Posts Tagged Thanksgiving

Thanks to My Sons, Who Got Me Involved in Schools

Published by — Thanksgiving, another basic Restorative Practice.thanksgiving

Per tradition, this year at Thanksgiving dinner we’ll go around the table and say what we’re grateful for this year.  Likely many families do this, driven by the mom or whoever is feeling under-appreciated, or wanting to call out the brats for being spoiled.

Giving thanks is a fabulous habit.  It’s as proactively healthy as brushing your teeth or exercising.  Therapists recommend it for battling bad moods and minor depressions.  C’mon, what was lovely for you this year?  Be positive.  Whatever your troubles at the moment, what stands out as a bright spot in your life?

My sons have long refused to participate in the other home-grown traditions of their younger lives.  But circling up at Thanksgiving has persisted even through teenage eye-rolling and despite the superior attitudes my now-grown sons can occasionally adopt towards Mom.  Hearing a personal thought from everyone — young, old and middling, be it earnest, snarky or frank — is a fundamental restorative practice.  What I now call a circle began decades ago.  Who knew what was to come?

My kids got me into education, and later Restorative Practices.

I did get some fancy degrees early on when I was training for life as an artist.  My father would say I was a crashing failure at it.  True, trying to become a playwright/director/dramaturge was a tough nickel.  And most of the handful who do make money at it don’t make much.  Of course motherhood doesn’t pay a dime.  And on its bad days it gives new meaning to thankless.

Still, being a mom, and only that credential, opened a door for me into an Alice’s wonderland of school politics.  Through an insane fluke years ago, I was appointed to the Providence School Board.  My twins were in kindergarten.  It was the year the infamous Buddy Cianci took office as Mayor for the second time.  He later went to prison on RICO charges (racketeering).  But he was hardly the only one playing fast-and-loose with the resources intended for the City’s public education system.

I was appointed by the previous lame-duck Mayor, whom I thought I’d impressed with my vast reading about schools, and most specifically my understanding of the Providence teachers contract, which I’d studied with a group of parents.  Eventually I realized I’d only been appointed to be a mild pain in the butt to the new Mayor.  School Boards and Committees are often stepping stones to more prestigious political offices, so mere moms are generally just place-holders.  I was a political nobody, a rank novice who would be deservedly ignored.  Limp handshakes were all the welcome I got at my first meeting.  The School Board secretary pulled me aside and gave me a great piece of advice I’ll pass on to you:  “Shut up for six months until you know where you are.”  And I did.  I watched and learned.

I learned that the System wasn’t very concerned about kids.

Yes, some people on the Board were well meaning.  But they were afraid to speak up or felt paralyzed by the brick walls of regulations, laws and contract provisions.  Most painful was realizing that adults were collecting gobs of taxpayer money and passing it around to one another.  I was blown away.  Winning and losing political clout seemed the principal purpose of the educational bureaucracy.  We virtually never discussed students, except for those who needed us to vote to expel them.  The kids were getting a super-raw deal.

Rather suddenly my phone was ringing itself off the hook.  Can you get my kid a bus pass?  They keep saying she’s eligible, but I don’t have a car and the pass never comes.  Or: My kid’s Spanish class has no textbooks.  The teacher speaks little English, so the students are lost.  And this was common:  My kid had a great teacher — young, energetic, enthused.  But that teacher got “bumped” out by a more senior teacher, who for some reason had the right to take that position.  The new teacher is wasting my kid’s time, but the administration tells me that there is nothing they can do.

And oh, by the way, most of the students are low-income and kids of color.  My own kids had their struggles, learning alongside the rest of the public school kids.  But their problems were a window into some of their pals’ far more serious issues.  In time I had no choice but to do everything I could to make a difference in those kids’ lives.  I can’t say I’ve been terribly successful, but giving it my all every day has been a healthy, if sometimes frustrating habit.

I never would have taken up the task if my boys hadn’t put me on the path.  Who knows what I’ll say during the go-round on the night of Thanksgiving?  But in the spirit of giving thanks, here’s to Soren, Nick and Felix — and Conrad, their dad.  They don’t need me any more, except as a sounding board and dinner companion.  But oh did I need them.  So, thanks.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.


