Laura Pearson sent me her article and I am pleased to post it on my blog. The revised edition of my book, now titled "Trust Children", is doing the rounds with publishers and I am hoping to be back on this blog and more active soon. This terrifying pandemic along with the fragility and failure of many of our systems offers a stark warning. I hope that you, too, are using this time to imagine a world that is more sustainable, more just and much less violent. We must all commit ourselves to doing what we can to make those dreams a reality for our children and grandchildren. Make your extra time with your children a gift, not a burden by following Laura's advice. Let's wear our masks and stay well! Anna
Learning Outside the Classroom: Kid-Friendly Activities to Try at Home
by Laura Pearson
Whether your kids are restless after months of social distancing, you’re attempting to hold off summer slide before school starts, or your children struggled with distance learning in the spring and you want them to get caught up, there are some fun and effective learning strategies you can try from the comfort of your home. When you incorporate technology, teach history in an exciting way, and read together as a family, you can make the experience of learning much more enjoyable for your children. To learn more about kid-friendly learning activities, read on!
Utilize TechnologyWhile too much screen time could do more harm than good — especially if your children spend much of their time watching television or playing video games — quality screen time has been shown to improve problem solving abilities, teach kids important tech skills that could one day land them in a rewarding, high-paying career, boost their imagination and creativity, and enhance the learning experience overall. Some of the best technologies for helping kids learn include:
To find the right gadgets for your little ones, check out Verizon’s Family Tech Guide. Here, you’ll find information on selecting the best types of tech devices based on the ages of your kids. Plus, companies like Verizon offer expert advice on introducing tech into your home, protecting your devices, and keeping your kids safe online.
Teach GenealogyAmid the pandemic, you may be eager to try something new and exciting with your little ones — and genealogy could be just the activity you’re looking for. Genealogy is a fun and educational activity that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, and it’s something that could occupy hours and hours of your time once you start down the rabbit hole of researching your family’s origins. Your little ones will learn all about your family’s history, and it could even inspire them to learn a new language or develop an appreciation for the study of history.
To assist you in building your family tree, USAGov has several free genealogy resources on its website. Or, you could get started with websites like Ancestry.com, 23andMe, or FamilySearch.org.
Read TogetherWhether your little one struggles with reading comprehension — or you’re simply looking for some ways to build a stronger family bond from home — reading together is one learning activity you’ll want to incorporate into your daily routine. By reading with your child on a regular basis, you’ll help to build your little one’s vocabulary, improve his or her attention span and communication skills, and enrich the relationship you share with your child.
Encourage Learning at HomeFor some additional tips on helping your child to learn outside of the classroom, check out Anne Cummings Jacopetti’s book titled: What Are We Going To Learn Today? In this book, you’ll learn how to teach your kids through storytelling, exposure to the arts, new experiences, time spent in nature, and more.
As you work to expand your little one’s knowledge at home, keep in mind that learning styles vary among most children — and you’ll need to understand your child’s preferred style in order to support him or her as best as possible. Some kids learn best through visualizing and moving, while others are auditory or logical learners. To help your little one succeed in school and in life, it’s important to take the time to identify your child’s learning style — as well as your own.
It has been much too long! I have been working for the last year on a revision of my book. The new edition, titled Trust Children, is now ready to find a publisher. In preparation for that step, I will print the introduction in this post and look forward to receiving your comments, if you are inclined to respond. I was excited to come upon the work of Sitra, a Finnish foundation which has sponsored a book titled Sustainability, Well-Being and the Future of Education. Excited isn't the best word. I was deeply moved by what I read from 18 Finnish and American educators. The revolution I have longed to see is beginning to take form and substance. And at last, I had a context for what I had learned from and about children and how they learn. Enough. The introduction will speak for itself. I look forward to your responses.
Technology, globalized networks and planetary environmental crises are entirely redefining relationships between peoples, between people and the planet and their respective futures. Our newsfeeds are brimming with the indicators of transformation. Our task now is to define what kind of transformation education should undergo, how and to what end.[i] (Justin W. Cook, Sustainability, Human Well-Being and the Future of Education.)
