Motherhood, insanity and everyday life.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Kill 'Em With Kindness

The other night, my husband and I attended a talk at our daughter’s grade school given by a child psychologist. She was speaking to us about parenting techniques. She was highly recommended by parents from another school in the area. We found her to be very animated, outgoing and funny, which in my book should be the criteria for anyone that speaks to me in a group setting. I mean, honestly, I’m 45 years old, a member of the TV generation and I have the attention span of a 5-year old. If I have to sit still and hear something serious, I am so falling asleep. Don’t believe me? Watch me in my car when I’m waiting to pick up my daughter from school: zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Anyway, this psychologist, we’ll call her Dr. Mary, decided to pick on ME first out of all of the parents there. She asked what problem I was having with my children. What I should have said was: “How long do we have tonight?” Instead, I just said: “Attitude. Teenage attitude.” This was enough and launched her into a discussion of how this was perfectly normal and she proceeded to give out various tips and techniques for successfully dealing with teens with attitude.

Then, another mom asked how she could get her kids to do something without having to ask 10 times. Dr. Mary then explained that the best approach is to compliment the child first and then ask them to do something. Ohhhhhh, that’s all I have to do? Doh! I could have been doing this years ago. It’s that simple, really? OK, I’m going to practice now:

“Honey, that mold culture that you’re growing on your bedroom floor under your dirty clothes is really colorful! Could you please throw your underwear down the laundry chute this month?”


“Wow, 265 people on your buddy list! That’s quite an accomplishment. Please make sure you start on your homework before 10:30 pm tonight.”


“I’m so impressed by the variety of ringtones on your cell phone! Could you please hang up so that we can get to school on time?”

Huh. Who knew that parenting was this easy? Actually, all I could really think when she suggested this technique was: “Have you talked to a teenager recently?” It’s not that I’m questioning her credentials or her experience, but in my house, complimenting a teenager sends up a red flag faster than the word “like” will fly out of her mouth. Teens are, by nature, cynical and skeptical, which is exactly how we moms got that way too. If we say something nice to each other, the first thought is: “What does she want?” It just seems like there should be something a little more stealth like reprogramming their brain stems while they sleep.

Still, I have to give Dr. Mary some props. After all, she’s the person that you send your kid to after you’ve pulled your hair out and your kid has been kicked out of school and you’re ready to lose your mind. There might be something to her tricks of the trade, so to speak. And even though I’ve threatened to send my kids to military academies, I’m OK with slugging it out the old fashioned way – one argument at a time.

“Honey, that’s such a unique way of expressing how you feel! Could you please.....”

Monday, February 20, 2006

Recital Idol

There's nothing that combines a tug at the heartstrings and mind-numbing boredom more than a music recital. And no matter how hard the child, the parents and the music teacher try, it is one of the most stressful events there is. For the child, the reasons for the stress are obvious. For the teacher, it's to prove their worth and show off their teaching "chops," so to speak. For the parents, it's the stress of first worrying about your child's performance and then trying your best to stay awake while other children perform. Trust me, this is much harder than it sounds.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to experience this parenting right of passage thanks to my daughter and her love of singing. Her voice teacher held a recital so that many of her students could prepare for state competitions and college auditions. Other children, like my daughter, were there to just get used to performing in public. Since we are recital veterans, thanks to years of piano lessons, my daughter wasn't really nervous. For us, it seemed like a nice diversion on a frigid Saturday in February.

What surprised me was how it felt like I was watching "American Idol" auditions in person. The only things missing were Simon, Paula and Randy, the infamous judges that are both loved and hated.

The singers in the recital ranged from about 10 years old up to 18. It was impressive to watch some and painful to watch others. Still, just when you wanted to grimace and comment on how "dreadful" they sounded, a la Simon, you watched them sulk back to their seat and collapse into a heap of tears in the arms of their parents.

Suddenly, it hit me: these kids, like all of the singers on American Idol, are somebody's children. Like millions of Americans, one of my favorite winter and spring pastimes is to sit on my couch and boldly criticize the American Idol wannabees that appear on my TV screen. Yet, there I was, hearing some gifted and not-so-gifted singers and watching them beam with pride or blush in disappointment. It made me wonder what kids are learning when they watch American Idol. Sure, the producers of the TV show give us a peek at the bruised egos and the rivers of tears, but we don't see them go home and deal with their very public soul-baring performance. How does it feel to have your dreams crushed on national TV?

Like most parents, my husband and I encourage our kids. Whether it's sports, music or academics, we are their biggest fans. We are not, however, their harshest critics and we carefully weigh our words when a negative message has to be delivered. The judges on American Idol aren't so kind. They're usually blunt and often cruel. It makes for great TV. The question is, what does it do to the person?

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Envelope Please...Wait, Never Mind

If you have a child over the age of 17, you know that we are about to enter College Season, the time of year when kids suddenly take an unusual interest in the delivery of mail and its contents. It's not that they've suddenly become philatelists (stamp collectors), but rather because they're nervously checking for college acceptance letters, as oppposed to college rejection letters.

