Girls’ Night In

As I gather my thoughts to write about Bhutan (a daunting task that really should be a book, not a blog post), I decided to share another unique story first: 

Last November I attended the most unexpectedly terrific dinner party ever.  Knowing that I would be in London for one night on a trip that took me to Rwanda and Oxford, I sent a message to Gwyneth Paltrow to see if she might happen to be in London at the same time.  Gwyneth and I met years before when I lived in London and, even after I moved to Hong Kong, we kept in touch and I sometimes visited her when I was in town.  Despite having relocated to Los Angeles, Gwyneth happened to be working on a movie in London and would be there during my visit.  She invited me over for dinner.

I had been to her house a few times for lunch, sometimes just the two of us, sometimes with our kids and once with her whole family, including her brother and his wife.  Having made the mistake of asking her sister-in-law what kind of photos she takes when I later learned that she’s one of the most famous photographers in the world and was opening a solo show at the Tate Modern that same week, I wanted to make sure I didn’t embarrass myself again.  I sent Gwyneth a message asking if anyone else was coming and she replied that yes, a few great ladies would be joining.   “Who?” I asked.   “My best friend Stella McCartney and Adele.  The singer.”

Oh my.  Seriously?!

Now what do you wear to a dinner party of four that includes the world’s most beautiful Oscar winner lifestyle guru, an OBE top fashion designer daughter of one of the Beatles and a Grammy award winner with the most stunning voice ever?  I opted for black skinny jeans, a sequined racer back top and a gray cashmere coat sweater with little heel boots.  I know next to nothing about fashion anyway, but I think it was OK for the evening.

Gwyneth’s home is lovely and she took great care of us.  She served beautiful food and we indulged in great conversation that flowed seamlessly from the mundane to the ridiculous and back again.  Sometimes we were talking about work/life balance and raising children and then they were comparing notes on changing paparazzi laws and how terrific Beyoncé is.  I could contribute to some conversations, and not at all to others, but the fundamental feeling I had was that we were four moms with very different lives, but who all love and want what’s best for our children.

At one point during dinner after I finished telling them about my trip to Rwanda and how I had worked in Somalia years before Stella says, “Christ, we all feel like wankers compared to you.”  I laughed hard and told Stella that I wanted to have that engraved on my tombstone.

Stella and I bonded over Ed Ruscha, my favorite California artist who had done an Iconoclast episode with Stella I had recently seen.  I gave her my card and hoped I might hear from her, but didn’t get her contact details.  Hugs goodbye with all and I was in a taxi home, pinching myself from a truly fun and wonderful night.

A few weeks later sitting at my desk in HK a message arrived from “Merry Sam” with nothing in the subject line.  I nearly deleted it thinking it spam, but then decided to read it.  It said,

“Hello.  I am writing on behalf of Stella who has asked if you could let me have your underwear bra / pant sizes, shoe size and also your children’s ages and names please.  Also the best address to send you something please.  Many thanks.”

I pondered this strange message and then replied,

“Hi.  I’ve never received an email like that before.  Are you serious?  If so, I’m psyched.  If not, well, you have a lot of random info at your disposal.  Here goes…”, and I listed the information requested.

A few days after Christmas in Colorado I returned from skiing to find a box waiting for me with a return address “Stella McCartney.”  Opening the box there were four beautifully wrapped silver packages with red ribbon, one each for my children and one for me.  All were addressed by name and signed “Stella.”  Each kid had received a beautiful outfit, and a nightgown for me that fits as if it was custom made.  I was so touched that she thought of me and even with her extraordinarily busy schedule sent beautiful gifts for no apparent reason.  I was (and remain) rather speechless with gratitude.

I share this story because it’s too good not to.  The cult of celebrity is so intense, so revered, so reviled and such a mystery.  My biggest take away from the night was that these are women with extraordinary talents, but even bigger hearts.  Moms who want the best for their kids, like we all do, who are trying to make life work for their families and to share their talents with the world.  I am as inspired by the depth of their character and thoughtfulness as I am by their resumes, and I was so honored and thrilled to have spent an evening in their company.

Now on to karma knitting in Bhutan…

Reggio Emilia Revisited

More than a decade ago I was invited by the director of my son’s awesome preschool in Santa Monica, Evergreen Community School, to join her on a trip to Reggio Emilia in Italy.  Years later I am thrilled to hear a buzz about Reggio Emilia half way around the world in our school in Hong Kong.  Recently I found a copy of the speech I gave at a parent night after our trip to Italy that describes some key elements of the philosophy and approach to learning.  In case you’re curious what it’s all about, here’s an excerpt from that speech. If your kids are older than 6, this probably won’t be directly relevant, as this is designed specifically for the early years.      