At last! I found it – a scholarly work that provides a framework, a raison d’etre, and a context for my book about children and how they learn. Sustainability, Human Well-Being and the Future of Education, a project of Sitra, The Finnish Innovation Fund, is available through Open Access.[ii] Eighteen educators from Finland and the United States have responded collaboratively to an urgent question posed by Sitra. How must our established education system be repurposed and transformed to create the kind of society capable of meeting the exponential environmental and social challenges that are facing the 21st Century world.
What do the authors envision? Although they come from different perspectives, they agree that humanity must find ways to live sustainably within the systems that support planetary life. They also agree that economic structures need to be transformed so that they foster the well-being of all people without relying on increased consumption of natural resources. Justin Cook, editor and contributor, calls for ”learning at the edge of history” in schools that are designed to develop the capacities and competencies that children will need to be capable of bringing this new world into being. To accomplish this unprecedented challenge they (and we) must question all fundamental assumptions, including how knowledge is organized.
The authors agree that our dated age-based system that divides students into “tracks” and knowledge into “subjects” that are transmitted and tested by teachers is failing to meet the needs of 21st Century children. Suggestions for system change weave throughout the presentations and the following vision emerges. Curricular change must involve moving away from siloed subjects to systemic learning that explores and strengthens understanding of the connections between humans, nature, culture and economy. Schools need to be restructured as cross-generational collaborative communities of inquiry and action in which young people’s experiences and concerns will be the primary texts, driving transdisciplinary study and real world engagement. In addition to developing new skills, students will learn that they are capable of making a difference. These living/learning communities will be committed to ongoing transformation of self, school and the dominant systems of society. Students will become global citizens who, as lifelong learners, are capable of creating and maintaining a sustainable, resilient, socially just world that values the well-being of all humans.
The good news is that progressive forces are mobilizing and organizing to meet these challenges. The Green New Deal, recently introduced in Congress by Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ed Markey, offers a blueprint for transforming our fossil fuel-based, profit-driven economy into a more just and sustainable system based on renewable resources and greater social equity. Microbiologists and some brave members of the agricultural community have demonstrated that we can pull excess carbon out of the atmosphere by regenerating soil, planting trees and changing the way we farm. Finding the personal and political will to make the necessary changes to our habits, norms, and expectations presents perhaps the steepest challenge of all, given the way that we have been educated and the stories we have been taught to believe. Sitra is calling on educators to create new stories that will give our children and young people shared direction and purpose, the knowledge that they are capable of making necessary changes, and the skills that will make this transformation a reality. The most hopeful news of all is that many Finnish schools and some schools in the United States are already firmly on the path to realizing this goal.
I have a perspective to add to the collaborative vision that Sitra is developing. This book reminds everyone that children are born knowing how to learn; their survival depends on it. They are prodigious learners who persevere with great determination as they master how to move their bodies, how to communicate with their families and how to understand and function in the world around them They respond enthusiastically in school to learning opportunities that respect this innate capacity.
Trust Children describes activities and structures that support children’s natural capacities for learning. I developed this understanding through many years in classrooms, observing and teaching children of all ages. This book is my back story, unpacking the mentors, the hands-on experiences, and the stories that illustrate my transformation as a teacher.. If, as Justin Cook expresses in his introduction, one of the primary objectives of education is to restore human agency - the understanding that we can participate in shaping the future rather than being helpless victims of events – then teachers must start by not taking this agency away from children when they come to school.
In answer to Lehtonen’s question - “What kind of pedagogical approaches do we need for the construction of hope and of a sustainable future? - I can confidently answer: Trust children. Respect the natural ways that children have learned throughout human history. Allow them plentiful play time, up and down the grades. Create stories for and with them. Utilize and inspire their curiosity by focusing on what is not known rather than what has already been discovered.. Allow them to learn through hands-on experience with tolerance and appreciation for mistakes. Immerse them in the arts as primary ways to collaborate, to build community and to make sense of our shared experience. Most important, surround them with love and long-term deeply attached relationships with peers and adults they can trust.
