Posted in ebb & flow, education, know better do better, mindset, parenting

Let beginners experiment unbothered

The Climbing Daddy and I were at the climbing gym the other day, and there were some parents with a young child on the beginner wall. The kid was maybe a third of the way up the wall, and the parents were yelling all sorts of suggestions and directions up at her.

I turned to The Climbing Daddy and said, “More parents on the slow curve of learning how to be quiet and just let them climb.”

It’s true. You see someone—not just a child—on the wall and looking stuck and you want to yell up at them where the holds are or how to make the next move. But if you think of it from the climber’s perspective…

Let’s assume they actually are a little stuck (and aren’t just slow or resting). They’re already a bit frazzled from getting stuck. If they’re new to climbing, there’s a solid element of fear involved in there (or they likely wouldn’t be stuck because they’d just grab and go). And maybe some self-consciousness because people are watching. (I don’t usually have this, but every now and then, it’s really bad.) And then someone starts yelling stuff up at them. Maybe two someones. Which maybe adds a component of trying to please (shout out to the people-pleasers!). There’s a lot of input to a brain that’s already overloading. It’s overwhelming.

So what I do my best to do (though I’m still not perfect at it) is to tell the climber (whether it’s The Kid or anyone new I’m climbing with) that I’m happy to help, but I’m going to let them ask. I’ll talk through that move, and then let them climb unbothered unless/until they ask again.

It’s hard sometimes.

The Climbing Daddy was on the wall, and there was a great foot hold that he was missing and could have used; he was struggling a little. But he was also still working and was focused. I didn’t say anything; it would have broken his concentration. If he’d been in a different mental space, I would have pointed it out. But we’ve been climbing together enough for me to be able to tell those things by just watching.

Sometimes, “stuck” and “thinking” look alike.

The thing is, this is true for people learning pretty much anything. Give them enough information to get started, and let them try it. See how it feels. Experiment. Get stuck. Get unstuck. Figure stuff out.

I have been teaching beginners for decades. It took a while before I learned that sometimes, they need to make mistakes without me immediately jumping in and correcting.

The Climbing Daddy and I took some dance lessons, and one of his frustrations was the teacher trying to help after every pass, when he wanted to just try it a couple of times, see if he could make it work, and then get correction.

It’s a normal teacher thing to do. (I’ve had explicit training at work on ways to avoid it.) But it’s often not helpful.

I’ve started giving time in my classes to let kids practice on their own. 30 seconds here, a minute there. I’ve found it to be more productive than working together as a group the whole time.

When working one-on-one with a student, I’ve taken to asking, “Do you want me to stay with you while you practice this, or do you want to try it on your own and show me in a minute or two what you can do?” I’ve never had a student ask me to stay, but I’ve had many students come back a minute later with a skill they’ve figured out, or questions about the skill they couldn’t nail yet. Either way, they’re deeper into the process, and they’re learning to self-assess.

My job is to make you not need me any more.

This applies to parenting. To kids learning how to do chores. To kids learning to dress themselves. To kids helping with food preparation. Yes, they’re slower. No, the end result isn’t as good, usually. But they need time and space to try it and to practice. (And for the end result to be “good enough,” relative to developmental stages.)

The absolute best way I’ve found to stay empathetic to people learning a new skill is to be a beginner at something. Added bonus if it’s an activity that you struggle with, that doesn’t come easy.

Because learning to play an instrument is so physical and requires so much coordination (before we even complicate it further with reading music), my empathy is found in floundering through physical skills. Being a novice at Sudoku or something mental wouldn’t draw parallels as strong. (But if you’re trying to teach someone an academic or intellectual skill, then learning a new physical skill might not be as useful as an empathy tool.)

Let beginners flounder. Make yourself available to help. Jump in sometimes. There is so much learning in the struggle. The sense of achievement is stronger after slogging through the struggle. Finding the balance between letting them struggle and giving the answer is tricky, but it’s our responsibility as teachers and as parents to look for the balance. We’re the ones in the lead.


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Posted in about me, hope, know better do better, mental health, parenting, vulnerability

“Michael would be proud.”

That’s what I wrote on Facebook eight years ago.

I had traveled to NJ to present at a conference. (I love doing that!! Public speaking is fun scary.)

I had spent several sessions with Michael, my therapist, working on a scripted conversation with my mom. (This is several years after starting with him.) To put it mildly, she and I had never had a good relationship (“You’ve been a problem since you were in kindergarten!”), and this conversation was intended to try to set boundaries — both for her (“I feel disrespected”) and for myself (not accepting the invitation to the argument—keeping myself within my boundaries and not blowing up).

