Author Archives: moniquehenderson

What Would My Children Be Without Their Teachers

Unity

 “I dreamed I stood in a studio

And watched two sculptors there,

The clay they used was a young child’s mind

And they fashioned it with care.

One was a teacher:

The tools she used were books and music and art;

One was a parent

With a guiding hand and gentle loving heart.

 

And when at last their work was done,

They were proud of what they’d wrought.

For the things they had worked into the child

Could never be sold or bought!

And each agreed they would have failed

If they had worked alone.

For behind the parent stood the school,

And behind the teacher stood the home!

I received this poem from my son’s new first-grade teacher on back-to-school night, and it reminded
me of something I’ve been thinking about for a while now: The notion that I find it almost impossible to imagine who my children would be today without their teachers.

I’m a big believer in the importance of family. And in our family, we work hard to strengthen values like generosity, gratitude and
exploration. We take a lot of responsibility for building academic and critical thinking skills, too, and always seem to be reading or talking about some new idea.

But as much as we do at home, I know that I cannot claim all the credit for who my children are today.

As the poem expresses, my children have been dramatically shaped by their teachers. In Southern California, they attended a Montessori
school that did a lot to build the reading and math skills they have today.

At a Montessori school here in Texas, Hunter’s wonderful teachers worked lovingly to help him begin to become more disciplined, learning
to take responsibility for his own work and success. And his kindergarten teacher last year continued that work, while also pushing him to read better, and to become more of a leader in the classroom, showing kindness and support to others.

Hannah has been equally blessed by her teachers. In kindergarten, she had a teacher who was an absolute master at differentiation,
helping her to continue to build her reading, writing and critical thinking skills, while also giving her an opportunity to help support less skilled
students. She also just legitimately loved Hannah for the unique, thoughtful person she is, and gave her outlets to express herself.

In first grade, my inquisitive girl had a teacher who loved science, and talked about her travels and work on a ranch. Now, Hannah has
adopted some of the same interests and talks about the day she will walk through windy streets in London or go zip-lining through a rainforest in a remote part of Africa. New worlds were opened for Hannah last year, and I can’t wait to see where this all leads her.

It is true that our kids do mirror us – their parents. And they should, in many ways, be influenced by who we are and all that we teach and
model for them. But I’m thankful that they also have the influence of other “sculptors” – teachers, coaches, friends and others – who invest in them, expose them to information and experiences I may not have, and guide them and love them in ways that look different from the way I might do it.

Together, I think we make a pretty good team ….

Advertisements

I love you because …

Here are some things my children have fought about during
this last week of summer break:

  •  Who gets to shower first. Who gets to shower last.
  •  Whose turn it is to choose the television show.
  •  Which Pokemon card is truly most powerful.
  • What would be more exciting, fire bending, water
    bending or earth bending. (What does this even mean? I have tried to secure
    explanations but am now more confused than ever.)
  • Whether our 10-year-old yellow lab, Wilson,
    looks more like he should be named “Wags” or “Wagsters.” (This debate was
    particularly heated. The kids actually tried to make the case that Wilson had
    chosen between the two names. Happily, Wilson just rolled over and went to
    sleep, obviously as exhausted by the argument as I was.)
  • Who runs faster. Who bowls better.
  • Whose turn it is to get into the car first.n Whose turn it is to get into the car last.

 I could go on, but you get the idea, don’t you?

The truth is, I have a tough time navigating many of these
sibling disputes – a fact probably aggravated by the fact that I am an only
child and do not have my own memories of fighting with a brother or sister.

This summer, I’ve tried to address their fighting through
one of our three themes – gratitude.

So, at least once each day, they have been encouraged to
look at each other and name at least three things they love about each other.

There are days when they are not feeling the love as much.
On these days, their “compliments” have often started out vague. One
particularly rocky evening, the loving words were, “you don’t always make me as
angry as you did today” and “sometimes you sit in the car and do not poke me at
all.”

