Thursday, December 30, 2010

People who've made a difference in my life

Many, many years ago I went off to college and discovered things about myself. I discovered that being successful academically meant I had to do at least some work. I was amazed to learn that others enjoyed good literature. And I found that the most interesting people were those who always had a long list of things they wanted to read/learn/experience.

At the end of my sophomore year I drew perhaps the worst housing lottery number possible. It looked like I was doomed to the boonies, alone. And then Maggie, an upstairs neighbor, came to my rescue. She and another neighbor wanted to get a suite in our dorm, and they offered to adopt me. Why, I don't know. We weren't close friends.

One thing I liked about Maggie was that she had a good laugh. (It's one of my requirements for friends: laugh well and have a sense of whimsy.) She knew way more than I did about classical music. She had long, long blonde hair. We ended up getting along well. And the following two years we roomed close to one another in single rooms.

I don't quite know when or how Maggie and I got in contact the first few years out of school, but I do know one thing: she did all the contacting. In those days it had not yet occurred to me that I could retain friendships even if my immediate world shifted location. I'd moved twice in my childhood, and left friends behind, never to hear from them again. So I left college, not really expecting to ever see my pals again. I went off to live in Puerto Rico for a year, and somehow Maggie stayed in touch. She moved to France, and somehow stayed in touch. I moved to Philadelphia, and we (or she) stayed in touch.

In Maggie I discovered someone who liked me enough to continue being my friend across time and oceans and foolishness and growing up. And I decided I wanted to be that kind of friend, too. The kind that would call once in a blue moon to chat, or go to the ballet, or meet for supper. The type of person who wants to be at your wedding, and who likes your kid, and who just plain exudes I like you. Because there are people I really do like, and it's worthwhile to let them know. Even if we're not physically near each other.

My resolution to learn how to be a good friend doesn't mean I'm good at sending out Christmas cards (I'm five years late, and counting) and I truly stink at remembering birthdays. But today happens to be Maggie's birthday. I am remembering it, and appreciating her friendship for all these years, and I am very, very thankful to have her in my life. Cheers, Magpie. I love you.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

By the Fourth Day of Christmas...

It's been a busy week. Dancer made a knock-out orange-raspberry cake for Christmas dessert:

Snuggler and Little Guy got dressed up for church on Christmas Eve:

And Little Guy slept by the Christmas tree:

Big Guy came for an overnight visit, and enjoyed the mustard-coated roast beef we had for Christmas dinner. Eldest hung out with him, read, and recovered from her cold. Dancer spent hours putting together the complicated marble run. My parents decided to drive up from my brother's house before (rather than during) the blizzard, and made it safely.

Then yesterday someone turned seven. We celebrated with apple pie and homemade French vanilla ice cream:

I have been reading book after book (in between cooking and etcetera-ing), happily sipping coffee with steamy milk made in my new milk frother. Perhaps I will have more profound thoughts another day, or week. But for now I'm happily living out the relaxed days given to me, picking up errant wrapping paper scraps and making sure my hips have enough extra cookie padding to merit a significant diet come January 1.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Handel's Messiah and parenting

A friend gave us tickets to see Messiah last night, done by a superb chorus. Box seats, no less! It was a major treat, in more ways than one.

As I sat listening to the music twine familiar words into glorious patterns, I thought about how the oratorio repeats phrases in different ways, with some voices coming in from above, while others rumble in unexpectedly from below. Whole minutes and a myriad of notes were devoted to the two words comfort ye. The pile-on of voices in He shall purify brings us a little bit closer to understanding with each repetition. And after a soul-floating stretch of hearing Unto us a child is born tossed back and forth between sopranos and basses and altos and tenors it dawned on me that there is a great deal to learn about how we absorb words and what parenting is about by listening to Messiah.

I heard the words Unto us a child is born at least once a year since I was a child. I've read them in the Bible, and I know the back story. And yet listening to them sung in a glorious concert hall by an excellent choir, they worm their way into my heart in a new way. They come at me from different angles, and in their persistence and echoes and variations of voice, I start to absorb them all over again. I begin to grasp them for what they are.

Think about it: when you became a parent, the words you put on the birth announcement (Susan Smith, 7 pounds, 9 ounces) came nowhere near to the world-changing fact that Susan Smith had arrived and changed your life forever. If you pull yourself back in time and re-live the first time you held your baby, you'll know Handel had it right: Unto us a child is born needs to echo and resound in different pitches for a very long time. The older your child is, the greater the song in your heart -- if you pause and reflect and let it emerge.

And here is where I think Handel's interweaving of words and song can help us as parents: If you could reduce all that your child means to you to three Playbill-size pages of lyrics, and you were to put those to music, you wouldn't sing each word once.

  • How many different ways would you voice "I love you"?
  • How often would you repeat "You make this world a bigger and better place"?
  • How would you weave "You are breathtakingly precious to me" throughout your piece?

We human beings don't learn by hearing something once. We don't absorb things fully by being exposed to knowledge in just one way. Whatever themes we want our children to grasp -- whether it's our views on human relationships or simply how much we love them -- we need to weave those into the very fabric of our (and their) lives. We do this by composing our lives so they contain the melody of the big things we believe in.

Here's hoping your composition becomes a masterwork.

Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Dealing with labels on children

Someone wrote to me yesterday, a mom who was feeling sad because she'd had her son go through  psych-ed testing and she'd learned some difficult things. In a sense she was grieving that he'd be labeled, and wondering what that would mean.

Here is what I've learned about labels:

1. Labels are heavy when they stick to your heart.  The hardest part of labels is that we mistakenly see them as an indicator of brokenness in our children. In reality what they do is put a name on an obstacle -- and we can either surmount or adapt to most obstacles.

2. Labels grow lighter when you look at them as tools. If giving my kid a diagnosis will get him the services or accommodations or medication he needs, label away! A label gives me keywords to search on, a starting point for finding out ways to help my child, and a means to build a support network for myself. A label that gets my child an IEP or 504 gives me negotiating power with schools.

3. Labels don't change who your child is or doom your child's future. What you do with the information a label gives you, and how you adapt to it makes the biggest difference of all. And unless it really is your fault that your child faces challenges, you don't need to feel ashamed or guilty.

4. Labels sometimes change. Kids grow, frontal lobes develop, and we get better at figuring out ways to help our children learn and adapt and behave.The label you have today may not apply five years from now. Keep focused on the next best step you can take, and keep moving.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Awesome Cookie Project

Seven years ago I was looking for something to do around Christmas to introduce Snuggler to the idea of helping others. I wanted it to be something that was genuinely helpful, and concrete enough that she would remember it. I hit on the idea of baking cookies for those in need, though I wasn’t quite sure how we could bake enough to make a dent in the needs of our local food pantry. And thus the idea for the Cookie Project was born.

