What You Must Say First to the Child [guest post]

A writer colleague of mine wrote this beautiful piece that I think is SUCH a great reminder for all of us about how important it is that we approach children's creations (and our own) with great respect and notice their beauty, before we start to instruct them (or ourselves) on how to make it better - which may or may not ever be necessary!  I asked if I could share it with you all and she graciously said yes!

From Elizabeth Spelman:


What you Must Say First to the Child

One day when I was little, I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen and helped her dry the dishes. I took the dishtowel and pulled it tightly over the top of a glass, like a drum. “Look Nana,” I said, “I’ve made art.”
She took it from me and pushed the towel into the glass. “No,” she said, holding it up, “this is art.”
It was true. The cloth doubled over in curious folds inside the glass and flowered out at the top. If Picasso had come to dinner, he would have agreed with her.
That day, sorrow made me hate my own work, and anger made me hate hers.  
This page is the glass; these words are the towel. Today I will tell myself, “First you must say, ‘It is beautiful.’”


Yes, yes and yes.  

And to all of us (myself included) who cringe remembering times when we have jumped right to instruction about "how it can be better" - self-compassion, self-forgiveness.  We start where we are and it is good.

To those of us who are remembering being the child with the crushed spirit, may we find healing and reclaim our creations, calling them good.

Here's to thriving,


Talking to Kids About Race in Emotionally Charged Times

Waking up at 5:30 am to prep for a 7:00 am radio show interview this week reminded me of my early years as a teacher, when I would wake up at 5:00 or 5:30 to try to get to my classroom by 6:30 or 7:00 am, before the kids came at 8:00.  Or when I was a director and had to wake up at 4:30 am to figure out whether to open the program or close for snow or ice (hands down my LEAST favorite part of that job.) 

I am not naturally a morning person, so in both the teaching and parenting worlds the early morning requirements are not my favorite!  (Maybe you can relate?)  We do it, though, because those kids matter and they need us.

Doing an early morning radio show this week was worth it to me because I got to talk with writer, blogger, and radio host Monique Ruffin about issues near and dear to both our hearts:  questions around race, racial justice, how we can move towards more health and healing.  

Like getting up early in the morning, conversations about race and racism can be uncomfortable, but as parents and teachers, we’re already used to doing hard stuff to make the world a better place for kids.  We can learn how to do this too.

In the interview, I talked about my own journey from:

  • protected, shy, White child discovering the story of Martin Luther King in my school library and getting odd comments from the librarian about my interest,
  • to “inner-city”-teacher-trying-to-save-the-world-and-(unconsciously)-assuage-my-white-guilt,
  • to burnt-out-“inner- city”-teacher-retreating-into-research-and, which also lead to a deep dive learning about self-compassion and self-care,
  • to being a White person (still!) who is finding new ways to engage as partner with People of Color in communities of mutual respect and as myself, a sensitive, mostly introverted, spiritual and reflective teacher/writer/historian/life coach.

If you’re interested in hearing some of my journey, you can listen to yesterday’s interview here – or you might want to read my very first blog post if you didn’t catch that one. 

For today, I want to share a few ideas I shared when I spoke with Monique a few months ago.  At that time (prior to the presidential election in the U.S.) we were talking specifically about how we, as adults, can talk with kids about racial bias and violence at a time when it is increasingly visible in schools and in the media.  

I don’t have all the answers, for sure.  But I have learned a few things on my journey that you might find useful as you seek to help the kids you care about become happy and healthy citizens of an amazing and diverse world.

1. Do your own work around your personal racial (and cultural/ethnic) identity/identities. This work is will be ongoing, complex, and different for People of Color and White people in many ways, but committing to take that journey and get whatever help we need along the way is an essential foundation for our work with kids

  • For White folks this process may involve starting with the realization that we have a culture and a racial identity.  We are not just “normal.”  And then learning how to face what that means in our history and how we can begin to move through shame to develop a positive racial identity.  It also involves doing this work without making People of Color do it with us or for us.
  • For People of Color, the identity journey often (almost always) involves working through anger, times of focus on one’s own racial/cultural group, and maybe also addressing some “internalized racism”—places where there’s been a rejection of self because of the ways Blackness or Brownness is devalued in the surrounding culture.   

