samedi, mars 23, 2013

spaghetti al limone

Leo and I love this bright, creamy sauce. We've served it with panko-breaded chicken and also with sauteed shrimp. It is a new favorite in our home.  

I've modified the original portions, because I found the Cook's Illustrated one a bit oily for my liking.  I've used unsalted butter and little more cream in the recipe and been pleased with the results.  Because it is winter here and there is no decent affordable fresh basil, I've omitted it so far.  I plan to add it in the summer when I've got Italian basil growing in my herb garden.

Spaghetti with Lemon and Olive Oil (Al limone) 
Note: Let the dish rest briefly before serving so the flavors develop and the sauce thickens.

Table salt
1 lb spaghetti
1 TSBP extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
1 medium shallot, minced (about 3 TBSP)
1/3 cup heavy cream (the original recipe called for 1/4 cup)
3 TBSP unsalted butter (the original recipe used extra virgin olive oil and no butter)
2 tsp finely grated lemon zest and 1/4 cup juice from 3 lemons
1 oz finely grated Parmesan cheese (about 1/2 cup), plus more for serving
Ground black pepper
2 TBSP shredded basil leaves
  1.  Bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 TBSP salt and pasta to boiling water; cook, stirring frequently, until al dente. Reserve 1 3/4 cups cooking water, drain pasta into colander, and set aside. 
  2. Heat 1 TBSP oil in now-empty Dutch oven over medium heat until shimmering.  Add shallot and 1/2 tsp salt; cook until shallot is softened, about 2 minutes.  Whisk 1 1/2 cups of reserved pasta cooking water and cream into pot; bring to simmer and cook for 2 minutes. Remove pot from heat, return pasta, and stir until coated.  Stir in remaining 3 TBSP butter, lemon zest, lemon juice, cheese, and 1/2 tsp pepper.
  3. Cover and let stand 2 minutes, tossing frequently and adjusting consistency with remaining 1/4 cup reserved pasta water, if necessary.  Stir in basil and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve, drizzling individual portions with oil and sprinkling with cheese.
Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, January and February 2011

vendredi, mars 22, 2013

the healthy sex talk: teaching kids consent, ages 1-21

I think this is a very useful framework for teaching kids about consent and their bodies.
The Healthy Sex Talk: Teaching Kids Consent, Ages 1-21
March 20, 2013 By Julie Gills, Jamie Utt, Alyssa Royse and Joanna Schroeder

A list of parenting action items, created in the hope that we can raise a generation of children who have less rape and sexual assault in their lives.

The ongoing horror of rape in the news, from Penn State to the young women raped and killed in India to Steubenville, has proven to be a wake-up call for many parents. We always knew that rape was a problem, but never before have we been so mobilized to create change.

As writers, educators, and advocates of sex-positivity and healthy consent, the four of us have been inundated with requests from parents for advice on how to help create a future with less rape and sexual assault.

We believe parents can start educating children about consent and empowerment as early as 1 year old and continuing into the college years. It is our sincere hope that this education can help us raise empowered young adults who have empathy for others and a clear understanding of healthy consent.

We hope parents and educators find this list of action items and teaching tools helpful, and that together we can help create a generation of children who have less rape and sexual assault in their lives.

There are three sections, based upon children’s ages, preschool, grade school, and teens and young adults.

