Tax Time

This happens every year. I don’t do my taxes quarterly, as I’m supposed to, just because I’m lazy. So tax time is several hours’ worth of digging through a giant pile of receipts. It is a bittersweet exercise in remembering the highs of the year and realizing how much my kids have grown.

It’s like going through a scrapbook of the year. As I check store names for deductible items I find a record of my family’s activities: meals out at favorite restaurants, holiday and birthday fun, visits with friends and relatives. Ticket stubs from the movies we saw (Star Trek Into Darkness: yeah!! Thor the Dark World: eh) and trips to the museum (including a memorable one playing with cousins in the giant stick house).

Here’s a receipt from the day Younger almost had to get a tooth pulled, and was in so much pain that I bought him a toy just to take his mind off it. All the early weekend morning soccer game Dunkin’ Donuts runs, and treats bought at convenience stores. The days we rode our bikes on the Cape Cod bike trail to the general store for root beer, Italian ice, and cinnamon donuts that you can’t find anywhere else.

The night Younger and I wandered through the mall for three hours trying to find him hiking shoes for our trip to Utah. No one understood why we were going to the desert except the girl in the Merrell store, who finally got excited and jealous for us, and from whom we happily bought overpriced shoes that he’d be able to wear for all of one season.

And here’s the restaurant we found on that trip, where Older loved the brownie sundae so much we had to go back and get him another before we left. And of course I said yes because it was VACATION.

Here was the day after Thanksgiving, when we had to drive from one family in NJ to the other on Cape Cod. It was a mighty trek across five states and though we tried to make it, we had to stop for lunch at a diner. It’s not even that they were cranky, because they’re superhero travelers now, but more because we all needed a break from the monotony and to look at each other’s faces. We played Chat Pack and laughed at the crazy, big, loud family at the table next to us.

The annual weekend in NH with Grammy that we’re still trying to squeeze out of them before they get too old and uninterested to go. If she keeps up the swimming/spending/eating/spoiling trends we’ve set, I think we’re guaranteed to get them for at least a few more.

The afternoon when Younger and I went to a lecture at the museum to research a school project. We ate lunch in the museum cafe and I marvelled at my grown-up boy, wondering how many lunches we’ll share in the future.

The last batch of Valentines to pass out at school. It’s simply not done in middle school. Which is a relief for me, rushing out to buy them the evening before they’re due, getting home to find out there are only 20 and we need 24, stuffing them all into those little envelopes and spending the rest of the evening at the kitchen table making sure he signs every single one. Or, is it a relief after all?

The grocery receipts tell the story of school lunches: the snacks they liked as young ones are long gone. Fourth-grade juice boxes have been replaced by fifth-grade water bottles. And that reminded me of the kid on Younger’s baseball team whose nickname was Juice Box, and we all thought it was the greatest thing. Will he be begging them to stop this year?

And that reminded me that Younger refuses to try out for baseball this year because he’s all about soccer now. The little league pictures of smiling boys in baseball hats are already relics.

During tax week I’m up until midnight several nights in a row, exhausted from trying to get through this exercise, which makes me an emotional wreck as well. I’m involuntarily crying on the receipts that I’m trying to read clearly (with my new reading glasses because my eyes are getting worse as I get older). But I am filled with the memories of a beautiful year. Time passes quickly, parents. Soak it up while you can.

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Bye Bye, Olympics

At the beginning of these Olympics, I commented on friend’s Facebook status that this would be the worst host city ever. Between Putin’s anti-gay propaganda, terrorist threats, and poisonous water in the hotels, I wasn’t excited to watch at all, and I felt bad for the athletes who’d worked so hard to get there.

Of course as soon as the opening ceremonies started I had to peek. The President of the IOC took everyone to task, saying it wasn’t fair to put their politics on the backs of the athletes. After that moment I was happy to keep watching.

