The tough way to help kids succeed

There’s something your children may not be getting enough of these days. Sure, vegetables come to mind. And so does sleep. But it’s neither of those.

A chorus of voices from economists to neuroscientists, educators and psychologists say the thing parents aren’t letting their kids have enough of is adversity.

I know. Where do you buy that, right?

Dr. Paul Tough, author of “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character,” started this ball rolling several years ago. Who better than a man named Tough to tell parents they’re soft?

Dr. Tough writes, “American children, especially those who grow up in relative comfort, are, more than ever, shielded from failure as they grow up. If this new research is right, their schools, their families, and their culture may all be doing them a disservice by not giving them more opportunities to struggle.”

He’s right. We pick kids up before they hit the ground. We fight their battles for them and buffer them from the consequences of their actions. Then we wonder why they bail when the going gets tough. We never let them practice.

Tough says, “Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And character, even more than IQ, is what leads to real and lasting success.”

I can’t think of Tough’s admonition without thinking of our son’s knee caps. He’s missing the groove that holds the knee cap in place. He used to fall down at soccer games a lot and we didn’t know why. Then one day a neighbor boy ran in the house and said, “You better come quickly.”

Our son was in the driveway where they’d been playing basketball. His knee cap was dangling at the side of his leg. It was the first of numerous dislocations, casts and crutches for months at a time, three surgeries and endless physical therapy. After one of his surgeries, his leg muscles were so atrophied they sent us home with a contraption that would send an electrical current to awaken them. He was doing half-hearted leg lifts, I was grimacing every time I gave him a jolt of current, and he looked completely dejected.

I got on the floor next to him and said, “I don’t know why you have flat kneecaps, but I know that suffering produces perseverance and perseverance produces character.”

He looked at me, eyes brimming with tears, and said, “But I don’t want to learn character!”

I thought, “You and me both, buddy. But here we are.”

Nobody volunteers for adversity. Nobody waves their arms in the air and yells, “Over here! I want to learn character. Choose me!” Nobody intrinsically wants to struggle, do the hard thing, climb uphill or hurdle the roadblock. But sometimes, the very things we don’t want are the things that build strength and character and forge an ability to endure.

You can’t teach a kid character, perseverance or fortitude in a workshop or a class. But kids can learn from physical challenges, academic struggles, small failures and big disappointments. Of course, that’s providing parents will back off and let them.

Crafting like I’m 6

The great thing about your kids having kids is that it gives you a reason to act like a kid. I’m crafting like I’m 6.

I now buy construction paper, pipe cleaners and glue sticks like they are staples. So long, eggs, milk and butter.

Suddenly, everything in the house has craft potential—plastic forks, bottle caps and Q-tips. (They’re great for making skeletons, but the ribs are tricky.)

Before Christmas we were saving empty toilet paper rolls to make Nativity figures. It was either that or the holy family on tongue depressors. Tough call. The intentions were noble, and the final products were cute, but it still seemed wrong. So wrong.

After that it was marshmallow snowmen. You thread large marshmallows on a wooden skewer, then use frosting to add eyes, a nose, a mouth, buttons and a scarf. Some of them were charming, but some of them looked like they had staggered out of a Snowman Zombie Apocalypse. Where’s global warming when you need it? We submerged some of the snowmen in hot chocolate simply to see them disappear. On the upside, the bad dreams only lasted a week.

From there we moved on to coffee filter flowers. Quick, easy and pretty, although Grandma is apparently the only one able to securely twist the pipe cleaner stems around the base of the folded coffee filters. It’s good to feel needed.

I’m thinking of hanging a sign in the kitchen that says, “When the crafting gets tough, the tough get crafting.”

We are currently in the midst of a blizzard, or rather a snowflake craze. Snowflakes are for high-end crafters, which I am not. I remember making them in grade school and feeling inferior because the other kids turned out beautiful, intricate snowflakes while mine looked like moths splattered on a windshield.

