A Moment of Beginnings and Endings

sun and school by Jennifer Miller

Great is the art of beginning, but greater the art is of ending.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

The pace of activities and anticipation of summer can add to a sense of frenzy in these final school days. Children are excited about vacations and swimming. Parents are ready to shed the early morning commute to school and homework duty. It’s tempting to race blindly forward into the sunshine without looking back. But there is significant value in taking a moment to reflect on the growth of the past year – friendships, academic progress and newly developed interests. Children may be sad to leave their teacher, their friends and the predictability of the school routine. They may worry about the loss of that stability over the summer and all of the unknowns of the anticipated next school year. But there are some small, simple steps you can take to ease the transition and also deepen the lessons of the year through reflection. Here are a few suggestions.

In Reflection…

Work together with your child on a thoughtful card or letter for her teacher.
End of the year gifts or flowers for a teacher are one traditional way to show appreciation. But consider instead of or in addition to a gift, sitting down with your child to write a letter together about what you appreciate about that teacher and the past school year. Talk about it a bit before launching into writing. “What were some of your favorite activities you remember from this year? Why is your teacher so special? Do you remember a time when your teacher was especially kind?” are all questions you might ask before putting words to paper. It will serve as a meaningful gift to the teacher and help your child reflect on her year.

Create a temporary museum using artifacts of learning.
You likely have a pile, a bin or a busting-at-the-seams binder of school work from the past year. Before recycling or stashing away, why not use the accumulated papers as evidence of learning and growth and a tangible way to reflect on that progress? Use your home as a museum. Place the school work in the order of the school year starting in the fall. Line them up across chairs, the couch and on end tables for display. Walk through as a family and talk about what you notice particularly when you note positive developments. With a little support from you, your kids may be excited to put together the museum themselves. With multiple children, use different rooms of the house and you may have a full academic museum for an evening.

Create a time capsule.
A terrific early summer activity might be to generate a time capsule in memory of this past school year. Work with your child to find and decorate a shoe box or other container and mark with the name of the child and dates of the school year. Now ask your child to consider their older self. What if he came across this time capsule hidden in the attic years later? What items would help him remember the unique attributes of this past school year?

Transitioning into Summer…

Talk about your routine “lite.”
Though you may be eager to relinquish the rigor of the daily school routine, children still thrive with some sense of predictability. So talk about changes in your routine while your family is together. Consider your morning, bedtime and meal times and other transitions in the day. How will things stay the same? How will things change? Having this discussion can help set expectations for the summer and also provide that sense of stability children can thrive on through routines.

Consider instituting quiet time or reading hour.
Sure, you may be gone some days during a typical quiet time. But consider assigning a particular time of day to serve as a quiet time whenever you are around the house. After lunch seems to work well for our family. Turn off devices and media. Haul out blankets and books. You could include snacks. But it should be a time when all in the household “power down” and take it easy. Set the expectation for this at the beginning of summer and kids will assume it’s part of their summer routine.

In Anticipation of the Next Level in the Fall…

Catch a glimpse of next year.
While you are able with school staff still around, wander past next year’s classroom with your child. See if you might catch next year’s teacher in the hallway just to say hello. Perhaps talk with a student who has just ended the next level and ask about highlights from the year. Teachers are likely talking with students about their next step. And your child might be harboring worries about the great unknown ahead. Stepping into the new environment and even making a brief connection with the teacher can go a long way toward allaying fears and preparing for a smooth transition.

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Beginnings for Confident Parents, Confident Kids!

Confident Parents, Confident Kids will be undergoing a number of changes this summer in anticipation of launching a whole new set of helpful resources for parents this fall. To support this work, CPCK has added a new summer intern. Welcome, Ashley Kolbeck! Ashley, CPCK Intern by Jennifer MillerAshley is a graduate of Ohio State University with a bachelor’s degree in Speech Therapy. She serves as a nanny and is a caring child advocate. Her internship is made possible through a cooperative agreement with Kimberly Allison, long-time reader and contributor to this community. Thank you, Kimberly!

For the fall, here are some of the new resources you can anticipate finding on Confident Parents, Confident Kids!

  • Easy access to children’s book recommendations divided by age groups and selected for particular social and emotional competency topics
  • Recommendations for best parenting and organization sites related to social and emotional learning
  • Top CPCK games to help promote social and emotional skills
  • New, short educational videos to teach specific strategies in parenting with social and emotional learning on this site and a CPCK YouTube Channel
  • And additional inactive online learning opportunities.