Teachers, educators, parents and grandparents, we have a stark choice.to make. We can continue to support methods that limit students’ critical thinking and creative capacities, that teach them that life is a competitive struggle between winners and losers and that, too often, turn them into functionaries or victims of an economic system that sees the living earth only as a resource to be exploited for personal gain. Or we can dedicate ourselves to empowering children to become whole human beings who will be capable of understanding, restoring and protecting the intricate and interconnected systems that support life. In the process, we have an opportunity to transform ourselves. Let us demand the impossible, activist, visionary and educator emeritus, Bill Ayres, advises, “We’re reminded that it is only the urgency of youth that can set the pace and the tone of what is to come – of what is to be done- and still, in the grace and fullness of age we might learn to flow along, to enter at least the kindergarten of the new. Because I have hopes for my students and my young friends. Because I have ambitions for my children and my grandchildren, I also have hopes for myself.”[iii]
[i] Cook J.W. Learning at the Edge of History. In: Cook J. (eds) Sustainability, Human Well-Being, and the Future of Education. (Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2019)
[iii] Ayers, Bill, Demand the Impossible. (Haymarket Books, 2016) p. 169
What I Teach 3rd Graders
I teach how to shake hands
and raise hands
and clap hands
How to listen
how to wait
how to hold a pencil
(not a gun).
I teach that every sentence
has a subject
and a predicate
(is shooting children)
and some have a prepositional phrase
(in their classroom.)
I teach them to pause
at a comma, to stop
at a period
and a ? means you are asking
(Why? Why? Why?)
I teach them to multiply
legs on dogs
fingers on hands
(not shootings in schools),
and how in subtraction you start
with the bigger number
and when you’re done taking away
you have less.
(17 less in Parkland, 15 less in Columbine, 27 less in Sandy Hook.)
I teach about places
by children murdered at school),
the lives of people
who have made a difference
(not a massacre),
how water can be absorbed
(like blood on linoleum)
and that some words, like repel,
mean more than one thing.
I teach them to walk quietly
in a line when the fire alarm sounds,
to duck and cover
until the earth stops shaking,
and to lay on the floor
(like fish in a barrel)
if a bad man comes.
What I don’t tell them
is in that hellish haze
of gunfire and screams
I plan to toss them like ragdolls
stack them like cordwood
that my only calculation
will be how many can I save,
how many will I leave to die?
So when I rescue
a spider from the sink
scoop it into a paper cup
set it down among green leaves,
they breathe as one, relieved,
because I’ve taught them
it’s wrong to kill
- Lisa Shulman
This review of Bill Ayers' Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto was published today in Popular Resistance.
DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE: A Fire Survivor’s Review of Bill Ayers’ Radical Manifesto
An inferno, painting the skies red and filling the air with acrid smoke, raged down on my neighborhood in the early hours of October 5th. Awakened by my son, we had only a few minutes to consider what to take - a picture album, cell phones, several changes of underwear, toothbrushes, my favorite winter boots, my laptop, a Kamaka pineapple ukelele coveted by my youngest grandson - our cars joining the painfully slow river of evacuees trying to leave the area. The fire was not slow; it jumped around us, lit up a palm tree, leapt over a freeway; our route changed abruptly several times as the sheriffs, gesturing desperately, shouted “Go! Go! Go!”, directing us away from the crosshairs of the blaze.
We reached safety within the hour and by the next day we were sheltered with family and friends, waiting to hear about our home. The ground had shifted under us and, shaken to the core, we imagined what would have seemed impossible the day before – that we might lose it all, the tangible memories, the hours spent working in the garden, the books and CDs, our safe place, stripped down to the clothes on our backs, our dog, and each other.
By the middle of the week we learned that the wind had shifted and spared our immediate neighborhood. Our cat had been found and fed by a neighbor who came back to his house via the nearby creek. He fed our chickens, too. Life would soon return to normal and on the surface, it did. We ran the air purifier 24/7, planted a cover crop and mulched the vegetable garden, raked up leaves, and each evening I read chapters from Bill Ayers’ Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto to my husband.
I read Ayers’ book last summer and was so impressed that I bought three more copies, one for each of my sons. Now, raw from my trial by fire and touched to the core by the suffering and losses in my community, wondering how we can influence the recovery process towards a new vision, one that takes into consideration the looming threat of climate change in its various guises - flood, drought and fire - I turned again to this manifesto, reading it out loud and savoring with Roland its spirit of hopeful resilience in the face of daunting challenge.
