Everything Changes

I’ll never forget the ice cream cone sand toy my mother bought me when I was a child. The cone was the bucket, it had a middle chocolate layer of ice cream for the sifter, and the cherry top was a scooper. A vision of it popped into my head when we saw a similar yellow cone toy forgotten at the beach on our last day of vacation. I was surprised at how vividly I could picture my old toy.

Or the Native American doll we got at the trading post, with the beaded leather clothes and baby on her back. Or the way that store smelled, or the even more unbelievable smell of the candy shop that a little old lady ran out of her front porch nearby. I remember the bright white door and windows of the shop, and my first taste of white chocolate (an event that, I cannot stress this enough, changed my life).

When I walked into a candy shop on our vacation last week, that same fudgy/sugary smell hit me and I was transported to that little old lady’s porch. I have memories of childhood, but it is these vacation times that come back to me most clearly. I guess that’s because the family was together doing really fun stuff that we never got to do at other times, so they were very happy moments.

On this latest trip my mother and I took the boys to Storyland, a tradition we started a few years ago. At one point my mother told me something I never really knew before: that she had no memories of her grandmother beyond the strict, prim and proper woman sitting stiffly in a dress a the dinner table, a distant woman from another era. She said she wasn’t even sure if her grandmother spoke more than ten words to her in her whole life.

I thought of my own grandmother, and have too many memories to count. The hours spent playing solitaire on her dining room table. The game cabinet that in the days before electricity had been her cooler, but was now filled with toys for her grandchildren. The chicken bones she saved for us to play tug-of-war with, her work room filled with pins and beads, her mysterious old claw-foot tub, and where the gumdrops were hidden.

I even have some memories of the grandmother I lost when I was only four. She gave me Special K with sugar sprinkled over it and and let me eat it in front of the tv. She had black hair, kind eyes, and made the most incredible (and irreplaceable) blueberry tarts from berries we picked in her backyard.

And now this grandma, breaking the bank on a four-day extravaganza to all things fun: ice cream and candy, pools, amusement parks, rope courses, milkshakes, battling the other grandparents to win junky carnival game prizes.

Mom has always been concerned that the boys will see her as someone fun in their lives. She’s obviously doing the opposite of what her grandmother did, and we laughed at that fact as she dragged herself out of the lake we were swimming in, on our way back to town for dinner at the restaurant she had allowed them to pick.

I don’t know what memories my sons will have of their vacations, but Mom is right about one thing: we are making them every year. Every year they remember our traditions and want them to continue exactly as they’ve always been. Of course it’s sad for all of us when one of those traditions end, like when a business has closed or changed owners, and they stopped making the world’s best candy apple. Another Mom-ism from this trip was that change always happens no matter what. There’s nothing you can do about it.

I’m usually saddened by change, especially as my sons’ childhood years race by. But we are grateful for the change that is good. We started taking the boys to Storyland because mom and dad brought my sister and I there as children. When we found an exhibit of pictures of the park through the years, I immediately looked for the ’70s to show them what it was like when I used to go.

There in the middle of the park was the Little Black Sambo merry-go-round. Wow. We checked, and by the next iteration of the park it had been changed to the Jungle Adventure. It felt inappropriate to even be explaining our reaction to the boys (with all the mommies and daddies covering their kids’ ears and looking at me like I was insane), but they had to know.

And so we will go on. Things will change, sometimes for the worse but hopefully more often for the better. The boys will remember some of it and forget some of it. But some day when they’re at the beach with their kids, they’ll remember the cold lake in New Hampshire and throwing the ball in the water with Grammy.

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When Your Child Says “I Don’t Like You”

I’m starting a new two-year-old girl in my child care, Ms. A. She is adorable, and curious, and very excited to explore her new surroundings. But she does not like to take a nap.

The first day we spent together, she climbed out of her pack-n-play about 57 times. I lost count but I’m pretty sure it was around that much. I felt like I was in a SuperNanny episode (and so glad I could use her sleep technique).

