Sunday, April 26, 2009

New mantra: Challenges build character ... say it with me

Oh, the snub.

That terrible rite of passage that begins when your very bestest, bestest, bestest friend-ever pretends you don’t exist … in public.

You know what I mean, right? It’s when you see someone you know, you run over to say “HI!” and they pretend they didn’t hear.

Even when you say “HI!” again, this time on your tip-toes, two inches from their upturned proboscis, they act as if you were invisible, turn on a heel and walk away.

“Why wouldn’t she talk to me, mama?” Ittybit asks, as I look over and see a little girl looking in every other direction but ours. I could also see she had some big-girl friends with her.

“Oh, honey. She’s just busy. Don’t worry. We’ll see her another day.” I try not to make a big deal of it. Sooner or later, probably when she gets to school herself in a few more months, the shoe will be on the other foot and we’ll be here again, reminding her just how sharp this jab felt.

Growing pains.

It never ends. It just leads to more furtive interactions, and the beginning of the dance in which we pretend we aren’t hurt; a dance that has us eventually preemptively crossing a street so that we allow the potential for that person to have a running start.

There are so many times, as a parent, that you want to just plunge your hand into a kid’s back (often your own kid, though sometimes others) and wriggle it around until you get a nice, tight grip on the inside of their jaws so that when they speak it will be your words that come out of their mouths.

If it could only be that simple.

Ah, but no matter how much we’d like it to be, and despite having seemed that way for the first couple years of our experience, parenthood is nothing like puppeteering.

The ability to whisper to your parents, friends, not-to-mention perfect strangers at the grocery store: “Oh, it’s not you, he’s just t-e-e-t-h-i-n-g,” comes to an abrupt end right about the time his older sibling overhears you and drowns you out with … “No, Mom. It is him. He only seems to cry when he’s around. I don’t think he likes him very much.”


It’s also about this time when most pleasantries disappear.

Gone are the days – and there WERE days -- when you didn’t have to remind your tiny humans to say “Please,” or “Thank You” or “Excuse Me.”

And coming soon – if they haven’t already arrived -- are the days in which you get nothing but sullen looks and blank stares when you ask simple questions such as “How was your day?” “Will you please pick up your jacket?” “Please put your shoes on, it’s time for school.”

Not even a “Fine,” an “OK” or a “Sure.”

You get nothing … or worse ... you get the dreaded eye-roll.

There are times when I think schools cause this; schools with their cattle herding from class to class, leaving enough time in between the ABCs and 123s to allow alliances to be made and cliques to form over the lunch room tables and the playground games of tag.

The mama bear in me wants to insulate my cubs from any slight that hurts.

But the part of me that wins is the part that admits that without differences of opinion -- without fighting and brainstorming and storming off; without meeting anyone who was different, or trying or infuriating -- we’d miss a lot of potential.

We might also miss the potential of our own ability to rise above it.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

For parents, little chairs mean big responsibilities

Dear Ittybit,

You slipped into the shower with me this morning, wanting your first kindergarten experience to be clean of preschool dirt, no doubt.

You dug through your dresser looking for the shirt a friend had given you because you'd decided to wear it to the big interview: kindergarten registration day.

You were sure the bright yellow hand-me-down was a "Kind-y-garten" shirt, since it was bequeathed to you by a kindergartener. But when you pointed to a word and I read it as "Preschool," you put it back and selected an alternate."I want to wear jeans, mama," you said to my surprise. "Big girls wear jeans," you explained.

But you didn't have any jeans; I'd long ago stopped buying them since you prefer soft, stretchy pants. You settled for a pair of purple corduroys with riveted pockets that were wadded up in the back of a lower drawer, one of last children's apparel purchases I made without your approval.

We were just about ready.

Your father had left the paperwork up to me. I'd collected the information - immunization records, birth certificate, registration forms, proof of residence - the previous night.

We were all excited.

You were going to be great. We all knew it. As I checked off the boxes on the assessment, I was kind of stunned that I needed a check list to remind me what a great kid you really are:

Manage bathroom needs without assistance? Yes.
Can follow two step directions? Yes.
Can count to 10? Yes.
Recognizes own name in print? Yes.
Can write her name using uppercase and lower case letters? Yes.
Can stand/hop on one foot? Yes.
Can cut curves with scissors? Yes.
Classifies objects by shape, color, and size? Yes.

