Thursday, June 12, 2014
Melon Did It: Imaginary Friends, Stories and Lies, and Accepting Responsibility
I knew a three-year old girl who, any time she did something she wasn’t supposed to (which was fairly often), would announce, “Melon did it!” Melon, of course, was her imaginary friend. Sometimes Melon was a good companion, engaging in thoughtful conversation, but, most often, Melon was the scapegoat. Melon didn’t seem to mind much.
I also remember a four-year old boy who once broke something on the playground. Even though he was the only one in the area, and despite the fact that a teacher had actually seen him break the toy, when I asked him why he did that, he said, “because....wait, I didn’t do it...” When I asked him who did do it, he looked around, then innocently said, “how about Colby?” Now, ordinarily, Colby would have been a viable suspect, but on this day, he wasn’t even at school, giving him a solid alibi.
Both of these memories make me smile. They are also both really good examples of the way preschoolers will naturally try to negotiate the truth. It’s not pathological lying (yet), it’s simply coming to a developmentally appropriate understanding of the relationship between reality and fantasy. It’s also part of the process of learning to accept responsibility for our actions and behaviors.
It’s sometimes difficult for adults to figure out how to respond to these narrative explorations. We want to encourage imagination, and we often are amused by the clumsy trek through the truth that preschoolers pursue. But while they are on this journey, it’s important to help them recognize the difference between the fun and positive use of imagination, and the problematic manipulation of truth to deflect responsibility or to get what you want. There’s nothing wrong with naming that difference, and naming it makes it easier for children as young as three to understand: using imagination to tell stories (or to have imaginary friends) is fine, as long as the people you’re telling them to know that they’re stories, but making things up that you know are false and trying to get others to believe you is lying. It really is that simple (but I’m sure we all know some grown ups who still struggle with this concept).
Young children lie for a variety of reasons. Probably chief among them is to deny wrongdoing and get out of trouble (the function of Melon and Colby), but children will sometimes lie just to see what happens, or to try to reconstruct their world in ways that make them feel better. An example of the “just to see what happens” tactic is the little girl who, with somber earnestness, told us that her mother couldn’t come to pick her up that day because she had been in a bad car accident and was in the hospital. We were all appropriately concerned and confused, because we hadn’t heard anything about it, but things were cleared up when Mom walked in the door that afternoon, safe and sound. When we asked the girl why she told us that, she said, “I don’t know.” And she didn’t know. She was trying it out. An example of a child reconstructing the world to make himself feel better was the little boy who, after having experienced some meaningful trauma, insisted on calling his adoptive parents “Nala” and “Mufasa,” and wanted everyone to call him “Simba.” For this young boy, the simple reality was that, for him at that moment in his life, reality was challenging, and his healing involved a harmless construction of a world of strength, perseverance, connection, and heroism to get him through. This lasted for a couple of months, until we all recognized that reality was once again, for him, a safe place to be.
If you value honesty and integrity, then you will help the children in your life understand why those concepts are important. Adults will often excuse lying as “harmless fantasy,” or with the belief that children “are just too young to know any better.” If children are old enough to have the vocabulary to create stories, they are old enough to begin to understand morality and ethics, and the difference between lying and storytelling. But the only way they can learn the social significance of these concepts is if adults take the time to name the problem, set clear and consistent expectations and consequences, and explain what the choices are. One of the best books to help children (ages four and up) with this concept is Evaline Ness’s Sam, Bangs, and Moonshine. This book tells the story of a little girl, Sam, whose elaborate stories ultimately cause serious injury to her best friend, Thomas, and to her cat, Bangs. Sam’s stories begin as a way to help her cope with the loss of her mother, but evolve into an escape from reality that is no longer healthy for her or for those around her. Her father explains to her the difference between “real” and “moonshine,” and helps her to accept responsibility for the consequences of her actions.
And that really is the point: Sam’s father doesn’t discourage her from telling stories, but insists that she be clear with others (and with herself) that she is making it up. Similarly, we welcomed Melon at school, but insisted that she not be blamed for her friend’s behavior. It was only fair.
