Monthly Archives: May 2010

On grandmothers and board games

I check in on Zachary fifteen minutes after putting him to bed.  He is awake.  Although he has discovered that the testing is really quite easy, it threw off his sleep patterns.  I sit down on the edge of his bed.

“What’s wrong, my sweet?”

“I’m going to have bad dreams,” he tells me.  “Someone brought in Spider Man checkers today.”  We chat for a few minutes about Spider Man checkers and board games in general.  He is quite sure that he is stupid – that he always loses the games.

“You know, you changed my life when you were born.”  I am thinking of the way he taught me about unconditional love and parenting, opened up a world of emotions that people who have parents come to understand in childhood.

“I know,” he says again.  “You stopped teaching when you had me.”

“That’s true.  But I’m sure sometime I’ll teach again.”

“You know, people who have children still can teach,” he tells me.

“I know, but I wanted to be here for you guys.”

“Well, if my grandparents lived in town, maybe my grandma could take care of me while you taught.”  Then, silliness kicks in.  “Or, maybe grandma could teach for you while you took care of us.  No, that would be backward.  I think grandma better take care of us while you teach.”

“That’s true.  If she lived here…”

“But grandma doesn’t really take care of us,” he remarks, as though taking care of someone implies boring.  “She plays with us.”  Which, in case you were wondering, his mother does not do.

“That’s true.  She’s a pretty fun grandma.”

“She’s the best grandma.”

“That’s right,” I reply.  “There isn’t a better one out there.”

He smiles.  “You’re joking!”

“No, you got the best grandma,” I assure him.  He looks at me, all earnestness.  Then he speaks.

“I think your mother would have been just as good.”

Sense and sexuality

When I was a first-year teacher, I directed a group of high schoolers in a play and included a scene in which two of the characters got hot and heavy on the couch.  It was all strictly first-base, and it was mostly staged, so I was quite surprised that several people on the staff felt the scene was inappropriate.

Looking back, the scene itself was not inappropriate.  Had it been a scene that the two high schoolers had developed to perform, I think it would have fallen 100% under the heading of “Freedom of Artistic Expression.”  However, I was a teacher and I was the director.  I should have been a bit more sensitive to the discomfort those teens might have felt being asked to suck face in front of an audience.

At the time, I figured kids were doing a lot more, so it was not a big deal.  Now, I understand the distinction.  Teens are absolutely sexual creatures and they express that in their way.  But I was having them express not their sexuality but rather their characters’ sexuality.  It was done at my direction, and it was not an artistic rendition of their sexuality.

No one was scarred for life, and in the scheme of things, it was pretty damned benign.  Nonetheless, it was inappropriate, and if I had it to do over, I’d be more sensitive in how I staged the scene.

Assuming you are not in a coma, you’ve probably heard the controversy around then video of eight- and nine-year-old girls doing a dance routine to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.”  If, however, you are in a coma or have been preoccupied with administering standardized tests to kindergarteners, allow me to enlighten you:

OK, people.  I do think children are sexual creatures.  I have changed quite a number of diapers in my day, and I can tell you that kids are universally delighted when they discover that delightful little treasure that is contained within their diapers.  However, that kind of exploration – along with playing doctor, masturbation, and any number of other activities – is a personal expression of sexuality.  It comes from the kids, and it is childhood sexuality.

The problem with little girls bumping and grinding is that they are expressing adult sexuality, and they are doing at the direction of their parents or choreographer.

There is a world of difference.  It’s a distinction I did not understand as a director fifteen years ago, but I do understand it now.

Kids should be kids.  They should dress like kids and play like kids and – hell, yes – dance like kids.  Don’t tell me they love what they’re doing.  That’s fantastic.  Let ‘em love dance, just don’t teach them to dance like they are strippers.  Don’t act all outraged that people are not focusing on how much fun they are having – you made the damned dance inappropriate, so you took the focus off of the kids.

Don’t tell me the costumes are about movement and lines.  Um, ever heard of a leotard?  And, please, honey, don’t talk to me about rhinestones and ruffles.  Don’t insult my intelligence.  Because the issue with those costumes has nothing to do with rhinestones and ruffles.

