IMG_1656-0.JPG

Kindness vs. coddling

I don’t know if I did today right. I tried, I debated, and I followed my gut. Let me tell you the story, and you judge.

IMG_1656.JPG
(Cool or gross? Also something for you to judge. Because I like empowering readers. And distracting them with science.)

Mornings are relatively time-sensitive I our household. We have a chronic problem with “ten minutes until you need to get ready; five minutes until you need to get ready; time to get ready; please get ready now; I’m really serious that you have to get ready; why aren’t you getting ready; we need to leave NOW,” with my frustration and stress increasing with each of these announcements (the latter of which are about three minutes apart).

The boys have different temperaments, and different needs. But both can put on their clothes and eat breakfast. The older one can put his lunch, homework, and library books into his bag. They can both become self-shod in a matter of seconds.

The problem is that they don’t do these things when asked, and I bristle. Over the past three years we’ve tried charts and rewards and different announcements and fewer reminders and more direction and yelling.

Nothing works consistently.

And after listening to Jennifer Senior’s book All Joy but No Fun, I’ve decided to reclaim what I want in this relationship. Fun. Senior notes that most mothers’ child care is time-sensitive and therefore more stressful. We’re the family nags because we have to get people places, get assignments done, prepare and serve food, administer baths and bedtimes…and it all has to be done relative to a clock.

Fathers, Senior writes, engage in interactions. They play. They teach. They chase. So one parent is generally the bad cop and the other gets to be the good cop.

I want to be the good cop.

So this morning, when the boys came in to cuddle me (more and more I’m embracing the “work late, wake grouchy, allow sweet boy cuddles to wake me and make me happy” paradigm we’ve settled into), I told them I wanted less time pressure and more play.

“I want to say ‘it’s time to get ready’ once, and I want you to heed me. And I’m going to try for a whole week not to say ‘we’re going to be late.'” They laughed. My middle name is “I don’t any to be late.” Because I don’t. Late is poison to my soul. Late is disrespectful and tells me that I’m a royal fuck up.

Sorry if you, gentle reader, are chronically late, but that’s what late says. It says you don’t care and can’t be bothered. I strive for one tardy a year. So far we’ve been tardy twice each year. I’ll take that failure rate.

But I exact this timeliness by harassing my kids. And they teach the family to operate this way by “just a minute-ing” until I’m mad.

So I can’t let them “just a minute” me any more. The anxiety isn’t worth my energy. I don’t want to be the bad cop. I want to be a fun mom. I want to play, then get ready without stress.

Today I said “it’s time to get ready.” After only one “just a second,” they did. Peanut had finished his homework, and I had checked it. He corrected a few minor errors and, as he packed his lunch and library books, grabbed his homework and put it in his bag.

Later that morning I found one sheet of homework he’d overlooked. He had corrected it and put it next to the others, and then forgot it during the great pre-school gathering process.

And I debated bringing it to him.

I had ten extra minutes.

He had tried and done his job, but made a little mistake.

I have a lot of work lately, and time is precious.

Homework is his job, not mine.

It’s not a big deal to help a little guy making his way in a grouchy world.

Spending recess redoing one sheet of math might remind him next time to be more careful.

Spending recess redoing one sheet of math he already found dreadfully easy was more consequence than an active eight-year-old boy needs.

If I left now id make it before recess.

Showing him that I care about what happens to him is core to my biggest job.

Showing him that there are consequences for actions is also core to my role.

Showing him that I can stop my day to help him could be detrimental to his long-term conception of what people should do for him.

Stopping my day to help him teaches an important lesson about how important I think he is.

And that’s where I stopped. It was a mistake. I love him. I may not have the time any other day, but I had the time today.

I made nice small talk with the office staff, whom I like. I showed my youngest that we help family in trouble. I showed myself that even though I often think about what a staff job rather than consulting could have done for my career, my retirement account, and my housing situation, I am glad I stopped working to invest in my children.

So I invested ten minutes in my firstborn child. I gifted a tiny little drive to teach my son that we’re in this together.

I won’t drive his homework to him again. And I likely won’t have to, because an hour spent thinking he would lose recess time was already burned into his rule-following little mind.

I treated him the way I would want to be treated.

That might mean I’m selfish. Or coddling. Or pathetic. But it feels as though it means I’m a good mom.

IMG_2095.JPG
(How could I not help a ninja in need?)

Group storytelling

As our family dissolves its current form and grows again to a new structure, we’re developing dozens of lovely traditions.

And my absolute favorite is the family story.

We talk each day about our favorite parts of the day, and our biggest challenges; we talk about gratitude and feelings.

And now, when the kids seem bored, when we share time together, when we travel in the car, and especially when dim lighting and clean teeth spell the end of the day, we invent a story. Together. Sometimes as three people, and sometimes as four. Each person tells one sentence of a new story. Each subsequent person builds upon it. Until it’s done. And then we do it again.

Tonight:

There once was a tree with several leaves.
And nearby there was a tree with lots of leaves.
And those two trees began growing toward each other.
One day they touched together.
And they began dripping honey.
And they grew together some more.
And they spilled all the honey on the ground.
This made them fight.
A bear stopped by to say, “Don’t worry, there’s enough honey for everyone.”
So every animal in the forest came and took what they needed.
And the trees were happy.
And the animals were happy.
And full of honey.
The End.

 

Wise, wise women

A group of friends, sharing cheese, wine, sourdough, roasted garlic, and kale the other night asked each other what they remembered from childhood.

After we all answered, one woman said, “But what do you remember most, the good or the bad?”