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I have a quick list of five jewels I picked up in Italy that have changed my perspective in some way that I want to share with you.  Before I get into the list, let me set the scene and tell you a little about Reggio and what’s going on there.

Reggio Emilia is a town in northern Italy famous for Parmesan cheese, proscuto, balsamic vinegar, Ferraris and Pavarotti (did I mention we saw Pavarotti in concert?…).  The town of Reggio has about 140,000 people.  Within the town there are 21 preschools and 13 infant/toddler centers supported and run by the Municipality of the town.  These specialized “Reggio Schools” grew from the period of liberation after the Second World War.  As a reaction to fascism and in a push to develop a growing women’s movement in the region, community members, spearheaded by women and an enlightened leader, Loris Malaguzzi, began to fight for the rights of children, the most fundamental of which, they believed, is the universal right to quality education, without exception.  What has grown out of that struggle is a community with a deeply rooted commitment to children, education, research and experimentation that takes early childhood education more seriously that I could ever have imagined possible. 

Here are five key aspects of Reggio Emilia:

  1. Rights of the Child – The first thing that struck me as being highly-developed in the Reggio formula for education is the ultimate belief in the fundamental rights of children and the way that this is demonstrated in the classroom on a daily basis.  A commitment to the rights of children does not mean that children have the right to do whatever they want at any time, to run amok around the schoolyard without purpose, or treat others in a disrespectful manner.  Rather, it’s a more subtle understanding and commitment to the idea that every child has something of value to share and should have the opportunity to develop his or her own potential, whatever that might be.  Teachers in Reggio Emilia believe that when children are respected and made to understand that differences are ad judicable and can be negotiated in a way that recognizes and respects the independence of other children, they are more likely to develop their own understanding of compassion and empathy.   But the most important point is that the process of this justice is the key, not the outcome.  Process is where teachers choose to focus their attention.  Not on which child is “right” or which child had the toy first, but on how the children can work together to come up with a solution.  Ultimately, this emphasis on process and respect for children as people with independent beliefs and ideals best cultivates human intelligence and compassion, those things that are most essential in a successful community.  
  1. Pedagogy of Listening – The second concept that is a core of the Reggio philosophy is what they call the “pedagogy of listening”.  This was not an easy concept for me to grasp as, even the word “pedagogy” doesn’t translate well from Italian.  After two days of trying to figure out, intellectually, what they were talking about, I had to ultimately give in to a more intuitive sense of the word.  A wonderful speaker, Carla Rinaldi, helped to express this idea in a more philosophical way.  She said, “To understand is to be able to develop an interpretive theory that gives meaning to the events and phenomenon of the world.  We’re all builders of theories, including our 3 year olds.  We’re born with a “why” in our mind.  In fact, she points out, even “Our first cry is a why”.  She says you can’t live without theory because you can’t live without meaning.    As we observe with our own kids, Children constantly ask “why” as they continuously construct and reinvent their ideas and understanding of the world.  Rather than a burden, this curiousness should be nurtured and celebrated.  Our role as educators and parents is to continually ask ourselves, “What kind of human beings are we trying to help create?”    Listening is the key to this, and I think as you look around the classroom you will see that teachers focus their attention on listening to what kids say.  They transcribe conversations, repeat statements to other kids to bring them into the discussion, they take video so they can review the conversations again and again and, most importantly, they make eye contact, interact and engage the kids.  Listening, when done right is an active, reciprocal act.  This is a lesson we could all probably use a little refresher course in.  It’s a real skill to listen to people, but you know how good it feels when you know you’ve actually been heard.  Think of the confidence boost this gives to the children.   
  1. Role of the teachers – This leads directly to the third idea, and that is the role of the teachers in the classroom.  Unlike traditional educators, teachers in RE see themselves as equal partners with the children in their discovery of the world rather than as their leaders.  Teachers are not there to impart information to the children, rather, their role is to help the children develop their own theories of the world.  This is not lip service.  The teachers really do believe that children have as much to teach as they do provided they really take the time to listen and understand what the kids are saying.  Their goal is to respect the child’s ideas and to help him develop it, not to give answers. This can be a difficult concept in practice.  It’s much easier to just give an answer to a question than to spend time helping kids find their own solution.   But by stepping back and letting them discover things for themselves, they gain a greater sense of accomplishment and an approach to learning that will serve them the rest of their lives.  The Reggio Emilia philosophy does not take problems away from the children but instead attempts to help children deal with them imaginatively and directly.  By creating an environment of support and encouragement, the teachers give the kids a comfort zone to try out ideals without negative consequences like bad test scores or shame.  Consider this.  The more consequential a situation is, the narrower learning will be.  As one expands and makes learning less consequential, broader learning can happen.   If a child does not feel threatened or as though so much is at stake, they will be more willing to take a chance and maybe be wrong.  Teachers help facilitate the formation of groups and to make connections between the children. 
  1. Role of documentation – The fourth thing that was made clearer for me was the role of documentation in the classroom.  I had seen all the storyboards and books of information related to children’s activities around the school, but I never really fully grasped the significance of those, beyond decoration of the classroom and reassurance for the parents.  What I learned in Reggio is that documentation is a tool used to really listen to children.  By documenting what the kids are doing the teachers are making the children’s work visible and also giving it value.  But documentation alone is not enough.  Our teachers don’t just record what they see, they review it several times, argue about it, work hard to understand the underlying principals and theories our kids are developing and then put together the story boards that succinctly tell the story for our benefit and, more importantly, for the benefit of our kids.  Through observation and interpretation, the documentation process enables the teacher an opportunity to re-listen, re-visit, re-see, (alone or with others) events and processes in which she was protagonist either directly or indirectly.  For children, documentation offers the opportunity for reflection, self-assessment, social assessment and remembering in the learning process.  And, it gives parents the opportunity to better understand not only what their child is doing in school, but also what underlying concepts their child is exploring.   
  1. Role of Parents –  The final point into which I can shed a little insight is the role of parents in this process.  I have to say that our kids are in such good hands it seems there’s not much left that we have to do.  In fact, parents play a significant role in continuing at home the community building efforts ongoing through the work the teachers start in the classroom.  I’d send you with these brief ideas to try to implement in your own home:
    1. Don’t give your kids the answers.  Let them draw their own conclusions.
    2. Be an equal partner with your kid on the learning path.  Recognize that your kids have their own theories about the world and see what you can learn from them.
    3. Instead of asking your kids what they did at school that day, try asking what other kids in their class did.
    4. Get involved with the school, even if it just means being aware of your child’s surroundings.  Find out why the dress-up corner is located right next to the kitchen.  Ask questions, read the documentation and participate to the extent your schedule allows.