The Cookie Project asks people to bake holiday cookies (preferably sturdy ones, without nuts because of allergies), and package them four to a ziplock bag. We set up a drop-off point at our local real estate agent for a weekend. The following Monday we bring the collected cookies down to the food pantry. end result: each bag of food distributed during the week before Christmas has a baggie of home-baked cookies in it.

This is a super-easy project to coordinate, and it’s a win-win. Parents spend time with their kids doing something special, with an opportunity to help others. It's not expensive, and no one has to do anything heroic. The food pantry staff are always uplifted by this project, knowing that there are other people out there who care.

All you need to do this next year is find a way to let people know about the project (an email list, school group, church, whatever) and set up a drop-off point. Get clearance with your local soup kitchen, senior drop-in center, halfway house, or nursing home ahead of time, and find out how many cookies they need. Here's our haul for this year:

I don't know exactly how many cookies we received, but somewhere between 30 and 40 families participated. Most people contributed 2-3 dozen cookies, which means we'll come close to our goal of putting something special into 300 bags of food. 

Here's to community!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Look who's here!

Eldest arrived home -- first semester of college completed! -- on Thursday night. Big Guy was able to come home for a day visit today. We walked through the park (at least until we hit a 100' stretch of ice on the path, at which point we slid) to go see Little Guy and Snuggler perform in Jack and the Beanstalk. It was a fun show with good acting, and it was nice to have most of us under the same roof.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Adapting to new things

I took Snuggler and Little Guy to a zoo class yesterday. I met a homeschooling mom there whose son started public high school this year. He's attending one of the good, target schools. I asked her how it was going. She suddenly looked unhappy and uncomfortable. Apparently she's not wild about giving up homeschooling him, and he's very stressed from the workload and lack of free time.

I reassured her that stress is normal the first year of high school, even for kids who have been in school their whole lives. A big part of freshman year anywhere, for anyone, is getting acclimated to a new environment. I told her about telling Eldest (who was homeschooled through 8th grade) that there were two different sets of stuff she'd be learning in 9th grade: academics, and how-to-get-along-in-this-new-place... and that the latter part was likely to be harder.

This mom seemed unconvinced. She said, "I feel I'm a failure either way: if he decides to stay at high school I'm a failure because he didn't want to homeschool, and if he comes back home I'm a failure because he wasn't able to handle it." I mentally gaped at that, wondering how to respond. I said something vague about supporting her son in the choice he had made, and then nattered on about how learning to adapt to new situations is a major life skill, and how we all get stressed by change, and how it takes at least six months of anything new before you can even assess whether or not you like it. I pointed out that we get better at things, especially logistics, with time.

The woman still looked unconvinced. So I added, "Remember how you felt when you had your first baby? You couldn't even take a shower those first months! But eventually you figured it out. New situations, especially ones where we have to reorganize our days, are hard. But we do get better at them."

A bit of light finally dawned.

And it dawned on me that this is the value to us, as parents, of the hard situations we've been through in the past. We need to hold on to our memories of stressful situations. They can help us be better parents, help us empathize with our kids, and help us remember that how we feel at the moment is how we feel at the moment. New stuff is tough. Things change. We change. Life can get better.

Do you remember how unfamiliar your body was when you reached puberty? How conscious you were of whether or not you fit in at school? How brutal it was when the guy you thought was kind of cute told someone (who told everyone else) that he thought you looked like a dog? And how much you would have loved to hear someone say, "Oh, I remember feeling that way -- and it's hard. It's yucky and you feel dumb and you want to crawl under a rock. But even though it's hard and miserable, it's normal. Almost everyone goes through feelings like that. And eventually the feeling will pass. It will pass."

Learning to deal with stress, with disappointment, with uncomfy feelings is just as important as learning academic subjects. For it's possible to be brilliant and unable to handle life, and it's possible to be a plain 'ole Joe and handle stress well. The world doesn't give us an either/or choice between academics and coping skills. We (and our kids) have to learn both.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


I've been getting up early this week because Eldest is in the midst of final exams, and I promised to pray for her. I suppose that might hint of asking to win a football game or battle -- whose side is God on? -- but I've simply asked that she have a clear head and a calm heart. No magic answers, no miraculous influx of knowledge. Just the ability to use what she knows.

I'm not fond of the view of God as a magician, who waves His magic wand and makes problems go away. Nor do I care for the image of God as Santa, someone grants every deep-seated wish if you're good. And don't get me started on God as Superman, the hero who will swoop in to avert danger and bosh the bad guys.

If God is really God, He can do anything a magician or Santa or Superman can do, and then some. To limit Him to being an ace-in-the-hole supernatural lackey whose job is to make my world comfy seems a bit ridiculous: someone who created 400,000 different kinds of beetles and 170 billion galaxies almost certainly has a far more sophisticated understanding of what's really needed in any given situation than I do. That doesn't mean I am insignificant, or that my needs don't matter. It means that my personal view of what's important/tragic/needed won't consistently map up correctly with the bigger picture. 'No' is always a legitimate answer, even if I don't see why, and even if I don't like it.

So I don't think the main point of prayer is to persuade God to come over to my point of view. If there's persuading to be done, it's quite likely I'm the one needs to shift positions. Prayer is about articulating, as best I can, a yearning of the heart, and directing and offering it to someone who can either do something about it or who can change my perspective. There's only one way to start that process: with communication. Which is why I pray.

P.S. Eldest texted to say she's done! She's coming home tomorrow.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Sour Santa

Someone gave us comp tickets to see a new kids' show today, so I took Snuggler and Little Guy. I'd read the reviews, and they were good. But I came out of the show feeling out of sorts and rather depressed: the underlying premise of the plot was that the only thing that brings magic and imagination into the world is Santa. I hadn't expected anything related to faith, but there was no hint -- none -- that Christmas is about, say, giving. Or family. Or being kind.

I guess I'd assumed that a story involving Santa would contain some sort of caring-for-other-human-beings theme. This one didn't. The gist of the plot was that Santa got fed up with snotty, ungrateful kids, and so he quit. Vanished. Disappeared. People tried to find a replacement, but that didn't work. The witch who ran the local coffee shop lost most of her magic, because people's imaginations deteriorated. The mad scientist couldn't think up new inventions, because his creativity diminished. The little girl who sets out to find Santa eventually discovers him in the Australian outback, where he denies that he's the real thing. He's still bitter.

But of course the little girl succeeds in convincing Santa to return, and he apologizes for being so selfish, and all is well in the world again. People can write and invent and cast spells again. All is well again, because Santa is the key to all happiness.

So I ask you, What is wrong with this picture?

I guess we can start with the idea that the key to happiness lies in the hands of someone else. Someone who could get pissed off and walk out on you.

Then: if you are unhappy, the way to happiness is to hunt down the magic person who makes all things well. Becoming happier has nothing to do with using your brains or imagination or figuring out what's wrong with your life and doing something to improve it. It has nothing to do with uncovering what is right and true and good, and trying to align your life with that. It has nothing to do with finding what you can do to bring joy into the world.

