When I Grow Up

Love Is the Foundation for Special Sibling Bond

Donna, Donald and Lee celebrating Lee’s 76th birthday

Guest post by Donna Venturi

A week ago today I lost my brother, Lee Bennett Hopkins. Lee was my first male love. He was a big brother to Donald and I and a father image to me. His nickname was Mickey. On my 8th birthday he took me to my first Broadway show, “Fanny.” He started a drama club at my elementary school where he had 50 kids from the projects performing in plays that he wrote and produced. I am still in touch with some of them today and they brag about which role they had in his plays. Lee made everyone feel like a star.

When I married my husband Tony, he told me I got the best. On the day our first daughter, Kimberly, was born, he and his partner Misha came from New York to New Jersey and gave her an angel, the first of a collection that grew each year. We asked him to be her godfather and he didn’t hesitate. He was honored. Our brother Donald’s son was born a few years later and was named Donald Bennett. When we moved to the Midwest, Lee and I still spoke on the phone at least twice a week. When our second daughter was born, I called to tell him the news; he was so excited that we named her Jennifer Lee.

Years went by, but we always remained close. We traveled together to London and Mexico and got together whenever possible. We moved back east and our kids grew up. Kimberly married Stephen and they have four beautiful children, Danielle, ToniLynn, Joseph and Kayleigh. Our Jennifer married Brian and they have two beautiful children, Erin and Connor. Each of the six of them has a book dedicated to them from Uncle Lee, and they all have a love of books and the theatre. Lee taught them right. Lee’s partner Misha died in 2002. It was a loss for our family as we all loved him as a brother and an uncle. Years later, Lee and his new partner sold their homes in NY and moved to Florida. At last I was able to spend more time with him. For ten years we talked on the phone every day. We went on trips, had parties and every Sunday for ten years they came to my house for dinner and dominoes.

Although we lived minutes from one another, the last five years the phone calls stopped. Due to a misunderstanding, we didn’t speak, but I kept the emails he sent me, telling me he loved and missed me and I would always be his baby.

Last Wednesday as he lay in the hospital, he told a friend that was visiting that he wanted his sister. This woman, Sue, and another, Cathy, who I now call my angels, went to great lengths to get in touch with me. I got to the hospital and for hours we laughed and cried and told each other how much we loved one another. He held my hand and squeezed it as if not to let go. Anyone who was dear to Lee knew that hand. When I said goodbye that day, I kissed him, told him I loved him and that he will always be my Shining Star. I miss him, his humor, that crazy laugh, the twinkle in his eyes.

There will never be another Lee Bennett Hopkins. Besides leaving his books, he leaves a family who loves him. Each one of us carries his genes. I find it interesting that he has two nieces; one is a writer and the other a teacher. Now that says so much for LEE BENNETT HOPKINS. He will be missed by us all.


The World of Children’s Literature Lost a Legend, I Lost My Uncle

While most know Lee Bennett Hopkins as a legend in the world of children’s poetry, to me he was much more. He was my uncle, my godfather, a huge part of my life growing up. He was funny and playful, he was opinionated and blunt, he was generous and usually kind. We didn’t always agree, in fact we had “words” more than once, but I never doubted that he adored me (and the feeling was mutual). I know that those who knew him, as well as many in the world of children’s poetry share my sorrow at his death.

He celebrated the day I was born and for the first few years of my life, was a regular visitor in our home, stopping by after work to see what new thing I had learned. When my dad’s career took us several states away, he kept in touch via letters, many of which I am pleased to say recently came into my possession. He also visited as often as he could afford, bringing extra energy and laughter to our small household.

 

All dressed up for my first Broadway show

 

As years passed, I became the recipient of many books – I didn’t have to visit the public library, my personal one had enough quality children’s literature to keep me busy for hours. We moved back to the East Coast when I was seven, the perfect age to be introduced to new and exciting experiences. Uncle Lee took me to see my first Broadway show, “No No Nannette” and started an annual tradition. He took me to children’s book conferences where I met some of my heroes – the authors of those books I devoured deep into each night. Together we explored some of New York City’s treasures:  Central Park Zoo, the Cloisters, St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Shrine (where at age 8, I was fascinated yet intimidated at the thought a real woman was displayed in a glass box). Though he had seen all these before, he viewed them through my eyes and took delight in my excitement.