For Very Young Children (ages 1-5):
  1. Teach children to ask permission before touching or embracing a playmate. Use language such as, “Sarah, let’s ask Joe if he would like to hug bye-bye.” If Joe says “no” to this request, cheerfully tell your child, “That’s okay, Sarah! Let’s wave bye-bye to Joe and blow him a kiss.”
  2. Help create empathy within your child by explaining how something they have done may have hurt someone. Use language like, “I know you wanted that toy, but when you hit Mikey, it hurt him and he felt very sad. And we don’t want Mikey to feel sad because we hurt him.” Encourage your child to imagine how he or she might feel if Mikey had hit them, instead. This can be done with a loving tone and a big hug, so the child doesn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.
  3. Teach kids to help others who may be in trouble. Ask your child to watch interactions and notice what is happening. Get them used to observing behavior and checking in on what they see. Use the family pet as an example, “Oh, it looks like the kitty’s tail is stuck! We have to help her!!” Praise your child for assisting others who need help.
  4. Teach your kids that “no” and “stop” are important words and should be honored. One way to explain this may be, “Sarah said ‘no’, and when we hear ‘no’ we always stop what we’re doing immediately. No matter what.” Also teach your child that his or her “no’s” are to be honored. Explain that just like we always stop doing something when someone says “no”, that our friends need to always stop when we say “no”, too. If a friend doesn’t stop when we say “no,” then we need to think about whether or not we feel good, and safe, playing with them. If not, it’s okay to choose other friends. If you feel you must intervene, do so. Be kind, and explain to the other child how important “no” is. Your child will internalize how important it is both for himself and others.
  5. Encourage children to read facial expressions and other body language: Scared, happy, sad, frustrated, angry and more. Charade-style guessing games with expressions are a great way to teach children how to read body language.
  6. Never force a child to hug, touch or kiss anybody, for any reason. If Grandma is demanding a kiss, and your child is resistant, offer alternatives by saying something like, “Would you rather give Grandma a high-five or blow her a kiss, maybe?” You can always explain to Grandma, later, what you’re doing and why. But don’t make a big deal out of it in front of your kid. If it’s a problem for Grandma, so be it, your job now is doing what’s best for your child and giving them the tools to be safe and happy, and help others do the same.
  7. Encourage children to wash their own genitals during bath time. Of course parents have to help sometimes, but explaining to little Joe that his penis is important and that he needs to take care of it is a great way to help encourage body pride and a sense of ownership of his or her own body. Also, model consent by asking for permission to help wash your child’s body. Keep it upbeat and always honor the child’s request to not be touched. “Can I wash your back now? How about your feet? How about your bottom?” If the child says “no” then hand them the washcloth and say, “Cool! Your booty needs a wash. Go for it.”
  8. Give children the opportunity to say yes or no in everyday choices, too. Let them choose clothing and have a say in what they wear, what they play, or how they do their hair. Obviously, there are times when you have to step in (dead of winter when your child wants to wear a sundress would be one of those times!), but help them understand that you heard his or her voice and that it mattered to you, but that you want to keep them safe and healthy.
  9. Allow children to talk about their body in any way they want, without shame. Teach them the correct words for their genitals, and make yourself a safe place for talking about bodies and sex. Say, “I’m so glad you asked me that!” If you don’t know how to answer their questions the right way just then, say, “I’m glad you’re asking me about this, but I want to look into it. Can we talk about it after dinner?” and make sure you follow up with them when you say you will. If your first instinct is to shush them or act ashamed, then practice it alone or with a partner. The more you practice, the easier it will be.
  10. Talk about “gut feelings” or instincts. Sometimes things make us feel weird, or scared, or yucky and we don’t know why. Ask your child if that has ever happened with them and listen quietly as they explain. Teach them that this “belly voice” is sometimes correct, and that if they ever have a gut feeling that is confusing, they can always come to you for help in sorting through their feelings and making decisions. And remind them that no one has the right to touch them if they don’t want it.
  11. “Use your words.” Don’t answer and respond to temper tantrums. Ask your child to use words, even just simple words, to tell you what’s going on.
Guidelines For Older Children (Ages 5-12)
  1.  Teach kids that the way their bodies are changing is great, but can sometimes be confusing. The way you talk about these changes—whether it’s loose teeth or pimples and pubic hair—will show your willingness to talk about other sensitive subjects. Be scientific, direct, and answer any questions your child may have, without shame or embarrassment. Again, if your first instinct is to shush them because you are embarrassed, practice until you can act like it’s no big deal with your kid.
  2. Encourage them to talk about what feels good and what doesn’t. Do you like to be tickled? Do you like to be dizzy? What else? What doesn’t feel good? Being sick, maybe? Or when another kid hurts you? Leave space for your child to talk about anything else that comes to mind.
  3. Remind your child that everything they’re going through is natural, growing up happens to all of us.
  4. Teach kids how to use safewords during play, and help them negotiate a safeword to use with their friends. This is necessary because many kids like to disappear deep into their pretend worlds together, such as playing war games where someone gets captured, or putting on a stage play where characters may be arguing. At this age, saying “no” may be part of the play, so they need to have one word that will stop all activity. Maybe it’s a silly one like “Peanut Butter” or a serious one like, “I really mean it!” Whatever works for all of them is good.
  5. Teach kids to stop their play every once in a while to check in with one another. Teach them to take a T.O. (time out) every so often, to make sure everyone’s feeling okay.
  6. Encourage kids to watch each others’ facial expressions during play to be sure everyone’s happy and on the same page.
  7. Help kids interpret what they see on the playground and with friends. Ask what they could do or could have done differently to help. Play a “rewind” game, if they come home and tell you about seeing bullying. “You told me a really hard story about your friend being hit. I know you were scared to step in. If we were to rewind the tape, what do you think you could do to help next time if you see it happen?” Improvise everything from turning into a superhero to getting a teacher. Give them big props for talking to you about tough subjects.
  8. Don’t tease kids for their boy-girl friendships, or for having crushes. Whatever they feel is okay. If their friendship with someone else seems like a crush, don’t mention it. You can ask them open questions like, “How is your friendship with Sarah going?” and be prepared to talk—or not talk—about it.
