Wednesday, June 30, 2010

More on Big Families

Millie writes:

I got an interesting note on yesterday's blog post from a Gentle Reader with 3 and 38/40ths kids:

It can be hard to give everyone the attention they want/need WHEN they want it. In particular, my oldest has been wanting one on one time with me quite a bit these days and I'm just SO tired it feels like a daunting task. You know, though, with her specifically, I really DO need to make a point of spending time with her in more than just the capacity of Teacher and Slave Driver. She does SO much to help keep the family running smoothly (most days, heh), that I don't want her feeling like Cinderella, ya know?

I just need more energy. And to have this baby already!


I well remember - and I'm sure Mollie does, too - how suddenly HUGE and grown-up my first baby seemed when the second baby came along. Those teeny starfish hands suddenly seemed big enough to hold a football, and we had so much more history together – why, this kid could talk! You could reason with this kid!

It's very sweet that your daughter is asking for Mommy-only time right now. I also get how frustrating it can be, and how there's the occasional suspicion that she's only asking for it to see if you will DO it. Is this an exhausting job, or what? Here are some ideas I've found useful.

1. Have a standing date. I have weekly lunch dates with my college boys – when they're working and going to school, some weeks it's about the only time I get to see them at all. Sometimes we talk about video games, and sometimes we talk about LIFE ISSUES; but we know we can depend on at least that much uninterrupted time together each week. It doesn't have to be as fancy as lunch out; you can have Wednesday tea during naptime, or paint each other's nails once a week while the little kids watch Sponge Bob. Even if there's no chance for a twosome some hectic “regular” day, she'll know she can count on your date.

2. Designate them Senior Child Present. It's great that she is learning her part in helping to keep the family running smoothly. That's a bit of a soapbox of mine; parents who do ALL the work while their kids do nothing but play are raising dysfunctional people who won't know what “family” means. The oldest kid is in a unique position, too; he is expected by his parents to set an example for the youngest and to exercise a minimum of supervision over them – and he is expected by his siblings to be “the Cool One.” We give our oldest resident kid the title of Senior Child Present. The SCP is indeed expected to be a good example and to keep an eye on the other kids; we also give him a few Super Powers. For one thing he is included in some higher-level family discussions to represent the Kid point of view; for another, the Littles are told that certain orders from the SCP are to be obeyed as if they came from us. Obviously you have to gear this privilege to the ages involved; but having responsibility without any authority is an extremely frustrating thing. Back the kid up. We have NEVER had a SCP abuse his position. (Oh; they also automatically get the front seat.)

3. Work on secrets together. There's a real sense of excitement in sharing something with your Mom or Dad that is only between the two of you. I'm not talking here about teaching and chores, though these things make a bond too; I'm talking about hobbies that you approach as peers. Perhaps you're both interested in gardening; it could become a long-term project for you to spade up and plant a small garden bed. One sneaky advantage to this once it's been established is that you can GO together every day to the place where you work on your secret project, and the child can work on it (weeding or watering) and you can talk; while sometimes you are “accidentally” doing something else like nursing a baby or folding the socks. This plan works especially well if you have a lot of children, because the venue for the hobby you share with each of them can almost substitute for privacy.

4. Start a Bedtime Book. Sometimes there IS no substitute for privacy, and for this you need a Bedtime Book. A Bedtime Book is a notebook that you never talk about out loud; you leave it under her pillow one night with a note written in it saying, “This is our Bedtime Book; we can write about anything we want to in here. When you're done reading it, write a note to me and slip it under MY pillow.” This book may fly back and forth between your pillows for years, carrying everything from jokes and love notes to explanations and apologies. You will learn to know your child in a whole new way; some things it's a lot easier to write than it is to say, and that goes for little kids, too.

5. Change her bedtime. Ohhh, this is a rough one, especially since the ONLY time we get to be alone with our husbands is after the kids go to bed. I still recommend it, and I'll tell you why: the very best way to make the oldest child feel special is to give her a tiny peep into the grown-up world. A bedtime that is 15-30 minutes later than the rest of the herd – provided that the 15 – 30 minutes is spent with her parents – will remind a child that the bond between them is as firm as it was before all the interlopers came along, and that nothing will replace her in their hearts. You don't have to make a huge deal of it – just read a chapter of a “big” book aloud, or play a board game – but it will end her day on a lovely note. One practical upside is that if she acts like a "little kid" during the day, you can insist she observe the "little kid" bedtime. She won't want to lose her privilege.

Besides – it's not so VERY long before your kids will all be staying up later than you do, and YOU will have to go to bed early to get any time alone with your husband!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Big Families

Well, I see the Duggars finally got to bring Baby #19 home from the hospital today; they’d have brought her home sooner but twelve of her siblings had the chicken pox. Without going into what I think about the quiverfull philosophy (the idea that God will give you as many babies as he wants you to have), it did get me thinking about what it’s like to be a kid from a big family.

My personal kids have had it both ways. They were all born into a 3-kid family, and so had their own spot: The Oldest, The Middle Kid and The Baby. When Lance and I got married and they each became 1 of 6, everyone had a bit of an identity crisis. Sure, one of The Oldest was still the oldest (and became the Senior Child Present, which is almost like a military rank in our house); but the other one was now Second Oldest. That’s quite a change. The Middle Kid became The Middle Kids, and it wasn’t TOO bad because they were both the same age – though they were in different grades due to a late birthday. It was roughest on The Babies, because the oldest Baby was now just a regular ol’ kid minus the perqs, and the youngest was now the youngest of six instead of just three – with no chance of EVER catching up.

If you are not an only child, then you suspect – wherever you are in the birth order – that the other child/ren in your family get/s more attention/treats/love/privileges than you do. When you’re one of six (or, I presume, 19), you are sure of it. The thing about that is, it’s often true: in a big family, odds are good that there will be at least ONE crisis going on, and the child who’s embroiled in the Drama du Jour will indeed get more attention for a while. Some kids become drama junkies and have to keep acting up in more and more flamboyant ways to keep their parents’ attention focused on them, them and only them. Some kids become withdrawn and think they don’t deserve any attention anyway, or begin to resent the Drama Ki/Qu-een. (You see that last one sometimes, too, in the sibling of a child with a serious illness.)

It’s our job as parents to teach our children the difference between treating everyone the same and treating everyone equally. Lance and I try to do that in several ways. We have regular one-on-one talks with each child about what’s really going on if we’re in Condition Red (which is seldom these days, thank goodness). If we’ve noticed something odd in one child’s behavior, we might privately ask a sibling if they’ve seen a change and have any idea what’s going on. We also will occasionally ask permission of the other five beforehand if an opportunity has arisen to really do something big for the sixth child, such as an over-the-top Christmas present or a school trip that we ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford.

The point is that we couldn’t even try to keep things evened out if we weren’t staying in touch with each kid. It’s vital that you’re available for one-on-one time with your children, and that either of you can ask for it. You might not be able to drop everything right that instant but you should schedule a time to talk, and soon, too. Your children should know without a shadow of a doubt that you are there for them, and that you care about what they say. They must be absolutely sure that you will take the time to really listen to them, every single day.

Otherwise, why have one baby, let alone nineteen?

Monday, June 28, 2010

Give-Mom-the-Razz-Berry Jam Session

Millie writes:

In the interests of what Mollie calls “keeping it real” (see previous post), I must admit that today I do not feel qualified to give advice on raising nasturtiums, let alone children. The behavior exhibited recently by one of my kids has brought it rather forcefully to my attention that I am a miserable, lousy failure as a parent (yes, even Millies feel this way sometimes!), so I am going to sit in the corner and lick my wounds.

Let's gather at Mollie's feet and listen to her tale – sit down, Mollie, and let me stir those berries. This jam recipe works on even my most incompetent days.

Raspberry Preserves

4 cups raspberries
3 ¼ cups sugar
1/3 cup lemon juice
1 tsp butter

Pick, sort and clean the raspberries (if you're using frozen berries, thaw them, but save the juice). Stir the berries (plus juice, if frozen) and stir them gently in a large bowl with the sugar and the lemon juice. Let it sit for two hours while you sterilize 4 half-pint jars and get their lids ready.

Use a rubber spatula to scrape the berry mixture into a heavy pot with high sides (probably the one you use to boil spaghetti in would work). Add the butter and, stirring constantly with the spatula, bring the whole mess to a boil over high heat. Boil hard for 6 minutes – don't ever stop stirring. Turn off the heat.

Skim off the foam if you care (the butter should help reduce it) and ladle the jam into the jars leaving a quarter-inch space at the top. Cap the jars and process them in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes. Wait impatiently a day or so until the preserves solidify; devour.