Finally, don’t sit there and tell me that’s just what kids do in dance.  Because, if your kid is in an activity that requires her to dress like a two-bit hooker and shake her money-maker at an audience, maybe you oughta find her a new activity.

I’m just sayin’.

Scenes from last week; or, Cheese with that?

It’s 6:45 Tuesday morning.  I am exchanging emails with the kindergarten teacher, trying to schedule a time in the remaining few weeks of school for me to come read to the class.  Zach has been wistfully referring to the “guest readers” for months now, and I have finally taken the hint. The teacher – a new mom – has been up for hours and is cheerfully replying to my emails, wedging in an extra slot.

I do this all before dropping Zach at school.  He’ll go straight to the Y after morning kindergarten for Fun in the Afternoon.  The afternoon kindergarteners do Fun in the Morning.  This is how we extend half-day kindergarten.

I pick him up at two o’clock, waiting for ten minutes outside the classroom, which has a glass door.  I stand to the side of this glass door; the teacher doesn’t see me right away, so she calls several other children first. He scowls at me.  “You weren’t standing in the hallway.”

I give him the Sun Butter cookies I made.  It turns out that Joy of Cooking peanut butter cookies are just as tasty if you sub in honey for all the sugar, whole wheat flour for white flour, and Sun Butter for peanut butter, thereby rendering them acceptable even for nut-free classrooms.  By the time I was done tinkering, they were a mighty healthy treat, and Zach even likes the ones that were slightly overbaked.

We pick up his brother from preschool and go home.  I offer them more cookies, but explain there won’t be enough for everybody if they don’t also eat the darker ones.  “No fair!”  Zach yells.  “They’re disgusting!”

The boys rest a little, eat snack, refrain from beating one another up for the most part.  Lilah wakes up from nap and I nebulize her before we run out the door to go back to the Y.  We’re overscheduled, I know, but Zach loves the Tuesday afternoon art class and Ben needs to swim at least twice a week or he shrivels up into a ball.

Picking Zach up from the same classroom, I am careful this time to be standing on the opposite wall so I can be seen as soon as the teacher opens the door. She comes out and begins hanging pictures on the wall.  Finally, she sends out the kids.  “Guess which mask your child made!” she tells the parents.

I scrutinize the pictures, masks inspired by Native American art.  I know Zach’s style, and after a moment, I pick out the correct piece, much to his teacher’s surprise.  “No!” he pouts, sticking out his lip.  “I didn’t want you to guess.”

Because, apparently, knowing his artwork indicates some basic lack of concern for him.

In the car on the way home, I mention that I am going to be the guest reader.  “You know, you’ll need to pick a book for me to read to the class on Thursday.”

“The only books I like the other kids in the class won’t be into!” he mopes.

“You mean chapter books?”

“Yes.  I only want you to read chapter books.”

“But, honey, I can’t read a chapter book to the class.  I only have fifteen minutes.”  This, I think, is a reasonable response.

“The only books you can read are chapter books,” he insists.  “Or you can’t come in.”

In case you were wondering

We are no longer under contract.  The seller wouldn’t fix the knob and tube wiring.

I would write more about it, really I would, if it didn’t make me so tired to think about it.  And then I feel horrible and selfish for being upset, because we are lucky to have the means to buy a house and there are plenty of people with bigger problems than not being able to find a house to buy.

You know, like say the homeless.

Anyway, we’re back around to where we started, which is nowhere.  I think we may just pitch a tent in the woods and be done with it.  That’s all well and good except that this area has a substantial black bear population.

Testing… testing

Our school district – in its wisdom – decided that the kindergarteners need to do a week of standardized testing.  This despite the fact that half the kids can’t read and the other half will be too distracted by picking their noses for the test to have any validity. Now, normally, I would just chalk this up to a colossal waste of time and resources.


The kindergarten teachers felt they needed to reassure the kids that testing is not a big deal.  For a week and a half before the actual testing begins.

Yes, they announced to the kids a week and a half ago that there would be testing.  They had the children practice using privacy folders, which are meant to curtail the wandering eyes.  They told them to be sure not to tire themselves out, eat a good breakfast, and get plenty of rest.

