I’m the Only Mom My Kids Have. Sorry, Kids.

People say that I must be an amazing mother. Really, they say it. I don’t know what gives them that impression. I probably talk a good talk. But there is one thing these sweet people have in common- they don’t see my mothering. If they did, they’d declare my children amazing for thriving in my haphazard parenting.

The grand goal of parenting is to raise functional adults, like the goal of war is to win. Of the smaller goals, the ones that make the grand one possible, I don’t have a clue. I am mostly reactionary- reacting to the freshest spilled milk, the bloodiest injury, the worst behavior, the newest and most ridiculous school drama. I just do… something.

Coptic_-_Funerary_Stele_with_Family_Portrait_-_Walters_263Sometimes, I do something great. I come up with just the right bit of pithy wisdom that wraps a problem up in a neat bow. Most of the time, I hastily and inexpertly handle an issue and put it down to go on to the next one, thinking to myself, “Please work.”  It works or it fails.

When I started on this career as a stay-at-home parent and home executive, I thought it beneath me. It was a sacrifice I would make for the good of my children, but really, I was capable of so much more. I was bored. None of my friends appreciated or honored this career choice. They were all in the exciting jostle of climbing those first rungs on career ladders, and I walked away when I got knocked up.

To be fair, in the beginning, I was bored. I was used to spending my days with other musicians, playing, practicing, going out after gigs.  I enjoyed sparring with a firecracker of a nun for whom I worked. I had a closet full of flattering orchestra black and shoes to match.

569px-Maarten_van_Heemskerck_-_Family_Portrait_-_WGA11298As a new mother, I spent my days alone in the house with a baby who slept a lot and nursed often.  My daily grooming goal was to put on a shirt without puke on it before Hot Swede got home. It felt hard at the time, and it was because I was a rookie. Nature has to ease parents into the fray with gradually intensive training or either three year-olds or we wouldn’t survive.

9 years later, with 3 increasingly sophisticated children, this job is above me. I feel like I am at the limit of my capabilities, patience, and wisdom. I am scraping the bottom of my bag of tricks. If I am honest with the past, this is how I felt as soon as child #1 began to move around and talk. Each phase overwhelms me with the newness of its challenges. I panic and wonder if my kids will grow up okay in spite of me, and before I know it, that battle is over and a new one approaches.

It’s an awful feeling to constantly judge myself as ineffective at doing the most important vital thing there is to do. There is no way out. I don’t get to quit. I know I am not the only parent to think to herself, “You know; this just isn’t working out for me. I don’t think I’m right for this position.” I comfort myself with the thought that if I didn’t think it was hard, I probably wouldn’t be paying close enough attention.

Maybe, or maybe I’m a control freak who needs to manage and mold every aspect of my childrens’ lives. Maybe I manufacture self-importance 640px-Family_In_Lanchow,_China_1944_Fr._Mark_Tennien_Restoredby thinking I’m more critical than I am. They will require therapy regardless; maybe I should just relax.

But I can’t. Every time I look ahead to their adulthoods, I see things in them that need to be guided now. Tomorrow will bring new challenges. I see pieces of their temperaments that they will need to learn to manage in order to not be ruled by them. It is already time to teach the 9 year-old about what comes next for a pre-teen girl. I haven’t begun to plan for that. There are social quagmires at school to wade through. There are issues around technology and entertainment that need to be sorted. (Other 3rd grade parents, can you please stop buying your kids their own tablets, please? Thank you.) There is the constant pull of a pushing a kid to take on one responsibility and deciding they aren’t ready for another.

This job is hard. If you care about doing a decent job, if you are honest about the nature of the world children will inherit and have to live in, it is hard. It will take all the strength, self-control, and talents you have and it will not be enough. It will require you to do things you are not good at, ask you to learn skills you’ll never master, ask you to behave selflessly, ask you to be a better person than you want to be. I suspect that one of the reasons parents cry at recitals, plays, the pre-prom pictures, even weddings, is because they look at their child and in that moment, they think, “This worked! Something worked! I didn’t screw it all up!”