Each summer I spent a week at his condo overlooking the Hudson River. He spent part of these days working, while I spent time chatting with Uncle Misha, his partner of 40 plus years who passed away in 2002, hanging out with Matt (a neighbor around my age), or went through his library, selecting new-to-me books to read on the balcony or out by the pool. Each time I arrived, there was a stack of books specially chosen to match my interests, alongside another stack of books, all of which I was free to take home if I wished.

The week always included a trip into The City (New York will always be The City to me) to see a show and sometimes also a trip to Rye Playland. Though there were some rides he preferred to watch me experience, he was happy to join in the fun on others. The Ferris wheel was one of his favorites (though not mine and honestly I think that is his fault). I have always loved the carousel; so that was a “must ride” and he was more than willing to join me. As I write this, I can see his face, laughing as he rode a painted pony up and down alongside or behind me.

Perhaps my favorite amusement park memory was when my sister and I convinced him to go on the Rotor with us. For those not familiar, this ride is a circular room with carpeted sides. After the door closes, the room spins;  pushing riders against the walls. Then, the floor drops out while riders remain stuck to the walls. As the ride slows, everyone slowly drops to the floor. On this day, that’s exactly what happened, to everyone but Uncle Lee. He was wearing corduroy pants, and while we all slid down, he remained six feet above us. Of course, everyone laughed and pointed. Though the situation was funny, it was the look on his face that was priceless. Today, I recognize the look as the same one my grandmother (his mother) also had when surprised: eyes large, mouth a gaping oval. He did exclaim, repeatedly “Oh, my goodness” (As an adult, I’m certain my exclamations would be different.) He did eventually slide down the wall to join us and we had an adventure for the memory banks to talk and laugh about later.

We are fortunate to have captured many family moments

 

Of course as an adult, our relationship changed. I got married, had kids and our visits were less frequent. The distance made in-person time more difficult. Yet we managed. When he established the Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Awards, the whole family was invited to accompany him to the ceremony. The first was held at the PA governor’s mansion and was an incredible thing to be a part of.  Subsequent years, I was his guest and though I enjoyed the time at the ceremonies, chatting with the award winners and making new friends at the after parties, even better was having that one-on-one time with him alone afterwards to rehash it all.

The first Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award went to Ashley Bryon for his book Sing to the Sun

In 2009, he was awarded the NCTE Excellence in Poetry for Children Award. As luck would have it, the conference that year was a short train ride away from me. I jumped at the chance to spend even an afternoon with him, despite the fact that some of that time would involve him speaking and I knew I’d have to share time with many others.

I first heard Uncle Lee speak when I was in high school. Up until then, though I knew what he did for a living, I didn’t quite realize the impact he had. That day several decades ago, I saw him captivate a room, talking about one of my favorite things: books. I saw and heard the admiration from a group of librarians.

At NCTE, I saw another side. Somehow organizers managed to keep it from him, but person after person walked to the podium to explain the impact he made in their careers and even their lives. Sitting there with him, I couldn’t have been prouder. Along with other attendees, I went home with a special edition of poems written in his honor. The short book, Dear One was named for the salutation in many of his emails. (I like several others, thought I was the only “Dear One.”) Unfortunately, that was the last time I would have the opportunity to hear him speak publicly.

In May 2014, I traveled to Hershey, PA, where we had enjoyed so many Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award celebrations, but this time he wouldn’t be there. One afternoon he called to tell me he was going to be presented with the Pennsylvania School Librarians’ Association Outstanding Pennsylvania Author award. Since he no longer traveled much, he wanted to know if I would be willing to go accept the award in his stead. Though I would have rather accompanied him, of course I agreed.  Though he hadn’t heard of this award before, he was genuinely astounded and flattered at the company he would be joining.

