Category Archives: Childhood in America

White Parents and Black Stereotypes

DadBabySilhouette[1]In this past Sunday’s New York Times, is an incredibly honest article entitled Purple Boots, Silver Stars … and White Parents, by Frank Ligtvoet, a white father about the budding racial identities of his two African American children: a daughter, aged seven and a son, aged eight.

Ligtvoet describes how the children—who have gone through various feelings about their identities, from “I’m not black,” to “I hate white people”—are beginning to emulate African Americans they see in their community, in various ways, from gait to style of dress.  The children, Ligtvoet explains have come to a place of accepting that they do not look like their parents (both white dads) and that they do look like others who are not part of their family at all.  Lately, both kids are trying to make sense of all that.

Ligtvoet describes a walk he takes with his children to the Fulton Mall in Brooklyn.  The children are wearing new clothes that they have chosen, in their father’s mind, to “assert their blackness”: purple canvas boots, tight jeans and a black t-shirt for the girl, low slung black and yellow basketball shorts and a cap turned backwards for the boy.  (Remember these kids are seven and eight).  Dad walks several respectful paces behind his children, amused by their independence, proud of their pride, and I imagine, at least a little proud of his own comfort with their experimentation.

The Fulton Mall, when I lived in Brooklyn, was shopping center frequented mostly by middle and lower income blacks and Latinos.  Though it was barely a hop, skip and jump from pricy, predominantly-white Brooklyn Heights, you were clearly in a different world here.  There were no posh bars or restaurants.  The smell of deep-fried fast food hung heavily in the air during all seasons.   The streets weren’t so clean either; garbage cans stayed full to overflowing and construction sites didn’t see much progress for months on end.  About once a week, I would take the long walk from our home in the Columbia Street Waterfront District over there, pushing my daughter in her stroller, aiming to check out the deals at the Macy’s of Downtown Brooklyn.

From the article, it sounds as if the Fulton Mall may have gentrified, like other parts of Brooklyn, but is still largely African American.  I can only imagine the reaction of two gaudily clad little ones being trailed by a white man.  (If he were walking by their sides, holding their hands, I don’t think they would get so many looks.  Brooklyn is fairly progressive.)

My first reaction to this article was: good for this dad, he is letting the children discover who they are, letting them explore and experiment with their identities.  I still think that, though after sitting with the article for a bit, I found myself hoping that Ligtvoet and his partner aren’t embracing stereotypes and confusing them with black culture.  For example I don’t think shorts pulled down to the hips are “pretty cool” on an eight-year-old.  Ditto tight pants on a seven-year-old girl—particularly if she is walking far ahead of a parent, appearing to be alone.

But I am not one to judge.  As a parent, you choose your battles and your priorities.  Every parent in a multicultural family has to strike his or her own balance, particularly when it comes to the culture that is not his or her own.

The comments following the article were also fascinating, some of them laudatory, but many others harsh and chastising.  Two examples:

 “…these children are emulating gangsters, not “black” people.  Hats need to be worn outside only by men and boys and brim should face forward, any other way is a gang symbol in the black community, same with the yellow(gold?) and black shorts.  Wake up before you get these kids killed.”

“As an African American who grew up in the ghetto …my mother would have never allowed us to wear pants partially sagged and tight jeans … Be the parents of your children regardless of skin color.”

These readers do have a point.  I cannot imagine any of the affluent, black parents I know allowing their children to wear the kind of clothes mentioned in the article, especially at such a young age.  These parents are all too aware of the stereotypes of blacks in the media as lazy, dumb, violent—even if that very image is celebrated by many white teens (and some adults) as “cool.”   Black parents do what they can, as soon as they can, to keep their children from emulating this image, pervasive as it is.  They know it is not just a “cool” costume their kids can remove when it’s time to apply to colleges and interview for jobs.

Nevertheless, I understand where Ligtvoet is coming from.   As parents, we’re supposed to smile when our kids let go of our hands and stand alone for the first time.  This is true whether our kids come to us genetically or through adoption, whether they resemble us or not.  What I think this dad is proud of is the fact that his children are safe enough with him and trust him enough to experiment.  They know, regardless of how far behind he walks, that he is truly in their corner and that his love is unconditional.

