by Rick on July 25, 2021

How should we handle difficult things:

Shine a light on them?

Cover them in fog?

…or keep looking for beauty?


The End Game

by Rick on July 11, 2021

Fifteen years ago, I had a late-in-life experience that helped me see that the tricks of bringing out the genius in children apply at any age:

Written June 9, 2006:
At the age of 75, my step-mother still makes the same mistakes with my 86-year-old father, that she did with her children. When my father with confusion on his face says something like, “I don’t understand what’s going on,” she gets angry, and in a loud voice says, “I just told you what’s going on: I am going downtown to do errands, and I will be back after lunch.” It must be as challenging to be responsible for a person whose brain is deteriorating as it is to be responsible for a brain that is growing. Not only do you not know what he knows, what he remembers, what he understands, but you don’t know how that knowledge and understanding is changing.

My father tells me in his characteristically calm, thoughtful way that he just can’t remember things anymore, but that his wife keeps hoping he will get his memory back. “I don’t think so,” he says. In the course of the last three years I have watched him go from forgetting what he was about to say to not remembering his grandchildren’s names or that the seven of hearts is bigger than the six of hearts. His self-reporting conforms to what I observe.

Yet his wife says, It’s not that he can’t remember; he won’t remember,” and to prove her point, says: “Dana, count to ten,” a challenge which Dana’s brain is either too far gone to do, or which Dana is too smart to take her up on. They disagree about what is going on in that black box: my father’s brain.

The great challenge of working with people at the end of their life, or the beginning, or anywhere in between for that matter, is that we can’t know what is going on in the black box. Now that my father is back back from the hospital and home with his wife and full-time live-in help, this difference of opinion will continue to be a source of stress and suffering until his wife lets him die.

Children in the classroom or at home can be equally frustrating. It happens from time to time that a teacher will notice a student sitting at the table with the paper in front of him staring off into space. The other kids are working away. Normally, the teacher will go over and ask if he needs help, and half the time he just snaps out of his reverie and starts writing. The other half of the time, he says he doesn’t understand, the teacher explains, and the student applies pencil to paper. But sometimes the student can’t seem to do anything unless the teacher sits right with him and does it for him. Sometimes this means the child simply doesn’t yet have the neurological connections necessary to do the problem; sometimes it means the child has become too dependent on the adults and has learned to be dependent. Sometimes he or she is playing out a deeper psycho-drama and including the teacher in the game. Often it is a combination. The problem is that we don’t know.

There are various methods that one can employ. There’s getting mad and raising your voice, known as the “bad method” of changing behavior. There is trying harder, known as the “almost-as-bad method” of changing behavior. Then there are some methods which actually work. Actually, they are not so much methods as disciplines, rules to follow in the dynamic, ever-changing relationship.

1) Assume good will. Since you don’t know whether the other person is being difficult or just is difficult, act as if they are doing their best rather than as if they are simply trying to make your life more difficult.

2) Get the other person to talk about their experience and say back to them what you think they said and say “Is that right?” and/or “Is there anything else?” Once they know that what’s in their black box is now in yours, you’re in business. Now you can have the civil, mutually enlightening conversation you want.

If my step mother had applied methods like these, their relationship might have been better during the last two years after he got out of the hospital. It wouldn’t have changed his behavior much, of course. His brain was not developing, it was undeveloping, but at least their last two years together might have been happier.


The Real Business of School

by Rick on June 7, 2021

The Pandemic is teaching us (or has taught us, or would be teaching us, if our minds are open) that the real business of school is social-emotional intelligence. Young children already know it. Ask a five or six-year-old what they are looking forward to in school and they will say: “friends.” These days we should already have learned how to teach academics virtually. What’s missing is the challenges of other people.

Four-year-old Larry was a little challenged when teacher Margaret suggested that he and Walter  go the block area and build something.  It was the first day of school, and he was a little scared to be thrown together with someone he didn’t know. Read More…

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Can Spanking Cause PTSD?

by Rick on May 7, 2021

The Body Keeps the Score
               by Bessel van der Kolk M.D.

The Score My Body Keeps
by Rick Ackerly

I had forgotten
Your painful gaze,
Hairbrush in hand,
Over my bare bottom
Poised to remind me
How bad I am
And how it hurts you
More than it hurts me.

I had forgotten.
But, though seventy years have passed,
My body cannot forget that I’m a mess,
And I spend each minute trying to prove
You and Dad wrong.

Who me? That wasn’t me.
Oh, that. That’s not my fault.
The ice cream on the floor
I was gonna clean it up.
The broken plate?
It wasn’t me.
I’m not a crazy, mixed-up kid.

I get things done
I get there first
I make it work
I’m never late
I’ll show you
I’ll show you
I’ll show you.

Pain’s not something I avoid.
I do it to my body all the time.
When someone causes pain to someone else,
I always close my eyes.

Might spanking a two-year-old have similar impacts on the brain as bigger violence to a bigger person?





Why Don’t They Listen to Me?

by Rick on April 23, 2021

Walking down the sidewalk with three grandsons, the 9-year-old always walks balancing on the curb. His 6-year-old brother follows, and the 11-year-old walks ahead with the adults.

What do their parents say? Right, they pull from their toolbox of:

“Please get back on the sidewalk.”
“Get back on the sidewalk. That’s too dangerous.”
“Don’t do that! It makes me nervous.”
“Get off the curb, please. You are setting a bad example for your little brother.”
Or, the angry rhetorical: “Why do you keep doing that?”

Well, why do they keep doing that?” Read More…