Monday, May 31, 2010

Cleaning With Kids

Mollie writes

Cleaning with older kids is an exercise in futility.  I'm not intending to kill any hopes you have of organizing your tweens and teens, but there you have it.  This blog will be, if nothing else, honest.  And sometimes honesty is brutal.

Not that you shouldn't try.  I suspect that there's some sort of cosmic force that compels parents to annually shovel out the crud from the kids' bedrooms.  And the beginning of summer break is just the time.  Once the school is out and your home has established whatever level of "normalcy" you hoped to achieve, it's a good time to clean the kids' rooms.

This won't be pretty.  First, you have to get the door open.  Once I've established a beach head, I like to assemble my arsenal.   Rags, lysol, a shop vac (none of those silly girly vacuums for this job, you need a guy vac), carpet shampooer, Windex, empty storage containers and at least 5 extra large plastic garbage bags, and you are ready.

In a perfect world, you will already have had your kid do the initial sweep of the room.  What kids usually do is clear a path to the bed and closet and then pronounce themselves done.  The veteran parent knows that this is only a smokescreen, and the veteran teen knows this as well.  But half of childhood is ritual, and this is one of the most important.

I usually start with sorting.  This is really easy.  It's either 'keep' or 'toss' and there's no middle ground.  Here is where delicate negotiations take place.  Starting with the four different pairs of athletic shoes that are in different states of decay, opt to keep one pair and toss the other three.  I usually keep the pair that has the lest amount of foot odor, unless it is so incredibly worn that you can't completely shoe the foot.

By this point of the year, one athletic shoe manufacturer or another will have come out with a new model, and, after convincing your kid that you can't afford it, the cleaning crew can opt to toss three pairs of dead shoes for one pair of lovely living shoes that fit his feet and your budget.

(Note to Nike, New Balance and all others:  June would be a great time for a shoe sale.  Trust me on this!)

Once the shoe issue is resolved, move on to clothing.  If they haven't worn it in a year, toss it.  If they seem to have worn it every day, wash it and return it to the dresser that is now empty because all the contents are on the floor.  Go through this until all clothing is removed from the floor, bed, light fixtures, etc. and either in a 'toss' container or the laundry hamper.  It will ease pain if you point out that for every t-shirt tossed, a replacement will soon follow:  one that fits.

Next comes school stuff.  Start with the backpack and clean it completely.  Any pen that shows promise for the next school year can be returned to the backpack, as well as any necessary electronic equipment. Now would be a good time to toss any food products left rotting in the backpack, as well as gym clothes,   empty grooming supplies, random homework assignments (you  got a "B" on that???) and unidentifiable debris.  But if the backpack itself is salvageable,  keep it.

See, you have made progress.  Now it's time to consider that play-station workstation area.  Get an empty storage container and keep it at hand.  As you clean this area, put all electronic games, etc in the box and clean, toss and clean s'more.  Here is where, if you are an Oregon resident, you will find your child's first year at college collecting dust in the form of empty beverage containers.  Be it cans, bottles, you name it, I'm betting that there will be a significant sum littering that small space.  Get another plastic garbage bag for recyclables that you can exchange for money.  Start filling it.

At some point, you will get past this area and hit the bed.  Completely strip it and WASH ALL LINENS.  If possible, include bleach.  Flip the mattress.  While flipping the mattress, check out what's under the bed.

Mostly what's under the bed are those socks you thought the laundry monster had eaten.  Every real laundress knows that there really isn't a laundry monster, just a really filthy stash of dirty socks under somebody's bed.  Once you've liberated all the MIA socks, add them to the laundry pile.  At some point, you'll have at least one load of laundry, and you can start washing everything.

Well, there's half a chance that there's something in the dresser.  It's just not clothing.  Reorganize the dresser so that underwear, socks, shirts, sweats and other clothing can return to its natural habitat.  And remember, take a trip to the laundry room.  You have NO idea where those sweats have been.

Well, isn't this nice.  You are actually seeing some floor space and tabletops.  Before you lose steam, however, you have to take on the closet.  The closet is like a mini-bedroom, where overflow from the rest of the room gets stuffed if company is coming over.  Closet cleaning will result in at least one full garbage bag, two loads of laundry, and a trip to the chiropractor.

By now, you've pretty much dealt with the debris of a school year.  You can see the floor, desk top, dresser top and the inside of the closet.  Now for the cleaning!

I clean top to bottom so start with those spiders webs on the ceiling and move down.  An excellent way to demolish spiders webs is to put all the extensions on the shop vac and literally, suck it up.  Next, clean the windows and sills.  Clean the furniture.  Then clean the floors, paying extra attention to the corners of the room.  Occasionally, you can find the Holy Grail buried in dust there.

While all this is going on, laundry is chugging in the machines and your t(w)een is fetching it and returning things to their proper places.  The garbage bags are in the dumpster and the recyclables are in your car.  You can now shampoo the carpet.  When that is done, you can remake the bed.

Voila, your annual room cleaning is done.  The kid will keep it clean during the summer (or else!).  Dust will slowly settle, but it will be new dust, not the same old dust.

This is a great time for parents and kids to bond.  You can bond over that homework project that only got a "B", you can bond over that Metallica t-shirt, you can bond over those empty pizza cartons.  You'll get a really good idea how the kid spent most of his "quiet" time and you can talk, talk,, talk.

And isn't that why we cleaned in the first place?

Friday, May 28, 2010

Mean Girls and Bullies – What to Do? Questions Answered – 5/28/10

I have a serious situation to run by you guys. It's a little peripheral to direct parenting of my own
daughter, Stella, but it’s stuff that parents of teens, especially, are going to encounter.

Stella has a friend named Emma. She's a dear girl whose mother died in February of
2009. Since middle school, Emma has been kind of "smitten" (in a non-sexual way) with a girl
named Madison who runs with our crowd of super bright overachievers.

Madison is turning into the very definition of a Mean Girl without Queen Bee status. She loves
that Emma is smitten and desperate to remain friends, and she's using her to ... I don't know what.
Stoke the fires of her own ego? I just don't know. They’re all freshmen heading into
sophomores – Emma will be 15 next month. Natalie turned 15 in April. Stella is 15½; Madison
turns 16 in July. I've known Madison for a long time, but don't know her as well as Stella's other
friends like Emma, Natalie, and Zoe. Madison has always been kind of mean to Emma, jokingly threatens to stop being friends, tried to make her break up with a boy she liked BEFORE the eighth-grade dance, etc., etc.

Right after Emma’s mom died, Madison grew very close to Emma and was really supportive, and
I think Emma imprinted on her like a little duckling. The emotional abuse Stella has described
Madison perpetrating on Emma almost sounds like "hazing" to me. She orders Emma to wear
ridiculous combinations of clothes (ugly T-shirts with a belt around her waist and high heels with
capris or something dreadful like that). If Emma says she doesn't want to do whatever it is that
Madison has commanded, Madison threatens her with the withdrawal of her affection or tells her
she won't room with her during band camp in August.

Madison does the kind of thing that always made me feel stupid as a kid. "Gosh, Gracie! I was
only kidding. Can't you take a joke?"

Stella said people are starting to talk about Emma's odd behavior (her grades are also slipping.
She bombed a test Stella aced, totally unusual), but it's not the REAL Emma. It's what Madison is
turning her into, Stella says.

Stella, being Stella, is furious. But Emma begged Stella not to tell anyone (so of course she told
me since I'm no one). I think Stella has dropped hints to Natalie, too, partly because Natalie also
loves Emma and partly because Natalie can understand Madison's behavior from the inside out
since she has those spontaneous "mean girl" tendencies herself (though Natalie is self-aware
enough to know when she's been horrid and has the guts to apologize). Yesterday evening, Stella
said things between Madison and Emma seemed better, but when she first told me what was
going on yesterday afternoon, she was hell-bent on some kind of "intervention." Stella is going to
offer to room with Emma during band camp. She wants to get Emma over here more but with a
bunch of other people, NOT including Madison.

We worry that Emma, who has ALWAYS been fragile, even before her mama died, might begin
leaning toward self-harm of some kind. She used to even say she wanted to kill herself, that she
hates herself. Stella said she thinks that Emma really just hates the person Madison is turning her
into. I don't know about that. Emma can't see her own gifts, and even I've heard her mutter about
how much she hates herself. Madison seems to be playing on this self-loathing for reasons I
cannot understand.

If Emma were an adult, I know someone would say, "Well, she can just choose not to respond to
Madison." But she's NOT an adult. She's 14, motherless, ultra-sensitive. I know Emma won't talk
to her beautiful father about this. I don't know how, but Stella said the thing with Madison trying
to manipulate Emma's behavior is affecting her home life. Emma’s Dad NEEDS his daughter.
They are a tight unit.

My question, or one of them, is: when do I break Stella's trust and talk to Emma's dad or even
Madison's parents? I haven't seen any of the behavior myself. This is all just from my own child. I
told my kid that I will help her to help her friend in any way I can, that Emma can ALWAYS
come here, that she can go into The City shopping with us, spend the night any time she wants to
over the summer, anything, whatever. But I feel like someone needs to do more, and if that
someone is me, I need ideas on how to deal with this without upsetting too many people or my
own sensitive soul and dear God have you EVER READ SUCH A LONG LETTER?

I'm very shy about approaching people with uncomfortable issues. It kind of makes me sick to my
stomach. I can't even imagine trying to discuss this with Emma’s dad. Emma has an older brother
who is either about to graduate from college or already has graduated. I wonder if he would be a
better person for me to approach. Or her grandma. Or no one. Maybe Stella is right, and the
situation between Emma and Madison is easing, no more hazing or threats. Maybe I should sit
tight and observe for a specific amount of time.

