Why The Arts are Essential to Your Kids’ Success

And Your Neighbor’s Kids Too.

 The case for the arts needs to be made across the entirety of American culture, but if we don’t plant artistic seeds in the young, the argument is pointless.  

The arts are being squeezed out of the American educational system. Music, theatre, dance, visual, and literary arts are all losing their place in the formation of our next generation of citizens. The reasons given are often financial: there are more demands on schools and fewer resources with which to meet them. There is also our well-intentioned push to measure and quantify student learning with standardized achievement tests, as if all students are clones and we are programing them like computers. Parents feel strapped for cash and time and don’t make the sacrifices required for music or dance lessons.

When arts education is on the chopping block, I hear the objection: “But the arts are important.” It is a throwaway line. Few people articulate why the arts belong in education and that is a shame, because it isn’t a hard case to make. So here’s my purely experiential, non-scientific stab at the case for the arts: Why the arts belong in education; why we need them and how do they serve their students.

Art as Societal Bellwether

496px-Athena_Herakles_Staatliche_Antikensammlungen_2648      Art is an integral part of who we are and who we’ve been. It is a primary method of recording and reading history. It reflects the general psyche of a place and time. The Renaissance fascination with all things Hellenic is reflected in the architecture, sculpture, and paintings of the era. The ennui and cynicism of Fin de siècle Europe is observed in the art of that time.

Looking through this window into history- we see the micro impact of huge historical events on individuals (the artists) and whole societies (how the art was received.) How much richer is the study of history when it is studded with songs, paintings, and literature of the people affected by the actions of governments and nations?Picasso: Guernica

We spend thousands on public art projects to charm and invigorate public spaces. In the US, the Kennedy Center honors influential artists of our nation annually. Foundation and government grants pair with private donations to fuel every major orchestra, ballet, opera and art museum in the country. Tourists all over the globe visit museums full of artistic cultural artifacts and seek out local art and music in order to get the flavor of a place.

Awareness of art’s significant influence on society makes us more critical of the art we want in our society. Anyone who thinks that violent song lyrics and misogynistic advertising are inconsequential doesn’t know art or history.

The Art of Persuasion

Elementary school textbook, 1971. Notice the use of pen as bayonet.

Elementary school textbook, 1971. Favorite bit: the use of pen as bayonet.

When we understand history and art’s role in it, we exert some power of discernment over the propaganda, advertising, and media that bombard us. Governments know the power of the arts- Soviet and Chinese communists spent a lot of energy and ruined a lot of lives trying to control it. Art had to meet Soviet standards for promoting communism. In Maoist China, artists who were permitted to create were those that toed the party line. Others were silenced (in any number of ways,) or sent to “re-education” camps. In the US, we once closely scrutinized and threatened artists we suspected of harboring communist sympathies. I doubt we would have bothered if we didn’t think them influential people.

Canadian WWII Poster      Politicians carefully consider the music they will use on the campaign trail, trying to set just the right tone and make all the helpful inferences that a piece of music carries with it. Advertising has put cash in many a jingle writer’s pocket. Visual artists create graphics to encourage everything from buying war bonds to drinking brand name soft drinks. Multiple artistic professionals are employed to sell the latest earworm of a song from the pop star of the moment (a melding of capitalist and artistic aims, not that they are mutually exclusive.) Songs motivate and give voice to social movements from the French Revolution to American civil rights.
Persuasion and motivation are, most often, emotional pursuits, despite our delusions of being rational creatures.  The arts are the tools to manipulate the heart. Knowing this, we may still be taken in, but we will know the forces at work. It makes us harder targets and we are better equipped to use the arts of persuasion to our own advantage and to the advantage of causes dear to us.

Fluency in the Languages of Human Expression

In order to benefit from art, we must know its vocabulary and have some basis from which to approach it. Most of us have perfunctory reactions to art we see or hear, even if we don’t know why. But knowledge deepens understanding of any subject.

If I had not been forced to study poetry, I wouldn’t know to consider the words that are left out as much as the ones that are chosen. There are mime gestures in ballet that function as sign language but I am wholly ignorant of their meaning, so I barely notice them. I often hear people not trained in classical music say that they find it relaxing. That is not my experience because I know its language. I know the aural vocabulary of consonance and dissonance, and some of its history. I hear detail and technique. I glean more because I know more.