But others days, I’ve been wowed by the ways they are able
to show each other love and gratitude. Some of my favorite compliments of the
summer:

  •  Hunter, who always says his a bit shyly, eyes
    lowered and blushing, even after three months of practice: “Hannah, I’m
    thankful for you because you always help me. You build things for me. You bring
    me blankets and stuffed animals to hold when I’m sad.”
  • Hannah: “Hunter, you are happy for me when
    something good happens to me. You always play with me. You watch movies with me
    even when you don’t pick them – and even when it’s Barbie — because you know
    it makes me happy.”
  • Hunter: “You are the fastest running girl I have
    ever seen. And you love video games. And science. You are just a great girl – a
    fun girl.”
  • Hannah: “You always listen to me about things
    things that are important. When things happen, I can’t wait to tell you. A lot
    of times, telling you something is my favorite part.”

Obviously, these expressions of gratitude between Hannah and
Hunter have not magically stopped their fighting.

But those loving, grateful moments do remind me – even now, as the two of them are in the adjoining room, squabbling
over whether to play Sonic Colors or Super Mario Bros. – that a foundation of
love and gratitude is a beautiful start.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Homeless shelter visit: Basketball, baseball and the gift of apples

I cleared my throat nervously as I maneuvered our minivan
down the streets of one of Houston’s most hard-scrabble neighborhoods.

I have become fairly comfortable in neighborhoods
where I am one of very few white or middle class people. It comes with the territory when you take an interest in issues of social and educational justice.

But this was the kids’ first time visiting a homeless
shelter that served people who have been homeless long-term, and whose faces,
bodies and outlooks may reflect the hard times they have endured.

I struggled with words to prepare the kids, without rattling
them too much: “You guys need to know this shelter is a little different from
others you have seen,” I said. “Some of the people here have spent most of
their lives living on the street and going from shelter to shelter. The people
may look different. Some of them may look way older than they really are. Some
may have disabilities – not be able to walk well. And some may have brains that
don’t work quite the way ours do. They may say things to you that don’t make
sense to you. Or some may not smile a lot. All of that is totally normal – and
it’s OK, got it?”

Both Hannah and Hunter sat quietly, taking in my words.

“Will there be kids here?” Hunter wanted to know. “I like
playing with the kids who are homeless the most. They come up with really cool
games.”

I explained this was a shelter that only served men and that
they might be the only kids in the building on this particular day.

Hunter thought some more, “That’s OK. Grown up guys can be
really fun, too.”

I had to appreciate Hunter’s focus on fun. (I like to think he gets that from me, but I’m not so sure ….)

We walked up to the sprawling shelter, which was once an
elementary school, and got information on where to drop off the water and other
supplies we were bringing down. We were soon paired up with a shelter resident
named Melvin.

Melvin was quick with a smile and a firm but warm handshake. He also was
quite passionate about the shelter and the work done there.

“This place saves people’s lives,” he said. “They help you
with what you need right away, and then they help you learn and do what you
need to do to get back on your feet for good.”

I asked Melvin a lot of questions about the shelter, which
he happily answered. While we talked, Hannah and Hunter slipped off quietly to
watch a group of men playing basketball nearby.

Soon, the men asked the kids if they wanted to join the
game.

The residents coached both of the kids on their shot-making,
while commending them for their endurance in the one hundred-plus degree heat.

Pretty soon, all of us were smiling, despite the heat.

Connections were being made – and they were the kinds of connections that don’t
always get made easily in a society that is so divided by race and class.

The guys invited us to stay for dinner – something that just
didn’t feel quite right to me. Eating their food seemed wrong, somehow.

“But we always have enough to share,” Melvin said. “That’s
one of the things you find with people that have been through a lot. They don’t
mind sharing. If you need help, you are more willing to give it.”

I compromised and agreed to stay and help get beverages
ready for everyone. The guys insisted that the kids needed a snack for the
30-minute drive home. I gave in – partly because it seemed rude to keep
resisting their generosity.

Back in the car, I was quite curious about what the kids
learned from Melvin and the other guys. I’d come to the shelter hoping to show
them that long-term homelessness and extreme poverty can be ugly – that it
takes its toll and is a serious problem in our society.

I asked a few questions as we drove away.

Hunter gnawed thoughtfully on the apple Melvin gave him and
then quietly said, “Those homeless guys do look different but they are really
nice. I want to go back and play baseball with ‘em next time.”

