Archive for the ‘Dear Friends Letters’ Category

Learning From Experience

Thursday, January 5th, 2012

Once again I find myself hovering over my 17-year-old son, trying to convince him to NOT wait until the last minute to finish an assignment he has been putting off. And, once again, he is telling me not to worry, that he will get it done, he has a plan. I know his plan: staying up all night the night before it’s due, reading until his eyes turn red. But I know something will come up to get in the way. He’ll fall asleep (probably), he’ll suddenly remember another assignment due at the same time that takes precedence (possibly), or something much more fun will present itself and he just won’t be able to resist it (definitely). This pattern repeats itself over and over again. No matter how many times I try to reason with him, he keeps going back to his old procrastinating self. I say the same things every time. ”If you wait until the last minute and you get sick, you won’t feel like doing it.” ”If you wait until the last minute, you’ll be stressed-out and won’t be able to do as good a job as I know you’re capable of.” ”If you wait until the last minute and something else comes up, you’ll have to miss out on the fun because you put off doing your work.” Except the fun part almost always happens.

I don’t know why he has to be this way. You’d think by now he would have caught on that it is so much easier to do the work in smaller batches than try to get it all done in one marathon session at the last minute. No matter how persuasive my argument is, he just won’t do what I want him to. He has so many talents: a graceful, athletic ability that is a joy to watch, a wonderful sense of humor, a willingness to pitch in and help when he sees someone in need, and an uncanny way of nearly always charming me out of a funk, whether he is the cause of it or not. Unfortunately, time-management is not one of his gifts, as frustrating for me as that may be.

As his parent, I try to guide him, help him learn from my experience (in my head I can hear my Mom saying ”good luck with that”), pass on all the time-management skills I have learned over the years. Take a big task and break it down into smaller, more manageable portions. Figure out how much time you need to spend on your project each day. Think the task through before you start so you don’t have to figure the whole thing out as you go. It all seems so simple when it is laid out in front of you.

Except you actually have to put it all into practice. It’s one thing to know what you should do and another to do it. The truth is, I had to learn these skills through experience and consequences, and I’m still far from perfect. Leading by example sometimes only goes so far, and while I do mostly follow my own great advice, it’s still tempting to tell, yell, and cajole him into better management skills, as ineffective as that tactic may be. When all is said and done, I realize that my son will have to learn the same way I did: by messing up and paying my dues. In the meantime, hope springs eternal that at least some of my good habits will rub off on him. I know my mom still holds out hope for me!

The Small Moments

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

Whenever I’m asked if we sell educational toys or books that build self-esteem, I wince a little inside. As parents, we all want academic excellence and healthy self-esteem for our children. But when I hear about parents feeling pressured to ”enrich” their children’s lives with systems to teach babies to read or DVDs that ”teach” toddlers self-esteem, I wince.

Not an ”educational toy” was in sight last weekend as my grandson busied himself creating a robot from a cardboard box. Taking a quick break to watch me use my curling iron, he asked what the stand on the bottom of the iron was. I showed him how it elevated the iron off the counter, preventing it from being burned. Later that afternoon, when he was having a difficult time getting his robot to stand by itself, he rigged up something that enabled it to stand perfectly. When I asked how he thought to do that, he reminded me of the curling iron stand. Little did I know my explanation would become an educational ”tool.” But that’s the point. Educational tools and toys are pretty much free for the picking whenever we choose. Sadly, they weren’t chosen for a little girl I was walking behind recently. When the girl lagged behind to smell some beautiful flowers, her mother harshly admonished the girl to ”STOP IT!” As the mom resumed chattering on the phone, talking about how her daughter was just diagnosed with allergies, the now-skipping girl began singing, ”I have allergies, allergies!” When she interrupted her mom, asking, ”Mommy? What’s allergies?” the mom exploded with, ”I AM ON THE PHONE! What is WRONG with you?!!!”

Ironically, never have we been so inundated with books and tools to give children a head start cognitively and to boost their self-esteem and confidence. But in the case of this little girl, how many interactive DVDs and educational toys will it take to undo the message her mom was sending? In pondering the different learning experiences of these two children, I began thinking about the importance of parenting between the lines. In other words, when it comes to raising children, it’s not so much about the big stuff — the trips to amusement parks, the enrichment programs, and the array of expensive toys and technology. It’s about the little moments in between that help prepare our children to navigate the world.

