a peek inside the fishbowl

26 Sep, 2008

words as instruments of change

Posted by andrea tomkins in: parenting|Yaktivism

Have you ever read something that changed your parenting style, or, if you’re not a parent, the way you live your daily life?

I have been reading Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-deficit Disorder on and off for the past couple of months. (I’ve actually set it aside for Oryx and Crake right now, which I can’t put down!) It took me awhile to get into Last Child because it’s very textbook-like and is intended for an audience of teachers and child psychologists. I’m not completely through it yet, but I wanted to share two things that jumped out at me.

The first is about something I’ve written and spoken about before, but the author expresses much more eloquently than I did:

“A friend of mine was shopping for a new luxury car …. She settled on a Mercedes SUV, with a Global Positioning System: just tap in your destination and the vehicle not only provides a map on the dashboard screen, but talks you there. But she knew where to draw the line.  “The salesman’s jaw dropped when I said I didn’t want a backseat television monitor for my daughter,” she told me. “He almost refused to let me leave the dealership until he could understand why.” Rear-seat and in-dash “multimedia entertainment products,” as they are called, are quickly becoming the hottest add-on since rearview mirror fuzzy dice. The target market: parents who will pay a premium for a little backseat peace. Sales are brisk; the prices are falling. Some systems include wireless, infrared-connected headsets. The children can watch Sesame Street or play Grand Theft Auto on their PlayStation without bothering the driver.

“Why do so many Americans say they want their children to watch less TV, yet continue to expand the opportunities for them to watch it? More important, why do so many people no longer consider the physical world worth watching? The highway’s edges may not be postcard perfect. But for a century, children’s early understanding of how cities and nature fit together was gained from the backseat: the empty farm-house at the edge of the subdvision; the variety of architecture, here and there; the woods and fields and water beyond the seamy edges – all that was and still is available to the eye. This was the landscape that we watched as children. It was our drive-by movie.”

“…. In our useful boredom, we used our fingers to draw pictures on fogged glass as we watched telephone poles tick by. We saw birds on the wires and combines in the fields…. We considered the past and dreamed of the future, and watched it all go by in the blink of an eye.”

Love it.

The second thing that jumped out at me is unrelated to the first, but has resulted in a mental shift and change of parenting style for me. I wish I had come across this idea earlier.

“When Julia was very little, when we went outdoors, rather than telling her to “be careful,” I encouraged her to “pay attention” – which doesn’t instill fear, but works against fear. Of all the times we were together outdoors, we never encountered any creatures (outside of some humans) that made either of us fearful. I hope that I taught her to use good judgement. For instance, when climbing on rocks, it isn’t prudent to put your fingers into a crevice that you haven’t first examined.”

The “be careful vs. pay attention” idea really appeals to me. I put it to work during our unintended 20k bike ride earlier this year. I biked behind Sarah with my heart in my throat for most of the time. I watched her navigate shakily around potholes and over rough patches of sidewalk. She wasn’t feeling well and I knew that she was distracted because of this; perfect conditions for an awful spill. It was especially difficult to watch her wobble down a sidewalk along a crazy busy stretch of Carling Avenue (four lanes of speedy drivers) as we made our way homeward.

BUT I resisted to temptation to sing out “be careful!” I caught myself every time, about 100 times or more, and I switched it with “pay attention” instead. I’m glad I chose different words. I didn’t sound nearly as paranoid or fearful.  I want the girls to the embrace and respect their environment – city or country – perils and all, and learn to deal with it… and not learn to be afraid of it.

I don’t know if it’s working, but I like to think it is.

7 Responses to "words as instruments of change"

1 | porter

September 26th, 2008 at 10:07 am



i’m not too sure whether or not i buy into the idea that ‘pay attention’ is better than ‘be careful’ but i do know that one of the things i get tired of listening to myself say is ‘be careful’ that is why i love going places with the kids where they can be free to explore….wide open spaces, natural spaces, etc.

as for tv’s in cars…again, i don’t think they are such a big deal. i am a horrible passenger (since being in a serious car accident in university) so i don’t find the car to be one of the places where quality interaction between my kids and i takes place as it is. also, i’ve said this before i think…when we were kids sure we used to find simple pleasures in long car rides but we weren’t strapped into car seats like kids are today. we were free to play across the entire back seat. we have portable dvd players but rarely ever use them but i do appreciate them during longish car rides…that doesn’t mean we don’t play games in the car or that we don’t point out neat things along the way.

my comments above don’t answer your question “Have you ever read something that changed your parenting style, or, if you’re not a parent, the way you live your daily life?” and the answer is yes, all the time. I love reading about different parenting styles and philosophies because it makes me consider my own.

