Thursday, June 30, 2011

Helping kids make (good) choices

I took Snuggler and a friend to Target today to pick up some thingsfor sleepaway camp. They're leaving on Sunday for two weeks. Watching the giddiness of two tweens sniff-testing deodorants, it struck me that one's reaction to choice is a function of two things: age, and how much thought goes into the choice.

If you are young and live in hand-me-downs, selecting socks can be a giddy experience. If you are a mother of a certain age who has to decide every day what to cook for supper on a tight budget, decision-making has limited appeal.

One of my favorite reads last year was Sheena Iyengar's The Art of Choosing, a fascinating look at the research that's been done on how people make choices. It's on my (short) worth-buying list. In light of my Target trip today, I was thinking that one thing parents need to consider is how many choices we offer our kids. We also need to ponder whether or not the choices we give our kids teach them how to make wise decisions -- or simply train them to indulge their preferences.

Case in point: letting a child choose which pair of cool socks she wants to buy is very different from giving a her a limited budget and letting her decide how many pairs of cool socks she can afford to buy if she only wants to do laundry once a week. That's because we build decision-making muscle only when we encounter choices that involve tradeoffs.

If you have a well-padded budget (and know your child will always lead a comfortable lifestyle), I suppose it's possible to let your child inhabit the realm of 'which do I like better?' choices. Realistically, it makes more sense to make sure he or she has ample exposure to other kinds of choices, too. For example:

  • good vs. not-as-good choices (which teach us to evaluate which is the better choice)
  • conditionally good vs. conditionally good choices (which help us weigh which is more important: style vs. cost, or quantity vs. quality)
  • what-I-want vs. what's-the-right-thing-to-do choices (because those are vitally important)
  • not-so-good vs. not-so-good choices (because unfortunately at times we only get to decide on the least-worst option)
Honestly, none of us want to give our kids stinky choices to choose between. We'd like life to be pleasant and painless. But what happens if we 'protect' our children from those kinds of situations and choices? We leave them without any resources or experience to draw on when life gives them tough stuff. Better that we help them build strength now, while we're around to guide and help, than to make life comfy today and leave our kids floundering tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


I made a mess today, and I have to say that it felt good. Yesterday I bought an exercise bike (used), which arrived this morning. I think it must've grown overnight, because it appears substantially larger in our living room than it did in the bedroom of the people from whom we bought it.

In order to make room for the bike I displaced a hundred oversize children's books (atlases, science encyclopedias, The Roman News, a compendium of Rube Goldberg Inventions and the like), and a file cabinet. It will take a while to find new homes, either here or elsewhere, for those things. So the sofas and the floor are now scattered with piles that I have created.

I know I'm going to regret the mess. But there's a certain satisfaction in being the prime mover instead of the prime remover. For a time.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ten Things I Know About Parenting

Over the years there have been a few nuggets of wisdom that have pounded their way into my head. Not many, but some. Here are ten I'd like to share:
  1. Parenting is as much about becoming a better person as it is about raising children.
  2. Making your child happy today is not the same as providing her with the tools to be happy as an adult.
  3. If it’s not likely to require a trip to the ER, won’t harm others, doesn’t generate a tabloid headline, and won’t take more than 10 minutes to clean up, say yes.
  4. A lot depends on how Mom reacts.
  5. It’s better to teach your child how to recover from mistakes than to hope he never makes any.
  6. Setting proper expectations – of the day, of entitlements, of life -- saves a ton of time and grief.
  7. The less you say, the more calmly you’ll say it.
  8. When a parenting approach isn’t working, doing more of it more intensely won’t help.   
  9. If your life depended on being patient for five more minutes, you could do it.
  10. Never assume your child knows your values unless you live them out thoroughly.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

RIP, good friends

A friend who knew the plane-crash family took me to the memorial service. This is the prayer the rabbi said at the end:

    God full of mercy who dwells on high
    Grant perfect rest on the wings of Your Divine Presence
    In the lofty heights of the holy and pure
    who shine as the brightness of the heavens
    to the soul of [Name].

    who has gone to his eternal rest
    as all his family and friends
    pray for the elevation of his soul.
    His resting place shall be in the Garden of Eden.
    Therefore, the Master of mercy will care for him
    under the protection of His wings for all time
    And bind his soul in the bond of everlasting life.
    God is his inheritance and he will rest in peace
    and let us say Amen.  

