Bumbling towards Responsible Adulthood

I blew my lid with the kids this morning. Our babysitter left her bag at the house and my children took out her sidewalk paint and gleefully used it all up. They went into her bag and helped themselves. I was horrified. “What? You just helped yourselves to someone else’s property? Would you rifle through Grandma’s purse? What made you think that was okay? I am ashamed of your choices…” and on… and on.Hendrick_Jacobsz._Dubbels_001

There are times, like this, when I feel like the most terrible parent around. I felt guilty for losing my cool (but not that guilty.) I felt like a failure because my 8 and 6 year-old took stuff that wasn’t theirs and they should know better. I was embarrassed. I clearly had not done my job. I cried on the way to school. I knew I was over-reacting. My rational self kept mumbling, “This is not about you.” But she lost control of the ship; it was all she could do to keep me from blurting out, “I guess I’ll have to come visit you in prison!”

Knowing that I was teetering on the edge, I called Hot Swede at work. He is experienced and effective at talking me down from emotional cliffs. His level head and calm voice soon lowered my crazy sail, and I began to think sense.

People make mistakes. Kids are inexperienced people; they’re going to make a lot of them. Of all the lessons children need to learn, moral and ethical ones the most difficult.  Moral action requires mastery of oneself- doing what’s right instead of what’s desired. Ethical behavior takes courage, thoughtfulness and maturity- three things that my young have yet to develop. It takes practice, redirection, consequences, forgiveness and love to learn to behave in moral and ethical ways. It is part of children’s job to push boundaries and figure out how they will operate within and on the world. That is where I come in. My job is to help them learn these lessons with sidewalk paint, instead of more expensive property and consequences.

I thought they had “do not steal” all sorted- my fatuous mistake. When rational, I understand that, of course, I am not done teaching and reinforcing lessons about respect for others and their property. They are 8 and 6. Duh.

So, I will explain why I was so upset this morning and the seriousness of stealing. They will each buy a set of replacement paints with their saved allowance and write an apology.  Two sets- because I want them to feel the cost and because when we wrong someone, we often have to expend extra effort to make things right.

I wish I had been prepared with an attitude of “Wonderful, here’s a chance to teach a lesson.” instead of caught off guard and horrified.  I will pray for wisdom and grace in anticipation of the next time they make a bonehead move. Because this is just the prelude.

Still the best option

Still the best option

Mind Their Manners

A plea for parental courtesy, for everyone’s sake.

A few weeks ago, an elderly man lurched out of our church service in a hurry. The effects of stroke encumber his body, but he moved quickly and was clearly distressed. Four ushers rushed to his side to see what was the matter. Agitated, he repeated himself four or five times before they understood- “The children, yelling in church!” It was true. This gentleman had been seated near a small child who had been yelling (not crying or fussing, just yelling) for quite awhile.  I had trouble hearing the sermon and I was 20 feet away. This gentleman ended up sitting near the nursery and listening to the remainder of the service over the speakers. The yeller stayed in her pew.

When did it become okay for people to inflict their disruptive children on large gatherings of the public? When did parents stop minding their children’s behavior

and removing disorderly youngsters from church services, movies, restaurants, waiting rooms, weddings, etc? I may suffer from early onset curmudgeonry, but I am not the only one to notice this trend. Fed up restaurateurs ban children from their establishments. I’ve seen waiters with trays of food trip over Lilliputian diners who are allowed to frolic about the dining room. Hostesses provide crayons, coloring pages, games, and pizza dough to play with, in an effort to keep children in their seats and reasonably quiet. Clerks in shops full of breakable baubles bristle like porcupines when I walk in with three small people. On airplanes, childless travelers tighten their jaws when seated next to my 6 and 4-year-olds and then compliment them and me on their good behavior at the end of the flight, their words sighing with relief.

Ugh, airline travel.

Ugh, airline travel.

I like children. From experience (three kids worth of experience) I know how little control I have over any family situation. I can’t always predict what kids will say, when they will need the toilet, or puke on an airplane. (Dear sir next to me in the last row of that Delta flight, you were so gracious when my daughter threw up all over us… twice. If I hadn’t been so flustered, I would have bought you a drink. You are a gem.)

Most people are pretty patient with normal childlike behavior, and just want to know that parents are sensitive to the impact their young have on others. Babies make noise. Toddlers get tired of sitting still. Pre-schoolers are not always capable of controlling their behavior. This is why we hold parents responsible.

As the adult, I am responsible for extending courtesies to the people with whom my children come in contact. Young children are not yet capable or skilled enough to do it themselves. If my child pours milk into your handbag, I will be horrified, apologize and try to make amends. Because he is my child, I take on the consequences of his actions as though they are my own. Common decency does not allow me to dismiss the act with, “Kids will be kids. What are you going to do?”

