Breaking the Magic 8-Ball

magic 8 ball“Maybe”

“Most likely”


“It is decidedly so.”

With the exception of the last, antiquated response, the Magic 8-Ball sounds eerily like any kid returning home from school. We know better than to think they learned “nothing” and played with “no one”. But, mothers and fathers across America are bewildered; how can we participate in our children’s education when we know nothing about the seven hours they were in school?

Connect the Dots

It is impossible to get a straight answer from a kid after school is over. Maybe you can sneak a look at homework. But, the new ways of explaining math concepts (someone will have to explain how those boxes help multiply double-digit numbers) and the changes in scientific facts (no longer is My Very Excellent Mother Serving Us Nine Pizzas) make it near impossible to add to the work in the classroom. So, we end up asking the same questions that yield no answers. Here is the truth: excellent education is based on connecting the facts and figures learned in the classroom to life outside of the classroom. To help create the brain pathways towards higher level thinking, here are some questions that will smash through the Magic 8-Ball, infuriating responses:

  • How did what you read in English/Language Arts explain what you learned in history? I’m not giving away any secrets, these two subject areas are designed to be taught concurrently. It was no coincidence that my sixth graders were studying aqueducts in ancient Rome while we read about mythology and were quizzed on Latin roots. (“Aqua” means water…aqueducts are manmade channels for conveying water. Wow!) By using the specific wording of the question,
    Bloom's taxonomy of thinking
    Bloom’s taxonomy of thinking

    you are asking your student to reach a higher level of thinking by synthesizing two different parts of their day.

  • Draw me a picture of what you talked about in science today! Right brain, meet left brain. Drawing pictures is not limited to younger grades. Pictures are a form of communication. Don’t you remember the great discussions you had with your child when you needed to be taught about the purple unicorn that was perfectly drawn eating the carrot outside of the green castle? By illustrating what was discussed (again, word choice is key) you “trick” your student to explaining their picture and unpacking their knowledge.
  • Who shared some interesting information today? This is one of my favorites. We all know that kids seem to learn better from peers than adults. kids teaching kidsBy asking your child to participate in this contrived game of telephone, you are asking for a qualitative insight to what really happened in the classroom. If the response was more social gossip than fascinating factoid, you have a great chance to assess how your child is progressing with their social-emotional learning. Schools have become community mental health centers for children. Bullying and name-calling are consistent classroom topics and subjects to endless communications from administration home. By listening to your child’s response, you can gain great insights on how they are treating and characterizing their peers.

Spark Note Summary

Formal education can only light the spark for lifelong learners when the classroom becomes the student’s whole world. Let your children brag about how much they know. Let your children teach you what you don’t know. Let learning be the answer to any questions….and throw away the Magic 8 Ball.

Keeping Kittens in a Box

All this month we are talking about education. Teachers, parents and students all need to prepare for going back to school. Before you skip a blog, keep this in mind: I have successfully survived your child’s lack of focus, need for attention, urge to get under my skin, and hormonal roller coaster while providing direct instruction covertly covering dozens of educational standards. Multiplied by anywhere from 20 to 41 kids just like him. Not only did I survive, I managed accolades for me and high test scores for them. There is a reason I was nicknamed “Big Mama”; my students were my kids.

In 1983, I was in Mrs. Cullen’s second grade class. I have two district memories from that year that helped shape the more than thirty years that came next. First, I had a really hard time memorizing my multiplication tables. learning mathThat chart of 144 boxes loomed over me, taunting me, from its daunting position on the front bulletin board. I learned then math and I were going to be frenemies. Second, at the end of the year, Mrs. Cullen gifted me two or three old teacher’s editions. I had no idea why she bestowed those heavy, paperback books with the correct responses typed in bright blue upon me. Could she have seen something in my seven year old soul that showed a kindred spirit for teaching?

It took 13 years to get my own teacher’s editions. It was also almost that same amount of time that I cultivated a program of classroom management that helped bookend my career with awards. Year one: a fight nearly broke out in my junior English class of 41 students. Two teenagers, allegedly from rival gangs, turned angry words into physical posturing. My desks were loudly pushed aside to accommodate the theater in the round growing around the now standing conflict. I was so appalled at their behavior, I shamed them into sitting back down after apologizing to me for unruly behavior in “my house.” That year I was honored in Who’s Who Among America’s Teachers. 