I am unable to sit shiva with the family, both because it's in another state and because I will not be here this weekend. I leave on Saturday to deliver Dancer to her month-long summer program with American Ballet Theatre.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Telling stories

Last night I arrived home from a meeting at about 9:15. As I sat on the sofa to chat with Andrew, Eldest snuggled up next to me. The talk somehow turned to the wacky things my now-independent, almost-grown one did as a toddler and preschooler. How she lined up her animal figurines in a parade, and inexplicably called it a potty party. And how she insisted, at age three, that her bedtime stories should all be about various numbers visiting each other.

Hearing the laughter, Dancer drifted in and sat down. Snuggler galomphed over on her therapy ball, and Little Guy slid onto his dad's lap. For most of an hour Andrew and I regaled the kids with tales of the silly things they'd done when they were little. It was way past bedtime, and we were happy. Very happy.

When someone relates a good memory that involves you, you know you have a place in the world, and a place in that person's heart. You have added something to the lives of others.You belong.

Monday, June 20, 2011

What do you tell a child about grief?

When I was in tenth grade Danny B, a boy on whom I'd vaguely had a crush in seventh grade, was killed in a car crash. He'd lived near me and we took the same school bus. In high school he hung with a fast and older crowd. They'd been drinking and smoking pot and drag racing the night of the crash.

I went to the wake. I didn't know most of the people there; they weren't my friends. I noted that Danny's very pretty older sister looked puffy-faced from crying, and wondered what it was like to be that sad. I thought I should feel sad, too, but I mostly felt bewildered. Danny didn't exist any more, at least in my world. Not that he had been part of my life in any real sense for a couple of years, but still. I'd never again see him swagger across the school courtyard, cigarette in hand, and wonder Why did I think he was cute? It was weird.

I'm not sure I ever cried for Danny. I certainly thought I ought to have, and secretly wondered if there was something wrong with me. But I was at an age where friendships came and went. I remember more about the facts of Danny's death more than I recall of Danny himself.

*        *         *        *         *

I was awake much of the night last night thinking about the tragedy of Dancer's friend and her family. I spent many hours chatting in ballet studios with Lisa, the mom. Isabel, the daughter, was a friendly, sensible kid with a huge amount of energy. She loved trapeze even more than ballet, and had her birthday and Bat Mitzvah parties at a trapeze school. The invitations always came with permission slips.

Dancer had sleepovers at Isabel's, and Isabel was one of the few friends who managed to snag a sleepover here, during one of Big Guy's more stable periods. She needed a sleep mask at night and had forgotten hers, and her dad drove all the way up here to bring it to her at 10pm. I am not that kind of parent; I would have said, "Figure out a solution!" But I appreciated the generosity of the father, who did not begrudge his daughter his time, even if was spent as a delivery boy.

The story in the paper has some details wrong: Lisa hated to cook, and Isabel left ballet a year ago. But they were good people, and it is hard to grasp that they will not be part of our lives any more. Isn't it odd that permanence is a hard thing to grasp?

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Bad news

A friend of Dancer's was killed, along with her family, in a plane crash today.

I have never had to tell a child that a friend of hers has died.

This is very hard.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Little succcesses

My middle child is at the ballet tonight, by herself. She went down to the box office this afternoon after dance class and bought herself a student rush ticket. Then she came home, sewed yet another pair of pointe shoes (she has four pairs to go), ate supper, took a shower, put on a dress, and got on the train to go see Coppelia.

How about that?! I spend so much time trying to get kids to be responsible that I'm almost struck dumb by this stellar display of maturity. What does one say when a kid actually takes initiative? I have to think about it.

*          *         *         *          *

Big Guy had his 9th grade state-mandated math test on Thursday. He groused last weekend about how he was going to fail; he's one of those kids for whom the certainty of failing because he didn't try is better than the possibility of failing after putting in effort.

I emailed the social worker at school to say that if Big Guy could keep himself calm and put in good effort during the test, I would make him his favorite supper this weekend. I am happy to report that tonight we had a superb Spanish-style baked sausage dish, with fresh peach pie for dessert. Sometimes tossing on a little incentive tips the balance.

