Category Archives: parenting

The Honor System

Image by The D34n

Last week I was talking on the phone with a friend who recently moved away from our small Midwestern town.  We were catching up on the start of the school year and her family’s adjustment to life in a new place, sharing stories about the different customs that seem to be attached to different communities.

Regaling me with details of her kids’ Halloween costumes – a ladybug and a Clone Trooper – she also shared with me an incident from their night that disappointed her and her kids.  Returning from their twenty minutes of trick or treating, they found the giant bowl full of “fun size” Snickers and Milky Ways they had left on their front steps labeled with a “Please take one” sign completely empty.

There weren’t many kids out and about at that early hour, my friend told me, so some of the trick or treaters had clearly seen this unattended candy bowl as a motherlode and filled their plastic pumpkins to the brim with ill-gotten loot.  Like her, her children – seven and four – were dismayed that the other trick or treaters hadn’t followed their request.  Where were these other kids’ parents, we wondered, perhaps a bit quick to judge.  Didn’t they notice when their ghost or butterfly returned to the curb weighed down with chocolate?

Our conversation got me thinking about the idea of an honor system, about what we can expect from our neighbors, and shook loose two memories from my past.

When I was little, an eldery woman in our neighborhood sold tomatoes from her garden on a card table set up in her front yard.  The quarts of tomatoes sat on the table and customers were expected to take their tomatoes and leave their money at her door.  I remember my mom pulling over in front of her modest house; she would take a container and bring the money up to the door of the house, maybe leaving it on the stoop if the gardener wasn’t home.  I remember wondering if anyone ever drove up, took tomatoes, and fled the scene, leaving the woman in the lurch.  It is a sign of the G-rated nature of my childhood that I imagined this as an unfathomable deed.

I then thought back to my years of teaching.  In my last job before my kids were born, I taught at a high school where the students had to sign “I Pledge My Honor” and their names at the bottom of every piece of work they turned in.  I was never convinced that the gesture had much meaning, attached, as it was, so mindlessly to every history term paper, math problem set, and 9th grade homework assignment.  My suspicions were sadly confirmed when a girl in my AP European History class turned in an essay – copied verbatim from the AP website – with the pledge and her name elegantly signed on the bottom.

I have always been a rule follower.  I would have only taken one piece of candy.  I would have always paid for tomatoes.  I would have never plagiarized, let alone signed my name to a pledge promising that I hadn’t.  And examples of people not playing by the rules – especially in a community setting, when your misdeed clearly affects someone else – bother me maybe more than they should.

But I’m left wondering about reasonable expectations.  I’m convinced that the gardener of my childhood could reasonably expect her tomatoes to be safe from produce thieves.  I’m convinced that my AP history student should reasonably be expected not to cheat on her essay.

But is it reasonable to expect sugar-hyped kids not to give in to the urge to horde candy?  It’s certainly fair – certainly reasonable – to ask them not to, but is it really so surprising that my friend and her kids returned home to find an empty bowl?

How do you model honor and honesty for your kids?  What do you think of honor codes in schools?


The Waiting Game

Image by me'nthedogs

I am bad at waiting.

And there’s good reason for that, I think.  Indeed, there is a way in which my whole pre-parenting life was an exercise in gaining independence and then control over my life.  I followed my parents’ rules and my teachers’ directions.  I studied hard and got the job I wanted.  I lived on my own and ran my own classroom.  Boom.  Independence and control.  And in these settings, I grew accustomed to things happening at my own pace.  Yet I now find myself at a moment in life when I am playing the waiting game far more often than I’d like.

My inherent impatience reared its ugly head when I was first trying to get pregnant.  It was hard for me, conditioned as I was as an educated working woman to being in control, to surrender to the fact that there is no rushing pregnancy.  Either it happens or it doesn’t and there isn’t a whole lot you can do about it (other than the obvious, ahem).  And if it doesn’t happen, you’ve  got to wait a month – a month!? – to try again.  You mean planning and effort and good intentions don’t seal the deal!?  How could this be!?

And the challenge of impatience has extended right into motherhood.  When the pace of my days is largely dictated by the health and whims of three very short people.  By the chronic cough of my four year old.  The snail’s pace at which my toddler eats.  Whether or not my daughter takes a good nap.  Sure, I can outline a skeleton schedule for each day, but my kids determine the ways that the skeleton breaks, its bones fractured by an early wake-up or a bad dream.

And now this impatience has surfaced again in my writing career.  I send my essays and query letters off into the ether and then I wait.  I check my e-mail every hour, then every half hour, then every five minutes and, somehow, the responses don’t come any faster.  Eventually they trickle in: a question, a no, a yes.  But in between the sound of crickets can grow deafening.

And I’m left wondering if this parental crash course in patience has really left me any better at playing the waiting game.

