Category Archives: Parenting

Resilience – Why We Need It and How To Help Our Children Develop It

Resilience - What it is and How to Help our Children Develop it

Resilience is our ability to adapt successfully in the face of stress, adversity, and traumatic events. Having it (and building it) leads to good mental health, which allows us to meet our life goals, to live happy and meaningful lives, and to cope with whatever challenges life tosses our way. And I think it is especially important in these strange and dire times.

Developing this trait (or not) begins early in life. And it seems to be something that many children and young people in our society struggle with. Parents often share with me their concern about the stress in their children’s lives, the impact it has on them, and how to help them deal with it. Some tell me that their kids, even very young ones, are on medication for anxiety.

This stress is often caused by pressure from coercive schools that are not designed to nurture learning and that are too focused on early achievement. There are so many other stressors like bullying (by adults and other kids), world events, racial tensions, poverty, and death in the family that can be hard for children to cope with if they don’t have appropriate support. Childhood anxiety can be exacerbated by lack of outdoor exercise, environmental health issues (indoor and outdoor air pollution, toxic food, electromagnetic radiation exposure), doctors who are too quick to prescribe, and even well-meaning parents shielding their kids from life’s adversities.

I have learned from my own life experience as a child and an adult that our job is not to protect our kids from adversity, because we can’t. Our job is to provide them with the tools to overcome it, to benefit from it even. I’ve written many times about the importance of trusting and respecting children, as well as allowing them to take risks, to persevere, and to fail gracefully. Not only does that contribute to their learning, it helps them to develop resiliency.

Child development specialist Jacqueline King-Presant, M.Ed. has written a series of articles for Natural Child Magazine that present some specifics about how to support the development of children’s emotional intelligence and natural resilience. She writes: “A child who feels trusted in their independence, risk taking, and problem solving abilities is a child who has been empowered to manage life’s difficulties with resilience – an important mindset that is decreasing in children and young adults today.”

Here are links to the articles. I hope you will find them helpful.

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Learning and the Power of Storytelling

Learning and the Power of Storytelling

Long before the beginning of formal education, the printing press, and telecommunications, storytelling was the means for passing information and wisdom from generation to generation. Whether they described real events or utilized parables (or both), stories were the main tool for teaching and learning. Whether told around the campfire at family gatherings, on the battlefield, or in a sacred place, stories introduced listeners to the world of fantasy as well as to the realities of life, helped people understand their world, and provided the means for creating a public memory of history.

Stories remain a mainstay of informal, family- and community-based life and learning. Everyone’s life is made up of many stories. Sharing them is a way to connect with others on a more-than-superficial level, to pass on our experiences, and to build community. As Schenectady, New York storyteller Marni Gillard says, when people are encouraged to honor their own uniqueness, they are more apt to honor each other. Storytelling is a great way to share our uniqueness while at the same time discover our similarities.

Storytelling and Life Learning

In an article for Life Learning Magazine called Run Bus Car Broken, writing professor Gina Cassidy describes how storytelling is also an important step along the path toward joining what author Frank Smith calls “the literacy club.” Gina tells the story of her 21-month-old daughter.

“Coming out of the library, we had discovered that our car’s engine would not start. Seeing the bus go by, we made a dash for it: pregnant mom toting toddler, books, and diaper bag. My daughter thought this was great fun – the running and the bus ride. She blurted it out to her Dad when he came home. It made a great story: ‘run bus car broken.’ ”

As anyone who has listened to a small child breathlessly tell his or her own “run bus car broken” story knows, small moments in time can make great stories. And really, most moments are small ones. In his Life Learning Magazine article World History, Cricket, and the Eye of the Beholder, writer and ed tech designer Nathanael Schildbach reminds us that the stories of history are about everyday life and are being created by us all, on an ongoing basis. He writes,

“Marrying the notion that history is created and that it is created by all of us is the belief that everything is history. Since everything is created and not just spontaneously happening, everything is relevant to understanding history, and I mean everything. Anthropologists learn much about ancient civilizations by looking at their garbage, but have you ever had a history teacher who said that your grandparents’ trash was history?”

Learning is About Understanding

Storytelling is something we all do all day, whether it’s to explain why grandma can no longer walk as quickly as she used to, to share an amusing incident from our day over the dinner table, to gossip around the water cooler at work, to sit down at the computer and write an entry in our blog or social media account, or to play a video game. Stories are one of the main ways we human beings turn isolated experiences and facts into an understanding of how the world works. After all, real learning is not about knowing something, it’s about understanding it. And that’s what was happening all those evenings around those prehistoric campfires!

What’s Wrong With Natural Living?

What's Wrong With Natural Living?

Natural living – along with organic living, green living, and other renditions – is increasingly popular around the world. Many people are realizing that we have the right to a clean environment, that the planet is in danger of becoming uninhabitable unless we take better care of it, and that we can’t easily trust corporations and their handmaiden governments to provide us with clean air, water, and food. Consequently, we are also understanding the interconnections among the various aspects of life: Natural living comprises what we eat, how we make a living, where we live, how we get around, how we educate ourselves.

