Monday, September 17, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Six - Part Two

Everyone survived the goofy conversational start to Chapter Six, I hope.  I wish I could tell you that the chapter improves immensely from there, but this is written by the Maxwells. 

 "Making Great Conversationalists" by Steven and Teri Maxwell rarely brings helpful advice or sensible activities.  This strange lack of useful information, however, is off-set by quirky insights into their writing process or the general rhythms of their lives.  In Chapter Six, the Maxwells decide to answer the question "Can Conversational Skills Be Taught?" .   I agree that teaching conversational skills is possible and an admirable goal - but I question the wisdom of waiting to answer the question until page 96 of a 200 page book.  I think I would enjoy the book more if the Maxwells admitted at this point that they personally are not the people to each this skill.

With the standard absence of transition between subjects, the Maxwells insert a page of rhetoric about why movies, television, video games, computers and books stifle conversation rather than promote it.  The crux of their argument is that when people are engrossed by media, they do not talk.  If someone interrupts them while they are engrossed by the media, the person will be shushed and conversation will be crushed. 

The problem I see with their logic is that good media either allows for conversations while being consumed or inspires topics of conversation after the media is done.   When I was college-aged, my teenage brother saved up and purchased an X-Box along with Mario-Karts.    Within a few months, my mom, my sister, my brother and I ended playing marathon sessions of Mario-Karts against each other.   We were capable of talking while playing Mario-Karts - although it was generally a series of rants about how horribly we were doing interspaced with hysterical laughing when one of us realized we were doing so badly that we were screwed.   

Now, my dad would join us when we went to see local theater.  Unlike video games, other audience members do appreciate silence during acts.  In exchange for two hours of silence, we gained hours of conversational material.   Most recently, Dad played Firs in Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard".   We've discussed the staging, casting, costume and lighting choices of the play - but the longest lasting topic of conversation is Anton Chekhov's surprise that a play he wrote to be a comedy is at best a tragicomedy...and most of the play is simply tragic.

The subject of the evils of modern media wraps up with a very detailed description of how Teri Maxwell always turns to see people who enter the room where her computer is and states that she needs to finish up before talking to the person if she cannot talk right away.   I am astonished by the detailed description of what should be a mundane and workaday habit related to common courtesy.  It's like the Maxwells have cut themselves so far off from most humans that they've forgotten which pieces of information are common - like the phrase "Gotta finish this; be with you in a minute, kiddo" - leading to them feeling like they've made a major breakthrough by being polite.

Speaking of being isolated from all people, the next section about ideas for good talking times with your kids contains no new ideas.  The only one I remembered after reading was the decent idea that some kids relax more when a parent lies on a bed with them.   The reason I remembered that is I ran into a set of pictures of the bedroom of the Maxwell "girls" where Sarah, Anna and Mary sleep.  Anna and Mary share bunk-beds that might not work so well for those two girls.

The benefits of setting up relaxing talking times evaporate if readers follow the questionable advice over the next two pages.  Steven Maxwell is all about having individual meetings with each kid once a week to talk.  If families followed that idea, I'd think it a bit hokey, but harmless.  The problem comes when people follow Maxwell's ideal of using those meetings to go over the personal failings of the kid with an occasional sop of pretending to take the kid's feedback about where Maxwell is currently failing.  I don't remember having major character flaws when I was growing up that required in-depth serious conversations weekly; if I did, the repeating nature of the conversations would make me nervous.

Once we've slogged this far in the chapter, we are rewarded with plans to carefully - oh, ever so carefully - allow kids to practice conversations with people outside of their family.  Let's be honest; this is crazy even for CP/QF families.  Most people let their kids interact with other kids at school, at church and in the neighborhood.   Not the Maxwells - and the control freak moments seep out.


You can also invite another person or family over from your church for dinner. It is certainly a bit easier if it is just one person, such as a young, single adult or a widow or widower. That allows the conversation to focus on that particular person so it doesn't have to be spread among a couple or a whole family. (pg. 102)

Imagine you are a teenager in a family of eight kids with two adults.   In which scenario would it be easier to talk: when one adult visitor is over for dinner or when a similarly large family is over for dinner?   Based on my experience, it's a lot easier to find a person to talk when there are lots of available people to talk with.  The only reason that I can think of for the Maxwells to restrict the visit to a single person is to control the access of their kids to conversation and possibly to control the conversation focus to remain on the parents.

As conversation experience grows, having a family from church over for dinner allows a greater degree of not only practice but also ministry. The girls can have conversations with the visiting daughters and mom while the boys engage the other families' sons and father. (pg. 102)

Goody-goody-gumdrops!  Once the kids have demonstrated that they will not spill deep family secrets or embarass the parents (like 5 year-old Cynthia when she didn't want to talk to a stranger), the kids will be allowed to interact cautiously with other like-minded families.  Now, I'm not sure how that would work for the Maxwell Family since they've always managed to skirt the theology mind field of home-church vs. joining a congregation by running a "congregation" that consists entirely over retired home aged-folks.   The best bit, though, is training kids early to not interact with kids of the opposite gender.   Romeo and Juliet can't be emotionally impure - let alone secretly married and having sex - if they've never spoken to each other, after all.

The next rung on the experience ladder will the conversations with non-believers. When you invite them into your house, you will be cautious to oversee conversations between them and your children. They will not have sensitivity to what a Christian would consider appropriate topics for children's ears. Parents can stop or forestall what they don't want their children to hear. (pg. 103)

Boy, I had so much fun imagining the type of non-believer that couldn't handle being around children or teens without launching into profanity, epic stories of drug use or hedonistic orgy stories - while also trying to figure out where the average CP/QF adherent would find this interesting of an adult.  And then I realized the problem: I was using the standards of mainstream USA to determine what stories are inappropriate for kids.   In Maxwell-land, I am a great example of a non-believer who could warp their kids.  I attended college - and liked it!  I have worked in a career - and found it beneficial!  I married late in life and *gasp* waited to have a baby for several years!  I watch TV! I believe in evolution!  Oh - there are so many ways I could contaminate their children...and I'd never even know.

Anytime your family is out in public, there are conversation possibilities. It could be talking to the checkout person while at the store. Maybe it is the teller at the bank when you stop by to do some banking. What about when you were waiting in line to return or purchase an item and there are people in front of you and behind? When you are out, be watchful for people with whom your children could begin a conversation, and help them initiate the conversation. (pg. 103)

Um.... yes.  That is a possibility - but why do the Maxwells need to explain this?  I generally strike up conversations with people in the wider world - and presumably my son will learn that from watching me like I learned it from watching my parents. 

The next chapter discusses teaching children how to have conversations....which is so weird.....

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Six - Part One

It's official!  I have now had more ear infections as an adult as I did prior to age 4!   Honestly, I didn't have many ear infections as a child - but I am apparently the oddball adult who has one Eustachian tube that doesn't drain well when my allergies act up and about twice a decade I manage to get a real-honest-to-goodness middle ear infection with the resultant fever, crabbiness and ear/tooth/side of head pain.   

The funniest bit is that the well-meaning nurse practitioner, resident. or physician's assistant always starts by explaining that adults don't get ear infections....they just get fluid buildup without infection which can hurt a lot.  I nod understandingly - because that's generally true - and then have them look at my ears followed by "Oh...yeah.  That's infected.  Huh." 

Thankfully, my husband was working from home studying for an insurance licence so he could watch our son while I slept most of the day.  Also - thank God for those prescription ear-drops that end pain. 

Anyways, Steven and Teri Maxwell's "Making Great Conversationalists" includes two example conversations at the beginning of Chapter Six.   The starting example is the "bad" conversation - which doesn't seem that bad to me: 

After praying for their evening meal, Dad says, "Tell us about your day, kids."

"It was fine," sixteen-year-old Morgan begins.

"Mine too," fourteen-year-old Hunter adds.

"What did you do?" Dad works towards getting more conversation from the children.

"Oh, not much," Hunter answers.

"Hmm, I don't know," Morgan says.

Dad gives up on the conversation with his children and focus on finishing his dinner so he can get to his computer to answer some pressing emails. (pg. 93-94)

I find the fact that Dad is "praying for their evening meal" rip-roaringly funny.  "God, we...really need food for dinner.  Oh, wait.  Here it is!  Thank you!"  That's why the standard preposition used is "before" as in "After praying before their evening meal....".  An equally acceptable phrase would be "saying grace".

Dad is not good at soliciting conversation from his kids and the Maxwells never point out that he's doing worse at getting them to talk as they are at responding.   He essentially commands his teenagers to entertain him with stories from their day without providing them with a conversation point.  His original request has nothing for the kids to grab onto and respond to.  Because of that broad, bland request, most people will blank out and have little or no sensible response.   Simply bounding the request with a time frame and an emotional reference like "Tell me your favorite event from this morning, kids" is much easier to respond to.   This is supposed to be a family, though, so Dad should be able to fit the question to his kids.   I went to a traditional high school and my parents knew which classes I was taking and what extracurricular activities I was in.  Homeschooling is supposed to make parents more informed about their kids' lives - so what went wrong in this family?

Dad's not demonstrating persistence or determination for his kids to model at all.  He tries to talk to his kids for 30 seconds.  When the kids don't give him the response he wants, he shovels down dinner and returns to work.  That's underwhelming for an adult.

There's a minor issue in play between the two kids.  Morgan sounded like she had more to say after "It was fine" - but she was cut off by Hunter.   For quieter kids, once someone shuts them down, they might not get back into the conversation so the family should work at teaching Hunter to wait his turn - even if he is a boy in a very patriarchal culture.

The second response from each of the kids seems odd in a homeschooling family.  If I was Hunter's mom-teacher and I heard that he didn't do much today in school, we would be having a serious conversation about if he wanted to have his assignments picked by me in detail every day.   Similarly, Morgan's response that she can't remember what she did in school - at all - should set off warning bells.  I was taking 7 subjects a day in high school.  I might have some difficulty remembering exactly what we did in a class that was easy for me like history or religion- but I could generally discuss what I was doing in math, science and Spanish which were very challenging for me.  Is Morgan not being challenged?  Is she in classes that are completely overwhelming her?  Does she have memory issues? 

And now I present the "good" conversation.  It makes me laugh so hard that I kept causing my transcription software to freeze up.  I have broken the conversation into small chunks because I can't make it any further before I have to bring up some issues.

After praying for their meal, Dad says, " Tell us about your day, kids."

