Modern Family Easter

I hate Easter.  Wait.  Before you judge, it’s not the message I hate, but my total epic parenting fail each year as I attempt to create a meaningful experience for my non-church-going family and instead end up disappointed with myself and angry at all of them.   This year was the most ridiculous yet.   When my teenage son accused me of channeling my inner-Claire and labeled it the “Modern Family Easter” I had to admit he was right.

Easter was my favorite holiday when I was a kid.   The few years dad and I were on our own were lean.  A private school music teacher didn’t have two nickels to rub together, but we were happy and I didn’t really know how poor we were.  My clothes and our furniture came mostly from hand-me-downs and the Encore Shoppe on Route 1 in Kennett Square.  I loved combing the thrift store to find treasures for less than a dollar, and putting together funky outfits. It was the ’70’s, so thrift store chic wasn’t so far off the mark.

But Easter was different.  Every Easter I got to pick out a brand new outfit.  Dad would take me to Sears or J.C. Penny’s and I could pick out a dress and shoes.  The night before Easter felt like Christmas Eve.  I couldn’t sleep in anticipation.  Easter morning I awoke to a lovely Easter basket (much bigger once my dad married my wonderful stepmother).  My stepmother headed to Church, but dad and I went to our Quaker Meeting.  After the close of meeting, the children handed out pansy plants to each member to take home and plant in the garden, heralding the approach of spring.  Fourth grade members of the First Day School  received their very own monogrammed bible, and 7th graders got a copy of Faith & Practice.  Dad would often play a few songs on the piano then the whole meeting would retire out to the yard to watch the Easter egg hunt and sip lemonade.  I loved hunting for eggs among the gravestones and later cut my teeth in leadership roles by organizing the hunt for the younger kids myself.  After meeting (and a few years later) we went to Easter lunch at Grandma Skip’s place.  She would make a feast and use the fancy china.  Our Easter had the perfect combination of religious piety, community, childhood indulgence, family, beautiful food and seasonal reverence.  It was perfect.

Fast forward a few decades and a few countries and our family hasn’t been able to settle into a Sunday church routine despite more efforts than I can count.  In lieu of church we usually resort to hiking, the farmer’s market, brunch, or a solitary run for me while the others sleep in.  I have resigned myself to the state, but on Easter and Christmas, I really suffer the lack of tradition and religious community.

Last week I saw a sign at the school that advertised a beachside sunrise Easter service at 6:30 am.  I reasoned that we could get up and out, join a casual outdoor service and check the box on worship before we were really awake – thereby appeasing my restless yearnings – then get on with the day.  I prepped everyone that this was the plan the night before and they grumbled, but didn’t refuse.  When the alarm went off at 5:30 Easter morning, all but the youngest protested.  My husband, already begrudgingly up and showered, didn’t appreciate my last minute attempted acquiescence and I think I might have said something about not being his mother (apologies to his mother!) when he asked if he had a choice about going.  The teenager was the hardest to rouse, but I was on a mission.  Un-showered and with headphones firmly ensconced in both ears, he shuffled to the car with a “what the hell” thrown in for good measure.

I parked at the wrong end of the beach, so we took off our shoes and skirted the surf to the other side.  Arriving after the service had begun we found about two dozen people happily singing along to the guitar as the children ran around.  All the park benches were accounted for, so we sat on the ground.  The nice minister was enthusiastic and happy, declaring over and over, with a sportsman-like whoop, that “Jesus has risen!  Yea!”  “Woo-hoo!”  Communion emerged from a screw cap roadie and a ziploc baggie and was awkwardly decanted into more fitting vessels.  My youngest, accustomed to receiving communion in other churches, was bummed when he was passed over in lieu of a blessing and asked loudly if he and I could split the host I was offered.  I don’t think the teen took the ipod out of his ear the whole time as he sat propped against the beachside trash can.  The minister was afraid to approach him for a blessing and so air blessed him from three feet away.

As the group sang an impossibly falsetto contemporary Christian song we didn’t know, an elderly Speedo-clad Chinese man wandered through the group, stretching his arms and clapping to the tune.  Surprisingly he didn’t really look out of place in that setting, but picturing my husband showing up to that service in a similar outfit made me chuckle.  Just as the service ended and the minister offered his carton of OJ and paper cups to stick around and get to know everyone, a completely naked female swimmer emerged from the sea and strode up the beach, entirely unburdened by her public nakedness.  Watching the churchgoing men try to avert their eyes over OJ was hilarious.

