The Last Child In The Woods

I was an outdoor kid. During my early childhood, I was good friends with the girls who lived on my cul-de-sac, and in the classic suburban way my friends and I would roam our neighborhood in the afternoons until we were called home for dinner.

A few years later, my family had an extra-large backyard, and I remember summers spent digging in the dirt, climbing pine trees covered in sap, and exploring the kudzu ditches in my neighborhood alone and with friends. I would often go outside and not come back for hours, or not until it got dark.

It strikes me that my memories of summers spent largely outdoors are perhaps typical of suburban/rural children of my age and older, but are becoming increasingly rare for the children that I teach and for children my son’s age. Both the free-range parenting nature of my childhood experiences and the screen-free way my friends and I entertained ourselves would probably be considered rare today.

Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder is a book about children’s increasing lack of exposure to nature that was published 11 years ago. Here is a summary:

 In this groundbreaking new work, child advocacy expert Richard Louv directly links the lack of nature in the lives of today’s wired generation—he calls it nature deficit—to some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as rises in obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), and depression.

Nature-deficit disorder is not a medical condition; it is a description of the human costs of alienation from nature. This alienation damages children and shapes adults, families, and communities. There are solutions, though, and they’re right in our own backyards. Last Child In The Woods is the first book to bring together cutting-edge research showing that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development—physical, emotional, and spiritual. What’s more, nature is a potent therapy for depression, obesity, and ADD. Environment-based education dramatically improves standardized test scores and grade point averages and develops skills in problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making. Even creativity is stimulated by childhood experiences in nature.

I would be the first to tell you that a lot of the rhetoric about what’s wrong with”kids these days” (participation trophies, helicopter parenting, special snowflakes, etc. ) is dumb and overblown. But modern children’s lack of exposure to the outdoors is real. I see it frequently in the children that I teach, and I see its effects. (And don’t get me started on the issue of the lack of recess in too many schools.)  It’s depressing to think that since this book was published before smartphones and iPads were prevalent, many children’s “nature-deficit disorder” is surely worse now – because lots of their time is spent staring at a screen.

As for me, I hit puberty and stopped going outdoors as much. My idea of fun changed – outside was too hot, or cold, or boring. I really didn’t rediscover my love of nature until we had Jonah. Like many babies, any time he was fussy taking him outside immediately helped. We’d take long walks with the stroller and he would settle, and then fall asleep. Later I would put his bouncer on the deck and he would be happy as can be. “Outside!” was one of his first requests.

These days Jonah is in full-on explorer mode in nature. He is my lover of small things: acorns and pebbles and spiders and leaves. Daily, I see the benefits that Louv, the author of Last Child In The Woods, promises: problem-solving (how can I stack these three rocks on top of each other?), creativity (“a baby pinecone, Mommy!”), curiosity (“what’s that?”), and mood stabilization, to name a few.

I recently told an as-yet childless friend that nature is an essential part of my parenting. Being outside is mood-stabilizing for me, too, and it helps us keep Jonah’s screen time to a minimum.

It also helps me let Jonah take appropriate risks. Sure, you can walk on that (small) retaining wall in the backyard! Yes, that’s a bumblebee and if you don’t bother it, it probably won’t bother you. We can go sit on the dock by the lake but stay close to Mommy! I notice the difference between Jonathan and myself on this. Though I wasn’t there, it sounds like Jonathan was pretty much an indoor kid, and he is definitely an indoor adult. When he is outside with us he typically has several cautions: Be careful of bees! Bugs! Slipping and falling! Sunburn! Which is fine, and could even be a good counterpoint to my approach. But I can see that time spent outside is helping Jonah grow up fearless, confident and self-reliant.

Right now I’m planning what Jonah and I will do during our upcoming summer together. It’s going to involve lots of parks, swimming and hiking. I can’t wait.

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10 Things I’ve Told Myself This Week

My mind is almost always going a mile a minute – pondering, reflecting, planning. Is this okay? or What will happen if _____? or What do I think about ____? Here are a few things I’ve been saying to myself this week. See if you notice a theme.

1. It’s okay to stay home from the gym this week; you’re sick!

2. It’s okay to leave work to go to the doctor. They can survive without you for one     afternoon.

3. Yes, you and Jonathan are doing a good job managing Jonah’s screen time.

4. You’re not a bad mom for having a babysitter two Saturday nights in a row.

5. You’re not a bad mom for taking a few minutes for yourself between getting home from work and picking up Jonah from Nonni’s.

