Tagged with " children"

Kids and Consent

A middle school near here had a lockdown today. Not a drill, an honest-to-goodness code red lockdown. I saw the news flash over Twitter that there were reports of shots fired. My heart stopped for about a half-hour. It’s not the school of anyone I know, but it’s close enough to my son’s age to fix in my mind’s eye until police reported the all-clear.

Turns out, it was a 12-year-old boy who called 911 with a locked cell phone (it would only dial an emergency number). It was a prank. A middle-school-aged boy thought it was funny to tell an operator that someone was firing a gun in a full school on a Wednesday morning, three months after the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Over 900 students, teachers, administrators, and staff were on lockdown for hours because nobody told a 12 year old never to ever call 911 as a joke, or if they did, he didn’t absorb the lesson.

And now he’s sitting in a jail.

Two other young men are sitting in a jail tonight, too, and will be for at least the next year of their lives, contemplating the horror they wrought on a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio. They didn’t learn the meaning of the word “prank” either. They violated her body and her privacy because they thought it was funny.

How are we failing so completely to teach kids not to make decisions like this, or excuse them as humor?

I certainly don’t have all the answers; I probably don’t even have any good ones. But I want, for a moment, to explore the idea of consent as it relates to children. The current discussion around rape prevention in feminist circles focuses on the word “no” as insufficient, because the responsibility to say it still rests on the victim. If we teach kids that “‘no’ means ‘no,'” but if the victim is incapable of saying “no,” those kids with their miraculously literal (and literally miraculous) minds will understand that no one’s going to stop them.

And not too long from then, they’ll be adults who think no one’s going to stop them. This isn’t a slippery slope; it’s just time elapsing.

I’m the big disciplinarian in our house, and I draw a pretty strict line for my boys to toe. It’s not that the Darling Husband doesn’t have expectations as high as mine, but I think I’m more concerned about them following invisible social strictures, because I had to work so hard at their ages to just figure them out. Part of my mind still thinks I can save my kids the trouble I had by telling them how to maneuver, but I know that’s not the case.

More important to me, though, than whether they’re thoroughly civilized is whether or not they can make a good decision when left to their own devices. When I’m there, I can tell them the processes and rules. When I’m not, I need to know they’re capable of reaching the same conclusion. And just telling them over and over isn’t enough. The trick is, I have to let them do things and make mistakes to convey this lesson. And we parents aren’t very good at allowing a child to make decisions for themselves these days.

The whole endeavor of childhood is currently an exercise in coercion and control, rather than consent. It starts early: mothers who may not have much choice about whether or how to be pregnant or give birth seek to reclaim control by exercising their choice about issues like circumcision and vaccinations. We turn day care and school choice into a major undertaking that continues to be pushed back further and further into infancy–it seems inevitable that parents will consider which schools are accepting applications before attempting to conceive–rather than waiting to see which environment best suits the child’s personality. School attendance and activity is mandatory, with little or no flexibility for the majority of students. Parents who juggle complex schedules don’t consult children about when (or even whether, sometimes) to have lessons, homework, dinner, or bedtime, passing on the lack of control they may experience in their work and social environments.

Parents obviously want what’s best, but the simple fact is that almost no one bothers to obtain a child’s consent for anything. When they do, it often conforms to the illusion of choice, which is a helpful vehicle in speeding through more fundamental objections. Which jacket do you want to wear, red or blue? It’s shower time; here, choose your shower setting and temperature, the color of your towel. Would you prefer carrots or peas as your dinner vegetable? “No” only gets you a restatement of the choices or a deferment, rarely a conversation about why they’re objecting. That’s not surprising; “no” is a powerful word, as kids discover early on, and in a world where they’re so powerless, they often use it without checking to see if it’s really needed, just because it gets a reaction.

I’m not proposing that parents be completely permissive and let their kids boss them around, or be rude, or break all the rules. And I’m certainly not going to relinquish my control as a parent to make judgment calls that keep my kid healthy, safe, or in line with a program that benefits everyone in the family. Sometimes, you’ve just got to take one for the team, and I’d like to think I do a decent job explaining to my sons why that decision is necessary at that time, and when they might next make a decision for themselves.

But if taking a shower or eating vegetables or doing math homework is always a matter of when, not if, even when the child has legitimate objections, is it any wonder that our kids don’t know that they can say “no” to a child molester or abductor? What good has it done them before to say “no”? And why should they listen to someone else say “no” when it’s never worked for them when they didn’t want to do something. Silence isn’t the same as consent, but neither is age a replacement for asking.

Feb 28, 2013 - Psychology, Social Studies    8 Comments

Lock And Key

Friday is the Autistic Day of Mourning, a day to honor the autistic people who have lost their lives to the desperate or careless actions of parents and guardians, or to the crushing weight of the sensory world that seems inescapable by any other means but death.

As long as myths and misinformation are spread about what life on the autism spectrum is like, there will continue to be caretakers who feel that autistics are less than human, and autistics who feel that every door in the world is shut and locked against them. This is my story of those doors and locks, and the keys that turn up in the most unexpected of places.

I wrote this for an event around Mothers’ Day, called Listen To Your Mother. (It may have been too weird for them.) But I really wanted to share these words I’ve crafted, and the occasion to commemorate those who never found their keys seemed fitting. I hope it unlocks something for you, too.


Parenthood is all doors and windows, keys and locks. Change blows them open and slams them shut. Heat and grief swell the frames so they stick stubbornly. Time and anger jam the pins and squeak the hinges. Then suddenly, a word, a fall, a breakthrough, and we stumble over the threshold.