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Itching to Know—Being Poison Ivy Literate
I know, I know...so far, all of my posts have been about behavioral issues, or developmental considerations, or thoughtful reflections on cultural issues and influences...so what’s with the poison ivy?
Well, it’s almost summer here in the Midwest, and summer means poison ivy, and poison ivy means misinformation, myth, and misery for 70-75% of the population, including kids. This is one of those topics that I have learned a LOT about through painful necessity. I first had a serious poison ivy reaction when I was five years old, which landed me in the hospital for nearly a week with a solid mass of blistering pustules covering my entire thigh. As a teenager, I was bedridden for several days after I had been at a friend’s house where they were burning brush that included poison ivy, and the aerosolized oil basically coated my head, neck, arms, and hands—my eyes were swollen shut, my upper lip was about three times its normal size, my ears stuck out from the layers of rash behind them, and I couldn’t use my hands normally because of the huge blisters in between my fingers.
My apologies for the graphic description, but the point is...I know what I’m talking about. When parents come to me with concerns that their child got poison ivy from our back yard, I reassure them that we are VERY careful about making sure we clear any poison ivy from the fence line, and then I fill them in on what they will need to know for the rest of their child’s life, since poison ivy allergies persist (and sometimes get worse) over time. I am not a physician or a botanist, but here is what I have learned through my experiences over the last 50 years (if anyone has any further information, or if you believe anything I have said below is incorrect, please let me know—I do not claim to have all the answers):
ASSUMPTION #1: YOU CAN SPREAD POISON IVY BY SCRATCHING. Partly true, but misleading. The rash is caused by your body’s histamine reaction to the oil that is part of the plant. This oil is known as urushiol, and is contained not only in poison ivy, but also in poison oak, poison sumac, and in smaller amounts in other plants such as mango trees, pistachio trees, cashew shells, and gingko biloba. Once the oil contacts the outer skin layer, your body begins to react. For people with serious sensitivities (like, for example, me), that reaction can be almost immediate when the urushiol density is significant. If your immune system triggers itching before you have removed the oil, the action of scratching MAY spread the oil over a larger area. Once you have washed off the oil, however, you cannot spread it anymore simply by scratching. Most importantly, you CAN NOT spread poison ivy by scratching open the blisters, and no one else can “catch” poison ivy from coming into contact with the fluid in the blisters. The fluid that forms inside the blisters is NOT urushiol—it is the fluid that is naturally produced by your body as part of the histamine reaction. The main danger of scratching is not spreading the allergic reaction, but causing a bacterial infection. As the blisters open and release their fluid, make sure you keep the area clean and covered to prevent infection.
ASSUMPTION #2: YOU CAN’T WASH AWAY THE OIL. False. If you know you have contacted poison ivy, you must thoroughly wash away the urushiol as soon as possible, before it bonds with the skin layer (within 10 minutes or so). This can be accomplished with commercial products (such as Ivy Dry or Zanfel, which can also be used after the urushiol has bonded), or with COOL/COLD water and soap or common household detergents that are good at breaking up oil (such as many dish detergents or, my favorite soap for this purpose, Fels-Naptha, a bar soap that can also be used as a laundry detergent to remove the oil from clothing—be aware, however, that, since it is very, very good at breaking up oil, it should probably not be used for routine bathing, as it will strip your skin of beneficial, natural oils as well). DO NOT shower or wash with hot or very warm water, as this will open the pores and make it easier for the oil to penetrate, and can actually spread the rash by making the oil flow easier.
ASSUMPTION #3: IF I DON’T TOUCH IT, I WON’T GET IT. False. Big false. In fact, in many cases, initial or subsequent reactions are not from the plant itself, but from pets or clothing that have the oil on them. We had a student several years ago whose parents were convinced that he was repeatedly getting poison ivy at school, because they had not been in ivy-infested areas for several weeks, but their son kept getting new rashes. After some questioning, we realized that, several weeks prior (when he got the first exposure), it had been in an area with lots of poison ivy, and that, since the initial contact, they had not washed his shoes. He had walked through the field with the poison ivy, and since they hadn’t washed his shoes, he kept re-contacting the oil every time he put on his shoes. If you have been exposed, make sure you not only wash yourself, but also be careful to launder all of your outer clothing, including your shoes and jackets, with a detergent that will break up oil. If you can’t launder an item (like hiking boots, for example), clean them as thoroughly as you can, then wash your hands immediately after you put them on, or just don’t wear them for several weeks (though urushiol can remain viable for several months, so exercise caution and continue to wash your hands).