The second day, she climbed out three times. Then she rolled around in her bed for about an hour, alternating between whining, yelling, a little crying (not serious), and giving me dirty looks but trying not to let me know she was doing so.

I heard, “I want to go home.” “I want mommy.” “I don’t like a nap.” “I want to go in Mommy’s car.” “I’m not tired.” “I need ____.” (Insert anything a toddler can think of: a drink, to potty, a toy, a book, a walk, a song, etc.)

Then she got very quiet for a while, and in a very serious voice, she let the big one rip: “I don’t like you.”

All I could do was chuckle. Not to make light of her desperation, but it was just funny to me. I forget after doing this work for eleven years that this kind of talk can be upsetting to parents.

When I reported on nap time to Ms. A’s mom she was very concerned that her daughter had used these awful words with me. I told her NOT to worry. And then I came up with my favorite quote of the week: “It’s not my job to make them like me. And that’s why they do.”

I know hearing “I don’t like you” from your child can hurt. But it’s your response that matters, not what your child said. It’s not really that they don’t like you. Really?! Don’t fall for it.

In truth, they feel safe enough with you to say that and trust that there won’t be dire consequences. They’re simply testing the boundaries. Throwing a rock in a pond to see what kind of splash they’ll get. And they’re just venting! Don’t you say stupid things to your family and friends when you’re angry?

Ms. A knew she wasn’t getting out of the crib any other way, and she was trying her last resort to get a rise out of me. I didn’t respond. I continued to sit and read the newspaper, which I’d been doing nearby enough for her to know I wasn’t gone, but also that if she climbed out I was right there to put a stop to it.

As I told her mom, we made great strides! In one day, going from a full hour of jumping out of the crib to stopping after three attempts – that’s amazing! We might even see sleep in the next couple of tries. This is real progress.

When your child says, “I don’t like you,” they’re looking for your attention. Kids will take negative attention if it’s all they can get. But remember: you’re the grownup. You need to know how to handle this child’s play better than they do.

If you’re really hurt, tell them that’s how you feel, and that you need a minute before you want to talk to them again. But there’s no reason to be hurt. And worst of all, give them a huge response. Yell, be upset, be mad, get hurt, show them how mean they are – if you want to hear “I don’t like you!” again tomorrow. And the next day, and the next day…

Your best response (unless you’re sleep-training and purposely ignoring them!) is to calmly repeat their words. “You don’t like me? Why?”

You will be amazed at the answer to that question. Just hang in there and TALK to them. It’s all your child wants. You might even end up snuggling instead of fighting.

It’s not my job to get kids to like me. It’s my job to protect them, feed them, let them explore, and teach them how to be healthy physically and mentally. I have plenty of adult friends, I don’t need two-year-old friends. So I’m the bad guy sometimes.

Kids know all this instinctively. They don’t really want to be my friend either – I’m boring. I like to sit around talking, not climb trees and have tea parties. I give them the boundaries they need and crave in a gentle but firm way. I don’t freak out when they do things that every child does just to see how I’ll react. When they get this calm consistency from me, they know they can trust me. And then they love me.

And I love them, from the moment they start kicking and screaming, to the moment they come back and give me unconditional hugs and love.

The Tyranny of Expectation

I recently wrote an article on school choice that I thought would earn me a good deal of backlash. Instead, what people responded to most strongly was the idea that we expect too much of our public school system. It got me thinking about expectations.

Parents are probably the kings and queens of expectation. We want the world to be safe and kind, all teachers to be perfect, all coaches to be nurturing, all drivers to slow down, all bullies to get theirs, and for our children to have the best of everything all the time and total happiness and fulfillment in their lives.

Is that too much to ask?

What about the expectations I’ve been given, as a woman and a mother? The debate that women can have it all rages on but I can tell you, we can’t. Did I expect that this job, which is harder, more demanding, and more complicated than any other job I’ve ever had, would eliminate me as a viable candidate for any other job I applied for after I was done? Nope. But it has. I am now “just” a day care provider, my label for life.

