Thursday, June 24, 2010

Free Range Is For Chickens, Not Children

There is an article by Suzi Parker in the Woman Up section of Politics Daily which is the type of piece that is no news news. And I’ve read this writer before and I like her, so this really isn’t a slam against her. I think she was seduced by the (dare I say evil?) free range parenting movement and its founder, Lenore Skenazy, author of "Free-Range Kids." Skenazy likes to shock reporters into giving her coverage by tossing out a few anecdotes about parents who put babies in knee pads while crawling and journalists (particularly childless ones) think it is some huge story indicative of the how an entire generation is being ruined by overprotective parents. It ain’t so! BTW, in my many years frequenting pre-schools, mommy and me classes and parks, I have seen hundreds of babies crawling and not once have I run across a knee pad attired infant.

There are several reasons I found my Victoria Secret undies in a knot over this one. First, the idea of over-protective parents has been discussed and examined and explored until it has been rehashed more than corned beef. There isn’t a parent in America who hasn’t been accused of being overprotective. I’ve also been accused of being over permissive by allowing my child to do the exact same thing that I was accused of being overprotective for allowing them to do! Second, letting your children play in the streets, climb trees and get muddy does not make you any better a parent than the knee pad carrying ones. Different types of parents, yes, but exceptional, no. And the idea promoted by the free range movement is that these "free to be you and me" parents are superior to those who won’t let their kids play alone in the front yard.

The problem is, the free range parenting movement is about extremes. It is not concerned, thoughtful parenting. It is reacting, not acting, and parenting should be about taking positive actions towards teaching your children to be all the things that the free range movement claims it wants children to grow to be - "treated as a smart, young, capable individual, not an invalid who needs constant attention and help." Parenting is not about reacting to what other parents are doing around you and protesting by allowing your kids to do whatever they want and justifying it by saying that the freedom you allow them will make them better than the other parents’ kids.

Free ranger Skenazy is the woman who created a career for herself by allowing her 9 year old son to take a NYC subway alone and jump started her freelance writing career by the brouhaha that resulted from the stunt. And in my opinion, it was a stunt. Yes, maybe her son had been begging her for weeks to allow him to do it. So what? My kid has been begging me to let her swim with sharks because as she learned in school, “They don’t really like human flesh.” You think I’m dropping her in the shark tank anytime soon? Just because your kid asks you to let them do something – take a subway, climb Everest, sail a boat around the world alone - doesn’t mean you’re being an overprotective parent by not letting them do it.

And saying no doesn’t mean you are squelching their dreams and aspirations as Parker’s article suggests. After telling my six year old shark loving girl that she wasn’t swimming with her toothy friends, we talked with her about what careers would allow her to work with sharks when she grew up, what she would have to study in order to do it and set up a time to visit more aquariums and see shark programs so that she can explore her interest further. And maybe one day when she’s bigger, i.e. 18 and out of my house, she will swim with sharks. But to let her do it as child, just because she wants to, is irresponsible, reckless and sounds to me slightly like the reaction of a parent who felt over restricted in their own childhood and now is bending over backwards not to be the same as their mean old parents. Grow up…if you don’t, your children never will.

Sure, I could have promised six year old shark loving girl that the next time we go to Hawaii she could get into one of those shark cages they lower into the water and then let the sharks come at her, but I know my child and it would scare the poop out her. She’d probably be so scared that any interest she once had in sharks would disappear in her frenzied panic to get pulled out of the water. Again, when she’s older, after she’s had more exposure to sharks and the ocean, after she’s had a chance to experience more things in life, she can make her own decision about swimming with sharks or anything else. Appropriate things at appropriate ages – someone should put that on a t-shirt and make all the free range parents wear it.