Are you a patient person?  How do you occupy yourself when waiting for someone or something?

Labor Day

Image by Infiniteblue

Labor Day 2007.  Big Brother was born.  As was my identity as a mother.

Four years.

High school.  College.  A president’s term.

A son.

I was never supposed to go into labor.

I have a uterine anomaly that was identified early in my first pregnancy that meant that I would have to deliver by c-section.  Going into labor could be dangerous for me and for my baby, my doctor said.  So Big Brother was scheduled to arrive by c-section on September 7, 2007.

But, like his little sister after him, he had other plans.  Maybe somewhere in his tiny brain inside his tiny body inside his increasingly tiny home, he knew that Labor Day would be an auspicious day to make his arrival.

And arrive he did, six pounds, fifteen ounces of wrinkly pink wonder.  A baby who became a boy who loves books and Legos and dinosaurs and knights.  Who was a brother twice by age four.  Who is happy eating peanut butter and jelly and popsicles.  Every single day.  Who thrives on routine and struggles with change.  Whose favorite color is orange.  Whose curls were cut into his first big boy haircut last week.  Who routinely stumps me with questions about death and souls and the stars.

This Labor Day he asked me: “Mommy, do you know anything about history?”

An innocent question, in every sense.  He is an innocent.  He knows countless facts about history, but is missing the conjunctions and the filler that give it its weight and its horror.  And he doesn’t intend the question with the heaviness with which it hits me, right in the sweet spot where the gulf between who I was and who I am seems bigger every year.

He doesn’t know the me I was before there was a he.  He doesn’t know that I was a student of history for years and a teacher of it for longer.  That I spent years writing a master’s thesis on it.  That I could tell him all about the French Wars of Religion or the Missouri Compromise.  About Great Zimbabwe or the desegregation of the Boston city schools.

He doesn’t know what I know – or what I knew.  And I wonder: do I even remember that history anymore?  Do I remember the historical me?

I’m not sure, but I give him an answer anyway:

“Yes, baby.  Yes, I do.”

Happy birthday, Big Brother.  Happy, happy day to the boy who taught me how to be a mother.  Through several hours of labor and four years of a labor of love.

A Room of My Own, Again, but Later

Image by Jo Bourne

You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you just might find / You get what you need.

– Mick Jagger and Keith Richards

I’ve always found deliciously resonant the idea of a “fourth trimester” – that demanding three month period that comes right after a baby is born and is starting to find her way in the world.  When days are nights and nights are days.  When tiny toes and incongruously loud burps are the stuff of life.

But even though I love the idea of a fourth trimester, I didn’t necessarily love the experience of it with my older two kids.  And I wasn’t so sure I would enjoy it this time around either.

After all, the wisest thing I’ve done since Little Brother was born was acknowledging my need for – and maybe even right to? – a room of my own.  The time that I take to give myself the soul-nurturing gifts of exercise, writing, and reading.  The time that I take to interact with you here on my blog.  I know too well how much less content I am – and, therefore, how much worse a mother and wife I am – when too many days pass without small pockets of this time.

And Baby Sister’s arrival – plunging together into her fourth trimester – did set my world askew.  But in the best possible way.

As you have likely surmised, I am a woman who usually craves routine and thrives on order. Yet I was able somehow this time around to give into the inherent orderlessness of life in the fourth trimester.  I was able to accept the temporary wonder of this short season of life, to accept that there would be – will be – time for writing and exercise and thought and slowly sipped coffee.  Again, but later.

These months have been about meeting and getting to know this lovely small person who’s arrived in my life.  Learning the language of her cries.  Memorizing the remarkable rolls of her thighs.  Imagining tea parties and fairy wings and reading the Little House books with an itty bitty pioneer girl.

And learning to listen to my maternal instincts, and turning up their volume so that they sing more loudly than to-do lists and conventional wisdom.  Letting Big Brother choose his baby sister’s first food last week – pureed mango instead of the rice cereal he and his brother got.

Saying “why not?” more often and “why?” a little less.

Why not?

I’m glad to have identified in these last two years a working plan for maintaining my sanity.  And I look forward to those hours at my desk and to myself – even while I mourn the speed with which these first months with my baby girl have flown.

I’m giving myself a pat on my Type A back today for not allowing my worries and plans to eclipse the moments of wonder during this fourth trimester with my daughter.


Were you able to enjoy the fourth trimester with your kids?  

What was your child’s first food?  What’s your favorite Rolling Stones song?

What is it, Exactly, About the F Word?

It is my pleasure today to offer you a guest post by Wolf Pascoe of Just Add Father.

I’ve only known Wolf, a father, physician, and writer, for a few months, but he swiftly earned himself a spot in my Google Reader with his insightful, beautifully written posts on the problems and prospects of parenting.  While Wolf first drew me in with his exquisite essays about raising his son, Nick, I was delighted to find that he and I also share a fondness for Cormac McCarthy, Yeats, and meaningful stories, all of which he writes about with resonant wisdom and wit.