5115210712_fe85e38fb8But it is worth it; I will say that. Despite the difficulties and the way it forces parents to grow up and be better, it is worth doing. It is the most important job in human society- the raising of a thoughtful, wise, productive next generation. Is it fun? Once in awhile. Do children make you happy? No. No they do not. But depending on others to make you happy never works for very long. Raise them anyway. Parenting connects you to the continuum of humanity in a visceral way. Raise a child and gain a deeper understanding of all those who came before you, and thank your own parents. Are children awesome? Yes, just like you and I. Are they are hard to live with, messy, and imperfect? Yes, just like you and I.

I am not an amazing mother. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on that until the youngest is paying taxes and building healthy relationships of her own. And that assumes that she makes her own excellent choices. I am just a mom, like millions before me- trying my best, praying for wisdom and for other good people in my children’s lives, making mistakes, saying I’m sorry, trying again.

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Grinching on Christmas Lists

Are written lists of material wants ever a good idea?

3094706012_4b4505805f_zHot Swede’s family is a Christmas list family. After Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law asks for gift ideas for everyone. This is the way it has always been, and her children have always handed over wish lists, often very specific lists. I know that lots of other families do this, and I honor that. I always provide her with ideas for her son and grandkids. I spend a lot of time collecting ideas and then deciding which ones to give her- considering what she might enjoy shopping for. However, I will not; I cannot provide her with a list for myself. It rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make myself do it.

I blame my parents, (as one does.) I grew up in a family where we might casually mention something we might like to receive, but the focus was on what we were going to give, or my mom ranting that she wished we could jettison all the presents and just spend time together. I can imagine the look on my mom’s face if I had presented her with an itemized written wish. (My Little Pony stable, rollerblades, a pogo ball, pocket knife, or spy jacket: the few things I remember wanting very much.) Um, no. Tell me your #1 want and go make a list of good ideas for other people.

We didn’t hang stockings on the fireplace until Christmas Eve because it looked selfish. (Hot Swede and I have skirted this argument. Currently, the stockings are up, much to my dismay.) I don’t remember nosing around under the tree to see what was for me, but that may have been because my parents were late wrappers and things didn’t appear under the tree until right before the big day.  But my distaste of wish lists expands beyond family eccentricity. I am philosophically and practically opposed to them.

Gift giving is never about what I want to get. It is about considering others’ needs and interests, and finding something they will like and I’d like to give. When I receive gifts this way, the love, time, and thought of the giver become part of the present. They are what make it meaningful. Otherwise, it is just another scarf, hat, or set of whiskey glasses. When gift exchanging is done well, it is the thought that counts.

The gifts I appreciate most are the unexpected ones- ones where someone has thought carefully about me, found something they were excited to give, and I get to enjoy something I never even had the chance to want. This goes back to my wedding and the first time I supplied the mother of all wish lists- the gift registry, to potential gift givers.  Yes, I appreciate my matching dishes, flatware, and set of pots. I think of my paternal family every time I pull out the china we picked out and they gave for us, but that doesn’t happen often. However, the handmade ceramic bowl given by a cousin and the cutting boards made by Hot Swede’s uncle delight me. They carry the additional boon of reminding me of the giver each time I use them.

There are good reasons for wedding gift registries. They are lifesavers when buying for someone I don’t know well, or looking to assess the tastes of the recipient. For newlyweds, it is nice to start out with matching sets of dishes, even though I broke all the bowls by my 10th anniversary, and we are on our 3rd set of daily glassware. (It’s like a Jewish Greek wedding every time I do dishes.) Lists are not necessary for the kind of personal giving I do at Christmas.

Sometimes I need ideas and direction. In that case, I ask the person directly if there’s anything they need or want. Even better, I’ll ask someone who knows them better than do I. In this way, I remain free to give what I can and would like to, and they still have a chance at being pleasantly surprised with my efforts.

Wish lists take the “thought that counts” out of the process. Getting something I’ve asked for is nice. The generosity of the giver is there, but it feels as if the giver has simply done my shopping for me, cheapening and limiting the role of the giver and tying up the gift with a little ribbon of guilt for me.

Okay, so this one I'll accept.

Okay, so this one I’ll accept.

It isn’t just guilt that cheapens the experience.  The writing of a wish list immediately creates expectation in the gift recipient, and nothing kills happiness like expectation. The fewer expectations we have for others to meet our needs, the happier we are. This truth extends all the way into expecting someone else to give you that Star Wars Millennium Falcon 7965 LEGO set that you’ve wanted since you were 28.

