What Do You Do When You’re Wrong?

In response to last week’s post, several readers wrote me to point out an error. I incorrectly wrote, “Mr. Rogers invited the postman, Mr. McFeely, to come soak his feet in his pool.”  

In reality, he invited Officer Clemmons. Mr. McFeely is white while Officer Clemmons is African-American – not a minor point considering Mr. Rogers was trying to make a statement about integrating public pools.

My initial instinct was to hope no one else noticed and ignore it.  

Ultimately, guilt made me own up to my mistake, email the readers who pointed out the error and send this mea culpa. The net result was not only a personal relief but also some excellent exchanges with readers – even netting a book recommendation. What originally felt threatening instead felt liberating.
A few weeks earlier, my middle daughter had given me a master class in apologies.  Around bedtime, she had completely lost her cool about something that seemed trivial at the time. She said some hurtful and hateful things, including that I was “the worst Dad ever” and she “never wanted to read with me again.”  Both of which stung, especially since we’ve been having an absolutely awesome time reading a book series called The Unwanteds every night for months. She ran into her room crying, slamming the door.

Several minutes later, a notebook came sliding out from under said slammed door. In her two-page note, she walked me through every nook and cranny of what she was feeling and why she acted the way she did. I went into her room, her apologetic words in my proud hand, to tell her how brave it was to share her feelings so directly and purely. I asked if we could read theUnwanteds and so we did.
In the spirit of President’s Day, both examples, reflect these words from Lincoln:

My old Father used to have a saying that ‘If you make a bad bargain, hug it all the tighter.’
Owning our mistakes has always been hard, but it seems even harder today. We don’t allow much space for forgiveness. 
Saying sorry, admitting when you’re wrong. These are really, really hard things.  Yet we put every potential apology through the lens of judgment instead of understanding.  A world that seems more about gotcha, than “I get you.”
The problem is that when we don’t feel safe to own our mistakes, both parties suffer.  Apologies come either half-baked or not at all. And no one is able to move on.
There is something poetic about the imagery of hugging our mistakes all the tighter.  Just imagine, if we could all hug ours as tightly as a nine-year-old.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

You Can Do Hard Things

This is a phrase my wife has recently used several times with our children. When I first heard it, it immediately struck a chord.
As a child, most things seem a little hard at first – tying your shoes, getting your own breakfast, reading a book, riding a bike.
It is by only by doing these things ourselves, that we eventually master them and what at first seemed hard eventually becomes second nature.
It is to easy to forget this simple lesson. In the name of expediency, we answer the call to “tie my shoe”, “get me breakfast”, or “read to me?” 

Our lack of patience denies them the opportunity to overcome a struggle and independently solve their own problems.
Ironically, we at the same time, serve them empty pabulum that “nothing is impossible” and “they can do anything.”  This is while we simultaneously deny them the skills necessary to achieve even the most mundane goals.
“You can do hard things” is a realistic invitation to meet life where it is – right in front of you.  

Life, after all, is hard and as Teddy Roosevelt famously said, “nothing worth having comes easy.”  So day-by-day, we work to do hard things. When we master each, we feel rewarded and energized to take on the next hard thing. This is a fundamental part of learning, living and growing.
Conversely, well-intentioned calls like “nothing is impossible” and “you can do anything” can ring hollow. For those of means, it seems like an entitlement (since we may have shown them that things will come to you regardless of your effort).
It is also a little tone deaf to those who face constant adversity.  Their lives are filled with hard things and  everything seems impossible and overwhelming considering their circumstances.
For different reasons, it creates unrealistic distant expectations when what is needed are smaller invitations for mastery.
My youngest daughter loves baking shows and occasionally helps us in the kitchen. But until recently, she treated breakfast as if she were in a diner – ordering what she would like as her parental waiters obliged. 
On Wednesday, she poured her own cereal, spilling just a little drop of milk in the process. Smiling she looked up and said,  “see, I can do hard things.”
One day a bowl of cereal, tomorrow maybe it’s tying her shoes. Whatever the next hard thing is, she will be just a little more prepared to tackle it.  And that I suppose is all we should ask.

