The Day I Lost My Son

When I say “lost,” it’s actually more like “mislaid.” And it was only for 20 minutes or so. But, as any parent who’s lost visual contact with their child in a crowded place knows, even a minute feels like a lifetime.

I surprised myself by being completely calm and rational. But, before we get into the psychoanalysis, let me describe what happened.

We were on vacation in Australia. In a small town on the bay of Melbourne called Anglesea. It was a Sunday morning and we were strolling through the market alongside the water’s edge, two adults and five kids aged 9 through to 4. There were all kinds of colorful booths selling books, crafts, food, souvenirs and other random local stuff. It was hot and sunny, and milling with families vacationing in the seaside town. We had given the kids each a few dollars to spend and, kids being kids, they had each spent it all on the very first items that took their fancy. And then kept asking and asking and asking for more money to spend on this item and that item. We shut them down, of course, intending to impart a lesson.

Onwards we browsed, lingering a while here and there at different booths and trying hard to keep the kids all herded together, despite distractions in every direction. At this point, my son was perusing a book stall (even though he had already spent his money at an earlier book stall.) Now, I’m not going to squash his interest in combing over books but, after a while, we needed to keep moving on: in fact, we’d spied some delightful, fluorescent frozen slushies at a booth that the kids just “had to have” to quench their thirst. I told my son we were leaving. He pleaded for a minute more. I acquiesced. But a minute passed and he was obstinately ignoring me. Another reminder, followed by a warning, was issued. And then I “fake left,” i.e. I told him I was leaving, hoping this would be enough of a kick up the derriere to get him to put down the books and rejoin the group. We were quite literally two metres away. Thirty seconds passed and I asked one of the other kids to go find him, tell him we had bought him a neon-red raspberry slushie. She returned, saying he wasn’t there. I went back over. No sign of him. I did a 360, searching the immediate crowd for his bright yellow t-shirt.

He was gone. I asked the vendor if she’d seen which way he had gone and she pointed in one direction.

I wasn’t worried, at this point. More annoyed, truth be told. I found the rest of our party, told them what was happening and we set off, retracing our path through the crowds in the direction we’d been told he’d gone. Scanning through the thick of bodies for a 9 year-old boy dressed in a yellow t-shirt and blue shorts (I was relieved he’d chosen such a bright top to wear that day.) After about 25 metres and no sign, I thought it best to leave the group and go solo. It’d be faster, I could be more nimble in the crowds.

At this point, maybe 15 minutes had passed. I figured I’d go all the way down one end of the market, then make my way back through to the other end. I was wondering at what stage I should start panicking and who I would call. Being that I was a tourist. All this time I was also worrying about my son’s state of mind. Would he be nonchalant? Or terrified? Would he have the presence of mind to ask for help?

It never crossed my mind that he might have been abducted. Had this happened in America, like in a busy mall, I’d have been immediately anxious and suspicious. But, everyone here in Australia seemed genuinely nice and, well, normal.

Another five minutes of searching and, suddenly, I spied him seated at a bench surrounded by some concerned adults. I called his name, probably sounding higher-pitched and less chill than I thought I was, and he ran to me and clung to me, sobbing. The kind adults saw that he was OK and moved away as I expressed my thanks and relief to them.

I sat down with my son, held his trembling, teary body as he gulped and sobbed. My heart and womb clenched with complete relief. I wanted to shake him and yell at him, but I could see just how traumatized he was. I knelt down and looked him in the eye, telling him: “I will always find you, no matter what.” A promise to him. A promise to me.

Holding hands, we turned back and re-found the rest of our group and everyone was happily reunited. We texted folks to let them know we’d found him. We talked with the kids, reminding them of the different things they should do if they were ever lost or separated from us, which included:

  1. If you have a pre-agreed meeting place, head there.
  2. Or stay put, don’t wander. Let us come to you.
  3. Find a helper, like a Mom.
  4. Know your parent’s phone numbers.

My son did #3 & #4 and I was very proud of him for that. Sure, the number he gave them was my U.S. cell phone and he had no clue about international dialing codes but I’d like to think that, had the local police got involved, they would have figured that all out.

That evening at bedtime, he wouldn’t go to sleep without me. He fairly clung to me. And there were bad dreams too that night. See, there was no need to yell and be mad at him. Those 20 minutes amounted to some of the best education he’s ever had. Frightening, yes. But he’ll never wander off again, that’s for sure.