2. When possible, process your emotions—whether those related to history, your current experiences or racialized incidents in the news—without involving the children in your care.   If we’re afraid, or angry, or defensive, or shocked, it is helpful if we can protect our children from the full force of that emotion (though not from all of it.)  To do that, we need to process our feelings with other adults or by journaling, meditation or prayer. 

3. At the same time, be authentic and honest – in developmentally appropriate ways.  A few examples:

  • Admit to your six-year-old that you’re scared, but tell what you are doing about it and how committed you are to keeping them safe.  Don’t say you’re not afraid when you are.  They’ll know.  
  • Don’t tell your eight-year-old  “all police officers are helpers” if you don’t believe that to be true.  Talk instead about how she can determine who is a helper and who isn’t, how to read cues in the behavior of adults to determine who is safe or not, where they are likely to find safe adults and some examples of safe adults they know and where they would find them. 
  • Teach your children about the ways that the world can be unsafe for them or their friends—just like you do when you tell toddlers that dangerous to run into a busy street and then teach them how they can determine when it’s safe to cross.  (Most parents and teachers of color are doing this already, but White adults usually need to learn how.) 
  • When a child brings up a racially charged incident, follow their lead.   Ask them questions to see what they know and how much you should say to address their need in that moment.  They will let you know what they're ready for.  If you aren’t sure what to say, it’s okay to let them know that too.  Tell them you’ll get back to them, and then do make sure you do it.

4. Lay a foundation of intentionally supporting a positive and realistic racial identity for your child or students (YES! This includes White children) and also support positive views of people who are different from them.  We don’t leave children on their own trying to figure out how to count.  We help them learn.  We correct them when they make mistakes.  Why would we leave them alone in trying to figure out this really confusing and hard part of life? Kids know and notice A LOT more than we think they do.  Even children as young as two are noticing racial differences and biases.  They may, for example, begin to think that all teachers are white or all housekeepers are Latina, if that’s what they see in their neighborhoods.  They may begin to think that brown skin is ugly or abnormal or scary if they never see brown-skinned characters in books or dolls.  But we can combat these stereotypes by seeking out toys and books and stories that challenge them, going to varied cultural events in other neighborhoods, talking directly about for where stereotypes show up in books or on T.V.

5. Be patient and compassionate with yourself.  This is hard stuff, that’s why we often avoid it if we can.  Give yourself time to learn.  Get support.  Don’t be afraid to let your kids/students know that you’re a work in process.

I’ve compiled a list of resources for those of you who are interested in learning more and finding greater support for yourself around these issues.  It includes websites, books, blogs and organizations for parents, teachers and kids.   (And please feel free to share with me what you’ve found to be helpful as well!)  Shoot me an email at debshine@thriving4equity.com and I'll add your ideas or leave a comment below.  

This is barely the tip of the iceberg, I know, but I hope it gives you a place to start.

Here’s to thriving!



Are You Struggling with Unreasonable Demands?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about unreasonable demands.  I know teachers face a lot of them, especially teachers who work in under-resourced schools. 

You get told that on top of teaching Math, which is what you were hired to do, you also have to teach Freshman Writing. 

Or that even though you’re a student teacher you’re going to be in charge of the class for the rest of the afternoon because there aren’t any subs available. 

Or you need to take charge of the after-school girls’ soccer team or the school won’t be able to have one anymore.  Oh yeah, and there’s no budget for uniforms so could you start by running a fundraiser?

These kinds of demands are very real and figuring out how to manage them is part of what I help teachers to do when we work together.  (If you’re interested you can sign up for a free consult on my home page or keep your eyes out for a new offer I'm working on that will release in the next couple of weeks!). 

But I’m talking about another kind of “unreasonable demand,” the one YOU make on yourself. 

Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, says that often when we don’t give ourselves what we need we become “vexed, angry, out-of-sorts…sullen, depressed, hostile…like cornered animals snarling at or family and friends [or students, or principals or colleagues] to leave us alone and stop making unreasonable demands.”  When in fact, “we are the ones making unreasonable demands.” 


