Words

“I don’t like swimming,” said the little boy, five years-old.

“It’s too hard. And I have to do it every day at camp.”

“If you do it every day, then you’ll get better at it and then it won’t be so hard,” I responded.

“Hmmmm,” he remarked, twitching his little nose, dubiously.

“Here’s the thing,” I said. The boy looked at me, both curious but doubtful of the grown-up advice he was about to receive. I fully expected an eye-roll, selective listening or to be outright dismissed.

“If you believe in yourself,” I continued. “If you believe that every day you’ll get a little bit better than the day before, then I bet by the end of the summer, you will be an amazing swimmer.”

He looked at me.

And then returned to playing, or went off elsewhere. I don’t remember. This was probably the longest and most serious conversation I’d had with this little boy who I’ve known all his little life. But I presumed, to him, I was just another boring adult saying bla bla bla. I quickly forgot the conversation as I assumed he had.

A month or so later, his parents mentioned to me that suddenly he’s had a new attitude towards his swimming classes. He’s serious. Committed. Intent on doing the work and improving. He told them “Aunty Sam told me to believe in myself so that’s what I’m doing.”

Hearing this brought sudden hot tears to my eyes, surprising even myself. Who knew that the words that had come out of my mouth – without too much aforethought, admittedly – had actually been heard, instead of discarded? Those words were processed by that little mind. Absorbed and now, applied.

So many words. We say so many words to each other. Many without due thought, not even thinking about the impact they may have or unsure whether anyone is really listening.

But Sondheim was right: “Careful the things you say. Children will listen.

This was a potent, and precious, reminder.

A Lesson in Losing

Yesterday I stood by and watched as my kids were kicked and punched.

It was their first karate tournament and they were sparring. They’d practiced for months and today was the real deal. There were trophies to be won; there was pride at stake. Both kids thought they were each pretty good. Neither was nervous. My daughter calmly informed me she was “pumped up.” They weren’t cocky, just self-confident, assured that they knew what to do in the ring, no matter the belt, size or gender of their opponent.

This was also my first rodeo as a karate mom. Actually, it was my first time as a mom at any form of competitive kid’s sport. My kids might not have been nervous but I was, unsure of how to build them up, but not too much. Worried about their fragile egos. Hopeful they might win. Scared they might lose.

All around us were other parents, some new to this gig, some old-timers. There were those who quietly directed their kids, up close, looking them in the eye, reminding them of their lessons. There were those who were chill about the whole thing. And there were many vocally coaching their kids from the sidelines.

“Use your crescent kick!”

“Let him come to you.”

“Go on the attack!”

That wasn’t me. In truth, I wasn’t sure what to do. I tried to catch my kids eyes before they went on, giving them a small thumbs up of encouragement. Mostly, I watched mutely from the sides, mildly terrified, unprepared for this role and the psychology it would demand.

I don’t think it ever crossed their minds that they might not win. But let me tell you, receiving a “participation” trophy is a phony substitute. One kid took home two of those suckers. The other took one. They regarded these trophies with disdain, evidence of their not being good enough. There were tears of frustration and disappointment. Then to our surprise – and even his – my son took third place in his last match. His face lit up, and he fairly grew an inch with pride and delight. As if his earlier assurance had been warranted. His smile said “See, I can do this.”

At almost 8 years-old, my daughter had the hardest time repelling that ineffective phrase “It’s the taking part that counts.”

I wanted to win. But I lost,” she sobbed.

I wanted to provide all the justification in the world, encourage her to use this moment to look around and observe what it takes to win. To remind her that, with effort and practice, those trophies could soon be hers too. I feared she’d want to throw in the towel, abandon her karate altogether. Instead, I decided the best thing to do was to just hold her and let her absorb it all.

Because letting them fail is something we have to do, as parents. It’s a bitch of a lesson but it’s a healthy one.

The best part? She shook it off pretty quick and her happy spirits returned. And her brother, fortunately, didn’t gloat over his win.

I’m sure they’ve filed yesterday’s experience away. I’m hoping the next time they “suit up” for karate, it’ll be maybe with a little less confidence but a whole lot more determination and respect.