Fast forward to year 15: my classroom of seventh graders volunteered to work through lunch (it was a two-hour class broken up by a 40 minute lunch) in exchange for finishing our read aloud book, Notes From the Midnight Driver. In fact, these kids would negotiate any terms to be rewarded with a moving debate or a spoken word video. I called them my “magic class” for too many reasons to list and too much sentimentality to explain. That year I was honored by the New Teacher Project as an Honor Roll recipient of the Fishman Prize for Superlative Classroom Practice.

The Five P’s of Classroom Management 

I know, it doesn’t sound exciting or movie-worthy to brag about my talents for classroom management. These skills, however, are invaluable to success in the classroom (and can be easily translated to less conflict at home).

  • Placement: Before the students even step foot in your room, you need to be strategic. Consider what supplies the students will need daily, and make sure they are all within steps of each other. Some of the best time-wasters are the need to get paper, the dictionary, a textbook, or sharpen a pencil. Students wind up walking all over the room socializing with friends and distracting you from the lesson. My students, literally, could not walk more than five feet into my room without getting every supply for the day, regardless of the lesson plan. (See my Class map.)

You also need to be able to place yourself anywhere in the room when teaching. There used to be a saying that “effective teachers teach from the back of the room.” I would amend that by saying that effective teachers can teach from any part of the room. The students should be able to track you like a kitten with a laser light.

  • Policy: The district and school set their policies for behavior. But, you need to set your own policies that establish the culture of your room. This is not a collaborative process. You are the boss, the CEO, or, as I used to say, the queen of the fiefdom. If you set up class rules WITH the students, they are correct in thinking they can negotiate those rules at any given time. Bye, bye, school year! Your policies should be detailed extensions of the school’s student handbook. The goal is to keep any discipline issues in your room, managed by you. Sending a student to administration (unless safety is an issue) is sending your authority out with them.
  • Procedure: You will have a successful year if, within the first 3-4 days of school, you have cultivated a classroom of drones. Mindless, automated academic machines. Practice these tasks like fire drills using those fun, first day of school exercises everyone does. Then, fight the stress and anxiety of “wasting” that time by not jumping in on the litany of standards you have to cover for the year. I need you to trust me that the speed with which you are able to deliver effective instruction will increase exponentially when you don’t have to add instructions every day about how to turn in work or put away books.
  • Power (here is where they psychology peeks back in): It is the job of any child to test their boundaries. It is the mistake of most adults to stymy those efforts. Lean in, like a car skidding in snow. (I make no apologies to anyone who has lived a lifetime void of driving in hazardous weather.) The students I taught, from grades 6 through 12, were all feeling good about themselves after negotiating stage 4 of Erikson’s developmental model. Add to that some cultural blunders that led to children feeling entitled to everything and getting a say in their rearing. Now you have a generation of teachers struggling to embrace their power without feeling like they are robbing their beloved students of voice and choice. Rest assured, the boundaries you put up are just what students need to feel safe enough to challenge themselves to the academic rigors of your room.
  • Personalization (not you..them!): Here is a great activity for first day fun that teaches you a lot about the culture of your kids. Yes, they are getting up around the room and talking to everyone. They are gathering valuable intel for you! You will be able to discover which kids are interested in sports, astrology, pop culture, etc. which means you can tailor activities and re-teach lessons that students didn’t master. IMG_4915

Also, your classroom should be decorated for the students’ comfort and success, not yours. If you must bring in some touches of home, link it to your academic journey. I had a small cork board behind my desk with my (ancient) certificates from French Honor Society and National Honor Society next to my varsity letter for volleyball. Don’t give your students a reason to think they “know” you. That is the first sign you are slip-and-sliding into a year of discipline issues.

Spark Notes Summary

I have done my best to condense my full-day workshop into some key ideas to help get your year started right. box of kittensThe truth is, you are creating a home, a little box in which you and your students will to achieve greatness. You have to be clear and consistent within those four walls. Not just with the kids…with yourself. Students, like animals, can sense fear and lack of self-confidence from miles away. If that happens, those kittens are crawling out of the box, lost until the start of the next school year.

