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In this post, Tu Books Publisher Stacy Whitman discusses why avoiding discussions of race with young people can do more harm than good.
Many African American parents already know what “the talk” is. It’s not the talk that many white parents might expect—we’re not talking about the birds and the bees. No, this “talk” is the one where black parents have to sit with their children and discuss how they might be perceived by the world around them: particularly police, but also teachers, neighbors, and friends who are not from their racial background.
Though the burden often falls on parents of color alone to discuss these issues with their children, in reality all parents should address race with their kids in a conscious and meaningful way. Communities are also seeking ways to address interpersonal racial issues, particularly in schools. Having the tools to know how to discuss racial matters is essential for children from all backgrounds.
Research has shown that the “colorblind” approach—teaching children that it is racist to acknowledge racial and ethnic differences—is doing no one any favors, and in fact can reinforce racist attitudes and assumptions, and especially reify systemic racism. “Black children know irrefutably that they’re black by the time they’re about 6 years old and probably earlier,” one article noted in our research. Do white children know they’re white? If not, how do they think of themselves?
At Lee & Low, we’ve always believed that even the youngest readers have the capacity to understand and appreciate difference—that’s why many of our children’s books address issues like racism and discrimination. But you don’t have to take our word for it: many experts, educators, and academics have done work on this topic as well and their recommendations can help point parents and teachers in the right direction.
Studies have also shown that not addressing difference does not make children colorblind—it only encourages them to absorb the implicit racial messages of American society. Children learn that race is a category even when parents try to teach them not to recognize race. Much like children learn to perform regional accents even when their parents are from another location, children learn how the larger society around them views race, via inference and transductive reasoning. “In other words, children pick upon the ways in which whiteness is normalized and privileged in U.S. society.”
“Nonwhite parents are about three times more likely to discuss race than white parents,” said a 2007 study. “It’s the children whose parents do directly address race — and directly means far more than vaguely declaring everyone to be equal — who are less likely to make assumptions about people based on the color of our skin.”
Many argue that “the talk” should happen far more often than once, and that parents shouldn’t bear the sole burden to teach their kids about race—that it is a community-wide issue.
Erin Winkler provides several ways for parents and teachers to address the biases that children might pick up, including discussing the issue in an age-appropriate way, with accurate information that doesn’t shame or silence children for having questions. They also suggest encouraging complex thinking and taking children’s questions and biased statements seriously—“When children are taught to pay attention to multiple attributes of a person at once (e.g., not just race), reduced levels of bias are shown,” the author notes, and suggests that the most important thing parents and teachers can do is to give children information that empowers them to be anti-racist.
One New York City-area school asked, “Can racism be stopped in the third grade?” They began a “racial affinity program,” in which elementary-age kids were sorted by racial groups for discussions of questions that “might seem impolite otherwise,” and to then come together as a school community to discuss these questions and experiences in a way that fosters greater communication. Parents and students are mixed on whether this program succeeded, with Asian students noting that the discussions of race still focused on the dichotomy of black and white, and some parents uncomfortable with the idea of discussing race at all. The administration notes, however, that many of their students of color needed this program—mandatory for all students—to combat microaggressions between students.
Allie Jane Bruce, the librarian at Bank Street School in New York City, has been discussing race, biases, and stereotypes with the students in her school for three years, using children’s book covers as a launching point. “I’m constantly delighted by the new discoveries kids make, and by the wisdom and insight already present in 11- and 12-year-olds,” Bruce noted in her most recent series of blog posts about the curriculum, which she has named “Loudness in the Library.” She notes especially that kids at this age tend to feel very uncomfortable with discussing race at first. “The fact that race-related conversations are so very fraught is a huge part of the problem. We must be able to communicate in order to solve problems that exist at interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels. If kids in 6th grade already have the inclination to stay silent in conversations on race, how much stronger will that inclination be in adults? And if we can’t talk about race and racism, how will things ever get better?”
Parents, what does “the talk” look like in your home? Teachers and librarians, how do you approach discussions about race with your students and patrons?
Stacy Whitman is Editorial Director and Publisher of Tu Books, an imprint of LEE & LOW BOOKS that publishes diverse science fiction and fantasy for middle grade and young adult readers.
Enter to win a copy of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (HarperCollins, August 2015), written by Jessica Lahey.
Giveaway begins August 21, 2015, at 12:01 A.M. PST and ends September 20, 2015, at 11:59 P.M. PST.
Hello! It has been sooo very long since I have blogged on this blog. I am still reading and writing, but things have taken a bit of a different turn for me. It's so interesting to look back on this blog and see this progression of growing up...
Here's what's changed! :)
1. I have two little girls. I LOVE them. They are hilarious, cheeky, stubborn and the very sweetest.
2. I have 4 cats, and no other pets at the moment.
3. We've just sold our very first house and now are moving to the country! We're off to Wagga Wagga NSW and we are very excited.