As for me, I’m also going to need to thicken up my game-day skin if we are all going to come out of these tournaments unscathed. It’s been a solid lesson in losing for me too.

Can You Train Kids to be Focused?

Your focus needs more focus” is a quote from the Karate Kids that we cite over and over and over to our kids. And over.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about focus issues in our family. My son, he’s a happy, joyous kid. He wants to be the life and soul of every situation: the goofball in the classroom. He’s confident, he’s kind, he’s funny. He also often speaks out of turn. His enthusiasm and assertiveness can come across as bossy and opinionated. He is also very easily distracted. Doodling, making origami, side conversations. Distraction management is a constant challenge. Bottom line: my son has the attention span of a newt. He’s never been “diagnosed” per se but all the signs are there. Put this all together and what do you get: a poor report card from school.

I was discussing this today with his pediatrician, someone who understands my son and always been an advocate for his effusiveness and character. He’s also someone who’s not quick to medicate to “cure” attention issues, something I value as I’m not convinced drugs are the complete answer.

So, as is the norm, G was goofing around during his annual checkup today and I asked him to quit it. My son turned to the doctor and asked: “Is this a serious conversation.” Dr McKenzie replied in the affirmative and G sat up straight, “Oh, in that case, I’ll pay attention.”

We picked up on this topic a few minutes later after some other questions about his diet, health and some prodding, and what Dr McKenzie said next really hit the mark.

“What you said before,” he explained to my son, “really showed me that you are mature enough to make a choice to be focused.”

We discussed how G is old enough to understand the situations in which he needs to be focused (in class, at karate, getting ready for school) and be aware of the triggers that draw his attention away (squirrel!)

“It’s not going to be easy, but the first step is first to make the choice to be focused when it matters most. Then you need to recognize the moment when you become distracted and become mindful of that feeling. Then remember your choice to be focused,” he continued.

This discussion was a game-changer for me. But more than that, it really resonated with my son. The fact that he was told that he is now mature enough to take charge of his own attention challenges. That the doctor believed he could do it, if he really wanted to.

We often talk with our kids about how happiness is a choice. We frequently address the topic of the right “time and place” for certain behaviors.

Now, we are adding “intentional focus” to this list.

Thank You, Taylor Swift, for the Parenting Advice

I’m a big Taylor fan and not just for her toons. Mostly because “Shake It Off” has become the most awesomest parenting tool.

Her popular song has helped me reinforce some key messages with my kids. Stuff parents have said throughout the ages – but somehow now, with the Taylor seal of approval, now the kids are listening.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” still rings true but telling a kid to “shake it off” when other kids say mean stuff seems to resonate more.

And yes, accidents happen, but if you can “shake it off”, child, then we can all learn and move on.

And so on.

I put Taylor’s words of wisdom to work recently with my daughter. We were selecting boxes of Valentine’s cards for her classmates. Now my kid’s a tomboy (and I love it) and in the past, she’s rushed to pick out Transformers or Star Wars-themed cards. But this year, she hesitated and instead, picked out a Hello Kitty box. Because, she claimed that her classmates don’t think it’s cool that she “likes boy stuff.”

Well, this made me mad. And so it begins, the peer pressure that makes kids feel they have to fit in rather than stand out. I get it, I really do. At their age, non-conformance is abhorrent. But I want my kids to be true to themselves and their passions. To stand up for their beliefs, have conviction. Even if that belief is that Transformers are cool. (They are.)

But how to instill in them that it’s OK to follow their hearts and be different? The kid and I had a serious chat. With tears welling in her eyes, she explained that she was embarrassed when the other girls told her it wasn’t cool to like boy’s stuff.

I looked her in the eye and asked, what would Taylor Swift do?

Shake it off, she responded, knowingly, her head held a little higher.

Thank you, Taylor.

