Monthly Archives: August 2011

My Hansel and Gretel Moment

When I was just entering 1st grade, my father’s job took him to Switzerland. We would all live in Zurich for a year, and my sister and I would go to school there. The company had found us an apartment, but it wasn’t yet ready for us when we arrived, and we spent a week or two living in a hill-top hotel while my father began work. The school I was to attend was just for grades one and two; my sister, in third grade, was going somewhere else.
Before my first day of class, the headmaster came to our hotel and walked us to my school. Our route followed sidewalks and sets of stairs down the hill toward the shore of Lake Zurich, and my school turned out to be a beautiful old house across from a park. It all seemed very delightful. I was well satisfied.
The next day, my sister was given instructions to make sure I got on the bus back to the hotel at the end of the school day; our school bus would be stopping first at her school, and then coming to get the smallest kids. At the end of school, I waited out front, watching the buses come and go, and all the children departing. If my sister was waving frantically from a bus window I never saw her. When it was clear there were no more buses, I decided as only a 7-year-old can, well, I walked here yesterday, I’ll just walk back.
I set out confidently, marching up any set up stairs I came to, striding along the sidewalks, zig-zagging my way in an uphill direction. I have no idea how long it was before I realized that I really had no clue which sidewalks and which stairs to take. It finally dawned on me that I was completely lost. In a foreign country. And I was seven.
That was when I got scared.
Most of the fairy tales I’d heard so far were more or less localized to this place – if this wasn’t the Black Forest of Germany, Switzerland nevertheless had children named Hansel and Gretel. When I realized I would have to knock on somebody’s door and ask for help, the quiet and orderly Swiss neighborhood took on a terrifying hue. In my memory, that moment featured sunshine suddenly blotted out by dark clouds. Before me was a house, selected at random to be the site of my ordeal. What witch might open the door I dreaded to discover.
The terror of that moment is clear to me by the fact that I remember nothing after bursting into tears as the door opened, and I sobbed, “Hotel Sonnenberg! Hotel Sonnenberg!” My next clear memory is saying good-bye to the white-haired old lady (good witch) who had answered the door. She had given me an apple and put me in a taxi, sending me to the hotel and my frantic mother.
All told, I hadn’t been missing for very long. By the time the Jennifer-less bus had arrived I was already well on my journey, and the minutes were short between my mother’s first frightened knowledge that I was lost, and the phone call from the good witch.
I don’t know if the experience would have been more or less scary if my imagination hadn’t been fully stoked with fairy tales already. But it seemed to me at the time that this was the stuff of story, that indeed this was exactly what happened to little children in stories; if I was the hero of my own story then I must do the difficult thing, and do my best to face whatever witch, giant or ogre I found behind the door. I had to muster my emotional courage and raise my hand to knock.

Hansel and Gretel

A number of years ago I was teaching a writing workshop in an elementary school. I thought it would be instructive and interesting and fun to have all the kids write their own version of a well-known tale. This, I figured, would eliminate the very large problem of the children needing to invent plots, and allow them to focus on writing description and dialog. We’d all tell our own version of Hansel and Gretel, one of the most iconic of the Grimms’ tales.

Sorry to say, this plan fell apart at the start, because so many of the kids did not know the story! I was flabbergasted. I can understand not having an intimate acquaintance with Fenrir the Wolf or the Birbal stories, but Hansel and Gretel? If you are one of those students, grown up and with kids of your own, here it is:

Hansel and Gretel, by the Brother’s Grimm

or you may prefer a plot summary 

There has been much fascinating (and some wacky) scholarship and analysis about this story over the years – Freudian, Jungian, Marxist, Feminist, Historical, Modernist – you name it.  But I suspect most children take it at face value, as I did: two little children learn that because there is not enough food, their parents are going to abandon them, and they must summon the courage and resourcefulness to survive on their own and defeat a cannibal witch.  There probably aren’t a whole lot of things more frightening to kids than being abandoned by their own parents.  I even suspect that for some kids, the witch is less frightening than the initial betrayal and abandonment.  By taking this story to heart, perhaps children have a chance to imagine what that might feel like, and to follow Hansel and Gretel courageously through the forest to a sweet victory.

