Tag Archives: parenting

It’s such a good feeling

My son and I have been watching old episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood lately. It’s much easier than I realized to get engrossed in the land of make-believe and film footage of the crayon factory as an adult. But it’s even easier to rest in Fred’s compassion.

“He seems like a question answerer, conscious child idea conceiver Carl Sagan,” said Declan, looking for (and finding) the right words.

The man understood how hard it can be to be a person, especially a child. That’s been tough work for us lately, so I’m glad to be parenting in a digital age that can take us back in time.

Whether he was singing about liking people for true reasons, or his daily celebration of the fact that we’re alive and growing inside, he had this way of creating safety and space. Even though he has passed, I’m amazed to see that the shows still hold that power for my son.

In one episode, someone in the land of make-believe had invented a machine that could see into people, see something true about them, like the warmth of their heart or their love of chair-making.

When it was over, and the camera began panning above Mr. Roger’s colorful neighborhood houses and toy cars, Declan snuggled his face into my neck and pretended to look into me.

“There is lots and lots and lots of love,” he said. “And lots and lots of art, writing especially. Buddhism. The ocean. Me.”

He stopped, leaned back, and smiled at that thought for a moment. Then he snuggled back in and continued.

“All the art you’ve ever seen in museums. All the music you’ve ever listened to. Not just me but everybody you’ve ever known or loved. All the trees and flowers you’ve ever seen or smelled. All the places you’ve lived. Dogs and dolphins and other animals you loved. Blue sky. Clouds. Rain. Storms. Hurricanes. Your reflections.”

“My reflections?”

“Yes – both kinds. The ones you’ve actually seen and.. your thoughts.”

And that one. That one from my son, inspired by Fred Rogers. That’s a reflection I want to keep forever.


More Fred, because even if you think you outgrew him, you didn’t:

His touching 1969 Senate hearing testimony in defense of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which includes his reading of “What do you do with the mad that you feel?”

You can watch or listen to most of his songs on the PBS web site.

Fred’s goodbye on his final program, which is especially sweet for parents who grew up watching him.

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You rite baby, you rite

While listening to the new Dr. John record in the car the other evening, Declan and I had the following conversation:

Declan: Mom, who is this? I feel like I’ve heard this voice before.

Me: It’s Dr. John.

Declan: That doesn’t sound right. Did you play him on this iPod before?

Me: I don’t think so. But… well, there’s a lot of Tom Waits.

Declan: Is his voice all… scratchy like this?

Me: Yeah, kinda gravelly…

Declan: What’s gravelly?

Me: Low and scratchy, I guess. Like he has gravel in his voice.

Declan: Oh yeah, it’s Tom Waits I’m thinking of.

Me: You are a pretty hip six-year-old, trying to tell the difference between those two voices. You met Dr. John, you know.

Declan: I did?

Me: He played your uncle’s festival one year.

Declan: Why did I meet him? What did he say? I don’t remember that. Did you meet him?

Me: We all met him. We ate lunch together. You were a baby. Your dad had him sign a book for you.

Declan: I haven’t seen that.

Me: I’ll ask him to look for it.

Yeah, what he said.

What we were listening to:

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Even kisses

We listened to a sleep meditation recording as he fell asleep last night, hanging on to me like driftwood.  As the faintest snores began to come out of him, I kissed his hair and tried to retract my arm. He grabbed it and kissed me on the wrist.

He always wants us to be even on kisses these days.  If I happen to shortchange him, he’ll yank on my arm, reach his hand toward my face and say “I need three smooches.”

A few nights ago, he walked on my back when I was achy, patting my hair when he was done, asking “is that better?”

I hugged him close and told him yes.

“You take such good care of your mom,” I told him. “Do you ever feel like you’re always taking care of me? Or do you feel like I take care of you?”

He snuggled into me, stuck out one arm and pointed his finger at my shoulder, bouncing it there repeatedly.

“You take care of me,” he whispered.

I was overwhelmed with relief. I just lost a friend who helped keep me steady over the past year and half. I know I have days when I feel awfully alone and uncertain right now. I work hard to take care of myself so I don’t get lost in those feelings. And my son feels loved and safe and taken care of. By me. What more could I ask for?

