For all those anxiously awaiting news of the next grandchild:  not yet.  But my prediction in the Baby Pool is for tomorrow, so I'm hopeful.  Not that I've ever gotten the date right....

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 3:42 pm | Edit
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I'm not sure, now, whether Hooker and Company... is a favorite picture of Joseph's or just a favorite name. He seems to have a preference for long phrases, or at least he practices them more. During today's naptime I overheard him repeatedly reciting (while playing with trains) the Albert Anker title, Heinrich Pestalozzi and the Orphans in Stans.

One thing I forgot to mention in my previous post is how absolutely clear and distinct is Joseph's diction, which I find usual for someone just a month past his third birthday.  It makes me feel guilty for my own sloppy speech!

I also catch myself using unnecessary "child speech"—not baby talk, but the simple way adults usually talk to beginning speakers, such as, "say 'please.'"  Like any three-year-old, Joseph needs to be reminded to ask politely, but it appears to be just as easy for him to say, "Please, Grandma, may I have some more milk?" as simply, "please."  And now that he has caught on to that, the reminder, "what do you say"—or a pause, or similar actions that parents use to get their children to say please—will often evoke the whole sentence, with "milk" swapped out for the appropriate word.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, August 8, 2013 at 7:42 am | Edit
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When did "different" come to require a diagnosis?

The child who once was an energetic boy now has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.  The shy kid who likes math and science more than his classmates do is "on the autism spectrum."  We have conflated normal-defined-as-average with normal-defined-as-free-from-disease, and view with suspicion anyone who strays too far—in any direction—from the common herd.  It's a very contemporary diagnosis, too:  today's hyperactive child would likely have been an admired leader in Viking society.

We are learning, possibly too late, of the dangers of narrowing the once-vast diversity of life on our planet, especially in agriculture, where nearly every Thanksgiving dinner is dependent on a single breed of turkey—turkeys so stupid as to be unable to reproduce without human intervention—and where one variety-specific disease could wipe out nearly every existing banana plant.  I believe we have a similar problem in the human population, where for all we talk about the importance of diversity, we are identifying more and more people as abnormal—people who would in an earlier day have been considered merely quirky, or even honored for their differences.  We then attempt to "cure" them by squashing them into standardized boxes, the most common of which is school.

I officially gave up on the psychiatric profession's labels when I discovered hyperlexia:  "the precocious ability to read words without prior training in learning to read typically before the age of five."  If children aren't reading by the end of first grade, schools and parents begin to worry, and yet reading before kindergarten is a problem?  What's with that?

The proximate inspiration for this post was observing grandson Joseph, age three, as he is learning to speak.  His speech is much more echolalic than I am accustomed to, and because that is yet another psychiatric diagnosis, I was wondering if I should be concerned—though it's difficult even to think of a child who speaks two languages as being "behind" in speech.

Now that I'm where I can observe Joseph directly and interact with him I can laugh at any concerns, though I doubt that would stop the psychiatrists from labelling him.  His speech is definitely different from that of the average child his age, and so is the way he is figuring out language patterns.  But it's not bad; it's just different.  And fascinating.

Instead of repeating words and short phrases that he hears from other people, then gradually putting them together into longer and longer verbalizations, Joseph remembers, and repeats, entire sentences and long passages, such as the name of one of one of his favorite Frederic Church paintings:  Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636.  Really.  With such things as these as his basic language building blocks, it's not surprising that his approach to speech is unusual.  Instead of creating phrases of increasing complexity by a more additive method, he starts with a long sentence, takes it apart, and puts it back together.

Recently he and I were watching the people walk up and down a main street in Zermatt; more precisely, we were observing their dogs.  "Here comes a dog," I said, and Joseph repeated, "Here comes a dog."  Then he expanded with, "Here comes a white dog."  Later, he proclaimed, "Here comes another dog," and still later, "Here comes a little, white dog."  Same pattern, expanded from the inside out.

It is my totally unverifiable theory that Joseph started out thinking in large chunks of language.  For example, "put your shoes on" is associated, as an entire sentence, with the act of putting on his shoes.  Thus, whether describing his actions or asking for help, "put your shoes on" has been the phrase of choice (sometimes modified to "no put your shoes on").  Gradually, however, he is dissecting these chunks and discovering the recombinant possibilities.

It's fascinating to observe.  It's different.  It's not normal-defined-as-average.  But it's certainly not a disease.