 

Introducing the Birds and the Bees

This all happened much sooner than I had anticipated. I thought I’d have at least one more year, till my oldest would be in fifth grade. But over the past few months, my kids – independent of one another – started asking questions. My son had read stuff about DNA in one of his science books and was curious (“Look it’s so cool, the woman’s DNA is in an egg and it mixes with a man’s DNA which is in sperms.”) My daughter had overheard discussions about young teenagers becoming mothers (“Mama, can girls have babies?”) and also wanted the nitty-gritty details about how dogs breed (“But how do they mix the two dog breeds? I mean how?”) I’d done a fairly good job up until this point deflecting their questions or giving them just enough information to be satisfied with the answer but not enough to spark further curiosity.

But based on the frequency of their questions, it felt like the time had come to reveal all.

My kids are now armed with new knowledge and vocabulary. To all my parent friends, my kids’ teachers, their classmates and classmates’ parents, I apologize should you hear words – like scrotum – uttered by my otherwise sweet seven year-old. For some reason, she has latched on to the word scrotum. Go figure.

It’s not that I was trying to keep any of this a secret. It’s just once you breach this milestone, there’s no turning back. Not that it’s a bad thing to equip them with this information. But while you are filling in the gory details about how babies are made and how they come out, you may as well open the kimono on Santa, the tooth fairy and all that. Suddenly, all that is magical evaporates replaced with science and biology. Where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, I decided to buy books. I ordered two different books and read them cover to cover before handing them over to the kids, ever so casual. “Hey, you’ve been wondering so here’s something to read, and papa and I can answer any questions you might have.” No biggie, right? (“JUST DON’T DO THIS UNTIL YOU ARE AT LEAST 30, my brain screamed.”)

For the seven year-old, I selected the book It’s Not The Stork. All the basics are there, presented in very accessible cartoon format. She dug right in and has enjoyed it as much as reading her Magic Tree House or Pokemon books. No questions asked.

For the ten year-old, I bought It’s Perfectly Normal. To say it’s comprehensive is an understatement. The book covers a lot of territory, much of which makes little sense right now to him (sexting, gender identity, birth control … etc.) What I appreciated most about this book was how everything was presented in the context of acceptance, love and respect.

When I first gave him the book, he was mortified. he sat on the floor, head in his hands and said “I can’t believe you gave me a book about sex: it’s so inappropriate!” So I explained he could treat it like a reference book, dip into it every now and then whenever he had questions. I told him it wouldn’t all make sense now and that was OK. Needless to say, he has actually read it cover to cover. Also no questions have been asked though we have made it very clear that if and when he wants to talk, we are here.

Whether or not I’ve handled this right, I have no clue. It’s part and parcel of the whole operating without a handbook thing. And we are only at the beginning of this journey.

Still, there have been several hysterical moments. My daughter apparently lectured her grandparents over breakfast one morning about the two different ways babies are born. I’m not sure if they were horrified or amused. She also recently used the phrase “pretend he just sucked his testicles in” while her Hero Factory/Chima Lego creatures were play-battling in the back seat of the car. I almost drove off the road. She was also overheard explaining to her best friend about how a girl’s private parts are inside, while a boy’s hang out. Which, I guess, is correct. Not sure how that came up in their conversation.

And then there was the evening when I was telling the kids about how on that very night, 14 years earlier, their papa and I had met on our first date. I thought it was going to be a sweet conversation about falling in love and romance and all that.

However my son looked at me with a knowing look on his face: “Oh, I’ve read all about dates,” he said, eyeing me suspiciously. “And love. And penises.”

Ah well. This should be fun.

Wanted: Distraction Management (For Kids and Parents)

This post had several working titles including “Mommy’s Sorry She Has To Go To Work,” and “Your Focus Needs More Focus.” Either way, there was some serious working Mom guilt combined with a heavy dose of standard parental frustration going on this week.

Weekday mornings require the usual routine for all parties, including basics like getting dressed, eating breakfast, brushing teeth and getting assorted necessary items for the day in their designated places (lunch box, backpack, shoes, jackets…) My kids have been doing this all their lives, with varying degrees of support depending on their ages at the time. Currently, they are old enough to do it all for themselves. The drill has been practiced over and over and over.

And yet.

Pavlov’s dogs perform better than my kids.

Distractions are everywhere. And I’m not talking screens, as we don’t allow them in the morning. Physical distractions (oh look, it’s a Lego/book/cat/brother/sock — insert pretty much any given noun.) Mental distractions (staring into space). Emotional distractions (I’m so happy I’m going to skip around and around and around).