Next week, we have a guest blogger, LiveNLearn’s Cyra Sadowl! As a birthday present to me, she is taking over the blog for a week. Get ready for new insights, and the same brand of humor.

…All the King’s Horses and All the Kings Men, Couldn’t Put Humpty Together Again

adrienne rich
Words That Kept Us Going

I just spent the last few days with my sister wife. We are not Mormon. We were co-workers for four years where we shared a husband, hers by true love and marriage and mine by work. Notice the use of the word “shared”. We lost this incredible man not too long ago and way too soon.

Ironically, these same few days overlapped a funeral. Although the loss was family (by marriage), I was not sad or upset. I went to the service to give love and support to those who were related to him by blood and felt his loss deeply.  My distance lessened when I recognized the profound sadness all around me. There was a daughter estranged from the family for so long she was unmentioned and unrecognized during the service and burial. There was a widow of more than four decades of marriage lost to dementia; I wasn’t sure if she understood what terrible occasion we were marking.stages of grief

The grief and loss that comes with death always triggers discussions of the five stages made popular (to the tune of being available on WebMD and Wikipedia) by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Let me join the professional bandwagon  by saying…crap!

Picking Up the Pieces

The grieving process occurs all through your life. It is not just when there is a death. It is important to remember, and not belittle, that LOSS is an obstacle you have survived – from the moment you were not able to use your pacifier until the moment you were not able to remember your name. Keeping that in mind, here are some of the real struggles of grief and loss:

  • Identity: With my full opinionated support, my friend has never referred to herself as a widow. (I am cringing right now.) As I mentioned in an earlier blog about identity, so much of growing older is adding relational titles. When those titles are lost, sister, daughter, wife, the process that originally took the first two decades of your life (at least) needs to re-start. Who wouldn’t be angry about a second puberty?
  • Belonging: According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, maslowethis motivation, to belong in a group, is a vital stepping stone to developing a healthy self-esteem. Consider the losses in your life that were unrelated to death, my earlier example of a child’s loss of a pacifier. The demarcation that parents celebrate as a sign of maturity is met with the loss of confidence about self-soothing. Down the pyramid you go! Now, you have to search your environment for survival and safety again. We all do it. We just forget that from the perspective of a toddler, and some professional counselors, that loss needs to be acknowledged as evidence that you are strong enough and resourceful enough to survive all kinds of losses. Even a small loss can be used as fuel to get a small gain for a bigger loss.
  • Isolation: You lost your job. Becoming a parent wasn’t what you expected. Your child isn’t interested in playing Legos with you. All of these dashed dreams trigger the grief and loss stages. They also separate you from friends and family. person aloneYou have become the embodiment of fear — the living and breathing “what-if” monster. You shy away from people who shy away from you. Until you reinvent yourself, and choose whether your old friends should be your new friends, a self-imposed, community approved, isolation is in effect.

Spark Note Summary

Death is not the only reason we suffer from grief and loss. Each time we don’t live the life we expected, we have to reinvent ourselves. Bringing the successes and lessons learned from a past life into the next life (cue Indigo Girls “Galileo“), makes you strong enough to start again. You just have to start by salvaging the right pieces…

Becoming the Master of the Universe

As an in-home counselor, I travel…a lot. I was coming home from the city when I noticed a delivery truck on a side street. I was stuck in traffic, so my mind stayed with the relatively common sight for a while. I was a little amazed about how and why all of the strangers in their cars (in a neighborhood with a reputation for violence) all complied with a scrawny man directing traffic. He wasn’t a cop! He wasn’t even a crossing guard with an official vest! Then, it came to me. He. Was. He-Man!

he manStop shaking your heads, fellow children of the 80’s. You know exactly who I mean. He-Man, the Prince of Eternia, would “hold aloft his magic sword” and say, “By the power of Grayskull!” The glittering cloud that changed the boy-next-door to a muscle-clad, gentleman hero was not the real magic. The real magic happened when he held the sword, post-transformation, and said, “I HAVE THE POWER!” Yes! We can all have the power!

