Intro to Educating a Human Brain

Educating the Brain

How do babies learn things? How can we help them learn in the most conducive way possible? What does it take to create the best environment, conditions, and potential for the highest possible development of our children’s full mental (cognitive, non-cognitive, neuro-emotional and neuro-psychological, etc.) capabilities? And how do we fit whatever all that takes into our already very busy parenting lives?!

To begin with, let me reassure you, it’s a lot easier than you probably think, both to provide for that best possible brain development, and to fill that brain with all the necessary informational bits to succeed happily in life. If you’re a dedicated Natural Parent — practicing proper attachment, building and maintaining the parent-child relationship (and additional bonus points if you’re nursing) — then you’re already on the right proverbial track, and you’re already giving the brain what it needs most first in order to do well as it matures. Feeding that brain with enough of the right kind of information is something I’ll cover in more detail at a later date, but at present let me just say — if you’ve prepared the brain well enough, and you are willing to assist as it reaches for more, then you honestly won’t be able to stop it from devouring mountains more information than we are currently taught to think is normal for human development.

But before we go on to a proper discussion of what needs doing, let’s spend a little time exploring just what our babies’ brains are seeking and how they’re seeking it.

The first thing it’s important to know is that the human brain is an auto-adaptive learner. It is built to assess the learning potentials in the environment in which the baby is born and it then designs and continues to re-design a development plan for itself based on what the environment is like and what is available. If the brain receives positive information about the learning environment, it will open its various receptors and take in more and more and increasingly subtler levels of the input available to it. If the opposite occurs, and the brain ascertains that the environment is not as ideal, and/or that the human in which the brain is riding is not as safe and secure as is ideal, then the brain reorganizes it’s directives to secure those items missing from the environment, and/or the sense of safety that is optimal for proper development. If it cannot create the ideal conditions for optimal growth, then the brain is forced by it’s prime directive — of continual development per the conditions available — to develop as best as it can.

Another concept that is important to understand is that the brain is a time-sensitive aggregate learner. It’s extremely efficient in its processes, and uses what it learns en route to a new skill in order to facilitate that and future acquisitions. For instance, in an infant’s earliest days, the brain is simply looking to make certain that it and it’s human are both safe. Depending on how much it develops this baseline understanding/sensation, the brain will discern how open it can be to input, this in turn determines how much input it will begin to receive. Put more bluntly — if the infant brain is stressed, “it ain’t open for business”; and if it remains regularly or frequently in a state of stress, it gets further and further “behind in business”. Another example from early in development, is the set-up of mirror neuron reactions. I could write multiple posts about the function and importance of mirror neurons, but at present, you should understand that these neurons help children understand the emotions and intentions of others, and assist children in imitating new skills. In order to set these neurons up for prime functioning, the current understanding indicates that the brains of both parent and child encourage mimicking between them. The level of mimicry that happens seems to determine how developed the mirror neuron reaction is, which further determines how well the child will be able to learn about emotions, empathy, social etiquette, language and other complex motor processes, and self among many others. For each set of skills and precursors to new skills, the overall brain plan has allotted specific windows of time — some skills/process preparations have more precise windows than others — and after that time, the brain moves on with as much as it was able to handle in the time it had. If it gets more than/as much as is optimal then it moves on in a fully empowered manner; if it didn’t get enough input, or didn’t have the best conditions, then the amount of preparation and adaptation is less, and therefore the brain’s abilities to move forward are narrowed (not necessarily inhibited in reach, but lessened in scope).

Additionally, the human brain’s cognitive development is stage-specific — that is, it occurs in semi-discreet, overlapping, and cumulative episodes. As above, there are windows of time during which certain skills are ideally “developable”; and, as the saying goes, “you have to learn to walk before you can run”. Put together, that means there are optimal periods for developing particular cognitive skills, which ideally, flow in a succession building one on top of the other. In less ideal scenarios, an opportunity missed, or a cognitive skill not fully developed before the preferred window closes, then inhibits or “mis-serves” the development of the next skill(s) in the next (pre-set) stage.

