Top of the World by Dave Meier

I brought a lot of relevant experience to my parenting: I’m the oldest of 10, spent many years as a babysitter and nanny, taught various kinds of classes to children, and worked therapeutically with kids during my graduate internships.

But much of the parenting wisdom that felt second nature to me I’ve had to throw out the window. It simply doesn’t work for my daughters. Especially in the area of discipline. As I read more and more about the latest in brain science and listen to stories from other parents, my beliefs about discipline have shifted.

A growing body of research shows that certain parts of children’s brains are underdeveloped and therefore reward and punishment approaches to behavior modification don’t always produce the best outcomes — at least long term. The brains of kids who’ve experienced trauma, like mine, are wired differently than kids who haven’t had that in their background, and these kids need a lot more than consequences to help them become healthy, mature young adults.

In the moment, we parents just want certain behaviors to stop; but the ultimate purpose of discipline is to teach children self-control, kindness, empathy, responsibility, etc. And building these kinds of character traits can require different tactics when a child is misbehaving.

This Mother Jones piece highlights some major studies that have shown how kids with diagnosed behavior problems — such as ADHD, RAD (reactive attachment disorder), and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) — are the most likely to be disciplined at school (and black kids are 31 per cent likely to be punished for similar violations than white or Latino kids).

Should we be imposing the harshest punishments on the most challenging kids when it’s not so much that they don’t want to behave, but their brains can’t do it? And if this is true, what does work for such kids and is this relevant to disciplining all kids?

Ross Greene, a psychologist and author profiled in the article advocates a very different approach to discipline than most parents (and teachers) are used to. (Greene wrote The Explosive Child and Lost at School, two highly praised books).

Greene’s method focuses on nurturing a strong relationship with the child, giving him a central (and age appropriate) role in solving his own problems, identifying the child’s challenges, and tackling those challenges as they come up. (The Mother Jones piece talks about a school in Maine that has instituted Greene’s methods with great success.)

If I’d read about this before parenting my own daughters, I would have viewed it as kind of fluffy and probably ineffective. I’d been around parents who never set boundaries with their kids and allow them to run the show. I wasn’t impressed.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here.  The brain science research — coupled with my own parenting experience now — has helped me to see that disciplining young kids is about helping their brains develop the neurons and connections that will make them capable of choosing what is right and good. Boundaries are necessary. Intervention is needed. It’s not laissez-faire parenting at all. But it’s different than the way most of us were disciplined as children.

I confess that I still give consequences sometimes. But I’ve come to see that this is usually more about my need to feel like I’m doing something and less about what really works for my daughters. When I focus on connecting with them (even when I feel more like yelling or running away) and address the root of what’s going on, I see better behavior. I also notice my daughters are better at regulating and expressing their emotions, curbing their behaviors, and solving their own problems.

What is your approach to discipline? Is it working, or do you find yourself frustrated and looking for new methods? What do you think of the article?

Image: Dave Meier at picography


Three Years Ago Today…

August 7, 2015

S and H in Aug 2012

Three years ago this week we met our daughters for the first time. And today was the day we were in the Ethiopian court house standing before a judge who made us officially a family.

That first trip to Ethiopia was difficult and stressful for me, and very intense for all of us. Our first visit with S and H is forever seared in my memory (as well as taking them to the Ethiopian Immigration office… I’ll never forget that entire experience, either!). Our time with the girls  during that first trip was brief, which was best for them since we had to fly away and leave them for two months before we could bring them home.

It’s amazing what a difference three years makes:

S and H in Aug 2015

Happy Friday everybody! Hope you have a lovely weekend. I’ll see you back here next week.

Images: Zoe Saint-Paul

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PicJumbo nature pic by Viktor Hansen

When we were house-hunting in Baltimore years ago, we chose our current place over others mainly because of the unique shared green space out back. The tall trees and lots of greenery provided a sense of quiet and calm — a small oasis in the heart of the city. And just getting out to one of the nearby parts or walking along the harbor has always made such a difference. I love urban centers, but need a good dose of nature on a regular basis.