And as always, you can count on thoughtful articles weekly with practical strategies for your family to continue this important dialogue. In order to make all of these changes to the site this summer, CPCK will be publishing the top most popular articles from the past three years each week, June through August. So you can catch up on any that you have missed. And we can provide you with outstanding new resources this fall! Happy endings and beginnings to you and your family!

Strange Calm

Strange Calm by Jennifer Miller

“Our Mom wasn’t like other Moms.” a twenty-something daughter of my mentor recalled. “As kids, when we were doing something crazy, she wouldn’t yell. She would get so quiet.”

“And she moved really slowly.” added the thirty-something sister. “We called it her strange calm.”

“And I guess it worked because we were weirded out by it but we stopped what we were doing and just watched her.”

I listened to this conversation years ago before I became a parent but have recently realized the power of its application in family life. Do you notice that musical pieces that include a moment of silence have the greatest emotional impact? You stop and notice the silence. And the energy of the piece changes. The lack of sound calls attention through sheer contrast. Teachers in schools apply this principle and talk at a whisper when it’s getting too loud. “Those who can hear my voice, clap once. Those who can hear my voice, clap twice.” And on a much larger scale, Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi used their own form of calmness as social nonviolent protest. And it changed the tone of the conflict. It was impossible to ignore. Escalation of the emotional drama either by yelling, punishing or getting upset is expected by kids. But what if you sat down in the middle of it, shut your eyes and became quiet?

Strange calm is an easy technique to use at home as well in times of great chaos or even when kids are misbehaving. There are numerous benefits to this strategy. At the very least, you will not contribute to the emotional upheaval. It gives you the chance to breathe, restore your mental facilities and think about the situation at hand before acting. You will be more capable of a constructive response – the one you might hope for and plan for in calmer times – because of the chance to pause and reflect. And additionally, you are modeling self-management and self-discipline in a challenging moment. This is particularly impactful modeling for children who struggle with impulse control.

When discussing a family emotional safety plan at a recent workshop, one parent said, “I would love to be able to leave the room to calm down when I am upset and my kids are acting out but I’m afraid they’ll hurt one another. I don’t feel like I can leave.” When siblings are fighting, it may enrage a parent standing nearby but leaving to calm down may not be practical. So why not calm down right where you are?

Another parent carried around post-it notes and pen and wrote down her frustrations when the volume and upset escalated with her kids. “My daughter stopped and wanted to know what I was doing.” And that’s the idea. It stops her disturbing action. She has the opportunity to pause and find out what’s going on with Mom. Her daughter is learning that there are a number of ways to cope with stressful moments that do not involve contributing to and escalating the conflict.

Like anything worthwhile, moderation is best. Use this technique too often and it becomes expected and perhaps ignored. But use it when the chaos is escalating along with your last nerves and you may feel a renewed sense of power and control as you change the tone of your environment.

* Thanks for the inspiration, Ginny Blankenship, Anna and Margaret Lang!

CPCK’s Author Jennifer Miller in the Deseret National News

Jennifer and Ethan Miller

Check out the article Emotional Intelligence Is No Accident by Lois Collins published today in the Deseret National News. It begins…

From the time her son Ethan was a toddler, Jennifer Miller tried to help him find appropriate ways to express his frustrations. If he would bite, hit or throw tantrums — perfectly normal for a frustrated toddler, but not happy stuff for those around him — she would ask him about his other options. Could he hit a pillow instead? Or roar like a lion? Run in a circle or stomp his feet? How could he express his anger without hurting others, Miller, a child development expert, would ask.

Read more at http://national.deseretnews.com/article/4529/Emotional-intelligence-is-no-accident.html#QpwuCy3YqlpR4sqc.99

Coaching as a Tool for Raising a Confident Kid

I have a problem by Jennifer Miller

Too often we give children answers to remember rather than problems to solve.

– Roger Lewin

Coaching can be a powerful way to help our children become more self-aware while understanding their thoughts and feelings and how they impact their behavior choices. It can also give them valuable practice in problem solving and responsible decision making. Similar to a sports coach, the parent coach expresses confidence that his child will succeed in his efforts. But in contrast to a sports coach, parent coaching is not focused on the technique (HOW our child solves the problem) nor attached to the outcome. It is about helping a child think through their own solutions to a problem.