In light of the above dimensions of brain development, one thing to keep in mind in approaching parenting is how best accommodate as many of the brain’s preferences as possible in order to be certain that it operates at its broadest possible spectrum of development. This refers both to choices we make in the moment regarding how to handle particular interactions, and more global choices that we make about how we approach parenting in general. So here’s my basic list of things to do to help give our children the best possible opportunities to develop robust, intricate neural networks, realizing and capitalizing on their brains’  brightest possible maturation scenarios:

  • Our first job for assuring that our kids can learn as much as they are able to is create and maintain a secure bond with the new born and infant. If the baby (and brain, really) doesn’t feel secure, then the stress of that insecurity inhibits learning potential, and confuses the brain into hedging it’s proverbial bets and creating a less expansive educational program for itself. By making our babies feel safe, first and foremost, we unlock their broadest possible potentials, give their brains the full range of developmental choices, and prime their nervous systems for the greatest possible receptivity to input from all available sources.If we do that successfully (or to whatever degree we are successful at that…) then we can rely on the brain of the growing baby, toddler, and little kid to do it’s thing quite naturally. Given the right grounding, a baby’s brain is doing incredible feats of learning everyday — you can’t stop it (except by stress). Early on, a good bit of that development is about figuring out how to move this human body (as it doubles in size), how to understand and initiate communication, and how to get the body’s needs met (so that the brain can keep growing!).
  • Our next most important job for brain development is to facilitate emotional processing throughout early development. Our babies come to us without the neural capability to mitigate or manage their own emotions. When children get upset (and they can get extremely upset about any-infinitessimal-thing, right?!) they lose their already limited access to their higher brain functions — like self-awareness, the ability to make good choices, impulse control, logic, and reason, among others. The thinking/learning brain shuts down until or unless they get help processing the emotion(s). So in order to help them get the upper brain back “on line” and return it to it’s receptive, learning state, we have to help our kids get through emotional upheaval as often as it occurs with healthy doses of empathy and hugs.By doing so, we tell our children’s brains to stop producing the stress hormone Cortisol, and start producing Oxytocin and Opioids to calm the brain and relieve the neural “pain” of duress, before reinitiating the cascade of neuro-chemicals that are optimal for receptivity and learning. In the moment, our assistance provides the vitally necessary help all kids require to get back to a calm, receptive state — our calm body/brain guides theirs to a similar calm by a co-regulation a/effect — and our empathy helps them manage the emotional content and begin “arcing” back into higher brain functionality. In the long run, our regularly helping them attend to their emotional processing means our kids are more in their “right minds” more of the time — that is, they are generally more available to receive information and sensory input, to think and act rationally, to control their impulses and motor actions, and to make sound and empathetically-informed choices. They can develop more “neural real estate”, exponentially faster, and with loads less work on everyone’s part — simply because we’re keeping the system “debugged” of “viral” emotional content.
  • Another absolutely necessary thing for us to do is to “manage interest“. This sounds fancier than it is, but shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of its impact on neural development. It requires a two-pronged approach. On the one hand, we need to regularly show our interest — both in our children, and in their activities — this communicates our recognition of the importance of the things they are doing (every one of which is part of their development), but more vitally, it communicates the significance and belonging that every child needs to feel in order to develop ideally. And on the other hand (or prong…), we need to steer clear of interfering with our children’s interest in their explorations. That means — not rewarding or praising their successes (which interferes with their intrinsic motivation for learning), but encouraging their process and empathizing with their feelings throughout, instead.

    By showing our interest, we show them that they and what they are doing/do matters. We assuage their need to feel personally important. We give wind to their wings simply by witnessing every manic attempt at flapping. We root their existence in meaning by celebrating their being with our attention and connection. And by withholding our valuations, and/or our critiques, and/or our coercive back-patting, we offer them the opportunities to be the measures of their own successes. We offer them the chance to remain dedicated to what interests them, rather than becoming dedicated to winning our favorable appraisal and attention (the latter of which they should have as a given, not a currency). We also offer them the awesome power to wade into new explorations and experiments without fearing all the inevitable and informative failures available to them along the way to mastery. The child whose parents don’t show enough interest (i.e. don’t clearly communicate significance and belonging), and/or work too hard to “catch them being good” and  extrinsically reward successes, doesn’t get to feel safe exploring new terrain (physical or intellectual) and doesn’t get to feel like what he is doing actually matters, and doesn’t get to feel really excited about learning. And in all cases, we really want the opposite for our children.