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, August 3, 2013 at 5:01 pm | Edit
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This quotation from an interview with Anne Fine set me to thinking.  (H/T Stephan)

[I] hate the way that we have weeded out the things that I remember made my heart lift in primary school, and were transforming in my secondary education. I mean, we did so much singing when I was at school – folk songs, hymns, we sang everything. But now that seems to have gone, along with the language of the Book of Common Prayer and so much classic poetry. And school days are horrifically long if pretty well everything you are doing lacks colour and style, just for the sake of 'relevance' and 'accessibility'".

Music was a big part of my own elementary school, though not being British we missed out on the BCP.  Music lessons started in grade four (of six) for strings and in fifth for band instruments.  Chorus started at about the same time, and in two of the three schools I experienced, we were singing three-part harmony.  (Occasionally four, as in one school we had a set of older boy twins whose voices had mostly changed.)  These musical activities were optional, but what stands out most in my mind in contrast to today is that nearly every classroom had a piano, and many of the teachers could play it.  (So could some of the students, and we were allowed to use it some ourselves outside of class.)  We sang patriotic songs, folk songs, hymns, Negro spirituals, and children's songs.  And most of these we read out of music books.  Not that we were specifically taught much in the way of reading music, but we were expected to absorb basic skills simply by observing the relationship between the printed notes and what we sang.

I should note that these were not "music magnet schools" but ordinary public elementary schools in a small village/rural school district in the late 1950's and early 60's.

Our own children had a fantastic music teacher in elementary school, there's no doubt about that, and their musical education outside of school was far greater than mine, with the availability of private music lessons, youth orchestras, and excellent church choirs.  And being in the South, their high school chorus still sang the great Western choral music, which had already been all but banned in the schools we'd left behind in the North because it is largely church music.  So I'm not complaining about that.

But something great has been lost in general education if there's no longer daily singing in the classroom, children graduate knowing nothing of the music of the past and without the most basic music-reading skills, and adults would rather attend a concert or plug into an iPod than raise their own voices in song.

I don't think, based on the interview, that I would like Anne Fine's books.  But she's spot on in the quote.  "Relevance" and "accessibility" are two of the dirtiest words in the educationist's vocabulary.

What were your musical experiences in the early school years?  How have they affected your adult life?

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, July 9, 2013 at 6:30 am | Edit
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Priscilla Dunstan is a super-hearer with a photographic memory for sounds.  What this did for her when she became a mother could be a breakthrough for all newborns and the parents they are trying to train.  (Many thanks, Jon, for the link.)

 

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 25, 2013 at 8:31 am | Edit
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For the sake of all else I have to do, I took the Front Porch Republic off my feed reader, but I still get, and read, their weekly updates.  Which means that sometimes ... often ... I get caught.  This time it was a piece by Anthony Esolen, who turns out to be the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, a book highly recommended to me but which I still haven't read, though I have requested that our library order it.  I hope they acquiesce, because reading just one of Esolen's essays made me long for more.  Hence less was accomplished this day than intended....

What I read in this week's FPR update was Play and No Play, which is but the latest in a series entitled Life Under Compulsion.  Of course I then had to read the whole series:

2012-10-08  Life Under Compulsion

2012-10-22  From Schoolhouse to School Bus

2012-11-06  The Billows Teaching Machine

2012-11-19  If Teachers Were Plumbers

2012-12-03  Human-Scale Tools and the Slavish Education State

2012-12-17  Curricular Mire

2012-12-31  Bad Universality

2013-01-21  The Dehumanities

2013-02-11  The Itch

2013-03-11  Music and the Itch

2013-05-13  Noise

2013-06-10  Play and No Play

It's not as if I want to suck up all your time, too—but it wouldn't be time wasted.  You can always quit after the first one....

Posted by sursumcorda on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 3:12 pm | Edit
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You have to crawl before you can walk.

Except that you don't.  Some babies roll, some scoot on their bottoms, some never develop a nice, clean, cross-pattern crawl (or "creep" to use the technical term), and most of them still learn to walk.  Do they suffer later in life for the lack of crawling?  Officially, doctors no longer think so, and have removed crawling from the list of important childhood milestones.  Based on my own observations over a long life, and on much reading on the subject, I think they're wrong.  It is no less than hubris to decide that a normal part of human development is not important, and most systems we used to think vestigial—tonsils, for example—turn out to have a distinct purpose and function.  We can live without tonsils; many do, and for some their presence does more harm than good, but that doesn't mean we should excise them from healthy children, as was common half a century or so ago.  The burden of proof for crawling's importance should be on those who insist it isn't, not the other way around, and "we see no evidence that crawling matters" isn't good enough for me, especially since there are plenty of therapists who disagree.