*          *         *         *          *

My husband removed five bags of books from the house today. Only seven stacks remain on the living room floor. Andrew remarked, perkily, "Now I can start weeding through some more!" Which I think means that more books from the shelves will end up in the to-be-removed piles. I am considering posting an expiration date on any additions to the floor: Remove by [DATE]. But perhaps a better strategy would be to stop typing and go give my spouse a kiss to say thank you for doing what needed to be done.

*          *         *         *          *

In Don't Shoot the Dog! (a wonderful book), Karen Pryor describes how they got Shamu to leap over that rope in the air. They started with the rope on the floor of the tank. Every time the whale swam over it, he got a reward. Eventually they raised the rope a bit, and then a bit more. Positive reinforcement is a key element in animal training. It often works for people, too. But so often when people we love do the right thing, we think Well, at last! instead of letting them know how pleased we are.

I rarely forget to show when I'm displeased. But life runs more smoothly when I remember to show when I'm pleased with what others do.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Andrew is having difficulty parting with books. Not that he's bid adieu to that many; thus far only six bags have actually left the house. The others are sitting in heaps on the living room floor. But he gets credit for clearing out the pile in one corner of our room. And the bookshelf that's falling apart now has nearly empty shelves. Andrew notes that progress is being made.

My husband is a fan of Francis of Assisi, who gave up all his wealth to serve Christ through the poor. Perhaps this is because Andrew struggles with the issue of detachment from worldly goods. It does not occur to him to throw out old Starbucks receipts, much less abandon magazines or books he might read a decade from now.

Me, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum: I can throw out anything. And so for us keeping stuff is a part of that group of things that require marital mindbending: Andrew hates hot weather, while I dread the cold; he prefers late nights, while I am a morning person; he likes fried wontons, and I gag at the grease. Much as Andrew and I are one, there is always an other-ness about him that defies my comprehension.

I think a solid appreciation of the other-ness of one's spouse is a prerequisite to a good marriage, much as an acceptance of the other-ness of God is necessary for faith.* We fall easily into the trap of assuming that people think (and therefore should act) like we do. And the closer we are to people, the more we think this. It helps to remember that when others don't act the way we expect it's not always because they're inconsiderate or thoughtless or stubborn or whatever pejorative comes to mind. It's often that they've committed the sin of not being us. Their minds work differently, and different isn't always what we want.

But being attached to Andrew in marriage means I am attached to all of him, not just the parts that reflect me or the side I understand or the things I like. Staying attached to him sometimes means letting go of precious things, like getting my way or proving I'm right. And thus the paradox: detachment -- the ability to let go and step back and see what is going on, objectively -- is a prerequisite for healthy attachment.
If I had three wishes, I'd use one to spend five minutes inside someone else's brain to see what it's like viewing the world from a different perspective. I probably wouldn't choose Andrew's mind, though; I might find out things that, in the interest of continuing our attachment, he's wisely kept to himself.

*It struck me recently that one major difference between the Psalms -- I was reading #17 -- and most of the impromptu prayers we hear these days is that the psalmist, while trusting wholly in God and loving him fully, wasn't under the impression that God was his pal. He understood that friendship with someone who can create a universe is categorically different than being buddies.

A Big Cookie test

I received a phone call from Big Guy's school yesterday: he was sleeping again. This has been a problem for months. He sleeps soundly for half the day, so much so that his grades have gone from straight A's to a mixture of C's and low B's and even a D. I have been after his residence to get him to the doctor (thyroid? anemia? apnea?) for a long time.They seem to be asleep at the wheel.

Last week Big Guy mentioned that the days he sleeps are the days he doesn't eat breakfast. Aha! you say -- as did we at first -- before we remembered that correlation doesn't tell us anything about causality. Is he tired from lack of food (three hours worth of can't-rouse-him-tired?) or simply too tired to eat? Dunno.

So while we're waiting for medical tests we will do a Big Cookie Test. I think every parent with a child who has issues (and most kids do, on one level or another) should know about Big Cookie Tests. They're a simple way to find out whether a child is capable of doing something or not. In Big Guy's case, what I want to know is this: can he stay awake at school if he really, really, really tries?

We've had situations where Big Guy's anxiety and fear are such a roadblock that he truly can't do what seem to be simple things. And before assigning consequences to a child because it appears he isn't trying or has a bad attitude, it's kind of important to know if it's possible for the child to do what you're asking. Sometimes it's not. You can dole out punishment to a child for being incredibly slow to finish homework, but if he's dyslexic those consequences won't make him read any faster.

