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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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!

 

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?

I Had An Easy Baby.

I had an easy baby. There. I said it.

It’s the kind of thing you don’t like to admit in a mixed group for fear of offending someone. It sounds like gloating–like someone talking about how they can eat anything they want and not gain weight. But it’s true.

Jonah has been easy from the very beginning. I only threw up once during my pregnancy. Once I got past the first trimester I felt pretty energetic. My blood pressure unexpectedly went up at around 36 weeks, but even with preeclampsia I pretty much felt fine. Even though my labor had to be induced, it only lasted about 10 hours, and I had an amazingly positive experience. I only had to push for 45 minutes.

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Jonah latched easily and nursed well from the beginning. None of us got much sleep for the first month or so, but after he started sleeping through the night at about six weeks I began to think maybe I could handle this parenting thing after all.

Jonah has turned into a real extrovert who is generally entertained whenever he’s around lots of people. He is happy at daycare during the day, happy with grandma on his days with her, and happy with us at home at night (unless he hasn’t napped–then not so much). In general, he has always been an unusually pleasant baby who seemed to not cry much and to be soothed easily when he did get upset.

As he’s become a toddler, these characteristics continue–so far. For the most part, he eats what we put in front of him. He goes to bed with a minimum amount of struggle. Even though we are starting to get into the tantrum stage, he is still remarkably sanguine most of the time. Being around Jonah is fun. (Notwithstanding the things that are just hard about toddler life.)

Though I think we were just lucky that Jonah was born a good-humored little guy, Jonathan and I have been very intentional about doing certain things in our parenting to help keep it this way. We plan our days around his sleep schedule. We don’t expect him to sit still and quiet for long periods of time in public–it’s not gonna happen anyway, and it would only end in tears for everyone involved. Jonah and I spend a lot of time outside. But I would not say that we have done anything extraordinary, or that we have some secret to share for raising a happy child that other parents don’t know.

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It sounds awful to say that having an easy baby isn’t what I expected, but it’s true. I expected parenting to be harder than it’s been so far. You don’t hear a lot about easy babies–instead, you hear the horror stories, about babies with colic who cry for hours, about babies who refuse to sleep through the night well past 12 months old, etc. I’m not sure if this is because parents with difficult babies talk about it more as a way to commiserate, but I know that, so far, parenting has been easier than I was led to believe it would be.

While it’s good to be prepared for the difficulties that may lie ahead, I think all of the negative stories do a disservice to expectant parents. Expecting to not sleep and to not be able to go anywhere for months on end is not the best way to approach a major life change. If I could give any advice to moms-to-be, it would be this: There will certainly be hard moments, but consider the possibility that life with a baby may not be as hard as you fear.

When people meet Jonah they typically have one of two responses:

  1. It’ll change when he turns 2.
  2.  Just wait till the next one!

In a way I know we are due, if things work like that. We’ll see on both counts!

Recipe of the Week: Sesame Garlic Beef Tacos

A couple of weeks ago I shared the recipe for the white chili I was making that night, and a lot of people really liked it! So from now on I am planning to post one recipe a week–whatever I happen to be cooking that I think readers will like and be interested in.

Funny story about how I came to find this fusion taco recipe: Last week at work I was preparing for a children’s event when I discovered that I had forgotten to prepare a crucial component of one of the craft activities, thereby resulting in me needing to cut out 2,450 magazine pictures in 2.5 days. Yes. That happened.

So as I was in the midst of cutting out pictures from Better Homes and Gardens I came across this recipe for sesame garlic beef tacos. I was about to cut up the page when I looked again and decided to save it instead. I made it for dinner this past Tuesday. I’m so glad that I did, because it was really, really good. And easy. Even with a crying toddler clinging to your leg.

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Here is the recipe:

Sesame Garlic Beef Tacos

These are beef tacos with a pickled slaw on top, topped with Siracha for extra heat.

Time start to finish: 30 minutes (*Note: This actually took 30 minutes, and it always takes me longer than what they say.)

  • 8 white or yellow corn tortillas (I used corn.)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 2 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 cup reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 3 tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp. rice vinegar
  • 1 tbsp. water
  • 1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper

 

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Stack tortillas, wrap in foil. Heat 10 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, brown ground beef in a large skillet. Drain fat, set aside.
  3. Add sesame oil to skillet. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds over medium heat or until lightly browned. Stir in soy sauce, brown sugar, rice vinegar, water and crushed red pepper. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Simmer, uncovered, 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Return beef to skillet, heat through.
  4. To serve, spoon beef onto tortillas. Using a slotted spoon, top with Quick Pickled Cucumbers and Slaw (below). Serve with lime wedges and Siracha for extra heat if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Quick Pickled Cucumbers and Slaw:

In a medium bowl, whisk together 1/4 cup rice vinegar, 2 tbsp. sugar, and 1/2 tsp. salt. Add 1 cup very thinly sliced cucumbers and 1 cup shredded red cabbage. Let stand 15 minutes or up to 6 hours.

1 taco: 250 calories

My whole family really liked this. I actually plan to make it again next week! (Gotta use up that whole head of cabbage now.) Next time I’m going to make it a little spicier as I thought the flavor was a little on the sweet side if you didn’t add Siracha. And I also overcooked the beef while making this due to the aforementioned crying toddler, so I’d like to see how much better it will be the second time.

Ease of making recipe while simultaneously caring for a young child: Difficulty level 1/5

If you make this, let me know how you like it!