6. It’s okay that you haven’t written a blog post in a while.

7. You will have a job next year. (More to come about this, perhaps.)

8. You and Jonathan and doing a good job with the dogs. They are loved, happy and healthy.

9. It’s time to find some friends here. But the thought of that is pretty exhausting!

10. You can’t do much about the fact that the world seems to be going to hell right now. Do what you can and focus on the positive.

 

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What has your self-talk sounded like this week?

Why Do My Son’s Books Contain Only White People?

The other day while reading to Jonah, I noticed something that really disturbed me.

We were reading Policeman Small by Lois Lenski, a classic for toddlers and preschoolers.

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See it?

I noticed the same thing in a Curious George book.

Crowds of people, and all of them white.

All of Jonah’s books aren’t like this, but too many of them are. And I’m not ok with that.

Part of the issue is that we have a lot of classic children’s books, written decades ago by white authors. Policeman Small was originally published in 1962, and the Curious George series was published in the 1940s.

There were plenty of black Americans and other people of color living in this country during that time, so that’s not an excuse, of course.

What bothers me the most is when I start thinking about the reasons why an author/illustrator might include only pictures of white people in his book.

Was the illustrator’s ideal of a perfect little town all homogeneously white? Did he just not think to include black characters in even the smallest way? Was this an intentional, racist decision? Did these illustrations reflect the reality the author saw around her?

As a parent I start to feel pretty troubled when I delve down deep into these issues. If as a rule my child’s books contain only white people, what lesson does that teach about what the world is supposed to look like? About what kinds of people should be included in a neighborhood, school, church or city?

Am I participating in systems of oppression by reading my child books that look like this?

In my mind this also harks back to the election, and the unsettling discovery of just how divided the U.S. electorate is right now. A quote:

“The biggest difference between the two parties is the urban-rural divide…Politically, that translates into race and identity as the main political dividing line. Rural and exurban America is very white, and generally inward-looking. Urban America is very diverse and cosmopolitan.” (Source: NBC )

Many Trump voters live in places that look a lot like these books, and that they want to keep looking a lot like these books. Or perhaps used to look like this and do no longer. We see where, and to whom, that attitude has led us.

And that’s not an image I want to present to my son as an ideal.

I’ve written before about the fact that my childhood did look a lot like these books. I experienced essentially zero racial or cultural diversity until I was about 13 years old, when I switched from private to public school. This is one area where I feel that my parents really fell down on the job. (Love you Mom and Dad.) I am determined to do better.

Jonah’s external environment is already going to be very different because of living in a diverse urban city. But Jonathan and I are committed to exposing him to diverse examples of all the different ways that people can look through the media that he experiences at home.

Jonah is going to be getting The Snowy Day , a masterpiece of children’s literature featuring a black main character, and a few other books by this same author for his birthday. My goal over the next year is going to be to diversify his collection to include more books featuring diverse characters.

Easier said than done, perhaps: Children’s books, particularly fiction books, are overwhelmingly white.

Do you have a suggestion for a diverse children’s book or series that is appropriate for toddlers and preschoolers? I’d love to hear it!

 

What I’ve Learned from Being White in a Black World

I am a white woman. All my life, I have been surrounded by people who looked just like me. Though I have lived in many different places, starting when I was a child the one constant I could be sure of was that when I walked in to a space, I would find many people who looked and talked like I did. This affected how I carried myself, my comfort level and my confidence. No matter where I went, I felt like I belonged and like I had a right to be there. This was true of my schools, churches, workplaces, stores, etc. You name it.

I have never been the minority. Until now.

In my new life in Atlanta, it is common for me to walk into places (especially in and around where I work) and be one of only a few white people there. At first I felt uncomfortable to stand out so much. I felt like I was being watched or judged for being different when I just wanted to blend in. My own voice sounded strange and awkward to my ears. At work, kids had lots of questions about my eyes and hair, because most of them had never had a white teacher before.

And then it hit me…this is how life is for people of color EVERY. DAY. Times about 100.

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Atlanta. image via pixabay.com

When we first moved, I felt some trepidation when I entered a space as the only white person in the room. Now I’m more used to it. I’m making friends and fitting in. I have been treated with respect and kindness everywhere I have gone, but it has taken some getting used to, this feeling like maybe you don’t quite belong. Even if no one says anything.

So what I’m realizing in a whole new way is how much harder it is for a person of color in a white environment, when unfortunately white people often DO say something. When white people often perform microaggressions upon people of color on a daily basis and think nothing of it.

I’ve also seen how, as a white minority, I still benefit from white privilege everywhere I go. I can go into a sketchy-looking gas station with bullet-proof glass around the cash register and not have to worry about anyone bothering me, or about the cashier staring at me to make sure my hands are visible at all times. Instead, people tell me I look like a teacher and thank me for what I do. True story. (More than once.)