My son’s autism diagnosis was the key to a lock I didn’t even know existed. Kindergarten was rough, rougher than it needed to be. Connor talked as fast as he thought, ideas rushing out so fast his little mouth garbled and stammered over the vocabulary of a high schooler. He knew the names and origins of every superhero and Star Wars character, but related them with so much detail, kids his age gave up and walked away. He struggled to function in the constant noise and color of the classroom, where he could never settle and instead slingshotted among activities and classmates.

The other kindergartners didn’t understand, and responded with cruelty beyond comprehension. Five-year-olds on the bus home at half-day told him they would beat him like a piñata until he broke open. They said they would come into his room and set his bed on fire. They hit him in the face with ice balls until he needed stitches. And I cried as I scrubbed the blood out of his little winter coat, as I held him in the night after dreams that woke him screaming. As I filed the papers to transfer him to somewhere safer.

We got called to a meeting within the first month at his new school. “We’ve noticed some things we’d like to talk to you about,” the counselor said. We feared a repeat of the last school’s message: “Your son is a discipline problem. Fix that.” But in that room with his teacher and a staff we barely knew, they slid a list across the table to us that told the story of our son.

My husband and I laughed. Out loud. It startled the school folks to see parents erupt in gales of hilarity and recognition at an inventory of symptoms. But there it was, clear as day on that paper: every strange, wonderful, frustrating, inexplicable thing that our son did. “It’s okay,” we tried to reassure them. “This is the Book of Connor, the pattern we couldn’t figure out. Until now, we thought it was crap parenting.”

It has a name, they told us: Asperger’s Syndrome. “How wonderful,” we replied. “If it has a name, it’s a language we can learn.” We shook their hands, agreed to meet again soon to talk about how to help him. We thanked them, over and over. “Thank you for giving us the key to unlock our son.” I went to the library, checked out armloads of books, and built a fortress around myself, so I could read us all out of the dark.

But the key we had fit another lock, too. It fit a lock in me, a lock I didn’t know I had. His patterns were my patterns, or had been as a child before I learned to hide or work around them. I saw the world in stories too, and had visions clearer than eyesight from the books where I went to hide. I fixated on things without even trying or wanting to. And when it was too much, only dark and quiet and heavy blankets and the rushing, patternless sound of a fan could steady me on the tightrope again.

His lock, my lock, they’re the same. My son is autistic. I am autistic. We are both autistic together. We share this key, and we’re unlocking doors I never dreamed I would pass down to my child.

Grownups say they wish they knew then what they know now. They have no idea.

My son’s lock is my lock. His key is my key. Every door it opens, it opens for him and me. And I walk that terrible, glorious road of discovery with him again like it’s the first time for us both.

Dec 7, 2012 - Psychology, Social Studies    3 Comments

The Gifts That Keep On Giving

Almost every good and wonderful thing about the winter holidays is a sensory delight. The smells of cold snow and freshly cut pine and butter-rich cookies tingle in our noses. Pipe organs and French horns and jingly bells and heavenly choirs and crinkly paper delight our ears with musical sounds rarely used in the rest of the year. Velvety and satiny fabrics combine with delightfully scratchy sweaters and fuzzy hats in our special party clothes. We write ourselves dietary hall passes for the dozens of special, luscious holiday foods. And the lights…oh, the lights! Who doesn’t gasp and crane at the sight of an elaborately decorated building or brilliantly lit tree?

Now imagine all that cranked up to 11. Welcome to the holidays on autism.

Sounds amazing, right? But for autistics and their families, the holidays can be overwhelming and stressful. So many folks struggle with money and family drama and expectations about all things merry and bright, and with schedules and nerves and input jacked up on Kringle Fever. These things stress out the neurodiverse too–and they often have difficulty expressing what’s too much, especially if it feels like that’ll disappoint their loved ones. Naps, hugs (physical or otherwise), routines all go a long way to mitigate these stresses, and though you may feel like a Grinch insisting on bedtimes and dietary restrictions, you’ll be grateful later when you and your family have more spoons left over for fun.

All this is in response to a blog post I read over on Autism Daddy today (thanks to Joshua for the link!). He lamented his inability to participate in a common source of small talk among parents this time of year–what their kids want for Christmas. Every parent dreams of giving the perfect gift that makes their child light up brighter than starlight, but on autistics, that looks a bit different.

Still, you can give gifts that’ll make their lives easier and more enjoyable all year long. And I urge you all to resist the urge to jump to the conclusion that gifts for special needs kids have nothing in common with, or aren’t “as fun” as, the gifts neurotypical kids want. After all, autistics are “more human than human,” as I heard Paul Collins say on Speaking of Faith years ago. And the things that feel good to them often feel good to (or solve problems for) neurotypical folks too.

I don’t know a single kid who doesn’t love the hell out of jumping on a trampoline. If you give a kid a mini-tramp (with a handle and helmet!) that fits in their bedroom, or passes for an hour at the hangar-sized trampoline parks popping up in industrial parks, you would get a medal for Best Adult EVER from children everywhere.

And who doesn’t wish they had a chair that closes up like a clam some days? In today’s open-plan, no-doors work environment, I think these may be the Next Big Thing at the very best chair stores.

And this is just the beginning. There are loads of adaptive technologies which are practical solutions to everyday problems, and you’d be the hero for putting it under the tree. For example, kids are asked to write on whiteboards at school every day, but if you’re a lefty, you spend half your time trying not to drag your arm through what you just wrote and have to start all over again when you finish each line. This cool LCD lightboard eliminates that problem! And tags in the back collar of shirts and underwear drive everyone nuts, not just autistics, so be a hero and give a box of tagless clothes that can be worn under anything.