But I'm no doctor, and I'm not going to take on the American Academy of Pediatrics here, not now.  What I view as blatantly irresponsible, both on the part of doctors and on that of writers like Nicholas Day, whose article deriding the importance of crawling hit our local paper recently, is the reason and the timing behind this change.

Since the implementation of the Back-to-Sleep campaign, in which parents are intensely pressured not to let their children sleep on their stomachs for fear they might die of SIDS, the age at which babies are meeting the customary developmental milestones has increased, and more and more children are skipping the crawling stage.  It's not that doctors don't notice:  as one said, after the mother fearfully confessed that her child had always slept on his tummy, "I knew that.  Look at his head shape!  Look at how advanced he is!  This is no back-sleeping baby."  But few dare not to push Back-to-Sleep.

Nor am I recommending tummy-sleeping here.  If I did, I'd hear immediately from my brother in the insurance business.  It's a personal, parental decision, best reached by careful research and deliberate decision, although I have known of babies who have made the decision themselves, by flatly refusing to sleep in any position other than prone.  Parents are only human.

Besides, I no longer think Back-to-Sleep is the chief culprit here, except insofar as it makes parents afraid to put their babies on their stomachs at any time.  This is not the first time doctors have insisted that there is a right way for babies to sleep:  When my eldest brother and I were born, it was important for us to be on our backs "so the baby won't smother."  By the time my next two siblings came around, tummy-sleeping was pushed, "so the baby won't spit up and choke."  None of us had any trouble learning to crawl.

Here's what I think the critical difference is:  although there were a few baby-entertainment devices back then—I had a bouncy seat and my brother an early Johnny-Jump-Up—we didn't spend a lot of time in them.  A baby on his tummy learning to crawl is a baby learning to entertain himself, and a self-entertaining baby is critical to a parent's sanity.  It takes a lot of work to learn to propel oneself forward to a toy one has accidentally pushed out of reach, but babies are hard workers when motivated.  Today, the goal seems to be to sell more baby equipment to make the job easier by keeping both the kid and the toys corralled, so they don't have to work (i.e. become frustrated and cry) to reach them.  That's easier for the parents, too, but in the same pernicious way that plunking children down in front of the television for entertainment also makes a parent's life easier—in the moment.

I won't even get into the amount of time children these days spend strapped into car seats, where they can barely move.  And we used to think the Native American habit of confining their babies to cradle boards was cruel.  Car seats, entertainment devices, strollers—sometimes all three wrapped into one so the baby doesn't even get freedom of motion in transfer—the proliferation of these is keeping our babies off the floor, and not crawling.

Bottom line:  American babies are not meeting the traditional developmental milestones because of lack of opportunity.  So what do we do about it?  We change the milestones.

New York State students are failing the math Regents exam?  We make the questions easier.

SAT scores have fallen?  We "re-center" them, to reflect the lowered average.

Florida schools can't meet the new standards?  We lower the standards.

High school students can't handle your tests?  Give them easy extra-credit work to pull up their grades.

America's children can't seem to leave the nest and support themselves, even after college?  Force their parents to pay for grad school, and to keep them on their own insurance policies until they're 26.

From birth through extended adolescence, we keep lowering the bar for our children.  Some day they may forgive us, but I wouldn't blame them if they don't.  It is good to recognize that "normal" is a range, and relax about minor variations in timetable and achievement.  It is appalling, however, to respond to a general decline by redefining normal as average, and lowering the bar.  Again.

Our children deserve a better future than we are preparing them for.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, June 14, 2013 at 9:20 am | Edit
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This was posted at Free-Range Kids this morning, and I can't resist sharing it.  I have no love for Allstate, but insurance companies know the risk/benefit business better than anyone else, and this is just great.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, June 12, 2013 at 8:09 am | Edit
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I suppose that title requires some explanation.  I don't wish any of our grandchildren harm, but I do wish for them a better good.

Jonathan (age 9 1/2) and Noah (almost 7) have it pretty bad:  poison ivy over much of their bodies, faces red and swollen and bound to get worse when the blisters come.  I'm not happy that they're suffering.

