Friday, September 28, 2012

Richer Soil

The heather bush I planted in my front yard a few months ago is not doing well. It's not dying, exactly, but it's not thriving either.  So I decided this morning to replant it in another location with more sunlight and better drainage -- hopefully this will be what it needs to grow bigger and produce its wonderfully fragrant flowers in the Spring.

Strangely, transplanting has been a theme for me lately, including with the kids (okay, and maybe with a few other plants as well!).  

Ben has been on a gymnastics team for the past 18 months, training 8-12 hours per week, year-round, not including weekend meets during competition season. In short, lots of hours. He has been very dedicated to the team, loves the sport, and has formed some strong bonds with the other boys on the team.  

But lately, he hasn't been thriving.  He's been less and less excited about going to practice, and generally more anxious as he's progressed.  I talked to his coach about it, to see if he had any insights, and I understood Ben's anxiety immediately. His coach is Russian, and a very accomplished gymnast (if you follow men's gymnastics, you've probably seen him on TV).  If a boy has serious aspirations in gymnastics, this is the coach to train with.  However, he's very, well, Russian.  He doesn't believe in "smiling, or giving high-fives every time they do something well, because the judges won't either. They need to get used to that." 

He has a point -- gymnastics is a sport of concentration and discipline, one of the only sports where points are taken away from the athlete.  But Ben is the kind of kid who needs to know that he's doing the right thing; he needs positive feedback. Not for every little thing, of course, but an occasional pat on the back goes a long way.  Just a few minutes into this conversation I knew that Ben had gone as far as he could in this sport -- the sport, and especially the coaches involved in it, are just too intense for him.

So, we made a change. What Ben loves about gymnastics is being in the air "flipping and spinning", which led us to diving.  From the very first practice it was clear that this environment is completely different.  The main coach and both of the assistant coaches are all positive and enthusiastic, while still demanding a lot from the divers. Ben is in heaven, and declares after every practice "I've found my sport!" 

Ensuring that our kids are surrounded with positive and supportive teachers, coaches, and caretakers is one of the hardest, but most important, challenges of parenting.  Yes, they need to learn to deal with all kinds of people, including difficult ones, but plenty of those people will show up along the way.  While my kids are still young and forming, I strongly believe that settling for "good enough" in someone who will spend a significant amount of time with them is not good enough -- I need to invest the time in finding the healthiest situations and the wisest people so my kids can flourish and blossom to their fullest potential. And with Ben, I can already see the difference -- and I didn't even have to wait until Spring!

Friday, September 21, 2012

The Most Valuable Inheritance

The next time I need a loan, I'm going to ask a kid. I read a survey this week, conducted by the American Institute of CPAs (AICPA), that most kids over 8-years-old receive an allowance at an average rate of $65 a month. What's more, almost half of school-age kids get paid for good grades, too. (What's an "A" worth? An average of $16.60!)  It turns out that doing chores (89% of kids do) and getting good grades can be quite lucrative! (Note:  see an earlier post on why I think paying for grades is a bad idea: Pay for Performance?)

And what do children do with this annual income of almost $800? (Not including money for good grades, or birthday and holiday money from the grandparents). Spend it! Only 1% of parents say that their kids save any of their money.  This isn't surprising because most parents also reported that money is not a regular topic of conversations in their family.  Other topics that are more frequently discussed:  good manners, good eating habits, good grades, and staying away from drugs and alcohol.  

It might be easy to think that "kids will be kids" at this point, and assume they'll learn about managing money when they get older, but this doesn't appear to be the case. According to the US Department of Education, high school students who took the National Financial Literacy Test in 2010 only answered an average of 76% of the questions correctly.  In 2011 it was worse -- the average score was 69%.  The Jumpstart Coalition, a group that also administers a regular financial literacy survey to high-school seniors, reports even more concerning results.  On their 31-question financial literacy survey, the average score was 57% in 1997, and fell to 48% in the 2008 survey -- both failing grades.

So, maybe high school is too soon to really understand concepts like compound interest, inflation, and investing.  They'll get it when they're in college, or when they get their first job, and have to pay their own living expenses, right? Not so much. In a 2010 Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance study on adults' general financial knowledge in the US, 69% of study participants failed the quiz.  The SEC summed it up in their report on financial literacy, issued in September of this year: "American investors lack essential knowledge of the most rudimentary financial concepts:  inflation, bond prices, interest rates, mortgages, and risk."