  9. Teach children that their behaviors affect others. You can do this in simple ways, anywhere. Ask them to observe how people respond when other people make noise or litter. Ask them what they think will happen as a result. Will someone else have to clean up the litter? Will someone be scared? Explain to kids how the choices they make affect others and talk about when are good times to be loud, and what are good spaces to be messy.
  10. Teach kids to look for opportunities to help. Can they pick up the litter? Can they be more quiet so as not to interrupt someone’s reading on the bus? Can they offer to help carry something or hold a door open? All of this teaches kids that they have a role to play in helping ease both proverbial and literal loads.
Guidelines for Teens and Young Adults
  1. Education about “good touch/bad touch” remains crucial, particularly in middle school. This is an age where various “touch games” emerge: butt-slapping, boys hitting one another in the genitals and pinching each other’s nipples to cause pain. When kids talk about these games, a trend emerges where boys explain that they think the girls like it, but the girls explain that they do not. We must get kids talking about the ways in which these games impact other people. They will try to write it off, but it’s important to encourage them to talk it through, and ask them how they would feel if someone hit them in that way, or did something that made them feel uncomfortable or violated. When you see it happen, nip it in the bud. This isn’t “boys being boys”, this is harassment, and sometimes assault.
  2. Build teens’ self esteem. In middle school, bullying shifts to specifically target identity, and self-esteem starts to plummet around age 13. By age 17, 78% of girls report hating their bodies. We tend to build up our smaller kids by telling them how great they are. For some reason, we stop telling kids all the wonderful aspects of who they are when they reach middle school. But this actually a very crucial time to be building up our kids’ self-esteem, and not just about beauty. Remark to them regularly about their talents, their skills, their kindness, as well as their appearance. Even if they shrug you off with a, “Dad! I know!” it’s always good to hear the things that make you great.
  3. Continue having “sex talks” with middle schoolers, but start incorporating information about consent. We’re often good at talking about waiting until marriage to have sex, or about sexually-transmitted infections, or about practicing safer sex. But we don’t usually talk about consent. By middle school, it’s time to start. Ask questions like, “How do you know whether your partner is ready to kiss you?” and “How do you think you can tell if a girl (or boy) is interested in you?” This is a great time to explain enthusiastic consent. About asking permission to kiss or touch a partner. Explain that only “yes” means “yes”. Don’t wait for your partner to say “no” to look for consent. Educating our middle schoolers about consent means we don’t have to re-educate them later and break bad habits, perhaps after somebody’s been hurt.
  4. Nip “locker room talk” in the bud. Middle school is the age where sex-talk begins in gender-segregated environments, like locker rooms and sleep overs. Their crushes and desire are normal and healthy. But as parents and educators, we need to do more than just stop kids from talking about other kids like they’re objects. We also need to model how to talk about our crushes as whole people. If you overhear a kid say, “She’s a hot piece of ass” you could say, “Hey, I think she’s more than just an ass!” You can keep it jokey, and they’ll roll their eyes at you, but it sinks in. They need a model for grown-ups who are doing things right. Even saying something like, “It’s also cool that she (or he) is so awesome at tennis, isn’t it?”
  5. Explain that part of growing up is having changing hormones, and that hormones sometimes make it hard to think clearly. Sometimes that means our desire feels overwhelming, or that we’re angry, confused or sad. It’s common, and perfectly okay, to be overwhelmed or confused by these new feelings. Tell your kids that no matter what they’re feeling, they can talk to you about it. But their feelings, desires and needs are no one’s responsibility but their own. They still need to practice kindness and respect for everyone around them.
  6. Mentor teenage and college-aged boys and young men about what masculinity is. Men need to talk to boys about what’s good about masculinity. Ask what hasn’t been so good about our culture of masculinity in the past. How can we build a more inclusive form of masculinity that embraces all types of guys: from jocks to theater kids to queer folks to everyday you-and-me? These conversations can encourage a non-violent form of masculinity for the future. Boys need to start talking about building a healthy masculinity starting in middle school and continue through college, because transforming masculinity is vital to transforming rape culture.
  7. Talk honestly with kids about partying. Make it clear that you don’t want them drinking or using drugs, but that you know kids party and you want your kids to be informed. Ask them questions about how they are going to keep themselves and others safe when they’re drinking. Questions such as:
    • - How will you know when you’ve had too much to drink?
    • - How will you handle it if your driver has had too much to drink? (Make clear that your child can always call you to come get him or her if needed).
    • - How will you know if your drinking or drug use has reached a dangerous level, or crossed into addiction?
    • - How does your behavior change when you’ve had too much to drink? How can you protect others from yourself in that situation if, perhaps, you become an angry drunk or start violating people’s space or safety?
    • - How will you know whether it’s okay to kiss someone, touch someone, or have sex with someone when you’ve had a lot to drink? Explain that decisions sometimes become cloudy, and signals become unclear when we are impaired. How will you be sure that you are reading the other person’s signals accurately? Suggest that they always ask for permission to touch or kiss another person, especially when there’s drinking involved.
    • - Although it should be obvious, explain that a person who is drunk, high or otherwise impaired should not be touched, harassed or sexually assaulted. Teach your children to stand up for, and seek help for, a fellow partygoer who has had to much too drink.
    • - Be careful about the language you use with your kids about partying. The responsibility is never on the victim to have prevented his or her assault. It is always on the perpetrator to make the right decision and not harm anyone.
  8. Keep talking about sex and consent with teens as they start having serious relationships. Yeah, they’ll tell you they know it all, but continuing the conversation about healthy consent, respecting our partners, and healthy sexuality shows them how important these themes are to you. It also normalizes talking about consent, so talking openly and respectfully with partners becomes second nature to teens.
  9. Finally, teens are thirsty for more information about sexual assault, consent, and healthy sexuality. They want to learn, and they will find a way to get information about sex. If you are the one providing that information—lovingly, honestly and consistently—they will carry that information out into the world with them.
Having good information encourages kids to be UPstanders, not BYstanders. Not only does the world need more Upstanders, but kids really want to be a force for good. And we can give them the tools to do so.

