Knowing When to Push Your Kids

The other day Mr. O realized that his bff was getting on the rocket swing without him and he scrambled to get there before takeoff. I said, “You want a big push?” and he, with his foot stuck underneath himself, said, “I’m not ready yet.” I replied, “I won’t push you ’til you’re ready.”

I was so proud of my little life truism. I felt like Splinter to his Leonardo. Master Shifu to his Po. Avatar Roku to his Aang. For those of you who don’t watch children’s cartoons all day, I was Obi-wan to his Luke (my geek police are not pleased, I realize that).

Silliness aside, I find this is one of the daily challenges of parenting and working with children. When is the right time to push a child, and when do you hold back? It’s one of those questions that never has one simple answer, because every child is different. When you live and work with them you learn what is the right amount of expectation and support for each individual, but it’s a constant balancing act.

On a daily basis I find myself presented with a situation that begs this question. Do I push him now, or do I realize he needs help and give him that instead. Chores and consequences are one thing – you can’t go to your friend’s house until your homework is done. That’s simple enough but it’s just a basic rule, not a judgment call. When he’s had a bad day because he failed a test, do I say YOU NEED TO WORK HARDER NEXT TIME! Or do I tell him these things happen, and pledge to help him study for the next test?

Even the child who could always be pressured a little to do better has periods of regression. The kid who was a superstar last year may have had something bad happen and now he’s plummeting. It doesn’t mean he turned bad – he needs support and love more than ever, and we in our competitive culture tend to be harder on them when they most need kindness. You were great before – why can’t you be great now? Suck it up kid!

We all go through periods like this and I still find myself on that roller coaster as an adult. Usually I’m on top of my game all the time – I got the mom thing mastered and I love it. But when I have those downswings I just want someone to tell me it’s going to be ok. Doesn’t it make sense that when our children are in a dark place, we should do the same for them instead of just demanding for them to “be better”?

I can’t…how can I put this delicately? provide constructive feedback to? or sometimes even make a simple comment to my teenager without fear that he’ll sink into depression. All parents of teens know this. But when we think they’re just being emotional and crazy and want to react and write them off, we should remember how everything felt like a personal attack at that age (hormones). My husband told our son he did a good job on something and his response was a litany of things he did wrong and storming out of the room. That shirt looks good on you. How could you SAY something like that?!

So the story becomes, as we decide when to push our child, we should also be pushing ourselves as parents. We must assess what we’re doing and take an honest look at our own behavior. We have to recognize when we’re out of line or when we need to change instead of trying to force a change on our children. They are their own people and will make their own choices. We can only provide guidance, and constant reminders of what’s right and wrong of course. Back to the hero’s journey. We send them on their way and hope they find the right path.

When parents are having trouble communicating with their children I always ask them, How would you feel if your boss spoke to you that way? Or your partner? We need to be aware of our tone of voice and body language when talking to our kids – which is often lecturing, yelling, or tossing some remark at them while we rush to the next thing or stare at our phone, if we’re really honest.

It is our job to recognize when it is time to push, when it is time step back and let our kids fail a little, and definitely, most importantly, when we need to have real open communication and hear what they need. Then figure out the best way to get them that support – which might not even involve our help, but instead teaching them how to find it elsewhere.

I say it constantly, but parenting is the hardest – and most important – thing most of us will ever do. No one fully understands that until they’re in it – at 2AM after a string of sleepless nights with a baby who still won’t go to sleep and we are ready to lose our freaking mind. Or just standing there at the end of the school day with a kid in tears, trying to find the right way to help him. Steel yourselves, Masters of young heroes. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore 😦

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.

Summer, Boys, Bikes, Freedom

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,
– Speak to us of children!
And he said:
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Khalil Gibran – The Prophet

One of my dearest friends gave me those words and they hang on my fridge, an everyday reminder of what’s important to me. If our refrigerators are a peek into our minds, I am a more than slightly crazy person. But my kids are doing great.

Anyway these words ring truer for me this year more than any. When she first gave me the poem my kids were so young, probably still in preschool and kindergarten. At that time letting them fly into the world meant spending a few hours a day away from me in the full-time care of another competent adult. And that felt huge for both of us.

This summer, even the past few weeks, have meant whole new worlds opening for them. Last year it started with the baby steps of letting them walk home from school with a gang of friends and hang out downtown, terrorizing local businesses with noise, food messes, and probably the occasional profanity. Today, they are free to go wherever and whenever they want. They tell me whose house they’re going to, or what store, and hop on their bikes and off they go. They haven’t started taking the money directly out of my wallet yet – they still ask for it and wait around to count it.

They even had their first real babysitting job yesterday, the two of them together (I figure that’s better than one, in an emergency they might be able to use each other’s help, or just make each other more panicked, but eventually somebody would figure out what to do?). Letting them be in charge in someone else’s home (and that dear lady for trusting them) felt like baby steps into adulthood, just as those preschool steps felt so many years ago. It doesn’t seem like it in my memories, but I have to admit it – ten years is a long time.

