Don’t Dream it, Be it

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Here’s something. Research indicates that children are much more likely to learn skills and thrive if parents praise them for “being” rather than “doing.” What does this mean? Basically, if you want to encourage your kids to help around the house, then instead of telling them, “It was so helpful when you cleared your dishes” or “You did such a good job with that,” you can say, “You are such a helper.” The difference here is that you are focusing not on what they did but on what they are: a helper. Sounds simple, right?

But wait a minute. Isn’t that “labeling?” And aren’t we supposed to avoid doing that? I have to admit that for this reason I have had a hard time getting my head around this. Especially since, as a new parent, I had read psychologist Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, in which he insists that while criticizing our children is clearly not helpful, neither is praising them. According to Kohn, the best kind of discipline is intrinsic (coming from within) rather than from others. This stuck with me. So when in recent years I have learned more about what works with kids, I have had to adjust my thinking on this.

In addition, I have always been disturbed by what I saw as an overuse of the phrase “Good job.” As in, the child has climbed the steps of the play structure at the park and the parent calls out, “Good job!” The child goes down the slide and the parent says, “Good job!” Etc. Too much of this, I thought, would give the child an inflated sense that everything they did was valuable, special, amazing. Is this good for the child’s sense of self? I don’t think so.

Is there a place for “Good job?” Sure! When a child is working on a developmental milestone, such as reading or potty training, or even learning algebra, it is good and appropriate to acknowledge this.

The best way to do this, however, is to praise them for who they are, for being. “You’re such a good helper.” “You’re always so thoughtful.” “You’re such a good brother.” The research indicates that a child is much more likely to do helpful, or thoughtful, or brotherly things if they understand that it is part of who they are. This quality is not contingent upon their having accomplished a task well (how frustrating, then, when they are not able to do the good thing, or when something else—tiredness, hunger, a feeling of hurt, an unmet need—gets in the way). Rather, if doing these things is a quality they possess, the default setting, they will do it when they can. It’s simply who they are.

There is a practical side to this for parents. We don’t have to coax, or bribe, or cajole, or coerce, a child to do their chores if the chore is what they do because they are helpful, and helpful people do chores. The expectation takes care of itself. When I realized this, I was able to align it with Kohn’s ideal of intrinsic motivation: they will desire, on their own, to do the good thing if it is simply what they do. How cool is that?

Of course, there is always room for a well-placed “Good job.” Or just a hug.

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Daughterology

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As a father with four daughters, there are certain things I have experienced that are unique to my situation. Some of them were expected and simply come with the territory. Others came as quite a surprise. The following is a list of some of the more prominent revelations; I’ll leave you to decide which is which. Feel free to share your own experiences.

 

It is possible to wash more than one entire load of pink clothing.

 

A lot of toilet paper is used. I mean, a lot.

 

Hearing “Just wait until they’re teenagers” (coupled with “You’re going to need a shotgun”).

 

Don’t get me wrong: they like to watch a backhoe tearing up the pavement just like anyone else. But the princess thing cannot be avoided. There will be princesses.

 

Beard related kiss goodnight injuries (self-reported).

 

Bathroom time-sharing has not yet become an issue. But. I’m starting to imagine what it will be like, and I’m a little scared.

 

Explaining that, while it is not considered polite for little girls to burp in public, that was very impressive.

 

Not always knowing the difference between tights, leggings and pants.

 

Ponytails I can do. Braids are still in process.

 

Explaining that of course you can be President someday. But you have to be 40.

How to Throw Like a Dad

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I’ve been thinking about what I’m passing along to my children. And what I’m not. There is some pride in the former and a fair bit of panic in the latter. I’ll explain.

My wife and I are big readers. We both started reading at an early age, and in recent years we have made concerted efforts to supplement our smartphone addictions (an affliction of life in the 21st Century) with the presence of real books. The girls have always been surrounded by books, and we make vigorous use of our Audible account; both car rides and afternoons at home are full of audiobooks. As a result, books are an important part of their lives. The eight and ten year-old have read the Narnia series several times through, and are currently both working their way through The Lord of the Rings (this especially impresses me because I know they’re tough going; I’ve never been able to get through them myself).