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Family Dinner is All About Learning to Get Along

Published by — Regular sit-down meals form the foundation of a good education.


When my youngest child was a college freshman, he announced that coming home for Thanksgiving was way more trouble than it was worth.  He’d spare us the bother of him and stay at school.  He’s the world’s expert in yanking my chain.  In any case, while I love having the in-laws, friends and girlfriends at my candle-lit Thanksgiving dinner table, the ones I ache for are my three sons. (Their dad is a given.)

My siblings and I jeered at my mother for making such a to-do about having her grown-up kids all home at the same time.  To this day she says it’s the only time she feels completely safe, able to see with her own eyes that each of us is all right.  Turns out the instinct to corral the adult children back to family dinner is a primeval mom-thing passed down genetically.  Who knew?

My kid’s college was so awkwardly located that getting to and fro by public transport was basically impossible.  But failure was not an option.  We knew he liked to be begged to come home.  So I did.  I begged.  Actually the little brat had a solution.  It cost me, but it worked.

With the last kid gone off to college, I was relieved to be done with teaching table manners and adjudicating annoying spats at dinner.  It’s a ton of thankless work, so now I want to enjoy the fruits of my labor.  My boys, now men, are my favorite dinner companions — resurgent brat behavior notwithstanding.

Years ago Dr. James Comer, the inspirational Yale psychiatrist, thrilled me when, in a speech, he made a huge to-do about the value of the family dinner table.  It’s not a quaint convention, but critical to learning social skills.  So turn off the blasted TV.  Protect dinner as sacred time most evenings.  Learn to live in a community by learning how to break bread with one another so it’s reasonably pleasant for all.  Comer argued, with impressive energy and passion for a man in his late 70s, that regular sit-down meals form the foundation of a good education.  They’re the crucible for manners, conversation skills, and family intimacy.

He said: “It is not the test scores that allow you to be successful in life; it’s the social skills that you learn at the dinner table: You come on time; you listen; you don’t talk for too long; you learn to debate; you learn personal control; you learn personal expression.  As for myself, I’d come home from school thinking about how to present my argument.”

Comer’s parents – a steelworker and an entirely unschooled maid – encouraged debate as an essential life skill, while forbidding actual fighting.  You could win arguments with power of persuasion and the merits of your evidence – Comer and his siblings combed libraries for proofs that they were Right – but the sheer force of shouting was not tolerated.  The celebrated psychiatrist credits those dinners with teaching the very skills that in one generation lifted all five Comer kids out of the lower working-class to become professionals.

Even the maelstrom of family mealtime assures kids – or it should – that someone is there for them, through thick and thin.  Love, trust and resiliency grow in the slog of reminders to put the napkin in your lap and to spare us the sight of talking with your mouth full.

Comer laments that sit-down meals are accepted casualties of the high-tech, on-the-go, hyper-busy modern world.  These days few moms find reason to engage in dinner battles with kids who claim that other kids’ parents trust their kids with more ‘freedom’ (to skip out) or ‘respect’ (to avoid accounting for their day).  Generally these days, many parents shirk the hard labor of disciplining and training their children.  (And then they send them to school.  Sigh.)

Getting along with each other is, was and always will be the biggest challenge humans face, individually and collectively.  From domestic divorce to international war, failure to get along produces misery — not just for the immediate participants, but often for all manner of innocent bystanders.

Whatever the reality behind the story of Thanksgiving, the myth celebrates diverse people cooperating to create a warm, winter meal.  We need more such meals.  I realize that our fragile economy is 70 percent about consumerism, but actually most kids don’t need more stuff.  This culture’s kids badly need more experience with sharing time and food gratefully, pleasantly, with extended family, intimates and new friends.

This year I’ll have to make do with two sons, as that last, the baby, is off having adventures on the other Coast.  Deeply miss him though I will, two new wives will be joining us.  And for that I am most, most grateful.


Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist who also blogs about Restorative Practices and Restorative Justice. After serving on the Providence School Board, she became the Providence Journal’s education columnist for 16 years, and has written for many other outlets. As the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, she’s been building demonstration projects in Rhode Island since 2008. She analyses data and provides communications consulting on Information Works! and the RIDataHUB, through The Providence Plan. For more detail, see or contact her at or 24 Corliss Street #40022, Providence, RI 02904.