As for me, yes I was rather calm and collected during those 20 minutes. I did not fear for his safety. But, my heart is forever scarred by the look on his face when I found him.

20mins

Guest Post: Searching

by Ben Jackson

As most of us who blog discover from our analytics, people put some strange search phrases together to find things on the internet. Aside from the stomach-churning searches for nocturnal activities (of which there are many), I also often find queries for advice on dadding (“single dad blog. too busy to eat breakfast”), searches for quotes and things to say on fatherhood (“dad eulogy” often appears), and queries for which I simply can’t understand how my blog could possibly be relevant (“waiter with dreadlocks” and “she said prison barber hair shorn”).

And then there are the searches for “teratoma,” and variants thereof.  It’s these people, anonymous through the internet, I want to find, and hug and do whatever else I can to offer some small measure of comfort.

My daughter Emma was born in 2001 with a cervical teratoma – a tumor on her neck which was larger than her head.  It protruded from her mouth, it extended down into her chest and attached from her heart, and it sat like a grapefruit underneath her chin.  It nearly killed her, and she spent almost her entire first year hospitalized as a result.

These search queries in my stats page are small digital prayers.  They represent some terrified stranger, who has just received news that is far beyond their comprehension, and they are pleading into the information ether for salvation or information. They are suffering in a way I can understand more deeply than almost anyone else on the planet, and most of the time I feel powerless to do anything to help.  I hope my writing provides some factual information and a lot of hope, but because of the anonymity of the internet, these deeply personal cries for help are beyond my reach to personally answer.

Last week, I received an email from a mother of a girl who also has a tumor similar to the one Emma had. She talked about being isolated, and was largely reaching out for a connection from a very lonely and scary place—and it knocked me for a loop for a bit.  It reminded me that what we write is read by actual people; that those search phrases bandied about have an individual behind a screen, looking for something to connect with.  That, beyond the creeps searching for their jollies, there are stories, and there is pain, and hope, and love and loneliness yearning for something that maybe we can touch.

It reminded me that we who write have a responsibility to those people behind the queries, that our words matter to someone, and that we had damn well better get what we’re trying to say right—and it reminded me that from my readers I can gain the connection that I seek as a writer, and as a dad.

Here’s hoping that your queries find you the connections you seek in 2014!

Ben Jackson is a father, blogger, publishing professional, creative writing student, and majestically bearded. From time to time, he has conned otherwise sensible editors into publishing his short fiction and essays. As an avid martial artist, one can often find Ben writing through bruises, slings and casts. You can read more of his writing at www.benfjackson.com or www.dadofthedecade.com

ben xmas sweater

Entering the 3DS Zone

After much indecision and comparing notes with other families, we finally caved and bought our son a 3DS for his 9th birthday. I had been against this for a long time. Mostly because both my husband and I really don’t like computer/video games: we don’t play them and didn’t want to encourage our kids to spend even more time in front of screens. After all, when they go to friend’s houses, they get ample opportunity to play. Also the sheer cost: even the 3DS was a lot more money than we usually spend on any one kid’s item.

But he wanted one really, really badly. He wanted something electronic he could call his own. Also he’s very cute and persuasive. However, I also saw this gift as a huge opportunity to reinforce a few rules and for added oomph on the bribery and punishment front. After all, I can give but I can also take away (or at least threaten it.) Does this make me a mean Mom? Probably but too bad.

So the following rules have been drawn up and drilled in. In fact, he’s even signed them. It’s a contract now. We’ll see how it goes!

Screen shot 2013-12-14 at 5.28.02 PM

20 Signs That You Have an Elementary School Kid

(This post originally ran on Huffington Post Parents)

The days of bottles, potty training, snotty noses and sippy cups are far behind me. I now have two kids in elementary school and, like so many parents of similar-aged kids, find myself pondering about how much my life has altered as I cruise around the grocery store at 9 p.m. on a Saturday evening. One on the one hand, my kids are more independent: they can read, they can write, they can tie their shoelaces (well, almost) and I’ve even been paying them to sort, fold and put away their laundry! But on the other hand, the sheer volume of school/PTO requests, homework and social activities threaten to overwhelm and quite frankly, erode any chance of quality me-time (other than grocery shopping late at night). Does any of this sound familiar?