The winter holiday season is full of big moments, but let’s not forget all the small ones our children are absorbing — how we respond when they ask if reindeer have wings or if they can help wrap presents. My hope is that we use these small moments to stop and listen to our children’s questions and remember that no thing can ever replace the value of connecting with our children when it comes to educating and building self-esteem.

Overwhelmed? You’re Not Alone.

Friday, August 26th, 2011

I was talking with some other parents this weekend, and one word kept cropping up in our conversations: ”overwhelmed.” When did parenting (and life!) get so pressure-filled? It just feels as if we’re faced with so many decisions to make on a daily basis. Do we vaccinate the twins, homeschool our son, enroll our youngest in both soccer and baseball, and is our daughter really mature enough to have a Facebook account? And then there is all the advice from friends, family, parenting books, blogs, and even nannies on TV! No wonder we’re overwhelmed; we’re overloaded!

Add to this our fervent desire to make the right choices — i.e., ”perfect” choices (so our children won’t end up in jail or join a cult) — and it’s enough to make us wonder why we didn’t stick with raising goldfish! But does the likelihood of our daughter ending up either with a Nobel Peace Prize or on a psychiatrist’s couch for the next 25 years really hinge on whether we enroll her in the local elementary school or the pricey private one across town? Are we really that powerful — and are our children really that fragile? If there’s one thing I’ve learned as a parent over the past 27 years, it’s that good decisions don’t always guarantee good results. How could they when there are so many variables (genes, peers, natural disasters, etc.) that we have little or no control over. Fortunately, this also means that bad decisions don’t always result in bad outcomes.

I think we sometimes forget that our children’s lives (as well as our own) are a work in progress. Thomas Edison’s boyhood teacher told him he was too stupid to learn anything; Winston Churchill failed the sixth grade; Steven Spielberg dropped out of high school (twice); and Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. They all ended up accomplishing great things, despite whatever decisions their parents made or didn’t make. As long as we parents and caretakers are motivated by love and a genuine desire to see our children grow into independent, contributing adults, I’d like to think that they’ll find their own way too — regardless of our choices. We cheered them on as they took their first wobbly steps, and they eventually learned how to get around. There really are no guarantees other than that our children will wobble, probably fall, hopefully get up, and (best case scenario) try again. Summer is such a great time to lighten up. When we start getting that feeling of overwhelm, let’s try returning to the simple formula of just being there for our children, cheering them on, providing a safe place for them to fall, and then letting go of the outcome. May you and your little (and big!) works in progress enjoy loving times together and smooth landings whenever possible!

Louise’s Gallery

Friday, June 24th, 2011

Many of you will recognize the artwork on the front of this catalog — a mélange of some of our favorite covers from the days when Chinaberry and Louise Popoff worked together to give you original art on every catalog. We’re celebrating Chinaberry’s 29th birthday by making prints of Louise’s exquisitely detailed covers available on Chinaberry.com (keyword: Louise’s Gallery). Just seeing this collection of artwork after so many years reminded me of how each and every one of us is who we are because of where we’ve been and what we’ve experienced. On a personal level, I roll my eyes when friends give me grief about what a rule-follower I am, but then, they didn’t attend an extremely strict school for 11 years! And although it was no fun at the time, my husband and I were pretty darn poor when the kids were little — a situation demanding resourcefulness which I value and use to this day. That whiplash I got 30 years ago? The result is that over time, I’ve lost most of my sense of taste and smell, but this actually comes in handy sometimes when I just throw a meal together for myself or walk into the kennels first thing in the morning at the dog shelter where I volunteer.

Chinaberry, too, is what it is because of where we’ve been. From the beginning we’ve wanted to offer books and items that would inspire and encourage your families to leave the world a little better off than it would have been without them, and our reputation says we have been true to our mission. We know how we, ourselves, want to be treated as customers, and we take pride in sharing what we learn about each product and then giving you respectful and gracious service. Chinaberry’s roots run deep and we’ve never forgotten where we’ve been or where we’re going. Those of you who remember Louise’s covers will smile while walking down memory lane when you revisit her artwork on our website. And those of you new to it will also understand how these covers are part of what has made Chinaberry Chinaberry.

