Outrage Fatigue? Join the “Persistence"

People who work in the helping professions often experience a state described as “compassion fatigue” or burnout. They deal with so much that their capacity to feel can become dulled. The current situation following the campaign and election of Donald Trump has brought about a similar experience for many. That is “outrage fatigue”, the result of the almost daily news that is beyond belief, outrageous in words and actions. Since there seems to be no end in sight, how do we process this?  Can we sustain this level of upset without harm to our health?

I see some people so worn out, that to protect their mental health they have started to view the craziness and cruelty as the norm. Out of self defense, they are no longer outraged. Others have quit paying attention entirely, putting their energy elsewhere. Some have settled into the Kubler Ross stage of acceptance in the grief process. I have come to a stage of acceptance too, but it’s not the acceptance of this political situation; it’s an acceptance of the new role that I and others must now play as citizens of this wonderful country.

Psychological research indicates that those who are active in the face of a tragedy do better mentally in the long run. I and others are developing active strategies to respond to each new outrage that comes from the president-elect, his people and family. My menu of coping strategies includes a list of organizations that I send small donations to and a group of friends to call and rant with for a moment. But we don’t get stuck in a mutual hand wringing. Instead, after a little venting, we talk about what we are doing in response. And for comic relief, old episodes of SNL to watch again.

Among my friends are ones with a specific cause or concern. Many are promoting more climate awareness and action. Some support initiatives in science and education. Others, civil rights organizations and issues. A few will work to protect Social Security, health care and other threads in the safety net. People are joining groups and starting groups. 

 I write letters to law makers on both sides. I wrote one to a Republican who has shown some evidence of a moral compass, concern for the country above party (I believe more will surface). I write to journalists and thank them for their work. I exchange emails with friends, sharing links on projects and organizations.

My small donations don’t amount to a lot. But each one soothes my spirit and keeps me from falling into a sense of powerlessness. Feeling powerless breeds lethargy -- why bother if you can’t do anything? Well, we can! It might be baby steps but there are millions of us taking those steps. We must not just be the “resistance”, but must be the PERSISTENCE—persevering toward specific positive goals. Among these are supporting journalists who find and tell the truth, schools that make our children smarter and kinder, institutions that create a more level playing field --where a true meritocracy exists.

Our power is in the truth and the faith that it will eventually prevail. Our power is in the kindness and compassion we will show to those who believed in Mr. Trump and eventually find themselves to have just been the most recent victims in his compulsion to self aggrandizement. Our power is in our restraint, when we want to say, “I told you so”, knowing that this phrase can often make people cling to a flawed path. We have to be careful not to fall into the efforts of some to emphasize the division. Ours is already the bigger tent and we can make room for more.

We also need to be mindful of how this situation and our reaction to it impacts our children. We have to modulate our own fears to protect them. While we might hold very strong views about Mr. Trump and his plans, it’s important that we provide some child-friendly reasons for why we hold these beliefs -- his disrespect for women, his tendency to lie, his arrogance, and his bullying behavior. Equally important is having children see us do positive things to cope with and improve the situation.

I’m deeply troubled by the circumstance that brought us to this point, but I am heartened by the many actions that I see being taken. There are reports of a significant increase in newspaper subscriptions and growing numbers of people involved in individual and group efforts. There is a ground swell, a bubbling up of energy.

The sleeping giant is awake. We may be a little stiff from our long nap of trust and comfort, but we are moving and speaking out. Since there are more of us, our voices together will drown out the ignorant prejudice voices, not with angry shouts, but with a hopeful chorus.

I’m angry, but I’m excited by the energy I see around me. At one recent holiday party we concluded that many of the young people are so busy working to afford their rent that they can’t lead the “persistence”; it’s up to us, retired and semi-retired, to take up the cause. Even if our knees don’t make marching the preferred action, we have other methods.

The path ahead, given the mercurial personality in charge, is unpredictable, but we are not. We know that we have to focus and not get distracted by the “shiny object” that is frequently dangled to distract us from real issues. Soon the press and everyone else will be wise to that, and when he starts tweeting about locking up flag burners or about the nonexistent war on Christmas -- we will all respond, “Oh, shiny object again, now what is the real issue we are being pulled away from?" We will be smart, kind and united. Through many paths, we will move in a direction that considers the well-being of all – including the ones that once believed him.

*You can also find this article on The Huffington Post. Click here.

Graduation Speech for the "Average" Student



Some might relate to this piece from the Christian Science Monitor.

A Graduation Speech for the "Average" Student


Honor those hard-working grads who didn't quite make it to Harvard

    By Susan DeMersseman / May 24, 2004


    Graduation season is here. Soon millions of students will be leaving for college or other pursuits. But I wonder how some of them will be affected by the speeches and awards at their commencement ceremonies?

    I, along with other relatives and friends, have listened to hours of speeches and watched dozens of the 4.0's come up to the stage for award after award. As I've watched the faces of those not called, I've wondered what it must be like to be a solid "C" student, or one who struggled to hold on to a "B." Did those "average" students feel that, after all the hoopla for the award winners, their fate of mediocrity was sealed?

    As I sat through one of the longer events, I started composing an address for those "other" kids:

    Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, congratulations to the valedictorian and the 4.0's. I wish them well, but this is for the rest of you.

    You're not off to Stanford or Harvard. Maybe you're going to community college or state college, or your second or third choice. Or maybe you're going to try something different. Good for you! You are all about to do great things. Ahead of you are opportunities for success that you haven't even imagined yet. Maybe success by worldly standards; maybe success by your own standards.

    I have one piece of wisdom to share. Much more of our future than we sometimes realize is a matter of chance, and a lot is what we make of those chances.

    You might, for example, get a part-time job with a landscaper, find that you love it, and go on to create beautiful environments that bring joy and pleasure to others. Your college roommate's dad might own a business that gives you a summer job, and you might end up running the company. Or you may find the only class that meets a requirement one semester is "Geography of Water" - and you get hooked and eventually design clean-water systems for developing countries.

    One of my favorite sayings is, "God laughs, when man makes plans." I don't mean don't plan. But some of those perfectly planned 4.0 lives may take unexpected turns and so will yours. Be ready to make the best of them. The doodles that always got you in trouble may be the groundwork for a cartoon series, the design for a new building, or might enhance the lessons for your future students.

    One of those 4.0's might find a medical cure for cancer. But you might find a cure for loneliness. One day you might comb an old woman's hair into a neat little bun, push her wheelchair to a spot next to her favorite rosebush, and listen as she tells you about her garden.

    Whoever you were on Commencement Day, whatever others expected of you - well, that's done. Now you get to reinvent yourself. If you were always the super-neat one, you get to loosen up. If you were the class clown, you get to try being serious.

    Treat every class as if it's important. You never can tell. Even if you don't become an astronomer, that astronomy class that filled a requirement may turn out to be valuable. You'll acquire study skills that will help you in the next class. Or some star-filled night you may lie on the grass with your children and teach them about the wonders of this universe.

    Have faith in yourself. Most wonderful, successful people never went to the stage for an award. Many were a lot like you. They kept their minds and hearts open, found a niche, and made the most of it.

    So can you. Congratulations.


    Mother's Day

    Mother's Day -- Again
    If you are a father or if you know of a mother who is without a spouse, one of the kindest things you can do is to help her children celebrate her day. It's so good for kids to understand that not everything is about them and to experience the incomparable joy of making someone else  happy. In the process of preparing something special for their mother children learn how to put themselves in her place and create something that speaks to her desires. The following article from the Christian Science Monitor addresses the different languages that express love -- from a new hedge trimmer to a walk in the park. For a mother  who might not expect a celebration of some sort it will be an even greater joy.