I hate to break Stella's trust because I think it's so wonderful and important that she TALKS to
me. But she also knows that if I thought someone intended to harm herself or was causing
someone else terrible harm, I would have to say something to the right people. You know?

She told me for a reason. She needed me to know.

--Grace Under Fire

Millie Writes:

Dear Grace,

First of all, congratulations. You have raised your daughter so well that even though she is right in the middle of her teenage years, she doesn’t hesitate to come to you when she has a problem that’s too big for her to handle. This is a sign that Stella will grow to be as wise as her mama.

If school was still in session where you live, I’d suggest that you go talk to Emma’s counselor. As you say, you haven’t witnessed the behavior personally since most of it has taken place at school; Emma’s counselor would be able to unobtrusively keep an eye on the dynamic between Emma and Madison. However, that’s not the case right now.

There are two general parts to this question: first, how to handle things so you’re not jeopardizing Stella’s confidence in you and second, how to help Emma. There’s also the subject of what’s going on in Madison’s life that she thinks it’s okay to treat a friend in the way she’s treating Emma, but that’s probably a different column altogether.

You’re right when you say Stella told you for a reason. She needed you to know, and she knows that Moms help kids. If in the end you choose to do some semi-public intervention (with Emma’s Dad or a school counselor, for example), it’s important to talk to Stella about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. You can reassure her that you’ll keep her name out of it as much as possible, if you can. Tell her that while she promised Emma not to repeat what Emma told her, you’re glad that she did because there are some things that 14-year-olds shouldn’t have to handle by themselves. You can also let Stella know that if someone else’s mother had this information about Stella, you would want to be told so you could help her.

You’re right on to want to observe for yourself before you take any steps that are too drastic, so I suggest that you step up your and Stella’s involvement in Emma’s life. I know she has an outstanding invitation to spend the night, go shopping and hang out, but this summer try amping it up a little bit: instead of open invites, have Stella call Emma with specific plans. “Mom and I are going to see The A Team and we’ll pick you up in an hour!” You can also extend a few of these ideas to Emma through her dad, so that you can become more comfortable talking to one another in non-crisis situations—this will help if you do want to approach him later about the bullying.

Stella’s right on the money about wanting to have Emma over more often with a large group of friends. You might go a step further than this and have them take a “just for fun” class together over the summer. Nothing boosts a teen’s self-confidence like having an opportunity to display a little competence in some area, so sign them both up for jiu-jitsu, horseback riding or swim classes. Physical exertion is good for raising the feel-good hormones in her brain and it will give her the chance to forge some new friendships. The less Emma’s self-esteem hinges on what Madison thinks of her, the easier it will be for her to stand up to the bullying—and you’re absolutely right, a mid-teen cannot be expected to just shrug off this kind of behavior. They are more sensitive right now than at any other time in their lives.

It’s a great idea for Emma and Stella to room together at band camp – again, anything that takes the focus off of Emma and Madison being BFFs can only help Emma. If there will be a trusted faculty member at the camp and you feel comfortable talking to her, you might take her aside and give her a condensed version of what’s going on so that she can watch over any interactions between Emma and other kids.

As for your question, “When do I break Stella’s confidence and talk to her Dad or other family member?” I think the answer is: You do it when you’ve heard or observed something about Emma that sets off alarm bells about her safety or sanity. It’s not that you shouldn’t trust Stella’s interpretation of events, but if you’re calling Emma’s dad or her grandma you must be able to give them specifics. When in doubt, ask yourself: If this was happening to Stella, would I want to know about it? Or would I chalk it up to “kids will be kids?”

Finally, keep calm in front of Stella. She’s watching you closely to see how you handle the information she’s given you. If she feels you’re going to bulldoze through the problem and (in her eyes) embarrass you, she will think twice about confiding I you in the future; if you are frank yet reassuring in your discussions with Stella and don’t act drastically differently when you’re around Emma or Madison, she’ll relax. It’s quite possible that she’s right and the worst of the problem has passed. Just extend Emma a little more hospitality than usual this summer, keep an eye on Madison when she’s around, and most importantly: Trust your instincts.

Mollie Writes -

How to deal with mean girls?

I'm right on board with Millie.  I'll just add my two cents worth (or $.40 by today's exchange).

First, I'd talk to Stella in the same fashion Millie said.  Let her know that Stella was right to come to you, and that you want her to continue to trust you with her confidences.  But also let her know that you love Emma, and want to be sure that she stays safe during these awkward years.  Not having her own mother to confide in must be horrible for Emma and I'm sure Stella will empathize.

Do you ever see Emma's dad?  The next time you do, just let him know how much you love Emma and that if she has any 'girlie' issues, you are available for tea and sympathy.  You don't have to bring up specific issues, just let it dangle.  Emma may have other things to talk to someone about, and this might open her up with you.

Keep Emma busy with your family this summer.  With school being out, there isn't much a counselor can do once they are on hiatus.  When Emma is with your family, be open to her discussion of her relationships with her other friends.  Don't introduce the subject, but if she offers something, let her talk.    Try to have contact with Emma at least two times each week, and reassure Emma that if she wants some chat time with a surrogate mother, you are there.

Have Stella and Emma room together at camp.  Madison needs to see that she is not in control of Emma's life.

When school is ready to start in the fall, talk to Stella and let her know that a good idea would be to bring in a school counselor at the beginning of the school year.  I'm thinking that Emma needs a touchstone (female, to replace her mom) in her life.  You can be one, but also a female school counselor would be a good team member.  A school counselor is a daily contact who can keep an eye on relationships, etc. and let Emma know that she is an important member of the school community.  School counselors have resources we don't have, and also know other teachers in the community who will keep a loving eye on Emma.

Try to help Stella see that Emma is facing some issues that the rest of us can't imagine.  Reassure her that her instincts were right - that bringing in adults to help was a good action.

At some point, we need to think about Madison as well.  It could be with a small change in the power structure of their group, things will settle down.  But obviously Madison is expressing an emotional deficit.  Is this something that should be addressed?  Keep in touch and let us know.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Oh Nooooooooooooooooooo

Mollie writes:

Well, it's sneaking up on us and soon will be here - summer break.  It's so much fun to be past that enormous onus (hey, alliteration!) and just enjoying summer for what it is, fun; but for actively practicing parents, what a rush of activities!

When the kids were preschoolers, summer just blended into the rest of the year.  I was a stay-at-home mom and didn't veer too much from our normal schedule.  We planned our vacations around John's work schedule and traveled off-season.  Once the kids were grade school veterans, I branched off a little and started taking classes at the local University, volunteered in the community, and eventually returned to the work place.

Sometime in 1993, with Peter 11 and Roger 9, I returned to work full time.  Initially, both boys went to after-school care during the school year.  This wasn't too bad, since my husband and I could flex our schedules a little to accommodate a minimum of day-care exposure.  But ultimately, summer would roll around, and we'd be scrambling to keep things lively and interesting for the boys.

We'd look out into our community for educational opportunities for the kids.  In Portland, Oregon, where we lived at the time, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) would host summer classes in areas where kids didn't always get stimulation in school.  There were classes in computers, animation, etc. that my boys could enjoy.  There were Boy Scout day camps, overnight camps, and the usual short term programs at the different community centers (YMCA) to consider.

Getting the boys involved in one of these programs was a major scheduling coup.  John and I would have to juggle our work schedules to accommodate these activities.  I saved vacation time during the school year to handle time off in the summer.  On my "vacation" days, I'd drive kids from one activity to another.  John would use flex time to do a driving duty in the mornings and I would reciprocate in the afternoons (or vice versa).  During the years I worked full time, our schedule was a crazy quilt!

We used a large calendar white board to handle which person was doing what.  When John traveled, I was a solo parent and seeing John's 'down' time was good for all of us, we kept outside activities at a minimum during these times.  That board was a fixture on our refrigerator for at least 8 years.  Talk about project management - parenting of school age children is a PhD program.

We soon became realistic and began limiting our kids organized summer activities.  It is possible to over-schedule a child, and that isn't pretty for the parent, either.  As both boys got older, they started staying home alone during the day and were given chores to accomplish during the day.  Peter was a great little helper at home while Roger went to day care in the early years.  Strict rules were set for socialization (no buddies over when we were at work etc.).  Fortunately, the internet was just bubbling on the back burner and we didn't have to worry (much) about on-line relationships.

MS is a great equalizer in parenting, and eventually I had to slow down to part-time work if I was to be competent at both home and work.  This did free up a significant amount of time for John to re-dedicate himself to work.  By the time Peter was a senior in high school, I'd stopped working completely and was still able to function efficiently as a parent.  This would not have happened without my husband's participation, both as a soldering co-parent AND as a primary breadwinner.

It is the end of May, and in weeks, you'll be hearing "I'm so boooooooooored" from your kids.  This will happen whether or not you are working outside the home.  So get busy, start scheduling, and accept the fact that when kids move into the school years, things change.  Their world is bigger than their own backyard, and depending on the activity and the child's individual interests and development, this is a good thing.