jeudi, mars 21, 2013


"Dogs are our link to paradise. They don't know evil or jealousy or discontent. To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring--it was peace." ― Milan Kundera

stop rape culture: teach your sons (and daughters) well

Steubenville and rape culture are horrifying. That two boys decided to treat a girl as a thing and not as a person is awful. But what I have the hardest time understanding is the bystanders who not only didn't intervene, but participated in the event (slut shaming) via social media.

As parents, Leo and I are constantly talking about how to prepare our kids for the world and the tough choices that they'll have to make. We think about how to instill each with ethics and the sense of compassion, coupled with personal and social responsibility, that can make a difference in these kinds of situations.

I found this essay helpful in thinking about how to prepare my son (and daughter) for the unthinkable.  While I hope they never find themselves in a similar situation, I want them to be ready to do the right --and hard -- thing, and to not be just another bystander.
Prevent Another Steubenville: What All Mothers Must Do for Their Sons
Kim SimonMother, Wife, Blogger,
posted: 03/18/2013 5:05 pm

When Max was just a few months old, I sat cross-legged on the floor with him in a circle of other mothers. The facilitator for our "Mommy and Me" playgroup would throw a question out to the group, and we would each volley back an answer.

"What quality do you want to instill in your child? What personality characteristic would you most like for your son to be known for?" she asked.

One by one, the mothers answered. "Athletic," "good sense of humor," "brave," "smart," "strong."

The answers blended together until it was my turn to speak. I looked down at the tiny human wiggling around on the blanket in front of me with his perfectly round nose and his full lips that mirrored mine. I stroked the top of his very bald head and said with confidence: "kind."

I want my son to grow up to be kind.

The eyes of the other mothers turned towards me. "That's not always a word that you hear used for boys," one said. "But yes, you're right... so I guess, me too." At the end of the day, we wanted our tiny, fragile, helpless baby boys to grow up to be kind. Strong, resilient, athletic, funny... but above all else, kind.

Max is almost 4 years old. He knows nothing about the horrific things that young men did to a young woman on the saddest night that Steubenville has ever seen. He doesn't know, but I sure do. I know that someone's daughter was violated in the most violent way possible, by someone's son. By many sons. The blame for that night falls squarely on the shoulders of the young men who made terrible choices, but it also falls in the laps of their parents.

Sexual assault is about power and control. But it is also about so much more. While it's true that big scary monster men sometimes jump out of bushes to rape unsuspecting women, most rapists look like the men who we see every day. Acquaintance rape (or date rape) accounts for the majority of sexual assaults that we see among young people. In colleges, in high schools, at parties, in the cars and bedrooms that belong to the men who women trust. These men are your fraternity brothers, your athletes, your church-going friends, the young neighbor who mows your lawn. They are somebody's son. Date rape is often saturated with entitlement. It feeds off of the hero worship that grows rampant like weeds on school campuses and in locker rooms. Young men are taught to be strong, to be athletes, to be feared. Young women are taught to be meek, to be feminine, to be small. As our young people begin to sort out relationships with each other and relationships with alcohol, they encounter an endless menu of ways to hurt each other.

