Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Be Sorry and Get a Grip!

I couldn’t move.  I was lying on the queen size camp bed in Curry Village after a mad dash up Half Dome in Yosemite.  My husband treats every hike like a race, so we’d scrambled up and back in seven hours.  Ouch.  After a shower, a beer, and half a pizza, I was done using my legs.  So I was on the bed listening through the canvas walls to other people arrive.

It was clear from the conversation around our tent cabin that we were in the middle of a group that had arrived for a long weekend together.  Some knew each other well, and some were meeting for the first time.  It was mostly families with elementary aged kids.    

When I’m not around my kids, I pay closer attention to how other parents talk to their kids.  Most of the time it makes me feel guilty, because either I hear someone who is infinitely more patient and creative than I am, or I can hear myself in the yammering, scolding, and lecturing of other moms.    
I couldn’t see her, but I heard the voice of a particularly perky mom who didn’t seem to know anyone else in the group very well.  She arrived and introduced her daughter to a potential playmate named Sidney.  The entire conversation went something like this.  “Hi, you must be Sidney.  This is Emmeline.  Are you seven?  Oh, only six.  You must be going into first grade then, yes?  Emmeline is going into second grade.  This summer Emmeline spent most of her time on the swim team, so she is very excited to go in the pool here.  Have you been in yet?  Oh, well, maybe tomorrow, the two of you can go in together.  Sidney, why don’t you show Emmeline your cabin?”

As the two girls skipped off together, the competition continued.  “I think I’m taller,” said Sidney. 

“Maybe, but this ground is slanted,” said Emmeline, “We could get my mom to measure us.”

“Do you like Taylor Swift?” asked Sidney. 

“I have all her songs memorized,” said Emmeline.

“Oh, well, I saw her in concert,” said Sidney.  “I got a shirt.”

“I bet my mom would give us money for ice cream,” Emmeline changed the subject. 

“Okay, go ask her,” said Sidney.

By this time, Perky Mom was sharing her competitive cheeriness with other members of her group, and Emmeline went back to her tent cabin on her own.  She was struggling with getting the key in the lock when her mom showed up, and the monologue began again, “Emmeline, why are you back?  Where’s Sidney?  What are you doing?  You should give me the key.”

“I’m doing it myself, Mom.  I need money for ice cream for me and Sidney.”

“But you’re not doing it right.  If you want ice cream, you need to give me the key.”

“No, I can do it.”

After several more exchanges, Perky Mom shouted, “Emmeline, you’re going to get a time out.  A WHOLE LOT OF TIME OUTS!  Do you want to spend your whole weekend on time outs?” (Sure, Perky.  Like you can enforce that.)

“No, but I can do it.”

“EMMELINE, you need to BE SORRY and GET A GRIP!  Give me the key.  You don’t sound sorry at all.”

At this point, Perky Mom yanked the key away from Emmeline, opened the door, and handed her five dollars.  “Go get ice cream and bring me the change.”

Emmeline won!  She got ice cream.  Go Emmeline! 

But seriously, be sorry and get a grip??  I’d like to get some mileage out of that one.  Many many times I have wished my kids would cough up some repentance and buy a clue.  Perky Mom may be socially competitive, make idle threats, and cave under pressure, but she can spin a phrase.  Maybe it’s evil, but I am so relieved when I hear other moms lose it or flail when they’re dealing with their kids.  It makes me laugh and cringe at the same time.

It’s too bad I couldn’t move my legs.  Otherwise I would have offered to buy Perky Mom a drink, so we could commiserate on what we wish our kids were, what we tried to make them out to be, and how impossible it is to keep our tempers in check, especially on vacation.  Maybe we could both be sorry and get a grip!   And then we could finally relax. 

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Greatest Generation

I’ve been reading Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, which is a collection of stories about individual Americans involved in WWII.  What strikes me the most is how many are poster children for a deprived upbringing, and how instead of falling apart as adults, they bootstrapped themselves into the educators, politicians, writers, and business people who shaped America after the war.   Most were teenagers in The Depression and had to work as early as they could hire themselves out -- not to make their own own spending money, but to contribute to the family resources.  When babies were orphaned, they were taken in and raised by friends without the rigamarole of lawyers and agencies.  When WWII rationing began, people saved gas and food cards together because everything went a little further when it was shared.  There was an essential, almost urgent sense of community, and not a shred of entitlement.  