In unison, we all answered “bad.”

My friend then explained her theory that if we remember moments of bad from our childhood, it’s because the bad was shocking and abnormal. That most of our childhood was kind and calm and uneventful because we were loved and supported and able to do the play and learning and exploration of childhood. This is not the reality of many children in the world.

The bad bits we remember, she argued, are anomalies. And that’s why we remember them. So, too, our children will remember the stuff we agonize over: the moments of short temper, the unreasonable “no,” and the time we’re too busy to play. But they’ll remember that because their lives are full of patient “yes”es when we do whatever they need.

When I got home that night I had a link to this post from another friend. In it, a mother discusses how doing her best is exactly enough for her children, who need her more than they need perfection.

It’s a good read and I recommend you click over, because remembering to cut ourselves some slack is a really good idea.

Earlier this week someone asserted that my best wasn’t good enough. A friend who knew about my effort and about the criticism emailed me, “You’re doing so much, and fuck perfect.”

Do you think we can get this month National ‘Fuck Perfect’ Month? It’s just the right time of year for kicking should to the curb, I think.

Would you choose another month for Fuck Perfect or is November okay with you?

A truer course to steer

Boys:

I hope that each day I teach you a bit about how to turn toward light and away from dark.

I don’t mean that you need to be a creature of the day and avoid night. For too long our culture has associated night with evil and light with goodness, so linguistically that just sticks. Forgive me the sloppy metaphor, sweet one. I mean only that my sincerest wish for you is that you choose, actively, to move toward goodness. Always.

Don’t be fooled by the language of light and dark: being good and kind has nothing to do with being cheerful. Be chipper or be cynical, but I will always nudge you toward good. You can be maudlin and kind. You can be morose and nurturing. You can. Really, given what exists in this world, you must. We all must.

Because when you have to choose what kind of person to be, how to map your course and true your compass, you have to decide. Are you going become a person who hates or a person who loves?

I had some time today. Some unusual, luxurious time to read and immerse myself in humanity. To see what we, as a culture, are up to.

Results are quite varied. And instead of just wandering aimlessly through society’s publicized highs and lows, I wanted to focus on the best humanity has to offer this week. Really, we have, as a culture, been wallowing a bit in the terrifying and hateful and exhaustingly dreadful for a while. Certainly it’s important to know about and fight the yuck churning up the worst of humanity, so we can hear people in need of a voice, a hug, or a place to stay.

I spent a bit of time roiling with anger and loathing at articles like this. In it, a man who professes to know literature dismisses most of the people writing, most of the things they have written, and most of the knowledge we have, as English-speaking nations, cultivated over the past century. He refuses to engage with other opinions because he thinks he’s pretty awesome, exactly the way he is.

I stopped reading after a few paragraphs. Not because he’s a dreadful man with views I find appalling. But because I have better things to do with my time.

David Gilmour’s interview speaks of a core that refuses to hear other realities. Not listening when someone speaks about their family or their work or their passion is a pretty bleak way to live. His words are about ignoring heart.

And I reject that way of being.

So I clicked another link. Someone I trust told me that an article was important. That this is what humanity looks like. Prabhiot Singh lives his life to offer the best of himself to those around him, allowing himself to be affected by his community and finding, even in truly horrifying situations a reason to reach out and help.

You get to choose, of course. You get to decide whether to wallow in self-aggrandizement, closing your mind to people who don’t think the way you do. Or to learn from experience and not let anger and hate and truly disgusting behavior sway you from what you know is right.

I hope you see, in the people we surround ourselves with, that what matters most is kindness. That what matters is struggling to make things better, in whatever way you define better. That life is about deciding what’s right and fighting for it.

I hope that you turn toward people like Prabhjot Singh. People who find gratitude, who reject hate by continuing on their path toward love. People who deserve to know what a wonderful person you are, who can bring out the best in you, and who can teach you about other ways of thinking and doing and being. So that we can all change the world toward what is good. What is kind. What is true.

I hope that’s what I’m teaching you. I’ll keep trying. Because beyond keeping you safe, my job is to show you how to share the best of yourself with the world that is so lucky to have you.

You’re not terrible.

Tonight during our interminable bedtime ritual, the rollercoaster of “I love you…when will this nonsense end…I love you…I can’t take this one more stinking minute…I love you…good god what is it now,” Spouse did something silly. And Three found it horrible. And I told the little guy, to stave off the raging insanity that is a three-year-old Butter freakfest, that Daddy was only trying to be silly, and that it didn’t turn out the way he’d hoped.

And somehow in there, I said, in my best silly voice, “because Daddy is Terrible.”

Immediately, Seven said in just the right voice, “He’s not terrible.” And my sweet Peanut wrapped his arms around my neck and sat in my lap and whispered, “He’s not terrible and you’re not terrible. Everyone makes mistakes. You make mistakes. He makes mistakes. Everyone alive makes at least one mistake in their life. Probably more.”

And I kissed his head and told him he was right and brilliant.

And I waited until later to cry.

Because what I’ve waited for, in my pathetic, childish, needy way, has been for my children to show me the kindness I never show myself. To hear a thank you, to be told to ease up a bit. To be told I’m not as terrible as I think I am.

And my almost-second-grader whispered kindly in my ear that I should cut myself and my husband some slack.

I’m not an expert at anything. But I’m pretty sure that’s as close to perfection as life gets.

My baby again

 

Some parenting moments are bliss. Some include intense pain. Most are drudgery and frustration tinted with laughter. There’s sometimes just the teeniest bit of yelling. Occasionally.

