Another tragedy has hit the airwaves and the school hallways. Again the question is raised, “What do I tell my kids?” I addressed this question the best I could — who can ever answer this well? — in my blog, “Look for the Helpers” after Sandy Hook.
This time I want to look at a different angle — one that may hit home a bit more.
When a crisis happens, we naturally express and project our feelings, make assumptions about our children’s experience, and react or respond accordingly. The first question to consider is, “How do you feel in the wake of the Boston marathon bombings?”
Most parents want their children to grow up able to trust most people and trust the world they are growing into — with discernment and good judgment. It seems to be getting harder and harder to trust our world, so how do we teach our children to trust — or should we?
We want our children to reach their potential, to get the most out of their lives, to experience all they can for their fulfillment and satisfaction. We want them to have open doors in front of them to walk through. Most of all, we want them to feel self-confident — the #1 key to successful living. Can they get there if we hold them back because we are afraid?
Questions to ask yourself:
Am I keeping my children closer and closer with every tragedy?
How will my children view their world if their model doesn’t trust it?
What purpose does my fear serve? How safe can I make them when I hold them back?
Am I changing my rules about what is okay for my children to do and experience based on my fear?
How to insure that your children don’t live out your fears:
- Make sure you own your fear and express your concerns to your child as just that—yours.
- Share your fears and worries with a partner or close friend.
- Stick to a few facts when telling your child about tragedy—if your child will inevitably learn about it. Keep media to a bare minimum.
- Watch your child’s behavior to signal how he is dealing with it rather than assuming he will feel afraid.
- If behavior shows increased anxiety, make sure to allow for feelings to be expressed. If behavior is different, but emotions are held, insure as many times of relaxed, downtime as possible. If you are highly anxious, your child will know it and may keep his own anxiety from you. Be sure someone close to him can handle his feelings.
Do you want your children to face the world each day afraid of what could happen or prepared to deal with whatever problem might arise? If you don’t allow independence because of your fear, your children won’t learn how to handle difficult situations.
To raise a problem-solver:
- Engage your child in thinking through how she might handle a problem rather than imposing how you would handle it.
- Encourage you child to speak up for herself, say “no” when she doesn’t want what is being offered or pressured, be aggressive when called for. That means allowing young children to say “no” to you when they don’t like something you have said or done.
- Teach your children how to walk down the street with confidence. Encourage self-defense programs and body language awareness.
- Allow your children to experience situations in which to solve problems.
- When children express distress over happenings in their lives, ask what they might like to do to take action. Ask, “What can you do to change that?” Even if nothing can be done, allow expression of anger or outrage.
- Focus on the good and look for the heroic stories to tell your children. For instance, Bostonians opened their homes for meals, couches and beds for those stranded at the airport. Many ran to the scene to help those hurt.
- Ask, “What do you think you would have done if you had been there?”
We must keep the perspective that tragedies have been happening for as long as the world has been. Plagues and wars, disease and death, violence and evil have always been in the world. And even though the media may tell a different story, tragedies remain infrequent. Let’s not allow those who are determined to hurt and kill to ruin life for all of us.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best family and parenting bloggers out there. Our contributing and guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor, and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Bonnie Harris blogs at Connective Parenting.
The intention of terrorist attacks is typically to make a political statement and generate fear. And like weeds in the garden of childhood, such attacks may sow feelings of helplessness and despair in our kid's thoughts.
As parents we need to get our kids up, up, and away from scary images and dark thoughts by empowering them to be life’s gardeners, “helpers” who plant and grow back the good thoughts.
“So many people rushed in to help during and after the Boston Marathon bombings. Those people who can help will have a better recovery than someone who is just forensically watching the same images of trauma over and over on the news or Internet,” said Dr. David J. Schonfeld, chief pediatrician at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, Philadelphia, a member of the Sandy Hook Commission on School Crises, during a telephone interview the day after the marathon.
A quote by Fred Roger’s (the former host of Mister Roger's Neighborhood) has become a rallying point following the Boston attack: “When I was a little boy and something bad happened in the news, my mother would tell me to ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people helping,' she'd say. And I've found that that's true.”
We have seen the stories and images of those who, after the bombs exploded, rushed in where most would fear to tread and brought aid and comfort to victims.
Schonfeld explained that, without realizing it, those who help and bring comfort by expressing condolences, offering a hand to an injured stranger, or bunking a displaced runner are actually doing the best thing anyone can do to help themselves cope with the tragedy.
“If you can’t help someone in Boston, helping someone in your community with your child works too,” Schonfeld said from Washington, where he was with military officials at the Pentagon discussing ways to help support children grieving after the loss of a military parent. “Maybe it’s just writing a letter to someone in Boston to tell them you are thinking of them. Drawing a picture, writing a poem or condolence card.”
“I work with these families on these horrible events and even I don’t know all the number of shots fired at a crime scene,” Schonfeld said. “Nobody needs to know that stuff. We just don’t need those images in our heads.”
“What you really need is to know you have the power to do something, even if it’s something as small as helping pick up trash in a local cleanup or writing about how you feel and sending a letter to someone in Boston.”
Since most of us don’t know the names and addresses of those affected, using the comments section beneath this blog may be a starting place for kids and parents to express condolences, write poems, and give voice to their concerns and hopes. Although, I will warn against profanity, hate and ugly because those are not really in the “healing thought” realm and would be counter-productive to the exercise.