Education in the arts teaches the languages of human expression, enabling us to not only understand others, but to better communicate our own ideas, both of which are important to the individual and to the health of greater society.

Know Thyself

Art (visual, performing, and linguistic) is communication. The arts are apparatus for communicating delicate and 364px-Van_Gogh_-_Trauernder_alter_Mannnuanced ideas, emotions, and experiences. They convey meaning at deeply human levels- levels that may not have words, or visuals, or sound, but are real and part of who we are and how we experience this shocking world. I have been moved to tears by a carefully composed photograph, been challenged by a painting, dug through a poem until I found a nugget of understanding, and had my mood changed by a song.

In order to communicate in any medium, I must examine and know my own mind. I must discover what it is that I want to convey. Creating artful expression forces me to first know myself better by seeking that clarity of mind.  I must isolate the idea I am trying to bring into the world, figure out how to present it, and make plans to build it.

Art is a safe place in which to do this work of self study. It offers a space to test ideas and affects, a space to express thought, a space to untangle ideas, and a space in which to safely experiment with modes of being. In the words of the composer and secular saint, Mr. Rogers: “[Art] is a way, that doesn’t hurt you or anybody else, to say who you are and how you feel.” What young person would not benefit from such exercise?

Honor the Other

Once I know my mind, I must consider the other- the audience. Who is my audience? What is their frame of reference? What do they need from me in order to understand my purpose? Effective communication requires me to honor my audience, increasing our mutual understanding.

That isn’t to say that effective art always results in the artist and consumer coming to harmonious conclusions. Far from it, but it does mean that artist and audience have both considered each other, possibly gleaning insights into themselves and one another. Society would be better if we made a habit of studying the frame of reference of others, instead of just trying to prove ourselves more right than someone else. Maybe the US Congress should be forced to play chamber music.

Discovery and Problem Solving

The imaginative skills required for making beautiful music and effective literature are the same skills for creative problem solving in the rest of life. Life is full of opportunities for a facile mind to find ways around problems, from organizing a home, to making a dollar stretch, to marketing a business.

Making art, like doing science, teaching, or plumbing, is full of problem solving. It is all about finding ways of bringing ideas into the world, a world full of rigid considerations. Art is always created within constraints. Children get frustrated when watercolors run into each other on a saturated page, or play dough refuses to have the rigidity and spring required to make usable fairy wands. Learning to work around and within a framework is where human creativity is at it’s best. Creative problem solving is the stuff of invention, and it bears all of our technological and much of our scientific progress.

A feat of creative problem solving. And then we paint it red, because it is awesome.

A feat of creative problem solving. Then we paint it red, because it is awesome.

Creative people find multiple approaches to a problem. They see connections where others’ haven’t and they discover new solutions to old problems. Developing a powerful creative process requires a good amount of practice. The arts, with their disparate mediums, styles, and skill sets, are stimulating places to begin resolving dissonance between a mental goal and the hard realities of materials and the limitations of one’s own skills.

Grit: More Powerful Than Talent

Art requires high-level skills to be effective and satisfying and these take work and time to acquire. My children are dissatisfied when the eyes on a face they’ve drawn don’t match, or they can’t play a piano piece as fast as they’d like. They already have an ideal in mind, but their skills don’t yet match up.

This mismatch can be powerfully motivating. People work hard for things they really want, and if a child’s mind is captured by an artistic ideal, they may be convinced to work diligently toward the goal. And diligence is what it will take. There are no shortcuts when it comes to building skill.3602584451_a3b9222310_m

Desire for skill does not mean that they will always work joyfully and willingly. They will want to give up when it gets hard, like any normal person. That is where teachers and parents come in- people who can see the end game, people who already know that to give up is the surest way to fail, and who know that perseverance is one of the hardest skills to instill.

The wonderful thing about learning perseverance in the arts is that art interests so many young people and they are motivated by a desire to do it well.  Scientific discovery motivates some children, but the arts catch the interest of many.

For people with an interest in visual, performing, or linguistic art, the pay off is satisfying. Seeing yourself approach your ideal through your own hard work is powerful. Knowing that you got there by your own sweat and effort builds confidence and pride. Achievement and mastery of skills is the way to true self-confidence.

