The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister – Review and Q&A with Author Linda Lodding

Ernestine Buckmeister is one busy girl.

She sculpts, does water ballet, knits, plays the tuba, yodels, studies karate, and practices yoga!  With classes every day of the week, she’s always running off to a class.  Her parents encourage her to “make every moment count” and “live life to the fullest”, and her Nanny keeps track of her very busy schedule and kit bags.

It’s no wonder that she’s exhausted, and regular readers will be entirely unsurprised to hear that what she really needs is more time to play.

Beautifully illustrated and charmingly written,The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister (Flashlight Press) is a funny, warm-hearted and insightful story about one child’s need and right to play – and how she cleverly educates the adults around her about the importance in play in everyday life.

Author Linda Lodding must be pretty busy herself, combining working for the UN with parenting, photographing, writing – and living in a town in the Netherlands which boasts its own windmill.  How cool is that?

She found time to answer a few questions, and for those who want to see more of Ernestine, there’s a trailer and more information on Linda’s website.

1. Did the impetus behind writing this book come from your own experiences as a parent, your professional work, or your conversations with other parents?

When my daughter was younger (she’s now 13), I think I would characterize my parenting style as a mix of Mary Poppins and Mrs. Buckmeister. So, yes, ashamedly, the impetus for this book came by holding up a mirror to my own family. But I have to say that what I saw in the mirror looked like a pretty common parenting style among my friends as well. We were all playing “Mommy Poker”: “my child is taking belly dancing, beginning Urdo and robotics. Well, my child is taking tambourine, advanced pet grooming, decoupage and aeronautics.” It wasn’t meant as malicious one-upmanship, but just reflected the reality of the way our generation tended to parent. Many of us were caught up in what we felt was the best way to encourage our children to be the best people that they could become. The irony, I later realized, is that just letting kids play helps foster imagination, emotional maturity and hones other important life-skills. If I could’ve signed my daughter up for a class with those sort of guarantees, I would’ve!

That’s not to say that after school lessons don’t have their place, (especially as our children get older), but they shouldn’t be at the expense of vital down time and pure play, for play’s sake. So, when my daughter’s African drumming teacher gently pulled me aside and told me that my 4 year-old was falling asleep in class, I knew that it was time to pull back. I didn’t want my child burning out before her kindergarten years were over. Fortunately, I saw the funny side of all this over-scheduling – and channeled that into “The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister”.

2. There seemed to be a theme of adults having to stand by what they say – such as her parents’ catchphrases of “live life to the fullest” and “make every moment count” – even as it becomes clear that they’ve each forgotten what that really means. How do you think this reflects the pressures that parents are under these days, in their lives as parents and as individuals?

Many of us are part of the “Nike generation” when their slogan “Just Do It!” became a rally cry for the way we were supposed to tackle the world. At the same time, the media bombarded women with the idea that they could “Just do it” all – have a successful career, a Martha Stewart-style home, the perfect family – and still be able to maintain a social life.

Today, however, I think many parents have realized that they can have it all – just not all at the same time. And – surprise of all surprises – sometimes what we have been chasing isn’t bringing us fulfillment. Trends toward simple and “slow” living have taken hold which I think is a good thing. Clearly the Buckmeisters have taken the “live life to the fullest” motto to the extreme and the book begs the question – how can poor Ernestine live life to the fullest if she never has time to play?

In “The Busy Life of Ernestine Buckmeister”, it is Ernestine who helps her family reinterpret that “live life to the fullest” motto.

3. When Ernestine is becoming ‘pale’ it’s clear that her parents, despite their concern, don’t recognize the problem or the solution. You’ve made this moment very light (as her father suggests ‘face-painting classes’) but how does it suggest the very real situation of many children today?

For the purposes of humor, many elements in the book are exaggerated. But, to a certain extent, Ernestine’s situation probably reflect some family realities. Some children are so over-scheduled (cue in the ‘Tiger Mama’ debate) that they are burned out by the time they reach their ‘tween years.

My personal feeling, however, is that finding a balance is key: there’s no one parenting model or road map that suits every child. Some children can handle packed schedules and thrive on new challenges, others, with the same schedule, may feel stressed and anxious. I think part of parenting is to read those signs, make informed decisions and figure out what works best for the child.

4. The solution comes from Ernestine herself, her understanding of her own needs and her clever approach to getting it. She effectively ‘teaches’ her adults how to play and why it’s important. What benefits do you see when children are able to take the lead, both with their adults and in their own lives?

While it’s a picture book plot convention that the child character usually solves his or her own problem, it was very clear to me that particularly in this book Ernestine had to be the one who came up with a solution. One of the things that I think makes Ernestine likable is that she has spunk and ingenuity and isn’t afraid to speak her mind – yet she appreciates all that’s been offered to her and is respectful and loving towards her parents. I think it’s very empowering for a child to feel that he or she is being heard.

One of the unexpected joys of having our daughter was that it brought play back into our lives. We found that our daughter led us to the most joyful moments and those usually occurred when we didn’t have anything planned at all. She had certainly taught us how to “live life to the fullest.”

