Friday, July 29, 2011

Lying Children

I have a hard time with lying children. Don’t get me wrong, my children lie, but right now, thankfully, they lie badly. There is no question when a whopper is coming out of their mouths. Nicole will pause awkwardly between every other word, thinking up her tale as she goes along and then force a smile when the lie is complete. Natalie will lie with more finesse, but the guilt factor is too high for her. She breaks down almost immediately after the lie has flawlessly slipped her lips and tearfully confess to even the most harmless of tales – I really didn’t brush my teeth, I did take a bite out of the cookie. Then she’ll beg for forgiveness in a way that always makes me worry that I’ve been too hard on her.

My girls have a long way to go in perfecting the art of deception or even telling the little white lie. They will, however, question at every turn when mommy tells one. The other day they were with me when a man approached asking if we needed any home repairs. I waved him off, saying “we just remodeled recently…” granted, we remodeled 9 years ago when we moved in, but that’s still recently in some ‘hoods. The girls immediately pounced on me for telling a lie. I tried to explain to them the difference between why my lying was okay and theirs isn’t and found myself in an ethical debate with two people who’s ages combined barely make them old enough to vote. Explaining the difference between lying to spare someone’s feelings, to be diplomatic or to fend off unwanted advances and telling a lie for personal gain is a difficult distinction to make. It’s one of the eternal parenting challenges like trying to help your kids recognize the difference between good strangers and dangerous ones. They are still all strangers in the end, right?

So the other day, some kids were over playing and every time I asked them a question they had a direct, straight forward answer. Both kids said the same thing and there was no sign that a tale was being told. In fact, when they left, I remember thinking, “Wow, what nice polite kids they are…” That night a received an angry call from their mother, furious that I allowed them to do the things they told me they were allowed to do at home. My children are so poor at lying that I’ve grown sloppy at detecting dishonestly in other people’s children. That’s not good. Having kids who don’t lie well has left me at a disadvantage. I have to sharpen my internal mommy lie detector and remember that other kids might be better versed than mine at the art of deception. It is one of those parent survival tools that you have to have when dealing not only with your own children, but more importantly, with other people’s kids. If not, they’ll eat you alive.

Friday, July 22, 2011

The One Who Lags Behind

My ten year old daughter Nicole can’t seem to keep up with the rest of us when we are walking. She is always about three to six feet behind us. Sometimes she’s just strolling, sometimes she’s dancing, but usually she’s just in her own world. She does this on the sidewalk, crossing the street, in parking lots. I worry that a car will come around the corner and clip her, not seeing her because she isn’t walking with the group. Or that once she starts hanging out with friends on her own, she might fall behind from the crowd and lose the safety that comes in numbers. I also just want her to keep up with us and stop strolling so much in a world where others are walking as if they have someplace to go.

Nicole has recently become interested in horror movies, even though the most horrific thing she’s seen is some Disney show about vampire babysitters. So, in order to get her to keep up with the group, I explained to her how in those horror movies, it’s always the one who strays from the group, ventures into the empty basement or lags behind who gets eaten by the monster. Natalie, my eight year old, finds that particularly amusing, so whenever Nicole is walking behind us, she warns her, “Remember, the one who lags behind…” In our family, it’s become a funny reminder about safety. Until it isn’t funny anymore. In a summer full of horrific happenings – the Caylee Anthony case, the case of the teen who killed his parents with a hammer then threw a party that night inviting his friends over via Facebook or the mother and daughter found beheaded in their home – the story of the murder and dismemberment of an eight year old boy from Brooklyn, Leiby Kletzky, moved me so that it caused me to rethink, as a parent, how I talk to my own children about being safe.

Leiby, like my girls, wanted to have more freedom to be on his own. Mine are constantly asking when I’ll let them walk home from school, visit a friend or go to the mall on their own. Leiby’s parents agreed to his request to walk home from his first day of camp on his own, and seemingly did all the right things to keep him safe. They did a practice run with him on the day before, walking the route home. But the next day, when he tried to walk home alone, he got lost, turned around in his own neighborhood, and asked the wrong person for help.

I joke with my girls about the horror movie stereotype of bad things happening to the one who lags behind. But after hearing about Leiby, even though I normally shield them from hearing those types of stories on the news, I decided to tell them about what happened to him – not in gruesome detail, but enough so that we could take our conversation about safety to a different level. I want them to know that sometimes the one that lags behind does get devoured by the monster. I want them to know that the monsters aren’t only in the movies and that most of the time they don’t even look like monsters. I want them to understand that the monsters can be very clever or very crazy or both. And I want them to have the mental, emotional and physical tools to avoid the monsters or do battle with them if they have to.