…The Power to Fight Depression and Anxiety

Self-efficacy is your belief that you have the power, the ability, to solve a problem and achieve a task. We have all experienced periods of wavering self-efficacy. That’s “normal”. For the approximately 40 million American’s suffering with anxiety and depression, self-efficacy is a key factor in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is not practical to teach self-efficacy. It is possible, however, to recognize when you are “psyching yourself out” by learning about some mind games you play with yourself. (We call these cognitive distortions around the professional water cooler.):

  • All-or-Nothing: things are in black and white categories. Your brain is starting to lose perspective and becoming too anxious to slow down.
  • Overgeneralization looks like a downward spiral

    Overgeneralization: a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat. Guilty as charged on this one; all it takes is for one thing to go wrong before I start “noticing” all of the things that have spiraled out of my control.

  • Mental filter: pick out a single negative detail and dwell on it exclusively. Those of you that live near nature will recognize this inability to see the forest for the trees. How can anything around you be manageable when all you see is the negative in front of you?

    tunnel vision
    Mental filters give you tunnel vision.
  • Disqualifying The Positive: positive experiences “don’t count”. Imagine someone who has won the lottery but trips out of the bank after depositing their millions; if experiencing this cognitive distortion, all that person will tell you about his day is how he embarrassingly tripped in public.
  • Magnification (catastrophizing): Exaggerate the importance of things; your “whoops”  or someone else’s “hooray” both register a 10+ on a scale of 1-5.
  • Minimization OR “binocular trick”: inappropriately shrink things until they appear tiny. The opposite of magnification, this “skill” is the ability to evaluate your own desirable qualities, the ones everyone reminds you they love and admire about you, to a microscopic piece of shmoo on your ego.

You know which one of these, or two, or three, applies to you. If not, don’t worry. One share of this blog with friends and family will have them all running to you to tell you who you are based on what you do. Yay, family bonding activity?!?

Spark Note Summary

superheroYour supercomputer of a brain can convince you that you are capable of great things. It can also trick you into thinking that you are powerless to change. Recognizing those tricks will help you maintain a strong sense of self-efficacy letting your super brain persuade you to achieve super goals and embrace your inner super hero.


Wife Points for Mrs. Smarty Pants

Does any of this sound familiar?

Husband: Why are you crying?

Wife: Because I’m pissed off!

Husband: So, you’recouple fighting sad?

Wife: No. I’m just really upset. (long pause) Don’t you want to know why?

Husband: Sure?

Wife: I’m overwhelmed about everything I have to do and don’t feel appreciated.

Husband: (long pause)

Wife: (longer pause followed by a loud grunt..and possible stomping of feet and slamming of door)

This “fictionalized” conversation is common. As if it wasn’t hard enough to decipher the difference between upset and overwhelmed, now the Oxford Dictionary has added slang emotions! IMG_4812I’m happily validated that “wine o’clock” is now an acceptable time, but now I have to understand if I am can be “hangry” and “butthurt” on the same day. In my house, we created a points system. (Hey, I’m a highly competitive sports enthusiast. Remember my blog about The Queen of Tic-Tac-Toe?) My husband will give me “wife points” for coming home with a surprise steak or “Mom points” when I find a new way to trick my son into letting us put sunscreen on him before school. But, this is a silly solution to a real problem. Knowing, identifying, and conveying feelings is the real answer.

Smart in the Heart

Emotion cards I use often in therapy.

What’s more important than the names of feelings, are the functions of them. Some emotions serve to sound an alarm. The anxiety alarm goes off when an expectation is shattered, whether practical or not, your anticipated outcome did not come true. The anger alarm goes off when boundary is breached; your personal bubble constructed over a lifetime of experiences to keep your mind and body safe has been broken. Understanding this brief explanation has just raised your emotional intelligence (EQ), knowing what to do with this knowledge raises your EQ up another notch.

The idea of emotional intelligence has been around for decades. This psychological theory has even been adopted by corporate America to help their productivity. Basically, there are four areas of emotional intelligence:

  • Self-awareness – You are able recognize and identify your own emotions. You understand how they affect your thoughts and behavior. Your self-confidence comes from knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
  • Self-management – You are able to control the actions triggered by your feelings. emotional iqYou understand which feelings are impulsive and which behaviors are triggered when those feelings are present. You can manage your emotions in healthy ways, take initiative, follow through on commitments, and adapt to changing circumstances.
  • Social awareness – You can understand the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people that may be different from your own. This includes the ability to pick up on emotional cues and feel comfortable in different social circles
  • Relationship management – You know how to develop and maintain healthy relationships and communicate your feelings clearly. That intelligence inspires and influences others to manage conflicts.