Parker’s article and the free range movement makes it seem as if the majority of parents are overprotective, knee pad toters and that those who allow their kids to strive for extraordinary goals at a young age like riding the subway alone, climbing Everest and sailing around the world, are the enlightened exception who should be emulated. In fact, both are extremes. Most parents fall somewhere in the middle…and they should. It seems rather silly to raise your children according to any movement, be it the free range or the more conservative helicopter style (where parents are hovering over their children, hand holding and protecting every move). Children should be allowed to run and play and explore. They should be encouraged to get dirty, experiment and strive for their dreams but with guidance, rules, boundaries and opportunities to make decisions and mistakes within an environment that won’t kill them before the second grade. But I think allowing kids to do too much, too soon or without restriction or supervision will result in kids who don’t have a sense of when something is appropriate and safe and when it is wise and wonderful to take the risk and forge ahead. Children need good decision making skills and being able to understand situations, take appropriate action or inaction and taking risks are all part of that. Allowing them to do anything they want, and not allowing them to do anything at all deprive them of learning those skills. To me, that’s the saddest part about this effort to divide parenting into movements – the real issues about what children need get lost in all the rhetoric.

You can read Parker’s article at:

Friday, June 18, 2010

Guilt and Brownies

Today is the last day of school!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! So yesterday, I was up at 3:00am on Thursday morning making brownies and chocolate pound cake for the end of year class parties. Why so early? Because the night before, Wednesday, when I had planned my day so carefully to include doing everything that needed to be done including getting home in time to bake several batches of brownies and some cakes before dinner, my tire blew out. I was driving home from work, felt my car lurch and when I got out, I heard a whooshing sound as the air came out of my tire and it flattened like a pancake right there in the middle of the road. I was cursing and talking to myself and anyone who saw me probably thought I was a crazy homeless person, except for the bag and shoes. Calling AAA and getting the tire swapped out for the spare ate into most of my day and any hope of accomplishing the long list of to do’s that have been weighing on me, was gone. At first I cried…really, it was pathetic when I think about it. There are people hungry, losing their homes, so desperate they’d cause harm to themselves and their families and I’m crying over a blown tire. Then I got mad, whined to myself, “This isn’t fair! Why me? Why today? This is the last thing I needed!” I got the girls home and was in a foul mood. I tossed my bags onto the counter and pulled out the pile of things I had to get done and realized I would be up all night if I attempted to do them. So I gave up. I said, “I’m going to be the bad mommy who even though she signed up to bring in treats for the party, is going to flake.” I’d never done a mommy school flake before. I’ve either thrown myself into helping, or made a firm decision to abstain. But to say I would do something for school and then just back out – would have been a first for me. But I didn’t care. I was firm in my resolve that just this once, I’d let something go, I didn’t have to be all things to all people. I convinced myself that my daughters wouldn’t care if I didn’t make anything for them to bring in and that in the whole scheme of things, they wouldn’t be sitting up in a therapist’s office twenty years from now complaining about what a lame mother they had who always embarrassed them in school by flaking out. Trust me, there are other ways I embarrass them at school – walking them in daily, demanding kisses in front of their cool friends, singing Gloria Gaynor’s disco classic, “I Will Survive” (at full volume, in public, at school) anytime my girls complain about having to do something they deem horrible. But I didn’t think a missed brownie would cause them much pain.

I was up all night worrying about the brownies. I really didn’t want to be the mommy flake and mostly, I didn’t want my girls growing up feeling like I didn’t care enough to do that one small thing for them and their class. Ridiculous, I know, but I tossed and turned in bed for about two hours until I finally just crawled out from under the covers at 3:00am, went into the kitchen and pulled out the baking pans. I made some coffee while I baked and an hour and a half later I had about 48 mini brownie bites and a chocolate pound cake on the counter. I poured myself another cup of coffee and went into my office to write while the goodies cooled.

I realize all my emotions weren’t about a brownie at all. They were about feeling pulled in so many different ways and not feeling like I could give my best to any of them – home, work, or family. I felt guilty for not being the mom I wanted to be – the moms my children always point out at school who can stay for every assembly and put in a full work week volunteering in the classroom. But I can’t always do that. I do what I can, but I work. I like working, I like writing, and I like keeping what little of my sanity that I have left. If I devoted that much time at school as well they would have to carry me out in a straight jacket. But that being said, I had children to be a part of their lives, not to wedge them into mine. I wanted to make the brownies because it would make my children happy and show them that I cared about what they were doing at school and wanted to be a part of it. So I got up at 3:00am and baked them. My guilt assuaged, I went off to work and drank a third cup of coffee when I got there.