4. I am going to write, again. I am hoping that this lifestyle change will enable me to have more time to write. Which is hard to manage as -
5. I am now a photographer. I specialise in babies and families. I enjoy it so very much. I've spent the past 3 years throwing myself into learning to be my best behind the camera, and also spending lots of time focusing on my family.
6. I am STILL obsessed with Autumn and everything fall related. In fact, I reference it in my business name. You can find my work HERE.
7. I am happy. Life is good. It's been an up and down few years with post-natal depression and anxiety battles, but things are good. Friendships are good. The kids are great. We're doing well :)
8. We still travel back to America about once a year, and it's delightful to introduce our kids to new places and views.
So that's a bit of an update of what I've been up to! I would love to get reading and reviewing a bit more so I'll have some things to blog about! I did start blogging about education activities and kid-related stuff, which changed when the photography business got so busy.
I have heard for some time now how great Family Life's Passport2Purity program is for families. When I was given the chance to review the program - I jumped at it. I love the whole concept - time away with your preteen to talk through tough topics like sexuality and purity. We need that and often don't make the time to do it with our kids.
The kit comes with a CD Set, a travel journal, and a tour guide. It is so well laid-out that a parent can really spend very little prep time to make the weekend a success - prep is important, but I wanted to encourage parents that it won't be a huge effort that will bog you down. You walk through the tour guide page by page and pre-view the videos they feel the parent should view ahead of time to be ready for the weekend. The weekend is laid out so carefully - I love the time set aside for fun activities and yet, they do give you a great timeline of how to effectively get everything accomplished within the time frame. All of the parts of the kit are updated and not only look modern, but even the DVD's are well-done and will appeal to our teens. Having a tool like this is such a blessing.
Our daughter is a bit young for this and we have not used it yet, but I can not wait to spend this time together learning and growing. I highly recommend this easy-to-follow way for parents to guide their children into sexual purity.
I was sent a copy of the kit for review by the publisher for an honest review on my blog.
We have just completed the final edits on our new winter story told in verse. We are now beginning the illustration process. We are so excited about this next story and can’t wait to hear your feedback. Here’s a few hints about what our next story will be about. Aren’t they just beautiful? What other animal reminds you of winter?
Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) on snow at sunset, Kamchatka, Russia
“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” —Italo Calvino, The Uses of Literature
My daughter is moving to a new school opening up in our area that focuses on a classical, liberal arts curriculum. Classics books are at the core of this education, and the school emphasizes on the tradition for students to build a personal library of books that they mark in, keep, and return to over the years to treasure. They call this collection “Classics To Keep.”
This is good practice for obvious reasons, but research proves just how good it is. According to the Oxford Journals, test scores from 42 nations provide evidence of the benefits of having a home library. But did the study mention which books were included in the homes? Are they all stocked with just classics?
In browsing my own collection, my personal library is an eclectic mix of classics, professional women memoirs, YA novels, anthologies, science and history textbooks, as well as books on pedagogy. Naturally, my choices for building Zoe’s early childhood books have followed the wide-ranging style of “Let’s get whatever we’re in the mood for…”
Today, Zoe and I hand-picked what we call “Our Classics.” Our classics list had very little to do with the classical liberal arts philosophy but more to do with Italo Calvino’s The Uses of Literature definition.
When it comes to stocking your child’s bookshelf, there is method in the madness. Not all pieces need to be classics - nor should they be. Our bookshelves represent something meaningful for us that help us bring back some wonderful memories. That’s what all great books should do. High test scores as a result of this ongoing project would simply be icing on the cake.