A View of the Ball

In keeping with the theme of Childhood in America, here’s a piece about a boy struggling with vision loss in Depression-era Chicago. (A slightly fictionalized account of how my father got his first pair of glasses).

Drawing by George Ford from "Walk On" by Mel Williamson (my father)By the time Melvin was five the world had begun to fade.   It happened bit by bit in subtle ways. Lines of things once solid grew feathers; faces once withered and angled grew soft and smooth.  A golden lump in the middle of the rug stirred from a nap and became his dog.   Melvin had no language to describe to his mother and sister what was happening to him, no inkling it didn’t happen to everyone.  In 1928, routine vision checks were not performed in the public schools, not in Melvin’s public school.

Then came a day in 1931, when he was eight.  It was a beautiful day which for Melvin meant warm and light, the same day other people saw only through a scrim, a thin film of cotton.   Had it not been Sunday, it would have been a perfect day to meet the boys for a game—Melvin could run fast, even if he couldn’t see or hit the ball.  But there was no playing for Melvin on Sundays.  After church they all came home to feed the poor.   While his mother fried and baked and boiled and sautéed, Melvin and his sister would lay the banquet out on the front porch for the neighborhood children and families who had nothing—no money, no food, no father like Melvin’s father who worked six days a week (Tuesday through Sunday) as a porter on the Georgia Pacific, putting food on the table Depression or no Depression.    The poor neighbors would gather hungrily, collective gaze cast down in shame and gratitude.  Melvin was glad then, for whatever kept the world’s sharpness from his view.   He never wanted to meet the eyes of classmates who turned up.

Downstairs he heard his mother and sister chatting as they dressed, choosing hats.  His sister’s would be modest and yellow to match her dress, maybe a bit of lace and a small satin flower.  His mother’s on the other hand would be white with pink and lavender rosettes—brim half a mile wide so as not to be outdone by the other church ladies.  On the stairs now, Melvin heard the curtains swish aside, the window hinges creak, his mother inhaling deeply of the spring air.   Her assessment of the weather:

“Yes Lord; here’s a day made for praising Jesus!”

followed by his sister’s amen, which Melvin echoed entering the room.   Though he’d secretly espoused his own brand of atheism a few years earlier—(how to believe in a God who sets rich against poor, white against black, Gentile against Jew?  A God who cast a ball-playing boy’s world in fog?)—he wasn’t above feigning devotion to make his mother happy.  Her smile—especially up close, when she held his face and told him how good he was, how smart, how handsome—was one of the few things Melvin was sure his eyes still had right.

Melvin’s mother was in high spirits after church, feeling magnanimous enough to let Melvin go play ball instead of helping with the porch spread.   Down the church steps he raced, around the corner, past the library across from the empty lot.   He lunged into the street without checking for cars—there were so few in the neighborhood that looking both ways before crossing wasn’t a habit for most children.  In any case, had Melvin taken the trouble to check, what would he have seen?  In all likelihood he’d still have been hit by the 1928 Ford as it lumbered up South Parkway.   His mother would say it was a miracle he wasn’t killed, that his injuries weren’t even serious.   And no one could argue with her that He does work in mysterious ways.  In the hospital, Melvin was put through a series of tests to which he’d never have been subjected otherwise.   Including an eye exam.  A week after the accident, he was up and running as fast as ever before, only now he could hit the ball, thanks to his new eye-glasses that lifted the scrim revealing a world more detailed than Melvin could have imagined.

Spirit of 1976, A July 4th Memory (reposted)

I’m reposting last year’s Independence Day blog, just because it’s one of my favorites.  (Also still immersed in my “revise and resubmit,” so no time for a new one!  Happy 4th!)

bicent_disney2[1]It’s the bicentennial.  Our country is 200 years old which seems deeply significant to me because I am ten.  I feel this solidarity with the United States of America because we are both these perfect round figures.  I feel this bond with all ten year olds all over the country.  It’s as if we kids are the true Americans.  I don’t tell anyone I feel this way.  It is too momentous, too poignant to speak of.  To be ten.  To be an American. On July 4th, 1976.  It is a feeling I cannot explain.  It only is.