The Elephant in the Room While Making Raspberry Jam

Mollie writes:

I keep telling myself that I want to keep this blog real.  And part of keeping it real is writing about mothering with MS.  It's no breeze being a parent at any one time, be it colic, potty training, crazy teachers in your fourth grader's class, or just the unbearable snottiness of being 14.  But having a parent with a major medical issue is tough, and being a parent with a major medical issue is tough.  And having your parenting partner  down for the count weeks at a time is tough, too, just ask my husband.

My family and I started this phase of our lives when both boys were preschoolers.  I had a year where I simply couldn't stop injuring myself - I broke bones, dropped knives into my feet, you name it, I did it.  It was starting to get embarrassing when I went to the emergency room and the ER doctor told me I looked like a woman at war with her feet.  With a cast on one broken foot and stitches in the other, I limped out of the ER that day, relieved that he knew I wasn't being abused by my husband (who was in Chicago at the time).  It was frustrating, embarrassing and completely out of my control.

The phase passed and I didn't think twice about it for a few years,  But elementary school rolled around for the boys, and there was no way I could explain the inexplicable burden of fatigue I'd experience.  Followed by bouts of clumsiness and broken dishes and I would be ready to scream at the heavens, except things would clear up and I'd have years of clear sailing.

MS is incredibly easy to deny for long stretches of time.  Symptoms go into remission and a person could play tennis, take two preschoolers to Europe, finish a college degree, and do the solo parenting dance for weeks and no problems.  Then, bingo, things would flip over to Side B and life would just slide off the turntable.  There was simply no rationale behind it.

I'm trying to organize in my mind how to approach this subject in a way that is clear, honest, hopeful, real.   I will probably sort things into phases - meaning symptoms, medical response, diagnosis, and subsequent life with a degenerative disease AND teenagers.  But the mental process of organizing it and actually writing about it are two different things.

I don't want readers to think that I'm some sort of "super gimp."  I'd rather you see me as some sort of confused soul trying to make sense of her life while making raspberry jam.  So in the coming weeks I will occasionally write about how I figured out I was "Sick and Tired" rather than sick and tired.  If I can, I'll try to take you through diagnostic hell while starting an after school program, parenting on steroids, and the infinite bliss of juggling parenting AND working outside the home, and all whilst juggling The Stealth Disease.

Hopefully I'll be able to chuckle at some of my mistakes.  God knows I made 'em while trying to find domestic nirvana (nerve-anna?) in my corner of the world.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Empty Nest Syndrome

Mollie writes:

Yep, I get it every so often.  You'd think that after the kids have been out of the nest for 5+ years, I would  have recovered, but every so often I see a baby and just melt.

Not that I want a baby.  But another one of my close friends became a grandmother recently and she has the cutest granddaughter.  She gets to cuddle, snuggle, kiss, hug, spoil, tickle, and croon to this little person and then she can go home to a full night's sleep.

Such a deal!

There is no way I could parent again.  MS, and a bunch of other assorted health issues, have cancelled my parenting pass.  Half of knowing anything about parenting is acknowledging how much energy (physical, emotional and mental to name a few) goes into this job.  And although I have just enough spit for a grand-baby, it's something I can wait for.  Right now, I'm enjoying that calm before the storm, and enjoying it mightily.

But my grand-mommy buddies are, in my humble opinion, just the luckiest chicks on the planet.  All of them have granddaughters, all of the granddaughters are the mostest perfect little women in the world.  And each of my buds is blessed with the ability to share - meaning I've had the privilege of snuzzling the little ones (except the most recent who's less than a month old).

I am writing this for new mothers.  Out there, somewhere, is a Mollie, a ripe old loving mother who's not ready for grandkids but still needs a baby fix.  And I'll bet you know a couple, they are your mom's friends.  If you notice one or two of them stopping by with food and clothes for the baby, mention that you'd love an evening off.

You just might get lucky.  You could drop off your precious for a 3 hour hug/cuddle fest while you and your cuddle-partner get a meal out, go to Costco, or take in a movie.  Three hours is 1.5 diapers (break out the HAZMAT suit) 4 ounces of milk, and endless joy for the babysitting Mollie.

John and I live on Whidbey Island, where the baby pickin' is lean.  But if the call were to come from a mommy on Whidbey for a three hour respite, I'd have a hard time saying no.

Millie writes:

Amen, amen, amen!

Friday, June 25, 2010


Mollie writes:

I just got over a tummy thing, and realized that I'd lost control of my pantry once the kids were grown.  In the middle of trying to find something to eat that would stay down, I realized that my pantry was stuffed with fun food only.   Raspberry sauce, cake mixes, bean soup mixes, desserts and chips were everywhere, but nary a can o' chicken noodle soup!

Well, shame on me.

After realizing that a well run home will have SOME basics in the pantry, I've decided to mend my ways and beef up the locker.  We must have saved thousands of dollars over the years, having basics on hand instead of running to the store and paying retail for stuff we know we'll use with wholesale abandon.  Here's my list of how to manage a pantry.

You probably know how often you use your basics.  I try to keep 3 months supply of these things available either on a shelf in the pantry or a shelf in the freezer.  The following is an approximation of what I'd keep on hand for my family of four at any one time (ideally).

At least 10 boxes of tea, your choice.  But you need tea for just about anything, sickie tummies, celebrations, or just a warm-me-up.

A case of Instant Oatmeal boxes.  Live dangerously, also stock the round containers.  Makes for a great cookie recipe and a fruit crisp topping.  When empty, the containers make great tom-toms!

I can use up to 10 pounds of rice in a 3 month period, so I usually have a bin of rice with at least that much in it.  Rice is so good and so basic.  It stretches casseroles, is great food for kiddies with diarrhea, is the basis of all stir-fry recipes, and so much more that having a 25 pound bag is also a good idea.  And the money savings between a box of Uncle Ben's and a 25 pound bag of rice is enormous.

A case of cream of anything soup.  Ditto for the above, it stretches recipes, flavors things when you don't have time to make a sauce, and just generally comes in handy.

A case of chicken noodle soup.  Just how does a kid know his mommy loves him without some form of CNS when they are sick?  Go condensed, go dehydrated, go ramen, go anything, but go get the chicken soup when all else fails.

A case of tuna fish, packed in water.   Two jars of mayonnaise two jars of sweet pickle relish.

We make a lot of bean soups at our house.  A pound of split peas, a pound of lentils and a case of white northern beans and we are well equipped.

A case of dehydrated onion soup mix.  It can jazz up anything from casseroles, gravy, sauces, etc, and also makes a nice lunch when you're in the mood.

A jar of beef bouillon.  A jar of chicken bouillon.  I use it instead of salt in a lot of meat dishes.

A bottle of lemon juice.

A case of mac and cheese.

A case of stewed tomatoes.  You can whip up ANYTHING with tomatoes.  Add to rice, and voila, Spanish Rice.  Add to beans and ground beef and voila, chili.

Five boxes of yellow cake mix.  You never know when you'll need to make up something for a birthday, anniversary, soccer championship, etc.  To that, add a package of cupcake liners, five pounds of powdered sugar, ten pounds of granulated sugar, five pounds of brown sugar, three large bags of semi-sweet chocolate chips, five pounds of flour, two cans baking soda, two boxes baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, vanilla, three bags of your favorite nuts and 3 months supply of any special flavorings you like.  You'll have a mini-patisserie!

A pound of iodized salt, jars of parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, tarragon, anise, bay leaves, caraway, cream of tartar, garlic salt, oregano, and any other spices you use on a regular basis.

Two gallons olive oil.  Go to Costco.  Buy the oil.  You can make almost anything better with olive oil.

Two liters of canola oil - for recipes where olive oil just isn't called for (pastry, etc).

Crisco - to be used sparingly, but I do use it still.

Moving to the freezer:

I bought meat in bulk, then brought it home and repackaged it in zip lock bags that would hold enough meat for one meal.

Ten pounds of ground meat (hamburger, pork, turkey, your call, but enough for three months).

Five fryers.  If you can, boneless and skinless.

Ten pounds of chicken thighs (or legs, depending on your kids).  Each package holds enough for one generous meal.

Ten pounds of chicken tenders (chicken breasts cut into bite-sized wedges).

Ten  pounds of pork chops.

Five plastic bags each of corn, peas, carrots, green beans, broccoli, mixed vegetables, and, yes Roger, frozen squash.

Three nice frozen pizzas.  Three freezer meals of your choice (lasagna, mac and cheese, chicken enchiladas are a good start).  A box of corn dogs (see, I do love you, Roger).  Hot dogs.

Leave enough room in your pantry and freezer for windfalls and left overs.

Notice I left out things like chips, dips, salsas, etc.  Occasionally these things are nice, but with the problem of childhood obesity, I'm thinking that we don't need to store ice cream, pies, and unhealthy snack foods.  They are nice to have for special occasions, but that's about it.

Obviously I've left stuff off, and I beg y'all to add your two cents worth.  But my pantry will reflect the above.  Most of these things come on sale periodically and you can stock up on them without paying prime bucks.  Now start hoarding!