Here’s our list of Favorite Books in Early Childhood For ALL AGES:
Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr and John Archambault. Illustrated by Lois Ehlert - This rhyming alphabet book will burn into your memory. The colorful paper-cut pictures are easy to emulate. So if you’re an early childhood teacher, Chicka Chicka Boom Boom would be one of the most fun DIY decor for your classroom bulletin boards. If you’re a kindergartener, the tempo will keep you dancing, and before you know it, you’ll be the cool kid saying, “Look who’s coming! It’s black-eyed P...Q, R, S, and loose-tooth T!" I’m Zoe! I Can Do It Myself (Little Blessings) by Melody Carlson. Illustrated by Elena Kucharik. The Little Blessings series is known for addressing Christian concepts, but the four character books (I’m Kaitlyn! I’m Jack! I’m Zoe! I’m Parker!) focus on skills and social development. In I’m Zoe, young readers meet a little girl taking small steps towards gaining independence: making her bed, getting dressed, brushing her teeth, and playing with her friends. My daughter still adores this one because she gets a kick out of seeing her name in print (like mother, like daughter). An added bonus is the girl in the book is Asian and looks like her. Super cute. Blue Dragonfly by Pia Villanueva-Pulido. Illustrated by Rene Espinosa. Speaking of getting a kick out of seeing my name in print, this book holds many special meanings for us. Michael and I planned a series of children’s books for emerging readers called River of Imagination years before she was born, and Blue Dragonfly was the first one. Before she learned how to read (age 3 or 4), Zoe could already tell the story with sound effects! In his search for new adventures, curious little Blue Dragonfly embarks on a journey of self-discovery, but his temptations soon lead to trouble. The soothing voice-over narration and accompanying music make the story engaging, along with the colorful detailed pictures illustrated by a comic book artist turned tattoo artist/rock band lead guitarist in L.A. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney. Illustrated by Anita Jeram. The ever-romanticized quote “I love you to the moon and back” isn’t so cheesy or eye-roll inducing in this sweet book at all. The tenderness between Little Nutbrown Hare and his father Big Nutbrown Hare show just the right amount of reassurance for the young ones (ages 0-2) who need to feel safe and loved. The illustrations complement the text well for the emerging readers (ages 4-7) who need clues to read aloud the short phrases and simple vocabulary. Your Own Keepsake Journal Baby Book - I can’t stress enough just how much I have treasured my keepsake baby book I made for Zoe’s first year. There are so many selections available in Amazon alone that you’re bound to find one that suits you whether you’re a first time mom or a busy working mother with multiple children. Zoe and I love to flip through the pages of her book together - a scrapbook with journal entries. Her sonogram pictures, first day at home, and monthly updates recorded in my own handwriting. I love writing, so I wrote letters to her before she was born. When she was old enough to read and understand, she asked me to continue writing to her. Even if you’re not a writer, I would highly encourage getting a journal with your child together and interact with each other through the written word. There are no rules. Just fun. Next time you get a chance to browse your bookshelf, do yourself a favor and pick up of those books that bring back memories. Think about the specific time in your life that compelled you to buy that book and find meaning behind them. And do the same for your kids.
I love history, especially American history. I love reading about some interesting part of history I’ve never read about before, then researching primary documents to see if it’s true. So many fascinating facts never make the cut to be included in school textbooks. Perhaps if more of them were incorporated, a greater interest in American history would result. Is it important to teach the history of our country?
Welcome guest blogger, Ruby Gold. Ruby lives in a small town in Indiana. Lately, she's taken to blogging to try to understand her niece, the universe, and how she can get a good pastrami sandwich in rural Indiana.
When my ten-year-old niece wanted a training bra (she begged for a hot pink strappy thing to cover her breast buds), I shrieked. “A training bra! For Pete's sake, why do your boobies need to be trained? I mean, c'mon! What are they going to do —compete in the Olympics to see which ones stay up the highest and the longest?I hope you're not planning to show them someday to Hugh Hefner, heaven forbid!”
She told me I was nuts, which she does at least twice a day, and which I may very well be. Que sera sera!
But, seriously,who ever invented training bras to begin with? And really, please, please, can anyone tell me what is their mission?
Like many other weary aunties, I turned to the modern day Guide for the Perplexed: Google. And I found the aboutparenting website. Here's what it had to say: “A training bra helps protect the nipple from chafing against clothes. A training bra also helps give the girls a flattering shape.” Protect the nipples from chafing? Tell me, women of the world, who out there has ever suffered from chafed prepubescent nipples?
If you have, I'm very sorry and hope that they've healed.
But, excuse me for pointing out the obvious, men have nipples and most of them aren't wearing bras!
Then, the article goes on to say: “A training bra is necessary when a girl begins to develop, as girls may be teased about their changing bodies.” Ha! That's the clincher, I thought. Women of the world, who has ever been teased about their changing body? I see millions of hands going up around the globe waving, madly.
Okay, that's sad. But the article gets sadder: “A training bra does not train the breasts, rather it helps girls adjust to wearing a bra and it provides a small amount of shaping and protection.” Well, so that's it, huh, we're training girls to be adjusted to the life-long discomfort of bra wearing. Think wires sticking under your boobs. Please don't tell me the wires are more comfortable when they're padded. Or that brassieres are a joy to wear when they have straps digging into your shoulders. Think of all the ways these boob contraptions can drive a woman berserk. Scratchy lace ones. Silly snappy spandex ones. Madonna's cone bra. Thin ones, padded ones, ones to shape, mold, and lift like your breasts are aching to take off and orbit to outer space.
Remember the girdle? Yeah, glad we got rid of those!
Bra burners of the world where have ye gone? So I wrote to Gloria Steinemto see if women were still burning bras. She didn't answer.
But I took my niece's bright pink training bra to the backyard and threw it into a roasting bonfire. It smoked up nicely.
The next day, my niece was despondent when she came home from school. “Auntie, now my nipples are chafing against my T-shirt and the school bully said he could see them. Like he could actually see my nipples!!!! How could you have burned my bra, you Cruella De Vil!”
So, should I back down? Should I buy her another training bra? Years later she'll probably accuse me of starting her on a path of bodily confinement, fleshly tortures, and heaven only knows what else. What's an auntie to do? I want to say don't wrap and strap in the girls until you really need to.