For those of you with younger kids, no kids or no interest in or memory of the college application process, it begins in September of their senior year when parents and college advisors start nagging the kids to finish their applications. Then, after many people have written letters and sent in transcripts on the kids' behalf, the waiting game commences. Finally, spring arrives and with it comes the mail. The commonly held belief is that if it's good news, it's a large envelope. If it's bad news, it's a small business-size envelope.

For about 100 high school students, they were given a very pleasant and very misleading surprise this past week. They received, mistakenly, acceptance letters from The University of Georgia. What they were supposed to receive, were letters from the university thanking them for their applications. Huge difference.

If you've ever lived through this experience for yourself or with your child, you know that the process is nerve-wracking, stressful, agonizing and sometimes heartbreaking. No matter how hard you or your child says it doesn't matter, it usually does. Somewhere in a college admissions office, there are people determining your worth to their university. In most cases, it's like the world's longest blind date, but with references.

So here are these 100 kids, some of whom wanted nothing more in life than acceptance to The University of Georgia, only to be told "Oops, you're the victim of a clerical error." Although some of them will eventually get accepted by Georgia, some will not and that will be a very bitter pill to swallow. In fact, Georgia has a very sought-after scholarship program and the typical student accepted has a 3.8 grade point average. There will likely be many kids swallowing this bitter pill.

As a parent, it's hard to say what would be the best way to counsel your child if he or she had received such a letter. Some will try outrage, perhaps calling lawyers into the mix. Others might laugh at the irony of the situation and hope for the best. And others still might use it as evidence that there's no such thing as a sure thing...even when it arrives in a big envelope.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Make a Nice Day

On a daily basis, I tend to interact with a a fair number of people. As a stay-at-home mom, I talk to a lot of grocery clerks, dry cleaners, car wash employees, etc. For some reason, today seems to be a particularly nice day for dealing with the various people in my path.

My day started with the mammogram technician. She was kind, gentle and reassuring. This is my least favorite appointment of the year, but she somehow made it a little better. If she can get me a clean mammography, I'll like her even more. The grocery store service clerk was also really nice, even though I had no clue how to purchase a lottery ticket. (Hey, it's $350 million--worth a try, don't you think?!) The checkout clerk was equally nice, as was the woman at the dry cleaners. All of these people smiled, shared a story and told me to have a nice day.

And, in fact, the sum total of all of these nice people was the start of a very nice day for me. As I pulled my car into the garage, I was feeling pretty good about things, for no particular reason. I have to admit to being a little superstitious that everyone's being nice because something bad is coming, but I'm hoping it's just my tendency toward the glass-half-empty perspective.

What strikes me about this is that it took very little for these people to make me feel pretty great about life in general. Imagine what would happen if we all did this a little bit every day.

On a corner near my home, there's a woman that epitomizes this philosophy. She's a crossing guard and besides safely escorting children across a busy intersection, she also makes a point to wave at every car that passes by. The first time I saw her, I thought she was nuts, perhaps a little "off," if you know what I mean. But then I saw her dogged determination to smile, wave and shout "Have a nice day!" even in sub-zero temperatures and I was really touched. It's impossible to pass her and not smile. Even a car full of teenage boys on their way to school is not immune to her charms. Her actions are simple but far-reaching. She's my hero.

In today's world, we have heroes that come in many sizes. Some of their actions are headline-worthy and receive great publicity. Others, like our crossing guard, the mammogram technician and the grocery store clerk are small and mostly overlooked. And yet, they touch people. With packed schedules and deadlines and traffic and stress, it's sometimes difficult to have a nice day. We may not all be able to make headlines, but perhaps we can all make somebody's day a little bit better with a smile. It's worth a try, don't you think?

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Is It Me?

Well, is it? You see, this isn't a simple question. This question has recently become the refrain that I utter in a frustrated huff...many times a any other adult within my vicinity. Usually it's my husband, but sometimes it's a friend. It feels like I've lost the ability to navigate through the waters of parenthood without checking with someone else.

Generally, this question follows an animated "discussion" with my daughter or after a "disagreement" with my son. I'll ask one of my children to do something, they will not want to, will protest loudly and I'll turn to my husband and ask: "Is it me?" Surprisingly, to me at least, the answer is never the same. Which is exactly why I keep asking.

After nearly 20 years of parenting, it seems that everything about it still astounds me. I'm shocked by my kids' disagreeing with me. I'm taken aback by their questioning of my requests and yet I'm realistic enough to know that often, I should check before I react. I lean on someone else to sort of "police" my emotions, lest I allow my mercurial estrogen levels to send me into the stratosphere over a messy bedroom, a missed curfew or unfinished school projects that are due in two days.

It's tricky, this mothering business, at least for me. There's no instruction manual and although you can look for practically everything on Google, there's no search result for dealing with "crappy teenage attitude." Trust me, I've tried. And so, armed with many choices, but few of them obvious, I wade through the often turbulent seas preparing to be blindsided by raw emotions or bold indifference, always at exactly the wrong time.