Spark Notes Summary

The best way to have a happy life as a happy wife (or mother, or sister, or partner) is to understand what happiness means. Once that is figured out, you will be on your way to figuring out what the word is for the loss of happiness, the yearning for happiness, and the dream of happiness. Your feelings are unique to you; you have to know them as well as you know yourself. Otherwise, you run the risk of being too hangry and getting butthurt by foolish things.


no rulesIn light of the latest national tragedy, I’m going to break some rules.

Rule 1: Professional counselors are not prescriptive; we do not tell our clients what to do. Our role is to help empower our clients to help themselves.

Not this week.

Rule 2: Blogs, especially mine, are lighthearted and apolitical. It makes digesting clinical information easier. It is necessary to stay neutral so taking charge of your own mental health is manageable for everyone by not offending anyone.

Not this week.

Rule 3: There is no right or wrong in a therapeutic setting. Morality is individualized and learned from the unique perspective of our lives’ stories.

Not this week.

Managing the Tragedy to Prevent Trauma

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is not limited to soldiers. It is not limited to innocent people victimized by hatred. It is not limited to abused women and children. Although not a specific disorder, vicarious, or secondary, traumatic stress effects anyone who internalizes a horrifying event. First responders, counselors, clergy, and others associated with a helping profession are at the highest risk for vicarious PTSD based on the constant exposure to victims of tragedy. Sometimes, even well-intentioned parents can increase their children’s likelihood to exhibit serious mental health trauma.

According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, some symptoms and conditions associated with vicarious or secondary traumatic stress include:

    • Hypervigilance
    • Hopelessness
    • Avoidance
    • Anger/cynicism
    • Sleeplessness
    • Illness
    • Fear
  • Exhaustion

do's and don'tsHere are some things “To Do” and “To Don’t” when processing the latest attack.

Don’t explain the event to your children. Not even in Seuss-speak. Not even in generic terms. (“A bad man hurt a lot of people for being different.”) Children gracefully lack the capacity to understand the concepts of “bad man,” “hatred,” or “terror.” These are moral grey terms that children don’t have the developmental maturation to understand. David Elkind, a gifted psychologist, beautifully illustrates this concept in his books.

Do teach them about other cultures. There are dozens of Cinderella-type fairy tales from different cultures. Reading these to your children helps erase the lines between “us” and “them” in order to educate a generation of “we”.


Don’t allow your children to listen or watch any news coverage. Keep them away from adult conversations, too. Children have no concept of time. There is a risk that children will believe the violence is always happening because they cannot comprehend why it is still being discussed (while wearing serious adult faces) by everyone around them.

Do allow your children to participate in the healing process using art. Drawings, paintings, and Play-Doh are great donations to abuse shelters and children’s hospitals. Let your kids play and create like children. Then, present your child’s love-filled projects to peers to brighten the lives of others and create one for themselves.


Don’t mistake vigilance for preparedness. Fire drills and tornado drills are legal mandates for schools to practice disaster scenarios; they are normal for children. Creating disaster kits, no matter how much fun they may be to compile and decorate, is not normal play time at home. Spending your time guessing what awful event from the past to prepare for in the future will guarantee a loss of enjoyment in the present.

moon landingDo slow down to notice the details of your daily life. Just like one man’s small step on the moon that symbolized a larger step for mankind, the little miracles of daily life will create the armor of optimism needed to power through the major catastrophes.

Spark Note Summary

It is ironic that the same ignorance that fuels violent hatred protects our children’s innocence. We cannot sacrifice the latter to fight the former. Our energy must be concentrated on taking actions that protect the optimism of youthful innocence. Sports venues, schools, and businesses participate in “a moment of silence” in the wake of a tragedy. We respect the loss of life with a moment of silence. We honor the life that is lost with a minute of action. #minuteofaction

I Want My Son to Be a Duck When He Grows Up

My duck at 5 months old
My duck at 5 months old

I have been to three “graduations” in the past two weeks. My son has had two end-of-the-year parties to mark his completion of another year of early childhood education. Those parties are not really different than the high school graduation party I attended. The conversations always revolve around how far a child has come and how exciting it is for the next step. Parents congratulate themselves for managing the tantrums (for toddlers and teenagers) and nurturing the signs of independence (for toddlers and teenagers).