But some moments make you stop.

I didn’t see my son fall and break his arm. I didn’t get a terrifying phone call. I just picked him up from school and talked with him about the best and worst of the day just like we did any other day. The seventeenth or eighteenth thing he told me on the walk home was that his arm hurt.

Easy, as broken arms go. And so we didn’t handle any of it like a trauma. Time didn’t stop. The day didn’t really seem different (except the long wait for an x-ray), the school year finished without further incident, and summer began pretty much as usual.

But today the cast came off. And my eldest baby’s tiny little arm emerged from the green fiberglass weak and vulnerable. He said the air hurt and he was scared to touch anything. So I tried to hold his hand. But that hurt, he said. So I kept a respectable distance even though it killed me.

We were escorted toward the examining room, but he seemed hesitant. So I told the nurse we were going to wash his arm before we saw the doctor. We slipped into the orthopedic department’s bathroom.

I have not, since my boys were babies, been so careful with the water temperature as I was with this peeling, pasty, dirt-bracketed arm. And not since he was brand new have I so gently washed him. I wanted to scrub off three weeks’ of unshed skin cells, rub off the grime that had accumulated around his little thumb.

Instead, I carefully removed his elementary-school filth and restored, for one moment, a time in which he completely trusted me. Without making him feel scrubbed. Or small. I got to remember how much time dissolves into genuine care. And he got pure nurturing without feeling little.

Today’s arm-rebirth was sweeter than the quiet Scrabble sessions we have while his brother is at preschool. It was calmer than his lethargic fever days when he sleeps fitfully until he rests on my shoulder and is then out for hours cuddled against me.

Today time stopped so at least one limb of my seven-year-old could be a newborn again.

But this time we already knew and understood each other, so the moment seemed even more sweet and tender.

Maybe because I know now that we might not have more episodes of naked vulnerability.

With a newborn, you expect them to need you for a while.

Seven years later, I’m not sure if I’ll get any more moments like this.

IMAG3475-1

 

 

Nick.

My sweet boy wants a dog. Always has. And when we see dogs, we stop, ask their grownups if it’s okay to pet them, then offer a calm, open palm for the dog to sniff.

And that’s usually the end of it. Sweet cream Butter, who is now about as Three as a child can get, watches me pet the dog. And I do love petting dogs. They’re so deliciously grateful for affection. I tell them sweet stories and scratch them right above the tail and accept their gross kisses. Because they don’t throw things at me or scream at me or expect me to wipe their bottoms. I dig that about dogs.

But Butter will pet one dog every time we see him. He lives right near Butter’s home-based toddler preschool, and we visit him three days a week.

I walk the two miles uphill to Butter’s school right after lunch, then bring him down the hill to visit Nick.

Nick lies in wait every day in the open garage that is obviously his alone. It’s mostly empty, save dozens of soccer balls, a few empty and soiled boxes labeled “Dole bananas,” and a well used old dog bed.

I would say hi to Nick as I walked up the hill three days in a row, telling him as he wagged his tail that I’d be right back with his friend Butter.

The first time I walked by Nick, I assessed the situation. I have a decently-sized fear of dogs, and I don’t enjoy encountering dogs left alone to protect a garage. Two clues put me rather quickly at ease. 1) Yellow labrador. 2) Wagging tail and mellow posture. I chilled out and walked past.

I thought nothing more of him until I was almost at the open mouth of the garage with a toddler strapped on my back. Crap, I thought. If that dog hates strollers or kids or ergo carriers, this might be a stupid way to walk home.

Butter wanted to stop. I explained that without the dog’s parent, we didn’t know if it was friendly. We didn’t want to make a dog nervous. That a dog alone at his own house can be dangerous because they want to protect their home. But my two-and-a-half-year-old son, the one who most recently reminds me how I dislike hitting and screaming and throwing toddlers, was insistent enough that I let him out of the ergo. I made him sit on the sidewalk quietly and calmly. I called to the dog and held out my hand. Butter did the same. The dog wagged his tail, but wouldn’t come.

I told Butterbean that a dog who doesn’t come to you doesn’t want to be pet. And as he was processing his disappointment, the dog rose, stretched, and walked to his water bowl. After a good, long drink, he walked out of the garage, past us, to pee. Then he wandered back and plopped right at my toddler’s feet.

They were in love.

Every day we stopped to say hello. We talked to the neighbors walking their dogs about the yellow lab, who was apparently named Nick and who allegedly hated other dogs. All the locals walked their dogs on the opposite side of the street to avoid major confrontations. But I got to walk my toddler on the Nick side of the street because my son, for all his amazing virtues and glaring flaws, is not a dog.

We visited Nick all Fall and through the winter. We even once met the dog’s father. He was in the garage petting Nick as we walked by. I paused to tell him how we appreciated his lovely pet.

“Well, my neighbor doesn’t,” he told me. He went on to explain that his neighbor was furious that Nick relieved himself on her property. As he told me the story, Nick’s dad didn’t notice that the cold was making his nose run. As he talked to me and struggled to get up from Nick’s side, I realized he must be at least 90 years old. Mid-nineties is my best guess. He told me how he cleaned up after Nick four times a day but that the neighbor was still grouchy about it. I marveled silently that he could walk from the front door to the garage four times a day. He seemed that weak. I offered that four times a day seemed like a lot and that I would give a neighbor a lot of credit for being that conscientious.

He told me he wished I were his neighbor, instead.  I told him I’d be honored.

