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.) Crafting has really brought out another side to me, I’m loving it! I was told about hand and feet casting, have you heard? You put your hands in a premix and out comes this amazing replica of your hands, I would love to do it with the grandkids and have that center stage on my mantlepiece, as it’ll be hard to stick on the fridge!

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.

When the kids get a bit older I think our crafting will get more intense! They won’t be settling for basic pens and paper, they’ll want to create something more and I am all for that. I have been thinking about getting a vinyl cutter, we could make labels and stickers for their rooms, maybe some signs! It’s fun being creative and seeing where it will take us.

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.