Here are many ways to know when you, too, are the parent of elementary school kids:

  1. You find out about a school project/permission slip/photo day at 8 a.m. the day they are due.
  2. Play dates and parties are drop off… and you are thrilled.
  3. You proudly wear rainbow loom bracelets (while muttering under your breath about the chaos of rubber bands littering your house).
  4. Math homework makes you quake with fear.
  5. You manage to squeeze your lower half into those tiny seats during parent-teacher conferences.
  6. The days of the week take on new meaning: Monday is “you have PE, don’t forget your sneakers day!”, Thursday is “return library book day”, Friday is “pizza day!”
  7. Minecraft.
  8. You are scared to put your hand inside their backpacks.
  9. Your second job is peddling wrapping paper, raffle tickets and other fundraisers (and your friends and family deftly avoid you).
  10. Ninety percent of the morning mayhem in your house is created in the last 10 minutes before school drop off.
  11. Your iPad/laptop is no longer your own.
  12. You have to explain why Miley Cyrus is really not that cool.
  13. You are adept at stealthily throwing away the latest ‘art project’ in the trash can outside, making sure to hide it underneath other stuff.
  14. You find yourself singing along to Kidz Bop (even when there are no kids around…).
  15. Gloves and hats and socks get lost with uncanny frequency.
  16. Pokemon.
  17. Your toddler knows to yell “BUS” as it approaches the end of your driveway.
  18. Your weekends are a complex logistical challenge — full of parties, play dates, sports and errands.
  19. You are not beneath drying papier maché volcanoes in the microwave.
  20. You know that the day when you’ll have to explain the birds and the bees is inching closer and it terrifies you.

Should I Limit My Kid’s Reading?

My son was slow to learn to read. He left kindergarten with six-month delay in his reading abilities and this caused me to worry. Compared to all the other kids who were already speeding through Harry Potter, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and the Encyclopedia Britannica, my son was still struggling, even with that damned Cat in the Hat.

But, thanks to an IEP (Individual Education Program) and being placed in an inclusion class with a higher ratio of teachers to kids, he emerged from first grade a confident reader. Now, halfway through second grade, he’s become a ravenous reader. I can’t stop him! If he’s not stuffing his face, watching TV or playing with Legos, you’ll find him knee-deep in books. He devours them. It’s a beautiful thing.

Until it’s bedtime, that is.

It’s nice that his bedtime no longer involves hours of negotiation after tucking him in and reading together (“Yes, I’ll rub your back some. Yes, I’ll get you some water. No, I won’t read another book. Yes, I will put another light on. No, you can not still be hungry …!”) Now, all he needs is a quick hug, a kiss and a tussle of his hair and, quite frankly, he’d probably not even notice if I didn’t do that, because his nose is firmly stuck in a book. Either side of his pillow are books. At the last count, there were about 12 books around his bed.

But the “problem” is he’s staying awake longer and longer at night, sometimes not falling asleep until 9.30 or 10pm which, in my mind, is too late for an eight year-old. Especially one who, until this past month, was averaging 10 or 11 hours sleep a night. It makes for grumpy mornings, that’s for sure.

I realize that he is growing up and maybe that means his bedtime no longer needs to be the same as his five year-old sister. But at the same time, it’s ridiculous when he and I are going to sleep at the same hour!

After talking with friends with kids of the same age, I discovered that this “problem” seems to be happening across the board with our kids. Most advocated setting a 9pm “lights off” hour, something which I’m trying to now enforce.

But my son keeps asking, “Why are you trying to stop me reading, when all along, you’ve been trying to encourage me to read better and more?”

And, he has a point.

A Letter to Dr Seuss

Dear Dr Seuss,

Allow me to introduce myself: I am Sam. Yes, Sam I Am. For the last eight years, I’ve spent LOTS of time with your books and I’ve some things I need to get off my chest.

I have to confess that the first four years were torturous, truth be told. You see, my little ones were at that stage when they wanted to be read the same book over and over. And over and over. And over. I became sick and tired of Green Eggs & Ham, the Cat in the Hat, There’s a Wocket in my Pocket and others. I mean there’s only so many times you can read, and re-read and then read again, those rhythmic lines and words without wanting to tear your hair out or bang you head against something hard. Fortunately, these were also the years when my kids couldn’t yet read and were blithely oblivious to my skipping lines and even pages, which I would do a LOT just to expedite matters.

Then my kids become early readers. And I gradually realized the genius of your books, especially ones like Go Dog Go and Hop on Pop. Words cleverly assembled, rhymed, reversed and scrambled, forcing their developing brains to focus, sound out words, take their time. As my kids started to be able to read these books for themselves, I could see their pride forming and reading confidence grow.