After spending the first three weeks of summer listening to my kids bicker incessantly, even though we were in Tahoe and then Hawaii, I am convinced they could benefit from a little deprivation and forced community.

It makes me want to toss half their toys, throw out everything we own with a screen, make all three of them share one room, and pack the other two rooms with house guests who have no where else to go.  I want them to have something real to overcome – adversity training or at least close, long-term contact with a whole bunch of people with whom they can practice resilience.  

It’s the teamwork that stumps me.  It is the middle of summer and during the weekdays, there are no kids out on the street in my neighborhood.  They are all in “camps.”  (Although if your hair doesn’t smell like smoke, you’re not covered with mosquito bites, and you’re still clean, it’s not really camp.)  I can’t send them out to “play with other kids” because there aren’t any.  If I keep them home, I can try to teach them to work together, but eventually, frankly, they could use some variety, and so could I.  

It’s very modern to talk about the challenges our kids encounter and how stressed out we are these days, but when you think about the reality of the circumstances most of them face, it’s hard to fathom exactly why that is.  Their lives are as manicured as a golf course.  We treat playground spats with gravity worthy of a felony.  Everything is closely supervised.  Instead of talking to our children about coping with a social conflict or addressing other children with whom they’ve had the conflict, we tattle to other parents and teachers.  That would never have happened to kids growing up 75 years ago.  They may have had fewer resources, but they were allowed to practice solving problems on their own.   Equal parts responsibility and capability leads to less stress.
After reading about the WWII generation, it seems like it should be more stressful to have three sons deployed overseas without any contact with them for months.  Or to be sidelined by crushing racism or sexism.  Or having your crops fail without government subsidies, welfare, medicare, or a back-up plan.  Or discovering that you’re pregnant for the ninth time, married to an asthmatic coal-miner in Appalachia?  That sounds a lot worse than a bad grade, too much homework, or even (gasp) a bully.  (And let’s quit pretending that our kids are never bullies, only victims).

I don’t want my family to have to endure what our WWII veterans went through to build resilience and resolve.  But, there is no character development without real hardship and no generosity without sacrifice.  I just wish I knew better how to help my kids turn their disappointment, conflicts, and isolation into compassion and determination instead of despair and how to influence them properly without controlling them oppressively.    

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Bugs Me about Student of the Month

Since I have three kids, I have to sit through three Student of the Month assemblies each year.  At our school, there is one characteristic for each month, and the teachers choose a selection of students from each class for the award. 

Like everything else in childhood these days, everyone gets to be student of the month at some point, whether or not they exhibit any redeeming qualities.  Conveniently, the last characteristic of the year is “citizenship,” so even if your kid can’t keep his hands to himself, finish his homework, or tell the truth, he’s still a “citizen,” and can be awarded thusly.  Our school does not give out bumper stickers, which is good, because there is no way on God’s green earth that I am putting that on my car. 

On assembly mornings, the multi-purpose room is packed, and if you want a decent seat (or a seat at all), you have to reserve it with a jacket or book before school even starts.  Parents are glowing with pride, and shoving each other out of the way to get the best camera angle of their charming child.

The first Student of the Month assembly I went to, there were several students from each grade chosen to speak about how great they were at that month’s characteristic.  Most sounded like this, 
“This is what self-control means to me.  Self-control is what I do when everyone is being mean to me, but I don’t fight back.  Self-control is not tattling when Jacob cuts in front of me in the lunch line.   Self-control brings a smile to my teacher’s face.  I always try my best to be self-controlled, so I will be a success.  This is what self-control means to me.”
What bugs me the most is how artificial these assemblies are.  For the most part, these are decent kids who are being asked to brag in a public forum that is not only uncomfortable, but thoroughly self-indulgent.  I would cower in shame if my kids gave a speech like that (I’m usually cowering in shame because of something they’ve done anyway, so nothing new there.)  There is no community cultivated by these exercises.  Instead, we force kids to wrap grown-up language around an esoteric quality they only understand in concrete terms.  In their speeches, kids say that they “always try to do the right thing,” which is not only patently false, but crazy that we as parents applaud the claim.