    What Mother's Day language do you speak?
    By Susan DeMersseman / May 6, 2005
    I know there are some women who would be very unhappy if they received a new hedge trimmer for Mother's Day or some other special event. I am not one of those women. I would instead be upset to receive an expensive bouquet of roses. But I realize there are women who feel exactly the opposite.
    Understanding these differences has a big effect on relationships, understanding that there are many different languages of love.
    I like to bake, but my husband, who is not fond of sweets, would not hear, "I care about you," in a batch of freshly baked cookies. He might appreciate the thought, but he would be much happier to get me out of the kitchen and off to a hike in the mountains.
    We can learn to hear "I care about you" in someone's gesture, even if it is not in "our language." Over the years we learn that each person has a unique way that they express affection and love, and each person has a unique set of gestures they perceive as loving. Understanding on both sides makes it work.
    At first, I didn't hear "I care for you," when my husband washed my car. Originally I thought, "I can just run it through the car wash." But then I realized that it was important to let my husband speak his language of love to me and equally important that I read it that way.
    Gifts and gestures that express caring vary so broadly. One friend shared that her preferred combination of loving gifts and gestures was as follows: any high-tech add-on to her computer and someone to follow her toddler around and pick up all the clutter.
    My own objection to expensive bouquets is not to flowers. I love flowers, but I am a gardener and an annoyingly practical person. I would rather have a plant for the yard. Once in a while, I do appreciate the gift of a certain perfume, but wonderful gardening tools are my real luxury. And even more wonderful - someone to follow me around and pick up the clippings as I prune.
    As a mother, I have found wish lists a good way to help with translating these unique languages we have. My Mother's Day wish list always includes the request that the sometimes-unsweet siblings will be sweet to each other.
    The first wish list included what I wanted for dinner. From that wish list, my family developed a traditional Mother's Day menu to speak my language. And just as important - though I do not like breakfast in bed - I "oohed" and "aahed" when my children were little and graced me with this honor. Breakfast in bed is not, in my language, a loving gesture, but it was in theirs and so it was important to "hear" and understand their language.
    This comprehension of others' emotions even when not perfectly expressed is maybe the most loving language of all.
    To this day, I remember the way that my father raved about the weird little salads that 5-year-old me served him on jar lids. One of his "favorites" was crumbled up saltines on shredded carrots! I love that he understood my language. His language was the understanding.



    This time of year and this time of life can inspire some serious editing of one's possessions. Seems a good time to repost this article.


    Taking care of too much plenty / All of that stuff we accumulate has to go someplace
    Susan DeMersseman, Special to The Chronicle
    Published 4:00 am, Saturday, May 29, 2004

    Stores and catalogs now offer a wonderful variety of storage containers, but for many of us, our possessions have outgrown even the most clever "storage solutions." We have been so successful at acquiring things that we now need a system for editing what we have so successfully acquired.

    My husband has a theory that we operate in a sort of flat-top pyramid pattern in relation to our possessions. On the incline it is acquire, acquire, acquire. On the plateau it is use, use, use and on the decline it is get rid of, get rid of, get rid of. It seems many of us Baby Boomers are at the top of that down slope.

    Offspring come in very handy in this department. Second-string possessions work nicely for first apartments. Unfortunately, many of those offspring have their "first apartment" under our roofs and bring more stuff home! I do know a few people who find it easy to get rid of things.

    One is my friend Pam, who for years thought she was 5 feet 8 and was thus responsible for passing along to me some wonderful items of clothing. Then she realized that she was 5 feet 4 and discovered the petite department, which cut severely into my wardrobe. My friend Holly follows the rule, "If you don't use it within a year, get rid of it." If I followed that rule I would have nine things in my closet.

    There are even people who find it easy to place things on the curb for Goodwill. Others of us need a specific recipient. We can open our closets and cupboards easily if a friend can use something, but we can't just "get rid of it." There is a special pleasure in finding someone who can actually use something we've been saving for years.

    Eyeing my basement long ago, my husband commented, "You're saving things for people you haven't even met yet." I think it was meant as a criticism, but it made perfect sense to me. Some of us have that hopeful nature that causes us to see potential value in almost everything. And so we store these items that "could be" useful -- or be used to make something useful -- until we finally realize we are not ever going to put in the work that turns their potential value into real value.

    I had an elderly friend who used to say, "Don't buy work." Many of us have not only bought it, we are storing it. The ultimate way to edit possessions, of course, is to move. The prospect of packing, transporting and unpacking an item really makes one question the importance of that item in one's life. Though I have lived in the same house for 28 years, I've helped many friends move. It's comforting to see that others have as much stuff as I do. Or to see that others also have a sentimental attachment to almost every item that has ever entered the house. One strategy we used successfully in a few of these moves was to make three categories: useful, sentimental, and both useful and sentimental. The last pile was a must-keep and the other two depended upon how useful or how sentimental.

    Having some sort of system for dealing with the need to move things along is a necessity at certain times in our lives. Polling friends and drawing from experience, a few suggestions for editing possessions follow:
    -- Garage sales can be a lot of work for the payoff; do one with a group or consider alternatives.

    -- If you have youngsters, find a family with kids a few sizes smaller than yours and make regular deliveries of usable clothing, toys and books (hold on to all Legos and baseball cards). Keep a cupboard of "pass along" items, where your kids can regularly put things they no longer wear and hopefully develop a lifelong habit.

    -- Create a system at work or among friends of sharing "bad purchases." Friends know that the strange shades of green they mistakenly buy will look good on me and I know to whom to give the red things I mistakenly purchase.

    -- Big items such as tables and dressers that you can't yet part with can be placed on long-term loan with good friends.

    -- Call local schools to donate craft supplies for after-school programs.

    -- For current and nice clothing, explore the consignment clothing stores, but call ahead to find out what their specifications are.

    -- If you don't want items to be resold, check with local churches that help those in need.

    --Find other places to use items that grow dusty in your home. One first-grade teacher brought her bread-making machine to school, and her students are treated to warm bread on Monday mornings.

    Another habit that can keep us from bringing even more into the mix is to be aware of that dreamy retail glow that surrounds things when they're in the store. Instead, try to imagine attempting to fit the item in with all the other stuff. The concept of enough is a hard one to nail down. For some of us it just keeps moving up with our capacity to acquire. For others the point comes when we run out of space or when the place in our minds that inspires acquisition is busy with other things.

    Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/homeandgarden/article/Taking-care-of-too-much-plenty-All-of-that-2771893.php#ixzz2QN6pf9eO

    Use your words! Which ones?

    A script might help.

          There will be an expanded version of this piece in an upcoming book (due in a few months), but I see the need for this understanding now. The phrase "Use your words," is very common from adults working with young children. It is usually in response to a conflict among children or in response to some unacceptable behavior. The hope among the adults is that the child will say, "Can I please have a turn." Rather than snatching a toy or bopping a peer on the head to get what they want. The hope is that the child will generally use language rather than some kind of aggressive or tantrum-like behavior. It's great advice and guidance  IF the child has the words. Saying "use your words" assumes that the child has them, but in my many years of working in schools I've found that this is often not the case. Or they may have the "wrong" words.
          Children don't automatically develop effective communication skills. They need guidance and sometimes very explicit training. Even older kids often benefit from developing effective scripts for a variety of situations. In my work with children individually and in classroom discussions we generate and practice a number of scripts to deal with a range of experiences. Some of the common scripts are for ways to express a request such as, "Can I have a turn with that toy." Or to set boundaries on a peer with something like, "I don't like it when you pull on me, please stop." Even the script for a proper apology is useful and can include many parts. An elaborate version might be something like, "I'm sorry I did that. I didn't mean to hurt you. I'll be more careful from now one."
         So when we ask them to use their words, it a great idea to make sure that they have those words.