So we will set up a big reward -- an unbelievably attractive "cookie" -- and put it out there to be obtained if Big Guy can go through an entire week of school without sleeping in class. The cookie has to be so incredibly desirable that if he is in any way capable of mustering the energy to earn it, he will. If he works hard at it but still cannot succeed, I will know that the sleeping problem is not a matter of attitude or willpower. If he tries his best and is only partly successful, I can conclude that something is going on that prevents him from succeeding consistently. And if he suddenly has no problem staying awake, our conundrum is solved.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A family update

Andrew: has good energy and is in good spirits as he explores new work opportunities. He has a new web site up, which you're welcome to visit!

Eldest: is slowly patching together summer work, getting together with friends, recovering from her intense first year of college. The re-entry into family life is, of course, a bit bumpy after all that independence. But we're all glad she's here.

Big Guy: is overjoyed to have his big sister/best friend home. He has been visiting on weekends. Still no word on a high school for him for the fall, but I'm trying not to panic. He's up and down, but the extremes aren't quite as extreme as they often are.

Dancer: is steadily employed as a mother's helper, so she can amass pocket money for her big summer adventure. She leaves in two weeks. She and my two youngest are enjoying watching the first three seasons of Design Squad on the web.

Snuggler: will be heading off to sleepaway church camp in July for a couple of weeks (assuming I get the paperwork together). Unbelievably, it's less expensive than a week of day camp in the city.

Little Guy: will be going to a week of construction day camp, learning to use a hammer and saw and build a house. Other than that and a week of VBS, we have no summer plans.

Me: working on various projects, including some pieces for a book that will be published by MOPS, Inc. next year. Contemplating what big project to start next. I need something to occupy my time over the summer, or I may have to do things like paint and plaster!

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Backstage at the ballet

Before the performance; Dancer is in the back row, 3rd from left
Dancer's performing this week. It's the end-of-year blitz, which is followed by a complicated schedule of open classes to fill the gap until summer programs begin, and then it's time for the big trip to another city for a month of six-days-a-week of ballet. 

We are still torn about which dance studio to have Dancer attend in the fall. There are advantages and disadvantages to both choices. One huge benefit is that the TPF (Toxic Parent Factor) is small at either location. I tend to like most of the moms, and this is unusual in the ballet world. If you've never been in the waiting room of a pre-professional ballet school, imagine Mama Rose (Gypsy) with a gracious smile and Manolo Blahniks, whose Macchiavellian streak is as strategically non-hidden as her casual relationship to the rich and famous.

It's not always that bad. But sometimes it is. Tell me your worst Toxic Parent story, and I'll tell you mine...

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Childrearing roulette

I was hammering away at a deadline one day last week when my two youngest rang the doorbell. They'd been playing in the schoolyard across the street with a friend. Or so I thought.

"Mom! Can you come see our casino?" Little Guy asked. A casino? I picked my jaw up and nodded dumbly.

Sure enough, there in the lobby of our building they'd set up a casino. They'd taken their wheeled cart and turned it on its side, putting numbers between the spokes for roulette. They had a dice area and places to play poker and blackjack. There were signs on the wall, and they were ready for business.

I delicately suggested that the tape on the signs might damage the paint, and offered to have them relocate inside our apartment. Which, mercifully, they did. Once there they pulled up Publisher on the computer, to make more professional-looking signs. Little Guy called out to me, "Can you believe clip art has a picture of a roulette wheel?" No, it never would have occurred to me to look. I've never played roulette. I've never played poker. I know about shooting craps from watching Guys & Dolls.

[A side note: I did once win $20 in a slot machine when I lived in Puerto Rico. Since I was just out of college and barely able to pay my rent, the windfall was exhilarating. My then-boyfriend and I took our winnings to the lounge to splurge on an otherwise unaffordable drink, and hid our stash of quarters under the card listing specialty cocktails. And then, of course, when the waitress brought our order the first thing she did was to move the card, exposing our poverty for what it was.]

My kids went down into our building's courtyard after the preschool playgroup cleared out. I observed them from the window, playing cards with two other children. Little Guy informs me that The Dangerous Book for Boys will teach you how to play poker; I guess it's considered a life skill. Be that as it may, my kids only had a deck of Go Fish cards, so no neighbors knocked on the door to complain.

