Practicing Parenthood: Paying Attention

Most of the time we think about parenting as something we do to influence someone else—it's what we do to raise baby humans into responsible, contributing adult humans. We scour articles that promise “pro tips to get your child to behave” or “how to produce a [kind, responsible, smart, superstar] child in ten easy steps.” Me too! I get it--I study and teach parenting for a living—the fascination is strong there and we want to crack the code for how to produce happy, adjusted people.

Lately, though, I’ve been mulling over how parenting and parenthood has changed—sometimes “raised,” other times lowered—me

When I’ve let it, motherhood has been a spiritual practice—and I mean that in the sense of my spirit imperfectly practicing difficult, soul-stretching-and-spraining things.

That’s not to say it’s always transcendent or that I float around in nirvana but rather that when I hit the most difficult (yet oh-so-frequent and mundane) times of being the allegedly mature grown up in a family, those moments invite me to learn to be a better human in general and get better at the things that matter.

Now and then I’d like to chat here about some of those parenthood practices that make us stronger people—the equivalent of doing those annoying scales and arpeggios when practicing the piano. What are those things? I don’t know. Or rather, I’m trying to figure it out.  Tell me yours: what quality or change has the practice of parenthood brought you?  What specific parenthood moments have helped stretch and deepen you as a person? Please chime in, I’d really love to know.

. . .

Here’s one I’ve been considering: attention. More specifically: paying it.  In the movie Lady Bird one of my favorite parts is a scene between Lady Bird, this teenage girl who lives in Sacramento (though is aching to leave it), and her Catholic School counselor, Sister Sarah Joan. After reading Lady Bird’s college entrance essay, Sister Sarah Joan remarks that Lady Bird clearly loves the city. “You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care,” she tells her. This surprises Lady Bird, who replies that she just pays attention. Then Sister Sarah Joan notes, “Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love--and attention?”


French philosopher Simone Weil wrote about attention as a kind of spiritual discipline: “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Parents know this. We gaze at our newborn’s faces for hours, memorizing the slopes and angles and reading their features and their cues like tea leaves. Somewhere along the line this level of attention becomes inappropriate and/or unwelcome (“Why are you staring at me like that?!”) so our attention takes covert, underground forms.

I got out of practice of really paying attention as the pace, competing priorities, and sheer number of people in our family increased. But I’m keen to build that muscle again. If you are, too, here are a few ideas for our attention practicing:

  • Write a description of each of your big kids/teens/YAs as they are now. Details. What do they look like, who do they remind you of, what pushes their buttons and makes them happy? Baby books are great and all but this is when things get really fascinating. Pay attention and document, even if just for your own eyes.
  • Look family members in the eye. Don’t make this creepy; try for at least once or twice a day when you stop what you’re doing, turn to them and talk face to face, no interruptions. Notice what it feels like to really see and be seen.
  • Pay a sincere compliment about something you’ve noticed. Or write a note. I remember once when I was an awkward, 15-year-old I took a ballet class. Short limbed and long bodied with legs more muscular than lithe, I didn’t feel graceful. I felt self conscious and internally lamented I didn’t look like the twiggy lean dancers in the class but I did love going to class, moving to the music, expressing myself that way. My mom came to one of the open house classes and said in the car on the way home something offhanded like “It was so beautiful to see you move like that. You have such a lovely figure.” I probably said “oh, Mom.” I might have even rolled my eyes. But guys. I took that compliment and tucked it into my soul pocket for years. I felt seen.

We are here to abet creation and to witness it,
to notice each thing so each thing gets noticed.
Together we notice not only each mountain shadow
and each stone on the beach
but we notice each other’s beautiful face
and complex nature
so that creation need not play to an empty house.

Annie Dillard

The Hard Thing rule

I've been a bad blogger lately. I just need to fess up and own it. Sarah's happily picking up Jordan in France this week and I pledged to cover for us both here but I've also been diving deeply into my dissertation research and forgetting to come up for air. Because deadlines.