About a month ago—around my own tenth birthday—red, white and blue hats, flags, posters, beer mugs, buttons, t-shirts, sweatbands and sweat socks that say “1776-1976” went on sale and are subsequently everywhere.  My parents don’t buy any of it; they think the memorabilia is silly.  Are you a better American just because you wear a t-shirt that says so?  Still, when I ask for a Spirit of ’76 button and hat, they say yes.  Since I am a child, I’m allowed to be silly.

Since I am ten, and believe on some level that my being ten is as important as America turning 200, I think at first that when they say Spirit of ’76, they mean 1976.

My friend Tom—who is more a friend of the family than a real friend—is also ten.  My parents and his grandparents go way back; they have us out to their summer home on Fire Island for the July 4th weekend.  Tom and I might not otherwise be friends but we are routinely thrown together by circumstance.  Since we are kids, and there is a beach with sand and waves, since there is ice cream and a house with a cool balcony, this is okay.  Since we are not teenagers, the fact that we are different genders is not awkward.  Besides we’re not just the same age; we’re both ten year old Americans on the Bicentennial.

We arrive on the Island on Friday. Tom meets me and my parents at the ferry with his little red wagon and helps us carry our things to his grandparents’ home in Ocean Bay Park.  He and I take turns pulling the wagon as we chat.  We are eager to get into the waves, to go to town for ice cream, to see a movie, to do everything by ourselves, which we are allowed to do here on the Island, because there are no cars.

The independence makes me feel giddy.  Tom and I wake up at six for the next two mornings and go to the beach alone.  The adults are asleep, but told us we could go the night before.  No one told us to be safe.  We wade in up to our knees, looking for jelly fish, looking for special shells.

Later in the day we go to town in Ocean Beach to buy ice cream and Wacky Pack cards which we will trade later.  Tom gives me his bubble gum.

Saturday evening, while the grownups are having cocktails and recovering from a big day, relaxing on the beach, Tom and I are given five dollars apiece and sent back to town to see a movie which came out about a year ago: Jaws.  This is a big deal; to see a scary movie, a scary beach movie, without grownups to take us.  We walk along the beach to the theater: a big white house with a screen and folding chairs.  Ten dollars is enough for tickets, popcorn and sodas for us both.

The movie is truly terrifying.  Not just to a pair of ten year olds who know they’ll soon be walking home on the beach, but to everyone.  No one is jaded yet when it comes to horror films.  No one can predict that one day there will not only be Jaws 2, 3, 3-D and 4, but also Michael, Jason, Freddy, Chuckie, Saw and all their sequels.  We are not desensitized to the formula.  This stuff is all new.  So that every time the music reaches a crescendo and there is an attack, everyone in the house screams.  Loudly.   People call out urgent words of caution to the actors.  No one shushes anyone.  We are all in this together.

Later that night, I am afraid to go to the bathroom.  Fire Island is itself a sandbar, which means that in many homes, when you peer into the toilet, you are looking down a deep hole and can see the sea.  After seeing Jaws, peeing under these circumstances seems like a foolhardy thing to do.

I hold it in for as long as I can, then say some kind of prayer, sit and go.  No shark comes, so that the next morning, still alive, still gloriously ten, I am able to help the nation celebrate its bicentennial.  And at night, Tom and I run wild on the beach with a bunch of other kids.  We’re all holding sparklers which we’ve ignited ourselves.

Happy Independence Day to all.

House Fire Chronicles: Saving Humpty Dumpty

November 11th, 2012:

Ventured into the house today—not all the way in, just a foot or two inside the front door, which stood wide open “airing the place out,” which, as I’ll explain in a moment, is a laughable impossibility.  The electricity is turned off in preparation for repairs to start, so the whole place is dark.  In this photograph, you can see all I saw.

I reached into the coat closet, which is still littered with our shoes, mostly mine:  about six pairs of soot-caked flipflops under the cover of all my soot-caked coats.  Now, I’ve been warned that even though a lot of our stuff looks “surprisingly okay,” it will never be usable again because of the persistent smoke odor.  It’s more than an odor, the fire inspector has explained (backed up by our former landscaper who—alarmingly—used to be an arson specialist).  According to these experts, all our stuff is so deeply penetrated by smoke, that the smoke has essentially changed the chemistry of each item so it is now actually part smoke.

