in praise of the board game

I grew up playing games and not just the electronic kind. Before Super Mario Brothers stole my heart and well before I spent weeks of my life launching bird after angry bird across a screen the size of my fist, I used to sit with my mother or a friend or my sister, if my begging wore her down, and move actual pawns around an actual piece of cardboard. I remember from those days the feel of cool, smooth Scrabble tiles slipping through my fingers, as I chose letters from the heavy burgundy sack of our Deluxe Edition. I remember perfecting the art of the “bridge,” my mom’s preferred method of shuffling cards, my mom who still considers not knowing the difference between a spade and a club by middle childhood to be a sign of parental neglect.

It’s not that I don’t like the modern iteration of gaming. I have no aversion to screen time. My kids are digital natives through and through, the little ones masters of Toca Hair Salon as much as the bigger ones are seasoned architects in the fields of Minecraft. I’m not pining away for a bygone age of chiseled wooden toys and Cleaver family fun. Far from it: I think there is room for both types of activity. But as my children get older and I watch them begin to navigate in earnest the landscape of real relationships, I am struck anew by the crucible of morality the more traditional games are able to engender.

You can read the rest of the essay here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

DSC07840

 

 

1 Comment

Filed under parenting

the days are long

Usually when I do a pairing for Brain, Child Magazine, it is a squaring off on a hot topic, it is a “debate.” This week’s essays are a little something different. Lisa Heffernan and I are both facing empty nests of sorts. My last children are starting nursery school, which feels to me like a welcomed respite from the long days of parenting a young family. Lisa’s last child is leaving for college, which feels to her like the sad reality that the years of raising kids are short. We are looking at the stages of motherhood through two sides of the prism of time.

Lauren writes: The thing about early motherhood is that it comes with a maddeningly low dose of perspective. Parents with older children can tell you to savor every moment, onlookers can assure you “this too will pass.” But however cognizant you are of these platitudes, their essential truth, they are aren’t strong enough to pull you from the morass, just as you are spiraling down.

Lisa writes: I chide myself for feelings of sadness at this transition, for the wistfulness I feel about the beautiful boys that have been replaced by a wonderful teen and two young adults. Life offers us this exchange and in times of sadness I tell myself that, if it has gone well, gratitude is the appropriate response.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

DSC09325

phoebe and jasper on their first day of nursery school

1 Comment

Filed under parenting

raising brits

I was born a Southern belle, in Charlotte, North Carolina, and spent virtually the whole of my childhood a Yankee in Great Neck, New York. Today I live in Glasgow, Scotland of all places, an honorary Brit, and a large ocean away from where I once called home. I first moved to the UK for graduate school, because I was an anglophile. I loved the sarcasm, the scones, the double decker buses, the very idea of Britishness; I wanted to wrap myself in it, like a fine Burberry scarf, for as long as I possibly could. Though I clutched a one-way ticket in my hand as I boarded that Virgin Atlantic plane almost fifteen years ago, in my heart of hearts I didn’t know I would end up settling here. And I certainly wasn’t thinking about what it would be like to raise children in a country different from the one in which I was raised myself.

Now I think about it often. Many of my closest friends live in America and many of them have children. To what extent, I wonder, are our varying experiences of motherhood shaped by the fact that my kids say “biscuit” while theirs say “cookie”? These are the four ways in which it is most obvious to me that my children are growing up British…

You can read the rest of the post here,  at Brain, Child Magazine.

DSC09207

5 Comments

Filed under parenting

should young kids be expected to listen to their parents?

Here’s a question for you and it’s not rhetorical: are young children supposed to listen to their parents? The first time, maybe the second, without a roundtable discussion, tears and/or backtalk at every turn? In theory, it sounds obvious. Of course they are! In practice, however, the idea borders on the ridiculous. I spend untold hours a week negotiating with my kids or waiting out their behavior in some shape or form. The paradigm of the ‘disciplined’ child – the child who, miracle of miracles, actually does what you say – has become a relic from the past, that bygone age of Father Knows Best. We are not a generation of ‘Do It Because I Said So’ parents.

We are instead raising a legion of tiny lawyers, with more bargaining power, wiggle room and opportunity for choice than ever before. And there is progress in this, no doubt. But there is also fallout. We are the parents derided for indulging, coddling, kowtowing and worse. We are cast by many in the family drama as lowly subjects, slaves to the whims of our ‘benevolent’ (hopefully) dictators, what Pamela Druckerman’s French friends call enfants rois (child-kings). English supernanny Emma Jenner diagnoses us with a chronic case of ‘fear of tantrum’ and the inability to put our needs ahead of our children’s. Frank Bruni would describe our increasingly infamous take on parenting as the ‘eight-last-chances’ approach.