Call me biased or prejudiced, but I try to go out of my way to be kind to people who seem to need a little more. I’m a softie, I’m a bleeding heart, but more importantly, I have a grandma in her late nineties. I know most of society ignores and avoids the elderly. I didn’t really have time to listen to a long story, but when people really need to talk, it’s always long. I think that people willing to tell their stories are an opportunity to learn and to connect, and I  wanted to be kind to this elderly gentleman. I had no idea if he had family, a regular source of food, or a support network to help him as he aged. I figured Nick was important to him, and I wanted the man to know that we were quite fond of his sweet friend. So I stayed and listened.

And after that I noticed how dirty Nick was. That he was shedding fistsfull of hair. I can’t imagine that bending down to care for a dog is easy when your body is giving you a hard time. So I bought a dog brush and put it in the stroller so I could brush Nick. I made a note about calling a mobile grooming service and asking Nick’s dad if we could give him the gift of a traveling shampoo and nail clip.

Every day, the house’s door was slightly open, in case Nick wanted to come in. As the winter grew colder, we sometimes saw the front door closed and the garage empty. I was happy that the dog and his man had each other on cold days and nights.

As the sun grew warmer in Spring, Nick was often out of his garage on the sidewalk, in a patch of sunshine. He found a nice nest of leaves near his dad’s stairway and eagerly accepted our pats and scratches.

And one day he was dead.

I was pretty sure as I drove by that morning that he wasn’t breathing. And by the time, three hours later, I walked up the hill to greet my tiny little man at school, Nick was gone. Above the place I saw him last laying was a soccer ball suspended from a tree, with the words “R.I.P. Nick” written in black Sharpie.

In the five minutes we had between school and Nick’s garage, I had to tell Butter that Nick died, and I had to explain about death. The latter part wasn’t hard. I knew what to say, how to make sure to reassure that most of us can get better when we’re sick, and that most people live a very long time. And how to say that all life ends and there is a beginning and a middle and an end; and that Nick was at his end. I knew to again reassure him about the people we know who are not dying.

It has been weeks, and Butterbug still talks a lot about wanting Nick back. We talk about how you come back from vacation and come back from work and come back from school but you don’t come back from dead. That some people believe you come back different. But that nobody comes back the way you knew them. That memories are important, that knowing someone like Nick is a gift and we can always be happy we knew him.

And oh I cried for that dog.

After Nick’s death, the house door was never open. The garage never closed or changed. I began to worry about Nick’s dad.

Really worry.

I meant to write a condolence card. But I never did.

I meant to offer meals or a home for the soccer balls. But I never did.

And last week as we walked by I heard the front door open. I looked over to see Nick’s dad emerging from the house. I waited for a moment, wanting to tell him how much we miss Nick. Then I started to walk away, worried that I’d sound creepy. Then I backed up, cursing the coward in me and cheering on the person who believes that of all the people in the world, the 90+ set need someone nice to stop their hurry and to talk. Then I started off again, thinking that the last thing I had time for was a long talk with a man recently bereft of his best friend. Then I backed up, mad at myself for being so selfish. Then I started to walk again (no joke, the dude is really slow and I had time to start and retreat at least four times) but turned around to see he had almost crested the last of his eight steps and would see me in a second.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he answered cheerfully, still watching the steps. He looked up at me once he was safely on the sidewalk. He smiled.

“I’m so sorry to hear about Nick. We really enjoyed visiting him on our walks.”

He beamed. “Yeah, he was a good old friend. I can’t get used to him not being here.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. “How are you doing?”

“Not well,” he said.

“Do you need anything?”

“No. No. Thank you. The community has been really kind, and they’ve come together since Nick died.”

I smiled. He turned toward the garage and turned back.

“He was a really good ambassador,” he said.

“He really was,” I said. And smiled. And walked away.

As we started, Butter said, “I want Nick back.”

“I know Bean. Did you hear Nick’s dad say he wants him back, too. We were happy when we could pet Nick. And we want him back. But Nick died. Nick isn’t coming back. We’re going on vacation, and we’ll come back. Mom goes to work and Mom comes back. Peanut goes to school and Peanut comes back. But Nick isn’t on vacation, Nick isn’t at work. Nick isn’t at school. Nick died. Nick isn’t coming back.”

And that still makes me cry.

Plan of Attack

So I posted a couple of weeks ago that I can’t handle the sibling interactions up in this joint. And with some suggestions from readers, some ideas from parenting books, and some long hot showers (okay, just one, but still…), I’ve come up with a plan. Well, not so much come up with as cobbled together. On the fly. Okay, I’ve MacGyvered a plan.

1. Kindness gets noticed and rewarded. Every kind word or action, every moment of gentle voices or gentle hands, every shared toy and shared moment garners positive reinforcement. Not only do I point out and thank the perpetrator of kindness, I also add a cotton ball to a mason jar in the kitchen.
A full jars wins a family celebration. Glow stick walks around the neighborhood before bed, a trip to the museum, a gorgeous hike, a trip on the train. Something to celebrate the accumulation of goodness that doesn’t involve treat foods. Because if we gave up chocolate until we were all nice the world would end with my chocolate collection intact. Nobody wants that. So, food-independent celebration of kindness.
Lesson: practice being nice and you’ll have a happier family.

2. Nastiness is shut right the hell down. Talking nasty, teasing, and namecalling are rebuffed with a reminder that we don’t talk that way, that we are a family and have to live together, and that we’re all teaching each other how we want to be treated. The second reminder involves removal from the situation. Any physical violence, threatened or executed, results in removal from the room and removal of any toy involved in the situation.
Tomorrow is a new day and you can have the toy back, but if you practice unkindness, I practice removing you from the situation.
Lesson: practice being nasty and you’ll be alone more. Alone is good for restoring and finding kindness. Come back when you’re ready to contribute not destroy.

