evolution of a reader

You start when he is two months old, you know it is important. All the experts say so, all the articles. Read to them, read to them incessantly. Do it early, the earlier the better. He seems like an alert baby, this one, wide-eyed and curious. The way he bats at his toys, the way he tracks your movements with a searching, soulful expression. Maybe all babies are like this, you aren’t sure. He is your first. You project onto him constantly—thoughts, feelings, skills—as if projecting will make it so.

Your mother sat with him when he was one week old, just home from the hospital, a sliver of a thing, and read him Pat the Bunny in that special sing-song voice you remember well from your own childhood. “Judy can pat the bunny,” she said, as your son stared into the middle distance, head lolling. “Now YOU pat the bunny.” She took the baby’s starfish hand, the nails still peeling from the wetness of the womb, and rubbed it purposefully against the fluffy bunny. And you couldn’t tell if it was ridiculous or adorable to be reading to a baby so new.

All the same, a couple of months later, you decide it is time to begin. Every night, every night without fail. Your husband gives the baby a bath, and then you coo at him, a steady stream of chatter as you stuff limbs into a sleepsuit covered with teddybears or rockets or stripes. You prop him up against you on the bed and read two books. Always two. Sometimes Brown Bear, Brown Bear. Sometimes Here Are My Hands. Sometimes you channel your mother and read Pat the Bunny with just the right intonations. You take it for granted that your son sits still at this age, that he tolerates the books without crying, when what he really wants is his milk. None of your other children will be so patient.

By the time he is one, he can pat the bunny on his own. He seems to understand you now, he has words himself, a bevy of animal sounds and an assortment of other babbles that mean something, finally. The floodgates of communication have opened; reading has become blissfully interactive. Your son loves books. You tell your family, your friends, anybody who will listen: “He loves books!” This makes you proud, as if it is evidence of an impressive feat of parenting or genetics. But of course he loves books, the shelves are lined with them, the house is strewn with them. Reading is your go-to childcare activity.

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

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reading at one

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reading at nine

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the hands-off grandma

My mother recently came to visit me and my family for ten days. Here is a list of the things she did vis-a-vis my four children:

Played with them, if asked.

Gave them snacks and sweets.

Talked to them.

Bought them gifts.

Hugged and kissed them.

 

And here is a list of the things she didn’t do:

Bathe them.

Dress them.

Prepare or serve any of their meals.

Help them with their homework.

Put them to bed.

 

Based on these lists, my mom is what you might call a “hands-off” Grandma—or Bubbe, as she is affectionately referred to. She loves her grandkids. She enjoys spending time with them, in small doses. She cares about their well-being and what is happening in their lives. But she is not interested in participating in the grunt work of raising them: the tasks that include bodily fluids and flailing limbs, tears and stall tactics and four outfit changes in as many minutes. In so far as it is possible to engineer, my mother, at 70, is looking to experience the good bits associated with young children, the fun bits, and not the slog.

For her, this is the line between what it is to be a grandparent and what it is to be a parent. This is the privilege you earn with the prefix “Grand.” “I’ve done my time,” she says, and she certainly has. She is the mother of three children, across eight years and two marriages. She did everything for us as we grew up—playdates, parties, projects—everything. She watches some of her friends “grandparent” in a way she finds unappealing, women, she says, who are attempting motherhood all over again. “I have my own life,” she reminds me, with perfect kindness and accuracy. “I don’t need to re-live having children through yours.”

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

 

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is culture the reason my kids don’t listen to me?

My kids don’t listen to me. Or, rather, they listen to me, but rarely the first time and rarely without protest. Everything, it seems, is up for negotiation in our house, no matter how clear or firm I think I’m being. “You can’t have a snack.” But why? “It’s time for your bath.” But I don’t want one! “Lights out now.” But I’ve got 10 pages left! The other day I threatened to pull the car over when my 4-year-old wouldn’t stop kicking the back of my seat. And then I did, swerving into a side street more abruptly than I intended, and he looked at me with wide eyes and promptly started kicking it again.