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Give Thanks, for God’s Sake!

Published by — Add the ability to be gracious to essential 21st-century skills.

Gratitude is a discipline.  Like any other skill, it must be practiced regularly, like piano scales, always aiming for mastery.

Educators have developed a short list of 21st-century skills, which do not include the ability to give thanks.  In my current mood, mournful since my dad died, I find myself eyeballing that list as woefully incomplete and begging a re-write.  Currently 21st-century skills include teamwork, communication, critical thinking and such.  Good goals, to be sure, but what about civility?  Empathy?  Kindness?

What about the ability to acknowledge the riches of life, however modest, and to say thanks out loud?  Our culture has grown so cynical, so “whatevah,” it’s as if little under the sun is quite meeting our standards.  We certainly want kids to be more gracious, more mindful of the work and resources invested in them.  But I don’t see us modeling the behavior we want to see.

Last Saturday night 13 of us sat crammed at my mother’s dining room table.  We’d been to the funeral that morning.  But sitting cheek to jowl left no room to set an empty place in honor of the man called Homer, Dad or Pops, depending on the generation.  Only 2 of the 8 grandchildren couldn’t make the cross-country trip.  And the one missing spouse was minding a hospice situation of his own, also 3,000 miles away from that dinner table.

The night before, when the family first assembled, my mother had asked each of us to tell a story about Dad.  Several of the cousins’ were quite funny.  My father had an over-sized personality, which aged in ways that gave the kids memorable grist.

But a few in my generation balked at the sentimentality of being requested to provide a fond remembrance on demand.  No one appreciates being told what to do.  But long ago my family of origin took the position that conventional rituals, traditions and religions were just other people’s mindless adherence to a bunch of dumb rules, or painfully-earnest hippie behavior.

So imagine my poor mother.  A psychotherapist still practicing and teaching at a ripe age, she’s a tough old bird, famous among her kids for rarely having troubles of her own.  Still, the loss of her husband of 63 years sucked the wind from her sails.  She’ll rally, to be sure.  But for now her life and home teem with emotion.  And unlike my sister’s new Italo-American husband, a 60-year-old man who bursts into tears at everything, we’re Stoics, with few conventions for sharing strong feelings.

But at the post-funeral dinner, my mother stopped asking for ritual cooperation and simply announced that she would give thanks.  She went around the table, and one by one thanked each adult and each grandchild for a contribution they’d made to the last few days.  As she started, I sensed that the cynics among us felt she was being corny.  “Corny” is a serious put-down in that family.  We’re hip, cutting edge, out there.  What she was doing was too cute, too contrived.

But as she went from one to the next, a kinder hush fell.  For some the thanks came easy, because the contribution had been enormous feats of management — help with meals and big logistics.  She had to think a moment for some of the kids, because she was determined to say something concrete beyond thanks for coming, and was successful.  By the end, as my tradition would say, grace descended.  She’d put a gentle period at the end of an important sentence, on a momentous day.

And she said, “There, that felt really good.”

My son, who followed in her footsteps to become a psychotherapist, regularly reminds me that practicing gratitude is the best medicine for depression.  He insists that giving thanks every day for some small list of pleasures and mercies is a critical life skill.  I know he’d appreciate it if I practiced it more.  He agrees that my struggle to improve conditions for kids is hard labor.  But he’d like it if I stopped to smell the roses, to taste life’s deliciousness in the midst of the work, and to laugh and have fun even in adversity.

Zorba had exuberant praise for “the whole catastrophe” of life.

It’s precious, this life of ours.  And finite.

I’m a traditionalist and arch-conservative — in the ecological sense of the word, not the Tea Party sense.  (I resent how the TP twisted Christianity’s central principle into their Judge, Reject, and generally Hate-Thy-Neighbor creed.)  As a conservative traditionalist, I hereby direct your attention to your calendar where Thanksgiving Day reminds you to muster some thanks at least once a year, out loud, to those who surely enrich your lives.

And maybe, like my mother, you’ll be able to say, “There, that felt really good.”  And maybe if you and I both do that often enough, civility might creep back into public discussion — something for which we would all give thanks.

We just need the discipline to do so.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at and She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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