Flying 101: Giving Them Wings

Friday, May 6th, 2011

To say that I’m having a hard time letting my kids go is probably the understatement of the year. At 13 and 16, they both tower over me, and you’d think now that we are knee deep in ‘The Teenage Years’ I’d be getting better at this, but I’m not. The first time I realized I should loosen my near death grip on my growing young boys-to-men was when my 13-year-old’s voice coach asked, oh so gently, if I would consider letting Ben walk to her door by himself. Apparently other kids are dropped off at the curb and walk into her house on their own. Well, to say this was a huge eye-opener is no exaggeration. To my credit, I didn’t even realize I was being perhaps a teeny weeny bit overprotective! Now that I think about it, it is both hilarious and absolutely mortifying to me that I accompanied my son to her door, week after week, waving at her each time. It brings back memories of walking him to his classroom in kindergarten.

The second incident, and the one that really got my attention, happened at a soccer game. While I’ve seen my share of jaw-dropping, heart-lurching injuries, amazingly my boys have remained fairly injury-free. So when my 16-year-old motioned to his coach that he needed out of the game, I sat up and paid attention. As I watched Daniel slightly limp off the field, it was as if he were transformed into a little boy all over again. Almost without realizing it, I found myself getting up and walking over to the bench to check on him. His kind coach caught my eye, probably wondering what the heck I was doing! That was enough to stop me in my tracks, literally. I blinked and in that moment I saw that my son was not 6 years old anymore! If I walked over to see how he was, he would never live it down! Yes, I have a loooong way to go!

We all have times in our kids’ lives when we struggle to accept that they’re older and ready for more responsibility. I’ve had the good fortune to be around kind souls who took a chance and either with their words or a simple glance helped me acknowledge these young men as the mature guys they really are. If you find yourself in a similar situation — one that could potentially blow up in your face and humiliate both you and your child — take a moment to make sure you aren’t holding your children back by trying to protect them too much. To all the like-minded mothers who may need a course in Flying 101, know that you are not alone and there are other mothers (and fathers, I’m sure!) who are standing on the precipice themselves, slowing peeling back one finger at a time to let our dear children go.

Letting Them Fail

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Last spring and summer I was hooked on watching a webcam from a Barn Owl house in southern California. Molly and McGee, the two owls living there, were in the family way, and I was fortunate enough to be online when one of their owlets hatched. In the following weeks, there were stunning live views of McGee bringing food (rats, gophers, etc.) back to the nest and Molly feeding the owlets. Eventually Molly was able to leave the babies alone and hunt, too, as their growing appetites became true forces to deal with. Little by little, as the scrawny, homely owlets exchanged their wispy down for gorgeous brown and grey feathers, things changed. Molly and McGee weren’t around as much. They still brought food, but now the babies had to rip the flesh, themselves, if they wanted to eat.

As the owls grew bigger and bigger, the owl house seemed to get smaller and smaller. Eventually, the oldest one (they hatch just a few days apart) started to hang around on the outside perch at night, surveying the surroundings. Molly and McGee were still delivering food, but it became apparent that the oldest owl would soon be expected to find and return with his own meals. But first he had to actually fledge — fly from the owl house for the very first time. After hours and hours and several nights of what I’m going to call ‘getting his nerve up,’ he launched himself through the air, returning just a few moments later. It was a stirring sight, and I was humbled by somehow being a part of a phenomenon that occurs countless times every day on this planet.Then came the night he knew, and Molly and McGee knew, that it was time for him to find his own food and get it back up to the owl house. We viewers didn’t get to see him find his prey, but he had me on pins and needles as he struggled to get the rodent, half his size, back up to the owl house. It took what looked like a painful number of tries to succeed, but eventually he did, and Molly and McGee didn’t interfere throughout the effort.

