One reason I got my Masters in Clinical Psychology is because I could see, 14 years ago when I was cooking in the San Francisco County women’s jail, that the cooking and nutrition classes I was running were inherently therapeutic. Women who spent their days in small cells making “spreads” – meals made from a mix of canned and plastic wrapped processed commissary foods – would come alive when we rolled into the classroom with our fresh veggies. Once before we all sat down to enjoy a meal we’d prepared, one woman, then several more, broke out in song – GOSPEL. They let us know – we are grateful for this food we prepared together.
Fast forward. A group of kids invited me to South Central Los Angeles in 2007 to help them up their peer-to-peer nutrition education game. We ended up forming a non-profit, RootDown LA, through which high school students now learn to grow, cook, promote, and sell healthy food in their community.
Last Friday, we hosted a group of elementary school kids at RootDown’s HQ. In the past, I would have been the one in the kitchen, managing the cooking class. NOW, I leave that to others and instead get to move about the kitchen and garden, connecting more closely with our young students. Two in particular stood out last week. One was SO intent to be helpful yet had tremendous difficulty holding onto instructions (auditory processing issues? ADHD?). Another was EAGER to make his presence known, mostly by firmly letting us know he would NOT eat veggies, nor would he follow basic seed planting directions from farmer Joseph (oppositional defiant?).
I was raised by a mother who devoted the majority of her career to developing more comprehensive special education program in central Ohio. She put me in tune with other kids’ various “other” abilities when I was just a kid myself. That early exposure, paired with my more recent psych training has given me a multi-layered lens through which I now take in the kids I encounter, via RootDown and in therapy rooms.
I feel honored and lucky when I’m given the time to really focus on a kid whom others may find exasperating. Usually, I find that it’s what ANY kid needs most to feel a bit calmer – someone to focus on him/her for a little while. Working in the garden with these two kids last week, it took 150% of my focus/attention to engage them to get just two rows of peas planted in some organized fashion. At one point, I was SO tempted to wrestle peas from the hands of the one kid; he defiantly dropped pea seeds at random and tromped over the others kids’ pea plantings. Deep DEEP BREATH. PATIENCE.
It’s a luxury as a NON parent – I was determined to see that by the end of my short time with these kids, both would have experienced an adult’s patience, firmness, boundaries, humor, and forgiveness. Both kids left that night, smiling and feeling accomplished. It’s scary. It’s exhilarating. It’s exhausting. These little people are so impressionable. Parents, all the more reason to enlist others to help you raise your children.