I'd love to hear your two cents on training bras. Does anybody remember wearing them? Please feel free to share your experiences and advice. Ruby Needs to Know!
Parents and children know that it’s important for children to develop strong reading skills--the question I hear so many parents asking is, “How can I get my child to enjoy reading more?” They’re absolutely right. Enjoying reading is key.
We do what we enjoy doing--that’s basic human nature, isn’t it? Reading develops only with practice -- the more you read, the better you get; the better you get, the more you read. So how do we help children enjoy reading and choose to read more often? I love the National PTA's Family Reading Challenge -- check out the resources & ideas at ptareadingchallenge.org.
I love this video with Kwame Alexander and his family talking about about what they love about reading together as a family. Fills me with smiles hearing how much love and happiness reading together brings.
Across all age groups, children agree that their favorite books are the ones they pick for themselves. Not only that, they are also much more likely to finish books that they choose themselves.
Encourage a love of reading by taking your kids to the library or bookstore and telling them: “Read whatever you want to! As long as you choose it, that’s what is important to me.” Kids love being in control.
Kids want books that make them laugh when they’re choosing books--and this is the dominant factor for kids in elementary and middle school. Kids also report that they look for books that let them use their imagination, inspire them or teach them something new.
Parents sometimes wonder: should I encourage my child to read on his or her own, instead of reading aloud? Shouldn’t they practice themselves? Reading practice matters, but kids have to practice all day long in school. Reading together builds bonds and helps children remember the pleasure that books can bring.
Children enjoy listening to more complex, interesting stories than they can read independently. Typically, it isn’t until eighth grade that reading comprehension catches up to listening comprehension. Nearly half of kids said they liked listening to their parents read aloud because they could listen to books that might have been too hard to read on their own.
Reading aloud at home is like an advertisement for the pleasures of reading. Why take away these advertisements just because kids can read on their own? Shared reading time provides special time for families, especially as the chaos of life multiplies as kids juggle activities and homework. It can lead to fun family jokes that stem from funny moments in a story, and it can provide safe opportunities kids bring up difficult, confusing big issues they’re thinking about.
I hope you can carve out time to read together this summer. It will make a difference in your children's lives.
We’ve teamed up with Mother Daughter Book Reviews again for our latest release Caterpillar Shoes. You can enter through May 6th for a chance at winning a $50 gift card by clicking the Rafflecopter link:
More April surprises have arrived. We have joined forces with some other great children’s book authors for a big giveaway. During April 5th – April 9th you can download the kindle version of our book, The Pig Princess from Amazon for FREE.
And since we think pigs rule we want to let you know about Scott Gordon’s children’s book, Pigtastic which is also FREE on Amazon during this period.
We saved the best for last. You can enter to win a 3DS XL and a game of your choice.
Super excited to announce that our Bee Bully is being featured in Bookbub today and is only $.99 for a limited time. To celebrate we have some free gifts to tell you about. From April 1st – April 5th you can download our latest release, Caterpillar Shoes, absolutely free from Amazon. Check out what’s troubling Patches the caterpillar and the silly decision she makes to live her life to the full. There are some interesting caterpillar facts in the back of this book.
I’ve also got more surprises to share. My friend, Laura Yirak, is also giving away a copy of her delightful bee book, Bumble Babees during this same period.
Scott Gordon has another treat for you. His book, The Most Beautiful Flower will be FREE April 2-April 6. This book is only $.99 on April 1st. Don’t you just love spring! Enjoy these goodies while they last.
I’m welcoming my first guest blogger on the topic of failure today, writer and teaching artist Donna Trump. Is it easier to let yourself fail than your children?
Twenty-plus years ago, my children had an excellent elementary school teacher who was a proponent of parents allowing their children to fail. I dismissed her, of course: What child doesn’t have ample opportunity to fail?
A closer look at my own parenting at the time revealed I was doing exactly what this teacher preached against: I was trying, very hard, to prevent my kids’ failure. From the arguably innocuous retrieval of lunches and assignments when they were left behind; to the poorly disguised control-freak aspect of perennially volunteering in my kids’ classrooms; to the absolutely cringe-worthy hyper-maternal defense mode I went into when one was called out on perfectionism (ya think?) and the other on punching a kid in the face; to the ethically bankrupt decision (after a particularly trying mix of personalities the year before) to hand-pick their Odyssey of the Mind team, which I was coaching—I had to admit, I was guilty as charged.
I did these things to shield my kids from various types and degrees of failure: bad grades, bad learning environments, bad reputations, bad relationships with friends and peers. I did not want them to fail. No one wants their kids to fail. We want to be our children’s champions. We need to be our children’s champions, their advocates, their biggest fans. It hurts, terribly, to watch them suffer—as they will, certainly, when we stop rescuing them from themselves. But having things turn out less than perfectly teaches them something, too.
Studies show that kids who have a chance to fail (and, notably, to recover) tend to develop personality characteristics like tenacity and grit. Occasional crappy outcomes teach them they’ll survive, even when the world’s not a perfect place.