Having a child write something and keeping it private will also work, as will drawing pictures to express sorrow or concern. If your child needs a stronger feeling of empowerment, you could offer to post their drawing, poem, or prose on social media (our Twitter handle is @modparenthood).
The people we will remember for their compassion are also the ones who can recover more fully from the trauma because their own selfless actions helped defend them from shock, horror, and that feeling of helplessness.
According to The Boston Globe, “Marathon volunteer John Gannon drove slowly down Charles Street in his Honda Accord, calling out the window to ask if stranded runners needed a ride or a phone to borrow. He scoured the streets, trying to help out-of-town runners separated from their family and friends, their phones and their wallets. He had taken two carloads to Harvard Square and a third to the Newton Marriott.”
Gannon, a lawyer, told The Globe, “I just couldn’t go home. I felt like I had to do something. We just felt like our mission wasn’t done.”
Our mission is far from done where this incident is concerned. Our mission as parents is not to watch and analyze the news, but to get busy with our kids and show them that they have power. It’s spring, go out and plant a "victory over fear" garden.
Each spring in Norfolk, Va., all the gardens around the city bloom with yellow flowers planted to mark the yellow fever epidemic that once nearly wiped the city off the map.
The state flower of Massachusetts is the delicate white Mayflower (Epigaea regens), on the endangered list since 1925. Well, I think that’s what we all need to plant in our gardens this weekend. Like its state flower, Boston itself is endangered and we need to nurture it, regrow its spirit and strength.
Let’s send a message to those who would bring us to our knees that once there all we will do is dig down deep, plant roots, and grow stronger.
The bullying was so bad that Lanza’s mother, Nancy, thought about suing Sandy Hook Elementary School after her son came home with bruises “all over his body” on multiple occasions, a family member told The News.
RECOMMENDED: Top 5 bullying myths
“Nancy felt fiercely protective of him,” the relative told The News. “She was convinced the school wasn’t doing enough to protect Adam. It made her irate.”
Lanza’s mother went so far as to attend school with him to try and witness his classmates taunting and “assaulting” him.
According to The News:
"The relative said Adam Lanza never seemed emotionally right after his time in Sandy Hook. Nancy Lanza switched him to another school after sixth grade.
'He was a sick boy,' the relative told The News."
The Christian Science Monitor’s Modern Parenthood blog has reported extensively on bullying in school:
Who bullied Lanza at Sandy Hook? The family member did not tell The News, but the Monitor’s top five myths about bullies can help to dispel any rash conclusions about the type of person Lanza’s bully or bullies were.
While Lanza never told his mother about his bullies, Modern Parenthood contributor Amy McKinnon’s son did. She heard all about the teasing and hitting and told her son he should hit back, but he said he wouldn’t. Her essay echoes how powerless a parent can feel when their child is a victim of bullying.
Contributor Deirdre Graves writes in “Bully watch: Raising a cowboy unafraid to wear blue nail polish” about raising a son to be different in a school system where the different ones seem to get bullied the most.
And Modern Parenthood blogger Stephanie Hanes this fall focused on the proliferation of anti-bullying legislation across the country — in 15 years, bullying legislation made its way into law in 49 states.
RECOMMENDED: Top 5 bullying myths
By doubling the price of the GED (General Education Development) test to $120 and reducing access by making the test and preparation course electronic-only come January, those whose only route to higher education and better job options begins with the test as the first step will be knocked off the road to success. In the field of career development a powerful tool for building success has always been a GED, which makes this issue one that will deeply affect families.
This is an issue that affects parents in two ways. In some cases the parent needs a GED in order to provide a better life for their child, while in others a parent may need this option for a child who struggled in school due to social or physical issues and are too far behind to catch up. The GED system picks up the stragglers, but the ticket to ride may not be affordable now.
Currently about 40 states are seeking an alternative to the GED Testing Service’s high school equivalency test “because of concerns that a new version coming out next year is more costly and will no longer be offered in a pencil and paper format,” according to The Christian Science Monitor.
The Associated Press reports the new version will be the first revamp since for-profit Pearson Vue Testing acquired a joint ownership interest in the nonprofit Washington-based GED Testing Service. The cost of the test is doubling to $120, according to the report.
“When you are asking people who don’t have any money to spend twice as much to get a start, how can that be good?” said Warren Stewart of the Norfolk School Board. Stewart also served as the state’s first Dropout Prevention Coordinator in 1989. He is currently retired and is a member of the school board in Norfolk, Va. He was reached for interview by phone at the National Association of School Boards Convention in San Diego.
Stewart added, “How important is the GED to education? It’s huge to people who need a starting point. It always has been and is so now, perhaps more than any other time in history.”
The General Educational Development tests are a group of five subject tests which, when passed, certify that the taker has American or Canadian high school-level academic skills. Passing the GED test gives those who did not complete high school the opportunity to earn their high school equivalency credential.
The test, now available in both paper-and-pencil and online format, is now going exclusively online, which moved Stewart to ask the big question — “Are we making that route to education and success more difficult by limiting the access to the GED test in this way with it only being accessible via computers?”
I received a GED myself and went on to get an associate degree from a community college and a bachelor’s degree in political science from a university. While I was an excellent student, my parents were divorced, and in lieu of child support my mom received part of my father’s Social Security check. When Ronald Reagan took office he passed a bill phasing that practice out. If you wanted to keep the support for a further three years you had to be either age 18 or enrolled in college by May 1st of that year. I was entering my junior year of high school and we needed the money, so I had to drop out, wait six weeks, and take the GED and enter a special intercession created by Brookdale Community College in Lyncroft, N.J., in order to qualify. I did it. In fact I took my GED, SAT, and driver’s test in the same week, and passed them all. I had both a future and a way to fund it as well.