Because we expect ourselves to be able to function without giving ourselves what we need to do so. 

Ms. Cameron is talking about artists in her book, but I think it the thought applies equally well to teachers, especially sensitive, empathetic, social-justice oriented ones. 

Does this sound like you?

Teaching your Shitty First Draft

I saw a post by Brene Brown recently in which she showed a screenshot of a text between one of her friends who is a teacher and that friend’s husband.  I can’t find it again, or I would post it here, but essentially the teacher was saying that things weren’t going well; she really wanted to be able to individualize everything etc., but she couldn’t.  Her husband replied something to the effect of, “You’re just learning.  You can’t do it all at once.”  And she said, “Yeah, I know, but I want to be able to.”  He responded with a reference to a term author Anne Lamott made popular, “It’s your shitty first draft.” (SFD for short.)  I thought this was a brilliant application of that idea. 

Anne Lamott used the idea of the shitty first draft to inspire writers to just get going, not to let perfectionism keep them from writing. 

For teachers it’s a bit different.  We generally don’t have a problem showing up to teach, but where we often do have trouble is in giving ourselves some room to learn, to try, to mess up, accepting our own imperfections, our faltering first steps.

Though there may be occasional exceptions, shitty first drafts are the way of life. 

Few, if any, children learn to walk without falling down…A LOT.  And we don’t chastise them for falling we cheer them on!  We praise them for being brave and trying.  We dust of their knees and kiss their boo boos.  We hold their hands. 

But rarely do we offer that same kind of compassion to ourselves as teachers, and rarely do we gather for ourselves that kind of support. 

Many of you are used to being the person who doesn’t make mistakes in school, the star student, the teacher’s pet, the good kid.  You want to be perfect and in school some of you have been able to come close.  That feels safe.  Others of you may have come to teaching because school sucked for you. For you, failure may have different triggers.  It may remind you of those past failures and frustrations.

In either case, as a rule we human beings are not fans of failure.  We are not fans of being out of control.  We aren't fans of falling down.

But teaching of any kind is not safe.  And you can’t do it well without a whole lot of shitty first drafts.  You have to get used to failing and failing in front of people—especially if you want to teach in a community in which the culture differs significantly from your own.

There’s no way to learn how to walk without falling, or to talk without saying things “wrong.”

But here’s the thing.  Teaching (and learning to teach) can also be fun – and funny!

Think about that little toddler stumbling around like a drunken sailor, think of the joy on her face as she takes those faltering steps.  You can choose to have that kind of joy too as you stumble your way along.  You can choose to tell yourself, “I’m just a toddler.  Look at me!  I’m learning!”

Think of how her mother or father or brother or cousin gathers her up in their arms when she falls and starts crying.  You can choose to surround yourself with that kind of support too.  You might be your own inner mother  telling yourself, “Oops, you fell down.  That’s okay.  You’re okay.  Here let me kiss it.” Or you might gather a couple friends around you who you know you can call to pick you up when you fall.  You might join a program for new teachers (or hire a life coach like me!) 

You don’t have a choice about making mistakes and failing from time to time.  There have to be shitty first drafts.

But you do have a choice about how much you enjoy the journey.  

Today I encourage you to start by giving yourself a pat on the back for having the courage to try and gathering a cheering section. 

You can do this, but you can’t do it alone and you can’t do it perfectly.  And that’s not just okay, it’s part of the fun of the journey.

I look forward to hearing about the joyful first wobbly steps and the comforting kisses you experience along the way.

Much love and thriving!



Some books to check out if you want more:

Brene Brown The Gifts of Imperfection

Parker Palmer The Courage to Teach

Anne Lamott Bird by Bird and Traveling Mercies

The Story of a World Changing Failure

Welcome!  So glad you're here!  This is the first post in my Thriving Thursdays blog.  Would love to hear what you think!  If you don't see the comment box right away click on the title above and then look again.