Millie writes:

I think we'd feel at home in one another's pantries, Mollie! Mine has the same contents (only in greater amounts). I make most of our bread so we stock at least 25 pounds of flour at a time, and in addition to what you've listed above I keep the following things on hand:

tomato sauce - cheaper by the case and the basis of any red sauce

Pasta - cases of spaghetti, egg noodles, and elbow and salad macaroni

10 pounds onions

20 pounds potatoes

Canned fruit - pineapple, peaches and applesauce - for baking and impromptu desserts

Case of refried beans

In the freezer I stock giant burrito shells (good for burritos, obviously, but also for making sandwich wraps), frozen fruit for smoothies and a few things like potstickers or frozen burritos that a kid can whip up for a late-night snack. Lance is a positive genius at finding meat on sale - he can buy rib-eye steak for less than chain grocery stores charge for hamburger - so we also have a rotating stock of chops, roasts and steaks. (Usually the poorer we are, the better we eat.)

Of course there's always a stock of hamburger and chicken breasts.

We keep cases of toilet paper, paper towels, Kleenex, napkins and feminine hygiene products in the pantry, along with laundry, dish and person soap. We buy shampoo by the gallon jug and siphon it into smaller bottles.

The other thing we buy in gallon jugs, I am pleased to report, is: Chocolate syrup!

Mental Health Days

There are times - and today is one of those times - when I just . . . don't want to. I'm not crabby, I'm not ill, there's nothing wrong (well nothing that isn't everyday-caliber wrong, if you know what I mean); today I just have a deep antipathy towards doing my everday, run-of-the-mill stuff.

I'm lucky in a way; my "money" job is one for which I set my own hours, so if I slack off for a day I can make it up by working double-time later. I will surely rue it when "later" arrives, but the option is there nonetheless. My real-life job is motherhood, though, and as all inmates of this profession know - there is no time off for good behavior.

Not really.

Still, I can take it easy there too, at least for one day. I can declare (internally) that today our house will be a nag-free zone. I can let things slide just the tiniest bit. I can relax a little of what Mad-Eye Moody calls "constant vigilance!" and look the other way when someone props their muddy shoes on the couch again or the teasing reaches critical mass.

Yup, I'm still on duty, and it is my eternal charge that people be fed, clothed, sheltered and loved - but I think today I'll take a vacation from Teaching, Molding and Improving the Minds.

Pass the popsicles and pop in a video. Mom's taking a Mental Health Day!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Summer Adventures

Millie writes:

Last night we started our annual brainstorming with the kids about outings they want to take over their summer vacation. I thought I'd share part of our list with you!

Go camping

Take a picnic and go swimming/wading at the river

Play laser tag

Go to the science museum

See the new exhibit at the aquarium

Family dinner out (Ed.: a rare treat for us!)

Dollar Tree picnic, breakfast picnic, barbecue picnic at the river (Ed.: Obviously we're big picnickers)

Movies (A-Team, Toy Story 3, Knight and Day, Sorcerer's Apprentice, Dinner for Schmucks) (Ed.: Remember, my kids are senior teenagers/young adults now)

Hit the gym and pool more often


Concerts in the Parks

Go see Taiko drumming (Ed.: We're lucky – there's a Taiko school in our town)

Fruit picking

Hit up the yard sales and thrift stores

Get a new book to read aloud in the evenings (Ed.: Remember, my kids are senior teenagers/young adults now!! This one is my favorite.)

What are your plans for the summer?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The One-Eyed Monster

Millie writes:

I have a radical suggestion – turn the TV off this summer.

Back in 1999 I was embroiled in my Elementary School PTA President years, and that year we decided to observe National No-TV Week. We (okay, I) were astounded at the uproar this caused – not among the children, but among the parents. “There's no way MY kid will do it,” was the most common reaction.

I couldn't believe it, so I took our school's No-TV Week a little further and declared that screens of ANY kind were off limits for the whole week. No TV, no movies, no video games and no computers.

We won the kids over by having a For-Real Treasure Chest by the front door filled with little prizes that a kid could get every day if his parent signed off on his No-TV chart, awarding a bigger prize to anyone who made it all 5 days, and planning a lot of fun extracurricular activities that week. 2/3 of the kids saw it through.

The parents couldn't believe it.

Consider these four points from the website KidsHealth:

School-aged kids spend an average of 6 hours a day in front of a screen; during summer that number goes up a LOT. Six hours is a quarter of the day, people; the biggest chunk of the day after sleeping and school.

Kids who watch a lot of TV are way more likely to be overweight and out of shape than kids who don't.

Kids who see a lot of violence on TV are not only more likely to be violent, they're more likely to be afraid of the world in general. The average American child will see more than 200,000 violent acts on TV by the time they're 18; many of these acts are committed by the show's “heroes.”

Kids see an average of 40,000 commercials annually – that's a lot of “Mommy, buy me that!” Kids under 8 don't understand that commercials are trying to sell them something; kids under 6 don't understand the difference between the commercial and the program.

After that year, No-TV Week became an annual thing at that school, one to which the kids actually looked forward – but somehow, in our house, the TV just never got turned back on. The odd thing was that we didn't miss it at all – there were too many other things to do.

We didn't go entirely screen-free; one night a week is designated "Family Movie Night" and the minor kids have carefully monitored computer-game time. The emphasis here is on the “family” and “carefully monitored.” As the kids got to be high-school-aged we began watching one TV show a week together if we liked it so much we couldn't wait for the current series to come out on DVD (one year it was Heroes; the last couple it's been Supernatural).

What do they do the rest of the time?

They read, play games, make jewelry, ride bikes, fly rockets, go on dates, volunteer, go to work, bake cookies, play with the chickens, do their chores, do homework, hang out with friends . . .

in short, they have a life.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Introducing: The Bitchin' Post!

Millie writes:

Mollie and I have been pretty lucky in our lives, and we know it. So far we haven't come across any calamity that we can't handle with grace, quick thinking and the love of our super-hero spouses and kids. But - and as anyone who's hiked behind me can attest, that's a big but - we can't handle anything without the support of our friends.

We all have times in our lives when we need a little extra boost but we can't get it from the people around us. Maybe we're going through an awful divorce and can't vent about the Ex in front of the kids; maybe we have a very ill child and we can't express our fears without making it worse for the rest of the family; maybe the adoption is dragging, or the grey hairs now outnumber the blonde, or we haven't had sex in six months.

We designed The Bitchin' Post to be your loving, supportive, funny, kick-in-the-pants virtual table full of girlfriends with a cup of tea, a dessert plate and a fork apiece. Bear with us as the site evolves in whichever way you choose to take it - we'll try to keep up.

Click on the no-nonsense cowgirl to the right - she'll take you to the new site, and bring you back too, when you're ready. You'll be asked to affirm that you know it's an adults-only site, but otherwise you can be as anonymous as you wish to be. Give us a holler!

Monday, June 21, 2010

Things that Sensible Parents Hate, but I Secretly Love

Millie writes:

There are a few Universal Parenting Nightmares, like “leaving the kid behind on a road trip” or “the baby filling her tights with poo right at the christening font.” There are also long, arid stretches of parental boredom, such as waiting for a kid with chicken pox who “feels better” to be healed enough to go out in public again, or when someone's in the middle of an awful “stage” and there's nothing to do but wait it out.

Then there are those lesser things, things that “everyone” hates, but that I secretly thoroughly enjoy . . .

1. Mud. Parents hate mud, right? It gets on clothes, it gets on shoes (and therefore rugs), it gets in hair. Well, this is true, and I do hate cleaning mud. However . . . one of my favorite memories of when the kids were small is the time we found a truly massive mud puddle down a seldom-used alley. I mean that thing was enormous; a toddler could swim in it. I could lay down in it full-length and it came up to my knees. I think the resident kids at the time were 9, 5 and 1, and we were on our daily walk. We looked at each other, and at this private inner-city oasis, and then I jumped in. We had such fun, stomping and splashing and shrieking! Oh sure, we got some funny looks walking home, and yes, it's lucky we didn't all die of cholera or something, and none of those clothes was ever the same again, but . . . totally worth it.

2. Kids that won't sleep through the night. Well, waking up every hour on the hour is admittedly very sub-optimum; but a baby who woke up once or twice a night was a gem in my eyes. I loved those serene moments of rocking, nursing a baby and looking at the stars outside the window. It was distilled mothering time. When they kids got a little older I would occasionally miss them so much after they went to bed that I'd go wake them up again. We'd eat ice cream at the kitchen table, or sit on the porch swing and point out constellations. We still stay up way too late some nights talking; the best heart-to-hearts take place in the dark, after all.

3. “Why?” I have always been delighted to answer questions, or to help somebody find the answers for themselves. That very-young-child inquisitiveness was fun, because I've always been a firm believer that if they are old enough to ask the question, they're old enough to hear an (age-appropriate) answer. Besides, Lordy do I love to talk – I don't usually have to be prompted twice.