According to experts, there are actually three main approaches to parenting: authoritarian, which emphasizes obedience; permissive, which is lacking in guidelines so as not to upset the child; and authoritative, which blends a caring tone with structure and consistent limit-setting. Most of us, I am guessing, would raise our hands enthusiastically for category number three, either as the style of parenting we embody or the one we aspire to. And yet, authoritativeness itself is a wide berth.

Because of my family situation, I have had the strangely bifurcated experience of being, in one life, two different types of mother. Both of whom I would place somewhere on the authoritative continuum, the first version leaning closer to the anything-goes mom, the second one tottering on the edge of an attempted authoritarianism. The shift is partly due to circumstance. With four kids, the last two of whom are twins, there is a Gestalt vibe to my parenting these days, which makes it virtually impossible to cater overly to any one child’s ‘needs’ or ‘perspective’. In our house, true permissiveness would devolve rapidly into unlivable chaos, which means that my desire for order sometimes looms larger than my belief in the importance of a ‘caring tone’. But I have also changed tacks a little because I learned a few things in the intervening years between children, having watched my older two emerge from the frat party of toddlerhood with behavioral hangovers of entitlement.

As a result, the mother I am to my toddlers today falls perilously close to the one Tovah P. Klein warns against in her engagingly written and thoughtfully-constructed book How Toddlers Thrive, the thesis of which is that once you truly understand your toddler’s point of view, you will see that ‘controlling’ him is counterproductive to his well-being. I enjoyed this book, I recommend it and I think it would have spoken to me deeply had I read it in my first incarnation of motherhood. The rub of it for me right now, however, is this: while I feel confident that I understand my toddlers’ motives and sufficiently appreciate the wonders of their under-developed prefrontal cortexes, I still want to control certain facets of their behavior. Does that just make me the worst of the worst?

Klein believes in boundaries: authority is good. But she largely equates ‘controlling’ a toddler’s behavior with ‘shaming’ him and shaming, as you can imagine, is bad. ‘By asking them to behave in a specific way or be different from how they are just now,’ she writes, ‘we make them feel ashamed.’ This is to be avoided. My problem is that I don’t always see how to enforce the boundaries I want to enforce without being ‘controlling’. What, in other words, does exerting authority look like without the handmaiden of control? If setting limits is essentially making rules (e.g., we only draw on paper, we ask before taking food), and the rules are being repeatedly balked at, what are we supposed to do in the name of defending our boundaries if not ask our toddlers to behave in a certain way or, failing that, to make them? When limits aren’t properly and consistently imposed, authoritative parenting begins to acquire the I-don’t-want-to-upset-my-kid sheen of permissive parenting.

It is a glaring feature of How Toddlers Thrive that there is no real mention of ‘misbehavior’ in its pages, nor is there any discussion of discipline (neither of these words, for instance, appears in the index). The idea being, I presume, that all of a toddler’s actions can be explained – and explained away – as part of the growing process. Toddlers aren’t naughty per se, they are simply learning. But at what age does questionable behaviour become misbehavior that needs to be sanctioned (the book defines its range as ages two to five)? When does barking orders at everyone around you become, in fact, ‘rude’ and not simply ‘an expression of self’? When does hitting your brother become ‘aggressive’ and not simply an ‘inability to deal with anger’? When does not listening to your parents become ‘defiance’ and not simply an ‘attempt at independence’. After the hundredth time you’ve asked, the five hundredth, the thousandth? When they turn four years old? When they turn five? Klein talks loosely about the time for this coming ‘later’, but I have been amazed at how quickly condoned habits become ingrained (especially with some children) and my fear is that I missed the window somehow in my first rodeo.

I like the idea of getting on my knees, metaphorically speaking, and seeing the world from my toddlers’ perspective. Giving them a break when they feel vulnerable because the routine has splintered or because Mommy is going away, yielding to their eccentricities as much as is pragmatically possible. But day in and day out we have rules in our house that need to be followed, for the benefit of the family as a whole, and I don’t think three years old is too early to be expected to follow them. Or to suffer the consequences if not.

 

Addendum

Should children listen to their parents? I took a poll amongst my own kids:

My eight year old says: children should listen to their parents only if they [the children] think what the parent is proposing is a ‘good idea’.