After much consideration about what to say, I decided to share a bit about the man; everyone already knew about the legend. I shared how he fostered a love a books and therefore a love of learning.  I shared how we spent time doing fun things, how he encouraged me to write to a favorite author, resulting in years of correspondence.  I shared how I saw him, as a loving uncle, who happened to also be a famous writer. Though I considered closing as he would, with a reading of his poem, “Good Books, Good Times,” instead I chose a line from my favorite among his books, Been to Yesterdays (which I was honored to have the opportunity to read pre-publication). This line is one that speaks to me more than others.

 

To

Make

This world

A whole lot

Brighter

When

I

Grow up

I’ll

Be

A writer

 

 

Good bye, Uncle Lee, and God Bless. Thank you, for the Good Books, but especially for the Good Times.

(Hugs to Grandma and Uncle Misha.)

 

Just a sampling of the treasures entrusted to me…

 

A “great new paperback, GOODNiGHT MOON” – What a hoot!


Flashes of Womanhood

Jolted awake at 2 (or 3 or 4) am.

There is no baby crying

No toddler is at the side of my bed, staring me awake

There is no feverish child, looking for comfort

No teen is arriving home too late, trying to quietly creep to a bedroom,

The phone is silent; there is no emergency afar

 

This is a new stage

A warm wave washes over me, a reminder that the baby-making days are done

No regrets come with this reminder, just occasional melancholy

I miss the baby snuggles, the soft pats, seeing those “lightbulb” moments of toddlerhood

Like most parents, I wish I had played more, listened more, been fully present more

But active parenting is now in my past

 

Now that I am awake, the brain has been turned on

Tomorrow I have to remember to do X, Y and Z. Why didn’t I write that down?

How does anyone survive night after night of broken sleep?

Do other people simply fake being awake and functional?

Will the bags under my eyes ever go away?

Will I ever sleep through the night again? Have I asked this question before?

 

This is a phase that no one talks about, except to make jokes – Why?

Because all women go through it and we feel the need to “just suck it up?”

Because our lives have been blessed, so we can’t complain?

Because it means we truly have reached the other side?

Because it’s “impolite” and we might make others uncomfortable?

Why do we care what others think?

 

There is no good reason

This is a completely natural process

Why do we go through this alone?

We should talk about it more

Pass me a cold drink and a fan

 

 


Why We Should Just “Wear the Damn Swimsuit”

Wear the Damn Swimsuit: Lessons and Stories From Cancer and Life, by Ashli Brehm is an honest, encouraging and often funny account of her life with cancer. Diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 33, she recounts her feelings and worries and coping mechanisms in a frank and engaging way.

An accomplished blogger before the diagnosis, Ashli (I’m using her first name rather than the customary last because readers of her blog quickly feel more like friends) continued to write through her treatment, undoubtedly helping many others along the way. Her refrain to “Wear the damn swimsuit” references something many of us can relate to: a reluctance to be seen in public in such a revealing manner, and the realization she came to: such worries steal joy. While she acknowledges that there is a time for pity parties and that it’s okay to grumble about the negatives, focusing on the good makes the hard easier.

Cancer has touched most, if not all of our lives. Wear the Damn Swimsuit can help those of us on the outside better understand what life with cancer may be like. A common question: “How can I help? “is addressed and though some may prefer more privacy, Ashli’s open attitude throughout the book (and as her blog followers can attest, also through her treatment) can help us better support those undergoing treatment (for example: “Do What You Know How to Do”).

The book is refreshingly honest. No topic is taboo. She talks about books, poop and sex. She talks about hopes, fears and dreams. She talks about others who didn’t survive their cancer diagnosis.  She tells the story of her BonBoobvage party before her mastectomy and offers details about the planning process for her Foobs (fake boobs).

Not just a cancer survivor’s memoir, the book also provides advice on motherhood and marriage we can all take to heart. While not everyone has the stress of an unexpected and major health crisis, every marriage has its own struggles and at some point, parenting is hard for everyone. The lessons she shares point out that while our lives are our own, many experiences are common to us all.