This recent NYT piece by Gretchen Reynolds discusses a growing body of research that shows how time in nature reduces stress, improves mood, and promotes overall wellness. The studies show that people who live outside urban centers have a lower risk for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses than those who live in the city:

Various studies have found that urban dwellers with little access to green spaces have a higher incidence of psychological problems than people living near parks and that city dwellers who visit natural environments have lower levels of stress hormones immediately afterward than people who have not recently been outside.

I find this kind of a no-brainer (no pun intended), but it’s always nice when research confirms such things. What I think is really important about studies like these is that they can help inspire change on a more macro or societal level. More and more people live in urban centers and if nature plays such a vital role in our health, we should really be building it into our urban planning, design, and construction. Cities need many more green spaces and a greater connection to nature. There are creative ways to do this if it gets discussed and prioritized.

Do you know of any cities doing this well? Besides flat-out moving to the country, what are your ideas for how to connect better to nature as an urban dweller?

Image: Viktor Hansen and picjumbo


Vacation Snapshots

August 4, 2015

Me and My Girls

This may look like a photo for a car ad, but it’s the only picture I have of the girls and me from our trip, taken outside one of our favorite places — Sugar Moon Farm. Since I’m usually the one behind the camera, I rarely have photos that include myself.

So we’re home, and as predicted, it’s tough getting back into the swing of things (including blogging). In light of that, I’m going to let some photos from our trip do the talking today instead…

With a new friend:

H and Mischa

B and his favorite girls:

B and Girls

About 10 minutes after arriving in Nova Scotia:


Happy S:


Mermaid H:


B getting busy with the fresh snow crab my brother’s friend caught:

Snow Crab

Cousins on a scavenger hunt:


The croissants my chef-extraordinaire sister made:


Oh, and the homemade breakfast pizza she also made:

Breakfast pizza

Around the fire pit:

Girls in Canadian Chairs

Sigh. Next year I hope we can make it an even longer visit.

I’d love to know: Are you taking any breaks or vacation before fall begins?

Images: me — and B


Preparing for Re-entry

July 31, 2015

S and H with Mischa

We are making our way back to Baltimore over these next few days. To say our time in Nova Scotia was terrific is an understatement. My only complaint is that it was too short.

I can’t tell you how special it was to bring the girls to my childhood home for the first time. Within minutes, they were running around with their cousins, diving into the ocean, and gobbling up my mother’s biscuits like they’d been doing it all forever. Everyone was amazed that H and S were so comfortable, so confident, so adaptable. They had a blast, which made the visit all the more enjoyable for B and me.

No matter how great a trip has been, I usually look forward to getting back to my own space, but at the moment, I can’t say that’s true. Instead, I feel a little anxious about getting back to the usual routines and preparing for September. Re-entry isn’t always easy.

I’m curious whether you do anything to help yourself transition from vacation or travel mode back to the usual daily schedule. Do you ease yourself into it? Do you jump right back in? I’d love to hear!

Enjoy this last weekend of July and I’ll see you back here early next week.

Image: S and H with their new friend Mischa, Zoe Saint-Paul

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Since I’m in Nova Scotia this week, I thought this post about treating mosquito bites would be a good one to resurrect. I really need to write about preventing the little critters from biting in the first place, but I’m still trying to figure that one out

Angel Point

After B and I began dating, he came home with me to eastern Canada for my sister Olga’s wedding and met the family. He not only loved them (which is hard not to do), he loved everything about Nova Scotia. Except for one thing: the mosquitoes.

Our family cottage sits on the Northumberland Strait. There are fields and woods everywhere, as well as marshlands, which are home to many lovely birds, funky-sounding frogs…and plenty of mosquitoes. And boy, do those critters love fresh meat. I’ll never forget when B and I attempted a hike during part of our honeymoon in Cape Breton (the northern part of the province). B decided he wasn’t going to let the mosquitoes ruin everything, so he pulled on thick jeans, socks, boots, long sleeves, and a baseball hat; then he slathered himself with poisonous DEET from head to toe. He was the first one out of the car, and he headed confidently for the trail. When I looked up, all I could see was a large grey cloud around him, following him into the woods. The next thing I knew, he was running back to the car, arms flailing, spewing curses left and right…and off we went to find some fish chowder and tea to make him feel better about the defeat.