Ayers looks unflinchingly at the facts: the unprecedented number of incarcerated Americans, the trillions being poured into the bottomless pit of an aggressive military empire, the militarization of police, the vast financial discrepancy between the power elite and the rest of us, the privatization for profit of our commons, the resulting crises in health, education, infrastructure and general well-being and, looming over everything, the existential threat of global warming to our biosphere. He brings home that this has happened largely on our watch and that pulling the covers over our heads or allowing ourselves to be distracted by the latest scandals promoted by the corporate media are not satisfactory responses. Instead he calls on us to imagine a different world – a world in which our resources are shared to provide for the basic needs of all people, a world that recovers our humanity from the soul-destroying grip of greed and allows us all to find a role in building a better, more just and hopeful world for our children. He describes education as “powered by a precious and fragile ideal: Every human being is of infinite and incalculable value. . . each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral and creative force, each deserving a dedicated place in a community of solidarity”. (pg.161) Ayers exhorts us to “love the world enough to put your shoulder on history’s great wheel” (pg.199) and begin here in our communities, in our daily lives, to throw off the delusion of powerlessness and begin to do the real, messy, engaging work of social democracy - building a healthier, more inclusive, just and sustainable world together.
I love this small book. It sits on my bedside table to remind me of my task as I make the bed each morning. It directs me to look unflinchingly at the ruins and to see them as opportunity as well as tragedy – a chance to do things better through building community and educating each other and sharing our creative talents. It helps me at bedtime when I take a breath after the slog of meetings, conversations and well laid plans gone awry, to remember that, “in our pursuit of a world powered by love and reaching toward joy and justice, imagination is our most formidable and unyielding ally...there is no power on Earth stronger than the imagination unleashed and the collective human soul on fire.”(pg. 196) I think then of my beautiful grandchildren, “each a being of infinite and incalculable value”. They and all children are carrying the seeds of the future in their souls. I want these seeds to be able to blossom after I am gone. This is not a rational process; my skepticism dissolves as an inner voice whispers that the moment of choice is always now. We can be socially isolated victims of the fire, preyed on by disaster capitalists, or we can be agents of change that rise from the ashes with regenerative vision and strengthened community, defying those who would marginalize or divide us by joining hands, standing together and proving that the changes we envision are not impossible after all.
What Are We Going to Learn Today? is reviewed by Bill Ayres, social justice activist, teacher and professor emeritus at University of Illinois at Chicago.
I just finished reading “What Are We Going to Learn Today? How All Children Can Become Enthusiastic Lifelong Learners” by Anne Cummings Jacopetti. Get a copy; read it; pass it on to teachers, parents, students, community members, and anyone interested in what schools and classrooms could be (and should be) at their best, as well as the challenges we face as we continue the struggle to create meaningful educational experiences for all children and youth.
“What Are We Going to Learn Today?” is an illuminating read, filled with hard-won wisdom from a lifetime of teaching. Jacopetti writes beautifully, and her stories are packed with wisdom about the power of dialogue and questioning, curiosity and first-hand experiences in teaching and authentic learning. She urges us to release our wildest imaginations as we nurture a tolerance for improvisation, confusion, experimentation, perpetual uncertainty, reciprocity, spontaneity, uniqueness, and flux.
And she helps us understand the terms of resistance: education for free people is powered, after all, by a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each a work in progress and a force in motion, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force, each born equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience and agency, each deserving recognition and respect, and a dedicated place in a community of solidarity. We resist anything that dehumanizes or thingifies human beings, all the mechanisms to indoctrinate, inspect, rank, appraise, censure, order about, register, sort, admonish, and sermonize. And we recognize, further, that the fullest development of each individual—given the tremendous range of ability and the delicious stew of race, ethnicity, points of origin, and background—is the necessary condition for the full development of the entire community, and, conversely, that the fullest development of all is essential for the full development of each.
Jacopetti gets it: learning is an entirely natural human pursuit, and we are learning all the time. Curiosity is inherent, living in a wildly complex and diverse human community is all the motivation we need to keep growing and learning.