Another thing I know they have down is art. I’m pretty sure this mostly comes from my wife’s contribution of genes, as she can pick up seemingly any project in any medium and excel at it. We have never scrimped on art supplies, and we give them ample time and freedom to create. A coworker has remarked—jokingly, I hope—that I must display my childrens’ drawings at work in order to shame other parents.

So, there are things my girls love to do that we have encouraged and enabled, and at which they show great skill and talent. This is good, right?

Last year I took my three oldest girls, champion readers that they are, to the culminating event of the library’s Summer Reading program. There were a variety of activities here, including crafts, games, karaoke, and, outside on the lawn, games of physical skill. It was while we were outside that I witnessed my eight year-old attempt to throw a ball at a target. To put it mildly, I was…surprised at her lack of skill in throwing. It immediately struck me (the thought, not the ball, though it was a close call) that I had never taught her to throw or catch properly. Of course, it next occurred to me that I was obviously a bad father.

I should mention that (apart from a good stretch in track & field in first grade) I have never been athletic. I grew up both physically and socially awkward; I was a nervous child. Twitchy, and not terribly coordinated. I was teased for my lack of ability and was never a preferred pick for any team captain. Needless to say, I was never a team captain. I finally learned to dribble a basketball (and make a basket) when I worked at a psychiatric facility for children. I learned from the children. I was in my mid-thirties by this time.

As the days start to lengthen and the idea of Spring starts to take root, I feel increasing urgency to teach my girls about sports. They are vigorous and active, and they love to be outside. They run, jump, and like to hurl chunks of rock into the river. They all love to swim and have had regular lessons. But unlike with reading and art, they have never seen athletics modeled in their family. Suddenly, and quite unexpectedly, this has become an important issue for me.

So, going back to the idea of resolutions, I have decided it is time for me to buck up and start thinking in sports. I can’t wait to get a softball and glove, a basketball, a soccer ball, a Frisbee. Turns out that, once again, in thinking about what to teach my children they have something to teach me in return.

Can you tell me how to get to Problem-Solving Mode?

This week’s post is by featured contributor Esther Schiedel. We hope that you find it useful and look forward to future posts by Esther.

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Knowing how to solve problems is a valuable, life-long skill. That may be the understatement of the year. Finding solutions to mechanical or physical problems is hard, but finding solutions to problems involving several people interacting and getting along with each other is really tough. That process is a major part of parenting, though.

Here are some suggested steps for problem-solving family life challenges.

(These are designed for school age and older children–and for adults!–but the process can be modified to use with younger children.)

Part 1 By Yourself

1.Acknowledge to yourself what is going on with you: What is your physical state? (hungry, sleep deprived, wound up, …) What are your feelings? (frustrated, worried, fearful, …) What are your fears? (I’m a terrible parent; My child will never be able to go to sleep without me, go to school, be self-supportive, . . .).

2. Ask yourself: How is this affecting me? Can I list specific, concrete ways that this is impacting my life? Is this blocking my ability to achieve my goals or meet my needs?

3. Respond to yourself empathetically—“I hear you” “It’s hard to deal with this. ” Help yourself calm down by deep breathing or physical exercise.

Part 2 With the Other(s) (spouse, child, etc.)

Establish a connection. Essentially this is saying or conveying without words “I’m available to listen—now or whenever you are ready to talk.”

4. Bring up the problem in a neutral way; for example, “We always seem to end up yelling at each other in the mornings. It’s upsetting to me and I think it bothers you, too. Can we talk about how we might be able to do things differently?”

5. Use empathetic listening. The goal is to listen for understanding, not weakness. Trust that the other person is not lying or trying to manipulate you, but being honest. You DO NOT need to agree with him/her, just to accept that this is his/her perception. Help the other person go through the process you just went through of identifying feelings and needs and calming down.

6. With the other person’s help (when possible), identify out loud (and in writing if desired): how s/he feels; his/her need(s); and what s/he would like to happen. It’s important that you are able to state these and have the other person say (or indicate) “Yes, that is what I feel, need, and want.”

6a. There may be lots of things. Pick only one to deal with right now. You can get back to the others later.