There are a million stories behind those who have taken the first step of that million mile journey from the square on life’s game board marked “GED.”
Stewart harkens back to his favorite GED hero, “Here in Norfolk, Va., we know about a poor boy, a tough boy, from Oceanview area, Sherman Williford, who got his GED while serving in the military and rose to four-star general after he famously took command of Delta Force from 1983 to 1985.”
The GED is critical to creating what our school system here in Virginia calls “successful community contributors.” These contributors are people who have the basic tools with which to build a better life and become an asset to the community.
When I worked as a Career Developer for the State of Virginia for 18 months I met many people who, for whatever reason or hardship, failed to achieve during their high school years. The ability, affordability, and access to a GED make it a powerful tool for building communities.
A community builder and school board member here in Norfolk is Rodney Jordan who is also the head of the Park Place Civic League, an urban area trying to uplift itself via it’s own bootstraps and the GED is one of those bootstraps.
“We will see cases, we have a committee that assesses readmitting a student to school after suspension or in other situation, where a student is 19 and in the ninth grade,” Jordan said. “I look at that kind of situation and my suggestion is to keep them in the school, but on a GED track so they have a better chance of graduation. It’s a workforce development issue just as much as an education issue.”
Perhaps you are lucky enough to have a child or grandchild who will never need to worry about the need for a GED in life.
However, we live and work in communities that can rise higher and be better with more educated citizens who can better provide for their families if they hold a GED. This test is everybody’s baby and we need to keep an eye on it and how it’s being handled.
Sometimes, I hate this world. Or not the world, but its dangers and all that can hurt my son. On April 15, when bombs tore apart the finish line of the Boston Marathon, one of those dangerous tentacles got past me. I could see the green scales tightening around my child’s neck, the joyous light draining from his 11-year-old eyes.
This morning, he and my husband and I listened to the news. My son said he was glad we’d told him — even when we showed him the “Marathon terror” banner on the front page of the Boston Globe, complete with graphic photo of a victim, rescue workers, a sidewalk that looked spray-painted red. He’d been furious when we hid the headlines about Newtown after it happened. He’d insisted last December that he wanted to know.
But I’m still wondering if I told him too much about the Boston bombing, if it was wrong for him to find out just as I was finding out, my response unprocessed and far from an ultra-rational “teachable moment.” Sometimes, ignorance really is bliss. It is our Garden, the one we walk through every day with a child.
Before we knew, I picked up my son at his vacation camp. No school this week. Patriot’s Day, the Marathon, the streets around us sweetly and strangely empty. We strolled home through our Cambridge neighborhood, carrying the candles he’d made that afternoon. It was brisk and sunny, daffodils and hyacinths bursting free along the curbs.
We stopped at a local market for a snack. By then, as I found out later, the bombs had gone off in downtown Boston. In Copley Square, across from the Boston Public Library, places we’d visited many times. But at the store, nobody told us. My son chattered cheerfully about his candles, as the kind woman at the register asked about them, wanting to know if they could float.
Then back out into the spring day, walking the last blocks toward home, past beds of dying crocuses, more daffodils, and the first tulips. Even before I unlocked our front door, I was savoring the nap I needed.
My son would have his snack (Doritos and orange juice), work on the story he told me he was writing, play his Lego Lord of the Rings game on the Wii. I could close my eyes and disappear, because we were home. For a few moments, I didn’t have to worry.
When I woke from that nap, I learned that wasn’t true. I can’t claim prescience. I didn’t wake up knowing something terrible had occurred. But it’s also true that I was still groggy when my husband arrived home a few minutes later. By then, I was sitting in my downstairs office, about to check my email.
“Don’t you know what happened?” he asked.
“What?” It was shadowy in my office, which faces east, the maple trees in back just starting to bud. I felt a scratching claw inside my chest.
He told me. Raw information. I didn’t understand. I peppered him with questions, wanting details, not wanting details.
“Why are you whispering?” he asked.
Then I shot into the next room, where my son was still sending Legolas the Elf into the fray against a host of Orcs. I told him we had to turn on the TV now.
Several hours after it happened, we watched the bombs explode, over and over, my boy whimpering in my arms. I cried when I heard an 8-year-old had been killed.
My son hugged me then, trying to comfort me. That wasn’t right. We can’t let fear…we can’t. But I couldn’t stop staring at the screen, the replay of the two explosions, aerial views of the library and Trinity Church, the news ticker about dead and wounded in local hospitals, about what President Obama said, about a moment of silence.
“How could anybody do that?” my son asked.
“It was such a beautiful day,” my husband kept saying on the phone.
Memories, memories — what do you do with all the memories, except remember? Exhaustion followed the shock and tears, as I remembered the paranoia after 9/11, how it had sapped our collective spirit.
Just this past weekend, my son and I took a “photo excusion” around the neighborhood, snapping pictures of flowers and sidewalks and storefronts. I captured him huddled over a crocus with his camera for a closeup — and his skinny arms stretched in a dance move up a concrete wall— and our shadows together on an unmarred sidewalk.
Today I told him that we have to live our lives as if we aren’t afraid. I told him it would be okay. I have no way of knowing — and he knows that, too — but I said the words. The fear that whacked me to earth is not his yet, and fear is what defeats joy. The most terrible thing can become beautiful, too, if we focus on resilience, on innocence regained. I didn’t tell him this, thinking that people, grown-up people, need to experience a whole series of banner headlines, of shock and recovery, for such beauty to make sense.
