Sunday, August 31, 2008

Those Moments, Too

Often my posts seem to focus on the tough parenting moments, interspersed at times with clever or funny things that come from my kids' mouths or at least, things that strike me as funny or clever. I realize that publicly (as public as this blog may be with just a few readers), I don't tend to write about the times when my kids amaze me with their kindness, gentleness, goodness or compassion. I don't know if I avoid using those moments as material for writing so not to appear bragging, or simply, perhaps it's the opposite moments, the ones that cause me to grind my teeth in the back to stubs, that push me to the keyboard in attempt at some sort of catharsis or at least, dull the pain.

Tonight while instructing the guys (over and over) to get dressed in their pajamas, S was amazed when P called him out on spinning his top around like a lasso when P didn't even appear to be looking at him. P explained it was because parents have superpowers, an idea S quickly rebuffed. P insisted, and when S wanted details, P ironically began to list the things we parents [wish we] can do.

"Our superpowers include the ability to make our kids eat vegetables and fruit at every meal, the ability to make a toddler stop pooping in a diaper and use the toilet, the power to have our kids put on their shoes and coats quickly and leave the house in just minutes..."

"And to care," C spoke up, not quite catching on to P's sarcasm. "You forgot the superpower that parents have to make their kids care. It's the most important one out there."

Imagine having the superpower to make someone care? We can model kindness and compassion. We can talk about the ways we treat others and read books to our children that reflect those values. Ultimately, however, I wonder if teaching a kid to be compassionate and show empathy for others falls into the 'eating your veggies' category. We all tell our kids that they should eat their vegetables, and some kids love those string beans. Some kids will deign to take a bite or two if there is enough incentive or they're simply pleasers. And some kids just refuse, outright refuse, to let anything naturally green colored past their lips.

Yet, while we are constantly talking with our kids about good behavior, polite manners, kind action, I realize that empathy and compassion is something that both my older fellows have already practiced. That's something I can forget when I get wrapped up in their melty moments, cheeky talk, and difficult phases. However, every once in awhile they do something so utterly kind and naturally empathetic without any prompting, it stops me in my tracks. And there was that moment this weekend. At a picnic for new students at P's graduate school, C and S met the daughter of an incoming student. Eight years old, she is deaf and has autism. But without any questions and with no fear or backing away or comments that she looked or acted differently, C went to befriend her. And when learning that she could not hear his questions, he raised his skinny little hand and waved to her and started to sign his name with imperfect but earnest finger spelling. And S followed behind, saying hello with his hands and smile, and he, too, stretched his fingers to share his name.

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Big Dose of Defensiveness

A recent post by my good friend Andrea got me thinking. OK, that's not an accurate statement because the truth of the matter is that this is something I have been thinking about pretty intensely for the past two plus years. Her post reignited the internal debate I've been struggling with for some time.

Let me say this upfront so I do not mask this response in general terms: My six-year-old twin boys start kindergarten next week. Yup, they are six. Yup, they are heading to kindergarten. And while we're attempting full disclosure-- They are heading to kindergarten at a private school.

So clearly this means you know exactly what sort of parents my husband and I are. From media accounts discussing this issue of 'holding' children back to enter kindergarten at a later date than the typical age five (a.k.a. "redshirting"), it seems clear that we are upper middle class folks who are intensely concerned about our children getting into elite colleges, so much so that we are starting the process of their Harvard applications now (and probably tutoring them in Chinese and logarithms, while providing them cello and fencing lessons). And further, you might also conclude that by 'abandoning' public schools and raising the age on entering kindergarten, we don't care about poor kids who don't have the same opportunities to make these choices as we do and are directly responsible of widening the gap between "the haves" and "have nots" in this country.

Defensive, much? Well, maybe. Well, probably.

I guess my point of writing about this falls under the category of "Let me tell you my side of the story." Did my husband and I struggle with the decision of our boys' school placement? We sure did. Do I still question myself about whether or not we made the right decision? I sure do. Do I hope that my guys benefit from our decision? Of course, I do. It's the parent I've never met (and I've been a teacher for about seventeen years so I've met a lot) who intentionally makes decisions regarding their own children with the hopes that these decisions will intentionally hurt his/her child.

