions and used simple questions to extend his play.  With both, I brought my body down to their eye level.

2.  Make eye contact. Smile. It's magic, it works. 

3.  Keep your body relaxed and your voice pleasant.  I was there to help them have fun and keep them safe.  Both of those messages are relayed by tone of voice and body language.

4.   Treat the child like a communicative partner.   Talk.  Narrate what he's doing.  Ask simple questions.  Wait for an answer, even if it's nonverbal.

5.  Respond appropriately to their body language and facial expressions.  When the baby cried, I moved her to another area.  When she was bouncing and grabbing, I knew she was happy.  When the boy stiffened up after I suggested he try the slide, I let it go.  When he looked for more toys to put on the conveyor belt, I knew he was having fun.

Nonverbal communication is a powerful teaching tool.  Young children are experts at interpreting our body language, tone, and facial expressions.  We don't need to tell them  how we feel and what we value, because they know by watching us.  I recently read that if our nonverbal communication differs from our verbal communication, a child will believe the nonverbal cues.  If we want our children to trust us, we must be genuine with them.  At the same time, by understanding what our children are communicating with their behaviors, tone, gestures, and facial expressions, we can meet their needs for security and connection and open the doors to rich learning and growth.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

Last night, I watched "The Notebook", one of the most romantic movies ever.  A particular scene set off an "aha" moment for me.  Allie (Rachel McAdams) was engaged to be married to a handsome, wealthy man whom she loved.  But then she reignited a romance with her first true love (Ryan Gosling), a boy she had met during the summer she was 17 and hadn't seen or heard from in years.  In this scene, Allie and her fiancee were discussing her dilemma, trying to understand her feelings and make a choice.  She said, "It's like I'm one person with him, and another person with you."  

Children are authentic.  As children, we are our true selves .  Who we were before we graduated high school is who we are now.  Your childhood friends know you and understand you in a way that's hard to replicate with friends you meet as an adult.  And the bonds we forge with friends in our youth last forever.  Even after decades of not seeing each other, reconnecting with an old friend feels like picking up where we left off.  Old friends make us feel "at home", because they remind us of who we really are.

Before we graduate high school, we are "just kids".  We typically spend our days with a core group of friends.  We have few responsibilities beyond school work, chores at home, and maybe a part-time job.  After high school, we have to make decisions and choose what we want to do. And we come to be defined by the roles that result from those choices:  our jobs, our marital status, our religious and political affiliations, whether or not we have children.  But what I've come to understand is that these roles describe what we do, not who we are.  These choices we've made as adults inform how we spend our time.  I teach, I take care of my children, I advocate for human rights... .  And when we meet new people, these roles are the criteria we use to describe who we are.  But that's not who we are; that's just what we do.  Who we are goes much deeper, and is hard to articulate.  Most of us are at a loss to describe who we are; sometimes our friends know us better than we know ourselves.  Yet friendship takes time; it takes time to really know a person.  And time is a rare commodity for most adults.

 This idea sheds new light on the age old question we ask young children, "What do you want to be when you grow up?".  It's a fun question, hopefully giving insight to a child's interests and particular way of thinking.  But it's important to understand that a child is not becoming something.  A child already is.  As parents and teachers, our role in a child's upbringing is to study, appreciate, and support his authentic self.  Interestingly, just as old friends know us better than anyone else, I have found that as a teacher of young children, when my former students become adults, I know them better than most people, even if I haven't seen them in years. Because I knew them when they were "just kids"; just pure souls whose only role was to make their way through life.  So the real question behind "What do you want to be when you grow up?" is "Who are you?".  Let me know you now, so I can know you forever.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The School Yard

If you were to ask any child, at any period of time, to name the best thing about school, the answer would inevitably be, "Recess".   Recess is the one unstructured time of day when kids are free to do what they like without adult restrictions.  Although recess is technically supervised by adults, the truth is that most adults see recess as their free time as well.  One of the greatest challenges as a school administrator was getting the teachers to break up their conversation clusters on the playground and actually watch the children.  Spending long hours with children leaves teachers lonely for adult companionship, and the playground is one of the few places where they can meet.

In thinking about recess, I came to a fascinating insight:   the activities most children choose at this time of day have not changed over the years.  Typically, the sexes separate at recess.  Boys tend to play sports.  All they need is a ball to organize a game of kickball, football, or basketball.  Boys seem very intent on rules, fair play, and competition.  And in their world, the skills in the school yard are way more important than their skills in the classroom.  

The school yard is also the place where scores are settled, and boys fight.  When I was a kid, boys' fights were common. But I remember an incident even years later,  when I was an educator.  I was in the playground, when a second grade boy came to me in tears, telling me that another boy hurt him.  In typical early childhood mode, I called the other boy over.  "So-and-so said you hurt him.  What happened?".  He answered, "Yeah, I kicked his ass.". (!!!) 