But they've seen a doctor, who was not at all concerned; they've started treatment, which should help a lot; and they seem to be weathering it surprisingly well (being not nearly as wimpy as their grandmother when it comes to anything skin-rash-related).  Therefore I feel free to be delighted at this evidence that life for them is an adventure.

Physically, they were only in their backyard, but who knows where they were in their imaginations?  Whatever the adventure was, it required bows and arrows.  At some point, both Native Americans and English longbowmen learned that you don't use poison ivy vines for bowstrings, and that if you use your teeth in place of a knife, you'd better know what it is you're cutting into.  Jonathan and Noah know that now, too.

They also know that adventure entails risk, and sometimes you get hurt.  To be honest, this is not the first time they've learned that particular lesson.  My hope is that with each small risk and each small hurt they develop not only muscles and grit, but also discernment, so that by the time they are teens they have a good idea how to tell a reasonable risk from a stupid one.

The following is a multi-hand story.  I no longer remember which of my blog- or Facebook-friends pointed me to Brave Moms Raise Brave Kids, though now that I've found it again through a Google search on a phrase I remembered, I'm guessing it was something on Free-Range Kids.  It turns out that the story wasn't the author's anyway; her source was a sermon by Erwin McManus.  (Don't expect to get much from that link unless you're a subscriber of Preaching Today.)

The gist of the story is this:  McManus's young son, Aaron, came home from Christian camp one year, frightened and unable to sleep because of the "ghost stories" told there about devils and demons.  He begged his father not to turn off the light, to stay with him, and to pray that he would be safe.  Here's his father's unconventional response:

I could feel it. I could feel warm-blanket Christianity beginning to wrap around him, a life of safety, safety, safety.

I said, "Aaron, I will not pray for you to be safe. I will pray that God will make you dangerous, so dangerous that demons will flee when you enter the room."

There's nothing wrong with praying for safety.  I pray constantly for the safety of those we love, and of others as well.  But McManus's point is well taken:  Safety is not much of a life goal.  I want our grandchildren (boys and girls) to grow up dangerous to all that is evil, and to all that is wrong with the world.

Sometimes poison ivy is just poison ivy, but sometimes it is warrior training.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, June 4, 2013 at 10:15 am | Edit
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I took the Front Porch Republic out of my news feed, not because what they had to say was bad, but because it was too good.  I was spending 'way too much time reading, and composing comments in my head—whether or not those comments ever made it into print.  But then they started sending me their weekly updates....

Here's a good article on immigration.  Normally I don't read about the topic, because it's so inflammatory; too many people, as they say, are enjoying the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.  This one is different, as are most FPR articles, whether I agree with them or not.  For one thing, he lambasts both the Republicans and the Democrats.  ("[A]s with nearly everything in establishment Republicanism, even when they are sincere they are still lying"; for the Democratic skewer, see below.)  For another, he acknowledges three points that I've long thought critical to the debate:

  1. Immigration in sufficient numbers inevitably and irrevocably transforms a culture; if we try to ignore or deny this and don't take steps to defend and preserve that which is good about our specific culture, it will be overrun just as surely as imperialism destroyed the native cultures of its colonies.
  2. We are repeatedly told that we need more immigrants because there are not enough Americans who are willing/qualified to do the jobs.  Whether it's a factory owner crying that he'd go out of business without illegal immigrants (shades of pre-Civil War Southern plantation owners' insistence on the necessity of slavery), or companies pushing for more H1-B visas because they can't find enough Americans to do their high-tech jobs (meaning, qualified Americans are asking for higher salaries than Indians and Moldovans)—the bottom line is not that Americans can't or won't do the jobs, but that we value low prices more than fair wages.
  3. We feel a need for large numbers of immigrants because our own birth rate is too low.  This reproductive minimalism is both an expression of our lack of appreciation for our own culture, and a great factor in its demise.*

I wonder if it is even possible to debate immigration honestly.  The Democratic party has bet big that the continued use of contraception among white Americans and the admission of peoples from the Latin south will, in the long term, tilt demography permanently in favor of its version of the welfare state, and, consequently, its sustained power.  Moreover, the turning away of Americans from marriage and the having of children suggests a lack of investment in, an apathy regarding, the future character of their country.  It is no more surprising that Americans should be resigned regarding the future of their culture than it is that Americans should desire immigrants to labor for the welfare state in lieu of the children who could have been. These trends are a tacit vote of assent to the Democratic strategy vastly more significant that any election-day tally. Further, neither Republicans nor Democrats seem to be capable of giving voice to a genuine love of country: one that does not base itself on being a jingoistic bully abroad, but rather on a reverent care to preserve and cultivate what we have, here, now, at home.