This is not to say that artistic satisfaction is possible with only the skills of a superlative artist. Yes, it takes years of diligent work to gain aptitude, but the near inhuman skills of top performing artists are not what are required for individual delight. Enrichment through the arts requires people who have creative vision and have worked hard for some basic artistic skills with which to strive and discover what is possible.

Cooperation

Practice and solitary work builds character and work ethic, but if art is communication, it is at its absolute best when

This worked out okay.

This worked out okay.

made and shared with others. I hated group projects in school. They took so much time, and there was always one person who’s dead weight the rest of us dragged across the finish line. However, I never thought of theatre productions, string quartet, or orchestra as group projects, even though they were.

These were voluntary collaborations, cooperative endeavors. Everyone had a useful skill set, skill sets that I understood and respected. We were patient with each other because we understood the difficulties of making ideas heard, seen and experienced as clearly as possible. We learned to offer criticism gently. Even more importantly, we learned to take criticism constructively. We helped each other and celebrated our triumphs. Even less than stellar efforts were easier to accept, because we had each other.

My highest emotional highs occurred when I fell in love and when I made impossibly beautiful music with people I liked, music that I could not make on my own. Love for my quartet members grew out of our explorations of Schubert and Dvorak. There is simply nothing like creating beauty with someone else. It is one of the profound delights on Earth.

Collaborative art fosters appreciation of others and their skills and imagination. Actors cannot put on a production without lighting designers. 1st Violins need 2nd violins. Dancers need costumers. Drummers need guitarists. None of it works without all of its pieces in place.

Finding Purpose in Creation

Knit GraffitiHumans are creative beings and nothing breathes life into daily existence like finding a place to stretch our creativity. The main reason there are so many craft, yarn, woodworking, and DIY home improvement stores is because people need to make stuff. The satisfaction that comes from building raised garden beds is soul feeding. People craft, build, and make art because it quenches a universal creative desire. I have friends who practice a creative hobby as an exercise for mental health. They find it calming and nourishing: concentrating on something they love, making it fit their own purpose and ideas. As creators, we take control over a small piece of our existence. And that is a thing of great psychological consequence.

Children know that they are not in control of much. Adults become wise when they realize the same thing. A creative outlet can do much to improve our mental health and help us cope with a world beyond our control, by giving us a small space in which to make things as we’d like them to be. And art is an outlet that is readily available, can be pursued at varying intensities of finance and time, and bends to meet the needs of the practitioner. Why would we keep such a gift from children?

Synthesizing Algebra, and Other Lessons.

I remember sitting in math class and wondering, “Why are we doing this? When will I ever need this?” It seemed like such busy work and I didn’t see the point. It wasn’t until I set out to make a sewing pattern for a skirt (something I would never have attempted if I did not have some practice in creative problem solving,) that I finally synthesized the need for algebra and was thankful for geometry. Making stuff puts theories and abstractions into concrete practice.

Art is for Children.

Does it matter if students can manipulate mathematics, or does it only matter if they punch the right answers on their assessment tests? Do we think it wise to shove the diversity of the human mind down shallow road of knowledge without understanding or synthesizing it? Do we want adults who come to their productive years with problem solving skills, the ability to work with others, engaged minds that are always looking for better ways to do things, who have healthy outlets for their emotions and are practiced communicators?

Zack, age 8, oil painting after Wyeth

Zack, age 8, oil painting after Wyeth

If this is what we want, the arts must be part of their education. Not every child needs all of them, but they all need some. They should have visual art to learn to see, literature to learn to consider beyond themselves, theatre and language arts to make themselves understood, music to voice the depths of the soul, shop class to bring abstractions into reality, and places to try, see, and learn the languages that tell of the human experience.

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Shock and Aww

Mine is not a militarily cultured family, but, I find myself thinking in military analogies. Here’s a sampling:

Rules of Engagement– Whatever tenuous rules and policies I’ve made for the moment and will change or abandon at will.

4869071404_77104ed8e8_z BDR– Yes. Make your bed every day. It isn’t “Basic [almost] Daily [if you feel like it,] Routine.”

Troop management– Getting to school, through IKEA, church, or Costco with all members accounted for, unbloodied, and almost on time.

Group Cohesion– Tying everyone’s performance to everyone’s reward. While strongly protested as unfair, it has proved an effective tool for building cohesion and accomplishing missions.

