Happy Parents, Happy Kids

Perhaps one of the fastest ways to pick a fight with a stranger is to comment on their parenting style. Around the country, let alone around the world, each culture or region is convinced only their way is right. Yet, American education has been in decline for years, currently ranking 27th in the world.  On the world happiness index, the US only ranks 18th. How do we, as parents, raise happy, healthy, well-adjusted and productive children? Let’s take a look at a few approaches to child-rearing from beyond our shores…

Strict Helicopter

Parenting books number nearly as high as the number of parents, but several have made headlines. At one end is Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.  China, with more than a billion people vying for jobs, education, and housing, is perhaps the most cut-throat parenting system of all: children seen with potential are removed from homes as young as three, and raised by the state to become champion athletes, mathematicians, scientists. Parents are relentless in ensuring their child’s excellence, demanding study or practice eighteen or more hours a day in a method most Americans would label sheer abuse. Imagine the pressure on an entire class where being #2 is not an option. Chua has no qualms about pushing her daughters into being virtuosos and Ivy League scholars.

Don’t Bug Me, Kid

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman focuses on the ways the French raise their 

children. “The result of raising children French style, Druckerman writes, is “a fully functioning society of good little sleepers, gourmet eaters and reasonably relaxed parents.””  French parents have a me-first attitude – if the baby won’t sleep through the night by four months, let him cry. They don’t like to breastfeed, because it interferes with intimacy. They don’t speak to their infants in baby talk, treat patience and waiting as the highest virtue after social manners, and feed their infants table food, resulting in children who like to eat normal food. Are French children perfect? Bien sȗr, non, but they seem to have far fewer struggles than Americans.

One Big Happy

The Danish Way of Parenting, by Jessica Joelle Alexander and Iben Dissing Sandahl may just have a little more power behind it. The Danes often score #1 on the list of Happiest Country in the World. They have high taxes, but they get free education, healthcare, paid maternity leave, and more – those things that are crushing us. To discuss Denmark (and many of the Scandinavian countries), one has to first understand the concept of Hygge, which rules everything the Danish do: Hygge (pronounced hue-guh or hoo-guh) is that warm, huggy feeling of comfort you get when you’re doing something with your family: sitting by the fire drinking cocoa, playing a board game, or maybe decorating cookies together, in one of those commercial-like scenarios where everyone is happy and the kids aren’t fighting and the dog isn’t chewing the game pieces – except, in Denmark, this is actually reality. It’s the land where Norman Rockwell must have taken notes.

The Danes rear their children with this mindset, which transforms them into happy adults. In (very) short:

  1. Don’t overpraise. Find something specific and praise that one thing instead. “What a nice, straight line!” Encourage growth; don’t let your child think s/he’s perfect.
  2. Let your child play. Play. With sticks, rocks, toys, not electronics. Play builds thinking skills, motor skills, social skills, and spatial relations a child needs for education.
  3. Promote togetherness. Family game nights, dinner, movies, puzzles, walks or sports or just playing in the park. Do it together, or with friends. This promotes strong social ties and models appropriate behavior. 40% of American families eat dinner together less than three times a week – 10% never do.
  4. Reframe negative thinking. Dwell on good things, not bad. If your child says they hate school, remind them of the things they do like.
  5. Practice empathy and compassion. Talk about emotions, and help your child learn to recognize them in themselves and others. Compassion for people and animals makes for a caring society.
  6. Let children figure things out for themselves. Don’t hover. Let preschoolers settle their own squabbles (within reason. If Agatha is beating Bjorn with a shovel, you might want to step in). 

There are no absolutes to child rearing. Some children are just darling; others seem to come out of the womb looking for trouble. But in a time when Americans are fracturing at the seams from stress, when schools are failing, children are parenting themselves, and society itself seems to be tearing apart, perhaps it’s time to look elsewhere for advice. Considering the Danes were terrorized by two World Wars and are still the happiest people on Earth, maybe we should listen.

Also try:

        

 

Fooled by Fiction – 11 Books with Surprising Plot Twists

Ever read  book and gotten to a part where you just had to put it down for a minute and go “WHAT???”. If you’ve ever felt a little pranked by a plot twist you didn’t see coming (and even liked it!), here are 11 books that fool you into thinking one thing, then a “big reveal” changes everything …

Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard. Mare Barrow’s world is divided by blood—those with common, Red blood serve the Silver-blooded elite, who are gifted with superhuman abilities. Mare is a Red, scraping by as a thief in a poor, rural village, until a twist of fate throws her in front of the Silver court and she discovers she has an ability of her own.


