Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Message

In the first year or so that my daughter, the Lovely K., was with me, she found phone conversations and leaving messages very challenging. She was eight, and had not had very much experience with phones in Ethiopia, if any. In many parts of the world, cell phones have leap-frogged right over land lines in places that never had phone service at all, but even so, not everybody can afford it. It is not unusual for just one person in an extended family or neighborhood to have a phone, and pass along messages and loan the phone as required.
But I digress. For many people, phones seem to be surgically attached, and it can be hard to bear in mind that talking on the phone is a skill we actually have to learn. In my childhood it was much simpler. We didn’t have answering machines, let alone cell phones. We had a weekly phone call with grandma, which accustomed me to speaking and listening to someone I couldn’t see, and therefore whose visual cues couldn’t help me follow the conversation. If we called a friend and nobody was home, the line would just ring and ring and ring, and we would try again later, or if the line was in use we got the busy signal, something that seems to be a relic of the past now.  I know, I know, “In my day…” is just about the most boring and curmudgeonly way to begin an argument!
Now, however, if you make a phone call you will almost certainly reach either a person or voice mail, and either way, you’re expected to say something coherent, meaningful, and concise on cue. The anxiety and consternation that this caused for K. was a surprise to me. Talking on the phone and leaving messages is so much part of daily life that it was an eye-opener that she didn’t know how and was apprehensive to boot; but of course, she was having to do this in a new language, and it’s likely that the pressure of the “BEEP” drove her new English words right out of her head. Early on, when K. summoned the nerve to phone a friend herself, she would panic if the call went to voice mail; she would either hang up or thrust the phone into my hands whispering urgently, “You say it!”  She was lacking in social courage, not surprisingly!
So the courage challenge became mastering phone etiquette. We would rehearse what she should say if she wanted to initiate a play date by phone.
Me: “If her mom answers the phone, you say, ‘Hi, this is K. May I please speak to B.?’ Okay, now you try it.”
K.: “Okay. ‘Hi can I speak to –‘ Wait, what do I say? I mixed up.”
Me: “And if you get the answering machine, say your full name, what day you are calling, and ask if B. can come for a play date on Thursday. Then you say good-bye.   And thank you, if you can remember.”
The rehearsal always took longer than the phone call itself, and sometimes it all went out the window when the phone call actually went through and the pressure was on. Generally once the girls had agreed that of course they wanted to have a play date together, they would each hand off the phones to us, the moms, to work out logistics. Often K. would ask if I could just do the whole thing and relieve her of the anxiety it produced. But gradually the rehearsals got faster and less necessary, and the girls were able to at least start sorting out logistics, and K. remembered on her own to identify herself in messages, and say please and thank you without my whispered coaching from nearby.
Now, at 12, there is more telephone use for sure, especially as several of K.’s friends already have cell phones of their own. Two of her friends have divorced parents and move back and forth across town during the week, so tracking down one of these friends can involve calling both a mom and a dad on at least two different phone numbers each. That’s a lot of practice leaving messages!
Recently, I overheard K. leaving a message for B., who had been sick for a few days. “Hi, this is K., calling on Saturday around twelve-thirty. I just called to say I hope you are feeling better, and I hope I see you soon. Bye.” That suggests to me that we have taken care of this source of anxiety, and are ready to put that fear behind us.
I know many children have listened to one-sided phone conversations from birth, and I have heard many a toddler mimic phone calls on toy cell phones very convincingly from their car seats – greetings, pauses, murmurs of assent, questions, pauses, setting plans, sharing news, friendly laughter and saying good bye. Perhaps the ubiquity of phones in our lives is making “fear of phoning” a thing of the past. For K., who spent her first eight years under very different circumstances from most American kids, using the phone turned out to be an unexpected challenge.
I sometimes wonder if the hardest courage challenges will always be the unexpected ones. If that’s true, then the only way I can prepare my daughter to face them will be to remember I must encourage her in something every day, no matter what, but something meaningful.  “You did a good job with those dishes,” “I’m impressed by how hard you worked on that assignment today,” “Good luck on the spelling test,” or even the reaching-for-straws “Thanks for remembering to hang up your coat,” may be as thoughtful as it gets on a busy day. 
And maybe that message will be enough.

The Empty Pot

A traditional story of social courage for today has its origins in China. Or Bosnia – I’ve seen it identified both ways. It was retold very well in storybook form by author-illustrator Demi, and this is my retelling. If you want to learn it and retell it in your own words, here are my tips for how to tell a story
Long, long ago, the reigning emperor realized that because he had no son, he must select an heir to be emperor after him. Throughout the land, the news was sent: there would be a contest. Every eligible boy must come forward and receive one special seed. After one year, the boy whose seed had become the most thriving plant would wear the crown.