Our kids come to us with problems regularly. And so often, in the busyness of the day, we respond with a solution. And though our hurried response may help them clean up the mess of the moment, it does not prompt them to think for themselves about their problems, how they are feeling and their options for moving forward. There are two conversations below in which the same issue is addressed. The first is a possible hurried response. The second takes a coaching approach.

The hurried conversation:

“Mom, Morgan’s being mean.” says Adam.

“Yep, this happens a lot. What’s he doing?” asks Mom.

“He keeps poking me with a stick.” replies Adam.

“You tell him to cut it out or I’ll need to come talk to him.” responds Mom.

And off Adam goes to implement Mom’s solution with the possibility of her needing to intervene. Next is an example of a parent using a coaching approach in that same conversation.

The coaching conversation:

“Mom, Morgan’s being mean.” says Adam.

“What’s he doing?” says Mom.

“He keeps poking me with a stick.” replies Adam.

“It sounds like you are annoyed. Is that true?” says Mom.

“Yeah, what do I do to get him to stop?” – Adam.

“Why do you think he’s poking you?” – Mom.

“To get my attention.” – Adam.

“And how are you responding?” – Mom.

“I keep telling him to stop but he won’t!” – Adam.

“Telling him to stop doesn’t seem to be working. What could you do differently to stop his poking?” – Mom.

“I could stop giving him attention, leave and then only come back when he agrees to stop poking.” – Adam.

“Sounds good. Go for it.” – Mom.

In the hurried example, Mom accepts full responsibility for the problem. Not only does she solve the problem for him, but also expresses that she’ll likely need to intervene when his attempts do not work. And you can bet, he’ll be coming right back to her. She has inadvertently promoted his dependence on her to solve his problems. And certainly, Adam has not been required to think much further about the situation. However in the coaching conversation, Mom probes to find out a bit more about the problem, how Adam is feeling about it and how he is responding. She points out what’s not working and asks openly what he feels could work. Adam could have responded with any number of solutions and she was ready to support any that seemed safe alternatives. She leaves him, expressing confidence in his ability to handle the situation. And I know (since this is based on a true story) that he will be successful. As a result Adam feels a sense of competence and autonomy in being able to handle his own relationship issues.

The purpose of coaching is to help a person find his own solutions to his problem. Inherent in the coaching model is the belief and trust that an individual has that ability to solve his own issues. The coach through questions, active listening and focused reflections creates the conditions necessary for a person to have his own realizations about his feelings and thoughts and how they are informing his behaviors. This deepens his self-awareness.

So often we are in a telling or directing role as parents. The essential challenge of using coaching is that we have to suspend our own judgment about the problem at hand in order to effectively play the role. Attachment to a particular outcome lessens our power. When our child may be coming to us about a friendship challenge, it is an ideal opportunity to offer coaching support. For obvious reasons, problems that pose a high safety risk are likely not appropriate for a coaching conversation since you will desire a particular outcome.

The field of coaching has so much to offer in understanding how we can be better communicators and help others resolve their own problems bringing out their best selves. My husband is a certified coach preparing future hospital presidents for their roles with these techniques. He has shared his course texts with me and the following are my interpretation of recommendations from Coaching Skills; A Handbook by Jenny Rogers with my own child developmental spin.

Use open-ended questions without an agenda. Use these questions to further define the problem so that your child can better solve it. Jenny Rogers writes about the “magical questions” that fit any context or problem which, in essence, are: “What”” (What’s the problem?), “So what?” (What are the consequences?) and “What’s next?” (How will you move forward?) Avoid questions that are simply answered with a “yes” or “no” since they will not prompt thinking. Also avoid “leading” questions – ones that offer advice. For example, “Shouldn’t you…,” “Wouldn’t it be better to…,” or “Why don’t you try…”

Name an emotion and ask if your observation is accurate. In addition to learning about the problem, your child can benefit from identifying how she is feeling about it. Help your child better understand what she’s feeling by listening for the feeling, articulating it as specifically as possible and then asking if you are accurate. For example, “It sounds like you are hurt and embarrassed. Is that right?” Your child will certainly tell you if you have not hit the mark with your feelings assessment. And they will be given the chance to further define their emotions in the process. Jenny Rogers writes, “As coaches our role is often to help others articulate feelings that are there but go unrecognized, or to help them say out loud what they have kept inside.”

