Family, Parenting

Dousing It

tapestry

We can do so much better.  For the past few years, our patterns were stuck enough to seem hopeless. This past June, I made the choice to cultivate a more loving home.

After a long summer that included a stretch of five weeks apart, my son is back.  This is the first night of his 4th grade year that he is spending with me.  The evening coincides with a parent-teacher event.  This means my boy runs wild around the neighborhood with his pals for a few hours before I have to leave him behind.  He comes in, flushed and breathless, and parks himself in front of his video games.  I lock the door behind me.

Continue reading “Dousing It”

Parenting, Poetry

Side Way

hidden-door

Tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.

– William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act ii, Scene 1

In case of paralysis, break glass. Out there
is here. Stairs, a whining thud, fat-bellied
cicada trapped in a breezeway
flings itself from wall to wall
until it surrenders
to defeat, so much like gravity.
Even with its trident of five eyes,
it is blind to the way through.
Corridor becomes vault. Had it been born
a bluebottle butterfly, it might stand a better chance,
its photoreceptors detecting
a million colors
more than those five eyes,
and far beyond what our feeble pair perceive
(and so believe). We are as wary of spectrometers
and their evidence of hidden hues
as we are of quantum wavefunction
and infrared snapshots of the Kuiper belt. Continue reading “Side Way”

Brain, Determination, Learning

Free Refills

unwavering

Contrary to the ego-depletion hypothesis, participants in the depletion condition did not perform worse than control participants on the subsequent self-control task, even after considering moderator variables. These findings add to a growing body of evidence suggesting ego-depletion is not a reliable phenomenon. . .


– John Lurquin et al, “No Evidence of the Ego-Depletion Effect across Task Characteristics and Individual Differences: A Pre-Registered Study,PLOS One, February 2016

Over the past several months, a number of studies have surfaced suggesting the popular idea of ego depletion may not be a real thing after all.  Possibilities of bias are showing up in the analyses of of studies from the 1990s and 2000s.  At the very least, no one has been able to replicate widely cited studies that led to the notion that willpower, like a muscle, grows fatigued with overuse.

This may be background noise for most of the thinking public.  After all, pop psychology is as ubiquitous as wellness and mindfulness.  The various trends are often jumbled up together, adding to the incessant self-improvement chatter that populates our news feeds.  The nuances are for the researchers, clinicians, and educators.

Maybe, too, for college personnel.

To a person who works with graduate students, this is a sonic boom.

Much of the advice I give students has to do with setting themselves up for academic and professional success.  Students who move steadily through a doctoral program tend to do little things well.  This involves putting in place many small systems across a life’s numerous and unique dimensions.  Implementing basic organizational tools, for example, and actually using those tools are tricky for most of us.  Effective students set up spaces that are conducive to studying.  They outline projects and manage time in a structured way, mapping out hours, days, even years.  In this way, they break a doctoral journey down into manageable chunks.

Students also perform better when their finances are in order, their families on board, their workplaces supportive, and their mental and physical health care structures sturdy.  Taking full advantage of the resources available to them at the university, successful students master research tools and set up study and writing groups with their peers.

These folks aren’t more intelligent or “better students” than their floundering counterparts.  They are simply more organized.  They persist with the systems they implement.

Organization and persistence are not qualities in an of themselves.  More like mosaics,   they are a collection of many small habits coalescing into a general way of being.  These are  habits of mind as much as behavior.  Many students come into a PhD program with skills suited to passing courses on the fly or excelling in their jobs.  Developing a scholarly MO is a different game with different rules.  Setting the pieces in place takes dogged attention to detail.

In order to advise my students effectively, I’ve immersed myself in literature on habit formation.  That branch of psychology has been awash in ego-depletion for the past 10-15 years.  It’s a compelling idea.  I bought into the paradigm that self-discipline, as a limited resource, must be conserved for the important things.  Barack Obama only wears his blue and gray suits and he has someone else select his outfits each day.  He has a country to lead, right?  He shouldn’t be tapping his store of willpower for fashion picks.