Because T eats her food molecule by molecule, a simple bagel can last a lifetime. (Pretty certain she would not survive in the wild.)

Because G cannot move three feet without finding a random Lego to build or a piece of paper from which to make his latest Origami creation.

Because T cannot brush her teeth without getting lost in the vacuum of her mind while staring at the mirror. If I don’t disrupt her, she could be rooted there for hours. (I’d love to know what she’s thinking, but even she doesn’t know.)

Because when I send G upstairs to turn off his bedroom light (for the third time), next thing you know, he has a nose in a book. (Not a bad thing, I know, but a distraction when the school bell will ring in less than five minutes. And school is more than five minutes away.)

You get the picture.

I suspect I am not alone in this quest to figure out how to handle the distraction management with grace and without completely losing my cool.

Which is what happened earlier this week, prompting lashings of working Mom guilt.

It wasn’t quite the standard morning. We actually needed to leave the house earlier than usual, as I had an appointment and, since my husband was away on business, my kids had to accompany me. We’d had the pep talk the night before. We agreed that we would cooperate, focus, get it done — even if it meant eschewing some playtime because our time was more compressed than on a “normal” morning. We even agreed that they could buy lunch at school instead of making their own lunches like they usually do — a rare “treat.”

And yet.

The morning was a complete clusterf**k. In retrospect, I should have seen this coming, prepared ahead logistically and steeled myself emotionally. But, reminder after reminder turned into nag after nag and eventually escalated into yell after yell. It culminated in us running anxiously to the car, all breathless and on the verge of tears. I promptly informed my kids that I was very disappointed in them. They had made me late.

Ugh.

The second the words were out of my mouth, I regretted them. There was shameful, sad silence from the backseat. My beautiful, creative, high-spirited son hoarsely whispered, “We’re sorry we made you late again.” His sister, the whimsical one, tearfully echoed, “Yes Mama, we’re very sorry.”

I hate myself.

I’m the one who should be building them up, showing them how to roll with life’s challenges, how to “shake it off” or “let it go” (depending on whether you’re a Taylor Swift or Frozen fan). Instead, here I was squashing their spirits, trampling over their egos. I’m not setting a worthy example. Instead, I’m mandating that their innate need for creativity, free play and imagination be set aside to accomodate my timelines, my needs. I disgust myself.

And yet.

I have to get to work. So does my husband. As we move through our weekday frenzied mornings, our minds too are elsewhere — on deadlines, to-dos, on our smartphones and laptops. We, too, are distracted. Emails, texts, news feeds, tweets, calls. For me, as a working Mom, my actual work day starts the second I awake. This is my self-imposed tradeoff for the luxury of not physically getting into the office till 9.40 a.m. (since school drop-off is at 9 a.m..)

It’s all rush rush and we are all distracted. No surprise then that it’s a formula for stress and disappointment. Often, by the time I make it to my desk, I’m already exhausted.

And yet.

It’s not just the mornings; the evenings are similarly compressed and distracted. Shoes and jackets and backpacks are kicked off and discarded. Toys find their way to the dinner table. Unfinished homework needs finishing. Emails need answering (since I left the office at 5.20 p.m. to pick up the kids from their after-school program.) Dishes. Bath time, teeth brushing (cue shenanigans, bickering). Finally, bed and reading before they descend into the peace of slumber. More emails, unfinished work, deadlines to get a head start on. Fishing into their backpacks to discover a form that needs a signature, a party invitation. Who knows how long they might have been there.

My whole day — outside of time at the workplace — is spent trying to conquer all of these endless distractions and competing forces. How long can we continue this pace? I wonder. Is there an art to the distraction management that will make it all work better?

Because we could ALL use a little more zen.

(This article originally appeared on Huffington Post and on Medium)

 

My Inevitable Back to School Blog Post

My favorite part of back to school – other than, you know, the obvious – is prepping all their supplies and backing them into fresh, crisp, clean new backpacks. Pencils have been deftly sharpened. Labels have been lovingly affixed. Everything is neat and organized.