Now, if you want to make sure that my particular kindergartener does not get plenty of rest, the best possible way to do so is to inform him a week and a half before you start testing that he is going to be tested.

He began by telling me he would need to miss tae kwon do on testing week.  I got his teacher to talk to him and explain that physical activity is actually a good thing to engage in.  She told him that testing really is nothing to worry about.

I repeated the message, as did his therapist.  I even went so far as to explain to him that the testing was just there to help figure out if the teachers are teaching the material well.

Clearly, he was unconvinced.  He has been awake for hours every night, eyes wide open, staring at the ceiling.  He fell apart on a playdate.  He has been hideous to his mother and brother.

OK, that last one has nothing to do with the testing, but I wanted to complain about it anyway.

Testing starts this morning.  It will last a week.  On the one hand, I am thrilled to get started so it will be over with soon.  On the other hand, I know this is just the beginning of two decades of this shit, starting with the kindergarten tests in which they have to identify which picture is three o’clock and ending in cold sweats for months before the LSATs.

I wonder if he’ll need a privacy folder for the Bar Exam.

Everything I need to know I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder

As we have already established, I have a somewhat unorthodox idea of what is appropriate children’s literature.  I prefer not to expose my kids to violence in its many forms – whether war or droids.  However, I don’t think sexuality – when explained in a healthy way – ought to be taboo.  My strange sense of propriety extends beyond books to life; I want to maintain their innocence about things like video games and Spongebob, but I have no problem explaining things like homelessness and bigotry.

As Zachary graduated to chapter books, I decided to start reading him the Little House series.  There were two things I did not realize.  One, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote a fuckload of books.  Two, my child would become completely engrossed.

We have been at this for about four months.  We have read eight-and-a-half Little House books, all the way from the Little House in the Big Woods of Wisconsin to the First Four Years of Laura’s marriage to Almanzo.  We are a year-and-a-half into those four years, after which we will be finished with the series.  I fear he may ask me to start reading other books about Wilder.

For awhile, he would get the picture book versions of the books on his weekly trips to the school library.  I am pretty sure he is the first kindergarten boy the librarian has ever seen who knows exactly where the Little House section is.  But, he soon tired of those watered-down versions.  He decided the writing was not up to his standards.

Apparently, my kid is a literary snob.

The books bring up some tough questions, and I do not censor Ma’s bigotry.  Instead, I discuss with him that her hatred of “Indians” is prejudice, and we talk about why that is so bad.  When we hit the minstrel show, it got a little more complicated.  Ever try explaining to a five-year-old why blackface is so offensive…?

I don’t mind these conversations.  He is learning history, and a part of that is coming to understand that attitudes are in many ways socially constructed.  He may not grasp all of this, but raising a child with any set of values is an ongoing process.  Frankly, it’s one of my favorite parts of parenting.

Not that the Little House mania has been all positive.  There have been a few unforeseen complications.  When he and his friends get together, they tend to play games themed around their obsessions – one friend loves dinosaurs, another Star Wars.  Lately it has been How to Train Your Dragon.  But, it’s hard to propose to a group of six-year-old boys, “Guys, I have an idea.  Instead of playing dinosaurs, let’s play Little House.  I’ll be Almanzo.  Who wants to play Carrie?”

And then there was the trip to the local living historical farm, which starts with a display of nineteenth-century farming implements.  As we walked in, Zachary walked up to the first display case.  “Oh, look!  A yoke!”  Turning to the next case, he exclaimed, “It’s a plow!  And a pitchfork!”

You don’t even want to know how excited he was to churn butter.

Of course, he was even more excited for Laura and Almanzo to get together.  You see, I had explained during Farmer Boy that the book was about Almanzo, who would grow to be the man Laura marries.  So, for all of The Long Winter, Little Town on the Prairie, and These Happy Golden Years, the kid would writhe with happy anticipation whenever Almanzo showed up.   Clearly, my child is a romantic.

Zach has gotten some queer notions about the way the world works from these books, however.  It took some time to explain exactly why Laura and her Ma both had to stop teaching once they got married.  And he hasn’t quite grasped that people don’t get married anymore straight out of their parents’ houses.  I had to explain that his teenaged babysitter is going to college, rather than finding a beau.