I told him the conversation was unlikely to last as long as two minutes.

I was right.

But I maintained my boundaries, stayed calm, didn’t accept the invitation to the argument.

It ended with her stomping up the stairs and slamming her bedroom door.

We’ve had very few conversations since then. None in the last several years.

I can’t explain to you how much it hurts to be rejected by your mom, to be told explicitly that you are decidedly not OK as you are, especially repeatedly, especially as a child. (Tears welled just seeing the post pop up in my “memories.” I remember that small chunk of that evening well. Because even though I knew how it was going to go, there’s always that little bit of hope…)

I can’t quantify all the little places that this comes out sideways.

I can’t fully explain the combination of shame and defensiveness that washes over me when someone says that hurts done to us when we’re children have no effect (or should not be blamed) for how we act as adults.

Are we responsible for our actions? Yes.

Are we unaffected by everything that has happened to us? Absolutely not.

I’m better than I was when I wrote that post eight years ago. I’m better than I was when I started this blog six-ish months ago.


Therapy. Lots of it. Intentionally ripping open old wounds and helping them to heal properly. Like breaking a bone so it mends itself the way it should.

Intentionality. Being aware of how I’m reacting, why I’m reacting, and working my ass off to fix it. Finding home in “it’s not me, it’s you” in situations where 1-that’s true and 2-I can’t get out of it.

Patience and love from close friends who maybe understand that when interpersonal relationships go wrong, it affects me in a way that seems to be abnormally intense.

(Or maybe they just chalk it up to “That’s Heat.” Either way, patience and love.)

Patience and love from close friends who maybe understand that friendships are more important to me than they seem to be to those with a solid root system.

It’s one of my top life priorities to be a good mom, to do better for The Kid than my mom did for me. For him to know that no matter how many times he leaves his Legos and backpack and socks laying around or how well he runs his races or what grades he gets on his report card or what activities he wants to participate in or how much I like or don’t like his dating partners, he is loved and I am a safe place for him to be.

I am especially mindful to tell him that I love him, that I’m lucky to be his mama when I’m angry. Or when he’s sad. (Or both.) We snuggle and talk when he’s upset. You are loved, just as you are. Even when you don’t feel lovable. Especially when you don’t feel lovable.

I might not like your actions, and we might need to work on changing them, but I love you regardless.

Working through all of my baggage is a lifelong journey (I assume, at this point). I am constantly handed new situations in which I can learn to make myself better, healthier.

Honestly, I’m tired of them. (“Builds character.” I have enough character, thanks.)

Honestly, I get angry sometimes that more people don’t do the same. (If nothing else, I wouldn’t have to work so hard if other people would pick up their share of the work.)

My request to you, if you have children: be a safe place for them to be. Own your baggage. Don’t take it out on them. It’s hard to own some of the stuff that’s in us, some of the ways we’ve acted as a result. It’s easy to blame the kid. But ignoring or deferring just perpetuates it.

And your friends who had traumatic childhoods? Give them some extra love. They might still be running a deficit.

Posted in education, meandering, motivation, parenting

How do you teach…

I have had so many conversations with colleagues near and far recently, and there have been two themes with regards to deficiencies in many of our students (though I wish I could say the problem was limited to just students…).

One is attention to detail.

How do you teach attention to detail?

A student in a colleague’s band had a playing test on the G Major scale. The student had music as pictured to work from. Despite the highlight and label, the student didn’t play the F#.

I gave a written test to my classes years ago when I was student teaching. The extra credit question was “Spell quarter note.” A significant number of kids got it wrong. Wrong! (They left out the second R, which is how they were spelling it previously.)

There are endless examples of simply not noticing details. And yes, we all do it in some way or another some of the time, but ’round here, it’s chronic.

I think much of it ties in to the second theme.

I can’t teach people to give a shit.

Let’s say, in the above example, the kid saw it but played it wrong because he didn’t care. “I got most of the notes right,” or “Band isn’t important anyway,” or “I’m not going to play next year so who cares what I do now?” How do you change that?

Most often, we use punitive measures—we’ll lecture you or lower your grade or call your parents or revoke a privilege. Parents do the same—we’ll revoke a privilege or yell at you or hit you. They work OK sometimes, but if they gain us anything, it’s only compliance, not investment. And there is almost always a next time.