"It was a normal school day for me," Hunter response. "I have been struggling with equations in my algebra. Mom has been encouraging me to pray and ask the Lord to help me. Today I finally felt like I was making some progress. It felt so good." (pg. 94)

Steven Maxwell needs to guard against getting whacked-upside the head by an elderly Dominican nun in a short habit.   I went to a Catholic high school and was taught AP Calculus by Sister Robert Anne.  She was probably the last remaining of the old school religious math teachers.  She didn't hit anyone with a ruler in my class....but we were never entirely sure that she wouldn't hit us if she thought it would teach us math.    SRA was didn't pull any punches - but she wouldn't let anyone mess with her students - and she showed up at most athletic and artistic events regardless of weather, distance or skill of the performers.    We always had a few students who enjoyed messing with her - and she messed right back.   She appreciated hard work and spunky students.    I can't imagine the spunkiest student telling her that they've been praying for God to teach them Algebra.   I'm sure she'd reply tartly that prayer can't replace studying and getting help when you need it.....or maybe that the student should simply jump to invoking St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.  After all, she was crystal clear that attending monthly Mass as a high school cut into her teaching time and that if students really wanted to attend Mass they should get up earlier and go to 6:00 am daily Mass at St. Isadore or St. Adelbert.    So, yeah, Maxwell should look out for an angry nun who is going to whack him for the good of all those homeschooled kids.

Just out of curiosity: has Hunter made some progress in praying for help or in learning algebra?  Both are possible based on his response.....


" You know, son, math was hard for me, too, but there was a great a sense of accomplishment when I understood something. I didn't know the Lord when I was a teen so I didn't have His help like you do," Dad encourages. " What about you, Morgan?"

"School was fine, but what I was really excited about was starting to work on an apron I am making. I had washed and dried the fabric yesterday. Today I was able to cut out the whole thing so tomorrow afternoon I will be ready to begin sewing." (pg.94)

Dad's first sentence was great!  His second sentence....well, let's say that I doubt anyone can find a correlation let alone causation between skills in Algebra and salvation status.  I hate to think that there are kids and teens out there that believe that being saved makes you better at skills you struggle at. 

Now...Morgan.  The Maxwells are reinforcing the worst excesses of CP/QF homeschooling for daughters in a few sentences. In the first conversation, she had no memory of anything she did in school.  In the second conversation, nothing she did in school is as fascinating as discussing the symbol of domestic femininity that she's making as a budding young woman.  I have the bona fides of an accomplished homemaker; I can make clothing, grow a garden, preserve the produce, raise a baby, and build kitchen organizers from scratch.   My parents taught me how to keep a home - and they would have been horrified at the implication that the only way to learn housekeeping skills is to cut back on academic accomplishments. 

Ironically, Teri Maxwell should have been allowed to write Morgan's dialogue.  She would have realized that even a detailed farmhouse apron doesn't take that long to cut out - and that the most time-consuming part of preparing fabric is ironing the laundered fabric.

Once the kids have entertained their dad for a few minutes, the family can launch into the only subject left:

Then Hunter introduces another topic for discussion: " Dad and Mom, I'd like to tell you what the Lord has been teaching me through my Bible time in the morning. I'm reading in Jeremiah, and it is so convicting. I wonder if there aren't a lot of similarities between today and Bible-time Israel."

"Son," Dad responds. " I have felt the same thing as when I read Jeremiah. Whenever I read that book, I come away so amazed at God's patience with Israel and then with the world today."

Morgan chimes in: "Dad, do you think God could be running out of patience with mankind?"

"He certainly would be justified if he is. It is amazing how little interest people have in the Lord Jesus or anything that has to do with the Bible.." (pg. 94-95)

This goes on for another full page.  The important thing is that the kids - or the mom who finally speaks up - ask questions of Dad that let him expound on his views of how modern America sucks and how God's gonna smite everyone God dislikes. 

Maxwell never brings up an example where a kid comes to a very different conclusion from their personal Bible reading time than the parents do.  He's probably never experienced that since his kids have been carefully protected from any dissenting Bible views - but I'm curious how families are supposed to respond to that.

Of course, neither of the Maxwell parents, any of their children who read the book or the proofreader that they swear that they use found it strange that a 14-year-old used the term "Bible-time Israel"  rather than "Biblical Israel" or "Biblical times" or...well, there's a lot of options other than "Bible-time Israel".    In fact, "Bible-Time Israel" sounds like an attraction at Ned Flanders' Praiseland on the Simpsons or a Little People toy set marketed to Christian families. 

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Five

How many types of bad speech did you grow up with?  My husband and I brainstormed and we grew up with four different types of bad speech - swearing, being exceptionally crass (e.g. "potty mouth) lying and being hurtful to others.  As an adult, I think the list still stands.   By using the Bible very literally Steven and Teri Maxwell have found six separate ways that words can be harmful.  These six themes make up the beginning of the sixth chapter of "Making Great Conversationalists". 

The first theme is "idle words".  This theme was retrieved from the 36th verse in Matthew 12 about people being held to account by their idle words.  Looking at the entire chapter, Jesus has been irritated by some local Pharisees who have been nitpicking very action he's done.  Matthew 12:36 is the culmination of Jesus telling them off and to stop bother him.  The Maxwells use the King James Version and don't believe in crazy liberal ideas like using the context of a verse...so they struggle deeply to create an entire paragraph about idle words.   The Maxwells steal a definition of "idle" from Strong's Greek and Hebrew Dictionaries, make a few vague threats about how Jesus will punish people for idle words...and that's it.

The next theme is "foolish words" - based on the KJV translation of Ephesians 5:3-4.   The verse itself is clearly letting Christians know that they shouldn't join in existing pagan rituals involving drunkenness or sex.   I prefer the New Revised Standard Version that changes the sentence structure to "obscene, foolish and vulgar talk" instead of the "neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting" of the King James.  When I think of obscene, foolish, vulgar talk, I think of a rowdy party involving immature people imbibing lots and lots of alcohol.   The Maxwells, on the other hand, think of this:

In our family, we still occasionally talk about the foolishness of our children's Grandpa and Benny stories. They went through a phase of making up stories and recording them. The theme was a fictional Grandpa and Benny. The stories were total folly and foolishness. We didn't know enough in our parenting at that point to eliminate the foolishness and to direct your children to edification. Those stories have provided us with a good example of foolish talking and children. (pg. 77)

From that quick synopsis, I hear a lot of good practices for education of kids.  Grandpa and Benny stories required characterization, development of plot and anticipating the desires of the audience who will hear the story.  If they were recording the stories, they were either taking notes, writing a script, memorizing the story or improvising the story during the recording - all of which are excellent literary skills!  This is a great exercise for kids - not a descent into sinfulness.   

I feel awful for the younger Maxwell kids - Joseph, John, Anna, Jesse and Mary.  The lives of the older three kids were restricted over time but at least Nathan, Christopher and Sarah experienced some of the simple, innocent and carefree joys of childhood.  They played team sports, created goofy stories and read books.  The younger kids never had those options and that's so very sad.

In addition to losing those joys, the younger kids have apparently had "joking" taken away from them.  Now, the book conflates the term joking with using sarcasm or passive-aggressive humor as a form of discipline for children.   Using pointed humor in lieu of constructive criticism is a terrible idea - and is modeling poor responses to a kid.    There is an entire world of humor outside of pointed jabs, though.   I've enjoyed a good pun, situational humor or well-timed spit take for decades.  Personally, I have a very dry sense of humor that works well with teenagers once they get used to me as a straight guy.  For example, I had an entire monologue worked out in which I explained that a certain stuffed virus was given to me by my husband a few years ago.  I really like it because red is my favorite color and the virus fit well with the decorations we had up for Valentine's Day.  Now, the virus is out of scale for the bacteria near it - but the virus is the Epstein-Barr virus that causes mononucleosis which some people call "the kissing disease".  Now, most of my students' eyes had glazed over at that point - but there was always one kid who would sputter at that point and say "Your husband gave you the Kissing Disease for Valentine's Day?!?!"  I'd beam and say, "Of course!  He's a romantic!" 

*mimics a rim shot*  

As corny as my jokes are, I cannot believe that God dislikes me bonding with students over quirky jokes about science.

The next theme is that people shouldn't talk too much.   Even the Maxwells admit that there's no Bible verse that forbids being a chatterbox - but that doesn't stop Steven Maxwell from letting people know that their kids should be quiet and listen to him.  Also - Maxwell doesn't like it when his kids know more about a subject that he does ...I mean... act as experts in an area they know nothing about - but there's no Biblical support for requiring everyone to kowtow to Steven Maxwell, either.

The next chunk discusses "wrong words" which Maxwell defines as flattery.   He spends over two pages on how evil flattery is which is odd to me.  Flattery isn't really a major problem for small children or even most kids who are under junior high age; using flattery is a fairly high-level technique for winning someone over to your point of view.   Maybe other kids developed this skill long before I did - but I doubt I would have recognized obvious flattery between two other people let alone tried it myself before I was 11 or 12.   Plus, I've always though flattery was a cheap trick for people who weren't persuasive enough to convince people of their point of view so that made it feel slimy to me.    Apparently, though, the Maxwell kids picked up the skill somewhere:

As specific situations arise, we think you will find teachable moments to help you define and explain to your children the difference between flattery and praise.

For example, John notices that Anna is playing with his favorite toy. He walks over to her and says, "Anna, I love how you play with your doll Jennifer. You look like the perfect, happy mommy when you were holding your dolly."

" Really?" Anna replies as she puts down the toy to go find her Jennifer doll.

Obviously, John was not sincere and its complement of his sister. It was flattery. He had an agenda and figured out a way to accomplish his goal. How much better it would have been for John to ask and a directly for permission to play with a toy and pay its complement another time, when Anna was playing with her doll. Then it would have been sincere praise. (pgs. 81-82)

I believe this story snippet happened - but, man-o-live, this family is weird! 

I have an identical twin sister.  This means I have a same age sibling that I could theoretically attempt Machiavellian shit like this on - but I never tried to trick my twin out of a toy through flattery for two reasons.  First, my parents don't flatter people.  My teachers didn't flatter people.  My friends didn't flatter people - nor did their parents.  Because of that, it never occured to me to try it on my sister.  Second, she was WAY too savvy to fall for that shit.   She would have collected the toy she was playing with and carried over to her doll to play with both if I tried it.

I can't figure out an age for John - who is two years older than Anna - that doesn't make the story even more bizarre.  If John was 4 which is old enough want to get a toy through subterfuge - Anna was two - which feels young to care about how she looks with her dolly.  If Anna was 6, she's old enough to be a bit gullible still and young enough to play with dolls a lot - but that makes John a disturbingly calculating eight-year-old.  If John is 12, that level of planning feels more natural - but that makes Anna frighteningly gullible for a ten-year old.   

Most surreal of all is the fact that telling Anna she looks like a happy adult mommy when she holds her baby doll is enough to send her off after her doll.   I had plenty of dolls that I loved on and took care of - but never because someone told me I looked like a mommy.   In my life as a preschooler and elementary school kid, I assumed that my siblings, my cousins and my friends would all grow up, get jobs, get married and have babies.  Sometimes we played house and other times we played school or superheros or animal tamers or unicorns.  We had so many options of adult lives that another kid saying "you look like a teacher when you wear your dress-up clothes" would be greeted by a blank stare followed by "Huh?"  rather than running off to play school.