I'm all for awarding exemplary behavior, but I think we could do a better job of helping our kids articulate good character traits.  In all the assemblies I’ve been to, there was only one kid who made it real.  He was in fourth grade and I think he was up there for generosity or kindness.  He said, 
“I lost my speech on the way to school and I can’t remember what it said.  But being nice is hard.  I have two younger brothers and they like to take my stuff and break it.  Most of the time I yell at them, but sometimes I don’t.  When I don’t, it makes me feel better and I like them more.  Then we can all play with my stuff and we don’t fight so much.” 
BINGO!  Rock on, little man.   That’s a speech a mom can be proud of. 

Friday, May 28, 2010

Do Your Chores!

Hadley and I just finished Little House in the Big Woods (check out the bear hiding next to the house).  What struck me the most about this book is how self-sufficient they were, and how hard they all worked together just to eek out an existence.  Laura and Mary had rocks, acorns, and cornhusk dolls for toys.  Charles Ingalls was a cross between Indiana Jones and Billy Graham.  He trapped and traded fur, managed a farm, made bullets, and built a house (several of them).  All this and he played the fiddle, carved Christmas ornaments, told great stories, and didn’t resent living in a houseful of women.

I was thinking about how far we’ve fallen the other morning when I was listening to Liam and Skyler clean their room… kind of.  After ten minutes of name-calling and accusations, I’d promised an additional chore per insult.  Skyler ended up with five and Liam had four.   After they left for school, I wrote up the chores on the whiteboard we keep in the kids’ hallway.  Since the boys usually get home while I’m talking to other moms, I posted four signs around the house to make sure they SAW them.  (Because boys are gifted at ignoring what is right in front of their face).  This is what the sign said:

Welcome Home!  Do not go on the computer or TV.  If you do, you will be grounded from all screens for the week.  Do not pretend you didn’t see this note.  Your chores are listed on the white board. 

Do ONE chore and then ask me to check that it’s complete before you check it off.  Then get a snack and move on with the rest of your chores.   

Once you have finished ALL of them, you can do your homework and practice piano.

To make sure you do them efficiently, it might be a good idea to do the chores in separate rooms.  However, since some of them are the same chore, you will have to figure out how to get along.  If you argue or blame each other for anything, additional chores will be added.

If you can get ALL of them done well, and you get your homework and piano practiced, and you don’t fight or argue, we will watch more of Indiana Jones tonight.

Love, Mommy

I was determined to enforce this one, but predictably, there was a snag.  After school dismissal, Liam and his friend came bounding up to me.  “Mrs. Colwell, can Liam come over after school?”  Max asked.

Thinking of the signs, I looked at Max, took a deep breath and said, “Liam has some chores he has to do before he can play today.  If he gets them finished and there is still time, I’m sure he would love to play with you.”

As I finished, Max’s mom came up behind him.  She looked at me in shock and then she said, “Thank you!  Thank you so much!  My kids think they are the only ones who have to do chores.  Now Max knows.  Oh my gosh, thank you.  Max, you have homework you need to do.”

So all the kids went home.  Skyler and Liam discovered the notes and got to work.  They didn’t fight or even complain much, but they did a predictably sloppy job until I explained that cleaning the bathroom doesn’t mean flushing the toilet and closing the shower curtain.  If there are towels on the floor and toothpaste on the sink, you’re not done yet.

And “folding laundry” doesn’t mean wadding it up and jamming it into drawers, especially if it’s your mom’s clothes.  Hanging up involves using a hanger, and the gum on the rail of your bunk bed is not there to hold your pen in case you want to draw on your arm at night. 

When they were finally finished, having completed each task passably well, they were quite proud of themselves.  I wouldn’t call the bathroom glistening, but it definitely smelled better and there were only a few streaks on the mirrors.  Max finished his homework and came over, but only for 30 minutes because that’s all the time they had.  Instead of bickering at dinner, they bragged about the chores they had done. 

They felt so useful, that I am doubling the number of tasks they are expected to do around the house.  Call me the meanest mom in the world, but I can’t wait until one of them claims to be “bored.”  I’ve got a vacuum that will fix that problem!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Boys Love Fire

All my boys, including my husband are a little in love with fire.   Everyone wants to light and blow out the candles.  No one can stop themselves from throwing stuff into a campfire.  If there’s a fire in the fireplace, they stare at it and argue over which tool will maximize its size and heat, who gets to use it first, and who was right. 