I teach a subject that kids have to opt into. Parents need to take steps to acquire instruments for their kids, even if it’s a school instrument. And still, there are so many of them who just refuse to engage, regardless of what the project is for that day.

I understand that sometimes, kids (all people, actually) act like they don’t care when they do, as a means of protection. “I can’t do this (or I’m afraid I won’t be able to do this) so I’m going to act like it doesn’t matter and I’m choosing it to be that way. This way, I feel like I’m in control and I don’t need to be vulnerable.”

I also understand that just teaching kids to be compliant is not ideal. We need kids to be active and engaged and thinking and experimenting and learning the way that kids—all people, actually—learn best. There is high value in rule-breaking in some contexts, but it’s not typically willy-nilly “I don’t feel like doing that” that’s valuable, in or out of school.

All that said, there is a requirement for some degree of compliance in any social space. There are boundaries (rules, procedures) and, for the most part, they have good cause. We can have roads and freeways and grocery stores and malls and parks and movie theatres and on and on because of these boundaries—and we get angry (and potentially hurt or killed) when people in those spaces disregard people around them.

My classroom has rules and procedures, and I work to adjust the space for students who need it, or for students who make a reasonable and implement-able request.

Not everyone is interested in all things. Not everyone who is interested is interested to the same degree. I fully understand all of that (and certainly see how it applies to all people, not just my students). But if you’re going to have to be here, you might as well try to get something out of it.

It used to be that I’d consistently have kids in band who didn’t do well in the rest of school but loved playing their instrument. They behaved better for me. They worked harder for me. My class was where they thrived.

I don’t have that any more, or I haven’t in the last few years. I feel like the kids who might have been those kids are already checked out and won’t even try. Even with explicit invitations, those kids are gone.

I have spent a lot of time this school year talking to kids about emotional safety. About how mistakes are normal and OK and we all make them, including me. About how we need to make the space safe for each other, that that’s not something I can do by myself. About how, as a team, we’ll be better if each one within the group has space to learn and to mess up and to grow. Because we can’t learn this skill without messing up. You’ll make mistakes on your instrument for as long as you play it.

Maybe there are kids I’ve reached, kids who have received this message and changed their behavior somewhat. Or their perspective. Maybe they were already safe for other people but now feel other people are a little bit safer for them.

I don’t know. I’ll probably never know. (This is one of the things about teaching. Planting seeds that you often never see sprout, much less thrive. Shout out to former students who have gotten in touch.)

I’m at a loss. I don’t know how to teach attention to detail. I don’t know how to teach giving a shit (to students; sometimes also to parents; occasionally to colleagues). Not only does the success of my classes require it, but the success of our businesses, of our economy, of our families, of our country all require it.

Posted in audience participation, follow-up, food, parenting, tips

Answering follow-up—1

I had an e-conversation in response to a few ideas I’ve put out here and, with permission, am sharing bits with you. (Also, as I’m revisiting our conversation, I’m thinking of other things, so there will be a little more here than there was privately.)

Hey Heather, I’ve been enjoying your blog…Pregnancy is kind of like my time to go overboard on sweets. Now that baby is home, the donuts everyday has chilled out. I’m working on getting back on track. However, cutting sugar from my family’s life is one of my priorities this next year. I feel I have really started/developed some bad habits for my oldest daughter. I’m going to try to do one little change a month. January – no more Starbucks (this often includes chocolate milk for my kid or a cake pop). February – no more soda when we eat out (we don’t keep soda in the house), etc… However, what I am struggling with is my daughter’s breakfast and snacks. Right now she has an eggo waffle in the morning with chocolate syrup on it. She won’t eat it unless it has the chocolate syrup. Plain yogurt, she sees my husband put honey on it, and she wants honey, too. How do I “gently” change the breakfast routine so 1) we do something healthier than a processed waffle, and 2) cut the syrup off? I know you had mentioned in a previous post that The Kid does some type of frozen fruit popsicle? How do you make that, freeze a smoothie in a popsicle tray?

First, the one change a month plan is awesome! It’s long enough for each thing to be able to become part of the routine. It’s specific—there’s no ambiguity. I also think that the “no Starbucks” plan is better than “no sweets at Starbucks” which could include plain tea or coffee for Mama but is going to eliminate everything for the child. That would get a lot more pushback than just skipping that stop altogether.

Something you could do is save money in a jar (if you typically pay in cash) or keep track of it (if you pay by card) and at the end of the month, do a fun little family thing with it. Depending on how often you go and how much you usually get, this may be a little thing or a big thing. But as the year continues on and they all compound, it would be more and more (until at some point, there is no more “we avoided Starbucks today” because it’s not on your radar any more).