Such specific written requests limit the giver. If you give me a wish list, am I obligated to get something off the list, even if I find something else I think you’d enjoy? Will you be disappointed, or worse, irritated if I don’t purchase from your list? I much prefer the surprise and joy of receiving the thoughtfulness of the giver in a gift THEY’VE picked for me, even if it isn’t what I’d pick out for myself.

Writing a wish list manufactures want. Goody! Normally, when asked if there is anything I’d like for Christmas, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. In an effort to make gift giving easier on my family, I started brainstorming gift ideas for myself and writing them down so I could refer to them up when asked. I looked around for things I didn’t have and decided that I wanted them. Do you see the problem? I created desires for trifles that I hadn’t wanted before! And then I was asking loved ones to fulfill them for me! Talk about killing satisfaction and gratitude. What an unhealthy and unhelpful practice. This is the first year I will not do it. I won’t. I’d rather get the same food scented candle from everyone than engage in manufacturing material voids for my loved ones to fill. Thumbs down.

There is only one kind of acceptable gift list: the list of gifts I want to GIVE. You may tell me about something you’d love to receive. I want to know if there’s something you really want. However, if you hand me an itemized shopping list of your material desires, I’m going to be irked and leave it where it lies until recycling day.

I love giving gifts. I start the gift giving brainstorm in September. I love the puzzle of matching people with gifts within my budget. I like the challenge and enjoy the process. I love offering up a beautifully wrapped package. I have every Christmas giving list since 1998, so I can keep track of past ideas and what books I’ve already given. I am no Scrooge. But a gift is about receiving the goodwill and love of others, and I like it best when the giver isn’t told exactly the color, model, and shape their goodwill should take.

One of my favorite things.

One of my favorite things.

If you write and give from wish lists, tell me how you use them and why you like them. I am genuinely curious. Lots of people use them without issue. And I fully accept that my hang ups with them are my own. However you manage your gift giving, I wish you all a fun and meaningful experience, whether you like detailed lists with ISBN codes, homemade gifts, or eschew it all together and make donations to charitable organizations, whatever works for you.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.

I had a terrible morning with the children. The youngest is sick and cried. The eldest threw a full bore tantrum. The middle child, typically, said not a word and got ready for school. After dropping the older two at school, I came home and cried into a dishtowel for ten minutes. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how I should have handled the tantrum.  I was sure I was a terrible mother; no one knows how bad it really gets around here except me. My nerves were shot; a tornado of chaos and banshees knocked me over, and I had no idea why or what to do about it.

3609775194_df351a29b9Out of frustration and a touch of desperation, I posted something about the bad morning and feeling inept. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or platitudes; it was just something I had to say somewhere.  Within minutes, my phone rang. It was my friends, a couple I’ve known for years, asking if I was okay and what was going on. The concern expressed in their words and the act of calling comforted me greatly. They gave me a couple things to try. Mostly, they listened and confirmed that parenting is hard. It is hard for everyone, but lots of other people get through it and so will I, and so will they.

I had forgotten what a powerful support it is to have someone show concern and listen, especially someone who is walking a similar path. When I was a newish parent, I was lucky to be part of a wonderful program through our public school system, ECFE. It is a program designed to support and help families navigate the baffling early years of parenting.

We met once a week for one hour with children, and then one without- the kids exploring their world, the parents exploring theirs. This group of wonderful, average, every day women saved my bacon. We saved each other’s bacon. Each week, we’d share our joys and bring our concerns to the group in uncommonly open, kind, and honest conversation. Everything was game: kids who wouldn’t stay in bed, kids who’d only eat cheese, disagreements with partners, divorce, illness, infidelity, our own weakness and frustrations. It may be the healthiest thing I did for myself and my young family.

We all need those places to unload, commiserate, re-direct, tell the truth, hear the truth, and offer support. This job is completely bananas. Almost any yahoo can make a baby and that’s where the easy part ends. Billions of people have raised children under all kinds of conditions, difficulties, and advantages. It is hard every time. If parents care about their children at all, it is hard. It’s the most intense challenge I will ever face.