5. I loved the way you depicted the much-needed play that Ernestine finally gets, drawing on ordinary materials, the environment of a public park and passed-down skills such as daisy crowns (as well as her other lessons). Just like Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds, it demonstrates how our ‘ordinary’ world can reveal one of rich possibility through play. What simple, tangible ways do you see for people to help improve children’s opportunities for play?

Thanks, Morgan! And the books’ illustrator, Suzanne Beaky, did such a beautiful job with those colorful spreads. I just want to roll down that grassy hill with Ernestine and Nanny O’Dear! And I love the idea of Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds because they celebrate the idea of spontaneous play.

And I did want to show Ernestine playing in (and celebrating) the ordinary world around her – not relying entirely on toys and gadgets. I think many parents have experienced the irony of our children enjoying a toy’s packaging more than the toy itself. Kids are innately imaginative – they don’t see a box – they see a space capsule launching to Mars, they see a canoe heading down a jungle river, they see a kitchen worthy of a Master Chef! A few chairs and a blanket becomes a secret hide-away; a wrapping paper tube becomes a trumpet, a wizard’s wand, a Knight’s sword. That’s the beauty of play – it’s not dependent on buying anything, just re-imagining the world as given to us.

I’m not a child expert, just a writer and a Mom, but I think the number one thing we can give a child is time – and freedom – to play. Even if this only means one or two afternoons a week of unstructured activities. Many parents are afraid of hearing their kids say the dreaded words: “Mommy, I’m bored”…but out of boredom is born imagination. Maybe we can look at it as child+imagination+time = play.

The next thing we can do is get our children outside and moving. (Which, sometimes, has the added benefit of getting us adults outside and moving!). Organizations, such as KaBOOM! (US), are going to extraordinary lengths (and with much success) to ensure that every child has a playground within walking distance of where they live. Use these playgrounds!

Nickelodeon’s World Wide Day of Play is also focusing on the need to turn off the TV (their channel is going ‘black’ on Sept. 24th in honor of Play Day) and get outside and play. What better way to play than to be outdoors, co-mingling with nature and other children – and it’s free!

By now the benefits of play are well-documented – we just need to learn how to fold those life-lessons into our daily lives – something I’m trying to be mindful of. And when you get down to it, realizing that playing is good for our kids, and good for us, is good news. It’s like finding out that double-fudge brownies are, indeed, healthy!

Suffer the Children Review – Q&A with Marilyn Wedge

I was recently sent a copy of Marilyn Wedge’s new release, Suffer the Children: The Case Against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative.

It was satisfying even before I’d opened it – with a heavy set of covers, thick creamy paper and tasteful bindings, it’s a beautifully produced book – but so interesting that I couldn’t help but mark it up.

Wedge’s tone is warm and conversational from the beginning, and she weaves together case studies with interpretation to create a text that is engaging and accessible for any reader.  It feels like a chat with a wise older friend, who just happens to be an empathetic and informed family therapist.

“I couldn’t help but think that what might appear “crazy” behavior in a grown person – tantrums, impulsiveness, short attention span – is often business as usual in a child.”

 She begins with a reframing of what is often called (in the UK) “challenging” behavior – the kinds of acting up or out that usually begin the referral and medicalization process.  Rather than viewing these as symptoms of a medical disorder such as ADHD, Bipolar or the horrifically vague-sounding Oppositional Defiant Disorder, she takes a social approach.

At the heart of her work is the belief that the actions of a troubled child are in response to the cross-currents of tension or need within the family.  She speaks eloquently about the ways in which children’s behaviors can be understood as “benevolent” – as a child’s refusal to go to school may be based on his or her perception of one parent’s loneliness, for example.

Crucially, she accomplishes this without blaming parents, who are almost always doing the very best they can.  Instead she demonstrates how simple tactics, such as relating one good thing that happened each day, can relieve the child’s anxiety and set them free.  She also discusses the dangers of examining a child’s behaviors as somehow separate from the family dynamic, and how medical diagnoses can become self-fulfilling prophecies, leading to the prescription of more and more serious drugs to those too young to consent to the serious (and poorly understood) short- and long-term risks they pose.

She also describes the exceedingly murky processes by which new disorders are codified in the DSM, and shows how variable these diagnoses can be in the absence of a known biological cause.

It’s not news that children today are facing challenges unknown to previous generations.  Tight limitations on their freedoms to roam and play, to directly engage with nature and to take charge of decisions in their own lives have combined horrifically with ever-increasing academic and social pressure to conform, perform and succeed.

As a Family Therapist, Wedge’s focus is tight on the family.  She clearly demonstrates how often we locate the cause of systemic social problems within children, and how we are encouraged to find a quick solution in pills.  In making the case for treating biological issues medically and behavioral issues therapeutically, she is simultaneously advocating for a concept of childhood that encompasses mischievousness, individuality, and fun – and supports parents in seeing their children not as sick, but as only trying to help.