2 | andrea

September 26th, 2008 at 11:30 am


I once saw a documentary-style parenting show in which they interviewed a mother who used to follow her toddler around the park saying things like be careful you’ll fall, be careful you’ll hurt yourself, be careful DON’T CLIMB THAT etc etc. The boy got older and his mother watched other children her kid’s age swinging on the bars like natural-born monkeys, but her child – guess what – was afraid of falling and wouldn’t dare try. She regretted her behaviour and wished she could have been more encouraging and less afraid.

I think we, as parents, are so busy with our everyday lives that we often forget that our actions and words are shaping our children and are playing a role in determining what kind of people they are ultimately going to become. You know what I mean?

3 | BeachMama

September 26th, 2008 at 12:00 pm


I love the ‘pay attention’ thing. I may have to try and make the switch too.

We don’t have a built in dvd in the car, but have one that can be plugged in. This past summer on our two drives to Delaware, I was so proud of J who only watched one movie in total. And we took 11 hours to get there and back instead of nine. He did great, talked the whole way which is not always good for us, but he remembered all the landmarks that I have known since a kid and it brought me much joy.

On the side of the GPS system, I will say that we borrowed one from my cousin and although it was great to have, we sure missed a lot of landmarks in finding our way back and forth across Maryland and Delaware. We finally turned it off one day to see if we had been paying attention. Thankfully we made it to where we wanted to go.

4 | Nicol

September 26th, 2008 at 1:39 pm


I like that! Using “pay attention” instead of “be careful”. It sounds far more positive. I think I will start to make the switch.

5 | Mary Lynn

September 26th, 2008 at 3:29 pm


My parenting’s been influenced by lots of different things I’ve read. Most have just been minor little things here and there. For instance, I read in a magazine article about food that a nutritionist recommended that parents not get overly concerned about what children eat in any particular meal, but rather look at what they eat over the course of two or three days. So, for instance, if there’s one meal that your child wants to eat rice and only rice, then that’s okay as long as they get veggies, fruit, protein and dairy in other meals over the next day or two. That helped me become a lot less stressed out about mealtime.

I love the “pay attention” bit. I’ll definitely try to use that. I grew up as an overly cautious child, and I’d like to raise my kids to be less wary than I was.

We don’t have a DVD in our car, either, and so far I’ve seen no need to get one. Our kids are actually pretty good travellers….have been back and forth between Markham and Ottawa lots of times. We listen to music, point out things that we see, our daughter makes up stories. There are occasionally complaints, but on the whole they do okay.

When I was a kid we did tons of long car trips. I grew up in Renfrew County. Our grandparents were in Sudbury and St. Catharines–both a 6-hour drive away in opposite directions. And we did long trips with our camper-trailer to BC and back one summer, and to Halifax and back a couple of summers later. My brothers and I read comic books, and made up games, and took note of all the different license plates we saw. We paid attention to each other and our surroundings (A ha! Another good use for that “pay attention” phrase). I think that having to dream up things to keep ourselves amused helped us become creative thinkers in general.

6 | porter

September 27th, 2008 at 9:43 am


Yes I know what you mean. I do agree and think what we say and how we say it affects our children (and others around us). I guess my point is more an issue of having to even say ‘be careful’ or ‘pay attention’ at all…I think when we were younger our parents let us be a little more free than we let our kids be (for so many reasons…right and/or wrong). I wish my kids could just head outside to play like I used to, no sunblock, no helmuts, no supervision, obviously I know why kids need all of this…I just wish it wasn’t so!!!!

7 | Camping = bringing your parenting outdoors. >> a peek inside the fishbowl

August 4th, 2014 at 8:46 am


[…] want to cut themselves. But it couldn’t be helped. I do try to remember to tell them to pay attention when it made sense to say […]

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My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human offspring: Emma (24) and Sarah (22). During the day I work as a writer at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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