The next bit in this chapter that keeps dragging on is the fact that we have to teach our kids not to use words that hurt others.   Duly noted and it didn't take me four paragraphs to explain that tidbit to readers.

Avoiding hurtful words took less than a page.  Running away from other people's words that might shake your worldview takes up a page and a half including this gem:

We also want to educate our children by providing biblical cautions regarding the words others will speak to them. There are times when it is not appropriate for them to remain in the conversation. Recently Teri was talking to a woman who told her she had just read the history concerning a wicked profession. Teri did not want the conversation to continue so she quickly changed the subject. (pg. 83)

I really want to know what book this woman had just read.  Based on two minutes on Google assuming that the woman read a newly published book in 2013  gave a great list of books on prostitution, the history of birth control and being a drug-runner.  The problem is that I can think of scads of books that would terrify the Maxwells that were published prior to 2013.   "The Poisoner's Handbook" by Deborah Blum in 2010 is a favorite read of mine; I'm sure the title alone would terrify any Maxwell.  The similarly terrifyingly titled "Sex, Bombs and Burgers: How War, Pornography and Fast Food Have Shaped Modern Technology" by Peter Nowak was published in 2011 so that's a possibility.  I read this section to my husband and he thinks the book was either Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"  or C.S Lewis' "The Magician's Nephew".     The sad bit is that this evil profession could also be a memoir of a public school teacher, a member of any non-Christian religion, or any woman who works outside the home because the Maxwells are that crazy.  (Feel free to add any personal ideas on books you know of thought of in the comments!)

Long-time readers know that I have a personal antipathy bordering on rage directed at people who use works that help disadvantaged people as a form personal therapy.  My general theme of digression on this point is the disturbingly common memoir written by an insanely privileged young white person who feels lost after earning a college degree in any subject besides teaching and decides that they wanna give teaching a shot.  The person joins Teach for America - or something like - receives a few weeks of "intensive" training and is dumped in an urban school with massive poverty, a fractured community, limited English speakers and preferably gang-warfare.  After bumbling their way through two to three years of marginally effective teaching, the person escapes back to Harvard, Yale, Columbia etc., and writes an award-winning best-seller about how the kids changed their life. 

No one in the book - especially the author - ever questions why we don't dump these late-blooming, badly-life-planning teacher wannabes in rich suburban districts instead of the inner city.  The author never questions if the kids and community are harmed by the carousel of young yuppies who capitalize on the shock value of the lives of their students.....

And I've digressed again - but I get to blame Steven Maxwell for this one.  The Maxwells brag all_the_time about the fact that they took their sons to minister at a homeless shelter when the boys were young.   In this book, Teri lets a fascinating little tidbit slip:

For example, for many years Steve took the boys to City Union Mission once a month to minister. Those Saturday mission services gave Steve perfect opportunities to discuss what Scripture says about alcohol and drug use, the physical dangers of it, and the destruction that does to families. The children were able to observe first-hand the points Steven would make in his conversations with them. (pgs 84-85)

God, that's gross!  Every time I think I've developed a thick skin for CP/QF crass shit I realize that I can still be shocked and disgusted by them. 

Notice that Maxwell implies that the men at the mission are homeless because of drugs and alcohol with the related implication that addiction is a personal moral failing.   Notice the similar lack of discussion of the effects of war, abuse, and untreated mental illness leading to alcohol as a self-medication.  I doubt Maxwell has ever discussed with another adult the spiral of poverty that is interlinked between unemployment, loss of permanent address and lack of reliable transportation let alone his kids.

For anyone who needs an excuse to be catty about how other people (read: women) dress, Maxwell's got you covered:

What about modesty? Do you want to teach your children to dress modestly and to avoid looking at in modesty? Being in public where there is much immodesty affords the opportunity to discuss modesty with our children. We can tell them why we have modesty standards and why we don't want to dress as the world dresses. These conversations come up naturally as we are exposed to the ungodliness of the world. (pg. 85)

Or....and I know this is out there....you could mind your own damn business.  My parents managed to raise three kids who dressed modestly without ever pointing out immodest dress in others.  Similarly, they've raised three kids who have not murdered anyone without dragging us into a SuperMax and pointing at an inmate while saying "That's a murderer!  Don't be like them!" 

The questions for this section are precious.   If you are looking for a way to make mealtimes with your family fraught with anxiety, sullenness and outbursts of rage, bring these questions up weekly:

1. Do you, your spouse, or any of your children talk too much?

2. Is anyone having trouble with the wrong words described in this chapter? If so, document in your notebook or on your computer who and which category.

  • Idle Words
  • Foolish talk
  • Jesting
  • Deceitful words
  • Flattering words
  • Evil words
  • Hurtful words


4. At mealtime or other family discussions, have each person evaluate how he is doing in those areas listed above where you evaluated him. Record their personal evaluations. Encourage those who are not doing so well on how they can do better, and praise those doing well. (pg. 90-91)

Question number one has destroyed plenty of families, friendships and businesses.  Just....don't ask this question unless you can handle the fall-out.    In relation to the Maxwells, well, I suspect Steven Maxwell lets everyone else in the family know that they talk way too much since he's got a lot of control issues.

If your family is speaking to each other at the end of the first question...or when everyone calms down a few days later.... question two is likely to go over wonderfully.  In the hands of a family dictator, everyone else can be charged with something since all of the categories are completely subjective.    For me, the list demonstrates the frightening CP/QF habit of treating a minor issue like "idle" or "foolish" talk the same as a major issue like "evil" or "hurtful" words.  Idle and foolish talk harms no one and doesn't need a remedy.  If you've got a kid who is regularly using "evil and hurtful" words, the family need immediate intervention with a therapist before the kid turns into a psychopath.

Once the hurt feelings and temper tantrums caused by the second question subside, it's time to critique the individual progress of each person in front of the group.   After all, that's a great way to bond people tightly to your personal cult.   The trick is to alternate the love-bombing of children with the detailed tearing apart of their failures.    Once you find the right ratio - and it varies a bit from person-to-person - make sure you take notes of whether last week was a "good" or "bad" week for each person.  Remember the shock value is most effective if there is no pattern of how children's actual behavior affects their evaluation in front of the family.    Turning certain kids into continual scapegoats is tempting - after all, some kids never get with your program - but those kids are much more likely to escape the family as adults. 

 Wait....what do you mean a family isn't a cult?  Pshaw!  A good CP/QF family is indistinguishable from a cult.

*shudders* 
I see why C.S. Lewis never wrote a sequel to "The Screwtape Letters"; I can only put myself in the mind of a narcissist for a few minutes before I feel sick.

Chapter Six begins with an ideal fever-dream of a conversation that lets us learn way more about the Maxwell Family priorities than anyone should know......

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists - Chapter Four

By this point, "Making Great Conversationalists" has mostly focused on how CP/QF folk who follow the advice shared by Steven and Terri Maxwell can wow the rest of us unbelievers.  I am unimpressed with the conversations that I've read in this book so I doubt that others will be amazed at kids who ask intrusive questions.  Now, the Maxwells turn readers' attention to the massive failures of conversation in their own homes.  Personally, I'm fine with the conversations I have with my husband and son.   Sometimes we have deep, heart-to-heart talks; other times we're being goofy or working out the details of running a home.   That's fine for me - but the Maxwells seem to think we are missing out in a variety of ways.

The chapter starts with two sample conversations between a father and son.  In the years I've been researching CP/QF beliefs, I've learned that the standards and expectations of behaviors are lowest for the married fathers who lead homes.  The "bad" conversation example confirms that men get the easiest standards of behavior.

John walks into the living room where his dad is reading email on his phone.

"Dad?"

" What?" John's dad responds still looking at his phone.

"I've been having trouble with Cathy. Lots of times she is saying things that aren't nice to me, and that bothers me."

"Hmmm." Dad glances at his son then back of the phone.

" When I came out of the bathroom, she says I'm taking too much time. I only stay in as long as I need to, though. Yesterday she saw my jacket on the floor and told me I was a messy little kid. I dropped it there because mom had told me to hurry to dinner. I was planning to hang it up later."

" Well," Dad mutters, still reading on his phone.

" I guess this isn't a good time to talk," John says as he dejectedly walks away.

John's dad lost a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate his love for his son by meaningfully sharing in this conversation with him. (pgs. 55-56)

No...John's dad is a few miles away from demonstrating love for his son. 

John's dad is failing to demonstrate the most basic form of courtesy - showing some form of meaningful response when being spoken to.   Maybe this is a crappy time for John to talk to his dad.  If so, that problem can be solved in under 15 seconds by John's dad using his words like a big boy.  "John, I need to finish this email for work before I can talk.  Give me 5 minutes and then we can talk about the issues you are having with Cathy, slugger."  John's dad gives John the basic courtesy we extend to other human beings.

I have not included the "good" conversation because John, the far younger and less experienced member of the dyad, says the exact same thing.   The only difference is that his dad pays attention and gives verbal responses that imply he's really paying attention rather than grunting like a CP/QF Homer Simpson.

The hypocrisy of holding mature adult men to the lowest standard kills me.  The Maxwells have complained about a nervous 5-year-old girl who won't say her name in a store, the conversational failings of 16-year-olds of both genders, and the quirks of frazzled mothers during a move.  The 23-year old guy who calls about courting was raked over the coals while giving informative answers to his crush's father because he stammered and forgot to ram Jesus down the father's throat.   John's dad - who says the same number of syllables as five-year-old Cynthia in a far less stressful situation - gets a mild scolding about not paying enough attention to his kid.  That's ironic because Dad is paying no attention to his son. 

Since the most common theme for fathers in the Maxwell canon is that they are obsessed with their jobs and checked-out of raising their families, I wonder how much of this is a window into the action of the Maxwells themselves.

Next up: another idyllic conversation for young teenage girls to have:

Let's listen to a snippet of conversation between two 14 year olds whose families are having an evening of dinner and fellowship together.

" Susi, I am concerned about the way you treated your little sister by telling her she needed to go play somewhere else. The Bible says, 'And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you' (Ephesians 4: 32). I don't really think you were being kind or tender-hearted to her."

" You're right, Emily. I was being selfish. All day she has been messing up whatever I'm involved with and making a lot of noise. I didn't want that to happen again. It would be better, though, to let her be with us."

" Maybe, Susi, we could find something for her to do. Let's go to the toy closet to see what we can find and invite her back."

Emily's conversation is more powerful than most children's conversation because she has a Bible verse to share. It should be more effective than it would have been to just tell her friend that she was being mean to her little sister. Teaching our children to use the word, using it in our conversations with them, and encouraging them to use it in their conversations with others will enhance those conversations and relationships. (pgs. 60-61)

I suspect that Emily's parents wonder why they never receive a second invitation to anyone's home.  The parental units are also confused by Emily's total lack of friends outside of Susi...who suddenly cut her relationship with Emily after this evening of fun, food and nagging.

