The Power of What If

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I have a challenge for you. Go dig around in your kid’s school backpack (you might want to wear gloves for your own protection if your child forgets half-eaten sandwiches like mine does). Pull out a few tests and assignments, and see how many questions are similar to the following:

  • List three ways that …
  • Name four of the …
  • Define the following …
  • Calculate the …
  • Determine the …
  • Circle the answer which best …
  • Which of the following do not …
  • Write in the answer that …

Questions which evaluate memorization still make up the bulk of answers our children answer on a daily basis,  despite most of these same students owning a device which can search for just about anything and return information in a matter of seconds. For some reason, we still believe it necessary to determine if a student can recall the exact date in which the Louisiana Purchase was signed, although the chances of needing that specific tidbit of information to escape some precarious situation are quite low.

What if …

Please know I am not devaluing foundational knowledge or the need to teach our children rudimentary functions of grammar, math, science, or other academic studies. But what I am saying is that we are completely missing the boat when it comes to encouraging students to take risks, make mistakes, or explore the unknown where they can discover, invent or create.

A lot has been written about concerns over the decreasing number of young entrepreneurs, but what did we expect would result from spending twelve of a child’s most formative teaching them how to conform in their thinking? As we continue to pile on more testing mandates, no matter how well-intentioned, the result will continue to be an environment that greatly discourages exploration of ideas beyond the page – a foundational characteristic of entrepreneurship.

Asking a question that begins with What if helps us discover for ourselves what is and isn’t possible or what happens when we try something new. For myself, some of the most impactful experiences of my childhood began with some version of asking What if. I am grateful to have grown up in an era when children were allowed the opportunity to make mistakes, because we discovered that mistakes were just part of the learning process and nothing to be afraid of.

When I was about eight years old, my family lived in a neighborhood that bordered an empty field. My brother and I spent hours at a time exploring that field – chasing lizards, catching horned toads, digging in the dirt. We often asked what if and then spent days experimenting, building, and testing our answers. On this particular day, my brother and I had asked each other what might happen if we used balanced our toy magnifying glass over the head of our sister’s Barbie. In our defense, we didn’t do this to be mean; we’d simply run out of our Barbie supply, having already gone through all of mine on previous experiments. Besides, we didn’t use any of her special dolls; we found the one with the ratty hair and the teeth marks all over, thanks to a previous encounter with our dog. We buried the doll about waist deep in the sand and began our quest to discover the answer to our what if question. We were not disappointed. We learned that the sun, when filtered through a seemingly harmless toy magnifying glass, could melt plastic. While my brother and I were ecstatic with our discovery, alas, our sister was not, even after we pointed out our obvious consideration in choosing her chewed up doll.  I’m not sure she ever quite saw it our way – that she got a new doll out of it – but for me, it was well worth losing my allowance for several weeks to replace her doll.

Sure, text books had the same information, and we could have spent that summer afternoon reading about it. But I certainly wouldn’t remember it this many years later had I learned it in a book. I can still recall quite vividly that moment when the soft plastic of my sister’s doll started to sizzle and melt right before my eyes. My excitement at what I was witnessing was only slightly diminished by the realization we were going to be in trouble for destroying our sister’s toy in the process. There is something quite empowering about using actions to explore the wonder of our own mind that can never be replicated by knowledge gleaned from a text-book.

It is probably safe to say that almost everything new that exists today was a result of that single question. What if we can build a machine to fly? What if there is a cure for measles? What if … None of the innovations we enjoy today could have happened without individuals who were willing to go beyond the available knowledge to explore the What If inside of their own mind. If we want to foster a nation of entrepreneurs and inventors, then we need to encourage more What If questions – although I might recommend keeping those little plastic magnifying glasses out of reach. They’re a lot more powerful than the average eight year old might think.

Working From Home: A Perk

When the kiddo takes over the task board…

One of my favorite reasons for working from home? Sometimes when I start work in the morning, my task board is replaced with things like this.

You Are My Sunshine

This morning my youngest woke up with a stuffy nose, a bit wheezy … and thinking he had a good chance of developing a believable case of Yellow Bus Fever. You know – the kind that goes away when the school bus drives by. And as I booted him out the door to make it through the day, I was reminded of a day that seems now like another lifetime, but one that changed absolutely everything for me as a mother. I rummaged through some old files and found the original essay that actually won a prize in a contest about a life-changing event. It’s a bit long, but here it is:

Good news never comes at three in the morning.

It just doesn’t.

I answer the jangling phone with apprehension, wondering who has died. Maybe it’s a wrong number.

It is a young man asking for my newborn – by name. That was fast. Barely on the planet for a week, and the little guy’s already receiving phone calls.

“This is his mother,” I reply.

“Uh, sorry, ma’am. I see now that he’s a newborn.” He stumbles over his words. “I know this may sound odd, but I need you to go check your baby and make sure he’s not running a fever or anything. Just make sure he’s okay.”

Now I’m scared. I sit up and ask, “Who is this?” My husband rouses long enough to mumble for me to hang up and go to sleep.

“This is the medical lab. I’m the night technician.”