Challenge to initiate new thinking. In most situations, there are a number of possible solutions. I never want my son to feel trapped in a problem. So I know that offering him practice in brainstorming many solutions will prepare him for life’s biggest challenges. If a child’s response to the situation is not working, ask her to come up with a new solution. For more on practicing brainstorming many options to a problem, check out Elements of a Confident Kid… Brainstormer.

Summarize. After you’ve talked about the problem and your child’s solution, summarize it succinctly for him without embellishing or adding your own opinions. “Your problem was Morgan trying to get your attention by poking you. Your asking him to stop wasn’t working. Now you are going to leave until he can agree not to poke anymore.” This will help your child solidify his own thinking and reaffirm that you’ve heard him and his own solution.

Eliminate judgment. Though you may be well aware of Morgan’s proclivity to poke and poke, leave your judgment about the individuals and the problem out of your conversation. Though it may be a valid frustration on your part, it could also sabotage the effectiveness of your coaching to imply or share the judgment. Using your own self-discipline as you guide your child through their thought process will pay off as you also watch them competently solve their own problem.

Express genuine confidence. No, we cannot possibly know how another person will react in any given situation so we cannot be sure of how things will turn out. However we can be certain that our child can handle problems in their relationships. That certainty will give them confidence as they try out their own solutions. Jenny Rogers uses the helpful comparison of the placebo effect in medicine. If a person senses the doctor’s full confidence in the drug’s ability to heal, they are much more likely to be healed. If we say, “You could try that and see if it works,” we sound hesitant and unsure. But a simple, “Good. Go for it!” expresses that we know our kid can work it out.

The process of coaching with a child can be an authentic vehicle for promoting social and emotional skills. By giving them a chance to address their problems, they can feel a sense of control over their own lives and relationships. They are given the chance to think through their feelings and reactions. That time for reflection can create the space and opportunity for consequential thinking which is an essential ingredient of responsible decision making. Parent coaching is a key component of confident parents raising confident kids.

Reference

Rogers, J. (2012). Coaching Skills; A Handbook (3rd Ed.). NY: McGraw-Hill Open University Press.

* Special thanks to Jason Miller for his support in doing the research for this article.

A Wish for Mother’s Day

mothers day pic

My wish for Mother’s Day is that every Mom have an empathetic confidant who lends a listening ear. The sense of shared understanding and ability to be cared for and loved no matter what can help us all rise like a phoenix out of the ashes, better than ever. On the part of the listener, it requires self-discipline, suspending judgment and entering into another’s pain. On the part of the sharer, it requires courage to allow that kind of vulnerability. “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive,” writes Brene Brown in Daring Greatly.

I want to pay special tribute to my Mom who has always been my confidant. She teaches me that I can change the patterns of the past and make better choices with empathy and love as my guide. She has shown me a million small ways to practice empathy. These photos depict just a few. Thank you, Mom, for the daily support you offer me. I treasure you in my life more than words can express!

Happy Mother’s Day All! 

Jenn, Mom gardening pic 1Jenn, Mom raking leaves matching ponchos pic

 

Jenn, Mom on beach picNose kiss Jenn, Mom pic

 

Recent Picture of Author, Jennifer Miller and Mom/Editor, Linda Smith

Recent Picture of Author, Jennifer Miller and Mom/Editor, Linda Smith

Your Story

CPCK Families by Jennifer MillerIf you read this blog, then you already know that cultivating social and emotional skills in our kids is not a luxury but an essential for preparing caring, confident and contributing adults. We can only learn and improve as parents through this dialogue if we share our stories. So I am hoping you might share yours.

If you want to contribute to this discussion, please respond to the following questions:

1. What social and emotional skill(s) do you promote? (You can pick one to focus on if it’s easier.)

Examples might include empathy, compassion, perspective taking, inclusiveness, gratitude, self-control, responsibility, ethical decision making, effective communicating, listening, problem solving or collaboration.