I even met my husband over something flammable.  It was a flaming bagel.  We were at a birthday party for a mutual friend, and I discovered that if you cram a bagel full of birthday candles and light it on fire, you get an impressive flame that is really hard to blow out.

So, I was only mildly shocked when one day after preschool, Liam came up to me with a packet of matches he’d found (he knew where we kept them in the kitchen), and asked, “Mommy, can I practice being safe with fire?”  He looked at me in all seriousness. 

“Uh, no,” I reacted.  But then I thought about it.  He did ask first.*  How to build a fire may not be as vital for today’s boys as it was for those 200 years ago, but it’s hard to argue with the appealing “wow” factor.  And like Liam suggested, if you practice doing it safely, you’ll be better equipped to do it right when you need to.  I relented, “Well, okay, but you have to build a circle of rocks on the driveway and show me what you want to burn first.”

And he did.  He built himself a mini fire pit, and collected a few sticks, papers, and dry leaves to see what burnt the best.  He torched each item separately and deliberately, watching the flames as they died down.  I watched him from the kitchen with an extinguisher in one hand.

Fast forward four years.  Having graduated from matches, Liam asked for and received a flint for Christmas.  He constantly begged to use it, but elementary school schedules were hectic, and it seemed like bedtime arrived before we had any free time.  There were piano lessons, soccer practices, homework, and play dates.  One Thursday afternoon, about half an hour before we were supposed to leave for the craze of activities, I was in the kitchen making cookies – not paying any attention to what was happening in the backyard.   When I turned around to look out the window, there were flames six feet high shooting out of the fire pit.  Liam was using my BBQ mitts and tongs to perch the fire pit grate precariously on the burning logs.

“Hey, Mommy, the flint works!  Look!” he says proudly. 

I was in shock, but it is pretty darn cool that my third grader started a fire with a flint.  He did everything right.  He built a pyramid of large chunks of dried wood from our pile.  Then he collected a tangle of moss and sticks for kindling, and once it got started, he blew on it until it caught the logs and shot upward.  He even tried to “be safe” by using the mitts and tongs to put the grate back on. 

“Wow!” I said, stunned.  Then, “You know we do have to leave in about twenty minutes, so don’t put anymore wood on it.”

“We have to leave?  Can I dump water on it?”

“Sure.  But let’s watch it a little bit longer since you put so much work into it.  Next time, would you mind telling me when you want to use your flint?”

“Okay,” he agreed.  “I tried to, but you were on the phone.” 

I’m quite certain Liam will not be living at home when he’s thirty.  He’ll be off on a crazy adventure.  I’ll have to pin him down every so often for some good barbeque.

*Please note:  This is not unattended "playing with matches."  Liam was taught how to use matches and flint properly, and he learned how to do it successfully.  

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Kindness of Strangers (or Why I Don't Believe in "Stranger Danger")

Hadley was four when she got lost at Disneyland.  We went toward Alice in Wonderland, she went toward Dumbo and instantly disappeared into the crowd.  As soon as we started calling her name, several families instantly volunteered to look for her.  A Japanese woman took me by the hand and began pointing out little blonde girls asking, "Is she yours?  Is that one yours?  Don't worry.  We'll find her."

Another couple took a look at the picture of her on our camera and offered to make a loop around Fantasyland to try to find her.  "We'll meet you back at Dumbo in a few minutes."

Despite the fact that Disneyland is an unlikely place for would-be kidnappers (expensive admissions, only one exit, hundreds of families videotaping every happy moment) ten minutes seems like hours when you can't find a small child.  Just when we were about to really panic, an Indian family showed up.  They were all glancing around, looking concerned.  Hadley was in the middle of the group holding the hand of the father, and he was patting it gently.  "Your mommy?" he asked as Hadley saw me and dissolved into tears.  For the rest of the trip, he was known as "THE NICE MAN WHO BROUGHT ME BACK TO YOU."  And if he ever reads anything I write, I hope he knows that I am still grateful.  

The Japanese woman smiled and patted Hadley's head, "Have a great day!"  The other couple looked relieved when they came back empty handed and saw Hadley sobbing with us.  "Oh good!"