I did ask Little Guy where they got the idea for this particular enterprise. He replied, "Daddy told us about how he had a casino play set when he was a boy."

Got it.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Finding light in the depths

On Saturday Eldest (home from college) and Big Guy (home on a weekend visit) talked Snuggler and Little Guy into playing a long and complicated game which went on for a couple of hours (Dancer was off at the ballet). There was much laughter, with an occasional spark of irritation.

Life is good when laughter abounds. It is especially good to see Big Guy cheerful and happy. There are times when life seems normal, and he seems normal. I wish I could say I have learned how to treasure those happy times instead of immediately feeling the ache of having the norm benot-normal, but I'm not 100% there yet. There is a deep howl of the should-ness of life that emerges when I hear Big Guy laugh; I am ever-mindful of what ought to be, but is not.

When I explore the hole my son's mental illness has eroded in my heart, it is like entering a dark, narrow cave and discovering it suddenly opens into an endless cavern. There is more emptiness there than it seems possible to hold. And yet I note -- while pushing aside my panic -- that the walls of a cavern are rock; there is support; there is solidity. It depends on whether you you look at what's holding it together, or what's been taken away.

It also depends on whether you have brought light with you. For me, that light comes from faith. It keeps me from groping about, panicked, in the echoing darkness, and allows me to glimpse the beauty that lies in the hollow depths.

Suffering can be a claustrophobic experience. It is dark, it is exhausting, it is clammy and cold. I desperately wish I could pull my son up from out of the depths, but I cannot. And so when I hear Big Guy laugh, I try very, very hard to focus on how his moment of joy is amplified as it echoes off the walls of my heart.  

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Confessions of a reluctant soccer mom

I haven't written much about spring soccer, probably because I repress the thought until 7am every Saturday. Truth is, the main reason I am glad my kids want to do play is so I can check off P.E. on my homeschooling reports. Fitness is good, and it helps with my kids' energy and mood levels. I can muster appreciation for the team mindset. But personally, organized sports aren't my thing.

You see, I am decidedly uncompetitive at everything except Scrabble. I feel no deep inner urge to stay in shape. I have no vested interest in watching kids run around for an hour, while adults I don't know chitchat about things I won't remember any longer than I remember names.

On top of that, neither Little Guy nor Snuggler are natural athletes. They do not take joy in hard physical work. They need a lot of encouragement; they require assistance in rebounding from disappointment. That means that (for me) soccer is closely associated with the grinding labor of yet another experience that will help my kids build coping skills.

Do I sign them up for the fall season? Yes, I do. And I relish every Saturday between now and then that's soccer-free.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Dancer and I were on the train yesterday, en route to buying a million dollars' worth of pointe shoes. Two women came on, one rather obviously pregnant, with three little girls. The women sat across the aisle from each other, in front of us, so it was impossible not to hear what they were saying. And it quickly became apparent that they were talking about a murder. The murder of someone they knew. Lydia (whoever Lydia was) might be unable to go to her graduation because they couldn't get into the house to get her clothes, since the police still had the apartment blocked off.

After a while, the older, non-pregnant woman called over to me, "I know you're listening! You know that killing over the weekend of the 22-year old? Well this little girl here is her daughter." The daughter, it turned out, was Lydia. She was slated to graduate from kindergarten.

The adults continued to talk, and Lydia periodically piped up to clarify details. "No, it was my grandpa who found the body!" she said at one point.

The non-pregnant woman said to the pregnant one, "She's too old for herself! That girl knows too much!"

The pregnant woman whispered, "You know what she asked me? She asked who's the daddy of the baby in my belly!"

"Did you tell her?" the other woman asked.

"Naw. He doesn't want me to tell her," replied the first.

"Well I'ma tell her! I'm that baby's grandma, and she just lost her mama, and she outta know she's got a sister to look forward to! Hey Lydia..."

Dancer and I sat there, trying to grasp the ungraspable. I've written before about how we don't know what others are going through, and while part of my brain flipped over and over thinking Someone shot her mama! That little girl doesn't have a mother! another part reminded me that if the women hadn't been talking loudly in front of us, there was nothing to make this little girl stand out from any other. And we wouldn't have known to pray for Lydia.