There’s an extensive list of assistive and adaptive technologies (both high- and low-tech) at the Research Autism website, but many of these things aren’t only available to therapists or educators anymore. Online speciality retailers like AutismShop.com and Autism-Products.com sell everything from squeeze machines to weighted blankets to awesome fidget toys (which make excellent stocking stuffers). And a lot of the best gifts for autistics are available right in your local Walmart or Target–exercise balls, tagless shirts and underwear, blankets with lovely silky binding and nifty textures, and glasses with clear, funky-colored lenses are all fantastic fun gifts for every kid.

(Important Note: You NEVER want to be the person who gives the Toys That Make The Noise. This is exponentially more the case for families with neurodiverse kids. They will hate you forever.)

It gets tiring being the educator-in-chief, and I definitely have days when I don’t want to explain autism and how the world feels through that lens one more time. But instead of feeling left out because you aren’t having the same experience as other neurotypical parents and children, it’s more fun to focus on what makes us all feel good. That’s a wonderful gift to give and be given, any time of year.


Closing Arguments

I’ve been working on the campaign for marriage equality here in Minnesota since March, and as I’ve written before, it’s the most fulfilling political, social, and activist project I’ve ever worked on. I’m a total addict to the amazing people and experiences I encounter every single time I put in some time, and I’m going to crash hard on November 7, even if we manage to win. I’m already getting the shakes. Last night, I asked my friend and co-trainer Scott, who works in politics for his day job, for a new campaign–I’m lining up a new dealer once Minnesotans United for All Families skips town.

MN United has built a campaign unlike any other, rejecting the messages and tactics that have failed in 30 states where anti-marriage amendments have gone up for a popular vote. While talk about the rights and benefits that attach to marriage, and how the denial of those rights amounts to separate-but-equal discrimination on par with civil rights fights of the past, are important to many supporters of marriage equality, they aren’t generally persuasive for people who are on the fence about gay marriage. So we’re having personal conversations with voters, using our own life stories, to make it clear that marriage is about love and commitment, no matter the gender of the partners. These stories are powerful, and they change hearts and minds and votes.

Only four days remain until the election, so I’m going to share the core of the conversations I’ve been having with you today. If you’re in one of the four states voting on marriage equality, I hope that this strengthens your resolve if you’re a supporter, and opens your heart to the conversation if you’re still undecided.

Our first walk as Mr. and Mrs. Banks, 5 October 1996

I find this amendment personally hurtful on so many levels. I have the great good fortune to be married to the love of my life, despite the astronomical odds that we would ever find one another on opposite sides of the world. And for the last sixteen years, we’ve had each other in good times and bad. I’ve rejoiced in the affection and the support and the million inside jokes and shorthand references that weave us closer, and I’ve buckled with relief into that tightly knit fabric of partnership in the times of crisis and grief. I think marriage is the best game in town, and I devoutly wish the same celebration and endorsement for every loving, committed couple who lean into the unknown future together.

All of this hinges, though, on one critical fact: my beloved was the opposite gender. When we fell madly in love, we had many obstacles to overcome so we could be together, but the legal right for me to marry him and secure his immigration status so we could start our new life together was not one of them. We obtained a K-1 “fiance” visa that allowed him to enter the country and get on the fast track for a green card by submitting evidence of our marriage. We went through the separate interviews to assure our marriage wasn’t a scam.

But I’m bisexual. There was no guarantee that my soulmate would be a man. And if he weren’t, the last sixteen years–all the love, all the progress, all the family we’ve built–disappear. That one thought blows through my gut like an icy wind and fills me with unbearable sorrow. I cannot imagine the pain and devastation of being told I couldn’t marry and be with my beloved.

And I look at my amazing, difficult, brilliant, gorgeous, perfect sons, and I marvel even more. We didn’t have to submit any applications or pass any interviews before we decided to conceive them, and not once have we ever had to fear that they would be taken away from us. We’re far from perfect parents, but no one has ever questioned whether we’re the best people to raise them. It’s assumed that they’re safe and happy and healthy and loved, and there’s no awkwardness when I introduce their other parent at school events or church functions.

Believe me, all this “traditional”-ness is positively mortifying to a weird, eclectic nonconformist like me. Frankly, it’s embarrassing. We didn’t set out to create a “traditional” family, and we’ve done everything in our power to the least traditional traditional family around. But we are very aware of our privilege, and there’s no reason in the world it should be reserved to our narrow demographic.

Marriage is an important but limited part of how I envision family. I’m a child of divorce, and even as an eight-year-old, I knew that my mother and father weren’t working out. I knew that marriage stood in the way of being our best selves, and I told my mom often as a kid, then a teenager, then an adult, that she made the right call. That divorce didn’t dissolve the ties of family, though–I’m still close with my father’s family, and I kept my birth last name as a second middle name when my stepdad adopted us years later. But I also watched my grandparents’ marriage, which started with my grandma saying, “I’ll marry you so I can get out of the house before I kill my sister. But if it doesn’t work out, you go your way, I’ll go mine, and no hard feelings.” It lasted 62 years.

We teach our sons that families come in all shapes and sizes. Of course, we didn’t have to work too hard to teach them this: they already knew it. They have friends who have a mom and a dad like they do, and friends who only live with their mom or their dad, or travel between their parents’ houses. They know friends who live with extended family, or foster parents, or adoptive families. And they know friends with two dads or two moms. All they care about is that their friends are as loved and secure as they are.

So I’m voting no.

I’m voting no because I treasure my marriage. No other word in our language and society so completely sums up the lifelong commitment and enduring love that I share with my partner, and it hurts to imagine being told that we didn’t qualify for that word by something we couldn’t change or improve. My marriage is strong, and no married gay couple down the street, arguing about bills and chores like we do, makes that less secure.

I’m voting no because I hold my sons in hope and love. I feel that they’re better people because we’ve taught them that every person is worthy of the same dignity, no exceptions. My dream for my boys is to dance at their weddings, and the only thing I care about is that the person they marry loves them as much as I love their father. I’m going to dance, it’s going to be Bad Mom Dancing, and it’s going to live on in infamy on YouTube, to forever embarrass them, like every good mom should.