That, and my kids were totally into it. They enjoyed the summer Olympics in 2012 but this is the first year they were able to really start digging into the big picture issues. I let them stay up late whenever they wanted and we talked politics, geography, history. We looked up about a hundred facts online every time they had a question. (Younger was particularly concerned with when America had beaten Canada in men’s hockey and it was actually quite difficult to find that stat. I’m still a little annoyed by it.)

We talked about why it’s fun to watch the Olympics. I told them about the 1984 winter Olympics, when my ever-patriotic mother actually whooped and applauded the American team walking in with their cowboy hats on. And how fun it was for me to watch with my kids, as it was for her.

I told them about the year Older was two and we’d decided it would be a good weekend for a getaway with the grandparents. We rented a house in New Hampshire and were ready for a nice relaxing weekend, when Grammy and Grampa both came down with the flu. Older commented, “Well at least you had something to watch.” (Was he referring to the Olympics or flu action?)

It turns out there was a lot to love this year. We were amazed by Ted Ligety, entranced by the cross-country relay, and discovered freakin’ slopestyle! Younger Son dug Katie Uhlaender’s tough attitude and red hair, in fact we loved anything that happened on the bobsled track. None of us could wait for snowboard cross and then we found out they were doing it on skis too?!

Of course I couldn’t dream of getting anyone to watch figure skating with me but they did listen to the story of Plushenko, and we all felt he was wrongly criticized for dropping out. But I am sad that I missed out on seeing more of Jonny Weir sending “the message that one can fight intolerance simply by putting on a tiara and showing up for work.”

We even dug the ads. My favorite was the oddly creepy Cadillac commercial with an over-zealous American businessman, but only because he was played by the oddly creepy evil bad guy from Justified (Neal McDonough, as the terrifying Robert Quarles in season 3). Nes pa?

And I had a soft spot for the incessant one with Robin Williams from Dead Poets Society, a character based on a professor that my husband and I had – yet another story the boys enjoyed. The incessant ad usually haunts your dreams for a few months after the Olympics, but I won’t mind if that one does. (Actually the last winter Olympics incessant ad wasn’t bad either because it used Lou Reed’s Perfect Day.)

On the last day of the Olympics I dragged myself out of bed at (a very late for me) 8:00 (because I was tired from watching Olympics for two weeks). Older was already sitting on the couch watching the men’s hockey final and telling me to hurry up and watch with him.

They were both looking forward to the closing ceremonies and asked if they could stay up even though it was a school night. As if I ever say no. Even though it was sad that the Olympics were ending, this was still fun because we knew the athletes and could remember all the cool stuff we’d seen. The best moment was when they actually poked fun at themselves and didn’t open the fifth Olympic ring.

Younger asked, “Will there always be Olympics?” and Older celebrated a little when I said definitely. Then he pointed out that “They shouldn’t do the closing ceremonies until the Paralympics are over.” I am so pleased at how their horizons seem to have actually broadened as a result of watching this year.

Maybe that’s what keeps me coming back, besides the thrill of watching athletes win, and the sympathy of knowing that when they lose, there are a lot of people who don’t actually see their dreams realized but life goes on (and still, they did something great).

Maybe it’s the idea that people care enough to see this event continue beyond politics and pettiness. That the world can be made to feel smaller even when so much of it is out of control. That ultimately, we all want the same things from life. Peace, people.

Children and Fear

I have a two-year-old, Mr. O, who suddenly developed an insane fear of the Wiggles. (Well most adults are afraid of the Wiggles so maybe it’s not that outrageous.) I usually put on the Wiggles to distract the kids while I make lunch and they’re all pretty obsessed.

One day after seeing the same video about fifteen times, I heard Mr. O crying in absolute terror. Thinking someone had attacked him, I ran to the room to see what was wrong. Nothing. No one near him, no visible injuries, he’s standing alone in the middle of the room screaming. 

I asked him what was wrong and he kept repeating, “I don’t want it. I don’t want it.” These are the hilarious but frustrating moments of caring for kids. No one is forcing anything on you. You don’t have anything. What in God’s name are you talking about, child!?