The Girl with All the Gifts by M. R. Carey. Melanie knows that she is a very special girl, but she doesn’t know why. Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, a gun is pointed at her while two of people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don’t like her. She jokes that she won’t bite, but they don’t laugh… wait till you find out what’s so special about this girl.

Fool Me Once by Harlan Coben. Former special ops pilot Maya, home from the war, sees an unthinkable image captured by her nanny cam while she is at work: her two-year-old daughter playing with Maya’s husband, Joe—who was brutally murdered two weeks earlier. The provocative question at the heart of the mystery: Can you believe everything you see with your own eyes, even when you desperately want to?

The Girl Before by JP Delaney. Seizing a unique opportunity to rent a one-of-a-kind house, a damaged young woman falls in love with the enigmatic architect who designed the residence, unaware that she is following in the footsteps of a doomed former tenant.

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. Anne and Marco Conti seem to have it all—a loving relationship, a wonderful home, and their beautiful baby, Cora. But one night, when they are at a dinner party next door, a terrible crime is committed. Suspicion immediately lands on the parents. What follows is the nerve-racking unraveling of a family—a chilling tale of deception, duplicity, and deadly secrets.

Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane. U.S. Marshal Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island, home of Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane. Along with his partner, Chuck Aule, he sets out to find an escaped patient, a murderess named Rachel Solando, as a hurricane bears down upon them. But nothing at Ashecliffe Hospital is what it seems. And neither is Teddy Daniels.

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh. Jenna Gray as she moves to a ramshackle cottage on the remote Welsh coast, trying to escape the memory of the car accident that plays again and again in her mind and desperate to heal from the loss of her child & a painful past. As police try to get to the bottom of the hit-and-run accident, they are frustrated by unexpected twists in the case.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel.  A zookeeper’s son sets sail for America, but the ship sinks and young Pi finds himself in a lifeboat with a handful of remaining zoo animals. Soon it’s just Pi and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, lost at sea for months together. When they finally reach land, the tiger escapes, leaving Pi to relay the story of their survival at sea to authorities, who refuse to believe his tale and press him for the “truth”.

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. The rise of a terrorist organization, led by a waiter named Tyler Durden who enjoys spitting in people’s soup.  He starts a fighting club, where men bash each other, which quickly gains in popularity, and becomes the springboard for a movement devoted to destruction for destruction’s sake. But who is Tyler Durden?

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris. Perfect socialite couple Jack and Grace seem to have it all. But why are they never apart? Why doesn’t Grace ever answer the phone? How can she cook such elaborate meals but remain so slim? And why are there bars on one of the bedroom windows?

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. Anna was conceived as a bone marrow match for her sister Kate, who has been battling leukemia most of her young life. As a teenager Anna begins to question her moral obligations in light of countless medical procedures and ultimately decides to fight for the right to make decisions about her own body. The ending of this emotional novel is a stunner.

 

 

 

“Welcome to Marwen” and the power of art therapy

Welcome to Marwen is a film due out on December 21 starring Steve Carell (though, honestly, Jeremy Renner would have been a dead ringer). At first glance it looks like a weird film about a man playing with dolls, but don’t be fooled by that. Marwen is so, so much more than live action mixed with fantasy. It’s a story of loss, recovery, and overcoming disability. And it’s a true story.

 

    A Life Lost

Mark Hogancamp was an artist and photographer, five years in the Navy, five years married, and an alcoholic. In April of 2000, he admitted to being a cross-dresser while drinking in a bar. When he left the bar, five men beat him so badly that he spent nine days in a coma, and forty days in the hospital relearning how to walk, talk, and behave. He had permanent memory loss of everything before the beating, and severe post-traumatic stress. His entire life before that night had been erased. Insurance cut off his therapy after a year, and he could not afford to continue on his own.