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900  via

Bike to the top of a mountain, 1900 via

In a moment of giving in to my well-seasoned delay and distraction tactics, I clicked over to read a National Geographic profile of persistence/grit researcher Angela Duckworthrationalizing that it was oh-so-faintly related to my research on mindset. Her focus and work ethic inspire me and I'm motivated by the description of her passion for her work and lab--not to mention the fact that she went back for a PhD later in life, too. (Let's hear it for mama grad students!) On another level, I appreciated the glimpse of her family life and how some of her research findings are showing up in the way she and her husband Jason parent:

Angela and Jason have two daughters—Amanda, 13, and Lucy, 11—who attend a public magnet school in Philadelphia. Angela says she of course wants them to have grit, in addition to kindness, generosity, honesty, and gratitude. "I think kids are not able to just spontaneously grow up to be gritty people without being supported in that," she says.

...Back at the Duckworth household, meanwhile, Angela and Jason have instituted something called the Hard Thing Rule as a way of familiarizing their young daughters with the experience of grit. The Hard Thing Rule is that all members of the family have to be doing a hard thing. It should be something they have an interest in, of course—ballet, a musical instrument, archery—but the corollary is that it also has to require deliberate practice almost daily, and they're not allowed to quit just because they're bored or feel no good at it. They can revisit their interest at the end of the tuition period, say, or semester, or school year, but not before.

"I believe kids should choose what they want to do, because it's their life, but they have to choose something," she says, "and they can't quit in the middle unless there's a really good reason." There are going to be peaks and valleys. "You don't want to let kids quit during a valley."

The girls' "hard thing"s right now are the piano for Amanda and the viola for Lucy. For Angela and Jason, it's their jobs. Jason's a real estate developer who creates compact, mixed-use, pre-World War II-type traditional neighborhoods you feel safe letting your kids walk around in alone. Angela, of course, has enough challenges to sustain her through multiple lifetimes. How she can be a better mentor. How to solve that measurement problem. Which school district is going to do which study.

"It's all incredibly hard."

I like the framing of persistence and grit into the Hard Thing rule. I know many families have adopted the battle cry "We can do hard things!" and that grit is a popular word these days. But it's another thing to build that stretching and, yes, discomfort into the fabric of the family rules. As someone who tends more to the "flight" (=give in, find an escape hatch, move on) in the fight-or-flight response, I probably should have enacted this years ago! Darn. 

And so, even though I'm pretty well acquainted with these ideas theoretically, I think I needed this reminder as much as anyone: "children [and grown 45-year-old women] need to be taught to appreciate that they're supposed to suffer when working hard on a challenge that exceeds their skill. They're supposed to feel confused. Frustration is probably a sign that they're on the right track and need to gut it out through the natural human aversion to mental effort and feeling overwhelmed so they can evolve." 

What do you think? Do you have something like the Hard Things rule at your house? What's your own Hard Thing right now?

p.s. Here's a TED talk on grit by Dr. Duckworth

The case of the wilting roses

When we moved into the house we’d rented for our four-year stint here in Australia, I admired the lovely rose bushes in front, sure, but with a good dose of anxiety. I hadn't ever done roses before and these were clearly someone else's pride and joy. Oh, the pressure!

Sure enough, my anxiety was justified. After a month or two the roses were lagging.  I did considerable hand wringing. Were we feeding them right? Did they need a special fertilizer? I watched YouTube videos on the correct way to deadhead and prune roses. I called an irrigation specialist to come check the sprinkler system for the yard, particularly the drip irrigation hoses installed beneath the roses' mulched beds. The sprinkler guy reassured me that all was fine. 

But, clearly the roses weren’t so fine! They were wilting under my care. I took the roses and their failure to thrive personally. After a while it felt like they were doing this to me, not the other way around! Surely they were purposely exposing my fraud as a wanna-be-gardener. Some evenings I’d walk past other gardens in the neighborhood on surreptitious rose surveillance, peeking out of the corner of my eye at their Roses of Thriving Loveliness. What was their magic secret?

Turns out that what my garden needed was more water. More water! So simple and yet its simplicity flummoxed me for fourteen wilted months. In desperation one day I dragged a hose out (despite the fact that there were supposedly plenty of drip hoses watering the roses beneath the ground) and soaked the ground with water. They seemed to perk up a bit so I did the same thing over several more days until, one day with water streaming down my wrist and the scent of roses in the air, I thought: Oh. Sometimes the answer is just more water. Duh.


