Wednesday, July 28, 2010


I have heard some parents, from time to time, scratching their heads, asking, "Now why did I spend all this time with these little ingrates, since they're now destroying my house and flinging back-talk at me?"  Knowing our kids, we all know that they'd rather play, yell, pound things, crack pots together, and generally re-enact "Lord of the Flies" rather than do anything we'd prefer.  We also know that hunger, fatigue, and lack of entertainment make for grouchy kids, but sometimes it's difficult for us to handle the grouchiness if it follows a special activity, or if the kids seem oblivious to the idea that we JUST spent a lot of energy to make sure they had a good time at the (fill in the blank).

I was surprised to learn that my family shares some strategies to control un-grateful behavior with others.  I guess parent strategies are like key concepts in different cultures of the world, like the idea of the parallel evolution of "The Trickster" or "Mother Earth," or a Supreme Being in different cultures despite lack of contact between those cultures.  Here are our parent gambits for the thankless moments:

  1. Outlawing all conjugations of bore - boring, bored, boredom, bore-fest, bored-to-death, bore-o-rama, bored-to-the-google-squared-power.  Kids should not be bored (unless they are placed in a plain white padded room with no toys).  However, we do allow for the use of the word "bore" in the sense of  "you're boring a hole in my head with that whining - could you ask me in a different way?"
  2. Creating a grateful session after dinner, and on Fridays when we light candles we say what we're thankful for.  We encourage the kids to name 3 things.  The baby is exempted.
  3. "I'm sorry, I don't think I heard that question without the nice word at the end of the sentence."
  4. "I definitely didn't hear THAT question with the tone of voice you used."
The kids were a little reluctant to do it at first; they weren't sure what to say.  Considering our kids' ages, giving them (especially Claire) some ideas to start.  We've heard some heart-warming gratefuls:

  • I'm grateful for my family.
  • I'm grateful that Charlotte is feeling better.
  • I'm grateful we got to see our family this weekend.
  • I'm grateful for my friend.
We also heard some serious "gratefuls":

  • I'm grateful that our family isn't sick.
  • I'm grateful none of us have died.
  • I'm grateful that we have food and that we're not poor.
  • I'm grateful that Daddy's knee got better.
Some flittish "gratefuls" have made the list, too:

  • I'm grateful that we had pizza today.
  • I'm grateful we got to have dessert today, not like yesterday when we didn't get dessert.
  • I'm grateful for ice cream!
It seems like the kids, at times, really think about things.  We sometimes have to cue them; Claire is, after all, only 5.  I believe that practicing anything makes one better at that thing, and good manners and humility and grateful-ness are no exception.

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    No fear

    For those of you following this blog, you'll recognize Claire.  She's the goofball on the right, catapulting water into the air for the love of wetness.

    Claire is the "See It, Do It" kid.  Many of you have kids like Claire.  They are frustrating for their fearlessness, and fabulous for their fearlessness.  She's the kid trying to get up from the table with an overloaded paintbrush, carrying the cup of dirty paint-water in her teeth while trying to step over Corinne...

    ...AND trying to pick up the Shiny Thing on the floor.  However, she's also the kid who marches over to the girl at Sesame Place with the same bathing suit as her, and chats up her entire family, asking them where they're from, what food they're eating, and if the girl wants to come over for a playdate, all while interjecting the Spanish she knows into the Spanish she hears them speaking.

    After observing her chatting with this family the other day, I joined her.  I joined in part because I recognized my own (?usual) reluctance to venture outside of my comfort zone, and in part because I wanted to make sure that that family didn't need rescuing, and in part because the conversation  Yes, as a result of Claire's mingling, we met some new people and had a warm moment in our day, and, from the smiles on their faces at the plucky Claire, probably gave them a warm moment, too.

    In a similar vein...I recently read "Born to Run," a truly excellent book about ultrarunning, running itself, "Well, you don't know me very well, now do ya?" and humanity.  I was struck at how Scott Jurek, perhaps THE premier ultrarunner of our generation, sits and waits for the last racers to cross the finish line during each of his day-long races.  Why?  Jurek relishes human connection and the need to help other to feel connected, despite having run 50-100 miles much faster than the stragglers ever could.

    Mixed in with my thoughts on Claire and Jurek are some recently discovered feelings of mine on charitable works.  Enmeshed as we are in the raising of 3 young kids, we struggle to get out as much as we'd like to participate in acts of philanthropy (the acts more so than the giving of money).  However, when we do,  I am struck by how good it feels, and how connected we feel to our world afterwards.

    I understand that we're all different, and that branching out is more challenging to some of us, yet watching Claire and Charlotte (who joined Claire in guerilla good-naturedness the other day, and was nearly as chatty as she) with that family reminded me that while we are our kids' best teachers, the sensei should also learn from the student.

    Friday, July 2, 2010

    Every Nook and Cranny

    Try hiding presents for birthdays, Christmas, whatever, in your house with kids over 4.  Unless those gifts are behind locked doors, in an attic, or guarded by the soldiers from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, those sharp eyes and prying hands will find what you’ve buried.  Like mice to a solitary crumb behind the sofa, they have uncanny radar for what is hidden.  

    Why is that?  There are a few reasons.  The first is that kids have nothing better to do than investigate every square inch of your house, especially if you’ve been able to teach them to amuse themselves.  If you’ve ever lost something, ask your 8-year-old:  she knows where it is.  Another reason is that because of this intimate knowledge of their den, kids recognize any change in their environment, like an expert hunter noticing a single disturbed blade of grass, a Jedi appreciating a disturbance in the Force, or akin to the way old cartoons would show a background scene with one brighter colored toon (which you could be sure was the object about to move). Finally, they can just tell when you’re not telling them the truth.

    There’s a good reason for that.  Famous neurologist Oliver Sacks, in his excellent book "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" has a chapter on aphasia (defined as the inability to use or understand language).  In a certain institution where some of these patients lived, they were observed laughing at Ronald Reagan addressing the nation, and they were taken with how nonsensical his expressions were.  They could tell that he was lying or making no sense, unburdened as they were with the need to make sense of innuendos or subtle meanings…and could tell that he, like many politicians, had another agenda, and was somewhat full of crap because his gestures did not make sense.

    Kids might have the same reaction.  Part of socialization, part of growing up, is acclimating oneself to culture and societal expectations.  Understanding that tantrums in stores are unacceptable, that adjusting your underwear in public looks funny, that talking about your uncle getting married to his girlfriend in front of the girlfriend (especially if there are no public plans to do so...yet) creates an awkward moment, and that saying that coloring within the lines is “easy” when your little sister has just scaled Mt. Everest to do so makes your little sister feel bad....are all part of enculturation.

    Hence, children are good at seeing when your "words" are off, and when your words do not match the feeling beneath them.  We throw our words at kids every day, and they know your words like they know their house.  For example, you might not have to say that Uncle Charlie has pancreatic cancer (a miserable cancer with very low survival rate), but don't tell them he's fine.  They either know it because he looks awful or they know it because your words sound wrong to them.  Tell them he's sick and needs to see a lot of doctors, and that you're worried.  Older kids can take more - younger kids don't need to know any more than that.

    Just as you must take care hiding that special present, be careful to tell your kids the truth, or at least a version of the truth.