And yet, maybe he — a Vietnamese adoptee, a not-so-little boy who now worries about all the kids in orphanages we saw on our last trip to Vietnam, who wonders in a new way if that could have been him — maybe he does understand. Certainly I should never underestimate what he doesn’t say.
When we finally sat down to dinner Monday evening, he wanted to light one of his candles. A memorial, he said, just as we lit a candle for my mother, who died a few months ago. His candle burned beautifully, glowing pink and blue from within.
“Can I blow it out?” he asked.
“Why?” I said too quickly.
“Because I want to.”
“Because it’s fun,” my husband said. “Then you can light it again. Right?”
My boy looked at me, the mischievous spark back in his eyes. He grinned.
Éomer and Aragorn stood together on the Deeping Wall. They heard the roar of voices and the thudding of rams; and then in a sudden flash of light they beheld the peril of the gates.
“Come!” said Aragorn. “This is the hour when we draw swords together!”
….Charging from the side, they hurled themselves upon the wild men. Andúril rose and fell, gleaming with white fire. A shout went up from the wall and tower: “Andúril! Andúril! goes to war. The Blade that was Broken shines again!”
— from The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien
In the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings children to know: “Why did this happen?” and “Should I be afraid?” Dr. David J. Schonfeld, chief pediatrician at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, Philadelphia, a member of the Sandy Hook Commission on School Crises, advised me today that in order to teach life-long coping skills parents must turn off the TV and share the truth about their own fears with their kids, but in a completely drama-free tone.
This morning I asked Dr. Schonfeld if we should let kids of any age watch the images of the Boston bombings on the news and social media and he said that he limits his own exposure to them because, “It’s been shown that those who have a higher exposure to TV coverage of this kind have much more difficulty coping. Why would you keep showing it? Visualizing trauma doesn’t help us overcome it at all.”
“If you want to teach your child how to cope then you need to model the behavior. Don’t try and hide it from them and put on a happy face because they can sense that you’re not being real. What they take away from that is that you know something bad happened and you don’t want to talk about it. Then they in turn learn not to come to you when they are upset or worried about something in their lives.”
Schonfeld added, “You want to be as calm and reassuring as possible while telling them the truth about how you are feeling. Tell your child that you were upset and afraid when you first saw the images and heard this news and that you were worried too.”
Still, he admits, kids are going to see the images we don’t want them to see and hear all about how two bombs struck near the finish line of the Boston Marathon yesterday; that the death toll has risen to three and that one of the dead is an 8-year-old boy. They will learn that over 100 were injured at the scene, according to CNN. However, they do not have to learn to live in fear.
In an attack like this, millions are spiritually injured by the impact of the news of these events and that’s just what bombers like to see. The answer I give my sons and any child who asks me is that the “why they did it” is not as important as “why we can’t let this stop us from living our lives.”
During the Gulf War, I was stationed in Tel Aviv for a month, and SCUD missiles would take out an entire neighborhood in the pre-dawn hours and moms would be waiting in the rubble for the school bus in the morning with their kids.
I will never forget the looks of determination on the faces of elementary school children as they boarded the bus with their backpacks over one shoulder and gas masks in cardboard boxes decorated with stickers, hung from straps over the other shoulder.
That is the image I conjured as I watched the news from Boston with three of my four sons.
My 9-year-old son who loves to run and competed in his first official race at his elementary school last fall has been riveted to the news. As the media storm broke and we were deluged with horrible images and the thunder of the explosion being played over and over again on every channel, I grounded myself to be his lightning rod.
I had our first son, Zoltan, 19, after returning from Israel and when he was a toddler and a massive thunder storm hit, my husband taught me a parenting lesson, similar to the one I’d witnessed in Israel.
Zoltan was just a toddler during his first big storm, and as I ran to scoop up our son my husband came in like an NFL star and blocked me saying, “Don’t! If you rush him with that look on your face and use your scared voice not to be afraid, he’ll always be afraid.”
Back then all I wanted to do was cuddle our toddler for mutual comfort. Last night I felt that same urge to draw my son close for comfort and reassurance, but I didn’t because I knew my husband was right. I knew it because the only one of our four sons who flinches during a storm is the youngest, Quin, because he was at a friend’s house during his first storm and all the kids and the mom there freaked out to the max. It was hard to undo that impression.
So when Quin walked into the room as I stood watching the news from Boston I worked hard to rearrange my features into my practiced blank look.
“There’s a bomb at a race?” Quin asked in a shaky voice. He was reading the news crawl on CNN aloud and at that early stage his voice carried the words, “Two dead? 28 injured? Limbs lost? I don’t see trees in the video what limbs are they talking about?"
Quin loves to run, and Zoltan, who is at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. studying Homeland Security and Criminal Justice, is a runner who was home this past weekend and mentioned in front of Quin that he hopes to do the Boston marathon next year.
“Was Zoltan there?” he demanded. I explained his brother was safe in Richmond, and Quin finally turned away from the screen and I could feel his eyes on me, scanning every inch of my face for clues on how to react. I have actually practiced my neutral look in the mirror in years past and at this point I wasn’t giving anything away.
Instead of whisking him away from the TV, covering his eyes or drawing him close for the hug, I watched with him and calmly, rationally gave him all the answers I could.
After a while, Quin said, “So it’s random then. We can’t do anything about random.”