In the first week of his life, I already had some very clear expectations for my son:

 Sexuality: I never had cravings for food when I was pregnant. I craved music sung by Madonna and Cher. I was excited to think I was giving birth to a gay son who could teach his mother how to dress properly for the pear-shape for which he was partially responsible.

Personality: As regular blog readers, you know I have a sharp wit and irreverent attitude. I expect the same from my son, someone who will undoubtedly follow in his mother’s foot-in-mouth approach to life. Jacob began living up to this expectation hours after his birth; he literally was giving the finger to my husband as Jacob nursed.

 Career: At four days old, I explained to Jacob that he was not born to a mother who “would let him be whatever he wanted” when he grew up. I was, and still am, an ardent watcher of Deadliest Catch. I told him he was not allowed to be a crab fisherman.

Despite stereotypical therapists’ views, who we are is more complicated than the expectation of our parents.

The Three Pieces That Make Up the Puzzle of Self-Conceptpuzzle of self

  • Part 1: Family of Origin: Both Nature and Nurture factor into who you are groomed to be. Lehman famously outlined personality characteristics of birth order by defining first born children as ambitious, natural leaders, middle children as peacekeepers, and youngest children as free spirits. Combined with a family’s ethnic and religious views for gender and birth order, we start life as a relative cardboard cut-out of a member of the family.
  • Part 2: Friends and Community: As we grow up, we enter a larger world where comparisons and contrasts to our upbringing begin. Erikson labelled this struggle identity versus role confusion. There are three ways we moderate our concept of self during this stage.
    • Differentiation = “That’s not me!” We test out concepts, feelings, and emotions we have learned from our family of origin against how our friends’ families define these ideas. Rebellion against our own family is necessary at this point in order for us to embrace independent thinking and a strong adherence to values.
    • Substitution = “I want to be like him/her.” This is another form of rebellion, rejection. Painful for parents, again, but a necessary part of the process of becoming an individual. This is also where we embrace social changes like accepting same-sex marriage and a black President. By replacing one set of beliefs with another our society becomes more inclusive.
    • platypusIntegration = “I’m a platypus!” This strange animal is the role model for a healthy self-concept. You have taken who you were raised to be, tweaked it by seeing how others understand the world, and settled on a unique whole.
  • Part 3: Current Family: In order to be YOU, the imaginary audience weighs in. Everyone has a heightened perception of people watching and judging each decision they have made throughout their lifetime. Once you are the final judge, the loudest voice in the room, your self-concept is set.

 Spark Note Summary

My duck 4 years later congratulating Grammy
My duck 4 years later congratulating Grammy

Asking “what do you want to do when you grow up” is never as impactful as “who do you want to be when you grow up.” If I had my way, Jacob would be a proud man who lets the judgment of others, including his over-opinionated mother, run off his back like water off a duck’s back.

Huck Finn, Beowulf, and Star Wars

student teachingI started my student teaching nearly 20 years ago. My assignment was split between an accelerated sophomore English class and a regular junior English class. I was twenty years old, smart, cocky, and completely unprepared for what being in the classroom actually meant.

My sophomores had to read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I had designed fantastic lesson plans surrounding the use of the n-word and the allusions to Shakespeare all to disguise how much I detested the book. I was not impressed with Twain’s satire despite my self-proclaimed coronation of the Queen of Sarcasm. I was not a fan of the protagonist’s introspection on the river. (My own introspective years came much later.) This teaching assignment was going to be painful; I was all creativity and no content.

My junior class assignment was the opposite. I struggled to find ways to interpret a complex text like Beowulf (which I learned to pronounce BAY-AH-WULF three days before the end of the unit) for regular level juniors. My students had the same opinion of this unit as I did, a necessary evil for both of us to move on to the next step in our education. My cooperating teacher had the answer for years; compare Beowulf to Star Wars as examples of mythic heroes. That plan also gave me the chance to shamelessly enjoy one of my favorite movies AND complete a daunting teaching unit. star wars poster (First, don’t ask which Star Wars. This was twenty years ago; there was only one. Second, don’t worry about wasted time. There was a six page packet to fill out while watching to prove or disprove the monomyth’s applications.) The outcome of both of those experiences was a lesson learned that resulted in a blissful fifteen years as an educator and an insightful eight years as a therapist.

