First Friends

cousins jess jenn cousins jess meliss cousins jess mitz cousins mooney reunion 83In honor of National Cousins Day I write this post. My brothers and I have 23 first cousins, and more second cousins than I’m willing to count at the present. Family events were such fun because you were guaranteed to have friends and playmates there. I am among the older half of cousins on both sides of my family, and as I grew, new cousins were added to the mix. With cousins you can be silly, and get yelled at by parents, aunts and uncles, and it all seems right. My cousins were my first friends, and the newer additions were really my first students as I attempted to teach, boss, help, and mother them. Our familiarity seems almost instant at family events now. The bonds are there and will continue to be there. Love and hugs to all the cousins out there, especially mine.

cousins jeff paul dennis



Thank You


Melissa Jessica maybe 1989 thanksgiving ft smith

Thank you. Two words. How can they have such a profound impact on an awkward teenager?

Thanksgiving weekend, and all the cousins were getting ready to head out to a movie. I walk into the bathroom to do something, anything, with my appearance to make me feel less dorky. My slightly younger cousin, Melissa, was putting a small hat accessory in her hair (think: Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth). It was cool and looked great. I shared my admiration with Melissa. She turned to me, smiled and said, “Thank you.” She said it with such warmth, and I felt pleased. Then, I felt confused. I recognized at that moment that I couldn’t recall the last time someone had thanked me for a compliment. I couldn’t remember the last time I had done so, either. Of course, the words ‘thank you’ were said often as part of good manners: Thank you for helping. Thank you for cooking. Thank you for picking me up. Thank you for passing the peas. Thank you for holding the door… You get the idea. Thank you for giving me a compliment? Huh. That one stumped me, and here’s why. For the majority of my late childhood/early adolescence the females (family, friends, acquaintances) in my life wouldn’t accept them. “That color looks great on you!” “You think so? I wasn’t sure.” “I love that new haircut.” “I think it makes my chin look big, but thanks.” “You look wonderful.” “If I could just lose these last 10 pounds…” The compliments and rejections flowed freely back and forth, and I was developing the same pattern. I just couldn’t see what others saw. “Jessica, your artwork is really good.” “You should see my brother’s.” After that moment with my cousin Melissa I vowed to try and accept compliments rather than repelling them with my sour teen force field. My first opportunity came the very next day. One of my Aunts gave me a compliment, something about my hair. I said thank you. It felt weird. It felt wrong. Not an hour earlier I had despairingly stared in the mirror at my recently layered mop of hair lamenting at what a disaster it was. Accepting the compliment was a little step toward a freedom I didn’t know existed.

It took a long time for me to learn to separate how I saw and felt about myself and how others saw me. It is an ongoing practice. When I’m feeling stressed or less than confident, I revert back to the “Thank you, but…”. Most of the time, however, my thank yous are true and heart felt. Thank you, Melissa, for this memory and experience you may not even be aware of. Thank you everyone for reading, commenting on, and sharing this blog. Thank you, and no buts about it.


I want to thank those who read the blog and comment.

Kindergarten Artists

Jessica Kindergarten pic 1982Kindergarten. A new way of life begins and you’re tested on all your p’s and q’s. A mix of fun, confusion, and discovery abounds during kindergarten. My first year of school was a blur, but some of it stands out vividly, like naps, yes…naps. Each child brought a mat to sleep on and mine was red and blue with a strong vinyl smell. I remember taking a nap next to Darin, my buddy from Church. It was comforting being beside someone I knew outside of school, even though he wouldn’t play with me because I was a girl.

One day I had the hardest time falling asleep. Earlier, we were instructed to draw and color a picture of anything we wanted. We were told that our teacher, the aide and the principal would judge the pictures and pick a winner. Everyone worked hard on theirs, but I knew mine was the best. An orange pot with a yellow and green flower decorated my paper. It was symmetrical, colorful, and just perfect. Next to me, working on his picture, Darin drew a tree and a pole with the American flag on it (the flag was crooked). He had extra time, so he took the blue crayon and started making clouds, but then he messed up and scribbled at the mistake. Then he picked up the red crayon, held it with the blue crayon, and made squiggles all over the ‘sky’ of his picture. I knew he had just messed up the whole picture, the sky was purple and that just didn’t make sense.

When it was time to get up from nap, my heart was pounding. I was so excited to be recognized as the best artist. The three adults made nice comments about all the pictures then singled out three: a turtle, my flower and pot, and Darin’s picture. The principal asked each of us to explain our pictures. All I remember was Darin standing up and explaining that the purple sky wasn’t actually purple but was red, white, and blue to stand for America. Darin’s picture got first place, mine second and the turtle third. I remember wondering how I could describe my picture as an homage to America and if the adults would reconsider the standings. I felt so sad and let down, and angry at Darin for being so clever.