My six year old says: children should listen to their parents if they don’t want to get shouted at.

My three year old says: Not really. But maybe I’ll listen to you next time.

My other three year old made no comment. He wasn’t listening to me when I said I wanted to ask him a question.

 

DSC09162

i’m not listening, mom…

 

This post is part of the Brilliant Book Club. Read the other thoughtful essays on Tovah P. Klein’s How Toddlers Thrive: What Parents Can Do Today for Children Ages 2-5 to Plant the Seeds of Lifelong Success at the links below:

15 Comments

Filed under parenting

a numbers game

I have always been a woman of words, so it came as something of a surprise how motherhood has made me fixated on numbers. And not necessarily in a good way. It seems to be a thing these days, a tendency: to tally, to count, to know where your children stand in one numerical line or other. A normal means of marking time and gauging development, for sure. But also, let’s be honest, a confidence booster in the face of the uncertain work of parenting that all is well and, in some instances, that all is better than well.

It started in the hospital, this obsession, when my first child was born. Actually, no, it started before that, with the ticking off of months then weeks then days until he arrived. 8 days late, but he was big and I was proud. An Apgar score of 9 after 1 minute, his hands and feet a dusky blue, but a perfect 10 after 5. 8 pounds 13 ounces, or as the cupped scale in the UK hospital told me: 4 kilograms precisely. I began to breastfeed him, watching the clock as I went, 25 minutes on one side, 10 minutes on the other. I couldn’t see how much was going in, so I counted what was coming out instead. How many pees today, how many poos? Let’s get him back on the scale. 75% for weight, 91% for height, we charted his growth intently that first year, the dots on the page stretching out like a broken constellation.

You can read the rest of the post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA

oliver on the scales

1 Comment

Filed under parenting

what we fear

Fear: early parenthood is riddled with it. A baby delivered, pure and pristine. Responsibility: the flip side of fear. It is yourresponsibility to keep him that way, a weight so heavy some of us can hardly sleep for the feel of it crushing our chests. Where once life was a relatively serene landscape, now, everywhere you look, stretch tentacles of danger: corners that are sharp, chemicals that are noxious, strangers that are unsavory. How many precautions can you reasonably take? How safe can you make an unsafe world for those you love?

It’s an unanswerable question, but perhaps its most interesting feature is that, above a basic threshold (e.g. car seats), we would all answer it differently. Fear is a strange and idiosyncratic beast. Maternal fear is even more so. Part of being a parent is engaging in a constant game of risk assessment based on your unique fingerprint of anxiety and the rub is that no two of us will play it exactly alike.

I consider myself a risk-averse person by nature. But I have done things you would not do. I have taken newborns into germ-laden coffee shops. I have laid to sleep babies on their tummies. From time to time, I leave my twin toddlers unattended in the car (cool climate, five minutes). I have not made these decisions blithely, or with my head in the sand: I know the risk factors for SIDS; I know that an overheated car is a death sentence. I have made them, rather, because in the individual circumstances I did not deem the potential for injury or harm great enough to outweigh the practical advantage. And, as a result, I wasn’t afraid…

You can read the rest of the post here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

3 Comments

Filed under parenting

in defense of ‘the giving tree’

I am a big fan of Shel Silverstein. But the The Giving Tree is an admittedly challenging text, raising questions about the nature of parental generosity, filial gratitude and what unconditional love actually means. Kristina Cerise and I debate the merits of this iconic book at Brain, Child Magazine.

Lauren writes:  The Giving Tree is an extreme version of maternal devotion, a classic case of exaggeration for emphasis. But it is in its extremity where much of the power and beauty lies. I have an emotional reaction every time I read it, a fullness in the back of my throat. While the rational part of me wishes the boy would say “thank you” just once, I still see, at the book’s core, a tale of a deep and abiding love I recognize all too well. And perhaps also an opportunity to think carefully about the nature of generosity and gratitude and what we really expect from our children in return for raising them.

Kristina writes: When we teach our kids to approach us with every want, we are teaching them that they are not capable of pursuing their own satisfaction. When we teach our kids that we are the source of all they need, we are teaching them that their possibilities are limited by our abilities and resources. When we respond to their claims that X, Y, or Z will make them happy by facilitating the acquisition of X, Y or Z, we are teaching them that happiness is found outside ourselves. When we pretend that The Giving Tree is a love story, we are teaching our children that loving and giving are synonyms.