I think this is a good time for a Super Power.  It's the ability to empathize quietly.  When the kid-let informs you that life isn't rising to his/her high expectations, reach into your memory and recount the boring summers you had, how you berry-picked for school clothes, how you walked to the bus that took you to the berry fields.  Then bite your tongue.  In no time at all, these years will be over and you all will have moved on.  And someday, your kid will be telling his kids that in his day, all he had was the internet, Boy Scout camp, and a DVD player.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Questions Answered – Early Readers

A child’s learning to read is a tremendous achievement and one with which I have quite a bit of familiarity, as it happens. It’s been my experience that learning to read is like learning to talk – it will flow naturally out of a child’s inherent curiosity if the adults around him don’t push it. Like toilet training, a kid can’t learn to read until he’s physically ready to make that leap; when he gets there all it takes is a little gentle guidance.

When some of my kids were still little-ish, I ran a program in an elementary school for children in grades 1-3 who hadn’t learned to read yet. This program paired kids one-on-one with adult volunteers who’d been trained to encourage without forcing and make the whole “reading” experience more fun and less stressful. It’s probably the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done (besides parenting) and the experience instilled in me a firm conviction that most children who read learned to do so on a lap.

When choosing a book for an early reader, pick something that will hold his interest. Frankly nobody gives a crap about Spot or The Cat on the Mat. Let the child work the words out for himself as often as possible, giving a little quiet correction or a “boost” here and there if necessary to avoid frustration. You’d be surprised how hard it is for a beginning reader to keep his place on the page, so teach him to point at one word at a time with the end of a pencil (or a feather or what-have-you). Be sure the book is good enough to make all this effort worthwhile!

Anything by Dr. Seuss. During the 3 years I ran that reading program, the number of kids whose first “I read it myself!” book was by Dr. Seuss outnumbered all the others two-to-one. This infuriated some of the adults, who had gone into it thinking that made-up words and odd rhyme structures put an unfair burden on a beginner—but not one kid ever had that complaint. My own Jack learned to read with One Fish, Two Fish so I recommend that as a good starting place.

Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin, Jr. This book is so full of rhythm and rhyme that I defy YOU to read it without ending up singing and chanting – a little kid doesn’t stand a chance. This is a particularly good book for wiggly kids or kids in a wiggly mood - it lends itself well to silly voices and clapping along with the “song.” The illustrations are bold and bright and the characters themselves are letters, which gives a helpful visual “clue” to a beginning reader. Warning: this is one of those books that you will tire of hearing LONG before your child tires of reading it out loud.

The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales
by Jon Scieszka. John Scieszka is brilliant and kids think he is HILARIOUS. By the time a kid hits grade school he’s heard all the fairy tales a million times, and this book makes fun of each of them in turn. Lane Smith’s illustrations are fantastically irreverent and there’s a lot of sarcastic by-play on just about every page. This book is just fun.

Good Families Don’t by Robert Munsch. Robert Munsch uses repetition in a lot of his books (which is good for early readers) but never so much that it gets boring, so anything by him is sure to be a win with this age group. This book has something the other books don’t have, though – it’s about a fart. Need I say more?

The Captain Underpants series by Dav Pilkey. In general boys find Captain Underpants funnier than do girls, but that’s by no means universal. The books are full of raucous little-kid humor (some of it actually pretty clever, but a lot of it booger-and-butt based) and intersperse short, easy-to-read chapters with a few pages of “comic book” supposedly written and illustrated by Harold and George, the grade-school heroes. Here again, some adults will be infuriated by the misspellings or grammar mistakes in the “comic book” sections—but it doesn’t seem to phase the kids. The bottom line is kids think these books are hilarious and will read them ON PURPOSE.

One final note: don’t stop reading aloud to a kid just because he can read to himself now. Where’s the fun in that – for either of you?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Questions Answered - Books for Babies

Start reading to your child the day he’s born – or even before he’s born. Babies can hear your voice from the womb and respond to their mother’s and father’s voices immediately at birth.

A book is a whole-body experience for a baby, as he can see them, hear them, feel them, smell them and taste them (and you’d better believe he will). Have a goodly assortment of thick-paged “board” books (they’ll stand up to drool and teething marks) for the baby to “read” himself, throw in a couple of waterproof bathtub books and NEVER quit expanding your child’s library; even though he can’t read yet he loves to listen to you, and he can understand a lot more than you probably think!

Here are a few of Millie’s Picks for the youngest set:

Sandra Boynton board books. Anything by author/illustrator (and now songwriter) Sandra Boynton is bound to be full of color, exuberance and lyrical language. These are not the stultifying “B is for Ball X is for X-ray” word units that some boring adults think children want to hear. You will find the words to Moo, Baa, La La La bouncing through your head when your youngest child is in . . . say . . . high school.

A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson. Who’d think people would still be reading these gentle little poems? They’re as charming and lulling and memorable now as they were in the 1800s and a fine way to feel connected to previous generations of parents and children.

Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown. Again, it may seem trite, but there’s something so comforting about this dear little book that you will find yourself reading it to your baby again and again. Don’t be surprised if he can point out the wee mouse on every single page – or if you have to add “saying goodnight to everything in the room” to your bedtime ritual.

Baby Animal Friends
by Phoebe Dunn – or any animal book, really. Babies LOVE to look at animals, hear you make the animal’s sound, and then make the animal sound back at you. Text is really immaterial in a book like this, but get one with photographs rather than illustrations if you can find it. That way you can point at a cow through the car window and the baby will recognize it!

Love You Forever
by Robert Munsch. This book will make you cry EVERY TIME YOU READ IT, but I’m sorry, you have to do it anyway. Robert Munsch is a prolific, fantastic, usually hilarious children’s author (I’m sure he’ll show up in this blog again) but this book is so tender, sweet and hopeful that it’s for the youngest children of all (and their mothers). I also have a theory that everyone makes up essentially the same tune for the song that runs through the book. A must-read.

Mollie adds:

Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kundhardt is my favorite book for wee ones, but anything interactive is great.  Lift that flap, spin that wheel, look in the mirror, it's all there and immediately shows the babe that an entire universe opens up with books.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Questions Answered – May 24, 2010

We’ve seen examples of good parenting books – what are your favorite books for kids?
--Wants a Literate Litter

Millie Answers:

Dear me; I am so rabidly pro-children’s-books that you may as well ask me which is my favorite child. We will have to answer this question over the course of several entries.

A child can comprehend a book that is much more complex than his current reading level, and I read aloud to my kids every night until they were too grown-up and scattered to do it any more. (Frankly if they were still all in the same place at the same moment for any length of time, I would STILL read to them.) Reading aloud is also a great way to bridge the gap if your audience has a wide range of ages.

When you’re reading aloud, don’t be afraid to ham it up. I actually got so involved doing different voices that I’d have to pencil a reminder in the front of some of the longer books, i.e. “Sam sounds like Barney Fife.” One of my most rewarding parenting moments was when we walked out of the first “Harry Potter” movie and the kids unanimously agreed that it was “so cool the movie had gotten Snape’s voice right!”

Here, in no particular order or age category, are 5 favorites!

10 in a Bed
, by Allan Ahlberg and Andre Amstutz. This book can be hard to find but it’s well worth the search. It’s a delightful cross between 101 Arabian Nights and a Dave Barry column. Dinah Price eats breakfast each morning, goes to school, plays with her friends, comes home, fools around and then goes to her room only to find a different fairy-tale character tucked into her bed. This book appeals to all ages, including Daddies, and nicely fulfills my #1 Rule of Read-Alouds: it is as much fun for the reader as it is for the audience.

Gregor the Overlander
series, by Suzanne Collins. This series of books about a boy who discovers a way into a hidden world through the laundry room of his New York City apartment complex is so riveting you might find yourself urging a child to stay awake “just for one more chapter.” There’s some swashbuckling violence and minor themes of sickness and death, so you’ll definitely want to read the books yourself first to decide whether your child is old enough to hear them yet; but I charmed a reluctant middle-school boy with this series when home schooling, and it remains one of our mutual favorites.

The Indian in the Cupboard series, by Lynne Reid Banks. If you’ve only seen the movie, you don’t know the story. This is a nice long series with well-defined characters and it broaches themes that will prompt many lovely conversations between you and your child. Again, it contains some cowboys-and-Indians violence and maturer themes so be sure you’re ready to talk about it.

The Magic Shop books by Bruce Coville. Starting with Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher and finishing with The Skull of Truth, these five books are just fantastic romps. They’re funny, suspenseful and appealing to kids of any age (and a large number of adults, too).

The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. You owe it to both your child and yourself to read this book. Forget the silly film by the same name and immerse yourself in 384 pages of wonder and magic. When you come up for air after you’ve finished reading, you’ll be aware of two things: sadness that it’s over, and an enhanced appreciation for everything around you.

Mollie writes:

Well, there was a high level of guy-dom in our home, and as a result, we loved anything by Maurice Sendak.  Where the Wild Things Are and In the Night Kitchen were books I loved reading to the boys, as well as Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (anything by Dr. Seuss is a must).  If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Joffe Numeroff is a splendid read, especially if you are encouraging the gift of irony in your child.

My guys also loved The Berenstain Bears series.  I liked that the authors were able to take issues from popular culture and incorporate them into a story that was relevant to the times the child was experiencing.  I think we had at least 60 percent of the series before they tired of bear morality.

Also, don't forget ''parallel" reading with your child, meaning that you both read the same books to yourselves simultaneously.  My youngest loved anything by J. R. R. Tolkien, and we'd read anything, including the Bored of the Rings spoof by the Harvard Lampoon  (ages 15 and up).   The Harry Potter series was so popular at our house that I'd pre-order it on Amazon in twos (one for the kids, one for the folks) and we'd race through them to see who could finish first.  We kept this up from The Sorcerer's Stone through Deathly Hallows.  It was a real trip for all of us.