My mother has long believed that for young children to listen to their parents they need to fear the consequences. I yell at my kids when they get out of hand, and to my own ears I sound like a banshee, but it doesn’t necessarily scare them into submission. I take away privileges (no iPad, the horror!), but it doesn’t ensure the offending behavior won’t be repeated. Even my husband, with his objectively stern manner, doesn’t intimidate them enough that they don’t talk back.

How do you command respect as a parent? This is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently, because I am increasingly convinced that I don’t. It is through fear? Is it through discipline? Is it through quiet authority?

I consider myself a disciplinarian, but of course, if I were an effective one, my kid wouldn’t still be kicking the back of the seat after the fifth time I told him not to. I set boundaries, I enforce them; I am not, in other words, a pushover. And yet, at the same time, there must be some Gestalt to my parenting that is inherently non-authoritarian, something that fails to trigger blind obedience, that says to my children: the conversation is not closed. Not really.

You can read the rest of the article here, at The Washington Post.

 

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what my twins taught me about gender stereotypes

I have girl/boy twins.

Aside from discrepancies in their sleeping and eating habits, they were treated virtually the same for the first year of their lives. Yes, we had blue and pink blankets, onesies swirled with flowers and onesies peppered with firetrucks, but such is the reality of the day-to-day with twins that, as babies, they often wore whatever was to hand. They dipped in and out of a common collection of age-appropriate toys. They ate and drank from a shared set of crockery, the designs of which were both traditionally feminine and traditionally masculine. They were read the same books; they were spoken to and praised in comparable ways.

And then, poof, somewhere around their first birthday, it was as if the gender fairy flitted into our house and waved her magic wand, dusting them both with stereotypes. All of a sudden, my girl twin started ferrying around the toy chest’s lone baby doll, tending to his manifold needs as much as her rudimentary coordination would allow. At the same time, my boy twin became absolutely obsessed with smartphones. He keyed in numbers and toggled buttons with gusto. He had a strange reverence for wires and the act of charging.

Here they were, at 1 year old, poster children for the power of nature over nurture when it comes to typical gender play. The writing, it would seem, was on the wall.

But was it?

You can read the rest of the essay here, at The Washington Post.

 

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they both wear superhero costumes; they both wear dresses

 

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the kitchen is closed

Children, damn them, they need to eat. Every day. Multiple times a day. It sounds simple enough, one of those straightforward facts of life. But there is nothing simple about my children’s relationship with food. They always want more of it, without ever quite wanting what it is that I have available. Their insatiable appetites and focus on certain food groups to the exclusion of all others is nothing less than an albatross around my neck. It is my Sisyphean rock. The meatball I keep pushing up the hill that rolls right back down again…uneaten.

I will never truly understand the plight of the parents of bird-like children. The ones who pick delicately, listlessly at the contents of their plates, before asking to be freed from the prison that is the kitchen table. The ones who skip lunch or “forget” to ask for a snack. In our house, “nack” was among the first words ever uttered and “nack time” has not once passed by unnoticed. Blood sugar levels plummet to precariously low levels if more than a couple of hours go by without a top up. Dinner is getting earlier and earlier. One of my kids asked me to make it at 3:45pm the other day.

My husband and I recently put up double doors between our kitchen and our living room as a way to stuff the dam of our children’s constant demand for food. For in the absence of a physical barrier, they have been known to swirl in and out of the kitchen at will, eddies of unquenchable hunger, no matter what time of day it is, no matter when they have last been fed (No, you can’t have“breakfast dessert”). Out of sight, the theory goes, and therefore out of mind, because if the little buggers so much as see snack-food or sweets, they need to have it. And if they aren’t allowed it, they start to beg. And then they beg and beg and beg some more.

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

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mothering in the rain

I hear thunder, I hear thunder.

Hark don’t you? Hark don’t you? 

Pitter, patter raindrops,

Pitter, patter raindrops,

I’m wet through; so are you. 

This is a nursery rhyme my children know by heart, many British children do, because the pitter patter of raindrops is the soundtrack to so much of their lives. Faces pressed against streaky windows, waterproof hoods pulled tightly over heads, most days my kids leave the house and are touched instantly by some form of moisture. Whether it is a misting that hangs in the air like gossamer or a sideways pelting that stings on impact, onwards they go, always in search of the next dry port of call.