We talked some about the logistics of our next visit –
important things like where there was room to throw a baseball around and which
of the homeless residents might enjoy it – assuming they were still there.

Once again, Hunter and Hannah learned a lesson different
from the one I planned. Instead of focusing on the differences of the
residents, they chose once again to focus on the ways we are all alike.

Maybe that is what I should have been focusing on the entire
time, anyway. Lesson learned ….

“Can a Debt Ceiling Fall on You?” and Other Important Questions

The summer my daughter was not quite one, I walked into the
living room to find her staring at the TV set in horror, screaming and
pointing.

“No! No! No!” she screamed repeatedly, while watching live
TV news coverage of wildfires that were threatening houses and people not too
far from where we lived in Southern California at the time.

Her eyes were wild – hysterical.

She was so young she only knew a few words, but the look of fear in her eyes was clear to me. She knew that fire was real – and she feared that it was coming after her or, maybe, someone she loved.

After that, this long-time news junkie made the agonizing
decision to nix all TV news viewing during the day. Instead, I relied entirely
on radio news and the Internet during the day, and tried to catch up on any TV
news at night. (Because of the realities of life, this nightly news viewing
rarely happened.)

Pretty soon, listening to the news in the car became
difficult, too, as my children fretted about the possibility of wildfires
devouring their homes, hurricanes drowning their Mississippi grandparents and
one or both of their parents losing their jobs and not finding new ones to pay
the bills. (Really, my children worried about this. I found it surprising, too.
I guess we Hendersons are natural worriers.)

But this summer, I decided that it was time to periodically
turn the news back on again. I want my children to understand, after all, some
of the basic events of the nation and the world and why they matter. And one of
the most logical ways to do that is to turn on the news at home and in the car.

Exposing the kids to the news this summer has lead to some
interesting questions and conversations. Here are a few:

  •  From Hannah: “There are a lot of rich people in
    America. If there are so many rich people here, how are there so many poor
    people? Why don’t the rich share more with the poor?”
  • Also from Hannah: “Could the President give all
    the homeless people homes? If I was President I think that is the first thing I
    would do. I think people would vote for that.”
  • Hunter, eyeing John Boehner on TV: “He’s still
    here? I thought that guy was extinct?” (I think this confusion came from
    coverage of a Boehner-backed bill that died.)
  • Hannah: “Why are there so many men on the news?
    And why are they all wearing those coats and ties? Do they like dressing up
    like that?”
  • Hunter and Hannah, on more than one occasion:
    “What is a debt ceiling, anyway?” (Oh. My. Aching. Head.)
  • Hunter, scratching his head at reports about the stock market falling: “Can a debt ceiling
    fall on you? I bet THAT would hurt!”
  • Hannah, looking worried and incredulous at the
    same time: “American doesn’t have any MONEY? I thought we were the richest
    country in the world.”
  • Hannah: “How many wars are we fighting, anyway?
    Why are we so mad at everyone?”
  • Hannah, while listening quite carefully to
    coverage of Congress: “Mrs. Peterson (her brilliant first grade teacher) taught
    us about facts and opinions. I know the difference. Why are all these people
    giving opinions? Aren’t facts better?”
  • Hunter: “Does Obama like being President? Can he quit if
    he wants to? I think he is tired of giving all those speeches.”
  • Hannah, while talking about families she has
    gotten to know while volunteering: “Do you think the President knows any
    homeless families? If he did, I bet he would want them to have a house.”
  • Hunter, after listening to a sinister sounding report on immigration in Arizona: “What are illegal immigrants?” I offered
    a fumbling explanation about citizenship and borders and why people would want
    to come to America in the first place. Hunter: “So they are just PEOPLE? Like
    US?” Indeed, Hunter. Indeed ….

I think it is safe to say that the television news is going to stay on in our house from now on — the kids might just demand it. I am not sure how much the
kids are truly benefiting, but I know that I am learning an awful lot.

 

 

Red Pepper Mayhem: The Grocery Store as Exploration

I was trying to rally myself as we entered the grocery store
and made our way to the produce section.

My list was long. My patience was short. And the kids were
already bickering, whining and poking at each other. (The children in your
lives don’t do this, do they?)