7. Now state your own feelings, needs, and what you would like to happen regarding the issue at hand. Do this as briefly as possible. Remember this is what you would like to happen, NOT what you insist upon happening. If appropriate, ask the other person to state your feelings, needs, and wants in a way that you agree is accurate.

8. Sit with this for a while together.

9. Brainstorm together—come up with a list of possible solutions (whacky and totally unrealistic ones encouraged to get the creative juices flowing) and write them down.

10. Evaluate those solutions. Consider any other relevant factors and realities: developmental stage, temperament, safety, affordability, time, health, fairness, family rules, laws, moral considerations, etc.

11. Select one(s) that meet both your needs. Be open to change. You both have veto power over any of the suggestions and you both need to agree on the solution.

12. Be as specific as possible about your agreed upon solution—when where what who.

13. Put it into practice for a specified amount of time. Then follow up with each other—how is it working out? How are you feeling now? Make adjustments as needed.

14. Problem Solved! Celebrate successes!

Repeat as often as necessary.

 

Esther Schiedel is parent to three adults, grandparent to three boys, and a Certified Family Life Educator. She provides parenting education through classes and workshops through LBCC and through her business, Sharing Strengths. She became interested in parenting education when she became a parent and had a need for more information and support.

A Panel of Experts

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Happy New Year, everybody. I’m not much with New Year’s resolutions, but I decided to ask for some guidance from my kids tonight.

I asked them, separately through the evening, what they thought it was most important for parents to do. I explained that I was going to write about their answers.

The eight year-old was first. She answered immediately and with much conviction:

“Love your children. Love each other. That’s it, really.” This was her final answer.

As I was putting the little ones to bed I asked my six year-old. She equivocated for a few minutes, arranging the various stuffed cats (wild and domestic) that lurk about her pillow and said, “Spend time with your children. You know, like sitting with them and snuggling and stuff.”

The four year-old was next. She was, characteristically, suspicious of the whole enterprise. “I don’t know what parents do! I’m a child. I only think about play.” I pointed out that when she plays she often pretends to be a mother. She thought about this. After a time she said, “Cook. Work. Take care of us.” Then, after a pause, “And pets.” Okay, then.

The ten year-old needed time to think about it. She has been looking and behaving an awful lot like a teenager lately, but now she lay on her back, rocking back and forth, holding her feet which were suspended in the air. She asked the eight year-old what she had told me, but she wasn’t going to share. “It’s private,” she said. Finally my eldest answered, “Love your kids and have special time with them. Hang out with them.”

It didn’t hit me until later how much they had given me to work with. What does “Love your children” mean? They understand love as an action rather than a feeling. In our family we say “I love you” with much frequency (a phrase with which I had never been comfortable until I became a parent). I don’t know what to do with that as a resolution other than to acknowledge that the act of loving your kids, which is in one sense automatic and, you know, of course, also entails to struggle to do it well, from day to day, from moment to moment.

So I thought, spending time with them. I can do that. I do that. I thought back through the day. I was at home, as work was canceled due to inclement weather. I spent much of the day washing their bedding, tidying their rooms, vacuuming, preparing meals, doing the dishes. To me, these tasks are acts of love and I approach them that way. But how much time did I spend with them? How brief were my check-ins with them? How much attention did I give to their drawings and projects and imaginative games?

Thanks for the reminder, girls. This is simple, but it’s not easy. There’s always work to be done.

On this Ship Together

Pirate

I intended this week to write about something that has been coming up a lot in my work with parents and, inevitably, in my own parenting. Namely, how to discipline children without getting our emotions involved. This is much easier to do when the children are not our own: as a parenting educator, I can see the behavior for what it is, and know that it is not connected to who the parent is.

With my own children it is not so easy. I have expectations for how our relationship is supposed to work; I expect them to trust me and to know that what I am asking them to do is the best thing for them. When they do not seem to understand this, it is impossible to keep myself, and our relationship, out of the equation. I feel that their difficulty in meeting my expectations is personal: that I am, or the child is, failing to honor the connection that we have. And that is when as a parent I start to “lose it.”

Here is an example. I have written before about my challenges in getting my six year-old to sleep through the night. I used to be able to comfort her and simply sit with her until she went back to sleep. Having a book to read on the reading app on my phone kept me busy. But then it stopped working. She would wake again in distress as soon as I tried to sneak out of her room. And my emotions would take over. I got frustrated, she reacted to this, and a drawn-out struggle ensued. Sleep would now be a long way away for either of us.