I don’t remember exactly how it all started.  I know that as a white, middle-class sophomore in high school my favorite poem became Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B.”  I know that before that, as a shy 10-year-old military “brat” living at Ft. Campbell, Kentucky I became fascinated by a set of cassette tapes about Martin Luther King.  I remember that the librarian seemed to think my interest was strange. 

I remember how uncomfortable I felt the first time in my life at age 15 when I moved to a new school where I was one of only three white students in a class full of African Americans (life of white privilege - anyone?  I was used to being "normal," not standing out.)  But I don’t remember thinking much about how it was that this school was clearly so much less challenging than the one I had attended the previous year in a different state, one that had a very few African American students in it.

Those questions would come later.

I was brought up in a loving, conservative, evangelical Christian household where I was taught that service to the less fortunate was expected.  “To whom much has been given, much is required.”  I went off to a conservative evangelical college somewhat resistant to total servanthood—God seemed to have been a bit of a killjoy in relation to life in high school and I kinda wished I could have had a bit more fun before being saved from hell—but still I had a profound sense of moral responsibility, and perhaps some resignation about my role.  I didn’t want to go to Africa to save the world, but God would probably drag me there kicking and screaming because it was what I least wanted to do and what I most feared.

After all “to whom much has been given much is required.”  You get the idea.

I wouldn’t go to Africa until decades later (and, it was a great joy to do so, but that’s another story), but I I found an even scarier place to go—THE INNER CITY.  For many people, scary is being OUT of the city, not in it, but in my world at the time cities were places to be feared and avoided. I tutored a few kids in “the projects,” one night a week, then I applied for a summer of “urban ministry.”  

As I remember it, I actually stated in the application process that my main reason for applying was to face my FEAR OF THE CITY, a fear that caused me to avoid it. 

My father’s words echoed in my ear: “You be the boss of Fear, don’t let Fear be the boss of you.” I didn’t want to be controlled by Fear—even if my father himself, along with the U.S. media and multiple other sources no doubt—had contributed to my generally negative view of “the City.” (And to my father's credit, he didn't try to stop me.)

Flash forward 3 years or so and I was moving into Chicago to teach at the Good News Educational Workshop—a small private school that paid its teachers very little in order to provide a warm, safe highly creative educational environment for very low tuition.  The images that come to mind when I think of my first year teaching are of chaos, failure and many, many tears.  After having received stellar grades when I student-taught in a predominantly middle class suburb, I was clearly not prepared.  I pretty much cried all the way home each day, then curled up in a ball in my bed until I could force myself to get up and plan for the next day all the while chastising myself for having trouble staying within my $15/week grocery budget work and feeling sorry for myself because I couldn't afford new clothes.  After all, so many people around me had much less. 

In the midst of yuppie culture at its highest point, I was committed to being “downwardly mobile.”  I was going to sacrifice everything and save the world.

But here’s the thing.  I couldn’t do it.

And all those messages I believed about how I SHOULD sacrifice and serve, all the shame I felt about the riches and privileges I had and have—they didn’t help me to do what I longed to do—to make a difference, to bring healing and justice, to relieve suffering, to make the world a better place. They also didn't help me to recognize the strengths of my students and their communities. It wasn't my job to be their savior, but it would take me awhile to figure that out.

Later I tried the stay-at-home mom thing, also highly regarded in my cultural context—same problem.  I could't do that either.  

It seemed I was a bit to fragile, too inclined towards depression, perhaps too selfish, to do what a REALLY GOOD person.

As it turned out these failures were gifts, because they forced me to look for new ways to live . . . and I've found some.  That's why I'm here.

I haven't given up. 

I just no longer believe that one has to STRIVE and STRUGGLE or just try to SURVIVE to bring more equity into the world. 

In fact, for me at least, none of those options is even possible.  I’m pretty sure I would have committed suicide, literally, if I’d stayed on those paths.  So in this next chapter of my life I’m experimenting with THRIVING FOR EQUITY. 

If this sounds good to you too, join me here on Thursdays (Thriving on Thursdays - cute, huh?). If you want more, watch for announcements about my coaching programs.

Looking forward to connecting. 

Deb (aka Dr. Valentine, for my favorite SJU students, which is all of you!)