 

Woods or Goods?

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Several years ago, when my son was quite small, my mother gave me a book to read.  It sat on the shelf for a few years, unopened, and eventually I gave it away.  A few years later she gave it to me again, and again it sat on the shelf.  When we moved overseas, the book was chucked in a box and sat in a dark storage place for five years until we bought a house and liberated our treasures.  Two years ago I found the book and carried it with me all summer and back to Hong Kong, still never cracking the spine.  I had a niggling sense that this book was important, but I wasn’t ready for it until yesterday.

With deadlines for projects I’ve assumed looming, I should have taken the rare moment of quiet on a Sunday afternoon to tackle my in-box.  Instead, my children busy with their friends and my husband grouchy, I retreated to the bedroom, pulled this book from the shelf and devoted the afternoon to discovering its teachings.  The book is Bill Plotkin’s Nature and the Human Soul. Cultivating Wholeness and community in a Fragmented World.

That same evening, checking Facebook, I saw that a friend tagged me in a post linked to a new television ad for Toys R Us.  The ad depicted a busload of children on their way to a field trip in the woods who are then re-directed to the toy store instead, much to their great enthusiasm, and at the expense of a day in the forest.  Here’s the clip.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz4zqbDjYO4

I couldn’t believe the serendipity of having just read this book about how our egocentric society has gotten stuck in adolescence largely due to a lack of connection to nature.  I first re-posted the link to my own FB page with the comment, “pathetic,” but then added another post quoting directly from the book:

Stand still.   The trees ahead and the bushes beside you

Are not lost.  Wherever you are is called Here,

And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,

Must ask it permission to know it and be known.

The forest breathes.  Listen.  It answers,

I have made this place around you.

If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.

No two trees are the same to Raven.

No two branches are the same to Wren.

If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,

You are surely lost.  Stand still. The forest knows

Where you are.  You must let it find you.

