children and parenting

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.

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.

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.

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.

Butterfly Midwife on her own flight path

This older piece from the Chronicle comes to mind when the Swallow tails show up again in our yard.

415-609-9602 Photo: Kat Wade / SF


Papilio zelicaon Anise Swallowtail butterfly shot in Oakland, Ca, but flown in from Asland, Or. on June 2, 2006. Kat Wade/The Chronicle 


During one of our hotter summer days I opened the window in my daughter's room and saw a swallowtail fluttering through the top of the birch trees just outside her window. I wondered for a minute if it might be the offspring of one of the butterflies my daughter raised many years ago when she was in high school.

In her room she had created a huge butterfly habitat of cereal boxes, duct tape and large "windows" of plastic wrap. She spent an entire afternoon making it after the caterpillars outgrew the jar she'd been using. She filled the habitat with small twigs and fresh fennel sprigs and the nine caterpillars she had found on the plants across the street. Each day she put fresh fennel in and waited patiently.

Weeks later, in the same low-key way that she created the incubator, she released the emerging swallowtails. She held one dangling on a twig out her window. "It doesn't seem ready to fly yet," she said and put it back into its safe, temporary home. It got another chance the next day.

It was comforting to watch her nurture the caterpillars and to get a glimpse below the surly teenage surface. The tenderness she sometimes tried to hide was still there, still growing. The little things that made her unique had not been neutralized by this stage of conforming with the peer group. I have sometimes thought that the phrase "sweet sixteen" was an oxymoron. Every mother of a teenage girl has prayed for patience. But the connection between her journey of transformation and that of the butterflies was clear and poignant. It was a subtle exercise of faith in nature and in her own emergence.

Fewer and fewer children these days are experiencing the luxury - no, the necessity - of this connection with nature.

There's a wonderful book on this topic, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder." The author,  Richard Louv, describes the growing research indicating that exposure to nature is essential to the healthy development of children.

A related organization, the Children & Nature Network, encourages projects that help create the valuable connection between children and nature, They are part of the "Leave No Child Inside" movement.

Kids need this faith in growth and transformation. Though not all connections are as transparent as that of my butterfly midwife, children have a huge need to see their relationship to the ever-changing natural environment and to see how they can be part of it in a positive way.

My wondering about the swallowtails hovering outside my daughter's window led me to do some research. Was I being too romantic in thinking that these butterflies might be seeking their ancestral home in a contraption of cereal boxes, plastic wrap and duct tape? I was pleased to learn that swallowtails do in fact return to lay their eggs in the place of their hatching. The butterflies will find fennel plants across the street, but the habitat is long gone and the girl who created it has flown now too. She's moved to Seattle, where she volunteers at an urban nature center for children. And like the butterflies, I'm pretty sure she knows how to find her way back.

The article is here

Kids and Chores -- a great combination

My grown son was recently helping me in the yard, and as we worked we had a really nice visit. No longer about skate board tricks or a girl in his class, now grown up interests I'm glad to know about. It reminded me of this older article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Getting kids to do chores is more than barking orders