If this is Santa and Merry Christmas, bring on Happy Holidays. Oy.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A big carrot

I've had an eye on Little Guy's reading for a while now. I know he has the ability, but he doesn't pick up books for fun. In our home, that's weird. Everyone here reads. I mean, we have 13 floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled 2-books-deep. And we still don't have enough space for books.

It's possible that Little Guy is a late bloomer. But I've also been watching to see if there's a bit of dyslexia or some kind of eye convergence issue going on. Then again, it could be insecurity, or lack of confidence, or anxiety. 

So yesterday I gave Little Guy a challenge. I handed him a Magic Tree House book, one of the longer, more advanced Merlin Missions, and told him that if he read the entire thing in one day, I'd pay him the outrageous reward of a dollar a chapter. It was okay if he chose to stop reading part way through, but then he'd get only half that amount for each chapter he'd read. (Kids being kids, I've learned that if you want follow-through it's better to make the reward contingent upon completion. Little Guy would be very happy with five dollars, especially if his eyes were tired and he felt like stopping.)

I don't normally do this kind of thing. Snuggler, in fact, was scandalized. But what I wanted to find out was whether Little Guy's reading reluctance was organic or motivational in nature. And the best
way I know to figure that out is with a big carrot. Put a jaw-dropping reward out there, and if a kid who really, really wants the reward still can't do what it takes to get it, you can be pretty sure that he truly can't do it.

Magic Tree House #43: Leprechaun in Late Winter (A Stepping Stone Book(TM))So Little Guy read yesterday. And read. And read. I learned some things, and he learned some things. He figured out that if he couldn't read a word the first or second time, he could sometimes figure it out himself on the third time. I learned that he is a slower reader than I thought. His silent reading goes at about the same pace as his reading aloud. We both learned that his eyes skip words, and sometimes skip lines, and it's hard for him to keep track of where he is.

At about 4pm, when it was time to start getting ready to go to his dress rehearsal for Jack and the Beanstalk, he'd read seven of eleven chapters, at a pace of about 30-40 minutes per chapter. He'd been diligent and focused, and I knew that if he'd been unable to finish it wasn't for lack of trying. So I told him that I would extend the offer through this morning, because he wasn't going to be home in the evening.

He got up this morning, and finished the book. All 114 pages of it. He is feeling very good about himself, and more confident in his reading ability. I am very proud of him for his perseverance. And this evening, after we drop off Dancer to see the Nutcracker she danced in last year, we will go to a Pilones store (where they sell very silly things), and he can splurge on something he'd otherwise never buy.

I'm still not certain what kind of issue we're facing -- I'll have to revisit Mel Levine's The Myth of Laziness -- but I'm pretty sure now that reading is harder for Little Guy than I thought. If we can do something to make it easier for him to read, great. And if all we can do is teach him that if he sticks with it he can do it, that's worth $11 to me.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Christmas gifts for kids, the less expensive way

I am cheap. Not by nature, I hope. I'd like to have a generous heart, even if my wallet doesn't allow for largesse. In some ways I think being on a tight budget facilitates thoughtfulness, because it exercises parts of your brain that have nothing to do with convenience or excess.

Anyone who has had to downsize on any significant scale has learned that you either have to think outside the box or hyperventilate within it. You can nip here and tuck there, tighten your belt and let down your hem, eat rice and beans and then eat beans and rice, but eventually there's nothing obvious left to cut back. Then you have to have some sort of paradigm shift. And one of the shifts that can be made is to start thinking in terms of what it means to give a gift.

My philosophy is that the ideal present shouldn't (in and of itself) cost much, but should be something the recipient would never buy for himself. Consider the following under-$15 gifts:

  • For preschoolers: A couple of sheets of REAL stamps from the U.S. Post office (the two-cent variety work fine for pretend mail);
  • For a young boy: A personal supply of tape (regular, masking, electrical or duct), or his very own flashlight;
  • For most kids under age 10: two or three bottles of bubble bath, different scents;
  • For a child who desperately loved the gourmet jar of ________ that someone gave you: a jar of his own;
  • For a teenage girl: her very own box of Godiva chocolates. 
It doesn't have to be a game or a toy to be a splendid gift. A hole punch, pack of index cards, kiddie scissors and a box of brass brads makes a lovely activity set. We went through several years when my girls were thrilled to get their own packages of Post-It Notes (they weren't allowed to use mine), and I think we still have some carbon-copy order forms that were used to play 'diner'.

Think through all the everyday things you've said no to for your kids because it's not in your regular budget. That cute $1.59 box of animal crackers may be expensive as a snack, but as a gift -- wow! How much better does it get?

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

One tough guy

You may recall that my 77-year old father recently spent a week here, plastering and painting my bathrooms. It's the kind of thing he likes to do, and the way he shows he cares: fixing things for others.

My dad is of a stoic generation, a guy who grew up chipping mortar off of used bricks so his parents could build a house, who climbed a ladder to get to his no-stairs-yet bedroom, whose family went camping in northern Canada for fun.

I have piles and piles of stories of his near-brushes with death and major injury. He has been knocked off a sailboat (solo) into the middle of a lake as a storm was rising, tumbled down various rivers and ravines while hiking, broken his back twice, scraped the skin off the top of his balding head without noticing more times than I can recall.

When I was in college Dad came to visit, and upon being served authentic Szechuan food for the first time and being told to avoid eating the hot peppers promptly downed a few and said, with astonishing calm, "Those were a little hot." The guy is either indestructible or has some seriously powerful guardian angels.

Yesterday I got an email from him with the subject heading, "I lost the battle". Hmmm. The contents relate how, during his early-morning multi-mile walk with a friend, he was crossing the street at the designated pathway, when a stopped car suddenly revved forward to move into traffic on the adjacent street. Next thing he knew he was coming to, 20 feet down the road. His buddy was also hit.

His narration continued, "We got out of the road, ambulance and cops came, I phoned Joan (sirens screaming in the background for good effect) to tell her I wouldn't make that trip in half an hour to pick out a granite counter top. "

He got in the ambulance and went to get checked out by the doctors. His email continues,"So Joan came up a hour later to find me back from a CAT scan and x-ray, no detectible serious injuries. We then went to look at granite. "

Yep, that's my dad.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Nutcracker, St. Nicholas, Advent

Nutcracker was lovely: witty, whimsical, well-danced. Dancer, at 12, is moving into the ranks of the big kids. She had three parts this year, and suddenly we can see the trajectory into the upper echelon clearly: girls a year or two older are flowers and marzipan.

Of course, I forgot to take pictures backstage. I always forget to take pictures. Instead, I offer these:

Last week's chemistry lesson...

Led to a demonstration of carbonization, as Little Guy insisted on an indoor marshmallow roast.

Today's sweets, however, are in honor of St. Nicholas. 