Or use it to buy new healthy foods that you might not otherwise try. There are all sorts of unfamiliar fruits and vegetables available.

As far as breakfast … I hate breakfast. For me. For The Kid. It’s just a pain. This might be because we’re night people living in a morning person world.

For a while, his preferred breakfast was plain yogurt with added frozen fruit, usually blueberries. As the weather got cooler, he’d ask for the blueberries to be defrosted first. And then he just didn’t want yogurt any more at all.

He’s been eating toaster waffles for the last few months. For a few weeks, it was with maple syrup, but we switched that to blueberries. I defrost them, mash them a little (we learned quickly that unmashed blueberries roll off of waffles), and spread them on his waffles, and he’s happy.

With us on break, I took the time to make steel-cut oats. The texture of steel cut is superior to rolled. (There is no nutritional difference, assuming plain in both cases.) I added frozen fruit, and he’s happy. I will see if I can remember to start the water when I wake up (instead of when I’m actually ready to go in the kitchen), and then this will be breakfast once school starts again.

Yes, you can make steel cut in the slow cooker overnight but not just one serving. And reheated oatmeal is not delicious.

I really like frozen fruit in fresh oatmeal. The hot oatmeal thaws the fruit; the cold fruit cools the hot oatmeal. It’s ready to eat right away.

As for the honey…

Monkey see, monkey do. They could try plain yogurt with fruit together…

Popsicles: I have popsicle molds. We usually use banana and one other fruit (sometimes two), make a smoothie, and freeze it in the molds. No juice. No sweeteners. Just fruit, and a little water if needed to get it to blend. When it’s warmer out, he’s amenable to smoothies for breakfast as well, but it’s really more work than I want to do in the morning. (The oatmeal is going to push my limits.) But he loves breakfast popsicles.

Snacks: he has cherry tomatoes, apples, bananas, dried mango, plantain chips, almonds, cashews, peanuts all available and within reach. He can have any of them pretty much whenever he wants. There are other things that will be his Favorite Thing for a short time and they’ll rotate in and out. Occasionally he likes Babybel cheeses, or string cheese. Every now and then, we’ll mash an avocado, add salsa to it, and eat that with chips.

If you have questions, you can always contact me. I don’t post anyone else’s story or question or whatnot here without permission.

Posted in mindset, parenting, thoughtfulness

The culture in your home

I got a lot of feedback on one phrase in my post on throwing away junk food: “we have a culture of healthy food in our house.”

It has been interesting talking to people about the culture at home.

First: yes, your home has its own culture. This is why there are so many adults who say, “I never thought xyz was weird until I went to college” or “I had no idea everyone’s family didn’t do that.”

Home is the place where we have the most control. These are things we do and don’t do here. These are things we eat/drink and don’t eat/drink here. This is how we talk to people and expect to be spoken to. These are activities we do and don’t do. This is how we spend our time. This is how we spend our money. This is how we organize our stuff. This is how we take care of each other. And on and on.

These are all things that we have a large degree of control over. The more adults there are in the house, the more difficult it might be to set this if not all adults agree, or if adults have different default settings.

To mesh these things:

Sometimes it works to talk about ideals: “How would we do this if we had no obstacles?” and work from there to set standards and figure out ways around or over obstacles.

Sometimes it works to talk about goals: “This isn’t how I/we want it, but it’s something I/we want to get better at, so let’s create a culture in the home to help us get better.” (This is HUGE with eating, with screen time, with texting while conversing, etc.)

Sometimes it works to talk about kids: “This isn’t how we are but it’s how we want our kid(s) to be, so we need to change how we do it so that it’s just normal for the kid(s) (and, as a result, becomes part of us as well).”

The bigger the kids are, the more they’re going to need to be part of the conversation.

In the case of us having a culture of healthy food in our home, there was no conversation to set it up—it existed before The Kid did. We’ve had conversations about it explaining the why many times, but he’s never known anything different—it’s just how we do it—and there has never been resistance to it.

If it was something we wanted to create now, there would need to be conversations and a plan mapping out how that would go, what would change, what wouldn’t, etc.

But it applies to all aspects of living. With the three of us living together for only a year at this point—and with the adults being in independent states of flux besides—there are still aspects of family/household culture that we’re working out.

If you live alone, you can still address many aspects of all of this for daily living and interactive aspects for when you have people into your home.

Create your culture.