About Stories

“[The] prevalent parental belief is that a child must be diverted from what troubles him most, his formless, nameless anxieties, and his chaotic, angry, and even violent fantasies. Many parents believe that only conscious reality or pleasant and wish-fulfilling images should be presented to the child – that he should be exposed only to the sunny side of things. But such one-sided fare nourishes the mind only in a one-sided way, and real life is not all sunny.”

~ Bruno Bettelheim

Ten Tips for Talking about Tough Stuff with Kids

Every family faces difficult  discussions.  Among the most difficult:  separation and divorce, abuse, disasters, illness, death, sex, and adoption.  My training in child development, family therapy, and parent-coaching has taught me the importance of honest, informed, and proactive parent-child communication.  My trial-by-error training as a parent teaches me to be prepared for the many unscripted, sometimes uncomfortable, yet healing conversations with kids…and to trust in our ability to handle the tough topics.  Read my last post for a poignant example of how I talked about some tough stuff with my son.  
Read on to learn ten tips for talking about tough stuff with your kids…

Many families that consult family therapists, like myself, are often seeking to learn how best to communicate respectfully, honestly, and open-mindedly.  Learning to lecture less and listen more is hard as a parent, but essential if you wish for your children to hear you.  When you are able to speak the truth about yourself, accepting even the hard truths (apologizing when necessary), authentic self-expression flows.  Secrets have a nasty way of suffocating the soil in which we hope to grow our children.  Staying involved and connected in your children’s lives, knowing their friends, teachers, classroom and outside activities are all keys to unlocking conversations about their lives.  Making time at bedtime, or over breakfast, or while driving between activities, to shut out the noise, get quiet, and listen to what your children have to say often creates sacred space for spontaneous self-expression. 

I work through the following steps with parents who consult with me about having difficult discussions with

their kids:

1.   Take time to reflect on your feelings, fears, values/beliefs, and hopes for what you want to teach your children. Rehearse what you’d like to say about a particular topic.
2.   Practice listening more and lecturing less in discussions. Resist the urge to share your opinion, unsolicited advice, or experience before your child has had an opportunity to ask the question or share the insight they want to share with you.  Once your child approaches adolescence, it becomes increasingly important to ask, “Would you like to know my opinion or hear my advice?” 
3.   Trust your and your kids’ ability, resilience, and inner wisdom to deal with tough questions and life’s tough times. Model the emotional, social, moral, and intellectual courage to talk about the tough stuff.  Your children will learn that you are approachable and not afraid to ask the tough questions.  Together you can become brave enough to seek the answers to some of life’s mysteries.
4.   Start early and stay connected with and involved in your kids’ lives. Don’t assume what they know or wait for your children to initiate discussions, ask.
5.   Seek out support groups, friendships, counselors, parenting coaches, or educational resources for guidance and support in difficult times and for difficult conversations, if needed.
6.   Create safety and safe times to talk. It’s okay to take a deep breath and some time before responding.  Just make sure to get back to your child in a timely manner with your response.
7.   Be patient and prepared to talk about difficult things again and again, especially with young children. Be curious about the question behind their questions.  For example, perhaps they ask repeatedly what will happen after the divorce because they want to know they will always be taken care of and loved.  Or perhaps they just want to know in whose house their guinea pig will live. 
8.   Continue the conversation through play/art/music and everyday teachable moments. Play and the creative arts are powerful ways for a child to express and process what they are learning, observing, and/or struggling with in life.  Play and art offer tools of self-expression that are not reliant on a expansive vocabulary or the kind of cognition more commonly associated with adulthood.
9.   Answer your children’s questions simply and honestly. Stick to the facts—reassuring them of their safety and security. Be sensitive to their feelings and boundaries—reassuring them of your strength and approachability.
10. Take action after difficult discussions—write letters, reach out to family and community members, get more information, volunteer for a worthwhile cause related to the topic, perform a meaningful ritual. Offer hope through thoughtful, value-directed action.
We’d love to hear your advice, experience, or questions pertaining to talking about tough stuff with your own kids.  Post a comment!

5-Minute Courage Workout: Stop Dominating Me!