As a parent who has had to watch my own children struggle at certain points during their lives, it was excruciating to see the owl try and fail, try and fail, over and over again. Yet, with each attempt, he was figuring something out. He was tiring, but he was also getting stronger. And whatever you call ‘confidence’ in owls, he certainly was growing in that as well. Now he’s out on his own, being a perfect owl, somewhere. Molly and McGee knew every step of the way what to do when, and what not to do. There are some aspects of Nature that you just can’t argue with, no matter what. As challenging as it may be for parents to watch our kids experience failure and learn from it, I think we would do well to take this lesson from Molly and McGee to heart.

My Tumultuous Teens

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Living with teenagers can be a tricky and trying experience at times. They can be happy and carefree one minute, then, without warning, the storm clouds roll in, and they turn into surly, withdrawn creatures, barely making eye contact and communicating only with grunts and monosyllabic words. Then for no apparent  reason, the universe shifts once again, and they cheerfully ask, ‘What’s for dinner?’ It’s enough to make your head spin. There are moments when I long for what now seem like much simpler times: bubble baths and shampoo mohawks, seemingly endless bedtime stories, sticky fingers and faces, hugs, and little boy voices saying,  ‘I love you, Mommy.’ Now, instead of giggly bubble baths, there are never-ending showers that use up all the hot water. Instead of my putting the boys to sleep with a bedtime story (or two, or three), my boys wake me up late at night  to let me know they made it home safe and sound. The hugs have morphed into a kind of one-shoulder lean with no arms involved, over in an instant no matter how I try to hang on to them.

But of all the changes that have occurred through the years, the one that causes me to wonder what  I could have done differently as a parent is the response I get when I say, ‘I love you.’ Instead of a resounding ‘I love you too, Mommy!’ what I hear is ‘um hmm’ or ‘ok.’ I could let this strike me prostrate with grief, but instead I think back to my own teenage years and my surliness and mood swings with my own parents, and I realize it has nothing to do with me. It is all about my boys and the changes they are going through as they find their own way in the world. High school graduation, college, career choices, social pressures, and the occasional bad hair cut are all reasons to cause uncertainty and aggravation. Throw in some crazy woman clinging to their arms as they try to leave the house, and it’s no wonder all they can do is grunt. So, thank you Mom and Dad for your  patience, guidance, and unfailing love during my tumultuous teens, and for keeping your  snickers to a minimum as I bemoan my own trials as a parent of teenagers. I will continue to call out, ‘I love you, Buddy’ when my sons head out the door, and I’m doing a pretty good job.

Encouraging Your Kids to Live Their Bliss

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Recently I was on a flight with a self-professed high school ”nerd.” During our 2-hour flight, I told him the good news — that if he’s a nerd now, I can pretty much guarantee one day he’ll be living The Good Life if he can survive the next four years without dropping out — of school or life. School life, I told him, is not kind to nerds, but real life is, as 20-year high school reunions can attest to. The teen years can be such a brutal time in our children’s lives. They don’t have the life experience to know that this conform-to-the-herd-or-be-a-nerd time is so temporary in the grand scheme of things. They don’t yet understand that a whole new world awaits in the not-too-distant future — where the dweeb of the lunchroom can be the CEO of the boardroom and the mousy girl in hand-me-down clothes can win an Oscar one day.

The key is to help our children discover what it is they truly want to do, what makes their heart sing, and let that define them and motivate them rather than their peers’ opinions of their shoes or how they wear their hair. If we parents/mentors don’t create the space for our kids to be real and feel listened to, where else will they find it? If your 16-year-old’s heart’s desire is to draw cartoons, encourage it, celebrate it, allow him to  experience a sense of mastery in it, and explore possible career paths involving art even if your practical side is screaming.

My airplane buddy has a passion for World War II history and would love to work in a museum one day, but his mom is hoping he’ll become an ultrasound tech because they’re really in demand and make good money. If I could have coffee with his mom, I would first applaud her for raising a son who knows his bliss. If she said, ”Well, I don’t see how it’s going to put bread on the table!” I’d agree with her that it might not be easy, but then I hope I’d have enough gumption to tell her I hoped her son would find the courage and the means to live an authentic life. I might even share one of my favorite quotes by Howard Thurman: ”Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Since it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever meet this boy’s mom, I guess the next best thing is to write this to all the moms (and dads!) out there whose children are entering that stage where true passions and interests often take a backseat to their peers’ opinions, especially if their interests are not ‘cool.’ We can’t control what their peers say, but we can control what we say. The world may need more ultrasound techs, but my hope is that each of us looks for what makes our children come alive in the world and helps to nurture it. Wishing you all a beautiful spring full of hope and new life.