  • So, after making sure the brain feels secure (not to leave out the human who owns the brain, of course…) and modeling responsiveness and interest so that the brain takes on its best possible growth plan, then we need to start to put stuff in the perceptual range of that hungry brain! That means lots of playing and exploring with, talking (and signing) to, showing and sharing things, and reading to our kids.

     Regularly reading to our little ones is one of the single best early education tools possible. Period. It gives access to a wide swath of the language(s) we speak in real time and context(s). Additionally, by simply hearing us and seeing our mouths move, our children’s mirror neurons make their brains run miniature simulations of speaking, practicing the neural habits of language production. Reading to/with our kids also introduces concepts about life to them in both a visual and auditory way — maximizing the input, and therefore, the reception of new information. It also happens to be calming and connective for most children, which means it’s not only teaching the brain, but priming it for learning too! Do it, literally, as much as you can both stand every-single-day.

     Then the next and final part (for the current discussion) is making lots of room for play. Play is how kids and brains run simulations of all the tiny bits of input they’ve been given, and practice self-regulation skills. They will run countless pretend scenarios each day, trying out existence, and experimenting with what they know about life. It is absolutely essential that play be their most regular task on any given day until they are developmentally able to move on to other types of input (like reading on their own) — usually somewhere between 5 and 8. Independent play is, of course, vital, but develops differently for different kids and provides for only specific kinds of learning; so be sure to supplement (especially earlier in development when independent play has yet to emerge) with lots of co-play and with toddlers and older kids even rough co-play, which is especially good for developing neuro-emotional regulation habits.

These are the basics of priming the brain for and initiating the most comprehensive learning that the human brain is capable of doing. Given secure attachment, consistent emotionally-responsive care, a sense of significance and belonging, unencumbered intrinsic motivation, and plenty of rich input — our children can learn and do anything; their potentials are broad and high; and their brains are open for the serious business of becoming their best possibilities. If we get really good — not exceptional but dedicated — at providing what our children’s brains need for optimal development, then I believe we’ll see the emergence of a kind of human we would currently call superhuman; with abilities and skill levels that we can, now, barely even imagine. And at the very least, we can offer our own children the most fully empowered nervous systems possible just by attending to these few basic guidelines above.

So get in there! Lay those solid foundations, and provide those early resources necessary to make sure your kids’ brains are “open for business” and “primed to succeed”! And then stand back and witness in celebratory amazement as the empowered nervous system takes over and creates learning in places you would never have dreamed. Feed that brain and watch it grow like a magical beanstock!

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Be well, my fellow para-educators.

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P.S. — If you want more information or assistance on this, you can hire me to be your brain-facilitator trainer! And you can also check out this book for more background and ideas.

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I’m (an) Official!

I'm Official!

Natalie and I packed up and trundled off to Oakland all day both days last weekend and underwent the 14-hour training to become certified Positive Discipline Parent Educators. Huzzah!

It was a wonderful and potent experience. We studied technique and material for helping parents learn about the concepts of Positive Discipline — and not just learn about them, but feel them to the bone. In fact, the main take-away from the training for me was very much about the powerful difference between just hearing an idea and actually stepping into the perspective to which it relates. Even principles to which I’d already felt wholly devoted became richer and more poignant because I spent time tasting the quality(s) involved.

I’ll give you a perfect example. At one interval, our certified PD trainer, the wonderful (and very pregnant :) ) Heather Cantero, solicited brave volunteers and walked us through an activity where two participants sit in the middle and role-play being children simply repeating the phrase, “I’m a child. And I just want to belong.”. Those of you who’ve been to a PD course that used this activity will know what I mean when I say that part alone, regardless of the other parts of the sketch, is enough to bring any parent to tears (or at least to his emotional knees…). But then, twice as many volunteers (the poor sods) circle the two in the center who are repeating the phrase above, and speak harshly to them, and use intense, raised voices to toss out “parentisms” (as Heather called them). It went something like: “Why don’t you ever do what I tell you?!” (“I’m a child and I just want to belong.”); “You’re so unreliable!” (“I’m a child and I just want to belong.”); “Sit up straight! Don’t put your elbows on the table! Chew with your mouth closed!” (“I’m a child and I just want to belong”). On and on it went, way longer than I would be comfortable letting it go as a facilitator, long after I myself had looked away several times and began fanning myself with my shirt to stave the heat rushing up my neck into my face and prickling into tiny beads of sweat at my hairline. I think I even said under my breath, “That’s enough…that’s enough…”.