“OK. I am going to need your help,” I told the kids, in a
sing-song sort of fake happy voice I sometimes instinctively adopt, even though
I hate it. “The best way for us to get out of here quickly and go have some fun
is to work together.”

The kids seemed delighted by this notion, viewing it as one
more sign that they are, indeed, growing up.

We made our way through the fruits and vegetables, with the
kids meticulously picking out apples, orange and a jumbo-sized carton of strawberries
with guidance from me.

I was wowed by my own patience, as I explained how to pick
the best fruit, how the cost of some fruit is measured in pounds, but packaged
fruit has a set price.

“Maybe taking the kids to the grocery store really can be fun,” I told myself, while
directing Hunter to pick out two red peppers from a towering pile.

And then it happened. (You knew it was coming, didn’t you?
How was I so blindsided?)

Hunter pulled a particularly shiny red pepper from the pile.
Then, he pulled out a second, right in the center of the stack.

And, in what seemed like slow motion, the mountain of
peppers came tumbling down.

Red peppers seemed to be everywhere.

Shoppers seemed to come of nowhere, milling about, talking
to each other, confused about how to maneuver their shopping carts around the
peppers.

“What happened here?” one lady asked, her grocery list in
hand.

“I think they had something to do with it,” another woman
stage whispered. (Surely she knew I could hear her!)

Hunter stood frozen, tears falling from his eyes, his fists
clenched in this signature way that I know means he is trying very hard to stop
crying but just can’t.

His lower lip trembled.

“I didn’t mean to. It was an accident,” he said to me – and
to everyone who was standing about.

I weaved between a mini-maze of peppers to get to him.

“It’s OK, my boy,” I told him, wrapping my arms around him in a full body embrace.

This had the effect of making him cry harder. And Hannah,
who, despite all that poking, really hates to see her brother sob, started crying, too.

I wanted to cry myself, actually.

The shoppers in the store were getting restless. One lady
felt the need to inform me that she needed to get some red peppers but “most of
them seem to be on the floor.”

This was not helpful.

I considered just sitting on the floor, hugging the kids and
waiting until we felt better to get up and do the rest of our shopping. But
really, it would have been tough to find a pepper-free spot. And it seemed like
I had a responsibility to get things moving here.

I told the kids we needed to help pick up the peppers – to
make things right. (Where were the produce people during all of this?)

We started scurrying around, scooping up the peppers. (The
kids managed to drop some of them yet again before getting them back on the
pile.)

And then, near the time we were finished, a man of about 50
came through. He seemed irritated that the kids – and possibly even me –
existed, never mind that we were also in his path here in the grocery store.

He looked at me, still scooping peppers.

“This is a good example of why they shouldn’t even allow
little kids in the grocery store,” he said, plucking a pepper from the stack
without even looking at it.

Considering the mayhem we had created, I didn’t feel like I
was in much of a position to argue.

“It was an accident,” I told the man weakly.

“It always is,” he said flatly, and walked quickly away.

I guess I could have argued with him — maybe I should have.
But I know he would not have changed his view. Nothing I could have said would
have changed things. And who knows what his story is – how it is he came to be
so cranky and seemingly bitter on that blindingly sunny day.

The truth is, exploration gets messy – and that is
particularly true when kids are involved.

One of the biggest challenges that kids – and their parents
– probably face is that kids inevitably need to explore in a world that is not
really made for them. It’s still a world that is too big. And complicated. Things
are out of reach. Accidents happen easily.

Our role as adults who love them is to help them navigate it
as painlessly as possible, while teaching lessons that will serve them well
into adulthood.

And if a few beautiful red peppers get bruised along the way
and a shopper to two become more cranky than usual, maybe that’s OK.

 

 

Praise Over Criticism: A Big Moment in Parenting

It was one of those moments that felt strikingly important
to me as a parent.

My daughter stood in front of me, her purple and
gold-colored journal in hand. Inside that little fabric-covered book were the
first five chapters of a fanciful story she has been writing.

“Mommy, I am ready for you to read it now,” she said,
looking expectant at first, and then lowering her eyes in a way that surprised
me.

She seemed a little bit nervous – shy, even – about sharing
her first self-initiated creative writing effort with me.

And somehow I was nervous, too.