And the fallout of this lack of financial knowledge is actually frightening:
  • According to the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College, of all Americans who were approaching retirement in 2010 (ages 55-64), 75% had less than $30,000 saved for retirement.   
  • Adults currently in their 20s already have an average of $45,000 in debt, in conjunction with an unemployment rate exceeding 12%.
  • About 40% of American youth between the ages of 13 and 22 years of age report that they expect to inherit money from their parents, and therefore rank "saving for retirement" low on their list of financial priorities. However, only 16% of their parents actually plan to provide an inheritance (2012 TD Ameritrade study).

Clearly, we've got a problem -- a big one.  And we can't just blame the economy for it.  The truth is that we don't understand money, and this has a huge negative impact on our lives at every stage in every economic environment.  But the good news is that we can learn, and so can our kids. Of course money and finance can be intimidating, and facing the bad news of our own situation is a difficult thing to do. I've found that breaking the process down into smaller steps helps me significantly -- I can spend 15 minutes a day doing anything. And if I focus on one thing per month (this month, for example, is "college savings" month), I don't feel so overwhelmed.

So where to begin? I started with taking the National Financial Literacy Test myself, to see where the gaps in my knowledge are (it was actually kind of fun since I didn't have to tell anyone how I did). Next, I looked around for information and programs I could use to learn more. Here are several that I like:    

  1. AICPA Financial Literacy Program:  The information here is very straight-forward and accessible, organized by age and topic. Great place to start!
  2. How To Raise a Money-Smart Child:   This is a guide published by the JumpStart Coalition that all parents should read. It breaks down money topics into family-related categories, and provides ideas on how to talk to your kids about them along with related activities. 
  3. Feed The Pig:  This site is a little more "fun" with lots of multimedia, including a talking pig. I turned the pig off whenever I could, but I liked that you can take a quiz and personalize your own savings plan -- good tool for teens and younger adults.
  4. Tykoon:   I just signed us up for this one. This is a new site for parents and kids that helps kids think about money and set goals in four basic categories:  earn, save, give, spend.  Each category has "cash" and "non-cash" options (like earning extra TV time).

Why not begin right now?  Take 15 minutes to check out one of these resources (or any others that you like), and choose an area to focus on this month. Next, involve your kids, too! Because whether or not we decide to leave our children an inheritance, ensuring that they can effectively manage whatever money they do have is the true gift.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Peeking at Heaven

Late yesterday morning the boys and I were getting ready to head out to do some errands, and I asked them to brush their teeth and get dressed. Sam, my 11-year-old, came into the kitchen a few minutes later declaring himself "ready to go".  I immediately noticed he was wearing his favorite, very worn out pair of sweatpants, and said "You need to wear something without holes in the knees." He left, returning a couple of minutes later wearing another pair of sweatpants that clearly needed to be in the laundry.  Slightly exasperated, I asked him to please find something that was also clean, to which he replied "Why do we have to get so dressed up?!"  I paused, open-mouthed for a moment, as the absurdity of his question hit me, and then started laughing so hard I could barely speak. "Wearing clean clothes without holes does not constitute 'dressing up'!" I finally choked out, but I'm not sure he heard me because by then, he was laughing too.

Sharing a genuine, full-belly laugh together felt really good, and I realized I couldn't remember the last time we'd done that.  Given my dual role as both mom and teacher, I tend to be the parent who focuses more on getting things done, making sure everyone gets to the right place at the right time.  (My husband, who is genuinely funny, tends to be the more light-hearted one.)  But yesterday reminded me how nice it is to lighten up sometimes, to just shift my perspective and see something other than the next thing on the "to do" list.

We were still giggling by the time we pulled out of the driveway in our "dressed up" clothes, and felt very close to each other the rest of the day.  So now, instead of doing laundry tomorrow, I'm thinking dance party in the living room!

"While laughing with your child
you'll take a peek at heaven."
~  Judy Ford

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Developing Minds, Part II: The Power of Stories

After an earlier post, "Developing Minds", I heard from a couple of people (both of whom know my children) about the conversation between the three boys that I mentioned toward the end of the post.  Both people were curious about how this conversation came about and, specifically, whether or not it was one of those uncomfortable, parent-forced "let's all share our feelings now" kind of talks.  I assured them that it was not, and thought it might be helpful to provide a more detailed description of this part of the boys' interaction.