4. Those Terrible Teen Years. At whatever stage any given child is at the moment, that's when I always think, “This is my favorite stage.” It may really be true about the teen years, though. Yes, they can be moody and demanding. They are also brilliant, unpredictable, thoughtful and hilarious. I think the problem a lot of adults have with teenagers is that the adults are now expected to use some politeness in conversation. I think that parents have to put on their party manners a little more often when their children reach the teen years, and model a little better the behavior we would have them emulate – especially if we want to continue to see them when they're grown.

5. Order. Yes, I think order and routine is vital for children; it helps them feel stable and in control of their lives if they know what to expect. However, I think it's just as vital to astonish them occasionally if we want to keep them from growing up anxious little automatons. There's no reason not to serve dinner on a bare table, for instance – no serving bowls, no plates, just dump the spaghetti and salad and roll at their places and give everybody a fork. You may only do it once, but – don't you want to try that? (It's a blast, by the way – some things are worth the mess.) The occasional departure from the ordinary keeps family life interesting, and anything that helps YOU to share in the magic of childhood can only be good for your soul.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Yet another link

For those of us who were upset by the cosmetic genital reconstructive surgery being performed on infants at Cornell University, and the subsequent sexual manipulation performed on these girls during their pre-pubescent and post-pubescent childhoods, here's a link to Cornell University to tell them to keep hands off minor children's genitals if there is no life endangering problem associated with it.

Celebrate diversity!

Link to the Weill Cornell Medical School page of the office of research integrity and assurance, which includes this:
Complaint or Concern about Research
Integrity and Assurance?

We want to hear from you.
No retaliation.
Confidentiality maintained.
Calls will not be traced.
Calls can be anonymous
Office of Research and Sponsored Programs
Phone: (646) 962-8200

Saturday, June 19, 2010

To Leash or Not To Leash -

Mollie writes:

I hadn't even considered a leash until I was pregnant with Roger and shopping for maternity clothes.  I had taken Peter to Mall 205 and was in the maternity clothes store, dressed down to my undies, when Peter decided to make a break for it.  Lucky for me, the staff there was used to mommies and toddlers, and an alert sales person grabbed Peter before he could disappear into the crowds.  From that date forward, I clothes shopped alone.  It was safer for the kid and I deserved a little solo time!  But those leashes . . . what a mixed message!  I couldn't bring myself to buy one, and didn't want to use it.  But who doesn't worry about all that evil out there?

Once Roger was born and we'd survived Peter's hernia surgery and Rogers encephalitis, John and I decided that we needed some time off.  Roger was 11 months old and Peter was age 3.  John had a meeting in Fort Lauderdale Florida, so we decided to include Peter and myself in the travels.  Roger was newly on anti-convulsants and we decided that he could sit out this trip and stay with his grandparents.  The planning began for John, Peter and I to go to Florida.

In all the news reports we'd hear about Adam Walsh.  Just watching his dad, John Walsh, on TV talking about what a dangerous world it was and how devastating the kidnapping and murder of his son was would freeze me in my planning.  I worried about taking Peter someplace strange to us, in airports, amusement parks, large hotels.  Florida seemed like a dangerous place for kids, so I planned appropriately.

Included in my planning was one of those little leash contraptions.  I packed it in our carry-on luggage for the time at the airport when we were easily distracted, the times at amusement parks and hotels where we'd be temporarily busy with the minutiae of travel, etc.  I remember it to this day, it was all fabric, very harmless looking, cheery and yellow and 100% cotton.  Surely it wouldn't be a problem.

We didn't have Peter wear it until our plane landed in Fort Lauderdale.  He wasn't pleased but he put up with it.  He wore it in the taxi, and through our check-in at the hotel.  He wore it up to the room and I took if off once the door was closed and locked.

The next thing I remember was the toilet flushing.  And a manly little flush it was!  I never saw that leash again and I never bought another.  Peter had spoken.

We did learn to travel with a little more confidence.  Somebody may steal our passports, carry-ons, luggage or purses and we were ok, but our kids were always safely on one hip or another.  And if you are seriously thinking about your child's safety in an unknown destination, well, there are Millies and Mollies out there, waiting to spoil the little mites in your absence.  But Peter made it clear to us, leashes were not an option!

Friday, June 18, 2010

Perfectly Rational Parenting Things That I Really Hate

Millie writes:

Let me say right up front that someone will have very cogent arguments for each one of these things (well, cogent to themselves). Some of them are things that MOST people wouldn’t find fault with. Still, they cause me to see red!

1. Beauty pageants. This is child exploitation, pure and simple. No, it’s not “helping your daughter learn poise and self-possession while she competes for valuable ‘scholarships.’” It’s teaching your daughter (or your son, for that matter) that it’s what she looks like that matters, and that if she looks “better” than another little girl, then she IS better than the other little girl.

2. Leashes. Look, I get it that some toddlers are like greased lightening and they will be flat GONE if you take your eyes off them for even a split-second. I had to call for a lock-down in a local grocery store not once but TWICE when Jack was little, because he could disappear while I was blinking – so yes, I get it. I don’t care. You might as well go all the way and put a collar on a child as a leash. It is humiliating and dehumanizing to the child. Hold his hand, belt him in the cart, or leave him at home.

3. Letting your kids be disruptive in public. Again, I get it: you may not have a sitter, you may really need to get out, or you may think your kid is old enough to see the movie/ eat in the restaurant/ go to the school concert. If your child is screaming or crying or running around in any of these venues, it may not be your fault that they're fussy, but it is your fault that you are not controlling them. Take them out, walk them around a bit; maybe they’ll calm down and be ready to try it again, maybe they won’t and you’ll have to take them home. Either way, it’s your responsibility to make sure that your child doesn’t bother the people around him when he’s in public.

4. Circumcision. This one is a hot topic, and I hesitate to even bring it up, but with the recent flap-doodle where the American Academy of Pediatrics came out FOR “female genital cutting” and then reversed their decision after the public outcry – not to mention the outrageous “research” being done at Cornell University - and I warn you, don’t click that link unless you’re prepared to be infuriated - it has to be said. I firmly believe that this is a decision to be made entirely by a child’s parents, but in my opinion, genital mutilation is genital mutilation, whether it’s done to a girl baby or a boy baby. Babies are perfect as-is, and I think that we should leave the to-cut-or-not-to-cut choice for them to make themselves when they’re adults.

5. Earrings. Speaking of ritualistic disfigurement, what on Earth are people thinking when they get infant girls’ ears pierced? Surely they are gilding the lily – what can be more beautiful than a baby girl? What is the point of taking them to a crowded mall, restraining them bodily while a total stranger drives bolts through their heads, and then subjecting them to six weeks of cleaning, twirling and fussing – not to mention the likelihood of infection? People! Don’t poke holes in your kids, and don’t get parts of them sliced off! If you want to make your kid an original, dress them funny or give them any weird haircut they ask for (hair grows back).

Besides, if you pierce a newborn’s ears, how will you bribe her to get straight A’s when she’s nine?

Cheap-o Recipe

Mollie writes:

Ok, you asked for it!  From time to time, I'm going to give you a recipe that is cheap to make, feeds hungry children, and includes most food groups.  The following is one I've made forever.  It isn't the best, but it seldom ends up in the freezer either, if you know what I mean -

Hamburger/Rice Casserole

First, don't let the name fool you.  You can use ground beef, turkey, or a "Ground Italian Sausage" you can find at your grocery store.  You choose!

2 tblsp and 1 tsp olive oil
4  cups of water
2 cups rice of your choice
1 1/2 to 2 pounds ground meat of your choice
1 onion (large, cheap, and as fresh as possible)
1 large bag of frozen veggies (I use either corn or a 'fiesta' mix with corn, beans and peppers)  but hey,  you choose!
2 cans diced tomatoes with the variant of your choice (onions, garlic, jalapenos, etc) 14.5 oz per can
1 package dry onion soup mix

Bring water to boil, add 1 tsp olive oil and 2 cups rice.  Reduce to simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes.

Saute ground meat in 1 tblsp olive oil.  When thoroughly cooked, place in LARGE casserole.

Chop onions, then saute in 1 tblsp olive oil 'til clear.  When done, put in same large casserole.

Zap veggies in microwave until at least defrosted, add to same large casserole.

Add 2 cans of tomatoes to same large casserole.

Add dry onion soup mix (that same large casserole).

By then your rice should be done.  Add cooked rice to large casserole (the same one!) and thoroughly mix.  Cover with aluminum foil and bake in oven, at 350 for 1 hour.

You may wonder why I emphasize 'the same large casserole.'  The story is obvious, one of my kids made it with more than one casserole dish.

It has a grain (rice) protein (meat) fruit (tomatoes) veggies (zapped corn and onion). Served with a nice big glass of milk and a green salad and you can pat yourself on the back.