Girls' games are more about turn-taking and improving skills, but not necessarily competitively.  My friends and I spent recess playing jump rope, usually with chants; "Strawberry Shortcake Huckleberry Pie....".  We made our own Chinese jump ropes with rubber bands and chanted "Anna Banana Plays the Piana...".  But the real stars of the school yard were the black girls, because they could jump Double Dutch.  They swung two ropes toward each other, like an egg beater, and had the best chants and rhythms.  I was mesmerized.  

It seems that even today, jump rope continues to be a favorite recess activity among girls. Otherwise, girls tend to walk around in groups and chat.  Another incident occurred with a second grade girl once while I was supervising recess.  Her friends came to me to tattle.  Apparently, she was talking to a sixth grade boy in another school on a cell phone, and told her friends that it was her boyfriend.  I called her over to speak to her and she broke down in tears.  The phone was broken, it didn't work.  She was pretending to talk to a boy so the other girls would think she was cool.

It's interesting that the sexes still tend to separate in the school yard, unless there is  equipment such as slides and monkey bars.  So even though there seems to be an effort today to deny gender differences, it's clearly natural for boys and girls to play separately. Boys and girls are different, and I believe it's healthy for them to learn about themselves and feel a sense of belonging .  Children need to be comfortable with their own gender before they can try to relate to another.  Empathy for others begins with understanding ourselves first.

Sometimes recess is taken away as a punishment.  I think this is cruel and counter productive.  Children need to move their bodies and get fresh air as much as they need food and sleep.  And often, the children who are acting out are the ones who most need the freedom and space of outdoor time.  Punishment should ideally fit the crime; it should be a logical consequence to misbehavior.  Withholding a necessity like food or play time only hurts the child, doesn't help him.

  Times have changed, society and its mores have changed.  But the school yard teaches us that, amazingly, children have not really changed.  A seven year old today is physiologically the same as a seven year old was in 1960.  There's something comforting about that.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bless Your Children

Every child is a blessing.  When a child enters our life, we are changed forever.  Our hearts swell with a love so deep and pure that it cannot be described, only felt.   We put our children before ourselves;  our needs become secondary.   We become better people, more patient, generous, kind and strong, because we want to be the best we can be for them, to model the kind of person we want them to grow to be. Children let us touch the future.  They are our connection to immortality.

When we are blessed with children, we become partners in parenting with G-d, everyone's Father.  We look to Him for guidance in the awesome responsibility and privilege of nurturing a soul. Even those of us who don't believe in G-d recognize that every life is a miracle. All parents harbor hopes for their children's well-being.  Those hopes may be directed at life in general or the universe at large, but to me they express a spiritual association.

There's a beautiful Jewish custom to bless our children every Friday night, just as we begin Shabbat.  Typically, the father places his hands on each child's head and recites a prescribed blessing, one for girls and one for boys.  This blessing pleads with G-d to bless the child and watch over him or her, in the same way that we ourselves hope to nurture and watch over our children.  The Hebrew word for blessing is bracha, which implies multiplicity.  As parents, our job is to build our children up, to increase their strengths and help them grow physically, mentally, and emotionally.   At the same time, we try to protect our children, to keep them away from harm.  We discipline them with limits so that they can grow safely and healthfully.  

Blessing our children can take many forms, and does not need to be a ritual to be effective.  Our intention is to communicate love for our children and faith that they have what they need to blossom and thrive in this world.  It's important for children to know that they are beloved and protected by both parents and G-d.  My maternal grandfather, Salvatore Bonanno, was a deeply religious man.  He converted from Catholicism to the Pentacostal religion after my mother and her brothers were grown.  He became a deacon of his church, gave lots of charity, and prayed several times a day.  One day he was sitting in a chair and called me over to him.  He put his arm around me and In his broken English he asked, "Georgia, who is more important, your father on earth or your Father in heaven?".  I had been attending catechism classes; plus I knew my grandfather very well, so of course I answered, "My Father in heaven".  He was very pleased with me and made me feel that I was blessed; that I was completely surrounded by love and protection.  

Our children are not ours to keep (as hard as that is!).  While they are still in our care, we can treasure the blessings they bring us and in turn, make sure they feel blessed as well.

Monday, March 12, 2018

What Happened to You?

Last night I watched a piece on "60 Minutes" presented by Oprah entitled "Treating Childhood Trauma".  Oprah explored a new strategy for working with troubled kids called "Trauma Informed Care".  The basic premise of this approach is that when adults observe challenging or risky behaviors in children, they should change their initial question from "What's wrong with you?" to "What happened to you?". Trauma Informed Care proposes that the best way to correct self-destructive behavior is to focus on the personal experiences that preceded it.