I want to be the mother each of my children needs, but there are three of them, one of me, and I have my own soul trying to be the person she needs to be. Dealing with myself is hard enough, much less trying to be good for three children. Children come with their personalities, temperaments, weaknesses, and strengths intact and active. Grown humans must teach them how to make the most of what they’ve got. My children’s proclivities, talents, and issues may be widely disparate from my own, but it is still my job and I don’t get a pass because I feel ill suited to it. At some point, we all fall short of expectation, but we don’t get to quit.  Decent parenting (I’m not talking stellar, just decent) is utterly vital to the health of society and individuals.  So we pick ourselves up, open up a bottle of wine when the kids go to bed, and do the best we can.

A compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Except sometimes, we can’t pick ourselves up quickly. Quickly is important, because the battle doesn’t stop because we’ve fallen down. Today I was overwhelmed. I no longer have that group of pre-school moms to lean on, strategize with, and encourage. My friends picked up the phone and were the support that I needed. I am so grateful. They may not even realize what it meant to me to have them reach out and pull me up. They patched me up and sent me back into the fray, reminded that I was not alone and that any parent worth her salt feels inadequate at times.

Let's go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

Let’s go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

I will look for places to do the same for others, when they hit a rough spot. It increases goodness and we all need help eventually. Ask for help when you need it, and be there when others need you. Both sides of the equation make this hard and vital job of raising people easier, kinder, and less harrowing. Be kind to each other. Kids, be kind to your old moms and dads. We’re actually working hard at this, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Mother’s Amnesia

How Second Children and Golden Nostalgia are Made

When you are pregnant with your first child, women of a grandmotherly age tell you to treasure each moment because it is the best time of your life. I have always been dubious of this gushy advice. Even before birthing my first, I took it with a chunk of salt. It couldn’t be true when every mother of young kids I saw looked tired, harried and in need of a nap. Now I understand. Nature programs selective amnesia into the minds of mothers. If she did not, she would find it difficult to convince any of us to have more than one child. But as soon as you deliver that grapefruit sized head from your body, you start to forget the sensation. It’s chemical fact.

Doux rêves- Firmin BaseYes, mothering is the most important thing I do. Yes, it has its moments of joy- hearing my daughter’s belly laugh, watching an older brother help a younger one without prompting.  I will be honest; those moments are precious and infrequent. They happen without warning, and I have to be ready to catch them. Often, they happen and I miss them because I’m busy burning dinner or digging in the mismatch bin for two socks that are in the same color family.

I don’t love the job, but I love my children and I am able and willing to take a stay-at-home position in service to their personhood and an immense sense of responsibility I feel for giving them the best tools I can and a sturdy foundation to build on.

There are stay at home parents who adore the job. (I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure they exist.) On a day-to-day basis, it is mostly laundry, meals, and interruptions, and I never leave the office. When all three children were at home, I operated in stupefying chaos and nothing I cared about was under my control. I didn’t go to the bathroom on my own terms.  It’s getting better as they get older, but it is still a mess. I plan a nice dinner and someone drops/breaks/gets stuck in something and dinner goes unmade. A preschooler dumps a cup of milk into a basket of folded laundry. Order crumbles into disarray, like graham crackers in a car seat.

Sisyphus, artist unknownAll my tasks, except the long game of raising adults, are cyclical and eternal in nature: completing their tight little circle in a day and demanding to be done once again. Sisyphus didn’t have it so bad. He rolled that stone in peace and quiet and, as far as I know, no one vomited down the front of his tunic.

While this is all true, it is also true that the work is immensely significant and challenging. If I bring new humans into the world, I owe it to them and the world to do whatever I can to help them become a blessing and not a burden to the world. Doing so requires being honest with who they are  and I am.

Nothing cuts down your ego like parenting. Your children will embarrass you in Target. “Mom, that woman [pointing, of course] is so big! Do you think she’s a Bigfoot?” I bent down and said, “Oh, little girl, where is your mother? Let’s go find her.” and led the blabbermouth away as quickly as possible. Good times.

All pretense is stripped away as you rock a fussy baby at 2:00 am, or sit in a steamy bathroom at 4:30, trying to help your sick 5 year-old breathe. There are no breaks and the façade you keep up for others and yourself falls to pieces under the strain, leaving you facing your true self- all the good and ugly bits.