 

Note: No compensation was made for this review. The opinions are exclusively mine. KY


Today’s Teen Girls Are Under Pressure

It’s a common headline: We are in the midst of a scary mental health epidemic. It is apparent that stress and anxiety are much more common today than a generation ago and none of our teens seem to be immune. The teen years are a challenging time for parents, many of whom struggle to find ways to support their children without being overbearing. Lisa Damour’s new book Under Pressure takes a hard look at the stress today’s teens are experiencing and provides concrete examples of how parents can help.

A psychologist with years of experience working with adolescent girls, Damour explores stress, pointing out it isn’t stress itself that’s the problem, but unhealthy levels of stress. She says that stress is essential for growth and development; it helps us push past our comfort zones to tackle new challenges or warn us of threats or dangerous risks. Stress only becomes a problem when it hijacks rational thought and interferes with everyday activities.

Designed to help parents help their daughters (though much of the information applies to boys as well, girls are disproportionately affected by stress), the book is separated by sources of stress: home life, other girls, boys, school and the outside world.

In the area of home life, Damour talks about busy schedules and their impact on mental health. She addresses technology and reminds us that we as parents know more about our children than our parents knew about us. She acknowledges that groups of girls will have conflict and addresses how today’s technology complicates communication and also impact girls’ sleep patterns, upping their anxiety.

Damour talks about sexual harassment and the “double standard” that requires girls to “behave” better than boys. She makes observations some parents may miss such as: girls are overly concerned about how others feel and feel guilty about their own negative feelings, and that maintaining a “public persona” is a big source of stress, especially for those who feel that anything short of “full disclosure” compromises personal integrity.   While taking risks (and the associated stress) is part of learning, too often a focus on grades and “being good” brings stress to an unhealthy level.

This book makes an effective argument that anxiety in itself is not a threat but a warning system.  As parents we can help our teens by acknowledging their fears without judging and talking to them; it’s important that we maintain an open line of communication. It is also on parents to be proactive and initiate tough conversations. Under Pressure is a useful guide to help us not only see the issues but also to help our teens take some of the pressure off.

 

I received a copy of Under Pressure from Net Galley free of charge; these opinions are my own. (Full disclosure – I plan to purchase a hard copy for future reference.)

#UnderPressure #NetGalley


You Can Live a Full Life After an Eating Disorder

 

book cover image: spoon, plate and fork, Living FULL:Winning My Battle With Eating Disorders, Danielle Sherman-Lazar

I recently read an advance copy of Living FULL: Winning My Battle With Eating Disorders by Danielle Sherman-Lazar. Particularly as a mom of three daughters, at times this book  was difficult to read. (Yes, I know boys have eating disorders too, but girls seem more susceptible.) Despite this, I believe that this book should be on every family’s bookshelf. Written as a narrative from Danielle’s younger self, interspersed with excerpts from a blog she started while in recovery, it will help both individuals in the depths of an eating disorder and their parents feel that they are not alone.

In a straightforward way that disallows judgments or excuses, Sherman-Lazar lays out how she felt about herself and food and clearly shows that her eating disorder controlled her. Her battle began at an early age and she suffered for years before finally acknowledging she needed help at age 26.

This is not an academic book on anorexia and bulimia (she was diagnosed with both), but a brave recounting of a young woman’s journey. Seeing life through her eyes can help other parents realize this can happen in any family. It is apparently quite easy for a teen to avoid eating or to “cleanse” their body without parents noticing. (Though as a parent, I see that there are some signs that would indicate we should pay closer attention as well as yet another reason to keep the lines of communication open during the turbulent teen years.)

While not explicitly stated, the point is made that (as is true for any addiction) a person with an eating disorder needs to want help for it to be effective. While the story is told from her point of view, Sherman-Lazar shows how her parents waited in the wings, immediately swooping in when she called for help, possibly fast-tracking her recovery. Once begun, she doesn’t sugar-coat her recovery and is honest about the struggles. To help others better understand the process (whether they themselves or a loved one is undertaking it) the book also includes some of the Food & Feelings Journals she was required to keep as part of her Maudsley recovery. Here she not only lists what she ate, but how she felt, about the food and herself.