Suddenly this topic seems one of those 'zero sum' ones, you know, like the whole stay-at-home mom versus the working mom debate where shades of grey are not always appreciated nor the recognition of others' points of view as valid. I've always thought that moms are especially harsh on other moms' decisions because certain decisions are so difficult or painful or tortured, some moms simply cannot allow for someone else doing something different as 'right,' making their choice therefore 'wrong.' I managed to find many a post and lots of comments about this very topic across the parenting blog world, and boy, a lot of folks would be quick to brand my husband and me as 'hopped up' or messed up or sneakily subverting rules or ultra competitive or just plain crazy (read, for instance, the 144 comments here).

Well, the very term "redshirting" gets my hackles up. It comes originally from collegiate athletics when an athlete may sit out a season, due to injury or in hopes to gain physical advantage, so that s/he can play on a team as an older and potentially bigger participant. By associating a parent's choice to start a child in school when he or she is socially, emotionally and/or academically ready with this collegiate athletic term, folks are couching this decision in competition: That the decision to start a kid at six has everything to do with the kid doing better than others, giving him/her an advantage over others in academics or sports. Do you as a parent make your children eat vegetables so that they can be bigger and stronger and healthier than other kids? I think most of us are pushing the broccoli so our kids can be healthy period. No competition there.

And if there is one definitive answer when a child is ready for kindergarten why does the cut-off date for kindergarten entrance differ from state to state? For instance, a child who turns five in October could enter kindergarten at the age of four if she lives in Maryland or Michigan or Montana, but not if her family suddenly moves to Massachusetts or Minnesota or Mississippi. My older sons were born in late July. They would not have been eligible to enter kindergarten last year if we lived in Indiana, but wait, the twins were born a month early--putting their actual due date to late August-- what if we took that into consideration? Suddenly they would be ineligible for kindergarten in Alaska, or maybe in Washington or Kansas or a number of other states if they were just born a few days late. This range of cut-off dates is six months (that's from July 1st to January 1st) and that's a pretty significant amount of time for little folks' development. Are kids across the board in Connecticut just more mature and more skilled than all kids in Indiana? This range makes me suspect that kindergarten cut-off dates are semi-arbitrary having a bit to do, perhaps, with true kindergarten readiness and more to do with funding and testing and scores and politics.

So truly, bottom line, what's our reason for having the boys enter kindergarten this year instead of last? It's not an academic one. Both of the twins are solid academically and frankly, with no boastfulness here, would likely be advanced skill-wise even if they entered first grade next week. They read chapter books, solve sudoku puzzles, and can identify more countries on the African continent than I can.

But school you see, is not just about academics, and giving a child time is not just about getting ahead academically. I am a believer that the social and emotional well being of kids is as important, if not more so, than their academic selves. My twins are young socially and emotionally. They cry easily, become frustrated quickly, and have trouble letting anything go, and one in particular struggles heartily with perfectionism, self-doubt, and anxiety. They are going into their fourth school setting in four years AND for the first time in their lives, they will be away from each other (in separate classrooms) for significant periods of time. Kindergarten for them will not be about learning their letter sounds or writing their names or one-to-one counting correspondence. Kindergarten, for my sons, is all about learning to cope with disappointment, to express their frustrations with words and not always tears, to make friendships with kids on their own and learn the give-and-take friendships require.

And because we knew these specific things were what these specific boys need, we found a school that believes in the same philosophy about children and education as we do-- a school that focuses on the social curriculum, that believes in class meetings to discuss issues, that recognizes the importance of play and singing and running around and reading aloud every day and no homework until fourth grade. And you know what? We couldn't afford to send our boys there and we were bummed, but registered them for a different school, our local public one, that would be just fine. And then you know what? Through an incredible twist of fate, I was offered a job at that more-than-fine school and with that job came partial tuition remission. And even with that tuition help, it still will be a sacrifice to have our boys go there. But we believe in education and want to do right by these boys, and we've made a choice to put our money there instead of a second car or a grand vacation or or even a mortgage (we're still renters). And yet we still well understand how blessed we are that we can make such choices.

And in a few years when we need to decide what's right for our third son (born mid-September, by the way), we will assess his needs and our family's situation and we will make a decision that aligns with both of these things.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Negotiations Have Begun...

