Sunday, November 26, 2006

I'll never eat penguin again

We arrived an hour early but still the line snaked out of the theater, past the ticket booth and down the hall.

"Why do we do this to ourselves?" I ask myself as I haul all 28 pounds of Ittybit up back up to midlevel, shifting her weight from one foot to another. "Oh, yeah a free movie we can leave as soon as she gets tired of sitting still."

I'm not proud of this fact, but one of the perks of working for a newspaper is the possibility of free entertainment. Oh sure, there's usually a small price. I've had to sit through countless musical productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and Carousel, and spent hours trying to come up with reviews that were fair, honest and somewhat glowing when all I really wanted to do was muse maniacally about the possibilities of a Christ's Carousel. On the other hand, I've also seen dozens of stellar performances I'd never in a million years be able to afford on my own.

Of course, movies are a bit different. You may save some dough on the price of admission with the preview screening freebies but the popcorn and treats will still do some damage to the kid's college fund. I am reminded of this little fact as we s-l-o-w-l-y make our way past the concessions counter and Ittybit's eyes stay silently locked on the popcorn maker, willing it, I image, to pop on over to her side of the aisle and say 'hello.'

As we slowly inch toward the ticket taker, I nervously bite my lower lip, hoping we’ll get through and find three seats together. Ittybit has been talking about penguins since I showed her the movie pass for "Happy Feet" three days ago.
The line slows down to a crawl, and I mention that we might have to make other plans. Their may be no movie for us today.

She ignores me. Not even three yet, she has already pegged me as the alien being who obviously has no idea what life on Earth is all about. "Daddy will fix it."
When he hands over our tickets to the kid with the theater vest, I’m stunned there’s still room. "Over there; Theater 2," the kid directs with a flourish of his ticket-stuffed fist.

We climb up the near-vertical steps of the theater and find three seats in the last section in the middle. Ittybit settles into the seat between us and starts bouncing up and down.

"When is the MOOOOVIE starting?" she asks with the implied tone of the "Are We There Yet" game.

"Not for another hour," I grumble, getting out my trusty glue stick and ripping up that morning's junk mail so she can make a collage. It's a trick I've used successfully since she turned two, and it was working until three kids squeezed past us to their seats carrying monster tubs of popcorn.

"POPTORN? POPTORN!" she yells at highest threshold of indoor voice she can manage, remembering her mechanical friend from the lobby, and starts the dreaded chant: "I want poptorn, too. Pop torn, pop torn, pop torn, pop torn. … PEASE!!!!"

So I go off to get some non-buttery corn goodness as she sits and continues the art project with her dad. When I return 40 minutes later and $7 lighter, I barely get a chance to sit down when the plea comes for water. Ten minutes later and another $4 lighter, I'm back just in time to sit and watch the lights go down.

As the sound comes up, I realize that it's so loud I can’t hear the rhythmic munching to my left. Soon, however, I'm thinking partial hearing loss might be a worthy price for such splendid scenery: Icy blue water, amazing landscapes, and, of course, cute and fuzzy penguins.

Now I know as a parent I should be a little bit more vigilant about what my daughter watches. I noticed the movie was rated 'PG' and that the tickets mentioned that some language may be offensive, but I was willing to risk a little offensive language for cute and fuzzy penguins. After all, I'm one of THOSE types who feel that there are worse things in life than naughty words.

What I didn't realize, and was completely ill prepared for, was how completely horrifying it would be to watch an animated leopard seal attack the cute and fuzzy penguins. Circle of life or not, I had no idea something as lovable as a seal could transform into such a hideous looking creature.

Once the danger had passed and all was right in the movie again, Ittibit stood up and announced "I'm done here."

And with that we gathered our coats and bags, and washtub-sized container of popcorn and made our way down the stairs in the dark.

"Never fails," I grouse. "I'll have to wait for the video."

Until then I'll be picturing the hideous seal eating hapless penguins and dancing around in Joseph's Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Do they have preschool night courses for mommies?

If you ever want to feel the true weight of your dreadful parenting skills pressing down upon you, spend the day at a pre-school. I promise you will learn a lot about your shortcomings.

Every so often I am called upon to attend lessons with my daughter and her classmates at the Marilla Cuthbert Academy for Unspeakably Charming Children (or MCA-UCC for those of you who insist upon academic abbreviations — you know, for the bumper stickers).