2. How specifically do you promote it?

3. What evidence can you point to that your child is using that skill? Please share an anecdote.

No story is too small. For example, seeing your child listening empathetically as a result of your practice or modeling with him is preparing him for a life of healthy relationships. In order for us to truly understand the powerful impact social and emotional learning can make on our family lives, we all need stories to motivate and to challenge us. I’ll publish a selection of the responses that are returned on this site and on all of the Confident Parents, Confident Kids social media outlets. Thank you in advance for your participation! You can write your story in the comments section or email it to me, Jennifer Miller, at confidentparentsconfidentkids@gmail.com.

A Family’s Emotional Safety Plan

Family Reflecting on Upset by Jennifer Miller

Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

– Lyman Abbott

As the temperature gauge slightly rises outdoors allowing us to shed our winter layers, our emotional temperature gauge shoots even higher in anticipation of the much-craved heat to come. From elation to frustration, we are working and playing harder with the increased daylight. Kids are hearing teachers talk about last chapters and final projects. They are also experimenting with their limitations with bikes, scooters and skateboards. You likely have already hauled out the bandaids for the season.

Your family might take precautionary measures in the event of a fire or other natural disaster and have a safety plan in place. You might place smoke alarms in strategic positions and educate your children about them. You might discuss your exit strategy, where and how to get out. Similarly, you might want to have an emotional safety plan at the ready. And unlike a fire, there is a certainty that each family member will experience high anger, anxiety or upset at some point just by virtue of being human. Why not discuss the experience of intense emotion in advance and share your plan to handle it with other family members so that all can be supportive in those tense moments?

First, why have a plan?
It helps to have a general sense of how your brain functions under great stress to know why you should have a plan. Anytime you are emotionally shaken from fear, anxiety, angerRough Brain Drawing by Jennifer Miller or hurt, you are functioning from your primal brain, your amygdala alone. There is a chemical that washes over the rest of your brain that cuts off access so that your only
functioning abilities are in your survival center. Effective problem solving requires both logic (left brain) and creativity (right brain) though neither can be utilized when greatly upset. So that if your plan when your child makes a poor choice that angers you is to come up with a logical consequence on the spot, you will not be capable of that kind of higher level thinking. This “hyjacking” of your brain, as Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence refers to it, serves a critical role. In true survival circumstances, you are able to focus on fighting or fleeing from the danger source. But in family life, fighting with words or fleeing out of the door is often not constructive, safe or practical. Creating a plan for what each member can do when they are in this state of mind and practicing it can prepare all members to act with emotional intelligence during a crisis, big or small.

Creating a Family Plan

Discuss when not emotional. Find a moment when you don’t have time pressures to sit down and discuss a plan.

Share your knowledge. Talk about the above information and educate your children and your spouse about how the brain functions in a highly emotional state. Also, reflect on the symptoms you and your children might experience that clue you into understanding your emotions. For example, do you get red in the face or in the ears when you are upset? Does your child shake when she is fearful or anxiety-ridden? What physical experiences do you have when you are highly emotional?

Model. Children understand their emotions and how to handle them primarily from watching you! Have you ever noticed your child yelling or using words in anger in the same way you do? Modeling is a powerful teacher. So you go first! Take a quiet moment to respond to the following questions and/or fill in the blanks. Here is a pdf document of My Emotional Safety Plan in case you would like to print it to use.

When I am angry or have high anxiety, I will say… (Keep it short!!)______________________

Example: “Mommy needs five minutes.”

Then, I will go (Describe specific place.) __________________________________to cool down.

Example: I go to my favorite chair in my bedroom. I have heard from others that it’s not safe for them to leave the room because a.) They have little ones. b.) They are worried siblings will hurt one another. In those cases, I designate a place in the room I am in or in the case of the siblings, I sit quietly inbetween them in the middle of the floor.

When I get to my cool down spot, I will… (Take how many deep breathes? Then. Write? Draw? Think? Plan?)____________________________________________________

Example: I take ten deep breathes. This is an essential part of any plan since it removes the chemical from your logical brain so that you have access again. I keep my journal and pen beside my chair if I need it. Sometimes, in the case of a child’s misbehavior that I need to respond to upon my return, I think about logical consequences or constructive responses while there. I ask, “What does he need to learn? How can I best facilitate his learning in this situation?”

I will return to my family when…_________________________________________________

Example: For me, it’s when I have cooled down properly and know my next move when I return to the situation.

