Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fenrir: Big, Bad Wolf

A few weeks ago I wrote about trickster tales, and the importance of reclaiming intellectual courage from the stigma of trickery. The tradition of the trickster is world wide, and many of the stories are very fun.

Some of them, not so much.  Fenrir the Wolf is like that.

The trickster figure may have been a way of explaining why a beautiful and bountiful world contains so many dangers and sorrows. Among the Norse people of Scandinavia, Loki was blamed for some very grim events, including the Death of Baldur (which I will retell in an upcoming post). On top of that, Loki also fathered three monstrous children with the giantess, Angrboda: a horrible serpent, the grim daughter Hel (consigned to underworld, and giving us the word Hell), and the dread wolf, Fenrir. Prophecy told the gods that Fenrir would swallow the sun at world’s end, destroy all creation and kill Odin. Bad wolf. Very bad wolf.

Because of this prophecy, the gods decided they would have to restrain Fenrir, but it was no easy task. He had the cunning of his father, and the strength and size of his mother. The gods played to his vanity, daring him to break an iron chain. He did it. Increasingly nervous, the gods tried a stronger chain, which Fenrir also broke. At last, they resorted to asking for help from the magical people underground, the dwarves, who fashioned a silken ribbon with enchantments to keep it from snapping. The gods offered Fenrir the chance to prove his strength once again by allowing them to tie him in this ribbon. Sensing a trick, Fenrir said he would allow himself to be tied, on the condition that one of them put his hand into his mouth.

Only Tyr, god of justice and right action, stepped forward to offer his arm as hostage. The wolf was tied with the spellbound rope, which tightened more each time he struggled. And each time he struggled, he bit down harder on Tyr’s hand, until at least he bit it off. The wolf was securely bound and imprisoned for all time.

My daughter and her classmates heard this story last year in school, and I told it to K. and two of her friends again a few days ago. “Was Tyr brave?” I asked. One of the girls said, “But he had to do it, it was his turn to do something difficult, so he had no choice.”

“Does that mean a soldier who is ordered to do something dangerous is not brave?” I asked.

“He could have said no,” K. said. “He did have a choice. Tyr was brave.”

Tyr was brave because he did the right thing, the girls concluded. He volunteered for something that had to be done for the safety of the whole world, even though it was really dangerous for himself. Moral action often comes at the expense of physical safety, or even life. It seems that the kind of moral courage we have seen in civil rights and justice struggles around the world frequently requires physical courage as a partner. To do the right thing, the moral thing, even if it puts us in physical danger, inspires awe and admiration. We always have a choice, even if all our options are against our nature or if the choice is made with little conscious deliberation. This is why acts of moral courage or right action inspire us, because we are seeing people choose a righteous path in spite of the danger. When we witness peaceful protesters being beaten or attacked but not fighting back, we see the courage of a god.  This is why we also share true stories from history with children – so they can see that the six types of courage also dwell in the real world, and are not only the stuff of legend.

Courage Book Review – Speaking of Courage

Today we offer some books you might share with your kids.

CourageFirst, because Lion’s Whiskers is about courage, we have a simple, sweet and heart-felt picture book by author-illustrator, Bernard Waber,  Courage. In one-line sentences with accompanying illustrations, this book shows examples of all six types of courage, from the “awesome kinds” to the “everyday kinds.” “Courage is two candy bars and saving one for tomorrow,” is a great example of emotional courage activating self-control. “Courage is tasting the vegetable before making a face,” shows us the physical courage to try new foods. Social courage is clear in, “Courage is being the first to make up after an argument.” Every page offers something to inspire conversation about the big and little things that take courage in a child’s life. A must for every child’s courage collection.  Recommended for preschool and up.

Seven Brave WomenNext, for a slightly older audience, we have Seven Brave Women, by Betsy Hearne, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen. Why is history so often taught using wars as markers? Here, Hearne offers seven women who lived at the time of one war or another, “but she did not fight in it.” Instead, these women demonstrate the courage to immigrate, to raise a family on a lonely farm, to enter a male-dominated career, to pursue dreams, to practice compassion; the generations of the narrator’s family and the artifacts each woman left as a talisman of courage are sure to spark conversation. For early primary grades.