Because of this thinking, I’ve developed guidance for students that has to do with putting the hardest work in the early part of the day and reducing the number of “intersections,” or places where a choice is required.  To reduce decision-fatigue and keep that discipline muscle focused where it needs to be, students should cut out the complexity and stick with certain rules.  Pack the same lunch every day.  Take the same route.  Study in the same place.  Carry the same backpack, wear the same shoes.

All of these are great bits advice as long as two conditions are met: 1) ego depletion is a real phenomenon; and 2) a life is predictable enough to support invariability and routine.

I’ll get to point #1 in a moment.  Regarding point #2, let’s ask the next question, with the understanding that a PhD program is a commitment of anywhere from 5-10 years.  Has any of us ever lived through a  5-year period free of change?  Jobs change, rents go up, recreation morphs into addiction.  Partners come or go or get sick.  Families grow, shrink, move. Children need IEPs or swim lessons.  Bus lines get terminated, cars break down, knees blow out.  Libraries close.  Stock markets crash.  Babies are born.

Far more effective than simplicity and routine are adaptability and resilience.

Perhaps I need to look differently at my effective students.  They may have structures in place, and organization is still a critical skill.  That said, a focus on habits may miss a key contributor to the ability develop and stick with habits.  Underneath the external behaviors may be an effective mindset.  Self-concept unites with a particular framing of the world, creating the way we respond to change.  Yes, successful students implement sound structures.  They also adjust those structures as the ground shifts.  They dismantle the parts that were fixed in one place, then redesign and rebuild them to function on new terrain.

How can a person cultivate a growth and adaptation mindset?  It may be time for a new approach in my advising.  While habits are critical, the perceptions from which those habits grow may be equally, if not more, important.  Clearly, I have some work ahead of me.

Regarding point #1. . .

. . .it may not even really matter that much whether ego depletion is “real” or not. What matters is how you think about your own amount of willpower. A very intriguing direction of research is finding the power of a person’s own beliefs about willpower may be what makes the difference here. When people believe their willpower is limitless, they’re more likely to go after personal goals, they’re less likely to burn out, and they’re happier. In a sense, when people believe their willpower is limitless, it turns out to be true.


– Melissa Dahl, “If You Believe your Willpower is Endless, It Is” in New York Magazine

Students who persist and finish a PhD are most likely those who see themselves as capable of maintaining momentum under any circumstance.  It’s true for the rest of us, too, right?  What happens when we think of ourselves as fundamentally resourceful?  When we picture ourselves having a consistent and bottomless capacity for working through the tough stuff?

What happens is this:  As if by magic, the source delivers.  We find a way.


Image: Martin Klein, “Unwavering”

 

 

Family, Learning, Parenting, Relationships

He is of Us, as am I

turkus mother son

. . . a discouraged child tends to focus increasingly on her anxious desire to fit in and quickly loses sight of the needs of others in the family.  Children are always trying to improve their sense of securely belonging as valuable members of the group, and they fear losing that connection.  Therefore, the more the child’s discouragement deepens, the less capable she feels of interacting with others in useful ways.  Instead, she is more likely to resort to misbehavior to connect inappropriately, to feel negatively powerful, and finally to gain at least a perverse sense of respect before giving up when her attempts fail.


– Linda Jessup and Emory Luce Baldwin, Parenting with Courage and Uncommon Sense

My boy has been back with me for a week.  During that time, I have not screamed once.   I have not stormed out to cool down.  We have been on time for camp drop off every morning without a fight.  Bug has gotten himself out of the bath, teeth brushed, and into bed before 9:00 every night without me raising my voice or lifting a finger.

On July 7, I made a commitment to heal our family.  This is a tall order.  A family is more than just one mom and it would seem that one mom alone can’t overhaul a whole family culture.  Each of us can only control ourselves.  As it turns out, this may be the concept that brings the most significant change to our family.