Similarly, if you take your dog for walks in the woods or fields, or if your dogs or cats have access to areas where there may be poison ivy, be aware that they can carry the oil on their fur. If you or someone in your family is allergic, be sure to give your dog a bath when you return from your walk, and keep your yard clear of poison ivy.
ASSUMPTION #4: THE BEST TREATMENT FOR POISON IVY IS CALAMINE LOTION. Hmmm....maybe. Calamine lotion, or other topical lotions and creams, can help relive the itching for minor reactions, but if the reaction is moderate or severe, topicals will not be very effective. In extreme cases, you may need to see a doctor for a prednisone injection to combat the inflammation and help prevent scarring. For moderate cases, the thing to keep in mind is that you want to dry the rash, which will help to alleviate symptoms. There are a variety of astringent products that can help with this process. My favorite is a powder called Domeboro solution, which you use by mixing with cool water, then soaking a washcloth or gauze compress with the solution and applying the compress to the rash for 10-20 minutes, several times a day. Not only does this help to dry out the histamine fluids (which is what causes the itching), the cool compress also soothes the skin and helps make it less miserable. Taking antihistamines may help a little, but will be limited in their effectiveness. Whatever approach you take, it generally takes a week or two for the reaction to fully run its course and for the rash to disappear (it may take longer with severe cases).
ASSUMPTION #5: YOU CAN ONLY GET POISON IVY IN THE SUMMER. Definitely false. In fact, poison ivy can be most potent in the spring, when the plant is coming out of winter dormancy and the oil is dense and active (think of the way the “sap rises” in maple trees in the early spring—same idea). Summer drought and heat can “dry up” the vines to a certain extent, though the oil will still be present. However, even when the plant is “dormant” (during the winter in cold climates), the oil can still be present in sufficient quantity to cause a reaction. If you’re one of the 70% that reacts to urushiol, don’t think you can yank the vines out in the winter without getting a rash. It may be less potent, but it can still be enough to cause a rash.
ASSUMPTION #6: IF I’M NOT ALLERGIC TO IT NOW, I WILL NEVER BE. Dangerously false. As with any other allergy, repeated exposure, or natural changes to body chemistry over time can lead to new allergies.
ASSUMPTION #7: ANY PLANT WITH THREE LEAVES IS POISON IVY. Frustratingly false. There are many plants that resemble poison ivy, such as maple tree saplings, catalpa tree saplings, Virginia creeper, box elder, pepper vine, etc. This link provides a lot of photos of poison ivy and various “impostors”: http://poisonivy.aesir.com/view/picqna.html. Identifying poison ivy can be confusing, but here are some things to remember:
· Poison ivy is a vine, not a tree. It rarely grows straight and tall by itself. It prefers to be anchored to another tree, a rock face, or a wall for support, but can also grow without support, looking more like a bush or ground cover.
· The vine is woody (and sometimes “fuzzy”) on mature plants anchored to trees, but can be smooth and red or green on new growth.
· The leaves can be toothed or smooth, but are not usually lobed.
· The leaves are reddish in the spring, green in the summer, and can be various shades of orange, yellow, red, or brown in the fall and winter.
· The center leaf usually is larger than the two side leaves, and the center leaf almost always grows from a small stem that grows from the end of the vine, whereas the side leaves grow directly from the vine itself, without a separate stem.
Bottom line: if it has three leaves and you’re not sure what it is, don’t touch it.
So, keep your eyes open, stock up on soap, and good luck!
Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Did I Say That? Being a Role Model, Whether You Like it or Not
I recently saw a video that had gone viral, in which a white woman launches into a vitriolic, racist rant aimed at an African-American man who may or may not have said something that upset her. Besides the horrid nature of her words, equally disturbing was the casual demeanor of her two young children, who were hanging around in the background, acting as though this was business as usual for a day out with mom. Watching them, you might have thought she was simply chatting with a neighbor.
This reminded me of another incident with a child in my class a few years ago. This child was almost four, his social-emotional maturity was delayed, and had a behavioral issue that he sometimes expressed through intentional toileting “accidents.” One day, when he had wet his pants, we went into the bathroom, and I made sure he had a change of clothes and a plastic bag to put his wet clothes in. I then told him to change his clothes, something that he was perfectly capable of doing himself, but on this day, he wanted the attention of having someone else do it for him. When I declined and turned to leave him to his task, I heard him mutter, “f---ing b---h.” Since I wasn’t a hundred percent sure I heard him right, I turned around and calmly said, “what did you say?” He looked at me and, matter-of-factly, repeated it. I looked him in the eye and said, “you know, we don’t call people names here, and I expect that you won’t call me or anyone else that again. OK?” He said “okay...”, then proceeded to change his clothes. He seemed a little confused that my reaction wasn’t stronger. When his mother came to pick him up, I told her what he had said, and suggested that she and her husband might want to be a little more careful about the language they use around their son. I also explained to her that he used it perfectly appropriately in relation to the context in which he had learned it. What he had learned listening to his parents was that, if you are a boy and you are mad at a girl, you call her that. He was mad at me, so that’s what he called me.
By the time most children are two years old, their receptive language (the vocabulary that they are able to understand when they hear it) far exceeds their expressive language (the words they are actually able to produce). Even though we don’t hear young children immediately repeating words we use, rest assured they are acquiring them. By the time they are three, they begin to develop a clear understanding of the emotional context in which language is used, and will begin to experiment with using the vocabulary they have been building in what they think are socially appropriate ways. In other words, if they hear words used in anger at home, they will use those same words in anger in other social situations.
And those children in that parking lot in the video? Even though they didn’t seem to be listening intently, you can bet that they were hearing every word, the same way that they had heard every word every other time their mother reacted to some social slight. But instead of just picking up profanity, they were picking up something much more devastating: specific hatred directed at someone because of his skin color. The woman’s insistence that she’s “not a racist” is meaningless when she uses the language she was throwing about so comfortably, and that’s what her children will take away. Not just her words, but also her attitude and her actions.
And THAT’S the other side of the language coin. Children learn not only words, they also learn attitudes and actions from the significant adults with whom they interact. If they see and hear violence, they learn violence; if they see and hear compassion, they learn compassion; if they see and hear hatred and intolerance and fear, they learn hatred, intolerance, and fear.
One of the most difficult social equations to navigate with young children is the expression of emotion that is honest, yet developmentally appropriate. As much as I feel pain when I witness examples such as the woman in the parking lot, I also cringe when I see a teacher who is constantly bubbly and never expresses frustration or anger. If children learn their emotional responses from adults, how can we expect them to learn appropriate reactions if they never see us model them? Calm discussion and gentle demeanor is important to model, but if children who are making hurtful or disrespectful choices never see a teacher express aggravation or negativity in an acceptable way, they will never learn those acceptable reactions. Children hear and learn words, but they observe and practice actions as well, and need to be able to connect those words and those actions with specific emotional contexts.
When that young boy called me that name, I was sad for him, not particularly angry, and I think that is what disrupted his expectation. I would guess that, at home, when his father called his mother that, she responded in kind. When I responded more calmly, and stated firmly that the problematic part of his behavior wasn’t the specific words, but was the fact that he was using name-calling to be hurtful, it re-framed his emotional context for that interaction. Had he persisted in this behavior, he would have seen me express my frustration with his continued hurtful choice, the same way that he had seen me express my impatience with his toileting defiance, or my anger with his occasional physical aggression. In these interactions, “frustration,” “impatience,” and “anger” as I modeled them were firm, fair, and reasoned responses. I never yelled, I never called him names, I never responded physically...I named my emotions, I explained the reason for them, and I demonstrated rational, constructive reactions for each.