As my kids got older, mouthier, more confident it occurred to me: What if I didn’t replace that mysteriously crushed iPod? What if I declined decorating the gym for a dance when the child whose dance it was somehow managed to weasel out of the assignment? And what if I even called said child out, publicly, on errors in judgment about both me and that touchy issue of work ethic?
I wasn’t always strong enough to follow through. To understand that I wasn’t competing for popularity. I should have more often doled out a few key phrases: “You’ll live.” “Life isn’t a bowl of cherries.” “Try again.”
I’m sorry about that. I failed my children and myself. Nonetheless I stuck with it. This parenting thing (repeated failure and all) has brought out the tenacious in me. Opportunities for growth have abounded. Failure does that. And now I am more likely than ever to let failure happen.
Unless you want to rescue your children for the rest of time, from a failed job interview, or a failed relationship, or a failed dream, however heartbreaking, I suggest you practice these phrases: You’ll live. Life isn’t a bowl of cherries. Try again. Because if not now, then surely at some point you will no longer be able to rescue your kids in any meaningful way, and they will have only their own resources to draw on.
Disappointing and even devastating things will befall our children, at times as a result of their own doing. I wish this weren’t true, but experience tells me otherwise. One of our most important jobs as parents is to prepare our kids for these practically inevitable failures. Prepare them. Let them practice (while we’re still close by) with bad grades, bad behavior, bad decisions of all kinds. Teach them how to redeem themselves and then let them fail again, while the stakes are still relatively low and while they still come home, in victory and defeat, to us.
And if you happen to be a writer as well as a parent, be heartened: practice with failure—who knew?—appears to cross genres. Take it from me: opportunities for growth, as they say, abound.
Donna Trump writes about failure, success, doubt, faith, Vincent Van Gogh and heart transplants in her fiction and in her blog (www.donnatrump.org). Follow her on Twitter @trumpdonna1.
Happy World Poetry Day! We’ve been busy working on our latest children’s picture book, Caterpillar Shoes. This story is about a colorful caterpillar named Patches. She’s an energetic caterpillar trying to decide what activities to do. In the end, she doesn’t put any limits on herself and lives her life to the full. This is our twelfth children’s book and we are so excited for it’s release. Stay tuned here to learn about upcoming promotions for this book and others.
Th only limit to a paintbrush and a blank canvas is your imagination.
Here is a nice write up KDP did on my in their latest newsletter. So cool!
KDP Author Angela Muse
Angela Muse, author of The Bee Bully, shares her experience with Kindle Direct Publishing.
“I wrote my very first children’s book in 2009 as a gift to my two young children. If not for my son and KDP, my experience as an author would have ended right there. One day in 2011, he asked me why I wasn’t publishing any more children’s books, and I didn’t have a good answer. The stories were there. In fact, I’d written several that were just gathering dust in my closet. The platform for indie publishing was there. Amazon had launched KDP, and many authors were finding success. Of course, those voices that keep us from following our dreams began to mount in my head. What if people can’t find my stories? What if people do find my stories and they hate them? What if I can’t find a good illustrator that I can afford? After quashing all those voices, I decided to go nuts…literally.
“While collecting acorns with my children in the fall of 2011, I created a story entitled The Nutt Family: An Acorny Adventure and decided that this would be my next release. I found a brilliant illustrator in Poland, held my breath, and hit the publish button. In 2012, my journey as an independent author began by publishing more titles including The Bee Bully, The Pig Princess, and Suzy Snowflake.
“When I first started, I didn’t have a clue about where to find good illustrators, how to get book reviews, and most importantly, how to effectively market my books. In the beginning, I researched and networked with other authors to gather as much data as I could to help me in all these areas. The biggest hurdle was the marketing. I tried many different techniques, but one of the most effective was utilizing the free promotion days in KDP Select. Once my books were free, there were lots of websites and social media outlets that were willing to promote them. I also tried to focus on my audience as much as possible. For the most part, I write children’s picture books, but the children are not the ones who will purchase them. I focused on the parents and finding blogs and sites specific to that audience who would want to promote or feature my books.
“I wasn’t one of those people who sought out an agent for my work and tried to go the traditional route. With KDP, I have a golden opportunity to go at this myself and do things my own way. I can set my own goals and deadlines. I can market my books in the manner I choose. I can decide my price structure. I have full control.
“Did I make mistakes along the way? You bet, but I also learned a lot in making those mistakes. I found support from many great authors who were also forging ahead in the indie publishing world, and we were all doing this together. It felt like we were all out in this big ocean trying to catch oysters, each of us looking for our own pearls.
“It’s been almost three years since I began this journey, and I’m so grateful to KDP and the KDP Select program for giving indie authors a chance, that not long ago, we never would have had. I wouldn’t have received fan mail from preschool aged children who enjoyed my stories if not for KDP. One of my goals as a children’s author is to get kids to read. KDP allows me to publish quality children’s picture books to help me accomplish that goal. The smiles and giggles from the kids who read my books are just the icing on my indie publishing cake.”