-David Wagoner, “Lost”

Toys R’US didn’t do anything wrong with their ad.  In fact, there’s probably not one among us who didn’t at one point during childhood fantasize about a free trip to the toy store.  They’re simply appealing to our collective voracious appetite for stuff and the delicious prospect of getting it for free.  But to have it so blatantly preferable to a day in the woods underscores that precise uncoupling of humans and nature that is as internally damaging on a personal level as it is externally to the planet.   I’m not a preachy environmentalist, but I think this book is skilled at linking a general human malaise and despondency with a very tangible explanation.

Some of my other favorite quotes so far from Nature and the Human Soul:

“If we look at the biographies of our society’s most celebrated geniuses, artists, and visionaries, we find that most of them had regular immersions in the wild, especially in childhood, and that all of them had great sensitivity to the stirrings of the soul’s deep imagination.” 

“Imagination might very well be the single most important faculty to cultivate in adolescence.  Without this cultivation, true adulthood might never be reached.” 

And my favorite quote that answers the question of an earlier post (The Wisdom of Art School)…

“I believe that most people would agree that we will not create a healthier society by affording women the equal right to be as pathologically egocentric as a large proportion of men have been for millennia, to acquire the equal opportunity to excel in the patho-adolescent, class-dividing world of prestige, position, and wealth, academic and corporate ladder-climbing, and power broking.  Rather, mature men and women must join together to foster soul centric development for both genders and for all races and cultures… 

If it’s true that…our environmental crises are due to a widespread failure of personal development, especially among the people in power in the industrialized nations (mostly wealthy males), then a radical overhaul in our way of parenting and educating children is in order.”

So, whether this post makes you want to go to Toys R Us to stock up for the holidays, or take a walk in the woods will probably explain a lot if you choose to listen.  I, for one, am going hiking…um, after I pick up a few things from the store.

“Tiger Mother” or “Panda Mom,” they both face extinction.

I wrote this a few years ago as the Tiger Mother phenomenon was raging.  It still reflects my thoughts on parenting:

As an American woman living in Hong Kong, so far away from family and friends, I rely on Facebook not only as a way to keep in touch, but as a pulse point for news.  You would have thought that a revolution had started when I turned on my computer to find no fewer that a dozen friends had posted links to a Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” by Amy Chua.   While Ms. Chua makes a very strong case for the Tiger Mother that I must admit did explain some play date behavior and made the hairs on my neck bristle at the “everybody gets a trophy” liberal parenting camp, the pressure cooker approach she espouses is bound to blow.

A wise friend in Hong Kong coined a delicious term for the alternative parental camp: Panda Mom.  As she so eloquently put it in her Facebook post, A Panda Mom “is convinced that her cub is absolutely the most adorable thing on the planet, is very proud of her cub’s vegetable consumption, favors her cub spending lots of time outside climbing trees and firmly believes that what her cub needs most is more sleep.”  I would add that, as pandas are known to leave their young unattended for long stretches of time, a Panda Mom has prepared her child to be a capable individual who does not require micromanaging at every moment.  Panda cubs are able to structure their own free time and to make reasonable, rational decisions for themselves.

The Yin to the Yang of parenting models is tempting, but the real problem is that the whole system is out of balance.  Offering an alternative to the scenario presented by Chua only serves to draw a line in the sand of our already polarized world of rhetoric and mud slinging.  And, in fact, while superficially it seems that Panda and Tiger Mothers are at opposite ends of the spectrum, reminiscent of the “mommy wars” between working and non-working mothers, their motivation is more similar than you might think.  What all those faced with the responsibility of raising children today share is the plague of fear-based parenting.  Fear-based parenting is debilitating, and most of us are falling into that camp.  Blame 24 hour cable news, the leveled playing field for college admissions, the over-diagnosis of illnesses and disabilities, corn syrup, hormones in the milk, the Air Pollution Index, or any of the myriad threats the big bad world poses, but the result is parents who view the nurturing years as a complex battle strategy of defense and attack, and we’re arming ourselves to the teeth.  It’s exhausting and, I fear ultimately not helpful to our kids.

The truth is, future success is undeterminable.  Opponents to the Tiger Mother model recount myriad examples of burn out and tragic suicides by young Asian adolescents who achieve to a high level and then find themselves one of many bright students in a more competitive pool and can’t stand not to be at the top.  Certainly the “good enough” Panda approach to parenting can be criticized for creating generations of children who don’t understand healthy competition and may lag their peers in conventional test results.  Still, neither of these critiques gets to the essential issue, which is that there is a generally accepted understanding that education is important, but there is no proven formula for future success and happiness, so why make adolescence so unpleasant?

