Monthly Archives: June 2009

Rejecting Yertle

“Every now and then I am tempted to audition them for a commercial so we can put the money into their college savings, but there’s just no way I’d do that.”

Wanda gave me a look.  “I hate to tell you, but your kids can’t be in a commercial.  They aren’t well enough behaved.  They’d get fired.”

I briefly imagined Benjamin knocking over cameras and lighting equipment, then running cackling from the child handler with Giraffie hanging out of his mouth.  “That’s not true.  Zachary can behave.”

“But he doesn’t have the personality for it,” she pointed out.

“Ah, so what we’d need is Benjamin’s gregariousness with Zachary’s willingness to do what he’s told.”  I felt like Dorothy, wondering if there is such a child.  There must be, because the commercials are lousy with kids.  Just not my kids, who lack the requisite combination of showmanship and obedience.

There are, however, things they are good at.  Very, very good at.  I won’t get into details here, because I am cautious with what I write about them, but suffice it to say that they are not without their abilities.  And I don’t just mean their obvious talent for complete and total mayhem.

When I wrote last week about Michael Jackson’s ruined life, I wasn’t just talking about child actors.  I was talking about the need to push children to accomplish things.  Whether it be getting into the gifted program or being the star of the soccer team, there is nothing more destructive than taking a child’s gift and turning it into fodder for the spotlight.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not at all opposed to gifted programs or chess camp or what have you.  Sometimes, a highly gifted child can only feel normal if she is among others like her.  I am all for helping kids find an environment in which they are comfortable and in which they can feel like they are among their peers.  However, I think there is a lot of push to make children stand out, be better than their peers.

We want all our children to be from Lake Wobegone.  I am here to argue that perhaps there is something to be said for allowing our children to be average and for teaching them that Cs are just fine sometimes.  Nothing is a greater gift for an unusual child than to find an environment that challenges her without making her feel like she must be number one.  Hell, all kids can use that.

What it comes down to is a societal worship of success, which is a kissing cousin of the societal worship of celebrity.  Even most of those who eschew monetary success or fame are determined to be the top of their game, whatever their game may be.  Whether it’s making millions or being the most selfless of the social workers or being the crunchiest mama on the block, we spend a lot of time trying to stand out.  I know a lot of my struggle lately has been disappointment that I am not remarkable.

Being remarkable didn’t make Michael Jackson happy, and pushing my kids to excel may be a disservice.  If they are on the swim team, I want them always to work to beat their own records, but there is a fine line between instilling that work ethic and pushing them to bring home the ribbons.  A talent should bring joy to the possessor and should be used to serve the community.  All too often, we instead use our talents to shove our way to the top, where we perch miserably looking out at our kingdom, before sometimes falling ignominiously into the mud.

So, no, you probably won’t be seeing my kids in a commercial anytime soon, and not just because Benjamin would pour coffee all over the director and Zachary would eat all the doughnuts.  J and I want them to grow up without the ethos we ourselves both have – the need to prove ourselves to some audience out there.  In the end?  Most of the audience is too busy trying to succeed to even notice.

Change the story

Benjamin, although almost three, has hitherto shown absolutely no interest in those squiggly little lines that his elders keep referring to as “letters.”  He is far too busy leaping off of the furniture to pay attention to something the grown-ups deem important.  So, when we did the Super Why pretest, predictably the only letter he knew was “O.”

With Zachary, on the other hand, I did not even bother with the letter activities.  He is working on reading, and the skills presented by Alpha Pig are far beneath his notice.  He was able to identify all the words in the activities because he figures them out from initial sounds, a practice that works very well for him until he needs to differentiate between the words “candy” and “colonoscopy.”

The program is designed to progress through a series of skills, but the fact is that watching a show and doing a few activities is not going to get a kid who doesn’t even notice letters suddenly to read words.  Benjamin needed to stay at the Alpha Pig level, while Zachary was hanging with Princess Presto and Super Why.  Wonder Red was very lonely.

We adapted the activities, as one always has to with these things.  Zachary was all about roaming the house putting letters on the appropriate objects.  Benjamin just wanted to jump from the couch shouting “I’m Super Why.  With the powertoread I can changethestory and SAVE THE DAY!”  Not so much interest in acquiring the power to read, unfortunately.

“Come play Super Why with me!” he commands, 73 times a day.  So, one day after lunch, I acquiesced.  I made Super Letters from the boys’ names and went out to hang them around the back yard, which is not very big so it was pretty easy to find them.  Not the point, however, as Zachary helped his brother find and identify the letters in his name.