“I’ll have to look up how to make them,” I say. “It’s been a long time.”

They hover near the computer, their hot little breath on my neck, as a Pinterest search pulls up directions for making snowflakes. The sample snowflakes are breathtakingly beautiful. Clearly, they have been created by engineers. With Ph.D.’s.

“Let’s make that one! And that one! And that one!” they howl.

“We’ll try. But they probably won’t look like these pictures.”

I fold paper, make a few cuts and unfold it.

“That’s not a snowflake, Grandma.”

True. But it’s a good Star of David.

I try again. They are beginning to lose interest, some playing on the piano, one dancing, another asking if it is time for a snack.

I try yet another with one child still intently watching. Her eyes study me as I attempt to make curved cuts in strategic places. She watches a little longer. Then, she turns to the others and yells, “QUIET!!!  SHE NEEDS TO CONCENTRATE!”

I spend the next hour helping fold paper and make tiny cuts with dull safety scissors. It would be more time-efficient to rip the snowflake patterns out with our teeth. Still, they are pleased with their creations and want to put their work on display.

We’re the house in the middle of the block with white moths plastered to the windows.



Old report cards still make the grade

Can someone please tell me why mothers hang onto their children’s old report cards?

I have a three-ring notebook full of report cards and standardized test scores squeezed in among my cookbooks. Every time I shuffle the cookbooks, I consider pitching the notebook. But I never do.

What am I waiting for? Do I really think our youngest daughter, now married and a mother of two, is going to take another run at an A in high school chemistry? Do I think our thirty-something son will somehow pull up that third-quarter D he got in sixth-grade music because he refused to memorize the school song?

To make the situation even more bizarre, some of the report cards are nearly meaningless. All three of our kids started school at a progressive elementary that only gave grades of C, S and N—commendable, satisfactory and needs improvement.

On the bright side, the kids all received a lot of participation ribbons. I saved some of those, too—just to see the kids roll their eyes.

I’m not alone with my dusty collection of report cards. My mother saved every report card my brother and I brought home. She kept them in a closet in the basement along with the adult beverages. If you knew my brother, you’d think there may have been a reason my mother kept them there.

After my brother took a standardized test in second grade, the teacher called my parents for a meeting. She said in all her years of teaching she’d never seen a student miss every question. She suspected, because he was both bright and playful, that he did it on purpose. He pleaded the fifth.

Report cards and test scores aren’t the only things mothers save. I was part of a conversation recently in which women discussed saving baby teeth. One woman gagged at the mention; two others confessed to keeping the first tooth each child lost.

Why? It’s not like you could ever use one for chewing. Of course, the right kind of kid could have a lot of fun with a spare tooth at a family meal.

Other mothers save hair from first haircuts. Are they going to have a wig made?

What’s with our attachment to all this old useless stuff taking up space? Maybe without those old report cards I would have forgotten about that ridiculous grading system.

I might also have forgotten when our son finally decided to begin applying himself. That’s ridiculous. I’ll always remember. April. It was a Tuesday, 1:37 p.m. Partly cloudy. The sky opened and birds began singing. Some things a mother never forgets.

But maybe I truly would have forgotten the name and face of the teacher who wrote, “I’m praying for you,” on our oldest daughter’s report card when she missed school for frequent appointments at a children’s hospital.

Maybe the real reason we hang on to all this stuff is to remind ourselves of all the miles we’ve come—and how quickly the miles pass.





Building blocks of launching good memories

Our son asked if I knew what the favorite gift was he received as a kid.

I thought about saying “pony,” but we never got him one.

It’s a good thing I didn’t start guessing, because it turns out his favorite gift wasn’t from us—it was from my dad, his grandpa.

“A box of wood scraps,” he said, effusively bobbing his head up and down, like everybody on the planet knows wood scraps would be a kid’s favorite gift.

“Now do you remember?” he pressed. “You do, right?”

I didn’t. Actually, I couldn’t. I was preoccupied mentally tallying the toys, games, sports equipment and camping gear we had bought over the years when we could have saved a bundle by simply scavenging for wood scraps.