When something like DEET won’t even keep mosquitoes away, the only thing to do is move to phase two — treating the nasty bites once you’ve got them. Since the past winter was so mild in North America, many kinds of bug larvae did not die off in their usual numbers, so this summer has been unusually bad when it comes to critters, especially the blood-sucking kind.

You can blame mosquito saliva for itchy bites. Our bodies react to the saliva by producing histamine, so the redness and itchiness are actually a mild allergic reaction. Healing time depends on the person, since some of us are more susceptible and sensitive to mosquitoes. Here are a few remedies I know of to help soothe those bad bites when you get them:

Ice cubes. We used to do this frequently when I was a kid. You grab a small bowl of ice cubes and apply one to the bite, holding it there as long as you can stand it. Keep doing this until (a) the ice cube melts, (b) you can’t feel anything anymore, or (c) you’re bored and need to move on. Obviously, this little trick numbs the skin, taking away the itchiness and calming the redness and heat.

Baking soda. What can baking soda not do? For a bad bite, create a paste using baking soda and warm water and apply it to the itchy area. Keep it there for a bit and then wash it off.

Calamine lotion. This is an old-fashioned over-the-counter treatment that people swear by. I think we had some when I was young. Not a bad thing to keep in the cupboard if you live in or are visiting a bug-infested area.

Saliva. A friend was just telling me about this one. Sounds kind of gross, but what could be cheaper and easier to use? You just take some of your own saliva and apply it generously to the bite. Also, you can mix your saliva with baking soda to create a paste. Apparently this trick works, though I haven’t tried it.

Salt water. It was always soothing to hop in the ocean to soothe bad bites. It didn’t take all the itch and aggravation away, but salt water definitely helped decrease the itchiness and speed up the healing process.

Aloe. Aloe is an incredible healer and helps soothe skin irritation (from burns and the like), so a little dabbed straight on a bite would really make a difference.

There are a host of other remedies people swear by. Check out this list — sent by my friend Irene, who inspired me to write this post — which includes herbal tinctures, foods, and various items you probably have hanging around your house.

Got any effective or unique bite remedies you’d like to share?

P.S. Lest you never want to visit Nova Scotia now for fear of the mosquitoes, let me reassure you that they’re not always terrible, and they’re definitely an improvement over the type of mosquitoes we have in Maryland, which you never see but somehow manage to bite you 20 times before you have time to walk more than a few feet. Nova Scotia mosquitoes are not so evil and sneaky: They’re bigger (so they’re easier to see), and they buzz — both things that help you more easily dispatch them to mosquito heaven.

Image: Zoe Saint-Paul 

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Hello from Maine!

July 22, 2015


Though we’ve had lots of rain and thunder storms since arriving, Maine is a beautiful place — especially at this time of year.

As soon as we arrived, I came down with a terrible sinus cold, which is kicking my butt. I’m throwing everything at it in hopes of being over it by the time we hit the road for Nova Scotia tomorrow morning. That doesn’t look so likely at this point, but so long as I’m going in the right direction, that’s fine with me. Hopefully I’ll be better by the weekend at least.

Each year I try to take at least one tech-free break in the summer and next week will be it. Mags will stop in with a post so be sure to come by for that, and there might be a throw-back post here as well.

In the meantime, how is your summer going so far? Are you getting some time to re-create, or are things are busy as ever?


Image: Zoe Saint-Paul



Summer Vacation

July 17, 2015

Boats of Colour

There’s a whole lot of packing going on at my house today. In the wee hours tomorrow morning, we’ll be flying the friendly skies to New Hampshire and making our way to Maine for five days to see family. Later next week, we’ll then drive up to Nova Scotia for a week to see more family and hang out at the beach.

I’m so looking forward to it. Not only has it been four years (!) since I’ve been able to get home, but it will be S’s and H’s first time in Nova Scotia. They will meet many aunts, uncles and cousins for the first time. To say everyone is excited about this visit is an understatement!

So, as you can imagine, it’s a crazy day trying to pull everything together for the trip, run last minute errands, and oh yeah, work. I’ll check in with you next week from the beautiful state of Maine. Hope you have a lovely and slow weekend where ever you may be!

