Tag Archives: family

Goal-setting like kids

It has been established that one of my favorite things about my kids, even when it’s simultaneously maddening, is their unreasonableness.

Because they are unreasonable.


Especially the youngest one, who has that toddler’s expectation that she can smack me in the face, pull my hair, and then sweetly sign “water”, and I’ll come running with it.

She dares to ask, and to anticipate, what most of us wouldn’t even dream.

And I think we need a lot more of that.

Not the smacking and hair-pulling, of course, but the rather outrageous demands: those we need more of.

What would a ridiculous goal look like in your area of work? For Room to Read, it’s every child (every) in the world learning to read. For one of my clients, it’s providing a service to every single person who contacts the organization, no exceptions. Some organizations working on homelessness have staked a claim to the goal of ending chronic homelessness, starting with specific cities.

I guess what I think, when I see my kids expecting that they can build a tower that will defy the laws of gravity or convince me to bring them yet another cup of water at 2AM, is that I’m tired of goals that are strategic, measurable, actionable, realistic, and targeted.

You know?

We need to end poverty and close gender pay gaps and ensure that every child starts school ready to learn.

And we need to do it soon.

So we don’t need more sophisticated ‘adult’ understanding of the constraints of reality.

Those voices are in our heads all the time already.

We need more outrageous goals, a focused determination to reach them no matter what, and the tenacious (read: stubborn) insistence of my children that other people drop everything and come along with us.

If you need any mentors in this field of audacious goal-setting, I have four experts in mind.

Parenting and advocacy, again

One of my favorite parenting principles is “assume positive intent” (Google it if you want to hang out with parents online for the next several hours).

It works like this:

When my oldest son is climbing on the countertops (kicking his brother in the face in the process) in order to reach something in the upper cabinets, I say, “I know you were trying to be self-reliant and not bother Mommy with what you needed, but it’s not acceptable to climb on the counters” instead of “What in the world were you thinking?”

The great thing is that sometimes, even when my positive assumption is totally baseless, it can still bring out the best in my kids.

I mean, they want to be the person that Mommy just assumed that they were, and, so, they aspire to live up to even my misguided assessment.

And it occurred to me, at some point during a conversation with an advocacy client last week, assuming positive intent is a place to begin in advocacy, too.

As you sit down with a legislator: “I am sure that you are concerned about rising incidence of hunger among children in your district.” (maybe not, really, but who wants to admit that?)

As you begin a new coalition: “We know that we are all here because of our shared commitment to reducing out-of-home placements of at-risk children.” (except the two organizations that are just there because it was a grant requirement, but that’s a place to start!)

As you approach your Board for buy-in to build an advocacy agenda: “Your passion for addressing health disparity brought you to this organization, and advocacy is another way that we can pursue that common goal.”

For me, as a parent, positive intent means that it’s not always important to be right.

Or to discover true motivations. Or prove a point. Or even gather information.

Sometimes I just want to minimize resistance and get what I want.

Sound familiar, advocates?

Eisenhower and Opportunity Costs

I took the kids to Abilene this summer.

Because, you know, it’s where all the kids want to go.

Mainly, of course, it was for my oldest son.

Eisenhower isn’t Sam’s favorite, by far (he could give you the ordered list, if you’d like), but he is quite enamored of anything having to do with victory over the Nazis, plus, it’s a Presidential Library in Kansas, so you can’t miss it.

I had this quote, in Decisive, in my head when I was there:

“The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants each serving a town of 60,000 people. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people” (Eisenhower, 1953, on p. 45).

Set aside, for a moment, the obvious: Holy different Republican Party, no?

Because the point that Decisive was making, and that I am struck with, is that we must acknowledge opportunity costs in our advocacy.

We must account for them in weighing the policy options that we advocate, instead of (guilty as charged, here) pretending that our new policy innovations are all ‘upside’.

We must include them in our consideration about whether or not to even advocate in the first place, since there are obvious costs to directing our energy to these social change goals, sometimes including the expense of pulling us away from the provision of vital services.

We strengthen our case, I believe, when we demonstrate that we have accounted for the loss of these alternative activities, as valuable as they may be. And we can use opportunity costs to our advantage is pushing against proposed policies, too, sometimes by arguing that, as laudable as a particular objective may be, it may not be enough to be worth what we would have to give up in return.

When and where do you calculate opportunity costs in your organization? In your advocacy? What challenges do you face in this accounting? And, when you’re honest with yourself, what are the opportunity costs that haunt you the most?

Families modeling service, seeking justice

I have kids celebrating birthdays today, which means it’s a very family-focused day around here.

So I thought that I’d take this opportunity to share some inspiring stories of families showing their children why serving others matters, and, more importantly, how to do it. I’m always looking for examples, and for ideas of how we can volunteer together as a family.