The Enemy– Colic, TV, exhaustion, or an opposing faction within a family usually consisting of barefoot short people.

Guerilla Tactics–  Sneaky goings on: Throwing away [read: donating] unused toys when children aren’t around. Putting mushrooms through the garlic press, so the kids can’t pick them out. Changing their clock so we can sleep in for another 30 minutes.

Surrender– My flag waving arm is sore and it isn’t because I’m such a patriot.

I surrender!

I surrender!

Routing– What happened to me last Saturday when Hot Swede was gone all day, ending with friends’ pity and their bringing me wine.

Trench Warfare– The parenting of very young children. Consistently interrupted sleep, chaos and destruction coming at you from all directions all the time and all you really want is a pair of dry socks.

Night Watch– What the stay at home parent gets when a child has nighttime vomiting, ostensibly because I “can sleep during the day.” Bwah ha ha ha.

Recon– going through the backpack, looking for a permission form.

Special Ops– Volunteering, attending, being over age 30 at the school carnival, teaching Sunday school, leading a boy scout troop, etc.

Coordinated Attack– When the plebes work together to attack every weakness I have on a given day [see “Routing.”] For example: “Okay, you whine. When you’re done, I’ll drop a full quart of yogurt on the floor. Then, you run through it on your way to almost make it to the toilet. After that, we’ll complain about lunch and fight about who hates squash more. She’ll take away our screen time and then we’ll break her. She’ll cave without the hour’s break. It will be mac and cheese for dinner and play outside for the rest of the night.”

Victory– If Hot Swede and I make it to 51 and they make it to 20 nearly whole, good, functional, and still smiling at each other, we will have a ticker tape parade.

Headless Nike: I'll take it.

Winged Victory: If she kept her head, it wouldn’t be as fitting.

School Fundraisers

My children attend a wonderful public school. I am very grateful. The parents association at school operates with a level of involvement and organization that I remember from my private school days. They are a highly motivated group of parents who work very hard at raising a lot of money to support the educational offerings of the school. Off the top of my head, here are fundraising campaigns they’ve launched in the three years we’ve been at the school.

Oh, the memories

Oh, the memories

  • Wrapping Paper & Gift Sale
  • Coupon Book Sales
  • Read-a-thon
  • A local restaurant that donates a % of the profits from a certain day of each month.
  • Boxtops/Labels for Education
  • Book orders
  • 2 Book Fairs per year
  • Plant Sale
  • A pair of carnivals: the pièce de résistance: one in the spring, one in the fall, complete with silent auctions, bake sales, live music, crafts, and games.

These parents work their tails off. They are awesome, and they raise a healthy chunk of change. Because I am always ready to advise others on what they should do, I thought I’d brainstorm a few new ideas. Half of them involve booze.

School Rummage Sale:

Families donate toys, snow gear, bikes, etc. for the sale. This is a parents only event, complete with wine and canapés. All unsold items will be donated. No children allowed, as who knows who’s Wii or train table has been marked for sale.

tiny bubbles in the [beer]...

tiny bubbles in the [beer]…

Cash bar, or keg at the Carnivals.

These are chaos intense events. Moms and dads would pay many tickets for a strong gin and tonic. I’ve done informal polling to this end. It would be a success. If there is a problem with having a keg on school grounds (of all the silly rules,) there are lots of families who live within 2 blocks of school. They could host in a garage or yard. I’m sure permits would have to be pulled, etc., but it would make the “throw wet sponges at parents” booth a distant second.

Service-a-thon

If we’re going to pledge money to our kids to read during the read-a-thon, how about doing the same for the time they spend serving others? I would love to pledge to a kid who was going to spend time weeding school flowerbeds, or helping the librarian sort books, or raking leaves for an elderly neighbor. File it under character education.

Change Drive

Get some Costco pickle jars and have a contest for which classroom/grade can collect the most coinage (American money only, please.) Prizes are given for the most money raised and the fullest jar. Root beer floats and bragging rights for the winning classroom. The losers have to roll all the pennies. Easy and unimaginative.

640px-Left_Hand_-_Kolkata_2011-04-20_2350

Please?