There’s something very sci-fi about that but it seems to be true.  Yesterday, my husband brought a bin of Stuff-From-The-House over to the house we’re staying in.  He couldn’t bring it inside or our friends’ house would very quickly smell as if the fire had taken place here rather than there.

Jon told me to pick over the bin full of notebooks and school books, jewelry– mostly my daughter’s–and a few little chachkies, to see what might be usable.  A cloud of toxic dust rose into the air as I lifted the lid of the bin.  Gasping for breath, I rummaged, though it was clear that anything inside would need major rehabilitation before resuming its intended function.  But all my daughter’s beaded creations, acquisitions from Claire’s and friendship bracelets were in there, a memory attached to each.  If I could rescue just one trinket as a memento, I thought, just a pair of Zoe’s earrings; it would mean so much.  I gulped air as I hunted; the  soot and smoke smell from the bin’s contents was near asphyxiating.  Everything was thrown together and a uniform shade of dark grey, too, making it difficult to identify anything.  What I finally came away with were a pair of pink Eiffel Tower earrings from the Epcot Center.  So tiny, I thought, and so easy to clean.  Well, I scrubbed them for about fifteen minutes—black muck kept spewing from the diminutive crevices.  Each time I thought the earrings were clean, there was more.  Finally they sparkled.  Triumphantly, I presented them to Zoe.

“Do they smell?”  She asked, because even pre-fire, she was very sensitive to bad odors.

“I don’t think,” I said, not realizing that by this time I smelled just like the earrings and was past the point of noticing.

She smelled them herself.  “Yuck,” was the verdict.  She handed the earrings back.  I left them in the bathroom, but later returned to find that the whole place now smelled like an old man with a bad cigarette habit.  Just from those tiny earrings!  Into a Ziploc they went.

It occurred to me then that if these earrings couldn’t be salvaged, even after being cleaned to look like new, the job  of salvaging bigger stuff, of fumigating and reconstituting our home, is a bigger one than I’d thought.  Today I hauled my “go-to” every day boots  out of the coat closet, as well as my snow boots and (alas) only one of Zoe’s.  (I didn’t bother with Theo’s stuff because, number one: he’s not attached to any clothing and, number two: hand-me-downs have been raining down on him and on Jon since this happened; Theo has six pairs of snow boots now; Jon has five “pre-owned” new suits.)

I was so glad to get my boots out, even though I could see and smell that they’d function better as smokestacks now than garments.  But hey—they were black to begin with, right?  I’m putting them in a garbage bag and going to research online to see if there’s a fairy godmother for rescuing your favorite boots when they’ve been through a house fire.

What’s weird though, is how easy it is to get rid of the stuff that was just stuff.  From a whole toasted-up drawer of paraphernalia, to extract one special thing: a letter, a photograph, a rock with a tree painted on it and my son’s haphazard “THEO” crayoned on the bottom—and then to say: toss the rest without a single pang of regret.  We had so many things we didn’t need, I realize now.   This kind of reboot does nothing if not show you what really matters.

I have here (in a Ziploc) this one tiny composition book in which I recorded some sweet, early anecdotes about both children.  A treasure rescued.   It is worth more than all the wedding china that lies splintered all over my basement floor.  A sample:  Theo, aged two and a half—we were reading Mother Goose and had just gotten up to Humpty Dumpty:

“Hey, Mommy.  How come Humpty Dumpty gotta go up on that wall every time?”

Humpty just didn’t get cause and effect no matter how many times we read the book.  I’ll take this recorded memory over the good china any day.  I don’t really care how it smells either.

Someone Else’s Nanny

My children’s babysitter, Monique (whose name I’m changing here), came
to me with just one reference, and no background check. All I had to go on was
a good feeling about her in my gut coupled with a sense of total desperation about finding a sitter.

When we lived in Brooklyn, until Zoe was a year old, I had enough family around to watch her when I worked. When we first moved to Montclair–I was working three days a week then–I was fortunate enough to find a sitter—a cousin of a friend’s sitter—who came once a week. My mother came out another day and my husband was home when I worked Saturdays. Then that sitter left me to become a crossing guard, explaining she needed five full days of work.