Military Service of Parents and Adult Children

Mollie writes:

Let me tell you, parenting doesn't get any easier once your kids are adults and fully independent.  I was on the phone with my oldest when he told me that he would be redeployed into a war zone.  Being normal, my heart sank.  Internationally, we have some nasty issues that have to be dealt with, and I'm not even close to being literate on what they are, how to deal with all things political, etc.  But I do know it's a bigger world than my own backyard, and I try to honor it in my ignorance.

But deployment I get.

When your child packs their kit and heads off to war, there isn't much a parent can do but wring her hands.  She can bake cookies, pack gift packages, send silly items for the kid (ok, only adults go to a war zone, but he'll always be my little guy) to play with when not working, and just send messages of love.  That's the long and short of it.  Ok, my rosary beads come out, because even for a lapsed Catholic, a little prayer and faith help.

But that's the extent of what I can do, that and keep the star on the back of my car and continuously thank every uniformed military person for their service when I see them on the street, at McDonald's or shopping at Target.  But I do understand that for every mother whose offspring goes off to war, there's a parent whose partner goes off to war.  

It's just the way it is.

Remember the Persian Gulf War (August 2, 1990 – February 28, 1991), when reservists were called up and sent off to Iraq/Kuwait?  I sure do - my husband was a naval reserve officer and was told to stand ready for deployment.   That meant his bags were packed and at the door for when the call came.  Luckily, in the end, it wasn't a "wet war" meaning that reserve naval personnel were largely safe and stateside, but as we know now, there's no telling when a reservist can be called up.

But in the early days of the war, things were dicey.  We wanted to keep life as normal as possible for the boys (then 8 and 6) while still maintaining our alert attitude.  We'd answer questions about Daddy's return to active duty when they arose from the children, but we didn't badger the kids for their feelings.  

Sadly, this attitude was not the same in our local school district.  Just when our service people were invading Iraq, the principal of our boys' elementary school decided that it would be a good idea to have an anti-war rally at his school to protest the war.   As a result, my barely literate 8 year old was instructed to write an essay about how bad war is, and then, during school hours when the media was on site, take part in the protest.   This was an 8 year old, ladies and gentlemen, a kid who barely knew how he felt about low-fat milk.

You can imagine how appalled John and I were.  I could list the issues but you all can figure them out for yourselves.  Kids shouldn't be exploited - not sexually, not politically.  They should be allowed their innocence until legally adults.  Having the principal of the local elementary school use the students as a vehicle for his own outrage was wrong.  Not advising parents in advance was wrong.   Taking a high profile on the evening news was wrong.  The whole thing stunk.

So, of course, I spoke up at the next school board meeting, but didn't feel better.  How could I have been so trusting of our local school district, our son's teacher?  A basic need for trust was violated, not just with the child and the schools but with the community and the schools.  I was livid.  How could they toy so arrogantly with the psychological welfare of an 8 year old whose father was packed and ready to deploy?  Would he remember his protest as an adult?  What if his father went off and didn't come back? 

What I learned was that kids have no place at political rallies.  Let the grown-ups present their rants for themselves, and not hide behind children.  If there is a salient discussion to be had, let it be, but do it without kids.

So Peter will be off again, soon, and thankfully, we've evolved as a society to be a little more respectful of the military families left behind.  If you are a family impacted by military duty, please accept my deep respect and gratitude for your service, as well as that uniformed soldier you love.  

You are in my prayers as much as Peter is.

Millie Writes:
I was a military wife for several years - Joy was born on an Air Force base in Japan - but I am a newcomer into the world of Military Parenting. Our Bender, who is celebrating nine days of wedded bliss, marked the occasion by returning today sans bride to his military base - in South Korea.

We handle it in different ways. Lance compulsively reads anything he can find about the Korean conflict, and I maintain a deliberate ignorance on the subject. Whatever your politics are, they undergo a dramatic shift when you can substitute the words, "my baby and his buddies" for that good old UPI euphemism, "American troops." This is not the path I would have chosen for Bender, yet I have to be proud of him - not only because he is doing something I consider noble, but because he's an adult making adult decisions.

Decisions like this affect the whole family. His brother texts him a flip "If you get killed, I'm never speaking to you again." His younger siblings relay news reports heard at school followed by an anxious, "Is that where Bender is?" Bender being (above all else) Bender, there's always the sneaking suspicion that he joined up mostly because he felt it was the right thing to do but partly because he knew it would cause his parents grief.

At times like this I remember our family trip to Washington, D.C. and Bender's fascination with the inscription on the reflecting pool by the Korean War Memorial: Freedom Isn't Free.

And I know that Benders and Peters and Millies and Mollies are paying the price daily all over the world.

The Uncertainty of Parenting

Mollie writes:

I do wish there was a site on the internet where we could go and get easy answers.  I wouldn't be writing it, however, I would probably be the most frequent visitor.  Reading Millie's post on letting children fly brought back memories of my own.  So many times I have made decisions and later wondered if it was the 'right' one.  Of course, the subject was 'flying' which is where this memory lays sleeping, but there's a deeper consideration.

When my oldest was going into kindergarten, I wanted to go to school with him and document each and every moment of his new adventure.  Peter was 5 years old and already we were aware of his extremely independent nature.  He wanted to do things for himself, from the beginning, on his own schedule, damn the torpedos and full speed ahead.  This uber mother wasn't always comfortable with it.

The weekend before school started, John and I asked Peter how he wanted us to handle his first day at school.  I was ready to drive him to school, ride with him on the school bus, or follow the bus in my car.  John had meetings at work that week and couldn't postpone them, so it was going to be a mommy/son thing only.  

You can imagine my surprise when, after offering Peter three alternatives, he came up  with a fourth.  "I want you to stay home" was what he chose, and pole-axed me since it wasn't  an option I'd even considered.  

Let the kid go to school alone?  It felt beastly.  What kind of mommy puts a kid on a school bus (with all the other neighbors' kids) and sends him off into the future?  I argued with myself for hours, considering all the possibilities.

I spoke with my next-door neighbor and came up with a plan.  Peter would ride to school on the school bus with the other neighbor kids, mommy-free.  When he got to his school, her older son would escort him to his new classroom and introduce him to his new teacher.  I would stay  home, with his little brother, poised by the phone, ready to deal with any issues as they arose.  

We have pictures of Pete waiting for the school bus, boarding the school bus, and then the school bus chugging down the street.  I'm nowhere in the picture, simply snapping pictures and wondering if I'd made a good choice.

Peter's first day of school went without hitch.  He met his teacher, was assigned a place at one of the big tables in the classroom, got his name tag, everything.  Not only this, but it was a full day at school, his elementary school opting for full-day kindergarten.  He got his lunch (packed by moi!) and bought his own milk.  He was the little man.

It was probably the best choice for Peter.  He was ready for life without Mommy butting in every 32 seconds.  And in his wonderfully terse option, "I want you to stay home" he let me know what his feelings were.  It was my onus to decide if this was an option that I should respect.

In the end, of course, I did.  I couldn't foresee any horrible moments happening that wouldn't happen any other day.  In the course of the school year, I volunteered in the classroom, joined the parent/teacher club and just generally was a presence in his life at school.  But I did it from the audience, not from the stage.

Another child may have wanted his mommy to do something else.  But I was Peter's mom, and I had to react appropriately.  This is why there are very few hard and fast rules in parenting.  So much is dictated by the needs of the child.

It's  23 years later, and I still second guess that choice.  I don't have photos of him walking into Mrs. Frank's classroom that foggy/sunny morning in September.  I don't have pictures of him buying his carton of milk, coloring, or showing his teacher how deft he was with the snub-nosed scissors packed so apprehensively in his backpack.  It was his day, and it was all about him.

I look back on this and have a personal sense of loss.  I wanted to go to school with him, and hadn't even considered the possibility that he had other desires.  There's an empty space in the photo album, and an equally empty space in my memory banks.  But I'm hoping that the sense of self-reliance he requested trumps any misgivings that I would ever have.

Sometimes we need superpowers and there are millions of them on the option list, waiting to be selected.  My superpower that day was to put myself second and let him have his day his own way.  I'll never know if it was the right decision, but it was a good decision.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Let Them Fly

I read something when I was a young mother that has stuck with me all these years: I don’t remember where I saw it, or who wrote it, but the gist of it was that a mother will never let her son go – his father is supposed to come and GET him.

I have found this to be true. It was Arthur who decreed Jack was old enough at 5 to walk across the giant field to school without his mama; it was Lance who over-ruled my edict that 13 was MUCH too young to take the cross-town bus to school. Of course both men were absolutely correct, and of course (if it were up to me or the boys) I’d still be driving them to college and/or high school.

A parent’s natural impulse is to help, but too often we help without being asked. We can only watch a child fiddling with something for so long before we say, “Here, let ME show you how to do that!” We snatch it away and demonstrate the thing’s use, smug in our adult capabilities, without realizing that we’re denying the child the chance to figure it out for himself.

We’re also sending the subtle, unintentional message that we don’t think they’re capable of doing things on their own. Of course this is the furthest thing from our minds, but the child notices, “Mom always has to do this for me, even though I TRY to do it. I must not be ABLE to do it,” and then he stops trying.

Is it any wonder we’re left frustrated by kids who (in our view) JUST WON’T TRY? We’ve crippled them trying to help them.

It’s much harder to keep a hands-off policy when the kids are nearly grown, because the stakes are so much higher. I really want to meddle in the insurance follow-up from that fender-bender, and give advice about that girl who won’t stop calling, and call the supervisor at work to DEMAND he make special allowances for someone who is really, really trying. Sometimes I have to tape my mouth shut and sit on my hands, but I butt out, because really what could I accomplish besides making my kids look weak? Trusting them to do the right thing is the biggest confidence boost I can give them.