I’m voting no because my understanding of the world’s faiths teaches me that the most universal truth among humans is to treat one another the way we would want to be treated. Whether it’s the Judeo-Christian Golden Rule, or the Confucian Silver Rule, this is held as a central tenet. We rarely follow the ancient scriptures that prohibit same-sex partners on other subjects; we acknowledge that they’re historical documents, and that society’s values have evolved since they were written. I want my church to have the religious freedom to marry gay and lesbian couples as our faith embraces as equally entitled.

I’m voting no because I’m a historian. I can see that the institution of marriage predates the Bible and that it began as an economic transaction to link families and secure heredity. It was not always a sacrament, and it was not always available to every heterosexual couple. It hasn’t “always been” any particular way. Marriage for love is a damned newfangled idea, relatively speaking. If you married someone not from your hometown, you’re already breaking “traditional” convention, let alone someone of a different church, faith, ethnic group, or race.

I’m voting no because I’m a teacher and a parent, and the health, safety, and wellbeing of every child matters to me. I can’t imagine the horror of waiting to know how the state where they were born is going to vote on whether they and their families are welcome. LGBT youth are so fragile already, under siege in schools and churches and media, and it’s a sacred trust we are given to show them that they can aspire to fully participate in society and experience the range of human love. I have great confidence that other teachers will continue to teach age-appropriate lessons, and that as parents we still have the greatest power to teach our children about morality.

I’m voting no because I’m a patriot. I believe in the founding principles of our country, especially the purpose of our constitution as a document that secures personal freedoms and limits government intrusions. The constitution should never be used to carve out a segment of the population and deprive them of the same liberties as others enjoy. And we certainly shouldn’t be putting rights up for a popular vote. Ideological conservatives have made some of the most persuasive arguments along these lines.

I’m voting no because I’m an optimist, and I believe our society is moving toward a broader, more inclusive understanding of one another. The less we allow race, gender, faith, class, and sexual orientation to cloud our vision of a common humanity, the more we will recognize that we all want the same thing. We’ve got a long way to go on all of those issues, but we can (and should!) work on them simultaneously. I reject the arguments of fear, division, and misunderstanding, and I put my hope in the journey we’re on toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Oct 31, 2012 - World Religions    1 Comment

Making Halloween Magical

I absolutely adore Halloween. I’ve been known to skip down store aisles singing “It’s the most…wonderful time…of the year!” at the first sight of skulls and crows. I collect Halloween socks and wear them all year round. I buy gothic lanterns and creepy wall hangings and ghoulish tea towels on clearance for everyday use.

Part of this is related to Halloween’s location in my favorite season, Fall. Fall is a full-sensory extravaganza for me: crunchy leaves, crisp nose-hair-tingling morning air, spices and soups, the acrid sting of a matchstrike as I begin lighting candles again after the hot, bright summer.

But Halloween holds more meaning for me than just memories of costumes and candies past. It’s also a sacred holiday for me and other pagans, marking the beginning of new turn around the wheel of the year. Because I follow the Celtic traditions of my ancestors as they intersect with modern neo-pagan practices, I call this day Samhain (pronounced SOV-han or SOW-an, NOT  SAM-HANE).

Celebrated by many ancient agrarian cultures as a cross between New Year’s and Memorial Day, Samhain acknowledges the conclusion of the harvest, the closing down of the earth in preparation for winter, and the liminality of beginnings and endings that allows us to perceive how thin the veils are that separate us from unseen worlds around us. The costumes and the lanterns play games with concepts of finding and evading spirits passing from one state of being to the next. Even trick-0r-treating, often maligned as turning kids into greedy monsters with eroding teeth and manners, reminds us of our obligations of hospitality and the sweetness of welcome on a cold night.

My own monsters, as Finn and Jake from Adventure Time!, ready to storm the neighborhood and shake it for candy.

As such, it’s a powerful time for magic in every sense of the word. The topsy-turvy nature of the night always reminds me to look to the children in my life for wisdom; they have so much to teach us about taking pleasure in the moment and finding wonder in the ordinary. And you can return the favor by taking Halloween as an excuse to open the door to simple magic so they learn the spirit behind the spirits.

If your family has experienced the death of any loved ones in the past year, Samhain allows us to commemorate their life and release them with love, rather than carry the weight of grief into the new year and prevent their spirit from crossing over peacefully. Obviously, this is a complex concept, but it can be symbolized in simple ways that teach kids that grief is natural, as is letting go. If your hands are always full of the past, there’s no room to grab the future, and a ritual of remembrance and release absolves us of the guilt that often accompanies fading memory. It’s nice to look at pictures and tell stories of the departed, then perform an act that symbolizes transition: blow out a candle, throw written messages into moving water, or break a small bowl or clay pot.

Halloween is also a good day for housecleaning magic. If a child has been having difficulty with distraction, negativity, or nightmares–or if an adult wants to banish more mature worries or problems–the energy of the new year can be a powerful “disinfectant.” Go from room to room, in counter-clockwise order from the way you would face as you walk in the front door, and pass a broom over doorways and windowsills. When you end up back at the front door, sweep all the negative energy out the door, say some creative words of banishment (e.g., “Get out of my house, you horrible no-good dreams/feelings/bills!”) , and let the kids slam the door.