This was a contest that appealed to the boy, Jun. He loved plants, and his shadow was like both sun and water in the garden: wherever he went and attended to the green, growing things, the plants would thrive. His mother encouraged him to try the contest, and so he went with the other boys, and brought home his one, royal seed.
Jun filled a pot with good garden earth, and carefully pressed the seed into its soft bed. He watered it neither too much nor too little, and kept it in a sheltered spot where cold winds would not chill it, nor hot sun bake it. And yet, to his dismay, nothing sprouted. Other boys were reporting the strength and vigor of their seedlings, but Jun’s seed was as silent as a stone.
Thinking that perhaps he must take even greater care, Jun repotted the seed with new earth. Every day, even as the reports of flourishing plants reached his ears from around town, he looked at the empty pot – or empty of everything but soil – and despaired.
At last the year was up, and all the boys who had entered the contest were told to bring their pots to the emperor. “Go anyway,” Jun’s mother told him. “You did your best, and you must not be ashamed.”

With some reluctance, Jun carried his pot to the palace. He tried to ignore the giggles and taunts of the other competitors, who pointed at his empty pot with amusement. On all sides were boys whose pots overflowed with abundant, luxuriant growth. Row upon row of boys were lined up before the emperor, who inspected their entries with great interest. At last, the emperor reached Jun’s pot and stopped.

“This pot is empty,” the emperor said. “What can this mean?”
Jun bowed. “I tried everything I could think of, great emperor, but I could not make this seed grow. I am so sorry for my failure.”
The emperor gazed at all the other pots, where plants with glossy leaves and brilliant flowers made a garden out of the palace courtyard. “I don’t know where those plants came from,” he said. “It was not from the seeds I gave you; those seeds you all received had been boiled, and no plant could grow from them. You must have all started with a fresh seed when you failed. But here is one boy honest and courageous enough to be emperor.”

Here is a link to the Demi version, if you feel you’d rather read this social courage story than tell it.  But perhaps if you are shy about your ability to tell a story well, you might need a bit of additional social courage yourself… just a suggestion!

Courage Book Review – Who is the Other Mother? (and how do I get away from her!!?)

I was struck by Lisa’s post yesterday about playing the Lion Game; what struck me was her young son’s conviction that she really had “gone away” and had become something else.  In this case, she had become a lion to him, and he was as frightened as if it had really happened.  You could say that for him, it really had happened.  This is a confusion that children grow out of; when they’re older they can recognize their parents under masks or in costumes, and not be bewildered.

Coraline   [CORALINE] [Hardcover]Yet the fear… do children outgrow it?  Today’s review is of a spectacularly creepy book which enthralls middle grade children and unnerves parents.  Coraline, by the masterful storyteller of the macabre, Neil Gaiman.  
Here we have a child left to her own devices in an old house.  Her parents are busy and distracted.  She finds a mysterious passageway into a mirror house, and to her surprise and initial delight, she finds another set of parents.  

“Coraline?” the woman said.  “Is that you?”

And then she turned around.  Her eyes were big black buttons.

“Lunchtime, Coraline,” said the woman.

“Who are you?” asked Coraline.

“I’m your other mother,” said the woman.  “Go and tell your other father that lunch is ready.”  She opened the door of the oven.  Suddenly Coraline realized how hungry she was.  It smelled wonderful.  “Well, go on.”…

“I didn’t know I had another mother,” said Coraline, cautiously.

“Of course you do.  Everyone does,” said the other mother, her black button eyes gleaming.

What makes this so eerie is how reasonable it all seems at first.  Coraline is understandably cautious at the start, but the food is good and she has awesome toys in this other house, and her Other Mother and Other Father have lots of time for her.  They want to be with her always.  There’s just one catch…

Scaring ourselves with spooky stories is a way to experiment with our limits of fear and courage. Coraline finds herself thinking, “I will be brave… No, I am brave.”  Your child can be brave too, with Coraline.  For independent readers 10 or older. 

Playing the Lion Game

Around the time of my son E.’s first birthday he took charge of managing his separation anxiety, conquering fear, and developing a capacity for courage.  How exactly did he do that, you ask?  Well, we’d been reading lots of books together about animals, and making the requisite oink-oink here, baa-baa there, and moo-moo everywhere to help him learn to communicate in sounds and words.  I noticed that he jumped every time I made the rather dramatic ROAR! for the lion.  He loved my lion, and he feared my lion at the same time. 