I assured him that was the case and also that when things like this happen, people in the FBI and Homeland Security, like his big brother Zoltan, learn more about how to prevent it from ever happening again.
“So the odds go up in favor of the good people?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered.
However, this morning when I saw the local paper with the word "TERROR" in bold black letters taking up everything from the banner to the fold and below the fold a photo of a man drenched in blood, I hid it. I didn’t want that to be the day-two message my kids see.
The word actually made me furious because that is not the message Americans need to focus on today. We need words like PRAYER and ANSWERS. The image we need is that of the volunteers who ran toward the danger in the moments after the blast in order to rescue others.
When I asked Quin how he was feeling about the events he’d seen on TV yesterday, he answered, “Well, I’m freaked out because I still can’t understand it. I just can’t understand why you would do something so horrible. I know I’m safe but until I understand it, I guess the freak-out’s still there.”
Man’s inhumanity to man is not going to end anytime soon. No matter how many answers we get from the investigators, as parents we know that as in cases like 9/11, Sandy Hook, and now Boston, the message to give kids is that we’re here and safe, and our very best people are on the job making sure the bad guys come to justice and we come to no further harm.
It’s not a PC, a laptop, a tablet or phone; it’s an “ultramobile.” That’s what tech research firm Gartner Group calls what’s replacing desktops. USATODAY says it’s “a fully functional personal computer that is light enough to tote around,” which sounds like a smartphone. You can read more about how it’s different at USATODAY. The point is, we’re just getting a whole lot more mobile now, and parents don’t even need to hear that the evidence of that is mounting. But the latest evidence is that PC sales were down 13.9% for the first quarter of this year, compared to January through March 2012, my ConnectSafely co-director Larry Magid reported in Forbes.com. Sure, Windows 8 might have “slowed the market,” as IDC told Larry, but neither that nor the tough economy is the real explanation. “It is a reflection of a long-term change in user behavior,” Gartner reported.
We’re turned a corner on several levels. It’s not just that we (regardless of age) want all that a connected computer is capable of with us wherever we are, we want different tools or capabilities on it for different contexts and circumstances, whether it’s reading in bed, conducting a meeting, disputing a bill, shooting a film, leveling up in a game, skyping grandkids, hanging out with friends, or whatever. We like having a world of possibilities at our fingertips. “Screen time” is not only increasingly mobile, it’s highly differentiated now and forever – don’t try to extrapolate anything about your kids from “studies” that generalize about it or suggest it’s just entertainment. It’s a highly individual experience not only from family to family but also from person to person within a family. In fact, it’s situational and contextual for each individual.
Which means that parenting has turned a corner too. As I mentioned in response to educator Will Richardson’s comment in my blog this week, going forward, working through things “out loud” (transparently) with our kids rather than applying predetermined responses may work better. To borrow John Seely Brown’s metaphor), parenting, just like learning, is now more like whitewater kayaking than piloting a steamship. Though a lot of the wisdom, values, etc. we got from our parents is the same, we now need to work more from tacit knowledge we gain/act on as we go rather than from the explicit knowledge of “this is the way we’ve always done it.”
As for the tech trend, it’s by no means defined by “decline.” That’s only for PCs and laptops, Gartner says, but with an overall 9% increase in sales of devices worldwide projected for this year (to 2.4 billion units), USATODAY reports. “Gartner expects mobile phones to continue to dominate … and tablet sales [to] increase sharply. But in the same period, its analysis sees sales in the ultramobile category growing exponentially, from fewer than 10 million in 2012 to more than 23 million this year, and 96 million by 2017.”
Phiona Mutesi, a 17-year-old World Youth Chess champion from Uganda, is traveling in a foreign land — like Norfolk, Va. — with her coach and a mentor this week, appearing at Newsweek’s Women in the World Summit last Friday to play legendary chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. And recently she heard Disney chose Indian director Mira Nair to make a movie about her life. The only thing wearing her down is worry over her mother and siblings’ safety in the slums of Katwe in Kampala, Uganda.
She is a game changer, a lesson to all parents that it’s not about what you can give your child, but that the gift of your presence has a greater, more lasting impact on their lives than material goods.
Phiona is the rarest of all chess phenoms, maybe not for her rating of 1800 — children as young as six have attained master level ratings of 2,000 and up — but she is amazing because, despite coming from a home in Uganda with no running water and electricity, let alone chess resources, she is able to catch up to American child chess masters.
Phiona is succeeding via patience and prayer, and without obsessing over theory, titles, or ratings. “I want to do well for my father. I want to take care of my mother and brothers,” she says in the heavily accented but fluent English she learned alongside the game of chess in a program called Sports Outreach. After some prodding, she adds, “My dream is also to someday become a medical doctor for children.”
The first thing Phiona tells the groups she meets on her tour is, “I lost my father when I was three years old.”
Her father died of AIDS, and her mother quickly became unable to support herself and four children: “My mother could not afford the school fees and the rent monies, so we begin sleeping in the street.”
In the slums of Katwe in Kampala, “street” is a loose term. Katwe is the area garbage dump and its dirt streets are lined with dug-out trenches used as latrines. When it rains, the trash, raw sewage, and mud form a toxic stew that floods shacks and triggers mudslides around the low-lying area, Phiona explained. Her mother and two younger brothers, ages 10 and 14, are in Katwe while Phiona spends a month touring the United States to promote chess with the United States Chess Federation (USCF) and Sports Outreach, a ministry using sports like soccer and chess to help children in developing countries.