I used an old day care provider trick to deal with pre-verbal kids who know a whole lot in their heads but can’t express it yet. I asked him, “Can you show me?” He pointed directly at the tv.

But it’s the Wiggles!! You love the Wiggles!! It’s Five Little Ducks – we sing this every day at circle time. What is going on? Then Captain Feathersword started to cry. (Never imagined I’d be writing that line one day.)

He was sobbing, crying, wailing, and pouring his tears into a bucket. Of course the Captain and Murray the Wiggle were giggling their way through the bit, but Mr. O couldn’t stand how sad he was! It’s a testament to what a sweet boy he is that he cares so much about sad father duck and sad Capt. Feathersword.

Most kids at this age are generally this sympathetic. It’s a nice thing that people don’t often get to see when it happens among small children. It’s also a developmental stage where self-conscious feelings begin to grow and a toddler’s perception of their own relationship to the outside world begins to change. They start to realize hey, that guy’s reacting to something scary, so maybe that scary thing is nearby. And even worse, if that guy is that upset, I should probably be that upset too.

There are scary things in the world and fear is a healthy defense mechanism. But it’s often scary for both the parent and the child to be in this moment. We want to run in and comfort our baby and shield them from everything bad in the world. But if we never expose them to fear or allow them to feel it, we’re stunting their necessary growth. It’s the never-ending parenting question: what’s a healthy amount of exposure and what’s too much?

So we have to find ways to teach our little ones how to handle fearful things in a gentle way. Often this is about stepping back and trying to see what our kids can handle, and waiting just a little instead of rushing in at the first moment. I knew that even though he was struggling, this was a teachable moment for Mr. O.

At first I just skipped the song because he was so plain terrified. This is showing him that we have some level of control over the thing that is scaring us. But after a few times of doing that, I let it play. I stayed with him, hugged and held him, and we talked about how the song had a happy ending. He still didn’t like it very much and cried a bit. But after a few more viewings he got more used to it. Now all I have to do is talk him through it and though he still doesn’t love it, he can watch without getting so terribly upset.

Fear is actually a very necessary life skill. It keeps us out of a lot of trouble. For little ones it tends to be about not falling off ledges or running into traffic. But we need fear throughout our lives to keep us safe. We need to be able to recognize and respond to that prickling feeling at the back of your neck that tells you this isn’t right – I need to get myself in a safer position, and to know the best responses to do so.

For my little guys it goes back to showing them that help is here, the scary thing is scary but we can handle it, and maybe someday it won’t be so scary. But I never totally eliminate that scary thing, because my kids need to know how to protect themselves, and I won’t leave them defenseless.

Trying to Find the Spirit

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Well, it used to be. As a mom with a full-time job, it’s the living on no sleep, drinking too much coffee, downing Emergen-C shots to fight germs I can’t afford, stumbling through the mall at 10 PM like a zombie time of the year. I’d like to see someone turn that into a catchy tune.

I really used to love Christmas, I really did. And even up to the last few years I still loved it, having surprises in store for the kids and reveling in their excitement. But now it feels like a grind that starts at Thanksgiving. I don’t know if it was this hard for my parents when they were putting on Christmas for us, but they never showed they were cranky about it.

I’ve had the privilege of reading “The Fellowship of the Ring” with Younger Son lately – as a real and true geek, this is a moment I’ve looked forward to for a long time. Now with just four days ’til Christmas, I can identify with Bilbo when he handed the ring to Gandalf: “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread.”

Oh, Bilbo. I do know what you mean. I am the butter. But Younger has finally agreed to reading all four books together, so even if that’s not Christmas spirit at least it makes me ridiculously happy.

I was excited for a white Christmas after so many years of way-too-mild Christmases. Not one but two little snowstorms gave us over a foot of snow blanketing the yard. And now in these last few days before the holiday it’s supposed to jump to 50+ degrees. So the low hum of global warming dread that had been quieted is back.

My Kindle offered me a free version of “A Christmas Carol” so I decided to jump into that, thinking maybe the classic tale would snap me out of the doldrums. As with every book I’ve read as a child and come back to in adulthood, the experience of reading it is so much richer.