We thanked our impromptu volunteers and went on our way, grateful for the kindness of strangers.  After we got home and I told someone that story, she said, "Oh my gosh, Hadley just up and went with a MAN she didn't know??!!  You NEVER KNOW what might have happened.  You really got lucky this time."

Well, I suppose that is true to some extent.  I don't actually know what's going to happen when I get up and walk out the door, but I do know that my daughter is unlikely to be kidnapped  at Disneyland.  Most people there don't want to leave with more tired, whiny, sugar-hyped kids than they came with.  I wasn't actually worried that Hadley had been kidnapped, I was more concerned that she was hurt or scared.  I was glad I'd never taught her to ignore people she didn't know, otherwise it probably would have taken longer to find her.  

My friend has taught her daughters to look at their shoes and mumble "I don't know," when any stranger (librarian, cashier, receptionist) talks to them.  They are afraid to leave their mother's side and she attends every practice, lesson, and playdate they have -- at ages seven and nine.    

Despite the fact that I have heard "experts" warn me about stranger danger my entire life, even more so after I had kids, my experience suggests something completely different, and I like it much better.  I have been repeatedly rescued by compassionate strangers.  I was ten when my sister and I fell skiing and lost all our gear on the side of a mountain.  A stranger helped us collect it and sent us on our way.  At sixteen, my car overheated in the mountains and someone gave me a ride to the nearest Denny's so I could get water and call my dad.  When I was eighteen, I spent the night at a gas station employees' house because my car broke down.  A stranger in a cafe wrote me a charming poem about my freckles.  My husband and I got a ride in Idaho from a forest service guy winterizing campgrounds when one of the seats on our tandem sheared off.  When Liam, as a preschooler, got a splinter stuck all the way through the skin between his thumb and index finger, a stranger pulled it out while I held him.  (We still refer to him as the "Nice Cowboy" because of his boots and hat.)  I've bummed diapers, band-aids, juice boxes, and sunscreen off strangers, and I've been just as happy to pay it forward.

We regularly have people live with us, and we've never met any of them before they showed up at the door with their bags.  We're not combing parks looking for local weirdos, but if we get a request or we hear of a need, we'll offer what we have.  We've gotten to know students from Italy, cyclists from Australia, and teenagers from Japan.  In addition to having places to stay now when we visit these countries, our world is more connected, foreign things are less threatening, bridges are built, not burned.  A little risk, discretion, and equipping goes a long way.  

There are simply not enough kidnappers to lurk behind every shrub and loiter ominously near every park.  Most strangers aren't dangerous and teaching your kids that everyone you don't know wants to hurt you simply isn't true.  Most of the bad stuff that's happened to me and my family has been deliberately doled out by people I know or people my kids know.  The easiest place to start is to tell your kids that if they need help and they can't find you, look for a stroller and find another mom.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Cloudy Boys

Henry* was one of six third grade boys in my minivan on the field trip.  He was loud and wiggly like the rest of them, and I don't think he stopped talking during the twenty minute drive to the open space preserve.  When we arrived and were divided into groups, Henry and I were together.  He was still chattering a non-stop narrative on the names of the trees, their history, the buckeyes, what the native-American's used them for, and anything else that popped into his head.  He was exhausting to listen to, but I was impressed at the accuracy and detail of the information he had memorized  Each time the nature docent asked a question, Henry's hand shot up at the same time he shouted out an answer, which was usually right.  The other kids were obviously used to him, and obviously annoyed, and the docent glanced around looking for someone to run interference.  Henry noticed nothing.  I moved over to Henry and put an arm around his shoulder (since my boys -- and my husband -- hear better when someone is touching them) and whispered, "Let's wait until he calls on you next time."  Henry stiffened initially, but then relaxed and started bouncing slightly from one foot to another.  

As we started to move off onto our hike, Henry's teacher trotted up behind me.  "I'm so sorry I left you alone with him," she said.  "His meds kick in around 10:00.  The difference is amazing."  She was right.  Henry began the hike as an exuberant chatterbox, monopolizing the docent and talking over other kids, but as we moved along, he slowed down.  His steps were shorter, he stopped swinging his arms, and he struggled to find the right words for what he was trying to say.  Eventually, he stopped talking and sat down on a log.  "Henry," his teacher said, "We're almost back to the Ohlone huts.  You'll like this part.  We'll have a snack when we get there."