I needed help quickly. Someone who could work two long days a week but didn’t need five, who could manage a newborn and a highly opinionated preschooler, who could read with inflection (that was a must for me, since I had strict TV limits), who played games and could run around after Zoe with ease.

I found someone quickly, though it would turn out to be a dead end.  Candy was the daughter of a friend’s babysitter, twenty years old, with a one year old son–but assured me she had plenty of childcare for him.  I had misgivings about her age, but my daughter loved her and the girl seemed to have a lot of family support around town.  I hired her on a trial basis, and everything worked out well for about a week.

Then, five days before I was supposed to start working, Candy informed me that she couldn’t come anymore because her own childcare had fallen through.

Trough an agency, I hastily interviewed about ten different women, all of whom seemed far more interested in newborn Theo than talking, walking Zoe.  Then, on Candy’s second last day, she brought home a woman she’d met in the playground.   (A stranger, which shed light on Candy’s judgment, frankly.)

“This is Monique.” Candy said. “She’s a baby sitter.”

I barely looked at Monique, because I’d been up all night and had interviewed three  sitters already that day.  I was also nursing every two hours and coping with a jealous two-year-old who thought it was high time we sent the baby back to the hospital where it came from.

I said to Monique,  “Look, why don’t you come back Monday?”  Meaning–but not communicating well enough to convey–that I’d interview her Monday. Instead, Monique thought I’d hired her.   She arrived Monday ready to work.

I said we’d try it for a day, since I’d be home. But I stressed that I needed, above all things, for her to win over Zoe. Well, Monique did it. She was bright and energetic and attentive. In no time she had my daughter giggling, asking for another story. (Yes, Monique read with inflection.)  She was also wonderful with baby Theo, with whom she fell in love immediately.

It was a happy story. Monique wound up caring for my children, two days a week (the other three, she cared for the children of a friend) from eight until eight, for six years. She stopped only when I went on my hiatus to write. Monique still sits for my kids sometimes, still does my daughter’s hair if ever I need it braided (like we did for sleep-away camp). I consider her a big part of my childrens’ early years, a wonderful influence, someone we care for, who cares for our children. I was lucky, so lucky to have met her, and so were my kids.

We were all lucky.
The most important thing you do as a working mom–responsible for finding responsible childcare–once you have chosen that special person who will make your complicated life at all possible–is take a huge leap of faith . Every day that you leave your children, you must make a choice to trust this person whom you’d never have met if you hadn’t been looking for childcare.

This is a truth between nannies* and moms: if not for the children, if not for the mutual need for work—their lives would likely have never intersected.  Nannies and moms tend to differ in childcare style, culture, class, education level, and also frequently race. With all those differences, not to mention the odd check-and-balance of power (Mom has the money; Nanny has the kids), there is much room for tension and even conflict.

In such a complicated relationship, trust is paramount. And I mean Trust as a two way street. Mom trusts that her children will be safe and cared for and (best case scenario) truly loved by the nanny. Nanny trusts that she will be compensated for hours worked, warned if those hours are going to be drastically increased or cut, respected, treated like a valued human being and not taken advantage of.

Trust, respect, balance. Only when all that’s  in place can a mother breathe easily and finally begin to relax into the rhythm of her life.

And then …

A news story breaks, horrifying and gruesome.  About a nanny on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who was found, her own throat slit, apparently by her own hand (which still held the blade) and the two small children left in her care, both fatally stabbed. About their mother, returning home with their  sibling in tow, who found the above scene.

I can only imagine what must have gone through that mother’s mind, the disbelief, the anguish, rage and profound despair. As a mother myself it is impossible to think of this mother’s feelings without tearing up. The father, too, who was away on business, and who—hearing about the tragedy—could not immediately put his arms around his grieving wife or bewildered, surviving child.  (Of course, the therapist in me cannot help thinking of that surviving child herself, wondering how her life will be, how they’ll wind up parenting her—the whole family reeling with grief, guilt, fear and other residue from the trauma.)