I am very grateful to Wolf for sharing one of his pieces with us today.

What is it, exactly, about the F word?

by Wolf Pascoe

Courtesy of Warner Home Video

Who wants to hear about the lucky, or the rich?
The rest must step up. They have to say
I’m going blind, or
I’m about to go blind, or
nothing’s working right, or
the child is sick, or
here and there I’m patched together,
more or less.

– Rainer Maria Rilke, from “The Voices”

Lately, a lot lately, I’ve been feeling like that voice in the Rilke poem. God bless Rilke. Have you read the “Archaic Torso of Apollo?” You should. It’s an upwardly mobile poem, and right for a land of upwardly mobile metaphor. But thank God Rilke gets down, too.

My son Nick got down the other day and dropped the F bomb. As in, “F— you, dada.”

I left the room. “I’m sorry, Nick, I can’t do business with you now,” I said.

Because what I really wanted to do was punch a hole in that fat mouth of his.

What is it about the F word?

Nick led a sheltered life until he hit the primary yard at his school, where the first through sixth grades all mix. You can’t last long there without learning a new language. Language is power. Who wouldn’t want to bring it home and test it out?

It isn’t great what he’s doing with it now. He’s sensitive and gets overwhelmed and has nowhere to go with it, nowhere to go with the big feelings. And the F bomb is a release from that, it’s become a drug, a defense from feelings.

If you can’t get sad, get angry.

Maybe this isn’t true for your kid, but it’s true for Nick. And I’m glad, actually, that he’s doing this at age nine, when there’s still time to work with it, the overwhelm. Whereas when he’s fifteen and gets overwhelmed maybe he learns to smoke a joint to chill, and who listens to dad and mom at that point anyway?

So I set limits. I tell him my feelings are hurt and I need to take care of myself now and I can’t be around him, but maybe I can get back to doing whatever we were doing later.

And I wonder, how do you teach a nine-year-old to reduce stress?


“What’s your side of it?” a friend said, when I told her the story.

“My side?”

“It sounds like you lose your sense of self when Nick swears at you.”

I sit with this. I roll the phrase lose your sense of self around with my tongue. It tastes pretty good, like moldy cheese. I swallow it. Down it goes, hollowing out a core as thick as a tennis ball. The hollow gives me the same feeling as the first, awful drop of a roller coaster. It burns a hole in my stomach.

I decide my friend is right. I’m full of holes. This is where Rilke comes in: I’m sort of patched together. Them holes. All them holes.

The thing is, it never goes away completely, this feeling low, this feeling there’s nobody in your corner. Because there are built-in holes in the structure of personality. Because nobody got enough valuing. Nobody got enough blessing. That’s what we’re talking–blessing. Blessing yourself as you are.

God, I wish it didn’t sound like I had something to sell.

And here comes Nick, my son, my flesh, not my actual flesh, but as close to actual as I’m going to get. Nick, whom I watch sleeping, his heart and breath, up rising and down falling, the systole and diastole of the universe. That Nick. Fires off a round and tears me a new hole. Rends the garment where it’s patched together.

And instead of getting sad, I get angry.

I make a list of things to do. Things underneath anger and that have nothing to do with Nick. Things like meditate and breathe and be in nature and sit in solitude and feel the sadness and cry and talk it over with someone and write it all down.

And pray. I always forget that.

Because God should really be interested in people being who they are.

Please feel free to leave a comment for Wolf here.  Tell us about how your kids tear holes in your fabric and how you put yourself back together again.

And please – please! You won’t be sorry – head over to Just Add Father to be treated to more of his writing.

How Much is Too Much?

Image by susieq3c

I’ve been in a “Mom Funk” lately – so much so that I feel like I’ve forgotten my good parenting instincts and am looking everywhere for help in resetting my internal compass.  I surf around Internet parenting sites that I usually never visit hoping that they will give me the answer to all of my questions, even though I know in my head that no such answer exists.  Last night I filled – and then emptied – my Amazon shopping cart, hoping that a dozen different parenting manuals might help.

And then I remembered the most important parenting resource I have at my disposal: other parents.  And that includes you, my friends.  I’m asking for your advice today.

My current dilemma?  Kids’ activities.

I’ve over-committed us these past few weeks and my kids and I are showing battle scars from too much time running from here to there and too little time hanging out at home.  Big Brother, especially, has been short-tempered and it’s becoming clearer to me that he tends toward introversion, needing space and alone time in his days to feel calm and contented.

I know this.  I see this.  And yet when flyers fill my mailbox reminding me to sign up for dance class and YMCA soccer and swimming lessons (the current bane of my existence) and library story time, I take them as a direct order: sign up your kids now or else.