When children are very small and dependent on us, we can haul them out of troubling situations and put them in their cribs at specified times.  We can decide what food is in front of them.  As they get older, this control shifts.  They fight their own playground battles.  They can get up out of bed and turn the light back on.  They can snub dinner and sneak treats from the fridge behind our backs.

A parent cannot control a child.  Control is an illusion.  Dominance as a method of control is an illusion. A parent can withhold, wheedle, punish, threaten, bribe, and ignore, but even with these dangerous tools, a parent cannot control a child.

What a parent can do is model healthy choices and guide a child to build the capacity to navigate the world.

I made a commitment to learn whatever I could to strengthen our family.  The past few weeks, I have planted this commitment into the center of my days.  Between reading and journaling to reflect on the approaches I’ve taken (and might like to try), I’ve immersed myself in a 16-hour Parenting Encouragement Program class.  The process has been intense and even transformative.  That word that usually makes me roll my eyes, but in this case, “transformation” about captures what’s happening here.

My son comes off the day camp bus in a foul mood and immediately lays into me for some perceived slight, like asking him to please hand me the tablet so I can charge it.  He is furious, steaming, telling me he hates me.  These are his steps in our standard friction-filled dance, one we’ve been perfecting for years.

Now, I choose a different dance, one that improvises and responds.  First I catch my breath.  No reaction.  I ask myself quietly to note that Bug’s behavior is a textbook version of discouragement, that he is actually seeking connection and a sense of belonging through a mistaken goal of taking revenge on me.

A parent cannot control a child.  A parent can only control her own choices.

I choose my words with care.  “It seems like something is really bothering you.  I’m sorry it’s hard.  Remember that it’s not okay to call me names or hurt me.  When you are ready to talk about what’s bothering you in a less hurtful way, I am here to listen.”

He continues to simmer and spit but it’s cooling down.  I sit quietly and breathe, remembering that my son is a creative child, he’s bright and resourceful.  That he is learning, as I am.  Even in my silence, I keep my mind on the goal of encouraging him and helping him feel connected and capable.

After a little while, after we’ve moved on to the next phase of our evening, he quietly — almost distractedly — says, “You should write a bad review of that camp.”

“Really?” I say, just as casually.  “And what would I write in this review?”

Then he opens like the sky.  Something happened this morning at the high ropes course.  A misunderstanding, a punishment he felt was unfair.  We talk it through and I match his tone.  Attentive but calm, like this is any old conversation on any old day, not a huge issue.  I do not come up with a list of solutions or reprimand him for what most likely stemmed from his failure to listen to instructions.  I reflect back what I’ve heard and capture what his feelings might have been about this.  Finally, I say, “Would you like to think through what you could do if this happens again?  Or to keep something like it from happening next time?”

Bug shrugs and says “maybe,” then turns to his crafts.  He’s had enough for now.  Enough is fine.  Enough is miles ahead of where we were a month ago.  Enough is a victory.  When and if he does want to tackle the issue, I’ll be ready to help him tap his courage and find his way.

I can only control myself.  The choices I make contain the threads that stitch together this family.  When Bug and I were stumbling through our difficult 9-day stay-cation together in June, this was my commitment:

I am determined to sustain a creative, positive planning attitude for the duration of this stay-cation with my son.  This means I am equally determined to postpone any self-improvement initiative that might divert energy from our formidable endeavor.

Now I see that these two journeys — family health and personal well-being — are part of the same whole.  Indeed, they turn on the same axis.  The more skillful a parent I become, the more loving our relationship, the more encouraged my son, and the more nourishing our home.  From this place, we all grow.  In this place, we thrive.


Image: Pristine Cartera Turkus, “Mother & Child”

Children, Letting Go, Parenting

Language Immersion

water dragon

The motionless dragon in deep waters becomes the prey of the crabs.