3. The direct link between sibling tension and my adrenal glands is being severed. They can disagree and find a solution, and they need to be given the tools to do that. If they fight and call names and hit I can correct their behavior without biochemically equating it with being eaten by a tiger. Their emotional health is tied to my ability to keep cool. For years I couldn’t keep cool if they were terrible to each other because I felt, physically, that meanness portended a terrible end. End to what, I don’t know. I just know I absolutely freaked out each time one of them screamed. Or called the other a name. Or grabbed a toy from the other. I didn’t necessarily yell or overreact or lose it in front of them. But biochemically and physically I freaked out. And holding onto that adrenaline all day was destroying my ability to function.
So now I try really hard to visualize the chemical link between one child’s screams and my adrenaline response; and I pull up the drawbridge to that pathway. I try hard not to let their discomfort with being unable to get their way shortcircuit my patience or logic or love.
Lesson: I am not the repository for their conflict. I can teach, lead, guide, and function better if I stop the adrenaline before it flows.

The first two are much easier than the third. But practicing niceness will make them nicer, shutting down nastiness will make us all function better, and eventually allowing conflict to ram up against crappy solutions before finding the best way forward will not keep making my blood pressure spike. Because twenty years is a long time to have my shoulders up around my ears, my stomach clenched, and my muscles ready to fight or take flight.

So. Three part plan to sibling kindness.

Week Two, the only part that’s working so far is that I’m more detached.

Win?

Quality of Life

You know what, six-and-three-quarters-year-old? If you tell the toddler he’s wrong every time he does or says something, he’s going to be mad. And he’s relatively inarticulate. His defense mechanisms are few. So when he feels bad because you’ve told him he’s not Bob the Builder or he’s not actually a big guy or his truck can’t build a new road, he’s going to hit you. It’s not fair, it’s not nice, and I’m working on stopping it. But may I just state for the record that you totally have it coming.

You know what, two-and-three-quarters-year-old? If you walk up and slug your brother because you don’t like what he’s said or where he is or what his plans are for the day, he’s going to get mad. You’re lucky that he now just screams like his head’s been severed and stomps away and says he won’t play with you. For at least two years he’s gotten used to shoving you or hitting you back. That he now withdraws his friendship is well within the bounds of reasonable. And it’s what I taught him to do. (Minus the screaming. Jaysus with the screaming.) Howsabout you do what I’ve taught you, and tell him, “Stop it!” rather than hitting.

You know what, both of you small boys? You’re beating me down. I don’t need much, but I need you to be kind to each other. I’ve done some research. Seven-to-eight sibling fights an hour is normal. You fight less than that. But even one fight a day where one of you hurts the other or one of you says something mean is too much. Knock. It. Off.

Because you’re breaking my spirit. I’m about to be the mom who won’t get out of bed in the morning because whether I do or don’t, you’re screaming and hitting within 5 minutes of waking. Yes, the first four minutes are adorable. You’re quite lovely to each other when you stick to the script. After that, all bets are off. And I talk kindly and explain why you should, too. But I kind of don’t see the point anymore.

Why do you play nicely until I dart down the stairs to go to the bathroom? Or ask you to put on shoes? Or try to cook? Why you gotta be like that? The second my back is turned you’re hurting one another’s souls, guys. Why with the calling names? Our mantra here is “It’s never okay to do something to make someone feel bad.” (Mad props to the friend who taught me that one.) That goes for retaliation hitting and scratching and biting. That goes for namecalling. That goes for demeaning someone or their imaginary world. That goes for excluding. That goes for talking nasty when a gentle explanation will do.

At least once an hour one of you is genuinely kind to your brother. And I tell you how nice that feels or sounds. I tell you to be proud of how you used your words and your kindness to make him happy.

And at least once an hour on or more of you is terrible. Horrid. Criminally nasty. And I tell you that your behavior is unacceptable. That you are a good person practicing being mean, which might make you grow up mean.

Why does this not work? Why are you not fixed? Why can’t you be mostly nice and withdraw when you need time alone? Why can’t you go without hitting or yelling or psychologically punishing each other for just one day?

Don’t give me that “because we’re small children and need your constant guidance, without which we falter and can’t possibly be kind to each other.” Mama has to pee, guys. And read a book, some day.

This steady rhythm of sometimes-nice-but-often-shitty-to-each-other is wearing me down.

And summer is coming. Lots of together time. Lots.

Please. Help a mama out. Stop being nasty to each other.

[To all those out there whose children get along famously, please go give them an extra kiss tonight, because their contributions to family harmony are deeply important. To those who’ve successfully guided asshole children to kinder and gentler ways, please comment below. Ayudame. Por favor.]

 

Not clear on the concept

Peanut, inching ever closer to Seven, is growing more and more adult each day and I’m having a devil of a time trying to walk the line between teaching critical thinking and teaching blind adherence to rules. I would prefer the latter for my rules and the former for the rest of the planet, but I’m glimpsing that perhaps that’s not how the world works. Nuances aren’t my strong suit, and now I have to teach a remarkably analytical child about shades of grey.

Not that kind.

Butter is trying out being a grownup, too. When you ask him to give you something, he puts both chubby, babyish hands behind his back and says, “pick one.” But if you hesitate for more than a few seconds, trying to choose the best hand, he takes his empty hand and points to the other shoulder. Useful, as clues go, but rather ineffective for a guessing game.