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

They Were Everywhere

On bookshelves, under end tables, on the dining room table, behind the sofa, and under chairs. In the hallway, kitchen, bedroom, living room and yes, the closet. They were spread to every corner of our home like the Starks to the kingdoms of Westeros.
Legos, Legos and more Legos. Our home had turned into a literal Lego-land. Constructed sets abounded – tree houses, ski lodges, yogurt shops, pet hospitals, ice skating rinks, pizzerias and amusement parks. While they are in a seemingly constant state of reproduction, their forces had multiplied exponentially recently — the result of birthday parties and Christmas.
In an effort to contain the madness, my wife and I had decided to take matters into our own hands.  Each year, we make our children a Christmas gift (with Santa supplying all others under the tree.)  

This year we decided to make them each a Mobile Lego Cart. It was tricked out with three shelves. On two we affixed Lego baseplates, which would allow them to display their Lego creations, the third had a storage bin, for either Lego pieces or assembled accessories, like cars and planes. Each cart was equipped with hooks for hanging bags of pieces and magnets (some of which were used to spell their names prominently on the cart).

The idea was they could place their creations on the cart, play with them and when done move them to a place that would be out of sight, out of mind for their Lego fatigued parents.
They were things of beauty and our girls loved them. Soon we would learn the shortcomings of our plan.
Our girls are big fans of these Lego sets. Pre-packaged boxes of 400-1200 distinct Lego pieces organized in one to eight different bags with step-by-step instruction booklets that can be up to two hundred pages long. The assembly process takes hours, sometimes spanning multiple days.  A simple bump or knock can send that effort into a heap of bricks and tears.
Now put that on a moving cart.  Oops, sorry  I meant three different moving carts.
Predictably, within the first few hours, two accidents had led to the previously referenced heaps of bricks and tears.
Beyond the tenuous nature of moving intricate Lego sets was the question of real estate. The adage of “If you build it, they will come” was never more true.

Initially old completed sets were moved into their new home only to be quickly displaced by freshly built new sets – a Lego gentrification process forced by limited cart capacity. The building of new sets was so furious you would have thought they were developers in Dubai.
Frustration mounted as did calls for more carts and space.
When I was young, Legos did not come in elaborate sets with instructions.  There were Legos and your imagination. 

You built something and played with it until you were bored. Then you tore it down and built something different. One set could last a childhood.  
Today each set is intended to have permanence. Our children learn the importance of following instructions carefully and take pride in their studious accomplishment.  And they certainly exercise their imagination when they play make believe and insert themselves into the complex worlds designed by Lego but assembled with their own two hands.  
But something seems decidedly different and potentially lost – and I’m talking about more than just space in our home. 

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

The True Meaning of Eve

For millions of children around the world (and perhaps an equal number of adults), today is a day of incredible anticipation.  For tomorrow, they will wake up uncontrollably consumed by the excitement that comes with presents nestled under and around the Christmas tree.
The very nature of any “eve” is one of anticipation and even anxiety.  As the great Tom Petty once sang, “the waiting is the hardest part.”
Its meaning today is simply “the day or period of time before an event or occasion.”  But the word’s Hebrew origin is much more evocative of what is to come. “To breath” or “to live” suggests that “eve” is the very precursor to of our being.
I try to imagine what my mother felt like on Christmas Eve, 1968. The year had been one calamity one after another.  Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy had both been assassinated. Vietnam had escalated.  There were riots in the streets. In this context, already struggling to raise two children on her own, she was now expecting a third.
I can only guess that she felt both excitement and fear. A blind belief that things could only get better and a nagging feeling that perhaps they would not.
The next morning, she watched her oldest son rejoice in seeing his new train set chug around the tree while her two-year-old daughter feverishly tore wrapping paper from one present after another. 
Shortly thereafter, she brought me into this world. To say it was a difficult birth would be an understatement, as I was nearly twelve pounds and breech.
This year is not unlike 1968, as much anxiety and anticipation mark the eve of this holiday. 
It would seem appropriate to take inspiration from the advice that I assume my mother heard while in labor that morning. 