Henry shook his head as if he was trying to wake himself.  "I'm not hungry," he mumbled, but obediently got up and shuffled along side us.  It was a completely different Henry, subdued, obedient, and creepy.  Instead of his restless, manic engagement, he seemed foggy and detached.  He stared vacantly around, paying little attention to the docent.  On the ride home, he made a few comments, but mostly he looked out the window.  It was tragic to watch the drug seep into his system and stupefy him.

Don't get me wrong, I love medication.  I love every gram of fentanyl they shot into my arm while I was in labor.  For the three years I was pregnant or nursing, I had a huge crush on the anesthesiologist who gave me my epidurals.  If I had known how fabulous I felt on demerol, I might have sought out more illicit stuff when I was in my teens or twenties.  But, medicating a child because his behavior is inconvenient is like pushing Rosa Parks off the bus.  When my son Skyler (seen in the pictures above) was in third grade, his teacher wanted him to use a typing machine at his desk because his writing was messy.  In other words, he didn't want to correct or decipher Skyler's writing, he wanted to circumvent the hassle of having to deal with it.  

Boys are hassles.  They are.  They are stout-hearted, chest-beating, loyal, sensitive, rowdy, little cavemen and we are failing them.  School is for girls.  There are few, if any male teachers or role models, and those we do have are subject to unfounded scrutiny and suspicion.  Academic assessment is not based on multi-modal learning styles.  There are too many rules at recess and no real consequences.  (Pick up trash, clean the desks, stack books -- make them DO something useful -- they love to feel useful.)  

Everything boys do naturally can qualify as assault or harassment.  They are SUPPOSED to wrestle, pester, brag, shout, climb, run, and throw things.  It feeds their soul.  Forcing them to do seat work at school, parking them in front of screens at home, overscheduling them with organized activities, micromanaging their social life, refusing to give them any freedom, and pumping them full of drugs to keep them docile sucks the life out of them.  Should we wonder that so many of them are unmotivated and depressed?  

Leonard Sax has some ideas in Boys Adrift. I don't know what the solution is, but I'm quite certain we cannot continue at status quo and have our boys grow into the kind of men they could be.  Sometimes I think they're all born too late.  A hundred years ago, they would make themselves a sling shot and a fishing pole and head out to the back forty once they'd finished their chores.  Idealistic, I'm sure, but it sounds good when I'm explaining to the school secretary that I don't think rolling a pen across the floor during silent reading warrants a phone call home.  

*Of course I changed his name!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Micromanaging Moms 101

So, in my inbox today, I got an email that was a collection of all the baby and child recalls this year.  At first I thought it was a joke since there were literally millions of recalls.  Apparently absolutely everything you've ever bought is dangerous, including sweatshirts (your kid might hang himself on the drawstring), foam board books (he might chew on them), and plastic fork and spoon sets (if your six-year-old is using them, he could bite off a prong or two).  Just about anything might cause your child to lose a finger, fall down, or choke.  And if they do, you should sue the manufacturer for millions of dollars because every accident is actually someone's fault.  Few injuries have been reported, but if you complain, you could cause a nationwide recall because YOU NEVER KNOW what might happen or who you, oh indignant consumer, might be saving.

I wish my mellow moms friends and me would speak up, but we are all too lazy, we are tired of listening to how dangerous it is to be alive, and how careless we are with our kids.  We are used to pinch-hitting with whatever we have on hand, even if it is a contraband second-hand car seat that has been in a fender bender or a stroller with a finger-chopping hinge.  Any mom of more than two kids knows that any stroller can work as a triple stroller in a pinch.  You can pile the kids on top of each other.  One, assuming they have adequate head and neck control, can ride in the lower basket, or one can straddle the handle and hold on to the back of the seat, or, on occasion, his sibling's hair.  If one falls off or jumps off, which will happen, does this make the stroller dangerous?