Naturally, they started bringing home more of your books every week from the school library. Books they wanted me to read to them because they were complex, long, filled with ridiculously non-sensical words, creatures and situations. Find me a parent who, weary at the end of the day, really wants to put themselves through such tongue calisthenics? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a HUGE fan of silliness, creativity and all that is good and goofy but really, these book were too much for this tired, working mama.

And then we watched the movie, The Lorax. And a light bulb went off and my whole relationship with you changed! I saw your genius. More than just a wrangler of words, I realized you’re a philosopher, a commentator on society and, most importantly, a voice of inspiration. Your simple phrases make profound statements—better-sounding to me, quite frankly, than any catechism or sermon I’ve ever heard. (Here’s 30 of your finest quotes.) Your books are life lessons to the young and old, inspiring us to be who we are, think for ourselves, take chances (try new foods!), read, boldly forge our way in the world—and to care for others, no matter how small.

So, dear Dr Seuss, on this day, March 2, 2013, your birthday, I say thank you, thank you, thank you!

Love,

Sam I Am

TV or No TV (Or Just Less TV?)

(This post originally ran on the Framingham Patch.)

I love good TV and when I find a show that I love, I’m all-in. Over the decades, there have been many shows I’ve truly loved: Friends, The West Wing, Ally McBeal, ER and, more recently, 24, Law & Order, Greys Anatomy, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Homeland, Downton Abbey. And many more in between. In fact, I’ve loved many of these shows and their characters so much so that I follow and often tweet with them on Twitter, which makes me feel ridiculously happy. (Yes, I know these are not real people but, please, indulge me.)

Here's me chatting with the West Wing's  much revered CJ Cregg

Here’s me chatting with the West Wing’s much revered CJ Cregg

Back when I was a kid, I watched a lot of TV, like most kids do today. Saturdays, in particular, you’d find my brother, sister and I lounging around watching Noel Edmands’ Swap Shop in the morning and Doctor Who in the afternoon. And much more. Until the day that my Dad decided we watched too much and it was, in his opinion, harming our grey matter and ruining our chances of future brilliance.

He took away the TV for a whole year; locked it up in a cupboard. Twelve months later, we kids were social outcasts, unable to join in the conversations at school about whatever were the latest goings-on on the popular shows. It stunk, big time.

When Dad eventually returned the TV, much to our jubilation, watching it came with terms and conditions. Dad and demanded we sign a “TV Charter”, which listed the rules that were to govern our TV watching. I remember, in particular, one clause relating to when we were allowed to watch TV mid-week during the day. “Only if genuinely ill and in bed,” the charter stated.

Did Dad’s extreme measures make an iota of difference to the amount of TV I watch? Not one teeny bit! I’m still a TV fiend.

Fast-forward to present day. I read in emarketer that, according to Nielsen, 2- to 11- year olds average 23 hours 34 minutes per week watching “traditional” TV. That’s almost one whole day per week spent in front of the tube. (By comparison, the time kids spent online was just shy of 2 hours per week.)

Even before reading this, I was feeling concerned by the amount of TV my kids were watching, even though we were limiting it to 30 mins each evening mid-week and longer on weekend mornings. The problem wasn’t so much what they were watching but their stroppy behavior when asked to stop watching and the spiraling moods as bedtime closed in.

Three weeks ago, after displaying some particularly bad behavior, we banned the TV in the evenings for a week as punishment. The first night the kids complained vigorously. “We’re so bored,” they moaned. “There’s nothing to do.”

The second night, we discussed their options for evening entertainment before they had a chance to start complaining (they built forts.) By the third evening, there was no discussion, they headed straight for their books, crayons, and toys and played. And guess what? Bath time and bedtime were less highly-strung, more relaxed and everyone went to sleep calmer and happier.

We’ve so enjoyed the transformation that we’ve decided to make it half-permanent. No TV in the evenings Monday to Wednesday. Honestly, I don’t think the kids have even noticed. My son heads straight to his books, my daughter to her Transformers. It’s a beautiful thing.

And, best of all, I can catch up on emails, blogging—and tweeting with my imaginary TV friends!

My Son is a Liar

This weekend I overheard my son telling a couple of big fat whoppers to some other kids at a party.

“I’m on level 9 of Skylanders,” he boasted. “And I have a Smart Watch, I totally talk to my wrist and can make phone calls from my watch”

Fact: He has never played Skylanders (whatever that is.) And he does not own a Smart Watch (whatever that is.)