We've begun to discuss Halloween costume choices. Yes, I know it is August and we have a few things to get through before the Day of Begging Candy, but somehow the topic has already become a favorite at the dinner table. While neither P nor I consider ourselves to be particularly crafty, we started the tradition of making the boys' costumes even though we don't own (or really know how to use) a sewing machine. We've set the general guidelines: if we can make it with a colored sweatsuit and a hot glue gun (with some fake fur, markers, paint, craft foam)-- we're good to go.

Well, almost...

In our own feeble way to fight the big ol' evil corporate machine that markets unabashedly to children trying to turn them into always-wanting-more consumers and fill our homes with a lot of unnecessary plastic crap, we have put the kibosh on items that contain images of any television or movie character. No, Disney Cars' sneakers, no Diego backpacks, no Pirates of the Caribbean themed birthday parties (Who lets their five-year-olds watch those movies anyway?) And I should clarify: we aren't anti-TV. Oh no, we watch TV and have said a few blessings to the gods of DVDs for saving us more than once. We are just against the endless amount of branding and the millions of dollars corporations make off of kids and their tired parents. Yes, I once really liked C's Oscar the Grouch shirt and I point to the non-profit status of Sesame Workshop, but that distinction with Nickelodeon's for-profit rampant imaging of Dora is a bit too confusing for them to grasp. So we just say "No TV or movie characters" and try to stick with it. Every once in a while, a toothbrush with a character may make it into the grocery cart (I wasn't the one shopping for toiletries that day), but we've managed to clothe our boys, feed them, celebrate their birthdays, and even find cool toys for them, without branding for the most part.

I knew my boys actually had absorbed my rantings about this when they spent a weekend with one of my older sisters. She had taken them shopping for a gift for one of her daughter's friends. In this huge store that shall remain nameless, my boys caught a glimpse of a toy aisle and gasped in delight when they saw red and yellow trucks from Word World, a newish PBS show where the animated characters are made up of their letters. For instance, Duck is animated with the letters D-u-c-k. There in Big Box Store, stood two T-r-u-c-k-s and the boys got excited. When my sister, being the good aunt that she is, offered to buy them the trucks for an upcoming birthday. Their reaction, she later relayed to me, was to explain that "Oh no, you can't buy those trucks for us because mom won't like it. She doesn't like to buy anything from TV shows." Of course, she cited the Aunt Rule for them, you know, the one that overrides the Parent Rule, and the T-r-u-c-k-s entered the cart and now have a treasured place in our toy chest.

So back to the costume debate. No TV or movie characters. This extends to Halloween costumes. However, book characters, we can do. Being a huge lover of books and still relishing those special days in elementary school when you got to dress like a favorite book character (Harriet the Spy, Johnny Tremain, Ms. Frizzle, Waldo), of course, it is OK to dress as a book character! And boy, did the twins make really cute Thing One and Thing Twos a few years ago.

Tonight's discussion:
S: I really want to be Spiderman this year.
M (for me or mom, whatever works): I'm not sure about that idea.
S: But come on, Mom. You know, Spiderman may be in movies, but he is also a book character-- Comic books! So I can be Spiderman.

Does this mean our Halloweens of dressing as jungle animals are numbered?!

Sunday, August 17, 2008


"I wish I was around when you were a little girl, Mom. Then it would be like I had a sister." ~C

Friday, August 1, 2008

A Tale of Two Riders

Two weeks ago, P and I admitted some parental panic to each other. We were invited by some new friends to their pool club for a swim and casual dinner. The boys were most excited to get into the water, but C and S became instantly dismayed when they learned that they couldn't go in with their noodles (against pool rules). F, happily strapped into his floatie vest, didn't mind in the least so walked right down the stairs and bobbed away for the next hour, swallowing a fair share of pool water. However, the twins were sort of panicked. They had grown comfortable in the water-- or so we thought. It turns out that they had grown comfortable with the idea that their long orange and pink noodles were buoyant and would actually hold them up in water. Without them, the boys had no confidence that they could actually float. The grabbed at P and me. They grabbed at the wall. Their two new classmates dove and splashed around them, but the boys could not even begin to imagine that they could swim.

This event suddenly became significant for me. My boys can't swim. We had done some swimming lessons, but clearly, P and I had not been on top of it enough. Heck, the truth was that they hardly spent any time in water in the past two summers. How were they supposed to learn to swim without spending time in the water? And while we were going down that road-- the boys couldn't ride bikes or catch a baseball or a myriad of other physical things I was doing when I was six, that kids around us seem to be doing. Suddenly, I became panicked. What have we been doing as parents?