Or else what?  They’ll miss the chance – at ages almost 4 and 2 – to be Olympic soccer stars?  They’ll never discover their inborn gift for somersaults?

I asked Christine Carter about this very issue when I interviewed her during our Raising Happiness book club.  I asked her, “Like your own daughters, kids these days have an avalanche of activities that they can pursue.  Given your thoughts about the growth mindset and the importance of free play, where would you draw the line between pushing kids too much and providing them with too little encouragement to try out new things?”

And she responded,

Great question.  I wish I could give parents a decision tree for how to know when they are over-scheduling their kids, but honestly, the line is different in every kid and every family.  I struggle with this a lot myself.  Here is how I decide with my kids:

  1. Does my child really want to do the activity, or is it mostly my idea?  Is the activity I’m considering more what I want (e.g. a kid who learns to be a great team-player through years of organized sports) than what my kids want (they are BEGGING for piano lessons, but would rather die than try out for soccer)?
  2. Am I being seduced by the idea that more skills and more achievements for my kids will somehow bring greater happiness and well-being?  Is there a chance that adding this activity might actually lower well-being by cutting into too much free-play, sleep, or dinnertime? In other words, do my kids have some free-play time every single day?  Are they getting enough sleep?  Are we managing to eat dinner together 5 nights a week or more?
  3. Will adding this activity make ME more stressed, more anxious, or busy?  Will it cut into MY happiness?  Is there a way that I could make it happen without adding more to my plate?

I’m finding that very few activities meet that criteria, but when they do, they are worth it!

And this advice is really helpful, and it confirms what I’ve been seeing with my kids these past few weeks.

But I wonder: because they are still so young, if I don’t introduce my kids to new things, how will they have the chance to figure out what they like, what to ask for?  How can I have a reasonable discussion about “want” with people who endlessly change their minds about which cereal to eat for breakfast?

I’ve been talking about this topic non-stop with my local friends; I even brought it up yesterday morning in the waiting room at Big Brother’s tumbling class.  I know, as Christine says and is true in so many aspects of parenting, that there is no one right answer.  But I’d love to know what you think, what you do with your kids.

Because just like it takes a village to raise a child, it apparently takes a village to help me make decisions for mine.

How do you decide which activities to let your kids pursue?  How much is too much?

Tour de Parenting

Image by Euskal Bizikleta

We had a party on Saturday morning in honor of Stage 14 of the Tour de France. We ate croissants and crepes, drank mimosas and cafe au lait, and paid half-attention to our children as we watched dozens of skinny men drag their bodies and their bikes up the Plateau de Beille.

I’ve written before about my love affair with the Tour de France, and it continues to this day – in spite of the doping scandals that have ruined the reputations of many top riders and sullied those of many more.  This year’s Tour has provided plenty of drama: crashes, surprise stage winners, and a charming duo of Luxembourgish brothers trying to unseat a three-time champion.

But on Saturday morning, as I watched the usual suspects chug their way up the mountainside, gorging myself on butter-laden pastries while the riders refueled themselves with energy gels, I thought not about the stars of the teams, but about their so-called domestiques – the lesser-known stage race riders who work in support of their team leaders.

While men like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador win races and the glory that comes with them, their supporting domestiques fulfill such glamorous tasks as fetching water bottles, offering up their own bikes to their team leaders if the leader has a “mechanical incident,” chasing down breakaways, and pacing their teammates up mountains.

I wondered what motivates these men.  They themselves are among the very best bike riders in the world.  They train tirelessly and face the same exact challenges as their more famous – and far more highly compensated – counterparts.

So what drives them to sacrifice themselves for someone else’s glory?  Do they simply derive satisfaction from a job well done?  Maybe they live vicariously through the success of their team leaders?  Perhaps they are holding on to the chance of attaining individual glory themselves through their participation in a successful breakaway – as George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s chief lieutenant, did in the 2005 Tour de France.

It occurred to me on Saturday that being a domestique is kind of like being a parent.  I don’t mean to say that one’s hopes, dreams, and chances of individual glory fade away when one decides to have kids.  Not at all.  But there is a certain amount of sacrifice – okay, a great amount of sacrifice – that comes with being a parent.  It’s simply not all about you anymore.  You rearrange your schedule and your priorities, protecting and shepherding others, carrying those proverbial water bottles up to the very mountain top.  And you revel – you really do – in the achievements of your new team leader.  And you know that every victory – whether it be rolling over or tying shoelaces – happened in part because of your hard work.  And those team victories feel as good as the individual ones.

What motivates the domestiques?  I think I’m starting to understand a little bit better now.

Do you have the personality of a team leader or a domestique?  

Do you watch the Tour de France?  Who’s your favorite rider?  Who’s your pick to win this year’s yellow jersey?