 


*I commend our children for their valiant countercultural efforts, aka grandchildren. Switzerland also needs help in this regard.

Posted by sursumcorda on Friday, May 17, 2013 at 3:35 pm | Edit
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The Romeikes have lost the latest round in their fight to keep from being sent back to Germany, where homeschooling is considered a sufficient reason to take custody of children away from their parents.  The ruling is being appealed.

On the bright side, the court did rule that "parents do have a right to direct the education and upbringing of their children."  However, they also said,

“Congress might have written the immigration laws to grant a safe haven to people living elsewhere in the world who face government strictures the United States Constitution prohibits,” the court ruled. “But it did not.”

[Attorney Michael] Farris said he finds great irony that the Obama administration is releasing thousands of illegal aliens—yet wants to send a family seeking political asylum back to Germany.

“Eleven million people are going to be allowed to stay freely—but this one family is going to be shipped back to Germany to be persecuted,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

Actually, it makes plenty of sense—if you consider only political expediency.  Immigration "reform" that supports an economy fueled by slave labor is considered a politically savvy move, while offending an important ally—Germany—is not.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, May 15, 2013 at 7:10 am | Edit
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I'm having a mid-life crisis.1

Theoretically that's good news, as apparently I'll be living past 120.  But it's still unnerving.  I'm haunted by the feeling that everything is all wrong.  We are not where we're supposed to be, and I know of no way to fix the problem.  To put it bluntly, we are too far away from our children and grandchildren.

That conclusion did not come easily.  I grew up with a good dose of American individualism and training in the idea that the most important family unit comprised father, mother, and children.  My father came from the state of Washington, my mother from Florida; they met in upstate New York, whither they had flown (figuratively speaking) without a backward glance, so far as I know, after graduating from their respective colleges.  Their siblings spread out as well, landing in California and the Midwest.  Our closest relatives were a five-hour drive away.  Cousins?  I had fourteen of them, but we were nearly strangers:  travel was much more difficult in the mid-20th century than it is now, despite not having to deal with the Transportation Security Administration.  Nor did I miss them much, I have to admit:  I had my parents, my three siblings, and a multitude of neighborhood friends, all quite enough for an introvert like me.  Or so I thought, not knowing any better.

Did my mother miss having her parents close by, especially when her children came along?  I don't know; if she ever talked about it, I don't remember.  I know my father thought she was better off 1000 miles away:  his mother-in-law had inherited a forceful personality from her own mother, who was quite a name in the business, political, educational, and social life of her adopted city.  My grandmother was a terrific person and a great cook, and I loved our biennial visits to her home.2  Still, there's no doubt she was a Force To Be Reckoned With, and my mother's personality probably blossomed more freely at a distance.

I had no choice, since my own mother had died by the time we had children.  My siblings were far away and much younger than I was.  (They still are.  Every year, they get older—but I seem to be outdistancing them.)  So childrearing was pretty much a solitary pursuit, as far as family went, anyway.  It didn't seem so onerous at the time:  most of my friends were separated from their families, too, so it seemed normal. Thanks to cheaper, modern transportation and deliberate effort, at least the kids knew their cousins better than I did mine.

It worked out.  The human family is remarkably resilient, and our extended family has managed to remain as close as any I know, and much closer than many.  It wasn't until I became a grandmother that I realized just how wrong the situation still was.

Children, after all, are supposed to become independent, to take wing, to create their own homes and families.  It hurt abominably (and still does) when our children were in pain or in need and we could not reach out to them, could not even give them reassuring hugs, but I learned to be thankful that they had friends—and later husbands—who could lend a hand and who would notice if they didn't show up when expected.  Sure, I envied my friends whose children went to college nearby, and who could attend their recitals, watch their games, and invite them home for an occasional dinner.  But it never felt quite as wrong as being so far from our grandchildren.