We raise money for projects quite often–Sam had a lemonade stand to support agricultural assistance to farmers in Africa last year–and we give ‘alternative’ gifts for every Mother’s Day and Father’s Day and for Christmas and other occasions, too. We have packed food at our local food bank, and we have done voter registration and community awareness activities, too.

For me, as a parent, the messaging matters.

Volunteering isn’t something we go to do for other people, because we pity them or because we have something they lack, even.

It’s something we do because we’re part of a connected world, and because it’s how we live consistently with our values and give ourselves the opportunity to connect meaningfully with the larger society.

The cliche, of course, is that volunteers ‘get as much as they give’, but, for me, it’s not about how good I feel when we help, it’s about what I’m doing to cultivate the kind of kids I want to raise.

Those who serve because they crave justice, I hope.

Because it’s my kids’ birthday, if anyone wants to gift us some great ideas of how children can volunteer–organizations renowned for working collaboratively with our youngest servant advocates, or inspiring models–we would be grateful.

And, on this special day at my house, a toast to family–that which lives within our walls, and that which surrounds us, in all humanity.

Admitting we’re stumped

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

Photo credit, Adrian Midgley, via Flickr Creative Commons license

We are so sure that we are right.

Even when we are so completely not.

My kids are like this, often.

My youngest son, in particular, almost never says ‘maybe’.

He is very, very confident. Even when he is very, very wrong.

And, apparently, he is not alone.

Decisive discusses this at length, describing the phenomenon this way: “A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped” (2).

Even lacking crucial pieces of information that we would need to make informed decisions doesn’t stop us from feeling quite sure that we have everything we need to proceed. We are even certain in our own predictions, despite the obvious fact that we don’t even know very much about the current reality, let alone the future (17).

And our confidence, of course, can be very misleading.

I see this (of course, I would) in our policymaking, and, really, in how we advocate, too.

We face challenges that we truly don’t know how to solve. Acknowledging the uncertainty that surrounds them and the implications of those doubts for successfully approaching them is a critical step in building a process that will take us to a sound resolution, but, instead, we tend to plow right through.

And, here, I really do mean ‘we’. It’s not just members of Congress or state legislators who are loathe to admit when they’re perplexed, when they might need some help to assemble the right information and consult with the best advisers and just reflect a while.

As advocates, I believe that we often perceive expressions of uncertainty as signs of weakness instead of honest recognition of complexity and unavoidable limitations of knowledge.

In one of my projects, I am constantly having to force myself to say that certain outcomes ‘may’ result, or that particular advantages ‘might’ be realized. It’s not natural to me, having spent most of my career asserting in the most compelling way possible the near-certain gains to be secured if we just follow my policy prescriptions.

If this was all just a matter of ensuring that we are being intellectually honest and ethically responsible, that would be one thing. Instead, it’s quite clear that failing to admit when we’re stumped leads to worse decisions.

We are literally suffering from our false certainty.

So, I believe, if we are to succeed in equipping ourselves to take on the big challenges, we have to create spaces in which we can admit our questioning, own our uncertainty, and actively seek out the additional knowledge and insights we need to craft the best decisions, as well as build structures that allow us to choose different paths if new information points us in another direction.

It will mean getting a lot more comfortable with hedging, and leaving room for asking and wondering.

But this culture shift can help us avoid some bad decisions and change the conversation about the limits of our own omnipotence.

No doubt.

Products of our environment

There are few things more paralyzingly frightening to me than the responsibility of raising good moral citizens.

Every time I hear about a horrible crime or some terrible perpetrator, I think not just of the victims but also of the offender’s parents.

Because, sometimes, parents really try, and still fail, at this whole ‘nurture’ thing.

It’s really, really, really scary.

I’m thinking a lot, this week, about the impact of the environment on human behavior, because my oldest son started school for the fall yesterday. And, while my influence on him, still, weighs heavily on my mind and heart, even during the school year, I am also conscious of how much who he is will be shaped by the context in which he spends a majority of his waking hours, August through May.

Maybe I really shouldn’t have spent so much time reading about Auschwitz this summer.

One of the major lessons of Auschwitz’s history, as related in the book, is shared in the first few pages: “Human behavior is fragile and unpredictable and often at the mercy of the situation” (xx).

This is seen in the ghettos, where corruption flourished among people completely ethical before their deprivation (p. 70). It is evident in the experiences of different nations during Nazi occupation, where those with cultures amenable to prejudice saw anti-Semitism take root quickly, because there was already fertile soil for these perverse values.

I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that we don’t have choices about how we behave.