The takeaway? Whatever age your children are, remember that they are listening, watching, and learning from what they see and hear you do. A little modeling goes a long way.
Monday, June 2, 2014
Bang Bang, You're Dead
For several years, I have been adamantly opposed to allowing “gun play” in our program. The kids know that our most important rule is that it is unacceptable to hurt others, whether it’s on purpose or because you’re being careless, and that guns hurt. I know that a lot people disagree with me on this point, which is the advantage of being the owner—I get to set the policy on this one.
Parents and staff know this rule as well, but we occasionally still get someone arguing that things like squirt guns are okay, because they “just squirt water.” There are many things that squirt water and aren’t shaped like a weapon. In addition, I am not telling anyone what choices they should make at home. Not the point.
The point is that, for the kids in our program, there is at least one place in the world where, for part of their day, they have to think beyond “bang bang, you’re dead.”
When we first instituted our “no gun play” policy, it was before the Columbine shootings changed the landscape. Since then, I am increasingly convinced that our policy is one small step in the right direction. This isn’t about “taking away all the guns” or “attacking the second amendment” either—this is about helping young children develop a sense of social interaction and emotional expression that doesn’t default to violence as a means of getting attention or delivering retribution.
There is one common element that the overwhelming majority of mass shootings share, whether they take place at home, in school, in the workplace, or at a randomly chosen public location, and whether they get lots of media attention or are not reported beyond a local market. That one common element is that the shooter was male. Between 1999 and 2013, every mass shooting in the United States was committed by a man (source: http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/mass-shootings-central-american-history-article-1.1457514). But the culprit isn’t the genetics of maleness, it’s the conflation in our culture of masculinity with violence, especially gun violence. And calling out that relationship is not an attack on men, or even on guns per se, but is an insistence that we critically examine all of the influences that contribute to a gun violence rate that is higher in the U.S. than in any other developed country.
One disturbingly blatant example of this mentality is an ad for the Bushmaster, a .223-caliber rifle that is a semiautomatic version of an assault rifle used by the U.S. military. It is also the weapon used to murder 27 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. This is the ad:
Of course, there is satire here, there is an attempt at humor on the Bushmaster website, but the ad itself, and the marketing campaign, point to that deeply rooted equation of masculinity for U.S. boys and men—the message that “being a man” = “being tough” = “being violent,” and that challenging that equation even in a small way automatically emasculates men.
The conflation of behavior, guns, and violence begins innocently enough for many, by misunderstanding how young children interpret reality. There have been dozens of incidents in the last few years of young children (mostly boys) shooting friends, siblings, even parents or other adults (such as this incident in April of 2013: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/04/09/child-shooting-deputy-wife/2066289/; or this one from 2012: http://www.myfoxtwincities.com/story/20270020/toddler-shot-killed-by-child-under-5-in-minneapolis). These incidents are not about children expressing anger—they are horrible, tragic accidents that happen because young children cannot reliably discern between toy guns and real weapons. They happened because these children picked up a gun, thinking it was a toy. Of course they can tell that a plastic, neon purple squirt gun is not a “real” gun with bullets, but they can’t extend that to determine that a handgun or rifle made of metal isn’t a toy.
But it is this early experience, this positioning of weapons as “toys” and violence as “play” that has serious implications for young boys who grow up with the cultural acceptance of guns as everyday objects. It also has serious implications for young girls, who are learning that male violence, whether directed toward other men or toward women, will be waved off under the excuse that “boys will be boys.”
Yes, I know, if this were true, then wouldn’t all boys become killers? Of course not—there are many other factors that influence how a child incorporates cultural messages into behaviors. Factors such as media exposure, domestic violence, parental attitudes towards guns and violence, peer interactions, personality traits, etc. all contribute to the ultimate relationship that children develop with violence in general, and guns in particular. And this is the point of our “no gun play” policy—that in this place, in this time, we are committed to making sure our influence is one that compels children to find other alternatives.