I didn’t learn until the first kids were teenagers that it’s far better to bite my tongue and offer advice or help ONLY when they’ve been asked for. When they’re left to figure things out on their own, my children have proven to be much quicker and more creative than I have ever been, so I remember to ask THEM for advice or help occasionally, too. I comfort myself that this is me modeling correct behavior for my children, but what it boils down to is that they’re a lot smarter than I am and I’d do well to remember that, too.

Meantime, the new rule of thumb is: You have feet, a bike and a bus pass, Kid. YOU figure out how to get there.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Roger!!!!!!!!

You were a hoot from day one!  If ever a baby was born with a sense of humor, it was you.  You had enormous imagination, pragmatic wisdom, and, frankly, an eye for art even as you identified colors, shapes, textures and emotive qualities of the visual world.  

You were born a darling baby, and when you are older than dirt, there will still be some of that little guy lurking around the corner.  Twenty-six is a wonderful age - filled with promise, hard work, love and fun.  Enjoy!

Millie Writes:

Happy birthday, Roger! You have set the bar impossibly high for all future "children-in-law." You are responsible without being stuffy, playful without being childish, funny without being crude and loving without being icky. You're a credit to your parents and your own hard work, and we couldn't be more pleased with our daughter's choice.

PS - Can't wait to give you The Project tomorrow - hope you like it! ;)

Baby Talk

Molly writes -

Language acquisition starts at birth, as far as I'm concerned.  Once the baby is out and calmed down, she hears the noise around her and responds to it.  Mommy talks softly into her hair, Daddy coos into her ear, and all around her are proud voices.  Simultaneously, mom initiates nursing, and language begins.  It's more than words, it's touch, satiation, calming voices.  She responds by suckling and falling asleep.

By the time she comes home from the hospital, she has control of her lungs, and crying ensues at whim.  In no time, the parents can distinguish sounds from her, they know if that cry is from hunger, wet diapers, discomfort, or heaven forbid, boredom.  And she has also learned that more parental attention ensues when her noises are loud.  As her vision improves and she learns to focus on faces and external sounds, her crying becomes less frequent.  She develops an interest in the world around her.

At some point, she realizes that she can make noises herself.  Not screams of hunger, but coos, purrs, gurgles and burps.  These all are first steps into language and most babies are heavily into it by 4 weeks.  If the parents are attentive, she learns that calming noises are attention getters, and uses them to bring the smiley face of mommy into her orbit.

How many of us have held a baby and made popping noises against her tummy, cheeks or neck?  All are steps into language acquisition and each noise is welcomed by the baby.  When we see their first smiles, it's usually the result of some auditory/visual stimulus.  By the time she has reached three months, she's a smiling, gurgling noise machine.  She still cries, but more often than not, her noise of choice is that of play or joy.

As she plows her way into development, she develops the ability to steady her head, semi-sit, and in some cases roll over.  This is almost always accomplished by chortles of glee that are returned by the parent or care giver.  She becomes more responsive to her own activities by making noise, it just isn't for the benefit of attention.

By the time my two were each six months old, they were language pros, even though neither one could utter a word.  They crowed with delight, cried in pain, demanded feedings and elicited love.  Words weren't necessary, although they recognized their own names, their own special arrangement of sounds, and responded to it.  Say a baby's name, and she will kick for joy, crow for attention, or root for the breast.  This is the real language of babies.

There are theorists who think that newborns should listen to certain kinds of music, etc.  But I think that the most important sounds a child hears, from the beginning, are the sounds of security, love, nurturance and domestic normalcy.  The sound of a clothes dryer, the hum of a dishwasher, the lilt of conversation between other members of the family are all parts of language acquisition.  Play a little Mozart (or Chopin) in the background if you wish, but keep up the steady stream of "baby-talk" as well.  

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Neglect Your Kids

Well, not really. But, one night a week, you have to let them get along without you.

That’s right, Gentle Readers: I’m talking about Date Night. Remember back in the old pre-parenthood days, when you and your Significant Other would spend time canoodling and whispering sweet nothings into one another’s ears? Nowadays he is apt to put his arms around you, gaze deep into your eyes, and murmur in his throatiest voice, “Do you know that you have peas in your hair?” You were lovers before you were parents, and you will be alone together when the kids grow up and leave the house – you need to nourish that bond.

The American essayist Frances Mayes said, “The best thing a man can do for his children is to love their mother.” This goes both ways. A family is built on a relationship between a man and a woman, and children NEED that stability in their lives (even if the parents aren’t married to each other anymore, which is why you’re never supposed to badmouth the other parent in front of the kid). It’s not just for their benefit, though; when you’re navigating the maze of parenthood it can be very easy (especially in the early years) to forget that you were ever a person, or a woman, a lover, or indeed ANYTHING but a diaper changing food preparing washerwoman carpooling homework checker.

If you need another yet another reason to celebrate Date Night on a weekly basis, consider this: Your children are learning how a man and a woman should interact with each other by watching you. That’s right: What you’re doing in the privacy of your own exhausted living room, night after night, is what your little ones have filed away under the heading “What Love Looks Like.” Think about the relationships you want your children to have with their future spouses; are you modeling that behavior?

I know it’s hard and there isn’t time, you’d just talk about the kids the whole time, there’s no one you trust to babysit and who has the money? I don’t care. Do it anyway. Odds are there’s someone you can get to babysit for two hours once a week and if there really, truly isn’t – and I’ve been there – you schedule your date for after the kid’s bedtime and you have it at home, just the two of you. Yes, it’s extra work, and it means you have to put clothes on and maybe wash your hair, but the payoff is enormous.

We have always had a Date Night and the kids respect it – they don’t know any better. In the beginning it consisted of a movie rental after the baby was asleep, with the occasional dash out for a burger on the rare occasions we could bear to be parted from her even for an hour. Now that our youngest kids are teenagers we go out to a movie, go to a comedy club, take a picnic to the river; it doesn’t matter WHAT we do, what matters is that we make it a priority to DO it.

A Date Night doesn’t have to cost anything at all. You can sit at the table and play backgammon, play a video game together, read aloud or take a walk. Once I snuck a video and a DVD player into the back of the van, loaded a bag with popcorn and drinks, and took my husband to the “drive in.” Some people take turns planning the dates, some people have “rules” (no talking about the kids, nothing over $20, whatever) and some people just get in the car and head out with no plan whatsoever. Do whatever works for you.

Let your child help you get ready (at least for the G-rated dates). Kids are smart, and it will do them good to see your excitement and happiness as you get ready to do something special with your sweetheart. Everybody is happier when they know that Mommy loves Daddy – and keeping that love a top priority will make your family rock solid.

Even after all these years . . . my heart still beats a little faster on Wednesday nights.

Fridge Fright

Molly writes:

Just like 32 years ago, my better half is out of town.  Earlier, I wrote a column about how I dealt with being a married single parent, and I now realize that I missed one important coping feature that I'd incorporate into my loneliness.

I'd clean.

Cleaning is one of those jobs I found I do better if I have no interference.  It's a sensitive job, and I learned early in our marriage that the love of your life doesn't appreciate it when he comes back from a trip out of town and half his underwear has been sent to the big recycling pit in the sky.  My husband has always wanted input into everything I do when it involves change in our household - OK, who doesn't - and this ranged from the addition of pets to just when underwear is no longer appropriate for the emergency room staff to see.  The boys felt the same way, nothing came between them and their Batman briefs.

That said, I'd still clean.  My husband has never shared my laundry fetish, so it was a done deal to clean the laundry room.  I could have removed the washer and dryer and replaced them with a hot tub and sauna and John would have said "Amen."  So cleaning up the debris from 3 years of diaper duty was just fine.

Since the bleach was out, I'd move on to the kitchen.  I'd clean the sinks, cutting boards and anything else that looked suspiciously icky.  I'd move on to the cupboards, and toss anything that was chipped, cracked, semi-melted in the dishwasher or otherwise unusable.  John was always on board with getting rid of cups that cut lips, so this was safe.

Eventually, however, I'd hit the hard parts, the food.  John and I are truly from different planets when it comes to food, and our pantry and fridge showed it.  John loves chips, snacks, pickles, ice cream and other salty or sweet delectables.  I was and still am a bread/starch freak but also I love anything chocolate.  You can imagine on any one day the status of our food cache.

This became doubly interesting when we introduced little appetites into the equation.  Peter and Roger were just as polar as John and I.  Roger loved his top ramen, macaroni and cheese, pepperoni pizza and anything starchy and bland.  Peter loved pizza, pizza and pizza, and in that order.

We seldom had leftover pizza, but on any one day, we'd have a fridge filled with nearly empty bottles and tubs of garnishes, relishes, snacks and dying unpizza leftovers.  The produce bins were filled with scraps of lifeless lettuce remnants, onion skins and garlic dust.  Cleaning the fridge became an enormous struggle.  To this day, I cringe when I open the fridge door because it brings back memories of half eaten burgers, week old french fries (yep, our kids had their RDA of junk food) and unidentifiable green ooze in tupperware tubs.  

You'd think that we'd have this under control once the kids were grown and gone, but, no.  John is in Montreal and I'm faced today with the onus of cleaning the kitchen.   Gone are the leftover Happy Meals.   Who tosses half a Happy Meal, anyway, it just seems so ruthless?  But waiting for me today are three bottles of wine that are 3/4 empty, some crusty pita bread and a half consumed bag of spinach.  