Later, when he told me I was the princess locked in the castle by the evil dragon (played by his nine-month-old sister, who obliviously sat there eating a fireman) and he was Super Why, I suggested that, instead of dragging me from the castle, perhaps he could change the story and make his sister a nice dragon.  Or perhaps lock me in an ice cream shop.  He did change the story, but he still kept trying to rescue me from the ice cream store, despite my protestations that I’d prefer to be left there for a few days.

Benjamin is a rather imaginative child.

Meanwhile, Zachary was tearing through the activities, learning his “-ALL words” from the worksheets and the show.  Benjamin?  Still cannot identify any letter other than an O and the first letter of his brother’s name.

However, a few days into the Super Why obsession, I noticed something: suddenly, the boy was asking about letters.  “Look!  Super Letters!” he exclaims.  “Mommy, what that Super Letter?”  He hasn’t quite learned to tell them apart, but for the first time he actually has decided learning the alphabet is worth his time.

That is what I define as success.  Each child learned according to his own age and ability.

The problems with the program of activities came from the fact that Super Why is the leader of the pack.  Both boys always want to play him.  No one wants to be Alpha Pig, which means we didn’t bother trying to “become” the characters, as that would just lead to fisticuffs over who gets to be Super Why, leaving all thought of actual words far behind.

It seems that a disproportionate number of the lead characters on these kids’ shows are male.  Yes, they are usually ensemble casts, but everyone knows that Super Why is where it’s at – not Wonder Red – just as the kids all know Leo from Little Einsteins is in charge of Rocket.  Yes, some girls probably identify with Wonder Red or Princess Presto, but that doesn’t make them the leaders.

Of all the shows my kids like, I can only think of one where the lead character is female: Charlie and Lola.  The boys like her, despite her being a different gender, which leads me to think that kids probably just prefer whomever is the lead character of a show.  We don’t watch Dora because Zachary finds the Map scary, so we’re left with Lola and a whole passel of male leads.

This reminds me of conversations we used to have in Ed School about the books we read in English classes, a disproportionate number of which have male protagonists.  There seems to be an implicit belief that girls will relate fine to male protagonists but boys need males to draw them in.

Because I know the folks at PBS Kids are eager to create quality programming, I am betting they have a show with a female lead in the works.  A show that can teach my sons and my daughter that females can run the show.  After all, that’s the best way to change the story and save the day.

In the meantime, we’ll keep playing Super Why. Zach’s word recognition is growing daily due to the show, as is his willingness to sound out words.  Ben is finally showing some interest in letters.  Just last night, after the baby’s evening activity of pulling all our cookbooks off the shelves, Benjamin sat at the kitchen table with River Road Recipes.

“Mommy!  Super letters!” he cried.

Gonna’ have the whole world on a plate

Facebook  is crawling with Jackson clips.  Watching them, I see snapshots from his first twenty-five years.  There is the stunning “I’ll Be There” and the groundbreaking 1983 “Billie Jean,” but there is nothing from the last two decades.  This may be because people want to respect the dead and show those moments when he really was the pinnacle of charisma and talent, rather than remembering him for what he became.

But what he became started with those clips.  He was a talented child who was thrust into the limelight, perhaps willingly but certainly far too young.  What that early fame did to his psyche?  Well, that’s the stuff of speculation, but I think we all have a rough idea.

He was pushed out into a fame that most adults would be ill-prepared to handle, but Jackson was only a small child, barely older than my eldest son, who still sleeps with his blankie and rides in a car seat.  That he could perform so well under those circumstances is astonishing; that he ever was put into that situation in the first place is tragic.

Sometimes, our children are capable of amazing feats.  They may be gifted in some activity, able to provoke gasps of astonishment from onlookers.  We will be tempted to push them forward, bedazzled by the possibility that they will accomplish something great.  When that happens, we must remind ourselves that normalcy is the highest joy to which we can aspire for them.  A life lived in peace, a productive life that gives back, to be sure, but one that allows them to attend neighborhood block parties.  Perhaps they will become famous – it happens sometimes – or perhaps they will be known only to a small circle of people like the rest of us.  Let’s leave that to their adulthood.

What I want most for my children right now is for them to have their childhoods.  I will take pride in their accomplishments and I will push them to develop a work ethic, but I will always try to remember that being alone at the top is often counter to living a fulfilling life.  When they die, perhaps millions of people will mourn them, perhaps not.  Either way, all that will matter will be that they filled their days with a joy that tasted like peaches.