So I told them about what happened to Leiby and explained that I was telling them because I wanted to make sure that they understood that things do happen and the need to be careful. We used it as an opportunity, another “teachable moment” to talk about what you do when you’re out on your own, how you ask for help, how you protect yourselves. Yes, we’ve had all these conversations before, but in a much more theoretical way. But this was something real that happened and in that same situation, with the stakes at life and death, I wanted them to think about what they would do and how they would react. We talked a lot, and cried a little, thinking about the young boy from Brooklyn, his family and his community. Wishing that no child, no parent, no family would ever have to deal with such unimaginable pain again. But knowing that more than likely, tomorrow’s news would bring another story and that the best we can do as parents is try again and again to remind our children what to do to be safe and how not to be the one who lags behind.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Instant Family…Just Add Water

My daughters and I went to a family reunion in Indiana last weekend. It was my mother’s side of the family and she grew up in a small, rural town called Crawfordsville, less than an hour from Indianapolis. We flew into Chicago and drove several hours to get there. As we passed cows, corn, and rivers cutting through forests of lush trees, Nicole and Natalie questioned me about everything. They are L.A. girls and their journeys from home have been limited mostly to cities, Cape Cod, or tropical resorts. The Midwest was a whole other world to them. I very much wanted them to come home with me and meet my mom’s family, especially since they never knew my mother, who died from breast cancer at the age of 59, long before I was married and had kids. I spent vacations in Indiana when I was young, in both Crawfordsville and East Chicago, and I remember fondly visiting grandparents, playing with cousins, setting off fireworks (which are legal there) and chasing fireflies on humid summer evenings when everyone would sit on the porch late into the night waiting for the house inside to cool. I wanted my kids to have those same experiences, if only for a weekend.

At the reunion, we’d all come together and I was both excited and concerned about how my kids would fit in. They didn’t know their cousins – 1st through 4th generation were there – and most of them were from the area and many knew each other already. We arrived at the hotel and checked in. When the girls met their cousins in the conference room set up for the reunion, they were shy at first. My Aunt suggested we go swimming in the hotel’s indoor pool. She asked me to chaperone because she and my older cousins didn’t know how to swim.

We hit the pool with five kids and a couple of teens – some kids were in floaties, some splashed about and a few of the older cousins dared to take the impromptu swimming lessons I decided to offer. With my daughters serving as assistant instructors, we taught back floats and dog paddles, how to fall in and swim to the edge, how to tread water. In no time, all the cousins who had been strangers were more than friends, they were family. They did canon balls into the pool, lounged in the hot tub, played Marco Polo in the shallow end of the pool as if they'd known each other for a lifetime.

The rest of the weekend my girls carried around their little cousins, ran between rooms with their cousins playing games, fussed with each other about who would hold the baby of the family. The boy cousins teased the girl cousins and the girl cousins pranked them back. From strangers to friends to cousins…All it took was a little water.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Small Town in the Big City

I live in a neighborhood full of delusional people. I am one of them. We like to believe that our four block radius is actually a small town, even though we are in the middle of a big city. Kids run in and out of each other’s homes as if all the homes on are street are one big house that all the kids share. People watch out for each other’s children and pets and property as if it were their own. We pass down outgrown clothes to the next youngest child on the block, do dinner trains when someone is sick or there has been a death in a family. We have group trips to the beach, picnics in the park, and potlucks throughout the year.

The way our neighborhood celebrates the Fourth of July reminds me most of our small town longings. There is a big, neighborhood-wide block party with hot dogs and sack races and pie contests. An antique fire truck leads a parade up and down the street. Mini flags are placed on lawns, children decorate their bikes or scooters and themselves in anything red, white and blue. Last year, a mom on the block used her artistry, face painting our children’s faces with stars and fireworks and flags.

After the block party, we gather at someone’s house for a potluck and the musicians in the neighborhood bring out their guitars and drums and even a violin and play as the rest of us sing Beatles songs off key and the kids splash around in the pool, completely ignoring any warning not to swim until 30 minutes after eating.

As evening falls, a group of us from our street will walk together carrying folding chairs, pulling little red wagons full of children or juice boxes or jug wine, and we will go down to the wash where the street dead ends and set up an area to view the fireworks. We’ll sit there until it is dark and then marvel at the streaks of color lighting the sky. I glance over at our children, thrilled, happy, safe, and try to keep our small town delusion going a little bit longer.