I guess my point here is that some things never change.  John traveled in 1977 and he still travels in 2010.  Food still spoils.  When Peter was little, I eventually tossed pumped breast milk, and then moved on to Happy Meals and burritos when the boys were bigger.  Today, I'm tossing wine and epinards (that's French for spinach).  

If you find that you are at loose ends when your partner is off eating in Parisian restaurants, clean the fridge.  He really won't notice it if the old leftovers are gone, replaced with new ones.  He won't miss the huge pickle bottle with 1/2 of a dill, nor will he miss the green bread.

But watch that hot salsa!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tips & Tricks from a Mom of 6

There’s nothing like parenting for teaching you about sheer hard work. Repetition (not to mention grinding mindless drudgery) will help you learn how to do things better, faster, and more efficiently.


Pack school lunches while you’re making dinner. Set up the breakfast things as soon as the supper dishes are finished. Get a coffee maker with a timer and set it to have a pot ready as you stumble out of the bedroom in the morning. It’s so much easier to do morning on auto-pilot if you’ve already set the stage.

Set up a bookshelf in the laundry area with a shelf for each kid. Clean laundry goes on their shelf for them to put away. This saves you from having to “deliver” and the kids know that if it’s not in their hamper, it’s on the shelf. (Or under their bed.)

Assign each child a different color (or type or height) of socks, towels and underpants. All white athletic socks look alike, and laundry markers work for a while but they won’t survive the bleaching process forever.

Set up a “drop zone” by the door. There should be a hook for each child’s backpack and a bin (we use 30-gallon plastic tubs) for each child’s shoes and athletic gear. Do whatever it takes to train the kids to “hang and drop” as soon as they come in the door because if they DO, they will be able to find it if they need it again. If they don’t . . . well, you know that last-minute “I can’t find my permission slip!” panic in the morning? Multiply that by a half-dozen.

A kitchen timer is your best friend. Buy several. Use them to measure computer time, reading time, sit-in-the-corner time, and you-play-for-five-minutes, then-it’s-his-turn time. A child will argue with you. He will not argue with a dinging plastic tomato.

Get enough of those over-the-door hooks to hang one on the bathroom door for each child. Have them hang their towels on the hooks after each shower and reuse them for 2 days or a week (whatever your grime threshold is).

Establish the following Rule: If The Parents’ bedroom door is closed, you may knock on it if you are bleeding, or if you want to be. And for goodness’ sake, buy a lock.

Super Power Bonus: We gave our Middles the exclusive rights to Tattling. The Bigs were expected to set a good example and handle arguments on their own; the Littles were protected by virtue of being the youngest (and abused this privilege sometimes, sad to say). The poor Middles were stuck in the No-Man’s Land in the center, bullied from above and tormented from below, so THEY were allowed to Tattle. For everyone else it was a grave offense.

Monday, May 17, 2010


Mollie writes:

Well, here it is, fancier pancakes that even my husband can make, and he's made pancakes for picky eaters for almost 30 years.  

Pancakes are a law unto themselves, the ultimate in comfort food.   Mommies and Daddies out there - need I say more?

Teaching Kids Laundry

Mollie writes:

Anyone reading my blathering long enough will know that I have a laundry fixation.   I LOVE clean clothes; bleachy whites, sizzling reds, deepest blues and delicate pastels.  I've got a thing about fabrics, too, cottons, wools, silks, linens and all the man-made fibers.  Put clean together with touch and I'm in sensory heaven.

It goes to say that I've always been a committed laundress.  My husband's naval uniforms excepted; we took the formal ones to the dry cleaner and the polyester khakis were done in a separate load monthly after drill weekend.  The rest of the laundry was done on a daily basis, and I'd average two loads a day.

Diapers were a daily chore - I did the cotton drill and washed them in a mild soap (Ivory Snow comes to mind) with a nice rinse of bleach.  After treating all the burp stains on the remainder of the kids clothes, they would go with the regular family stuff.

After five years, it did get to be kind of a drag (I have a very high boredom threshold).  The oldest was starting kindergarten and the youngest was starting pre-school.  It was time to introduce the concept of "chores" to the wee ones.  We started with making our own beds and picking up our own toys.  We branched out to carrying our own dishes to the sink, and I moved on from there.

Teaching tykes about the mysteries of the laundry room is something else.  First, the laundry has to make it to the laundry room, an undergraduate degree in itself.  Long after I thought they were getting stuff to the laundry room, I'd discover all those missing socks crammed into the teeniest little cranny in their bedrooms.  But at some point, the majority of the laundry was making it to the laundry room, so we started graduate school.

No grade school boy likes pink briefs.  It's just Taboo - so the first laundry factoid my kids learned, despite my near perfection in the laundry room, was to wash reds separately.  They learned about the dangers of bleach at almost the same time.  Thus, I was able to teach them about sorting subtly.  

So . . .  they understood the concept of sorting.   Unfortunately,  I only had one laundry basket, and was so thrilled to see dirty clothes arrive there on a semi-regular basis, I didn't rule too harshly over sorting at first.  But it was hilarious to see red t-shirts stuck slyly beside the dryer instead of in the basket.  Strike one for the guys!

I'd honcho the machines since I was the only one tall enough to reach the washing machine.  But I did get the little ones to load the dryer and at some point, they learned the mysteries of heat.  You can only shrink so many Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sweatshirts - eventually the kid learns that low is hot enough.  They also learned that cottons shrink (even the ones that say 'pre-shrunk') and permanent press wrinkles if you leave it in the dryer for a week (our vacation in '88).  

They didn't pay much attention to the delicates - they didn't wear any and I'm not perverse enough to expect them to do MY laundry, but eventually they'd see the random lacy thing hanging in the master bathroom and made an obvious attempt to ignore it.

Where they were a true help was folding and putting their clothes away.  We'd sort the clean laundry into piles - towels, whites, etc.  Included in the piles were a Peter pile and a Roger pile.  I'd get them folded and put them on the kids' beds.  They were usually put away the same day.  At some point, I had them hauling the laundry to be sorted and folded, but that evolved.

In the end, when the youngest was through grade school, neither of my guys was a stranger to the laundry room.  I still supervised things, but my little button pushers were highly capable button pushers.  I didn't teach them the mysteries of laundry in  a week - it took years - but I think that this is part of the mystique of it all.  

So, get started.  If I were doing this again, I'd start with a laundry basket in each room and take it from there.  And have fun, since that's what it's all about!

Millie Writes:

I, too, am a big believer in giving kids chores early (and often), and since I was doing laundry for 8 people at the peak of our bursting-at-the-seams years laundry was a GREAT place to start.

Like Mollie, our kids worked their way up to The Machines in slow, easy steps. I’d start when they were late One/ early Two with Sock Sorting 1A and move them up the ranks gradually, through Washrag Folding, How to Sort and (for the post-graduate courses) How a Dime Can Cost Daddy $1000 if it Goes Through the Washer in Your Pocket. We tend to divide chores into categories, so we’d have a Little gather the kid laundry, a Big wash and dry it, and a Middle fold it and put it on the shelves.

Now that we’re down to 4 at home – and now that we have bought Darth, my new Super-Powered Machine – I do the actual washing and drying and each kid has a designated day to bring down laundry. I have four shelves in the basement (one for each kid) and 3 bins above the shelves (colored/ heavy/ whites) and they’re expected to bring down, sort, and collect their clothes on the designated day. If they miss their day they have to wait a week – otherwise I’d be doing NOTHING but laundry. (Of course I will make an exception in an emergency such as a stained tux shirt before a concert or a stinky debate dress before a speech tournament.)

Giving each person their own laundry day has eliminated the horrible game entitled Whose Socks and Shorts Are These?, wherein Mom tries to sort and distribute white athletic socks and six thousand pairs of boxer shorts between four territorial males, each of whom wears the same size.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Millie Again

Our third-oldest child (second son) got married this morning. Congratulations, Pfc. and Mrs. Bender. May your life together be as wonderful as your wedding day. Love long and prosper!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Where There's a Will . . .

Molly Writes -

I've been thinking about wills lately - John and I need to rewrite ours.  We originally wrote wills after Peter and Roger were born, and then updated them when the boys were in middle school.   Now that both are grown, we need to go over things to be sure that our business is handled as easily for the grown kids as we hoped it would be for the young 'uns.

It isn't my mission to give you legal advice - I'm a legal vacuum - but to encourage you to get a little bit for yourselves.  Whether you do something with an attorney or Legal Zoom or some other vehicle, it's important for you to put into writing how you want things managed if you die before your children are adults.  

We had two areas of concern - who would raise our children in the event of our deaths and how their support would be provided.  We found a good attorney and wrote a simple will, listing family members who were most likely to provide a home atmosphere similar to the one we provided.  We also made sure our life insurance was in order and our personal affairs in order.  It was actually quite easy.

Before we made a decision about guardians, we spoke with various family members to be sure that they were on board with this.  We chose a guardian and also indicated an alternate.  We upped John's life insurance, and, since I was a mom-at-home, initiated insurance on myself as well. We stuck with term life since we were already investing money in retirement programs, etc.  This was all done long before I was diagnosed with MS, and we are glad we did this, since obviously after the diagnosis, getting life insurance would have been problematic.

It's nice to have your ducks in a row, it gives you a feeling of empowerment.  Also having adequate life insurance, wills and guardians in order, we felt almost immortal.  Murphy's law being what it is, nothing could possibly happen to us when we were so prepared for any possibility.

