Don’t Make Me Go All Amnesty on Your Ass

Some moments in child care take everything you’ve learned up until that moment. It sometimes feels like the culmination of my whole life as a daughter, sister, mother, master’s degree student, teacher, and therapist. The last of which I’m not, but often find myself having to be with the demands of the job.

This week’s moment was with my brother and sister pair. They are typical siblings with the usual squabbles who band together rabidly if anyone else bothers them (she’s MY sister – only I can beat the crap out of her!). This time it was brother who took the blow. I missed the beginning of the fight but saw and heard the outcome. He hit the deck, hard. Full-on WWE body slam.

I walked into the room and all eyes were on me. I had a lot of choices as to how to handle this situation. I could yell and make a big scene, I could punish her, I could try to set an example for all the kids by showing everybody how wrong this was, and how angry it made me.

Sister was too afraid to even say she was sorry. She was staring at me waiting for the hammer to come down.

I looked at brother. He was laying on the floor, pained not only because he’d whacked his head pretty good, but I could see it in his eyes: How could she do this to me? My heart melted.

I didn’t say a word to anybody. I went to him, knelt down, pulled him into my lap, and just sat and hugged him in silence.

No one knew what to do. They spoke a few words here and there but were at a loss as to what I was thinking. I looked around at the kids and realized they were all playing their roles. Sister knew she was in trouble and was trying to blend into the background while knowing she still had to atone for it.

The other instigator of the fight knew this was big, but was thinking I didn’t know she had anything to do with it and she might get off scot free. My class clown started being funny to try to distract everybody from the tension. But I wasn’t going to move on without addressing the moment.

As I sat and held brother I took a moment to collect my thoughts and decide how I was going to handle this. It was good to let the kids stew for a moment, worrying about how much trouble this was going to be. And it’s good for me not to have to make snap decisions all the time. Sibling fighting is a ploy for attention, and sometimes when you give the right attention the fight is resolved (doesn’t mean there won’t be another one).

I remembered raising my own boys and being so angry at one when he’d hurt the other. It didn’t matter who was the perpetrator or what they did – when one of my babies was hurt, mama bear roared. It was unacceptable to me – you do NOT hurt your brother! This is your FAMILY. That may be the one thing I fought them the hardest on, and I know I got it from my mother.

My sister and I rarely had fights but when they did, they were a doozy. I didn’t necessarily want her to be punished – I just wanted someone to understand how I felt. My mother would spend a while talking with her in her room, then come to me. Usually we’d have to say sorry, but it didn’t feel so hard after we aired our feelings and got the attention we needed.

In the end I just ignored everyone but brother and kept asking him how he felt. We talked about how hurt and scared he was. I asked why she pushed him down. He said he took her toy. I said, “Do you think taking her toy made her angry?” He nodded yes. Then I asked, “Do you think it’s fair to be tackled for taking a toy?” After that, sister approached and genuinely apologized to him.

I don’t know how much it sank in – it certainly didn’t stop them from battling out the rest of the week. But for the moment, she really saw that what she’d done was wrong. Brother felt comforted, not because it came from me but most importantly, because it came from his sister.

And at lunch time, when sister told me, “You always give me the food last,” I resisted the urge to tell her that those who try to destroy their brother will eventually pay the price.

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.

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.

You Don’t Have to be An Attachment Parent

I’m trying not to get too worked up about yet another study telling us that if we’re not attachment parents, we are destroying our children. But you know how good I am at that.

I try to remain calm. However, the first sentence of this article uses the word “retard” in reference to children who are not raised in the attachment style. That leads me to believe that the author does in fact mean to provoke her readers.

The author goes on to say that “ill-advised practices…such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it…(are causing an) epidemic of anxiety and depression…rising rates of aggressive behavior and delinquency…and decreasing empathy, the backbone of compassionate, moral behavior, among college students.”

Whoa whoa whoa. Slow down now. I think there may be a few things – just a few other factors – that occur between infancy and adulthood that could cause anxiety and depression. Just a few?

And I refuse to believe that widespread practices of only a generation ago are such all-out catastrophes. My mother formula-fed me, let me cry it out, and put me in a – gasp – playpen when I was a baby! So I would be SAFE while she cooked my dinner! And good Lord, I survived all that trauma and abuse.