Then the questions get more difficult to answer.
In stead of yes and no answers, they offer graduated check boxes ranging from “almost always” through “almost never.”

Is she easily upset? Not usually, although there was that time last week when her brother threw her new toy in the commode. … That doesn’t really fit into the easy category, right? That seems like an appropriate response. Where’s my eraser?
Does she respond to basic requests? Sometimes … although it greatly depends on whether or not the television is on.
Does she grab, hit, kick or whine? No, No, No, and Yes, sometimes, but I blame Caillou for teaching her that.

Why was I worried? When we arrived in the office and met the principal's assistant you were charming and all “Hello and how-do-you-do. ... Will I meet my teacher today?"

When a woman came to get you and bring you to the place where you’d be asked to play some games so that a panel of clipboard-toting administrators could decide your future class placement, you never looked back. You are not so much brave, I thought, as you are confident.

As you were reciting numbers and letters (and getting gold stars for showing the nice ladies with the clipboards how you could cut with scissors and catch a ball) we were getting sent to remedial parenting school in our minds, and likely the minds of the school's administrators.

I'd missed half of the forms that needed to be turned in, and had to quickly scribble them out as your dad tried to cover by cracking jokes and asking questions.

We look on sheepishly as the mother behind us received praise for getting all the forms filled out properly. Our shoulders slumped forward just a little bit more.

When we are brought together again, the three of us, to meet the principal we became THOSE parents; the one's who are afraid you won't be seen for who you are; the ones who are afraid you will be molded into student who repeats information by rote. We have no idea what we don't know.

I admitted to the smiling woman behind the desk that we have no doubt that you are ready for school and that you will do well. We are not worried about your abilities at all. I tell her we are the ones who are scared. We are the one's who will have trouble fitting in.

She nods her head with something in her face that says she knows us better than we know ourselves.

With love, and promises to work on getting more gold stars,


Sunday, April 12, 2009

Is allowing toy guns the same as playing with fire?

When I was growing up kids (in my age-group anyway) didn't play with guns. It was a mindset that most of our parents held: guns were not toys; there was nothing of value to be gained from leveling the barrel of a plastic peashooter in any direction, even at an imaginary foe.

Had we hailed from a family of hunters, maybe we'd have a different take on the subject. But no, we, and nearly everyone we knew, were doggedly anti-gun.

My assumption has always been that the war in Vietnam — which had recently ended — was the main factor behind the boycott. Too many young men our parents had known just never came home, or they'd come home so affected by the horrors they'd seen or participated in that they weren't the same people they’d been when they left.

I was quite a bit older when I first saw a child playing with a toy gun. I must admit the sight shocked me.

But then again, I was a girl — a tomboy, perhaps, but a girl all the same. The boy stuff I was interested in wasn't playing cops and robbers or war games so much as going fishing or climbing trees or catching snakes. I was all about scaling walls and getting dirty. I have come to think of it as a testament to my lack of imagination. I wasn't interested in thinking and role play as much as I was fixated on getting things done. I wanted to be the Engine Who Could. I wanted to be as high as I could get. I wanted to face fear and stare it down.

Guns didn't frighten me; they weren't even on my radar.

It didn't occur to me until much later, though, that guns were all around as I grew up. They didn't much look like the genuine article of course: just a red button on a rectangular hunk of plastic, tethered by a chord to the television screen. The explosive blasts sounded more digital than mechanical, and the targets were little men from outer space.

Few could work up much opposition to something so fanciful.

Shooting aliens, after all, would be a desired skill in the unlikely event of an interstellar invasion.

Of course, my interest in such things never lasted long; again I credit my gender. Even with the advent of Charlie's Angels, I was more interested in the caliber of their coiffs than the caliber of their side arms.

But boys will be boys.

My husband's mom was not much different in her perspective than my parents. She was another mother who forbade games depicting mortal combat. Of course she herself fell victim when her only son — unhappy with the edict — chewed his toast into the shape of a revolver and brazenly shot her over breakfast one morning.

"Where do they get this from," I recall her recollecting.

I have to admit, I had the same degree of wonderment when The Champ, a few months ago, picked up a roll of wrapping paper, aimed it at the dog and said: "Psssshoooooo!"