Afterward, Heather also walked us through the recovery that she always has the participants do in the courses she facilitates with parents and teachers. We all needed it. And we could all feel the palpable poison in the neuro-emotional veins of the room getting pumped back out and reprocessed into a deep, deep knowing… I can’t even articulate what it is. “Something something all those times I…” and “Something something belonging…”, mixed with a little “Something something I want mine to feel sure…”, and a “Bottom line communication something something…”. It isn’t a set of phrases; it’s a bedrock feeling. A feeling of wanting to do better by my girls in communicating their welcomeness at all turns. A feeling of recognizing where we’ve all failed and been failed. A feeling of fierce protectiveness of all the world’s children, even us. A feeling of tenderness for the whole Earth; and of hope; and of love for everyone…

Now I could and probably will try to deliver the message of that sensation to every workshop full of parents that I lead from here on out. I could/will try to just tell parents, “Look — your kids are only ever seeking to secure and sustain a sense of belonging and significance with you and in this world. Period. So make certain that everything you communicate to them carries the message you want them to have about how much they belong (in your eyes) no matter what they do or say, nor the thoughts, feelings, or responses they may illicit from you. Make sure they know and feel that you always already love them no matter what else you need to do, say, or teach —  and at the same time! Make sure they know they belong no matter what else is happening.”. But regardless of how well I craft my phrases, regardless of how expertly I deliver my lines — I could never say anything like the feelings I had sitting there watching the run-through of that role-play activity. It was even doubly removed from reality — a how-to rehearsal of a two-minute improvised skit – but it punched me in the heart in a way that I will never be able to forget.

And that was just one of many life-tweaking moments from the weekend. And again, we weren’t even going through the actual course, we were just going through the training on how to teach it…

We’ve come away from it energized and inspired to say the least. Both days on the hour-plus drive back home after class, Natalie and I debated and distilled, between plotting and planning, before and after swearing and sharing our “mosts”. We’d picked our alignment with the Positive Discipline Association intentionally because we were amazed at how well the PDA’s message matches our own (even though we’d known nothing about each other when creating those messages) — but we were floored by both how well the two independent systems matched, as well as the important complements that we both offer to each other’s ideas. I believe it’s the beginning of beautiful relationship!

And, of course, you’re all bound to benefit from that collaboration as well. ;)

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So there you have it. I’m official! An officially certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator! And an official official of the Positive Discipline Association, as well. Congratulations, self!

I also feel like I got another round of the “certification bug”. I love the training experience so much — even though I hate hate hate it — because it moves and challenges me and draws me out of my own inner world of thought and feeling, welcoming me into brighter, fuller vistas and deeper knowing. I come away from a weekend like that exponentially more dedicated to my core values, filled up with my purpose, and ready to rewrite future history. And whenever I get a taste of more knowledge, more wisdom, more tools, more love — I always get caught-up, and like 18-month-old Echo used to shout, I “Need more ‘mation! Need more ‘mation!”. I want to know everything worth knowing. I want to feel everything worth feeling. I want to share everything worth sharing. Benefit everything. Nurture everything. Love every thing.

There’s nothing (next to my children, of course…) that I value more than learning, feeling, and sharing. I’m hooked and hungry. Looking for my next hit. Totally addicted to growth and process. And I hope I never kick…

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Follow your blisses, loves. Follow your blisses!

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And be well.

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P.S. Anyone interested in more information on the PDA or the basic tenets of Positive Discipline (maybe you’re like me and you bristle/d a little bit at the name…?) — here’s a link to the PDA’s site.

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W.O.W. — Week of Wonder!

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Greetings friends, followers, and new-founds! The dial here in our little corner of the universe have been set to auto-fun for the last week, and I’m just now having a moment to “come up for air” and tell you all about … Continue reading

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Out with a Splash!

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Well, for those of you who are new here or have not been following along: We’ve been in Santa Cruz for the last month and a half. Woohoo for “short Winter”, Missoula is getting hammered with some of the most … Continue reading

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The Self-Authenticating Adult, or How to be a Super-Hero to your Kid

redwoodEcho decided that she wanted to climb the Redwood in Juju and Bonnie’s backyard (not actually pictured above… this one’s just to give you the impression of it, since, regrettably, I took no pictures from under the particular tree in question). It just so happens that I am the type of parent who was genuinely pleased to hear that his 6 and a 1/2 year-old daughter wants to climb the 100+ foot evergreen, the very first branch of which is at least 20 feet up, above her doting, and perhaps also “highly concerned”, grandparents’ fitted-brick patio…

also love that tree! And I wanted to climb it while we are here, as well.