We headed home.  I took the younger two for brunch and a swim while my husband and teenager went back to bed.  Later, my son’s lingering cold wasn’t improving, so we headed to the hospital for a check and everyone else puttered for the rest of the afternoon.

The day would have been a total write-off were it not for a dear friend who knows how to celebrate holidays and every day with style, kindness and fun.  She invited us for Easter dinner and it was as perfect as could be.  An egg hunt for the kids, beautiful flowers, hand-blown eggs painted with chalkboard paint for our place cards at the table, beautiful food, drinks, friends and individual bunny cakes for dessert.  We told the story of our morning, and somehow telling it made me laugh and let it go.  Maybe some year I’ll be able to make my kids feel as excited about Easter as I was when I was a child. Until then, I will feel grateful for the blessings of friends who can do what I cannot and try not to take it all too seriously.

Reflecting later, I realized that my son’s Modern Family moniker for our day really was astute, as even though Claire and Phil and their family can be ridiculous, neurotic, silly and selfish, the one message that rings true in each episode is that family comes first, no matter what happens.

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Helping Teens Pick “Just Right Books”

My latest SCMP Between the Lines article appeared while I was out of town.  Here’s a link to the SCMP website, or the full text below:  http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1670477/young-readers-benefit-curated-selection-books

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When children are little, part of the process of learning to read involves finding “just right books.” A just right book is one that interests a child, and that can be read fluently without struggling over more than a few words on a page. This is an important step toward reading fluency, and the process is relatively straightforward.

But once children are older finding “just right books” becomes trickier. Just because a child can read a book doesn’t mean she or he should yet. When children begin to read fluently parents often encourage more advanced books, but sometimes that can backfire, either ruining a book for a child, or exposing them inadvertently to inappropriate content.

Some parents have this idea that pushing young children into chapter books earlier and earlier makes them more accomplished or is an indicator of high intelligence. On the contrary, it’s actually robbing them of an extraordinarily rich world of content in picture books. Sophisticated parents understand that there’s a richness in picture books that doesn’t exist in the trendy, but rather straightforward popular young adult fiction. Oftentimes the language, vocabulary and humor in picture books are more subtle and advanced than in chapter books, and can help children develop critical thinking skills.

This is just another in a long line of inflationary pressure put on children. I recently spoke with a mother who told me her second grader was reading Percy Jackson to himself. An eight year old who can read Percy Jackson is superficially impressive, but how can an eight-year-old emotionally relate to a story told from the perspective of a twelve-year-old boy? What’s the point?

As children move into the teen years, finding appropriate books gets even more challenging. Because they can read everything, navigating a library or bookstore is akin to a minefield of unsuitable content. Keeping up with a voracious adolescent reader can be a full-time job.

So how do you help your burgeoning reader find the right books? Your school librarian is a great place to start. Most librarians have an extensive knowledge of and passion for books and once they get to know your child, can help match kids and with great books.

“To pick a good book you need to know your child, what mood he or she is in, his or her temperament and a wide range of books,“ says Maureen McCann, Hong Kong International School’s Middle School librarian. She suggests listening for “appeal terms” when you talk with your kids. What did they like about the last book they read? Try to determine if it’s the pacing, drama, exciting plot, or strong female character, for example, and that can help guide your next selection.

Think of your school librarian as your child’s book stylist. McCann likens book selection to buying clothing. “Everyone wants the well-edited closet. There’s an art to working a book shelf similar to a sale rack at a clothing shop.” McCann offers the library version of boutique shopping with a suggestion shelf of her favorites right in the front of the library. Some of her students select books exclusively from that shelf. Similarly, she has initiated a suggestions wall where children recommend books to their peers, and a special display for books about problems like bullying, eating disorders, divorce and other issues that teens might want to explore.

She suggests that children be allowed to browse with some autonomy. Let them discover the books on their own rather than hovering and deciding for them. She also uses a food analogy for picking books. Kids need nourishing literature and fun reads, or “snacks” – as she calls the lighter fiction books – for a healthy literary diet. Once you’ve selected a book, she suggests opening it to any page and reading a paragraph. Does it grab your attention? Do you like the character? These small investments in selecting the right book can save a lot of time in the end.