As a community, we give our athletes free reign. Young men are filled with the heavy power of triumph, their heroism illuminated by the bright lights of a brisk Friday night football game. Young cheerleaders spend hours painting signs for them, adorning hallways with fluorescent notes of encouragement. Young men are known by their football number, their last touchdown pass, their ability to get any girl they choose. Young women fill the stands with hopeful smiles, dying to be noticed.

We have created this. We have allowed this. We choose not to demand more from our young men, because we see how big they grow in the spotlight. We give them adult power, without instilling in them an adult sense of responsibility and ethics.

Moms, it is time. Now is the time to make this stop. If you are the mother of a son, you can prevent the next Steubenville.

It doesn't matter if your boy is 4 or 14 or 24. Start now.

We must teach our boys to be kind. Teaching empathy, compassion and awareness needs to begin as early as possible. A toddler can learn how to use words of kindness: "Friend, are you OK?" "I'm sorry friend, did you get a boo-boo?" Encourage tiny boys to be aware of how others are feeling. Name what they see. "Mommy is sad right now, honey. Our friend G is sick, and I want her to feel better."

Give children tasks that they can do to help someone in need. Write letters of gratitude to take to the local firehouse. Bring dinner to a mother on bedrest. Choose a toy to share with the new child that just joined your preschool class. Teach your child to go towards a child who is upset, instead of walking away. When I picked Max up from school the other day, his teacher remarked on how "kind" he was. He checks in on other students. He runs to them when they get hurt. At first, I was embarrassed... oh, how my husband will tease me for instilling my "Social Worker" traits in our son. He must be brave and tough instead. But I am so proud that he is kind. That he is a helper. That he sees the emotions of those around him. Would he have hurt for the girl in Steubenville? Would he have felt her fear and said something? Teach your sons to tune in. Name emotions for them. Give them words to match their feelings.

We must teach our boys what it truly means to be brave. Bravery doesn't always feel good. I've heard it said that "courage is being afraid, and doing it anyway." How many of those young men in Steubenville knew in their sweet boy hearts that what was happening was wrong, but still they remained silent? They were afraid to ruin their own hard-earned reputations, afraid of what their peers would think of them. They were afraid of getting in trouble, afraid they wouldn't know what to say. Teach your boys that bravery can be terrifying. Courage can be demanded of you at the most inopportune times. Let them know that your expectation is that they are brave enough to rise to the occasion. And show them how.

We must not shy away from telling our sons the truth about sex. Of course this looks different in a conversation with a 4-year-old than it does with a 12-year-old. In our house, we are still working on giving body parts their appropriate names. Making family rules about how we always wear clothes when people come to visit (OK, Sean and I are good on that one, but Max keeps answering the door in his underwear.) As uncomfortable as it is, the conversation needs to evolve as your boy gets older. Sex feels good. Sex is overwhelming. Sex is confusing. Sex tricks you into thinking that you are receiving what you need (physical satisfaction, comfort, companionship, love, respect). Sex education is more than just giving your child condoms and reminding them about STDS. As parents, we need to worry about our sons being respectful of their sexual partners, not just about them getting someone pregnant. Our boys need to know that they will find themselves at a crossroads one night, or on multiple nights. Their body will be telling them one thing, and their partner may be telling them another. It is a young man's responsibility to listen to his partner. Explain to your son what consent looks like (and doesn't look like). They need to know what sex looks like. Not the Playboy/online porn version, but the logistics of how it actually works. Teach them to ask their partners. Teach them to check in as they take the next step with someone. Teach them to stop if they don't think they're getting a clear answer.

We must give our sons the tools they need to protect themselves and each other. Can your teenager call you in the middle of the night, no questions asked? Can they tell you the truth, without you flipping out and getting angry? Do they trust that you are on their team, that you will sit down and talk things through with them, making a calm plan together? Role play with your son about how to find help, who to go to for help, what numbers to call. An embarrassed, terrified bystander in Steubenville could have quietly snuck outside to call the police for help. Or to text an anonymous tip. Or to call a parent or older sibling for advice. Instead, at least a dozen sons were paralyzed by fear. And intoxicated. And probably overwhelmed by the sexual feelings of their own that they were experiencing... feelings that they were never given the context for.

Give your son the tools they need to understand that their sexuality is a powerful thing, one that they are solely responsible for. Give them a framework for understanding that sex carries an enormous responsibility, not just to themselves, but to their partners. Does your son know what rape is? Does he know what it means? Does he know that it's not just creepy smelly guys who hide in alleys who are responsible for rape? That it's his peers? That in someone else's eyes, it could be him? Discuss the ways that a woman can give consent. Pull the curtains back on the grey areas, and demand that your son learns how to communicate with his partner... whether it's his first time or his 50th time.