Well, we had been reading tons of books. We'd been visiting art museums, attending concerts, taking music lessons (S- guitar; C- violin), hanging out doing science experiments, solving Sudoku puzzles, attending art and farm camps. What have we done? Are we setting our boys up for Geekdom? Would they be able to relate to their peers at school? Would they become social outcasts-- those quirky, arty types who often aren't celebrated in the first, say, 18 years of schooling?

I shared my fears with P. He had begun to feel similar parenting doubts. So what to do?

This afternoon, P emerged from the basement with the boys' bikes SANS training wheels. He invited S to join him across the street at the local park, a space with a large enough grassy area and few enough trees. They set off as C and I started to tackle writing the birthday thank you notes (that's not geeky, just properly mannerly). Twenty minutes later, a sweaty and triumphant Sam came running back into the apartment. He had done it! He had ridden his bike-- by himself.

P was pretty thrilled as well. "It was one of those magical dad moments," he explained. He described how he held the back of S's seat as S pedaled and got his sense of balance. After a few runs, carefully and quietly, P removed his hands from the seat and off S went. He was riding the bike all by himself.

"Come on, C, it's your turn now. Let's get your bike helmet. I'll grab your bike. Let's go!" P was excited to repeat the experience with C.

C didn't jump from his seat. He started hedging. He start hesitating. "I don't think I will try it today," he told his dad. A discussion ensued. C was scared. He was anxious. He didn't think he could ride a bike by himself. No, he would wait to try until he was sure he could do it. P began to coax C a bit stronger, gently pushing him to think about trying, assuring him that he would hold tightly to the back seat. He could be trusted. Come on, give it a try. You need to practice in order to learn.

A reticent C relented. He strapped on his helmet. An eager and excited S wanted to keep riding so asked me to go over as well. F joined in the party. When we got to the park, I wanted C to have the same one-on-one time with his dad so the two other boys and I went off to the side. I was thrilled when I saw S push down the pedal, raise his other foot from the ground, and take off riding. Magical, truly!

And then I turned to watch C. It didn't seem to be going as smoothly. There was clearly more discussion happening. C was wiping his eyes. I couldn't stand it. I walked over. C had become increasingly anxious, convinced that he could not ride. He would never learn. He would get hurt. He just couldn't do it. "Yes, you can," P encouragingly countered. He talked about how it could be scary, but he was sure that C could ride a bike. C climbed up on the seat but soon panicked. More tears. More words of defeat, despair.

It was heartbreaking to witness. C standing there with red eyes, convinced that there was no way he would ever learn to ride a bike, too afraid of failure to even try, utterly stuck by insecurity, panic, perfectionism. And there was S, happily tooling around on his little blue bike, so thrilled to have figured this riding thing out, trying to master turning, riding over bumpier ground, playing chicken with trees. And that was joyous to watch.

Parenthood: magical, heartbreaking, joyous, painful. It was all playing out in that moment.

Ever-patient P didn't give up, kindly cajoling C, logically explaining the things C had mastered so far in life-- crawling, walking, running, reading, and on and on. Things that took some practice but he had learned. P talked about the rewards of just trying. C still was not convinced. I decided to give something a try. I asked him to sit facing me and to say the words "I can ride a bike" with me. He did, and we said them again, and then again, hoping that by saying the words he might believe them. I then tried a visualization exercise with him. Maybe if he could see himself riding, he would be convinced that he could. He went through it all with me, even laughed when I asked him to picture himself pedaling the bike and then Dad removing his hands and seeing himself ride off. "See, I know you can do it! You saw yourself do it!"

"No," C countered, "I only actually saw myself sitting on the bike."

I guess we could have given up. We could have left it there. It was one of those tough parental moments. We wanted to be encouraging and supportive, but not too pushy and overbearing. Where's the line?

In the end, I am happy to report, C got back on the bike. He trusted P to hold him upright. He pedaled a bit. He put his feet down. He tried again. And then again. And then at some magical moment, P did lift his hands, ever so gently and carefully from the back of the seat, holding them just to the sides of C's hips. And there was C, riding the bike. BY HIMSELF.