McCann also advises families to have a lot of books around the house. To be a good advisor, you have to be a good reader. You must model reading for your children, and not just on your iphone. If you’re not as familiar with a wide range of young adult literature, reading guides, essays and annotated book lists, like those by Bring Me A Book, Diane Frankenstein, Jim Trelease, and Paul Jennings for example, are great resources too.

Being a great reader is not about tackling the thickest tome you can plod your way through, but about curating your reading selections as carefully as you do your art and closet.

Redefining safety for children in a technology-obsessed world. An interview with Cris Rowan

Last week I sat down with Cris Rowan, Occupational Therapist and CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. to discuss the impact of technology on children.  A short article was published in the South China Morning Post today.   http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/family-education/article/1610670/steer-children-adopt-healthy-tech-habits.

For the full interview, keep reading…

Q: Most families in Hong Kong live in apartments and have very limited access to outdoor space.   Add to that crowds and an air pollution index (API) that is currently at the maximum measurable level, and taking children outside to connect with nature and to move has its own challenges and dangers.  In urban areas like Hong Kong, the appeal of technology is partially situational.  How does a parent weigh potential dangers and determine what is truly harmful for their children?

ROWAN:  I appreciate the concerns about potential dangers out of doors and can’t speak to the harms of air pollution specifically, but I do know that the consequences of keeping children indoors, disconnected from nature and attached to video games and other technology is causing real problems in the physical and mental health of children. The ways in which we are raising and educating our children with technology are no longer sustainable. Parents have the illusion of safety when their children are inside, but if they inform themselves about the alarming increase in attention problems, poor academics, aggression, impaired sleep, developmental delays that are directly linked to sedentary indoor lifestyles, they will definitely reconsider how to define safety for their children.

Being in nature and physical movement are attention restorative, sensory calming, and essential to healthy growth and wellbeing. For example, the act of swinging is not only fun, but has real impact on core physical strength and the development of the vestibular, proprioceptive, tactile and attachment systems that are needed for paying attention, printing and reading. Urban children are three times as likely to present with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) as are rural kids.   The good news is that as little as 20 minutes a day of green space time, time spent outdoors in nature, can alleviate many of the symptoms of ADHD in children.

In some urban areas efforts are underway to create green spaces where children can play safely without traffic and congestion. In New York City, the High line park on a former rail line is now a popular attraction and well used park, and plans are underway to repurpose defunct subway tunnels into indoor low line green spaces with light and air circulation and beautiful plants and gardens. This is an example of an effort to carve out green space even in densely populated areas.

 Q: It seems intuitive that technology is having a negative effect on society in the ways you cite (behavior problems, obesity, depression, lack of attention etc), but are these hypotheses or is the research definitively linking cause and effect?  Which are the most compelling studies upon which you base your conclusions?

ROWAN:  The truth is that we don’t know what the health impact of technology will be, as it is still so new. Remember that three years ago, the ipad didn’t even exist yet. But the research is growing. I spend my time collating research from thousands of studies that are increasingly showing evidence of causal relationships. We can now say definitively that playing violent video games causes childhood aggression. Increases in acoustic neuromas and sperm DNA fragmentation linked to cell phone and laptop use are only the first compelling twenty-year studies, and sadly indicative of more to come.

Another scary area is video game addiction. I implore parents to regulate video game use by their children before it becomes an addiction. Avid video game players experience the same physiological response as sex and gambling addicts. Their heart rates race and blood pressure escalates as their bodies release high doses of cortisol and adrenaline in anticipation of, and during, play. After awhile they achieve a state of Hypothalamic-Pituitary Adrenal (HPA) fatigue and require more and more of the stimulus to get the same feeling. Online games that are competitive and social with high immersion and realistic graphics are particularly insidious as addicted players are sometimes so reluctant to take a break they would rather wet their pants then get up to use the toilet. Video game designers call this the “pee factor” and strive for it. Remediation of video game addiction is an arduous process with only a 50% success rate The US military is processing 400 recruits each month with video game and pornography addictions. China has more than 300 treatment centers throughout the country for youth with video game addiction.

 Q: What about other experts who claim emphatically that video games are not harmful and sometimes even good for certain skills development like sharpening focus, reasoning and decision making skills?  Do you completely discount their research, or think it’s a matter of age/circumstance?