This morning I took him to the first day of first grade. We walked in to a quiet room with a big circle of children already cross-legged on the floor. He tiptoed in, put a card with his name onto it into the attendance basket, hung up his backpack and sat down with the group, looking around excitedly.

I stood in another part of the room with a couple of other parents who were snapping photographs and taking deep breaths. The joy on my boy’s face threatened to crack him wide open. He was so engaged in the newness of everything – the faces, the classroom, the whole, fresh ritual – that he didn’t see me wave and blow him a kiss goodbye.

My heart tightened a little, then let go with relief as I slipped into the hallway. He wasn’t afraid to be on his own. He wasn’t afraid to leave me on my own either.

And I know he’ll even up the smooch count before the day is through.

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I hate art scavenger hunts

We had an hour or two to visit an art museum in another city the other day. No sooner had we hung up our coats than one of the volunteers asked my son, “would you like to do a scavenger hunt in the museum today? If you finish it, you get a prize!”

Being four and generally highly motivated by reward systems, he looked at me eagerly for permission to say yes. I gave it to him. If I deprived him of that kind of offer, I might as well have kissed my chances at a fun museum visit goodbye. (This scavenger hunt basically asked you to find particular pieces of art in the different galleries, then answer a question about each one.)

For the first several rooms, I tried to balance the tasks of the scavenger hunt with more meaningful conversations about the art and history we were looking at. Every now and then, I could get him to stop and ponder something like how a particular piece of art was made, how it might be used, the story it might be telling or what it even was. But as we pushed on, the tasks of the scavenger hunt became more and more pressing, pulling us away from other things we might have been able to talk about.

We saw another dad looking completely beleaguered as his 9-year-old son ignored his requests to talk about any of the 18th-century European paintings he wanted to share with him. The kid was just too far into the throes of his primal push to finish his scavenger hunt and earn his prize.

As far as I’m concerned, scavenger hunts are the equivalent of worksheet learning in the classroom. They don’t invite any real depth of understanding, and do not create a particularly meaningful relationship with their subject. They are more cheap marketing gimmick, something that seems to be designed for children to pass time while parents are supposed to either help, or meditate on paintings in solitude or something. In this case, they actually seemed to be depriving more than one family of an organic museum experience.

On Sunday, a friend of mine and I took our kids to the local museum, which is under construction, so all that is open is an illuminated Dale Chihuly exhibit and a couple of rooms with highlights from its permanent collection. We led our four-year-olds through and asked them what they thought the abstract glass forms were.

“That looks like an upside-down turkey!” my son said about a glumpy shape slumped over in a forest of spears.

“That’s like a shoe, all opened up,” said his friend about a floppy, shell-like piece.

We ventured past the people watching a movie smack in the middle of the gallery, which seemed like an unnecessary obstacle with this inherent message: “shut up and don’t talk about the art.” We squirmed out of that room. My friend’s daughter peeked around the corner, and then ran back to grab my son’s hand and pull him in, howling – “come look! It’s SPACE!”

Their imaginations and curiosity ruled the rest of the visit. A chandelier was an erupting volcano from another planet. A sphere was a “giant Jupiter that’s all dead.” In the permanent collection galleries, my friend, who grew up in Holland, had her daughter jumping up and down with excitement over her obvious connection to Dutch paintings. We all sat on the floor in front of a George Segal sculpture and talked about what plaster is and how you might go about making a person out of one.

Of course, there was a room with the dreaded reward-based scavenger hunts, which just seem to be everywhere kids may show up now, but thankfully, no one bypassed us and offered them to ours. When my friend’s daughter asked what all the kids with clipboards were doing and if she could do it, her mother dismissed it with a smooth “you have to be able to read to do that.” We sidestepped the issue and took in the grandeur and mystery of a ride back downstairs in the giant elevator instead.

Granted, I’m the daughter of an art educator, so I was raised with a particular love and appreciation for art. But I didn’t find that love via lectures or gimmicky games. I was simply given the room to respond to and be inquisitive about it – to use my brain to make of it what I may before getting down to the facts of who made it and what they thought it meant or why it might be historically or culturally relevant.

If you want a child to love art, don’t make him or her whisper about it in a gallery or do some glorified word search to earn some 3-cent superball or a sticker. I also had a total blast on Sunday… and it was the interpretations and questions of our two four-year-olds that made it so much fun for all of us, pure and simple.