For a while, my solution was to move her to the other bed, next to her mother, and sleep in hers (it is…shorter than I am). Or, when all the struggling woke the four year-old sister, to move her to the adult bed and sleep in her (even shorter) one. As long as I was in the room, the six year-old could sleep and so could I, after a fashion. But this, I finally realized, was not solving anything.

So I had to set the boundary: adults needed to sleep in their bed, and children needed to sleep in theirs. Since I could not wait her out, I told her that I would tuck her in, give her many hugs and kisses, and sit with her for five minutes before going back to my room. This was the only logical solution, but after so long accommodating her by working around the problem, this was very difficult for her. For a few nights she would simply have to be sad in her bed after I said goodnight. There was much crying and calling out of my name. Though I am sure this was much harder for her, there was no way I was going to sleep next door until she settled. But I persevered. If she came back out of her room, I could tuck her in again and say goodnight, but I would be going back to my bed.

And so it went. It got easier, eventually, when she (and I) realized that this was going to be the expectation every time. She simply would not believe that five minutes had gone by until I started setting a timer (for some reason she believes my timer). And it got easier. Some nights are easier than others. But through consistent repetition of the plan, she is now able to put herself to sleep.

What happened? All of those struggles we were having with our relation to one another—namely, that she thought she was losing me and I thought she was staying awake to torture us both—were replaced by the expectation itself, and by our willingness to work together to make it happen. I agreed to be available when she woke in the night, and she agreed to go back to her bed because she knew what would happen. It is no longer about us.

Looking back, it is easy for me to see that this plan is the one I should have gone with in the first place. But my guilt and uncertainty (am I doing this right?), and her fear and anxiety (how would I react this time?) kept the struggle going. Having the expectation and sticking to it was the only solution.

How will it go tonight? I have no idea. But finally we both know what to do. We are on this ship together.

Breaking Down the Break

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So, the kids are home from school. How is that going?

We are taking a break from homeschooling as well, so we’re all home and in full Winter Break mode. Add up all that family time, the change in routines, and the excitement of the impending holiday and the results can be unpredictable, to say the least. What can we do to ensure that these days at home go as well as they can?

  1. Keep the routines that you can. It is be tempting to let everyone (including ourselves) sleep in, and that can be nice, for sure. But if your children are accustomed to the way the morning goes in getting up and getting ready for school, pushing the day back can be disruptive. We try to keep the structure of the day intact as much as possible, sticking to predictable mealtimes, bedtimes, chores, daily activities and downtimes in order to keep things predictable. The more things that they can anticipate happening in the usual way, the more comforted and settled they will feel.
  2. Pace yourselves. Just because we are faced with all this unstructured time does not mean that we should try to fill it with activities. Even the “fun” can be overwhelming without allowing for the quiet periods we all need in order to recharge. The adults will need to do this to, and if you are used to having time to yourself during the day, be sure to allow for that as well.
  3. Prioritize the holiday stuff. Every family has its own traditions and the children especially will delight in those activities—decorating the house, baking, taking in the lights around town—that they associate with this time of year. But I’ve found that trying to force it can be more stressful than it is worth. One of our favorite traditions has been to visit a tree farm to select a tree and cut it down. This year, however, due to a variety of factors (the extra soggy weather, a general lack of funds and a general lack of tree space), we decided to scale back on that particular adventure. We stopped at a tree lot in town and took home a smaller and cheaper (but completely charming) tree, a process that took ten minutes instead of most of an afternoon.
  4. Get outside if you can. Especially if the kids are spending more idle time at home, and adjusting to the slower pace away from school, it is all the more important to spend time walking, hiking and moving around out of doors. We have been taking advantage of those brief windows of non-rain.
  5. Transition back to school time. If we have been keeping a predictable schedule and balancing periods of activity with down time, this will be easier to manage. Going back to school at the end of the break won’t be as much of a jolt if everyone knows what to expect.
  6. Be patient with each other, and with yourself. Everyone in the family is dealing with changes, and even pleasant changes can be difficult. If we remember that everyone has to adjust on both ends of the break, we might avoid the feeling of desperation that comes with having everyone just…around for so many days. Also, keep in mind that it’s normal for kids and adults to feel a bit of a crash when all the excitement is over. Anticipating that is a job of parenting, it’s true. But the easier and more predictable it is for our children the saner we will be.