We had the ladder set up, extended to it’s fullest height and even on it’s tippy-toes a bit, leaned against the massive and mythical trunk of “Reddy the Great”, as Echo calls the wizened old giant. This tree is the stuff of Christensen family legend. The mere fact that I, or Natalie, or her sister, Em, have climbed it before, or would, is somewhat of a heroic feat in the family. It’s a big tree. But it also looms over Natalie and Emily’s entire childhood. It’s been imbued with magic. Not just your natural everyday huge Redwood magic, but life-, imaginative-, play-, kid-, undaunted-, love-magic. And you can feel that when you’re near Reddy. And it makes you story-worthy to associate with “the Great” in such an intimate fashion as to ascend to his/her/its crown, to say the least.

The compound had gotten wind of Echo’s plan; and by that, I mean, she’d broadcast the news in every building and in every face she could reach between the time we decided to go for it and the time we had the ladder up against the foot of the tree. Our little friend Seiji was visiting and he was exceptionally interested in this operation to climb the tree and whether or not he would in fact get a turn to make his own ascent; so with our other “residents” that made 8-10 of us around the tree at any one moment, all jazzed-to-nervous-and-back-again about the current activity.

Reddy2

We had to “try out” the ladder placement, so Echo and I climbed up together while Natalie held the base. The top of the ladder was too far from the bottom-most branch for Echo to reach and climb up onto it. We adjusted the ladder and made another ascent. This time Echo decided that being “as tall as a two-story building” at the top of the ladder and touching the lowest branch of the tree was — well, enough. The teeming horde decided they all wanted a similar triumph under their respective belts; so I ushered kids, one after the other, up and down the ladder, to lay a finger on or wrap an arm around that lowest branch. Each one got to peer down and wave at the on-lookers below, and to gaze out on the world from a different perspective. They all loved it so much that they begged for another round. They felt pleased with themselves, and lit-up by the experience.

The tree let them be their own heros.

I’d told Echo that I wanted to climb the tree as well when we spoke of it in the initial discussion, but by the end of my shift at the carnival, I thought about just packing it up and skipping my chance to play. But I didn’t. The moment was synchronic. The flow was evident in it’s allowance of ample space and opportunity. The kids were not only all being supervised enough for me to do the climb, they were all also cheering me on. So I went for it. “Why not?” I thought to myself, as I reset the ladder. Then I began my ascent.

I say “began”, but the tree is so pleasant to maneuver up through that I was hardly 5-7 minutes in working my way to the top. The kids whooped and screamed and called up to me as I went. At the peak of the tree the branches all twist outward from the center forming a palm on which to perch. As I popped out of the top of Reddy’s skull, Lisa, the neighbor across the street, saw me immediately and shouted and said she was going to grab her camera, then fired off the shot (below) for us.

That is the roof-line of Juju and Bonnie’s house 1/3 of the way up the tree…

Reddy1

Realizing that they could all potentially see me in the crow’s nest, I yelled down to the kids suggesting that they run over to the neighbors’ and “look up!”. They all mindfully crossed the still avenue together and danced in circles on the sidewalk waving up at me, and hollering with glee that there I was “in the top of the tree!”.

Here’s what they looked like to me, all gathered around down there…
ReddyTo make a little-longer story short — when I got back down to the ground, the kids all crowded about me, congratulating me on my successful adventure, jumping at my elbows, shouting feverishly, collecting and coveting the bits of Redwood needle and tiny cones lacing my hair. I was extra-super-cool for at least 5 whole minutes. Sure, they ran off to other great attractions, that is, back to banging fiercely on the elegant Zen bell-gong in the courtyard; but they will remember that I climbed to the top of Reddy the Great. And whether now or at some later time, it’ll be the stuff of family stories that well outlast our memories’ interest in even the greatest legends.

I didn’t mean to be a hero. And I’m not bragging, really. I was just doing what felt pleasing to me. The fact that our family will remember is based in large part on the pre-existing mythic relationship with the tree, of course. The fact that it will be memorable to the junior monkeys club is, likewise of course, because it is such a grand and epic specimen for climbing — especially from a kid’s (memory’s) point of view. But the reason it’ll stay in my mind is because I got to be part of their stories, I got to be nothing short of amazing in several endearing little children’s minds, just for being me and doing something I truly enjoy.