Providing information and inspiration for natural living in its broadest sense has been my life’s work. Natural parenting, natural living, natural learning…those are all topics you will read about on this blog and in the magazines I own and edit. The business is forty years old this coming fall. But natural living is, unfortunately, as controversial as it has ever been.

Now, the word “natural” would seem to be a straightforward offspring of the word “nature.” But it has dozens of meanings and sub-meanings. It’s used in mathematics, economics, science, music, computer programming, childbirth, sociology, medicine, education, and, of course, marketing. In current usage, it also has many synonyms, including reasonable, appropriate, proper, expected, innate, inherent, lifelike, realistic, legitimate, habitual, normal, healthy, native, simple, non-artificial, genuine, unadorned, real, authentic, unstudied, unaffected, and straightforward.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that it is a controversial word. For years, it has been especially problematic in the prepared foods industry. In relation to food, the Oxford English Dictionary defines it in this way: “Involving no artificial or man-made ingredients, chemicals, etc.; ecological, organic; spec. (of food and drink) containing no artificial colorings, flavorings, or preservatives.” That definition makes it alluring to marketers. According to the market research company Nielson, packaged foods labeled “natural” outsell those marked organic by a substantial margin. That’s why a survey by Harris Interactive found that eighty-three percent of the U.S. public would like to see the government define the term, something their government has not done.

But aside from all of that, there are some things that just are natural. For instance, you’d think that a parenting practice as natural – and proven to be healthy – as breastfeeding would be immune from the controversy over the word “natural.” Nevertheless, last week, an article in the journal Pediatrics urged health professionals to stop saying that breastfeeding is natural, arguing that doing so gives the impression that natural parenting practices in general are healthier than, well, whatever you call the other kind.

In the article, Unintended Consequences of Invoking the “Natural” in Breastfeeding Promotion, Jessica Martucci and Anne Barnhill, Medical Ethics and Health Policy researchers at Penn Medicine, wrote:

…we are concerned about breastfeeding promotion that praises breastfeeding as the “natural” way to feed infants. This messaging plays into a powerful perspective that “natural” approaches to health are better… Promoting breastfeeding as “natural” may be ethically problematic, and, even more troublingly, it may bolster this belief that “natural” approaches are presumptively healthier.

Further, they think that the use of the word natural should be curtailed in general, claiming that it is associated with such “problematic” practices as home birth, homeschooling, and the rejection of GMO foods, and that natural parenting movements are contributing to the decline in vaccination rates.

Now, I know quite a lot about those natural living topics. They are, after all, the raison d’être for Natural Life Magazine, Natural Child Magazine, Life Learning Magazine, and Child’s Play Magazine. In fact, the researchers Martucci and Barnhill wrote directly about the problematic likes of me in a separate guest commentary at Philly Voice:

It doesn’t take much internet digging to find some of the potentially problematic implications for a public health campaign built around an argument that ‘natural’ is better. A search for ‘natural living’ turns up a variety of sites devoted to natural parenting. Parenting blogs and natural news sites often discuss practices and ideas ranging from home-birth and consuming the placenta after birth to homeschooling, breastfeeding, and homeopathy. But these are also spaces where one might expect to run across writers and commenters expressing concerns about the necessity and safety of childhood vaccinations and the promotion of immunity through ‘natural’ disease and healing processes.

They went on to warn:

Studies have shown that anti-vaccination sentiment tends to overlap with reliance on and interest in complementary and alternative medicine, skepticism of institutional authority, and a strong commitment and interest in health knowledge, autonomy, and healthy living practices.

Yep, they nailed that part! Encouraging educated skepticism of institutional authority underlies all of my work. Now, I don’t know for sure whether or not the researchers were funded by Big Education, Big Ag, Big Pharma, or its little sister Big Formula. But, whether or not you believe that breastfeeding is a sort of gateway drug to other ”radical” natural parenting practices, I smell something very much like corporate influence. And in my world, even the faintest whiff of that gives me more confidence in my own way – in the natural living and learning way.

In a Natural Life Magazine article entitled Natural Reflections: What Does the Word “Natural” Really Stand For? Professor of Environmental Ethics Gene Sager noted that:

The natural life today is natural in a new key: to act in harmony with Nature, we need to take a well-informed, consciously conservationist approach. I have emphasized the ideas of “well-informed” and “consciously.” In a sense, we have become watchdogs on guard against greedy corporations, sluggish governments, and a public manipulated by marketeers and the media. All this requires constant vigilance and effort.

All of those players can be seen in the controversy about the use of the word “natural.” If it wasn’t such a compelling idea, Sager’s “marketeers” wouldn’t be as attracted to its use as they are. And, on the other hand, there wouldn’t be the concern about it being over-used by those of us who can think for ourselves.