Peanut has taught his younger brother to be silent when playing hide-and-seek, and how to tell the good guys from the bad guys in most of our books. Unfortunately, that means the toddler also identifies people, loudly, by pointing them out to me as we pass them. “Good guy, good guy, bad guy,” he says in the supermarket. And on walks. And at the doctor’s office.

And aside from being intrigued by who he chooses in real life to label a good guy and why, and embarrassed that he’s calling anyone with a scowl a bad guy, I’m rather gripped these days by my fundamental inability as humans to judge. When should I follow a rule and when should I fight to change it? Which of many behaviors do I use to finally decree someone is a bad guy or a good guy, given that nobody is all good or all bad?

And how in the name of all that is decent and good do we then teach those subtleties to small people, who are wired to think in black and white, to repeat patterns, and to trust us no matter what we say?

Does anybody else worry that getting children to fit within society’s rules makes them want too much to fit in? That getting children to follow makes them too willing to follow? That getting children to prioritize some qualities and actions over others makes them blind to other possibilities? That pretty much all our work is brainwashing?

That hiding our humanity behind our backs while we try to parent handicaps our children’s ability to choose?

If I just learn from my two-year-old and telegraph the answer, my sons will never get to really choose while it’s still safe for them to make big mistakes. But if they’re left with too many choices…

If Peanut refuses to brush his hair after I ask kindly and logically, explaining that a quick brush now means fewer knots the next time, do I just shrug and let him spend the day with knots in his hair? If I get frustrated and put the brush away and he begs me to please comb his hair, did I just withhold love to get what I wanted? Will he similarly change his mind to restore himself to favor if bullies ask him to torment a younger kid, then turn to walk away when he says no, successfully converting him to cruelty by using the same tactics that his bedraggled-hair-avoiding mother used? Should I offer information and assistance but not be attached to the results? Is that true of jackets when it’s cold? Of protein when he’s hungry? Of manners? Of cleaning up after himself? Of thank you notes? Of not walking on neighbors’ lawns or hitting their flowers? Of kindness to his brother?

Of course not. But “of course not” to which ones?

Someone talk me off the ledge here. Show me the line, please, between over-parenting and under-parenting, worrying too much and too little, revealing too much or too little of the Oz behind the curtain. Point me to the answer, please, between good guy and bad guy. Then tell me how they got that way.

Because I’ll tolerate messy hair if they will just grow up to judge well who the good guys are and how to be one, too.

Glory be.

Oh, gentle readers, winds of change are blowing through Chez Naptime. The chaos and the panic and the frustrations are lately vacillating toward harmony.

Not quite sure when it started. This summer was an intense sibling phase of aggression, retaliation, and nastiness. Neither child seemed to have simultaneous good moods, and without fail the grouchy one would turn the other into a screaming jackass within a few minutes of waking. I cannot articulate the stress caused when one child intentionally hurts his brother just to stop morning cheerfulness that he did not share. My days began at least six days a week with children screaming and crying by 6:30. Screaming the rage of being injured for being happy. Sobbing with the broken heart of being thwarted. And the other guy crying because his brother dared enter his Lair of Grump. Beginning before 6:30 and continuing for 13 hours.

I often wondered if it would ever change. If I was doing something wrong. If my readers lied to me that the boys would eventually play together. Heaven knows they mostly fester and erupt together. Blech.

A few days of early Fall showed promise. Their good moods coincided and they treated each other with care and gentleness. They talked, they negotiated. They acted as though they were on the same team.

But those days were still rare. Once a week, perhaps, mornings started well and the boys sided with rather than against each other. For a few hours in some cases.

And lately it happens more often than not. Good moods all around. Or, even better, a cheerful brother persuades a grump to his side of happiness and play.

Yesterday, walking home from school, the little one wanted to roll his softball down the sidewalk. I balked, saying that rolling into the street was going to be too frequent.

But Peanut, my increasingly personable six-year-old, offered a solution: he would run ahead and block the ball from going into the street. A lovely offer. I figured, based on two years of experience with their dynamics, that he was going to use the opportunity to take the ball for himself. But he didn’t. He didn’t take the ball or play keep away or tease or race the little guy. He played shepherd. He played backup, helper, and understudy instead of domineering and impatient first string.

So for a mile, the two-year-old rolled the ball down the sidewalk and his brother helped him. When the little guy screamed in desperation because his brother had picked the ball up, Peanut explained when he was doing and offered to hand the ball over or to roll it to Butter. The older guy was cheerful. He was patient. Butter quickly caught on that he was getting to play with the best side of Peanut, the side that only six- and seven-year-olds get to see.

It was an absolute joy to be with them. To watch them play, to help navigate only rarely. To see how kind they were and how much fun they could have together. To watch the beaming faces of passersby who caught the boys’ infectious laughs.

I want to cry at how lovely it is when they get along, and I know the tears stem from released tension at not having my shoulders up around my ears for 13 hours a day. What a relief to see them both at their happiest. To observe them bringing each other to higher levels instead of trying (often in vain) to gently interrupt their knocking each other down.

Sleeplessness seems less painful. Messes seem less important. Frustrations seem less debilitating. Anger seems a distant memory.

Because they’re being kind. My children are being kind. To each other. Consistently. For the first time in two years.

Thank you, Universe, for this interlude. I know it will shift and change. I know there will be setbacks. I know Age Three will nigh on kill us all.

And now I know how good things can be.

I had no idea. Parents who aren’t stabby by breakfast every single day, I now see that you’re not crazy.