My boys would whine and complain, but they also shoveled it down.  Any leftovers can be put into freezer containers and then into the freezer for zapping in the microwave on soccer night or date night.

You choose!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

How Do You Know You're a Grownup?

Millie writes:

Earlier this week Millie and Mollie were discussing babies, but today my mind is turning in the direction of other fledgling creatures – those who have finished their schooling or other training and are ready to try their wings. It's a wonderful stage in life, to be young and full of promise and capable of everything.

Still, even the most capable graduate can suspect he might still have a ways to go. How do you know when you've arrived?

The Top 10 Differences Between a Young Adult and a Grownup

1.A young adult cleans up his own puke – a grownup cleans up someone else's puke.

2.A young adult has a paycheck – a grownup has a budget.

3.A young adult adds “milk” to the shopping list if he drinks the last of it – a grownup buys milk.

4.A young adult has chores – a grownup has housework.

5.A young adult makes his own choices – a grownup's choices affect other people.

6.A young adult is finished with school – a grownup is always willing to learn something new.

7.A young adult can get credit – a grownup pays off debt.

8.A young adult is answerable to no one – a grownup is answerable to himself.

9.A young adult buys what he wants – a grownup buys what he needs.

10.A young adult thinks he's a grownup – a grownup knows that, deep down, he will always be a child.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

When Conventional Parenting Wisdom is Wrong

Millie writes:

With 16-year-old Abby Sunderland making headlines for her attempted solo sail around the world comes a lot of commentary along the lines of “what on Earth were her parents THINKING?”

It's true that most parents would not permit a teenage girl to walk across town unaccompanied at night, let alone circumnavigate the world by herself. I myself – if I let a child of mine attempt such a feat – would probably cheat, following her on another boat just out of her sight. There are times, however, when it is appropriate for parents to allow their child to do something that flies in the face of conventional wisdom.

If you've been reading Millie and Mollie for any length of time, you know that I am a huge proponent of a) you know your child better than anyone and b) pay attention to your instincts. The same traits that will lead you to push for that extra test when the doctor says there's nothing wrong can lead you to think twice about something that other parents wouldn't consider at all.

I realize that a lot of the “what were they thinking?” comments are a way of whistling in the wind. When we read about a child being hit by a car, snatched in a store or – yes – being stranded alone by 60-foot waves, we tend to think: That can't happen to MY child, because I have taught them to use sidewalks/ keep them in sight at all times/ would never let them sail by themselves. The world is a big place and there are dangers waiting around every corner; we want to protect our kids.

Do we, though? Do we want to wrap them in cotton wool to keep them safe, or do we want to give them as many tools as we can and then trust in their native good sense to help them navigate the world on their own? I take a sort of middle-of-the-road approach, and it's different for each child.

Our kids started taking the city bus cross-town to their middle schools when they were 11 or 12. It's true that they were exposed to some certified Whack-a-Moles on the bus. It's true that our daughters (and sons, come to think of it) were propositioned; it's true that our youngest two got massively lost in a different town on their first attempt; it's true that two of our sons got mugged. They all lost a little childhood innocence, a little of their sense of safety and a lot of umbrellas; but they gained the feeling of being citizens of the world, of self-respect and self-reliance, of trust in each other (because they usually traveled as a team).

After the mugging I was ready to call it quits. Full of self-recriminations, I was fully ready to get out the cotton wool, re-build the moat and drive my city kids wherever they needed to go until they were thirty-five. Finally Red, exasperated, said, “Mom, you've been telling us what to do if we ever got mugged since we were 5 years old; it just happened, that's all.” That was a watershed moment for me if ever there was one.

So, yes; if we were a seafaring family, if our daughter had been messing around with boats since birth, if she was trained in what to do in an emergency and if she was fairly responsible, I might let her try to sail solo around the world. True, there's always the chance that something would “just happen;” but meanwhile, our daughter would be developing into an exceptional human being.

Mollie writes:

John and I haven’t been sailing together long.  As a couple, we bought our first boat four years ago.  She was a 26 foot MacGregor, the Escape, slightly used and nicely outfitted with all the basic gear, plus sonar, jib, spinnaker, GPS, auto-pilot and a host of other upgrades.  She was a nice little boat, with the emphasis on little.  By the time we had her stowed and ready for a trip, there was very little room to sleep if we were going on an overnighter.  
As a result, we took a step (or two) up and bought a 40 foot Beneteau.  With three cabins, two heads, a nice galley and two navigation systems, auto pilot, radar, sonar, sailing instruments, two VHF radios, in-mast furling (for the girly sailors), dinghy with outboard and other accessories, she was perfect for us. We re-named her Pangaea.   She was a little older, and, thankfully, broader in the beam: a much more comfortable cruise.  We quickly got her outfitted and started sailing in earnest.
John had sailed a lot as a young man, racing with various crews all over the Pacific Northwest. He retired from the US Naval Reserves and knows his way around a boat.  I’d sailed some, but mostly as a passenger, and was still enthralled with the Cheoi Lee mystique, not because of the romance of currents and tides but the romance of an all teak boat.  The Pangaea was the perfect choice; the interior cherry and the exterior fiberglass (fiberglass being much more reasonable for long term upkeep), the  in-mast furling a good solution for our particular dynamic, an experienced captain with a handicapped amateur first mate.  And all those extras - I just love the GPS.
Since acquiring the Pangaea, John and I have taken some trips locally, mainly to Rosario, Deer Harbor, Friday Harbor and multiple other sites.  I spent one week on the boat, and I mean on the boat, not disembarking for love nor money, to see if I could handle long periods of time on a small craft.  As it happened, with a well loaded Kindle and genial sailing partners, the trip was a breeze.  But then again, so was the wind.  No small craft advisories or high wind warnings marred the trip.
We currently limit our sailing to Puget Sound and the inside passage between Vancouver Island and British Columbia.  Frankly, if we did nothing but fair weather sailing during fair weather months, we could sail for the next decade without repeating too many ports.  This has been plenty for us.
The image of any person, alone, sailing a boat around the world is challenging.  If every accessory we have on the Pangaea is  working perfectly, John could sail her alone.  But add a typhoon, even a small one, loss of radio contact, and the need to simultaneously reef the sails and navigate, and things can get tricky, quickly.  And rescue, being what it is, does take days.
I am right up there with others who want to instill tenacity in our young, but from my perspective, as a sailor with physical limitations, sailing around the world, alone, is a huge task.  I simply wouldn’t do it, nor would my 60 year old husband with no relevant physical limitations and a long history of sailing.  It’s simply too dicey, unpredictable.  I wouldn’t allow my underage child to do it either, especially if there were no other boats following (leading?) her.  The incidence of natural disasters (rain and wind) and man made disasters (piracy) gives me pause.
It would be one thing to turn Pangaea over to a high-schooler for an overnight sail, a weekend, or even a week if the sailing was done locally and the parents knew every port on the kid’s proposed route.  But I have to add my own personal NO! to allowing a minor person to sail the world, alone.  It’s just too dangerous.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Congratulations, Moms of 2010!

Mollie writes:

Things have sure changed in the last 30 years!  Back in the 80's, when I was pregnant with Peter, I was hashing over in my mind the place that my work-for-money would have in our lives after the kidlet was born.  I liked the idea of staying at home with the new baby, but was also apprehensive about the dynamics of leaving the workplace.

I had a job that I liked just fine, although it wasn't The Career of My Dreams.  I was making reasonable money for my job description and the medical and life insurance benefits were ok.  John had a stable job, but life was uncertain.  With a mortgage and a kid to educate someday, was leaving the workforce a good idea?  Our neighbor, an air traffic controller, was dealing with unemployment after the PATCO strike.  No job, a stay-at-home wife and a new baby weren't the trifecta he'd bargained for.

I did quit my job three months before Peter's due date.  I figured with my work history (medical secretary and claims analyst) I could pick up another job after the baby came home if it seemed prudent.  But learning to live on one paycheck was a challenge I felt we were up to, and I already had 100 different recipes for casseroles for $2.00 or less (most contained tuna, hamburger or velveeta and rice, potatoes or pasta).  So I opted for a decade of living dangerously and chose SAHM (stay at home motherhood).

My choice was bluntly challenged by close friends, family and strangers on the street.  I was told, to my face, that my brain would turn to mush and my husband would leave me for someone skinnier, blonder and sexier.  Another told me that she'd stay home with her kids, but it would be too boring and she just couldn't stand it. I was told that I'd never get another job because I would be viewed as not serious about a career, and that the job market would spin out of my limited intellectual reach.  And how could we afford a BMW on a single paycheck income?  The rants were endless.

1982 was the watershed year for multi-tasking AND rudeness.  If you didn't have kids AND a full time job, you just weren't hip.  And if you met a woman who chose a path over a freeway, it was your right, your DUTY, to let her know that she was doomed to boredom, stupidity and a husband who felt cheated that all his wife did was wipe bottoms.