Fully awake, I cross our bedroom and head for the baby’s crib. “What’s wrong?” I ask. It’s been two days since blood was drawn for a fever. They already found a strep infection in his blood, and I’ve been faithful with the medications sent home with me.

“Uh,” he pauses. This is one articulate guy. “Well, actually I can’t tell you that. I just need to verify the baby’s okay.”

I drop the phone on the counter and run to my baby, my breath coming in short, shallow gasps.

I feel his tiny forehead.

Normal.

I put my finger under his nose and sigh with relief as his breath warms my hand.

He’s fine.

I walk back to the phone and find I am trembling. “He’s okay,” I assure this technician. “Now I want to know what is so wrong with my son that you’re calling me in the middle of the night.”

“You’ll have to ask the doctor.”

I take a deep breath and let it out slowly, but it does nothing to dissipate the anger building inside. “I want your name. I am filing a complaint first thing in the morning. This is ridiculous!”

We sit silent on the phone for a few moments. I am hoping he is weighing the risk of a customer complaint against getting in trouble for not following proper procedure.

Finally, he speaks. “Your baby’s neutrophil count is 8. The protocol when it’s that low is to call immediately to make sure the patient isn’t in immediate danger.”

Neutrophil? “What is a neutrophil?” I ask.

“It’s the part of the white blood cell that protects against bacterial infection. It should be in the hundreds of thousands.” He speaks with an authority that is somehow reassuring, even while he’s delivering bad news. “Your doctor will be notified and will call first thing in the morning. That’s really all I can say, okay?”

I spend the rest of the night researching the internet.

Cancer.

Leukemia.

Blood disorder.

Every new site seems worst than the last, full of words that no mother wants to hear about her own child.

I turn off the computer and sit in the dark, thinking of the day I discovered I was pregnant again. I’d suffered through seven miscarriages early in our marriage trying for children and was already blessed with a beautiful daughter and son. And when this last baby tried to come into the world too early, I stayed in bed for almost twenty weeks to ensure his healthy birth. I took every precaution imaginable.

I watch the stars twinkle in the night sky and remember his big sister just days ago holding our newborn in the hospital, her face shining. I recall our young son telling the nurse what good care he is going to take of his little brother. I picture my husband, his face softened with joy as he holds his youngest child in his strong hands and recall the smile we share over this new miracle of life. And then I wonder how we will ever bear this terrible news. Our family is already falling hard for this little guy.

As the sun finally rises on my shattered world, I hear the baby fussing, hungry again. He suckles on my breast as my tears drip onto his cheek. He opens his eyes, flails a tiny fist and grabs tightly to my finger.

I wipe my eyes and pull myself together.

I have been given another day with this little bundle of blessing. Whatever the future holds, I will be grateful. However short the time, I will cherish it.

I swallow hard and smile.

“My precious little guy,” I whisper and begin singing softly.

You are my sunshine. My only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey…

Update: Seven long months, many consultations with specialists and hundreds of tests later, our son was diagnosed with Cyclic Neutropenia.


Sharing Life from the Passenger Seat

I love running errands with my kids.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t even slightly enjoy running errands, but when my kids are along for the ride, it makes for some wonderful time together. I think I’ve found out more about what was going on in their lives while driving to Target than any other way.

So it shouldn’t have taken me by surprise while returning an item yesterday that my nearly-grown son told me, “Mom, I almost bought some lady’s eggs the other day.”

He told me then about being at work bagging a woman’s groceries only to have to wait as she struggled to decide what to put back when she didn’t have enough money to pay for everything. She sorted through the food, selecting items to return. And when keeping the eggs still pushed her over her limit, my son spoke up and offered to pay for her eggs.

I asked him why. “Well, what do eggs cost? Three, four dollars? For me, that was just my spending money. But I kept thinking that for her it could be the difference of having healthy protein for a week or two, so I wanted to help out.”

At that moment, I couldn’t have been prouder of my son if he’d told me he’d earned a full ride to some elite college. As much as I ride my kids about getting good grades and being responsible, I have to say that as a mother, I care so much more about what kind of heart they have – how they treat others, if they feel remorse when they’ve wronged someone else, or if they’re moved with compassion by someone else’s difficulties.

And the thought that my son would sacrifice part of his small paycheck to help someone else made my heart soar.

I truly feel privileged to be along for the ride when my kids start sharing life from the passenger seat one errand at a time.

Choose Your Battles

I think one of the best nuggets of parenting advice I ever received when my kids were little came from my children’s pediatrician. He was quiet and gentle, and over the years I grew to respect him far beyond his gut instinct and medical knowledge as a real rock of wisdom and strength.

When I was having a particularly hard time with my first child’s entry into the terrible two’s, he told me, “If it’s not a hill worth dying on, then don’t start a battle. And if it is, don’t stop no matter what.”

There are still times when those words come back to stop me before I make a battle out of something that in the end really won’t matter for me or my children.

When my daughter, now a fine arts major in college, was less than a year old, she starting throwing fits if she didn’t like the texture of her clothing. She would go stiff, arch her back, and scream until I removed whatever she was wearing and put on something that she was willing to wear. And just about the time I finally made peace with the fact that she wouldn’t be wearing most of the frilly dresses I’d dreamed of seeing my daughter wear, she decided that nothing she wore could have buttons anywhere.