“Yeah! It was a whole box full of scraps —all shapes and sizes, all kinds of wood. Grandpa had been saving them and brought them over one time.”

It was starting to sound vaguely familiar.

“It was the best,” he said. “I remember nailing pieces together and making all kinds of things for days on end. So guess what I did?”

“Built your loving parents a new home out of wood scraps?” I ask.

“No, I’ve been saving wood scraps for my kids.”

So it’s true – you give the gift you’d like to receive.

“I gave them this big box of wood scraps I’ve been saving and you should have seen their faces.” He pauses and swallows hard. He may be choking up over wood scraps. It’s entirely possible. “They were so excited! They just started grabbing chunks of wood and hammering and nailing pieces together the same way I did.”

Naturally, I envisioned children with smashed fingers, flattened fingernails and blood dripping, but he saw none of that. All he saw was that he’d have given his kids one of the best gifts ever.

You think you know your children, but on some levels you really only get to know a child fully once the child becomes an adult—as they talk about the things they enjoyed, the activities they remember, how they saw life, how they saw you. It’s intriguing really, revisiting the past through a different set of lenses.

Our son’s sons and his oldest daughter had been building contraptions and configurations for several days when they decided to build a boat. Their grandpa on their momma’s side (a man of many talents) showed them how to attach small dead tree limbs to the bottom of the boat to help it float. Then he drilled a hole, inserted a dowel rod and the kids raided their grandma’s sewing scraps to craft a mast.

It’s not a fancy boat – the sail is far from taut and crisp—but it’s their boat. They’ll be having a launch one day soon. There’s an excellent chance that little boat will be a memory for a lifetime.


Out-conning the con takes finesse

I am always alert walking to and from my car in parking lots, because if I am ever robbed the thief will be ticked off that I don’t have much worth stealing.

I never carry cash.

The thief will demand cash and I’ll have to say I don’t have any.

The thief will then glare at me and hiss, “Let’s have the ATM card.”

And then I’ll have to say, “I don’t do ATM.”

And the thief will say, “Who doesn’t do ATM?”

“Me, the same person who doesn’t do cash. I mean, it’s a credit card world. Who needs cash, right? Oh yeah, you do.”

Then the thief, steam blowing out of his ears, will say, “Gimme your credit cards.”

“OK, but most of them don’t work.”

“What do you mean they don’t work?”

“Well, I deactivated most of them when I lost my wallet last year and never bothered to reactivate them. I mean, you could go to the Loft and buy a bunch of clothes, but they’ll decline the card when you go to the register. I’m sure of it because it happened to me. Trust me, it’s embarrassing.”

Sputtering and unable to form sentences, the thief will be furious. I tend to panic when people are angry with me. I envision myself saying something dumb like, “Hang on. I think I have something in my bag after all. How do you feel about loyalty cards? I’ve got Stein Mart, Best Buy, Staples, CVS, Walgreens, Kroger – they have free Friday downloads at Kroger — download the internet coupon and you can pick yourself up a treat on Friday. And look at this! I’ve got Panera! I know for a fact there’s a free pastry on here. You don’t even have to make a purchase. Just have them swipe the card and you can pick something out—cookie, brownie, pecan roll, whatever looks good.”

Then, because the thief is about to flatten me for being the worst possible person to mug, hopefully I’ll have the presence of mind to remember my ace in the hole.

“OK, look. In this secret compartment in my wallet is a Costco credit card.

“It may not sound exciting, but get yourself two carts and fill ‘em up with the jumbo packs of toilet paper, giant bottles of shampoo, the three-packs of laundry detergent. Listen, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living, everybody needs toilet paper, shampoo and laundry soap.”

“COSTCO????” the crook will scream.

“Go close to noon when they have samples!”

As I see it playing out, it goes one of two directions from that point. The thief either takes my purse and whacks me with it for not having anything worth stealing, or collapses sobbing because he’s never had a mugging go so terribly wrong, in which case I make a break for it.