– A fortune in a cookie in Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth

My mother is taking a Spanish class.  This is her retirement.  She also teaches ESL several days a week and is active in two book clubs.  Each spring, with a gaggle of bibliophiles, she travels to the UK for a mystery writers’ conference.  She goes to church, putters in the garden, cooks a meal almost every evening to share with my dad, and shows up at Bug’s school events.  She even pops by my house to give Noodle a daily walk while I’m at work.

All of this, and now Spanish.

“I need to do something to keep from being bored,” she says.

In all seriousness.  Bored.

Continue reading “Language Immersion”

Brain, Change, Living in the Moment, Mindfulness

100 Blessings

Spring-Rain

In Jewish tradition, a person should recite 100 berakhot every day.  That’s 100 blessings.

So you are not Jewish.  Or you are.  And you think maybe a blessing is something like prayer.  Or gratitude.  Maybe it’s different too.  Maybe it’s noticing the azalea bush at the foot of the stairs and the way its blossoms began as thin green threads and now, after their full explosion, rest like a grandmother’s hands against damp leaves.

Maybe it’s also praising the rain.  Continue reading “100 Blessings”

Family, Learning, Parenting

Nine Days

Those of us who experience ugliness in our family dynamics often prefer to remain concealed. There is less shame when one stays underground.


– Tracey Watts, “The Explosive Child” in Brain, Child Magazine

In two months, the school year ends. I’ve scheduled the vacation from work. I’ve cancelled the trip to Myrtle Beach. My son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

This is a luxury. Most working parents crave time like this, time with our over-scheduled and growing-too-fast kids. Be grateful, Smirk.

Gratitude yes, it is here. It just happens to be mixed with a shot of dread. I am mystified about how to make the nine days anything but miserable for us both.

How many parents are sitting on a locked vault of tangled up feelings? It can’t just be me.

(Maybe it is just me.)

I’m not very skilled as a parent. Loving, sure. Dedicated and creative and willing to learn. But bumbling, too. Perplexed. The issues that arise are rarely what I predict and never what I’m prepared to face. My responses miss the mark. I careen around our home, swinging between tight-lipped and screeching, in the face of my boy’s constantly shifting needs.

The loving bond that grows dense and loose in my friends’ families is, in ours, a stunted thing. At the end of our weeknights together, when Bug finally stops arguing about homework, bath time, and how many chapters we’re reading, when he finally conks out, I’m sapped. The thought of facing a mere weekend together wears me out.

Nine days?

The thing is, I’m willing to learn. I’ll eagerly dedicate these next two months to preparing for those nine days. My son is nearing tween-hood.  This may be our last best chance to cultivate the trust and connection that he’ll need as he slogs through the tar pit of adolescence. I have a stack of books. And blogs. And habits to practice both in anticipation of what might come and in response to what does. When I turn to it and start learning, it all makes sense. The way forward is clear.

Then almost as soon as it appears, that clarity begins to blur. In creep the other responsibilities. Up goes the volume on their demands. The fact is, only so much of the strife in our home is a result of “parenting” as some discrete set of techniques. Of our troubles, far more than I’d like to admit, arise from me.

I live 23-1/2 of every 24 hours in a state of low-level panic. A thirty minute cardio high is the only thing that reminds me of the world outside my hall of mirrors.

Unresolved financial concerns haunt me. How can I leverage my skills and energy to move into a higher-paying position? With this question nagging, I push harder at work. I submit a conference proposal, step up on a search committee, and get involved in the new DC undergrad internship initiative. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I stay a few feet back from the financial cliff.

The anemia of my social life concerns me. How can I give Bug a strong community of peers if I don’t build one around us? With this question tugging, I reach out to the people around me. I schedule a walk with a girlfriend, volunteer at the Unitarian church auction night, plan a weekend playdate, and put a potluck on the calendar. None of this I have time for, of course, but I do it because I need to ensure that Bug and I are woven into a rich and supportive community.