Fortunately, I was married to an engineer who knew that little bottoms had to be wiped, kids with colic were anything but boring, and, as Forest Gump said, "Stupid is as stupid does."  Thanks to my 10 years as a SAHM, my casseroles turned from mush into paella, I finished my BS with honors and I got to satisfy that urge to make a home, plant a garden and produce two lovely kids.  Not bad at all in hindsight.

I also had the chance to learn more about child development, child psychology, sociology and early childhood education, to name a few subjects that I could read about in my rare quiet time.  It's not surprising to me that there are PhD programs in these same subjects.  Although I chose NOT to major in any of these for my BS, just the daily grind of raising kids brought me into an intellectual experience that you can't replicate in a lab.  Once I had my BS, I immediately found a job, using not the academic credentials I'd earned in college, but references from those I'd worked for a decade earlier in insurance and the medical community.

I listen to young mothers-to-be these days and hear a lot of discussion about work inside the home, work outside the home, work, work work work work.  But the tone of the discussions has changed, it's more civil.   The decision to SAHM is now based on the needs of the children, family and community, not needs for ego gratification, materialism or social status.  All work is allowed the same dignity, and the parenting experience seems to have earned a place of respect again.  We have evolved into a society that values childhood and community as much as adulthood and the "Me Generation."

We've come a long way, baby!

Childbirth: The Myth

Millie writes:

A couple of our dearest readers are in their third trimesters of pregnancy. One of them is a first-time mother, the other is what we in the Mom Biz call a “repeat offender.” I was chatting with one of them yesterday, which got me to thinking about some of the most common misconceptions (hah!) held by starry-eyed primiparas.

The Birth Plan
. Even though by that point I knew better, I slaved over the “birth plan” for my third child just as assiduously as I did for my first. I suppose somewhere there's a labor that proceeds like they do in the textbook examples: the breathing helps, the pain is “discomfort,” and the baby is pushed wide-eyed into the world to the rousing strains of the Hallelujah Chorus. It is nice to think about an ideal birth experience: water deliveries vs. labor stools, chanting, home births, the whole family present. I think that most of the time you can even have a lot of your chosen elements available to you during labor and birth. The problem comes when people get so fixated on a particular process that they feel like they've failed as women if things deviate from the plan. Babies are notorious for coming in their own ways, on their own schedules; things may come up that you didn't foresee. It may hurt more than you expected, or progress more quickly than you had planned. You may get anti-nausea meds that make you fall asleep between contractions, or a c-section may be warranted. Maybe your husband has never had the opportunity to learn that the sight of amniotic fluid makes him faint. Try to remember the basics: the ultimate birth plan is one in which the baby who's inside of you becomes the baby who's outside of you. Anything else is a bonus.

Instant Bonding. You may feel a deep, overwhelming and permanent love for your baby. You may not. Either is perfectly normal. So much as been made over the “mother/baby bond” that many a woman expects to leap off the delivery table ready to sing an aria about their eternal devotion to the tiny scrap of humanity she just met. Be realistic: you may feel exhausted, overwhelmed and in need of nothing so much as a full meal and a fat nap. Sometimes “the bond” develops over time, but it does develop. Another surprise (if you've already had children) is how much MORE you love the “old” baby than the new baby. That doesn't mean you're a bad mother. You've spent so much time caring for and loving the child you already have, it would be surprising if there WASN'T a small flash of, “who the heck are YOU?” Of course you may take one look at your baby and realize that he was all the world needed to be perfect. That's good, too!

The Learning Curve. First-time parents often feel a little shy around people like pediatricians, lactation consultants and their OWN parents, because they think these people know what they're doing. Of course they do, in general terms; but for this specific baby, all bets are off. A sixteen-year-old single mom and Mary Poppins are both starting at ground zero when figuring out whether this new kid prefers to be burped over-the-shoulder or sitting up – and Mom has a better chance of figuring it out first, because she IS the Mom.

The Supermom Trap. If you work really hard and never sleep, yes, you can do it all. You can nurse the baby, rock the baby, change the baby, play with the baby, keep the house sparkling clean, cook 3 nutritious meals a day and regain your pre-baby figure all in the first month after giving birth. The question is: Why would any sane women try it? Oddly, Repeat Offenders are even more likely than first-timers to try and get right back on that horse. I say, revel in your status. People want to help, so let them do it! Every frozen dinner or hour of yard work gives you that much more time to nap or bathe or coo over the curl on the top of Baby's head. Don't worry, you'll pass all this good karma along to the next new mother . . . and you'll be happier now!

Monday, June 14, 2010

Foreign Languages for Kids, or The Babel Babble

“The funniest word in the world is Popotam, which is French for hippopotamus.” -Jack

“The funniest phrase in the world is Deutschvergn├╝gnen, which is German for 'enjoy German'.” -Sassy

I don't think I'm alone in suspecting that the combined output of words in my household could, if somehow harnessed, provide enough power to run a small city. Neither Lance or I are the reticent type, and between us we have produced six people who are more than ready to tell you what they're thinking. Our married children have also chosen verbose mates, and when we are all together – well, you couldn't get a word in edgewise with a shoe horn. And that's the way we like it.

There's a belief among linguists that a child's mind is a tabula rasa – a blank slate – that is organically poised to learn language. A baby who is beginning to babble and coo makes – and can aurally differentiate among – all the sounds needed to speak and understand every language spoken on Earth, though when they begin to speak their native tongue they slowly lose the sounds they don't need anymore. By the time a child is five years old his brain has gone on to other things and he loses the ability to learn a language like a native speaker. However, this by no stretch of the imagination means that the kid should stick with his own language.

Learning to speak and understand a foreign tongue – besides being a requirement for most college-bound high school students – is one of those things like playing the piano or learning to dance: the kid may be reluctant at the time, but will be profoundly grateful later in life. 5 out of 6 of our kids loved their language classes (Rocky hated French so much that for months he wouldn't even eat crepes). They've all taken Latin, Spanish, French, Japanese and/or German in high school and/or college, and it has added a whole new dimension to their lives – and our dinner-table conversations. As I write this, our high-schoolers are singing Schnappi (a particularly annoying German song) while they do their after-school chores, and Jack spent most of Rocky's graduation party speaking French to Joy in preparation for today's final exams.

In addition to the possible thrill they will get later in life when they find they can communicate with someone from another part of the world, there's nothing like learning a foreign language to help English make sense to your kids. They learn syntax – the tools that make language work – unconsciously as they are beginning to speak their native language, so having something like “irregular verbs” explained to them as it pertains to, say, French, suddenly crystallizes the whole concept of, “I am . . . you are . . . he is . . . aha!” and helps the whole thing make sense.

If you're having trouble getting your children interested in a foreign language, there is one sneaky way to guarantee they'll pay attention – suggest they learn a language you don't know so they can speak it to their friends. A phone conversation in German is even more incomprehensible to an out-of-the-loop parent than a phone conversation in Teenspeak.

Come to think of it, it's not too late for me . . . I'd better order that German language CD if I'm going to keep up with the kids this summer!

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Thank You, K-Mart!!!!!

Mollie writes:

It's one thing to teach your kids about money, it's another to relive your own experiences as a young mother with no money.  Although John and I were never troubled with unemployment, we had a few years early on when we were "creative" with our finances.  When I first quit working, we knew we could make it on one paycheck alone, but in 1982, making it was different than in 2010.

Every month, we had a house payment that took up 50% of one paycheck, or 25% of our total take home per month.  In those days, the house payment was around $400.00.  With the remaining money, approximately $1,000.00, we had to feed, clothe, and otherwise support a family.   We were saving for our future and our retirement before that $1400.00, but were doing little else.

Groceries and utilities ate up a big chunk of those bucks.  One month alone, we had a power bill of over $200.00, a real shock for us, so to speak.  By the time John and I paid for utilities, we were lucky to have a few hundred left for groceries and "incidentals."

I got to be pretty good at stretching that thousand bucks.  We bought a wood stove and cut our own firewood.  I ran laundry on a schedule to save hot water heating, kept the lights off when not in use and installed dimmer switches on bedroom lights.We almost never ate out, kept our personal indulgences at a bare minimum, paid our bills in full every month and never carried a credit card balance.

We had two perfectly functional cars, both well used, and part of our pre-take home checks included savings for future vehicles.  Our medical, dental and other insurances were also paid before the paycheck was cut.   We figured it would be cheaper to make car-payments to ourselves in advance of purchase rather that buying fancy new rigs and paying huge payments to finance companies.  We were right.

We ate Velveeta, not Brie and bought generic beer when the urge to drink seized us.  But we thought we had the world by the tail, and we did.  In the early eighties, the nation was struck in the face by a nasty recession and we were able to weather it by just being, frankly, cheap.