As a cooperative pre-school, the MCA-UCC relies on parents to take turns in all tasks relating to upkeep, maintenance and the supplying of wholesome snacks. Helping children struggle into painting smocks and elaborate costumes to fulfill their wildest dreams during their child's "Special Day" is just a bonus.

The MCA-UCC is a place where all the children stand in line, take turns and play with wild restraint. When they forget and play with abandon, the teacher sings a reminder that children are to use their "walking feet," or turn on their "listening ears," or sit on their bottoms.

It becomes clear how reinforcement and expectation becomes part of any behavioral outcome. No one ever says "No." Instead they say: "We don't throw toys." "We don't eat paste." "We use indoor voices."

Such wonderment must be experienced first hand.

As a parent whose experience with tantrums has resulted in chocolate for dinner, no hair washing for days and more television than the FCC censors have ever seen, I can tell you teachers of small children are genetically different from the rest of the human race.

Whereas, I have one tiny gladiator to wrestle into a coat, she has 10.

Kids who develop hearing impairments at home as soon as you remind them to wash their hands after using the potty, or wipe their feet at the door are happily obliging the kindly headmistress. Eventually, everyone at school starts using their listening ears and their indoor voices. The accounting alone is enough to make you nominate her to a high-ranking
position in the United Nations.

I've been through the Special Day drill twice so far this year, and each time I feel as if I need remedial intervention.

When one kid in my charge dips his hand into the paint and drags it across his paper, she zips over with a paper towel, apparently observing with the eyes in the back of her head, and reminds us "We use brushes," in the same jovial tone.

Oops. My mistake.

"I'm just going to hang this over here," she sings as she relocates artwork I've hung right above the walkway. "Otherwise you're going to get painted. And we wouldn't want that."

Uh. Sorry.

"We use one puzzle at a time," she reminds as I sit with pieces from at least six puzzles strewn between three puzzlers.

Oh. ... I didn't even think.

I sit in awe as the three children I've just spend an unsuccessful 20 minutes trying to costume in elaborate dancewear, disappear into the main playroom. Not one -- not even my own Ittybit -- heeds my beseeching to come back and reverse the process. I panic. Snack time is fast approaching and if it takes 20 minutes to untangle them from the plumage there will be trouble.

"Um… Miss Cuthbert?" I stammer apologetically. "I can't get the kids to take off their costumes."

With a knowing look, she conjures the magic words: "Oh, girls, when I ring that bell you’re going to want to be ready for snack. And that means you'll have all the play clothes put away."

And wouldn’t you know, before you can say "abracadabra" all three are back in the dressing room, tugging off their costumes and handing me their shoes. Proof, I have to believe, that teachers have supernatural powers.

Hopefully some will rub off on me.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Fighting the system for mine and yours

Phleff, phleff, phleff. Eeeeeeeeeerrrrr. Scrabble scrabble. Click. Click.

The sound you didn't hear, dear readers, was me dusting off my soapbox, dragging it across the floor and climbing up. I don't do this that often, so please bear with me as I stand here precariously in unfamiliar territory.

A few weeks ago I met a neighbor while I was out and about on weekend errands, and during our conversation I learned that she'd made the "agonizing" decision to take her son out of public school.

Although in her soul of souls it pained her to know her son was attending what she saw as a "factory" for churning out children who will sit still, line up in single file and ask permission before they go to the bathroom, the straw that broke the camel's back was when her already literate kindergartener came home from school and reported he pretended he didn't know the alphabet, because that's what the teacher expected.

Like many parents, she said she and her husband had wanted to stick it out with public education. They believed in its importance. And, like many parents with a certain amount of disposable income, they ultimately decided that they couldn't let their child's education suffer because they didn't want to fight a losing battle with the establishment.

I don't want to slam her decision. I don't want to look down my nose as the uninitiated mother of a preschooler — who will undoubtedly face the same choice one day soon — and click my tongue in disappointment.

And yet, I can't help but wish she'd stuck it out. We are not talking about an inner city school district struggling to keep drugs and guns from seeping in through the security hurdles; we are talking about a suburban school in a moderately well-heeled community.