Happy holidays!

 

 

About Time

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I’ve been thinking about time.

In a book featuring daily meditations for the Advent season, I came across this passage:

“The greatest gift I ever received,” said a successful young attorney, “was a gift I got one Christmas when my dad gave me a small box. Inside was a note saying, “Son, this year I will give you 365 hours, one hour every day after dinner. It’s yours. We’ll talk about what you want to talk about; we’ll go where you want to go, play what you want to play. It will be your time.”

In addition to wishing that I had come up with this myself, I was reminded of that phrase we always hear as parents, usually from older folks, about our children: “They grow up so fast.” It’s a cliché, of course, something that is said so often it threatens to lose its meaning. But like so many clichés, it is repeated because it’s true. We often hear it as a plea, its message being, “Pay attention to them. Give them time now, learn to be in the present moment with them, before it’s too late.”

This is a particularly hard lesson for me to keep in mind when parenting is difficult. My six year-old, who was once a champion sleeper (and, I have to keep reminding myself, surely will be again), has been waking in the night and struggling to rest without the company of an adult. So when sitting with her and waiting for her to drop off again proved arduous and ultimately unsuccessful—she almost always catches me on the way out—I had to choose between putting her in my bed, next to her mother, and sleeping on her toddler bed surrounded by stuffed cats, and moving her four year-old sister when she inevitably woke from the noise and sleeping in her (much shorter) one. I do not find this amusing, and neither do my knees.

What my daughter needs, though, in the middle of the night, is time with me. When nights are particularly hard and I am particularly tired, this is the last thing I want to give her. The message I am sending her is that I do not have the time. “Daddy needs to sleep too,” is what I keep saying because she does not seem to get it. “We all need to sleep in a bed.” She is not convinced by this logic, nor will she be comforted. And all I can think is that I need this time to pass and for her to become seven (and thus, developmentally, more likely to soothe herself back to sleep).

By refusing to be in the present with her, I am withholding the gift of time.

Being reminded of the value of this time, I think that the many wonderful and precious qualities of my daughter at this age, right now, will be changing as well: her wide-ranging imagination; her endless questions and charming observations; heck, the fact that she wants to have her dad around, just to be there.

My time may be a gift to her, but just as important is the time she is offering me.

She grows up so fast.

I need to pay attention.

The “No/Don’t” Problem

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There is something that comes up a lot in my work as a parenting educator. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is something that also comes up a lot in my work as a parent. I call it the “No/Don’t” statement.

You can guess what it sounds like. A child is grabbing something (your phone, the edge of the tablecloth, a sibling’s toy) and you say, “No!” Or alternately, “Don’t do that.” Or alternately, “Stop!” Sometimes it takes on extra dimensions, such as, “How many times have I told you not to do that?” You might even provide an answer to the question, giving a possibly spurious and invariable round number: “I have told you a hundred thousand times not to do that.”

Having fallen into this rut again and again myself, I believe that it is a response that comes fairly naturally to us. Just as every kid I’ve ever met will walk straight into the path of someone who is swinging, so every parent defaults to the negative when attempting to teach proper behavior to a child.

So what’s wrong with that? Are there occasions in which it is perfectly appropriate, or at least when it will do in a pinch? I can think of a few. When your child is about to walk into traffic, yelling “STOP!” with startling volume is probably the way to go (the nuances of why can come later when the child is out of danger). Similarly, if the child is currently holding the cat upside down by the tail, “Don’t do that to the cat!” may be the way to go, and will certainly be appreciated by the cat.

As a general practice, though, the “No/Don’t” statement runs into problems when we look at how we can teach things to our kids. Here are a couple of points (I’m sure there are other good ones as well).