You make goals for your kids. You want them to eat kale, read Chinese, love baseball, be healthy and kind, but you have very little control over any of it. You are dealing with an autonomous being, and their free will and luck do a lot of thwarting your best intentions.

At the very least, parenting opens your eyes to what your parents did for you. You become aware of sacrifices to which you were blind. You forgive their faults because you realize that you have some of the same ones. Your parents taste a sweet little justice, sending sugared up kids home from their house, or watching you struggle with a mouthy teen. Grandparents should enjoy it; they earned it.

It is hard, long, and difficult. And darn it, if those old biddies weren’t right. The days drag, but the years fly. Before I know it, I will be teaching them to drive, and moving them into apartments. I will be wistful and weepy because Nature will have done her merciful kindness and I will carry the golden moments in my heart, the others, still there, but faded in the background.

"The Three Ages of Woman", detail, Klimt.

Perhaps I’ll remember myself as a very pale white woman.

Trick-or-Treat!

Do it.

I want kids to trick-or-treat. I want them out in dark, tripping over capes and clown shoes, spitting on everyone as they yell “Trick or treat!” through plastic fangs. I want the young ones to come to my door and look up at me with that look of resigned confusion that says, “Lady, I don’t know what’s 8146023035_7589abbddfgoing on. The big ones, they dressed me up like some kind of pink rodent and are parading me around in the dark. Strangers keep giving me stuff I’m not allowed to eat. I suspect I’m being used as some kind of candy lure. I’m just going along with it because it makes the big ones smile and, well, what choice do I have?”

I want to drop Butterfingers in the pillowcases of properly costumed teens who manage to drop their guard enough to offer the evening’s greeting in a clear voice. I want; I really want the cool uncostumed teens to show up so I can ask them to please sing a song or dance instead. That’s the All Hallow’s Eve deal: You show up properly dressed and call out. I admire your efforts in exchange for candy. You say, “thank you” and everyone gets what they want. There are procedures if you cannot comply, and they involve singing, dancing, or a good joke.

I get the impression that fewer and fewer kids are out on Halloween night. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a warmer climate where we only had to wear a jacket as we ran around neighborhoods. In the upper Midwest, a knit cap and puffy coat destroy the aesthetic of any dainty fairy or fearsome warrior. The weather doesn’t explain all of it; people here go fishing through a hole in the ice… and they aren’t even beginning to starve.

Parents are fun slayers. Gauntlet thrown. Parents don’t want to get cold, don’t want to traipse around in the dark and don’t trust their kids or neighbors enough to send the kids out alone. I get that. I don’t let mine go out alone… I send their father with them so I can stay home and have more conversation with small people than they desire. I understand that it’s a school night. I know that kids come home with pounds of teeth rotting, appetite killing, behavior modifying, tasty crap. I get it. But…

2991216294_c7b3bc03f9I want the tradition to continue. For one thing, it is not a holiday I want dragged out. I like it as a single evening’s activity. Sending kids out trick-or-treating is many times easier than throwing Halloween parties. I only clean the porch for trick-or-treating. I want childfree adults remember their childhoods. I want them to think about the kids in their area and buy treats for them. Yes, I wish it could be apples instead of candy corn, but I won’t throw out all the good fun of trick-or-treating just because candy isn’t a healthy choice. I want neighborhoods to open up their doors and their generosity to small wandering bands of mermaids and zombies. I want kids to wear costumes in public because it is SO FUN.  Every Batman should run through the darkness, cool night air snapping his cape behind him. I want older kids to hold the hands of the younger ones when a gory apparition runs by. I want parents to stand back at the sidewalk and let their tiny children find the courage to walk up to my door by themselves, or in a brother’s wake. I want them to talk to a grown up they don’t know in a safe way- because it builds communication skills. Don’t belittle it; these small lessons are where the growing happens. Also, I like talking to them.

We are the parents. We can put limits on how late they’re out and how much sugar they shove in their gobs. Yes, you can do it. Put on your big girl pants and a hat, make some candy rules and a hot toddy to keep you company and take those kids outside on the last dark night in October.  It’s worth it.

Homemade Halloween

Please, just be a ninja.