However, I also came to find out that it’s because of Dickens and this very story that we’re historically supposed to have a wonderful Christmas. In fact Christmas was a dying religious celebration until Charles came along and decided it should be a life-changing event. Oh, the irony.

My favorite song has become the Vince Guaraldi/Peanuts version of “Christmastime is Here” because everyone knows it’s depressing while trying to be cheerful. Thank you for your insight to human nature, Charles Schulz. Your gift to the world may be truer than Mr. Dickens’.

My family has several holiday traditions, activities that we’ve done with the boys year after year, and I wouldn’t miss them even if I was feeling Grinchy. I’ve enjoyed doing those because it’s precious, stolen time with my boys away from the madness. And we have fun no matter what we’re doing. Those times make me exceedingly happy, but it’s not technically Christmas spirit.

So what am I to do? Besides a delicious meal, perfect gifts, my contribution to our economic stability, joy, peace, love, and happiness, I’m supposed to have Christmas spirit. Just the requirement makes it feel less possible (and all the more depressing).

In the end, spirit came to me in flashes this year. In explaining to Younger what Habitat for Humanity is, that there are people who are willing to give up their time and money to build homes for others in need. In a neighbor whose picture order got mixed into mine, and instead of tossing them in the trash, she delivered them right to my door. At the school band concert when the kids played Good King Wenceslas all on the same notes. Singing “Dahoo dores” at our Whoville flash mob. Younger picking a fancy red “Christmas” shirt to wear on Christmas day, and being the general curator of Christmas spirit all month.

It came in a long and detailed email from my aunt, telling stories of Christmas in her house as a child and everything her mother did to make it special despite not having any money to spend. How family and friends were welcome all week and the time was spent visiting and eating bad sugar cookies with the silver balls that break your teeth.

That is what I have to settle on, finally, as the meaning of Christmas for me this year. After all the long hours, hard work, stress over finding the right gift, forgetting to bring out the silver and praying it wouldn’t be tarnished just hours before the meal was to be served, it comes down to family. It’s simply a tradition for family. I am blessed with a large, happy, and healthy one, and while it’s exhausting to fit them all into the schedule, it’s worth it. And we’ll continue to do it every year, while searching for the meaning behind the insanity. Isn’t that what family’s all about?

Trophy Kids Indeed

Oh. Something tells me I’m gonna love this.

Or maybe not so much love, but watch helplessly, like a car crash. These parents must have known they were being filmed. Did they tone it down? Or tone it up?

The clip is from the new HBO Sports documentary “State of Play: Trophy Kids” by the actor and director Peter Berg, who studies the insanity of parents who push their kids too hard in sports. Just looking at this short clip shows the ridiculous lengths people will go to, including teenagers with personal trainers and parents making their kids cry on purpose to “toughen her up.” I can’t imagine a parent seeing their child break down in tears, specifically caused by them, and not feel heartbroken.

I’m amused by the mother who, blubbering through her own tears, says “What if I didn’t do everything I could to help them realize their dreams?” Here Berg gets right to the heart of crazy sports parents: it’s 100%, completely and totally vicarious. It is rarely, if ever, the kid’s dream.

What my parents dreamed for themselves is certainly not what I dreamed for myself, as is the same for my kids. Luckily my parents realized that pretty early and let me find my own way. They supported the choices I made for the activities I wanted to do. I hope to be able to do the same for my kids, and so far I think I’ve done an OK job.

In fact, it makes my skin crawl when people say I’m a soccer mom. Not just the stereotypical van-driving, coffee-drinking, hair-in-a-ponytail and sweats on because I ran out the door at 8AM on a Saturday to get to my kid’s game mom. Because, yeah, that is me. But I think of the stereotypical “soccer mom” as the woman in the movie.

I am a soccer mom in that my kids play soccer. They’re good at it, and they love it, and for those reasons I love watching them play. But if I ever became that woman, or anyone thought of me as her, I think I would die of embarrassment.