When I found out that I was having a son, I was relieved at first. I thought I had dodged a bullet, not having a daughter who I would have to protect from the big, scary, violent world that is still so unkind to women. This will be so much easier, I thought. But it's not.

It's harder.

I am now pregnant with my second son. As a feminist and a mother, a survivor and an activist, a human and a writer, I have discovered that my job in preventing sexual assault is even bigger than it would be if I had a daughter. Because every rapist is someone's son. We have the chance to fix that, one little boy at a time.

lundi, mars 18, 2013

spicy honey-brushed chicken thighs

spicy honey-brushed chicken thighs
Yield: 4 servings (serving size: 2 chicken thighs)
Total: 20 Minutes

2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons chili powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground red pepper
8 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
Cooking spray
6 tablespoons honey
2 teaspoons cider vinegar

  1. Preheat broiler (Low). 
  2. Combine first 6 ingredients in a large bowl. Add chicken to bowl; toss to coat. Place chicken on a broiler pan coated with cooking spray. Broil chicken 5 minutes on each side. 
  3. Combine honey and vinegar in a small bowl, stirring well. Remove chicken from oven; brush 1/4 cup honey mixture on chicken. Broil 1 minute. Remove chicken from oven and turn over. Brush chicken with remaining honey mixture. Broil 1 additional minute or until chicken is done.
David Bonom, Cooking Light

Nutritional Information Amount per serving: Calories: 321 Fat: 11g Saturated fat: 3g Monounsaturated fat: 4.1g Polyunsaturated fat: 2.5g Protein: 28g Carbohydrate: 27.9g Fiber: 0.6g Cholesterol: 99mg Iron: 2.1mg Sodium: 528mg Calcium: 21mg

dimanche, mars 17, 2013

the family narrative-- making my kids emotionally healthier and happier

I grew up in a family where my mother was estranged from her family and my dad had let my mother alienate him from the rest of his family. There are big gaps in what I know about both sides, and as I've grown older, I've learned that the narrative I believed to be the truth was really misinformation and half-truths designed to make certain folks out to be villains and others victims.

Because of this, I vowed that I would make the effort to have my children grow up in a home where honesty was key (tempered, of course, with age-appropriate information). I also vowed to live close (if possible) to my husband's family, so that my children would have more access to and memories with extended family.

Today, I find myself living 3,000 miles from the city I called home for 20 years, because that's where the grandparents, aunts/uncles, and extended cousin network live. It's been an interesting process to discover that my assumptions about the family narrative weren't all accurate and that people who seemed so perfectly put together are just as human as the rest of us. Still, I remain hopeful that my children will be better off growing up close to the storytellers and that the family narrative will make them healthier, happier, and more self-confident.
The Stories That Bind Us


March 15, 2013

I hit the breaking point as a parent a few years ago. It was the week of my extended family’s annual gathering in August, and we were struggling with assorted crises. My parents were aging; my wife and I were straining under the chaos of young children; my sister was bracing to prepare her preteens for bullying, sex and cyberstalking.

Sure enough, one night all the tensions boiled over. At dinner, I noticed my nephew texting under the table. I knew I shouldn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help myself and asked him to stop.

Ka-boom! My sister snapped at me to not discipline her child. My dad pointed out that my girls were the ones balancing spoons on their noses. My mom said none of the grandchildren had manners. Within minutes, everyone had fled to separate corners.

Later, my dad called me to his bedside. There was a palpable sense of fear I couldn’t remember hearing before.

“Our family’s falling apart,” he said.

“No it’s not,” I said instinctively. “It’s stronger than ever.”

But lying in bed afterward, I began to wonder: Was he right? What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?

It turns out to be an astonishingly good time to ask that question. The last few years have seen stunning breakthroughs in knowledge about how to make families, along with other groups, work more effectively.

Myth-shattering research has reshaped our understanding of dinnertime, discipline and difficult conversations. Trendsetting programs from Silicon Valley and the military have introduced techniques for making teams function better.

The only problem: most of that knowledge remains ghettoized in these subcultures, hidden from the parents who need it most. I spent the last few years trying to uncover that information, meeting families, scholars and experts ranging from peace negotiators to online game designers to Warren Buffett’s bankers.

After a while, a surprising theme emerged. The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.

I first heard this idea from Marshall Duke, a colorful psychologist at Emory University. In the mid-1990s, Dr. Duke was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families.