I’m even rebranding our annual Holiday Apathy Gathering as an annual Low Expectations Holiday Party. (Crud, I have to get on planning that and inviting people…) Because I have no meh left. My inner Eeyore is on vacation and my heretofore secret Tigger is on the prowl.

So watch out. I might just pounce holiday joy and effervescence on ya. I have to. I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.

Where?

Time Out

We’ve had a week of big emotions. A lot of anger and tantrums from the pint-sized population.

And I’m trying out something new.

Every time one of the kids freaks out, I’m calm. I offer words and solutions. That’s old hat. But when one or both refuses to listen to gentle reminders that “we don’t hit mommy,” or “use your words, please, so I know what you want,” I lock myself in the bathroom.

It’s not an ideal technique, I’ll grant you. I’m sure it’s not a Dr.-Sears-endorsed way of coping. But I’ve totally regressed in this week of absolute chaos. And I have such a raging temper that, if I stay and try to reason with the inherently unreasonable, I eventually lose it.

I’ve always liked locking doors. As a kid, we had one room that locked: the bathroom. My brother and I would fight, and when it got nasty I’d run straight for the bathroom. Lock. Space, relief, and relative safety.

Even in corporate life, when my stress levels rose, I’d head for the bathroom. Big mirrors, granite counters, brass rails, and locking doors all spell deep breaths and rapid recovery. Personal space brought to you courtesy of American shyness about excretion.

So I’m trying the retreat-to-the-loo technique here. To keep the peace. To show the boys that I will not tolerate being abused. To offer a game changer and a reset button. To cue a new round of, “it sounds as though you’re angry. Would you like a cuddle?”

Yesterday Butter and I came home for lunch. He said he didn’t want to eat. I told him okay, but that I wanted leftover stirfry. So I scooped and reheated. And he screamed and raged and tried to knock the bowl out of my hand. I explained it was just for Mommy. He freaked. I offered some, in case he though I was keeping it from him. He took a swing at me. I offered him his own bowl; I offered yogurt; I offered to go outside with him; I offered to let him choose.

He screamed and hit me.

So I said, “I can’t stay here if you hit.” And I walked downstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. Childish and ridiculous. But I got to shovel a few bites my broccoli into my empty body all by myself. Without being hit. An unusually productive meal, actually.

When I came out one minute later, I offered to cuddle him. He took me up on it. Calm, cuddly, and full belly?

Bathroom for the win.

Peanut came home from school later the same day in a foul, foul mood. As the minutes clicked away, he yelled at me, he called me names, he pushed me. I explained each time that I absolutely would not stand for that behavior and that feeling grouchy is fine but spewing anger on other people is not. I offered him some options, including the game of taking his own grouchy face off, crumpling it up, and putting it in his pocket so the sweet Peanut inside could cuddle and read books. He screamed at me. So I went downstairs and locked myself in the bathroom.

You may remember that, when the now 6-year-old Peanut was small, I made the mistake of staying in the room as tempers escalated. My belief that I couldn’t leave him when he was troubled, no matter how violent he got, was not good for my blood pressure. Or emotional well being. Or our relationship.

So this week I leave. I explain briefly that I will not stay for screaming and hitting, and I go. They hate it. They cry and beg me to come out. And that goes against every bit of my “follow your instincts and do what is kind” parenting.

But I totally love the door between us. Admitting my relief at abandoning my tantruming children might get my attachment parenting card taken away, but I don’t care anymore. Locking myself in the bathroom means my temper stays in check and I can reset my energy back to where it needs to be when dealing with insane raging lunatics.

Hiding behind a locked door means not teaching them that people will stay when they’re being terrible. I have always wanted them to believe that I’m a safe person with whom to lose it, but, increasingly, I reject that idea. You may *start* to lose it with me until you lose it *at* me. You may rage and writhe. But you may not hit me. I can help you find words and solutions. I can let you know you’re loved while and when you’re done being angry.

But I will not stand still and be an inflatable Bozo for your punching needs.

So excuse me. I have to go stash some magazines in the bathroom. I think I’m going to be in there a lot.

Breath held, eyes closed

When I ask you to do something and you’re willing, you sing back to me, “Oak-kay, Mommy Day!” A nicer song was never sung.

When I ask you to do something and you’re unwilling, you brace yourself, and enunciate each word, “Mommy, I heer jew. One meedee.” And usually, after that minute you comply.

You think it’s funny to say that your stuffed alligator says, “Meow.” And that your stuffed elephant says, “Meow.” And that your baby doll says, “Meow.” But you named them all “Poe.” I don’t understand you, kiddo. And I dig that about you.

When you want something right now, you tell me, “Mommy. Look me eye, Mommy.” It’s nice of you to tolerate me and to use such compelling ways to get my attention.

You spend a week or so screaming in desperate frustration any time your hands didn’t do what you wanted them to. I taught you to ask for help instead of screaming, and now you cheerfully bellow, “HELP, EVEEBODY!” when your train won’t work. Luckily for you, everybody hears you and everybody helps. Nice world, eh, buddy?

You ruin even the best jokes, friend, with your own favorite punchline. “Knock knock,” your brother and I begin. “Who’s there?” someone replies. “POOP!” you shout. Very funny. Very, very funny.

When your brother is mean you pull his hair. When he ignores you, you hit. When he yells at you, you bite. These are not okay, things, Butterbean. Angry is okay, hurting is not okay. That nonsense has to stop.

Thank you for saying “soddy.” It feels nice to hear a sorry.