Amber Was Brave, Essie Was SmartOur final book recommendation today is, Amber Was Brave, Essie Was Smart, a story in poems and pictures by Vera Williams. Through poems, we learn that sisters Amber and Essie are on their own a bit too much, and have a bit too little to eat. Mother is working; Father is in prison. The emotional courage each inspires in the other is what helps them carry on, in spite of uncertainty. For readers up to 10 or 11.

Please be sure to tell us what your favorite children’s book with a courage theme is! 

WHAT Did Your Kid Just Say?

During my addiction studies in graduate school, I learned the Twelve Step acronym H.A.L.T. for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired—an acronym to remind someone dealing with addiction to tune into their feelings instead of numbing them through destructive habits.  I later adapted this acronym for my parenting education workshops as a helpful and useful checklist for decoding common cries, cranky or fussy behavior.  It is a vital tool of courage, and essential for our survival, to be able to decode our own and others cries for help!

As an aside, this checklist will be helpful the next time someone snarky stares at you in the supermarket when your child is pitching a fit on the cereal aisle floor and asks:  “You let your kid talk to you like that?”  Your confident reply can now be: “Well, it might not sound like it to you, but I am actually just decoding his cry for help!”
Dr. Lisa’s Parenting Tip:

HALT!  Stop what you’re doing, pay attention to your child’s cries for attention.
H is for Hungry? 
Often a child is indicating a desire for basic needs: hunger and thirst being the primary homeostatic functions to balance the body’s blood sugar levels, temperature, and osmoregulation (body fluid regulation through water content).  Maybe you, too, have a short fuse lit by hunger?  When was the last time you ate a healthy meal, or had a glass of water?  Caring for our children requires that we take good care of ourselves, too.  Running the marathon that is parenthood, requires that we stop at the rest stops, and refuel, so we can run the most important race of our lives and meet our children at the finish line with pride!
A is for Angry? 
What happened just before the angry outburst, what need might be buried underneath the outburst or incessant whining?  Whining can result from an unmet emotional need.   Is there a time of day, location, or some other kind of pattern to the whining? Often underneath mad, you will find the source is sad.  Getting soft, meeting your child at his/her level—literally getting on your knees—and saying something like “I’m noticing that whenever you don’t get X, you get really mad.  I’m wondering if you might actually also be feeling sad?”  Then, let them vent for a minute or two.  Being gentle, hearing the lion’s roar but not being intimidated, goes a long way to taming the lions within and without. 
L is for Lonely? 
Often a child is seeking proximity, desiring closeness and connection for comfort.  Trust that a few minutes of body-to-body connection, hand-holding, eye-to-eye listening, or just quiet presence with your child can sometimes fill up his/her tank to run for hours!
T is for Tired? 
How is your child’s sleep?  Is it time for a nap?  Is it possible he/she is preparing to fight a cold/flu bug that might be going around?  Sleep being the necessary restorative process for human survival—particularly during times of illness.  Or is he/she about to achieve a new developmental milestone, like learning to walk or dealing with his/her first break-up?  All the tasks associated with physical and emotional courage take lots of energy! 
Most pediatricians recommend the following daily sleep amounts:
Birth to 3 months : 16 hours
3 months to 1 year : 13 to 15 hours
1 year to 2 years : 13 hours
2 years to 5 years : 11 to 13 hours
5 years to 12 years : 9 to 10 hours
Adolescents : 8 to 9 hours

Courage Tip of the Day

Find or print out a favorite photo of a relative who doesn’t live nearby or who has died.  Give the photo a seat at the dinner table tonight and include that person in the conversation!  Say a few words about what you appreciate/appreciated about this relative.  Practice an attitude of gratitude

(Living in Japan and other parts of Asia for many years, Lisa had the honor of visiting many homes with small shrines in family living rooms where each family member practiced daily devotional meditation or sent prayers of thanks to their ancestors.  Complete with food, drink, candles, and/or incense offerings.)