Direct destruction of property may be an extreme example, but what if my kid ruins your romantic dinner by banging her fork on her plate repeatedly, talks through an entire movie, stunt drives his die cast car across the hood of your new car, or cries loudly throughout your daughter’s wedding? And what if I do nothing?

I frequently see parents laugh at or ignore a child who is impinging on another’s experience. You may find your child’s behavior charming and excusable. But here’s the truth- No one thinks your kid is as darling as you do, not even her grandparents. Ask yourself how you would feel if the loud, obnoxious, boorish gal stumbling around, throwing peas and yelling was a full-grown adult. Not as tolerable, is it?

That isn’t to say that people should not give a little grace to children and their parents. (Actually, we could stand to give a little grace to everyone.) Children will melt down despite a parent’s best efforts, and it is important to remain calm and give the parent a chance to handle the situation before becoming incensed and offended. For me, as long as the parent is addressing the behavior, and is sensitive to the people around them, I have no problem. We were all children once and our parents taught us how to behave. These children are the people who will be our caregivers when we are in the nursing home, so- be nice.

We parents owe it to our fellows to minimize the impact of our children’s negative behavior. It is common respect. We owe it to our children to teach them good 20762534_660705a831_zmanners and to protect their young reputations. When parents allow bad behavior to go unchecked, they make all children guilty by association, thus- bans on children in restaurants. Worse, they make pariahs out of their innocent children. Adults don’t want to be around them and other parents don’t want their children around them either. They won’t say it to the parent’s face, but hey say it to everyone else.

So, what? Do we keep our kids at home until they can use choose the right fork at a fancy dinner? No, they need chances to practice and learn. Parents should take them out in public, but only if they are willing to do the work of teaching and guiding. Talk about the expectations for behavior ahead of time, and how different events demand different kinds of behavior. Don’t take them somewhere where you are unwilling or unable to skedaddle if it all goes south. Remove children when they are disruptive; it is less awful than staying. Don’t take them places where you know they have no chance of behaving reasonably (courtrooms, late night dinners, screenings of Ingmar Bergman films come to mind.) Yes, there have been times when I’ve spent entire church services cajoling toddlers to be quiet, or standing in the narthex with a fussy baby. I have been known to employ gum and orange Tic Tacs liberally. I’ve spent hours on a plane with a hand on small legs, reminding them not to kick the seat in front of them.  It’s all part of making small savages civil.

Human society is complicated and nuanced. It takes years to learn its rules and absorb its conventions. This is why human childhood is so long and why we have parents for the duration- to guide us through the social jungle and soften the discord between our inexperience and the adult world. When their behavior is good, children are an absolute joy to be around. They infuse life and beauty into any gathering. The best part of any wedding reception are the diminutive guests- shoes off, shirt half-untucked, getting down on the dance floor.ba1de2eb0ff97867d7aa474eb3c3e20f-d5z94e5

Have you had experiences with unruly children and their parents? Am I off base? Please tell me if this is a personal quirk and I need to lighten up. I will listen. I’d especially like to hear how other parents handle their children’s less than ideal public behavior and how you handle OTHER people’s unruly kids. (There’s a thorny one.) I take all tips and suggestions.

Flawed Perfection

My mom was a mess. She’s pretty pulled together now, but when I was a kid, I remember wondering why she was such a flake. Her life was a stupefying Rube Goldberg machine of family life-467px-Cassatt_Mary_At_the_Window_1889 bewildering in its intricacies and number of moving parts. Somehow she managed it with only an occasional dropped ball. As a kid, I didn’t see the complexity. I only knew that she frequently called me by my sister’s name and called my brother by the dog’s.

For years, I thought toast was made by burning it black and then scraping it down over the sink to the desired lightness of char. Mom was always barely remembering snack day, or coming home from the store with sour cream instead of cottage cheese and looking at the carton with an incredulous look that I now recognize as- “What the hell?”

My mom broke a hairbrush hitting it on the counter in frustration while trying to get three little kids, my dad, and herself ready for a professional portrait.  (I’m surprised I got out of the ordeal with only uneven bangs.)

She was tired. She was flustered. She was awesome. She was perfect.

Since becoming a parent of multiple children, my opinion of my mom has gained significant altitude. I understand what it means to be at the mercy of a small tyrant who doesn’t give a fig if I haven’t slept since last Thursday. I struggle to keep my cool when we are late to school and one child is still shoeless.  I understand why so many people drive around with forgotten mugs of coffee on their roofs. (Car companies- do us a solid and put a cup holder up there.) I know how endlessly fragmented parents’ brains are, how no task is ever completed- just started, and how a clean kitchen floor is a magnet for the spiteful side of buttered toast.

399px-Cassatt_Mary_The_Bath_1891-92I yell. I get lazy. I forget all kinds of stuff. I want to quit. I need a vacation. I discipline out of desperation instead of wisdom. I am a flawed, messy human. How fortunate I am to have a flawed mother.