    An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor -- still true and confirmed by a recent Gallup Study



    By Susan DeMersseman MAY 15, 2002

    BERKELEY, CALIF. — I will never forget the news about my friend's daughter: She was going to Stanford University – and felt devastated. Her friends were all going to prestigious Eastern schools, while she had "settled" for her second choice.

    Just the week before, I had spoken with the father of three teenage boys – all great kids, but low-average students. And each felt like a failure.

    Then, listening to the college counselor at my daughter's college prep night, I was struck by how high the bar has been set for youngsters: Average now equals failure. American society is so competitive that the pressure has filtered down to the youngest children.

    Is there any place in childhood where you can just be where you are, not "getting ready for the next level?" My son's teachers in middle school pushed hard to get the kids ready for high school. I understand the pressure teachers feel, but I wonder if kids might not be better off if teachers just helped them do something well for the feeling of satisfaction in a job well done.

    I do know of a fifth-grade teacher who doesn't always speed through assignments and grade kids on their first effort. Several times during the year, she works with each child until an assignment merits an "A." Each student gains the experience of producing fine work.

    But she is an exception. When I mentioned my concern to fellow psychologists, each had examples. One woman's sister had gone to a very high-powered high school. Her teachers and classmates had made her feel like a failure, because she was only a C+ student. Though she went on to get a doctorate and now holds a prestigious job, she still sees herself as a failure.

    In contrast, another psychologist described her sister, too, who had struggled through school. But their parents had encouraged her to find many sources of satisfaction and kept telling her she would find her niche. She did, and is now a happy, successful adult.

    Maybe there is an underlying belief that, if we make satisfaction unattainable, children will be more motivated. But perhaps we will end up with highly motivated people who never experience satisfaction. Or youngsters like the teenagers who feel that only A's "count," so why bother if you can't achieve them.

    Some of this pressure represents a misguided sense of what it takes to be successful in this world. In less pleasant cases, it is a sign of people who use their children for their own sense of status.

    In parenting workshops, I often ask participants to consider the question: "Are the people I know who went to Stanford and Berkeley so much happier than those who went to other colleges?" If the answer is not a resounding yes, then what are we doing to our kids?

    Society has put so many conditions on children's value, it's easy to see how they can end up feeling like nothing. Psychologists practicing in affluent communities are kept in business by this trend.

    The pressure also seeps into activities out of school. One mother described her feeling of inadequacy at a young child's birthday party. One little guest came late because of chess lessons. Another left early because of violin lessons. The first mother was almost embarrassed that she wasn't in any hurry, and was just taking her child home to hang out in the backyard with the cat.

    I tried to give her some perspective in seeing that overprogrammed children do not always benefit. A few excel, but many just wear out or don't develop the capacity to pursue self-initiated activities. I don't encourage parents to eliminate expectations, but instead to appreciate children and help them find skills that give them pleasure regardless of the grade, the money, or the status that goes with them.

    After 12 years of college, what is my greatest source of satisfaction? A patch of ground well weeded. A friend well cared for. The ability to notice the wonderful things that happen when the autumn sunset puts a rosy filter in front of the fading hydrangeas.

    I enjoy my work, but this is not because I have a PhD from Berkeley. It's from parents who loved me unconditionally and helped me, by their example and support, find many sources of satisfaction in life.

    It is possible to motivate people without keeping satisfaction unattainable. In fact, what could be more motivating than the desire to reproduce the wonderful feeling of a job well done?

    There are many routes to happiness that do not pass through the doors of Ivy League colleges.

    • Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist.


    College Admission Letters -- The Wait

    Gallup just published a study confirming the issues described in this article published 10 years ago in the Christian Science Monitor. It's more about how you go to college rather than where.

    By Susan DeMersseman

     / February 15, 2005


    In a country whose economy depends to a great degree on hype, it's not surprising that school grades have been swept into the mix. There's been concern about grade inflation - students getting better grades than the same work might have earned years ago. But my concern is due to the inflation and hype over the importance of grades in education these days.

    Many young people are in the midst of college application mania or are waiting for news from their chosen colleges. And I have been a resentful participant in this mania, during my son's critical junior year, the year in which students need to achieve a certain grade point average and set of SAT scores for many colleges.I have felt like a hyperactive border collie nipping at my son's heels to get him to take care of every little step in this questionable process.

    I know there are many students who have their own panic attacks and stress reactions. In our house I seemed to be having them for my son. On the other hand, I know of households in which the craziness is a family affair.

    Being able to make us worry seems to be the mark of success for any modern advertising campaign: worry about thinning hair, indigestion, and emerging wrinkles. If we don't worry, we don't buy. We are made to worry, so that all the SAT preparation programs will have customers. So that colleges can have so many applicants that they can reject more and advertise how selective they are.

    My son and I once discussed this issue, and his perspective was, "High school seems to be about grades; college is about learning."

    Unfortunately, I can see why he might draw that conclusion. He has had some good teachers in high school and has learned some content. But he has also learned to focus more on classes where the grade is most important for college admission, and to focus less on classes where the content may be valuable but is less critical for college admission. What is lost in this process is hard to measure.

    Some of the things that make him a fine person and a great candidate for college are not ones you get grades for. Otherwise, he'd get an "A" for navigating a huge, diverse high school and making friends in every group. An "A" for occasionally stepping in to protect another student in a way that helped to resolve a conflict. An "A" for bouncing back from disappointments. An "A" for practicing daily with a football team on which he knew he would probably never get playing time. An "A" for optimism and enthusiasm. An "A" for common sense and good judgment. And most important - an "A" for patience with his mother as she struggles - not always calmly - to help him deal with a very flawed system.


    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    Good manners and the counter intuitive response

    An older piece from the Christian Science Monitor.  A recent trip to a produce market reminded me to post this.


    My random acts of kindness versus talk-radio-type rudeness

    In my neighborhood, I've found that even small gestures have made a big difference.

    By Susan DeMerssemanNOVEMBER 13, 2009


    This fall's trio of outbursts (from Rep. Joe Wilson, singer Kanye West, and tennis star Serena Williams) brought the topic of civility front and center.

    Like bad weather, everyone complains about rude behavior. But unlike bad weather, we can actually do something about it. Right?

    I have started a small-scale experiment to see if one person can change the public tone.

    My proving ground is a popular produce market in my neighborhood. You might think it would attract a lot of people seeking health and harmony.

    Not so much. A grumpier, more sour crowd would be hard to find. Maybe it's the narrow aisles or the limited parking, but the people who shop there are often very cranky.

    So as a quiet mission I sometimes see if I can turn the tide just a little during my regular shopping trips. It makes the long lines and narrow aisles more tolerable when I have this secondary mission.

    I start with simply trying to keep a pleasant expression. I give other shopping carts the right of way. And I offer sincere compliments.

    One day I told an older lady how much I admired her beautiful white hair. Her big smile and "Oh my gosh, you made my day" response reminded me how little it takes.

    This small exchange transformed the tone of each of our trips to the market. This type of change is possible in almost any setting, and with remarkably small gestures. Even if I haven't been able to spread mass goodwill, at least I am not part of the problem.

    What does it say about our society when the considerate, polite gestures have become out of the ordinary? We have become too casual with our own manners. If more of us were doing things, even small things, to sweeten the social stew, those people who are bitter or sour would stand out as unnatural more. And that could encourage more polite behavior.

    Some people say that good manners render one less competitive in the workforce. On the contrary, there is great power in good manners. Even teaching small children how to use "please" and "thank you," along with other little habits, will open opportunity and instill a pattern into adulthood.

    As a psychologist, I have worked in communities where social skills and the ability to reframe a potential conflict can be life saving factors for youngsters. But even when it isn't a matter of life and death, the ability and willingness to express respect can make our own lives much better.