Now ask your family to write their own plans after they’ve heard yours. Make sure all know each other’s plans. An adult who leaves the room can scare a child and escalate the upset. But if you’ve already discussed it, then you merely need to remind him of your plan and implement it.

Having a plan can lend safety and security to your family life. It can create a more caring, supportive environment when all know that there is a clear response process for each person when they are at their most vulnerable. After living with and using your family emotional safety plan, you may wonder how you could have lived without it.

A word about sustained crisis…
If there are high emotions in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns begin to set in (as in depression) that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. There’s no shame in being examined for headaches but unfortunately there still is a stigma related to seeking mental health support. In fact, it is the emotionally intelligent person who seeks outside help when he or she recognizes it’s time. Though many will not seek it, it may be impossible to go through life without, at some point, needing some mental health intervention. The following are some U.S.-based resources to check out.

American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)
Has definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, resources, expert videos and an online search tool to find a local psychiatrist.
3615 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington, DC 20016
(202) 966-7300
http://www.aacap.org

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children
Provides information for parents about emotional wellness, including helping children handle stress, psychiatric medications, grief and more.
141 Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, Illinois 60007
(847) 434-4000
http://www.healthychildren.org

American Psychological Association (APA)
Offers information on managing stress, communicating with kids, making step families work, controlling anger, finding a psychologist and more.
750 First Street, Washington, DC 20002
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-6123 TTY
http://www.apa.org

Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT)
Provides free online information so that children and adolescents benefit from the most up-to-date information about mental health treatment and can learn about important differences in mental health supports. Parents can search online for local psychologists and psychiatrists for free.
305 Seventh Avenue, New York, New York 10001
(212) 647-1890
http://www.abct.org

Reference

Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY, NY: Bantham Books.

“A Win for Everyone: Collaborative Games” on NBC Parent Toolkit

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Check out “A Win for Everyone: Collaborative Games” by Jennifer Miller, author of Confident Parents, Confident Kids on the NBC Education Nation’s Parent Toolkit blog. The article includes numerous cooperative game ideas for you to introduce to your kids whether its in the backyard, at the park, at a school event or indoors on a rainy day. It begins…

If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative. – Author Unknown

I asked my family at our Friday pizza night dinner, “Which do you prefer? Games in which there’s a winner or loser? Or games in which there is just working together and having fun – no winner, no loser?” My seven-year-old son, E, quickly responded, “Working together is much more fun.” Dad, in contrast, asserted, “It’s more fun to me when there’s a winner and a loser.” And in general, in society, we tend to lean toward the highly competitive. Whether it’s sporting events, college admissions or political campaigns, we relish the thrill of a race. And certainly competitive games can provide important life lessons about working as a team and how to win or lose graciously. But increasingly, in schools, in our workplaces and in our family lives, we can benefit from practicing and developing the skills of collaboration. These skills include self-awareness, effective listening, nonverbal and verbal communication, trust building, turn taking, impulse control, problem solving and empathy to name a few. Click here for the full article! 

For more ideas on cooperative games, you can also check out CPCK’s previous article on the topic, “Let the Games Begin!”

“Made by Raffi”: A Story of a Kid Who’s Different

HiRescoverMade by Raffi-1At some point, every child will experience the feeling of being different. From hobby interests to gender identity, some children will have a more intense experience of not being like the rest. And all children encounter others who are different. How will they view those contrasts? Will they be able to see the unique richness diversity can bring to any social group? When children’s book author, Craig Pomranz introduced me to his book, I was immediately attracted to the story of a child, Raffi, who felt different and used his difference to make a unique contribution to his school. Raffi’s willingness to find a place for his interests connected him to his classmates instead of isolating him. I found Craig’s story and motivations for writing it inspiring. The following is my virtual conversation with this talented author with a vital message for children.

What inspired you to write this book?

Made by Raffi is based on a true-life incident involving my godson.  When he was eight or nine, he asked his mother why he was different. Was he a “tomgirl’?  A little boy made up a term that was not really in use and yet had significant meaning.  And his question was very layered with other thoughts about the world in which he was being raised.  Why is it negative or even shameful for a boy to be interested in anything traditionally feminine? The word “tomboy” has a positive connotation to it, up to a point.  It seems that it is okay for girls to want to be like boys, but it is unacceptable for a boy to want to be like a girl.  I hoped to start conversations among young people and their parents and teachers, while at the same time entertaining them.