Straight Up Ask

Okay, here’s the deal. We can send your kids home with promises of iPads to the highest seller and you can look at their expectant faces and explain why you’re not going to buy more wrapping paper, popcorn, stationary, books, whatever else we can think of that is not too heavy for a kindergartner to carry… or, you can write us a check, three digits please. Like an NPR fund drive, the sooner we meet our goals, the sooner we’ll end the drive. Please, for the love of Ralph, that spring carnival is a killer.

Grant Writing

This will work better in high school, but how about it? Assign students to write grants to fund art, science & math enrichment, music, PE- all those “extras” that aren’t on standardized tests. They’d learn to research, assess what a foundation is looking for, to write to that interest, to be concise and clear, and to submit on a deadline, a real one. Little actual funding would get accomplished, but in the off chance that it did- double score- learning and money!

standing ovation for you, sir.

Standing ovation for you, sir.

Parent Prom

This would be fun… and just as awkward as the real thing. Get a sitter; buy tickets, and draw straws for a designated driver. There will be noshes, music from the olden days (your youth,) and other parents dressed up like you’ve never seen them. It could be a themed soirée -1980s, Dr. Who, dress like a middle schooler, dress like YOU did in middle school. Liquor is de rigueur, duh.

 

 

After School Ice Pop/Coffee and Cocoa stand

This would totally work.

This would totally work.

This idea struck as I watched the ice cream truck roll down my street, playing cheery Christmas music in July. We need our own food truck/rolling stand. There would be ice pops or snow cones in the fall and spring, for the two weeks that they last. When the weather turns chilly, it’ll switch over to coffee and hot chocolate. Not bad, eh? This one doesn’t require booze or babysitters.

 

Who doesn’t want to support the education of their kids? Getting rid of stuff, going to a party, and drinking (coffee) seem like great new ways to do that. Anyone else have good fundraising ideas? I can’t use any more wrapping paper.

The Start of School

I am excited for school to start. My kids fight so much that I name them Israel, Palestine and Syria. That is not why I’m excited. We have been around each other 24/7 since June. That’s not why I’m excited. I’ve actually kind of enjoyed that, when Palestine wasn’t throwing rocks at Israel, and Syria wasn’t wailing about something. I’m ready because it is time.

P1010920We had a wonderful summer. I didn’t over plan it, like last year. We visited family, took some swimming lessons, and did minimal piano practice. We didn’t do camps, classes, sports teams, or any of the other extras that gorge on time and finances. I taught Bear to embroider. The kids played with friends, read and listened to books, did a lot of chores, and watched some TV. It was delightful.

I’m sure they would have liked to play baseball, attend camps, and other organized fun. Those are wonderful things- enriching, engaging, and good for kids. But my children get their heads pumped full of enriching, engaging activities throughout the school year. They do full days at school and take weekly music and dance lessons. If they do the prescribed homework and practice that goes along with these activities, their days are full. They are scheduled or getting nagged to work, from the time they get up, until they get ready for bed.

Summer is opportunity for contrast and a different kind of intellectual training. I’m convinced that after 9 months of cramming it full, the brain needs some down time to sort it all, put it away, forget that which it doesn’t want (to the chagrin of teachers,) and take some creative actions of its own design. Okay, so the forgetting isn’t great, but the sorting and creativity are at least as important to my children’s mental growth as is pushing them to do above grade level math. I suspect it is more important.

The best classroom ever

The best classroom ever

Unstructured time allows children time to listen to their own quiet minds and help them find resources within. They discover their own interests and practice navigating social situations without an adult overlord watching over them. They learn to amuse themselves and that being “bored” is a natural state for a mind unengaged. It is up to them to relieve their boredom, not me. (I do not create amusements at home. I make bubble solution, provide them with art supplies, take them to the library, and invite them to help me with household duties. That’s it.) Luckily, our neighbors and playmates have a similar philosophy about summer.

What could possibly go wrong?

What could possibly go wrong?

Q wrote a neighborhood newspaper with her friend. They busked on a busy corner, playing tunes on a lap harp, fiddle, and a banjo. They made three dollars! They gave each other pedicures, which consisted of soaking their feet in water full of floating bits of lavender, rosemary, mint, and… chives. (Mmm, onion feet.) They rode scooters, bikes, ate berries and cucumbers out of the yard. They designed Halloween costumes and spent a lot of time talking. That is a summer well spent.