Compiled and written by Lisa and Jennifer:

It is commonly understood that habits are formed or broken in as little as thirty days.  Much of the time we are unaware of the habits that define us, instead opting to run on auto-pilot.  Today, we are suggesting that you turn off the auto-pilot.  The first step to making any kind of change is becoming conscious of how our routines, thinking and reacting to life can dominate us.  Routines can provide a great deal of comfort, but they can also box us in, particularly when they are not healthy habits.  Before your children’s habits and routines become ingrained, you can set a powerful example of flexibility in thinking, feeling and behaving.

Here’s a list of 5-Minute Courage Workouts by age range to turn off the auto pilot.

 Grab Some Lion’s Whiskers Today!
  • Toddler:   On your walk today (or drive) to a daily destination, take a different route than usual.  Announce that you’ll be taking a new path and see what he or she notices.  Notice, yourself, if it seems to bring up any discomfort for your child, or if instead there’s excitement for exploring new territory.
  • PreschoolerDoes your child have a security object?  Try proposing that a different teddy bear or blankie go through the day with your child. (Book recommendation: Knuffle Bunny: A Cautionary Tale by Mo Willems).  If that one is too alarming, try mixing up the bedtime routine.  Have your child “read” the bedtime story to you, or have someone else do the tucking in – or have your child tuck you in, if you’re an early-to-bed sleeper. 
  • Early Elementary:  Give the mac and cheese or the corn flakes a break today.  At this age kids get habituated to favorite foods, so offer something completely different for a change.  It’s not necessary to put peanut sauce or ketchup on everything.
  • Upper Elementary or Tween: This is the age of “like” and “you know” and other verbal tics.  Ask your tween to give a recitation of the day’s events without resorting to any of these lazy language mannerisms.  Get your mental scorepad ready and keep count.  Then let them turn the tables on you and have them count how often you do it, yourself.  Bet you can’t get away with a perfect score!
  • Teens: Have a discussion about goals, hopes and interests now that your teen may be considering college and work options.  Provide pen and paper and ask him or her to write with the non-dominant hand a list of their future hopes, dreams and wishes.  Be prepared to be surprised by what utilizing the other hemisphere of his/her brain may prompt in terms of unexplored hopes and dreams!

Working on these skills may call upon different types of courage.  Review the Six Types of Courage to figure out which types your child might need to complete this workout.  Learning to be conscious of habits – and thus empowered to change them –  may one day save your child’s life.

Care to share what you’ve learned about mixing up routines with your kids?

If you are inspired to stop letting your habits dominate you, you might be interested in this very brief TED lecture on the 30-Day Challenge.

If you’re looking for more workouts, here’s our 5-Minute Courage Workout: A Fate Worse Than Death , 5-Minute Courage Workout: Talking Dirty5-Minute Courage Workout: It’s a Dog Eat Dog World, 5-Minute Courage Workout: Home Alone,  5-Minute Courage Workout: A Fate Worse than Death, 5-Minute Courage Workout: Playing with Fire, 5-Minute Courage Workout: Navigating the Neighborhood, 5-Minute Courage Workout: Say A Little Prayer For Me

Stolen Thunder

Talking about secrets with my daughter turned out to be more complicated than I expected. A few months ago I asked her to deliver a sealed letter to one of the teachers at school whom I had been unable to reach by email. When K. asked what it was about, I said, “Well, it’s … a secret.”
“But you said you shouldn’t have secrets!”
“This is a different kind of secret,” I said. “I have to talk with her about some exciting news she has to announce, but she hasn’t done it yet, and it’s not for me to steal her thunder .”
I think of all the exciting announcements we may get to make in our lives. “We’re getting married!” or “I got the promotion!” or “His cancer is in complete remission!” I have a friend who has a habit of beating people to the punch with good news, saying things like, “So-and-So is pregnant. Act really surprised when she tells you.”