Finally, it can be fun to teach kids about traditional divination magic associated with Halloween. Young boys and girls have been looking into pools of water or cutting into fruit on Halloween to tell their fortunes for centuries–that’s where bobbing for apples comes from! Spending some quiet time looking into a dish of water, mirror, or flame (safely, obviously!) often conjures hopes and fears for the future as you settle into meditation with an external focus, and talking about them works wonderful, everyday bonding magic. If you have a tarot deck, runes, or I Ching set, it can also be fun to let the child examine them and ask questions; let them offer their own interpretations and observations, and keep the atmosphere light. People are more comfortable going forward into an unknown future if they feel like they have some sort of influence over it, and even silly little scrying games can make us feel more empowered.

I hope you all have a wonderful, magical Halloween!

Family Game Night: Friday Night Lists

I haven’t done a Friday Night List in a while, mostly because when it’s summer break, Friday night’s no different than any other night. But now that we’re wrapping up the first week back to school, it’s a blessed relief for all of us to flick off the alarm for tomorrow morning, so I thought I’d celebrate.

NEWS ALERT: We are a family of gamers. Shocking, I know. But even more than it being both work and passion for the Darling Husband and me, gaming has become instrumental in our parenting and education styles. They’re fantastic ways to sneak math and reading into their intellectual diet, and kids’ll often tackle concepts far more complex than grade level eagerly to master new levels of success in the game.

And, possibly more importantly, they’re perfect rehearsal spaces for a variety of social skills that all kids need work on, not just kids on the autism spectrum. Games teach turn-taking, graceful winning/losing, flexibility at unpredictable change, calculated risk-taking, cooperation, and enjoyment of others’ enjoyment. Honestly, how many adults do you know who have all those mastered?!

So, here’s a list of what we most frequently play at home these days. It’s very, very far from complete, and there are a number of embarrassing omissions, most notably Marvel Heroic Roleplaying (the DH’s current sandbox) and Once Upon A Time (one of my company’s best kid-friendly games, gorgeous 3rd Edition due in October ). But good games rotate through our regular play schedule, and we’ve got a few great new ones on deck to try out too. Here’s what’s in demand at the moment:

1) GLOOM (Atlas Games): This one is evergreen for my kids. In Gloom by Keith Baker (art by Todd Remick), you’re in charge of a truly despicable family, and it’s your job to make them as miserable as possible before bumping them off in a horrible way. Meanwhile, you want to shower blessings and joy on your fellow players to prevent them from meeting the same fate. Up is down, and down is up, and kids positively cackle with delight when I moan and thrash and castigate them for something so repellent as a picnic in a park. Educational Skills: Positive and negative integers, and awesome new vocab like “consumption,” “dysentery,” and “chastised.” Social Skills: Turn-taking, cooperation/collaboration, winning/losing, strategy.

2) GET BIT (Mayday Games): A new favorite by developer Dave Chalker, the mechanics are very simple and attractive: You are one of a line of swimmers being chased by a shark. You have cards 1-7 which you play to determine each round’s race. The one left at the end of the line gets bit. The swimmer pieces have detachable body parts that give a satisfying LEGO-like snap when they come off, though the little pieces require kids to pay special attention during clean-up. Educational Skills: Probability, anatomy (?) Social Skills: Turn-taking, winning/losing, strategy.

3) WILDCRAFT! (LearningHerbs.com): I was attracted to this game by Kimberly and John Gallagher because it teaches kids to recognize common medicinal plants in nature and their uses, and I’m all about nature awareness for my kids. But the game mechanic is purely cooperative, and fosters truly collaborative game play toward the goal of getting everybody to and from the mulberry patch in the middle of forest in the time between sunup and sundown. Players draw Danger Cards for ailments like bee stings, fatigue, blisters, and sunburn, as well as plant cards; a system of symbols and detailed botanical drawings make the game playable even for pre-literate kids. And they collect Cooperation Cards that they can use to bring the last player up with them to get through the forest faster. Educational Skills: Plant recognition, herbal medicine. Social Skills: Turn-taking, cooperation/collaboration, strategy.

4) CASTLE PANIC (Fireside Games): In this game by Justin De Witt, players defend a castle in the center of a board shaped like a bullseye, which is accurate, because you’re under heavy siege by monsters of all kinds lurking in the forest around your keep. As the monsters advance on all sides, players cooperate to defend their walls. It’s largely hopeless, but it’s excellent fun to toss resource chips and skilled warriors back and forth and see how long you can hold out this time. Educational Skills: Um, trolls? Castle building? Social Skills: Cooperation/collaboration, strategy, graceful losing (not much winning).

5) LIGRETTO DICE (Playroom Entertainment): Otherwise known as “The Noisy Game” in our house, each player gets a cup full of six-sided dice of four different colors in this game by Inka and Markus Brand. You shake and dump them out, then race to put your dice on the board in ascending order in each color column. It’s a little bit Yahtzee, a little bit speed game. Adults might have to throw a few games ’til the kids get up to full speed, but once they climb the learning curve, it’s game on. Educational Skills: Numbers, colors, pattern recognition. Social Skills: Fast decision making, calculated risk-taking, winning/losing, strategy.

6) BLINK (Out of the Box Games): Another speed game (designed by Reinhard Staupe and artists John Kovalic, Ariel Laden, & Jurgen Martens)  in which players work through a deck of cards by add to two central piles by matching the number, color, or shape of symbols on the cards. Like the previous, adults may have to handicap themselves a bit at first with younger kids, but it’s great for preschoolers and remains challenging long after they’re literate. It’s also a good, portable game to keep handy for unexpected, open-ended waits (along with LCR). Educational Skills: Colors, numbers, pattern recognition. Social Skills: Fast decision making, winning/losing.