I wonder too about the nanny in question, the suspected murderer, who was loved by the family, who loved the children. The family had visited the nanny’s home in the Dominican Republic and had met her extended family—an experience cheerfully blogged about by the mother. I can only imagine the brutality of learning that someone you thought you knew–someone you trusted with your heart and soul–is the ultimate monster.

But something else gives me a great sense of foreboding about the case: the implications for every other nanny in the tri-state area. Going forward, what will life be like for these women?

As noted in Saturday’s New York Times, nannies will hereafter be under intense scrutiny.  I can only imagine the mistrust, the questions forming that no parent wants to ask, but has to for the safety of their children. This was a family who thought such a thing could never happen to them.  Yet it did, which makes it seem like it could happen to anyone.

How then, does a good nanny prove she is who she says she is? How can she convince them: that will never be me, I will never lose my mind, I will never put your children at risk.  How can she make them believe?

For now she can’t. Good women will be doubted. Mothers will hesitate before hiring. When they do hire, they will still be wary, thinking: It was someone else’s Nanny, but it could have been you. Could still be you. Suspician and resentment, and finally guilt–because no one wants to feel these things–will pervade the playgrounds of New York, where both nannies and moms can be found. The aftertaste of this unspeakable tragedy will haunt them for months, years, to come.
*Where I live, in Montclair, NJ, I have never heard a mother refer to her kids’ baby-sitter as a nanny.  I use the word here because it is the word used in the New York Times describing the case.  Monique always prefered “babysitter.” Nanny, to her–to us–felt too formal and old school.

Snapshot of Innocence

Who is that kid?  No it’s not another picture of my daughter.  It’s another child I care for quite deeply, actually.  I’ll give you a hint.  It was taken in 1970.

Yes, it’s me.  Looking pretty pleased with myself, my life and the mess I’ve made of my milk and strawberry ice cream.  My best friend Claire still lived on the ninth floor of my apartment building, I still went to the Manhattan Country School.  My favorite toy was a big, green and white corrugated cardboard puppet stage and I still believed I was going to get a dog and a baby sister one day, somehow.  I didn’t hate my hair.  I didn’t think I was fat.

The reason I love this picture is that I can see in my eyes all of the above.  I can see how safe I felt, how trusting and truly innocent I was.  When I look at that picture, I see the good, sweet, silly little girl I was and it makes me want to be good—to her and for her.

I know the expression “inner-child” has been used ad nauseam, fodder for cheap sit-com laughs for more than thirty years, but there’s something about remembering who we were as children, and how we were back then—that goes a long way toward banishing negativity in our present lives.

If you can, go and get a picture of yourself when you were little, say four or five.  Still the age of magical thinking, but old enough to have the language to order your thoughts, and an idea of what was going on around you.  Look at the picture for a minute.  A whole minute and see what you’re feeling.  Imagine that the child can see you and your life.  What conversation might you have?  I know what you wouldn’t say.  You wouldn’t tell the child she’s stupid or worthless or an idiot or a fat pig or ugly or incompetent.  You’d never tell her: “I can’t believe you screwed that up!”  “What’s wrong with you?” or anything so harsh.

I hope you don’t talk to your big-adult self that way either.  But sadly, a lot of people do.  Not all the time, but sometimes and sometimes is enough to count as beating yourself up.  Now think back to the last time you put yourself down, called yourself dumb or fat or anything intended to hurt yourself.  Imagine what you’d do if you saw someone treating the child in the photograph that way.  You’d probably defend the kid.  You’d stand up to the bully on the child’s behalf.  And finally you’d try to rectify the situation by building the child up, telling her something positive and hopeful.  You’d work at it until you saw her smile again.

Why?  Because children are all potential, all hope, all beautiful dreams.  No matter what their circumstances, they are blameless and deserving of the chance to be and do anything.  As adults, we have to recognize life’s and our own limitations.  We set more realistic goals, but strive, hopefully, to be the best we can at what suits us.  Sometimes there are false starts, unfortunate career choices, misguided relationships.  From every experience, good and bad, you learn and use that knowledge the next time you’ve got a choice to make.

I love that everyone is writing letters to past versions of themselves these days.  I think it’s such a wonderful mix of reflection and self acceptance.  Oprah had a whole section of her May 2012 issue devoted to  letters written by celebrities to their younger selves (hers is first).  And there’s the upcoming Dear Teen Me, to be released in October, edited by Miranda Kenneally and E. Kristin Anderson, an anthology of YA authors’ letters to teens they once were.