Am I depressed, angry, delinquent, and unempathetic? I like to think I’m pretty normal, a successful small business owner, happily married, doing my best to raise well-adjusted (non-attachment) children. I’m pretty sure that being put in a crib as a baby didn’t destroy my life.

And then there is the age-old argument presented as revelation: “This new research links certain early, nurturing parenting practices — the kind common in foraging hunter-gatherer societies — to specific, healthy emotional outcomes in adulthood.”

Hmm. I remember watching the movie “Babies” where the Mongolian baby was tied to the bed while the mom worked. While other people in the theater gasped in horror, I thought, that’s genius! (Maybe I’m wrong.)

I’m sure if you really looked at it, you could find just as many societies around the world where people don’t sleep with their babies. Or like us, a society that is torn in its beliefs with many different experts wringing their hands over it.

So, we’re not a foraging hunter-gatherer society. Those third-world moms (who I’m sure love being seen in that light) probably don’t have to get two kids to school and be in a 9:00 meeting looking awesome with a box of gluten-free muffins we picked up at the organic bakery on the way in because the new client has a wheat allergy (probably due to formula feeding).

Beyond the questionable parenting advice, what upsets me most about these studies is the implication that it’s all mom’s fault. If you didn’t co-sleep or nurse, your kid is done for. They’re depressed, anxious, and maladjusted, and it’s because you let them cry too much as a baby. Nicely done, mom!

What these studies fail to see is that it’s not co-sleeping and breastfeeding that teach empathy, good behavior, and general well-being. It’s what happens BEYOND infancy. Good and/or bad habits can be established during those early years, but it is parenting throughout childhood that sets a child’s path.

And guess what? We can do everything right (impossible) and still have a child who is depressed or anxious. Co-sleeping does not a perfect world make. It doesn’t affect biology or socioeconomic status or many other factors in a child’s life.

I understand that the people promoting these studies have good intentions. But from what I can gather, they are being presented by women who don’t even have children. If I started doling out advice about brain surgery, I think the patients might be taken aback.

When I was about to give birth for the first time a wise friend told me, “There are no blue ribbons. All we want is a healthy mom and baby out of this.” The same can be said for parenting. We’re all just doing the best we can.

If you’ve had success with co-sleeping and can string together more than 4 hours of uninterrupted sleep, then awesome. If it’s working and you’re happy, keep it up. But consider yourself lucky, because you are among about the 8% of people who’ve been able to make it work. (That’s not a research-driven statistic – it’s my anecdotal experience. Just to clarify.)

For the rest of you: there is hope. You can still be a good mom even if you can’t stand having a baby in your bed. Because here’s what it takes to raise children: Consistency. Boundaries. Lots of love. High expectations for good behavior. Consequences. Being able to say no. Having to be the bad guy no matter how hard it hurts. Being pushed to the limit emotionally and still give your child what they need from you in a loving way. Facing both demons and fingerprint-smudged walls on a daily basis. Being able to laugh through it all. A good night’s sleep. And not taking everything so damn seriously.

A Computer-Free Weekend

“People are getting overrun by technology. The future is here.” – Younger Son

The other day Older Son had to explain what a meme is to me. That’s the first time that’s happened in twelve years. But it describes what I got in my email last week so I thought I’d be cool and use it. The meme in question was a bunch of pictures of people with their noses in cellphones and an Einstein quote that said, “I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots.”

Like many memes, I can’t find proof that Einstein ever said that, so it’s probably just someone’s opinion. Einstein wasn’t the type of guy to refer to people (especially those younger than him) as idiots. Nor do I believe we have a generation of idiots on our hands.

On the contrary some scientists believe that technology is actually speeding up our evolution. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate but, it is what it is (to quote an overly-used and somewhat annyoing meme).

What I do agree with is that we are living with screens in our faces, and it’s becoming more and more pervasive, like it or not. I’m not anti-computer. In fact I need it to do most of my work and my laptop is probably my favorite thing. Next to my iPod of course.

But I’ve been taking computer-free weekends more and more often now and I’m quite enjoying them, more than I thought I would. This time it was a LONG weekend – Thanksgiving at Grandma’s house – and I left the computer behind. Egad.