When a child in an elementary school asked, “What inspired you to play chess?” Phiona replied, “I was hungry. I heard that when people went to this program to play chess they get a cup of porridge at the end. So I am thinking only about getting something to eat.”
The program was set up by Sports Outreach and Rodney Suddith, who is the American mentor traveling with Phiona. She also travels with her chess coach Robert Katende, a missionary and refugee of Uganda's civil war who started the chess program in Katwe, offering a bowl of rice porridge to any child who would show up and learn.
"It teaches you how to assess, how to make decisions, obstructive thinking, forecasts, endurance, problem solving, and looking at challenges as an opportunity in all cases – and possibly not giving up," he told Joe Flanagan, a reporter here for WVEC-TV. "The discipline, the patience ... anything to do with life, you can get it in that game."
When Mr. Flanagan asked what her favorite thing about chess is, she said, “Planning. I think to do anything in life you need to have a plan. You need to be patient and follow that plan. But planning is my favorite thing.” She didn’t say anything about fame, money, Disney, ratings, getting stuff, or a trip to America, but rather about owning the ability to plan her life.
Phiona is a very natural, honest, painfully soft-spoken young woman and the only coaching she has received is in chess and not public relations sound bites. She does what my kids call “keeping it real.”
A child at the Tidewater Park Elementary School in Norfolk asked her, “Did you always believe in yourself and that you’d get the money to get out someday?” Phiona replied, “I never think about money, only to survive and to do what is right in sight of God.”
“Is it hard being away from your mom while you’re here?” a girl in high school audience asked.
Phiona answered, “It is very hard because when it rains in Katwe people die and I worry my mother will die before I come home.”
The room went utterly quiet as kids in the Title I school in a neighborhood where many students view themselves as impoverished and hard done-by.
For full disclosure, I run a tiny volunteer group called The Norfolk Initiative for Chess Excellence (NICE) in Norfolk and volunteer as much time as possible teaching chess to children and parents in my community because I have seen it lift spirits and grades and open a door from poverty to opportunity.
Two weeks ago, Robert McLellan of the USCF, the governing body for chess in America, asked me if I would like to have Phiona visit my community and if I'd volunteer to pull together two days of events for her. Volunteer is the key word — I am not paid by USCF, the school system, or anyone else to do anything involving chess. Chess is my personal ministry and outreach to my community.
We took her to visit three schools, and then the kids in my program performed a living chess game in her honor with the help of the Art Outreach Program at Old Dominion University which provided costumes for our little children to wear.
At lunchtime we also introduced Africa’s “Chess Queen” to A-Mayes-ing Soul Food restaurant in neighboring Chesapeake, Va.
It’s a hole-in-the-wall place below an overpass near the schools we were visiting.
Phiona can’t get her mind around American food. “If chicken has no bones it is not a chicken,” she patiently explained.
When the owner, Sheila Mayes Eason, heard that someone had come into her place from Africa and didn’t know soul food, the place erupted with banging on pots, pans, tables, and the counter with the cry of, “First time! First Tiiiime!”
She then hustled out in her apron, took Phiona under her wing, and explained, “Soul food is food made from your soul. There’s feelin’ in this food. This is something passed down from generations, mother to child. It’s not fancy, but it’ll fill ya body and soul.”
This was the first time I saw Phiona completely let go, deflate, and relax. “I like this. This is the real food. She should come to Uganda and cook there.”
Mayes Eason laughed and replied, “Well alright! I don’t know where it is, but I’d go cook in Uganda.”
When Mayes Eason was informed who Phiona was and where she came from she said, “No water? They got no running water? Well what’s it take to get it done? Let’s go over there.” I do believe that Kampala is in for water and soul food, while Phiona quickly convinced Mayes to start running chess after hours in her establishment.
Phiona is a great chess sales person.
This may be because in order to survive, Phiona’s mom had no choice but to have her children in work beside her from a very young age. “My mother and I sell maize-corn,” Phiona explains.
I wish I could meet Phiona’s mother because this woman is a genius and an unsung hero. She came up with a risky plan to buy corn from a vendor on the day before it becomes inedible. She roasts the corn, and then Phiona and mom sell it. If they fail to sell all the corn, they lose. Phiona has become a very good corn seller.
I know we are celebrating the child and with good reason, but her mother’s tenacity, ingenuity, and courage is why this child is honored by Newsweek and according to a CNN report, Disney has optioned the rights to her story and recently announced a choice of directors to move forward with the film on her life.
Adoption is hard to write about. That may sound odd, considering how many novels involve an adoption premise – from "Bleak House" to Harry Potter and every other heroic orphan in a children’s series. Then there are the boatloads of recent memoirs, many written by adoptive parents going to China, Russia, or fill-in-the-blank.
But books about adoption, be they gung-ho celebrations or harrowing tales of woe, tend to gloss the truth. Not because authors are deliberately self-serving, but because they can’t rein in their own biases. Adoptive parents, birthparents, and adoptees have very different perspectives, which means most personal accounts of adoption only offer one slice of a big and messy pie.
Jennifer Gilmore’s new novel, "The Mothers," is a surprising exception. She doesn’t attempt to encompass every point of view. Yet, with scalpel-like precision, Ms. Gilmore takes apart the standard adoptive-parent narrative.
Despite the title, her 2013 novel is not focused on what birthmothers want, and that’s a good thing. There are no guilty adoptive-mom fantasies of poor women giving up their babies for a better life. Instead, almost-40-year-old narrator Jesse obsesses that the “birthmother, that most fragile bird, might fly away.”