Published 04:00 a.m., Wednesday, April 9, 2003
I heard it a thousand times growing up, "It's easier to do it myself." It came from my mom during an attempt to get one of us four kids to do a chore.
She was a patient and gentle woman, so it came out as a statement of fact, rather than an expression of anger.
As a child, it made no sense to me. Now, as a mom, it makes perfect sense. It is so tempting to do it yourself, rather than spending twice the time and energy instructing, guiding and doing quality control. Unfortunately, with that approach, you will always be "doing it yourself." And you will be sending young adults into the world who can't take care of themselves.
I have come to view the money I pay my children for chores not as a wage, but as a stipend for attending, "Mother's School of Housecleaning and Life Maintenance."
Parents are often surprised that simply telling or showing isn't enough to get kids to do their chores properly. It takes a lot of thought, talk and most of all patience. I confess there have been times when I have given up and done it myself or when I've gone back and redone a task. And I've often readjusted my standards or focused upon the process rather than the outcome. In spite of these lapses, I've collaborated with the families I work with and found methods to help get chores accomplished and help youngsters become more competent.
First, do whatever it takes to help your child understand how to do the task, or what is meant by a request like "Clean your room." The chances are very good that your idea of a clean room and your child's idea of a clean room are not the same.
With little children who cannot yet read, a list that consists of pictures is helpful. Tidy up the room with the child, then sit together and describe what you see. Getting them to see what needs to be done is half the job.
Older children are famous for saying, "Looks OK to me." Or for using the laundry basket as storage for something they plan to wear again. The list in words or pictures can be posted in the room and when the parent says, "Clean up your room," the child has the list to follow.
My children alternate Saturdays for cleaning their bathroom. Inside the door of their medicine cabinet is a list of tasks and the recommended sequence,
e.g., spraying the walls in the shower and letting the cleanser sit while doing another chore in the sequence.
Another method of getting the "how" across is to give the children a clipboard and ask them to take notes as the parent straightens up the room and describes what is being done. Kids get a kick out of this, and it helps to illustrate how little time it takes if one sticks to it.
When my children were little, I would often ask them to devote just 100 seconds to straightening their rooms. It is amazing what can be accomplished in a focused 100 seconds. Avoidance or resistance are directly related to the perceived size of the job. If it's only 100 seconds, it's easy to jump right in.
My son was rather distractible when he was young, so mowing the lawn, including side trips to follow a lizard or to take apart a pinecone, took a long time. One day, instead of asking him to mow our small lawn for his usual wage, I asked him to time me as I did it. He is a good sport and counted aloud as I completed the task in about five minutes. We figured that working at a speedier rate, he'd be getting $36 per hour.
It is also important to choose tasks that the child can do. For example, one family I know stores their dishes on a low shelf so that the youngest child can do the chore of emptying the dishwasher. Often some little modification of storage makes a task accessible for a child.
When teaching anything, it's important to praise effort as well as outcome. If we withhold praise until the job is perfect, the child will be working for a long time without encouragement. Research indicates that children in school who are praised for effort rather than product do better in the long run. I believe the same applies at home.
Families have different policies on paying for chores. Many different systems work. One that works in our house is making chores done "independently" worth more. If they complete the job without any coaching or reminding, the wage is higher.
The kids no longer really need supervision, but working together creates a nice opportunity to talk. My son sometimes stops, leans on the rake and says. "Mom, there is this flip kick where you take your skateboard and . . ." Or, "the other day in class . . ." When this happens, I stop too -- and listen.
Each family will create its own system, but for many families, these guiding principles help. Make chores doable and clear. Reward a good effort. And try, whenever you can, to do chores together. You may find that it accomplishes something even more important than chores.

Kids, Summer and Dirt

This older piece from the Christian Science Monitor still applies. Summer may be a time to clean, but if you're a kid it should be a time to get dirty -- without penalty. 

Dirty - and delighted - from head to toe

By Susan DeMersseman / September 6, 2001

I don't think I ever got into trouble for getting dirty when I was a kid. That's not because I didn't get dirty. It just wasn't a punishable offense in our house. With a farm next door and a few acres of our own, getting dirty was viewed as an occupational hazard of childhood in the country.

My mother's casual attitude may be why most of the kids in the neighborhood hung out at our house. After we got rid of the chickens, we had a great clubhouse in the vacant coop. It was the site of many messy projects, like painting battle hawks on garbage-can lids to turn them into shields.

We needed shields for our "wars" with the kids who lived down the hill in Comanche Court. These wars involved a lot of mud throwing. When Mom peeled our clothes off in the evening by the back door, she would comment nonchalantly, "War today, huh?"

The back door led to a utility room with a shower (what foresight). We either rinsed off there or ran naked to the tub to scrub off the rest of the dirt.

It wasn't just war that offered us opportunities to get dirty. There was also baking: mud pies, mud cakes, mud muffins. And if it was spring and we were very fortunate, we would find a sticky little pond of shiny, smooth mud with which to frost our creations.

One summer, we decided to dig a swimming pool. My mother suggested a spot in the front corner of the yard. We dug and dug, and when it was about three feet deep and four feet across, we put in a tarp and ran the hose - for what seemed like hours.