Unlike most animals, the human species lives long past the time of fertility.  Some have theorized that this "grandmother effect" had an evolutionary benefit, because the help of the grandparents increased the survival rate of the grandchildren.  In modern, Western society surviving may not be an issue, but thriving still is.  Grandparents can enrich the lives of their grandchildren not only directly, but also second-hand, by taking some of the 24/7/365 pressure off the parents.  Calmer parents are more creative, as well as more patient with their children.  This can't be done when you live a thousand miles apart, however.  Even fifty miles is pushing it, though my [insert much-needed term for "offspring's in-laws" here] frequently and heroically make the hour-each-way drive to spend half a day with their grandkids.

It is not "helicopter parenting" to want to help out for a day when your daughter is sick:  to feed the kids and take them to the playground so Mommy can nap.  I survived without that help, but how much better it would have been for the children to bake cookies with Grandma than to watch TV—the last resort of a mom who can't concentrate on anything other than not throwing up.

Even in the healthy times, children benefit from regular interactions with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  It's important for children to see the many sides of their own family:  how they are alike, how they differ.  What better way to learn to eat different foods than to spend the night with your cousins and be served something other than your favorite cereal for breakfast?  Making cookies with Grandma, knitting with Aunt Susan, birdwatching with Uncle Don ... mom and dad alone cannot provide the variety of learning experiences available through the wider family.  And how much better is it to have a crowd supporting you at your recital, or cheering from the sidelines for your soccer game?

When I was a young mother, I worried about the influence on our kids of family members with values that weren't completely aligned with ours.  That was a mistake.  Well, perhaps the concern wasn't entirely mistaken, but with experience I learned that (1) the differences were infinitesimal compared with the value, experience, and attitude differences they would encounter with their friends and their friends' families; and (2) such differences in those we love—or at the very least are obligated by the family bond not to merely ignore and avoid—provide an invaluable platform for teaching our children the essential life skill of getting along with—indeed, loving, respecting and learning from—those with whom we disagree, all without compromising our own standards.

It might be argued that with today's smaller families mothers don't need the help they once did.  It might be so argued—but I don't know of a single young mother who would agree!  And in any case, the scarcity of siblings makes the need for cousins all the more acute.  I will defend vigorously the "nuclear family" as an ideal—in the sense of children growing up with their own father and mother who are married in a lifelong commitment—in contrast with the many workable and sometimes necessary but inferior substitutes that abound today.  Too often, however, the term is used in another sense:  to mean "father/mother/two kids."  This I find far from ideal:  what we want is a clan.

Certainly there are ways to foster the clan feeling even when living far apart.  I'm thankful for modern transportation and communication:   for superhighways, jet planes, swift mail delivery, e-mail, and Skype.  I'm grateful for siblings and children who make the sacrifices and take the time to encourage extended family interaction.   Nonetheless, real physical presence, when it happens, still has somewhat of a "weekend dad" feeling:  very intense and somewhat indulgent interactions, rather than the calmer experiences of ordinary life.

Deprived of nearby extended family, we make do.  The human race is good at making do.  We find substitute "grandparents" and surrogate "grandchildren" in our own communities, and our children become more than ever dependent on their age-group friends.  It is good to have alternatives; friends and neighbors have their own place in our lives, and it's an important one.  But it's not the same as family.  Expecting them to fill that niche can stress those relationships unnecessarily.  Granted, in this fallen world there are unfortunate exceptions, but as a rule family implies a much higher level of emotional, psychological, physical, and financial commitment than can be expected of non-family relationships.  Churches try to fill the role, even calling themselves a "church family"—but Jesus himself stated that giving to God was no excuse for neglecting your own family (Matthew 15:5-6; see also 1 Timothy 5:8).

I know the problem; what I don't know is what can possibly be done about it.  Wendel Berry has written a lot about the importance of place (even more so than of family, based on the little I've read), and the folks at the Front Porch Republic are always talking about the importance of localized community.  But even if our children choose to live near one set of grandparents (and few do), most often that leaves the other set—and most cousins—out in the cold.  Even if we try to keep families together through the extremity of marrying our children off to other children in the nearby community—nearly impossible if they go to college, or to war, or on almost any other adventure—we're likely to end up small-minded, inbred (in the intellectual sense as well), parochial, and stale.