Reminding us to breathe, especially during the difficult times.  

Remembering to offer words of encouragement when someone is struggling, “You’re doing great, you’re almost there.” 

And of course, the solace that comes when our labor is done and we have brought new life into our troubled, beautiful world.

Happy Holidays (and thank you Mom.)

Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up. 

Don’t Turn The Page

I really wanted to write something positive today. Then I saw this.

The first time I had seen that picture was last Sunday.  It was on the front page of the New York Times.  My seven-year old daughter had just crawled up on my lap and asked me who that was. I told her that this picture was of another seven-year old girl who lived in Yemen and because of the war going on in that country could not get enough to eat. She was now suffering from something called malnutrition. 

When my daughter, first leapt on my lap, I turned the paper over as the top of the fold story was about the shooting in Pittsburgh. I flipped it to protect her from that story, not knowing that an equally disturbing one would be revealed on the other side of the paper.

She implored me, “Daddy, please turn the page, I don’t want to look at that picture anymore, it’s scary.” In saying this, she expressed an all-too familiar sentiment we all feel when it comes to confronting terrible news. If we turn the page, it goes away.  Out of sight out of mind.  And so I did.

Later that day, my daughter threw a fit when her peas touched her pasta during dinner. It was a typical outburst of a tired child but I felt a deep rage within me.  So frustrated was I by her inability to put her own discomfort in perspective to what she had seen earlier that morning. How could she forget so quickly?

Well, she is a seven-year old child. What is our excuse?

Some will say we can only react to the problems in front of us and while they may seem trivial to the rest of the world, they are very real at the time. When we are confronted with the more serious suffering of others, our problems are put in perspective and their proportion is adjusted. They become and feel smaller. Fair enough. 

But how perverse is it that the severe suffering of others serves a purpose of making us feel better about our own.

Are our only choices to turn the page or confront the suffering of others and feel better about our own problems?

The picture appeared again in Friday’s paper, with an update.  The seven-year old girl had died – the result of not being able to get the necessary follow up medical care, she so desperately needed.

If that seven-year old girl were in my daughter’s 1st grade class, I would fly off the couch to see how we could help. Instead of staying on it and turning the page.

Here is a link to Doctors without Borders that is active in trying to provide care in Yemen.  If so inclined, you can make a donation in memory of Amal Hussain, the seven-year old girl in the photograph.

The Child or The Road?

Uncertain times raise the stakes for raising a child.  We project our own fears upon their future and our anxiety seeps into our actions and ultimately theirs. 

This manifests itself in ways big and small, many of which are chronicled in the new book, The Coddling of the American Mind:  How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure.  (Ironically, the title itself may unwittingly add to this anxiety.)  The book is challenging and tough to read as you reflect on your own actions and life, but it is valuable for that very reason.

It opens with a quote from a folk tale that says, “Prepare your child for the road, not the road for the child.”  Let that idea sink in.

We have leaders who we hope will prepare the road well through policy and practice. When they don’t we should do our part to hold them accountable. But the reality is that our control over the road pales in comparison to our ability to prepare our children for whatever that road may hold.  The film Captain Fantastic is a perfect example of how families can do just that – albeit perhaps to an extreme.

In an example closer to home, we’ve been giving much thought to the newfound freedom of our fifth grader who now must walk to school each day. It is a ten-minute journey that includes crossing multiple streets, navigating one five way intersection and walking through a hidden path.

Preparing the road means that we have street lights and stop signs, penalties in place for breaking traffic rules and crossing guards to facilitate crossing the road. Increasingly, some children are given phones so parents can receive updates on their progress or even track it themselves via GPS.  All of these seem reasonable ways to prepare the road for a smooth journey. 