But all good things must end and too much unstructure fosters ennui if it stretches out for too long. They are showing signs of discontent. They loll around and sigh. Easy amusements have lost their charm. They bicker longer, harder and about sillier things. Bear can’t stand how AJ chews gum. AJ can’t ride her bike if anyone else in on the sidewalk for the entire length of the block. Q is sick of everyone.

They are ready for work. Structure, goals, tasks, and challenge are part of a vibrant human experience and it is time. Get ready, kids. School starts tomorrow. Sharpened pencils and clean notebooks full of expectation and promise await your well-rested brains. Work hard. Be good. This is the season of work. Do it as well as you did the season of play. Ready. Set. Go.

Six Year-Olds, 29 Years Later

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I went for a walk with a soul I met in kindergarten, my first friend who was not also my cousin. My mom joked that we became close because we were the only two minority, less than upper-class students in the class. I can’t corroborate that because the only division I noticed at the time was that we were all brown from a high desert summer except Catherine, who glowed with an ivory pallor and crown of blond plaits that I found mesmerizing. I had never seen someone that fair.

Keeping touch with childhood friends makes me think like an old woman- seeing the full length of my life, feeling the stretch of years as one event. Our shared experiences took place when we were shorter and had smoother cheeks, but it hardly matters. We are shaped by the sum of our experiences, not just the recent additions.

il_fullxfull.132528183Friends from youth are as much a part of my life as those who currently inhabit it. No matter where we are in life, our interactions with people follow a pattern. We come into each other’s lives, walk along side for a time, and then continue on our individual paths.

After kindergarten, my friend and I went separate ways until 6th grade, when we were once again at school together and our paths ran parallel until high school graduation. We now live on opposite ends of the country, but are digitally reconnected. While separated geographically and politically, she is a woman who’s decency and solid mind I admire greatly.

I can only think of one person I wish I had never met, whose interactions were onerous and pedagogically fallow. The upper classman concertmaster who dressed down 11 year-old me in front of the rest of our combined 6-12th grade violin section- I could have done without that arrogant ass. The only thing I learned from him was that some people are just jerks and that grudges can be carried easily for decades. Even the violist in my most dysfunctional chamber ensemble ever was diverting enough to make for good stories. (He threw a telephone receiver in a fit of anger- the big clunky kind that used to be attached to walls- over a spat about tuning his 3rd.)

I appreciate people who come into my life. I admire them for what they’ve accomplished, or skills they’ve mastered that I have not. I esteem their strengths, especially when I am aware of some of their weaknesses. If people approach me honestly, I will respond in kind.

20121217-163827I cannot imagine being any other way. It would be exhausting to try to impress people, or to put up facades and keep distance. I’m too lazy for that. Here I am, a 6 year-old, a 16 year-old, a nearly 36 year old- adding years and people one by one, filling my memory with the richness of walking with my 6 year-old friend, 29 years later, toting her son, unpacking our families, careers, and ideas. For all the distance of space and years, knowing her is part of my whole.

Maybe my nostalgia is syrupy. Maybe it’s easy to feel like people are wonderful as I sit here, alone, in my house. Maybe I get caught in waves of emotion. Eh, so what? There are worse things than liking people easily.

The illustrations are all by Joan Walsh Anglund, a favorite from my childhood. Her website is here.

Mommy Wars- Call a Truce.

I made the mistake of reading the comments section of an article about Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg. I’m old enough to know better, but after avoiding comment sections for months, my faith in humanity recovered and it was time to knock it down again. Comment sections are brutally efficient for this purpose. The article was about the continuing controversy surrounding her book. Most of the comments were hackneyed dismissals of her person, not the content of her book, many convoluting her career choices with her parenting choices, each comment revealing more about its writer than it said about Sandberg. Blech. Enough. Grow up.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I'll bet she didn't even have a Moby wrap.

Wyatt Earp and his Mom. I’ll bet she didn’t even have a Moby wrap.

Parenting is too complicated to waste time pecking at the choices and lifestyles of others. The Mommy Wars are squabbles of the bored and privileged.  I don’t care if you’re a tiger mom, a free-range dad, a Montessori mama, a homeschool champion, a Ferberizer or an attachment adherent. I don’t care if you’re career driven or a devoted stay-at-home parent. If it works for you- if your children are content and engaged, if you’ve managed to retain some semblance of self- I applaud you. You are doing great! There are some parenting practices that raise my eyebrows- I am suspicious of unschooling, and I am wholly intolerant of disrespect- parents letting children run roughshod over the rights of others to not be maltreated and disrespected by unfettered progeny. (Is there a name for this? I think it’s called, “Parental Narcissism,” but that might just be in my own head.)