Here’s to authenticity.

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Once I made it back down, and pulled all of the debris from my hair and disseminated it amongst my fans, I held the ladder and Xi held baby Selah so that Romy could climb up to the crow’s nest as well. She didn’t get quite the parade upon her descent from that great height as I enjoyed, but I am sure the achievement will still be memorialized in the Daniels’ family lore; and I know she’ll be added to the list in the Christensen legend of Reddy the Great summit-claimers. But just for good measure, I wanted to add her heroic tale to this story as well…

I hope you happen easily upon your moments to be legendary in your kids’ eyes, too, friends. I’d look first in all the places where you’re most you. And just so you know — you’re all legends in my eyes; just for continuing to show up and be your current best parenting selves.

We are Olympians.

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Be well, badasses.

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Compound Bliss

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If you’ve been keeping up with my latest posts, then you already know we’ve spent the last several weeks in a state of perpetual enjoyment. Snugged up as we are in the lap of Natalie’s family stomping grounds, we’ve been … Continue reading

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Yo-Yo Lessons

Yo-yo1Juju has been teaching Xi how to yo-yo. He brought over this lovely classic orange Duncan butterfly — straight out of the 80s — and told the girls he wanted them to be able play with it if they liked. As he came into the house, we was winding up the cord and explaining his intention to Xi, Echo, and me. Then he started to slip the loop at the end of the cord over his classic (though perhaps more precisely manicured) grandfather index finger, and I thought, “Oh cool. He’s actually going to try it out to give the girls the idea…”.

Then he whips a flaming orange blur into action, slinging it quick and languidly out from his hand and effortlessly receiving it back. And then he did it again. And again. Like some sort of yo-yo wizard, he’s mystifying all three of us as we stand motionless before his one-armed jive. We began to guffaw our “ooh”s and “aahh”s and Juju started disclaiming his prowess, but we weren’t fooled and didn’t bother to pull the stars from our eyes…

Yo-yo2Pretty quickly, Xi was asking for pointers and Juju was slipping the loop over her finger and explaining the basics of the initial sling, bounce, and retrieve. She worked with it some, but teeth-brushing was already afoot and bedtime stories were pending, so it was only the barest foray into this new world of single-appendage gymnastics. Juju swore to impart some of his yo-slinging wisdom to her at their next earliest convenience.

A day or so later, we were all outside. Xi suddenly remembered the promise of secret yo-yo knowledge and ran to get the magical orange device. She began practicing as Juju had showed her, but it wasn’t more than a minute and a half, maybe three sling-miss-and-rewinds, before Juju was tapping her shoulder to “cut in”. He slid the loop over his knuckle and whipped into action yet again. He showed us how to make the yo-yo “sleep”, and go “around the world”; then settled into instructing Xi’s more remedial attempts, coaching her kindly and gently, encouraging her, and then celebrating with her when she caught it the first time.

Yo-yo3I stood transfixed in the courtyard watching them both while a funny feeling was yanked up into my chest. I am often suddenly aware of the quality of a moment as the type that my child(ren) will “always remember”, just like the murky overbright moments I still carry from my own growing-up; and this was one of those. Xi was having a moment with her grandfather that she will likely always remember, and the richness of that was palpable ten feet away. But more than that. I wasn’t just moved at the likelihood of Xideka being moved. That feeling in my chest was being pulled up from deeper than just the shared instant I was witnessing.

Yo-yo4As the statue of me with hand on heart stared on unblinkingly, I was transported backward in time to a similar height and age as Xi. I was with my grandfather, always austerely referred to as “Grandfather”, but always warm and tender enough with me to belie the title. He was showing me a thousand things. His immaculately ordered tool closet in the garage; the “nothing grinder” on the coffee table next to his arm chair; how to pet the West Highland Terrier I called “Noony” (but who preferred “Wendy”); how to plant a tomato start; how to spit a water melon seed; how to make a ring from his nightly cigar wrapper; the MGB he was refurbishing; the correct diagonal to invisibly mow his carpet-lawn; the perfect boat acceleration and nautical speed for waterskiing; how to get “misty-eyed” with dignity on a Christmas morning;  how to choose a CB-handle with style (though I still don’t know why he picked “Star-Gazer” since I never once saw him telescoping anything, let alone the night sky…); how to make a windmill from a splayed aluminum can; and how to sling a yo-yo, as well.