At the most basic level, Emily is working at teaching Susi to be a victim. There are important peer-to-peer social skills that kids learn among their siblings and among other families.  Before Emily staged her intervention, Susi was enforcing a boundary that when her unnamed younger sister behaved disruptively during the day, the younger sister would be excluded from playing with Susi and Emily later on.   This is a normal and healthy situation.  Along with "if you are a jerk, you get excluded", families are a great place to learn "sometimes someone I want to play with doesn't want to play with me and the world doesn't end", and "I am allowed to have positive and negative feelings.  Other people have the right to do moral things even if I have negative feelings about their moral choice." 

Emily's intervention, however, is in essence the infamous Jana-Jessa Duggar interaction played out again. For those who don't know the story, Jessa was kicking Jana's bunk bed keeping her awake at night when the girls were early elementary school age.  Rather than enforcing any kind of consequence for Jessa, the senior Duggars in their wisdom decided that Jana should give her treasured jewelry box to Jessa.  The rationale - although I hesitate to call it rational - was that Jessa would be so touched by Jana giving Jessa her prized possession that Jessa would stop kicking the bed.  In a broader context, England tried to avoid the start of World War II by not objecting to Hitler's invasion of countries...and that process of appeasement failed just like appeasing Jessa failed over the long run.

Emily is encouraging Susi to overlook bad behavior and teaching Unnamed Sister that bad behavior has no consequences.  That's a bad plan.

On a related topic, why is CP/QF so invested in the idea that kids of the same gender need to run around in packs that do not self-segregate by age or maturity?   I have a twin sister and a brother who is 4.5 years younger.  My best friend has a 3 year younger sister.   When my best friend would come over, having my twin around was fine.  Jess figured out how to lip-read enough to talk with my sister and we were all the same age.  My younger brother was rarely involved with our activities; he was enough younger that the maturity/skills gap made a lot of our activities not fun for him.  When I was over at Jess' house, we'd sometimes include her younger sister if we were doing something she could participate in.  But most of the time, the activities we were doing were not that interesting to her. 

A four year age gap is nothing in adult life - but huge among children and teens....

This next quote cracks me up:

" Good morning, Mom," Ryan greets Mom as he walks into the dining room for breakfast. " I am very hungry, and breakfast smells great. I am excited to tell you about what I read in my Bible this morning."

" Good morning, Ryan. I sure love you. Tell me what you are excited about."

" I was reading in 1 Corinthians 10 today, and I was very convicted. It was talking about the Israelites murmuring in the desert, and then some of them were destroyed. Then it says how that was an example for us. That made me think about murmuring and how easy it is for me to be a murmurer. I realize that not only does God not like murmuring, but I don't think you or Dad or anyone else in our family likes it either. I really want to stop murmuring."

" You know, Ryan, that is convicting to me too. I was standing here murmuring in my heart about my frustration over the toaster not working very well. I think that the Lord would rather have me thank him for our breakfast and the tools he has provided to help me prepare it," Mom responds. (pg. 63)

I don't know many people who speak in complete Standard English sentences, thankfully, and none of them are children or teenagers.  In my home we use the informal English dialect referred to as "Valley Girl" - and suspect that most people use one informal dialect or another among their loved ones.

My deeply loving response to Ryan would be, "Dude, it's too early for this.  Let Mom wake up, then we'll talk."   Thankfully, all of my immediate family members share a requirement of 15-30 minutes of "wake-up warm-up" time before expecting anything deeper than "Breakfast smells great. Thanks for making it."

I don't think I'd be as nonchalant about the fact that my kid wants to stop murmuring after reading about how the Israelites were killed because they murmured against God.  I want my kid to stop whining, sure, but not because they're afraid that God will smite them if they don't.

I dislike how CP/QF theological practice requires lying during prayer.  God's the Creator of the Universe.  I suspect God can handle the fact that a person is frustrated that their toaster doesn't work.  That's more honest and true than thanking God for a toaster that isn't working very well.

Please, for the love of all that is holy,  remove the verb "to purpose" and the newer meaning of "to convict" as a lazy shorthand for "I have a deeply held conviction" from use.    A family that earns two convictions before breakfast generally is having a horrible day in court rather than a calm breakfast.

Now, imagine the following conversation actually happened instead of being a fever dream of Steven Maxwell:

Next we find that words are to be pure and lovely. That means our children are to be gracious and pleasant in their conversations. " The words of a wise man's mouth are gracious; but the lips of a fool will swallow up himself" (Ecclesiastes 10: 12).

Compare these two conversations:

" Jason and Jennifer, I thought you might enjoy playing a game while your mother and I talked."

" Okay."

On the other hand, this could have been the response:

"Thank you for the game you got out for us to play." (pg. 65)

Yes, Maxwell's ideal family is filled with Stepford Children who can spontaneously respond identically in standard English.   Keep that tidbit in mind in all Maxwell writings. 

The phrase the Stepford Kids use is odd in terms of the emphasis.  The kids are thanking the parents for the game primarily with the action of getting the game out as the subsidiary action.    I think the sentence would make more sense if the mind-melded kids thanked their parents for getting the game out.  Of course, since part of each of the kids' brains are now locked to their siblings, that might mess with their control of word placement in sentences.

I just realized something!  Maybe the CP/QF obsession with massed single gender groups is because of the mind-melding!  Many small groups of kids playing with close-in-age friends would get so confusing so fast if the kids were receiving telepathic transmissions from their siblings in other places.  This means that what I viewed as a weird obsession is actually an act of kindness.

Oh, they aren't budding telepaths?  Well, that shot down that idea.  Still a crazy idea, then.

Finally, we learn how to teach your children to narc on each other the right way:

Here's another verse that shows the importance of helping her children towards good reports rather than tattling: "Where no wood is, there the fire go without: so where there is no talebearer, the strife ceaseth" (Proverbs 26: 20). Good reports stop children from speaking negative or critical words. With a good report, virtue, and praise comes the encouragement of another.

Jimmy runs to Mommy and reports, "Sandra is playing with the guinea pigs. She's not doing her chores."

Think about how much better this conversation would be.

" Sandra, I know Mommy wants you to finish your chores before you play with the guinea pigs. My chores are done. I will help you with yours." After Jimmy and Sandra complete her chores, Jimmy runs to Mommy and reports, " Sandra finished her chores. Now she is playing with the guinea pigs."

Of course, there may be times when one child should let you know what a sibling is doing or isn't doing, particularly when sin is involved. However, even in that process, a child can learn to have a humble spirit that is more concerned for his sibling spiritually than he is for getting that sibling in trouble. In this case, even though it isn't positive news he is telling, is actually a good report because the information is shared only with the parent and will be for the benefit of the sibling.(pgs 66-67)

Jimmy's first tattling conversation makes sense.   Tattling is super annoying and his mom is well within her rights to squash that habit - but at least Jimmy's action of tattling makes sense.

Having Jimmy run up to his mother - who wasn't present when Sandra and Jimmy worked together on their chores - and report that Sandra's done now and playing with the guinea pigs must be slightly disconcerting to Jimmy's mom.  She's got eyes and could have figured that piece of information out on her own exactly like she would have figured out that Sandra skipped chores to play with the guinea pigs - but either outcome is preempted by Jimmy's random announcement.    It reminds  me of the "Arrested Development" episode where Michael thinks his son George Michael has developed OCD because George Michael keeps checking to see if the stove was turned off and throwing out food.   George Michael's behavior makes a lot of sense when the viewers learn that his aunt Lindsey is trying to be a good homemaker - but keeps accidently endangering everyone in the house by leaving the gas range on and not actually cooking meat.  Michael missed Lindsey's mistakes, however, so George Michael looks crazy. 

The last paragraph is a sad attempt to justify using your children as an in-house KGB force ratting each other out as long as the kids have the right level of humility.   That's a terrible idea.   My family had a far more sensible rule: you were not tattling if and only if your sibling was doing something that was dangerous to themselves, dangerous to someone else or highly destructive of property.  Outside of that, we were instructed to mind our own business. 

It's a good piece of advice - especially for the Emily's of the world.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Three - Part Two

The first post on the third chapter in "Making Great Conversationalists" by Steven and Teri Maxwell focused on the first meeting between two neighbors.  The ideal Maxwell conversation wallpapers over the fact that the new neighbor clearly bought a lemon of a house by either employing a ragingly incompetent inspector or doing the inspection themselves.   

The rest of the chapter alternates between implying that CP/QF homeschooling families don't really know anything about their kids while giving sample conversations that feel sinister since the ideal Maxwell conversation is as much about concealing information as sharing it. 

First up: undermine the last whiffs of self-confidence that the Maxwells' loyal clients might have in their parenting skills:

Within your family, how much do you really know about your children? How much do they know about you? How much do they know about their siblings? Does each love the others enough to open up his life to his family? (pg. 42)

Time out. 

I thought the main difference between homeschooled CP/QF families and the rest of us was that the CP/QF homeschool families had emotional family bonds that could not be replicated by families that spend eight hours apart everyday.  The spouses are bound rock-solidly together forever.  Each parent bonds deeply with their children who they spend mountains of unpressured time each day.  Meanwhile, all of the siblings are best friends with each other.   In exchange for giving up having friends outside of the family and most careers, families are guaranteed an idyllic, deep and satisfying family circle.

Heh.

Of course, if this lifestyle was so natural and God-ordained, the adherents wouldn't need to build so many boundaries between themselves and the rest of the universe. Teenagers and young adults would be able to meet their spouses through church friends or Christian singles groups and date.  Married men and women could trust themselves around people of the opposite sex without fearing an affair.  Mothers and fathers would get to their children simply as their parents - trusting that their life-long relationship had more weight than could be threatened by outside adults.    Women could take pleasure in career and family while allowing men the pleasure of helping keep a home and raising children.   Siblings would learn the truly complementary difference between siblings and best friends.

Or you can follow the Maxwell lead and decide that the only way to cement family bonds is to isolate your family from nearly everyone.

This next conversation between makes me wonder if this is what Lydia sounded like in her surprise courtship to Billy Hill - the one where she ended up sobbing a prayer on a run that God would let her fall in love before she married.


"Hi Ashley. How are you?" Amy asks.

" I'm really good. I have exciting news!"

" What's that?"

" I just started a courtship with Chad Swisher. My dad has been talking to him for months, and I never knew it. My dad just told me last night and asked if I wanted to enter a courtship with Chad."

"Ashley, I'm so happy for you. This will be a very exciting time for you and Chad. I'll add you to my prayer journal. I'd love to hear the whole story," Amy replies. (pg. 45)

Wowzer.