A new crop of kindergarteners will be starting school very soon. Here are some tips to help with the transition.



joe helping dad Jan 82 truck May 82 Joe sawing with dadWhen children see their parents and other trusted adults performing activities, it is natural for them to show interest and want to “help”. This usually means the activity must slow down and progress be forfeited to some degree.  For the parents and adults who slow down and allow the child to experience the activity, you are building trust, strengthening bonds, and inspiring learning and respect with the child. The experiences a child has will impact their life.

It can be challenging for adults to halt progress and work, especially when there are deadlines, expectations and safety concerns. If this is the case, acknowledge the child’s interest and feelings. Explain to the child what is happening during the activity. Try to find a few minutes, maybe during a break (water or lunch), to allow the child to experience part of the activity. For example, you may not allow the child to use an electric drill, but you can remove the drill bit and allow the child to hold it in their hand to feel how heavy it is.

My parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles allowed my brothers and me to participate in many ‘grown up’ activities. They modified experiences to be safe and reasonable. Of course, many of those activities became chores when we got older, but we were competent and confident. Competence and confidence are skills children use to achieve life successes in relationships, learning, and living.

Were you a “helper” as a child? How do you encourage children?

A Dog, A Rabbit, and A Bear Walk Into….

dog bearAlmost two feet of floppy fun flew into the air, over and over again. The first time one hit the ceiling we sobered a little, but no comment came from mom or dad so we continued. Then, ‘accidentally’, another hit the ceiling. It was hilarious. We burst out laughing and couldn’t stop ourselves. Each of us swung our stuffed animals by the arms or legs, the toys twirling in the air up to the ceiling, then “thump” and the animals would momentarily be frozen in the most funny positions. Arms  and legs splayed out, twisted, sideways…it was like watching a blooper reel. We had just been given the toys that morning and it was such a treat!

Finally, our parents emerged and put a stop to it, at least four times. It was difficult to come down from the giggle induced high. Until what happened next. Our parents asked us to come into the living room, sat us down and told us we were moving. Moving?!? What did that even mean? I was eight and only knew this house, our land, our friends…I was scared. I tried to bargain: if we gave back the toys, could we stay? I pouted, I cried, I became angry. My mom and dad comforted us the best they could. Luckily, we were resilient and adapted to our new surroundings quickly, but we missed our home immensely.

Resilience seems to be a skill that comes naturally to most, but it doesn’t mean all goes back to normal after a difficult event (we are human after all). Resilience can and should be fostered. For children, parents and trusted adults must provide support and comfort during those difficult times. Each experience a child goes through has an impact and will help shape a child. For young children, identify and explain their emotions to them- all the emotions. Accept a child’s actions, when appropriate, or teach them appropriate actions. For example: Your child becomes upset and kicks toys when she is angry. Teach her to stomp her feet when she is angry. She will get a similar physical sensation and still be able to express her feelings. This is especially helpful for children who do not yet possess the language skills necessary to verbally express their feelings.

I kept my stuffed animal for several years, and often remembered the day it was given to me. It was a day of high and low, and the feelings of that day are still with me today. For this, I feel fortunate.


Photos found here and here.

Sibling Sharing

Jeff jess toys in crib march 77My older brother was four, I was almost a year old, and he had things to show me. Kids want to know that they are important. They want to help, feel proud, and play. When a new sibling enters the household, it can leave the older sibling feeling less important.

I don’t know how my parents prepared my older brother for my arrival, but I’ve heard the stories and seen the photographic evidence (see above) of his enthusiasm to share and ‘help’ me. I remember how I felt when our younger brother came home- excited! I suppose my older brother felt similarly. He would bring me so many toys, put them in my crib, and then climb in with me, leaving little room for either of us.

I’m grateful that our parents let this happen, because, even though we had our share of rough patches during the pre-teen and teen years, we were able to develop a bond during early childhood that would always bring us back together. This is true for all three of us, and I wouldn’t want it any other way.


Filling Dad’s Shoes

Joe february 81I walked into my parent’s bedroom, it was late afternoon. The sun was streaming in through the windows. I raised my leg high and slipped my foot down into my dad’s cowboy boot. Balancing, I did the same with my other foot and got a surprise. “Ouch!!” I fell over and began crying and scrambling away from the boots. A scorpion had stung me on the foot.