Wherever and whenever questioning, researching, reimagining, rebuilding, pursuing authentic questions and interests and experiences, and undertaking active work in the community is the order of the day, a spirit of open communication, interchange, and analysis becomes commonplace as an expression of love. In these places there is a certain natural disorder, some anarchy and chaos, as there is in any busy workshop. But there is also a sense of joy, and a deeper discipline at work, the discipline of getting things done and learning with one another and through life. We see clearly in these cases that education at its best is always generative, for teachers and students alike.
Article Published in the Sonoma County Peace Press fpr August
“What a time to be alive!” The opening words of Reverend Sekou’s anthem, “The Revolution Has Come”, have echoed in the back of my mind for the past several weeks. Our long slide down a dark road of oil, war and corporate power has corrupted our political, economic and cultural life and brought us, finally, to the Trump administration. My friends, family and associates are looking hard at how we got here and what we must do now to recover a more just and sustainable future for our children and grandchildren before it is literally too late. The challenge can seem overwhelming.
“RESIST!” shouts the bumpersticker on my Spark EV. The question is how can I keep resisting without becoming exhausted and discouraged? How can I balance resistance – signing petitions, making donations and joining protests– with actions that are energizing and hopeful within our community. Both gestures are essential: blocking soulless greed and ambition and acting creatively and positively to transform the conversation.
For me, positive action is an outgrowth of my reflections about my lifelong experience as a teacher and my relatively new understanding of the principles of regenerative agriculture. In both education and agriculture, we have inherited systems whose assumptions are not life-based, that have forced increasingly unnatural processes on our children and on our gardens and farms. We need more assessments and textbook driven programs to ensure that children are successful, more chemicals and pesticides and GMO’s to ensure that we can grow enough food, so-called experts repeatedly have told us. Wrong on both counts. This vaunted knowledge and hubris mask profound ignorance of natural processes supporting life and our continued survival.
In our ignorance, we have inflicted children with top-down information-based group learning, driven by competition, rewards and punishments, with drugs to control their resulting restlessness. As a consequence, many children are failing and all are arguably damaged by their educational experience. In our ignorance, we have disrupted soil communities by digging and plowing and planting monocultures that have required increasing use of pesticides and fertilizers. Our once soil-rich valleys of California have released carbon to the atmosphere at an alarming rate, increasing global warming, polluting water and contaminating our food. Our soils are almost gone.
I know that children are avid learners; their survival depends on it. But they have requirements. They need strong relationships with trusted adults who respect their needs and encourage them to explore, to ask questions and to learn through experience. They need stories that help them chart their way and understand their place in the community. They need to be held by real communities that provide models of caring, responsible development for them to emulate.
I taught children how plants grow and flourish by performing the magic of photosynthesis – transforming light into food. Plants also have requirements. What I didn’t fully realize is that plants flourish through the support of a diverse and largely invisible community of interdependent microorganisms who live beneath us, invisible to our understanding until very recently. These microorganisms are the basis of all carbon-based life forms, including humans. Plants drip carbohydrates from their roots to attract them and the microbes respond by bringing plants the minerals they need, by forming communication webs that help the plants resist pests and diseases. Healthy living soil is a vibrant community of interdependent beings. It is also a brilliant metaphor for what we human beings have to consciously foster and create –more just and sustainable communities that celebrate and protect our interdependence with the natural world and with each other.
I have written a book to share my ideas for positive change in our public schools, inspired primarily by my experience as a Waldorf teacher and by current practices in Finnish public schools. Our 350 Sonoma regenerative agriculture group has formed a coalition with local farmers, orchardists and grape growers to test the research of Dr. David C. Johnson, a molecular biologist at NMSU, who has developed an effective high-fungal compost (BEAM) that supports soil regeneration and drawdown of atmospheric carbon. BEAM byproducts are healthier food and cleaner water These activities and relationships give me the energy to keep resisting and the hope that, indeed, the revolution has finally come.
Book Review by Betty Staley, published in Renewal, Journal for Waldorf Education, Spring, 2017 edition
Betty Staley has been a leader in Waldorf Education for over half a century as an early childhood educator, class teacher, high school teacher, educator of Waldorf teachers, author, and lecturer.