Yo-yo5And I remember thinking at the time how lucky I was to get to live near my grandparents. My cousins who were, I’m sure, no less loved then I was, got, in my estimation, a whole lot less of the love from our grandparents than I did. And even in my uncontemplated youth I figured that this was mostly because I lived in the same town, while the cousins were several hours away. I was thankful for that then, and have remained so my whole life. And yet, I’m the same guy who moved 2200 miles away from my parents before I started having kids…

One thing has (as it always does) led to another. I helped to make one lovely child in Montana and shortly thereafter got divorced from her mother. Then I helped make another lovely child “out of wedlock” and was immediately in a second co-parenting relationship. So whatever hope I might have eventually formulated of removing my family to a closer proximity to more family (that is, my children’s grandparents) was fairly dashed right out of the proverbial gate. Then, because I was processing and piloting my own return to Natural Parenting, I (perhaps too long) underestimated the value of being nearer my parents. Until now, really.

Yo-yo6It wasn’t a complete, out-of-the-blue thunder strike. I didn’t suddenly wake up in Juju and Bonnie’s compound courtyard realizing the “error of my ways”, or the immense, untempered value of loving grandparents. It’s certainly been a continental drift gestalt in my mind and heart over the years, slowly ushering me toward this pointed instant. But the effect was a culminating crash to say the least — I was thunderstruck. I couldn’t quite calibrate the potent understanding landing with each downward dive of the yo-yo that Juju and Xi were enjoying. Right before it settled in me, it would be yanked back into a nebulous ineffable knowinglessness — a wry wondering want for something I couldn’t quite define. Until I did.

Yo-yo7It is this. This, this, and this. It is the natural call from under the primal skin of my parenthood. It is the heartbeat of the long lost village in all of us. It is the nurturing truth of our nature. We are family beasts. For our own health and wellbeing and for the same for our young — we need our families, we need our communities, we need our tribes. That’s what makes us the best of who we are or can be. That’s what makes us us.

Yo-yo9And for the first time in my life, I know with all of my being — this is what I want. For my family and for myself, I want my kids surrounded — girded on all sides — by their loving, attentive, deliciously doting elders. I want them buoyed up by that extra connection. I want them enriched by that extra experience. I want them held close by that many more extra arms and hearts. I want them to have it even better than I did. And I want them to have it now.

Yo-yo11I can’t say what any other parent should do if finding him- or herself in such a position. I don’t know if every family can reap the loving benefits of proximity without suffering too much from the vacuum of their own childhoods and/or their understandings about child-rearing. For a lot of families, the divide between what our parents and grandparents experienced of raising kids and what we want our children to experience in being raised is too wide a chasm to broach. For some, the very idea of having our parents even near our kids is upsetting. But for any of us who can make peace with our forbearers, and/or get them to make peace with how we’re doing parenting, it is a no-brainer. For those of us who can — we would do best by ourselves and our children to bring our prodigal families home.

Yo-yo8In our family, we’ve now made it part of our year to come here to Santa Cruz (where Natalie grew up and where almost all of her family still lives) for a few months of each winter. We weren’t sure how it would work and we didn’t know exactly how to make it happen — but we did, and it is.  And standing here, watching the orange blur of memories being formed in my daughters’ minds, and feeling the warm fullness of their hearts, I know the value of what I am witnessing. I know the value of my village.

Yo-yo10And, now, however absurd all of us might think it would be, I want nothing more than to pack my parents up and ship them out from their respective homes in Alabama and Virginia to wherever we will be. I want them to, also, be a bigger part of raising our girls. We need them all. We need what only these tender-hearted grandparents can offer to their grandkids. We need what every family needs — our village — because that’s what it takes to give our kids the best of what all kids deserve: to be loved for who they are and to be nurtured toward all they can become by as many of their doting grown-ups as they can get.

Yo-yo12

Here’s to all of us finding our places, building our villages, and running with our packs.

P.S. Thank you, Gramma and Grandfather. I didn’t get to tell you nearly enough in your lives. Thanks for everything, and I love you.

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Be well, all you growing families. Sending you good thoughts.

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