The Power of “And”

It was tricky to be a teacher and a student. That never changed. But, once I embraced that a teacher can remain a student AND learn from her students’ fresh approaches and reactions to material, I became an award-winning teacher. In therapy, the theory behind seeing how two seemingly polar opposites can be true is called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

An old woman AND a young lady.
An old woman AND a young lady.

DBT is a treatment model used for chronic mental illnesses such as addiction, self-mutilation, eating disorders, and anxiety. Unlike previous posts, these struggles cannot be helped without professional interventions. The modality was created to help balance the contradictions imbedded into lifelong mental illness. DBT allows for the harmful effects of the illness to be incurable while making them manageable.

Similar to my post on group therapy, I will attempt to summarize the basics of this treatment modality which works to keep patients in a steady mental state. (Still, no Spark Notes.):

  • Stage 1: The focus of this stage is stabilization. Therapy is centered on safety and crisis intervention. The goal of this stage is to help people achieve some control over themselves despite the recurring messages they give themselves that life is out of control.
  • Stage 2: Despite more overall stability, behaviors characteristic of mental health issues may still be prevalent. Now is the time to investigate the origin of the pain. The goal of this stage is to help people process an experience instead of silencing or burying it. start on road
  • Stage 3: This stage focuses on creating a new life under new terms; the individual is in charge of life, not the trauma. Optimistic exercises like goal-setting are the focus with the reminders that stability breeds happiness.
  • Stage 4: This stage is all about maintenance. The new “you” discovered is vulnerable to doubt. It is important to stay engaged in therapy even at this stage in order to have support when natural mistakes threaten to derail incredible progress.

Spark Note Summary

With the start of summer, adults want to be kids. Friction occurs when kids still need their role models to be adults. The answer is to live in a world of “and” by being both. Get dirty in the mud from summer rain AND be responsible enough not to trek it into the house. Show your kids who invented fun!

Hooray, Spring! Boo, Cleaning…

Everyone has a mild hoarder inside. My husband’s grandfather was a survivor of the Great Depression who became a very successful businessman; he also had a drawer full of rubber bands that had been used and re-used for decades.(Ironically, today would have been his 97th birthday.) One of my closest friends has such a love of sticky notes, she trained all of her 4th graders to think, rethink, and really think about whether the page being saved or reminder being written was truly worthy of a sticky note. For me, it’s containers.sticky notes

I’m not just crazy about boxes – don’t we all keep shoe boxes to collect and organize the crayons and cars littered around the house? I keep the zipper plastic bags from new sheets, the cardboard partitions from wine boxes, old baby wipes containers…even the plastic rings that bind the oversized salsa bottles we buy from Costco. Much to my husband’s chagrin, my obsession keeps my house more cluttered than categorized.

With spring cleaning finally here, it is time for me to decide what goes and what stays. It’s also a great opportunity for all families to work with their children in developing a systematic moral code.

Pay It Now, Pay It Later, Pay It Forward

Parents are always looking for a way to direct the moral compasses of their kids. moral compassWe are successful in teaching the rules of morality, holding doors open, saying “please” and “thank you”, and taking turns. But, these successes are only in one-on-one relationships. Without fail, my clients consistently ask me how to teach their growing children how to be moral members of a group, their family, their school, their community. The answer is to set up a system of “paying” for things now, saving for later, and donating to others.

When talking about a lifelong lesson, it is best to start young. Here is how the morality code system works for toddlers, the youngest age you can effectively begin to mold morality. Consider each step using the commodity of toddlers, in playroom