How else would I know that I am okay and not ruining three young lives? Mom did plenty of top-notch things. She fed us healthfully at nightly family dinners. She taught me to cook well, sew poorly, and knit only as a last resort. She made sure I could swim, ride a bike, provided opportunities for me to try a whole slew of activities, even when she knew they would amount to naught. She called bull on me when I needed it, listened when I needed that, and kept her mouth closed when an argument would have served neither of us well and I was too immature to bridle my own tongue.

But it’s her shortcomings that reveal the grace of imperfection. I need her blunders now as much as I needed her successes as a child; they bring me assurance and comfort. If Mom had always kept her temper, remembered all appointments, and remained smiley and well coiffed at all times, I would despair my own shoddy efforts at parenting and adult living in general. I would think my children doomed by having me for a mother, because I am a mess. Her example reveals the lie of perfection- it can’t be true because it isn’t honest. I am faulty. I needed a similarly flawed mother to teach me how to parent well despite my limitations and shortcomings.

1024px-Mary_Cassatt_-_Susan_Comforting_the_Baby_No._1_(c._1881)_detail_01Thanks, Mom, for forgetting to pick me up from sixth grade that one time. I needed that. Thanks for losing your temper and asking for forgiveness. What a good example you set. Thanks for always asking how my soccer game went, even though I played volleyball. You give me hope. Thanks for all the wise and unwise things you said. I only remember the wise ones. Really.

Parenting is a difficult job and the stakes are high, but unless your little dirty-handed booger eater is perfection incarnate, she needs someone like you to show her the way. Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers in my life. You are inspiring admirable women, imperfect and just right.

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother’s Day!

Laundry is for Suckers

I love my washing machine

Washing machines: the best thing since washable fabrics.

I am a sucker, a chump, a fool. Every week, I wash and fold about eight loads of laundry. That’s pants, shirts, socks, dishtowels, sheets, etc. for five people. I fill my baskets with towers of uniform rectangles, folded according to the depth of their intended drawers so that the folded edge will stand next to all the others and a census of the drawer’s contents can be taken at a glance. I don’t put clothes away; I file them.

I organize drawers, ostensibly so people can see what they’ve got and find what they need. A week later, I walk upstairs and, in any room,  am greeted by vomiting dressers, drawers spewing sleeves and pant legs over their lips.  I grumble, shove the mess over, and make room for my neat little stack of good intention- all ready to be disheveled tomorrow.

Is there another household chore that takes as much time and is as equally futile? I can’t think of one. Cleaning out the fridge is important for organization and hygiene, even if the pickle jar with the bad lid ALWAYS tips over on the top shelf within a week of cleaning.  Cleaning kid-level windows is a waste of time, but it isn’t something I do every week [read: year.]

Why do I do it? To model neatness? Because that is the way laundry has always been done and I’m a slave to tradition? I think I do it because deep down, I believe an organized laundry practice has merit. That said, all my trouble is only worth it if all parties agree to operate on the same system, and, well, they don’t.2628256853_8f0cd46700_z

It doesn’t matter to anyone but me if the drawers are neat. As long as there is a pair of underwear in there somewhere, I will hear nothing about it, good or bad. My children think the hamper is a folding machine- throw it in; it magically reappears in the drawer, clean and ready to wear. Do the children care if their clothes are wrinkly? No. Likely, smooth shirts would clash with their hair, which gets impressively sculptural under winter hats. Do I care if their clothes are wrinkly? No, not unless it’s picture day and the shirt has an archaeological aesthetic to its creases.

If I were sensible, I’d sell the dressers and get everyone two laundry baskets- one for above the waist, one for below. I would wash and dry clothes, sort them into north or south piles by owner and dump them into the appropriate baskets. The family could root around for what they want and I would save HOURS of wasted labor each week. You have to admit this system has merit. It saves loads of time and takes into account the reality of our clothing situation.

I currently entertain a Disney level fantasy of children and husband whistling while they refold their clothes and tuck them away in neat rows. There may even be songbirds folding t-shirts and chipmunks pairing socks. Then I get irritated when the reality falls short.  This is not a smart mindset.

I must be chicken, or a little OCD. I can’t change my broken system. I don’t know why, because I’m able to let go of other futile endeavors: flattening my post 3-baby belly, singing bass-baritone, not letting the kids eat in the car. I would feel like such an iconoclast- giving folded laundry the old middle finger and getting rid of furniture that is full of pointless expectation.