ROWAN:  I don’t disagree that this kind of limited positive effect is possible, but it’s all in context of who, what, when, where and why of the child’s overall health. Factors like age, duration of play and the general overall mental and physical health of the child are key determinants in the likelihood of healthy technology use turning into a harmful addiction.

Q: How can you tell if behavior problems in children are the result of technology?  If you take it away, the behavior often gets even worse.

ROWAN:  As an occupational therapist for the past 27 years, I began to see significant changes in my clients about fifteen years ago.   Increasingly, children demonstrated alarming rates of aggression, depression, ADHD, obesity, impulsivity, poor self regulation, and declining function of ocular motor skills to name a few. As I considered what might be causing the shift, I turned to a growing body of research related to technology use and children. I identified two primary areas of concern, the addictive nature of video games and the impact of technology use on children’s health, behavior, and ability to learn.

Recently I was in a classroom observing a child. He had fixed, dilated pupils and was playing on an imaginary ipad. After asking him to help the other students clean up the room, he responded that he had his ear buds on and couldn’t hear me. I decided to play along, so I pretended to take away the ipad which resulted in a tantrum rage, kicking and screaming for me to return what didn’t really exist. A child like this is most definitely demonstrating symptoms of addiction directly linked to his technology, as well as a dissociated state.

 Q: In a perfect world, parents and children would interact without technology, but are there any instances that you think technology is better than nothing, like books on tape if a parent is not home to read to a child, for example?

ROWAN:  I do believe there are wonderful resources in some educational technology, but I caution parents and educators that “What they watch is who they become.” Pro-social media, where characters are nice to each other, can have a positive impact on children when limited to roughly one hour per day for an otherwise healthy child. On the other hand, anti-social media, where characters intentionally harm others, can cause anti-social behaviors. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends zero exposure to technology for ages 0-2, one hour for ages 2-5 and 2 hours for those 5-18.

Technology in schools has great potential, but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of learning without a teacher. For example, e-readers are effective in helping to create early readers, but once the “wow factor” wears off, children who have learned to read early on e-readers perform worse in school than those who learn to read with books. Furthermore, screen reading results in poorer concentration and memory than book reading. Teenagers are demonstrating a new level of impaired memory, concentration and a lesser ability to learn new information which is being coined “digital dementia.”  These are cautionary tales.

 Q: Do you think parents are as much a part of the problem as the technology itself?  

ROWAN:  Most definitely. We don’t have statistics on Asia, but we know that forty percent of North American adults are addicted to technology. Children watch parents and follow their lead. If we want to see any change at all, we have to change our own behavior around our kids. I suggest parents disconnect from technology, and reconnect with their children as a first step toward managing technology family over use.

 Q: Beyond the couch fort, can you offer any additional creative suggestions for what to do with children indoors that will engage their attention in the same way technology does?

ROWAN:  As a first step I suggest families start by reading one book per night, sharing one meal with the family per day, planning one game night and one family outing per week, and taking one technology-free holiday per year. Creating safe zones where there is no technology including the bedroom, bathroom, in the car and in restaurants is a good way to start creating boundaries to keep technology from taking over the household.

For further research and facts supporting this article, check out Cris Rowan’s excellent website http://www.zonein.ca.  

For a link to her presentation and photos from her visit to Hong Kong, check out http://lovetolearn.asia/en/english-disconnect-to-reconnect-technology-use-and-children-by-cris-rowan-22-sept-2014/.  

Fiction Story: Opalescent

An NPR ‘Three Minute Fiction’ prompt, “a character finds something he or she has no intention of returning” inspired me to write a story… 

On the eve of her departure from Nairobi, Maeve sat on the nubby sofa as Theo awkwardly fished in his pocket and pulled out a small box.  Her stomach lurched in anticipation of the uncomfortable moment ahead.  Was he really about to propose after only six months of what she thought of as a fleeting romance?  He was beautiful, and their month-long safari had been a glimpse of an enviable life of adventure and passion, but marriage?   No, she wasn’t ready for that. Opening the box, Maeve was relieved to see a pair of lovely, gold-rimmed, opal stud earrings.  Theo held tightly to the box, removing one earring and looking her directly in the eye.