7) MUNCHKIN (Steve Jackson Games): There are so many variants that took off from the original dungeon-raider theme, designed by Steve Jackson and illustrated by John Kovalic; our copies are Super Munchkin and Munchkin Axe Cop. You build a hero, outfit him with gadgets and armor befitting the theme, and go up against villains to win loot. Early in the game, you need more points than you probably have in your hero alone, so players need to negotiate with players to fight off high-value villains, but as players start getting their heroes close to their game-winning 10th Level, those team-ups start turning toward piling more villains on the frontrunner, forcing him to run away or lose valuable assets in battle. Educational Skills: Addition, greater than/less than comparison, reading. Social Skills: Turn-taking, strategy, cooperation/collaboration, calculated risk-taking, negotiation, winning/losing.


He feels your pain

We were in our local movie theater at 9:30 a.m. this Tuesday, because it turns out that’s the cheapest available time to see a new release movie like The Amazing Spider-Man. I’ve had my reservations about the idea of a franchise reboot so soon on the heels of the last interpretation, but ours is a deeply geeky household, so a new superhero movie was required viewing.

I’d be curious to know how many people in modern American society are unaware of the basic plot of Spider-Man’s origin story: hopeless nerd gets bitten by modified spider, gets spider’s powers, fails to use them for good when he can, consequences lead to tragedy, becomes a vigilante hero as an attempt to atone for his failure. Certainly, it’s a story Connor and Griffin know backward and forward–like their father, they’re walking superhero sourcebooks.

But when tragedy strikes, as expected, in the movie, suddenly I’ve got a sobbing pile of six-year-old on my lap. His bony little shoulders are shuddering, and hot tears soak my collar. I stroke his hair and whisper to him that it’s okay, he’s safe, and I know it’s sad, but it’ll get better, until he slowly uncurls and starts watching again. He doesn’t leave the shelter of my arms until the credits begin to roll.

And this isn’t the first time this has happened recently.

It happened when we went to see Chimpanzee at our favorite bargain theater last weekend. It happened when Claudia and Jamie spent their first lonely night in the Met, as I read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. It’s happened at a variety of TV shows and movies at home.

He starts by telling me, “I don’t like this show/story/movie.” He’s tried to leave the room once or twice, or pick up the DS or iPod for a few minutes of gaming, but mostly, he comes to me and cries. I’ve asked him what’s wrong (though I knew the answer), but he’s only ever once given me a straight answer. “This hurts my heart,” he told me.

The characters’ losses are his losses. Their grief is his grief. Their loneliness and pain, his too. When their hearts hurt, so does his. And, not surprisingly, he doesn’t like it.

To be perfectly honest, this is the first time I’ve really had to deal with this in my decade of parenting. I’m not saying that my boys haven’t felt things deeply before–far from it. The difference with this, I think, is that, instead of the rushes and waves of emotion coming from their own experiences, Griffin’s heart hurts entirely out of empathy, and I haven’t really had to guide a kid through that until now.

I’ve written before about the intensity of feeling Connor experiences. The emotions of both boys are written in the air around them, in big vivid splashes, glowering clouds, and joyful sparkles. They both wear their hearts on their sleeves, and invest their emotions in the people and things that they love. They feel injustice acutely, and react with compassion.

But for better or for worse, empathy is tricky for autistics. It comes from the mind–from knowing and understanding the other person’s situation–as much or more than it comes from the heart. Empathy has to be learned, as much as any other social skill. It may even become reflexive.

Art by Jim Hill.

I’m having to go back to my earliest years to connect with Griffin’s hurting heart. I got carried away by torrents of emotion at some of the first movies I ever saw. I was younger than two years old when Disney’s Snow White was back in theaters for the periodic re-releases that preceded the availability of home video technology. As the Evil Queen transformed into the Witch (so the story goes), I turned to my mom and grandma and announced very clearly, “I want to go home.” They shushed me, and I repeated again, more loudly and firmly, “I WANT. To go. HOME. NOW.” They took the hint, and I was considerably older before I saw the rest of that movie. When I saw Pete’s Dragon, I was carried from the theater, screaming and crying, as if Elliott was flying away from me personally, not Pete. And I sobbed my little heart out when Baloo the Bear was struck down by Shere Khan in The Jungle Book.

These stories hurt my heart horribly, and not in the way that pre-teen girls sometimes seek out, enjoying the rush of florid emotion that makes them feel more mature. Over the years, these experiences grew into funny stories my family told about what a queer tiny adult I was, burying the memory so deeply that when life hurt my heart that deeply again, I didn’t have that experience–or more importantly, the recovery that followed the pain–to call up for solace.

So I’m holding Griffin’s hurting heart ever so carefully, each time he hands it to me. I’m not going to tell him that it’s just a story, it’s made up, that he shouldn’t feel sad. Stories are practice for real life. I’m doing him no favors by protecting him from sadness and loss; it’s not good mothering to build a bubble of pure happiness and safety around a child. But if I let him explore that feeling, know that it’s valid, and emerge on the other side from the safety of my arms, maybe he won’t run from or swallow the pain when it inevitably comes later.

Back to the Basics: Friday Night Lists

I absolutely love classic movies. And by classic, I mean movies that would appear on TCM, not AMC. It’s got to be at least 50 years old to count in my book. Sure, there are new classics in every generation, but not all of them will make the long-term classic movie cut.

I’m raising my kids to love classic movies, too. Not just because they’re good stories, but because the slower pacing, more nuanced acting, and fewer explosions provide an important balance to the loud, frenetic pace of kids’ TV and video games. If they can learn to get into a classic movie, I think they stand a better chance of being able to get into a newspaper, a history book, and a weeks-long scientific experiment later on, and that’s all to the good.

But if you want to really hook kids on the classics, you’ve got to know where to start. Classic movies, like literary classics and classical music, come in wide variety of forms, and some are inherently more kid-friendly than others. If the first black & white movie you show a kid is Camille with Greta Garbo, they’re going to run screaming the next time you suggest something made before 1980.