Call me a heretic, but we don't do Santa at Christmas. It's not that I dislike the fat guy, just that I never felt he was mandatory. There's already plenty of magic about Christmas. And there's already way too much get-it-get-it-get-it frenzy. We opted out of Santa early on.

I guess we don't do Christmas in the modern American way at all. We're a hundred years behind the times, and do Advent first. The idea of Advent is to set aside a time to prepare the heart for Christmas. We use December to think about how we can be better people, how we can help others, how we can grow in faith.  We do not always do this very consistently or well. But we do try.

For us, the Christmas season pretty much starts on the 23rd. (It used to be the 24th, but one year we went to buy a tree on Christmas Eve and the street vendors had packed up and gone back to Vermont. That was the year Andrew went uptown to find a tree, solo, and while he was hauling it onto the subway the conductor said over the loud speaker system, "Hey buddy! I hope that tree paid a fare!")

For us, Christmas starts on, well, Christmas. It extends out the traditional twelve days, and ends on the Epiphany, or feast of the three wise men.

Today we'll read stories (and the facts) about St. Nick, and I'll enjoy the treats my kids left in my shoes: a homemade Ugli doll by Little Guy ("I turned the sock inside out, Mom, so it didn't say, 'Children's Place size 3-4'") and a short book of poetry written by Snuggler, which included such profound haiku as these:

Add the area
It's so hard, I'm frustrated
But Mommy will help

Ow, my stomach hurts!
"Hey Mom!" She comes running fast
Gas-X forever!

Friday, December 3, 2010


Dancer came home from her first performance tonight smiling -- and delighted to be home so early. Dress rehearsals have caused many late nights this week. Tomorrow she has three shows, and then two on Sunday.

Secretly I'm in awe of this child. She is focused and organized and works hard. She keeps track of her rehearsal schedule, and gets herself to ballet class, bag fully packed. She showers without being asked, sets aside her delicate-wash leotards and tights in the laundry closet, figures out what the weather is, and remembers her umbrella. She does her own bun (except for performances), and applies her own stage makeup. She comes home tired, and gets herself to bed at a reasonable hour. And then she gets up early, to go back.

I'm not going to say how many of these things *I* could do, never mind how many I could do when I was twelve!

We go to see tomorrow's evening performance. I can't wait.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The sources of over-the-top feelings

Many years ago a friend commented to me, "Anger is of the present. Rage is of the past."

I'm still pondering that, because I don't think it's entirely true. Many over-strong reactions (rage, paralyzing fear, and despair included) do occur when an experience echoes feelings from another time. If we've been exposed to an irritant repeatedly -- an allergen, say, or a spouse's annoying habit -- we react to the current problem and to history, too. If you've just overreacted to your child's antics by screaming and inadvertently calling him your pesky little brother's name, this is the club for you.

But there are other times when the past isn't the problem. Sometimes too-strong feelings arise because we shape-shift our emotions, not realizing that we're equating a temporary state (how I feel right now) with a personal and permanent characteristic (what kind of person I am). This is what happens to Big Guy when he makes the mental shift from "I feel horrible about that" to "I'm a horrible person". He gets stuck.

And there are times when anxiety cranks up the emotional bass or pierces our heads with a shrill treble, inducing a fight-or-flight frenzy that precludes any rational view of proper proportion. Like what happened to Little Guy, yesterday. Anxiety = strong feelings = total irrationality.

All of which is by way of saying that when someone freaks out around you (or you're looking back on your own freak-out moment), it's sometimes useful to know which of these three mind-messers has taken hold. Because then you have some clue where to begin working on the problem. Maybe.


Last night I was thinking maybe I'd over-reacted to the incident with Little Guy yesterday. And then Snuggler went to bed. And got up. And went to bed. And got up. "I'm feeling really insecure, Mommy!" she whimpered, "I'm scared!"

So I held her for a while, and we talked, and I sent her back to bed. And then she was up again. She finally fell asleep in a huddle on a quilt next to my bed. Scared.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Climbing out of a parenting FAIL

We had a homeschool co-op field trip today. I was signed up to chaperone, but since there were many other moms going it didn't seem necessary, and when a friend asked if we could have a cup of coffee and talk about a problem she was facing, I said yes.

Dropped the kids off, had coffee, did a bit of Christmas shopping, went back to the museum. Paused outside the younger kids' group, and a mom waved me in. Little Guy was having problems with frustration.

Uh-oh. Things had been running so smoothly with outside classes that I'd completely forgotten to prep Little Guy for this one. Our usual conversation goes something like this:

Me: What's the price of admission?
Little Guy: Co-operation.
Me: What will you do if you get frustrated?
Little Guy: Some deep breathing.
Me: What else?
Little Guy: Get someone to help me.
Me: Or...?
Little Guy: Take a break.
Me: And what if you make a mistake?
Little Guy: I try to fix it.
Me: Or...?
Little Guy: I figure out a way to deal with it.

Note to self: do not forget to have this conversation for the three thousandth time.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Little Guy quote of the day

"I'm going buy myself some time... and I'm going to sell my sister so I can afford it!"

Monday, November 29, 2010

Tech week with kids

The first time one of my kids was in a production, which was eons ago, the schedule called for something named Tech Week. Naive as I was, I didn't realize that meant "move in to the theater for the duration".

This is Dancer's Tech Week for Nutcracker. Her last performance coincides with the first Tech Week rehearsal for Jack in the Beanstalk, in which both Snuggler and Little Guy are featured. Here is what I have learned over the years about Tech Week:

  • Figure out the special stuff ahead of time. If you'll need hair supplies or specific shoes, don't wait: the store you're sure has what you need is bound to be sold out. Hair is another issue: the first year Dancer was in the party scene for Nut we had to try several methods of getting those sausage curls in her hair before we hit on one that worked.   
  • Good food and snacks are essential. For whatever reason, rehearsals always overlap at least one meal time. Be prepared to feed'em before they go, and again when they get home. Make-ahead meals simplify life -- and tech week is all about making things manageable. Portable snacks include hummus and carrots, apples and cheddar, slices of quesadillas, and lots of fruit. Nothing gooey like chocolate, which will get on costumes. No sticky juice; send water.
  • Remind kids that grown-ups get stressed, too. Have a talk about how the director is likely to be extra-irritable this week, but only because he/she wants the show to be great. Tell them their job is to listen for the corrections and let the rest slide off. Unless they're not paying attention, or not following directions, the yelling is probably not their fault.
  • Send/bring backstage entertainment. There's a lot of down time during rehearsals and performances. Forget electronic toys; the 'something to do' should be things several kids can participate in, like stained glass coloring books (bring colored pencils), simple art projects (no markers -- they stain), Klutz books, chinese jump rope,  and Mad Libs. Homework's a possibility, too.
  • If you're working backstage, your main job is to stay calm. Whatever else you're supposed to do, your real role is to keep the kids focused on doing a great job. Other adults will be annoying and will fail to do what they're supposed to, and you just have to calmly and graciously pick up the pieces and make it work. Don't explode, don't gripe, don't snark. Save that for a time when kids aren't around (or better yet, let it go entirely).
  • Expect meltdowns the first couple of days after the show is over. The kids will be tired, and the let-down after all that excitement is, well, big. 
It goes without saying that the main goal during Tech Week is to survive, preferably intact. Getting a modicum of sleep is essential, even if it means starting school late. Don't expect the week to be normal life plus; daily rehearsals and multiple performances make for a decidedly non-normal week.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A happy weekend, and complicated parenting