At the same time, what does the child do when the crossing guard is not there, or the lights are not working, or the phone battery dies?  It is then when the test will come as to whether we have prepared them for this road.  Do they know to look both ways?  Can they use their judgment to determine when to cross un-assisted?  Will they know which adult it is ok to ask for help, if they need to reach their parents?

It is natural for any parent to want every road – present or future – to made free from danger.  But the reality is that is an impossible and exhausting ask.

Instead, our only hope is that we have prepared them to deal with the uncertainty that can make life both scary and thrilling.

How To Tell The Truth

My six year old daughter stepped off the bus with a very long face.  “Daddy, you’re going to be so mad at me. I did something awful at school today.”
Embarrassed, upset and ashamed, it took twenty minutes for her to work through her tears and tell me that she got in trouble for talking in gym class. A crime that was punishable by sitting alone on the stage at the front of the gym. A second infraction would bring with it the much-feared trip to the principal’s office.
I first thanked her for telling me the truth. Then I told her I was not mad at her and there was no need to be afraid of further punishment.  
When we talked about what she had learned from this, she said to “not talk after the whistle at gym class” and perhaps more importantly that she “should never be afraid to tell me the truth.”
When we are young, telling the truth, if not always easy, comes naturally. Lying is a learned behavior. Children begin to tell ridiculous fibs as early as 3 or 4 and graduate to more complicated and believable lies at 7 or 8.
Research shows
that people lie for a number of reasons but most will fall into two buckets:  to protect ourselves or to promote ourselves (see this fascinating chart breaking down our motivations for lying.)
The average person tells a few lies everyday. People who lie more often have shown to have a more active portion of the brain that is associated with reward processing (e.g. it makes lying worth it). Another study demonstrated that according to brain activity, the more we lie the less stress or emotional discomfort we feel about lying.
In other words, as we get older, telling the truth becomes harder and lying becomes easier.
Which brings us to the events of last week.
Our credibility is a window into our character. If we cannot be trusted to tell the truth about little things, like why we got in trouble in gym class or how much we drank in high school, it will call into question our ability to tell the truth on more substantial issues.  

I trust my six year old to tell me the truth, a belief that was reinforced this week shortly after she stepped of the bus.  I wish I could say the same for anyone who might someday ascend to the highest bench.


Thanks for reading the latest from Moving Up.

Who’s In Your Class?

China, Columbia, England, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Peru, Sweden, Turkey, and the United States — twelve students representing eleven countries.  This is the makeup of a masters level class I’m teaching this fall at Parson’s School of Design.

As I sat with them discussing what we’d cover over the course of the semester, I couldn’t help but think what they would teach each other and me – just by the very nature of their diverse life experiences.

Each had traveled more than a thousand miles to live and learn in a new city – with perfect strangers.  I couldn’t begin to fathom how rich and exciting this experience must be for them.

Contrast this with another feeling I also experienced last week involving students and classroom composition. This was the week when my daughters would each learn who would be in their classes for their 1st, 3rd and 5th grade years respectively.

Every parent needed to find his or her child’s assigned teacher online.  After they could add their child’s name to a Google spreadsheet so other parents could see who was in what class.  My anxiety grew as one by one I saw my daughter’s friends end up in classrooms different from theirs.  

I wondered if we should have made requests for our girls to be in the same class as certain friends (which rules allow).  If somehow, our desire to let fate determine who was in their class was a bad call.  One that our girls would now resent us for and that would create unnecessary stress for them in school.

Each ended up with one or two good friends in their class.  As we shared the news, we tried to spin the paucity of old friends as an opportunity to meet new ones.  If I were being honest – that is not how I felt at the time.

Until I walked into a class with twelve students from eleven countries.

Appreciating the vast difference between grade school and graduate school, the idea of new experiences versus the comfort of the known was also in stark contrast.

Increasingly we have the capability of engineering the novel and the new out of our lives. Leaving less to chance and serendipity. Favoring the familiar over the foreign.

