Saturday, August 13, 2011

Everyday Child

Work as a psychotherapist affords encounters with challenging questions often spoken in moments of great difficulty. Among those difficult moments is a questioning patient speaking as a parent who is concerned as to how to go about situating some present difficulty with their child or children. The work of psychotherapy itself often helps such a patient situate a problem in a manner that provides some relief, and relief itself is essential as it creates an opening for this parent to explore a difficulty with their child. To the extent that such an opening is not present, nothing else can happen. The question regarding how to engage one’s kid is often asked once the work of therapy has created the possibility of such engagement.

One common response to the question of how to mindfully engage is to suggest that the parent utilize a children’s story as a bridge to open up discussion between a parent and child. Judging by the children’s publishing industry, this is a rather common response. There are books on the market that attempt to situate everything from divorce to pediatric cancer. I’ve purchased, read, and recommended a few to various patients. While some books are a delight to recommend, others have felt problematic at best, and dangerous at worst in that the very problem to be explored is – unintentionally I think - denied or mystified. So, given the variance found in the marketplace, I welcome the discovery of a series of books that are indeed helpful and well designed.

Barbara Esham requested that I address her work from the perspective of a clinical psychologist in private practice. I met her on Twitter, and she sent me her series The adventures of everyday geniuses to read. Here Esham’s writing is joined by the lively illustrations of the father and son team, Mike and Carl Gordon. These four books have already been endorsed by several academics. In addition to praise from research scientists, the series received a Parent’s Choice Award in 2008. Esham wants to add voices of practitioners, those of us in the trenches. She believes in her work, and I’m happy to say that her belief is warranted. Reviewer disclaimer: Despite claims that millions can be made on Twitter, no monies or services where exchanged in solicitation of this review. Given that she is writing children’s books, and that one of my last publications is a psychoanalytic reading of Finding Nemo, I am happy to say yes. Evidently, I have a weakness for children’s stories and writing reviews.

The books address learning differences, perfectionism/anxiety, difficulties with sustained attention, and dyslexia. Each of these books has in common a strong but not overbearing conveyance of security. That is to say, Esham does a masterful job of situating acceptance and ease in terrain that is often edgy and fraught. Central to this is something we like to call self-esteem. Her characters have this. In each book people get jostled. When the elementary school age children who serve as her protagonists lose faith, they are fortunate in that those around them have the self-esteem to foster repair. Feelings such as doubt, anxiety, frustration, and anger are contained and processed in a fashion that brings these characters closer to themselves and those around them. In each book, Esham reminds us that without the self-esteem to accept and situate pain and loss, nothing else can happen.

I began to first consider the topic of self-esteem in regard to these books while reading Stacey Coolidge’s Fancy-Smancy Cursive Handwriting. Second grader Carolyn is frustrated because Stacey Coolidge not only has wonderful handwriting that appears to be effortlessly produced, but Stacey finishes her work early and gets to feed the class Guinea Pig. Carolyn wants to feed the Guinea Pig very much, and her handwriting is standing in the way. Worn, torn paper, and smudges take over Carolyn’s world. Despite practice, her work is the 'worst in the class.' Carolyn is the kid who has come in last. She wonders if anyone knows that she is working hard. As weeks go by, Carolyn is fortunate in that her teacher one day asks why she looks sad. Not only does this teacher listen, but she also explains that writing is only a tool for expression, and that many talented and famous writers had horrible handwriting. In this moment, Carolyn recognizes that her teacher not only knows that she is working hard, but also knows that she has a great imagination. Could life get any better? Carolyn is then told that the reason her teacher wanted to speak with her is to ask if she would take the Guinea Pig home for the weekend.

In our achievement-based world, we are fortunate to find that Carolyn is not the only character struggling with timely completion. As with the Scholastic Aptitude Test, Esham provides a focus on verbal and mathematical expression. In Last to finish: A story about the smartest boy in math class Max assumes math would be easy for him. His dad is an engineer after all. Yet, he begins to have some problems in third grade when he encounters timed math tests. With a hyper focus on the timer, Max loses any capacity to think about math. Not only does he come in last, his classmates begin to tease him. His principal and teacher request a meeting with Max and his parents. Max takes the news of a meeting as though he is a prisoner that has been told to present to a courtroom for sentencing. Fortunately for Max, his principal has not only found, but also read Max’s math folder that had been lost in the school hallway. There he finds that Max has been successfully playing with his older brother’s algebra book. A discussion of the distinction between memorizing and thinking follows that ends with Max agreeing to join the school math team, if there is no timer.

The plot lines of great teachers who engage a math wiz who has trouble on timed tests, and a great story teller who has difficulty learning to write script reminded me of Leo Buscagila’s work on loving and learning. Buscaglia was a champion of the idea that not all children or people for that matter have the same strengths and weaknesses. This is good, as we need people to do different things in our society. Using an animal metaphor, Buscagila pointed out that elementary education often misses this point and asks a squirrel to fly like a bird and a bird to climb like a squirrel. Injuries result. Esham’s books illustrate how injuries can be avoided to the benefit of our society as a whole. Although we have yet to sufficiently implement this knowledge in elementary education, like Buscaglia, Esham provides an illustration of where we need to go.

Squirrels and birds are fortunate in that when a squirrel climbs, it climbs and when a bird flies, it flies. Human beings on the other hand are capable of thinking about climbing while flying. This can be an asset, and also a liability. As our consciousness may be used to constructive or destructive ends, training the monkey mind is important. For some, training appears to be essential. This is the case with David, who with an active mind is distracting his classmates with the experiments he conducts during class. A letter from teacher to parent leads to a conversation between parents that David overhears. There, David learns that his father has a name for the condition David suffers from: The Wiggle Fidgets. In Mrs. Gorski, I think I have the Wiggle Fidgets, David creates a box of cures to share with his parents and teacher in their upcoming meeting. David’s solutions are popular behavior strategies used in the treatment of what in Psychiatry is called Attention Deficit Disorder. For a child reader, to find that a kid created these strategies will in most cases be an asset. Esham chooses to focus only on behavioral interventions, and this is a strength of the book. As Katherine Ellison has shown in her book Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, there is no cure-all for attentional problems be they called Wiggle Fidgets or a deficit disorder. We do know that interventions help, and whether or not a diagnosed child is receiving neurofeedback, medication, or neither – behavioral strategies that may be utilized in the classroom are essential for success in school.

In addition to the Wiggle Fidgets, Dyslexia is another condition that is often diagnosed in childhood. I read If You’re so smart, how come you can’t spell Mississippi? and the other three books with my eight-year-old son. Like the book’s protagonist Katie, my son is also coming to terms with the realization that parents can be imperfect and successful. In this book, Katie is amazed to learn that her father, a successful lawyer has difficulties spelling. She realizes that her dad was like one of her classmates who works extra hard to spell anything when he was in elementary school. Katie begins to learn that dyslexia has nothing to do with whether or not a person is smart or successful. While reading about this at her local library, she begins to wonder if some of the famous people who had dyslexia had patient and supportive parents and teachers.

The theme of loving parents and teachers who can and do work together is repeated throughout the books. I find this a wonderful illustration of an old idea: The way of successful engagement is through love and intimacy not through a use of crushing power. Too often teachers, parents, and children feel misunderstood. These books both show and tell us again and again that the way through that is to enter the heart of the problem and mindfully engage it and each other.

As my eight year old says regarding these thoughtful and delightful books: “These books would help anyone around eight years old. They help with spelling, writing, math, paying attention, we all have to do that.”