The paucity of my creative efforts prick at me.  So, too, the half-assed attempts at mindfulness, the chaotic closets and filthy windows, the short shrift I give to the relationship with my Mister, the public meetings I fail to attend for the condo association and local school board and VDOT as they make decisions that upend the value of my home,  the urgent call to action for racial and economic justice, the runaway bad habits of eating too much and staying up too late that destroy my sleep and mood and ability to manage any of this with grace. . .

Does growing into a better parent begin with focusing on “parenting”?

Or with 10 minutes of morning journaling? Or with a commitment to a professional development plan?

With daily exercise and 8 hours of sleep?

With a counselor?

With breath?

With less?

What heals a frayed bond between a 9-year-old boy and his mama?

We love each other, of course. All of this begins and ends in love. This hard work, these questions about how to proceed, they pull at me to build a home that can be my son’s sanctuary and his launch pad. Every question comes down to love.

In its most active, living form, what does love need? As it tries to push itself up from the root, how do we cultivate it?

This question churns under all the others. Sometimes I forget this simple truth, and the details topple me. That is when I roar until my throat fills with mud, and I am swamped with shame. That is when I want to sink into the earth.

And that is precisely when I most need to remember that my love for my son is under everything. It won’t let me sink. It catches me and helps me find my way back to the surface.

Then I — then we — get to keep on learning.

In two months, my son and I will have nine uninterrupted days together.

I have no idea what to do to prepare.

My son and I have nine uncertain years left together.

I have no idea what to do.

I guess I’ll do it anyway.


 

body, community

Injury Reconstruction

Crouching Aphrodite

Follow me here: your brain will begin to change as you do.


– Alexandra Horowitz, On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes

The gait is an oddity.  You scoop now, or maybe swoop.  To walk forward, you have to cover distances along the vertical, an axis you’ve rarely considered. It is as if one torn hinge down below popped a hasp hidden along an adjoining edge.  The door swings upward now.  You must believe in this way of opening.  You must be willing to shift the fulcrum and lean against places you thought were solid.

Adaptation reconfigures the concept of self-reliance.

You are unable to chase down your wild one.  You find people who can. The children of the neighbors whose names you vaguely remember, they invite you because you invite yourself.  Their friends come, chatter and thump, with chocolate glass and athletes’ names stitched onto their backs.  Meat hisses and blackens over a grill.  Your little man plucks a fallen tree from the ground and hurls it across a blossoming acre of sky.  The other one rips a PVC frame from a soccer goal and turns on him.  They tear around the side where ropes and fence posts swallow them up.  Inside, girls scream.  Grease pops, a baby reaches with his crystal mouth for a slice of fruit left on raw wood.

You scale concrete steps and marvel at mechanics which you thought your birthright.  Undeserved, as is every blithe entitlement.  Fleeting, as is every aspect of the truth you trusted enough to ignore.

Pain is a flavor like coffee gone cold.  Good coffee, though.  Oil gleaming on jeweled beans.  Smoke at the edges.

Your joint is a broken tongue slipping around the memory of speed.  This is a small inconvenience.  You are grateful in a wholly unexpected way to those who have tripped over this earth in imperfect bodies.  All the ones who have scrabbled with impossible latches that bar the way to gardens too narrow anyway, or too terraced.  You thank them for every smooth paving stone, every ramp, every handrail.  You are ashamed of your earlier blindness, that disability of of the unimpaired.

The lips of those who see your hitch at first pucker with scars.  Then they chuckle them loose.  “This is just the beginning, you know.”  They are your comrades in arms.  In hips, ankles, in sciatic nerves.  Together with these allies in mortal combat, you watch an enemy front advancing over the horizon.  It moves fast.  It swells in on your flank.

Defeat is inevitable, a foregone conclusion.  You resist nonetheless.  You hold it off and clutch at your inch of territory even as it shrinks in your grip.