While there is value in the deepening of old friendships and experiences, there is an expansiveness that comes with the new. Or better expressed in the words of Anais Nin: 

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born. 

Here’s to the arrival of a new school year, filled with new friends and new worlds.

Freedom From or Freedom To?

After running around attending to the needs of various kids, I had just poured a fresh cup of coffee, grabbed my book and sat down to relax.  

As if intentionally timing her request to my first sip, my daughter summoned,“Daddy, get me a glass of milk.”  This is the exchange that followed:

“You realize this vacation is for Mommy and Daddy too, you know.  You’ve been on vacation all summer and we just get this week.”
“What are you talking about vacation all summer? We had to get up for camp, make our beds, listen to you tell us what to do.  That’s not vacation. Going away is vacation.”

Weeks earlier I stumbled upon a plaque that said, “Vacation is when you’ve got nowhere to go, nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it.” It was in essence a definition of a certain kind of freedom.

It is a freedom from responsibility, from directives, from expectations, from obligations, from stress, from danger.

This freedom from is an often overlooked pre-requisite to the more commonly aspirational type of freedom – freedom to….

Freedom to do what we want, to pursue our dreams, to make our own choices, to say or own whatever we desire.

The catch is that you can’t have the second until you first secure the first. Freedom from allows us to pursue freedoms to.

I kept this in mind for the rest of our vacation. There was no unnecessary scheduling, no plans that couldn’t be altered. “You don’t want to go to the beach today, cool.  You want to sleep in – go for it. You want to just play in the backyard all day – sounds great.”

By creating an environment of “freedom from”, they felt the “freedom to”.  Freedom to play, to be silly, and even to help themselves.

On this last point, it is worth noting that I can’t remember a time when my children behaved so well towards each other and with us. It was a remarkable demonstration of how being free changes how we treat others.

In our current political context, some naturally focus on providing “freedom from” – discrimination, poverty, fear and violence.  While others seek to create more “freedom to” – speak freely, take risks, vote, own guns, pursue opportunities.

Perhaps if more of our leaders recognized how intrinsically linked these two types of freedom are, they would behave better as well.

The Truth About Parents

This week, I read the obituary for Gudrun Burwtiz. Her father was Heinrich Himmler – the Nazi architect of the Holocaust. The focus of the obituary was her undying loyalty and defense of her father that continued throughout her lifetime.

Last week, I attended a lecture by Caroline Fraser, whose book Prairie Fires examines the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder – author of the Little House on the Prairie series.  Her talk focused on how much Wilder left out of the stories of her family and in particular her parents.  Never accounting for many of their financial struggles, frequent moves and most importantly unfair treatment of Native Americans – including stealing/squatting on their land.

Finally, I recently finished reading Atticus Finch: The Biography, which chronicled the challenges Harper Lee had in understanding her father’s views on race and how that played out dramatically differently in her two works of fiction (The revered Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird and the reviled Atticus inGo Set a Watchman).

All three of these situations bring to light the challenges that our children will face when it is time for them to tell our story.  And more specifically, what responsibility do we have to make sure they get it right.

Of course, we want our children to respect and love us, to hold us in high esteem – perhaps even put us on a pedestal.  But this has the potential to do both them and us a disservice.

For Burwitz, this meant living a life in denial and isolation.

For Wilder, it contributed to unhelpful myths of self-reliance and “settling the frontier”.

For Lee, it resulted in creating an conflicting portraits of her father that people use for their own purposes.

At some point in their lives, it is important for our children to have a realistic understanding about who their parents are. Where we came from, what we had working for us, what struggles we had to overcome. What are our dreams, regrets, fears and hopes. The whole muddy mess.

Last semester, one of my student’s final project dealt with the role mothers play in their children’s success.  She interviewed several mothers – including her own – asking them to reflect on their own moms.    One question stood out:  

When was the first time your realized your mother was human?

When she shared this question with the class, a profound and knowing silence came across the room.  Recognizing a truth that we must all come to grips with.

We are all human and our children will find out one way or another.  Isn’t it best we told them first?