I cannot wait until I can share laundry duty with the children. (rubs hands together and cackles.) They are learning to fold, and I give folding as a chore- especially if I catch a kid throwing clean clothes in the hamper/folding machine. I am determined; they will do more. The summer chore campaign is approaching. Will I make them keep their drawers neat? No, but drawers must close fully and there must be room for fresh laundry to fit. Will I make them fold in uniform shapes? Yes, they will learn the proper way, even down to how to fold fitted sheets. (Yes, it’s possible.) Then, if they choose a more chaotic laundry practice as adults, it will be by choice and not because they know no better. I hope that some day, my children will appreciate that daily dressing need not involve the added stress of scavenger hunts for matching socks and quests for the one pair of magical sparkle tights.

Even if they end up choosing a less fussy system, they will learn one important lesson from me: Sometimes you just have to do pointless stuff because that’s what the boss requires.

I'm gonna need you to fold those in thirds. M'kay?

I’m gonna need you to fold those in thirds. M’kay?

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Some parents are happy if their children read anything. I am not one of them. I’d rather my kids watch hours of “Dora the Explorer” than read some of the children’s “literature” out there.

Q recently checked out Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life from the school library. Guess what? I don’t love it. It’s in the tradition of pandering books about silly girls with bad attitudes and nasty mouths who manufacture social drama in the name of plot. The fact that “dork” is slang for “penis” is a minor gripe. Go ahead; check it out. I linked to the series’ website so you can judge based on the most complementary angle on this drivel, tripe, book-like object.dd1-large

I cannot control what she chooses at the library. She goes with her class, and I am not about to ask her teacher to censor Q’s selections based on my criterion. She is a classroom teacher, not a nanny. This is not a battle I want to pick, because it is not one I can possibly win, and frankly, I don’t think it is necessary. Books let us try on someone else’s life and explore new worlds with only an investment of time. There is even a place for mindless and silly entertainment. I unapologetically loved “XENA: Warrior Princess” for years and consume PG Wodehouse novels like candy.

However, what we feed our minds matters as much as what we feed our bodies. A mind fed on a diet of pandering entertainment will be weaker and less healthy. Q’s behavior took a turn while she read this book. She got snippier, less happy, and Hot Swede noticed phrases from the book coming out of her mouth. When she read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, she played pioneer girl, we had discussions about the Native American/US relations, and I taught her how to embroider.

I won’t forbid her to read these garbage books, (Forbidding something is the quickest way to pique her interest.) but I did make scaffolding for her reading. I explained my concerns with this book and we talked about the importance of putting good things into our heads. She may read another of the Dork series, but must finish Anne of Green Gables first, and so it will go- rubbish, literature, dreck, literature. Hopefully, the trash will become less frequent by her choice. If she comes home with Fifty Shades of Grey, I’ll volunteer to chaperone library trips.

What children’s novels do you love? Which ones stink to high heaven?

Moustache Day

mustache_tiff_by_incrediblealyssa-d3wkdtlMy husband calls in the late morning, “So, did you send the kids to school with moustaches?” Crap. Instantly, I feel like a failure. I had forgotten Moustache Day at school- this just-for-fun theme day that has never happened before but had to be scheduled the day before Christmas break, when there is nothing else going on. I was ashamed of, disappointed in, and disgusted with myself. The working parent remembered Moustache Day, but I didn’t. Isn’t this kind of minutia exactly why we decided I should stay at home? So that there was someone who’s JOB it was to answer all their questions, taxi them around, soothe fevers, keep us stocked with toilet paper, and draw facial hair on the second grader on December 20th? Arghhh!

I don’t think most mothers realize how fragile their mother egos are. (I didn’t include fathers because, in my experience, dads don’t carry around the same kind of guilt that mothers pack in with extra diapers and a clean set of drawers.) It seems that self-doubt and self-flagellation come with the territory. We all look at that parent who does that one thing better than we do, and instead of congratulating her on teaching her children complete sign language, in Portuguese, or instead of simply coveting her energy/patience/clean shirt, we do to ourselves what we would never do to our own kids. We look at ourselves and say, “Why can’t I be more like her? I must be [insert favorite pejorative descriptor: lazy, disorganized, not that smart, impatient, selfish, etc.]”

Well, I’m all of those things, and most days, I accept it. I also don’t have the mind of Carl Sagan or the bone structure of Gisele Bündchen, and that’s okay. Most days, I live comfortably with most of my shortcomings. My family is getting what they need from me. I’m doing okay. And then it happens- the little wisp of a breeze that topples the tissue house that ego built- Moustache Day.

I hung up the phone. The dust settled, and the wise part of my soul (she is very small) spoke up in her tired voice, “Get a grip. You got your kids to school on time, fed, with all their snow gear. They practiced their piano and got homework done. They went to bed at a decent hour. They are fine. You are fine. You covered the big stuff. Luckily, most kids forgive their parents’ mistakes, even the big ones. Lay off yourself and go make us some coffee.” And with that, my wispy mother ego was righted and there it will stand… until I forget snack day.