Furthermore, if you stop and think about it, how would you really define success for your children?  For example, do you want your daughter to go to (insert Ivy League school here), get a PhD or and MBA, work in a high-powered job for a decade and then find herself wanting to start a family and joining the ranks of conflicted, over-educated, over-qualified but non-working mothers who love their children, but sort of miss making a considerable contribution to the world outside of their own homes?  A recent Harvard Business Review survey found that 37% of highly qualified women were “off-ramping” (voluntarily leaving their job for extended time periods) and that “three quarters [of the women surveyed] were on nonlinear career trajectories to the detriment of their earning potential and career advancement.” (HBR Magazine, June 2010).  From personal experience, I have spent countless hours over coffee with some of the brightest women in the world lamenting this very dilemma.

It seems to me that when we all drop out of the work force to raise our kids, our only measure of success becomes their performance, which puts a lot of the wrong kind of pressure on everyone.    As I said in a piece I wrote for GOOP last year, “Parents want the best for their kids, but sometimes, without even realizing they’re doing it, they conflate their own insecurities, disappointments and dreams with those of their children causing everyone to feel like they don’t measure up.”  Who has failed if your child doesn’t get into the right school, and who is to say that if they do get in and complete it successfully that that is a surefire determinant for their continued future success?  And, if they are ultimately successful, do you then deserve the credit for a job well done?

My intuition tells me that all we can do is enjoy our kids and listen to them, try to make the best decisions we can for them while we have the luxury of being the decision-makers, but more importantly, try to plant the seeds for them to make good decisions for themselves in the future.  I do not think that the alternative to the Tiger Mother is negligent; it just comes down to a question of extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation.  If you need external praise and measures to feel like you’ve done a good job parenting, then that does seem to be a pretty efficient way to achieve them.  But, if you believe that children are capable of independent intellectual thought and ideas and that your job as a parent (and the job of the teacher) is to give them the tools to help them draw out and further develop those theories, then respectful, intuitive parenting might just give you the space to actually enjoy raising your kids a little more, and might just create better little human beings in the process.

Ms. Chua has a provocative angle, a sexy title and an awesome publicist. She has struck a chord that plays into our fear-based parenting and has forced Panda Moms to lose more sleep over the flattening planet and changing rules of the game.  But the truth of the matter is that both species are in danger of becoming extinct.  If we don’t start working together to nurture the next generation of thinkers who must be both academically prepared AND independently motivated, there will be no future for which to prepare.

The Right Kind of Like

I wrote this a few years ago, sent it to some friends, but mostly it sat on my computer.  Recently, at a gathering of graduate school friends, I told this story and a woman who works with military wives told me that she was going to take my suggestion and use it.  I decided that if it was useful for her, maybe others would find it useful too.  Let me know what you think:

One afternoon I was invited to lunch at a friend’s house.  She is married to a rather high profile and somewhat intimidating man I had never met.  Her warning that I should not be offended, as he probably wouldn’t say much to me didn’t do anything to alleviate my discomfort at the thought of making small talk with him over lunch.  So I was surprised when he sat down at the table in his backyard, turned to me and asked,

“So, what do you LIKE to do?”

With the addition of that one simple word, “LIKE” — a word I’m usually trying to erase from my family’s California born and bred vocabulary — he so chivalrously lay down his cloak, welcoming me to step daintily across that first impression hurdle.  With that one word the possibilities were opened and her husband got a real answer.

“Well,” I gulped.  I decided to go for it.

“I like to take my children on cultural adventures near our adopted home in Hong Kong.  I like to cook and have friends over to enjoy healthy meals with me.  I like to run, hike, paddle board and do yoga.  I like to write, but I’m not as good at it as I’d like.  I like to organize events, watch TED Talks, drive in Hong Kong, and read about neuroplasticity, compassion and mindfulness.”

“What kind of yoga do you do?  Because your arms are very fit,” he replied.  I liked that question too.

With that one word, he spared me that awful other question that stay-at-home moms have not yet figured out how to answer with the force and authority we used to be able to muster when we “really worked.” Had he asked me, “What do you do?” my answer would have been an apologetic jumble of volunteer parent advisory groups, ad hoc writing gigs, glorified travel agent and bus driver for my family, that trailed off with, “You, know, that kind of stuff.” Just think for a moment how much better his question is, and what a difference it could make if we all added “LIKE” to our vocabulary in the right places.

And, it was a good thing he had built up some good will with that question, because I had a bit more trouble answering his next one.

“Are all bankers assholes?” he asked.

“Well,” I gulped.