Be Brave. Stand on the Edge of the Cliff.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it is my belief and experience that writers (and artists as a whole) are a naturally self-depreciating bunch. Oh sure, we all have our moments when we feel on top of the world and are convinced that our writing is the most brilliant thing to come into this world since Shakespear, but the majority of the time we’re meak little creatures, hiding in a corner and insisting that if you just give me more time it’ll be perfect and then you can read it, I swear! Admit it, fellow writers: does this sound like you?

There are two major downsides to this kind of attitude. One, no story ever written was perfect, especially from the writer’s point of view, and trying to make it perfect will only drive you insane. Two, if you never get to the point where you’re ready to show you work to another human being, you’ll never go any further. Sometimes you have to be willing to put yourself out there, if only to know that you were brave enough to do it.

A little while ago, when I wrote my first “Things I Know About Kids” post, I had a thought…the kinds of things I was talking about (and planning to talk about) seemed like the kinds of things that belonged in a parental magazine like Today’s Parent. I considered this concept for a little while, even going so far as to look into how one would submit an idea to a magazine, but in the end I didn’t do it. Why? Because, like many writers before me, I look down on my own writing. I thought to myself, “There’s no point in persuing this idea because it’s never going to happen. Why would any magazine want to publish my awful schlock?” Admit it again, fellow writers: how many times have you thought this exact thing when considering a submission or query?

It wasn’t until three days ago that a little light flicked on in my head. I recalled a ridiculously cheesey quote that my husband once brought up back in high school: “You always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Yeah, it sounds hokey, but it’s true. You can’t succeed if you don’t set yourself up for the possibility of failure. That’s just the way things work. Not many people in this life are lucky enough to be “discovered”. Most of us have to put in the hard work, put ourselves out there, and risk failing. And when we fail, we have to pick ourselves up and go through it all over again. Glamorous? No. Necessary? Yes.

So with that on mind, on Friday I took some time and wrote a query letter that made me cringe, but that I knew to be more-or-less the proper way of doing things, and I shot it off to Today’s Parent. I’m not expecting to have my idea accepted (though it would be nice!) but what I realized was that there was zero chance of it being accepted if I never put it out there.

It’s a scary thing putting yourself at the edge of a cliff with the chance of being pushed off, but if you don’t do so you can never see the view. No, I honestly don’t believe that Today’s Parent is going to write be back and tell me I had a brilliant idea and they want to publish it immediately, but it still feels good to have taken that step, to prove that I’m brave enough to stand on the edge of the cliff. And should I, in the following weeks, recieve a kindly-worded (or even not-so-kindly worded) rejection letter, I shall do as many before me have: I’ll print that sucker out and stick it to my wall, because each rejection is just a step toward acceptance.

If you’re an unpublished writer, have you ever submitted anything for publication, or sent a query to a magazine or other venue? How did it make you feel? If you’re a published writer, how many rejections did you get before getting something published? Do you keep your rejection letters? Please share!

Things I Know About Kids: How to Get Them to Talk to You

For those of you who don’t follow Internet memes (click the link if you have no idea what a “meme” is), there is one that has been going around for a whole now that has been dubbed “Advice Mallard”. I haven’t the foggiest clue where the original idea came from, but the meme is a picture of a particularly photogenic duck, upon which people write pieces of advice. The advice can range from “duh”-level obviousness to thoughts born of personal experience that are actually pretty helpful. One such example that I came across a while back was this one:

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In case anyone can’t see the image, it says “If you want your kids to feel like they can tell you anything, don’t overreact when they tell you something.” More easily said than done, perhaps, but still something I strongly believe parents should take to heart.

I can’t think of any personal examples because my parents were fairly approachable, but I can think of several examples where friends or classmates landed themselves in a lot of trouble because they didn’t talk to their family for fear of the reaction.

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine a young girl, 13 or 14. She’s in the cusp of the joys of puberty and decides to ask her mother about sex. It’s an innocent question…for the sake of our story we’ll say that she asks how you know when you’re ready to have sex. The mother could sit down and have a frank, honest conversation with her daughter, but instead she chooses to pitch a fit: “You aren’t ready for sex!” she shouts. “You’re not old enough to have sex! You’re too you to be even thinking about sex and I don’t want to hear another thing about it until you’re married!