So, enough of my sorry pragmatic self!  Get your ducks in a row, then go have some fun.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Married Single Parent

Dear Millie and Mollie:

I need help!  My husband is off again on another business trip and my two year old has an ear infection and my newborn has colic.  I love this life, I chose it, but sometimes I question my ability to be a part-time single parent.  Any tips?


Mollie Writes:

We all know them.  Their spouses are deployed, attending conferences, visiting far-away office locations, you name it.  My husband did forms of all three, two weeks of active duty in the reserves each year,  multiple trips out of town to conferences where he exchanged testing data on high-voltage power transmission, and the actual tests he ran at sub-stations all over the Pacific Northwest.  Sometimes he did all this in rapid succession.

You find yourself searching for superpowers every day.  With nursing babies, sleepless nights, ear infections, chickenpox and the myriad of parenting complexities, the parent-left-behind faces them all just like any other "single" parent.  There IS good news in all this, your loving spouse does eventually come home, and duo-parent normalcy eventually realigns itself.  You even get taken out to dinner by a spouse who wants to never eat out again.  But during those long stretches, a person could start questioning her existence.

I've mentioned in an earlier post that my husband was out of town immediately after our second child was born.  I made the very wise choice to "go home to Mother" for the time he was gone.  I was recovering from toxemia, Peter was just starting to consider using a grown-up toilet, and Roger was feeding on-demand.  Peter and I slept in the family room and either mom or dad brought me a Roger when he needed feeding.  Mom and dad just couldn't let the newborn sleep in a room other than their own, and I bless them for that.

In no time at all, John was back and we found our own rhythm in our own home.  But trips out of town came up frequently and John was often away.  I realized what a big job it was, this "single parenting."

Fortunately, I did not have to deal with rejection, anger, divorce lawyers, angry in-laws and all the other sufferings of so many single parents.  The paycheck was still deposited every other Thursday, my husband called me frequently to boost my morale, and there was always the blessed respite of his return when somebody else could draw a line in the sand and not let some little guy watch a PG13 movie.  

But I do empathize, long stretches of loneliness and frustration does take its toll.  A few ways I coped with it follows.

Do your necessity shopping in advance.  And I don't just mean food.  I'd lay in a huge supply of used-books.  It was nice to take the kids to the bookstore, but sometimes all the time it took to prep for a road trip sucked the fun out of the expedition.  Ditto for the trip to the grocery store.  Believe me, it was nice to get out with the kids, but I liked having it be an option, not a desperate mission.

Network with other new moms.  I did that once I learned of a babysitting co-op in my area.  Three other moms also wanted a little time to themselves so we bought script and swapped that and kids on a regular basis.  I had to babysit for others to earn my afternoons off, but it was a blessing.  First, it validated my choice to limit my brood to two.  One afternoon I had five in diapers, it wasn't long after that I had my tubal ligation.  

Get an evening in with a friend who doesn't have kids.  One of my bestest friends ever was a single professional person with no children and no intention of ever having them.  When John went out of town, she'd come over and we'd amuse the kids while we talked about things non-pedagogic.  This means she brought her New Yorker magazines and we'd read something by Steve Martin, Woody Allen or Alice Walker.  Care Bears would be dancing on TV and we'd actually discuss ERA (the Equal Rights Act, not the detergent) in the background.  It was nirvana.

Get online.  Oh yeah, you are already!  But keep it up.  You don't want to ignore those kids, but doing a little on-line research about what is making you bonkers is a good thing.  Just don't fall into the looking-glass.

Get a dog (cat, bird, whatever).  It's nice to have a non-verbal non-judgmental friend.  When your partner is gone, it's nice to have somebody else around who will patiently let you stroke them while you pour your heart out.

Join Netflix.  I sooooooooo wish I had that when I was a young mom.  For nine bucks a month, you can have unlimited access to movies, documentaries, etc.  

Use your Millies and Mollies.  Your mothers do understand your angst.  And when the grandkids arrive, you do have two grandmothers.  Neither of mine lived close enough to just drop by, and their babysitting was rare.  But when it did happen, it was excellent.  Nobody loves a child like a grandparent.

Indulge your hobbies.  My gardening, piano playing and reading went into ascendence when John was gone.  I'd average a book an evening, not having cable television in those days and the internet just being a twinkle in Al Gore's eyes.
Keep a journal, then write honestly.  Sometimes it's embarrassing to be faced with your own pettiness years after a slump, but there you have it.  And occasionally include a list of blessings.  You'll forgive yourself your pettiness.

These days, having either parent gainfully employed is a good thing, and having one travel isn't the worst fate when you consider the alternatives.  So do count those blessings, acknowledge your frustrations, and deal with them in a positive way.

And here's your super-power - family and friends.  I never could have endured 20 years of a husband who travels, a full time job during that time, part-time work, MS, etc.  Loved ones do get you through the worst.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Questions Answered – May 11, 2010

I recently became step-mother to a 6-year-old boy. He's a great kid and we generally get along very well. Also, my husband allows me to act parentally toward his son, so I think we overall have a good thing going. That said, sometimes it is apparent that the child is really jealous of the attention his father gives me, and he physically pushes his way between us, or interrupts us and age regresses a bit to get his father to pay attention to him. I certainly understand... I mean, he's 6 and probably on some level I represent the fact that his parents are NEVER getting back together, and until I moved in, he always had his dad to himself when he was over.

Anyway, even though I do understand and don't blame him, I still wonder what would be a good way to handle it. Thank you, ladies!
--The Un-wicked Stepmother

Millie Answers:

First of all, congratulations on your marriage! Step-parenting has gotten a very bad rap, but it can be one of the most rewarding relationships of your life.

You’re right – your stepson is jealous of the attention his father gives you. This is completely understandable and developmentally appropriate, and some of the time you’ll just have to suck it up. (It may help you if you know that a six-year-old would be jealous of the attention his father gave you even if you were his birth mother.)

It’s up to your husband to make it clear, however, that you have every right to be there in the middle of this new family. He should not let the boy push his way between you; he can turn it into a “Family Sandwich Hug!” or pull the boy around to his other side, with a squeeze and a cheery, “There! Now I’ve got one for each arm!” Your stepson will soon realize that you are a permanent fixture if his father makes it clear to him.

You and your husband should decide very early (and in private) what the Rules of the House will be, and then call a family meeting (around the kitchen table – treats will help) to share them. (One of those rules should be that children do not interrupt adults when they are talking.) Note that I didn’t say DISCUSS them, as they are not up for debate. This first family meeting is also a good time to explain that the three of you ARE a family; that it doesn’t take anything away from what he has with his mother, but that it adds something new. Then have a discussion about something fun, like what movie you’ll see this weekend or where to go on vacation next summer, and adjourn; that’s enough for the first time.

You will ask for input, though, when the three of you talk together about punishments and consequences. It’s important, you see, to get it out in the open that the consequence for talking back is 5 minutes in the Time-Out Chair so that when your husband isn’t home you can send the kid to the chair without a lot of “my father wouldn’t do this!” back-chat.

In general a Six is a genial, happy little soul most of the time, and quite old enough to talk to if you feel compelled to do so. You can say to a six, “You know, Jimmy, I’m never going to try to take your mother’s place. I know you love your mom, and I know we both love your dad. It’s gonna be a little weird at first while we’re getting used to each other, but just remember: Now you have THREE adults who love you. Let’s go get ice cream.” (Because a good stepmother is never afraid to stoop to bribery.)

A few observations from my personal experience:

He might be very confused about what he should call you but may be too shy to ask. DON’T ask him to call you “Mom.” If you’re not comfortable with him calling you by your first name, work together to come up with some cute nickname that you can both live with. Half my kids call me by my first name. We banished the word “step” from our household, so since they can’t introduce us as “my dad and stepmom” or “my mom and stepdad” they say, “These are my Parent Units,” which makes us really memorable at parent-teacher conferences when they show up with 1 mom and 2 dads. For a while when Rocky and Joy were taking high-school French the kids called me “Belle-Mere,” which is “stepmother” in French and I totally adored, but alas, it didn’t last through the summer.

Occasionally we will make the decision to withdraw a curfew or suspend a punishment, and in the beginning my angel husband would sometimes tell the child, “It was against my better judgment but Millie talked me into it.” A stepmom can use all the good PR she can get.

During the brief period that Lance and Birtha shared custody, she spent a lot of time telling the kids they didn’t have to listen to me or follow our rules. The kids never believed that for a second, but it sure did infuriate me. I credit the family meetings and the frank discussions for the fact that our new family was stable right from the beginning.

Finally, I know it doesn’t always go this way but I got incredibly, incredibly lucky with my kids – I love all six of them with the same white-hot fervor. You may be astonished at how much you will come to adore your stepson. Your job isn’t easy and it may seem thankless a LOT of the time, but don’t give up. You set the tone in your new home, and if it’s a place of happiness, stability and fun, your stepson will come to love it – and you.

Even if he never says so.

The Stepmother’s 10 Commandments

Never show fear. They can smell fear.

You are not, nor shall you ever be, his mother. That doesn’t mean that being a stepmother is second-best. You might be better.

In all matters where you can’t agree or compromise over something relating to the child, the father must prevail.

You must never, ever lie to this child. He has been through enough. Even if he resents you he must be able to believe you.

The child does not have to love you but he does have to treat you with respect. It is the father’s job to ensure that he does.

You do not have to love this child but you do have to treat him with respect. It is YOUR job to ensure that you do.

You and your husband must present a united front at all times. Report to each other all conversations with the child, especially at first – he will test to see if he can play one of you against the other.