 So...Chad's been talking to Ashley's dad for months - MONTHS - about being allowed to court Ashley.  That's a heap of opportunity costs for Chad and Dad if Ashley replied, "I'm not that into Chad."  If a parent has a good relationship with their kid, the adult child can benefit from having parents who listen to how a romantic relationship is going and make sure that the romantic interest is a good person.   This only works as long as the adult child is more invested in the romantic relationship than the parent is.

Chad's been talking to Ashley's dad for months - and Ashley had no clue. I'm trying to figure out how this all went down.  The easiest way would be to pull a Jim Bob Duggar and screen guys long before the guy is allowed to meet the chosen daughter.  In that case, Ashley's dad's a control freak - but at least Ashley and Chad start a relationship on even footing.   What if Ashley already knew Chad?  Were Chad and her dad lying to her -directly or by omission - about their meetings?   I'd refuse to marry someone who could  lie to me for months even under the guise of protecting my "emotional purity".  Heck, my husband won the "Least Convincing Liar Ever" award for his performance the night he asked my parents for their blessing on asking me to marry him as part of his plan for a surprise proposal on his birthday.  He had been so nervous that the dinner went on way longer than he anticipated...because he kept pushing off asking them.   Well, this meant that I fell asleep on the couch of my apartment at 6:00pm expecting him to be there by 6:30pm - and woke up at 8:30pm with no boyfriend in site.  I got a hold of him and he apologized since he had gotten distracted while shopping but he'd be right over.  He gets to my apartment, I give him a big hug and a kiss, and ask cheerfully, "Where were you shopping that you got distracted for two hours? " expecting to hear about a new store.  My future husband turned as white as a sheet, is visibly sweating, and blurts out, "I can't tell you!".   I blink and respond, "Um....ok. "  That gives him time to start breathing again and slightly more smoothly he replied "After all, you have a birthday coming up..."   We got engaged later that week - and I've always taken some comfort in the fact that he's a pretty terrible liar.

Has Ashley had time to be with Chad as her...suitor?  (What do you call a romantic interest in a courtship anyway?)  Ashley and her dad had their big talk last night so I don't think she's had time to be around Chad since then if he works a standard schedule.  Perhaps courtships work best when the two people speak more to other people than they do to their romantic partners....

Later, the Maxwells wax poetic on the benefits of conversations in life:

Conversations open up a window into another's life. The quality and length of the conversation determines how wide that window is open. Our children's conversations with others will give spice to each day. Many spend precious time reading novels or watching movies, but conversations are true life, not made up fiction. We're able to talk to real people with real adventures, real needs, real hurts, and real joys. Conversations are wonderful opportunities to get a mind off of itself and onto others. (pg. 45)

About that: What are Maxwellian followers supposed to talk about?  Television, movies, theater, dancing, and the majority of books (and I'm assuming music) are off-limits along with all sports that Steven Maxwell doesn't personally like, most outdoor activities, gambling and alcohol.  For the women and homeschooled family members, the family was together during the day so that's not going to lead a lot of new, novel or spicy events to talk about over dinner.  Talking with your family all day sounds great - but if everyone's needs, hurts, adventures, and joys revolve around the same small group of people it doesn't take much for internecine warfare to break out.

I just realized that I feel that a lot of CP/QF households are like polar exploration voyages during the late 1800-early 1900's. Good planning and lots of money generally lead to a crew that can tolerate each other; poor planning or bad supplies devolve into hellish conditions. 

Before we dive into the last quote, think about all of the "good: conversations modeled so far by the Maxwells.  For all of their stilted, canned ways, the conversations do demonstrate that a good conversation involves communicating in a way allows all people in a conversation to stay engaged and active.   Think of that - and read this next "good" real-life conversation:

Recently 16 year old Mary and I (Teri) were returning a couple of items to Sam's Club. The customer service lady looked at Mary and asked her, "What grade are you in?"

Mary responded, " Tenth grade."

"Where are you planning to go to college?" the lady asked.

"I am not planning to go to college. I would like to be a wife and mother someday. In the meantime, I am studying art so I can illustrate children's books. I can do that at home and save all the money that college costs while not being exposed to the negative influences of college."

The grandmotherly customer service lady seemed a little surprised, but Mary had presented her case so well that her only reply was, "That's nice."

In a short conversation, Mary was able to clearly state her goals for her life and persuasively speak against the customary thinking that young people should go to college. She gave a very different view to this woman than what the lady was probably used to hearing. (pg. 49)

As a survivor of guest service work, let me divulge a secret.  "That's nice" with a look of surprise generally means "Are you on crack? What fresh hell is this? I don't get paid enough for this"

On the other hand, I think Teri Maxwell's motherly pride in Mary's response is sweet and loving.  That same maternal pride is why I know I can never homeschool my son (and any other children we're blessed with).  Maternal pride messes up your ability to look dispassionately at your own child's performance.

As an outsider, Mary's response was a conversation-killer, not a perfect response.  Mary has packed so many tropes from CP/QF surrounding the role of women in society, the role of education, the assumption that anything can be learned at home, and the decline of higher education  that the nice lady at Sam's is left gaping.   It's not considered polite to start arguing with a 16-year old at a guest service desk - and where would she even start? 

The kicker is that plenty of teens are not planning to go to college directly after high school - or ever.  Mary's statement of her future career plans only got really jarring when she added the bit about being a wife and mother in the middle.   If she dropped that along with the random dig about "negative influences at college", her response would be within the norms of conversations while signaling that she'd be willing to discuss studying art at home or her interest in illustrating children's books. 

The final awkwardness is that books can't erase passages a few years later.  Mary is now 22.  She has not gone to college, is not married and doesn't have any children.   She has illustrated two children's books - but they were written by her older sister and published by their parents' ministry-business.   So far, she's not making any headway on her goals.  I hope for her sake she'll make good on her dreams - but her family has not managed to find acceptable suitors for her two older sisters and using the three adult daughters as cheap, semi-skilled laborers benefits their parents and brothers so I'm not terribly optimistic.

Next post: Checked-out dads, teaching your kids to narc on each other properly, and nagging your friends to let their younger siblings hand out with you.  Good times.

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Three - Part One

Ah...the joys of rural living. Fresh, home-grown vegetables. Lovely vistas of corn and wheat waving in the wind. Watching children work on 4-H projects. Multigenerational feuds over issues that no one outside of the families understands or cares about.  Americana at its finest.

No, seriously.  Half the fun of living in the country is the fact that any misunderstanding between the crabbiest members of an extended family can lead to a "Romeo and Juliet"-style romance - or equally "Romeo and Juliet" - style death toll - fifty years down the road.

I share this factoid because Steven and Teri Maxwell imply that terrible things than happen if people fail to learn to converse correctly from their book "Making Great Conversationalists".   And yes, I've meet families that have splintered to the point of changing the spelling of their last name based on rude behavior of members.

I simply question if this next "bad" conversation is as dire as the Maxwells imply:

Mrs. Monroe has just brought a plate of cookies to Mrs. Jones' house to welcome the Joneses to the neighborhood.

" May I help you?" asks Mrs. Jones and she opens the door.

"I am Mrs. Monroe from next door, and I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood."

"That is so kind and thoughtful of you. We just moved in yesterday, and the house is a mess or I'd invite you in," Mrs. Jones responds.

" Well, I-" Mrs. Monroe starts to comment, but Mrs. Jones interrupts her.

" We've already had to fix (sic) and that. It is amazing how much work this house is taken. We thought it was in good shape, but were we ever wrong. We've already called the plumber and electrician. Let me tell you, they were expensive," continues Mrs. Jones.

" I'm sorry. Have you tried-" Mrs. Monroe makes another attempt to be part of the conversation.

" I've even got a call into the air conditioning man and and am expecting him to get back to me any minute. Do you have any idea of how hot it is in our house? It feels like it could could be almost a hundred degrees, and it is only eleven o'clock. I can only guess how hot it will be this afternoon. I tried to open the windows, but I couldn't get any of them to open. Those are two more repairman I will need to call. I think those calls should be my husband's responsibility. I don't know why he isn't the one making them. He can deal with these people much better than I can. Oh, yes, and thank you for the cookies. I must be going. Nice talking with you. Stop by anytime. Bye," says Mrs. Jones as she steps back inside the house.

" Bye," replies Mrs. Monroe.

What kind of relationship did this conversation generate between these two ladies? How likely is it that Mrs. Monroe will ever try to visit with Mrs. Jones again? (pgs. 37-38)

OH, THE HORRORS!  This rudeness sets off the great Monroe-Jones feud that leads to...absolutely nothing.

Look, Mrs. Monroe is an adult.  Adults understand that moving is very stressful and people don't present themselves in the best way when stressed.  Mrs. Jones is decidedly frazzled and might want to stop drinking caffeine for the day, but she's not so obnoxious that the Monroes will never talk to her again.

Even if the Joneses are self-centered and chatterboxes, there's still some really important information that the Monroes will want to get from them. 

Personally, I want to know who the hell did the inspection of the home.  Home inspectors vary a lot in quality - but this inspector managed to miss issues with the plumbing, electricity, air conditioning and the fact that all the windows are inoperable.  Those are some pretty big issues to miss and I don't want to use that inspector the next time I move.

I'm very curious about the two professionals that Mrs. Jones is going to call to fix the windows.  I thought I misread it at first - but Mrs. Jones said that she's waiting for a call from the AC repair company  and that she needs to call two repairmen.  After discussing this extensively with my husband, we're assuming that one repairman is the local odds-jobs-man who will show Mrs. Jones how to unlock the double-paned windows...or maybe strip paint from the frames...or explain that the windows don't open.  The other repairman is a glazier because Mrs. Jones has decided to break all the windows to cool the house down.

Finally, Mrs. Monroe's habit of introducing herself as "Mrs. Monroe" to another adult woman casually is outdated by at least 60 years.

Let's see if the conversation would have been different had Mrs. Jones been a good conversationalist.

Mrs. Monroe has just brought a plate of cookies to Mrs. Jones's house to welcome the Joneses to the neighborhood.

" May I help you?" asks Mrs. Jones as she opens the door.

" I'm Mrs. Monroe from next door, and I wanted to welcome you to the neighborhood," Mrs. Monroe's smiles as she hands Mrs. Jones the cookies.

" That is so kind and thoughtful of you. Thank you. We just moved in yesterday, and there isn't even a place to sit down, or I'd invite you in. But I would love to take a minute and hear about your family," Mrs. Jones replies.

" Well, Bob and I have been married for 12 years, and God has blessed us with four children so far. Our children range from ten down to three, and we are expecting another one in August. Tell me about your family," Mrs. Monroe answers.

"Jim and I have been married for 24 years and have two children. Daniel is 20, and Melissa's 17. We've homeschooled them since the beginning," response Mrs. Jones.

" Really? Homeschool? You must have so much patience. I don't think I could ever homeschool. I'm just not patient enough," Mrs. Monroe says.