It’s very nice of you to thank me for the things I do. It’s wonderful of you to use words and ask gently to have a turn. And yes, it’s kind of funny that you insist on locking me out of the car every chance you get.

I don’t know how I’m going to leave you at school tomorrow, sweet cream Butterbug. I know you’ll have fun and you’ll learn new things about how people are different but all like gentleness and kindness. I know you’ll be happy to see me when I come after lunch.

I just don’t know how I’ll do. Aside from the whole “allowing a thought to proceed to completion” thing I vaguely remember from before you and your brother were born.

I think I’ll be pretty much demolished without you. I’ve wanted some space from you since those days at three months that you just screamed yourself purple. But I’ve never followed through with it for more than an hour every six months because I just can’t take it. You’re too little, too sweet, too attached, too new.

You’re my guy. I love love love you. And I’ll come get you after lunch.

Okay, Butter Day?

First day of First Grade

Oh, bloggity blogosphere. Hold me, for I am wrecked.

I wanted everything to go right today. Yesterday Peanut was terrible to his brother, and confessed when I asked why he seemed to bent on emotional destruction that “I’m worried about school tomorrow.”

Of course you are, I said. New people, new classroom, new things to learn. But you know, I reminded him, some of the people will be familiar. We checked the class list together right before dinner and he very much likes three of his returning classmates. We’ve seen the classroom before. And they won’t expect you to be in high school yet. They know what you learned in kindergarten, and they’ll start there for first grade.

It’ll all be okay. Uncomfortable in the beginning, but just fine once you get rolling. Hang in there. Newness fades fast.

And then I set out to make the day a success.I packed his favorite lunch. I gave him his backpack early enough that he could accessorize it with all his hoarder packrat-y bits of fluff and string and old raffle tickets. (Seriously, the kid’s middle name should have been Templeton.) I calculated and recalculated how long it would take us all to get ready, get the bikes out, and ride to school. I checked air pressure and helmet status and bike locks.

I woke early (I swear to Aphrodite, Butterbean, if you keep waking up so early and shrieking at me to get you vitamins, I’m selling you to the gypsies before you have a chance to unleash the Threes on me) and brewed some chamomile for the adorable little cautious and easily unsettled first-grader. I made a lovely breakfast. I kept Butter out of his face.

We made it ten minutes early and met the LOVELY teacher who fawned all over Peanut. Then I walked off with Butter for our first solo date in over a month.

And a few blocks later I sobbed. Walking down the street, toddler in my arms, I was more than a little surprised that I bawled to the tune of “I left my precious baby with someone else. Someone new who didn’t even know yet which of his resistances were based in fear, which stemmed from shyness, and which from assholishness.” Tears streamed down my face as I ordered coffee and a cheese roll for my littlest Little.

I got Butter to nap a bit late, but figured I’d wake him early to get his brother. First graders are important, and we must be on time. Don’t forget: first grade gets out later than kindergarten. Don’t forget.

The phone rang half an hour before I was to wake the little guy. (Why do phones only ring REALLY loudly when a small person is napping?)

“Did you know that today was an early release?”

My heart just fell to the floor, bounced twice, turned to crystal, and shattered down the stairs.

“Today is WHAT?!”

Every child in the first grade was taken into the safe, warm, loving arms of a caregiver, except mine.

The new teacher, who knows nothing of my commitment to family, learning, and being ten minutes early to everything, reassured me that Peanut was fine. In the office with our delightful secretary.

I grabbed the sleeping toddler, my keys, and the backpack I needed for our bike ride home. I walked as fast as a human has EVER walked the almost-mile back to my little boy.

Twenty-five minutes late the first day of school. His first experience of being a really big kid. And I screwed it up. Beyond screwed it up.

While I stew in that, I’ll add this tidbit for your information so you can help me pick out the right hair shirt for the next twenty years of self flagellation: Closing up his lunch this morning I wanted to add something extra, in case he was first-day-of-school hungry. Something easy, somewhat healthy, and adored…

A lovely, locally grown, organic apple.

For the kid with *three* loose teeth.

Effing parent of the century, don’t you think?

How Parenting is Like Camping

All the parents who hate the dirt, bugs, and lack of showers implicit in camping already know from the title why having children is like camping. Dirt. Bugs. Lack of showers.

But I feel the need to expand a bit more for those who have not experienced the wilderness joys of small children.

1. If it’s not locked up, wild things will eat it.
My toddler climbing the fridge to eat what’s in the freezer = your teen eating a week’s worth of groceries in one sitting = bears. They all need it, they all want it, and they all *will* get it unless it’s properly stored.

2. You’ll be surprised at the end of a day how much dirt can get on one person.

3. Rain is the least of your worries.

4. You will learn to handle bugs. Don’t care if you like ’em or hate ’em. Children and camping are both inextricably linked with bugs.

4. People tend to plan for the first day (year) and forget to brace for the third. If this blog teaches you nothing else, let it be that Year (day) Three is the hardest.

5. Someone won’t like the food.

6. You’ll get less sleep than you think.
Nope. Even less than that.

7. The fun is exhausting. So are the frustrations. So is the worrying.

8. You can never have too many washcloths.

9. When you forget sunscreen or bug spray, bad things happen.

10. No matter how prepared you are, you’ll forget at least one thing.

11. No matter how many times you’ve done this, at least one really obvious thing will surprise you.

12. Good luck using the phone, shower, or bed.

13. It will be your most ____________ experience ever.
(You fill in the blank. Rewarding? Amazing? Annoying? Memorable? Frustrating? Give me a status update on your camping or parenting below.)