If you bring children to the marriage too, or if you and your husband have children together, be very careful to treat the children equally. Know up front that any given child will think that the others get special privileges no matter how equally you treat them.

Don’t do or say anything in front of this child that you wouldn’t do or say in front of his mother.

Forget Cinderella. You have the right to love this child.

Mollie Writes:

Amen to the Millie.  I haven't done the Belle-mere thing, but I certainly like that expression better than step-mother.  
A couple of random stabs at advice:  Can you volunteer in his classroom? He's six so he's either in first grade or kindergarten.  Being a parent unit (I like that one, too, it's so high-tech, so nerdy, so US) in a classroom situation will help.  His friends will bond with you, meaning that his ability to bond with you will be improved.  Seeing other adults (teachers, principals, other parents) interact with you as a co-parent will also smooth the road and lend credibility to your new status in his life.
Is there something important in his life that you can take up in yours?  Monster trucks and dinosaurs were subjects my kids couldn't get enough of when they were that age.  As a result, we spent a lot of time at Monster truck rallies, OMSI (a Portland area science museum) and related events.  Taking him to such an event, one-on-one, might also ease your admission into his inner-circle of loved and trusted adults.  Just a lunch out is special, if it's just the two of you.  
You haven't said if there are other kids in the household, or whether or not you work outside the home as well as inside the home.   Can you take him to work on "Take Your Kid To Work Day?"  Has he met your childhood family and does he have friendships with kids his age in that cluster of folks?  Having yet another set of grandparents is a big plus if your family is "into" your new family.  New cousins may also be a source of connection.
You are all one wonderful family unit now - so enjoy your new role.  Let us know how things go!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Other Blogs

I just visited the blog written by Dr. Sanjay Gupta and wanted to let you know that there are many medical articles related to pregnancy, childbirth and parenting that are wonderful.

The theme of his blog is professional/medical, and I found his articles informative and easy to read.  This blog is a great filter for all of the random medical data that seems to bombard us on a daily basis.  Add it to your bookmark list!

Questions Answered – May 10, 2010

What are your thoughts on letting your children watch television or movies with violence, bad language, etc.? Is that something to approach on a case-by-case basis, or are there some good all-encompassing ground rules? --Nervous Nellie

Millie Answers:

I have very specific opinions on this score (which any of my children could recite for you, chapter and verse). While I don’t censor much of what my kids read (well, no pornography for the under-teen crowd), when they were little I had extremely strict guidelines. The reason for this is that while when you’re reading you’re interpreting what you read and picturing it through your own imagination, but when you SEE something violent or strongly sexual it burns an image from someone ELSE’S imagination into your brain – and a lot of those images that are too charged for young children to process.

Even if your child is wise beyond her years and can hold remarkably adult conversations, she’s still a child and sees things through a child’s eyes. Once you’ve seen Freddy Krueger’s knife sticking through somebody’s throat, you can’t un-see it. There’ll be time enough for that; children should get to BE children for as long as they can.

Beyond that, it’s a good idea to have a general idea beforehand of what YOU think is appropriate. You may not mind a twelve-year-old hearing words that you’d cringe to hear a four-year-old using (because believe me, once they hear the words they WILL use them). You may think violence is okay for a sophisticated Ten to see but not sex, or vice-versa. Perhaps cartoonish violence doesn’t bother you but realistic violence does.

DON’T trust the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA) movie rating guides alone when you’re making this decision. Their heart is in the right place but their standards are slippery and there is some extremely inappropriate stuff out there masquerading under a mis-labeled PG or PG-13. Ask friends who’ve seen a movie you’re considering, or look it up online; I like the Movie Mom site (

Until my kids were in mid-elementary school we never took them to a movie that we hadn’t already seen ourselves. Yes, this can get expensive, not to mention the risk that you’ll have to sit through some howlingly bad movies—but it’s the only way to know for sure whether any particular flick meets your family’s standards.

Until your child is in high school (yes, that old!), they shouldn’t be watching a movie they haven’t already seen unless you (or another competent adult) is watching it with them. In the first place a kid doesn’t NEED to be planted in front of a screen for that long with no human interaction; but in the second place, you’ll be sharing the experience with him so that when he DOES have questions (or you see something you’d like to discuss), you can talk about it later. When the child gets older and you’re considering adding a little more spice to his movie-watching, you’ll be right there to monitor the effect it’s having. There’s no shame in turning the movie off and trying again in 6 months or a year. Not every 13-year-old is ready for The Sixth Sense.

One way to prepare children to watch more sophisticated movies is to have a lot of little conversations with them about special effects. Children much older than you would suspect still have pretty blurry boundaries in their perceptions of Reality vs. Fantasy. Talk about how Peter Pan can fly in the movie because they hook him up to a harness and a wire, and then erase the wire from the film. Show your child how you can make fake blood at home out of catsup or corn syrup and red food coloring “just like at Halloween.” Show your child a picture online of an actor at a Starbuck’s and mention that even though he got “shot” and “killed” in his last movie, after work he got up and went home just like Daddy comes home from his job. Talk about stories: How a good story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and there are all kinds of ways to make people think, “Oh no! What will happen next?” so they will keep reading or watching until the story is finished. In short, show the child the process YOU go through when reading a book or watching a movie to make it make sense in the context of the story and the medium.

In general, Dad will think the kid is ready for gore or curse words long before Mom will. It’s probably okay to trust him on this one.

Movies are a lot of fun for kids (as they are for the rest of us!) and, like anything else, they’re even more fun if we know how we’re expected to behave. I beseech you, Gentle Readers: Teach your children how to behave in a movie theater. Talking, running around and kicking the backs of other patron’s seats is going to earn them more glares and bad karma than you ever want to have aimed at your child – or at you. Before you take them to a theater (at 5 or 6 years of age; before then it’s just cruel to expect them to sit still that long), explain that it’s not like at home, where you can talk during the show – other people are listening too, so you have to be polite and stay quiet while the lights are out.

In an emergency a quiet, whispered “Daddy, I have to go to the bathroom,” is acceptable.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Happy Mother's Day

To Peter and Roger - Happy Mother's Day - I couldn't be a Mother without you!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Happy Mother's Day from Millie and Mollie!

To Joy, Rocky, Bender, Red, Sassy and Jack: Thank you from the bottom of my heart for letting me mother you way more than you probably want me to. You make me love this job!


Ok, you are a parent, and since ALL parents are working parents, pretty darn busy!  It's easy to get locked into a daily grind, where all you do is work, work, work and then do laundry.  It hit me early on that I was going to need an outlet for my personal ambitions.  

And laundry is NOT a hobby.

At first I didn't have personal ambitions beyond having the baby nurse, sleep through the night, smile and roll over.  But it all happens sooner or later, and somewhere, in the back of your mind, is that book you never finished, that piano you never mastered, that garden laying fallow.  This happened for me when Peter was about four months old and I realized that if I was going to have any personal life at all, I was going to have to make it for myself.  I also realized that since I wasn't earning any money, I'd have to find a cheap way to nurture myself.

I began by digging up all those books on Watergate.  I'd never finished Leon Jaworski's "Right and the Power, so I found it in a box in the attic and completed it.  I then decided to re-read "All the President's Men"  and from there on, I was addicted.  There was a used book store where I could by used books cheap (half the time, they were never really used, you could tell from the condition of the spine), and over time, I built up a library that would rival the Library of Congress.  

I'd never really learned to play the piano - and it always bugged me.  Sure, I could figure out the notes and the tempo of it all, but I'd never learned how to sight read and play for the first time, all at once.  Fingering was difficult for me, and just the inner hesitation I felt playing at all sometimes overwhelmed me.  But, I signed up for piano lessons with a nice lady who came to my house for a very reasonable fee.  Before you knew it, I was cracking out sonatinas like a pro.  It just took time, and when you are home with kids, you actually have little pockets of it.

I'd also always loved gardening.  I just love earth, germination (I still get excited when a little green sprout uncurls from the soil) and nurturing.  There is nothing more rewarding than starting something from seed and seeing it turn into something splendid.   So sometime around Peter's third month, I hauled him, his playpen, and my diaper bag into the back yard.  My early gardening experiences are now legend ("Why did Mollie plant 10 zucchini plants, Mommy?) but still rewarding ("For the 10 quarts of zucchini puree in the freezer for future souffles, Honey, now stop pointing").   Our first year gardening, my husband and I had enough raspberry jam, zucchini puree, tomato sauce and apricot marmalade to feed a small village.

All of this served to keep me amused while Peter was batting at dust motes with his little hands and kicking a big bouncy ball with his feet.  We had a nicely shaded area under our deck where he could roll around in his playpen to his heart's content while I weeded.  As he grew older, the back yard was a great place for him to play with his brother and friends.  I could weed, water, prune and harvest, AND overhear little snippets of kiddie conversation.  It was a blast.

Gardening was a great hobby in that it was uber cheap.  I'd swap seeds with friends, share bounty (Pleeeeeeeeeease have another zucchini, Diane!) and just go crazy figuring out new ways to propagate, germinate, hybridize and fertilize all those guests in my garden.  My only gripe about gardening is that things did tend to shut down during winter months and I'd be left with a freezer of tomato sauce and jam.  But isn't that why God made books and pianos?

So take stock of what feeds your inner seedling.  If you like crafts, do crafts.  If it's books that turn you on, get reading! Most hobbies are something you can work into a budget (unless your hobby is collecting diamonds!) and you can barter, swap, resell, regift and recycle to your heart's content.  So take stock of your unfinished business - like the unread books and dusty piano - and prepare to become the neighborhood cache of zucchini recipes.