The Chinaberry Commitment

Monday, September 20th, 2010


The collection of items on our website is the result of literally thousands of hours of work by our staff. We are a small company, so those thousands of hours should say something about our commitment to offer you an intelligent and thoughtfully-selected collection of items. From games that we actually play (you wouldn’t believe how many games have unclear instructions) and toys that we kid-test (and you wouldn’t believe how many problems we find in that process) to items for the family and home that we have used and loved and books that we read cover to cover (and reject thousands), the Chinaberry catalog is a one-of-a-kind catalog.

So, what you find here is the cream of the crop. And while I can’t pass up a good game, love watching a child have fun with a cool toy, and appreciate something that will make my life better at home, there is simply nothing like a book. Books can make us wonder, astound us with what has occurred in the past, make us more compassionate, make us more able to stand up for what we believe in, make us want to get outside our comfort zones and maybe do something, and make us better people. The fact is that a game, a toy, or something for the kitchen just isn’t going to change us or change the world, but a book can light the flame that will do just that.

And this is why it is very significant and disheartening to us that we have had to decrease the number of books we are offering you in the catalog. We devote more time than you will ever know to reading books and then choosing the ones that are great read-alouds; will make you and your child laugh together, think, or talk; will ask your early teen to think about more than the typical teen in our country is thinking about; or that you, as an adult, might find to be a worthy escape when you have a moment to yourself. Unfortunately, so many of those who receive our catalog go to the giant online book source (we all know who it is) to buy the books that they’ve read about in Chinaberry, that our company can no longer continue to devote the same resources to finding great books. If the Chinaberry catalog is of value to you, we ask you to spend your dollars with us if you find a book here that you want. We know it is tempting to get a bargain, but independent booksellers like us survive only because of customers who value our service and take the extra step to support it. We ask that you take this into consideration when choosing where to buy your books. And to those of you who have loyally supported us throughout the years, we offer our heartfelt thanks — your orders are what have kept us in business and for that we are truly grateful!

In the Blink of an Eye

Wednesday, August 18th, 2010

It happens to the best of us. While we’re busy living, life just about passes us by. Never is this more apparent than with our children. We have our babies, and then in that veritable blink of an eye, they’re crawling, walking, and talking. Our little ones amaze us with each new milestone that seemed impossible just a month ago. Before we know it, they’re in kindergarten, with circle time, ABCs, and even reading. Another blink of an eye, and they’ve finished elementary school and are well into middle school, learning more facts, making new friends, playing sports, having fun. In short, living their lives.

I bring this up because the latest hurdle we’re facing is high school. My voice still quavers a bit when I tell people my oldest son is now in high school. Gone are the days when I could sit in the back of the classroom and help staple some construction paper together, read with a group of kids, or help others with their multiplication tables, while keeping half an eye on my son. Sure, if there’s a clean-up day or a call for some kind of assistance at the high school, I help when I can. But those days of hanging out in the classroom are gone.

While a part of me grieves this loss, another part is starting to accept the inevitable change. Not too long ago, I was reminded of our true role as parents by some gentle neighbors whose kids are now adults. John said it so eloquently and it rings true for me during these days that seem to be just flying by: Our job is to set our kids free, like a mother bird nudges her young from the nest, ready to fly. Whether we are ready for it or not, they are ready.

So these days, when I’m thinking about which college might be the best fit rather than which art project students could make for a teacher present, I remember these wise words. Hugging my now-towering sons and saying ‘I love you’ more often also seems to help me appreciate the time we have. Like it or not, they will be on their way sooner than I may want, but for now I will try to savor each day we have together. As summer unfolds, I hope you enjoy some special times with your children, knowing that soon enough they will be on their way.