We live in Scotland, where there is measurable rainfall for up to 250 days of the year (in certain parts) and where the seasons bleed into each other with a relatively moderate spread in temperature between them. I have a coffee mug that captures the phenomenon perfectly. It has a series of four pictures on it and, in each one, a bulldog is holding an umbrella against the rain, which continues to spit down irrespective of the season. The only thing that changes is the accoutrement: a scarf in winter, sunglasses in summer, leaves swirling aloft in autumn.

Brits talk about the weather incessantly, which is ironic considering it is so bad, but also telling of how deeply it infiltrates our psyches. There are few psyches as delicate as a new mother’s and, though I am somebody who never complained about it before, the climate here took on a whole new meaning to me when I had my babies.

My second son arrived in late November and for weeks upon weeks we holed ourselves up inside, a scenario I imagine is par for the course with many winter births. But Glasgow winters are particularly bleak. Not only do they fail to produce any fluffy, idyllic-looking snow by way of compensation for the cold but, because of the city’s latitude, the days are shockingly short. The skies begin to darken at around 3:30 p.m. and stay dark until well after eight the next morning. It is a long period to be without natural light and it feels longer still with a colicky baby in arms, a baby who seems already at an obvious disadvantage for developing proper Circadian rhythms.

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

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playing with a point

“We live on the planet Naff,” he says.

“Oh,” I say. “Is that Naff with a double F or Naph with a PH?” The question seems immediately relevant.

“It’s N-A-F-F-P-H,” he says.

“Obviously,” I say.

“Excuse me,” he says. “I can’t understand you. We only speak Naffphian on the planet Naffph.”

“Of course,” I say, wondering where I can make an emergency purchase of the requisite Rosetta Stone.

“And we smoke pipes,” he says, pulling a Lego configuration from the folds of his pocket which may or may not look like a pipe, depending on the angle. “What flavor do you think this is?”

“Um…toasted marshmallow,” I say, which is my favorite flavor of jelly bean so seems as reasonable a guess as any.

“Don’t be silly,” he says. “It’s bubble gum. Have a smoke, Naffphian pipes aren’t bad for you.”

“Okay,” I say, inhaling dramatically.

“But where is your smoke ring?” he asks, disappointed. “Every Naffphian has his own smoke ring.”

“Pfffffffff,” I say. My signature smoke ring turns out to be a pineapple.

“No, Mom,” he says. “That’s a spaceship. You can see from the turbo boosters on each side.”

This is how my seven year old plays. It’s how he has played, with increasing degrees of sophistication, since he was old enough to string a sentence together. He is an imaginative little creature, my son Leo. He invents things on a regular basis out of otherwise mundane household items—toilet paper tubes and sticky tape—things you didn’t quite know you needed. Like The Wind Sock of Doom, which (according to him) detects the wind direction, particularly in a dungeon.

Leo is imaginative in a way I am not, the result of which is that I have trouble joining him on his creative jaunts. His kind of play is not the kind that comes naturally to me. I watch him spin these elaborate scenarios with an equal measure of pride and bafflement and the best I can do is try to keep up. But usually I feel panicky and distracted in the face of the game’s openended-ness, its lack of rules or obvious structure. The sad truth is that I am a slave to logic. My imagination tends to run out of gas before I even leave the driveway.

You can read the rest of the post here, as part of a series on play at You Plus 2 Parenting.

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look out! mom has joined the game…

 

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stay-at-home moms need annual leave, too

I just bought a plane ticket for one.

I have four children, ages 3 to 9, which makes this purchase noteworthy. In a few weeks’ time I will pack a sensibly sized bag and fill it with things that belong only to me. Things that speak of a life beyond motherhood: clothes that don’t double as yoga-gear, books that can be read at will, toothpaste that isn’t fruit-flavored.

I am a stay-at-home mom and for five days I will officially be on vacation. Consider this me punching in my time card.