The pinnacle of my cheapness came one morning when I was shopping at K-Mart.  I was in the grocery department, stocking up on macaroni and cheese (generic, of course) when the "Attention K-Mart Shoppers" alert went out.

The Blue Light was flashing in the children's apparel department.

I beat a path over to the excitement and found boys' corduroy pants on sale for $.99 (my keyboard doesn't even have a 'cents' character!).  With all the speed of a lioness on prowl, I attacked the table and piled pants into my cart.  I stuck with the basic colors, blue, black, brown and khaki, and bought pairs in every size from 3-10.  My boys' bottoms were covered for the next 7 years (this was before sagging, of course).

This was the first time my K-Mart purchase exceeded $100.00 and I felt like a spendthrift.  But with a pantry full of generic foods and closets full of $.99 pants, I felt like a conquering spendthrift.  I proudly made my way home with my prey.

I've never had a shopping high quite like that, and I've shopped all over the world.  You can have your Zurich Bahnhofstrasse or  Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore, Paris,  but I will always have K-Mart, Gresham.

Friday, June 11, 2010

What to do with Kids in the Summer

Millie writes:

You know that line in the song “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” that goes, “and Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again?” Well, I have always hated that line. It seemed insulting to me when I was a child, and equally insulting when I became a Mom myself. I enjoy having the kids home all day, and I really look forward to weekends and long vacations.

Still, there’s no denying the fact that there’s a real potential for boredom in the summer, and where there’s boredom, there’s trouble. I am not one of those moms who believes in filling up a kid’s social calendar—no “first it’s day camp, then soccer, then flute lessons” for us. I firmly believe that long, lazy summer days with some time to think their own thoughts and dream their own dreams is a necessary part of my kids’ lives. Not too lazy, though; I think it’s important throughout a person’s life for there to be at least one small adventure daily, a bigger one weekly, and a huge one every year or so.

In that spirit—and as a mom with years of experience with lots of kids and very little money!—I have come up with a long list of Summer Adventures. Here’s a week’s worth – and if you need more, ask. I can do this all day.

Monday: Make popsicles. Use a popsicle maker if you have one, otherwise pour juice or chocolate milk into a small paper cup and add a stick (or a plastic spoon if you don’t have a stick). Freeze and enjoy!

Tuesday: Go to the library. If you live in a city, go to a different branch of the local library than the one you usually frequent. Ask a librarian about story times, magic shows, reading groups or whatever else they have going on there; these can be good ideas for future adventures. If your child doesn’t have a library card, let him get one. Treat this as the solemn, celebration-worthy occasion that it is! Check out an armful of books and have a Read-a-Thon when you get home.

: Water play. Go to a pool or the river, or hook up the lawn sprinkler and run through it. Even teenagers will play in a wading pool (ridiculing it loudly while they do so), and they will also love water fights. Use water balloons, hoses, or buckets of water. Squirt guns are the ONLY guns (aside from real ones) I have ever allowed my kids to play with and you ought to see their collections.

Thursday: Have a picnic. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; even plain old PB&J’s will have an aura of mystery about them if they’re eaten outside. You can take yourselves to the back yard picnic table or pick up Daddy after work and drive to the beach with a cold fried-chicken supper. Don’t overlook breakfast when you’re planning your picnic – one of the most memorable outings I ever went on involved frying bacon over a campfire in the city park one morning at dawn with my Grandma.

Friday: Sidewalk chalk. Teach them to play hopscotch. Draw mazes and challenge each other to navigate them. Look up “walking the labyrinth” online and teach your kids about them; draw your own. If you’re feeling crafty, help your kids make their own eggshell chalk; it’s not too hard.

Saturday: Take a safari. Buy a disposable camera for each child (or let them use your digital, if you’re brave enough) and go somewhere – it almost doesn’t matter where. Tell them you’re taking a photo safari, and the object of the outing is to take pictures of whatever appeals to them so that they can show people what the world looks like through their eyes. This is a fun thing to do at the zoo or on a nature hike, but it’s also a nice added dimension to a walk through the city or even a gray rainy day stuck in the house. Have the pictures developed at a 1-hour place (or bring them up on the computer if they’re digital) and arrange them in albums. You will be astounded at the beauty you will see.

Sunday: Cook together. Whether you make Rice Krispies Treats with a four-year-old or baklava with a middle schooler, cooking together is a recipe for laughter. It not only provides you with something good to eat, it gives you the opportunity to teach the kids proper kitchen procedures and get them ready to cook for themselves when they’re grown; but shhhh. They don’t need to know it’s practical.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Money Issues, Part Deux

Mollie writes:

Ahhhhh, money.  Like STD, drugs and unwanted pregnancy, a subject that warms the coldest parts of any parents psyche.   I'm glad Millie covered this yesterday.   I would wince every time the subject of money came up, from the very beginning when Roger's first sentence was "I NEED MONEY" (under age 2 in a restaurant in Switzerland) to right now, when Peter is wondering if buying that condo in Tucson was a good idea (yes, but only if he waits to sell it when the market is better).

During our children's early years, we pretended that sex, drugs and money didn't exist.  Our children were brought by the stork, drugs were something you took when you were so sick the doctor made you, and Daddy went to the office every day to save the world.  We never really gave Peter and Roger allowances 'per se' but, when they were young, money did pass through their hands.

Too quickly.

John and I were always amazed with how quickly the youngsters (any age under 10) could go through money.  We did try the budget thing, the savings thing, the allowance thing, but for one reason or another, it just didn't work for us.  As a result, we managed our kids' money for them until they reached an age where they could understand, in all its splendor, how long money lasts.

We started this when our youngest was in middle school.  With all pretense of Santa Claus floating right back up the chimney in a puff of smoke, we let the kids make a list of what they wanted for Christmas.  Once the list was presented to us, we priced their requests until their list exhausted our budget.  Then we stopped.

This doesn't mean that they got everything on their lists that were priced.  We also bought them things we thought they needed (clothes) and also struggled to make sure that the Christmas tree wasn't too lopsided.  We had years where Roger would ask for 10 action figures that cost a pittance and Peter would ask for 1 game system that would pretty much eat up his budget.  Ultimately, the kids would get the same number of presents, but the prices on the individual gifts were roller coaster.  I still chuckle at how many packages of socks and briefs were tucked under the tree, equalizing the count of presents from one boy to another.

In all due time, both boys did figure out that their Christmas budget was like a 'fixed income' and began listing things more pragmatically.   This didn't mean that they chose wisely, but they chose realistically.
That was enough for us until the high school years were underway.

Having a teenager work for money is a riot.  Minimum wage doesn't go far for a 10 hours a week work schedule, and when our oldest got his first paycheck, complete with deductions for taxes and social security, John and I got the first taste of parental satisfaction when Peter complained "Where'd all my money go?"  Peter scooped ice cream that summer, and the thought of big bucks flowing into his pocket was all he could focus on.  When he pocketed roughly 60% of his earnings, he was incensed.   However, by the end of summer, he had started his own savings account, and had some nice biceps as well.

Ditto for Roger.  Up until high school, we'd pretty much handled money for him.  But that summer job at the local pet store taught him lessons his mommy and daddy could only dream of.  After cleaning cages, stocking pet food (the BIG bags)  and sweeping up, Roger eyeballed that miserable little paycheck and realized that a college education was in his future.  He, too, opened up a savings account.

Money only trickled into their accounts, but it did stay there.  John and I became a little more open about how money is a transient, fickle friend.  Yes, we could afford a nice house, but only because we didn't smoke or drink (much) and bought used cars from our friends and family and our clothes at Fred Meyer, not The Gap.  We educated them on the fact that we bought used cars because we could pay cash for them, and paid off all credit cards at the end of the month because interest held no interest for us.  They weren't happy, they weren't proud, but they were in the loop.

By the time both boys entered college, they were the spitting image of their angry, cynical parents.  Both, in addition to experiencing withholding taxes on paychecks, had filed tax returns, paid additional taxes (Roger), gotten refunds (Peter), and just generally experienced the American Dream.  They had savings accounts, knew that there was no such thing as free lunch (unless provided by Uncle Sam out of their taxes which hardly makes it free) and could hold their head up high when it came to feeling abused and exploited.  They had experienced overdrafts, under payments, and outright fraud.

But they did, however, understand money.  It's hard to make, easy to waste, of considerable value one day and no value the next.  My youngest is happily funding his retirement on his collection of action figures (?????) the oldest is putting away his money into military pensions, IRA programs, you name it.  And it's a crap shoot to know which boy will be the richest in 40 years.

But I'm betting that both will be solvent.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Proud Mama Moment

Millie writes:

Today our oldest son finished college with a brand-new Bachelor of Sciences degree.

Congratulations, "Rocky!" We are so proud of you!!!!