“There was a lot of research at the time into the dissipation of the family,” he told me at his home in suburban Atlanta. “But we were more interested in what families could do to counteract those forces.”

Around that time, Dr. Duke’s wife, Sara, a psychologist who works with children with learning disabilities, noticed something about her students.

“The ones who know a lot about their families tend to do better when they face challenges,” she said.

Her husband was intrigued, and along with a colleague, Robyn Fivush, set out to test her hypothesis. They developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale that asked children to answer 20 questions.

Examples included: Do you know where your grandparents grew up? Do you know where your mom and dad went to high school? Do you know where your parents met? Do you know an illness or something really terrible that happened in your family? Do you know the story of your birth?

Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests the children had taken, and reached an overwhelming conclusion. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned. The “Do You Know?” scale turned out to be the best single predictor of children’s emotional health and happiness.

“We were blown away,” Dr. Duke said.

And then something unexpected happened. Two months later was Sept. 11. As citizens, Dr. Duke and Dr. Fivush were horrified like everyone else, but as psychologists, they knew they had been given a rare opportunity: though the families they studied had not been directly affected by the events, all the children had experienced the same national trauma at the same time. The researchers went back and reassessed the children.

“Once again,” Dr. Duke said, “the ones who knew more about their families proved to be more resilient, meaning they could moderate the effects of stress.”

Why does knowing where your grandmother went to school help a child overcome something as minor as a skinned knee or as major as a terrorist attack?

“The answers have to do with a child’s sense of being part of a larger family,” Dr. Duke said.

Psychologists have found that every family has a unifying narrative, he explained, and those narratives take one of three shapes.

First, the ascending family narrative: “Son, when we came to this country, we had nothing. Our family worked. We opened a store. Your grandfather went to high school. Your father went to college. And now you. ...”

Second is the descending narrative: “Sweetheart, we used to have it all. Then we lost everything.”

“The most healthful narrative,” Dr. Duke continued, “is the third one. It’s called the oscillating family narrative: ‘Dear, let me tell you, we’ve had ups and downs in our family. We built a family business. Your grandfather was a pillar of the community. Your mother was on the board of the hospital. But we also had setbacks. You had an uncle who was once arrested. We had a house burn down. Your father lost a job. But no matter what happened, we always stuck together as a family.’ ”

Dr. Duke said that children who have the most self-confidence have what he and Dr. Fivush call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

Leaders in other fields have found similar results. Many groups use what sociologists call sense-making, the building of a narrative that explains what the group is about.

Jim Collins, a management expert and author of “Good to Great,” told me that successful human enterprises of any kind, from companies to countries, go out of their way to capture their core identity. In Mr. Collins’s terms, they “preserve core, while stimulating progress.” The same applies to families, he said.

Mr. Collins recommended that families create a mission statement similar to the ones companies and other organizations use to identify their core values.

The military has also found that teaching recruits about the history of their service increases their camaraderie and ability to bond more closely with their unit.

Cmdr. David G. Smith is the chairman of the department of leadership, ethics and law at the Naval Academy and an expert in unit cohesion, the Pentagon’s term for group morale. Until recently, the military taught unit cohesion by “dehumanizing” individuals, Commander Smith said. Think of the bullying drill sergeants in “Full Metal Jacket” or “An Officer and a Gentleman.”

But these days the military spends more time building up identity through communal activities. At the Naval Academy, Commander Smith advises graduating seniors to take incoming freshmen (or plebes) on history-building exercises, like going to the cemetery to pay tribute to the first naval aviator or visiting the original B-1 aircraft on display on campus.

Dr. Duke recommended that parents pursue similar activities with their children. Any number of occasions work to convey this sense of history: holidays, vacations, big family get-togethers, even a ride to the mall. The hokier the family’s tradition, he said, the more likely it is to be passed down. He mentioned his family’s custom of hiding frozen turkeys and canned pumpkin in the bushes during Thanksgiving so grandchildren would have to “hunt for their supper,” like the Pilgrims.

“These traditions become part of your family,” Dr. Duke said.

Decades of research have shown that most happy families communicate effectively. But talking doesn’t mean simply “talking through problems,” as important as that is. Talking also means telling a positive story about yourselves. When faced with a challenge, happy families, like happy people, just add a new chapter to their life story that shows them overcoming the hardship. This skill is particularly important for children, whose identity tends to get locked in during adolescence.

The bottom line: if you want a happier family, create, refine and retell the story of your family’s positive moments and your ability to bounce back from the difficult ones. That act alone may increase the odds that your family will thrive for many generations to come.