The inflow was slightly ahead of the leakage, so it finally filled up. And for about 20 squealing, delighted minutes, we all squeezed in and splashed in the muddy water. A few days after we'd abandoned the pool, we gave little notice to the giant lilac bush that my mother had planted in the hole.

The usually dry creek near our house was another wonderful place to get dirty. One spring, a little stream ran down the center of it. We built canals and dams all day long. That evening, my mother had more than mud to contend with.

My shoulder-length hair was full of cockleburs. She tried to comb them out. She tried to pull them out, and she finally had to cut them out. This was long before Meg Ryan had popularized the chopped-up look, so the result was pretty strange.

It might sound as if we were a bit wild. We were, but as they say in the country, we "cleaned up real good." Maybe that's what my mother loved, uncovering her little cherubs from beneath layers of mud.

We still have photographs of us wrapped in fluffy white towels after our evening baths: our eyelashes still wet, and our cheeks shining as if they had been polished. I don't know what was best, the feeling of getting all dirty or the feeling of getting all clean. As a devoted gardener, I still don't.



Summer is here and many children will spend much of it in wonderful, enriching camps and classes. Lucky kids. And other lucky kids will just putter around their yards pretending. “Let’s pretend” were the words that commenced most of childhood play for generations. With rich imaginations children created exotic and fantastic worlds in which they were the main players.
            Empty packing boxes became all kinds of little shops and vehicles.  A line of chairs in the dining room became a bus or train. A bedspread thrown over a sawhorse became our tent on the Amazon.  In our own attic was a box of fancy dresses, suits, hats and old jewelry. We became Mom and Dad or duke and duchess.
            I have nothing against the kind of “enriched childhood” many parents are trying to create. I just don’t want kids to miss the richness that comes from their own unique imaginations.
            When I see the Kindergarten children in a school where I'm the psychologist with baskets of dress-ups in their play area, I am grateful. This may be one of the few places where these developing minds get to exercise the capacity to imagine. Too often these days children’s imaginations are hijacked by television or by toys that require a specific story line.
As children we often had as much fun making our toys as we did playing with them.  When I wanted to play secretary, I spent an entire afternoon making a typewriter from a little black box and circles of paper that I carefully cut out, labeled with appropriate letters and glued on the box. When we wanted a swimming pool we spent a whole day digging a hole, placing a tarp and running water.  All for about 30 minutes of splashing.   Our mother had suggested the location of the "swimming pool" and a few days later a big lilac bush was planted there. (Guess mom had a little imagination too.)
            Children still have these impulses and with a little unstructured time will organize an activity, create and pretend. My daughter was one of those children who absorbed all the tape and cardboard in the house into her creations.  One year I gave her a shoebox filled with tape, scissors, cardboard etc. as a Christmas gift.  She loved it, managed to use it all up in short order and continued to gather the tape from her parents' secret hiding places.
            I became convinced that one of the ways we encourage imagination is by tolerating messes. Sometimes the imagination of my children resulted in chaos in the living room, where every stuffed animal and piece of doll equipment became part of some elaborate setting.  I must confess that it was often tempting to just let them watch cartoons because it created less mess. On the other hand the mess created from too much media can be in their heads rather that on the living room floor.  Much harder to clean up.
Some children are natural directors in pretend plays. "You be the princess, and you be the horse and you be the dad." My daughter was one of those directors, and to be allowed to play with her and her friends she would tell her little brother, "You be the monster". It's hard to know what impact her training had on him, but there were times when he played that role too well. Fortunately he escaped the type casting and is now the most wonderful grown son a mother could want.
Toys that have multiple uses and, even better, time in the great outdoors can spark the “pretend potential” in children. I hope every child gets to make mud pies at some point in their childhood.  Even pretending with them can help. I’m certain that our now grown children became the creative cooks they are because of the hours we spent pretending to be restaurant patrons and ordering wildly exotic dishes. 
One of the best friends of imagination is boredom. We have to let kids be bored every now and then and let them find inspiring materials around to create there own fun. In these critical times we need rich imaginations to solve our many problems and equally important to bring joy and laughter into the world. Even if it means more messes in the living room -- it's a small price to pay.