Four people with radically different outlooks on the world meet on a train and start talking about what they believe. Their conversation varies from cool logical reasoning to heated personal confrontation. Each starts off convinced that he or she is right, but then doubts creep in. During February, we will be posting a series of extracts that cover the viewpoints of all four characters in Tetralogue. What follows is an extract exploring Sarah's perspective.
The holiday season can be an insanely stressful time. Looking for presents, wrapping them, cooking, getting the house ready for visitors, cleaning before and after. Nothing like a normal Saturday night on the couch in front of the TV or with a couple of close friends. The holidays demand perfection. You see it all around you, friends are talking about how stressed out they are, how much they still have to do in just a couple of days. Hyper-decorated stores are talking in their own way. As you approach the 25th of December you still haven’t bought half the gifts you need to rack up for family members, the house looks like a bomb crater and you occasionally wish yourself back in the office with piles of work on your desk waiting to be completed. There are even times when you would exchange a chilly Monday morning and an 8 o’clock meeting for this nerve-racking time that’s supposed to be happy, fun and merry.
What many rattled folks forget in the midst of buying last-minute bequests for loved ones or checking on the unhappy-looking beast in the oven minutes before guests arrive, wishing themselves far away, is that as many as half of the population face a holiday season without their dearest family members. There are people who have lost their loved ones in gruesome ways. I can’t even begin to imagine how they must feel, as they approach every new upcoming holiday season. There are people who have lost their parents to old age, people who have gone through heartbreaking divorces, separations and breakups and people who are overseas defending their country because they have no other choice. The holidays will not be what they once were for any of them. And then there are the single parents, parents many of which have decent custody agreements that are “in the best interest of the children.” According to the US Census Bureau, there are more than 10 million single parents in the United States today. Each year millions among them can look forward to days of loneliness because the little ones they really want to spend time with are with the other parent.
When sane parents separate, many judges, thankfully, divide custody equally. Each parent gets his or her fair share of custody, if at all possible. Even when it’s not possible to share the time with the children equally, judges will usually attempt to divide up the holidays evenly. The kids spend every other holiday with mom and every other holiday with dad. It certainly is in the children’s best interest to get to spend some time with each parent. Most kids, with decent moms and dads, would prefer to spend every holiday with both parents. The precious little ones secretly hope for the impossible: That their divorced or separated parents will get back together. But despite their wishes, they adjust to the situation. They have no other choice.
Nor do the parents. As we face the holidays many single parents face a very lonely time. They may be with dear family members: parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, aunts and uncles. Yet they may nonetheless feel a profound pain in their hearts, even as they watch close relatives savor the pecan pie or scream in delight when they rip open their Christmas presents. Their own children are far away. In most cases the youngsters are in a safe place elsewhere, stuffing their faces with goodies or breaking out laughing when the other grandpa makes a funny face. In most cases single parents know that their children are enjoying themselves in the company of the other caregiver and his or her extended family.
Yet the children are missing from the scenery. Their absence is felt. “It hurts. It hurts every other Christmas when my kids are with their dad during the holidays,” says Wendy Thomas, a St. Louis, Missouri single mother of two girls ages 8 and 5. Thomas shares custody with the girls’ father, who lives in Illinois. “The first year was the hardest but I don’t think I will ever get used to it. Shopping malls and Silent Night make me shiver,” says the 38-year-old entrepreneur. This is her third Christmas and New Year’s without her children.
Each holiday a single parent truly misses his or her children on that one day that is supposed to bring delight to everyone. “It’s going to be a lonely, lonely Christmas without you” may just be tedious background music for the families that didn’t break apart. Each year, however, the oldie is causing a tiny tear to run quietly down the cheek of some single caregiver.
But could some of the reported agony over absent children during the holidays be the result of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance, a psychological mechanism we use to justify our choices and conflicting belief sets? For example, you choose to volunteer three hours a week at the local children’s hospital. It’s killing you. You can barely fit in everything else you have to do. But you tell everyone, including yourself, that volunteer work is truly rewarding and every (wo)man’s duty. Making irrational decisions seem rational is a way to preserve your sense of self worth.
Studies show that the hardship involved in raising children makes us idealize parenthood and consider it an enormously rewarding enterprise. In a study published in the January 2011 issue of the journal Psychological Science researchers primed 80 parents with at least one child in two different ways. One group was asked to read a document reporting the costs of raising a child. The other parents read the same document as well as a script reporting on the benefits of having raised children when you reach old age. The participants were then given a psychological test assessing their beliefs about parenting. The team found what they expected. Parents who had only read about the financial costs of parenthood initially felt more discomfort than the other group. But they went onto idealize parenthood much more than the other participants and when interviewed later their negative feelings were gone.
“How do single parents get through Christmas as painlessly as possible?”