There are so many ways to parent because parents and children are all maddeningly varied and their interactions complicated. Ploys work for a while, or for one child, and then must be amended or discarded. If your children’s clothes are stained because you make them do their own laundry- kudos! If they eat McDonalds on the way to tuba lessons because you can’t work, cook, and get homework done- awesome, they get music lessons! If you store your homemade, organic, locally sourced baby food in BPA-free jars- wow, this is really important to you! If you chew up a granola bar and then feed it to your baby, a la Alicia Silverstone– I will not bat an eye. That is among the more benign things they will ingest and I’d like the parent who never licked off a pacifier to please come forward so we can wonder why he’s so weird.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

Josephine Baker and her rather unconventional family.

The only parenting experts are those who aren’t parenting at the moment. I write and read about parenting because it helps me sort out goals and lay plans. The only thing at which I’m expert is getting back up after falling on my parental face. Talk is cheap. Opinion is a wisp of smoke. Action and results are the only things that matter. What is true in war is true in parenting- No plan ever survives contact with the enemy.

In the quiet of evening, I resolve not to yell because it isn’t effective. I plan to set aside time to teach Bear to embroider to enrich his mind and our relationship. I say that I will not morph into a harpy of rage when practicing music with Q because it is detrimental to everyone.

The next day, I do it all… until the children wake up. AJ makes us late and I yell, “Where are your shoes!” I weed the garden instead of embroider with Bear. I get so frustrated during music practice that I close myself in the bathroom and scream into a bath towel.

Maybe I am inadequately equipped for parenting. If that is the case, then I am a member of a big club. The parents I know reasonably well struggle, search out new tactics, try stuff, find something that kind of works and pray it keeps working (It never does.) They struggle to manage their own natures as they teach their children to manage theirs.

Everyone struggles, even families with the most enviable exteriors.

The Kennedys. Everyone struggles, even parents with the most enviable exteriors.

I am glad the dad at the park brought his child out to play, even if dad’s smoking.  I have only sympathy for the mother trying to get through the grocery store by feeding her child Skittles the whole time. I do not know how the rest of her day has gone, or what else she’s got going on in her life. I get judgy like everyone else, but I remind myself that it is foolish and futile, especially when I’ve got my own trio of young humans to manage.

1101120521_600The media bait and we bite, stirring up a heady froth of black and white judgment. The sensational Time cover and its accompanying story ruffled a lot of feathers. The vaccine “debate” is drowned in emotion and distrust. The advice of Sheryl Sandberg and Gwyneth Paltrow grow patches of feckless disagreement. It seems that one must have an opinion on all of it. The only beneficiaries of all this ugly chatter are publishers. (I did purchase Lean-In after reading that article, encouraging the pot stirring  to continue. My bad.)

Peace with the life I’ve made comes from owning my choices and reminding myself of the good things that grow out of those choices, instead of envying the things I don’t have. Confidence in my parenting stems from seeing my children’s growth and behavior move in a positive direction. It does not come from judging my efforts as superior or the wholesale dismissal of another’s experience. If it were that easy, I’d get myself a gavel and judge with abandon. It would be easier than relying on results to confirm my work.

Read Sandberg,  Sears,  Dobson,  Chua-  a broad variety of experience and philosophy. See what they offer and get familiar with other ways of approaching the struggle. The only goals are respecting ourselves while raising healthy, wise, confident adults who can stumble through their own adulthood at least as well as their parents and maybe, (if we’re really overachievers,) a little bit better.  If someone else has managed to do that; they’re worth a listen. Even if you don’t buy all their suggestions, you’ll learn something.  Abandon the Mommy Wars. They are an utter waste of time and energy when we all need help, understanding, and to feel free to find the things that work for us and our children, here, in this moment.

Post Script: To that end,  I do not hate advice. I do not equate being offered advice with being judged as failing. Frankly, if your advice is good, you can judge me however you like. I don’t give a fig. If I’m struggling and something worked for you, please, share it! I take all helpfully offered suggestions seriously and with a good attitude. I want all the help and wisdom of the ages to get my children from birth-20 as best as is possible for them and for me.