However. I couldn’t be the mother I wanted to be if I had any job other than this. So I gave up a career to be a mom. Also not what I expected, or what I was led to believe I could have. I could be mad about this, or I could be grateful that I am here for my kids as much as I possibly can be. No “career” job could make me that happy. Though it would certainly pay better.

The very idea of “motherhood” is laden with expectation – no pun intended – right from the start of pregnancy. I was reminded of that by this hilarious (and profane) blog post, “A Letter to My Pregnant, Child-less Self.” Birth plan? How can you possibly control birth? And who decided it would be a good idea to let us expect that we could? Here’s what to expect from labor: a lot of pain, a lot of pushing, elation, fear, exhaustion, and hopefully a healthy mom and baby at the end of it.

Besides letting us down, expectations take us away from a place of gratitude. If there’s anything I’ve tried to teach my boys (in a world full of Joneses), it is to be happy for what they have. When they start envying what their friends have, I remind them of the friends we know who have less. When you can look at what you have and be satisfied, life is so much easier.

The other day I was explaining a “bad” event to Younger Son using the Zen story about the farmer whose son breaks his leg. The neighbors say how awful, but when the army comes and can’t take the boy to fight, they say how wonderful. At every turn, the farmer simply says, “Maybe.” (For the full text, click here and scroll down to “Maybe.”) We can’t see the benefit when we’re in a struggle, and we can’t presume to know the outcome. We need to learn how to accept that what we have may be just fine.

Fifteen years ago my husband took me on a hike to the top of Somes Sound, touted as “the only fjord on the Atlantic coast.” I sat on the smooth rock looking over the harbor below and thought, this is not what I expected. I wanted a dramatic chasm of rock rising on either side with boats like ants in the water below. Instead it was a gentle slope down to a rather wide, average-looking waterway. But it was beautiful, and blue, and breathtaking in its own way.

In a few weeks we’ll go back to that fjord with our sons, and climb the same hill and look out over the harbor. I’ll force them to stand still, pose, and smile for the camera though they can barely tolerate my picture-taking after a few days on vacation. It won’t be what I expected, but it will be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

A Mother’s Fear and Faith

I find myself to be struck dumb when catastrophes happen. It’s hard for me to write about the little details of parenthood and life with kids, and deal with my little complaints, and make all the nonsense seem silly and cute, when I know there are 12,000 people in Oklahoma whose homes just got wiped off the map.

And there are too many catastrophes happening lately, so I find that I can’t write very much. Last week I was focused on how to protect our kids from all the dangers that lurk out there. I decided to give up years of beating myself up for being too worried, and accept that I’m a mother. I’m supposed to be worried. And I’m pretty sure it’s a biological imperative, so I should just stop fighting it.

But the new challenge I have set for myself is to find a way to manage the worry and allow my children their freedom. I have to accept that all of life is a risk. And as Baz Luhrmann tells us in the logo for his production company, “A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.” (We saw Gatsby this weekend, it was decent. Thanks for the advice, Baz.)

I don’t want to be fearful. I want to be that adventuresome person climbing the rock cliffs like we did in Utah over spring break. I want to give my kids all the challenges and freedom they need to grow into healthy adults and have faith that they will be alright. Why is it that we can be so unafraid in the face of real falling-off-a-cliff danger, but the walk to school feels scarier than falling off a cliff?

Usually when I’m in this mode of worry and doubt, comfort comes when I least expect it. I was reading the newspaper (a prime source of disaster stress) and there was an article about our police department hiring a new chaplain to provide counseling for both police and the families involved with incidents.

When asked about the stresses of his job, and dealing with so many people in trauma and crisis, he responded, “It’s been a blessing for me to get this experience over the years and to be able to respond to these horrific events to help people get through it and move on. Because we can’t protect ourselves from all these things, we just have to help each other get through it.”

I was hit by the honesty, strength – and yes, acceptance – in this quote, and it stayed with me. Things are going to happen in my kids’ lives. I can’t predict them or prevent them. I can’t be there for everything and there are things they won’t want me there for. But I can always help them through. Whenever my sons get worried we tell them, “There are always people who will help you.” Today my challenge is to focus on this aspect of the good in people and let go of the fear.