For me, the bottom line in all of this controversy about natural living and natural parenting is this: Don’t pay attention to what anyone else – a marketer, a corporation or its representative, a PhD researcher or scientist or another a member of academia, or any other self-described expert – thinks or instructs you to do. These days, they could have a vested interest in persuading you that there is something wrong with natural living. So do your own research, trust yourself (and your children), and follow your own instincts. You might end up agreeing with what you are told. Or not. But I have found that Mother Nature is as trustworthy a guide as any.

The Value of Spontaneous Play

The Value of Spontaneous Play

A few days ago, I wrote about having fun with our children and not worrying about whether they’re learning anything or not. However, I don’t want to minimize the value of spontaneous play and the amount of learning that occurs through it.

The first book I ever read about homeschooling was a few years after our family began our life learning adventure in the 1970s. It was And the Children Played (Tundra, 1975), a memoir by the late Canadian playwright Patricia Joudry about her young family’s life in the UK. I was delighted to read her humorous description of a life that was very similar to ours, where the children played as the rest of family life unfolded, including mom’s writing career. Along with Joudry, we never doubted that self-directed, spontaneous play was the best way for our daughters to learn.

Of course, there are many others who understand the immense value of play. Scholar and author Joseph Chilton Pearce has said that play (and I think he meant unstructured play) is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.

Sadly, spontaneous play is becoming a casualty of modern Western society’s frighteningly misguided attempt to better educate children. In spite of lots of research to the contrary – and pleas from groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics – many parents and policy makers continue to believe that pressuring children to learn earlier and faster will help them succeed.

Ever-younger children are being placed in structured teaching environments in the name of future success in school (which, of course, doesn’t have much to do with real education anyway). In school – and many homes – play is what you do when the more important, adult-led things are finished, like reading readiness and math drills. That’s why, in many schools, recess is endangered. The Museum of Play in Rochester, NY (there’s a sure sign of an endangered species!) says that forty percent of elementary schools in the U.S. have reduced or eliminated recess, partially in order to make time to prepare for standardized testing (which many parents support.) I’m sure the numbers are similar in other countries.

A related concern is children’s safety as they play. We have developed an unjustified fear that our kids will hurt themselves if allowed unlimited and unsupervised spontaneous play, disregarding the value of risk in their development.

Oddly enough, what we are denying our children is becoming more important for adults in the workplace. Many leading edge businesses are aware that creativity, innovation, and productivity are nurtured by play, and are structuring play spaces into their corporate facilities. They’re quoting people like Swiss philosopher Jean Piaget, who once said to a group of adults: “If you want to be creative, stay in part a child, with the creativity and invention that characterizes children before they are deformed by adult society.” These corporate leaders know that spontaneous play allows the mind to flow without restrictions – to explore, to experiment, to question, to take risks, to be adventurous, to create to innovate and to accomplish – without fear of rejection or disapproval. And that is the perfect learning environment…for all ages.

So next time your child stops to play with an ant on the sidewalk, or just wants to run through some mud puddles, don’t hurry them along to an activity of your choice. Children have a lot to teach us about the best way to spend the present moment – they know about the value of spontaneous play.

Fun … For the Fun of It

Fun for the sake of having fun

Having fun with your kids? Just relax and enjoy it; it doesn’t need to be more than just fun.

One of the mainstays of the homeschooling industry is inspirational books and magazine articles describing enjoyable things to do with your kids that are also educational. This notion that we have to make learning fun by dressing it up as games or other enjoyable activities is nonsense…and, more often than not, our kids know that. And that knowledge lessens both the enjoyment and the learning.

Learning is not difficult, boring, or unpleasant. What happens in school is often difficult, boring, and unpleasant, but that’s forced memorization/regurgitation, not real learning. Real learning is either not even noticed because it’s a side effect of being deeply engaged in an activity or it’s jumping-up-and-down joyful discovery.

Fun is a valid outcome on its own, and there is no need to feel guilty about playing with no hidden agenda. In fact, telling kids that something will be enjoyable when we really want to sneak in some “serious” education is every bit as manipulative as what goes on in school.

When my kids were young and learning from life, we loved playing board games, we traveled a lot, and we often went on hikes and visits to the science museum, the zoo, and art galleries (among many other activities). Heidi and Melanie undoubtedly learned some science, math, spelling, and other academic “subjects” while engaging in those activities (as did their father and I). But that wasn’t the purpose. The purpose was to enjoy life – to have fun…laughing, exploring, and enjoying each others’ company.

While we were living life and enjoying ourselves, we also got an education. But the focus was on having fun just for the fun of it. So let’s relax and let fun family activities be fun without staging them for a purpose or dissecting the learning that may have happened as a result.

You can read articles about having fun, playing with kids, and giving them the freedom to play on their own on the Child’s Play Magazine website, one of the digital publications that I edit.