At a time when there are endless books out there espousing the value of “creative” people to the richness of our lives – even our economy – why are museums, of all places, bent on such ordinary engagement with kids, who are by nature some of the most innately creative people in the world?

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The art of not knowing everything

I once worked with a woman who gave elaborate thespian phone performances. Not the nasty $2.99 per minute kind, but plenty that had the undertow of a more genuine nastiness.

She lived at the desk next door to me in our little room in newspaperland, so eavesdropping was essentially unavoidable unless I brought in headphones and blared L7’s “Smell the Magic.”

I overheard her cooing sympathies for various health ailments and workplace stressors, humble babydoll requests for interviews, breathless apologies for misprints and uproarious laughs at jokes that couldn’t possibly have been that funny. But the minute the receiver hit the base, she would start swearing at the phone like a late-night cable comedian. She’d make colorful hand gestures at it, slam nearby file drawers with her foot, shake her head, yell at the ceiling like a thin, malevolent, female Charlie Brown.

If you threw a softball “what happened?” question her way during the episode, she’d gladly assail the character of her phone acquaintances (minor characters in her life, really) with ruthless assessments. They were incompetent morons at best, insane morons at worst. She was certain.

I was young and at first, I found her routine pretty funny. There’s a sexy, star-chamber quality to cattiness and gossip, especially in the workplace. Moreso in the media workplace, where you high five each other when you manage to unearth the failings of powerful people in the world and lay them bare in print. You feel like an insider. You know stuff that it seems like you shouldn’t. You feel smarter than other people. You find new, cleverer, wittier ways to call out what you perceive as stupid, inane or otherwise inferior. It’s so easy to know everything when you’re young.

But at some point, I realized that it wasn’t funny. It might even be dangerous. Not because I am a great arbiter of morals, but because it became easy to see that this behavior was bound to come home to roost on my own rear end.

I saw the same people who had bitched together about someone else bitch separately about each other. When you’re dancing in the middle of that kind of social quagmire, there’s no question that you’re going to be the bitched about person eventually. You will hurt people and get hurt. In the pernicious culture of the newsroom, I’m pretty sure I did my share of both.

I don’t remember a light bulb moment, but I remember the desperate feeling that I needed to extract myself from toxic work socializing as best I could. I started nodding more. Listening more. Withholding judgment. I searched for metaphors that would properly reflect what I was hearing from the person about how they felt instead of joining their rigged jury. This kind of listening has actually come in handy in my writing life a lot since. And my spiritual life. And my mothering life.

Finding the words to celebrate or applaud things authentically, meaningfully is much harder than finding new, clever ways to bitch about things. Vengefulness is easier than compassion. Suspicion is easier than faith. (This is clearly part of the way that Buddhism appeals to my protestant work ethic.)

It is harder to celebrate and find joy in other people’s children than it is to pick apart the alien ways that they might influence yours. It’s definitely easier to judge other parents and children than it is to see your own flaws. Playgrounds, like newsrooms, are breeding areas for cattiness. Yet, when I make a conscious effort to look for what to celebrate instead of what to criticize, I’ve discovered that finding joy makes everything easier. The older the kids get, the harder it looks, but it is easier. It’s more fun. It’s lighter. It’s less isolating. It’s worth the effort.

I make no claim that I’ve mastered these things. I decided early this year that aspirations are my gig, not hardened vows or easily fractured resolutions. I’m determined to remind myself of the mistakes I have made, or keep making. I’m determined to keep trying.

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Does Brian Williams live in our world?

Sesame Workshops 7th Annual Benefit Gala
The last few weeks of no camp and parental work scrambling and no preschool have led to far more television consumption in this house than I would like to admit. Combine that with the onset of four, which has meant a thousand questions about death and birth, and I’ve been dancing in between the real and fictional universe, trying to draw lines in the air that help make the distinction between the two a little clearer to Declan without diminishing the fun and beauty of fiction and fantasy.

Enter questions like:

“Will Santa Claus ever die?”

“Will I ever be trapped in a warp bubble?” (In a kid world where I keep meeting Star Wars kids, mine is Star Trek kid, which I’ve found to be far less common, possibly because it’s easier to describe combat and war than it is to venture into “a warp bubble is a scientific theory, sweetie.”)