Losing Our Grip

There’s nothing like taking a vacation to make you wonder about our parenting culture.

As we were laying in bed in our hotel room at 10:30 at night, listening to the patter of little feet run from left…to right…to left…to right…BAM jump off the bed! And left…to right, my husband looked at me and said, “Maybe we’re too hard on our kids. I guess we should just let them do whatever they want.”

I told him at least we aren’t as bad as the lady at the pool. When her son disappeared for thirty seconds, she suspected he stole a butterscotch from the bowl on the front desk. “Where did you go?!” she demanded. “Open your mouth! Stick out your tongue!” While he whined about “Maaaaaaa-ahm, I didn’t do anything! I just went through the other door!” she actually grabbed his cheeks and inspected his mouth. “You better not have gotten any candy!” “Maaaa-ahm, I DIDN’T get any CANDY!”

My sons, who had been joyously running between the cold pool and the hot tub, stopped in their tracks, came to sit with me, and said, “Isn’t it time to go?”

I said, “Yea. As long as we can stop for butterscotches on the way.”

I don’t know. Maybe she had her reasons. But it seems to me that the messsage parents hear today is that we should care more about what our children eat than how they behave.

I understand where this comes from. We all want what’s best for our kids but don’t know how to get it, so we over-parent. And over-parenting is, of course, the style du jour. We’ve bought the idea that they can grow in a warm bubble of nurturing and have the best childhood ever experienced by any person in the history of time. That we are so enlightened, we will make them be superhumanly awesome by being superhumanly awesome parents.

I wonder if you can actually pinpoint the moment bubbles burst.

Is it the first time your child stamps their foot and says, “NO!” Is it your first fight? First lie? First broken window?

I think we’ve forgotten that we’re only human, our kids are ONLY HUMAN, and we’re all just doing the best we can. We’re all going to get mad, make mistakes, tell a lie, make a bad choice, regret something we did and not know what to do.

I actually love it when my kids come to me with a problem and I can say, “I had the very same thing happen to me the other day. I felt really bad about it. What can we do to make it right?”

We need to stop seeing our children as “other” and treat them like ourselves. We have objectified them to the point of thinking they are either little robots we can control, or nether-beings of a higher order who should never be denied their heart’s wishes and desires.

How would you like to be treated? That’s how you should treat your kids.

At Storyland, Glen, NH

At Storyland, Glen, NH

As a culture, our expectations for perfection have become too high. We need to find a balance. We have to be able to say, “You need to do this because I’m your mother and I said so,” but also, “I think I handled that wrong. How can we work together to make it better next time?” 

Balance means making them eat vegetables but also giving them candy. Taking a hike, AND letting them play video games. Telling them when they’re wrong and giving consequences. But then making sure they know that we love them no matter what. Unconditionally.

For the rest of the vacation I pondered this never-ending question, the idea that maybe I’m not doing as good of a job of parenting as I could be. Which I spend a lot of my time doing. You hadn’t noticed?

One night we went out to dinner and sat next to a woman who seemed a little grumpy – I thought we were irritating her with our raunchy boy jokes and reminded them to keep it down (not to stop, of course).

At the end of the meal she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “I just want you to know…” (oh crap, here it comes), “how well-behaved your boys are. They are so polite and well-mannered, it’s lovely.”

Yes!!! Gold star for me!!!

Sorry. What I meant to say was how gratifying that was to hear, and how it made me feel not only proud, but relieved. It’s really ok – appreciated even – to require good behavior from our children. I whispered to the boys, “DID YOU HEAR WHAT SHE SAID?!” like I was SO excited and half-shocked. They smirked it away, but I know they felt as good as I did.

And that in itself is enough of a reward.