Image: picography


by Margaret Cabaniss

To be fair, I don’t have a trick here so much as…a book. This book, to be specific: Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. My sister’s almost-three-year-old loves it — and as he has been on an all-ABCs-all-the-time kick for the last six months, I feel like you can safely trust his judgment. The illustrations are lush and colorful, and every page is crammed full of more exotic fruits and vegetables than you can shake a stick at.

The “exotic” part here seems to be part of its appeal: Beyond the standard apple/banana rotation he sees in every other book, it’s also full of huckleberries, jicama, endive, and xigua — words and pictures so strange they’re almost Dr. Seussian, but even better for being real.

My sister, seeing how the newness captivated him, seized the opportunity to get him to taste a few of these things, too. For each trip to the store, she and D settle on a new fruit or veggie to try — then they hunt through the produce section or the farmer’s market, on the lookout for the mystery item from his book. Once home, D will climb up on his step stool to help prepare it (or watch mommy cut it), then they both sit down together and try a bite, describing what they taste.

Something about the treasure hunt/science experiment approach here really seems to work: The kid who won’t eat meat other than hamburger and doesn’t like any of the food on his plate to touch has tried radishes, brussels sprouts, dates, cabbage, kiwi, watermelon, zucchini, mango, and kohlrabi — and so far, he’s liked most of what he’s tasted. (Next up, he’s angling for artichoke and figs.) I don’t think I tasted half these things until after college.

Of course, simply trying new vegetables doesn’t mean he suddenly wants a heaping plateful of cabbage and radishes at dinner every night — he is still two, after all — but the simple act of exploring the market together, helping to prepare what they find, and getting the new thing to pass his lips is good practice and encouragement through this picky-eater stage. Hopefully some of that openness to new things will stick with him.

What about you? What have you found to be helpful in getting your kids to try new things? (Zoe has a great round-up of ideas here.) Any other great books to recommend?

Images: Margaret Cabaniss


Have you seen Pixar’s latest animated film, Inside Out? Parents on my adoption and parenting boards have been raving about it, so when B’s mom was in town recently we all went. It was the girls’ first time at a movie theater (if you don’t count the IMAX at the Maryland Science Center).

For an adoptive parent with degrees in psychology and counseling (and someone who’s fascinated with brain science generally), this film could not have been more up alley.

The story focuses on an 11-year-old girl named Riley who has loving parents and a happy life in Minnesota: She’s crazy about hockey, likes to be silly, and enjoys hanging out with her friends. Then Riley’s family moves to San Francisco so her father can take a new job, and Riley finds herself struggling with sadness, fear, and anger.

A lot of the movie takes place in Riley’s brain, where five of her dominant emotions are played by cute little characters named “Joy,” “Sadness,” “Anger,” “Disgust,” and “Fear.” Joy has been running the show for most of Riley’s life, but since the move to California, Joy is having trouble hanging on to the controls. Riley’s core memories, which haven’t been touched by any sadness, are beginning to turn blue, and her “personality” islands (Family Island, Honesty Island, Hockey Island, Goofball Island, etc.) are starting to crumble. Much of the story follows Joy as she tries to find a way to become the dominant lens through which Riley views life again — and a very important lesson Joy learns along the way.

The story is such a clever way of showing what goes on inside us — the things that make us us. I totally understand why this movie made a lot of parents cry, especially the parents whose children’s core memories have been sad from the beginning, whose “personality islands” are in rough shape or have not been formed by loving, life-giving situations and people. I got teary in a couple of places myself.

And then I read this short article and wish every parent would read it, especially if you’ve seen the movie and know any adoptive families, foster families, or children who’ve had difficult childhood experiences. It’s really insightful, even if you just want to understand how your own well-adjusted, healthy, happy children came to be how they are.

Inside Out has given parents and children a great story and fun characters to use as a launching pad for hard conversations, as well as a language to talk about complex emotions and behaviors. Kudos to Pixar and Disney for creating a touching movie that is speaking to so many parents and children.

Have you seen Inside Out? Any thoughts about that article?