We do. And the Holocaust also proves that point, as there are certainly examples of those who transcended their circumstances, defied expectations, and lived their free will.


But it’s also a story about how our choices are constrained by our context, and about how important it is to create a culture that affirms our core values–not just social work values, but values of human rights and basic dignity–so that individuals desiring to live those commitments won’t have to swim upstream so much.

We have to build environments that reward justice and provide incentives for compassion.

So that we will grow up just and compassionate.

And, we hope, stay that way.

Give teachers the best thank-you gift ever


My son’s last day of first grade is on Thursday. This will be my last post until June, because we’re taking the week off to travel and celebrate family and summer and a very successful school year.

Because he is my son, he requested to go to Central High School in Little Rock to launch his summer. Because he has siblings not quite as politically-inclined, we’ll also dig for diamonds and eat some ice cream.

Before we leave, though, we’ll hand out gifts to his teachers, including his truly phenomenal classroom teacher, whose patience and kindness and enthusiasm and creative energy transformed his public school into a place that could accommodate his love of the Civil War and fascination with germ theory, all while helping him build friendships with other 6-year-olds.

The real present, though, that I commit to giving to every excellent public school educator with whom I ever come into contact:

I will stand up for you. Always.

I’m sure that Sam’s teachers will appreciate the handmade tokens he’ll give them, and probably our gift certificates, too. But what they really deserve is to know that their contributions won’t go unnoticed, that their roles will never be degraded, and that we will live (and vote) our belief in what they do for our children, every day.

Because, the thing is, I’ve never met anyone, not even the most anti-public educator politician, who doesn’t have something good to say about a given teacher in his/her life. It’s like we somehow convince ourselves that it’s the other public schools that are wasteful, or substandard, or uncaring, as though ours was some magical exception to the rule.

We are silent when legislatures propose laws that would prohibit teachers from lobbying or restrict the science they can teach in the classroom. We don’t show up at town halls where teachers are bashed as greedy tenure seekers. We fidget instead of fight when public education–and not our failure to support it–is blamed for poor educational outcomes. We may even forward those emails with the rumors about all the money diverted away from classrooms, and how that’s evidence that school budgets should be cut.

We focus narrowly on what we can do to show appreciation to our own teachers, with brownies baked and coffee mugs purchased, instead of circling around them in a protective sphere of advocacy, showing our thanks by standing in solidarity.

Our teachers, and the children whose lives they touch daily, deserve more than certificates of appreciation, and even more than free massages.

They deserve professional respect, a competitive salary, a secure retirement.

They deserve to be thanked not just at the end of each school year, but every time we go to the ballot box, every time we have a chance to speak out instead of remain silent, and every time we let our policymakers know that representing us means taking care of those who take care of our future.

Thank you, Mrs. P.

I’ll thank you always.

We need ‘Little Critter’ books for justice

At least around my house, woe befall the Mommy who, in running out the door with her hands full of kids and all their stuff, forgets to turn off a light.

Because, apparently, Dora the Explorer told my twins that leaving lights on kills penguins. And polar bears.

And they really like penguins and polar bears.

It’s great, really, the way that they have been indoctrinated into a conservation ethic. My oldest son won’t throw away anything from his lunchbox, in the hopes that everything can be composted or reused.

They would never leave the water running when they brush their teeth, the same way my generation learned to put on seatbelts automatically.

And they, because they are 4, are never shy about reminding the rest of us.

It’s everywhere they turn, and they’ve learned, and they become our social conscience.

The WonderPets save arctic animals, too, and the Boxcar Children recycle, and even Nancy Drew has an Earth Day mystery.

It’s a plot line, yes, but it’s also a way of life.

It’s the way of their lives, now, and so the way of ours.

And that made me think: we need to get on the ‘get them through the children’ bandwagon.

I mean, if Little Critter can save the Earth, can’t he (is Little Critter a boy?) fight racial injustice? End homelessness? Oppose heterosexism? Combat the stigma associated with mental illness?

If children all over this country watched TV programs and read children’s books and had cross-promotional tie-ins about economic inequality and the evils of social service retrenchment, grown-ups would hear about it every time we proposed massive tax cuts or bashed unions.

If Dora had to go past the DMV and around the bank and through the neighborhood with the inadequate police protection and the broken streetlights, in order to get to the office to pick up her food assistance (all while hauling around her twin baby siblings), my kids would be asking me why we make it so hard for people to get help.

And maybe that would help to spark a movement, the same way that my kids now excoriate each other if they find the refrigerator door left open.

Maybe we have some episodes of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood to write: I think they are going to organize to keep Wal-Mart from taking over their local businesses while squeezing their suppliers.

If it was on Netflix, my kids would totally watch that.

Is there such a thing as ‘too passionate’ to advocate?