    I admit it is disappointing when courtesy is met with an entitled response – or no response. There are times when driving that I'll stop or pull over to let another car pass, and get nothing – no acknowledgment from the other driver. It makes me want to yell at the top of my lungs, in the most sarcastic way I can "You're welcome!" (OK, I have done that a few times). But that kind of response accomplishes little. What do I gain? It certainly doesn't make me feel like a winner.

    When my son was a teenager, he liked to dress as though he had just lost a hundred pounds and hadn't bothered to buy new clothes. One day, he and I were crossing the street together and a driver waiting for us pointed to him and made a rude gesture.

    Instead of what might have been the automatic response, I put my arm around my goofy looking son as if I were the proudest mom in town and gave the thumbs up sign to the driver.

    That counterintuitive response helped reframe the situation, and rather than leave a bitter taste, it felt good. The driver's confused expression was a satisfying reaction. And it helped my son see the power of a little good.

    There's a church song that goes, "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me." Maybe we need a new version: "Let there be civility on earth, and let it begin with me."

    Many people are ready to be part of something positive. Small actions repeated do make a difference. We can start today.

    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    Myth is truth

    Rural Mythology

                The web has over 470,00 citations related to urban myths. You can go to many of them and find out that some wild story you've heard is in fact bogus.  But the ones on rural mythology deal more with literary matters and information about Norse gods, not crazy stories from the heartland.  So I had no place to go to prove to my husband that I hadn't completely made up one of the classic myths of my childhood. I had to rely upon another source -- actual people, rural people.
                "Don't cross your eyes because if someone comes up and hits you in the back of the head they will get stuck that way".  When you're little the thought of people lurking around waiting to find someone with crossed eyes so they can make it permanent doesn't strike you as illogical. So, last summer at a 4th of July party, with my husband near by, I asked and sure enough, every one at the table back in my rural homeland had heard that one.
                Then they began to offer other ones they had heard. Mostly passed along by older siblings and often created by older siblings.  One woman shared that her older five siblings convinced the "little ones" that if you planted rabbit poops the Easter bunny would grow there. So the "little ones" did and watched every day for a fuzzy tail or floppy ear to emerge from their bunny beds.
                My older brothers created more havoc with their mythology. One told me that if you picked a mole you would die. So as I scratched my little arm one day in the first grade, off came a mole and I went into a complete panic. I couldn't tell the puzzled nun why, but I insisted that I was very sick and they should call my mother right away. I didn't want to die without her.  I also couldn't tell the nun why, because even at 6 I knew that there was a small chance that this, like the other 500 crazy things my brothers had told me, was not true.
    My mother came to get me and I don't even remember what happened after that. She probably explained things quietly to me and not so quietly to my older brother.
    Some rural myth is regional and some familial and some just crazy stuff older kids make up to control the little ones. One from my oldest brother kept me out of his room. According to him there was something called white lead that he used with his oil paints and if you breathed it, it would dissolve your liver. As with much mythology there was a grain of truth in it, but to a 6-year-old it was gospel. And so when I even got near his room I held my breath and washed any skin that might have touched anything near his room.
    Then one evening, as my mother made divinity candy, I took a drink from a little glass, set it down and it foamed. Not realizing that this had been used to measure egg whites for the candy, I was certain I'd been poisoned and went into a panic (yes-another one). This time my mom, who was a nurse, thought that I was going into shock. So they rushed me to the doctor for a shot of something to knock me out.  My brothers no doubt got another "explanation". And I grew up to become a child psychologist.
    Lots of rural mythology had to do with health and the workings of the body. We didn't have as many sidewalks to worry about as our urban cousins, but even we heard, "Don't step on a crack or you'll break your mother's back". Certain members of the community were excellent at predicting the weather by the feeling in their joints. But usually we heard about their predictions after the weather event occurred, "Yup, I knew it was going to rain, my elbow was acting up."
    I grew up with four older brothers and remember many dinners at which my father told the boys that eating the skins from the baked potatoes would "grow hair on their chest". Even as a little one I understood that this was a metaphor for being strong and healthy, yet I never developed a taste for potato skins.
    My mother had her own brand of mythology. Some also had to do with health and appearance. But a lot of hers turned out to have more than a grain of truth.  She said that she thought she didn't have wrinkles because she didn't hold grudges. Notably, she lived to be 90 with a sweet, smooth face. She consciously tried to maintain a pleasant expression and with that pleasant expression often went the pleasant response, "That's nice."  When my mother went on automatic pilot mentally, it was comforting the way she continued to say, "that's nice" to information she could no longer process.
                I admit that I have absorbed and passed on to my children some of this mythology. Not the part about crossed eyes, stepping on cracks or picking moles. But they have had to listen to my encouragement of a pleasant expression and positive response. They tease me about it now, but someday when I go on automatic pilot mentally, I know that they will be glad for my smile and my pleasant response. Some myth is truth.

    Selfies? What self?

    Since this article was published the current "appearancist" trend is an obsession with presenting an attractive digital image of oneself. Different technology -- same obsession. Adjusted "selfies" and non photoshopped pictures of celebrities become newsworthy.

    Has beauty become our beast?


    BySusan DeMerssemanAPRIL 13, 2004


    It seems that almost every TV network has some sort of reality "makeover" show. Three of these involve serious plastic surgery and one even requires the participants to take part in a "beauty" contest after their transformations.

    During a recent workshop for teenagers, I brought up the issue of appearance in their world. They reacted in a sort of resigned anger regarding the power of media images over how they should look and what they should own.

    I asked if they thought we would ever reach the point where qualities that were not visible would matter more than appearance. Would that human tendency to aspire to what is rare or difficult to attain trump the obsession with "beauty"?

    Now, it is easy to be plump - very easy. And so, the sought-after appearance is slender - very slender.

    For example, in times of deprivation, it was beautiful to be a little plump. In times when only peasants were tan, it was beautiful to be as pale as possible - or to powder oneself to appear so.

    I suggested that perhaps, now that medicine and technology make it possible to appear almost any way one wants - at least any way one is willing or able to pay for - could it be that positive internal qualities will become sought after? Could qualities such as perseverance, honesty, and compassion be things that people strive to develop? Will they come to qualify as the "rare things"?

    The teenagers were not optimistic. I'm afraid I'm not, either, but I continue to hope.

    I wonder if the maturing majority will help change the values of our society. Aging baby-boomers make up a huge market. Will what they value affect this trend?

    It's a long shot.

    Advertisers, whose revenues support most media, focus mainly on the young, considered a more malleable market. Perhaps more important, there is no sector of the economy that can profit by selling honesty, compassion, or perseverance as a commodity or product. So such values are not heavily promoted.

    And, unfortunately, media images are the pool in which our cultural values are reflected and reinforced. What is valued in this pool is appearance - the material and the superficial.

    How can a child who grows up in American culture not believe that billboards are altars to what is important?

    I grew up hearing phrases such as "Beauty is as beauty does," "He has a beautiful heart," and "Don't judge a book by its cover." We were cautioned not to try to keep up with the Joneses. It was considered bad form to focus too much on appearance and possessions.

    But now, as one wise old gentleman once said, "These youngsters are living in the kingdom of thingdom."

    The trend to reshape oneself through plastic surgery is perhaps just another example of how our society often confuses the possible with the necessary. Still, one of those invisible qualities that my parents valued and instilled in me causes me to look for some positive implication in our current trend of transformation to meet a narrow standard of "beauty."

    And so, I hope, as we search for the next rare thing, we start to look inside.


    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    New Year's resolution? In reverse.

    Published 6 years ago and worth revisiting every now and then.