In their quest for a baby in a domestic open adoption, Jesse and her husband Ramon care about “the mother” (and the shadowy birthfather who might nix the adoption) mainly as a means to an end. Jesse admits to herself that she’d just like to throw money at the problem, that she’s sick of writing “Dear Birthmother” letters about how much she loves to bake pies. At one point, she bristles:
“Am I allowed to ask where I fit in here? There is a woman who gives birth and that is not I. And then she is in our lives – Ramon’s and mine, ours, whatever that life will look like – however she chooses to be. I accept that, but … when do I get to be the mother?”
And yet, Jesse and Ramon are likable. They’re flawed in the ways many good parents are. What I admire most about this novel is its truthfulness about their inner lives.
In broad strokes, my husband and I experienced much of what these two have already soldiered through by the beginning of "The Mothers": miscarriage, hormone shots, failed IVF treatments, fraught discussions about what kind of adoption to pursue. In our case, we opted for international adoption, partly – as Gilmore makes clear – because that was easier a decade ago.
Regardless, Jesse and Ramon’s travails are familiar to me. But that’s not why I like "The Mothers." In fact, I was prepared to not like it, and I don’t love the “docu-novel” (from the Kirkus review) aspect of Part 1. Close to a hundred pages, more than a third of the book, is spent on the couple traveling to and sitting through a weekend adoption training session in North Carolina.
They’re New Yorkers, an American Jew and an Italian-Spaniard, and they have a predictably crappy time. They (and readers) are thrown a lot of information about open adoption and why private domestic adoptions no longer amount to a finger snap. There’s brooding about the past, too – Jesse’s recovery from cancer years before, meeting Ramon in Italy, his curse-spouting mother. But I wasn’t hooked until they go home to Brooklyn again, with their beloved elderly dog.
Because it’s a novel – not another memoir by an adoptive parent, thank God – and it’s a very good novel despite the leisurely setup. As Jesse frets about calling local social services for their home study, and Ramon tells her “[i]t will get done,” she snaps, “By magical fairies? We need to get on it.” The last paragraphs of Part 1 convey much more about what they’re feeling than they know themselves:
I looked at my watch. ‘Look at the time,’ I said to Ramon.
Neither of us moved. In the hallway the scream of our downstairs neighbor’s child shot through the house. A car alarm went off on our street.
I lay down on the couch next to my husband, my elbows sharp on my knees. ‘It’s so much later than I thought,’ I said, and just like that, the afternoon light slipped out of the living room, and the gray of winter crept in."
Gilmore is a gifted novelist (her "Something Red" was a New York Times Notable Book in 2010), but the success of this highly personal fictional world is not just a matter of good dialogue and a knack for details.
Other recent novels with adoption themes by well-known authors have foundered. Lorrie Moore’s 2009 A Gate at the Stairs, for example, skewers its adoptive mom in a way that would be refreshing if readers actually got a peek at her thoughts. However, that mother is viewed satirically through the eyes of a college-age nanny, with all sorts of darkness but no clarifying light.
What Gilmore achieves is a tight focus on this couple’s relationship, and their competing wishes and selfish acts. It’s not a matter of whether this is “true to life”; it’s that I believe in these characters. Gilmore is brave enough to allow Jesse to be angry, neurotic, cynical, and an astute observer of her own desires:
“If everything about being a mother is a memory—the memory of your own childhood evoked by the sounds and smells and touches of your child and the air and substance that surround her—then working hard to become a mother is about the imagination, an unknown future."
That’s how a novelist thinks of the world. It’s about the stories we all tell and the fantasies we weave, based on uncertain memories and wishes for what we never had. But in "The Mothers," I especially welcome this perspective. It’s a tonic for simplistic notions about why adoptive parents do what they do.
Gilmore wrote this novel while going through her own “long adoption process” with her husband. In the press materials that accompanied my review copy, she’s asked in a Q&A why she wrote a novel instead of a memoir. Her response:
“I felt I could see this couple more clearly – and perhaps be harder on them – if they were fictionalized. The issues that adoption brought up for me [were] better suited, in my experience, to the novel.”
Yes. I can think of very few adoptive-parent memoirs in which the narrator admits to Jesse’s cavalcade of self-doubts and delusions. I’m not sure it’s possible in a book-length memoir about adoption, given the pressure to shape real-life complexity into a narrative arc that ends happily.
"The Mothers" suffers from some of the same limitations, too. Jesse’s (and Gilmore’s) musings about what it means to be “the mother” in contemporary society are heavy handed. Still, I enjoyed Jesse’s weary take on the gaggles of oblivious stroller-rollers, happily chattering about breastfeeding and yogurt pops.
It’s the obliviousness of middle-class biological families that can feel so hurtful if you’re on the outside. At one picnic viewed through Jesse’s eyes, the hordes of young parents with babies and toddlers and mammoth barbecue grills seems like an alien Stepford world. Her friend Helen, with an infant “grunting at her nipple,” has the gall to tell Jesse that holding babies helps women get pregnant. Then:
“Helen popped Ryan off her breast, which for some reason didn’t make him howl, and she held him out to me. I had no choice but to take him, cradling him in the crook of my arm, as I looked out at the party."
If only Gilmore had taken this a step farther. Jesse and Ramon recognize their outcast status, and are by turns wry and raging and sorrowful. But Jesse also seems willing to march right back into Stepford as soon as she gets her child.