Who are your influences and people whom you admire?

My parents are a great influence in so many ways. Their unconditional love enabled me to know that life is hard for everyone, but everyone deserves love. Four boys in a family wasn’t always easy, yet they always treated us as independent individuals. It is their continuous affection (still to this day) for each other that will always be with me.  I have also been fortunate to have mentors in my life.  At age ten, I started studying acting with actress Lynn Cohen (Mags “The Hunger Games”, Magda “Sex and the City”) until I went to college.  She and her husband Ronald Cohen remain a huge influence, and Ron produces and directs my shows.

What is your professional background?

I am an actor, singer and dancer mostly working as a vocalist and song stylist at the moment, in clubs all over the world. I have been a professional actor from age ten.

Children's book author, Craig Pomranz

Children’s book author, Craig Pomranz

How does this story align with your own life?

We have all felt “different” at times in our lives and at different ages.  It’s a learning process to find comfort in who you are.  In my life, because I was a working child actor, I really had to learn how to be alone a lot.  I always felt more comfortable with adults than kids my age.  But, like Raffi, I also found respect and some confidence in that I had a talent and was able to focus on it.  I believe that helped me ignore any teasing that came my way.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t feel the hurt from an unkind word, but it was easier to shrug a remark off because I felt like I had something to offer.

What does Raffi symbolize in the world to you? What does the big rainbow scarf symbolize?

Raffi is gentle but persistent — he shows the world (or at least his world) that you can ignore the chaos around you and literally “stick to your knitting.” The scarf was award-winning illustrator Margaret Chamberlain’s vision.  I don’t really think it has a specific meaning other than being extremely colorful.  People have asked me if it is a reference to the gay rainbow flag and I don’t believe since that is exactly the opposite of the point of the book. Participating in nontraditional hobbies says nothing about sexual preference.

What do you hope children will take away from your book?

First, I hope they are entertained and like the funny story of Raffi.  Second, I hope they will learn some empathy.  Everyone has moments where they feel that they don’t fit in, so let’s be a little kinder to those in that position.  Finally, I hope they learn not to immediately identify themselves as victims — that is a seductive position that can become a way of life.  Raffi is a role model because he quietly even meditatively, pursues his interest while ignoring his would-be tormentors.

I particularly like that the story went beyond tolerance and acceptance – that Raffi made a significant contribution to his classmates through his costume designs and became part of the “fabric” of the class activities in his own unique way. In what ways do you think schools can help promote the unique contributions of children?

This is a great question. I think schools should celebrate differences, not merely tolerate them.  Boys might look askance at a boy who likes to cook, but they might really enjoy eating the cupcakes!

How do you think parents can teach the values of inclusiveness and acceptance and celebration of each individual’s unique contributions?

It takes courage.  Lots of parents say they want their children to be themselves up until the moment that the teasing starts.  They see that their children are unhappy and self-conscious, so they urge them to conform.  This is understandable, but may be the wrong approach.  Parents should try to teach their kids strategies to find a quiet, peaceful, safe place to be themselves, like Raffi.  Of course they also have to teach their children to accept others.  We see this happen when children decide to participate in a fundraiser or charity benefiting a global issue presented on the news.  The challenge for parents and teachers is to help them see the issues facing their peers closer to home.

What is your next project?

I have written several new books, which I hope will be released early next year.  One deals with children’s preoccupation with their appearance, and another on understanding illness and its impact.

Also, composers Amanda McBroom (Bette Midler’s “The Rose”) and Michele Brourman (“The Land Before Time”) wrote a wonderful song titled “Different” to be attached to “Made by Raffi.” I hope to release it in the next few months.

If people want to purchase a book, where would you send them?

Amazon and Barnes and Noble. “Made by Raffi” can also be purchased at local bookstores and international book sites as it has been translated into several languages and distributed in eleven countries to date.

My sincere thanks to Craig Pomranz for sharing his story with us. I know our family will cherish his delightful story!

Happy Earth Day!

ByESpringBreak

Involve kids in caring for the little patch of Earth that you encounter each day. Feed the birds and squirrels. Plant some flowers or vegetables. Escort a spider from your basement to the fresh outdoors. Show your care together. Happy Earth Day!

For more, check out:

Empathy, Kids and Nature 

How to Raise a Wild Child; The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature by Dr. Scott Sampson