We were in the doctor’s office for her two year well child check up when Dr. Keller asked if there were any other issues I wanted to talk about. And so I let off some steam about this very willful child who I thought was usurping my authority and pushing my buttons by being so difficult every single morning when I tried to dress her.

“Is this a battle worth dying on the hill?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, if this is something that you think is worth the fight every day until you win, then don’t ever back down. But if there are clothes that you think are appropriate that she will wear without a fight, have you considered that maybe it isn’t worth the bad feelings and conflict every day just to have her wear something you like?”

I admit, he made me a little mad. While I was nodding my head in agreement, I was thinking , “Yeah, let’s let you try to handle getting her dressed for a week and see how saintly you are then.” But the next morning instead of picking out her clothes, I asked my daughter what she wanted to wear. She chose the ballerina dress I’d found at a garage sale. And in keeping with my new experiment, I chose not to tell her that the outfit was not appropriate for going grocery shopping. I just bit my tongue and let her wear it.

We wandered the aisles of our grocery store that morning with a completely new attitude. She danced past the cold cereal boxes and twirled through the fresh fruit. We made it out of the grocery store without a single power struggle or harsh word. I am convinced that the choice I made that day changed everything between my daughter and me.

Her dad and I sometimes call her Crayola now because she wears the entire spectrum of colors and textures all at once. She buys most of her clothes second-hand and breezes into a room like a bouquet of flowers. And as I watch her blossom into a confident young woman, I am so glad I didn’t expend energy creating a power struggle over something so trivial as what I wanted her to wear.

Been around the block a time or two

Someone recently approached me with a question about raising their child. Now I’m no Dr. Laura and probably relate better to Lucille Ball than to Dr. Spock, so it took me a bit by surprise to have someone else think I had something of value to share when it came to parenting a child. And then she explained why she was asking me for advice. “You’ve been around the block a time or two, and your kids still seem to get along really well with you, so I thought I’d see what you have to say.”

And so it was that the two of us – a very young mom and a somewhat frazzled mom – sat down over a cup of coffee and talked about the challenges of raising kids.

Perhaps you’ll find some nuggets worth keeping as I blog about my own philosophy of raising kids. Perhaps you’ll find some ideas you think are just plain crazy. But either way, I’m looking forward to having some conversations with you as we journey together down this path of creating independent, self-sufficient, conscientious, responsible, loving adults.

I hate it when I’m wrong


I hate it when I’m wrong, but I especially hate when that means my husband is right.

If you’ve been married longer than ten minutes, I’m sure you can appreciate that sentiment. After twenty years of marriage, we’ve stopped keeping a tally mark, but that’s because we needed to clean out the garage, and all our old tally sheets were just taking up room. (Actually, it’s because I don’t want to even look at the real possibility that I might not be winning.)
This is how it usually goes in our house: I think I’m right. I know I’m right. I try to win a debate with my husband. I get mad. We quit debating. I pretend I’m still right.
This played out like an old dance during the first week the kids were back in school.
My third grader came home with massive amounts of work to do each night. Whatever he didn’t finish in class was sent home right alongside his regularly scheduled homework. And each night the poor little guy would start work right after snack and sit in the same spot in the kitchen until suppertime. After supper he would continue to work until it was time for bed.
The mommy in me was at a breaking point. He needed rescued, and who better to rescue than the same person to kissed his scraped knees and tucked him into bed every night?
I informed my husband of my plan. I was careful to use words like, “I’m going to” and “I plan to”. Not once did I slip in a phrase that sounded anywhere near, “what do you think” or “do you agree”. So, I’m not sure where things fell off course, but somewhere between the sentence, “I’m going to have a talk with his teacher” and “This has to stop; it’s ridiculous” my husband stopped me dead in my tracks with one comment.
“Leave it alone,” he said.
I had a lot of not-so-nice thoughts but managed to keep most of them from escaping my wagging tongue. He was mean. Cruel. How could he not care about his own kid? How could he be so dense as to think this was fair, reasonable for a poor 8-year-old kid to suffer through no playing, no fun every night – how could he be that unfeeling?

“Leave it alone?” I asked.

“Let him figure it out,” he said. “Remember all that research you did about dyslexia and about all those people with it? Do you really think that Charles Schwab, Patrick Dempsey or Steven Spielberg are so successful because of dyslexia? Or do you think it’s because there weren’t such things as accommodations and special plans when they went to school?”

“Well,” I said. It wasn’t much of an argument.

“Leave it alone and see if he can figure out that if he doesn’t work harder at school he doesn’t have fun at home. Let him solve this on his own. Don’t take that away from him.”

I still didn’t agree with him, but I knew this was going in his side of the tally sheet. Fine, we’ll do it his way and prove he’s wrong.

Over the next few weeks, the unfinished work that came home dwindled to almost nothing. And yesterday, there was a check next to everything on his schedule. Not one solitary piece of unfinished work in the back pack.

My husband won this argument. And this one I am more than happy to leave on his side of the tally sheet. Sometimes the best thing of all is to lose an argument.