Floating around the internet

I am posting over at LA Moms Blog today, and I would love if you could go over there, because I actually had something substantive(ish) to say.  I also have a new post up on Edge of the Page — please do head on over there.

My follow-up to Super Why will post next week.

Questions (part 2)

Having covered the topic of homelessness ad naseum for the past few weeks, I figured my son was taking a break from the difficult questions.  Sure, he still wanted to know exactly how deep into the earth is the hot lava and whether anyone has ever dug that far, but questions like those felt like softballs.

Sometimes in the afternoon, we go for a long walk.  His brother likes to stay home with the au pair because, hey, it means he gets all the toys to himself.  So, Zachary, Lilah and I head out with the double stroller.  Keep to yourself your opinions about my letting an almost-five-year-old ride in the stroller.  It is late in the day, he could use some down time, and I want to get some real exercise, rather than stopping every 72 seconds to remind him to keep walking.

We were on our usual route, but I crossed over to the other side of the street to keep the baby in the shade.  Our neighborhood, while modest by West L.A. standards, is for the most part well kept-up.  There are a few more impressive houses (I hear Tori Spelling lives in one), and there are definitely a few that have seen better days.  We pass one crumbling house, such as exists in every neighborhood, with paint peeling and overgrown grass browning in the yard.  Piled high all around it are bags and bags of rubbish, all neatly tied away in plastic grocery bags.  They are along every side of the house, stacked several feet high, even blocking a couple of the exits.

We have stumbled upon the home of the neighborhood schizophrenic.

I have seen her about, rummaging through people’s bins and making off with their recycling.  A friend told me she cannot stop herself; she feels some compulsion to take trash home with her.  She is a harmless embodiment of the “one man’s trash” maxim.

“Look, Mommy.  Look at all that trash!” Zachary says.  Lilah, as usual, kicks her feet and smiles.

“I see, baby.  That’s a lot of trash, huh?”

Predictably, he asks me, “Why do they keep all that trash?”

Fuuuuuck.  We just finished with homelessness.  Now, we’re on to the related topic of mental illness?  But, of all the things I have done as a parent, the only one I have done right is be honest.  I don’t tell more than I have to, but I always, always answer him truthfully.  He knows that and relies upon it, and I will not betray that trust.

“OK.  You know how sometimes people get sick in their bodies?  You know, like when you have a stomachache?”  I look down and see that sandy head nodding.  “Well, sometimes people get sick inside their brains, too.  And the lady who lives there is sick inside her brain, so her brain tells her that she needs to collect lots and lots of garbage and keep it at her house.”

“That doesn’t seem reasonable,” he replies, which is kind of the point here.

“Well, because she is sick inside her head, she isn’t reasonable,” I reply.  “That’s exactly it.”  Now, I know my little dude, and I know there is a very good chance he is sitting there in that stroller trying to figure out if maybe he is likely to get sick inside his head.  Assessing the likelihood that he will end up wandering the neighborhood, rummaging through recycling bins.  “But don’t worry.  Mommy and Daddy are too old to get schizophrenia.  And you are too young,” I assure him.  Strictly, this is untrue, but the onset is usually in the twenties, and for him that is far, far too old to imagine ever being.

I consider it wise to avoid mentioning that my aunt had schizophrenia so severe that I spent much of my tween years fearing I would become like the woman who terrified and disgusted me.   I also leave out the part about schizophrenia running in families.  There is truth and then there is too much information.

Questions (part one)

I am trying to navigate along Ohio under the 405, wondering whether to continue along towards Westwood or turn on Sepulveda; the latter is faster but the turn at Olympic can be a bitch.  Lilah is starting to fuss and sounds in danger of falling asleep before we get home, which means her afternoon nap will last for all of eight minutes in the car.  Benjamin hollers “louder!” every time I turn Peter and the Wolf down below 107 decibels.  What I really don’t need right now is a Discussion.

“If that man is homeless, how did he get clothes?” Zachary asks from the back of the minivan.

“Maybe someone gave them to him,” I reply, pulling up to yet another red light.  “You know how when our clothes don’t fit anymore we give them to Goodwill?  Maybe someone gave those clothes to Goodwill.”

“But how did he have the money to buy them, is what I am asking.”

“The people at Goodwill gave them to him.”

“But at Goodwill you have to buy the things,” he insists.