In the book, we learn it takes five to seven years to recover fully from anorexia. Before hitting this milestone, Sherman-Lazar became pregnant; she also briefly shares her thoughts and mental struggles (as well as some tips about what helped her) of this period of her life and suggests that being a mom (a long-held goal) helped her progress as she was determined to have healthy children and do her best to ensure they grow up with healthy body image.

While the details are frightening at times, we are left with hope and the sense that, while not guaranteed, full recovery is possible.

You can read more about Sherman-Lazar and her life in recovery at Living a Full Life After ED.


9 Things I Wish I Learned Earlier in Life

A few years ago I was blessed to be welcomed into a group of amazing women. Many of these women are younger than I am (many are the same age as my daughters!), but somehow that doesn’t make a difference. Other labels we are quick to put on ourselves are irrelevant as well.

In this group, we talk about writing, the industry, our families, our faiths, our hopes, our fears, our everyday lives. While many of us have never met in person, we have developed very real relationship and there is genuine affection and, when warranted, concern for each other.

I freely admit that I have on occasion been a bit envious of some of them. Of their success, of their fan base, of how far they have progressed, of their comfort with changing technology, even of their luck (as so much of this business is getting your work in front of the right people at the right time). But this has not changed how I feel about them. I have the same protective instincts for them as if they were my sisters and daughters.These women are honest and kind and generous. They are quick to point out that we all travel at our own pace and life sometimes gets in the way of our goals. We remind each other that life events can be life-changing or inconvenient. They can fuel our writing or stop it in its tracks. Ditto for health and family issues.

As one of the older members of the group I hate to see them struggle. For them and other young women I care about, I have some wisdom I’d like to share, some things I wished I had learned earlier in my journey.

You don’t always have to be the giver. It is acceptable, even generous sometimes, to be the receiver. It is unreasonable to expect that anyone will be strong all the time. Those who are used to being caregivers often have a tough time asking for help. Many even struggle to accept help when it is offered. Stop that! Flip the roles: do you feel inconvenienced when helping someone? (If the answer is yes, that is a different problem.) Accepting help is not a weakness. In fact, I would say it is a gift. Let someone else feel valued and useful for a change.

You shouldn’t do it all. While it’s also true that you can’t do it all, that is not the point.  We often try to be everything to everyone. We strive to be good wives and mothers, good employees and housekeepers. We agree to organize fundraisers and make cookies for bake sales. We say yes to projects we lack enthusiasm for and no to time for ourselves. We need to evaluate what’s being asked of us (even when it comes from that little voice within) and set priorities. Other people are able and willing to take on responsibilities too!

Being assertive is not rude. We have to stand up for ourselves. It is no one else’s responsibility to ensure we are treated fairly. Setting boundaries makes it clear to others what behavior we will and will not accept. Telling people what we want and need eliminates the chance that they will guess wrong and saves all of us time and aggravation.

Communicate your worth. It is not enough to know your worth; you need to talk confidently about your accomplishments. Take pride in what you do and let others know about it. You don’t need to brag, but don’t be dismissive of your talents and skills. If you’ve worked hard to accomplish something, that is worthy of celebration. Consider this: someone you know might be in need of your particular talent.

It is acceptable to say no. And in most cases, you don’t have to say more. You don’t need to justify your decision. You get to decide how you spend your “free” time (or your donation dollars). Besides, most people don’t know how to respond to a simple no, so the conversation ends there.

It is okay to sometimes be rude. While it is generally better to be kind, some people don’t respond appropriately to kindness. Some will take a kind rejection as an invitation to push harder. There are no circumstances where it is acceptable for another person (whether it’s a salesperson or even someone you have a relationship with) to pressure or bully you into a decision you don’t want to make.

Self care isn’t selfish. You can’t give what you don’t have. Everyone needs downtime and some need it more than others. If your basic needs aren’t being met, you won’t be much use to others.

Admitting you need help is not weak. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Humans are social and community is important. Without community, human beings would have died off long ago. We rely on each other for many things, not the least of which is the need to be needed. Being able to contribute gives people purpose.

Most people are good. These days that is difficult to remember. Yes, many will insist that everyone is only “Looking out for number one,” but most people are willing to help when they see it is needed. Often all it takes is for them to be asked. It can be difficult for some to see beyond their own experience and to realize that their perceptions may not reflect reality, but they will often come around when someone kindly points it out.