In that moment, I recognized something: It was time to carry
out the vision I have for myself as a parent – the vision to be a parent who
empowers my children to explore who they are and what they enjoy to its
fullest, without fear of failure or rejection.

The story is probably what you would expect from a rising
second-grader who loves horses, longs to fly, and often enjoys tales of magic,
evil wizards, bold heroines, and quests.

There were things in her story that were not perfect.

Punctuation was missing. More details and explanations were
needed. And the word “chapter” was spelled three different ways.

But I am happy to say that I looked past those shortcomings
and focused on the many positives.

The plot was quite intriguing, really. And there were places where she used literary devices I did not know she had
noticed in her own reading. And more than anything, I could tell that she put
her whole heart into her work.

And that says a lot.

So I hugged her, and kissed her, and told her that she was
amazing – that her book was amazing. I pointed out some of the language I
appreciated most and some of the points in the story where I was surprised. And
then I told her I absolutely could not wait to see more.

My girl soon returned to her oversized brown beanbag chair
in the corner of the playroom and continued writing, smiling confidently as she
scrawled away.

And while I watched her write, chewing on her lower lip in a
quirky way that I also do when I am banging on my laptop keys, I felt a sense
of relief.

This was a big moment. And I handled it just as I had hoped.

Now, for tomorrow …..

 

 

 

 

 

“I Don’t Want to Miss Anything”

My young daughter gripped the shiny metal bar at the entry to the waterslide, her lips quivering and her knuckles white.

“Hannah,” I said, my eyes locked with hers. “You know you don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, right? We can do another waterslide. You can try this one again next summer.”

The lifeguard started to shift from side to side, understandably testy that we were holding up the line on a busy July day.

The tears were rolling down my girl’s freckled cheeks at this point and she was shaking harder. But her voice was sure and steady: “I am going, Mommy. Now.”

And she was gone in a flash, plunging down the vertical, 70-foot high waterslide.

I followed my brave but terrified daughter’s lead, and when I got to the bottom, I found her standing there, legs shaking, tears still streaming down her face. And grinning from ear to ear.

“That was so, so fun, Mommy,” she said, continuing to smile widely through her hot tears.

I hugged her, trying to help ease her shaking as we weaved our way through the park together.

I asked her why she decided to go, especially when another girl of about 14 had bolted from the ride at the last minute right before her.

“That girl – she missed it,” Hannah said, eyes widened. “I knew it might be scary, Mommy. And I knew I might end up thinking it was more scary than fun. But I wanted to do it – to know for myself. I don’t want to miss anything. I don’t want to be like that girl who just didn’t go for it – didn’t try.”

And that explanation, I think, reveals the heart of a true explorer – someone who wants to get the absolute most out of each and every day they are given on this crazy, unpredictable spinning sphere of ours.

Being a true explorer doesn’t mean that you take foolish risks, of course.

But it means that when you are presented with opportunities to have fun, to learn, or to experience something new, you seize those moments,
even if there are no guarantees that you will enjoy what you are trying.

Because often, missing something and not learning from it can be the worst move of all

 

 

 

 

 

Let it Flow: The Value of Crying for Others

The father watched carefully over his impish five-year-old daughter, reminding her
to say “please” and “thank you” and to “always, always be kind.”

He redirected her when she got too rambunctious, banging drumsticks on the green
felt top of a nearby pool table.

And every step along the way, he showed his little kindergarten-bound daughter
love, hugging her, kissing the top of her head and tucking her flowing brown
hair behind her ears.

The scene, which we were lucky enough to be a part of while volunteering overnight at
an area homeless program, hit my 7-year-old daughter, Hannah, hard.

“The moms and dads care about their kids so much,” she said, pausing for a few
seconds to think about the idea more, as tears filled her eyes and trickled
down her freckled cheeks. “How are they homeless? Something must be really
wrong, Mommy. Just really wrong.”

It was difficult in that moment for me to see the tears and to hear the catch in
my young daughter’s throat.

Part of me wanted to whisk her wiry frame up into my arms and to carry her far away
from that place, where there was no denying that very good people – including
husbands and wives and children, and even newborn babies, find themselves
homeless in America every day.