The books have taught him about engagement rings, a necessary education for all five-year-olds.  “Mommy, why do you have two rings?”

“One is my wedding ring, the other is my engagement ring.”

“Why did you marry Daddy and leave your parents’ house?” he asked, missing about ten years in the middle. “I bet you were glad to get away from your stepmother because she was mean, even though Daddy is sometimes stinky.”

“I didn’t marry Daddy right after I left. I went to college.”

“Did you go to college right after you left your stepmother?”

This was not a conversation I wanted to have in front of the sponge that is his three-year-old brother.  “Honey, can you come into the kitchen and I will be happy to explain it?”

He followed me in, and I bent down to his level.  I think my kids know when I am imparting important information, because I stop washing dishes and actually look at them.  “I didn’t leave when I went to college.  I left when I was about John’s age,” I explained, referring to our ten-year-old neighbor.

“Who did you live with?”

“My grandparents and then my aunt.”

“But you were happy to leave your stepmother,” he repeated.

“That’s true.  I was happy to get away from my stepmother.”

“Because stepmothers are mean.”

“No,” I said.  “My stepmother was mean.  But not all of them are.”

“Why was she mean?” he asked, a question I dreaded only slightly less than the other possibility: how was she mean?

“I don’t know.”

“Maybe she didn’t like you?”

“Well, that’s true.  She didn’t like me.”

Never one to be deterred, he pressed on.  “Why didn’t she like you?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t know why a grown-up wouldn’t like a child.  Why do you think?”  At this point, I was hoping to get a sense of what he thought the issues were, so that I was not giving more information than he was actually asking for.  However, he had no idea why a grown-up would dislike a child, and the conversation stopped there.

But I am left with it, this knowledge that the conversations are rapidly creeping up on me.  He is asking more and more, wanting to process my life, to fit it into the world that he knows.  And, unlike the middle child – whose pleas of “tell me about when you were a little girl” can be assuaged with “I liked to climb trees” – this one is old enough to handle parts of the truth.

I just wish I could maintain his innocence a little bit longer.

You’re never fully dressed without a similie

Benjamin is three-going-on-four, and he is going on four hard.  He stands with one hand on baby and another on boy and is pushing hard in either direction.  He wants to fit in with the big boys.  He bursts with enthusiasm when his brother’s friends include him and howls with frustration when the older children leave him behind.  But for all his protestations of maturity, he wiggles deep into babyhood, only to find himself stuck there and screaming to get out.

Much of his anger flies at me.  I am the primary caregiver, and he is a middle child, angry that his sister gets babied and his brother gets grown-up time.  Of all our children, he is the only one who needs someone to lie down with him at night.  He simply cannot bring himself down from the highs and lows of the day without another heartbeat to help him find a steady rhythm.  Sometimes he snuggles in, pressing his muscular little body into us, but other times he kicks, fights, and punches.

He does this especially with me.  The instinct is to pull away, to show him that violence makes me leave.  But, last week, it occurred to me that he was testing to see if I’d walk away, make the other two – the ones who flank him – the priority because they are easier.  So, I stayed, pinned him in a bear hug, and told him, “I’m not going away.  But I won’t let you hurt me.”

It has worked, and evenings have gotten calmer.  But he is a tough cookie, all bluster and bravado on the outside, despite the deeper need and sensitivity.  He just wears himself out sometimes, fighting to be a five-and-a-half year old and a nineteen-month-old all at the same time.

Saturday, he needed a nap, although he has long given up a regular naptime.  One of his brother’s friends was coming over for dinner, and there was no way Ben was going to make it through the night.  I took him upstairs to lie down with me, whereupon he tried every technique he could come up with to avoid falling asleep.  Wiggling, hitting, general noisiness.  He also tried talking, which is his absolute favorite hobby.

Of course, he talked about his favorite topic – other than weapons and violence – Lucy.

“Lucy is really, really strong,” he told me.

“Is she?”

“She’s as strong as a tree.  She’s as strong as a grown-up tree,” he went on.  And there it was.  His very first simile.

That’s my baby.