They say the wisdom comes with age, but there’s no reason some lessons can’t be learned earlier.

 


The First Time You Do Anything Is Scary But Exhilarating

a cornfield in the foreground with more farmland and a pond in the background

I recently took a trip of firsts. I had the opportunity to attend a writer’s retreat (my first) just outside the city of Omaha. Since I had never before been to Omaha, nor even Nebraska, I chose to extend my visit by a few days and explore some of what Omaha has to offer.  Since this was a work trip, I was traveling solo, which meant pushing outside my comfort zone in multiple ways.

While I have flown, dined and even stayed at a hotel alone before, this was my first completely solo trip. In the past, when I have flown or dined alone, it has been part of a trip where I have met others; most of my time on those trips was spent in the company of friends and family who knew the area I was in. This time, I was on my own to decide where to go, what to do, where to stay and eat. I planned some in advance (choosing an Airbnb and setting up a rental car to be picked up on my second day) and had a rough plan of what I wanted to see and do while I was there, but no real schedule; I wanted to be open to possibilities.

a city street with cars parked on the side of the road

Downtown Omaha

Without going into too much detail, the trip was a success and I found that solo travel is not too unlike traveling with others, except that conversation is limited to talking to strangers. Though it was something I gave no thought to going into the experience, I occasionally observed a curious fact:  I did not stand out; no one was staring, wondering why that woman was eating or walking around all by herself. In fact, the most common reaction I got from others was surprise that I was from out of town (closely followed by asking what else could possibly be going on in the area that weekend besides the College World Series). I was pleasantly surprised that I managed to blend in.

After three days of exploring Omaha, it was time for the big event: Her View From Homestock, a gathering of approximately 50 writers for Her View From Home. Despite the fact I had not met anyone in person before, I eagerly headed down Route 80, the anticipation building as I left the pavement for the dirt road. The weekend was everything I expected and then some. Women whom I felt I already knew from their writings gathered to share stories, tips, fears, hugs and tears. We talked about where we came from and where we wanted to go. We discussed best practices and what worked for us, despite what the “experts” say.

We came not only from all over the U.S, but also from different faiths, backgrounds, age brackets and ambitions. Some of us were full time freelancers, others also worked another job, some consider their writing more of a hobby. Most (if not all) of us were moms, with our children’s ages ranging from newborn to 30. We came with different life experiences, talents and points of view, but with common goals: to celebrate our individual and group successes, to learn more about each other and ourselves and to encourage each other to be the best we can be. Having made it this far in life without a group of women to regularly interact with, for me, this was also a first. (Before you feel sorry for me, I do have friends, but our gatherings tend to be rather small, generally only three or four max.)

a firepit in the dark surrounded by a square of lights

Campfires provide an intimate place to share

Sharing was a big part of the weekend. We shared information about our professional selves as well as our personal lives. We talked about why we write: how we started and what keeps us going. We talked about our hopes and dreams for our writing and what passion inspires us. We talked about finding ourselves in our writing and about being true to ourselves, despite the shiny temptations dangled before us.

One conversation touched on finding ourselves as writers and discovering our niche. We talked about how to find our space in the world, how to narrow our focus and establish our “brand.” During one of these conversations, it occurred to me that this blog, in effect, has been my attempt to do that. I started When I Grow Up to explore who I am and who I want to be. In a way, it marked a new beginning for me. Over the past few years, I have shared some of my thoughts and concerns and wondered “aloud” where I will go next. (For some of us, the process apparently takes some time.)

sunset behind a cornfield

We had been given a “homework assignment” for the weekend: to write about why we write, when we began and why it matters. While pending deadlines (and life as a mom) kept me from writing down my thoughts beforehand, I did think a great deal about this. Writing is something I have always done. I wrote “books” as a small child (index cards stapled together) and as I got older, briefly stepped away from the thought of creating books while I consumed as many as I could get my hands on. In school, writing was of course part of the curriculum, so I had less time for personal writing (though I did keep a diary sporadically). In college I joined the newspaper and my first “real” job was for a magazine publisher. I stepped away for a while (in hindsight, it was for way too long), then with this blog, came back, only to discover that publishing had changed a bit and there was much to learn. For a long while I said I wrote because it was like breathing, it was impossible to not write. For years, I learned this was not true: for a time, mothering took its place; now I find there is room for both.