But I knew, in that moment, that Hannah’s tears had to come – that they were a
difficult but necessary part of the process of learning to care not just about
our own needs but about the needs of others.

Until she fully saw the humanity and goodness of those struggling homeless families,
she could not begin the difficult process of caring about the “why” of
homelessness – and also considering what her role and responsibility is in
helping.

And like so many of the lessons that I try to help my children learn, the same is
true of me, really.

Until I am willing to fully see the horrific pain and suffering of others – and to
recognize, also, that I could just as easily be standing where they are – I
cannot begin to meet them where they are and to offer help.

So, I didn’t try to distract Hannah from her tears. Instead, I just wrapped my arms
around her as my own eyes filled with tears and said, “I know my girl, I know.”

And I have to believe that there is power and strength and tremendous value in that
knowing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let Me Out of My Box, Mom!

I stared at the email that had just pushed through on my
phone, certain it was a mistake:

“Your son got up on stage today at church and led all the
kids in a song. He did a good job.”

This news was almost impossible for me to process – the
equivalent of a message that said, “Aliens have taken over your suburban
community and you will now be required to speak Swahili while working in your
new post as a part-time clown, part-time nuclear engineer in rural Ireland.”

My son, after all, is the boy who crawled under the table at
church at the age of two, fingers jammed in his little coffee-cup-handle-shaped ears,
repeatedly screaming, “No singing. No singing. No singing.” At the same age, he
put his hands over my mouth, begging me not to sing to him – ever.

But apparently things have changed.

We’ve learned this week that my boy enjoys both the stage and singing – at least if the song suits him
and he is feeling particularly comfortable and confident. And apparently he can at least halfway carry a tune when he is so inspired.

Now, this doesn’t mean I will be carting my winsome, baseball
playing, video game loving son off to American Idol auditions any time soon. But it is a good reminder to me that when it comes to our children – and to people in general – maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to put them in a box.

They should be wildly free to explore interests and passions, even if they are constantly changing and seem unfocused – even schizophrenic — at times. And come to think of it, maybe we should grant ourselves the same freedom as adults.

So on this particular summer day, I am focusing on gratitude – feeling a strong sense of thankfulness that we can reinvent ourselves over and over, and that it is never too late for any of us to try something new, to
explore and to grow.

We never know what we might learn about ourselves and each
other along the way.

 

 

Swimming with the Alligators: Fun Exploration or Utter Insanity?

Hunter usually has a certain swagger about him.

But he fell strangely silent, slipping his sweaty,
butter-soft hand into mine as we walked through the entry to Gator Country
Tuesday.

“There are alligators here, right?” he asked quietly, giving
the area a quick scan and leaning in closer to me. “What if they bite me?” A
long pause. “Mommy? What do you think? Can I run faster than an alligator?”

These were all reasonable questions – and being a bit of a
city type myself, I didn’t really know the answers.

All I knew that was Gator Country Wildlife Park, located
just off the freeway in Beaumont, Texas, was known as a quirky place where kids
– and anyone else who’s up for it – can hold snakes, get an up-close look at
turtles and even swim with alligators.

And really, nothing screams summer fun and exploration like
swimming with alligators.

So I put aside any natural maternal concerns – like that my
kids would not leave the park with all their God-given limbs — and decided that,
liability being what it is in America, the place must be perfectly safe.

Once both children were reassured that the alligators they
would be swimming with were small – and that they saw that the reptiles’ mouths
were secured shut, they were excited by the opportunity.

They spent their designated five minutes holding the
alligators, and even encouraging one younger girl, who was fearful, to take a
closer look at the animals.

We heard a presentation on basic alligator facts, and
learned more about the park and its owners, who have been featured on shows
including CMT’s Gator 911. (Sorry friends, I wouldn’t categorize them as “Swamp
People” although a couple of the park’s visitors probably could have been
featured on the show.)

By the time we were leaving the park, Hunter clearly had the bulk of his swagger back.

Looking at a photo display of alligator wrestlers that have
competed at the park, including one with a couple of prominent bandages, he
paused again.

“Hey Mommy? Think that maybe we could do that one day – you know, now that we have gotten used to holding the alligators?”

OK. Maybe this exploration concept needs to have some
serious boundaries …..