Into the Enchanted Woods!

Today I’d like to offer a couple of passages from the introduction to Bruno Bettelheim’s landmark book, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales , originally published in 1975. This has been a supremely influential book over the years, although from here, in 2011, the heavy Freudian perspective feels somewhat dated. Nevertheless, there is much to be gleaned from these pages, even if you must take some of the analysis of individual tales with a grain or two of salt. Again, these passages are from the introduction, and so speak about fairy tales in general.  For Einstein’s advice about fairy tales, be sure to read “Relativity.”
“This is exactly the message that fairy tales get across to the child in manifold form: that a struggle against severe difficulties in life is unavoidable, is an intrinsic part of human existence – but if one does not shy away, but steadfastly meets unexpected and often unjust hardships, one masters all obstacles and at the end emerges victorious.”

“The more I tried to understand why these stories are so successful at enriching the inner life of the child, the more I realized that these tales in a much deeper sense than any other reading material, start where the child really is in his psychological and emotional being. They speak about his severe inner pressures in a way that the child unconsciously understands, and – without belittling the most serious inner struggles which growing up entails – offer examples of both temporary and permanent solutions to pressing difficulties.”

Both of these passages speak, if indirectly, to the question of courage. Do these words not evoke the challenges for which children need courage: unexpected, unjust hardship, pressing difficulties? For children, everything is new. They don’t have decades of experience to compare their encounters with – many things are unexpected, many things affront their developing ideas of what is just. Many things are pressing difficulties for a child.
Bettelheim himself, an Austrian Jew, had some experience of unexpected and unjust hardship in the concentration camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. As an eminent child psychologist after World War II, he observed the sort of attention that children paid to fairy tales; in particular, he noted that children often ask for the same story again and again with real urgency while they are struggling with new concepts. He proposed that the stories help children understand the mystifying experience of life in symbolic terms.

Some experiences are too big to grapple with directly, and can only be approached by using stand-ins. Metaphors, in my opinion, are a great achievement of humanity and a really great tool for parents. Children need not go unarmed and unarmored into the world, not if they have stories as both sword and shield, and as flag of truce.

Never can say “Good-Bye”?

I remember feeling instantly protective of my son E. when he was born.  We were a symbiotic unit during those early days.  I was reticent to hand him over and he was reticent to be put down.  I will, however, be forever grateful for every time his father offered me a much-needed reprieve and walked those endless blocks in the middle of the night to help E. fall asleep. 

During the first three months of his life, like most other mother-infant (or primary caregiver-infant) pairs, we were tuning ourselves into each other’s verbal and non-verbal cues and especially our feelings.  Best known in attachment theory literature as attunement.  E.’s signals of distress, crying, grimacing, stiffening of his muscles, clenching his fists, or arching of his back, were often associated with tiredness, hunger, and especially with E., proximity-seeking.  By six or nine months an infant’s primary attachment(s) are well-established and secure—as was ours. 

During the course of our first three years together, we began the first of our most important courage challenges:  to learn how to say goodbye whilst ensuring psychoneurobiological homeostasis (which is fancy talk for “not melting down during every little separation!”)

As a new mom and trained child/family therapist, I was aware how adaptive E.’s startle response and protests against separation were for his survival.  As a student of psychology, I remembered that most child development research shows that it isn’t until seven to ten months that infants begin to show fear and stranger anxiety.  It takes that many months for this more complex defensive or inhibitive behavior to develop in the autonomic nervous system due to the maturational time-line of the brain’s cingulate cortex (the area of the brain which is primarily involved via the limbic system with emotion formation and processing, learning and memory). 