You know, maybe I should start carrying protection. Cash.



The No. 1 very best time to make a resolution

A study by people who study such things states that only 34 percent of us make New Year’s resolutions. A Forbes article said only 8 percent of people who make resolutions successfully keep them. Eight percent of 34 percent is 2.72 percent so, obviously, the real question is how does a .72 percent of a person keep a resolution?

Plus, if experience tells us that 50 percent of all statistics are wrong 100 percent of the time – well, there you go. You probably aren’t making New Year’s resolutions and, if you do, you probably won’t keep them.

Truthfully, a lot of New Year’s resolutions—get organized, start exercising, lose weight, spend more time with family, make a budget—are repackaged guilt left over from the previous year. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.

Maybe January 1st isn’t the best time for making resolutions. We’re still languishing in the holiday stupor, overloaded with carbs and sugar, sprawled on the sofa stunned by the damage on the credit card.

There are better days for making resolutions—say, the first day of school, your birthday, or two weeks before your physical.

If you really, really want to do something, why wait for a particular day on the calendar to go for it?

So, what is it that you want? What do you really, really want?

I randomly asked that question of a few people more than a decade ago thinking I’d write a column along those lines and never did. So much for my resolution to stop procrastinating.

I still have the notes though and it’s interesting to review them all these years later.

I asked a teen-age cashier at the grocery store what she really, really wanted. “What I really, really want,” she said, still scanning my groceries, “is more time with my mom.” Then she looked directly at me, her eyes brimming with tears, and said, “She died last Friday.”

I asked a neighbor what he really, really wanted. He grimaced and said, “I just want neighbors to be kind to one another.”

My neighbor died this past summer. Even with deteriorating health and grave difficulty breathing, when I’d stop in to say hello, he’d point to a chair, reach out and take my hand and attempt to talk. His words grew garbled, but his heart was always clear. He was consistently kind, the very thing he wished for others.

I asked a young father what he really, really wanted. “I can tell you exactly what I want!” he shouted. “I want my little girl to get big enough so that I can take her to the slopes and teach her how to ski.”

She grew up all right and he taught her to ski. She’ll be graduating from college in a couple of years. They have a rock solid relationship.

What we all want is to harness the power of time, to slow it down, speed it up, recapture it or simply make it count. But the only time any of us can truly master is right now.

Go for it.




Seeing Christmas with eyes of wonder

We are watching “Miracle on 34th Street” with three of the grands, the oldest of whom is 6. She leans over and whispers, “Those two believe, but I don’t.” She casts a knowing look and has a slight upward tilt of the chin that says she’s one of us now. I nearly wonder if I should offer her some coffee and tell her where I hide good dark chocolate in the kitchen.

Sweet, but I hope she never completely loses her sense of wonder.

Nearly every Christmas morning as a child I woke up with a profound sense that the world was different. Oh, sure the chubby guy in the red suit had made a delivery (wink, wink), but that wasn’t it. It was that a baby had been born in the deep of night. I always imagined it was probably after midnight, when the all the world would be asleep, and before 5 a.m., when all the farmers would be awake.

The time came for the baby to be born and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.

I knew the birth had to be something special because it was a divide in time. Our calendars said so—B.C. and A.D.—before Christ and anno Domini, the year of our Lord.

I knew it had happened long ago and far away, in a stable of sorts that was much like a barn. There had been animals about, straw no doubt, and a feeding trough.

She wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Adults talked like it was a shame that a baby had been born in a barn, but I thought it was wonderful. My mother sometimes asked if I had been born in a barn. I wished I had. I spent many an afternoon in my Grandpa’s barn and it was a wonderful place full of light and shadow, hiding places, plank floors, wooden ladders, hay bales and nooks and crannies for momma cats and newborn kittens. It would be a marvelous place for a baby to be born, too.