    Breaking down New Year's goals into baby steps

    Susan DeMersseman, Special to The Chronicle
    Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, December 31, 2008
    Embroidered sampler on how one can begin to accomplish tasks when feeling overwhelmed. Photo: Raymond Holbert, Demerssemans@yahoo.com / SF

    Embroidered sampler on how one can begin to accomplish tasks when feeling overwhelmed. Photo: Raymond Holbert, Demerssemans@yahoo.com / SF


    This time of year a lot of lists are written. Unfortunately, many of the same goals keep appearing on these lists year after year. They often include things that need to be done around the house, home improvement or organization projects. In conducting stress-reduction workshops, I noticed how frequently people mentioned the perennial unfinished project list as a source of stress.

    Part of the problem in accomplishing the goal is that it appears at the top of the page. We often don't think about the fact that the item needs to be at the bottom of the page with dozens of steps preceding it. It's clearly not as simple as placing the item at the bottom of the page, but that act realizes the truth that the lack of accomplishment is not a character flaw, but a lack of planning. We are not just being lazy or procrastinating - more often we're missing a clear path to the goal.

    This faulty thinking reminded me of a sampler I embroidered with the phrase, "Plan your work, then work your plan." Most people in the workshops had not really planned their work, even though they were making stabs at it.

    From that observation I began including an activity in the stress-management workshops that focused on the process of planning one's work. It also recognized the importance of giving a name to all the little obstacles that are between the goal and its accomplishment. I titled the activity the Yabut List and invited participants to work in pairs, but it is not a complicated exercise and can easily be done alone.

    The directions are simple. First, write the goal at the bottom of a page, then start a series of yabuts, all reasons that the specific task can't be done. Write each yabut down, working your way up to the top of the page by answering each yabut with another.

    One participant shared her reappearing goal of getting the bathroom remodeled. It started with: "Get the bathroom redone." The first yabut: "Yabut I can't do that until I get the name of a good contractor." So, her partner wrote, "Get the name of a good contractor."

    The next yabut: "Yabut I can't do that until I call my cousin's neighbor, she had a great outcome." And her partner wrote down, "Call my cousin's neighbor."

    "Yabut I can't call her until I find the gardening book she loaned me." And her partner wrote down, "Find the gardening book."

    The process continued with each yabut translated into a step. "Yabut I can't do that until I can get into the garage, where we stored all the books when we repainted the office. Yabut I can't do that until I get my son's car out of the way. Yabut I can't do that until I get the garage door fixed. Yabut I can't do that until I get the number of the garage-door installer."

    The final step was, "Yabut I can't do that until I get online and find his number." The partner wrote down, "Get online and get the number!"

    When the exercise was done, the woman had a list of steps to get her started. Little did she realize when she began the exercise that her bathroom remodel hinged on the phone number of the garage-door installer.

    I don't know if the woman ever got her bathroom remodeled. I do hope that she and the other participants gained a new strategy for chipping away at the annual list by understanding that most accomplishments happen through dozens of baby steps, formerly viewed as obstacles.

    Read more: 


    Taking down the Christmas tree

    Taking down the tree 

    Susan DeMersseman,
    Special to The Chronicle Wednesday, January 1, 2003

            I'm sure there are people for whom taking down the Christmas tree is just another housekeeping task. But for me it is a ritual filled with sentiment. It is a melancholy process in which all phases of my life participate. There is the little me who wishes we could keep the tree up all year. Trying to persuade my parents to wait just one more week. There is the practical me of now, trying to find the magic way to wind up the lights so that we don't spend hours untangling them next December. The practical me tries to get up all the pine needles so I won't still be picking them up at Easter. And there is the future me, maybe wondering, like my mother did every year from 65 to 85, when might be the last year I'd be putting the Christmas decorations away.
         I like decorating the tree with the family. It's a lively, social event, but somehow it just feels right to take it down alone. And I don't seem to get a lot of offers of help, so it works out fine. I work slowly, trying to fit more into fewer storage boxes. I try to edit a few nonsentimental items, and I stop to admire some special ornaments. There are the ones showing the goofy smiles of kindergarten, photos framed by glitter and green macaroni.
           As my mother got older, her decorating for Christmas got more and more elaborate. As I pack things away, I wonder if I'll be that way. Her house at Christmas had an arrangement on every surface. The nativity scene on the mantel. Santa on the buffet. Rudolph on the bookshelf. Once in a while she would say, "I don't know, somehow this year just doesn't feel like Christmas." For me, it felt like Christmas every time I entered her warm little house after my long journey across the country.
         As I carefully wrap the porcelain choirboys that were once hers and the few ornaments from my childhood trees, I think of her and of the warm and twinkling place she created. And I drift again to the future and to my own children and hope that such warm and twinkling memories will stick with them.
         When the tree is empty and the storage boxes packed and stowed away in the basement, then someone else can take the tree to the curb, but the job of removing the decorations is mine and one I do reverently. I'm not at the point yet where I give a lot of thought to what might be the last year. Instead, this process is about memory and appreciation and a quiet, solitary ritual -- one in which all the times of my life melt into now.
          There are some memories to share and some to savor alone.

    E-mail freelance writer Susan DeMersseman at home@sfchronicle.com. This article appeared on page HO - 3 of the San Francisco Chronicle Posted by susande

    Sandy Hook families sue gun manufacturer

    Amid my posts about the season and heartwarming traditions I must post this article from the Christian Science Monitor from over nine years ago. For too many families this time of year just amplifies their tragic loss. The families of Sandy Hook have just brought a law suit. Like the suit  brought years ago by my neighbor and friend, I pray that the result is many more people able to celebrate this season in the future with the people they love.

    One family's effort to make guns safer

    BySusan DeMerssemanOCTOBER 27, 2005


    Congress has just passed legislation providing special protection from liability lawsuits for the gun industry. This may seem like a win for people concerned about ridiculous legal claims and outrageous financial awards as well as for the gun industry. One often hears the complaint of "too many frivolous lawsuits." It fits in with the mythic suspicion of trial lawyers and may sometimes be true. But a tragic incident many years ago has given me a clear perspective on this issue. I now believe that when human life is involved, the matter is never frivolous.

    On our street back then was the dearest 15-year-old boy a neighbor could want, kind to the smaller children and helpful to the older neighbors. This boy was accidentally killed by a friend. His friend wanted to show the gun and first removed the ammunition magazine. He did not realize that a bullet was still in the chamber. He thought he was showing off with an unloaded gun. When the bullet remaining in the chamber discharged, he shattered the life of his friend - and his own.

    The parents of the child who was killed sued the gunmaker. The contention of the lawsuit was that the absence of an effective way to indicate that a bullet was in the chamber constituted a product liability claim - that being one of the reasons for the boy's death. It has been almost 10 years since the accident.

    One trial ended with a hung jury, one trial had juror misconduct, and, with the usual workings of our legal system, the last trial was completed just last year. The family lost the case. To some, the decision in favor of the gunmaker may seem like a total loss. But what became apparent is that even bringing a suit can have a powerful impact. During these 10 years there have been significant changes. Three states now have laws that require more safety features, the gunmaker in question now makes guns with a safety feature they originally said wouldn't work, and other manufacturers now make guns with internal locks.

    These are just some of the concrete and tangible results. Of equal importance are the thousands of people who have read about the case or heard about it on the news and have taken personal steps with regard to their own guns. Maybe they have purchased ones with a prominent chamber load indicator. Maybe now they store their guns unloaded. Maybe they lock them up more carefully. Or maybe, as my friend once said, they simply draw their own children close and realize how blessed they are to see them grow up.

    My neighbor is a modest, reserved woman. She would never say it, but I hope that she knows that as painful and heart wrenching as these years of litigation have been, the battle has won the lives of many other children. Regret is just part of the job of being a parent, but her struggle has saved many parents from the ultimate regret.