I was careful to listen to E.’s need for mama-time.  I also continually, gently, encouraged his time to bond, during those first seven months, in the arms of other loved ones—those aunties, uncles, siblings, grandparents, close friends, and eventual babysitters who would become the important secondary attachments in his life.  In those instances, I handed over E. with confidence and trust in his other caregivers whilst also paying close attention to his reactions.  We taught each other a great deal about interpersonal trust and emotional and social courage during those early days of building family connections. 

Though exhausted new parents, we continually held E., and walked, sang to, read to, fed on demand not always on schedule, and didn’t let him cry himself to sleep (though we tried a few times with heart-breaking results instead of the success and sleep other friends enjoyed).  We practiced the 7 Baby B’s of Bonding. We weren’t coddling or spoiling him, we were teaching him to feel safe in the world.  We were calming his nervous system so his neurons could wire and fire in the direction of survival and maintain or restore homeostatic and emotional balance—whatever the case may be.  

Despite what some of the baby books said about letting him ‘cry it out’, I paid close attention to what his cries conveyed to me and made sure he knew I was both sensitive and responsive to those specific cries.  In that sense, I was teaching him that his voice mattered, that he was safe, that I was his secure base, and with those assurances he could learn to separate and be well in another’s arms. 

We were privileged to be able to have this time with our infant son, and careful to live simply so that we could afford to support this critical period of his development.  We also got some good advice early:  it’s not stuff that your child needs, it’s YOU! 

We often said to one another, my husband and I, “These early years with our kids are not our money-saving years.”  We didn’t have fancy new strollers or cars, we sacrificed some career-advancing opportunities in favor of time at home with our kids, and our savings account dwindled.  But, it turns out we were wrong: they were our money-saving years!  The investment of time, patience, love, and attuned attention for our children turns out to be priceless in terms of ensuring their physical, cognitive, social, and emotional well-being.  The costs are astronomical when we don’t ensure our children’s well-being and thus their capacity for courage.

These days when economics require that most of us are dual-income families (my family included), taking the time to support a new caregiver’s relationship with your young child, pacing their introduction, tag-teaming with trust, is vital to the attachment process a child needs to transfer attention and then affection from parent to a new caregiver.  Here’s some helpful advice about introducing a new caregiver.

Little did I know then, that those first three years together lay the foundation for how my son and I now adapt and listen to one another, let go of one another, and relax trusting in our return to the safety and security available in our relationship.   Bigger separations were to come:  my return to work, starting preschool and then kindergarten.  

E’s separation protests were strong at times.  The first day of preschool, he screamed at the top of his lungs to make sure that his new teacher, all the other new parents and myself knew all about his separation anxiety, “If you leave me here, I’m going to be not okay and someone is going to have to call Dr. X (our family doctor)!”   It took everything I had to leave him.  Before I did, I leaned down to meet his eyes and hold his precious little hands in mine (removing them from around my neck), and said reassuringly “I know it is a big change to come here.  That’s why we’ve practiced a few times and now I know you are ready.  You need to know I would never leave you with anyone or in any place that I didn’t think was safe and good for you.”  Then, I walked away with tears in my eyes remembering how much courage it took me to leave my own mom on my first day of school.  I was filled with compassion for my son.  Somehow I knew, though, that I had to be the strong one in that moment and bid my good-bye.  I had to believe in him first, before he experienced the confidence boost that is associated with being brave enough to try something new, something scary, something that you have to do all on your own!

I now live with a confident, funny, loving thirteen year-old who has no trouble forming friendships, reaching out to his relatives, trying new things which require getting outside his comfort zone, completing his homework and guitar practice without being reminded, letting me know when he’s not feeling well or just needs some space, even changing schools and countries.   E. is not prone to fear or anxiety—instead he is the prototypical surfer dude who rides life’s waves with joy and ease.  This adolescent is the same infant who hardly ever wanted to be put down during the first nine months of his life, until he stood up one day in his ninth month and walked, then ran, across the living room collapsing into our laps.  And these days, without fail, every morning he leaves the house to catch the school bus, the last words I hear him confidently call out are “Bye, Mom!”  He waits for my response, “Bye, Love!” Then, he closes the front door and he’s off on his own journey. In that moment, I sigh with the subtle heart pangs of another good-bye, trusting in his strength and mustering the courage to love and let go. 