"Wait for me," I thought. "We'll fight them together. Maybe we'll even find others."
I think that by moving our kids to the "better" schools, often outside of the community, we are choosing isolation, some might say segregation, based on individual values, ideals and the ability to pay for them.

And why shouldn't we choose the best we can afford? We live in a society in which we are not only free to make such choices, we are encouraged to do so. Why shouldn't we take advantage of every opportunity life and budget allow? Why not advocate for our kids in the most expedient way? Don't our children deserve the best WE can offer?

But I still can't help feeling as if we are losing a sense of responsibility to one another and our communities, and this weighs on me, too.

I think about a different situation. What if we were talking about a school in a relatively wealthy district, where only the poorest of the poor attended because the affluent had other options? Or what if we were talking about a school in which education came second to security?

It wouldn't even be a question for most parents. Their child's safety is just more important than any ideology. But what about the children left behind? Does that mean they're less important?

I don't know the answers, but I know that we need to think long and hard about the question.

I just hope I am strong enough, when the time comes, to stick it out for Ittybit's sake. To make sure that the public school she attends will be a better place for everyone because we did our best to make it that. Or at least that our participation, for her, no matter how many stupid rules she's expected to follow, will have the most lasting effect.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Paging Dr. Google ... paging Dr. Google ...

What did our moms do without the Internet?

I've been wondering about this a lot lately as I have taken to parenting via Google.

Ideally and historically, women have turned to their own mothers for sage advice about the trickiest troubles of childrearing. Sociologists would tell us that we learn how to be parents by a lifetime of being parented. If we’re lucky enough to still have our parents when it's our turn for midnight feedings and early-years wrangling, we count on them to be a fount of wisdom.

Of course that hope goes right out the window the second you take that first drive with your mom (or mother-in-law) and the baby cries herself blue in the face.

"I'll just take her out and sit her on my lap," she'll offer.

"Oh, don't do that. Car seat laws, you know," you'll reply in horror.

"When my kids were little we didn't have those," she'll retort with a long sigh.

It would also seem that the laws of man don't hold the same weight with some mothers hailing from the 60s era, who would rather have a cooing child in their laps than the distraction of non-stop screaming for a half-hour ride. After all, they burned their bras, got male-only jobs, shut down government and helped end a war, damn it.

"How can this be safer than my strong and loving arms," she'll ask in earnest.

"It just is. Believe me," you'll say with the full conviction of possessing overriding vote.

Between the time when I was a child and now everything about childrearing has changed.

Car seats have gone from tubes of metal slung from a backseat, with little more than a tiny lap belt for restraint and a steering wheel for distraction, to space-age capsules with astronaut-quality harnesses. Walkers have lost their wheels; crib slats have become more tightly spaced and hard-soled shoes have gone the way of the dinosaur.

Modern moms have hundred's more experts willing to sell us their books than merely Dr. Spock.

It almost seems as if mothering has moved as far away from instinct as one can imagine.

In addition to a shifting understanding of safety, parenting styles have shifted right along with changes in social mores, and the fallout can even set modern mothers on a head-on collision course. Studies upon conflicting studies are pitting us against each other.

Circumcision, breast feeding, room-in or nursery, kangaroo-carry or cry-it-out, stay-at-home or working mothers; every potential decision is a landmine waiting to explode. It really shouldn't be surprising since we've all come to accept our children as the most important aspects of our lives. How could we NOT do what's best for them every second of every minute of every day?

While my own mother has eagerly soaked up all the changes of 21st-century mothering; often telling me about the trends before they happen, I know I'm in the minority.

I've got friends who's moms are mortified that their two-year-old grandchildren are still nursing or aren't potty trained. As soon as the bygone mom opens her mouth, eyes roll and fingers open and close in puppet mimicry.

All this study, it seems, is also causing us at times to mistrust our instincts, even though that's really we make most of our decisions on parenting: We go with our gut and when what we try fails, we try something else.

But even though my own mother is a font of medical wisdom, whenever I have a question about what to do about the behavior or some other situation, I still find myself asking Dr. Google's advice.

Within nanoseconds Dr. Google comes through with 18,000 or so answers, and I do what comes natural. After I've trolled all my on-line mom's groups and decided a course of action, I pick up the phone.

"Hello, Mom?"