At the end she includes a list of questions to ask when seeking a Family Therapist – one that would prove very useful to anyone seeking a good professional match.

She also offered a Q & A – it follows this, and is downloadable here!

Morgan: It seems that every day we hear more about children’s lack of self-structured outdoor play, increased academic pressure and the cancellation of recess. What connection do you see between our society’s changing expectations of children and the rise in pathological interpretations of their behavior, diagnosis and medication?

Wedge: In our society children are too often expected to be “miniature adults” and tragically, adult mental health diagnoses are applied to children when they don’t behave like adults. Children are expected to compete like adults and bear academic pressures in elementary school which are unrealistic for their developmental needs. Kids tend to be more impulsive and have shorter attention spans than adults. Some children tend to be bouncy or fidgety or imaginative.

These are ordinary childhood behaviors and not signs of pathology. Unfortunately, diverse learning styles are tolerated less and less in our schools.

If a child does not keep up with his classmates as measured by standardized tests, parents feel pressured to have the child diagnosed with ADHD and medicated with stimulant drugs. So much emphasis is placed on competing academically that both parents and schools tend to ignore other basic needs of children, such as the need for physical activity and open-ended play.

MLS:  Running throughout your book is the concept that troubled children take on a ‘helper’ role, responding to the imbalances and anxieties within their families. What are some simple strategies you have found for opening a discussion with parents that incorporates this concept, without seeming to blame them for their children’s difficulties?

MW:  Since the publication of Suffer the Children, I have received emails from parents all over the country asking me for help in finding a family therapist. Interestingly, none of these parents feel blamed by my approach to solving children’s problems. On the contrary, parents tell me that the book opened their eyes to how family issues may be affecting their children. Parents just aren’t used to thinking about their child as organically connected to the family environment.

Once parents start thinking in this new way, they can see connections without feeling blamed.

When I first meet with parents, I typically ask them what they would be worried about if they were not worried about their child. I ask “what is the second biggest problem in your family?” This simple question usually brings to light the real source of the child’s stress, which is usually some kind of family transition.

Sometimes it is a parent’s illness or injury, sometimes it is a financial issue because a parent has lost a job, sometimes it is another form of family stress. Just as parents love and protect their children, so kids love and try to protect their parents—sometimes by having a behavior problem which diverts their parents’ attention from a more serious problem. I tell the child that I am going to be his family’s helper now so he can go back to being a kid. When the child sees that I am helping the family resolve the deeper issue, the child no longer feels burdened and his problem behavior fades away.

MLS:  Opportunities for therapy are difficult to access for many people. What direct advice can you give to families and family support workers in locations where formal family therapy is simply not an option?

MW:  I suggest that parents go to their public library and check out a copy of Suffer the Children. Reading this book will help them begin to think in a different way about their child’s problem. It’s important for parents to move beyond thinking in terms of a psychiatric diagnosis for their child, and to start thinking in terms of stressors in the child’s social environment.

Any advice I could give here would of course have to be targeted to a specific problem, but I can provide some general thoughts. Hearing parents disagree, especially about discipline, can be very stressful to children, and often results in their having attention and focusing problems or anxiety. I advise parents to have their disagreements and arguments away from their child and even to seek marriage counseling if they cannot resolve their issues by themselves. Parents should also have clear rules and consistent discipline for their child. Often, parents inadvertently reward the child’s bad behavior instead of his good behavior, and this leads to many types of behavior problems. A support worker can help parents come to agreement about discipline and write down the rules and consequences for misbehavior as well as the rewards for good behavior. Then both parents can sign the agreement.

Excursions or outings with a parent are more meaningful to a child than material rewards. Another good strategy is for parents to make a list of their child’s best qualities, and tell their child at least two good things about himself every day.

MLS:  You mention sports explicitly as a valuable way for children to vent the “excess” energy that might contribute to a diagnosis of ADHD or similar. It seems that a physically challenging, staffed playspace would provide opportunities for this, as well as adults who recognize the therapeutic possibilities of children’s free play and can support that process. As a Family Therapist, and former Play Therapist, I’d love to know your opinion of the potential of Pop-Up Adventure Playgrounds to help families and communities.

MW:  Children need both outlets for their physical energy and opportunities for unstructured play. Free play stimulates children’s creativity, and in my opinion plenty of time for free play is essential to a happy, healthy childhood. These days, parents are so focused on competitive team sports and structured after-school activities that they often forget about the value of relaxed, unstructured play for stimulating the child’s creativity and inventiveness. Highly creative people such as Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, take time every year to reconnect with the outdoors in a relaxed, unstructured environment away from electronic screens.

An adventure playground seems like it would give parents as well as children an opportunity to free their minds and use their imaginations. Another benefit of this kind of outdoor play is that it gets children away from television and video games, and gives them an opportunity to interact spontaneously with other children.

Thank you, Marilyn – for the copy of your book and for taking the time to answer my questions so thoughtfully.  Here’s wishing you, and Suffer the Children, every success!