That little experience didn’t stop me from trying on and walking around in my mom or dad’s shoes but I did learn to check first. What is it about putting on a parent’s shoes that kids love so much? It’s part imitation, part imagination, part problem solving, and well just plain easy. Those opening are huge!

When my brothers and I were small, we loved to follow dad around and ‘get in the way’. Whatever he was doing seemed so important, but then he’d tickle our bellies and make a duck sound which always made us laugh. Later, he made us learn certain life skills, like how to fish and hunt, how to take care of a car and fix almost any part of it, how to work hard, and how to try new things.

The first official driving lesson my dad gave me, he took me to a cemetery. It had gravel paths and a hill at one end. I was learning on our Datsun pickup which had a stick shift. Driving through the cemetery was fine, until he told me to go up the hill. I did, then he told me to do it again, and half way up he told me to stop and idle. Then he told me to idle without using the break…um what? Let’s just say I prayed for a little more forgiveness that night as the memory of the sound of gravel striking headstones echoed in my ears.

What is something you learned from your father, grandfather, uncle, or father-figure?Joe feb 81


April 1981We lived on 12 acres in rural Louisiana. It was the best playground and science lab any kid could ask for…and sometimes it was a battle ground.

It was the month of my younger brother’s second birthday, and the following month I would be turning five. My older brother, an eight year old, had led us down to a spot maybe 200 yards away from the house where the rain water had made miniature canyons out of the mud. The ground had dried hard and was the perfect spot for building bridges for toy cars. There was an abundance of sticks and twigs, and we gathered them and set to work. My younger brother kept taking my sticks and refused to use the ones I had generously given him. He wanted mine and that was that. The next thing I knew my older brother began screaming at the top of his lungs. There was a sharp pain in the back of my head and my blonde hair turned red. I saw my mom, in a light blue v-neck t-shirt, sprinting down from the house. She scooped me up and began running with me back to the house. She was calling for my aunt, who was visiting, to go and get the boys. I looked back and saw my little brother staring at us, holding a toy hammer in his hand. I was crying and my hair was sticking to my face. I laid my head against my mom’s chest and smelled her perfume. All the sounds were dulled by the pounding in my head.

At the hospital she laid me down. The nurse was gruff and told me to settle down, which rarely works on a four year old. I was sobbing and then a plastic sheet was over my face. I was sucking in air so forcefully that the sheet pulled tight to my nose and face. I was choking, I couldn’t breath, I was scared and they were trying to give me shots. I began to fight the sheet and the nurse yelled at me again. Someone held my arms down. The next thing I remember was getting a bandage on my head, and my mom telling me something sweet.

Back at home I felt quite special. I got my picture taken, and had my bedtime stories read to me in the living room. My parents and aunt discussed the events from earlier in the day as I listened. My mom had changed out of her blue shirt and my aunt asked if she thought they would be able to get the stain out. I wondered about my own t-shirt from earlier. It was one of my favorites and had my initials on it.

Toddlers and young children are impulsive, and act upon their feelings. **They don’t think first.** That’s just how it is. Often parents and caregivers try to stop behaviors, but I’d like to suggest that that is nearly impossible. Instead, help the child develop a replacement behavior. Hitting, throwing and biting are probably the top three behaviors that I have encountered that parents and teachers want to stop for obvious safety reasons. When children are young they often lack the language skills to express how they feel. Parents can help children by identifying and labeling emotions from infancy. This is just one way to help children. When children are very young and introduced to others it is natural for them to grab another child or person, touch and pull hair, pat or hit another child. This is not a problem behavior forming, but rather the child trying to engage with another. Sometimes a toddler will walk up to another child, push them, then smile. What they are really saying is, “I don’t know how to engage in play. I want to play with you.” Parents and caregivers can help by being present and close, not just watching from across the playground. Babies and toddlers often need an adult to help them use ‘gentle touches’. When a young child takes a toy from another child, try not to intervene right away. The other child may not even mind. If they do mind, then help your child choose something else to play with. This is all part of the learning process, and is easier said than done-but worth it.

Knowing what I know now, my younger brother may not have just wanted my sticks, but wanted to play WITH me. When I wouldn’t let him, by taking my sticks back from him, he became upset and hit me with the claw end of the hammer. If he hadn’t had that hammer, it probably would have just been his hands.

Over the years the family joked about keeping an eye on my brother around tools. Interestingly, he has become quite proficient with tools and even has a website and YouTube channel to show off his talents. I’d like to think I had something to do with his early tool experience.

Jess april 1981


croquetHanding a wooden mallet, basically a wooden hammer, to two and three year old children is a risk, but one worth taking.