Firsts are scary, yet exhilarating. They force us to step away from what is comfortable, to take a chance that what’s ahead has value, to grow as individuals. Firsts are memorable, they become stories we share (and sometimes embellish). They give us confidence; we learn from both our successes and failures how to approach a similar situation later. Most of all, they give us the courage to try again, to pursue and embrace new firsts, to make our lives even more fulfilling. In the not-too-distant past, I made “Out of the Comfort Zone” a battle call of sorts. I couldn’t be happier I did. Firsts are much more enjoyable to celebrate than lasts.

a cloudy sky meets the cornfield


Can There Be Good News About Bad Behavior?

There is one thing that new parents agree on: They have no idea what they’re doing. Even when things start to go smoothly and they think they’ve finally got the hang of it, kids misbehave and parents wonder where they’ve gone wrong.

The most popular learn-as-you-go gig, parenting presents many challenges, not the least of which is discipline. Each generation has had their go-to “experts” to tell them how to get kids to behave appropriately. Oftentimes, this advice contradicts that of the prior generation, leading to conflict and criticism. Parents are blamed for being too strict or too lenient. New psychologists and theories are put forth as the definitive word on child-rearing; the old ones are quickly “outdated.” The debate on nature v. nurture rages on, and the effects of biology, free will and one’s unconscious  enter into conversations about how and why things are the way they are.

Observing that children’s behavior seems to be out of control these days, and looking for guidance with her own children, author Katherine Reynolds Lewis spent five years searching for the answer to the question: What caused this behavior problem and how do we solve it?

In addition to the observable increase in behavioral issues, she learned that over the past 20 years, there also has been a dramatic increase in depressive symptoms and distractibility among high school and college-age students. Even more concerning is the statistic: “one in two children will develop a mood or behavioral disorder or a substance addiction by age eighteen.” Almost 40 percent will have two or more disorders. Consider the corresponding rise in childhood suicides, especially in younger children, those aged 10 to 14 and it is clear there is reason for concern.

Excessive screen time (social media in particular) is one potential cause. Another is the pressure to achieve, both academically and in extracurricular activities. Parents are sending our kids mixed messages. Today’s educational emphasis on necessary workplace skills such as collaboration and mutual respect are inconsistent with traditional parenting methods that focus on obedience. If the goal is to raise independent adults, insisting on them blindly following rules may be counterintuitive. Instead says Lewis, parents should think about the qualities they want their children to exhibit as adults.

In her recently published book, The Good News About Bad Behavior, Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – And What to Do About It, Lewis draws from her own personal experiences as a parenting educator as well as the insights of psychologists, other educators and neuroscientists.  The book is organized into three parts: The Problem, The Solution, and Making it Stick, and though the title suggests otherwise, provides valuable insights and techniques for all parents, not just those struggling with behavior issues.

The world has changed dramatically from the one today’s parents grew up in and many of the methods their parents used simply don’t work anymore. Family schedules and structure are different today: few children have the benefit of unstructured play. As a result, many children spend little time engaged in pretend play which, Lewis points out, helps “develop abstract thought, self-control, social cooperation, and other essential skills” as well as self-regulation.

In recent generations, parents have swung to extremes in the struggle to find solutions. Studies indicate that a middle ground is best: children of authoritative parents (those with clear boundaries and close emotional connections with their children) do better on all behavior assessments than those with either overly strict or permissive parents. Lewis goes a step further in receommending an Apprenticeship Model of parenting, which has much in common with Authoritative Parenting but adds an important component: modeling behavior.

Her approach utilizes techniques from four different “schools” and includes techniques proven in educational settings. She encourages parents to look at their own lifestyle and background and take from these philosophies whatever elements they think will work for them and abandon what won’t. Every family is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer to good behavior.