There were times over the weekend when I missed my technology. I needed it to look up Christmas wish lists and basketball schedules, and check our now-online family calendar (a move I resisted as long as I could – what do we do during the next week-long power outage? Paper is still good for a lot of things, like calendars. And contact lists that don’t get destroyed when they go through the wash in your pocket).

At these times we had to fight over the one available computer. Luckily when we wanted the movie listings they were still in the newspaper. We found ways to get around the hardship.

And I could always borrow someone’s phone or iPad to get to the internet. It was very meta (is that a meme?) to be watching a TV commercial about how advertisers are losing viewers to handhelds while two people sat on the couch looking at their handhelds.

But Grammy’s house is family time. We played games and made craft projects and baked. Older Son and I built his science project while Grandpa let Younger Son try out the drill press. We read books. Real ones! (I really hope books make it. I HATE reading on a Kindle and I’m not afraid to say it. Oh crap the tech police may be after me at this very moment.)

I finally convinced one of my kids to play double solitaire with me, which was what I did at my Grammy’s house. My sister pointed out that she still has the deck of cards we used.

I found that by far, I’m happiest when my whole family extricates ourselves from technology. More often than not we have to leave the house in order to do this, but that’s just fine. For this weekend it meant a climb on a glacial rock, a long walk to the beach, and watching surfers ride the waves in the warm sun for half an hour.

So much better than what you find online.

I got way behind on Facebook and had to recover from that. And realized, is it that important to keep up? I basically only use it to get messages from people who don’t have my cell number. Or, strangely, can’t look me up in the phone book (another book that I’d really like to see survive. God I feel like a dinosaur).

I even sat down with a pen and a piece of notebook paper to write this weekend. It felt old-fashioned, and odd, but good. I had a small victory over technology. Its hold over me is weakening. My son and Einstein can relax – we’re gonna be OK.

Embracing the Chaos

Here we are: the week before Christmas and I really, honestly, truly feel like my head is going to explode. There is literally not enough time for me to do everything I need to (and those are just the things I can remember I have to do), so it’s just time to start accepting what I can’t. Bye bye, dusting. Clean the boys’ room – out of the question. Tidy up the yard – please. My family will have to accept that it’s a sloppy Christmas.

But this is nothing new, really. As a child care provider, mother of two boys who both play three sports, writer, small business owner, and wife, my life is pretty much constant chaos. Go go go go go it never stops. Needless to say, a lot slips through the cracks. And I spend a lot of time being hard on myself because of all the things I’m failing at.

When my mother calls to see how I’m doing I often start listing everything that’s hanging over my head: “Well Older needs new basketball shoes but we can’t get to the store before his next game because I have a meeting Wednesday night, and I had to go to school and pick up Younger because he was sick, so I didn’t get to write my article at naptime because I was entertaining him so I have to write after they go to bed tonight, and I won’t have time to cook dinner because we have to be at tae kwon do at 6:00 so they’ll have to eat grilled cheese again and the insurance agent called me for the fifth time to schedule the inspection but my phone died when I left it in the car overnight and speaking of which, I still haven’t gotten that rusty spot painted over and winter’s coming.”

And my mother will say, “I’m concerned that this surprises you.”

And I’ll say, “It doesn’t surprise me, it’s just my life, I’m used to it. But I still feel like I have to explain to you why everything’s in a shambles all the time.”

And she says, “You have to learn to embrace the chaos.”

Now that is a powerful sentence.

I had a mental picture of giant arms wrapping around a maelstrom of laundry, children, messy beds, lost shoes, spilled food, and undone paperwork whipping around like snowflakes in a blizzard.

I guess I embrace it in a way, because I have no other choice. I always say the most important task rises to the top, and it gets done, though maybe half-assed. I’ve had to learn how to get what I need done while cooking dinner, spelling words and shouting out multiplication answers for homework help, and trying not to trip over the cat who hasn’t been fed all day.

And that’s annoying. I want a block of quiet time to unclutter my brain. It’s frustrating not being able to sit down with a cup of coffee and plan the day in front of me: here’s what I need to get done, let me pay these bills, oh what a nice article in the paper, look at email/facebook/texts, make sure the appointments are on the calendar, check off done done done on the to-do list.