My depth of understanding regarding the needs of newborns was on a par with the depth of theology. But there was a sense of wonder then that sometimes eludes me now.

My theology is deeper today and my faith mature, in part because it has been tested time and time again. Frequently, I return to that first Christmas to regroup and start again. “God so loved the world, that He sent His only begotten Son.”

I have a good understanding of covenants, catechisms, creeds and doctrines. What I don’t understand, is where the wonder went.

What I would give to see the wonder of Christmas, once more, through the eyes of a child.



Deer ol’ Santa does what soots him

All l this fake news is driving people crazy. It’s hard to know who meant what or what meant who. Does the allegation of “fake news” mean a story is fake news, or that the allegation of fake news is the fake news?

In the clear light of all this confusion, I’d like to set the record straight on Santa. What you are about to read may sleigh you. Or confuse you. Or clear things up. Or knot.

For the record, Santa Claus lives at the North Poll, which is sparsely populated because nobody wants to be around Pollsters.


Everybody is sick of them. Their presents are unwelcome.

Many think Santa is a slouch who only works a few weeks out of the year. Not true. In the off season, he maintains expansive garden plots, where he can hoe, hoe, hoe, hoe.

Of course, this is not the off season, but the on season, which is why you often hear the sounds of Santa furiously wrapping — “In Da Workshop” and “Ho, Ho, Ho, She Gotta Go.” He prefers wrapping in the daytime as opposed to the evening, as he has always been fond of Silent Night.

Santa Claus does not wrap alone; subordinate clauses help him. For the most part, they are elf-educated, elf-efficient and have good elf-esteem. They are a joy. To the world.main-and-subordinate-clause
Santa continues making deliveries from the North Poll in his antiquated sleigh, which he refuses to relinquish because it sets him apart from his relatives at the South Poll who mainly drive pickups.

Comet and Blitzen remain Santa’s premier powerhouses, but they, too, are aging and must often stop for coffee. They are star bucks.

Global security concerns, nipping at Santa’s heels, mean he must now comply with TSA inspections (unpack all those carry-ons) and file flight plans with the FAA. Santa moans that travel has gone to the dogs. “They don’t make it easy to go daschund through the snow.” In times past, Santa could pretty well deck the halls anywhere and anytime he wanted—even down chimneys. It sooted him.

Yet some traditions remain the same. Every December 24th, the elves proclaim the candy canes to be in mint condition, Santa grabs a box of Frosted Flakes, throws a few toilet-trees in a bag and ambles out to the sleigh.

Mrs. Claus gives him her usual frosty reception.

“Don’t start,” Santa says. “Yule be sorry.”

“Every time you pull an all-nighter you come home with tinsilitis! And you better not come back broke—Saint Nickel-less!”

Santa shrugs and says, “I’ll be home for Christmas.”

“Only in your dreams!” she huffs.

Santa not only has undercurrents with the missus, but with all the children who don’t believe in him – rebels without a Claus. And then there are the little ones who do believe, but can’t pronounce his name. Poor things call him Santa Cause. (Noel.)

But despite all that, Santa is still widely adored and deerly loved.


Why don’t we all sing together? Freeze a jolly good fellow.


Grandma’s house is not “Little House”

grandma-with-turkeyThe entire family is together for a meal and I volunteer to be the adult at the kids’ table. I’m going for sainthood this year.

The kids are passing hot rolls, slathering them with butter, when the oldest, age 7, asks, “Is this butter homemade?”

“Pardon?” I say.

“Is this butter homemade?”

I’m baffled. I hope making butter isn’t something grandmas are doing today, because this grandma isn’t making homemade butter.

“No, it’s not homemade,” I say, cautiously.

“Oh. We make our own butter.” The disapproval is palpable.

“Yeah, we made butter at school,” another one says, offering me a look of pity.

Just let it go, Grandma. Let it go. But I can’t let it go. “Did you make your own butter churns, too?”

“No, we just shook it real hard in a plastic container with a lid.”

“Really? That will make butter?”