Coinciding with my efforts to help him develop the capacity for language, we’d played plenty of “Peek-a-Boo” and his brain had developed, like most other infants around eight months, the capacity for object permanence.  E. could retain and utilize visual images enough to understand that I could go away, out of sight/sound/touch, but still exist in memory.  As he developed language over the next year, around eighteen months he began begging me, “Be lion, Mommy.”  When I turned to him and roared in his face, he looked at me without recognition at first, startled, eyes wide, and then he’d place his sweet hands on my face and say, “Be Mommy!” 
Eventually, this game evolved over the coming months whereby he would ask me to approach him, then chase him, with “Come Lion.”  As soon as I would reach him, after roaring whilst I covered the distance between us, he would say “Go Away Lion!”  Then, urge me in the sincerest, anxious, heart-breaking voice, to “Be Mommy ‘gain.” It probably seems a masochist game to play, but trust me he was mastering fear.  He was rehearsing the limbic pathways to both experience and calm fear synapses provoking sympathetic nervous responsiveness.  He could turn on the fear “Be the lion”, and turn it off “Be my mommy again.”  Abracadabra, I’m in control of my fear and my fate. 

E. was also learning to handle the short periods of separation distress evident in secure attachments between parent and child.  According to adult attachment researcher and associate profession in the University of Illinois Department of Psychology, Chris Fraley (2010):
Bowlby observed that separated infants would go to extraordinary lengths (e.g., crying, clinging, frantically searching) to prevent separation from their parents or to reestablish proximity to a missing parent. At the time of Bowlby’s initial writings, psychoanalytic writers held that these expressions were manifestations of immature defense mechanisms that were operating to repress emotional pain, but Bowlby noted that such expressions are common to a wide variety of mammalian species, and speculated that these behaviors may serve an evolutionary function.
Bowlby argued that, over the course of evolutionary history, infants who were able to maintain proximity to an attachment figure via attachment behaviors would be more likely to survive to a reproductive age. According to Bowlby, a motivational system, what he called the attachment behavioral system, was gradually “designed” by natural selection to regulate proximity to an attachment figure.
My son, E., was trying to learn to survive in the wilds of our living room.  I was the lion stalker, he was my prey.  Then, he turned the tables on me and became my tamer, his little hands on my face taming me instantly.  He also appeared to tame his own fear. 
We were enacting the age-old drama associated with natural selection which requires that we learn to survive danger, seeking comfort in the arms of key attachment figures or at least camouflage in community.  E. developed a game that helped him trigger not only the hormonal cascade of fight-or-flight chemical messengers, but also activated the attachment feedback loop that Bowlby, Ainsworth, and others today still observe that helps to regulate and restore limbic homeostasis:

Courage Quote of the Day

Choosing to go forward in the face of uncertainty is the willful, distinctly human act of optimism we perform each day.  We may know too much about the unpredictable ways of the world to expect a happy ending, but we can’t help but hope for one all the same.” ~ Fred Epstein, M.D., Author of if I get to five: What Children Can Teach Us About Courage and Character (2003)

Courage Challenge of the Day

This challenge is for teens who have their thumbs on their phones all the time, texting their friends to make plans to meet. The next time you have to make an appointment for your teen – doctor, orthodontist, college admissions office, department of motor vehicles – whatever it may be: have your teen make the call. Speaking on the phone to strangers is a lifeskill your son or daughter needs to learn. Yes, it may be simpler for you to make this call yourself, but resist the temptation to take the easy way out. If necessary, rehearse with your teen in advance or write out a cheat sheet. For some teens this will be a social courage challenge, for others an emotional one, and for still others it may be an intellectual one. But rest assured, if your teen has forgotten that phones were originally designed for speaking and listening with, this will be a challenge!

Focus Locus Hocus Pocus!

As a parent, I find that the more widely I read on subjects not related to parenting, the more I find ideas that give me a new way to think about my parenting decisions. While reading articles on business and marketing, I came across the subject of Regulatory Focus Theory.

This theory, formulated by Professor E. Tory Higgins at Columbia University, proposes that there are two categories of people when it comes to goals. There are the people who have a Promotion Focus, and people who have a Prevention Focus. Promotion Focus is what motivates a person to move toward an aspirational goal, working actively to achieve something that counts as an advantage. The Higgins lab puts it this way: “A promotion focus emphasizes hopes, accomplishments, and advancement needs.” The Prevention Focus creates more cautious behavior, motivated by preventing loss, and is guided by obligation, duty, and rules. As the Higgins Lab says, “A prevention focus emphasizes safety, responsibility, and security needs.” A person’s regulatory focus can either be chronic or momentary, i.e. normal state or induced by a given situation.  Promotion-focused individuals may speak of their goals using language such as “I could” “I want to” “I plan to” “I hope to,” while prevention-focused individuals may use language such as “I should” “I have to” “I’m supposed to” while discussing goals.