I am pretty passionate about a lot of issues.

I guess that has been established, no?

On a weekly basis, I’m actively advocating on anti-poverty policy, domestic violence, immigration reform, early childhood education, mental health, hunger, GLBT oppression, and public education.

I care about all of those things–and more–deeply.

But over the past several months, my reaction to another issue has forced me to consider, in a way that I really haven’t before, if sometimes there are issues we are too invested in to be effective advocates.

See, I’m still fundamentally not okay, at all, about the fact that someone could get access to high-powered weapons and blast into a school and murder first graders.

My Sam is a first grader.

And, while I completely agree with those who lament that it takes that kind of random gun violence to provoke an uprising, instead of the numbingly, achingly routine gun violence that robs thousands of young people of their futures–in less public but no less tragic ways–somehow, undeniably, this, for me, is different.

So, while on just about every other issue, I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at laying out a case, using language of common values, building bases of power, and finding middle ground, when it comes to guns, I am sort of totally unreasonable.

I can’t seem to articulate arguments much beyond: “WHY do you need assault weapons? WHY?”

I admire, greatly, and support financially, the work of nonprofits who have seized the momentum created in this opening window of opportunity to push for better gun laws.

And, I mean, I advocate.

I sign their petitions and I have written to my members of Congress. It doesn’t make me feel better, in this case, the way that it usually does, but I have.

I joined 1 Million Moms for Gun Control, and I am heartened to the point of awe at how they have turned their outrage into action, and how they’re building a movement with people who never realized they were movement-builders.

But when it comes to really engaging in social change, which requires, well, ‘engaging’ people, I struggle. It’s hard for me to get much past the “NEVER AGAIN”.

Sometimes I cry.

I can talk about deportation policy at cocktail parties. I can debate the (nil) merits of drug-testing public assistance recipients in line at the grocery store. I actually respond to those email forwards that people send around about Social Security and unemployment benefits.

But, when it comes to gun, I feel like I’ve got a blind spot. I sort of freeze, because I really have trouble comprehending that others aren’t moved in the same way, to the same place, that I am, by the horrifying realization that we are so vulnerable, while there are so many speedy and efficient ways for people to kill.

So I hope, dear readers, that you’ll give me some context here. Are there issues on which you feel like you’re ‘too close’, or ‘too charged’, to be effective advocates? Are there some causes that you have to stay away from, because they are too painful for you to take on? Are there issues where you cheer from the sidelines, not because you don’t care, but because you might care too much?

Or have you learned to channel these emotions, so that you can be a potent force even on issues that are triggers (absolutely NO pun intended; I couldn’t think of a good substitute word) for you? Do you have any advice, that might help me get enough virtual distance, so that I can sort of get over myself and be actually helpful?

Because I want to be. I’m just not certain that I don’t, maybe, want it too much.

No excuses

This isn’t really a fully-formed post.

And it’s certainly not an indictment of anyone other than myself.

It’s just that, as I was looking back through my notes from A Problem from Hell, I was thinking about how, in retrospect, it looks so very clear. And no possible excuse is adequate.

And, I know, the problems that we confront in our daily work aren’t often (thankfully) as stark as the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, or Rwandans.

But that doesn’t mean that my excuses–commitments with my kids, or the general demands of work, or just thinking how nice it would be to go to bed early and read a novel (okay, or, if I’m being realistic, a book about the growing economic divide in higher education, but, still…)–are any less pitiful.

In interviews, and in historical documents, the excuses people gave for not doing more generally fell into three categories (p. 429 and elsewhere):

  • Futility–nothing that I could do could possibly make any difference
  • Perversity–somehow, what I might do could be worse than doing nothing at all
  • Jeopardy–there’s too much risk, for me and for those who would be involved

And, really, without exception, those excuses are pretty weak–then, in the context of genocide, certainly–but also now, in my advocacy, and maybe in yours.

Because there’s always something we can do. And it just might help. And, really, when we’re talking about injustices being perpetrated, it’s usually hard to imagine how our involvement, especially if we’re smart about it, could make the situation worse. And, of course, there’s always risk, but is it as risky as the moral hazard of failing to live up to our own ideals?

We can always find excuses. The author summarizes, “Those who did not want to know, or act…were always able to find the lack of proof at the right moment” (p. 219).

I don’t want that to describe me.

As I was thinking about occasions when I should have shown up, or spoken out, or put in some extra effort, I remembered by Grandpa Pete, who used to shake his head when hearing particularly flimsy explanations, and say, “That just doesn’t hold water.” For someone from the farm, that’s a condemnation.

And, if I’m honest, it’s often deserved.

So, here’s to more. And to being on the right side of history, at least, as best I can.