What a difference! This is the kind of conversation that builds friendships-- a great beginning for these two neighbors. (pgs. 38-39)

Friendships are built on carefully constructed truths that show no negatives in the land of the Maxwells. Mrs. Jones is still trapped in a hermetically sealed house without air conditioning with wonky plumbing and electricity with her two homeschooled young adults.  The Monroes are still unaware of a terrifyingly inept housing inspector.  The discussion is more outwardly pleasant - but the most vital pieces of information are not being exchanged.

 In real life, I would be seriously curious as to why Daniel is being homeschooled at age 20. 

Now, if the Joneses had bought the Maxwell's book "Preparing Sons to Provide for Single-Income Families" Daniel would be able to fix the plumbing, electricity and windows himself - but his family didn't and now they are paying the price.   Buy all of the Maxwell books or your family will suffer!

Mrs. Monroe, on the other hand, has four kids between the ages of 10 and three, is pregnant with the fifth, and had time to bake cookies for the new neighbor.   That's terrifyingly efficient - and I think I'd prefer the Joneses.   Does Mrs. Monroe realize that her cookie baking time will evaporate once she is converted to homeschooling like the chaos-ridden Joneses?

I know weather patterns are different in the south and southwest - but Michigan doesn't get 90 degree heat before June most years.  The fact that Mrs. Jones doesn't appear to notice that Mrs. Monroe is in her third trimester (and presumably showing a lot since it's her fifth) while standing on the porch in blistering heat seems implausible. 

See, the Maxwells miss the two most obvious reasons the Monroes and Joneses will meet in the future.  First, they are next-door neighbors.  Unless one of the families only comes out at night, they will run into each other when working on lawns or shoveling driveways.   In real-life, the Monroes would show up at the Joneses for trick-or-treating on Halloween or with holiday treats around Christmas.    Secondly, Melissa Jones is prime babysitter age and the Monroes have a growing herd of kids to be babysat.  My family has had multi-decade relationships built on the parent-babysitter-kid relationship.

Last question: how often does one homeschooling family move in next door to a family who is a good target for conversion to homeschooling - and eventually CP/QF life - through random chance?

Next post: More information-concealing conversations and a Maxwell-conversation stopper.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter Two

I've been a mom for exactly 21 months as I write this post.  I've had a lot of experience with various medical and rehabilitation professions having the awkward conversation about issues or delays that my son has.  Let's see....there's been blood transfusions, an infected PICC line, a super-active baby who required special ventilator settings, the time he started showing signs of a NEC infection but was really just thermoregulating as a very young age, lungs that were a bit messed up and the joys of choosing the right type of feeding tube.  That lead to meeting therapists who got to tell us that he was mildly delayed in gross motor skills and fine motor skills.  The fine motor skills improved and the motor skills continued on the right timing just delayed by 3 months.  Most recently, we learned that his gross motor skills had developed more of a lag and that it was time to think about outpatient PT.

I say this because I heard many different, but kind, sweet and caring ways of letting me know that my kid has some issues that need specialized treatment while still respecting my son's awesomeness - and he is freaking amazing - and my feelings as a full-time caregiver

I am so grateful that no one decided to follow Steven Maxwell's method of sharing concerns in his book "Making Great Conversationalists" co-authored with his wife Teri Maxwell. This lovely paragraph comes at the end of 2.5 pages that I would summarize as "Jesus loves us more than you because we've got a successful conference ministry":

Something else grew out of our travel, conferences, and personal conversations with those who attended our conferences. We became concerned about your children. This is a typical conversation one of our children would have at a conference with a young person of, perhaps, 16 years old. (pg. 24)

Yes!  This is how you attract people to your business - sorry - "ministry": insult their children!  How have other people missed this?

Oh, wait.  Successful businesses and ministries cultivate positive relationships with potential clients; the Maxwell habit of insulting the intelligence and parenting skills of their past customers is related to the current dearth of interest in Maxwell conferences, I suspect.

I should feel more insulted - but again, this is one of those paragraphs that drives the author's level of pompous isolation home.   The Maxwell kids are phenomenal conversationalists as evaluated by their parents.  When other kids fail to hit all of the Maxwell expectations, the fault is with the other kids, obviously. 

This next "bad" conversation follows immediately after the last sentence in the previous quote.  Not surprisingly, I believe my gentle readers will recognize that the conversation issue diagnosed by the Maxwell Parents is not the actual issue that's occurring:

Our Anna would initiate the conversation. "Hi, my name is Anna."

" Hi," the new girl responds.

" What's your name?"

"Stacy."

" It's nice to meet you Stacy. I'm so glad you were able to come to the conference. I hope that you will like it and learn something from it. Where do you live?"

"Simpsonville."

" How far is that from here? I am not very familiar with the geography of this area because I am from Kansas."

" Don't know."

" What do you like to do, Stacy?"

" Read."

" Tell me about your favorite book."

" I don't have a favorite."

Through this conversation, Anna is working to engage Stacy. Sometimes Stacy looks at Anna, but other times she is looking around. Stacy halfway manages to answer Anna' questions, but she doesn't give more than basic information, and she never asks Anna a question. (pgs. 24-25)

*PSSST*

Before Stacy goes down in history labeled as a "bad" conversationalist, we should discuss the importance of non-verbal signaling in conversations. 

Stacy - to be blunt - does not want to talk to Anna. 

Stacy is looking for a specific person or persons who is NOT Anna while Anna continues to blithely assume that Stacy has nothing she'd rather be doing than making small-talk with a stranger.

Now, how did we reach this sad impasse? 

The first problem is that we've got two 16 year-old girls on our hands.  The finer social graces of being able to disengage a conversation without insulting the other person can take a long time to work out.  Saying "Anna, I'm so glad to meet you, but unfortunately I promised my friend Hannah that I would talk with her between the first and second session about a skit we are doing at church tomorrow so I have to go now" is something I couldn't do smoothly on the fly until I was in my twenties.  I doubt I would be as monosyllabic as Stacy - but I would have been stammering and vaguely inchoate.

The second problem is that homeschooled CP/QF teenagers have so few chances to interact with their peer group that every second is precious.  When I was the same age, I knew that I'd see my school friends five days out of seven and work buddies at least twice a week.  Using a passing period or even a whole lunch period to have a conversation with a stranger was not an imposition at all.  For poor Stacy, this may well be the only time she sees another homeschooled, home-churching friend for a month or more!  Stacy would have to be a martyr to pass up time with a friend - let alone potential suitor - to amuse Anna Maxwell.

The last issue is the forced yet transient nature of this relationship.  Anna is different than most of the teenagers here; she's a traveling speaker.  She's stuck being a model teenager on display for other families to admire.  That's an ok schtick - but it's not the most attractive to other teenagers.  Plus, Anna is visiting from another state altogether.  How much effort should a local CP/QF teenage girl spend cultivating a relationship with Anna when the relationship is going to be long-distance and highly monitored by one or both parent sets?

One last concern of mine: look at Anna's use of questions in this one-sided conversation.  I know that Anna's trying to start a conversation with someone who doesn't want to talk - but Anna's use of questions implies that Stacy is under some obligation to share whatever personal information Anna wants to know.   The only piece of information Anna shares about herself is that she lives in Kansas.  In return, Stacy's supposed to share her favorite hobby and produce a fascinating synopsis of her favorite book on demand. 

My tip for the Maxwells: Since your family only reads a highly restricted subsection of religious writings, don't be surprised when some people who are genuinely well-read react with visible annoyance to the question "What's your favorite book?"   I have a stock answer ready for that question - but a lot of avid readers find that question deeply annoying because there are so many good books in different genres that it's a bit like asking "Which of your kids do you like the best?"

The next quote is the "good" conversation.

Two 16 year old girls should be able to have a delightful conversation, perhaps a little like this:

Our Anna would initiate the conversation. " Hi, my name is Anna."

" Hi. My name is Stacy. I am excited to be at the conference with my family," the new girl responds.

" Why are you excited about it?" Anna asks.

" Our family has been really growing in the Lord lately. My dad shared some of the session titles and descriptions with us. They sounded really good. I especially like the one about brothers and sisters. Do you have many brothers and sisters?" Stacy continues the conversation.

" I have two sisters and five brothers. It is from those relationships that the Lord has given us the material we share in the Brothers and Sisters Best Friends Forever session. How many siblings do you have, and what is your biggest struggle with them?"

When we realize the good conversation was the exception rather than the rule, we decided that maybe we could assist parents and doing what is the most important to them-- helping their children. (pgs 25-26)

Well, I can see where the conversation is much more enjoyable from Anna's perspective - but Stacy's still not getting to see or do whatever was distracting her during the earlier vignette.

It's still a weird, stilted conversation, though. 

I grew up Catholic so I've never heard anyone use the term "growing in the Lord" to describe how a family is doing.    My twisted sense of humor wishes that Anna had followed up with the question "How has the Lord been active in your life?" so that Stacy could unload about how much better her life has been now that her dad's alcoholism has been in recovery for a month.   It sucks when he falls off the wagon, but at least he's trying now - and the family has enough money for food again!

The fact that Stacy's dad shared some - but not all - of the session titles with the family brought back a funny memory from the spring after my husband and I started dating.  My husband's brother-in-law and sister are highly active in a local Linux conference that has morphed into a sci-fi-fantasy-alternate lifestyle-fiction writer-gamer extravaganza.   By that point, my husband had known me long enough to realize that I would enjoy this conference - or at least be able to roll with it.   Well, we checked into the hotel and I started leafing through the conference program while we waited for an elevator.   I stop on one page and ask, "Is there something you want to talk about in our relationship?" My husband is completely thrown and blurts "No?".  I follow-up with "Is there something you need to tell me about your personal preferences?"  My husband is completely lost so I flip the program over so he can see that I have it open to the quick-reference for the BDSM community activities and workshops.   He and I laugh pretty hard. - and agree that that would be a horrible way to start a discussion about sexual preferences.    I doubt that the Maxwell conferences are that interesting...but I've never been to one.

Getting back to Anna and Stacy's conversation, I feel like part of the reason the conversation is "good" according to the Maxwells is that Anna is getting feedback about what clients of Titus 2 Ministries want.  The current clients like the descriptions and choices which is a good piece of info to have - but man, Anna's life sound more and more conscribed every second.

Let's talk about boundaries for a second. 

Healthy people have boundaries around their personal lives and respect boundaries set by other people.   Anna and Stacy met less than a minute ago - so Anna is massively transgressing a basic boundary by asking Stacy to disclose the foibles of the relationships between her siblings and her.    That question is a conversation-stopper rather than a conversation opener.   A far more acceptable option would be to ask "What are the strengths of your relationships with your siblings?".   Talking about the positives that happen in a family is generally viewed as non-threatening and acceptable.

Why would 16-year old Anna make that mistake?  The Maxwells are super-shelterers. Steven and Teri Maxwell have taken the CP/QF norm of restricting contact between their children and wider society to an absurd level.   As near as I can tell, the Maxwells can go weeks without having more than work-related or forced conversion conversations with strangers.  Learning societal norms require a bit more interaction with non-family humans. 