Fast forward a bit. It could be a few years, it could only be a few weeks. The girl has a boyfriend, and in the infinite wisdom of the young, they decide to get intimate. The girl knows she should be on some kind of birth control, but she has no idea how to get it, and after the last reaction she got there is no way she’s going to talk to her mother about it. Ultimately she ends up going without because, lets face it…kids never think anything bad is going to happen to them. She ends up pregnant. She can’t hide it for long and her mother finds out. Amidst a slew of angry shouting and accusations, the mother releases this gem: “Why didn’t you ask me to get you on the pill?!

Given a number of different possible original conversations and end results, I’d be willing to put money down that most kids have had to deal with this kind of thing. Perhaps it didn’t end with such a dramatic result, but think back: how many of you avoided discussing something very important with your parents because you were terrified of the reaction you’d get? And how many of you had to later deal with your parents’ completely clueless reaction to why you would feel you couldn’t go to them with your problem? Betcha most people reading this are raising their hand right now.

Humans have a very basic learning pattern that is based on cause and effect:
Flower pretty; flower good.
Lightning scary; lightning bad.

This translates to young children in the form of the discipline we give them. If they do something and we laugh, they’re going to keep doing it. If they do something and we scream and yell and send them to their room, chances are they’re going to think twice about doing it again.

It’s no different when it comes to making your children feel comfortable bringing things to you. If they bring you an issue and you’re calm, understanding, and helpful, they learn that you’re a good person to come to with their problems. If you have a fit, yelling and dictating your authority, they’re going to avoid bringing anything to you at all costs.

Consider this when your kids come to you. If they tell you they’re being bullied at school, don’t storm down their and start raving like a lunatic, embarrassing the hell out of them; talk to them about it and come up with a game plan together. If they tell you that they think they have a problem with drugs or alcohol, don’t preach and berate them for being an idiot; praise them for coming to you and work with them to get through it. And for the love of all that is good, even if you still think of your kid as being a child, if they come to you asking about birth control, get it for them. Work in a calm, honest conversation about sex, sure, but absolutely get them the birth control because here’s the thing… Whether we like it or not, and no matter what we do to try and stop them from making stupid mistakes, our kids are ultimately going to end up doing whatever they damn well please. Knowing that, does it make more sense to try (and fail) to force them to make the decisions you want them to make, or to openly and supportively give them the help and information they need to make smart decisions on their own?

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Have you ever felt like you couldn’t go to your parents with something important? What made you feel that way? Did it end up causing problems down the road? Please share! I’d love to hear from you!

It May Not Be the End of the World…But it Can Feel Like It

When I was very young, I had a toy called “Puppy Surprise”. For those who are too young to remember (or too old to care), this was a stuffed “mama” dog with little beanbag puppies in her tummy. The surprise part was in how many puppies you got, since it could be anywhere between two and five. I was one of the lucky kids who ended up with five puppies, and I was ecstatic. I loved those puppies, gave them all names, and played with them constantly.

Then one day one of the puppies went missing. I searched high and low but I couldn’t find it. I was certain it had gotten left at my neighbor’s house, but they were unable to find it either. For all I knew, that puppy was gone forever.

That night, I recall, my mother was working a backshift and I’d asked my father if I could sleep in their bed with him. And at some point during the night, as I was laying in bed unable to sleep, I thought about that lost puppy. I started crying. I tried to hold it in, but my shoulders shook and a little gasp or two escaped. Before I knew it I’d accidentally woken my father, who asked me what was wrong. I told him, and though I don’t remember exactly what it was he said, I do recall that it more or less amounted to what any parent in the same situation would say: “It’s just a toy; it’s not the end of the world.”

It’s not the end of the world. These are words that have probably been spoken by every parent on the planet at one time or another. They are words that can be very true…but also very, very wrong.

See, the problem with becoming an adult is that we tend to completely forget what it feels like to be a child. My father’s response was a completely reasonable one from the viewpoint of an adult, but not from the viewpoint of a child. At the time of this story I was about six or seven years old, and at that age losing one of your favorite toys is the end of the world.