For now. Because we all know that these backpacks will only stay fresh, crisp and clean for a few days. They will soon enough transform into disorganized, sticky receptacles that you are scared to dip your hands into for fear of yuck.

But today, I smile. Because they look like this. Ready to accompany my little darlings back into the land of academics, structure and the inevitable social nirvana/angst.

photo 2 (1) photo 1 (1)

Now, this wouldn’t be a self-respecting back to school blog post without some photos of the little darlings, heading off to seize the day. I’ve used the Shuttersong app to embed their voices into the images and really capture and save the memories of their enthusiasm for school at ages 7 and 9!

You can check them out here:

http://a.sso.ng/1/704494ea4ec2

http://a.sso.ng/1/da50e6a02a16

http://a.sso.ng/1/d2043325aa90

Happy Back to School!

photo (7)

Three Bonus Skills to Teach Your Kids

This is not a post about teaching your kids to dress themselves or tie their own shoelaces. It’s not even a post about ensuring your kids tidy their rooms and put their dirty clothes in the hamper. Or take out the trash and pack their own lunch. And shocker, it’s not about kids picking up their effing Legos. It’s not about teaching reading, manners, social skills, negotiation, independence or any of that.

Yes, yes, these are all important to their well-being and development, to the orderliness of your household, your mental health and the general good of society and all that. But there are a few extra skills which, quite frankly/selfishly, are the icing on the parental cake. Let’s call them bonus skills.

Teach them:

  • How to give your neck and shoulder massage nice, firm massage. Their little bony fingers can actually dig in to your tight sore muscles better than an expensive masseur.
  • How to use the coffee machine. After all kids love to push buttons so popping a K-cup into the machine is a breeze.
  • How to drive. No more chauffering them plus you no longer have to always be the designated driver. (Of course this doesn’t apply to parents of the under-16 crowd but we can dream, right?)

What other bonus skills are you teaching your kids?

 

Third Graders Ask “What If?’

As a working Mom I don’t manage to spend much time in my kids’ classrooms, something I try not to guilt myself about too much. But I aim to be there for the things that really matter to my kids – like when they are making a presentation to the class and other parents. The excitement and pride fairly sparkles in their eyes when a parent is there to watch them. And I admit it, I always get misty-eyed too.

Last week, following several weeks of prep and some last-minute panic over a suitable costume, my son and fellow third graders presented the fruits of their biography project. I was beyond proud to watch my son, dressed as Paul Revere, deliver his essay about this freedom fighter to the assembled kids and parents.  One by one, his fellow classmates each stood up and educated me about the character they had selected. Not just facts but their interpretation of why each person mattered, how he or she contributed to society and changed the world forever. In less than five short minutes, the kids explored the character traits and motivations of their selected biographical character, and how they felt inspired by their achievements. From Susan B. Anthony and Marco Polo to Nelly Bly, Steve Jobs and Louis Braille and more — I was truly impressed.

But the icing on the cake came at the very end when all the kids gathered together to present a poem they had jointly written. “What If?” explores how gravely the world would be different, were it not for the contributions of each of these individuals they had studied. I’m posting an abbreviated version of the poem below because I really think the entire school project (which lasted roughly six weeks) culminated in these kids not only learning some solid history but also realizing that they too have the potential to do great things. For this, I laud their teachers.

What If?

What if Marco Polo

Never explored

Or Walt Disney

Never built more?

What if Paul Revere

Never sent the call

Or Charles Lindbergh

Never flew at all?

What if Louis Braille

Never become blind

Or Dr Seuss

Didn’t have a creative mind?

What if Nelly Bly

Never travelled to write

Or Martin Luther King Jr

Never had a dream in sight?

What if Steve Jobs

Wasn’t so smart

Or Princess Diana

Never used her heart?

What if Susan B. Anthony

Never marched for  a woman’s right

Or Wilma Rudolph

Didn’t run with all her might?

What if you had a dream

And held it inside?

What if you had a dream

And never tried?