In marketing and communication, knowing what chronic regulatory focus your audience is likely to have helps you get your message across effectively: “This product will give you a healthy, youthful glow!” vs. “This product will reverse the signs of aging!” “Help your kid get a jump start on his next grade this summer,” vs. “Don’t let your child lose ground this summer!” It’s a subtle difference, but one that advertisers can use very deliberately. And since regulatory focus can be induced, marketing and advertising can play that card as well. (I read about this first in a business magazine, remember?)

So what’s this got to do with parenting? There are at least two connections that I see:

1. We are well-advised to have some idea of our own chronic regulatory focus when it comes to our goals and decision-making, especially as they relate to our families. If we have a prevention focus, we will perhaps be more susceptible to product advertising that plays on our fears and our impulses to be cautious to avoid negative outcomes. The myriad of safety products in the parenting marketplace is stunning, and is clearly targeted toward parents with a prevention focus. And here’s the catch: as the Higgins Lab has found, regulatory focus can be experimentally induced, or situational. Thus when it comes to parenting, we may all skew toward the prevention focus, because what parent doesn’t want to prevent harm or danger to her children? 

However, intellectual courage allows us to be critical consumers of information and ask questions about the assumptions that are at work in the media.  If we have a chronic prevention focus we can ask if it is being deliberately poked and prodded into a heightened and exaggerated state by the the messages we hear and see; if we find ourselves favoring a momentary or temporary prevention focus we can question whether it is being induced by manipulation of the information we are being shown. We know about internal vs. external locus of control in parenting; we know that being overly protective of our children robs them of the ability to develop self-efficacy and self-reliance. So can we deliberately induce our own prevention focus to become more of a promotion focus (where the advantage is a more courageous and empowered child)? Can we step away from the blazing red warning signs that flash at us from every side and say, “Actually, go ahead and climb that tree, sweetie. I believe you can do it and I’ll watch you from here.”

2. The second reason that Regulatory Focus Theory may be useful to think about in a parenting context is to understand our children’s regulatory focus when it comes to goals (our goals and their goals). It’s essentially a more subtle understanding of a rewards vs. punishments system, carrots vs. sticks. We may be promotion-focused ourselves, and think that offering goodies as incentives is a great way to motivate our child. But if the child is prevention-focused, the goodies may not be that tempting, or not tempting enough to make up for a perceived loss (loss of play time while doing chores, for example). Conversely, we may be prevention-focused ourselves, and find that our dire warnings about consequences fall on the deaf ears of our promotion-focused child (the child who is busy climbing the bookcase to ferret out the t.v. remote for the seventh time, for example.  There may be other reasons, such as lack of impulse control, at work in this example, but I think it’s a good illustration of climbing toward a goal!). 

I have learned through experience that my own daughter is much less motivated by potential rewards than she is by potential losses. Right now (she’s 12) we operate in a “sleepover-based economy,” where the status quo = two sleepovers (Friday and Saturday) each weekend. Because I want her to develop an internal locus of control, I have told her I will no longer remind her about her chores, and that if she forgets any of her chores on a given day she loses a sleepover. Forget another day, and there goes the second sleepover. What I could do is experiment in shifting her to a promotion focus by making the status quo = zero sleepovers; then, doing chores without reminding for half the week earns one sleepover and doing chores for the second half of the week earns a second sleepover. But for right now, her prevention focus is helping her achieve the goal of remembering her chores.

“But wait, Jennifer!” you say, “Why would you want to shift her to a promotion focus if the prevention focus is working?”

Let’s go back to the Regulatory Focus Theory. An eager, promotion-focused person is likely to be more flexible and creative in finding ways to reach a positive outcome; a vigilant, prevention-focused person is likely to be more thorough and diligent in taking steps to avoid a negative outcome. Both can generate success, both can achieve goals. (Both approaches can potentially create an A+ student, for example, or a junior tennis champ, if that’s your idea of a great goal.) A prevention-focused child might be very good at studying for and acing tests, but not so good at thinking outside the box – he  likes the box.  He wants to stay in the box.  A promotion-focused child will stack the boxes in order to climb up them to reach a goal, but might not study for a test in a subject that doesn’t interest him. 