We change dramatically as we grow, and bit by bit we begin to learn about what is and isn’t really important in life. Children haven’t gained that knowledge yet. A toddler doesn’t understand why they can’t have cookies for breakfast because they have no understanding of the concept of “health”. All they know is that you are refusing to give them something they want very badly. A child who is being teased at school can not grasp the idea that someday the opinions of their peers will mean little to nothing. They only know that the teasing hurts their feelings and maybe even makes them depressed. Even as teenagers we still haven’t grown enough emotionally to avoid these traps. Have you ever been around a teenager who just got dumped? It’s pitiful. Beyond pitiful. But you can’t explain to them that it’s “not the end of the world” because to them it is. Yes, as adults we know that the pain of a dumped teenager is nothing in the grand scheme of things, but to that teenager it is the worst pain they have ever felt.

So try to remember that the next time you’re dealing with a toddler who won’t stop crying, a child who is scared and upset, or a teen who believes their whole world has just come to an abrupt end. Remember that they don’t understand that it’s not the end of the world because that’s exactly what it feels like to them. All pain, physical or emotional, is relative, and the younger the child the less they have to compare to.

Most of all, remember what it feels like to be a kid. I promise you’ll be a better parent – and person – for it.

Things I Know About Kids – Learning

First, I feel I should point out that I have done no real research on the topic of learning capabilities in small children, nor have I read any research done by others. What I know I’ve learned from my own daughter, and to a lesser extent my niece and the children we see at playgroup.

With that aside, what I know is that we as a society have a bad habit of underestimating small children. We follow guidelines that tell us what skills our kids should know and by when, we buy age-specific toys based on assessments made by the companies who designed them, and we get upset if our kids haven’t learned a specific skill by a specific time, even if they’ve become quite advanced in a different skill in the meantime.

In other words, we group all children together, expecting them to learn and grow at the same rate, and limiting them by focusing on only the skills we’re told they should have by now. I personally think this is very silly because, while you shouldn’t push your children to “learn learn learn learn learn!!!” you should always encourage them to go further and further.

I’ll give you an example. My daughter has a wooden alphabet puzzle. The back of the puzzle board states that the puzzle is for ages 3 and up. At the time we purchased the puzzle I thought that “ages 3 and up” couldn’t possibly refer to any kind of safety issue because the puzzle pieces are quite large, and a quick examination showed that there is no way the pegs could possibly become disconnected. When the safety check was all clear we gave our daughter the puzzle to play with…at the time she was just under a year old. Yes, we gave our one year old a toy that someone, somewhere, decided was meant for three year olds and up. We weren’t pushing the learning toy on her, and we certainly didn’t expect giving it to her to make her a genius or anything; we just figured it was a good, educational toy that she’d enjoy playing with. But here’s the thing…she caught on pretty fast. It only took her a few weeks to be able to locate where the pieces went, and by the time she was just under a year and a half old we had her telling us what all the letters were as she was doing the puzzle. It didn’t take long after that for her to understand that letters naturally went in a particular order, and if I wrote down letters she’d tell me which ones came next.

There were other factors that contributed to her success, of course… For one thing we took the time to sit with her and tell her what all the letters were. For another she also regularly watched a Sesame Street special that teaches kids the alphabet. But the point of the story is that if we had set the puzzle aside, assuming that she wouldn’t be able to understand it until she was at least three years old, she might not have caught on to the alphabet so soon. If we took it upon ourselves to assume that the Sesame Street special was too advanced for her, she wouldn’t be THIS close to being able to sing the whole alphabet song at less than two and a half years old (imagine me holding my fingers a few millimeters apart).

Again, I’m not saying my kid is a genius, but I can absolutely say with certainty that she has advanced faster than expected because we don’t hold back teaching her new things just because she’s still young. We make sure her toys are safe, and if we buy her something meant for older kids (Ninja Turtles action figures and My Little Pony sets come to mind) we make sure to remove any small pieces she might decide to swallow for fun. Once those two things have been accomplished, we let her play with what she’s interested in, and we encourage her to learn new things. In fact, she and her soon-to-be-four-year-old cousin can work my Samsung Galaxy Tab2 better than some adults I know.

Kids are sponges, they really are. We regularly take this into consideration when taking care not to transfer bad habits, but we rarely think about it when considering teaching and learning practices. Encourage your kid to learn, and (as long as safety permits) let them decide what toys and programs are appropriate for their age group. They’ll thank you for it later.