Afterschool, I threw myself into a chair, barely able to keep my eyes open while we ate dinner in front of the t.v. and Nicole and David yelled at the screen during the Lakers’ game. My youngest, Natalie, crawled up on my lap and kissed me on the cheek, saying, “Thanks for the brownies. Everybody loved them. There was only one left…I saved it for you.” Too bad I’m allergic to wheat because the brownie looked good and I wouldn't have felt the least bit guilty eating it.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Nothing But A Number

Age has a way of creeping up on you. One moment you are 20 and fearless and your body effortlessly performs amazing feats that you don’t think twice about asking it to do. Then you wake up a moment later and you’re 40 and your hair has grey in it and you reach for something on the top shelf of your kitchen cabinet and your back goes out. And I hate those people who say, “Age is nothing but a number…” they love to say it because their number is usually less than mine.

My aunt (who is actually my second or third cousin, but because of her age I call her aunt) had a birthday last week. I stopped counting when she turned 90, so impressed was I that anyone I knew had hit that landmark and was still not only mentally and physically active, but dating! I think she hit 95 this year. I tried to call her, but the line was repeatedly busy. I always seem to call in the morning, during the appointed time that she talks to her boyfriend every day. He’s in his 80s. Honestly, I really find something inspiring in the fact that they have a life in their later years…they see movies, go to luncheons and concerts, she even makes a regular appointment at the beauty salon. Not just a life, a good life, better than mine in some ways. It gives me hope that at some point my life will be more than playdates and carpools and birthday parties and fussing over what is or is not appropriate to wear to school. It’s not that I don’t adore my children and adore the ages they are at, but I sometimes miss my younger days when I had the freedom to do what I want, when I want. But my aunt has given me hope. It makes me think that one day I will return to seeing movies that aren’t rated G or PG, in first run, on screens in theaters, seated next to other adults who get to go out after dark and stay up late and not have to worry about the mounting babysitter bill or even the fact that they are just too damn tired to be out so late.

I try to imagine my life at 95 and it is tough for me to get a visual. My aunt is amazing, having retired about thirty years ago, she has crafted a life for herself that includes regular exercise, watching what she eats and working on all those projects in and out of the house that never seemed to get done with kids, job and spouse to tend to. I would love that. All me time, all the time. She’s involved with her church, civic and social groups and loves to support the up and coming youth not only financially through donations, but by just being there. My girls and I sometimes pass her house on our way to run errands and we like to do what we call drive-by huggings – where we just show up unannounced, ring the doorbell, give her a hug, then jump back in the car and drive off a few minutes later. I’m always surprised when we do that and find some young person there visiting my aunt. One time the driveway was full of college students who had stopped in to say hello. My aunt had helped out the mother of one of the girls by watching her afterschool and they girl had returned with her college friends to visit. People ranging in age from six year olds to forty years olds had all flocked to see this nonagenarian and say hello. It was a testament to how many different lives she had touched over the years.