  • Specificity. Younger children especially may not be ready to place actions, causes and effects into different contexts. So, knowing to not grab, say, the doll stroller from a sister in this instance may not translate to the time five minutes from now in which the sister is still playing with the stroller and you still want it. Or to taking the book out of her hand tomorrow because a book is nothing like a doll stroller. Here we get into philosophical conundrums as parents that we probably frankly don’t have time to go into.
  • Negativity. By this I don’t mean that it’s bad or wrong to say “no,” but simply that children respond better when we describe the behavior we do want to see rather than negate behavior we don’t. In other words, if we can help the child to see what it is we want, they are much more likely to accomplish it. “Put the cat down” is a start. That’s an action. They can do that. Then, “Pet him like this. He likes that. There. Nice kitty,” etc. Or, “Let’s make a sling for your doll so you can take her for a walk.” Or even, “See if your sister will trade the doll stroller for this toy.”

I have found that the extra work we put into describing what we want to see, or providing a positive alternative, is almost always worth it. And as a bonus, the child has learned something. Just as importantly, they are able to accomplish something. Kids want to be helpful, after all. They want to do the right thing. It’s so nice to give them the opportunity.

The Family Bookshelf

Books

I have talked about the prominence of books in our household and the importance of having them around. I wanted to share with you some of our enduring favorites, and I encourage you to share some of your own.

Many people have pets they consider to be family members. We have a cat (she is named Jenny Linsky, from a book), and she’s pretty great. But we have many books we consider to be part of the family as well. Here are a few.

  • Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire were a married couple who worked as a team, writing and illustrating an array of books ranging from Norse and Greek myths to rather eccentric and charming biographies of such figures as Benjamin Franklin, Abe Lincoln and Christopher Columbus. I had the D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths checked out for the entirety of my elementary school career. Because I was a rule follower, and properly intimidated by librarians (what could be worse than losing library privileges?), I would return it when it was due and, when no one else had snagged it by the end of the school day, check it out again. I read every page and pored over every lively, sometimes bizarrely vivid drawing so many times that they took up permanent residence in my brain: for example, the spectacle of Athena springing fully-formed from the forehead of Zeus (leading me to believe that headaches could produce children). Eventually I moved on to junior high, and no longer had access to the book. After much persistent hinting my parents bought me my own copy. I have since purchased it at least three more times, and it is a favorite of my children as well.
  • Another childhood favorite of mine was more obscure and has entered rotation among my kids largely due, I think, to my enthusiasm for it. Mercer Mayer is known today for his series of Little Critter books, which can still be found in bookstores and classrooms alongside the Berenstain Bears and, more recently, that tragically ambitious pigeon. But my jam was Professor Wormbog in Search for the Zipperump-A-Zoo, in which a very small professor with a very long mustache ranges over land and sea and finally underground to find an elusive creature which (spoiler) turns out to live in his house and which comes out to play only when the professor has given up and fallen asleep. I had to scour the shelves of Powell’s for a few years before I finally came across it again. As a child I loved the incredible amount of activity in the margins of the pictures, the countless little stories and monster-human interactions that only a patient eye can catch; it is a book that makes you feel as if you have been rewarded for really looking.
  • Probably the most famous author of closely-looking-at books is Richard Scarry. Titles like What Do People Do All Day? and Busy, Busy Town are crammed with all sorts of animals driving all sorts of cars—many shaped like food, or other animals—and living all sorts of intriguing lives. As much as I loved poring over these as a child, I learned to appreciate them even more when a college professor pointed out that Richard Scarry was a master of presenting information in a nonlinear way: here the complexity and richness of life in the city is organized not in a story or mere descriptions but in a tangle of interactions and causes and effects (they sure crash into each other a lot) that go in all directions at once.
  • One of our very favorite authors is someone I missed as a child, possibly because I was too much a boy. Barbara Cooney wrote and illustrated books through a period of nearly half a century, and in our family the most treasured of all is Miss Rumphius. I appreciate it for the way it tells the story of a girl who grows up into a woman, lives a rich and fulfilling life, and eventually grows old, in a way that most children’s books avoid. She hurts her hip riding a camel, for example, and later gets sick and is bed-ridden for a whole year (she gets better). Cooney’s style of illustration is a major influence on my daughters’ artwork. It is a rare picture book that I feel I can get as much out of as an adult as my children do.

What are some favorite books in your family? What do you have to recommend?