When it comes to discipline, Lewis advocates research-based models that include three components: connection, communication and capability. She says parents need to connect with kids to create an environment in which they will cooperate. They need to communicate their expectations and just as importantly, to listen to their children’s questions or concerns. Finally, parents need to coach their children, modeling skills that will build their capability. Like any other skill, behaving appropriately is something children need to practice and fail at in order to master. Parents should look at behavior issues as learning opportunities for areas in which children need to develop a skill.

This may require a change in approach and can be difficult. For starters, parents need to listen more and adapt their language. Lewis points out what should be obvious: “adults and children alike lose access to the learning and problem-solving parts of the brain when they’re emotionally ramped up.” As all parents learn, threats are not effective in changing behavior. Corporal punishment and harsh verbal discipline also have little positive effect; they cause a fight-or-flight instinct.

It is not news that children internalize the labels they are given. Lewis makes useful suggestions on how to change the way we speak and listen, such as the thought-provoking: use words you would like to be applied to your child (by himself or others) at age twenty-five. Drop the labels and instead communicate the problem or issue that needs to be addressed.

When there are lapses in behavior, ask why. When children fail to meet expectations, Lewis advises sticking to the four Rs: “Consequences should be related to the behavior, reasonable in scope, respectful of the child and revealed in advance.”

Many of the concepts suggested here are not new but are presented in ways that make sense with practical suggestions to implement. While the process is not easy, Lewis points out that once children master these skills, it will become second nature and the result will be more independent, capable adults. And isn’t that our ultimate goal as parents?

 

Note: Though an advance e-copy of this book was provided free of charge, no compensation was made for this review and the opinions are exclusively mine. KY


Are You Really Saying What You Think You Are?

In Voice Lessons for Parents: What to Say, How to Say It, and When to Listen, Wendy Mogel, Ph.D. provides a guide for parents to communicate with their children at all stages of development. Relying on three decades of experience working with parents and children as well as new research on neuroscience and biology, she provides guidance for all parents who may be struggling with communication in their homes.

She stresses that parents need to adapt their communication style to the child. Factors such as age, developmental level and even gender all play a role in determining how best to talk to a child. She points out that learning communication skills is an ongoing process and that parents should actively engage their children in conversation from infancy through adulthood. At its best, communication matches the cognitive development, interests and temperament of the child.

Parents do this instinctively with babies, and narrating everyday activities helps with speech and vocabulary development. Early conversations with children are about teaching communication skills, for example, when to talk and when to be silent. With older kids, being quiet and listening is more important than speaking. Model the behavior you want to see. Ignore your own technology in favor of in-person conversations.

Mogel discovered that techniques used by voice teachers can be valuable. Use of these techniques can influence how parents are heard, help parents hold their children’s attention and encourage engagement. She points out that the high-pitched, high-volume voice so many parents use when they are frustrated conveys a loss of control and is counter-productive, resulting in their children tuning them out. She encourages the use of vocal techniques and self awareness to promote better communication.

Studies show that male and female brains are different and develop skills at slightly different rates. These differences are spelled out with helpful suggestions on how to talk to children, using their age and gender as a guide. The author likens communicating with boys to working like an anthropologist, while with girls it is better to take an approach like a sociologist.

As children enter the teenage years, separation is developmentally appropriate. Though it may be difficult, when talking to them, parents need to remember these vocal techniques and that certain traits are common to teens (and temporary). More tips include: Ignore the attitude rather than take it personally; Use chores as a time to talk, and take full advantage of these moments.

The book rounds out with tips for talking to grandparents and avoiding/handling issues that frequently arise as well as tips for clear communication with nannies, teachers, coaches, etc. It also includes lists for parents of teens, such as: Things teens would like to say to parents; Ways to make teens feel loved; Things that parents don’t need to worry about; and Advice to parents.

Voice Lessons reinforces the importance of communication in family life. It not only addresses talking to kids, but also acknowledges that moms and dads have difference approaches and that’s okay. The author reminds parents to model appropriate communication with their partners, pointing out that kids watch how adults act and often learn more from that than what they are told.