“Maeve,” he said longingly,  “I love you.  I know you feel the need to return to America now, but I want you to come back to me and to your home in Africa.  I bought these earrings for you, but you can’t have them yet.  For now I am going to keep one, and you take the other.  Come back and reunite the pair when you’re ready.  I will wait for you.”

With that, Theo kissed her gently and returned the box with the lone earring to his pocket.

At the airport the next morning, Maeve clutched the earring in her fist.  The post made a dent in her palm that hurt almost as much as the lump in her throat as she bid farewell to Theo and the life she had built in Kenya.   But there were weddings to attend, a job offer in LA and anyway, she was only 22 years old.  She couldn’t possibly just live in Africa, could she?

Maeve spent the summer at her family home in Delaware.  How strange it was to be back in the same house she grew up in after all she had experienced in war zones in Africa.  At the end of the summer, Maeve boarded a plane for Los Angeles with two suitcases. Single, idealistic and slightly pudgy, Maeve found Los Angeles to be harder than she expected and she longed for her adventurous and earnest life in Africa.  She almost called Theo.

Then, one evening out with her new friend Tessa at a beachside bar filled with cute guys in backward baseball caps, Maeve met Matt.  A world traveler as a child, Matt stood out from the crowd because he knew that Africa wasn’t a country and had even been to Nairobi. Maeve and Matt started dating and eventually married and built a life together.  The more years went by, the further Africa slipped from Maeve’s memory.

They were living in Prague when Maeve got the call that her father had died.  Maeve quickly gathered the children and returned to her family home in Delaware.  Maeve’s stepmother had loved the home she shared with Maeve’s father, but the memories of his illness weighed heavy on her and she decided to sell the house. 

Maeve’s room had been kept a shrine to her childhood, so as she sorted and discarded decades of various sundry mementos, Maeve reached in the bowels of her closet and uncovered a damp canvas tote.  Shoving her hand to the bottom, her finger was pricked by a pin.   She recoiled her hand and dumped the tote.  There on the carpet the little opal earring glinted in the sunshine for the first time in 15 years.  Maeve picked it up and, turning it over in her palm, she squeezed hard.  The pain of the stud in her flesh made her flinch, but not with regret, only gratitude for the love she had felt at the time that had prepared her for the life she now lived.   She knew that she had no intention of returning the earring to Theo, but she did wonder if he still held its mate?

Back on the Horse

Hiatus is the cardinal sin of blogging.  Guilty as charged.  It’s not that I didn’t have anything to write about, it’s just that life got in the way.  Now there’s a backlog of topics I want to tackle and not enough reflective time to do so.  I’m in the home stretch of the farewells in Hong Kong for another year.  Fortunately a better blogger than I tackled the “Why Expats Hate June” topic (http://www.thecultureblend.com/?p=11), so I can check that one off my list, but suffice it to say, saying goodbye to twenty friends in a constant stream of dinners, cocktail parties and junk boat trips is emotionally draining and not good for my liver.  Hong Kong is strange in that way.  The longer you live here, the fewer people you know.

Since my last entry I have been to Vietnam, Paris and the Seychelles.  Each of these voyages deserves a post.  The Bhutan story continues and grows in interesting ways, and I am gearing up to spend the summer in Telluride, a town that’s rife with blogging fodder.  I’ll climb back on that blogging horse once I hit the wild west.  

In the meantime, I am pleased to report that later that day of the snail sighting I talked with Monique (sadly one of the twenty leaving this year) and she told me that on her return walk she passed the palm and found the snail making its way back up the frond!  It had somehow managed to turn around and save itself, crisis averted.  It feels a good reminder as we all feel slightly on the edge of keeping it all together this time of year, that we can always just turn around and head for home when we’ve reached the end of the path.  I guess that’s what those 20 friends are doing and what we will eventually do too.

I’ll leave you with a little Martha Stewartiness…  Here’s a salad I just made up that my teenage son now wants to eat everyday…

Baby kale leaves cut in ribbons (they eat more that way), carrots chopped in small cubes, 1 avocado, feta cheese crumbled, ¼ cup flax seeds, ¼ cup homemade multigrain breadcrumbs, ½ a lemon, ½ cup extra virgin olive oil, Malden salt, fresh ground pepper and a hefty sprinkle Korean gochugaru red pepper flakes.  Combine with whatever else you want to throw in and serve with Ryvita crackers (and some hummus would be great too).  I’ll be serving this all summer.  

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