Every Halloween, I vow to purchase the children’s costumes. Every Halloween, I end up masquerading as a seamstress.  I can follow the simplest of patterns, ripping out only 3 or 4 mislaid seams, but it takes me forever and if you look closely, (please don’t) my finish work is rubbish. Sewing is not a cheap activity. Buying fabric and required notions for a princess dress is more expensive than forking over the dough for a store bought one.  In fact, store bought is much cheaper because it doesn’t cost me countless hours struggling with tailoring skills that I don’t possess.

When we start discussing costumes, I secretly hope for something commercial and hanging on a hanger somewhere. Generic Princess? Happily. Ninja? Oh yes, please, yes. Batman, Ironman, Merida? You bet. My eldest, maybe because she’s sophisticated, maybe because she likes to push my buttons, picks wonderful characters that are woefully uncommerical. And I, not wanting to discourage her original thinking, comply. Ugh.

Terrifying, isn't he?

Terrifying, isn’t he?

I got sucked into costume making with an easy one. I made a Theseus costume (his choice) for 4 year-old Bear out of a pillow case- hemmed slits for head and arms gathered at the shoulders, a braided belt of old curtain scraps, and a Minotaur head to hold candy. I knocked out the tunic in 20 minutes. Once I found a black plastic pumpkin bucket, the Minotaur was easy too. I fashioned a bull nose and horns out of Model Magic and glued them on. Cheap, easy, and literary: I win! The next year, I tried to convince him to be Perseus. I would only have to pull off the bull bits and glue on some plastic snakes. Everything else could stay the same. But he had grown out of his Greek phase and went as a store bought knight instead.

Up to this point, AJ is always happy to be some kind of princess, which is just fine by me. I purchase a beautiful costume for $25, and she plays dress up in it until it is too tight to squeeze over her body.

The hard one is Q. I stitched together Wendy Darling’s blue nightgown from Peter Pan.

Blue Princess, Mary Poppins, Ninja who insisted on carrying the Minotaur head for the third year in a row.

Princess, Mary Poppins, and Ninja who insisted on carrying the Minotaur head for the third year in a row.

It was atrocious, even with all the time I spent on it. I was glad Halloween is an event that happens in the dark. But, she wore it as PJs for a year, so at least the effort wasn’t wasted. Last year was the big challenge: Mary Poppins. This one was all me, from head to toe. Red rubber grapes and fake daisies from the Dollar Store went onto my wool hat to make her cap. I folded, pinched, and stitched a ladies’ jacket from Goodwill into shape while Q was wearing it.  I made a red bow tie and pinned it to a collared white shirt she blessedly already owned.  A friend taped a piece of brocade over a big satchel for her carpetbag. It was all done but the skirt, the giant time suck of a skirt. There are a few easy ways to make full skirts, but they are not La Belle Époque shape and are not structured enough to look right.  So, because I’m an idiot who has difficulty prioritizing, I scoured the internet for historical dress patterns to use as a guide. I made my own pattern using a lot of algebra and butcher paper, and sewed the blasted skirt out of a remnant of blue upholstery cloth. It looked great. No one was as surprised as I.

Q went to her school carnival so proud of her costume. She told everyone how it had been made down to the last detail.  She had seen the whole process: the finding, figuring, and the complaining. I began to suspect that my priorities had been in the right place all along.

This year confirmed it. Q and her friend, Ann, began making Q’s costume during summer break: Queen Susan of Narnia. Ann, who has more confidence in her stitching, fashioned a skirt out of a piece of blue silk and they began decorating a blue t-shirt for the bodice. Does it look particularly like a royal frock? No, it’s better, so much better. It looks like two creative girls had an idea and made it happen with the skills and materials at hand. Did I offer to purchase a different dress or re-make this one to “look better?” Heck no. I would not belittle their accomplishment. I bought her gold buttons to sew down the front, bits of ribbon for trim, and a crown.

I suspect that nothing we do for our kids that is out of the range of feeding, clothing, and driving them around goes unnoticed. Okay, that may be a little too much Pollyanna, but when we meet them where their interests are and help them accomplish something, our efforts make an impact. I am so glad I stumbled through making that Mary Poppins costume; it helped Q think she could make this year’s costume (with the help of a can do friend.) I am so proud of it. This year, at the school carnival, I will tell everyone how it was made.

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.