The choices they are making show me how far these arrows will go. The other day when they wanted to go for a ride downtown I gave them all the cash I had, which came down to a whopping $4 each to spend at the candy store. I figured it would be gone in seconds, on milk shakes or the biggest bag of candy ever. But they came home and handed me a Kit Kat. It was the best part of my whole week.

Best candy bar ever

Best candy bar ever

Their thoughts are their own and they make that clear when I try to impose mine, which is great. They’ll listen to advice but make up their own minds (and that’s when I have to back off). As another friend said the other day, her girls who are the same ages as mine won’t speak all day but then something will come out and she has to be READY and focused at that moment to hear what they have to say. But when they do share what’s on their mind I’m so pleased.

The ways in which I strive to be like them are many. They’re small adults but still uncomplicated. They ask questions and really are curious about how the world works. They fight bullies and speak truth. There’s no drama or if there is, they get over it in the boy way of punching each other, being mad for a little while, and then getting over it.

I know I can learn more from them, or from the journey I am taking because of them, than they can learn from me. They’ll get educated on the subjects they need to learn eventually. That’s not my job. Making sure they know what’s important – and knowing when it’s their turn to teach me – that’s my job.

Pawns in the Game of Common Core Chess

Here’s something new. Louis CK has a new season of his show starting tonight, and while on the press tour he has decided to start a battle against common core standards. Just when I thought I couldn’t love him anymore.

I came across this information in this month’s New Yorker blog, which mentions US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s battle FOR common core and support of standardized testing. In Arne’s opinion, opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.'”

Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just start with my rage. My privileged, white suburban mom rage.

I happen to know my kids pretty well. I know they’re not Einstein, and I know they’re also pretty damn smart. I also knew what I was getting into when I made the choice to live in my town, all by my big grownup girl self (and I managed to make these life decisions without the benefits of MCAS, PARCC, or Common Core in my public school education!).

I know that my kids aren’t stressed out because they’re over-scheduled privileged white suburban youths. Their weekend soccer games are their outlet, the place they get to shine, as opposed to the school system that tells them they are built wrong (but perhaps I’m just an overwrought soccer mom whose priorities are in the wrong place).

My kids are stressed out because every day they are made to feel there is something wrong with them if they can’t easily understand the work they’re supposed to be breezing through and producing results on. They’re stressed out because every night we struggle through homework for hours and spend most of that time with nobody in the house, including mom and dad, understanding the meaning of the questions or the point of the exercise.

My kids are stressed out because they hear that their teachers are doing a shoddy job when everyone in the class hasn’t gotten stellar ratings on a test that shows absolutely nothing about their abilities or chances for future success in the real world, where people’s talents and performance aren’t based on filling in bubbles on a page.

As to Arne’s opinion on us suburban moms and how we feel about our schools: my kids have had what I feel to be the best education they could in this day and age, and that is in spite of testing, not because of. They’re getting a good education because of their TEACHERS, who are outrageously dedicated and caring despite the ridiculousness of the situation they’ve been put in, and the incredible (and unnecessary) amount of stress they have to shoulder on a daily basis.

That the head of the education department in this country considers parents to be whiners because their kids aren’t successful is telling. It shows the true depth of his ignorance regarding the people he’s serving.

The Washington Post further states that “when confronted with the truth through lower test scores and other indicators, the unhelpful response, in Arne’s view, is to say, ‘Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better.’ The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, ‘What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?’”

I’d say the most productive response would be to say, why don’t we ask the experts what children need to succeed in school? And why don’t we leave that schooling in the hands of the educators who actually have experience, knowledge, education, and wisdom in the area of working with children? And why don’t we take some of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on testing and put that back towards education?

Aye, there’s the rub (Hamlet reference. I know that from my public school education). Far too many people are making far too much profit off our children. That’s why they are no more important than numbers on a graph, and their mothers are marginalized as hysterical, spoiled, over-reacting princesses when we question why our kids, teachers, and schools are suffering.

I have to fight the battle every day to convince my kids that school is important and homework is important even when I don’t believe in the system. It can be easy for people like Arne Duncan to confuse my frustration with white suburban privilege. I do believe in my schools and teachers. I believe in my kids. And I’m bright enough to be able to see when they are being used as pawns in a political game, and then blamed for not knowing how to play.

This year I let my kids choose if they wanted to opt out of their standardized testing. They wanted to do it, if only because of the candy and free time at the end of the day. Next year I don’t think they get the choice. They will not be subject to this madness any more. As a parent, it is my job to protect my children from those that would abuse them, and that includes the unskilled, ill-informed politicians who are wrongly in charge of their education. Arne, we’re not playing your game anymore.

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.