By spilling the beans, letting the cat out of the bag, jumping the gun – choose whichever phrase you like – with someone else’s joyful news, we rob them of the pleasure of delivering it themselves. I think back to when I told my parents I had decided to adopt: they weren’t the first to know, mainly because we live in different states and it wasn’t the sort of news to deliver by phone, let alone email. If one of my friends had informed them in advance, I would have been crushed. And angry.
“Think of it this way,” I told K. “Remember last Christmas morning, there were all these wrapped presents under the tree, right? And we were guessing what they were, and getting all excited. What would it have been like if Grandma had just said, ‘your mom got you that beanbag chair you wanted – see the big box? And that lumpy one is a pair of snowshoes. This envelope from Grandpa has a gift card to your favorite store.’”
“Not very fun,” she decided.
“Sometimes sharing good news is almost like a gift, one that we want to see unwrapped at the perfect time. So sometimes a secret is only a secret until the right moment. It’s fun to see people being surprised by something good – that’s why it’s so tempting to be the one to do it.”
One thing that social courage can help us with is feeling okay about keeping good news to ourselves. Social courage makes it okay that no-one else knows we were in on the secret. Moral courage helps us to prefer to see the news delivered by the right person, and be met with all the drama and excitement it deserves.
One story about the origin of “stealing someone’s thunder,” robbing them of the chance to make a big impression, has its roots in the English theater. A playwright had invented a clever and innovative way to create a thunder sound effect off-stage for his play. Unfortunately his show bombed; to make matters worse, while attending a performance of Hamlet he heard his technique being used. “Damn them! They won’t let my play run, but they have stolen my thunder!” he exclaimed.
Other sources claim it to be inspired by the Norse god, Thor the Thunderer, whose thunder hammer was stolen and hidden by the trickster, Loki. Note to self: don’t steal Thor’s hammer. He doesn’t have a sense of humor.

Birbal Reveals the Thief

Here we have another Birbal story. Intellectual courage allows us to try unconventional methods.  At the same time, lack of social courage may be our undoing.

At the palace of Akbar, the emperor, a robbery was discovered. One of the royal advisors was missing a valuable piece of jewelry – a thief must have broken into the palace.

Birbal, listening to the advisor’s story, spoke up. “It could not have been a thief from outside. This palace is too well guarded. No, the thief is someone who lives here. I can find who it is.”
The emperor looked at Birbal with surprise and amusement. “Are you so sure, Birbal?”
“Let a donkey be brought to the main courtyard, and have all who live within these walls come there,” Birbal said.
It took some time, but eventually everyone was assembled. Birbal stood at the head of a donkey who was tethered to a pillar. “Let each person, one by one, come take hold of the donkey’s tail and say the words, ‘I am not a thief.’ The donkey will tell us who lies.” He patted the donkey’s forehead, and the beast twitched its ears as if in agreement.
One at a time, the members of the court went to the donkey, took its tail in his hand, and said the words, “I a not a thief.” The donkey said nothing at all. At last, there was no-one left. The emperor had watched the whole thing. “Well, Birbal? Who is our thief?”
Birbal turned to the crowd. “Please raise your hands.”
It soon became obvious that each person had a smear of black paint on his hand – all except one, the one person whose guilt made him fear touching the donkey.
The emperor laughed and clapped Birbal on the back as the thief was taken away. “Only you, Birbal, could devise such a scheme.”

Courage Book Review – The Daring Book for Girls

The Daring Book for GirlsLast week I talked about The Dangerous Book for Boys. This week it’s the girls’ turn, with The Daring Book for Girls, a sister volume.  Using the same old-fashioned design sensibility and tone, this book offers girls their own hodgepodge handbook with  essential tools for a toolbox, how to paddle a canoe, math tricks, silly pranks to play on friends, slumber party games, cat’s cradle, how to pop a wheelie on your bike, how to write a thank-you letter, flower pressing – wait, this is my own childhood! 
As I suggested in my review of the boys’ book, having a wide and eclectic set of skills and knowledge may contribute to having a strong internal locus of control – the profound assurance that one is up to the challenges that life presents.  Studies on fear show that a lack of control is one of the things that contributes to stress and anxiety.  The more things you know how to control, the less you are a prey to fear.  You can’t control the tides, but knowing how to read a tide chart and why the tides change at all can make a difference in a day at the beach; you can’t be injury-proof, but knowing first-aid may take the edge off of panic what an accident happens.  What looks like courage is often basic competence.   Maybe you don’t know how to tie a sari yourself, or how to make a peach pit ring.  But give this book to your daughter and she’ll learn how.  
Just as there was little in the Dangerous Book that seemed very dangerous, there’s little here that seems very daring, unless you think changing a tire or opening a lemonade stand takes daring.  Do your daughter a favor.  Dare her to read this book.