Croquet is a game dating back to the 12th century. A player must use sight, sound, and touch to develop skills necessary to navigate the course. Why, then, would I introduce this game to toddlers and preschoolers? A few reasons, actually. I had recently been taught the game by five men and women who were residents at the adult living facility located on the same campus as the school where I worked as a teacher. These “grandmas and grandpas” visited our classrooms a couple of days a month to read stories or play with the children. Becoming close with ‘Grandpa John’, he invited me to join his band of ‘merry misfits’ (his description) on Sundays for  a cutthroat game of Croquet and dinner to follow. I accepted. On my first visit it was apparent that these seemingly ‘sweet’ grandmas and grandpas had just invited me because they needed comic relief. I continued to visit a few times each month and soon realized that I wasn’t getting any better and needed to practice. Not only that, but I actually enjoyed the game, as bad as I was.

One day, at work, while cleaning out the toy shed I discovered a brand new croquet set. Delight set in as I began modifying my lesson plans for the next month. No, I wouldn’t really get to practice by incorporating the game into outside time, but I’ve often found that teaching a skill and becoming more familiar with it has great advantages. The first day the game was set out was…horrifically hilarious. One child was playing ‘Whack-a-Mole’ in the sandbox, another was trying to ‘hammer’ the ball into the ground, and yet another was ‘helping’ me by gathering up all the wickets. My only goal the first day was to have the children practice hitting the ball with the mallet, aiming at the wicket. It was clear I had to start over. The second day and each day after got better and the children really enjoyed it.

The key to adding this game as an activity was not to teach the children to play Croquet, but to help them use their skills to learn how to use the materials. The children used problem solving skills, math skills, cognitive skills, physical skills, and social emotional skills. One boy, 2, tried over and over to swing the mallet between his legs, but he just kept hitting his face with the top of the handle. Finally, he turned sideways and made it work for him. By the end of two weeks there was a group of 4 and 5 year olds who actually set up the game according to the rules (smaller course) and played several days in a row. The two and three year olds were happy to be hitting the balls through the wickets and were taking turns like pros. One day I observed a few children take over the ‘block center’ and build their own Croquet game.

Eventually, I improved my skills to a ‘decent’ level, and watching the children play was pure joy, even when they made up their own games. Teaching children a new game or skill takes some time and patience. If your goal is to have them play with you and follow the rules, just know that there may need to be a grace period when learning and exploration can happen. If not, it may not be much fun for anyone.






We moved to Kansas when I was eight years old and stayed for a couple of years. Besides moving to a two-story home with a basement, the coolest thing about our small town was the brick streets. The bricks made bicycle rides fun, bumpy, and occasionally accident causing. One day I was playing on the porch when a sound caught my attention, scrape…ssshhhp….scrape…..sssshhhhp. I looked up and saw a man in a wheelchair slowly making his way down the street, the uneven bricks keeping his progress slow. He had greasy gray hair, a bit of a hunch in his back between the shoulder blades, and gnarled hands that couldn’t quite grasp the wheels of his chair. Both feet covered in socks, the left foot slowly stepped in front to pull the wheelchair forward to aid his hands and arms while the right foot dragged under the chair. He was leaning forward and to right, and as I approached him I saw his gooey, crusted eyes and drool covered chin as he turned to look at me. He reached out with his left hand and I gave him mine. His palm was very soft and his hand very strong as he squeezed mine. I asked him if he wanted me to push him a couple of blocks (because I couldn’t go too far from home). He said he would and then something else, but I couldn’t understand his slurred speech very well. The sound of his voice is still with me.

He was heavy in his wheelchair, and as I pushed I realized that both his feet were dragging now. I stopped and went around in front of him. I lifted his feet and put them on the foot rests. He helped lift his left foot, but his right was very weak and he couldn’t help me much. As I pushed him to the end of the second block he asked what my name was and introduced himself as Bob. He then reached for my hand again and as I gave it too him he slowly leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. It was a slobbery kiss and I got a nose-full of his unwashed self. It wasn’t pleasant, but I understood his gratitude. I set his left foot back down on the ground and said goodbye.

I think we saw Bob pass by our house maybe once every week or two. Most of the time I would push him a few blocks and we would chat a little. Sometimes kids or teens would make mean comments about Bob, but we’d just move on and ignore them. I felt sorry for Bob, but I didn’t want to. I remember struggling with my feelings and trying to understand them.

I’m glad to have had that time with Bob, and often think that he was one of the reasons I ended up working in the fields of education, foster care, and developmental disabilities. I also wonder how I have impacted children, and hope that the experiences were good and positive, as Bob impacted me.

Photo found here.