Making Allowances

Millie writes:

In this economy (heck, in every economy) money is on everybody’s mind. How to get it, when to save it, where to spend it—questions about money can even boggle grownups.

I think that one of the best ways to teach your kids about money is to give them a regular allowance. This teaches them three things:

1. Once you spend your money, it’s gone.
2. If you don’t spend all your money as soon as you get it, you can save until you can buy something you really want.
3. Mom and Dad think I’m responsible enough to have money of my own!

We started allowances by giving 50 cents a week when each kid turned five. It would go up by 25 cents each year until the kid was making two bucks (which coincided with entering middle school where we live), and then went up a buck a year until the kid reached high school age. It’s capped at $5 a week and stops altogether when the kid becomes a high school senior.

We set a fairly low rate for our allowances, for several reasons. For one thing, kids who have TOO much money will get into trouble. We wanted to allow them to have the occasional splurge, not finance a car. Then, too, a very small child doesn’t have much concept of money as anything except candy tokens. We decided that once a child was in high school they were old enough to take a part-time job if they needed more than $5 a week, and middle-schoolers could babysit or mow lawns to supplement their incomes.

Some families give allowances for chores, but in my opinion kids should do chores to help keep the family running; they don’t get paid for vacuuming until I get paid for vacuuming. Occasionally if we had a huge project to tackle we would offer to pay someone to do it, but this was rare and (mostly) voluntary.

We also didn’t expect our children to do anything with their allowance money, but there are circumstances where I think that’s appropriate. For example, if a family tithes, it’s a nice idea to give a child (say) $1.25 a week with the understanding that the quarter goes into the collection plate. You might also give an older child a larger allowance with the expectation that they will use it to buy school lunches or other supplies.

The flip side of this is that WE have to keep our mouths shut if a kid wants to blow their whole allowance on something we don't think is a good value. Allowance money is their money to spend.

When our kids become seniors in high school, we give them “training wheels” by opening a joint checking account in their name. There are a lot of extra expenses senior year, so we decided that rather than us agonizing over every aimed-at-the-graduate-to-be brochure that came home in a backpack we’d give the money to the seniors and let them make the decisions. That way they could decide among the class ring, the letter jacket and the all-inclusive senior portrait package—or keep the money and skip all the hoo-hah.

The amount we give them monthly depends on the child, the year and our circumstances at the time. This approach requires careful monitoring, but it’s a great hands-on technique for teaching almost-college-students about balancing checkbooks, managing money and the responsible use of debit cards.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

The Universal Language

Mollie writes:

I've long known that music was a universal language - listening to a Chopin Nocturne would convince the most skeptical of us.  You can go to an opera and listen to an aria in any language - and you will know if it is dedicated to love, grief, loss, anger, or any other of our most basic emotions.  I can listen to something complicated and articulate or simple and primitive and KNOW what the composer and performers are experiencing.  It can be Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven" or Five for Fighting's "Superman" and know despair as much from the music as from the words.

Love is another language that is universal.  Simple acts of love defy translation.  Aiding earthquake victims,  empathizing during a national disaster or political upheaval surpasses words of comfort.  We can listen to CNN and speak compassion for Haitians and only communicate with English speaking people, but if we send money or goods to our favorite relief organization, then we speak the universal language of empathy for all to hear.

Motherhood (parenthood) is a universal language.  Cultures come and go, morality peaks and wanes, but basic parenting is a language unto its own.  Nursing a baby, taking joy in their development, watching them grow is an expression of a bigger human movement.

John and I had the opportunity to travel from time to time while we were raising children.  Some destinations were inappropriate for children (I didn't think my kids could understand the political issues of poverty when I couldn't) but often we could take them someplace where the changes in culture, language, food and entertainment were still parallel to their own experience.

Thus, in 1986, when John was scheduled to go to Switzerland for work, we packed up the children and had an adventure.  Switzerland was a good choice for us to experience.  There were three official languages there, French, German and Italian (also Romanish if you pay attention), but the people there are so well educated that I was sure I could fall back on English if necessary.  My French and German were primitive, meaning I could conjugate verbs and respect the differences in syntax, but I couldn't describe the differences in poop to a doctor when my kids had diarrhea early in our stay.  But I bundled them up and hauled them halfway across the world to open their worlds anyway.

We did ok.  We watched Sesame Strasse (we were living outside of Zurich where German was the first language) and Cookie Monster, Big Bird, and Bert and Ernie taught me the basics of the real German language, meaning what German words were used to describe cookies, rubber duckies and mommies.  It was a whole new world for me, since all I could do before that was read a Mozart libretto.

But the ultimate truth came to me when I'd take my kids to a playground.  My kids, ages 4 and not quite 2, would charge onto the playground unfazed by language deficiencies and play their little hearts out.  They swung, spinned, slid and did all the natural things that kids do when left to their own devices on a sunny day with a sandbox.  It occured to me that 'childhood' was another universal language and sat back to enjoy it.

One day, I was watching my kids play when I observed another child misbehave.  His Mutter went over to him and took him by the arm.  She led him to the bench where I was sitting and had a little tete-a-tete with him.  With him sitting there next to me, looking abject, she told him, in simple terms what he'd done wrong.  "Du muss nicht . . . and then tell him what he must not do.  I understood every word she said, even if I'd never heard that word before, because she was so explicit, so firm.

Mothers do have the same basic language when it comes to what we want in our childrens' behavior.  Don't hit, spit, destroy another's castle or otherwise behave antisocially.  You can go to another planet, and the language would be the same . . . BEHAVE!

So, if you are in another country and struggling with a new language, forget the language immersion schools and just hop the bus to the playground.  Mommies everywhere will gladly bathe you in simple language instruction in the simplest words, phrases, behaviors and culture of the land.

And it will be free!

Millie writes:

What Mollie says is true - and it's not limited to playgrounds, either.

I took French all through high school and into college, but it didn't "gel" for me until I was in - of all places - Tokyo. My first husband was stationed at an Air Force base in Japan, and we were in Tokyo on vacation. I was wandering through the ladies' clothing section of a big department store downtown near Embassy Row, idly searching the racks. There was a mother nearby with her teenage daughter, chatting as my mother and sister and I had so often done: "Oh, look at this!" "That's cute!" "Ooo, this is pretty, do they have it in blue?" when it hit me:

They were speaking in French.

And I understood them.

It was a watershed moment for me. I majored in Linguistics in college, where they teach you that after reaching a certain (very young) age a person can't learn to speak a language like a native; but at that moment I learned that you don't NEED to. I don't speak French like a native but I definitely speak Daughter and (now) Mother - and, as Mollie says, that's the same in ANY language.

If you're a mother, you can catch another woman's eye while she's corralling a shrieking three-year-old and there's no need to speak - the smile and nod you will give her will convey sympathy and solidarity like no words could ever do. If you're a kid and you're getting bawled out by a parent in a public place, having another kid look at you and roll their eyes says, "Parents. Who needs 'em?" in any language.

One other thing I remember from my college days: "ma" is not only the first language sound made by human babies, it's also probably the oldest common word-root - and it means "mother" in any language.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Websites for Kids

There’s a lot of scary press about what a dangerous place the Internet can be for children who surf it unattended, and I am a huge advocate of knowing where and when your kids are online and with whom they are communicating.

Ohhhh, but there is magic to be found there too, things that I wish had been available when my kids were small, things that I wish had been available when I was small. Mollie and I played with dolls and blocks, but our grandchildren will play with satellites.

Singing Horses,
This is so simple, so basic, and so much fun. You can click on four horses, each of which has its own choral “voice” (soprano, alto, baritone, bass) and make them “sing.” Everyone loves to play with this.

Poisson Rouge,
“Poisson Rouge” means “red fish” in French, and who knows why, or cares? You almost HAVE to be a child to navigate this site, because there are no directions; you just point and click and explore. There are games and stories, puzzles and art, music and stars and a universe full of other things. It’s completely self-directing and absolutely mesmerizing. I have to admit that I would play here for hours if I didn’t still have kids at home that need tending to.

J4NE the Pink Robot,
Finding this site was a fortuitous accident. The artist who animated J4NE has a daughter, and when she was 2 she began to talk like a robot. He recorded her speaking a “blurb” for each letter of the alphabet and illustrated a little robot cartoon to go along with the blurbs. Sure, it might help your kids learn their letters, but you won’t find it obnoxious because it’s REALLY CUTE.

This site is nominally for adults but I have yet to run across anything in it that’s not suitable for kids too. It’s a gigantic amalgam of puzzles, everything from codes to acronyms to every kind of quiz there is. This site is great for anyone middle-school aged and up, or even younger if they read well.

J.K. Rowling’s Official Site,
This is an extremely well-put-together site, very interactive and interesting. If your child is a Harry Potter fan (hint: he is!), you owe it to him to show him this site, which is brimming with Potter games, trivia and factoids of all types. It MIGHT even help him to wait until the next movie comes out!