  • Pay It Now – Setting priorities: Every parent has suffered through the nightmare of turning down the wrong aisle in Target and landing smack dab in the sightline of the seven aisles of toys. At that moment, we all become Monty Hall and make deals with our toddlers. Getting one of the toys asked for during that shopping trip is a great experience for our young ones because they needed to decide which toy was too special to leave on the shelf.
  • Pay It Later – Understanding patience: Psychologist Lev Vygotsky introduced the idea of providing children the opportunity to achieve goals just beyond their reach with the help of a caregiver. zpdHe called this the zone of proximal development, or ZPD. Most of us practiced this theory instinctively when our infants’ hands couldn’t entirely grasp their spoon off the feeding tray, so we propped it up for them to snatch it. Buying, or better yet, allowing doting grandparents to buy, toys they are targeted for the next age bracket achieves the same goals. Toddlers love work-for toys targeted for big boys and girls; parents love watching them learn how to wait for gratification.
  • Pay It Forward – Learning empathy: The best trick I learned from another mom was the concept of a bag or bin of “non-sharing” toys for playdates. The idea is for your child to identify toys that are so important and special that nobody else is allowed to touch them. (When you “pay it now,” they have already internalized that decision-making skill.) kid donatingParents can take this one step further, especially before holidays and birthdays, by working with your child to sort through toys that no longer hold interest or develop advanced skills. A quick car trip to the Salvation Army or donation to CASA gives our little ones big feelings of empathy and pride.

Spark Note Summary

The reason why parenting is unanimously considered the hardest job is because its goal is to make the world a better place, one moral person at a time. We cringe at words like “bully” and “apathy” and lose decades of sleep hoping they don’t apply to our kids. The earlier we start to teach our kids what good morals look like, the earlier they will know what good morals feel like.

The Queen of Tic-Tac-Toe

My husband and I take silly seriously. We spent a great deal of our courtship playing Warcraft over an Ethernet hub with six friends in a two-bedroom apartment. (Really, it was incredibly romantic to be advised to “make a peon” every three seconds.) So, when we are overwhelmed with responsibility, we find a way to shirk off the dusting and vacuuming by playing a game.

tic tac toe

The other day, I downloaded an app so I can write text and draw on photos before posting them on Facebook. I demonstrated this new toy to my husband by scribbling on a picture of him. Somehow that devolved into using the app to doodle a tic-tac-toe board. Seventeen games later, Joe still had not won one. Not one. Many of you are smiling because you know the same pattern I do, the one which secures the top left, bottom left, and bottom right corners guaranteeing a win regardless of what pitiful move your opponent makes. I’m lucky that Joe is a good loser because I am a horrible winner. What is worse than that is I set him up to fail…seventeen times. That is the epitome of unfair and an issue I see in marital counseling all of the time.

Developing a Definition of Fairness

It takes a lifetime to develop a working definition of fair/fairness. There are developmental models in psychology, Supreme Court cases, and dictionaries that attempt to define this complex issue. It’s no wonder that a couple has a hard time negotiating the content when there are as so many different ways of understanding the construct. I have my own developmental model of fairness:

  • moralityAs a therapist, I learned all about Kohlberg’s developmental model of morality. Kohlberg designed a scenario similar to the Kobiyahi Maru of Star Trek legend. The beginning of fairness falls into Kohlberg’s Level 1, Stage 2, Individualism and Exchange. Between the approximate ages of four through 9, children’s moral codes are defined by outsiders and authority figures. Rules are clearly outlined by parents and teachers. Children can easily observe whether they are being treated fairly when compared to peers.
  • Adolescence brings with it the mantra, “That’s not fair.” Parents don’t allow extended curfews or call in an excused absence to cover missing homework. These are the years I call the “War of the Door”, one side slams it and the other removes the door from the hinge. Erikson believes the actual war is the teenager’s struggle between identity and role confusion. Young adults are consistently comparing and contrasting the adults who make the rules to decide whether to emulate or reject those values. Success in this stage breeds fidelity, a close relative of fairness. Young adults align themselves and show loyalty to people who share the morals, like fairness, that match their individual identity.
  • Society is hyper-focused on fairness. We want to make sure women have equal pay for equal rights. We want to make sure same-sex couples can marry and raise children like their heterosexual friends and neighbors. Fairness morphs into equality in adulthood. Supreme Court cases legislate concepts that consistently examine equality of outcome vs equality of opportunity. Fairness becomes a question of winning or losing. But, with 300 million individuals in America, winning or losing depends on perspective. (Rosie Perez explains this best in White Man Can’t Jump.)

Spark Note Summary

Marriage is not a game. If you are already counting wins and losses, you have lost a fundamental building block of your marriage. Fairness in marriage is a feeling. And feelings are not shared through slammed doors.