After writing the Family Almanac for 35 years, I’m finding it surprisingly hard to say goodbye.
For one thing, my guilt runneth over. No matter how hard I tried, I never answered enough letters, recommended enough books, cited enough research or wrote enough thank-you notes, which may have been the biggest sin of all. I’m from New Orleans, you see, where thank-you notes matter almost as much as Mardi Gras. Although I can only thank you this way, I really have appreciated your comments. You have taught me so much, even when you were telling me how little I knew.
Let me also answer some questions that I’ve received lately.
I want to tell the father of a math-minded child to give his daughter a cheap little doll on her eighth birthday — so she can pretend that she likes dolls — and then give her a prewired dollhouse called Roominate (Maykah; $30-50) from Radio Shack, so she can design her own furniture, her own rooms and her own house (and then do it again and again). This toy, which is perfect for girls who love science, technology, engineering and math, was invented by three women engineers-to-be at Stanford and is wildly popular with girls (and boys), but don’t call it a “boy toy,” please. The sexes keep far apart at this age.
And let me say to the parent of a slow reading 9-year-old: be patient. She will probably learn to read faster (or become an artist) if you give her a copy of “A World of Your Own” by Laura Carlin (Phaidon; $20) or ”Frank Lloyd Wright for Kids” by Kathleen Thorne-Thomsen (Chicago Review; $17), which is a gem. Or let her wait until her brain has taken its big leap around 14 and then give her “The Edge of the Water” by Elizabeth George (Speak; $10). Mysteries help everyone read faster.
If these books don’t enchant your child however, give her audiobooks instead of paperbacks and stop worrying about it. There are at least eight discrete intelligences, and no one is equally good in all of them.
I also want to answer a letter that haunts me, because it came from a mother who grew up with an autistic brother and who has just found out that her little boy has autism, too. She needs to know that Patricia S. Lemer, the director of Development Delay Resources, has recently published a fine book, “Outsmarting Autism” (Word Assn.; $35). It will teach her the latest ways to handle autism and its sensory issues, too.
Finally, I hope at least some of you will read “Anatomy of an Epidemic” by science writer Robert Whitaker (Broadway; $16). The author of this prize-winning book — a gift from a disillusioned psychiatrist — says that mental illnesses have tripled since new medicines hit the market 50 years ago — and he may be right. Drugs can be essential, but they should be a pediatrician’s last recommendation, not his first.
If Whitaker’s book doesn’t change some of the treatments for mental illness however, brain science probably will — in time. It usually takes about 20 years for doctors to accept any new research.
Although drugs, alcohol and our own blood chemistry have caused many problems in many families, others are of our own making. We work too much or not enough. We marry before we should or divorce when we shouldn’t. We have our babies too early or let our eggs get too old. We watch a loved one die too soon and another live too long. And then there are the parents who abuse their partners or their children while others watch this abuse and say nothing at all.
Life isn’t perfect because we’re not perfect either nor do we have exactly the same values, the same tastes and the same beliefs as anyone else or spend our money — or save our money — in the same way or for the same reason, but we still get along pretty well. What we do and say to our children however — and what we don’t do and don’t say — can decide how well they will live out their lives.
We can’t expect children to do for others if we do too much for them; to be brave when they must if we try too hard to keep them safe and to have confidence in themselves if they don’t learn how to cook and clean and take care of everything they own. It is their competence, not their good grades or their complements, that gives children the stuffing they need.
As parents, we also must give our children the freedom to test themselves, the faith to chase their dreams and enough trust to let them go. These are the greatest gifts that we can ever give our children.
And if these children need a little more help sometimes? Tell them to open the paper, have a cup of tea and do whatever their advice columnist tells them to do.
Questions? Send them to email@example.com