Housewife Proud

Today, for the first time ever, I felt a bit of pride about being a homemaker. It was fleeting, a wisp of a thought as I drove my garden fork into the second compost bin, breaking apart a mat of moldy grass clippings, but it was definitely there- pride. I am gobsmacked. I have purpose and pride in the work I do in parenting, but not housekeeping. I view housekeeping as a burden I bear because I am also a stay at home parent, and it makes sense that the stay-at-home partner does most of the work at home.

However creative and satisfying Martha Stewart makes it look, let’s remember that she has piles neat towers of cash tied with grosgrain ribbon and a small army of minions to do all the mundane and persnickety tasks. The reality is that the bulk of housekeeping tasks are mundane and persnickety. My “to do” lists are full of piddly affairs that no one really notices until they haven’t been done for a long time and have gotten out of hand: mopping, weeding, keeping a stock of toilet paper, pairing separated socks, changing sheets at least once a season.  Everything about housekeeping is cyclical and most of those cycles are daily or weekly. My people demand to be fed every single day! It is relentless and never ending. Until today, I have always detested and accepted it at the same time.

Washing dishes while wearing a party hat- variety really is the spice of life.

Washing dishes while wearing a party hat- variety really is the spice of life.

What happened? Did I lose my mind for just a moment, inhaling the grass mold? No, not entirely. It has more to do with the three-week hiatus I took from this house. I am fresh and the drudgery is not yet repetitive enough to cause psychic blisters. With my face in the compost, I accepted the value of what I do.

Yeah, yeah, I know that homemakers save money by doing tasks that would otherwise be hired out, but I didn’t own that fact. I didn’t accept it as a good enough trade off for not clamoring after a career. But here’s what makes it okay: The stuff I do improves the quality of life for myself and those I love.

I feed us well, with the healthiest stuff I can afford and prepare, because I think what we eat matters. I grow food. I shop sales and plan meals around them. I go to one of four different stores, depending on what I need and who has the best quality for the price. I hold prices per ounce in my head. Those I can’t keep in my head are in my phone. Really. I spend a lot of time procuring, preparing, and cleaning up our food. I couldn’t do it if I worked full time, or even half time. It wouldn’t be worth the time cost. We would eat less healthfully and spend more money doing it.

I take care of life maintenance tasks that would be chronically forgotten if Hot Swede were in charge. He is gifted at many things, but managing the chaotic minutia of a family is not one of them. I am not a stellar actor in this theatre either, but I’m better. Our family works more smoothly if bills get paid on time, events are entered on the calendar, and underwear gets washed regularly, even if it doesn’t get put away.

I practice the stinking piano with two children, a task that takes more self-discipline on my part than anything else I do.  But it makes music lessons worth the cost; they are not cheap and are wasted on most children if parents aren’t involved. If I worked at a job, there is no way I could come home and bring myself to cajole, threaten, criticize and encourage reluctant children to curve their fingers and play it with the metronome eight more times.

I make Halloween costumes when I can’t find them for purchase, despite late night Internet searches. I stay home with sick children and am here on snow days. Hot Swede doesn’t face last minute childcare crises and juggling of client appointments. My being at home lets him be more dependable and steady at his job. I go to all the little performances and presentations at school, even the really lame ones.

I do bundles of time intensive tasks that I would punt if I were working for someone else. The wonderful thing about my job is that I still have freedom to punt the stuff that I don’t deem worthy. I re-prioritize at will. Not many careered people can say that. I don’t iron my clothes because wrinkles don’t bother me. I don’t edge the lawn, decorate cupcakes, or stencil cute things on my children’s walls. Why? Because I don’t want to and no one can make me. I’m co-president of this organization. I work for the people I love most in the world- for their health, their peace, their quality of life, and their future.

"Wow, Mom, no one will ever know that you got those at Costco!"

“Wow, Mom, no one will ever know that you got those at Costco!”

So there it is- the first time in 8 years I’m proud to be a homemaker. Next week, I’ll re-read this as I fold the 6th load of laundry and I’ll deride myself for posting such a load of buoyant crap. But today, two feet deep in rotting garbage, I was happy to be there.