At a time when teachers are under pressure to introduce academic learning in the earliest years, when scores have become the means by which teachers are ranked, and when teachers are being blamed for children’s low educational skills, How Do Children Learn? by Anne Cummings Jacopetti offers a refreshing views. She incorporates neuro-scientific research in child development and the learning process, describes what it means to be a teacher who respects and loves children, and is deeply committed to engaging in the mutual process of teacher and student learning from each other.
The author draws from her wide experience as a teacher in varied situations to focus on how children learn. Her basic premise is that children are born with innate capacities; and these capacities develop on a somewhat predictable timetable throughout childhood and adolescence. The teacher’s task then is to foster children’s capacities and inspire creativity and enthusiasm for learning.
Jacopetti lists nine key elements in which the teacher can implement this goal: strengthening relationships, building community, using stories as stimuli for imagination and guide to the world, integrating the arts, inspiring learning by asking questions, strengthening learning by doing, reconnecting children with nature, working with the seasons and the role of celebrations, and valuing the importance of play as a catalyst for learning.
She draws many of her examples from her years as a Waldorf teacher and teaching in public schools, as well as highlighting other programs and approaches that recognize and develop these important aspects. She provides examples that teachers in any school can use and adapt to their situation.
She demonstrates her points by including poetry and detailed descriptions of conversations with students as well as examples of student work. In addition to clearly identifying these key elements, she draws the readers in so that we feel we are in the presence of a gifted, loving teacher who is as much reflecting on what she has learned from the students as how she has been able to inspire them to love learning from her.
Whereas each of the areas she cites are important, the beauty of this book is how the teacher can integrate them over multiple years. One of her strongest points is the emphasis on relationship, the bonding of the teacher with her students, an opportunity that is present every moment, every day, and every year as the teacher creates a quality of recognition and respect. Not only does Jacopetti highlight the insights of Rudolf Steiner and Waldorf education as her guiding principles, she introduces the reader to the Waldorf approach which is practiced in thousands of schools around the world, and she offers the fruits of this work for any teacher in any school who is committed to teaching as an art.
In order for teachers to implement these nine aspects in teaching, administrators need to offer teachers the same interest, caring and support that teachers are asked to give to the children in their care.
Since the 1980s teachers have not been respected to know how to teach and therefore need to be guided by “experts” such as textbook companies and corporate testing services. Jacopetti states “I believe that such policies are responsible for the poor standing of American students on international educational norms and the exodus of many talented teachers from the public schools.” She cites the Common Core test as an example of an approach that disregards what has been learned through neuroscience about children’s development and instead focuses on expectation of premature analytical thinking which is a cause for increasing anxiety and stress.
Jacopetti’s book, What Are We Going To Learn Today?, offers another way of teaching which brings health to children and inspires them to love learning. For parents and teachers involved in Waldorf education, this book gives an inside view of how to practice this art; how the curriculum addresses the child’s stage of development; how parents, teachers, and children form living and viable communities, how the arts are not an addition to the curriculum, but a necessary means to awaken capacities of trust, enthusiasm, and knowing; why stories are so central a part of the Waldorf curriculum; how learning through questioning and practical experience draw children to awaken their own learning; and how the life of rhythm, celebration, and connection with nature serve to help youngsters connect with the wider community of meaning.
What Jacopetti offers through this book is a gift to all parents and teachers who are concerned about children and their needs, how to counter the materialistic, dehumanizing approach found in many schools under pressure, and how to create a healthy community in which all its members thrive.
https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/how-to-teach-kids-about-climate-change-where-most-parents-are-skeptics/2017/06/03/1ad4b67a-47a0-11e7-98cd-af64b4fe2dfc_story.html?hpid=hp_hp-top-table-main_idaho-1118am%3Ahomepage%2Fstory&utm_term=.ea74be3a4df1Teaching Children About Climate Change
Join me on Sunday April 23rd, 2017 at 2pm as I meet with former students to share insights, reflections, and stories from our time together. We'll also read a few selections from my book, What Are We Going To Learn Today.
Click here for more details on this event.