Ha. I wouldn’t even have a spot to sit down.

And even if I did, I’d hear “Mommy!” within 46 seconds.

But then I remember what Pam said one time when I was running off to a baseball game and had forgotten a plan we’d made. Instead of being mad she just told me, “I miss all that.”

And I knew exactly what she meant. Someday I will be organized and my house will be spotless – because it will be uninhabited by children. So I’m really, honestly going to embrace this chaos and just keep smiling.

Play is Children’s Work

Just a quickie today, it’s the weekend and I’ve got baseball games and birthday parties and guests coming and even though school is over, the grind continues.

And for those of you who may wonder, where did Amy go? It’s summer. That means I have at least 2 or 3 school-age kids every day who don’t nap. My precious naptime writing time has become: entertain the big kids so they don’t wake up the little ones who are napping time.

I will write when I can. Stay with me.

So why am I here to talk about play? Because someone came to my blog with this question:

How would you respond to people who say that children in child cares only play all day?

Um, I would say that that’s what they’re SUPPOSED to do?

And that at Amy’s House, besides feeding, changing, circle time, maybe a short activity, and telling them when it’s time to be in or out of the house, I stay back and let them do what they want.

The title of this blog is a quote that is widely attributed to Jean Piaget, a researcher who worked with children and was one of the first to tell the world – hey – lighten up – kids learn from what they do naturally, not from what we Really Smart and Wise Adults force on them. This is because their brains are different from ours, and their brains are growing by learning through play.

In researching that quote, I found all these quotes that are also really cool, and a good response to anyone who doubts the value of  play. In fact, because of that website, I have just discovered the National Museum of Play!?!?, where I sincerely think I need to plan my next vacation!

I think a lot of parents today have bought into the idea that we must start our Baby Mozarts early, and the day care must not only nurture and care for them, but also support the development of their genius brains (so if I’m not only changing diapers but growing geniuses, can I have a little bump in pay for that?).

Guess what – not everybody is a genius, and no amount of flash cards is going to change that. How about parents deciding that the best outcome for their child could be a healthy, well-adjusted, normal and average but happy life?

The state has been requiring more and more curriculum for years, and I understand the value in trying to quantify what we do on paper, so we can say “Look at all the great stuff we’re teaching kids!” But really, we don’t teach them so much as guide them. I make sure they’re not hurting each other, and then I sit back and let them do whatever they’re gonna do.

One of my favorite memories is of an early childhood professional who came to visit and observed my kids playing. They had the pieces of a wooden puzzle that were shaped like tools: a screwdriver, a hammer, tape measure, etc. But instead of doing the puzzle, they were laying on a blanket on the floor and it was checkup time at the doctor’s. The puzzle pieces had become the doctor’s tools, and the kids were all taking turns at checking and being checked. My visitor was amazed that we had come up with this game, and it was so nice that I let them use the puzzle pieces in this way instead of making them go back in the puzzle and back on the shelf.

I just thought, that would be silly. What would we play with if the pieces were on the shelf? And I had to admit, I didn’t come up with the game. They did.

All the best games we have in my day care – the kids made up. Honest to God. I can’t come up with half the stuff they do, and whatever they discover is infinitely more beneficial than anything I could invent. Because their brains are different than ours, remember? They know what they need far better than we do. So I just follow along and if they say they need dinosaurs, I find some dinosaurs. Simple as that. (And I’ll admit I’m pretty good at playing dinosaur.)

I also remember being in a toy store with my mother and sister. I was newly married but not even pregnant yet. I was looking at some cool outdoor toys and my mother, beaming, said to my sister, “Oh look she’s getting ready for when she has kids.” And my sister said, “Mom, she’s not looking for her kids.”

Sadly, that was true. I was looking because I liked the toys.

So anyone who criticizes the value of letting kids play doesn’t get it. If they want you to change your program for their child, maybe they need to find a “better” program. But know that the kids who are with you – maybe doing ridiculously illogical things – are doing exactly what they need to be in order to explore the world, and learn from it, and truly grow their brain (honestly).

While I’m sitting here typing away my two boys are doing their usual Saturday morning hangout in jammies routine. And Older just asked Younger, “Will you play with me Younger?”