To recap, Ben was feeling upset and left out when his older brother, Sam, was playing with a visiting friend.  His predominant feelings were of anger and fear, and I described in the first "Developing Minds" post the process I used to help Ben manage these very strong emotions.  The idea for talking to the other boys, once he was calm, was entirely Ben's.

I have to confess that I wasn't initially comfortable with the idea of Ben opening himself up emotionally to the other boys, but I supported his need to tell his story because I knew it was a healthy instinct on his part. As Daniel Siegel ("The Whole-Brain Child") points out, "it's important for kids of all ages to tell their stories, as it helps them try to understand their emotions and the events that occur in their lives."  In other words, by telling his story, Ben was helping himself understand his experience and make sense of his emotions.  He also could have accomplished this by talking to me (or another adult) about it, or by writing or drawing pictures about it a journal. And in a different situation, with different kids, I might have recommended one of these alternatives, but Sam and his friend are both emotionally-aware eleven-year-olds, and I realized there was also something in this situation for them -- an empathy-building opportunity.

The discussion itself was rather brief (about 5 minutes), and I encouraged the classic interpersonal communication guideline of using "I" statements.  If you're like me, sometimes these "communication rules" make you cringe -- they can seem very forced and artificial. I look at it this way:  focusing on your own emotions and avoiding blaming the other person really does help make the interaction more productive, and allows you to move on more quickly.  So, I have found this particular technique to be useful.

When the boys got together, Ben was able to succinctly describe his feelings in several sentences (he practiced with me first), the older boys acknowledged what he said and shared some of their own frustrations, and then they agreed to do something they all wanted to do (go to the park).  And so it was done! Ben told me later that he felt much better, and was happy with the way it had all worked out.  Granted, this was a fairly typical, low-level emotional storm, and more traumatic events will require more time and parental coaching, but this was a great "test run" of the process and techniques recommended by Dr. Siegel, and I will certainly use them again when the time comes. In summary:
  1. Connect emotionally with your child (listen and acknowledge their feelings).
  2. Ask him to name the emotion(s) he's feeling.
  3. Ask him to describe how those emotions feel in his body.
  4. Have him look around the room if he gets stuck in an emotional loop (i.e. keeps remembering the upsetting event and getting upset again).   Important:  Reassure him that he does not need to stop crying, but that you just want him to look around the room as he does.
  5. Once calm, facilitate storytelling. As Dr. Siegel emphasizes, make sure you "respect their desires about how and when to talk -- especially because pressuring them to share will only backfire."

"The drive to understand why things happen to us is so strong 
that the brain will continue to try 
making sense of an experience until it succeeds."
~  Daniel Siegel, M.D.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

A Simple Fall

One of the lasting impacts of all those years I spent in school is that Fall always feels like a beginning to me.  The frenzied summertime rush to do it all --- vacations, amusement parks, summer camps, overnight guests, and every outdoor concert and art fair is over, replaced by cooler nights (though still-warm days) and a return to a regular routine.  After a solid month of guests (our guest room was totally booked in August!), the beginning of September found me breathless and tired and vowing to simplify my life. I enjoyed seeing the family and friends who were here (well, mostly anyway!), but am overjoyed to have my house back to myself and more control over my days.

And I'm not alone.  Since our final guests departed almost a week ago, I've certainly noticed that I'm feeling more centered and calm, but it struck me just today that the boys have been more settled as well.  They've been choosing quieter activities, like reading and Legos, over the more typical choice of Nerf gun battles.  And they've been very connected, both physically and otherwise, to me and my husband.  When I asked Ben how he was feeling the other day, he said "I'm glad to have our tight-knit family tight again."

So, as I regain my energy this week, I am reminding myself that we don't need to take advantage of every opportunity to sign up for a new class or take on a new activity.  The temptations to fill our time and "not miss out" are strong for me, and the vow to simplify is easily broken amidst the excitement of possibility (if you could only see what our schedule looked like last Fall!). But the joy we've all been feeling this week as we wake up and realize we don't have to rush out anywhere, or to entertain anyone, or to quickly clean the house before the next guest arrives is sweet -- and very much worth savoring!