Eldest had a 7pm exam Tuesday night (!), caught a 10pm bus, and arrived home at 2am. I think she is genuinely thankful to be here, where everything is known and nothing is new except the paint in the bathrooms and kitchen. It is hard to underestimate how big a shift it is to go away to college: it's a new place and new people and a new level of independence, new responsibility and new problems to solve on your own. There's a degree of stress in all that newness which subtly erodes the fun and excitement of being away. Eldest has done a masterful job of handling it. I'm really in awe of how well she's doing.

Big Guy arrived for day visits from his residential facility on Thanksgiving and yesterday and today. He, too, has had a big dose of newness this fall, although it's been unalloyed by the kinds of positives that Eldest has had. There are new people in his life (many of whom are not happy additions), new structure (at least some of which has been helpful), and a new need for emotional self-sufficiency. It is an unpleasant situation for him, and he is desperately homesick. He has been working hard, holding up better than we expected. I am proud of him.

The family dynamic of having everyone home is both wonderful and complicated. It is good -- very good -- to feel that things are normal again. And yet normal is a mixed bag. It includes happiness and silliness and bickering; it encompasses thoughtfulness and annoying table manners; it extends to balancing seven people's needs, and being mindful of who is feeling left out or annoyed or needs time alone. It's wonderful, without necessarily being relaxing.

When the kids were younger, people would look at my lineup of little ones and stammer, "How do you do it?" I shrugged and smiled and said, "You do what you have to do" or "You get better at it as you go". There's something about being outnumbered by your offspring that drives home the grim truth that you're not in control. Once you've got that reality nailed into your brain, you can deal better with life as it comes. Which, I think, makes you a better parent.

At best, "being in control" as a parent means you swerve back onto the road enough times that you end up heading in the right direction. You re-orient yourself when life drives you off-course, and then re-orient again when you make mistakes, and yet again when you suddenly realize you were asleep at the wheel. The key thing is to know which direction you're headed.

Being in control isn't about being the master of our destinies; it is about wrestling control away from our reactions and teaching ourselves to respond.

Maybe I think this way because I'm notoriously easily overwhelmed. If I think about how I'm going to tackle the whole of my life (or even the better part of a day) I tend to hyperventilate. I find that it's better to know my priorities, quit drafting my master plan, and get working on the next thing that needs to be done. Because that much I can do. Usually.

Friday, November 26, 2010

What stands in the way of thankfulness

I love Thanksgiving: the food, and the family, and the relaxed, long weekend. But I've reached the conclusion that bounty isn't the way to spur me into thinking about what I have to be thankful for. I spend five hours on food prep, two minutes on thanks, an hour on eating, and several hours digesting. The proportions are all wrong.

The set-up is complicated by the fact that I am not a naturally thankful person. Thankfulness is one of those things I have to grind away at, like keeping the house neat and being patient. I need far more than a day a year to hammer it into my heart, so I tend to discount the official holiday as a kind of amateur event.

But I do want to be thankful, which means I have to cultivate the habit. So I've been thinking about the things that interfere with being thankful. Here's my short list:

1.  Lack of perspective. The most popular post ever on this blog was about the yardstick problem. It's an issue I remind myself of almost daily, because I have an astonishing ability to assume that the spectrum of wealth lies mostly above (rather than below) me. I daresay this is why I live in a city: if I didn't see the poor, the homeless, and the struggling, I know I would only marginally remember that they really exist. How can I even see what I have to be thankful for, if I don't see the full spectrum of the human condition?

2. Inattentiveness. Too often I choose to pay attention to the inconveniences and frustrations of the day, instead of to the good things. This is a matter of choice, and there are things I can do about it. At night I mentally review my day to recall all the things for which I can be thankful. That becomes easier when I remember to take the next step, which is to consciously take note of good things as they happen. Because I do the faith stuff, I try to remember to send up little 'thank-yous' many times a day.

3. Preoccupation. Being preoccupied is the best way to nourish inattentiveness. The more I focus on my worries or busy-ness or minor woes, the less I'm open to noticing all the good stuff going on in my life.

4. Brazen arrogance. This is the "I deserve it" assumption. I hope I don't have much of it, but occasionally it rears its ugly head. Maybe I deserve a break today, but I'm not sure what I've done that makes me more deserving than a dirt-poor, 12-hour a day sweatshop worker in a pollution-ridden city in China.

Knowing the obstacles is a first step toward becoming more thankful. The rest is a matter of plain old hard work, the day-by-day stuff of which lives are made... and made better.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In which our family will be reunited, for a day

It looks like Big Guy will be able to visit for a few hours on Thanksgiving. A social worker brought him over for a short visit today, and we have the green light. Snuggler and Little Guy were wildly excited to see their brother, whom they've only seen one since he left for his residential placement in September. The visit was shorter than anticipated and it was very, very hard for the kids to say goodbye. There are times I wish I had a rheostat for Snuggler's emotions and could turn down the flow; she feels things so intensely.

Eldest is one day away from being done with her whirlwind week. Her classes this term seem to clump exams within days of each other (as in today and tomorrow), she had a friend visiting for the weekend, a concert to sing in, two extra (fun) classes to teach, her job, and a list of homework that was so long it seemed to preclude sleep and eating and even the ability to construct a coherent sentence. But she's getting on a bus tomorrow night (after her 7pm exam) to come home for the holiday!

And so on Thursday all seven of us will be together for the first time since the end of August. It's been a long, feeling-the-loss-of-others time. It's been a time of adjustments, both emotional and logistical, a time of growing up and digging deep. I'm incredibly proud of my kids for how well they've done: Eldest, adapting to her first term at college; Big Guy, in finding his footing in his new environment; the younger kids, in re-shaping their lives with the older two away.

I'm looking forward to this weekend as much as the rest of my family. Yet reality often isn't as perfect as we imagine it will be. So I'm reserving energy to deal with the fallout of my kids' massive expectations, and for helping those who will remain at home cope with the pain of saying goodbye -- again -- after a temporary period of 'normalcy'.

Wishing you a happy Thanksgiving, and a long, long list of things for which to give thanks.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Fighting entropy

My dad has been visiting for the past week, fixing up our bathrooms and kitchen. And we now have sparkling-clean walls, plastered and painted, and the civilizing addition of towel racks in the bathroom! It is pretty amazing to be able to hang up a towel. I like it.