Read the rest of the discussion here and let us know what you think!

DSC08784

a classic tale of maternal devotion or a manifesto for how to raise ungrateful kids? maybe a little bit of both.

5 Comments

Filed under parenting

the writing life

I was thrilled when Rachel Pieh Jones invited to me to participate in a ‘blog hop’ about the writing life. I have admired Rachel’s work from afar (read this and this) and I knew we had (at least) two major things in common: we are both expats and mothers of girl/boy twins. I was also excited to be given the opportunity to consider not only what I am writing these days, but how and why I am writing it.

* * *

1) What am I writing or working on? 

I am a contributing blogger for Brain, Child Magazine, which means that every two weeks I write an 800-1200 word post for their signature blog – Brain, Mother – about some aspect of parenting or other. There are many venues in which to write about motherhood, the web is saturated with them. But when Brain, Child took me on in August of last year, it felt like an incredible stroke of luck, because they are, in academic parlance, my intellectual home: Brain, Child calls itself ‘the magazine for thinking mothers’ and I am a mother who cannot, for the life of me, stop thinking! Occasionally, I also freelance for other publications, depending on the subject matter, where ‘freelance’ is a fancy way of saying that I submit coldly and keep my fingers crossed tightly.

This week I happen to be working on a couple of humor pieces. Most of my essays lean either towards the analytic or the poignant. But, every now and again, I like to try my hand at something dry and witty. (One of my favorite posts in this ilk is an open letter I wrote to my toddler about his obsession with my iPhone). I’ve just come up for air from the depths of two weighty essays – one about religion and one about the essence of motherhood – so hopefully this will provide a little light relief, for both my readers and myself!

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre? 

My first real foray into writing was as an academic and this background still informs much of my ‘style,’ even as a ‘mommy blogger.’ I am logical and linear, almost to a fault, and I don’t feel satisfied with an essay unless it is ‘tight’ in this respect (see, I use expressions like ‘in this respect’!). My academic work was in classical literature and also in philosophy. As a result, I tend to look at the world analytically. And with a critic’s eye. This allows me, I think, to write about my children and my parenting in a way that is more detached, and perhaps more objective, than is the norm. I look for reasons behind my choices as a mother; I like to explore the connections between them, using my personal experience as a launchpad to tackle the bigger, more universal, themes.

One of my favorite sub-genres of parenthood writing is ‘taking sides’ on a single issue. Every other month or so I will do this on Brain, Child’s blog as a ‘two different perspectives’ (the one linked to here is with my good writing friend Rebecca Hughes Parker), and I have recently become the editor for the print magazine’s quarterly ‘debate,’ which is a squaring off on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question. Coming at a subject from different angles is not, for me, about right or wrong. It is about the philosophical revelation that there is, almost always, more than one ‘truth’ on the matter. Parenting is rife with division these days. The ‘Mommy Wars’ are alive and kicking. I don’t feel as if my debates fuel this vitriol. Quite the opposite: what better way to dispel the myth that there is only one way to do it than to read a well-reasoned, heartfelt and honest account written by somebody doing it the other way?

3) Why do I write what I do?

Here I have to steal a quotation from Ernest Hemingway that I’ve seen used recently by a wonderful fellow blogger of mine, Lindsey Mead: ‘I never had to choose my subject – my subject rather chose me.’ Having children opened a floodgate in me. It changed me in all the obvious, cliched ways, but it also shifted me away from some of the more introverted, disconnected aspects of my personality. I think because I genuinely felt, not to be too grandiose, that it was the first truly universal thing I had done in my life. There was so much humanity in the experience, so much about it that pulled me out of myself. I wasn’t one mother, alone in her exhaustion and exhilaration, I was, at once, every mother I had ever known or ever would know. From the minute my first child was born, I couldn’t stop talking about what was happening to me and listening to other mothers talk about what was happening to them. My writing is a natural extension of that passion.

4) How does my writing process work?

Sometimes I think of myself as an editor, who happens to write. I spend a lot of my ‘writing’ time editing myself, probably a disproportionate amount compared to other, more natural writers. I am constantly reading parts of my work back to myself. Often, to the annoyance of the people I live with, in a stage whisper. I’m doing it now, as I type this. I need to hear my words to get the rhythm right, to get the flow. I love the beauty of language and of syntax and I put a lot of effort into making my writing as aesthetically pleasing as possible. If you saw me hunched over my laptop in a coffee shop, I’d look like a crazy person, muttering to myself…but it works.