So we make do with substitutes.  But it's still not right.  It's like formula instead of breast milk; giving birth at a hospital instead of at home; turning our children over to others for the better part of the day instead of teaching them ourselves; homogenized, pasteurized milk from an agribusiness dairy versus a glass of raw milk from a local, pasture-raised cow; children (and adults!) who spend all day indoors instead of out in the fresh air and sunshine, learning nature's lessons and enjoying her bounty.  We're glad to have the alternatives available:  each is good in its proper place.  But no matter how important these may be, they are still only substitutes for the real, best thing, and it's wrong to pretend otherwise.

I'm grateful to all those who are standing in our stead for our children and grandchildren when we cannot, and for the many ways we can still serve them and connect with them without a physical presence.  I'm thankful beyond words for the means to travel to our far-flung family, and for a husband who understands how important it is to nourish these relationships.  I also realize that the problem is logically insoluble:  even if we wanted to leave everything here behind and move close to some of our grandchildren, we'd still be 3700 miles away from the others.3

So it's not so much a mid-life crisis I'm having, as a muddle.  My high calling and career, that which my heart yearns for and longs to throw itself into, I cannot do except limpingly.  That which I believe is so important for the health of our nation's children is that from which our society is fleeing with alarming determination.

So what to do?  Promote the extended family—the clan—when given the opportunity, do what we can with the means that we have to cultivate relationships, and daily put one foot in front of the other on the path as we see it, trusting that whenever God calls us to a task, he will provide the necessary means.

And take refuge in poetry.

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodged with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."

—John Milton, On His Blindness

 


1Well, I suppose "crisis" is too strong a word, given that I began this post in 2011, and am still plugging along.  Mother's Day seemed like a reasonable occasion to revive it.

2What wasn't to like for a kid?  My grandparents lived in a lovely old house two blocks from the World's Most Famous Beach and its awesome Broadwalk!  (Yes, Google, that's spelled correctly, even though you tried to change it to "boardwalk."  These days people do call it a boardwalk, but it was definitely "broad" when I enjoyed it.)  The house is now an attorney's office.  Sad, but at least it still stands; many from that era do not.

3Years ago, when people asked if we would consider moving away from Florida, I would reply that I might be tempted, once the kids settled down, to move halfway between them.  But it turns out that living on a houseboat in the middle of the North Atlantic won't solve the problem.

Posted by sursumcorda on Tuesday, May 14, 2013 at 5:57 am | Edit
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I can venture more with Davie than with another:  he obeys in a moment.

Thus the tutor in one of George MacDonald's novels explains how he dares take his young pupil on dangerous explorations to the roof of an old, crumbling Scottish castle.  Davie was allowed the exciting and perilous adventuring because his tutor knew that when he said, "Stay here until I return," Davie wouldn't go wandering and possibly falling off the edge.

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with Lift Up Your Hearts! knows I am a fan of Free-Range Kids and Lenore Skenazy's movement to restore for today's children some of the freedoms enjoyed by previous generations.  Parents are hovering over their children as never before:  they're afraid to let them out of sight, to walk to school, to ride bikes with their friends; afraid to let them risk getting hurt, even a little, whether they be infants negotiating stairs, children using knives, or teens travelling to a foreign country.  (Yet we expect teens to be sexually active, drive a car, and serve in the military.  Go figure.)  However, manageable risks and small hurts are necessary to growth.  Without them, our children don't learn to tell a reasonable risk from a ridiculous one, and we find that sparing them the lesser pain has made them exceptionally vulnerable to serious, even fatal, wounds.

Why do we bubble-wrap our young people?  The reasons are many and complex, but one of the greatest surely is that we no longer trust our children.  And why don't we trust our children?  Primarily, I would say, because they have not learned to be trustworthy.

They are not trustworthy because we have not given them the opportunity to learn obedience.

Obedience is an unpopular concept these days, perhaps because it conjures up images of harsh punishment, restricted lives, and children who go wild at college when released from their parents' strict rules and constant monitoring.  Or of totalitarian societies and blind adherence to evil laws.  ("I was only following orders.")  But no matter what ugliness it has been deformed into, obedience to a trustworthy and legitimate authority is a beautiful thing.  It's what makes society work.  From traffic to taxes, from banking to environmental protection—when enough people decide that the rules don't apply to them, disaster is not far off.

The Connecticut Science Center has ruled that children under the age of 16 must be supervised by an accompanying adult at all times during their visit.  Why such a ridiculous restriction?  You can blame the lawyers, of course, but what it boils down to is that the museum has learned that it cannot trust that demographic to obey the rules of the house, let alone the rules of common courtesy.  When that happens, peopleand expensive equipment—get hurt.