Not a soccer mom. But this is the ornament the kids got me for Christmas.

Not a soccer mom. But this is the ornament the kids got me for Christmas.

What it takes to become a professional athlete is a very unique and very rare combination of ability, skills, motivation, and desire. One can only be born with this set of attributes, and no parent can give them to their child just because they want them to succeed. The freak success stories of people like Tiger Woods and the Williams sisters make everyone believe they can turn their kids into stars. But those people happened to have the one-in-a-million lightning bolt combination to make it.

It pains me to see the looks on the faces of the kids in that video. If someone else made those kids look that way, wouldn’t the parents rush to their defense? They are so hurt, ashamed, embarrassed – and any parent who thinks they can encourage their child to do better in sports using those tactics is just wrong.

Here’s a new rule. Instead of forcing your kids to do the sports you think they should do, make sure they do at least one thing. Let them pick it out. It doesn’t have to be sports. When my son wanted to quit basketball it tore us up. But he found something else he loves and begs to go whenever we have a free moment. We had to let him find it himself and now we support him in this new path. Who knows how far this activity will take him? It could be something he does his whole life, and his love for it will be shared with others who love it.

I doubt very much that the parents in that video would take this advice. They may be shocked when their kids end up resenting them and turning to all kinds of bad behavior because they’re so stressed. They may be shocked when the principal calls them in to say their kid is a bully (I haven’t even explored that avenue but where do you think they come from?). I hope to get a chance to watch it and see if anyone changes their ways, or what their response is after the video goes public. This is compelling and important work, and I thank Peter Berg for having the guts to make it.

Tween Halloween

Every year my kids get older I learn something new. Halloween was upon us (literally – I didn’t even have candy until 6:00 when my husband got home from work) and they were still undecided about trick-or-treating.

I always try to stand back and take their cues, letting them make their own decisions about whether or not things are cool anymore. Of course Younger, the sugar addict, loves candy so much that he would trick-or-treat by candlelight even after a freak snowstorm took out all the power (this really happened).

Camera360_2013_10_31_090201 Older decided that maybe this was the year to stop going out, but it was a perfect excuse for a party. He coerced a bunch of other on-the-fence boys to come over for “a hangout.” It was rainy and dismal most of the day and I told him it would be OK to stay here if no one felt like going out in it.

And minutes after they all got here, they decided they really needed to go out and get bags full of candy. A couple didn’t even have costumes (including my own) so we dragged out the bag from the past few years and they let it rip, everyone taking bits and pieces. We even used one complete costume, worn tightly, as it was a few sizes too small (adds to the spookiness).

Halloween has always been one of my favorite nights to be in my neighborhood. There’s usually a party feel, people are out on their porches or even having bonfires in the yard. It truly is the last goodbye to warm weather and outdoor life before the real cold sets in.

I’ve met friends and even clients on Halloween. There are old folks just thrilled to have people to talk to. One lady who has to be pushing 90 is out every year under a knitted blanket. Last year she told me, “I wasn’t here last year because I had a broken hip. But I’m back now! And I even got my decorations up.” I don’t even know her, but when I see her on Halloween we chat like old friends.

There are some who love to play along and talk to or mess with the kids. Others are maybe only giving out the candy from a sense of duty and not loving it so much. But it always makes me feel good to know that the people who occupy so many of the houses around me, alot of whom I don’t really know, are in general pretty cool.

The crew of nine boys that we had was wild. Luckily a few parents volunteered to come along and we trailed them, making sure no one got sucked into another group or actually ran in front of a car. They tend to forget they’re on a street in the dark, in a pack, with costumed kids taking over the neighborhood.

They were excited. They were together. They had planned their own party, made it happen, and were out for candy. A few inappropriate words were spoken. Bodies ran and crashed and yelled. A few Halloween decorations were violated (not destroyed). We kept them in check until eventually they settled down to a dull roar.