    Sometimes critics focus on the amount of money in the suit, as if the family is trying to benefit in some way from the loss. Just looking into one's own heart is enough to know that the money is so clearly not the issue. Money is simply the leverage that an individual has in trying to bring about a change in a product or policy - a change that those bringing the suit hope will protect others. The true currency in these matters is not a financial one, but the hope that their loss not be in vain - that a young life lost before it could bring about good in the world can still bring about good.

    The companies that are sued are in the business to make money and to hold on to that money. It is not remarkable that they wage a battle to maintain their position. Yet many of the people in these companies may know in their hearts that they and their own children are safer because of previous lawsuits.

    What is remarkable is that there are families willing to put themselves through the reliving of a tragedy and to deal with the suspicions and criticisms to accomplish an outcome that benefits the rest of us. There are no doubt some frivolous lawsuits and ridiculous awards, but for every one of those there is a family who is fighting through their anguish to make sure that others do not have to suffer the same.


    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    Jesus' birthday, not yours.

    I think this piece is worth sharing each year. This and the advice a wise man offered  years ago -- to not live in "the kingdom of thingdom."

    “It’s Jesus' birthday, not yours.”

    That statement was once said gently by my Grandfather, Ralph Kochenderfer, and repeated for years by other family members. Ralph was a reserved and kind man, but he had his priorities straight. He never missed an event his four children took part in and he would even let them play hooky on good fishing days. With a lunch of oatmeal cookies and cheese they would spend the day by the creek. But Christmas traditions were different.
    Grandfather was Pennsylvania Dutch with what seemed like a significant Amish streak. A dignified and honorable man he kept all the secrets of his little town in South Dakota. As the railroad depot agent he was the telegrapher in town in the twenties and thirties, so he knew the contents of every message sent and received.
    While he did not believe in the frenzy over gifts he enjoyed the celebration. The depot waiting room was the largest site in town and every year was the location for wonderful holiday parties – food, music, and spirit provided by everyone in town.
    I’m grateful that this simple statement became part of the family culture. While others scurry around purchasing for people close and not so close to them, most of us are decorating our homes or arranging little (or sometimes big) parties. There’s a lot of empty space under our tree, but our homes are filled with friends and festivities.
    My husband and I started early with our own children, not to expect volume. Our family event on Christmas Eve takes very little time for package opening with only a few small thoughtful gifts. Now that our children are grown we give them a little money to add to their savings for a special purchase. And there is sometimes a handmade gift card for a special activity for the family. One year when they were younger we took them for dinner at a nice French restaurant. That experience was so special and memorable it has become a point of reference for them. I just made reservations at the same restaurant and am certain the memory of the upcoming dinner will stay with them longer than anything they could unwrap from under the tree.

    Thanksgiving traditions

    Holiday traditions strengthen family ties

    Susan DeMersseman, Special to The Chronicle
    Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, November 26, 2008
    It wouldn't be Thanksgiving at Susan DeMersseman's house without the turkey-shaped candle holder of painted wood. Photo: Raymond Holbert

    It wouldn't be Thanksgiving at Susan DeMersseman's house without the turkey-shaped candle holder of painted wood. Photo: Raymond Holbert


    This year I was reminded of the power of tradition when my daughter, Lauren, was looking for the turkey-shaped candleholder that we "needed" to put on the 


    table. This candleholder is special in no other way than that it has been on our table for all the Thanksgivings I can remember. On our table, too, will always be stuffing from the recipe of the children's grandmother Carolyn. And for as long as I am at the table, there will be a short prayer of thanksgiving; I'm grateful most for the ability to see the things that we can be grateful for.

    In good or bad times, the holidays can be intense periods in peoples' lives. The holidays can create all kinds of expectations, often fueled by commercial interest, some by family pressures. Regardless of the elements that surround one's holiday, there is a powerful and comforting role that tradition can play. There is something grounding in the familiarity and continuity that traditions bring to a family. More are present around the holidays, but in many families there are regular practices that give strength to the fabric of that family.

    Years ago, after spending every Christmas with my family in South Dakota, we spent our first Christmas in California. My mother, who had been the center of the family, was no longer living, and it seemed like the right time to make the change. Many of the traditions of that first year were what might be considered recycled. That year, I yearned to see the Black Hills turn white beneath a blanket of snow. But that would not be, so that Christmas was drenched in Dakota tradition - the menus, the parties and the decorations. Fake snow on the windows and a sympathetic husband helped, but it was celebrating in ways that were familiar to all of us that made this transition easier.

    Many of the most precious traditions cost very little or nothing, important in these challenging economic times. Some families take walks before or after dinner, get together with the same friends, or as a family perform acts of charity. Tradition does not draw its power from a price tag, but from the sense of continuity that can come from something as small as a 23-year-old daughter who remembers a turkey-shaped candleholder for the Thanksgiving table.

    Thanksgiving for Gratitude

    • Thanksgiving? Give thanks for gratitude. We think more about this quality during this time of year, but this older piece from the Christian Science Monitor offers parenting strategies that can encourage it throughout the year.

    Gratitude training
    By Susan DeMersseman / November 24, 2004
                It's a little ironic that the season in which we give thanks and the one in which our children are making their holiday wish lists come so close together.
                We try to give our children so much, but sometimes forget to give them the greatest gift, the capacity to appreciate and to feel grateful. Without that we can never give them enough. We may want to give them many things, but how do we do this and not give them a sense of entitlement? This, like most aspects of parenting, is a fine balance.
                Many of our own parents tried to make us feel grateful by pointing out the starving children in some far-off land. This strategy often resulted in us offering to send those children the horrible casserole or ugly tennis shoes. In spite of those responses, many of us grew up with far less than our children have, but with a greater sense of enjoyment and appreciation. Just a glance at the sea of media in which our children swim gives us a big hint as to how this happened. All around are material things that they (and we) are led to believe we must have - that we have a right to have.
                But there are little ways to swim against this tide. The most important is simply being an example of appreciation for the things in our own lives. It can rub off. The source of gratitude can be anything - the sight of glowing cumulus clouds, our warm home, or a nice meal. They may respond with eye rolling and an, "Oh, Mom/Oh, Dad" (as if we're so sappy). But someday when we say, "Come here a minute, look at that sunset," a big cool teenager might look and say, "Oh, yeah, and I like the way the sun streams from under the edges of the clouds." When that happened to me, I was grateful that I had put up with all the eye rolling.
                In my work as a school psychologist, a mother with a rather crabby 9-year-old came to see me for help. We worked out a way to instill a bit more gratitude - but not with reminders of how fortunate he was as a response to his complaints. Instead, we focused on bedtime. She started by spending a few minutes talking about what had gone on in her day that she was grateful for: a friend who complimented her work, the polite clerk at the store, or the quiet evening with not too much laundry. Then she asked him if anything good happened in his day. He got the idea, shared a few things, and it soon became a ritual. Like the Bing Crosby song:
    "When I'm worried and I can't sleep I count my blessings instead of sheep and I fall asleep counting my blessings."
    What she most appreciated is that this outlook started seeping into his day.
                I recently worked with a second-grade class at the teacher's request. She was concerned that she seemed to have a lot of complainers in the group and so we started gratitude training with them. One day I began a lesson by reviewing and asked what they remembered from our previous discussions. One little boy said, "Well, gratitude is like a skill that you practice and get better at." I'd never really taught those words, but he had put our lessons together into that sublime understanding, one that takes some of us many years to reach.
                Part of what I do in working with youngsters is to help them be aware of what is good in their lives. With the right perspective, there's so much to appreciate. Without it, there will never be enough. And only the things they don't have will seem important.
                So along with all the "stuff" on the wish lists this year, we can add our own item: appreciation. It might even help to start by letting our kids know that, regardless of their appearance, their SAT scores, or their athletic ability, they are a source of gratitude in our lives.
    • Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    Kids go off to college (the door swings both ways)

          I wrote this article for the San Francisco Chronicle years ago when my children were going off to college. Friends now dealing with the same situation face the question of what do you do with the room, when the kids go off to college? Here are some ideas. More recently many of us are experiencing the "joy" of their return.  I cover that in an article titled "The birds are back." Our nest is currently full again.