Healing Himself

    Instead, Hogancamp turned to fantasy art. Outside his home in New York State, he created Marwencol, a fantastically detailed Belgian town caught up in World War II, and populated it with excruciatingly detailed 1/6-scale figures (that’s Barbie-sized, if you don’t know. Before his injury, he’d painted miniature aircraft as a hobby, but now his hands shook too much) – including both himself and his attackers. In Marwencol, a safe place populated by women, grisly acts do occur (it’s WWII), but women are the heroes. Through the scenes he set up, Hogancamp worked out a lot of his rage and anger by “killing” his attackers over and over, his own form of therapy to deal with the loss of 38 years of memory and the disabilities he’d been left with. He can no longer draw, but he can use a camera, and his artistic photos of his figures caught the eye of the right people. They were published in an art journal, then on to a gallery show, and then a well-received documentary (Marwencol). In 2015, a book was released to critical acclaim (Welcome to Marwencol). Now, Robert Zemeckis has picked up the trail, and turned the story into a wider drama for the holiday season.

Life is Art; Art is Life

    Hogancamp’s photos are a child’s dream: proof that your dolls/action figures are having a rich life when you aren’t looking, a voyeuristic peek into a place where anyone can be the hero, the bad guys always lose, and Mom is there to save the day. His photos are eerie in their realism, down to pen-tip bullet holes and nail-polish blood, a dream gone creepy where department store mannequins have replaced people but you can’t always tell at first glance. Take a look at some of his works here, and if you like them, you can purchase some for yourself here.

    Severe head trauma is no laughing matter. Not everyone emerges from a coma, and fewer still survive them without some form of permanent disability. Trauma has been implicated in everything from brain cancers to seizures to murder, and the road to recovery is long, difficult, fractured, and rarely complete. We think of therapy as being Freudian, or using a walker down a hospital corridor, and dismiss art therapy as wasting time on a hobby, but to some, art therapy may be their very salvation. Hogancamp is still shy, plagued by anxiety and difficulties, his memories will never return, but he’s found his support, and that makes all the difference in the world.

    Check out the movie this Christmas, and read up on these other real-life survivors and their determination to pull themselves through the toughest of times. You might even be inspired to dabble in a little art therapy yourself.

Ghost Boy : The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body by Martin Pistorius

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

Proof of Heaven : A Neurosurgeon’s Journey Into the Afterlife by Eben Alexander

The Long Awakening : a Memoir  by Lindsey O’Connor

Overcoming Mild Traumatic Brain Injury and Post-concussion Symptoms by Nigel S. King

The Mindfulness Coloring Book : Anti-stress Art Therapy for Busy People by Emma Farrarons

 

 

 

Dealing with Toxic People at Home and at Work

In a previous Blog Post, I discussed the prevalence of bullies in workplace culture (How to Spot a Bully in the Workplace and What to Do About It). My recommended reading list included The No Asshole Rule with the comment “A gem. I may write another post just about this book.”

Here it is.

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t by Robert Sutton, PhD

The summary of this book says it is, “a business handbook on preventing and curing a negative work environment that explains how to restore civility to the workplace by weeding out problem employees in order to increase profit and productivity.”

But, oh, it is so much more.

How bad can working with, living with, and  having  toxic jerks in your life be? Consider some of these stats from the book:

Studies show that having just one chronic jerk in a workplace can diminish performance of the entire staff by a whopping 30%-40% .

Negative interactions affect mood fives times stronger than positive interactions.

25% of bullying targets and 20% of witnesses to bullying leave their jobs.

Working with toxic people can increase you risk of heart attack  20%-40%.

While this book was written with workplaces in mind, The No Asshole Rule can be applied to all areas of life. The author originally published his idea in the Harvard Business Review with the title: “More Trouble than They’re Worth”. And that basically sums up the No Asshole Rule. Some people, whether in your personal life or your business life, are simply more trouble than they’re worth.

The No Asshole Rule can help you:

1. Distinguish between  people who are having a bad day (temporary assholes) and those who are persistently nasty and destructive.

2. Spot the most common actions that toxic people use against others.

3. Discover how to assess the actual cost of having a toxic person in your workplace or life. (Yes, you can add up the money spent dealing with destructive, mean people. Think of such things as hourly salaries of managers and the human resources department. Think of sick time taken by the people who are targeted by the jerks. Think of the costs of counseling and lawyers. Think of stress-related illnesses and medications. Think of the loss of quality of life.)