The average American worker is entitled to sixteen days of paid leave per year. If being a stay-at-home mom is tantamount to a full-time job, isn’t this a benefit we deserve as well? The obvious answer is yes. The reality is far murkier, both because of the nature of the “work” of parenthood and the extent to which it is valued by society.

A child-free holiday, regardless of the parent’s employment status, is not without controversy. Especially when the parents take it together. Eight out of 10 people, according to one survey, say this is not something they could do with a clear conscience. In a poll in Parents Magazine, 30 percent of respondents were prepared to go further and suggest there is an element of moral reprehensibility to vacationing with your partner but not your baby. In today’s era of intensive, all-in parenting, where there seems to be an expectation that a child’s perceived needs trump its parents’ at any cost, a trip sans enfants can take on an undeniable sheen of selfishness.

There is a paradox here, though. We talk ad nauseum about the exhaustion and manifold difficulties inherent in raising young children. Jennifer Senior has analyzed it painstakingly in her bestseller All Joy and No Fun, concluding that early parenthood is the phase during which people are, in fact, “least happy.” And yet, we are more hard-pressed than ever to give ourselves a proper break: the current climate of parenting tells us that enjoying extended time away from our offspring is indulgence at best, neglect at worst.

You can read the rest of the piece here, in The Washington Post.

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the family you plan for, the family you get

According to the World Health Organization, the concept of “family planning” allows people to attain their desired number of children and determine the spacing between them.

According to the old Yiddish proverb, men plan and God laughs.

I had a plan for my family. I wanted three children. If you had asked me before, I would have said this: two boys, relatively close in age, and then maybe a girl, though I wasn’t bothered about the sex. I would wait a little longer to have the third child—settle the first one into school, break the back of the second’s toddlerhood—so I could appreciate fully that last ride round the carousel of new motherhood. So I could swill it in my mouth like the fine wine it is.

I had my two boys, just over two years a part. And then three and half years later, I had twins.

I’m not sure I think the configuration of a family is something we should aim to control absolutely, though modern medicine offers increasing opportunity to do just that. There is much beauty to be found in the unknown, in the mysteries the reproductive process is so good at serving up to us. But still we are human. And still we make plans, we make choices, whether Mother Nature is smirking behind our backs or not. We harbor ideas and desires about how many children will be sitting at the dinner table, about what they might be like, and we have regrets, too, regrets that creep in like frost, even though it’s not always socially acceptable to say so.

I planned for three children and I ended up with four, and it has changed my life more than I ever imagined.

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

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home alone

As the holidays roll around and television morphs into an unrelenting showcase for Christmas cheer, my oldest son and I found ourselves watching Home Alone—one of the quintessential films from my own childhood. Who among us of a certain age doesn’t remember Macaulay Culkin’s adorably goofy face sandwiched between two hands as he bellowed that trademark “Ahhhhhhhh,” the sting from his father’s aftershave a little too much for his tender skin to take?

Back in the old days, Home Alone had enormous cache because its premise was at once terrifying and thrilling. The idea of being left alone by your parents—without your siblings to boot—promised the joy of pizza toppings entirely of your own choosing as much as the reality of having to fend for yourself. In Kevin McCallister’s case, it also meant the need to protect your home against the onslaught of two bumbling burglars after a perfectly delicious microwaveable Kraft Macaroni and Cheese dinner.

In 1990, the premise was a stretch, to say the least. But there were mitigating factors. The bustling extended family and the relatably distracted parents allowed us folk of that previous generation to suspend disbelief far enough to deem forgetting your youngest child an omission ever so slightly within the realm of possibility.

Fast forward to 2014, the infamous age of hovercraft parenting, and the movie comes across as a sub-genre of fantasy. And not simply because of the whole leaving your kid behind in the face of an international vacation bit. Rather because in the course of twenty odd years—a mere blip in the time-space continuum—there has been a sea-change that makes certain features of the film’s parent-child relationship virtually unrecognizable. A guilty mother desperate to get back to an eight year old who has been mooching about by himself for three days? That we get. The set of circumstances leading to said situation? Not so much.

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

 

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phoebe does her best macaulay culkin impression

 

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