All these letters are full of advice and reassurance: It’ll get better, don’t eat so much sugar, don’t smoke, have more fun.  The idea is to look back tenderly at your old self, nurture Kid You with the perspective Grown-up You has gained over the years.  Since we’re generally nicer and more patient with children than we are with adults, this might be a step toward showing yourself love.

When I’ve done trauma work—with teens and young adults who were victimized as children— there is a visualization exercise we do.  The following is a generic, sketch-description (and note that this kind of exercise is never done too soon in the therapy, never too early in a support group).

Close your eyes and imagine yourself a small child again, at the time when [the abuse] took place.  Remember yourself, your room.  Tell me some of the details, what toys are around? What’s on the walls?  Where are you in the room?  Remember the place where [the abuse] happened.  Tell me what is happening.  Now, I want you to choose someone from any time period in your life—even the present—an adult who is strong and loyal and can protect and defend you.  Now bring that person back with you.  Let that person protect you and stop [the abuse/abuser]. (Can you tell me what’s happening?  How the protecting adult stops [the trauma]? 

Now, Can you tell me who it is that saves you?

More than once, when I did this exercise, either with an individual or with a group, the answer to the last question was:

MYSELF.  That’s who saves me.  Myself as an adult, how I am now.”

There is something very powerful in the notion of you—the grownup—saving your past self.  Only you can be that loyal to you.

You are not that child anymore.  You are not reliant on other adults to guide you, nurture you and cheer you on.  (Maybe you’re parenting kids of your own, caring for your own parents at the same time.)  But that child is still part of your identity.  You carry her with you always.  Remember her: the hope she had, the small joys and big dreams, no matter how much they’ve changed over the years.  You can honor her by being true to your current goals, your current dreams, by believing in yourself.

So have standards for yourself, for your work, for your parenting and treatment of others and care for the environment.  But don’t make those standards impossibly high, and don’t chastise yourself on those days when you fall a little bit short.  Instead, look at the picture, look into the child’s eyes and believe you deserve the same love she did.

Raising Scout: Why a Little Old-Time Danger is Good for Kids

When my friends and my husband lament the regimented life-style of kids today—the lessons, the arranged play-dates—reminiscing about the freedom of their 1970s rural or suburban childhoods, where “we ran outside, found our friends and played until our mothers yelled at us to come home for dinner,” I just nod, half wishing I’d grown up like that, half glad I didn’t.

Other people’s stories of childhood, the freedom, the excitement that took place beneath the radar of parents, always seem to involve trees, long shadows, mysterious sounds in the dark woods, and secrets whispered about nearby graveyards.  I listen to my sister-in-law’s harrowing tales of dodging snakes in the deep Wisconsin woods, my neighbor’s yarns about impromptu games of street-tag and rescuing her little brother time and time again from the town bully—for me, these stories carry the full mystique of  Harper Lee’s Scout and Gem Finch, braving the Macon County twilight, crouched in the brush outside Boo Radley’s home.  At the heart of all these stories is danger, risk, requiring the grit, the pluck, to make it home alive without adult intervention.  It’s what I loved about To Kill A Mockingbird (racial politics aside), what I love about all stories of children left to their own devices.

Those devices (call them life-skills or street-smarts) are part of growing up for all kids; they need to be developed and honed to achieve true adulthood.  Childhood pluck becomes adult self-reliance, self-efficacy: the idea that I can accomplish this, or, better yet: I have what it takes to get myself out of this mess.   Mastering danger as a kid can lead to adult confidence.  It’s why too much safety—helicopter parenting in a too-sterile environment—can lead to an anxious child.