I sigh.  It’s one of those conversations.  Lilah has quieted down and is moving her feet, so she appears to be content listening to her brother.  “I think that they sell some things, but they give other things to the homeless people,” I reply, knowing full well there is more coming.

Zachary thinks for a moment.  “I think he had those clothes before he became homeless.”

“That’s a distinct possibility.”  I turn right at Bristol Farms onto Westwood as Peter is dangling a rope from the tree in his effort to catch the wolf.  We’re quiet for a minute, almost until the light turns green at Santa Monica.

“But, Mommy, how does someone become homeless?”  Crap.  I should have known better than to imagine I was getting off that easy.

How do I make him understand that the world is unfair and people are not on the streets because they are lazy without making him anxious that at any moment we could be out in the streets?  Because, frankly, the kid is anxious enough already.  I stammer through a reply about not having enough money to pay for a house, hitting the left turn signal at Olympic and hoping the conversation is over.

“I am going to have seven jobs,” he tells me.  This I have heard before, as he is convinced he won’t get bored if he has a different job for each day of the week.  Lately, his career goals have centered around paleontology, and he hopes to run a graveyard someday as a way of familiarizing himself with bones.  Yeah, because this particular child ought to be spending his time around dead people.

Now he has a new reason to want multiple jobs.  “Because I don’t want to be homeless.”  Zachary seems to think if he works incessantly he can shore himself up against the vagaries of life and fortune.  Go tell that to all the unemployed I-Bankers

We are home safely, and the conversation pauses for the unstrapping of car seats and the carrying of lunch boxes.  It does not resume, in fact, for several days, until one afternoon when I am taking all three children down the street to the bank.  We pass a homeless man in a wheelchair, smoking a cigarette and reading a book smack dab in the middle of the sidewalk outside Boston Market.

Zachary stares.  “He shouldn’t be smoking,” he tells me.  Somehow the cigarette is more noteworthy than the wheelchair or the bags filled with stuff.

We get to the bank, where I cash some checks from other parents so I can assemble the monetary gift we are presenting to the teachers.  Benjamin amuses himself by doing his own version of a pole dance on the barriers that form the teller line, eventually bringing them crashing to the floor.  He then proceeds to grab all of the pamphlets on opening an account, ensuring they cannot be returned to their display by breaking the little plastic holder.

We barely make it out the door without him staging a bank robbery.

On the way home, the smoker is sitting outside Boston Market, reading.  “Why is he still sitting there reading?” Zachary asks loudly.

“I’ll tell you in a moment,” I answer.  We walk a few steps further away.  “Well, did you notice all the things on his wheelchair?”


“So, why do you think he has all his stuff with him?”

“Because he’s homeless?” Zach replies.

“That’s right.  So, he doesn’t have a house where he can read.  So he’s reading right here.”  This strikes Zachary as rather sensible, allowing me to avoid a conversation about mental illness, which doesn’t come up for another week.  But, homelessness keeps coming up, in part because there seem to be a hell of a lot more people on the streets these days.  In fact, the only time we do not see homeless people is when we specifically pack a lunch to give to someone, and then suddenly, all the “Hungry” signs disappear.

My son clearly is worried, because that is what he does best.  Finally, one day, I get down to eye level.  “Zach, you’re asking a lot of questions about homelessness.  I want you to understand that we are not going to be homeless.  Do you understand?”  He nods, staring at me earnestly, waiting to hear more.  “We have enough money for all the things we need and some of the things we want.  And even if we didn’t have any money, even if Daddy lost his job and I couldn’t find one, we would go live with Grandma and Grandpa.  Or Uncle M and Aunt A.  We have plenty of people who would let us live with them.  You are not going to be homeless.”

He smiles and nods, and I think he gets it.  I have not been 100% truthful, because of course it could happen to anyone, but we do have a pretty wide safety net of friends and family, and I have managed to reassure him without making him think that homeless people are in some way responsible for their fate or could have prevented it.

Before we had kids, J used to joke about the “Why is the sky blue?” phase, but we covered that question eight months ago, along with clouds, evaporation, and molecules.  These days, almost five years into being a parent, I would give my eyeteeth for a question as simple as that.

Part two will post tomorrow.

Father’s Day

I may have mentioned before that we are having a bit of trouble potty training Benjamin.  For one glorious week last summer, I was certain we had the process well underway, as the child was conducting both forms of business in the proper location.  I gave the prizes I had bought and stored in the closet, hoping to encourage such behavior.  And then, he just stopped.  Pee?  Yeah, he’d do it whenever we brought him in.  But the other part?  No dice.