My dad is a fix-it-yourself kind of guy. Back in the day, I fixed things myself, too. But then little hands got into the wet spackle, or someone drew on the freshly painted radiator, or the carpet in the girls' room got covered in black glitter while I was busy trying to put up the coat hooks. I gave up, figuring that some day, when the kids were older, we'd get the apartment back in shape.

But thing fall apart faster once you stop trying to stay on top of household entropy. It's as if that doorknob knows it can jam, and the water pipe intuits that now is the time to rust through if it wants to maximize despair. The caulking in the tub sloughs off in an ecstatic frenzy, just daring you to ignore it. You fall in the habit of Repress the Mess, and frantically focusing on what still looks okay.

And then when someone comes in and patches your cracking plaster walls, a miracle occurs. You see fresh minty-green paint over neatly repaired walls, and there's hope. And you suddenly see that the cabinets need scrubbing and the stove could be cleaner, too -- and you find the energy to clean them.

In the book I just finished, one mom wrote a piece about how she got to the end of a busy new-mom day and realized with despair that everything she'd done would have to be done again the next day.
I've been thinking about that: if I could choose one thing in life to do and have it stay done, what would it be? 

I don't mind the laundry, or cooking, or even picking up (though I could do a better job at that), because those things fall into a routine, and routines have rhythm. On the other end of the spectrum I don't mind major crises, because then I put on my bunker mentality and focus on staggering through. It's the things that fall apart randomly, inconveniently, sporadically that get to me. Because they're neither here nor there, neither routine nor extreme, and there's no room anywhere in the schedule or budget to deal with them.

So thanks, Dad. It's definitely been a pleasure to have you here!

Friday, November 19, 2010


Procrastination starts with "I don't want to."

The question is why don't I want to? And my answer to myself is usually "I don't feel like it" or "I don't like doing that".

But the question remains: why? Why don't I feel like it? Why don't I like doing it? Sometimes it's because the task is tedious, sometimes it's because I don't have the energy required. But most of the time procrastination is about fear. We're afraid because:
  • we're facing something new, or
  • we're not quite sure how to do something, or 
  • we're fearful that we won't do it well, or 
  • we will somehow expose our incompetence, or 
  • we believe others will think less of us when it becomes clear that we're not as wonderful as we think they think we are.
For me, recognizing that I'm afraid of something is a major turning point. I think, Oh -- okay, that's fear. I can work through that! Once I know its shape and size, I can chip away at it or walk around it or ignore it or do something to start making progress. 

I've toodled around life for enough years now to know that doing something's almost always better than doing nothing, and that in a sink-or-swim situation, a shaky doggie paddle, no matter how poorly executed, is likely to do more for me than sinking on the spot.

My kids don't have that much experience with life. And for some inexplicable reason, they're not all that eager to learn from my hard-learned lessons. So I think a lot about how to help them build the deep-down knowledge that they can accept their fears instead of being paralyzed by them.

And that's where things get tricky. How do you balance the need to let a kid fall enough so that he has to dig deep (and discover he's stronger than he thinks he is) with the need to provide the emotional scaffolding that prevents him from really hurting himself? Where does the fine line lie between encouraging a child to push past obstacles, and forcing her to bump into problems that can also shake her confidence?

Eh -- I don't know for sure. Some days I don't know at all. But I take comfort from the fact that no one consistently gets the support/independence mix right. The way it works for me is that if I gauge everything correctly and remember to shoot up a little prayer before opening my mouth and my kids are unusually attentive and I'm nowhere near having PMS, then occasionally things don't go splat.

I can live with that.

The rest of the time I doggie paddle forward (or at least in circles), and try again. Because I'm not going to get any better at this parenting stuff if I stay, stuck, where I am.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Staying sane

When Little Guy went to kindergarten, he came home each night with a homework sheet that taught one word. Once it was the, once it was has, and one day it was I. The format for the worksheet was that there were blanks into which you were supposed to fill in the requisite word.

Since this was boring as all get-out, I didn't always require Little Guy to finish the homework right when he got home from school. In fact, one day I forgot until it was nearly bedtime, and then it was clear that Little Guy was too cranky to make it worthwhile to attempt to do the work. So I agreed that this time, this ONE time, he could do it in the morning.

No big deal. It was the paper with I. He wrote the word in all the blanks, and was cruising right along until he got to the part where he had to use the word in a sentence. Then he couldn't make up his mind what to write. (He still can't make up his mind about what to write. Ever.) As the clock ticked, and it came closer and closer to departure time, I urged him to write something, anything. "This wouldn't be so difficult if you didn't procrastinate!" I blustered.

And so Little Guy handed in his homework with this masterful kindergarten sentence: "I procrastinate."

His teacher laughed heartily. I did, too. And every so often, on a day like today (when a single side of a phonics sheet took more than an hour to do), I drag out the memory of "I procrastinate" to make myself chuckle. Because the funny things of prior times can still make me smile, even on the not-so-funny days. And it takes a little bit longer to go crazy if you're smiling.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What my kids do with their free time

We use Singapore Math for school. So do our stuffed animals. Here the fourth grade class is doing a 3-D lesson on graphing. They are working hard, and making progress. Their teachers, Snuggler and Little Guy, are proud of them.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Comparing our kids

Little Guy had phase one of his end-of-season soccer tournament today, and his team played four 20-minute games. It was an interesting experience watching so many teams play. Here's what I observed:

  • Every team had at least one weepy kid, or a child who thought his job was to poke with his shoe at the last shreds of grass on the field;
  • Every team had two or three avid players, kids who were hungry to play the game;
  • All the rest of the kids, the vast majority, were playing the game in an adequate and non-notable way -- and their parents, to a person, were all mildly embarrassed that the kids weren't trying harder.
I spent a while talking with one mom who lamented that her son didn't really 'get in there', and seemed to lack confidence. I told her that I hadn't noticed it, probably because I was more aware of Little Guy's tentativeness.

Then I told this mom about the time one of my children was in a performance and spent half the time with a finger up a nostril. Mortified, I sent increasingly frantic telepathic messages to my offspring, until I couldn't stand it any more and forced myself to look at another child.

I looked at a pretty little girl in a yellow dress. Who, as it turned out, kept flicking the hem of the pretty dress so her flowered underwear showed. And then I paid attention to a little brown-haired boy who was grasping his crotch in time to the beat. And then there was a bouncy chica who whipped her head from one side to another so that her braids smacked the kid next to her in the face. And a child who was so scared she stared in shock at the audience.

All these wonderful children were up on stage, and yet the only thing I'd been aware of up to that point was my child's finger up my child's nose.

Which just goes to show that often when we feel as if there's a spotlight shining on our children's embarrassing behavior, we're the ones shining it. And the norm isn't the best kids, it's the goofy ones. And learning to watch someone else's child is really a good thing. And the more we remember to laugh and shrug our shoulders, the better off we'll all be.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Just when you thought you knew what you were doing...