4. Discover how to set up a No Asshole Rule and enforce it.

5. Learn how not to be an asshole. (Reigning in your inner jerk, avoiding asshole-poisoning, and a self-test to see if you often behave like a jackass.)

6. Tips for surviving an asshole-infested workplace.

7. The virtues of assholes (Yes!) with the warning that being a jerk all the time won’t work.

8. How a few demeaning creeps can overwhelm a horde of nice people.

The bottom line is that toxic personalities, whether at work or home, demean and de-energize those around them. They cost everyone in many ways: money, time, health, confidence, etc, etc. The advice of this book is clear: Expel rotten apples as fast as possible. There is a reason, Sutton asserts, that there is a delete button on the cover of the book.

I give this book Five Stars. It’s not just a valuable tool for the workplace, it is important for those who want to free themselves from anyone toxic in their lives.

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Reliability is Overrated – 10 Books With Unreliable Narrators

Recently, I was discussing two of my favorite television series’ of the past year, “Mr. Robot“, and “Legion“, when it occurred to me what I found compelling about both of them – they are both told by unreliable narrators. The narrative characters in each show have major difficulties perceiving reality, which means the viewer sees the story through their skewed lens, often having to puzzle out what is real and what is not.

It’s a challenging concept, relatively uncommon in television, but more often used in literature. In the literary device of the Unreliable Narrator, the character who leads the reader through the story cannot be taken at face value. The reason could be because this character is lying, insane, or simply seeing events from a very limited viewpoint. In every case, though, it leads the reader to form conclusions beyond what is being disclosed in the narrative. A puzzle of sorts, where questioning what everything really means becomes part of the reading experience.

As I thought about it, I realized that many of the novels that have stayed with me long after reading them have had some kind of unreliable narrator. I remember finishing some of these books, and immediately starting them over again, looking for the “tells” that would have clued me in to the real truth of the tale if I had recognized them the first time. Here, with as few spoilers as possible, are some of my favorite unreliable narrators, (and a few whose heads I could not wait to get out of):

1. Silver Linings Playbook – When we meet the  point-of-view character Pat,  he’s being released from a mental facility into the care of his parents. That’s the first indication that situations in the story may not be exactly as they seem. As Pat’s repressed memories start to come forward, we’re able to piece together exactly why Pat was institutionalized in the first place.

2. Flowers for Algernon –  Charlie Gordon is a learning disabled man who undergoes an experimental operation to increase his intelligence. The novel is told through entries in Charlie’s journal, and the reader is able to see the improvements in self-awareness and intelligence through those entries. Then, too, we witness his deterioration as the long-term effects of the operation make themselves known. Bring a hankie.

3. Life of Pi – A fantastical tale of a boy set adrift after a shipwreck, with a tiger sharing his life raft. It’s a beautiful and uplifting story, until it is revealed that it may be what the narrator’s chosen to believe rather than what actually occurred.

4. Room Told from the very limited point of view of a five-year-old boy, Jack,  who has spent his entire life in an 11-square-foot soundproofed room with Ma, his mother. When Ma devises a plan for Jack to escape, we experience the exhilaration and confusion the world for the first time along with him.

5. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime – The engaging narrator of this book is an autistic teen, so we perceive the events in the story the way he would. When he comes across a neighbor’s dog stabbed with a fork, his obsession with Sherlock Holmes takes over to help him solve the mystery.

6. Fight Club – Whether you’ve seen the movie or read the book, the twist that’s revealed about the identities of characters in this story packs a real punch (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

7. Shutter Island – In this gripping psychological thriller, nothing is quite what it seems. It starts out as an investigation into the escape of a mental patient, and well,  to say more  would be too spoiler-y.

8. Lolita – A compelling and beautifully written book told by a pedophile who is as charming as he is perverse. His justifications and attempts to win the reader’s sympathy are as fascinating to read as they are icky.

9 & 10.  The Girl on the Train  & Gone Girl – I’ve lumped both of these together even though they both contain different types of unreliable narrators (a blackout drunk and just plain liar) because they came out close together, are both murder mysteries, and if you’ve read one, you’ve probably read the other. I couldn’t wait to close the covers on both of them, though, the characters were just too unlikable for me to want to spend much time with.