That was eleven months ago.  Ever since then, a lone Nerf football has gathered dust in my closet, waiting to be presented as a prize for pooping on the toilet.  For a total of twelve months, we have been faithfully taking that child to the bathroom, encouraging him to pee, and waiting for his tail end to catch up with the program.

We have gotten all forms of helpful advice from people who clearly didn’t know what the hell they were talking about.  My favorite was “Back off a little.  He’s still young.  You’re putting on too much pressure.”  Oh, thank GOD you suggested that.  Because we hadn’t considered that option.  (Mutters something under her breath about idiots and the months during which we said nothing to Benjamin about pooping on the potty.)

What no one thought to tell us was that if we let him go around in his birthday suit, he would not poop on the floor, even though he had no trouble letting go in underpants.  Really?  No one could mention that helpful little tidbit?  Y’all had to wait for us to figure it out ourselves?

One evening, J said to me, “You know, every time he feels he has to poop when he’s n@ked, he gets really freaked out and runs into the bathroom.  Maybe we should let him go n@ked for awhile.”

“For awhile” turned out to be something nigh on a month.  He rarely pooped at school, so we sent him in underpants, which usually came home dry and clean.  But, in the house, he was nekkid as the day he was born.  Two cheeks to the wind.  Goin’ commando.

It got to the point where I was just done with seeing p-nises.  Everyday, no matter where I looked, there seemed to be little boy parts: sitting to do a puzzle, watching his evening TV, eating dinner.  I never realized that half the reason people wear clothing is that nudity is so freaking dull.

Yes, he seemed to become much more aware of his… um… urges, but all I wanted was to cover that junk up.  And, he still wasn’t using the fucking toilet to poop.  He got better and better at peeing, but he would wait till nap or bedtime to do his other business.  Eventually, he did sometimes ask us for a pull-up when he had the urge, but we could not rely on it enough to return him to the tribe of People Who Wear Clothing.

There were a few side-effects to the Great Nudity Campaign because it provided much greater awareness not only of his urine but of the tool for urine elimination.  Suddenly, he spent pretty much all the time with one hand on the family jewels.  Giraffie blankie in his mouth, one hand for whatever activity he was engaged in, and one hand permanently fiddling.  In addition, he and his brother started designing new games entitled, originally, “P-nis.”  Mostly, it consisted on pretending some large object was their new organ of manliness and comparing sizes.

To me, as a woman, the p-nis is just not that interesting, beyond its obvious uses.  I had absolutely no idea that males are endlessly fascinated by that thing.  I bet if you asked most men to pick one item to bring to a desert island, they would respond, “Why would I need anything else?  I’ve got all I need right here.”

But, then, on Friday evening, my husband sat with Benjamin as he read his toy catalogs on the toilet.  And sat.  And sat.  The kid wanted so badly, so very, very badly, to poop.  And his patient, patient father sat there, encouraging and talking through the procedure.  And a tiny little bit of poop came out.

That damned Nerf football could finally come out of the closet.

The first thing out of the child’s mouth upon seeing the picture on the wrapping was, “I need a hat for football.”  Whereupon we promised him that, should he continue the miracle, we would gladly get him a Redskins helmet.  Hell, we would have bought the entire team if he’d asked for it at this point.

Saturday morning, I stopped at our neighbor’s yard sale, hoping to find a few extra prizes to have on hand.  “No princesses?” I asked as I rummaged through a box of dolls, since Benjamin has a bit of a princess fetish.   I bought a few puzzles and was walking away when one of the daughters ran over and pushed a bag of plastic princess figures into my hands.

It’s a damned good thing she did, because not two hours later, I found myself sitting in the bathroom with my son for 40 minutes as he read his catalogs and periodically shouted, “The poopy’s coming!”  When it finally arrived, I was able to pull Cinderella out of my back pocket and present her to my very proud child.

I looked for Father’s Day cards for my husband but walked away empty-handed.  They just didn’t have one that read, “Happy Father’s Day to the dad who notices that nudity helps potty training, earnestly coaches his son through a paralyzing fear of pooping on the toilet, and then rewards him with a football, a helmet, and a Cinderella doll, all prior to spending Father’s Day afternoon in urgent care getting the same child’s head glued back together after an unrelated run-in with the corner of a desk.”

I think I should write for Hallmark.