When I see a cop, I don’t have to worry too much about being stopped by him or her, and about what might happen if I did get stopped. Even though I have a tendency to speed and my car tag is out of date. (Oops.) I don’t have to be scared of an interaction with the police.

So I am thankful. I’m thankful for this experience of life as a minority, and I wish I could have had it earlier. I lived in a comfortable, sheltered suburban white Christian bubble for far too long, and one of the reasons I’m happy we moved to Atlanta is that my son’s experience is going to be different.

Jonah will learn early that there are lots of different kinds of people in the world and that white is not the “right” way to look and act. He will have classmates and friends of different races from an early age. He will learn that diversity is beautiful, that the world does not look like an evangelical church on Sundays. He will learn that as a white, privileged person he can be a voice against society’s subjugation of black Americans and other minority groups.

If you as a white person have never been in the minority anywhere, I suggest you try it. White people can never truly understand the daily experiences of people of color, but flipping the script and engaging in an environment that’s not all about you is a good place to start.

Rainy day reflections

I’m sitting here at Barnes and Noble, drinking an iced coffee and eating a pumpkin muffin. Today it’s raining all day, but it feels like fall, and that is something to be celebrated. Jonathan encouraged me to steal a couple of hours away this afternoon (sweet man!). I should be working on guided reading lesson plans, which is purportedly what I came here to do, but instead I want to return to my long-neglected blog.

I haven’t been writing for a couple of reasons: 1) I forgot how much creativity good teaching requires. I also forgot how tired I am by the end of the day. After Jonah is asleep and I have time to myself I haven’t been able to muster the energy or creativity to write anything. 2) I have been deliberating on what to write publicly about my job. More on that below.

We’ve been in Atlanta as a family for a little over a month now. For the most part, the transition has been a dream. For example:

  1. We absolutely love our new home. We are settled in and about 97% of the way unpacked. The house is such a blessing for our family and so much more than we could ever have afforded or expected to have on our own without family support.
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    Our backyard view
  2. Jonah has transitioned amazingly well to my mom watching him during the week. He didn’t seem to really be phased by the change. He absolutely loves his Nonni and looks forward to going to her house. At the same time, he talks often (every day or two) about all of the family we left behind in NC. When Jonathan’s parents visited over Labor Day, Jonah picked back up with them as though we had never been apart. I like to think that his heart is big enough to hold love for the multitude of people who inhabit his world.14262843_1607457612887825_1594653374_n
  3. Jonathan quickly and easily got a job working from home that he will likely be able to continue once he starts school in the spring.
  4. We think we have found a new church home here.
  5. I’m loving my job. If you remember, during my job search I got a very, very strong sense that this job was the one that was right for me, though the others seemed to make more sense practically. I haven’t been disappointed.

As I mentioned above, I’ve made the decision that the wisest course of action is not to talk about my job in detail on the blog. This may seem like CYA (cover your …), but my school system tends to get a fair amount of attention, and I’m just trying to be smart. Here are the important points:

  • I feel more effective than I ever have as an ESL teacher. The time away from the classroom in an administrative role made me a better teacher.
  • I feel respected. I’m not a novice teacher anymore. It’s nice to have people come to me for help instead of it always being the other way around.
  • I like working with almost all older students. Upper elementary, baby!
  • Many days I am home at 3:30. That is something I never would have predicted when we decided to move to Atlanta.

6. I feel a great sense of balance in my life since we moved. Jonathan and I are getting         more date nights out and quality time together than we have since Jonah was born. Being home earlier in the afternoon means more time with Jonah. Even though I’m now commuting 25 minutes to work, I’m actually spending less time in the car than I did this previous year between taking Jonah to and from daycare, going to and from tutoring, my in-laws house, etc.

This will have to be all for now. Thanks to everyone who hung around and waited for a new post from me! I promise it won’t be this long until the next time I write. In the meantime…enjoy fall!

I am not the Pinterest mom.

I saw a funny Buzzfeed video a while ago about the different kinds of moms you meet.

Apparently there are five different types: the PTA mom, the hipster mom, the crunchy mom, the parenting expert and the hot mess mom. (Not sure where I fit here…maybe a bit of parenting expert, crunchy and hot mess, all rolled into one?)

I would like to respectfully submit one more: the Pinterest mom.

Mother and her kid making chestnuts creatures
Chestnut creatures, anyone?