You can probably see where this is going. Metaphor alert! Insert parenting/gardening analogy of your choice here.

Here's mine: More often than not I feel less pro gardener, more flailing wanna-be trying to keep these borrowed roses growing under my care. It’s daunting. It’s experimental. It’s supremely tempting to compare my sometimes struggling garden with everyone else’s carefully cultivated show-garden families online, down the street, or on neighboring church benches. But those are completely different circumstances and equipment. My garden needs what it needs. 

Also this: Sure, solutions are not always so simple or straightforward as more water.  And I might not even have all roses in my metaphorical garden--there might be a cactus and an orchid in there, too. Different water needs, different blooming calendars. Parenting means figuring out what that looks like, exactly, in your own garden. But sometimes maybe it really is as simple as more water, returning to the basics of compassion, time, connection. Maybe in that way we're each the gardener and the water in our own plots.

This is not a guilt thing. It’s a reassurance: You’re enough. 

Talking your kids down from the research paper ledge

It happens at least a few times a year for most older students. A research paper.  A big project. Some assignment where they need to reach into their brains, pull out a cohesive argument and supporting points, and commit it all to paper. 

Oh, if only it were that simple, right? I remember a passage in Anne Lamott's excellent book about writing (and life), Bird by BirdIt's the experience that gave the book its name:

"...thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he'd had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother's shoulder, and said, "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird."

The Little Table by Alberto Morrocco

The Little Table by Alberto Morrocco

Her point in the book is that writing is a little by little, incremental proposition, which is painfully true. My purpose for quoting it here is this: often we the parents are the ones who talk our kids down from the writing ledge when they're at home, stuck in the process and banging their heads on the table. As my kids have gotten older their need for this kind of pep talk has gotten less frequent but now and then I still feel like I need to put on my coach hat and give some moral support. At this stage this has meant less "bird by bird, buddy" and more being a sounding board armed with some good questions to help them get unstuck. 

Recently someone recommended a book--Engaging Ideas, by John C. Bean--intended to help professors coach their students in deepening their thinking and writing. It's given me a lot to think about not just professionally but also at home. I think his tips are equally terrific as helps for parents in supporting their kids' writing without interfering with the writing itself. For example:

If ideas are thin:

- Encourage your writer to make an idea map and brainstorm for more ideas
- Play devil's advocate and help the writer deepen and complicate the ideas
- Encourage the writer to add more examples, better details, more supporting data or arguments

If you get lost in the paper's thoughts or organization :

- Ask the writer to talk through the ideas to clear up confusing spots
- Help the writer sharpen the thesis by seeing it as his (the writer's) answer to a tough question; get the student to articulate the question that the thesis answers
- Make an outline or, even better, a tree diagram together to help with organization
- Help the writer clarify the focus by asking him to complete these starter phrases:
  "My purpose in writing this paper is..."
  "Before reading my paper, my readers will think this way about my topic: __________;      
  but after reading my paper, my readers will think this different way about my  
- Show the writer where you get confused ("I started to get lost here..." "I thought you were going to say x but you said y here...")
- Show the student how to write transitions between major sections and between paragraphs

If it's hard to see the point:

- Nudge the writer to articulate meaning by asking "so what" questions: "I understand what you're saying but don't quite understand why you're saying it." "What do these facts have to do with your thesis?" (adapted from p. 307)

. . .

Do you have any tips or experiences to share about kids and writing and homework? Recently I said all the wrong things, accidentally stressed more than helped (which sent me on the search through this book for help) and had to ask for a do-over. 

On a related note, last year I wrote this post on figuring out the right amount of help with homework by asking what do you want? what don't you want?

In defense of the old lady in the market

Okay, it's the first day of the school year here and Sam just surpassed me in height and Maddy's leaving home at the end of the year and Lauren's half a world away. So I feel like one of those ladies in the market: time passes so quickly! Sunrise! Sunset! and every other true and cheesy platitude about time and passing and children.