Steubenville

“It is tempting to point fingers while ignoring some of the root causes that are much more difficult to resolve. The extent that youngsters (and some adults) spend endless hours being entertained by violence says more about lack of supervision and control as well as disengagement. It isn’t that the entertainment media are so powerful, but that other institutions — family, school, religion and community — have grown weaker. Banning violent entertainment seems like an easy fix, but would do little to avert the next mass murder.” – James Alan Fox, Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University

It is strange that I would find the most enlightening comment about the Steubenville sexual assault case on the NY Daily News website (not exactly your top journalistic contender), and not in an article about the case but in a related link about violent video games and mass shootings.

Violence is pervasive in our culture, and there is no one root cause or easy fix, as Professor Fox says. It seems that our institutions have grown weaker, and it feels like little we do will stop the next assault and ensuing social media/entertainment news circus.

Fox is also right about disengagement. With everyone having a screen in their face all the time, whether or not that screen is showing us violent images, we are disconnected. And the screen enables us to post a horrific picture online without thinking twice. This is why all those institutions, as well as our human interactions, are weakened.

One of the tenets of human interaction is seeing the consequences of our behavior on the faces of those around us. We learn how to behave with others’ approval or disapproval. When we’re staring at a screen we don’t see the person on the other end. Or the one right in front of us, for that matter.

I’d been thinking about consequences before the Steubenville case blew up. Parents today are frantic to create a world for their children that is painless, and somewhere along the line some expert told us we can have that. We’ve bought into the notion that life can truly be a bowl of cherries, and for our kids that means no consequences.

In our effort to remove everything hard or painful from our kids’ lives, we’ve also eliminated their feelings. Their natural emotions and responses are tamped down and hidden. There is no appropriate place for letting them out. We don’t play in the neighborhood. We don’t ride our bikes unless it’s on paved trails. We barely even have recess anymore.

Kids rarely have interaction without adults telling them how to behave. They need to learn with their peers, outside of the protective bubble. They need to be wild, get in scrapes, and let their friends show them what’s acceptable. They need to kill a frog and feel how downright awful it is in the pit of their stomach. They need to learn this before the teen years, when we assume they’re ready and give them more freedom. And they should be doing it without social media at their fingertips 24/7.

I want to tell my sons to never ever do anything stupid, because it will be on every kid in your school’s cell phone the next morning. You will be damaged. But never making a mistake is impossible. We all do stupid things (thank God there were no pocket videorecorders around when I was young). I’m not sure how they’re going to make it through unscathed.

The atrocities that happened in Steubenville are not just about the sexual assault – they are about the overall treatment of another human being. Not just what was done to the victim’s body, but to her emotions and well-being. With all the disengagement that Professor Fox speaks of, young people are simply not learning how to treat each other.

I teach a brain development class in which I talk about the fact that the teenage brain is often incapable of seeing the consequences of actions, and exhibits deep denial behaviors (“We’re indestructible!”). How the moral centers in the brain have not yet developed even though the emotions and hormones are churning. That teens have an adult body with all the capabilities, but are still using a child’s brain. The U.S. Department of Justice tells the scary statistics: one-third of all crime is committed by children under the age of 18.

Still, one would hope that we’ve taught our kids well enough to know when to draw the line. We hope they’ll make good choices, and the work we’ve put into that will show when it counts. But alcohol plus a bunch of kids standing around cheering always leads to one hell of a dangerous situation.

Kids need consequences from adults and each other. They need to know that everything they do isn’t the greatest thing ever to hit the planet. It’s why I spend so much of my energy railing against the cult of sports. I’ve seen eleven-year-old boys being praised to the sky because they ran down a field with a ball. From that moment on, that boy knows he has every adult in the room wrapped around his finger. And if that’s true, what can he get away with among his peers?

Steubenville can and will happen again – precisely because there are cameras in every person’s pocket. While the images were used in a horrifying way to humiliate one young girl, they’ve also shed light on the type of activity that kids are participating in. The same images also led to the consequences that these kids so desperately deserve, and I applaud the local authorities for taking action and continuing their investigation.

As I write this, there are three boys wrestling rather violently in my play room. I’m not stopping them. They don’t want me to. Part of this play is learning limits to how far you can go with someone else’s body. When they hurt each other, they stop and check if the hurt person is OK. Someone said, “Time out,” and the others immediately let him go sit down.