We all know the Pinterest mom. She does homemade crafts with her children on the regular. She takes family photos on holidays with all offspring in coordinating outfits. She makes her children’s Halloween costumes and does Elf on a Shelf. She thoroughly documents each moment of her children’s lives with baby books, scrapbooks and photo albums. She throws elaborate, themed birthday parties for toddlers with a professional photographer present. She always remembers to squeeze every last ounce of special out of her children’s special days.

Well, this is not me. At all.

I am not great at this aspect of modern parenting. I typically don’t think to take a family photo on holidays until about 10 pm when Jonah has been asleep for hours. The idea of doing a craft with my toddler fills me with dread. I would theoretically like to create a scrapbook for my son but I doubt I would ever actually follow through with it. I forgot to get Jonah an Easter basket until everyone else’s photos appeared on Facebook.

I don’t know exactly why I’m so bad at all of this. Maybe it’s the combination of having a busy life plus a general lack of craftiness/artistic ability that just makes me generally bad at all things Pinterest-y.

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I often feel some guilt and anxiety over this, and I haven’t been able to get on Pinterest much since Jonah was born because of it. Not doing the things that most of my contemporaries seem to do with their children makes me feel like somewhat of a failure as a parent. Did a fun day really happen if I forgot to document it? Is Easter still special for my 15-month old if I forgot to get him a gift? Do I still have a beautiful family if we don’t have many photos all together? WILL JONAH BE UPSET AS AN ADULT TO NOT HAVE A BABY BOOK???!!!

I’m trying to remember that these things look good, but they don’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things. They’re extra.

Instead, I’m trying to focus on the ways I am really knocking it out of the park as a parent. Jonah loves being read to, and books are his favorite toys, because we have read to him every day from birth. He is extremely friendly and social. His vocabulary is exploding. He isn’t a picky eater and regularly eats lots of different kinds of foods, such as Thai, Mexican, Vietnamese and Chinese. He is obviously intelligent. He is such a happy, loving little guy. I like to think that means we’re doing a lot of things right.

And honestly, I think focusing on the positive is the answer to so many of our issues around insecurity and anxiety as mothers. Cut yourself some slack, mama…you’re doing fine.

And for all the Pinterest moms…I salute you and your crafty ways! Want to come make/plan/organize some of that stuff for me?

What about you? Do you love Pinterest or does it stress you out?

This post originally appeared on BlogHer.

Nature vs. Nurture vs. The Luck of the Draw

A few days ago, I heard my friend say that pregnancy and birth were undeniable miracles. I’ve been thinking about that a lot this week. I obviously agree, and I want to expand on the idea: The way children grow and develop is also a miracle. The process by which tiny squishy babies with–let’s face it–not much personality develop into little people full of thoughts, knowledge and opinions of their own is amazing.

Watching Jonah becoming himself is fascinating to me. At almost 19 months, he says or does something every day that he wasn’t able to say or do the day before. His personality is really emerging, and it’s so interesting to try to trace where each trait, each element that makes Jonah himself, came from.

Jonah

Becoming a parent has made me think a lot about the concept of nature vs. nurture. (There’s nothing like parenthood to make you apply heavy ideas like this to yourself for the first time.) How much of any human is determined by genetics, and how much is determined by the conditions under which they were raised? How much of what a person is like is subject to chance, or the luck of the draw? I know that there are scientists who are experts in this stuff who can provide some insight on this subject, but honestly, I think no one can know for sure.

I can clearly see elements of Jonathan and myself in Jonah’s personality. He has Jonathan’s good humor, mischievous smile and extraversion. He has my sensitive and affectionate nature. Jonah and I seem to like a lot of the same things. I think these things can be traced to genetics?

On the other side, I can also see how our parenting is shaping Jonah. A good example is with reading. I knew that we were supposed to read to him from birth, so that’s what I did, even though for a long time he wasn’t very interested. I would read to him for short amounts of time, multiple times a day, and stop when he wanted to do something else. And one day, when Jonah was around 11 months old, it just clicked. He started to bring books to me to read, and he would pick them up to “read” to himself. Now, books are by far his favorite things, more than any other toy. And that’s something I’m proud of, because I feel it is a direct result of our parenting. I see how all the reading is benefiting him; his vocabulary is exploding. New words learned from books in the last week are “bike,” “George,” “boat,” “purple” and “home.” I hope Jonah is a lifelong reader.

Jonah reading

When people say that parenting is a weighty, scary responsibility, this is what they are talking about. The challenge of raising a child to a happy, productive adulthood, to play such a large role in who he or she becomes, and to do it well, can seem like an enormous task that is easy to screw up. And it is! No argument from me there.

What do you think about nature vs. nature vs. chance? Which matters the most in who a person becomes?