I shook it off. He's only 17 months old. It didn't mean what I think it means.

Then a month or so later I found him quietly stalking our furry, incontinent beast with the core of a toilet paper roll. One eye shut. BOOM!

"We don't shoot family pets," I bark and lunge for the weapon.

"No. Pshooooo?"

"No Pshooooo."

I sent out the APB: "The Champ has a gun," but I didn't bother asking where he got one.

"Bond. James Bond." Has been his dad's nightly routine for falling asleep since Santa brought him the complete boxed set. Together father and son watch car chases and explosions as I read bedtime stories about cute and fuzzy bunnies to Ittybit.

I suppose as the recent mass shooting in Binghamton settles on our psyches, we’ll be reassessing how we glorify gore.

We’ll argue for a time over whether shooting at imaginary targets in play translates into warped moral standards. We may even look to ban more of this primordial play.

We may even hear a new call for a ban, despite studies that show toy guns and violent play acting might actually have an important role in our children’s healthy development.

To me the studies makes sense. Not only do we learn through play, but it doesn’t seem as if outright bans instill knowledge as much as they reinforce fear. And looking back, I can honestly say that none of the kids I knew who played cops and robbers ever became either. Although it's possible one or two are still shooting at aliens.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

‘Workings’ together not just side by side

At Christmas or a short time thereafter a box arrived on the doorstep from my father-in-law addressed to his son.

Inside were two pairs of ordinary work gloves made of blue and red stripped canvas ticking and gray-colored leather; one was an adult-sized “Large,” and the other was a tiny replica meant for a child.

However, it was a letter tucked in with the pristine protective hand wear that was the true gift, for it bestowed the origin the family tradition of “workings.”

“Workings” being the term my husband’s grandfather had good-naturedly bellowed most weekend mornings after breakfast; a term his children (and later, grandchildren) understood to mean they were expected to dress for the weather, whatever it be, and join their elder taskmaster outside, where they would be expected to assist him in an endeavor that was destined (as it was loudly and proudly announced) to “save the universe.”

Usually, my father-in-law’s letter stated, “workings” were small tasks the elder gentleman thought convenient to share that morning with his diminutive workforce: Saving the world, one leaf pile at a time.

As I read the missive, I pictured “workings” as the ordinary tasks that always need doing: the raking of leaves, the weeding of gardens, the painting of fences, the organizing of tools.

I felt a surge of shame.

All the tasks that are woefully neglected at our house since the people over the age of six have proven incapable of keeping their eyes on those under the age of six and still manage to accomplish a task.

But it was winter: The wind was biting, the temperatures daunting.

And despite the urge to bundle up the kids and drag them outside in the snow to push something around with a shovel calling “WORKINGS” into the winter wind, the desire to stay warm and comfortable blocks forward momentum.

Oh, we of prematurely sedimentary ways.

I closed the gift box. I put it away. It left my mind.

Until just the other day when I awoke to the sound of the coffee grinder, slowly oozed out of bed and lumbered into the kitchen, lured by the aroma of fresh drip.

With my husband sitting behind his computer at the desk, and my son perched next to him plunking away of the keys of his own plastic laptop, I saw our 21st century equivalent of “workings” in action.

The scene reminded me of the shame and the box and the letter, and my winter desire to do something else: to plant something, to just dig in the dirt, to accomplish something together, not just silently side by side. There is so much to do; so many workings to share if we could only get started.

The wind is still biting, and the tasks that have piled up are enormous. One would need to grow a will the size of a walrus to keep the whirling dervish and the toddler busy AND still manage to make any progress. And I haven’t forgotten there are naps to navigate, a kitchen to clean and laundry to fold and put away.

But Ittybit knows what workings she wants to do; she wants to start planting. She’s got the seed packages ready and the scissors poised, just waiting for the final “OK, we’ll do it.”

I wasn’t so sure. I had just mopped the floor. And how would we keep the Champ from eating the dirt?

But she was adamant. “It will be fun …”

“OK, we’ll do it.”

And with that we gathered our supplies: “We’ll need egg crates, and potting soil, a teaspoon and water. We’ll need newspaper to spread on the table. We’ll need to roll up our sleeves,” I said as the things piled up.

“And we’ll also need gloves,” she said with a smile.