Paul Revere: TIME' Person of the Year

TIME Person of the Year: Paul Revere
by Gabriel McGarry

Three Lunch Box Strategies

My early memories of school lunches were very formative. From age 5 to about 12, it was all very Hogwarts-style. Long tables, steaming bowls of overcooked cabbage, ghastly steak and kidney pudding and sloppy semolina for dessert. Teachers staring down at you, ensuring you ate every last bite – or else. Being made to eat crisps (chips) with a fork because young ladies don’t eat with their fingers. Once we were into middle school, things became a little more modern. A cafeteria approach with less discipline and doom and more choice. I cannot remember if there was a salad bar or fresh fruit available – but I do remember the wonderful rhubarb crumble and custard. Most kids participated in the lunches provided by school, though a few (a lucky few?) brought in packed lunches, as we called them in the UK. (I don’t remember why my sister and I never had packed lunches: was it a parental mandate or our own choice? Note to self: ask Mum.)

Fast forward several decades and now I’m the Mom, pondering the school lunch landscape. Fortunately, thanks to Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution and Michelle Obama’s program, school lunches here in the US are not as dire as they used to be and there is far more awareness of what constitutes a nutritious lunch, despite push back from school departments and economic challenges, especially here in Boston and Framingham.

My kids’ school district)has made good strides in providing healthier launch options and I commend them. Still, I’m not altogether sure that my kids would always make good choices or appreciate the food on offer (see below – roast turkey fricassee, anyone?) So every day they go to school with a home-packed lunchbox. Except Friday because pizza.

Have you ever done a quick search on Google or Pinterest for lunch box ideas? There are thousands, offering suggestions for alternatives to the tired PB & J, strategies for lunch planning and prep, and ways to create artistic masterpieces that will convince your kids to actually eat celery sticks.

Given that I’m not the artistic kind when it comes to food prep and taking into account the standard morning mayhem in our house, fancy sandwiches and sculpted vegetables were never going to be in our repertoire. In fact, in the spirit of divide and conquer, my role has always been on the grocery shopping/provisions side of the equation while my husband (a professionally trained chef) handled the actual prep. However, we kept on hitting three chief problems:

  • Not enough variety – we’d always default to the same foods
  • Both kids didn’t like the same things – son would eat the ham and cheese and leave the bread; daughter would eat the bread and leave the ham and cheese
  • So much wastage – their lunch boxes would always come home with loads of uneaten items.

So, in order to ensure their little tummies were full, their taste buds challenged and that we weren’t tipping all the leftovers into the trash every evening, we decided to try out three different approaches.

Variety is the Spice of Life

Theory: This phase involved cramming their bento-boxes with lots of different choices. Call it pick ‘n’ mix, the theory being that hopefully they’d eat a little bit of everything and get a well-rounded meal.

Conclusion: Failure. The kids ate what they liked, left what they didn’t and good food went to waste.

Shock and Awe

Theory: Surprise “baba ganoush and black beans” for lunch! We assumed that they’d be so hungry at lunchtime that they’d surely eat whatever unexpected delight they found in their lunch boxes.

Conclusion: Failure. It appears that kids would rather go hungry than eat suspicious food stuffs. Meaning crabby kids at the end of the day and yes, wastage.

Do-It-Yourself

Theory: A few months ago, I was struck by the realization that unless we stop doing stuff for our kids, they will never be able to do anything for themselves. So we decided they could make their own darn lunches every day (except Friday because pizza.) We provided some basic ground rules, like you must include protein and vegetables and the ratio of sweet stuff must not outweigh said protein and vegetables. My husband even taught them how to slice their own cucumbers which terrifies me despite the fact that my seven-year-old proclaims she is now “good with knives.” Oh joy.

Conclusion: Other than the daily concern of finger amputation, success! The kids are making good choices (see below), taking responsibility for feeding themselves, and best yet: they eat everything. Plus, my husband has an extra 10 mins in the morning.

My only regret is that we didn’t go the DIY route earlier. The next challenge is to get them to mix things up a little (my youngest picks the same foods almost every day) but all in all, DIY has been the way to go. Lunch box dilemmas solved!

School lunch mneu

School lunch menu

Kids lunchboxes with healthy food choices

Kids pack their own lunches for school

 

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