One of the truths of life: whenever you think you're getting the hang of parenting, your kids will prove you wrong.

Last night I was up late, washing still more dishes (we did a ton of cooking and baking yesterday), when Andrew called at 11:30, having forgotten that there's a 2-hour time difference between where he is on his business trip and where we are at home. After I hung up and finished cleaning up I read for a few minutes, and was just about to turn out the light when I heard the sound of bare feet coming out of the girls' room. I waited, figuring Snuggler would wander in, but she didn't. Then I heard the sound of the lock turning on the front door.

Yikes! I was out of bed and to the front door in a snap. There was Snuggler, in her pj's, starting to head out into the hallway. "Sweetie, you need to come back inside," I said, gently.

"No, I have to... you don't understand," she muttered.

"It's okay, honey. Let's go back to bed," I replied, putting my arm around her shoulder to guide her back into the apartment. She looked confused, and muttered a bit more, and then turned around and walked back into her room by herself.

Stunned, I wondered what to do. I'd never seen someone sleepwalking before, but this was clearly the real thing. I wondered if an odd interchange I'd had the night before with Snuggler had been due to sleepwalking, too. I pulled out our handy-dandy family medical guide. It said there's no inherent danger in sleepwalking, though people do tend to have accidents from tripping on things, and they should be prevented from leaving the house.

So sometime around midnight I put a pile of stuff in front of the front door, stuff that would make noise if it was moved. And I went to bed and went to sleep.

There were no more incidents. But it still feels weird.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Happy birthday, Dancer!

She's my sociable one, my athlete, my middle child surrounded by love. She smiled -- a real smile -- when she was ten days old, and spent the early years of her life enchanting the elderly ladies of the neighborhood.

For Halloween she has dressed as a unicorn, Emily Dickinson, and a giant apple pie.  She likes Star Trek, and reads voraciously. She dances through life, determined and graceful and organized and beautiful. 

There were overnight rolls for breakfast, and leotards and cooking supplies among her birthday presents today. But the best gift was discovering Eldest sleeping on the sofa. Dancer's beloved big sister came all the way from college late last night, just to be here for half a day.

Thank you for a dozen years of making our lives joyful, Dancer. We love you.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

When behavior is communication

Yesterday was one of Those Days, the kind that are forgettable because, well, who wants to remember them?

I awoke overwhelmingly irritated about something from the night before, offered my day to God (because I do that kind of thing, even when, as it turns out, I might as well have offered up my nail clippings), prayed for patience, snarled my way to the kitchen in a state of high hormonal bad humor, and realized that the day was going to be a challenge. My younger children are pros at assuming that when Mom's in a bad mood, it's because she doesn't like them. So I decided to forewarn them that my grumpiness was not their fault.

No one wanted to eat what I made for breakfast. It took the kids three years to get dressed. We started our schoolwork, and Little Guy was totally and uncharacteristically uncooperative. How is it that kids instinctually know the worst possible day to act up? Why couldn't Little Guy stay on track for half a subtraction problem? Where did he get this sudden delusion that he had the right to decide what he would and wouldn't do?

After a couple of hours of frustration and increasingly bad behavior from Little Guy, the lightbulb went on in my brain. And man did I feel stupod... er, stupid.

"Are you worried about something?" I asked my six year old.

"No, I'm anxious," he replied.

"Do you know what you're anxious about?"


I took a guess. "Are you anxious about what Mommy said about being in a bad mood?" (Though my mood had long since passed, bumped out by the more urgent need to manage Little Guy's outrageous behavior.)

"I think so."

"Do you remember that I told you this morning that if I was cranky it wasn't because of you?"

"Yes," he said, and then blurted, "But I don't know why you're upset!"

Oy. Oy-oy-oy-oy. I'd tried to sidestep having him worry that he was to blame for my irritability, and walked him straight into the anxiety of wondering what (besides him) could possibly cause Mom to be upset!

There's a saying that behavior is communication. Around here it's definitely true. If I were perfect, I'd always remember to look for the underlying cause of bad behavior instead of assuming it's just willfulness. But I'm not perfect, and the world isn't perfect, and some days we just have to sigh and toss our failures into the Bad Day pile and be done with it.

I snuggled Little Guy for a while, and read aloud to him. It didn't make a whole lot of difference -- his anxiety was too high by then to dissipate easily -- but it helped me wrap my brain around what I needed to do differently for the rest of the day. "Tomorrow will be better," I told my son.

And here we are at tomorrow, and lo and behold, it is a better day.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Stumbling into despair... and out of it

The alarm rang an hour earlier than it needed to yesterday morning. I made coffee and sat in the living room, alone, listening to the wind swish and the radiator hiss.Time like this is my 'sifting' time, when my brain begins to process all those things it hasn't had time to get around to.

On the dining room table lies a pile of mail that includes an announcement about a 'discharge planning meeting' at Big Guy's school. That's special-ed code for 'high school application process'. So I sat in the quiet and sipped coffee, mentally circling my profound reluctance to deal with high school for Big Guy, poking at it to see what sort of animal it is.

Big Guy is what we call a 2E kid: twice exceptional. He's extremely bright, and has extremely challenging problems. Ability combines with disability, and the combination doesn't fit in any of the usual boxes. His anxiety disorder is severe enough that he cannot attend a regular school, much less a school for gifted kids. And yet most schools for kids with emotional disabilities are geared toward those who underperform academically. So there's that: the choices are few.

Another problem is that many schools designed for kids with emotional disabilities are now packed with conduct disorder kids. Not a good mix for a kid who swims in anxiety. That makes the choices fewer.

But these aren't the reasons I was balking at beginning a high school search. The reason -- as it so often is -- is fear. I figured this out when I pulled up the web site of a school someone mentioned might be a good fit for Big Guy, and suddenly began to cry. It looked lovely, and like a place he would love. And yet for a variety of legitimate reasons I do not think they will accept my child.

I'm afraid that someone who might be able to save my child will turn him down.

I'm afraid that I will hunt and hunt for a solution, and there won't be a good one.

I am a person of hope, who sometimes stumbles on despair. For a minute I let myself fall, let my fears surge and wash over me. Being in the midst of them is the only way I know to truly see them, recognize them for what they are, and gauge their strength.

The wind swished soothingly outside the window, and my coffee was still warm. I held on to those not-insignificant comforts, sent up a little prayer, and decided it was time to move on. I can feel the fear, but start making phone calls, anyway.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Balancing the short and long term

Many years ago I worked as a director of marketing for a very large life insurance firm. At some point during my tenure the company went from being a mutual to a public company. That didn't change how life insurance policies were sold, but it did change the way the company was run. Because suddenly all that mattered was quarterly earnings.

