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.

Advertisements

Christmas is Hard and Kids Know It

There are plenty of mournful versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” many of which are on my iPod and I’ve been hearing in Christmas rotation this month. There’s the Jerry Vale department store version, a heartbreaking Rosemary Clooney, the great and tragic Judy Garland’s, even James Taylor got in on the act a few years ago. And Lou Rawls’ sexy and fun version always makes me smile.

But far and away this one is my favorite:


Simple, straightforward, true. I’ve written before about how this Christmas album gets to me more than any other.

But I think the magic of Jim Henson, and why I loved the Muppets so much and why that has stayed with me all this time, was that he never talked down to kids. He just said it like it is, and Rolf always felt to me like that little bit of reality. Somewhere there’s a guy who’s been run down by life. He’s OK, and he plays the blues in bars for a living, and he’s not happy, and he’s not destroyed either. He’s just out there. And he tells it like it is too.

Ironically I’ve been teaching and writing lately about just that. Many people tend to discount kid’s opinions, fears, even their ability to understand what’s going on around them. Jim Henson never did that. He knew that kids know what’s up. They understand so much more than we give them credit for.

When you watched the Muppets there were monsters, divas, cranky old men, stoners, nerds, weirdos, and a neurotic but capable frog trying to hold them all together. It was a true vision of life, not polished to hide away anything that might be unpleasant.

So much of what we offer kids today is just that. Turn on any kid’s show and everyone is happy and excited and speaking in a very high and fast voice! Life is good! You are a genius indigo child! You will someday rule the world if you just follow along with our hyperactive movements because someone told us that you learn more if you move at the same time and we’re also trying to make sure you don’t get fat watching our tv show and sue us to pay the medical bills for your early onset diabetes!

Oh my Lord, it’s constant screeching. When I dig out old videos to show the kids it’s all the cartoons that offended people somewhere along the line (i.e. Bugs Bunny and the Simpsons), with crankiness and conflict and real life.

My sister mentioned there was a group of parents in NYC trying to ban the Peanuts Christmas special because it depicted too much bullying. My first response (besides mocking them) was that bullying is a part of life, and that’s just the dumbest thing I’ve heard anyway. But today’s parents are trying to deny bullying or anything less than pleasant so their kids will have the most enchanted life possible.

When in fact, their child would probably identify with Charlie Brown, as we all did at some point. We feel depressed when we’re supposed to be happy and left out and rejected when others are having fun, and sometimes feel like the holidays aren’t really living up to what they’re supposed to be. And our friends pull us through, just like Charlie Brown’s.

Plus no one should ever be denied the coolest Christmas soundtrack ever and Linus’s awe-inspiring speech.

Someone asked me, why do these Christmas shows endure? That’s easy – we identify with the protagonist – it’s the basis for every story ever told. “Rudolph” is appalling in how horrifically every adult in the story treats him (and Kermie). But when you’re Rudolph, or a kid who has felt like Rudolph, what else can you do but go on? And isn’t it nice to know you’re not the only one who feels this way?

Kids who are watching learn that life is sometimes hard (Egad! No! Don’t tell them that!). People can be jerks and you will feel beat down. But you do your own thing, there’s always tomorrow, you’ll find your way. Even if it’s with a pack of misfits (which is exactly how I would describe most of my life).

And Rolf is there too, with his piano, howlin the blues, letting us know we’re not alone.

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.

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?”

A Year in Receipts

Here’s the only thing I like about tax season: going over receipts.

Well I don’t love this job, it’s tedious, time-consuming, and always feels like a lot of investment on little return – does it really matter if I claim $437 in supplies rather than $430? How much does that affect my return? Does it translate to half a cent? Not worth my time.

But that attitude right there is why I’m a lousy businessperson.

Anyway what I love about it is finding a receipt that reminds me of a good time.

There are the bigger events: a family trip to the Basketball Hall of Fame. A day at Sturbridge Village with Grammy. An end-of-summer trip to our favorite local zoo and the Friendly’s meal that came after, when we were hot and exhausted from walking around all day, and how good that food tasted because we earned it.

But I think it’s the little moments that mean even more when they come back. I found a receipt for Dunkin’ Donuts and it was on Christmas Eve. I thought, what the heck was I doing there on Christmas Eve, I must have had 100 other things to do at that time. Then I remembered we had to get a last-minute gift card and the boys were restless, so I told them if they gave me an hour to wrap presents we’d go for their favorite treat.

We sat at a table by the sunny window and had a really nice quiet moment to connect in all the chaos that is the Christmas season. I remember there were ornaments hanging all over and we played “which one are you.” And how that little bit of time enjoying a cup of coffee and donuts was so good for us all, and how much easier it was to get on with the 100 things that needed to be done because we’d had a little quality time.

There was the day when the boys and I went to Central Park with their Auntie. We didn’t have a real agenda, we just wanted to visit, so we went to find a very cool slide built into the rocks that we’d discovered once before. Then we found another playground, and Older Son made a natural rock wall his playground as well. We got popsicles and pizza slices and had a sleepover and stayed up late watching movies and got real bagels in the morning.

There was the day we played mini-golf with dear family friends who we don’t get to see often enough, but Pirate’s Cove has become our yearly tradition. And here, the caramel apple I bought for Younger Son on our Maine vacation, and how he waited all year for that apple, and how much joy that silly apple gave him.