I'm chatting with a friend who will be moving back to the States this year. When you've got a big move like that in your future, it's easy to start feeling wanderlusty and impatient to just do it already--to spend your time scouring real estate listings and researching schools for the kids and thinking about all the nexts.

"Are you getting anxious to go?" 

"No, not really. I'm trying to think more about making the most of every day since we probably won't get the chance to live here ever again, not full time. I don't know, maybe we'll visit. There's so much we wanted to do and haven't yet."

Later, the conversation turns to our kids, motherhood, parenting angst and awe. She asks about my plans in the coming years (so tactfully and delicately dancing around the inquiry “so are you done with your graduate work yet?”) and I land on the awareness once again that I am in the final three years of in-residence motherhood.

I know it's kind of a thing to vent about old ladies in the supermarket who offer their inevitable and insistent advice to “enjoy every moment” and “time goes so fast.” And I get it, I really do. I laughed in recognition with that whole post and others like it! When you’re stuck in the trenches of what amounts to mommy boot camp with sometimes mercurial little sergeants to answer to—well those days, as Glennon hilariously articulated in that post last year, the last thing you want on your exhausting Everest climb of parenthood is “people stationed, say, every thirty feet along Mount Everest yelling to the climbers—“ARE YOU ENJOYING YOURSELF? IF NOT YOU SHOULD BE! ONE DAY YOU’LL BE SORRY YOU DIDN’T! TRUST US!! IT’LL BE OVER TOO SOON! CARPE DIEM!”

The Back Room, Kim English

The Back Room, Kim English

But what I’m beginning to understand is we might have it all wrong with that analogy. Maybe they’re not perky, oblivious little cheerleaders, these ladies in the market. Maybe instead they're exhausted, exhilarated, battle-scarred climbers that we meet in passing as they descend from the peak while we trudge upwards. Their wisdom isn’t meant to shame us, it’s meant to guide us and avoid some rocky regrets and unnecessary falls. If I met early-mama Annie now, do you know what I’d tell her? Take it easy. Enjoy the 3-year-old tyrants and the talkative 4s. Snuggle those babies every second you can. And future Annie would probably tell me to get up from my desk and go play a game with the lounging teens downstairs. Or tuck them in bed like I used to. The closer I get to the summit (whatever, wherever, whenever that is) the more I can confirm the old lady market advice as wisdom. It does go so fast; it’s just a fraction of our years. As Gretchen Rubin put it, the days are long but the years are short:

There were years, early on, when I might have felt wanderlusty and impatient about getting to the finish line but I find I'm more like my friend, trying to savor the last moments in Motherland. I probably won't get the chance to live here ever again, not full time. There's so much I wanted to do.

I do hear Nanaland is absolutely spectacular, though I'm not booking that trip for quite some time. But I am practicing my old lady market technique, as you can tell.

Daring to (let your kids) fail

Dare to Fail print  by Lisa Mann Dirkes

Dare to Fail print by Lisa Mann Dirkes

There is a well-worn chapter in a book I love. The book automatically flips open to it, proof of the many times I have returned there for a pep talk. It's the chapter "The Blessing of Problems to Solve," from Wendy Mogel's fantastic parenting tome--drawn from both parenting research and Jewish traditional teachings--called The Blessing of a B Minus. I don't happen to be Jewish but that detail doesn't really matter here; the wisdom in the book transcends religious affiliation and speaks to the heart of parenting teens (and if you were a very early Nest & Launch reader, you might remember I also reviewed the book here).

A while back someone wrote in to us with a question about what to do when your child fails or is going through a rough patch: "I have awesome kids, but even so, sometimes they fail at something. It is bad enough when MY best isn't good enough, but I can hardly take it when their best isn't good enough for something they really want to do."  I've started to draft several responses but then I realized that this chapter nails it and applies really well to the reader's question about how we as parents can respond to our children's problems and failures.  Here are a few highlights:

"If we want to raise young adults who know how to solve problems, we must let them have problems to solve while they are still adolescents. Yet it's harder and harder to find parents willing to expose their children to difficulty. More often, parents keep their teens busy in adult-supervised activities so there is no time for trouble, or rush in to solve problems instead of leaving the solution in their teens' shaky hands...