Focusing on short-term profitability isn't bad, unless it distracts management from its longer-term vision. Unfortunately, soon after my company went public it became clear that short and long term plans were an either/or rather than a both/and proposition. I remember talking to my boss after about the third wave of major layoffs, in which truly essential people were let go because the goal was budget instead of efficiency. My boss asked what I thought of the cutbacks. I paused for a moment, then said drily, "Cutting off your leg is one way to lose weight."

I believe in thinking ahead, in factoring long-term considerations into your short-term plans. Or, as I frequently say to my kids, "Think through it before you do it."

Thinking things through is hard to do when you're a child, and you still need Mom to act as your frontal lobe from time to time. You're likely to make that cute little cardboard box into a bed for your mini-stuffed animal without considering that the 150 brass fasteners it used to contain now have no home. Or you forget that if you make all the tissues into dollies, there won't be any left when you start sneezing. Then Mom steps in and asks wearily, "What did you forget when you started doing that?" or (on a bad day) "What we you thinking?"

I feel I have a kind of moral obligation, especially since I have five children, to increase the population of future adults who have some modicum of foresight. So I strive to get my kids thinking for themselves as quickly as possible. Instead of asking, "Do you have your water bottle?" I ask, "Have  you forgotten anything?" As an alternative to "Put you literature notebook in your bag," I try to ask, "What else do you need for co-op?" I want my kids to develop their own mental checklists. It's slow going.

I also want my kids to think several steps ahead, to how others will feel or react to what they say or do, and to what might happen after that... and after that. It's hard to teach this, because kids usually catapult the cat out of the bag long before I can intervene to prompt thoughtfulness. So a lot of the thoughtfulness work is retroactive, and involves encouraging kids to make apologies even when they don't want to and eliciting ideas on what they could have done differently. That's not as effective as nipping the problem in the bud, but it's what I can do.

It occurs to me that this kind of thinking-ahead training lies almost exclusively in the realm of parenting. Isn't that an odd thing? That critical thinking, thorough thinking, the application of simple human thoughtfulness to every decision you make isn't considered education? Makes it all the more important to think ahead to what I need to teach my kids.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Should Calgon really take me away?

We had dinner at my wonderful friend Mary Ellen's house last Friday, along with our medieval arts teachers. Great food, good conversation.

At one point the discussion turned to the social repercussions of earbud-itis, a disease which plagues many teens of today. Mary Ellen commented that we are raising a generation of individuals, who isolate themselves in their interests instead of interacting with others. The teachers lamented the decline they've seen in kids' ability to resolve problems with one another. I observed that that's not surprising when parents "fix" sibling conflicts over which TV show to watch by buying each child a television. The discussion raised a question that lingers in my mind:

Why do we as a society put "make the problem go away" higher in our list of priorities than "build conflict-resolution skills in our children"?

Why do we heed the "I can't take this!" earworm that pops into our brains during so many of the rough spots of parenting?

Why are we so afraid of conflict? Why do we let our fears overwhelm the obviously better choice to invest in our children and teach them healthy coping skills?

Why do we as a society give up on problems so easily?

I'm not sure I have any answers here. But I'm interested in what makes us wimpy. I can see why a medieval serf would want Calgon to take him or her away. I can see why someone in the midst of a war zone would wish the same. But why do we?

Thoughts? You're welcome to speak up.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Who wants to be a strong woman?

I have some to-be-respected forebears, most notably the formidable Hannah Dustin. She makes me look like mashed peas in the fortitude department. When life gets tough, it's useful having someone on the family tree with double the usual dose of frontier chutzpah. Kinda makes you ashamed to wimp out.

Last spring I read Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. Tough book, but full of hope. It's about women who have undergone -- and overcome -- hideous things: sexual slavery, acid in the face, utter ostracization because of a fistula. Having their stories as part of your mental repertoire of what people can survive is life-changing.

When you're familiar with strength like that, you start to realize that balancing what you want for your career with what you want for your child with what you want for yourself is barely a start. Being stoic when your kids are being impossible, or your spouse lets you down, or you make some humiliating mistake -- those are baby steps. Strength is about digging deep to get through whatever gets thrown at you, and maintaining your integrity in the process. Being a strong woman isn't at all glamorous; no one wants to have to be that strong.

But sometimes we do have to be that strong. Which argues for paying attention to how we spend our time and what we invest our energies in, so that if and when life gets rough, we'll already have a clear idea of what we value and which way we want to turn. There's a saying that character is revealed, not formed, in crisis. Here's hoping you have no great revelations any time soon... and that if you do, you find that you are quietly pleased to discover you are much stronger than you ever suspected.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Shakespeare and Spock, on Halloween

Hamlet, at age six (with Yorick)

Lady MacBeth, at age nine. Thoroughly mad, but too young to want to say 'damn' spot, so it was just 'Out, spot!"

Captain Spock, at age eleven.

Hamlet with his friends Scooby-Doo and a Star Wars denizen, before the start of the Halloween parade. Hamlet's friends didn't know who he was, so he introduced himself to everyone as "I'm Hamlet, prince of Denmark." Only one adult responded, "Something's rotten over there, prince!"

Parenting based on vision, not fear

I poked about on parenting web sites yesterday doing a bit of market research. I was surprised by how little most of the articles resonated with me. So many were based on the question, "Is it wrong to...?" or "Should I allow my child to...?"

I thought These are the wrong questions.  They are questions based on fear, not vision.

They are based on the fear that we'll somehow do parenting wrong (face it: we will). They are based on the fear that our kids won't fit in (hopefully, in some ways, they won't: not everything about pop culture is good). They are based on our insecurity as moms and dads.

How about focusing on what kind of people we want our kids to be, instead?

Here's what I want for my kids:

  • I want them to be caring, thoughtful people, who take the time to notice the needs of others -- and do something to help.
  • I want them to be engaged in the problems of the world, and to be able to think clearly about how to resolve conflicts.
  • I want them to be people of honor and self-respect, whose word is trusted and discretion unquestioned.
  • I want them to have real passions, and interests that will make their world bigger than they can ever imagine.
  • I want them to have strong coping skills, so they can rebound from setbacks and persevere when things get tough.
  • I want them to take responsibility and accept accountability, even when it's awkward and painful to do so.
  • I want them to be able to argue at a level that goes beyond "He's stupid" and "They're evil."
  • I want them to make decisions based on the right thing to do instead of what they want to do.
That's my vision. It informs everything from how much screen time my kids have to what kinds of activities they participate in. Do we allow texting at the table? No, because that's neither caring nor thoughtful of the people you are with. Do we give each child a computer, to minimize conflict over screen time? No, because that doesn't teach kids to share and work out problems.

The thing about parenting that's based on vision is that the kinds of questions you ask yourself become things like Would doing this bring us closer to the kind of family we want to be? and Would allowing that make my daughter a better person? We're looking forward to our real goals. We've got a heckuva lot better chance of reaching our goals if we factor them into our parental decision-making than if we don't.