And then we realized that all he did was eat the caramel off, so next time we just got him a bag of caramels for a fraction of the price. (But you know I’ll be buying another apple for him ASAP when we go back.)

There was a rare day of dress-shopping and lunch with my sister. Now that we’re grownups with busy adult lives we never get that sisters-only time anymore. Either the kids or husbands or parents or other family are with us, which is lovely, but there’s something different about sisters. And when you don’t get that time, you miss it.

And then, just a few months ago, another visit to friends we don’t get to see often enough. It was one of the first wintry days in December and we went to Great Barrington to see their new (-ish…I told you we don’t see them often enough) condo. We loudly made fools of ourselves in the diner playing “Would you rather…” on Older Son’s iPod. The flakes were swirling as we window-shopped and our friend gleefully dragged both boys into her favorite candy store (yes she’s a grownup). We laughed and laughed all the way home and after all the inappropriate ten- and seven-year-old boy jokes I swore they’d never invite us back. But they did.

So that was my year. Those little memories, the ones I might have forgotten otherwise, make it worth having to account for every cent. And I’m actually in a very happy mood despite that giant, messy pile of receipts that’s been hounding me for weeks.

I’m Not Bonding with My Son’s Hamster…

…and it worries me. My husband and sister have a running joke that when I go to the farm I french-kiss the cows. It’s not that bad. I swear that my lips – let alone my tongue – have never touched a cow. But I do love animals. And this cute little thing, with the twitchy nose that pops up out of the bedding whenever you walk in the room, the little eyes that implore you to take it out of its cage, would melt anyone’s heart. And yet, I remain ice cold to her manipulations.

This hamster is actually Hammy 2, but we are not allowed to call her 2, just Hammy. We are not to mention the fact that there was a hamster before her, because it did not end well. Now that one, Hammy 1, I really didn’t care for. Every time you picked it up the thing would clamp down on your finger so hard that blood would seep out in huge drops. I am not kidding, it hurt like sticking your finger in a socket. Older Son had to wear winter gloves in order to handle it. But he loved that rodent like his life depended on it.

Well one night we’d gotten the cat all hopped up on catnip and then went back to what we were doing, not realizing that she had snuck upstairs for some munchies. Older Son ran up to get something and came back down sobbing and in a panic. “Mommy Pumpkin was reaching under the dresser and I looked under there and I saw Hammy lying on his back with his legs in the air.” A tragic victim of cat-on-hamster violence.

It wasn’t the boys’ first experience with the death of a pet but it hit them much harder. We had a long period of mourning and hating the cat. I had to convince them not to physically harm her, but they were allowed to say what they wanted. And strangely I spent a lot of time processing it with Older Son’s teacher. He was working it out in school. Lots of writing, talking, and sharing about it with the class. I hope the other kids weren’t traumatized. They tend to help each other through it though. I’ve found that kids can be pretty oblivious a lot of the time but when they see someone is truly hurting, they respond. I think they got him through it.

So after a proper period of time to absorb the shock of Hammy 1’s passing, we went back to the store for Hammy 2. I liked her much better. No biting, very timid but playful. I don’t often see Older Son that happy. Nowadays I clean her cage and make sure they feed her and take her out for exercise, but still refuse to fall in love with her. Even when she puts her paws up in front of her in the way “that means she’s curious,” as Older Son informed me, and “she wants to play with you Mommy.”

In reality I know why I don’t love this pet. Because when she goes, I need to be prepared for picking up the pieces of my child’s shattered, loving heart. I won’t have time to grieve for myself. Oh come on, what adult grieves for a hamster anyway? But am I missing part of the experience because I don’t just wuv her so much? Older Son would think so. In his eyes I should be loving her as much as he does. So I pretend to while keeping her at a safe distance. I will not love you, Hammy 2! Because I just love my kid more.

Slave Ships

I was reduced to tears yesterday at the local museum. Wasn’t expecting that one. We’ve been there fifty times but I’m always going at the boys’ pace. Really fast. I can get them to pause at certain things but otherwise we’re racing through, and that’s fine. Is there a better place to spend an afternoon? (My sister would say YES.)

Dave was with us so I was able to spend a minute at the Africa exhibit for the first time. I noticed a map of pre-and post-colonial Africa, and how European invaders divided the tribes into countries and left a path of destruction so horrific that the country is still reeling from it today. When I went around the corner I saw a picture of a slave ship – specifications written up with a cross-section of the ship, showing how many slaves it could pack into the boat for maximum profit. It was used to sell the boats to prospective customers. I felt nauseous.

I started to tear up when I realized the magnitude of the slave trade. It wasn’t just some bad guys and the black market. For the first time it hit me how massive it was. It was a full-fledged industry, world-wide, with businessmen giving presentations over how many humans could be stolen, bought, sold, destroyed.

My mind went to President Obama. It still seems unreal to me. Our President is African. (-American. Yes he is American and I don’t need to see his birth certificate, thankyouverymuch.) It’s like a dream. I admit we’ve come a long way in 300 years. But still I feel the need to pray that he will succeed. (Isn’t having to qualify his citizenship proof enough that there is a problem here?)

I told the boys that even in a small museum like ours, every time I go I learn something new. Yesterday’s news was that I don’t have a hummingbird nest in our nature box, I have an oriole nest. And birds and dinosaurs with bird-like hips do not have common descendants, but similar evolutionary paths. And Dave was giving me a mini-American history lesson the whole time as we discussed John Adams.

But I think this week, it is the lesson of the Africa exhibit that will stay with me.