You may call it creativity, showing off, a fib. I call it a lie: an untruth.

And it worries me.

It worries me because this is not the first big fat whopper I’ve heard out of the mouth of someone I thought was so innocent, honest, bright and un-sneaky. But it’s not. I’ve heard him telling his sister and friends small, insignificant lies. And I’ve caught him telling bold-faced lies, right to my very face. About small things, but ….

I can understand boasting and showing off; peer pressure and all that. I can forgive a little creative license. But I will not tolerate down-and-out mendacity. Where does it come from? What motivates it?

Every day, I try to teach my kids to be kind, to have good manners and to be happy. And very, very silly. These are the values that matter most to my husband and I and which we model. Now I realize that we have to add reinforcing and reassuring that telling the truth always trumps deception. I guess that security plays a big role in this. A child needs to understand that there is so more to be gained by spilling the beans than covertly hiding them. But don’t get me wrong, there will be also consequence when whoppers are discovered, especially if their motives are dubious.

I guess I would be lying if I told you this parenting business was a cake walk. Are your kids liars? How do you handle it?

Guest Post: Talking to Kids about their Art

by Theresa Harris

When your child brings home their art from school, what’s your typical response? “Wow”, “It’s beautiful!”, or “I love it”?

This isn’t a trick question. No matter what your response, it’s understood that as parents and caregivers, our role is to support and encourage our budding artists, regardless of skill level. But here’s something to consider: What was going through your child’s brain when they drew that picture or painted that landscape? What did they imagine? Is the image part of a larger story? Is it fantasy-based or realistic? Does their art say anything about their hopes, their dreams or their fears? Wouldn’t it be cool if you could get into their creative minds a little bit and understand what their experience and process was when making art?

Art is so much more than what happens on the page. It’s also about the inspiration, creative thinking, and innovation. When you start thinking of art in this way, it opens up a whole range of possibilities for you to explore with your child.

How do you get the dialogue going? Here are five conversation starters you can use to talk to your child about their art in a thoughtful way. The questions are part of a parent education program I’ve started called “Art Talk.” The questions are straightforward, yet are designed to quickly draw out deeper levels of artistic thinking.

Here are 5 main questions to ask your child about their art:

  1. What did you create? What process did you use in making your art? What materials did you use and why? How did you plan your picture? Why did you use those colors?
  2. What do you see? What is this? Is it a thing or a place? Real or imaginary? What is happening in the picture?
  3. What did you learn? Did you use a new material or learn a new technique? Who taught you? Was it hard or easy? Show me how you did it so I can see what you’ve learned.
  4. What do you love? What do you love about this artwork? Are you happy with your work? Are there certain parts that you like better than others?.
  5. What do you wish? If you were to make this again, would you do anything differently? Would you use a different material, color or composition? Is there anything you’d like to change?

For more ideas for using Art Talk with your kids, take a look at the Parent Tip Video at  www.thriveart.com/arttalk

When kids are given the opportunity to talk about their art and share their experiences, it can enhance their self-awareness and confidence. When I’ve used this tool with my students and with my own child, I’ve been amazed at how capable they are at being reflective, and their responses are often incredibly insightful, and sometimes hysterical! Oh- the things they come up with!

What are some of the fun and insightful things your kids have said when you get them talking about art?

Theresa Harris is founder of Thrive Art School in Seattle and Thrive Art Online, a video-based art program for kids. When she is not is playing legos and making messes with her two lively boys age 2 & 4, she loves to hike and paint with encaustics.

theresa

My Son’s First Art Show

My kid is crazy good at art—at least, to me. I love seeing his imagination and attention to detail transfer from that fermenting mind of his onto the page. I love how he expresses himself, explores the world and projects through art. I hope this isn’t a phase: that he continues to explore his artistic nature and digs deep into his creativity. It’s a journey I can’t wait to witness. On Monday, he turns eight so I thought I’d create and share this gallery of many of his finest works over the last two years. So, without further ado, here it is: Gabriel’s first art show!

IMG_5518 IMG_5406 IMG_5014 IMG_4422 IMG_4394 IMG_4039 IMG_4030 IMG_4011 IMG_3944 IMG_3925 IMG_3785 IMG_3782 IMG_3535 IMG_3496 IMG_3428 IMG_3435 IMG_3268 IMG_2732 IMG_2673IMG_5528

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