So here are my suggestions for a primer course in classic movies. Be sure to watch these WITH the kids in your life, whether you’ve never seen them, or you’ve seen them a hundred times. It’s impossible not to laugh at the jokes, thrill at the action, and sigh with satisfaction when you’re seeing it through new eyes.


1. The Court Jester (1956)–Danny Kaye is at his goofy, flexible, hilarious best in this send-up of medieval court adventures. The cast is loaded with other all-stars, including Basil Rathbone (aka Sherlock Holmes) as a smarmy villain, Glynis Johns (aka Mrs “Sister Suffragette” Banks in Mary Poppins) as the clever serving girl who becomes Kaye’s love interest, and a very young Angela Lansbury (yes, the Jessica Fletcher one) makes her film debut as the princess. The songs are funny, the slapstick is funny, the action scenes are even funny. It’s in color, but it’s got everything good that a classic movie can offer, and it stands up well to re-watching as an adult.

2. Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton silent shorts–I’m not going to put a specific title in here, because any compilation of short films by these two comic geniuses (streaming Netflix has several available) will have treasures to delight kids of any age. Don’t let the kids sway you with complaints about the black & white film or the music-only accompaniment–these are straight-up hysterical, and with a little guidance, kids pick up on the unfolding physical gags all on their own. So many of Chaplin’ and Keaton’s bits have been recycled over the years that it’s nice to see them in context again, especially with a kid who hasn’t been jaded to their charms by the knock-offs.

3. National Velvet (1944)–Elizabeth Taylor made her screen debut in this movie about horses, with Mickey Rooney as a young, charming trainer. I’ve seen generation after generation of girls (especially, though not exclusively) go gaga over the gorgeous horses, the exciting race sequences, and the wide-open emotional heart of this film. Taylor’s young beauty and potential absolutely sparkle.

4. Road to Morocco (1942)–If you aren’t familiar with the Bing Crosby/Bob Hope “Road” movie series, you’ve really been missing out. Morocco‘s a personal favorite, but any of them you can get your hands on are wonderful. There’s plenty of overt humor–mistaken identities, abductions, French door farce, etc.–but a lot of the jokes that fly in fast, companionable crossfire between Hope and Crosby are sly and referential, much like Bugs Bunny cartoons of the same time period, aimed at the adults. The more you watch these films, the more things you (and the kids) will find funny.

5. North by Northwest (1959)–This is about as good a “Child’s First Hitchcock” as I can come up with. There are elements of the plot that may escape them, unless an adult’s on hand to string things together, but the action scenes are good, the plot twists are hair-raising, and Mount Rushmore and the UN building in New York suddenly become much more exciting destinations for a family vacation. There’s plenty of Hitchcockian suspense, but none of the phobia-inducing stuff of The Birds or Psycho, or the more adult innuendos of To Catch A Thief.

6. The Pink Panther (1963)–This one will be 50 years old next year, so I’m going to let it slide in under the wire, because it’s so fantastic. Peter Sellers blew the doors off cinema comedy all over again with his clumsy, silly, terribly clever portrayal of the star-crossed Inspector Clouseau. Just be sure to warn the kids that the Pink Panther of cartoon fame does not make an appearance in the movie (though those cartoons are also classics worth watching, and they’re readily available on Netflix too).

7. Duck Soup (1933)–No list of family-friendly classic movies would be complete without the Marx Brothers, and though the political story line and some of the fast repartée may fly well above young kids’ cruising altitude, the farce and slapstick are undeniably fun. Like the Hope/Crosby Road movies, Marx Brothers’ schtick just gets better and better with age.

8. Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)–This movie adaptation of the classic screen play was directed by Frank Capra, but despite the running theme of insane relatives and casual murder, it’s actually less intense and depressing than Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. Comparing this screwball, wacky Cary Grant to the wry, suave Cary Grant of his Hitchcock days may give you whiplash, but he absolutely sells the “normal guy in abnormal circumstances” farce. Kids will need the Boris Karloff jokes explained, but other than that, crazy Uncle Teddy “charging the blockhouse” and Grant’s slow meltdown in the face of his family’s obvious oddity are completely winning.

9. The Music Man (1962)–This one hits the 50-year mark this year, but it’s so timeless, you can hardly tell. If the kids are familiar with the medieval morality tale of The Pied Piper of Hamelin, they’ll get more out of this glorious movie musical. The sudden-singing feature of musicals seems somehow less remarkable (or annoying, depending on how you are with musicals) in this film because music is part of the story. Robert Preston is a funny, wily snake charmer, and Shirley Jones (of later Partridge Family fame) plays Marion the Librarian with uncommon spirit and spine. Even little Ronnie Howard (yeah, THAT Ron Howard) is adorably perfect with his Sylvester-the-Cat-like lisp. This movie just never gets old.

10. Godzilla, King of the Monsters! (1956)–I’m convinced that every kid loves Japanese atomic monster movies–they just don’t know it yet. This is the original film that kicked off the genre, so it’s the best place to start, despite its black & white format. If you can convince the kids to listen through the talking heads parts (this is a peculiarly Japanese thing), there’s actually a whole bunch of stuff about the A-Bomb that cuts right to the heart of the Japanese psychological trauma that still influences their pop culture today, and that could lead to some interesting, deep values discussions with older kids. But if you can’t, you can just fast-forward to the part where Godzilla stomps the living hell out of Tokyo. It’s a crowd-pleaser every time.

**UPDATE** Of course, in the way it is with lists, as soon as I posted this I thought of two more films that really deserve to be on the list:

11. Singin’ in the Rain (1952)–Another movie musical that kids really enjoy, with all the silly stunts and fantastic dancing by Gene Kelly. If the songs and the dancing and the funny story don’t get them, “Make ‘Em Laugh” by Donald O’Connor is a tour de force of comic physicality that nobody can resist.