“This Life” appears monthly in Sunday Styles. This article is adapted from Bruce Feiler’s recently published book, “The Secrets of Happy Families: How to Improve Your Morning, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smart, Go Out and Play, and Much More.”

an open letter to my son, who yesterday was called a 'nerd'

Joanna Schroeder's open letter to her son is a heartfelt, funny, and generally awesome take on what to say to children when someone else darkens their spark and their self-esteem. I'm filing this one away for future reference...
An Open Letter To My Son, Who Yesterday Was Called A 'Nerd' | Posted: 03/14/2013 3:58 pm EDT | Updated: 03/15/2013 11:38 pm EDT Written by Joanna Schroeder for The Good Men Project

Dear Izz,

The hardest thing to do, as a parent, is to let your kid go out into the world on his own, even if it’s just to kindergarten. Dad and I may talk a tough game about loving that you guys are getting bigger, but if we’re honest, it’s pretty scary.

See, we were here before you. We remember when there was no you at all, and then one day we watched the teeniest flutter on a screen when you were just 9 weeks into being something other than ether. You were only a few millimeters long, but we already loved you.

And when you were born, you were a mysterious and helpless little lump who needed us so entirely that you weren’t even conscious of yourself as an entity yet. And that was a heady experience for Daddy and me. Never before had we known what it was like to create life, and suddenly you were here -- both separate and a part of us.

Yesterday I watched you skip into school, eyes full of sparkle, so proud of your new glasses and haircut. We got you the same black Ray Ban frames that both Daddy and I wear, by far the coolest ones they had at Lens Crafters. We also got you a super short haircut just like the one Dad wears, so that your hair wouldn’t get in the way of your new specs.

All weekend long, our friends and family were enamored of your new look and told you how awesome you looked, how much you looked like Dad, so you felt really good about now being the second kid in your class with glasses.

But everything changed with one word from a boy in your class.


And your spark went dark.

“Mom, I thought ‘nerd’ just meant ‘smart’? Why did Billy say it to be mean?”

And so I explained it all to you. How some people think calling someone a nerd makes them seem cooler, but that nerds are the ones who do all the cool stuff that he loves. Nerds invented the iPad, discovered dinosaurs, have gone into space, and make the coolest movies. Nerds are the bosses, the ones who worked hard to get what they wanted, and who have the coolest lives as grown-ups.

You liked the idea of inventing the iPad, and of making a lot of money, and making cool movies like Star Wars. But you were still hurt.

And so I told you about the people who love you. Jake, Kian, Bebe and Franklin who are your best friends, who think you look cool in your glasses. Your cousin Petra who considers you her most trusted friend. Your brother who wants to be exactly like you in every way. Your aunts and uncles who love you like you’re their own child, your grandparents and mom and dad who would step in front of a bus at any moment to spare you pain.

And I told you to tell that kid Billy to mind his own business and find something better to do than be a jerk. But I know you won’t do that, because you’re too sweet and you don’t want anyone to be upset.

And there are also things I wish I could tell you that I know I can’t: That kids who are mean to other kids could be messed up inside. There are kids that have pain that is so great they don’t know what to do with it except be mean to other kids. That doesn’t give them a right to be mean to anyone else, but someone is hurting them, and that’s why they choose to be that way to you.

I can’t tell you this, but if you punched that Billy kid in the face, Daddy and I wouldn’t be mad. The fact that he took your spark of pride away from you makes him the lowest of the low in our book, and even though he’s just a kid, being knocked down a few pegs would serve him well.

I also can’t tell you this, but your dad has glasses and he got laid like crazy, well before he ever met me. I mean, more than you should probably ever know. He may have been the valedictorian of his graduating class, but that certainly didn’t stop him from dating the hottest girls.

I’m not saying that’s what you should do in your life, but if you can figure out how to adopt your daddy’s swagger, I guarantee you that kids like Billy are going to be tagging along after you, hoping to catch the tail end of the trail of women (or men, if that ends up being your thing) that will end up following you around.

And maybe you don’t want that, and will never have Dad’s too-cool-for-school aura or my big personality and no-bullshit attitude. That’s OK. We love you for who you are, and who you’re going to be.

The truth is, we don’t always understand you. When we were kids, we didn’t like the same stuff you like, and for some reason we continue to be surprised that you’re not a carbon copy of us. You’re a sensitive, curious, goofy guy who at 8 years old loves reptiles, rocks and video games more than skateboards or surfing. But we see you for who you are, and we think that’s great. Even though sometimes we have no idea what you’re talking about.

And know that Mom and Dad and your family love you, and we think you’re one of the most awesome human beings ever to be put on this earth. And be assured that we will fight for you, for your happiness, safety, and sense of self, for as long as we’re alive. Because you’re worth it, just for being the kid that you are.

Love, Mama