Here’s a quick review of what secure attachment looks like:
(Courtesy of Kendra Cherry,

You may also enjoy Katrina Kenison reading a poignant 8-mins. passage from her wonderful memoir The Gift of an Ordinary Day: A Mother’s Memoir about the many ways to bond with our children as they grow up, and the bittersweet courage it takes to love and let go:


Haft, W. & Slade, A. (1989). Affect attunement and maternal Attachment: A pilot
study. Infant Mental Health Journal, 10, (3), 157-172. doi: 10.1002/1097-
Heima, C. &  Nemeroff, C. (2001). The role of childhood trauma in the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders: preclinical and clinical studies. Biological Psychiatry, 49, (12), 1023-1039.

Hofstad-Sethre, L., Stansbury, K., & Rice, M. (2002). Attunement of maternal and child
adrenocortical response to child challenge. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 27, (6),
Main, M. & Cassidy, J. (1988). Categories of response to reunion with the parent at age
6: predictable from infant attachment classifications and stable over a 1-month
period. Developmental Psychology, 24, 415-426.
        Schore, A. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development,
affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant Mental Health Journal, 22, (1-

Warren, S., Huston, L., Egeland, B., & Sroufe, A. (1997). Child and adolescent anxiety

disorders and early attachment. Journal of the American Academy of Child &
Adolescent Psychiatry, 36, (5), 637-644. doi: 10.1097/00004583-199705000-


The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the heart. ~ Helen Keller

One of the stories I have shared with the Lovely K. is that I used to clean my room in the dark when I was a kid. When the mess had become intolerable (to my mother) I was compelled to take action. I would do it at night, with the lights out, feeling my way around my darkened room, picking things up and figuring out by touch and by my visual memory of the things scattered around the floor what they were, and then putting them away. Wondering what it might be like to experience the world without sight was part of the challenge; making a tedious chore interesting was the other part. When I was finished and turned the lights on, it always felt as if I had returned from a journey, and was seeing my world with new eyes.

“Trust walks” have become a popular team-building activity. Leading a person who is blindfolded requires courage, trust, and care in equal measure and from both sides. I had proposed on a day in February to K. that she lead me blind-folded around the neighborhood some time as a courage challenge, showing her that I was willing to put my safety in her hands. The only problem was that at that time  it had become extremely cold, and there was a lot of snow on the ground. So, in a blend of my childhood cleaning technique and blindfold trust walks, K. decided to spend the morning wearing a blindfold in the house – sometimes she needed me to lead her; other times she managed on her own. She was even able to start a load of laundry, since she had long since noticed that the “start” button on our washer has a different shape from all the others.
“Put your clarinet together,” I suggested. “There are lots of blind musicians. See what the experience of making music without eyesight is like.”
She did, feeling her way around the pieces of the instrument with her long fingers, lining everything up and installing the reed. “Okay, done.”
“So practice,” I urged. “Try practicing for ten minutes any of the music you already know without having to read the sheet music.”
K. felt her way to a chair with sunshine streaming onto it from a nearby window. “Warm,” she noticed, turning her face to the light. “Can you time me? Ten minutes?”


After five minutes, she was sure the ten minutes were up. “It feels so long!” she moaned.
“Interesting how time can feel longer or shorter, depending on what else is happening, isn’t it?”
She didn’t answer. She was back to playing the clarinet in the sunshine.
Having even such a small experience of living without sight can increase our sensitivity; we become aware of different ways to experience the world.   Our project of raising a guide dog is an extension of that, and I hope will also increase K.’s compassion for people whose challenges are with them all the time.

Once the temperatures have really warmed up (it’s still cold here!) and the sidewalks are finally free of that ice, we’ll take this outside. We’ll test our trust in each other. It’s a courage challenge that can really open our eyes.