Writing, for me, is not just about sitting at the computer and touching down on the keyboard. I script in my head throughout the day. Phrases and ideas hit me at unexpected times: in fact, most of my big ideas come when I am ostensibly doing something else. Like taking a shower. Maybe it’s the ambient noise, maybe it’s the solitude, which is a commodity for a mother of four young children, but this is where I have my Eureka moments or solve my latest structural problems. Or if not the shower, then at a red light.

When I ‘finish’ a first draft of a piece (and finish means different things for different pieces), I always send it to Denitza Blagev, whom I affectionately refer to as ‘my reader, my friend.’ If you don’t have one of these magical friends, find one!

* * *

As part of the ‘hop,’ I will now pass the baton on, as it were, to three other writers I admire. These women impress me continually with their insight, their depth and the great care they take with the written word.

Debra Liese is a writer of essays and mother to a 3, 4, and 8 year old. She lives near Princeton, NJ, where she works as a publicist for scholarly books. Find her at debraliese.com and @DebraLiese. (Lauren says: to get to know Debra, read this incredibly thoughtful piece about her daughter’s decision to become a vegetarian at age four.)

Zsofi McMullin lives, writes, and wrangles a four-year-old in Connecticut. Visit her blog at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @hunglishgirl. (Lauren says: to get to know Zsofi, read this heart-stopping essay about the nature of love, past and present.)

Ariana Kelly lives and writes in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about phone booths (forthcoming from Bloomsbury in August 2015) and a collection of linked essays. She can be followed on Twitter at @ArianaDKelly and on her website: arianadelainekelly.com. (Lauren says: to get to know Ariana, read this fascinating account of what role is left for the phone booth in today’s world of ubiquitous mobile technology.)

 

10272481_10152390465608433_2136174096488419196_o

photo credit: oliver tomkins (age 8.5)

7 Comments

Filed under parenting

who knew having young children would hurt so much?

Dear children with your sharp elbows and poor depth perception,

I’ll forgive you birth, because that was supposed to hurt. “A necessary evil,” I think they call it. I’ll even forgive you your freakishly large heads, disproportionate as they were to my slender, girl-like hips. I never expected a baby the size of, well, a baby (with a head the size of, well, a cantaloupe) to emerge from one of the orifices of my body and leave it unscathed. But those were the war wounds I was prepared for, at least in theory: the contractions that sent me into a fit of curses through the epidural; the stitches and swelling and stinging in what used to be a happy place; the three-inch incision across my abdomen, still numb to the touch.

No, what truly took me by surprise was all the pain that came next…

You can read the rest of this open letter here, at Brain, Child Magazine.

elbow-sketch-w-gray-265x300

2 Comments

Filed under parenting

i don’t need to make perfect birthday cupcakes for my kids

When Carinn Jade and I first set out on this debate for Brain, Child Magazine, we planned to focus on Superwoman Syndrome: the idea that a woman can – and should – be ‘perfect’ in everything she puts her hand to. But, in the process of writing, we became fixated on cupcakes instead. Because they were symbolic, to both of us, not only of what we choose to pour our mothering energy into, but of why we choose as we do. Our essays are not just about baked goods. They are about busyness and priorities and perfectionism and how we all show love for our children in different ways.

Lauren writes:  Birthday cakes have become something of a metaphor to me for my shifting relationship with time management and perfectionism. When my first child turned one, I was obsessed with the idea of baking for him. I had one kid, no job outside the home and the mental energy and inclination that comes with such a scenario. So I made banana muffins, the recipe chosen painstakingly, the cream-cheese frosting the creamiest you can imagine. When my last children turned one (twins), however, circumstances had changed significantly. I had neither the time nor the mental energy nor the inclination to bake them anything at all. And so I didn’t. I let my mother-in-law (gasp!) do it instead.

Carinn writes: For my daughter’s third birthday, I was going to bake cupcakes. Not just cupcakes, but a design she picked out—adorned with hand-dipped white chocolate covered pretzels sprinkled in purple sugar crystals and transformed into butterflies with exactly two chocolate jimmies for antennae, placed just so. That week I worked every night until 2am after the kids were in bed, alternating between drafting documents and frosting chocolate cake until the wee hours. In my house, actions speak louder than words and nothing says “you are loved” more than homemade birthday cupcakes.

You can read the entirety of our different perspectives here.

DSC08505

2 Comments

Filed under parenting