Could cognitive dissonance explain why single parents feel empty-handed and depressed during holiday seasons without their children? St. Charles, MO, family counselor Deborah Miller doesn’t think that’s what’s going on. “This year it’s my turn to be one of those parents. I’ll be the first to admit that raising a child is not always a blessing. There are countless times when I feel more like a chauffeur or a waitress or a slave than a free agent with some real me-time.” She thinks the lonely-parent phenomenon evidently is not a manifestation of cognitive dissonance, as we don’t idealize away the pain of being without our children on Christmas or New Year’s. The heartache often doesn’t go away until we see our kids again in January and abruptly remember just how draining it is to raise a child. “I’ll finally get some time to myself, and I know my son will have a blast. But I’ll miss him immensely,” says Miller.
How do single parents get through Christmas as painlessly as possible? The solution is not necessarily to have a huge family gathering with your side of the family to ease the sorrow. A gala dinner on Christmas Day may have its advantages. You can hug your little nieces and nephews and maybe feel a bit of comfort as they open their presents in a way only children can approach surprises. You may feel a teensy bit of wonder (or is it jealousy) as you view your siblings and their spouses exchange loving smiles and their young ones take delight in the simplest of things. “It may work for some but there is a sense in which you will only be a spectator,” says Miller. She recalls her Christmas two years ago. “I felt gratified to be part of a functional family, and it was good to see my siblings interact with their children. I also remember being thankful that my parents were still alive and healthy and that they got one more holiday season with some of their grandchildren. But I also felt great sadness, because the dearest thing in my life wasn’t with me. I really missed my son that day.” This Christmas, Miller is getting together with a few friends. “Sure, we will still have Christmas dinner but there won’t be any children or presents or sacred family traditions. So hopefully I won’t be reminded of what I’m missing out on.”
Featured image credit: Christmas Decorations, by Ian Wilson. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.
My wife sat at her laptop furiously compiling the lists for our four girls. She checked it once, then again while travelling to website after website scouring the internet for the best price and delivery. Items were added to baskets and carts checked out at such a frantic pace that I literally felt a warmth emanate from the credit card in my back pocket. Shopping at a fever pitch – Christmas delivered in two days or less. Not like most years, where she disappears for hours on end to find the perfect gift at the mall. She doesn’t have time for that this year because we got cancer for Christmas.
We didn’t ask for it. It wasn’t circled in the wishbook or written in red crayon. No one sat on Santa’s lap and begged for it. No, cancer just showed up unannounced and took our year away.
So rather than spending quality time with each of the girls to weigh their enormous wants against our limited budget as in years past, she spent Saturday morning hunting and pecking under great duress. Do they have the right size? Will it be delivered on time? Is that really something she will use or should we just give her cash?
At some point during the madness, I asked her what she wanted for Christmas. She paused to consider. Her eyes got red and her mouth failed her. She didn’t answer, but I knew. I knew what she wanted the second I asked the question and Amazon.com can’t deliver it, even though we are Prime members. It is the only thing either of us want.
We want our baby to stop hurting.
We want her to stop having to face treatments that make her sick and waste away.
We want her legs to work.
We want her to be able to go to school… to run, skip and play like every normal 12 year-old girl should.
We want her to stop coughing.
We want her hair to grow back so people don’t stare at her.
We want normal family time – not garbled, anxiety-laden, jumbled hodge-podge comings and goings where one is sick or two are missing for yet another appointment.
We want to relax and not worry.
We want to give cancer back.
I’ll take one of those please, Santa. Any size will do. No need to wrap it up because if you deliver it, the paper won’t last long. Oh, and you can ditch the receipt, I won’t be returning that gift.
I know many people are dealing with heartbreak and struggles. While Christmas is a season of love and giving, it also seems to magnify pain and loss. We don’t have the market cornered on hurt. I realize that.
It’s just that my wife loves Christmas so much. She loves everything about it, from finding the perfect, fattest tree to decorating every square inch of the house in some form of red and green. She loves the sound of the carols (save Feliz Navidad) and the smell of the baking, even though she is the one wearing an apron. She loves that, for the briefest of moments, the world focuses on the birth of our Savior. She loves taking a drive to see lights on houses and staying home with hot chocolate around a fire. She loves spending time with family, watching It’s a Wonderful Life, reading the nativity story, and candlelight Christmas Eve services. She loves the mad dash on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought… the joy and wonder on our children’s faces. She loves it all.
How do we do it this year?
Should we skip it?
Or should we cherish every moment together as the babe in the manger intended us to? Maybe, instead of focusing on what we’ve lost, we should hold on to the fragile remains of what we have – love, family, friends, and a newfound respect for the precious thing that is life. We should cling to our little girl, who, though frail, is fighting hard and encouraging others to do the same.