So why favor promotion focus? Because Lion’s Whiskers is about courage! By definition, the prevention focus is protective and vigilant against threats and losses; in other words, it’s about fear and external locus of control. The duties, obligations and responsibilities which guide the prevention focus come from the outside – from parents, teachers, society, church, and state. Is innate temperament a factor in regulatory focus? Yes, research suggests so, but research also suggests that environment and nurturing play a role as well. Babies are mostly aspirational, promotion-focused – they know what they want and do whatever they can to achieve it (screaming is an effective strategy).  It’s only as they mature and learn rules and expectations that they may become more prevention-focused. Thus, as parents we may have the opportunity to influence our children’s regulatory focus and nudge it toward promotion and away from prevention. Ultimately, we want our children to eagerly reach for their own goals, not just follow the goals we impose on them because they have to.

Regulatory focus isn’t the only factor at play by any means, but it’s a useful one to take into account in our conversation.   I hope you find it that way.


Halvorson, Heidi Grant, Getting Others to Embrace Risk, Harvard Business Review, May 23 2011

Kirmani and Zhu, Vigilant Against Manipulation: The Effect of Regulatory Focus on the Use of Persuasion Knowledge, American Marketing Association

Mooradian, Herbst and Matlzer, The Interplay of Temperament and Regulatory
Focus on Consumer Problem-Solving Modes
, Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2/4 (2008)

Summerville, Amy and Neal J. Roese; Self-Report Measures of Individual Differences in Regulatory Focus: A Cautionary Note, 2009

Courage Tip of the Day

Write yourself a thank you note.

Be sure to note all the things you do that make you an awesome parent! (i.e. showing up at your child’s play or sports events, apologizing when you raised your voice, reading a bedtime story even when you’re tired, listening intently to your child recount his/her day, being on time, making healthy meals…day after day after day, coaching your child to be courageous even when you were afraid!)

The Water Seller’s Donkey and The Sword of Damocles

I found a Rumi parable the other day that reminded me of the Greek story of the Sword of Damocles. Both have to do with envy, and speak to the need for intellectual courage in asking questions and checking our assumptions – especially when we are comparing ourselves to others. Here are both stories. I’ve told K. the story of the Sword of Damocles, but now I also have the Water Seller’s Donkey to share with her. If you want to share these with your child, feel free to tell them in your own words – as you’ll see, they aren’t long, and won’t be hard to learn.
A poor water seller had a donkey who carried the heavy jugs of water, and it was weary work; the donkey was always hungry and tired, and his hooves ached. One day, the sultan’s groom crossed paths with the water seller, and asked, “Why is this beast so thin?”
“I’m a poor man,” the water seller replied. “I do my best for him.”
“Let him come to the sultan’s stables for a rest,” said the groom.

The donkey was astonished to see the splendor of the stables. There, the fine Arabian warhorses were groomed every day until their coats shone; they had sweet hay and barley to eat; their stalls were cushioned with fine soft sand.
“Why do I have such a hard life!” the donkey complained. “And you have the finest of everything?”
Just then, trumpets sounded, and a cry went up that war was declared. The horses were saddled up and led out of the stables amid great clamor and excitement. Naturally, the donkey remained behind, munching hay and feeling sorry for himself.
It wasn’t until later, when the horses returned – wounded and bleeding, many of them dying of spear thrusts and arrows – that the donkey began to think differently.
And here, The Sword of Damocles:
In ancient times there was a powerful king, and among his courtiers was a flatterer named Damocles. Damocles never left off praising the king and heaping on lavish compliments, until one day, growing weary of this flattery, the king said, “If you truly believe I am so fortunate and blessed, perhaps you’d like to trade places with me tomorrow?”
Of course Damocles eagerly accepted the offer. The next morning, he took the greatest delight in putting on the fine clothes brought to him by servants, and eating from golden plates and drinking from jeweled cups. He admired the golden ring of kingship on his finger, and he looked forward with great eagerness for the moment when he would sit upon the throne. He ordered silken carpets to be laid on the steps, and mounted to the throne with a thrill. Just as he took the seat, however, he happened to glance upward, and the thrill turned to a chill of terror. Above the throne hung a sword, point down – and it was hanging by a single hair from a horse’s tail wrapped around the hilt!
“What’s the meaning of this?” he gasped, faint with dread.
The king walked in, smiling at Damocles’s confusion. “Did you think being king was nothing but luxury? At any moment, everything can change.”
Damocles stepped away from the throne, and took off the king’s ring. “I no longer wish to trade places with you.”