"How to strike the right balance between appropriate guidance and restraint? The story of the Israelites' trip out of slavery in Egypt offers some clues.

"The book of Exodus describes the quality of God's presence during the Israelites' travels as a 'pillar of cloud by day...and a pillar of fire by night.' This beautiful image is a model for parents whose children are wandering in the wilderness of adolescence. Like God, you stand by, providing shade and light when needed, but mostly you stand give him the freedom to make mistakes, even big ones.

I love that image of parenting--cloud and fire, shade and light. Mogel gives the following strategies for parents when their kids are faced with problems or failure (and each are described further in the book):

- Give them good suffering
- Wait it out
- Be empathic, not entangled
- Normalize setbacks
- Encourage them to enlist the aid of other adults
- Demonstrate confidence in your teen's problem-solving skills
- Distinguish dramas from emergencies
- When they create their own problems, let them experience the consequences
- Be a counselor, not a servant

"Our challenge as parents is to foster a loving attachment to teenagers' large spirits and ragged souls but stand slightly apart from their daily theatrics...the rhythms of parent-teen relationships change every day, which means you will succeed today and screw up tomorrow.

"Expect to be confused. Expect your sleep to be disturbed...Remind yourself, daily if you have to, that we serve our teens best not as active protectors or problem solvers but as tender, compassionate, composed listeners..." 

Okay, friends, we're going to be trying out a MWF posting schedule for the next while so Sarah and I can each make a dent in our academic writing loads. In the meantime, we'll continue to share good finds and links on our Facebook page throughout the week.  You can follow us by liking our page there. Okay, over and out.

A few good gems

Welcome to Friday, the gateway to the weekend! It's sweltering here in Australia so we've been finding ways to keep cool, which mostly means standing in front of the air conditioner and chain eating cold grapes straight from the fridge.  And scouting out some cool things on the internet, just for you:

London-based photographer Chino Otsuka's "Imagine Finding Me" double self-portrait series (also published in a book) is delightful. She's digitally inserted herself into her own childhood photos; the result is enchanting and poignant. She says "the digital process becomes a tool, almost like a time machine, as I'm embarking on the journey to where I once belonged and at the same time becoming a tourist in my own history."  (I want to do this!). 

1982 + 2005, France

1982 + 2005, France

1975 + 2009, France

1975 + 2009, France

This article on how to handle the chaos of family life as an introverted mom had some good things to say: "I'd offer the same advice to an introverted mom that I would give to an introvert in a chaotic office environment: Make sure to schedule recharge time every day."

Jauntful is launching a fantastic new idea: a site for shareable, printable guides to the cities you love. I can't wait to try it--for sharing my favorite suggestions and haunts in places I've lived and visited AND (especially!) finding others' best picks. I've just signed up for the preview when they're ready and you can, too (via Swiss Miss).

photo via Jauntful

photo via Jauntful

I  adore the huge monthly calendars and New Year's resolution posters Brittany (The House that Lars Built) created and posted for downloading (they're free!). Brilliant and big enough for all and sundry appointments, etc. I just sent the first couple of months to the printing store here.

Photo by Trisha Zemp via The House That Lars Built 

Photo by Trisha Zemp via The House That Lars Built 

Send a traditional, classic telegram! I love this idea for when you can't make it to the wedding or graduation or family reunion. Also cool for a memorable Valentine message. (They also have invitation telegrams for mass mailings for weddings and parties. Love it.) I just wish the cute little hatted delivery guy brought them still.

Screen shot 2014-01-17 at 2.01.08 PM.png

I posted this on our Facebook page [insert unabashed invitation to come join our Facebook page here] yesterday but I'll repeat it here: I really liked what Glennon had to say about asking the right questions to improve our relationships. I think it's wise advice for any relationship but ESPECIALLY with big kids and teens. 

In my ears:  How Come You Don't Want Me (Tegan & Sara), Let Go (RAC & MNDR), Riptide (Vance Joy), and the Fare Thee Well cover from Inside Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac, Marcus Mumford).

On my nightstand: The Goldfinch (Donna Tartt), This is the Story of a Happy Marriage (Ann Patchett).

Have a great weekend, all! See you back here on Monday.