We’ve spent a fair amount of time discussing the fact that cartoon characters come out of someone’s imagination, even if they do regular-people type things. Then he sees commercials for things like Dora Live! where cartoon characters seem suddenly touchable. He gets really excited and yells “MOMMY, WE NEED TO GO SEE DORA LIVE! WE NEED TO SEE THE PLACE WHERE DORA EXISTS IN OUR WORLD! DORA! IS IN! OUR! WORLD!”

Sesame Street is one of those shows that I love most of all, but can be hard to explain because of the combo of real people and puppets. Brian Williams recently guest starred on Sesame Street and reported on all of the characters coming down with a case of “Mine-itis.” A chicken kept stealing his microphone and yelling “MINE!” (As much as Dec loves science and documentaries that seem way beyond him, he also loves to get his little kid on.)

So last night, as I was explaining that the president was about to give a speech that was really important to mommy, Brian Williams appeared. Declan’s brow furrowed. He grabbed my chin and turned my face to the screen.

“Mommy? Does Brian Williams live in our world?”

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Things I did not know a month ago

1. When a distant star shakes and shimmies ever so slightly (visible only through a high-powered telescope), that’s a good indication that it has planets orbiting around it. The gravitational pull of big dudes like Jupiter and Saturn are most likely make their suns go a-quiver, which is why most of the exoplanets that astronomers have discovered are gas giants, not the bitty Earth-like places.

2. Even as the lone male dancer in a ballet class that wasn’t about space, my son loved to dance. He wants to stay in ballet lessons. People have told me that there are good scholarships out there for boys. I need to find out if that’s true.

3. It is possible to be winded by a sixty-second run one day, and find yourself running 20 minutes in a row without falling down dead five weeks later.

4. When your child begins to develop a real connection to visual art, it’s a beautiful thing. Especially when that connection involves imitating a piece by saying “I QUIT!” loudly and doing a faceplant on the floor in the middle of a Downtown gallery.

5. Letting your only child hang out with a couple of families that have three kids is an awesome reminder that left to their own devices, kids can and will work a lot of stuff out without your help.

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Baby’s first punch in the head

We spent some time on the playground today after camp – a common ritual for us. Declan spent much of the time playing spirited games with a group of kids, during which a crater in the dirt became a massive, sucking black hole they had to escape from (Dec’s idea) which became a giant’s hand that they had to escape from (another boy’s idea) because the giant would throw them into the black hole.

After most of the kids were out of mortal peril, Declan approached an older, bigger boy who was mid-play and started talking to him, putting his hands on the toy he was using. The boy seemed to have a problem with this. After a few words of protest, he reached over and popped Dec on the forehead with a downward fist.

Declan took a step backward.

“Why did you do that?” he said, and retreated to another part of the playground as I started to swoop in, as did the other boy’s mommy. I saw Dec’s lip quiver as he walked away, blinking back tears. I asked if he was okay and he fell silent, running his fingers over the chain-link fence. After a moment or two of not responding to me, or to the other mom’s questions about whether or not he was okay, he turned to me, and asked, quietly:

“Mommy, was _____ trying to hit someone that was behind me?”

“No, I… I think he meant to hit you,” I said, honestly.

“Why? Why would he do that?” he asked, clearly hurt by my answer.

“I don’t know, honey… I think he was having a hard time finding his words. But I think it’s good you walked away. No one should ever hurt you. You can say ‘don’t do that’ or ‘stop.’ Or get a grown-up to help you. You have the right to keep your body safe.”

He didn’t want to talk to the other boy about how he felt, or say anything much at all to anyone after that. The other boy and his mother left. Dec walked alone in swervy lines and ignored a littler boy who came up to him and asked “do you need someone to play with?” the kind of invitation that Dec is usually receptive to. Finally, he dragged me by my hand, with a “let’s go mom.” And so we did.

We went down the street to get some lunch, coincidentally, at the restaurant where the other boy and his mom had also retreated. Declan pointed this out to me without any hint of fear or animosity, just another one of those “wow, that person likes something I like/does something I do” discoveries, which seem to be such an endless source of fascination for him lately.