We aren’t alone. During the year, we’ve been welcomed into the country club no one wants to join – the childhood cancer community. While we are bound together by common tragedy, it is the warmest, most caring and wonderfully supportive group imaginable. It is the fraternity I wish I’d never pledged. Many of our new brothers and sisters are dealing with such incredible loss, and this time of year must certainly be crippling.
When referring to the promised coming of the child in the manger, Isaiah said, “…and a little child shall lead them.”
What if we took a cue from our little child?
Although she is the one feeling the pain, nausea, and side effects of cancer, she is also the one most excited about Christmas. Even though she only had the strength to stand long enough to put a single ornament on the tree, she admires the finished product and loves to be in the den where she can see it. She is the one who insisted on taking decorations out of town with her while she has to be gone for treatment. She is the one snuggling her elves, dreaming about Christmas morning, and soaking up every minute of the nearness of family and Christ at this time of year. She holds a compress on an aching jaw with one hand and draws up surprises for those most dear with the other. In a year of typically rapid growth for a child her age, she weighs 75% of what she did last Christmas, yet she samples whatever treats her nervous stomach will allow. While we fret over diagnosis and treatment, she savors joy, plucks smiles from pain, and builds a resume of contentment that few on this earth have ever seen. Perhaps she has it right and we have it all wrong.
Kylie hanging her favorite ornament
Instead of looking to health and prosperity for our happiness, what if, just for a moment, we set aside our problems – however overwhelming, and looked to the manger, toward a child – with gratitude for his coming and a longing for his return? What if we laughed in the face of the enemy, knowing that we are wonderfully cared for and uniquely loved? What if we hoped, even when victory was uncertain? What if we dreamed of a better tomorrow regardless of what it may hold?
What if we smiled more…
This joyous Christmas, our family holds on to hope. Together, we look to the manger, to Jesus Christ our Lord for strength and healing. We dream of the day when there is a cure – for our child & every child. We pray that next year, not a single family will have to unwrap cancer for Christmas.
I really enjoyed my conversation this fall with Jon Harrison, author the upcoming book Mastering The Game: What Video Games Can Teach Us About Success In Life, who interviewed me for his ClassicallyTrained podcast (“Life. Leadership. Videogames”).
It’s been an exciting end to 2014 for 4eyesbooks. We found more readers for our ebooks and paperbacks than ever before. Our Christmas Owl was featured on Bookbub which gained us some valuable exposure and over the winter holiday break we started writing our next children’s picture book to be released sometime this spring.
We are so grateful for all of the support we have received and feel really lucky to be able to create imaginative, colorful stories for kids and parents to enjoy. There’s nothing quite like that quality time of sitting down with a little one and a good book. That time is precious and important. The curiosity of a child is a wondrous gift and so often that quality gets buried as we grow older. Adults become so busy with school, work, errands, raising a family, etc. that we often forget how to be curious. We start to ask How? and Why? less and less.
I’m not sure what 2015 will bring to us, but we hope to create more precious moments of curiosity, of silly laughter and of quiet quality reading time with lots of new little readers.
Enter to win a hardcover copy of The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart About Money (Harper, February 3, 2015), by Ron Lieber.
Giveaway begins January 27, 2015, at 12:01 A.M. PST and ends February 26, 2016, at 11:59 P.M. PST.
First came Biggy and Buggy, who were ants. Then came Fuzzypants the tiger. Now there is Robot Doggy and Pirate Puppy.
Pirate Puppy is an invisible dog. And he likes to eat cake and strawberries and today is his birthday.
When we were opening invisible presents Pirate Puppy jumped out of one and he had a pirate hat so I knew he was a pirate puppy.
We don’t know where he lives. His job is fighting off bad guys. His job is fighting off pirates. He’s a pirate too but he is a good guy.
With his menagerie of invisible pals, I wondered how Byron would respond this year’s Caldecott Medal winner, Dan Santat’s The Adventures of Beekle The Unimaginary Friend (aka Beekle). The premise and execution are more visual than a description would do justice, but in a nutshell, Beekle is an imaginary friend waiting, and then searching, for his child.
Cute, I thought, but I wondered if Byron would be confused or upset by the use of the word “imaginary.” His invisible friends are real (just ask him) and he gets upset if you use that word.
He sat riveted and delighted through all of Beekle, loving the illustrations and giving it good reviews (“That was funny. Read it again.”), but he did want to discuss it. Why were these friends called imaginary? Why were they visible?
I finally solved this problem by saying Beekle and the other invisible friends were shown as visible in the picture book so it wouldn’t be a bunch of blank pages. Artists can do whatever they want, I said. They can make invisible things visible. They show how things would look if we could see them. And I told him “imaginary” was not always the opposite of “real.”
Byron’s invisible friends are more than make-believe companions. They allow him to improvise stories, to express his moral leanings, to negotiate reality with others. I don’t think they’re inspired, essentially, by being lonely. They’re more complicated than that and multifaceted, involving Byron’s sense of self and the world.
I think the whole thing is pretty fascinating and wish I had an invisible friend of my own.