I thought of my aunt the other day when my husband made some comment that almost got him the Al Green treatment (if you don’t know what that is, Google Al Green and grits and see what comes up). For dinner, I decided to make an elaborate taco bar. I cooked up two kinds of meat – chicken and beef - seasoned them to perfection, cut up onions, avocados, tomatoes, shredded cheese, and then fried several corn tortillas until they were crispy brown. I had margaritas chilling in the refrigerator. I placed the food in various serving dishes on the stove and announced that everyone should come and fix their plates. David looked at me and said, “What is this…I like being served.” I waited a moment, expecting him to break into a grin. When he didn’t, I realized he was serious. I angrily snapped back something very uncomeback worthy, like, “Yeah, me, to,” fixed my plate and deliberately left those margaritas in the fridge. He could get them himself if he wanted them, damnit. As I sat stewing and eating my muy delicious make your own tacos, I remember one of the many words of wisdom my aunt had given to me over the years. When I got married, she said, “Make sure your husband knows he’s not marrying to get an indentured servant.” I was surprised by her words because I would have expected an older woman, she was in her late eighties when I got married, to ascribe to the serve your man a plate and clean his boots mentality. But I was wrong. She continued, “If he wants a housekeeper, cook and servant, he can go out and hire one. He’s marrying you because he loves you, not because he wants someone to wait on him.” That’s not to say she didn’t have other words of wisdom that completely contradicted her tough stance. She also dropped these pearls of advice, suggesting that I have a potato heating in the oven when my husband got home from work because the potato would fill the house with a delicious smell and make him associate coming home with wonderful things. When my sister-in-law got married, my aunt advised her to always keep a small towel by the bed. Need I say more. I’m grateful I missed the sex advice talk. I’m not sure I could have taken it. You really don’t want to think that the seniors in your life ever engaged in sex, let alone have them give you advice about it. David and I had traveled together so much before we were married, I guess she figured I was a lost cause in terms of the towel advice.

So whenever I complain about feeling old, my little seven year old, Natalie, who I’ve tricked into believing that I’m decades younger than I am (although I think at this point she knows the truth and is humoring me), cuddles up next to me and says, “You’re not old, mama, you’re only 21.” Like I said, age, just a number…even if it’s the wrong one.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Tired

At a certain stage, you reach the point where you are so tired, you stop caring anymore…about anything. Big things, little things that used to send me into a rage or make me cringe become things I shrug off in my exhaustion. They are not worth me expending an ounce of energy (that I don’t have left anyway) to fret over. There is a certain freedom that comes with being so very tired that you have to pause for a moment to remember vital statistics about yourself, such as your phone number or your age or the name of the child you’re looking at blankly in the face getting ready to yell at for leaving some crappy little McDonald’s toy in the middle of the floor for someone to trip over. I read an article which said that the average mother works approximately 90 plus hours a week just being a mother (whose job duties ranged anywhere from CEO to housekeeper to psychologist). Ninety hours a week, and that’s not counting any hours spent outside of the home working at a job. Ninety hours a week is more hours logged than most attorneys I know. No wonder parents are tired.

The other day, my younger daughter, Natalie, saw me sprawled on the sofa and it surprised her. She is used to seeing me in almost constant parent motion, doing any one of the nine million things we have to do to get through the day as we juggle work, family business, household things and oh yeah, carving out a minute for ourselves. Natalie crawled up onto the sofa and burrowed herself next to me, and asked “Is everything okay?” Before I could answer, my older daughter, Nicole, said, “Mommy’s fine, she’s just tired.” Clearly I had repeated it so many times that now my children can parrot that catch phrase for me. I rolled over, turning my back to them, trying to grab a few minutes more of peace. Yeah, right. Nicole joined Natalie on the sofa, both of them using me as a human pillow and turned on iCarly. So much for getting rest.

Whenever my husband, David, hears about some pop star on tour who has to cancel their shows because of exhaustion, he often asks how tired do you really have to be to pass out from exhaustion. It is tough to imagine that a pop star’s schedule is actually more grueling than a parent working a 9 to 5, dealing with a couple of kids, career, a mortgage, grandparents with health and aging issues, not to mention three neighborhood biddies who have dubbed me a jerk because I asked them (nicely – I knew my mother would disapprove if I did otherwise) not to let their dogs play and poop on my lawn. I know pop stars work hard, but let’s face it, if I had someone to drive me places, run my errands, answer my mail, pay my bills, deal with the biddies and their pooping dogs, dress me, do my hair and make up, cook my meals, book my travel, care for my kids, house and any assorted pets we haven’t yet managed to kill (those three goldfish who went belly up weigh heavy on Natalie’s heart even to this day), what would I have left to do to make me tired…get up on stage and sing and dance? Sign me up!

I’m beginning to wonder if the end result of being so tired is that I’m actually becoming calm. All these years, I’ve tried meditation, stress reduction techniques, yoga, all in an effort to slow down. Screw meditation and all those other things you have to work at…just become so tired that you have no choice but to slow down and be calm.