Similar restrictions have sprung up all over, ostensibly for the safety of the children.  I'm not sure I entirely believe that excuse.  When our children were young and energetic, people would sometimes tell them not to do such-and-such a thing, explaining, "I'm afraid you'll get hurt."  Well, maybe; it was pretty clear to me that what they were really afraid of was that the children would break, not their legs, but some material possession.  Be that as it may, young people—at an age when some of their ancestors were supporting themselves, raising their own families, fighting in wars, and even commanding ships—cannot, apparently, be relied on to walk through a museum without damaging something.

Thus the free-range childhood movement has two major fronts on which to fight:  (1) Convincing society that our children can and should be trusted to handle themselves at least as well as children did a generation or two ago, and (2) Preparing our children to be worthy of that trust.

As we explored Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, I noted that there were no age restrictions on the trails; it was up to parents to decide how much to involve their children.  The trails themselves were safe enough, but often a sheer drop or a boiling spring was only a few feet away.  A child of any age who could be counted on to stay on the trail, and to freeze at a parent's, "Wait for us!" command, would have the freedom to enjoy an unforgettable experience; one who was accustomed to thinking of rules and restrictions as flexible could easily end up dead.  Too many of the latter will cause doors to slam shut for the former also.

"The world has changed," is the spell invoked to justify increasing restrictions on young people.  By this is mostly meant external changes, such as more sexual predators, more kidnappers, more terrorists.  (I'm absolutely convinced that the problem actually is more news coverage of these very rare crimes, but that's another issue.)  The world has changed, indeed, but what has changed most is closer to home:  our children are no longer growing up knowing and following the rules of proper use of stoves, knives, guns, hammers, saws, ropes, candles, campfires, boats, and other items they used to encounter—and be required to use—in everyday life.  Parents are also more reluctant—perhaps in fear of the evils that have become associated with distorted ideas of obedience—to teach their children respect for authority, and the importance of following legitimate rules.  If we want our communities to accept that our children are competent and trustworthy, it's up to us to make sure that they are.

(There is, I acknowledge, the opposite failing—teaching our children never to question authority, never to ask if the rules are legitimate.  But that is a different issue.)

Political action can pry open society's closed doors for our children, good publicity can pry open parental fingers from a death-grip on their children's leashes, but only deliberate parental effort can prepare those children for freedom.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, May 2, 2013 at 7:51 am | Edit
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Check out Janet's great article at Power of Moms!

No Time for a Break:  The Art of Resting when Parenting is Non-Stop

I knew the importance of rest going into motherhood, but for some reason, my beautiful and demanding son didn’t know that Sunday was my day off.   He somehow missed the memo that on this “day of rest” he should sleep through the night, take long naps, not need to nurse on my bleeding breasts, and not cry so that I can be refreshed and a good mother for the remainder of the week

Often as mothers we are either working or feeling guilty that we’re not working (and sometimes both at once!) We need to learn to rest guilt-free because rest isn’t restful if we’re feeling guilty!

Trust me (the objective, unbiased proud, excited mother), you'll want to read it all.

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, April 10, 2013 at 7:42 am | Edit
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It's been more than a decade since a family tragedy forced me to look into how childbirth has changed in America since our chlidren were born.  It's still a major concern of mine, and so I read with heightened interest this profile of Suzanne Davis Arms in the May/June 2011 issue of the University of Rochester's Rochester Review.  (Yes, I realize that is two years ago.  Any regular reader of this blog knows I'm behind in practically everything.)

A few things made the article particularly interesting, beyond the basic subject.

  • Arms is a University of Rochester (alma mater of three of the four people in our family, and of my brother as well).
  • Betsy Naumburg, quoted in the article, was one of the doctors when Porter worked for the UR's Family Medicine Center.
  • Arms wrote Immaculate Deception: A New Look at Women in Childbirth in 1975.  Although I hadn't read it, her book clearly influenced the attitudes and options that were prevalent when our children were born in the late 70's and early 80's.  Her revised edition, Immaculate Deception II: Myth, Magic, and Birth came out in 1995, not long before my forced re-entry into the world of childbirth.  Perhaps if I had read it then, I would have been forewarned of the return of over-medicalized childbirth.
Posted by sursumcorda on Monday, April 8, 2013 at 7:15 am | Edit
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