In a post I wrote in December, "Where Are You?", I thought out loud about how the interplay between the uncontrollable factors in our lives and our decisions about what we do with those factors determines who and what we become.  But another piece to this involves the unconscious reactions we make in response to our environments, and how those reactions may remain with us for life. Often, destructive behaviors are coping mechanisms that we develop in order to help us block out physical or emotional pain; and even when the painful experience is over, consequent feelings that echo that pain will trigger this self-taught behavior.  For example, one of my favorite TV shows is "My 600 Pound Life". (I'm the only one in my family who can bear to watch it, but I find it absolutely fascinating.)  Just about every person who gets to be this size has experienced child abuse and turned to food for comfort.  Even after the abuse stops, food is associated with comfort and the victims continue to rely on it when faced with stress.  As the people in this show struggle to give up their food addictions, they inevitably become depressed.  They require psychological counseling to tell their stories, understand their misguided relationship with food, and replace it with healthy behaviors.

These are important ideas for teachers.  Every year and every class will present children with challenging behaviors.  Of course I'm not suggesting that every child with challenges has been traumatized; but rather that before attempting to manage a child's behavior, we should take a look at her as whole person, with a life outside the classroom.  What can we learn about her family dynamic? How does her culture affect her behavior?  What has her school experience been like up to now?  I once had a student who I considered defiant.  She slouched in her seat, didn't seem to pay attention, and often expressed herself with wise cracks.  I met with her personally and was humbled by my ignorance and prejudice.  This girl's mother was dying of cancer.  She had a twin sister who was severely handicapped.  Her father traveled a lot for business, so she was often in charge of the household.  My G-d, I looked at all my students differently after that.

The best way for educators to start any new school year is to take some time to get to know our students.  Some teachers use ice breakers for the students to discover and share information about each other.  Others may use a "sharing circle", surveys, or individual meeting times.  A broad picture of our students will help us understand them, develop their trust, and truly, effectively teach them.  

Life takes its toll on all of us.  I love this verse from Judy Collin's "Both Sides Now":  

"But now old friends are acting strange
They shake their heads, they say I've changed.
Well something's lost, but something's gained
In living everyday".

(Check it out:

Yes, we have our ups and downs.  And when we have the courage to look inside, at ourselves and others, we gain the strength to make the most of what life has to offer.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Telephone Free-For-All

How many times has this happened to you: your kids are playing quietly in another room, getting along nicely while you're attending to some chore, maybe washing dishes or checking emails.  Then the phone rings.  It's a good friend and you start to chat.   Two minutes into your conversation all hell breaks loose.  Your son jumps from the sofa and bangs his head on the coffee table.  Or he's suddenly ravenous, and nothing in the refrigerator will do.  Or he decides that this is a good time to tackle his little brother.  And you think, "Really?  They were so quiet a minute ago!".

You probably have also experienced the other side of the call.  You call your friend, and she's so happy to hear from you.  Then every thirty seconds she interrupts to talk to her kids, "What do you want?"; "Not now"; or "OMG I'll call you back!".

I call this phenomena "telephone free-for-all".  Kids who were perfectly content without your attention will suddenly act up to get it once you try to engage in a conversation with someone else.  And it only happens with conversations, not texting or emailing.  And it even happens with infants!  Have you ever noticed how a baby will stop nursing or drinking her bottle if you try to carry on a conversation with someone?  She looks around to see who you're talking to and only goes back when you stop talking.  What's going on?

Years ago, as mothers began to work full time outside the home, many of us worried about the effects of leaving babies and young children in daycare.  After awhile, the whole question of home vs. daycare became moot, because two paychecks and daycare for young children became a necessity for most families.  So the arguments evolved into defining principles of high quality care for these little ones.  A new child development theory emerged called "quality time".  I believe psychologists developed this theory in an effort to assuage any guilt feelings that mothers may have had for leaving their babies in someone else's care.  Quality time assured parents that the number of hours a day they spent with their children was irrelevant; that ten or fifteen minutes of focused, individualized attention were more important than being at home all day, where mom would spend most of her time attending to chores anyway.  My own theory of telephone free-for-all debunks the myth of "quality time".

Telephone free-for-all teaches me that children feel comfortable and secure just knowing that mom is nearby.  As long as she's not engaging with someone else, children get the sense that she is available to them.  Conversation, communication are the means of connecting with others.  It seems to me that on some level, children must feel excluded when their mother is connecting with someone else.  That connection takes her away, even temporarily, and along with her goes their sense of comfort and security.    Mom is the most important person in the world to a child, and the child wants to feel that he is the most important person in the world to mom. Always.

Spending quality time with our children is extremely valuable, whether we stay at home or work full time.  But it doesn't take the place of mom's presence.  Children feel safe when we're near them.  We don't need to do or be anything special.  They love us and need us just the way we are.