    How to gain space when your child goes off to college -- without alienating the previous occupant

    Susan DeMersseman, Special to The Chronicle

    Wednesday, July 30, 2003

    I overheard a neighbor ask my newly graduated daughter, "Is your mother getting sad about you leaving for college?" Lauren's reply: "Nope, she's already decided on the new paint color for my room."

    That wasn't entirely true. I hadn't decided yet. And I, like parents all over the country, have mixed feelings about this big transition.

    For most families the departure of a youngster for college brings up all kinds of feelings, but it also presents some very practical issues. One is how to deal with the vacated room. There are moms and dads who, while mourning the passage, are thinking about the wonderful possibility of a home office, exercise room or guest room.

    We already had a home office, so our goal was a guest room. The mother of one of Lauren's friends also wanted a guest room but planned few changes. That's because her daughter's room already looked like a guest room. My daughter's room, on the other hand, looks like a sari shop, inhabited by an origami expert who has traveled in Africa and collects bags of all kinds. So significant changes were in order.

    My friend Mary Jo recalled how she consoled herself after the departure of her son by enjoying the luxury of a room where she could keep her sewing machine set up all the time.

    In contrast, another mother was feeling so sad about her daughter leaving that she hadn't even considered changing the room. Mourning in advance, she seemed to be planning the room as a sort of shrine to the departed college student.

    I grew up in a little Midwestern town where we dealt with all emotional matters by doing chores. When someone passed away, we baked for the family; we shoveled the snow, mowed the lawn or raked the leaves. So it seemed only natural to address this emotional event with some practical action.

    negotiating change

    My daughter and I decided to embark upon the adventure in a systematic way and to negotiate the changes so that she would feel comfortable when she returned and the room could be used in her absence.

    We did this by talking to other people who were going through this change, or who had already passed through this phase. We made our individual wish lists and compromised on changes. We considered the many issues involved, such as storage, furniture changes and repainting.

    my wish list

    -- A palette that would allow me to use a collection of vintage linens.

    -- To use the beautiful antique bed from my mother.

    -- To repaint.

    -- Twenty-four inches of hanging space in the closet and two empty drawers in the dresser.

    -- The posters to come down.

    -- The 3-foot tall stuffed dog to be placed in storage.

    lauren's wish list

    -- A place for Poppy to sleep. (This is the resident of the room who will be staying and like most cats requires a place to take her 10-hour daily nap.)

    -- My tall desk to stay.

    -- My room color sky blue.

    -- My goldfish to stay.

    -- Some of my artwork to be framed and hung.

    work with each other

    In surveying her classmates, Lauren found that the opinions were very mixed about what should be done with their rooms. Given this, it is important to make no assumption and to be explicit on both sides about how it will be done. From our research and our own process we came up with these suggestions and considerations:

    -- Be aware of the temperament of the departing student. Some may not care what happens once they're out the door and others may need the comfort of a safe harbor.

    -- Do talk about the changes each party would like and be specific. There may be little things that mean a lot.

    -- A lot of important stuff is quite portable and can be stored in the room and brought back out during return visits.

    -- If the student is going to school nearby, go slow on major changes.

    -- Invest in lots of clear plastic storage boxes and label each in detail.

    -- Have a "going to college" garage sale with a group of friends to thin out possessions.

    -- If a younger sibling will finally be getting his or her own room, make specific provisions for a welcoming and personal space for the return visits of the college student. Be sensitive about this transfer of turf.

    -- If the room becomes an office, include a daybed and keep a favorite comforter in the closet.

    The mother of a son has always wanted a Laura Ashley/Country French guest room. She devised a plan to have that and still let her son return to his denim den.

    She has a new floral duvet cover and shams, a pretty lamp and framed prints.

    In his closet will be a space to store his comforter, sports trophies and NBA posters. She figures it will take about 30 minutes to switch the accessories when her son is coming home.

    That's my plan too. I can change the comforter, stick up some posters, throw a few stuffed animals on the bed, fill the laundry basket to overflowing,

    and my daughter will feel right at home.

    it's still home

    It's fairly common knowledge that people often create conflict to make parting easier. By talking about these things ahead of time, what could be a tumultuous departure can be made smoother. Most youngsters, like their parents,

    have mixed feelings. They are eager to go, but want a nest to return to.

    As a devoted nester I believe it is important to provide our big kids with a sense of belonging. Most valuable is the care and acceptance that families give us, but it is also the comfort of the familiar, whether it's a Tim Duncan poster, a stuffed turtle or a Power Puff Girl lamp. If it's important to your child, it's important.

    A Web survey of graduating college students found that 62 percent planned to return and spend some significant time living back at home. Depending upon the parents and child, that might prompt a more or less significant remodel of the room.

    One mother of a college senior cautioned, "Just make sure that you take the bed out of the room." On the other hand, parents of a twentysomething son said that the time he spent back home after college was the most fun they'd had with him since he was a toddler.

    All parents said that kids who come home after being away at college seem to appreciate home more. I'm going with that report and believe it will be true no matter what shade of blue we paint the room.

    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator in Berkeley. E-mail her at 




    This article appeared on page 

    HO - 1

     of the San Francisco Chronicle

    The first weeks of school -- after the excitement wears off

    Kids are often pretty excited about the beginning of the school year, then some common issues arise. This older article from the San Francisco Chronicle will give some perspective, I hope.

    Surviving bad socks and permission slips

    Susan DeMersseman

    Published 4:00 a.m., Wednesday, September 3, 2008


    In the front hall of a grade school one morning, I heard one mother say to another, "She's the person you should talk to." She was pointing at me. The woman she spoke to was upset. As the school psychologist, I am often sought out in such situations. After 20 years in this school, I'm asked for advice on everything from how to cure nose picking to easing the hurt of family breakups.

    In this case I found that the mother was upset over one of the most common parental struggles: "the morning wars," those upsetting conflicts over getting children off to school on time.

    The first mother was right. I was the person to talk to. Not just because I was the school psychologist but also because I was a veteran of the morning wars. In fact, that very morning I had just come from the front - with my own children.

    These battles arise for all kinds of reason. Often it is finding, as you run out of the house, that a permission slip is missing or a special supply is required for that day. I'm sure I'm not the only mother who has learned, at the last second, that an empty milk carton was needed for that day's art activity. I'm sure I'm not the only one who has scrambled around pouring a half gallon of milk into every little jar I could find.

    Prepare the night before

    Over the years I've heard many stories from parents, most about clothing, breakfast and papers. From these parents I have also learned a few solutions. The overriding one is to do everything you possibly can the night before. A common clothing issue is having only the scratchy T-shirt clean enough to wear, then having to dig in the dirty clothes basket for the least dirty soft T-shirt. Or it may be the wrong socks.

    I'm certain there were knights who spent less time looking for the 

    Holy Grail

     than I have spent looking for socks that didn't have that uncomfortable seam in just the wrong place. Wearing them inside out helped a little. Then my daughter turned 6, which seemed to cure a lot of things.

    Years ago I heard a well-known psychologist speak about his own children's resistance to getting dressed and how he once took them to school in their pajamas (no wonder we psychologists have the reputation we do). Nowadays such a strategy might get you reported to the authorities, even if it made you a hero to other parents.