“Yeah!” they chorus. (Duh, Grandma!)

The 3-year-old knocks over a glass of milk and the 2-year-old makes a break for it. I clean up the milk, nab the 2-year-old and return to the table, when they hit me again.

“Is this bread homemade?”


“It’s kind of homemade,” I say. “I brought it home from the store and made sure it got to the table so, yes, it’s homemade.”

“Oh.” The response is again tinged with letdown.

“My mom makes homemade bread,” one of them offers.

“Our mom makes homemade bread, too!”

I’m thinking to myself, “Where do you kids live? Little House on the Prairie?”

There’s a request for more turkey when a wise-acre at the grown-up table hollers, “Is the turkey homemade? Did you butcher it, yourself, Grandma?”

Thankfully, I’m sharing the piano bench with a 2-year-old who doesn’t talk much yet. It’s my safe space. Then she taps my arm, holds up her empty milk glass and says, “Ome-ade?”

I moo. She moos back.

I return with more milk and turkey as the kids are passing the jam (one is eating jam directly from his hand) when someone says, “This jam is good.”

I’m waiting for it.

“What kind of jam is it?” Still waiting.

“It’s raspberry,” I say.

“Oh! I like raspberry!”

“I like raspberry, too!”

Finally. I dodge one and perhaps regain a point or two as a grandma who can cook. I tell the one who was eating jam directly out of his hand not to talk with his mouth full and he fires back—“Is the jam homemade?”

“Yes. It was made in the home of a woman named Smuckers.”

All in all, it is a good meal. They all ask to be excused before leaving the table and carry their dishes to the sink. All that is left behind are layers of crumbs on the floor next to my deflated ego.



When the ants go marching in

I was suspicious the first time I saw them. But I slapped on a happy face and agreed to give them a chance. Still, I wondered if they wouldn’t overextend their stay—or worse—go where they weren’t wanted. You never know about ants.

It was the second ant farm among the grandkiddos. The second one didn’t impress me any more than the first. I don’t care how educational they are; ants should never be in a house without being accompanied by a large bottle of bug spray.

I’ve never understood why anyone would deliberately bring a household pest into a house, encased in plastic or otherwise. They assured me it was impossible for the ants to escape.

Fine, but check your pantry anyway.

“First we got the farm and then they sent the ants,” one of the kids said.

“Lovely,” I said.

“And then we put them in the refrigerator.”

“Of course. And why was that?”

“So they’d want to get in the ant farm.”

Yes, I imagine you’d have to refrigerate most living things to make them want to crawl into an enclosed plastic container.

“They’re worker ants,” one of the kids proudly said.
“What kind of work do they do?” I asked.
“They move grains of sand up and down the tunnels and then they make new tunnels and carry grains of sand through them.”

And so they did. The ants scurried up the tunnel and back down the tunnel. They were working, but what were they accomplishing? It reminded us of when the girls went on a mission trip to Haiti as teenagers. They spent a week moving rocks from one end of a property to the other. The husband suspected that the next group of kids to arrive moved the rocks back to the other end of the property.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a dead one. When one ant dies the other ants just crawl over him.”

What are you teaching these precious children? These ants are sick!

“We fed them a tiny bit of a blueberry yesterday. There it is, right there.”

“No, that’s not the blueberry,” another said. “That’s where they go potty. They all go in the same place.”

Well, that was worth the cost of shipping.

Several weeks later it still did not appear the ants had created anything remarkable. They just kept traveling the same tunnels over and over, carrying grains of sand back and forth.

Then I happened on an article by scientists who studied five worker ant colonies for two weeks and concluded that worker ants are – and I wouldn’t tell this to the kids –well, worker ants are slackers. Just as I had suspected. Only 3 percent of worker ants always work, 25 percent of ants were never working and 72 percent of the worker ants were inactive at least half of the time.

The ants began dying off one by one.

“Eventually they will all die,” my daughter said. “You know, worker ants—they work themselves to death.”

That’s what she thinks.