I grew up in New York City—far from snakes, where trees and their shadows were confined mostly to fenced in parks—the only child of older parents who’d waited a long time to have me and weren’t taking any chances with my safety.  Our apartment complex on West 100th Street—the dividing line of Manhattan’s Upper West Side—had terraces and tennis courts (where the Mayor himself came to hit); a nice laundry room, pretty playgrounds, gardens and a parking lot.  But right across the street were housing projects, where you could always hear loud voices at night, glass breaking, police cars pulling up.  I could hear the sirens from my bedroom window on the seventeenth floor; I knew there was danger: crime, fights, drugs.  There were also children down there, many left largely to their own devices, roaming their own not-so-pretty playground.  No matter how late I got into my nightgown, teeth brushed, book waiting on my pillow, if I looked out of the window, the children from across the street were always still out.  To me they seemed to have it good.  How lucky, I thought, not to have a bed time.

For me, there was a time for everything: lessons each day after school—ballet, gymnastics, and piano—playdates each Friday, more gymnastics on Saturdays, family bike-riding outings on Sundays and dinner at seven each night with both parents.  When nothing was scheduled, I went to my room and played on my own, drew, or—more often than not—worked on the “book” I was writing (I started it in second grade and finished in fifth).  I had a big imagination that kept me company; I was never lonely.  Just sheltered.

Of course there were moments without supervision.  I rode the bus to and from school alone, and made the most of it.  Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get off the bus several stops after I got on and wait for my friends who were coming from the East Side on the crosstown bus.  Then we’d all get on a later bus together, treating less-than-appreciative commuters to our noisy grade-school banter and antics.

Friday playdates weren’t always supervised either.  By the time my friends and I were in third grade, everyone’s parents let us walk around our various neighborhoods without an adult.  We could go to a playground, or to a grocery store for bubblegum and high bouncing balls, as long as we made sure to walk on the nicer side of the street and avoid anyone who seemed drunk or crazy. (Not always easy in New York City in the ’70s.)

The city wasn’t safe in those days, but child abduction wasn’t on anyone’s radar.   Instead we worried about “maniacs,” treacherously armed vagrants who got lots of press by holing up at various subway stations, taking mostly unsuccessful swipes at riders, but evading the cops with relative ease.[i]  We kids could all identify the best-known maniacs: for example, Plastic Bag Lady (she wore one over her face), who presided over the traffic island on 96th and Broadway; Hatchet Man, who was stationed at the 72nd IRT line.

Muggings were a big concern too.  Everyone knew someone who’d been mugged.  Kids got mugged for their bus-passes and candy cash all the time.  Getting mugged didn’t depend on the neighborhood you were in.  You could get mugged anywhere.  A big topic of conversation among us kids was what to do if muggers caught up with you.  Give them everything, people said, especially if they have knives.  Some parents packed extra money in kids’ backpacks just in case.  Word was, if you had too little cash on you, it could anger the mugger, and you might really get hurt.  The best thing to do, said one of my friends (whose brother had been mugged walking home from his private school on 91st Street) was—anytime you saw anyone suspicious coming at you—just run as fast as you could go and hide in a store, anywhere you could.

My friend, Laura and I used to play this game on our way from school (on 63rd and Central Park West) to her home on 71st Street.  We’d link arms and walk, one of us looking to the right, the other looking to the left; if either of us saw someone unsavory-looking, we would give the watchword: Creep!  And both would run for our lives.

Though our criteria for a creep was pretty broad—it could be a man or woman, of any age or race—our prototype was an aged, white man with a matted, soot-encrusted beard and missing teeth, who had actually approached us one day, offering candy in a dirty, brown paper bag.  We’d screamed and run that day, concluding, once we were safely in Laura’s lobby, that the candy was poisonous, designed to knock us out so he could drag us off to his lair and chop us up into bite-sized pieces.

Laura and I did a lot of screaming and running for our lives, as we made our way along one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the city.   It was thrilling.  Like Scout, Gem and Dill, running away from Boo Radley’s home in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My own children play Hunger Games with the other kids on our block, running wild through all the connected backyards, forming alliances and hunting one another down, armed with weapons they’ve fashioned out of K’nex.  I (along with the other moms on the block) am wary of this game, based on a bestseller about kids who survive by doing one another in, but I won’t intervene unless asked to.  Growing children have an innate need for such thrills.  They’ll find them anyway, anywhere they can.  Best served with a heaping dose of imagination.


[i] Not being flippant here, just describing my view as a child of the seventies’ mass-deinstitutionalization of severely mentally ill patients.  One devastating result was an explosion in the mentally ill homeless population.