    Choose your battles

    At a recent parenting workshop, a mother offered, almost apologetically, that she warms her daughter's clothes in the dryer. It makes them feel cozy and makes the child hurry to get them on before they cool off. The mother of a middle school student subscribing to the "choose your battles" approach occasionally allowed him to sleep in his clothes. She noted that he looked no different from his rumpled peers, and he passed the sniff test. Following the "do everything you can the night before" policy, a father shared his tip with glee: "My daughters have to set their clothes out the night before, or else I pick what they wear that day. And they know I don't have very good taste."

    Battles over what to wear can sometimes be addressed by a simple housekeeping task. The mother of a first-grader rearranged the closet and drawers. Having a party section and a school section allowed the child to choose without being lured by one of those pretty little organza numbers.

    The mother who was in the hall that morning did come talk to me. There had been a battle, with mom and daughter parting in tears. "I know it's silly, but I want to go into class and see that she's OK and tell her that I love her and that we'll work this out." I understood how she felt, but I couldn't offer her that option. Instead I went into the class and found her child playing happily with a classmate. The mother was relieved, and said she would try later to collaborate with her daughter on ways to make mornings go more smoothly.

    Kids often have good ideas about the morning routine, though one mom reported that her child's suggestion was to put the toothpaste on the brush the night before (points for good intentions). Getting homework papers into the backpack the night before can prevent battles. Special places for such things as schedules and permission slips also help. Some families have a resource folder with information they will keep and a separate one for forms that need to go back to school.

    Getting kids to eat something nutritious is the battleground in many homes. One friend found a partial solution in the container section of the supermarket. She bought little plastic containers and measured out servings of cereal in some and ingredients for smoothies in others. It helped to have the children participate in choosing and preparing their breakfasts ahead of time.

    Consistency is helpful

    On some mornings, no matter what strategies you have in place, separation may be difficult. Transitions can be a big issue for little kids. From the comfort of their bed, from the dream world surrounded by their stuffed animals, from the familiar warmth of their home, from the arms of their loving family into what can be a challenging and stressful place - yikes! For these children, a consistent routine is often helpful. Set out clothing, have little containers of breakfast ready, have a special spot for backpacks and permission slips.

    But on some days, no matter how well you are prepared, there will be morning wars. On those days the best strategy is to simply hold on to your sense of proportion. Life is short; childhood is shorter. Keep in mind that one morning, years from now, in a very quiet house, you'll wish you had a permission slip to sign at the last minute or a milk carton to empty into a dozen small jars.

    Read more: 


    African American sons

    Some articles, like this one from the Christian Science Monitor in 2012, remain relevant -- unfortunately.


    How to raise African-American boys like Trayvon Martin to be careful, not paranoid

    The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman has opened a dialogue on broader issues. One is the unique challenge parents face in teaching African-American children to be safe but not fearful.

    No matter the outcome of the controversy surrounding the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida late this February, the tragedy has opened a dialogue on broader issues. One is the unique challenge parents face in teaching African-American children to be safe but not fearful.

    Over the past few weeks, Americans are hearing from the parents of African-American children and even national figures about what special cautions go into raising their children.

    My son was just seven when he climbed into the car one day after school, sat in silence for a minute, then said, “Something really unfair happened at school today.” He was so calm that I expected to hear about something that happened to someone else.

    He had left his lunch tray outside while he went into the bathroom. When he returned he found that someone had stepped on his tray. The orange juice had spilled and the hot dog had been “smushed.” As he carried the remains to the garbage can, some juice dripped on the back of a classmate’s sweatshirt.

    He apologized, but the girl’s little friend decided this was something worth telling the yard supervisor about. The yard supervisor, probably busy and distracted, sent him up to the principal.

    What bothered my son the most was that the yard person didn’t listen to him. “I kept telling her it was an accident and that I said ‘sorry.’” No one was in the office, so he waited for a while, then went next door to his classroom, in a self-imposed time-out.

    My son’s goal at that age was to grow up and be a comedian on TV, so he was no stranger to consequences. Spilling juice on someone, however, was not something he would consider amusing.

    I did my best job as mother-detective and discerned that the situation had unfolded pretty much as he described it. I asked if he wanted me to do anything about it, and he thought for a minute. “I guess not,” he decided.

    “You don’t want me to call about the yard teacher?”

    “No,” he said. “Her son is nice, but she’s strict as a whip.”

    It was clear from the reaction that, for him, the incident was unfair, but it was over. He seemed to understand, at his young age, that there would be some random unfairness in life.

    And I was deeply grateful for that mature realization. As an African-American male, if he feels he must go toe to toe over every such situation, he will not survive.

    In the urban community where I work as a psychologist, I am concerned about many of the young men I’ve worked with. They seem so ready to jump into conflicts over the smallest things. Some of it seems related to a sense of self worth so fragile that the smallest insult or perceived insult seems worth risking everything.

    The incident with my son came in the same week that a friend at work expressed her relief that her son had just turned 22 and was now out of the most vulnerable demographic group – African-American males between 13 and 21. Statistics indicate that this is the group most vulnerable to violent death.

    After several stops by policemen, her son quit driving his nice car on some trips. Instead he used the little family sedan to travel into certain neighborhoods. Though it was not fair, she was relieved that he had found a practical, simple way to avoid some of the risks of his life.

    I have tried to teach my children not to interpret every random irritation as a personal injustice. When my children were little and said, “That’s not fair,” I reminded them that there is a difference between “not fair” and “I don’t like it.” We don’t like a lot of things that have little to do with fairness, and even unfairness can be pretty random.

    The more I thought about my son’s reaction, the more comforted I was. I thought that as a teenager, if he encountered a biased policeman, he would be calm and would not bring on some possible wrath the officer had to unload. He would know how to avoid dangerous conflicts with other teenagers.

    He would survive and I hope become a peacemaker and a fighter for bigger causes – not just a petty scrapper, making sure that every person he encountered treated him the way he wanted. I don’t know if our son was just blessed with a sense of proportion or if his father and I had done something right.

    Life doesn’t provide a smooth path no matter what our heritage. A sense of self worth and basic good sense will help all kids navigate their experiences more peacefully, regardless of the obstacles, but even this will not always insure their safety.

    We, like the parents of many African-American children, have had to teach our son specific strategies to be safe. We have tried to impart a perspective that is careful but not paranoid. We pray it will be enough.

    Our son has “made it” to 25, and I am so grateful. But I still worry about him and all the other young men without his kind of family support and without his good luck. How will they stay safe?

    Susan DeMersseman is a psychologist and parent educator.

    What is Home?


    I just got home from home. I know, that does sound odd, but it is what is (odd again).

    I’ve lived in the same town for over 40 years and in the same house for over 30 years, but I’m not from here. I’m from the Black Hills of South Dakota and I always will be. I just returned from a wonderful trip there.

    When someone asks, "Where are you from?" I have always found it hard to describe myself as from here. So I go home to where I’m from and come back to where I live. But now, after all these years, when we leave South Dakota I can finally say and feel like I’m on my way home.

    My husband and children were born and raised here. They live among the familiar images and locations that shaped them.  However, my children have spent such good times with family in the summers and winters in South Dakota that they feel a little like they are from there as well.

    For me it takes being back on those streets to conjure and revive the images and often the emotions. It feels so familiar and so affirming. And coming from a place that has in many ways stayed the same insures that comfort.

    A photographer friend, Amanda Boe, provided a quote from Wallace Stegner for one of her shows. “Expose a child to a particular environment at his susceptible time and he will perceive in shapes of that environment until he dies.”

    For me it is more than perception of shapes, I am drawn back to that environment and will be until I die.

    I once wrote about my belief that you can go home again, “Home is not an historical construct, home is always under construction.” And now I feel, that in spite of my heart drifting back, the construction has been continuing here too and my concept of home has expanded. So, it makes perfect sense that I can now say, “I just got home from home.”