I’m kind of glad that his reaction after his initial hurt feelings was in the spectrum of “maybe this didn’t have to do with me.” It’s not that I want him to be naive or easy to blindside, but I do think that when we believe that the world – or particular people – are out to get us, and we behave as though we believe that, we invite discord and bring unhappiness upon ourselves. We turn another person’s bad day or their poor communication skills or their lack of confidence or their aversion to orange shirts into something that’s entirely about us when none, or very little of it, actually is. On the whole, I think I’ve seen more damage done in reaction to perceived harms than I have in premeditated ones, at least in my personal experience.

The first year of preschool has taught me a lot. I know and care about and have tried to understand the behavior of a lot of young children. Six months ago, I think I would have had a hard time seeing another kid hit mine without wanting to throw that boy or girl over the fence. Today, I honestly felt hurt for both boys immediately, and for the other mom, who had been in the middle of sharing a bagel with me and telling me about some truly hard things that had been happening in their family when it happened. With so many people around, I hated that she might feel judged. (Moms judging other moms harshly or second-guessing their parenting abilities – I know it’s common fodder for the blogosphere, but I may have to take a crack at it sometime. It makes me so uncomfortable.)

Tonight, Declan amazed me just before he went to sleep, when he suddenly cracked open about his whole day. While the incident left him confused, he was more upset over an argument he had with a friend at camp that he’s known for some time.

“He doesn’t know how to use words, he just yells at me when he doesn’t like something. Today we were just arguing and arguing,” he told me. “Why do people get mad when they have different ideas? Why do people just want to be left alone sometimes?”

I reminded him about the little boy who asked him to play when he was feeling bad today, and how he didn’t really respond. I told him that sometimes people need time to figure out what they are feeling. Or that maybe they are feeling bad because of something we have no idea about – like they pinched their finger on the tool bench or had a nightmare the night before or are coming down with a bad case of diarrhea and aren’t feeling so good.

To which he responded: “why do people get diarrhea if they eat snow?”

Ah, life’s biggest questions, percolating daily.

We also watched this today and laughed a whole lot.

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The dawning facts of life

The boy woke up before 6 a.m. the other day, wide-eyed and full of questions, starting with:

“Mommy, when I was an egg in your womb, how did I break out of my shell?”

“Um, human eggs are soft, not hard like the chicken eggs you saw hatching at school. They are a teeny tiny cell.”

“I don’t have a very hard nose like that.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Did you have other eggs inside of you?”

“Thousands, I think..?”

“Will you have a thousand other babies?”

“Heavens, no!”

“Why won’t those other eggs become babies?”

“Because mommy and daddy decided especially that we wanted to have a baby when we had you.”

“But how… why did I grow from an egg?”

“Because daddy gave mommy another cell to make you grow from both of us.”

“How did it get in there? Did he cut you open?”

“No, he was very nice about it.”

Naturally, I was caught off guard by these questions (particularly at the hour when they were asked), and I got out of the larger conversation that day by asking if we could talk about it after mommy has more sleep (and then both of us oversleeping for his camp). I expect we’ll resume the conversation soon.

So… I’ve got the old “Where Did I Come From” book from when I was a child, and lots of human body/science books that show the whole sperm meets egg thing – any book recommendations for presenting the real deal narrative with good science?

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The possibilities of a painting

My brother and I grew up looking at this painting. I remember laying on the shag carpet in the family room when I was a kid, staring up at it. It informed the ways that we each made our first pieces of art. I remember sculpting and drawing people that looked like these for as long as I could draw. My brother has, at different points, asked if we could share it, if it could live with him for a while. His wife has told me she’d rather we didn’t. She’s very content to see at my house and not hers. My husband wouldn’t mind if we saw it at theirs. I guess having an affinity for it must be genetic.

Declan was looking at it this morning. He decided the pink circle must be the moon. I asked him what else he saw in the painting.

“I don’t know, what is it?” he asked.

“Well, this a painting. A painting can have whatever you see in it,” I said. “There’s no right or wrong.”

My son, who has a touch of perfectionism that makes him want the right answer most of the time, seemed freed by this. He started pointing at different things, explaining what they could be. (I put several of his comments in notes of the image on flickr. If you click through, you can see how he describes it.)

In fact, this painting was made by a nun. It depicts her survival of sexual abuse. I never saw this in it. It never felt that menacing or sad to me. I was much older when I learned its origin, and still, I find a sense of strength and joy in it.

I’ve got to make sure I get my son to look at art more often. It’s liberating.

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