12. Captain Blood (1935)–It’s hard to choose among the great Errol Flynn swashbuckling movies when they’re all so good. This is my personal favorite, but Robin Hood  and The Sea Hawk are just as good. Swords-a-slashing, rope-a-swinging, heroes-a-dashing–everything a young boy (or girl!) could ask for.

A Walk in the Woods

My kids talk a lot. It’s not exaggerating to say that 11 of every 12 hours they’re awake, they’re making some form of verbal noise. They hum, they play, they tell stories, they crack jokes, they argue, they ask for things, they say “Mom” or “Dad” a hundred million times.

The nonstop verbal flow is both blessing and curse, as you might expect, and it’s hard to remember the days when we couldn’t wait for them to start talking. Of course, there are times when I wish they could practice silence, apart from the general stress of constant noise. Especially when I take them out on nature walks, I try to convince them that there are things to be quiet for, things that only make themselves apparent when the animals and insects forget that people are present.

This rarely works, though–like a lot of folks these days, I think the quiet scares them. With Connor, I can tell there’s a sensory angle, so I try to be sensitive to that. But in Griff’s case, he tends to wax philosophical while we’re out in nature, and for all that silence would be nice, I don’t want to quash his impulse to question things.

And, sure enough, when we went out to pick plantain weed so I could make more of the all-purpose herbal salve we use instead of Neosporin, the shortest of the short ones was full of questions. “Do cats feel wind?” “Does God know we’re picking plantain?” “Is Batman Poison Ivy named for poison ivy, or is poison ivy named for Poison Ivy?”

I face competing interests when the questions start flying. On one hand, I’m a smartypants–I know a lot of stuff, and I like to give answers. On the other hand, I want my kids to learn to think critically for themselves, which requires not giving all the answers right away. I try to use my teacherly instincts to know which questions deserve a quick, factual answer, and which deserve to be reframed and teased apart so we can come to an answer together.

In short, what this means is that my answer to a question is frequently “What do you think?” or “Why do you ask?” This is not cheating, or doing a disservice to a curious kid. It gives them space to continue the conversation, to wonder out loud, to live inside the question for a bit longer.

Many parents get so freaked out, when conversation turns to the big questions, that they shut down right away until they have a chance to consult parenting books and blogs for “official” answers from the “experts.” But by the time they’ve equipped themselves with that information, the moment of the question has come and gone, and the kid has one more experience in his head that says adults don’t have the answers he’s looking for.

I took the boys to the Real Pirates exhibit at the Science Museum a few months ago. I’d been warned that the first third of the exhibit was about the Atlantic slave trade, without which there wouldn’t have been much piracy in the Caribbean or anywhere else, so it didn’t come as a total shock and I was ready to exploit the educational opportunity. When we came to the diagrams of how slaves were stacked like cordwood for the crossing, I knelt down at their level and we talked about what kind of ideas a person has to have before they can think someone should be enslaved to work for them. We talked about difference, and race, and values, and empathy, while no fewer than two dozen other parents stiff-leg-marched their kids past the whole slavery section, voices ringing with uncomfortably faked brightness: “C’mon kids! Let’s go see that pirate treasure! Won’t that be fun?”

If I were that kind of parent, I wouldn’t have kids who ask me questions. Griffin wouldn’t ask me the name of every plant and every star in the sky. Connor wouldn’t ask me, on a long drive, what kind of parents Osama bin Laden had. Maybe these sound like horror stories to some of you, whether you’re a parent or not. These conversations leave you open to questions you can’t answer, and saying “I don’t know” feels like a catastrophic failure, a loss of authority that can never be recouped.

The greatest gift you can give a child, whether it’s yours or someone else’s, is the freedom to question and not know the answer right away. It teaches them to balance the uncertainty of life with the joy of mystery, and it opens the door to more learning, more participation, more citizenship, more action. Take Rainer Marie Rilke’s advice from Letters to a Young Poet:

“Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language… And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer…”

The least of these, my children

So, you might’ve heard a little something about the Supreme Court today. In fact, you’re probably sick of it by now.

Me, I’ve been waiting on Monday and Thursday mornings for almost three weeks for this ruling. With the state of my health and my son’s, our total family income, and my husband’s job, it’s pretty clear why I would be in favor of the Affordable Care Act (the real name for Obamacare, in case you’ve forgotten). We’re already beneficiaries of state-funded healthcare, and I’ve elaborated at length on why it’s so critical for me and my family.

I’m not going to go into detail today about the other mothers, college students, workers, grandparents, and desperate people for whom this ruling is the first ray of hope in a long, bad time. Instead, I’m going to show you the one reason I’ll sleep better tonight.

This is Griffin. He turned six in April. You can see that he just lost his first tooth. I don’t write about him as much as his older brother, but that’s my failing, not his. He’s weird, he’s wonderful, he’s so adorable it makes me spit.

And he’s perfectly healthy.

But because his mother has a history of fibromyalgia, Asperger’s, and depression, his brother also has Asperger’s, and his father has genetically high cholesterol and needs hella-strong glasses, I’ve worried every day of his life that, when the time came for him to go out into the world on his own strong legs and his own mighty soul, he wouldn’t be able to get health insurance. Despite his own good health, despite his own boundless energy, my own limitations might deprive him of that security.

And today, I don’t have to worry anymore. That’s what this decision means to me. That’s why I danced and cried in my living room at 9:15 a.m. CDT as the tweets scrolled up my screen and reporters scrambled on the steps of that majestic building.

If you don’t like this decision, if you feel it lessens your freedom, I frankly don’t care. Because tonight I’ll sleep sounder knowing that both my boys will have access to the care and security that good, steady healthcare brings.