I can guess why the Maxwell kids don't recognize crossing a boundary.  What I don't understand is why Steven and Teri Maxwell don't remember basic courtesy and boundaries in conversations.  These two grew up in mainstream homes and they both went to college at the University of Missouri - Rolla.  Yeah, they've gone over to a very different life - but that was after their early twenties.  They should know better.

In the next few pages, Steven Maxwell shares his understanding of how communication is different than conversation.  I've pulled out his definitions:

Conversation is the verbal exchange of information between two or more people. (pg. 26)

Communication is the giving or receiving of information such as thoughts, opinions, or facts via speech or writing, whether electronically or by other means. (pg. 27)

He's not wrong - but that's not the same as being complete. 

I dragged out my notes from my one and only college class in Communications.  I learned that communication is the process of converting ideas or thoughts or feelings in a person's head to a form that can be shared with other people.  The advantage of that definition is that it includes lots of non-verbal communication methods as well as media methods.     Maxwell's description misses the scads of information that can be passed by facial expressions like "Continue doing that and you're in SO much trouble!" or "Wow, this has gotten weird fast...."

Conversation, on the other hand, describes interactive communication between two or more people.  A lot of time we think of conversations as being verbal and happening at one time - but conversations can be written and asynchronous.  An excellent example is the circle letters that used to be used to share information among families and groups focused on similar interests.  A more modern example is discussions in comment sections of websites and blogs.    A funny example of an asynchronous conversations involving random and unknown users was the time the guest service team manager placed a sign over the time clock that used "Your" when the correct usage was "You're".  Post-it notes, correction tape, Sharpies and a wide variety of ballpoint pens created a highly annotated sign divided among the "If the word is a contraction of 'you are', the correct form is you're" group and the "get over yourselves" group.   

From here on out, Maxwell treats all conversations where one person is predominating as communication - which is a bit shaky on either Maxwell's or my definition of communication.  Equally oddly, he doesn't seem to recognize that his definition of communication doesn't require that all participants share equally while requiring a balanced back-and-forth in the sample conversations.

We can see some of these quirks in a long story about a pre-screening for Jesse's wisdom teeth removal:

Recently we were at an oral surgeons office who was going to remove our son's wisdom teeth. Jesse and I ( Steve) were escorted into an examining room and instructed where to sit. The assistant turned on a DVD that played for 10 minutes, telling us all about wisdom teeth removal and follow-up care. That's the surgeon came in and began to tell Jesse about the procedure and certain things we should know.

(...)

To this point in the pre-surgery appointment, they were strictly giving us information, first via the DVD and then in person as the oral surgeon recited facts that he had repeated many times before. There was no exchange back from us other than to indicate we understood what they wanted us to know. We were interested in what we were hearing because it would impact Jesse's health. It was neither enjoyable nor awkward-- just the passing of information.

However, after the medical part was completed, the surgeon transformed from a sterile doctor into a conversationalist. He asked Jesse some questions about himself, and the flow of information went both ways. We entered a conversation.

Jesse and I asked him questions on a personal level, and he interned asked us more. He asked about Jesse's school and future plans. He asked about what I did for a living and where we went to church, among other topics. We were able to ask him some questions and learn a bit about his life, including his love for going on medical mission trips to Haiti. For 20 minutes we carried on a conversation. When the communication turned into an enjoyable conversation, it was no longer cold and dry communication but a pleasurable, relationship-building experience. He was a warm, caring person who had a heart for his patients. (pgs. 27-28)

In the first two paragraphs of this quote, Maxwell can't use his own definitions to correctly sort "watched DVD" and "listened to oral surgeon and assented that we understood the procedure" into the right categories.   Maxwell and I agree that his definition of communication fits watching an informational DVD.  What Maxwell blanks on is that he and Jesse were having a conversation with the oral surgeon when the oral surgeon described the procedure, common and uncommon side effects, and after-care for the procedure.  Yes, the oral surgeon was doing most of the talking - but Jesse and Steven Maxwell's indication that they understood what the surgeon was saying and were accepting of the risks and required after-care was critically important.  Jesse and Steven were sending equally important information back to the surgeon by saying "Yes" or "I understand" or "We can do that."  If the Maxwells had wanted, they could have engaged in a more dynamic conversation with the oral surgeon by saying "No, I'm afraid I don't understand the risks" or "Oh, dry sockets aren't a real thing" or any response that made the oral surgeon have to describe things differently. 

The last two paragraphs clarify what Maxwell really means by "conversation".  A Maxwell conversation is an informal exchange of information that is enjoyable to the Maxwells.  This remembered conversation strikes all the topics that a good Maxwell conversation should have - homeschooling, rejection of college or vocational training, bragging about their home church located in a retirement home and a chance for Steven to brag about his family business.  Really, the only flaw was that the doctor pulled out a higher "Jesus" trump card by having participated in medical mission trips to Haiti than Steven could pull.  An ideal conversation would have included the oral surgeon having a conversion experience right then and there with Jesse and Steven Maxwell.  Alas, we live in a fallen world :-P

Rapid topic change: How do the Maxwells choose their doctors?  I had my wisdom teeth removed when I was in my early twenties. I talked to my oral surgeon then for 15 minutes total and about 8 of those minutes were when I was being put under anesthesia or groggily returning to consciousness.  After my son was born, I became a hard-core tooth grinder and cracked a tooth so deeply I had to have it extracted.   I talked to the oral surgeon for 10 minutes at the pre-appointment (mainly because I was in the middle of filling out the medical history when he arrived so he finished it orally with me) followed by a tooth extraction that took less than 15 minutes start to finish.  I really don't remember anything about the oral surgeon who removed my wisdom teeth - but I'm certain I never had a very deep conversation about anything except the oddities of having a small baby attached to a lot of cords with the second surgeon. 

Oh - and that conversation was while he was extracting the tooth.  (I love laughing gas. It kills my anxiety about having pointy metal objects in my mouth while still letting me chat.)

I don't assume that a doctor who is quiet, business-like or even brusque hates their patients.  I pick my doctors for competency in their field and ability to communicate clearly with me.  The anesthesiologist who cared for me during my C-section was very brusque - but that was at least in part because I had two IV pumps fail...simultaneous....in the middle of a C-section that was projected to need at least one blood transfusion if not more.   In the middle of it, I didn't understand why my complaints about nausea seemed to be on the back-burner - but afterwards he explained what happened.  From my point of view, the anesthesiologist focused on the really important issue of keeping fluids in me and handled the less severe issue of nausea and vomiting when he got a free hand.

In case anyone missed it, Steven Maxwell outlines the real importance of teaching your kids to be conversationalists:

As a father at that moment, I was grateful that my 16 year old son had learned the art of conversation. When the oral surgeon ask Jesse questions, he spoke up and articulated his answers. Not only was Jesse able to do that, but he was able to continue the conversation by asking the doctor questions. That is a tool Jesse will use throughout his life. (pg. 28)

Remember, the Maxwells are all about image management.  Jesse earns points in that conversation because he can answer clearly and think of questions to ask the oral surgeon about his life.  Jesse performed well and therefore Steven is proud.   Notice that Steven doesn't seem concerned if Jesse understood the risks of tooth removal....or if Jesse had worries about the procedure...or even if Jesse could correctly fill out a personal medical history.  Nope, as long as the kids make Steven look good, they're fine.

Next post: the real reason those two neighbors don't talk...and a few remembered Maxwellian conversations. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Making Great Conversationalists: Chapter One - Part Four

We've had a wild and crazy week here in Kidlet land.  The Spawn has started weekly outpatient PT to help him learn to walk.  Spawn has unusually flexible hips and has used that super power to learn how to sit and crawl using minimal abdominal muscle support.  It's a good trick for army-crawling, but a weak abdomen is keeping him from learning how to pull himself up into standing and remain standing.  So...we're learning how to use bicycle shorts with the inner leg seams sewn together to make it nearly impossible for him flex his hips into a large support base for three 20 minute sessions a day to let him start getting ripped toddler abs. 

Spawn's pretty accepting of the modified bike shorts - also known as Hip Helpers - and absolutely diametrically opposed to the existence of the PT gym  up to and including Dr. Robin who is his current PT.   While Spawn vocally disagrees with me, Dr. Robin is awesome and so good with Spawn.  Having a toddler who screams and cries for 20 minutes out of an hour session (albeit in discrete burst of baby anxiety or rage) is emotionally exhausting for me.  The physical exhaustion comes having a 21 pound tot clinging or wrestling with me for 60 minutes plus carrying him to and from the car.  (Spawn's also in the middle of a stroller strike that causes him to scream or cry when placed in his stroller.)

At the same time, I'm gearing up to begin subbing a few days a week while Spawn is with his doting grandparents.  I love the idea of being in a classroom again - but those whom the gods wish to destroy are first sent to get a substitute teaching licence in Michigan.   I feel like I've jumped through nearly as many hoops to get a substitute licence as I did to get an unlimited teacher's licence way back when during a time where Michigan is frantic because of a lack of full-time teachers to fill classrooms now that school is starting.

So that's the lowdown on why my posting schedule is all over the place again.  The good news is that I have one last dialogue in the first chapter of "Making Great Conversationalists" by Steven and Teri Maxwell.  In a change of pace, both dialogues sound plausible in this example.  The reason for this influx of reality, I suspect, is the fact that the Maxwells have actually been in this situation AND are freed from their previous obsession with how their children's conversation reflects on their parenting.   Today, we listen in on a fairly newlywed couple - April and Ryan - who have a eight month old son named Joseph.  April is a stay-at-home mom and Ryan has just come home from his office job.

At six-thirty, April hears the garage door go up, announcing Ryan's return home from work. She picks up Joseph and hurries down the stairs to greet him. " Ryan, I hope dinner isn't spoiled since you had to work late. It's your favorite - chicken enchiladas. I sure wish you could have come home on time. It's been a long day. Joseph has been extra fussy today, and he only took two half hour naps all day! Because it was rainy, we couldn't even go for our morning walk. The day seems so long, and now I have a terrible headache. I sure hope you are planning to spend some time with us tonight."

Ryan is checking his emails and text messages as he emerges from the car. " Sorry, April."

"Joseph wouldn't eat his sweet potatoes. He kept spitting them out. Then he took his cup and threw it on the floor every time I put it back on his high chair tray. I think something is wrong with the washing machine. It is making a funny noise that I haven't heard before. I tried to write a check for the electric bill, but I couldn't find the checkbook. Do you know where it is?"

" No." Ryan hugs the two of them while reading his phone over their shoulders. " I really want to get changed. Why don't you put Joseph in his pack-and-play while you get dinner finished up?"