I recently wrote an article to reach out to parents as well as teachers and sent it to a popular parent blog that is full of articles like Eight Science Backed Reasons to Let Your Child Play Outside. Perhaps they did not accept this article because I used the term "energy field" in trying to describe the actual experience of becoming bonded to a child. I may yet find a publisher,, but in the meantime here it is:
What Tim Taught Me
Tim and Paul came into my life when I was 28 years old and longing for a child of my own. My husband and I had applied for adoption after many months of trying and failing to get pregnant. I remember vividly the morning the phone rang and our social worker’s voice announced, “Anne, I have good news. I’ve got them for you.” “Them??” “Yes, beautiful three-month-old twin boys. I think you are the right mother for them.”
Four hours later, she put Paul into my arms, and I looked into his big brown eyes and accepted my fate. Tim arrived moments later. “And here is your little worrier”, she said. “Well, why not?” I thought. “Brothers. They will always have each other.” We said, “Yes”, and went home to assemble a small nursery, trembling with the awareness that our lives were about to change dramatically.
As an oldest sister and experienced baby-sitter, I was aware of the work involved in raising young children, so I was not surprised to be plunged into a routine of formulas, bottles, diapers, feedings and naps that swallowed up my days and many of my nights. What I hadn’t thought much about was the process of bonding; I took it for granted that I would love these babies and that they would love me in return. That, I thought, would be the easy part. And, in many ways, it was. They were both very lovable, beautiful, healthy little boys.
Weeks and then months passed in a busy blur with little time to ponder, but I finally admitted to myself that I was worried about my little worrier. Timmy had a very hard time relaxing and seemed to need to cry (at an intense decibel) in order to go to sleep. Rocking and holding did not comfort him and I would often find myself putting him safely into his crib and rocking it instead of him to get further away from the piercing intensity of his wail. Dr. Spock informed me about colic and reassured me that this stage would pass, and I tried to reassure myself that I was doing all that I could to be a good mother
The crying did begin to subside as Timmy learned to scrooch and crawl and sit up and climb. But new situations and people could trigger inconsolable tears, so we stayed close to home for the most part. Then one Saturday morning my husband took Paul for a morning jaunt, leaving me with Tim. Instead of starting chores, I curled up with him in a big leather chair in front of the television. We watched several episodes of Sesame Street, and Mister Rogers had just begun when it happened. Tim gave a deep sigh and relaxed; his little body melted into mine and a deep feeling of relief and joy flooded through my being. For the first time in our six months together, he was safe inside my energy. On the outside, we hadn’t moved. Mr. Rogers was still telling us a story, but inside everything had changed.
Again and again through the years that followed Tim would teach me lessons, but none more important than this first one. I couldn’t become his mother fully, his safe haven and source of ease, until I relaxed and stopped trying to make it happen. He needed the fully relaxed presence of my being in order to feel safe enough to begin to relax himself. It is so obvious in retrospect.
Research into early childhood finds that strong nurturing relationships are the primary basis for learning and healthy development, but the nature of that connection is not always made clear. Bonding is both a process and an incredibly intimate experience. Securely attached infants and young children are literally held within our energy fields and venture bravely forth from this secure base. If this connection is weak or nonexistent, the child’s experience of the world will be inevitably curtailed by anxiety.
In their wonderful book, Hold on to Your Kids, Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Maté tell us that “the secret of parenting is not in what a parent does but rather who the parent is to a child. When a child seeks comfort and closeness with us, we become empowered as a nurturer, a comforter, a guide, a model, a teacher or a coach. For a child well attached to us, we are her home base from which to venture into the world, her retreat to fall back to, her fountainhead of inspiration.” (Ballantine Books, 2004, 2005, pg. 6).
With some children, particularly sensitive ones that have experienced trauma, this bonding process may take considerable time and patience. But it is an essential process for healthy development, like breathing clean air and eating good food, that sustains us as our relationships evolve, and the children in our care grow up and move with increasing confidence into the world.
Tim’s lesson served me well as a mother, in my decades-long career as a teacher, and in my current role as loving grandmother to ten grandchildren. I still need to remind myself to be quiet, to listen, to wait and to make a space for those precious moments of deep connection. And I am still overwhelmed with gratitude and joy when they occur.