But as always, in the back of my mind, I could see how this kind of behavior can drive people nuts, and why they would resent the big kids on Halloween. I wanted to defend our boys. To tell people that when a bunch of tweeners come to your door, half-dressed in weird costumes, and they may or may not be a little mouthy, don’t write them off.

They’re just young kids in a really difficult part of their lives, doing the best they can to try and fit in. They want to keep one foot in childhood as they face the stress of growing up and looking cool in front of a crowd of potential bullies. They’re fighting their way through the hardest years, so just give them some chocolate to help ease the pain.

When we got back to the house the boys were tired and polite. They wanted drinks and asked if it would be OK if they had some ice. When soda was spilled Older cleaned it up all by himself. They inspected their loot and left candy wrappers all around.

I looked at my thrown-together party with one sad string of skeleton lights, an untouched bowl of apples, the ripped open bag of costumes, wet socks and dirty pillowcases everywhere, and laughed at the insanity of my life right now.

The next day some of the parents told me how much fun their kid had had. More than one said they were grateful that Older had convinced them to go out because otherwise they wouldn’t have. This made me prouder than anything. I suddenly forgot how tired I was and how much cleaning I had to do. This is my life now: completely unplanned, surrounded by a dirty, overcrowded mess of happy, under-costumed kids. And I couldn’t be happier.

Children and Violence

The news about children and violence has been grim lately. I’m tired of the daily grind of shootings and homicidal bullying. It feels like a sickness. The word tragic has even become rote in this game. We hear tragic every day and it becomes less tragic.

After a teacher was killed protecting his students in Sparks, Nevada last week, the NRA yet again called for more guns in schools, going so far as to say that honor students should carry them. Their standard, cold-hearted, almost inhuman response to gun violence is to add more guns to the picture.

Let’s put it this way: We don’t allow people to vote until they’re 18. Because until then, people don’t have the reasoning and decision-making skills to make a choice that affects others. If they can’t color in a bubble next to someone’s name, they can’t have a gun. Period.

Then the story in Florida of the 12- and 14-year-old who bullied another 12-year-old to death got even more intense. After the 14-year-old was arrested on a felony charge because of her “lack of remorse,” her stepmother was arrested days later for viciously beating her children. After more investigation, the county sheriff declared that even the victim “grew up in a disturbing environment, not unlike the one her accused bully was raised in.”

I don’t feel shock anymore. I feel angry. It’s time for parents to step up. Stop blaming video games and movies and all the things you ALLOW your child to be exposed to for hours and hours for their bad behavior. The things, in fact, that you’ve sought out to babysit your kids while you spend your time doing whatever it is that’s more important than being with them.

The way your children treat others is taught first and foremost by you. Don’t look to the schools or teachers or their friends or coaches to teach them how to be a good person. Do it yourself.

Last week my son showed me an article in his Scholastic News (elementary school flashbacks) about a town in Wisconsin that is fining the parents of bullies. I was tickled that he wanted to show it to me, rather than being sick to death of hearing me talk about the subject. It was a great conversation and I was happy to hear his viewpoints. But most interesting was our conclusion: it’s a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.

Get help. Just because you had a kid doesn’t make you a parenting expert. It only makes you one of a million other people who had kids and don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Who are now faced with hundreds of decisions every day that seem to have lasting consequences reaching into the future and the good of your child. It’s overwhelming and stressful.

When we’re physically sick, we go to the doctor. It’s time for us to realize that we are mentally sick too, and get some help. I don’t care if it’s a guidance counselor, therapist, teacher, child care provider, anyone you trust. Just get help.

I spend all day every day teaching kids how to communicate with each other and how to understand what the others want. Compassion, empathy, remorse. The basic things we need to function with other people. The other day my little guy – 21 months old – bit someone after a fight over a toy. I used my usual tactics to handle the situation and while I was still tending to the girl he bit, he walked over of his own accord, put his hand on her shoulder, and said, “Sorry Janie.” She turned around and hugged him.

Astounding. And utterly possible. That’s less than two years old, folks. If a toddler gets it, the rest of us should be able to.