So many stay-at-home mommies with little children are starved for adult conversation when their husband returns home from work. Like many of them, April blast Ryan with all the problems of the day, while he remains engaged in his work issues either mentally or through his phone. They are not building the kind of relationship that they would like to have: a relationship that is developed through good conversation. (pg.16-17)

As a stay-at-home mom to a toddler, I have far more sympathy for April than I do for Ryan in this situation.  At the end of exasperating days, I've referred to my son as a nonverbal capricious tyrant with inscrutable whims.  Being stuck at home with a crabby baby who refuses to nap and is creating a mess every time they are fed is exhausting and monotonous.  Adding in the fact that a critical piece of equipment for household function is making weird noises makes the day longer from background worry - and that's not taking into account the frustration of a missing checkbook.   I also understand the habit of sharing important pieces of info - like "the washing machine might be on the verge of breaking" - pretty quickly after my husband comes home.  I do that because I may not remember if I put it off any longer and my husband gets that.

April does do three things that I find off-putting.  Chicken enchiladas keep well in a warm oven; it's not like she's serving a Yorkshire pudding or a chocolate souffle that will be kinda off if it gets cold.  The only issue I can see with enchiladas is that the bits of tortilla that aren't covered in sauce could dry out a bit in a warm oven over time.  Thankfully, the magic of aluminum foil can prevent the really minor inconvenience of overly dry tortilla bits.   That's the only issue I can think of - and it is not worth passive-aggressively complaining to her husband about. 

Similarly, the complete lack of a backstory makes April's comment that she hopes Ryan will spend time with April and Joseph tonight seem passive-aggressive or needy.   If Ryan does extra work at home or tends to veg out, some description of his previous actions would ground the story more. 

Finally, did April and Ryan adopt Joseph last week?  April's concerns about Joseph's eating habits are really strange for the mother of an infant that age.  Eight-month old babies reject foods all the time.  Hell, my son would scarf a puree one day and behave like it was poison the next.    He'd only eat purees some days if I let him hold the spoon the entire time.  I tried letting him hold two empty spoons - one for each hand.  No dice; he wanted to have some control over utensils going near his mouth.  (Can't blame him for that, really.)   Likewise, an eight month old will treat any object they can reach in a high chair as a potential projectile.  Even at 17 months, my son is equally likely to toss a sippy cup onto the floor as he is to drink from it.   Eight months also feels really young for a kid to handle a cup; my son's OT/Speech therapist was happily surprised when I told her that Spawn was starting to drink slightly thickened liquids from a cup I held and guided at ten months adjusted age.  The Spawn really only got good at drinking straight liquids from a sippy cup at around 15 months of age - so April might be worried over a milestone Joseph is several months away from being ready for.

April's got her quirks - but I'm hard-pressed to find anything likeable about Ryan.  He can't detach from his phone for thirty seconds to greet his wife and child?  He literally cannot complete a hug without reading from his phone.  Does Ryan multitask having sex with his wife while reading his emails?  (I don't really want to know the answer to that.) Why can't he say "April, I'm sorry, but I've got to wrap one business thing up before being done for the night." ?  April may still be tired and wound up - but at least Ryan would be respectful of her attempts to communicate with him instead of being completely checked out.    I might be reading overly much into this - but the fact that Ryan recommends April drop off the baby in his pack n' play while she finishes dinner makes me wonder if he was listening to her at all.  April said she's finished dinner a while ago.  The process of sticking a serving spoon into a dish of enchiladas after pulling it out of the oven takes less than 30 seconds even if she's got a baby on her hip.  Conversely, perhaps the writer of this section isn't a cook and has no idea how strange Ryan sounds.....

The advice section feels a bit overly harsh on April - and way too permissive on Ryan's behavior.  I can see how April might come across as overly intense when Ryan first came home - but she's not being rude, just tired and overwhelmed.  Ryan, on the other hand, is being damned rude.

The ideal conversation, on the other hand, is two people alluding to events in their day without actually discussing them:

Let's see how that conversation could have gone if both April and Ryan had learned to be loving conversationalists.

At six-thirty, April hears the garage door go up, announcing Ryan's return home from work. She picks up Joseph and hurries down the stairs to meet him. " Joseph, Daddy's home!" she bubbles to the baby as they move into the garage. " Ryan, I kept dinner warm in the oven since you had to work late. We have been so looking forward to having you home."

" Me too. It was a rough day at work. I will tell you all about it when we eat dinner. How was your day, sweetheart?"

" My day was rough too. I'll tell you more about that later. Would you believe Joseph sat up all by himself after his nap when he was playing on the floor? I hope he does it again tonight for you. He was so cute, and I think he actually was proud of himself."

' Yeah! Another milestone for our little man," Ryan hugs the two of them and takes Joseph into his arms. " Hey, Joseph, Daddy loves you so much, and I am so glad to be home with you."

April says, " I made your favorite for dinner tonight. Chicken enchiladas. I'll go put the food on the table while you play with Joseph." (pgs. 17-18)

See, life is so much sweeter when you sweep the frustrations and irritations of family and work under the rug while focusing on the strangely angelic baby!  Ryan's in for one hell of a shock when he starts playing with Joseph and Joseph devolves into a sobbing pile of eight month old baby because he's teething or afraid of sweet potatoes or really wanted to live in the garage.  (Seriously, it's not kind to hand off a crabby, sleep-deprived baby to a spouse without fair warning.)   April, who still has a headache, a washing machine that is making foreboding noises, and no checkbook in sight, is going to be super-happy when she is ready to relax only to find out that Ryan needs to finish an urgent matter from work tonight.   Will anyone be happier when the washing machine throws a bearing in the middle of a load tomorrow morning and April can't hire a repairman because Joseph ate the checkbook and so a frantic phone call arrives in the middle of Ryan's meeting that he's spent hours prepping for last night?

There is a happy medium.  When my husband comes home, we both make a good faith effort to greet each other warmly and express happiness that the baby is alive and well.  Next, we dump all of the assorted household and work baggage that we need to discuss and get those things squared away.  That way we are less likely to forget something important like "I think Spawn is teething again..." or be emotionally unavailable because one of us is distracted by something that happened. 

The end of each chapter has a series of questions for families to go over as they read the book.   In CP/QF writing tradition, the questions range from painfully dull to horrifying.  I've picked out the ones that amuse me or provide unintentional glimpses into how dysfunctional the families really are:

1) Read the good and bad conversations in this chapter as a family. Discuss them. Can your children discern the good ones from the bad ones? What do they think makes the good ones good and the bad ones bad? (pg. 19)

Well, the entire book follows the pattern of topic A bad conversation,  topic A good conversation, topic B bad conversation,  topic B good conversation ad nauseum.   Assuming the children have moderate skill in pattern recognition, I'm pretty sure they'll get the pattern even if they have no idea of the difference between the two conversations.   Be sure to give them full credit if they answer "The good conversations come second!"   Oddly enough, another correct answer would be "The good conversation conceals more information than the bad conversation" - and I'm not sure that's a lesson I want my kid to learn.

2) Sit down individually with each child with the state of purpose to talk. Go somewhere private in the house where there won't be distractions. Tell the child you want to be able to talk with him, and let him know he isn't in trouble. Ask your child some questions then evaluate his conversation with you. Here are some suggestions for questions you could ask. Ask if he has anything pressing he wants to talk to you about. Ask if he is having any problems in general, any problems with you, or any problems with other family members. Ask him how he is spending his time. (pg. 19-20)

*blinks*

"Hey, Billy.  Sit down.  We have the stated purpose to talk.  Yeah, here's your blanky.    No, the stated purpose to talk means that we're going to talk.  Not porpoise - purpose.  We are purposing to talk.  Please don't jump on the bed when we're purposing to talk.  I need you to use your words.  I need you to use your English words, not dolphin squeaks.  I know that dolphins jump in the air - but you need to stop jumping on the bed even if you are a dolphin."

"Hi, Leslie.  We have the stated purpose to talk....why are you crying?  No, you're not in trouble.  Why would you think you were in trouble?  I do not only talk to you one-on-one when you are in trouble.  You are not in trouble.  Great.  So....do you have any problems with me?  Wait, why are you crying again?  Look, you are not in trouble."

"Hi, Jana.  We have the stated purpose to talk.  You are not in trouble.  Did you think you were in trouble? Why does everyone think they are in....nevermind.    Are you having any problems with any family members?  Jessa's keeping you up at night by kicking your bed.  How do you want to solve it?  No, having her switch beds would be too much work.  What's another solution?  Eh...me talking to her is too much work.  How about you give her your prized jewelry box?  Why are you objecting to giving someone who is harassing you something you love with no promise of stopping the behavior?  You are in trouble, missy."

*sighs*

Look, I've spent years learning how to get teenagers to talk to adults.  The only bit of the second question worth doing is trying to find a time and place that is conducive to talking without interruptions.   If the purpose of this exercise is really to evaluate the conversational skills of a kid or teen, make sure you give them an easy, light topic that they can talk about without bringing up a welter of  hard emotions.   While the Maxwells abhor the following topics, most kids will respond to a chance to discuss their favorite TV show, movie, book, sport or sports team.   Giving them a loaded topic like "let's talk about things I do that frustrate or anger you" especially when the topic is thrown at them cold AND there's no promise of immunity from punishment if the adult doesn't like the answer will likely shut the kid down.

3) After the discussion evaluate your child with the following questions. Make sure you write down your answers and any other pertinent information concerning your child's ability as a conversationalist so you can compare it to a conversation you will have with your child after finishing this book.

  • Were you able to spend 15 minutes talking with the child?
  • Did the conversation flow between you?
  • Was it give or take or one-sided?
  • Did your child listen?
  • Did he seem interested?
  • Did he answer with a word or two or with whole sentences?
  • Did he ask you questions?
(pg. 20)

Reality check: not all verbal kids can pull off a 15 minute conversation on command.  Small kids and elementary school aged kids might well wander off course before 15 minutes even if they have excellent conversational skills for their age group. 

Reality check two: The skill of the parent in eliciting conversation from a given child will greatly affect whether or not the kid can do the first three criteria as well as the fifth and sixth one.    Compare this example:
Q: "If you could go anywhere in the world - and money's no limit - where would you want to go?"
A: "Disneyland."
Q: "That's interesting!  I'd like to go to Disneyland, too!  What would you do at Disneyland?"
A: "I'd really like to meet Belle and go on the........"

Now look at this example: 
Q. "Do you have any problems with me that you want to talk about?"
A: "No." 
Q. "How are you getting along with Alice?
A: "Fine."
Q: "Do you have any pressing issues we need to talk about?"
A: "Nope."

Did you notice that I gave the "good" example before the "bad" example?  See, authors can break up monotonous patterns in their writing by reversing the order of examples!    That's a freebie for any CP/QF self-help authors who wander onto my site. *curtseys*

The next chapter shows that the Maxwells haven't taught their kids to read body language and that they pick medical professionals in a very different manner than I do.