Gilmore hints that the one mom with an Ethiopian adoptee at that picnic isn’t part of the crowd and likely never will be. But for Jesse, getting there is all that matters. It’s as if the gates of heaven will open, her doubts will be expunged by the white glare, and she will then become an oblivious mother angel like all the rest.
Such feelings are absolutely realistic. But the narrative becomes smaller here, less wise. Those of us who have already gone down the adoption road know that Jesse’s story is only beginning, whatever the outcome. I’d admire "The Mothers" even more if it weren’t so focused on the adoption process itself – the getting, the wanting, the end point-that-isn’t-the-end.
Waiting for a child, whether biologically your own or through years of paper work, is certainly steeped in fantasy. But for me, the wanting wasn’t everything. I spent time trying to imagine what my child would think of me as he or she grew older and how we’d talk about adoption and what it means to have more than two parents.
A recording of my mental monologue at the time would reveal a river of selfishness and fear – Will he hate me? Will I hate him? Will he leave me forever? – but I felt far less agonized than Jesse about “when do I get to be the mother?” I was more worried about being saddled with the care of another human being for the rest of my life.
In her Q&A, Gilmore rightly emphasizes that adoption “is often about loss”:
“All parties are grieving. Adoption is not for the faint of heart. You will be wrecked. You will go beyond whatever limits you felt possible – financial, emotional, perhaps even ethical. If you stick with it, you will likely get your child, but it will not be an easy road.”
It’s true that adoption isn’t a magical solution for infertility, and private domestic adoption has never been a quick-and-dirty way to score a kid. But Gilmore’s “real life” explanation belies the complexity of her novel. Parenting itself is not for the faint of heart. It pushes us all to our financial, emotional, ethical limits. I’ve been wrecked, but not because I’m an adoptive mom.
The silver lining to adoption, especially of a child who doesn’t look like you, is that you know from the start that he’s not you. He’s his own person. Yet you love him, you care for him, in a way that goes far beyond romantic love and selfish need. For me, that’s the central mystery at the heart of all family stories.
The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of the best bloggers out there. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. Martha Nichols blogs at Athena's Head.
Like most attentive parents, Laurent and I have tried to make sure our girls have a variety of toys and games to keep them amused when their homework is finally finished. In reality, we’ve only had to buy the minimum. Grandparents, friends, and other well-wishers have rained upon our home a flood tide of Hello Kitty products, Barbie paraphernalia, and assorted games, the most recent of which is an ingenious cupcake game.
What’s not to love about a cupcake? For whatever reason, Laurent has drawn a line in the sand on that one. Matching the icings and the fillings will have to fall to older sister, Grace.
What’s been interesting, though, is to see what Madeleine most likes to play with. It’s not what you would expect. She has found a way to take the ordinary and transform it into something that can often keep her entertained for weeks on end. We’re not sure if this is pure creativity, or some adaptive mode that she used in the orphanage where personal possessions were at an absolute minimum.
Let me introduce you to “Dong Wu Jie.” Right after Christmas, when both girls were awash with new things to play with, Madeleine took a small piece of pink paper from a scratch pad, drew a scraggly picture of flowers and a tree on it, and announced that this was “Dong Wu Jie.” That piece of paper went everywhere with her, and ended each busy day either on her pillow or in her hand as she fell asleep.
“What could this mean?” we wondered. “Does the phrase have special significance in Chinese?” We went so far as to ask the Chinese teacher at our Sunday language classes, but she just shrugged and gave us a blank stare. Apparently, it meant nothing in particular. Perhaps the true significance of Dong Wu Jie was that it was Madeleine’s own construct.
We all had to keep track of that silly piece of paper, fearing the consequences if it were lost or thrown away. In fact, no one has seen it now for about a month, but there were no ramifications. By then, Madeleine had moved on to something else.
At Christmas, some good friends invited us over for a festive holiday party and gave each of the girls a package of long skinny balloons, such as are used by clowns and mimes to fashion animals. I woke up quite early one Saturday morning not long after, to the sounds of “pif, pif, pif.” I worried that the dog was having a spell in his cage. It turned out that Madeleine was just inflating a dozen or so of the balloons with the little hand pump that looks suspiciously like the “flavor injector” on a Ron Popeil home rotisserie infomercial.
For the next few weeks, dozens of these remained on her bed or in the crack between the bed and the wall. Fully inflated balloons were good, but so were the semi-wizened as well as limp fingers of latex. Eventually, these became Madeleine’s hair accessories, held in with a barrette, much to her older sister’s chagrin.
“But Mama, we go to the same school!” Grace moaned, as they got ready for the school bus.
The newest vogue for playthings was to appropriate the empty DVD case of a favorite movie, and tote that around everywhere. For a while, the DVD of Lindsay Lohan’s career peak, “The Parent Trap,” lay collecting dust in the TV room while the case was squirreled away under Madeleine’s pillow. I don’t know how many times we tried to retrieve it, but to no avail. Then, we happened to watch an early '90’s VCR movie called “Skylark,” starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, and the rickety box became the prize. The newest addition to the pantheon of beloved empty cases is a Kurt Russell flick about an injured racehorse, called “Dreamer.”
I’m not sure what to make of all this. I could swell with pride and note that my daughter largely rejects American consumerism and favors imaginative toys fashioned from cast-off materials. Or I could boast of her above-average creativity. But in the end, she’s just 8-year-old Madeleine: inventive, inexplicable, and innocent.