You lift your arm and ride its arc.  It will go too, soon enough.  It is here now, though, that crescendo, that cascade.  You lift your ears to the buzz (engine, wasp, feathered wings dipping then gone) and let heat squirm against your bare face.  This wash and flurry grates awake sinew that in its younger, uncracked state felt barely anything all.

You may return to ignorance.  Luck, they say.  This could heal without blade, just a dimming of pain, a steady return to familiar physics.  You welcome the liberation of your attention.

But you know better now.  You know that luck never holds out.  Bones will hollow.  Fluid will vanish from the eyes and reappear in lungs, in ankles, in tiny bubbles scurrying through veins.  Forward motion is a fleeting state.  As is independence.  As is hubris.  Soon you will need bodies stronger than yours to escort you across your days.  The same will happen to your children and neighbors, to your heroes, to everyone you’ve ever loved.

Like the shattering of childbirth, this crack and shift will fade.  Like childbirth, its footsteps will echo.  Its ghosts will walk your body’s locked corridors.

Keep all the hinges oiled.

Hold the keys close.


Image: Crouching Aphrodite (Venus) at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme (National Roman Museum)

Children, Learning, Parenting

Back To Each Other

BlessedNest

Think of your child as a plant who is programmed by nature to grow and blossom. If you see the plant has brown leaves, you consider if maybe it needs more light, more water, more fertilizer. You don’t criticize it and yell at it to straighten up and grow right.

Kids form their view of themselves and the world every day. They need your encouragement to see themselves as good people who are capable of good things. And they need to know you’re on their side. If most of what comes out of your mouth is correction or criticism, they won’t feel good about themselves, and they won’t feel like you’re their ally. You lose your only leverage with them, and they lose something every kid needs: to know they have an adult who thinks the world of them.


– From “Building a Great Relationship with your Child” in Aha! Parenting

On our spring break trip to California, my son rounded up other kids at the hotel pool and played for 4 hours without pause.  At the San Diego Botanical Gardens, he climbed up into tangled two-story treehouse and built a shelter out of balsa wood.  On one bright morning, he hiked with his grandma and me through the hills at Torrey Pines as Pacific tides lapped at the cliffs.

He also fought, screamed, raged, cried, hit, kicked, and hurled insults.  Every single day at every point of conflict, his body went rigid with defiance.  He said hateful things.  He brought his grandmother and cousin to tears.  Me, to worse.

Continue reading “Back To Each Other”

Change, Purpose, Reading

Book a Ride

A public library is the most democratic thing in the world. What can be found there has undone dictators and tyrants: demagogues can persecute writers and tell them what to write as much as they like, but they cannot vanish what has been written in the past, though they try often enough…People who love literature have at least part of their minds immune from indoctrination.


– Doris Lessing

I forgo my usual lunchtime inertia and go for a walk instead. It helps that the sun is peeking out today. It helps that I decided to quit bitching and do something about my stalled commitment.

This walk is no stroll across campus. I’m on a mission.

The downtown library is 1.5 miles from my office. My empty shopping bag flops against my side as I pass the fire station and the Thai restaurant. The library door is narrow but opens into a space as capacious as an easy chair. Preschoolers chatter. Glass up to the ceiling lets the day drift in and wander.

The stacks seem to lean ever so slightly in my direction, meeting my momentum. I weave first through  biographies and then head to the 323s.

The collection I slide through the scanner includes Sylvia Mendez, Mahalia Jackson, Sun Ra. Picture books, bright covers, gritty stories that betray a hidden gleam. Into the bag. Cesar Chavez. A walk up Lincoln’s steps. Elizabeth Cady Stanton catches a lift. So does Toussaint Louverture.

Reading does not equal action. Reading does build the momentum towards it. It opens the hood. It invites a look inside.

I hike the same 1.5 miles back to my office. An afternoon of spreadsheets and graduation planning is waiting.

Sun warms my face. The overstuffed bag presses into my shoulder. It is uphill all the way but the climb feels like something else entirely. Like a neglected engine when it finally hums awake. Like when a latch pops and the light streams in.