As physically exhausting as parenting was when my children were young, nothing could prepare me for the mental exhaustion that older children will cause. If I'm not angry and frustrated that they can't understand my point, or more importantly, my love, then I'm worried about them as they break toward independence. Years ago, after a co-worker was sympathizing with my lack of sleep thanks to my infant or toddler, he said: "Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems." At the time, I had no clue what he was talking about. What could be worse than extreme sleep deprivation? How about extreme emotional roller-coaster?

Sure there are enough books about parenting to fill a decent municipal library. But I personally think that the point is that the books continue to be written because, still, to this day, nobody has all the answers. And it's because parenting is such an inexact science that I continue to ask the question, hoping, beyond reason, that someday I'll get it a little bit right.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Don't Tell Mom, The Babysitter's Scared

When I was a teen, my friends and I loved having sleepovers. One of our favorite activities while sleeping over, besides raiding the fridge, was to tell ghost stories. We would go through our repertoire of "true stories," trying hard to scare each other, even though we knew the tales by heart. The one story that never failed to freak us out was the story of a girl babysitting who gets creepy phone calls telling her to check on the kids and that the caller is watching her. The story ends with the line, uttered by the police: "The call is coming from inside the house!" Once we heard that, we usually screamed and then couldn't sleep for hours.

Fast forward to 2006 and Hollywood has once again decided to capitalize on our worst fears. Here's a synopsis of a new movie called When A Stranger Calls:

In a remote hilltop house, high school student Jill Johnson settles in for a routine night of babysitting. With the children sound asleep and a beautiful home to explore, she locks the door and sets the alarm. But when a series of eerie phone calls from a stranger insists that she check the children, Jill begins to panic. Fear escalates to terror when she has the calls traced and learns that the calls are coming from inside the house. Jill must summon all of her inner strength if she is going to fight back and make it out of the house alive.

I am not exaggerating when I tell you that every single mom I know that has children of babysitting age has absolutely forbidden their kids from seeing this movie. And if that's not enough, even the kids, who generally love going to movies and being scared to death, are not willing to go.

I find several things very amusing about this movie. First, that it's a story as old as the hills and it's being rehashed...apparently effectively. Secondly, that in this day and age of caller ID and high tech security systems, movie villains are able to use the same old scare tactics, and have us cringing not laughing. And finally, that universally we parents understand that no matter how old or cynical our kids have become, they're never too old to be scared out of their wits. In some strange way, it's reassuring to know that some things never change.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Mirror, Mirror In My Mom

When I was just a little girl,
I asked my mother what will I be.
Will I be pretty, will I be rich?
Here's what she said to me:
"Que Sera Sera, Whatever Will Be, Will Be."

It seems to happen to my daughter and I every time we're shopping for makeup. Since she's not quite 14, that's not very often. Nevertheless, here we were in the department store trying to purchase a few basics that wouldn't turn her into a teenage Tammy Faye Bakker when the "cosmetics consultant" said: "Next week we're having free makeovers. You two could do a mother-daughter thing." I chuckled and my daughter gave her a bewildered and somewhat annoyed look. Later, as we walked away, she said to me: "You know, I don't know why people think we look alike because I don't think we do at all." I sympathetically patted her on the back and said: "I'm sorry honey, but we do." I was OK with this. She was not.

I know that's a bitter pill for my daughter, or perhaps any daughter to swallow. Our mom's face is the one that's been staring at us since birth. When we were babies, it was an oasis of comfort and understanding. As we got older, it was still the one we ran to, or sometimes hid from if we were in trouble. When the teen years arrived, filled with intense self-examination and emotions, it was a face that we simultaneously loved and hated. It was the face which we gazed at with more scrutiny than our own. (Only because staring in the mirror constantly would be so weird!) We looked at that face, mapped it in our mind and made mental notes on what we would do differently to upgrade the family genes.

My daughter and I look very much alike. In fact, my best friend since 4th grade took a photo of my daughter and showed it to her father recently. She asked him if he knew who it was. "Of course," he replied. "It's Karen." It was a story that amused me and irritated my daughter.

I understand her feelings. Ironically, it's one of the few issues between us that I don't take personally. You see, as much as my daughter looks like me, I look like my mother. It seems to be the common denominator between generations, for better or for worse. I'm sure that when I was 14, I reacted similarly when people commented on the resemblance between my mother and I. I only hope that I had the good sense to be subtle in my objections.

Today, I think of my Mom's face as a comforting roadmap of the future. I look at her softened features and I instantly feel at home, even though we live 90 miles apart. I see the wrinkles and crows feet as testimony to a life lived; sometimes sad, sometimes joyous, and often challenging due in no small part to my stubborn attitude, another trait still swimming in the gene pool.

Although none of the women in our family have been blessed with the Demi Moore gene, as in the freakish ability to get better looking as we age, I'm very much at peace with the idea that I, in my middle ages, and my mom, in her senior years, are easily pegged as mother and daughter. Maybe part of that is having friends who have lost their moms much too early and who would give anything just to gaze upon that face again.

To me, the resemblance between the women in my family is a sort of badge of honor. It's that genetic stamp that connects us forever, whether we like it or not. Eventually we learn to accept it. My daughter will get there someday, despite her best efforts.