I said, “I will let you continue this if timeout is sacred,” and they all accepted that rule without me even having to explain any further. They want to push the limits, but they also want to know the rules. If everyone is safe, they know that individually they’re safe too.

I hope and pray that as the boys in my playroom venture out into the teen years, where I can’t be there to supervise, that they will remember the lessons of these wrestling matches. And the lessons they see me working on from day one in my profession: We don’t put our hands on people in a harmful way. We don’t take things from them. We don’t hurt people’s bodies. No one is allowed to do these things to anyone else. It is unacceptable. And there will be consequences.

Help! I’m Surrounded by Children!

When I was 16 I swore to my boss at the ice cream shop that I would NEVER have kids. I hated them and everything to do with them. I’d had a series of failed babysitting gigs and was convinced that I would never have what it took to be with children.

All I had to do to prove my point was show him the behavior of the whining little ones and their overly-doting parents as they held up the line of fifteen people for ten minutes, choosing their sprinkle color while their cone melted down my wrist.

He used to love teasing me about this, saying, “Just you wait and see,” while his infant napped in the baby swing that was installed in the back corner of the serving area.

Today not only is my professional life riddled with kids, but I’ve found that the rest of my life is as well. The neighborhood kids know that I’m here after school, and it attracts them to my house. In the past week we’ve had snowball fights in my yard, indoor basketball tournaments, Nerf gun battles, and fights over who gets to eat the rest of the raspberries. All impromptu, because they were looking for something to do and we were here.

So my boss was right. I love being this mom to everyone, having all the kids know that if something goes wrong, Amy is ALWAYS there. Just show up and you’ll be taken care of. My parents’ house was like this growing up, and now I’m here. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But the funny thing is, besides all the fun and games, I do spend most of my day arguing with all these kids. For the littles, it’s why you have to put on your shoes, why it’s time to go inside, why you have to get your diaper changed now whether you like it or not. And we go right on up the line to why you can’t have a sleepover every weekend and why you have to do your homework NOW, before video games.

They fight with me simply because I’m in charge. That’s what humans do, fight the power. But being in charge isn’t a natural state for me, I have to work at it. I want to say yes to everything but being mom means setting boundaries. I’m not always the strictest person in the world, but I am the most trustworthy. I don’t care if you say a swear, as long as I never see you bullying anybody, ever. And I’ll love you no matter what, but you will pay for bad behavior.

This parenting thing really forces you to grow up.

I had a realization last week while I was making them eat apple slices instead of Thin Mints. The reason they love it here – all kids, all ages – is not just because I’m here, but because of the arguing as well. They’re safe. They may want to eat a whole bag of Cheetos and have a Harry Potter movie marathon but I’m here to tell them why they can’t. And even though that sucks in the moment, they know someone is taking care of them. (Deep down. Really. That’s what I keep telling myself.)

This weekend I saw a sad exchange between a father and his teenage son. The father was storming out, staring at his phone, and the son was running after him, calling “Dad!” The father barely looked up and when the son reached him he said, “I knew you would just be humiliated to be seen with me.” I could see the son trying to make peace with the father, and I knew that dad was angry because his son had done something that every typical teenager does. But instead of just accepting that, he was taking it personally.

We have so much misunderstanding in how we deal with our kids. It’s so sad how we view kids, especially teenagers. They’re bad, they’re cranky, they’re crazy, they fight us. They invent languages so we don’t know what they’re saying. They keep secrets and tell lies. Us vs. them.

I wanted to tell both the dad and the son not to take it so seriously. Kids aren’t bad, they’re just kids. When they fight us or act out it’s because they have to establish their own identity separate from us. This is a healthy, natural, and necessary developmental process. And it certainly doesn’t mean they don’t need us. Inside every tough pose is a scared little person just trying to figure out their way in the world, and they always need our support and guidance.

So I’ve come from hating kids to being constantly surrounded by them. And I’m happy. I know that these are the fullest, most complete years of my life, because I’m contributing my little part to raising all of them. Maybe I reached that level of understanding after all.