When did "safety first" creep into the top spot on the priority list of our national parenting consciousness?  And when did we decide that creating a sanitary environment was better than teaching our kids not to wrap the strings from the blinds around their necks?  If you're a parent now, chances are your parents left you in the car while they ran into the post office, you sat in the backseat of a station wagon without a seatbelt, rode a bike without a helmet, and babysat three or four neighbor kids by the time you were twelve.  Most moms today wouldn't think of leaving infants or toddlers with seventh graders, even though THEY were seventh graders twenty years ago who managed not to maim the little ones in their care.  Is it because we didn't "know" how dangerous all those activities were, we didn't think twice about doing them?

A friend of mine went to a water park in Honduras.  There were no rules and people (after waiting their turn) splashed down the slides forwards, backwards, upside down, holding babies, holding each other... any way they liked.  She said it was fantastic, fun, and liberating.  That would never happen here.  In the US today, you won't even find diving boards in most pools.  They've all been taken out because they are such a liability.  If they're there, they are accompanied by so many rules that they're not much fun if you're older than five... and then you may not be allowed in the deep end without a parent "within a hug's reach."

How did we get to be so paranoid?  And why is safety more important than community or honesty or compassion?  All these crazy recalls drive up the costs of stuff we actually do need.  They increase the already rampant litigiousness of our society, and they imply that everything that happens could be avoided... a delusion of control that our kids would be better off without.

There's a movie coming out soon called Babies.  It's a documentary on four babies born to different families around the world.  I am hopeful that watching an unattended baby take a bath in a bucket with a goat nearby will reset the standard American mom's expectations on what is safe and normal.  Maybe there will be fewer babies in all the bath water we've thrown out the window.  Sigh... there's always hope.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

My Under-Achieving Cub Scout

Liam wanted to join a cub scout den when he heard they got to sleep on an aircraft carrier.  Other than hanging out with his friends, this was his only reason for joining.  The achievements, belt loops, honor code, be-a-better-citizen stuff... not interested or appealing – only the aircraft carrier sleepover.  Hoping some of that might rub off anyway, I signed him up and was instructed to buy him a uniform. 

I had no idea there was a cub scout uniform shop where you could buy all things scouting.  It was a complete racket. In addition to the shirt, which is a polyester blend reminiscent of my middle school PE uniform, you need a cap, belt, bandana, assorted patches, and slider with your den's emblem to hold the bandana around your neck (with the top button on your shirt buttoned).  These are not cheap and Liam loses everything.  

Once I got everything home, I realized there were specific spots on the shirt for each patch and pin, but I had no idea which patch went on which spot.  And, these patches (unlike the Daisy Girl Scout patches) are not iron on.  You have to sew them on, or cut out pieces of sticky fabric to paste to the back of each patch. 

The last time I sewed anything was Thanksgiving of 1983 when my mom decided that my Christmas gift for my little sister would be a dress for her Cabbage Patch doll.  I think the partially made dress is still in my mom's sewing cabinet.  So, I went with the patch stickers.  It might have been easier to sew them actually because the stickers rolled up on my fingers and I put half the patches in the wrong place.  Later I found out that the woman at the uniform store failed to mention that the sticky fabric loses its adhesive quality in the washing machine, so I bought some fabric glue that I use to touch up each patch before each den meeting. Liam's shirt is getting a swanky 3D look these days, but he doesn't seem to care, and I'm not going to mention it.  

I have finally figured out how to differentiate the pack from the den. Packs are all the dens together.  Our den is made up of four boys and four moms.  The dads show up once in a while.  I keep trying to initiate a happy hour/pack meeting combo.  I think it would make the entire experience more enjoyable for everyone.  But we are meeting at a Lutheran church.  

Every time we have a pack meeting, our conversation goes something like this:

"Liam, go get your uniform on."
"I can't.  I used my bandana to wipe my nose."
"Where is your hat?"
"I almost lost it."
"So you have it?"
"No, but I know it is in my room."
"Where?  Oh, never mind, we are already late."  

So off we go with Liam wearing his shirt like a jacket, unbuttoned, in a t-shirt and soccer shorts.  The belt loops he's earned, he's lost, and both of us pretend we care for a few minutes before we just get in the car and listen to Black Eyed Peas. When we arrive, we realize his den is scheduled to march in with the flag.  All the other boys have ironed shirts, pants with belt loops, and clean shoes.  Liam is wearing his rainbow crocs that we bought at the flea market last year.  The straps are missing and my mother-in-law's dog bit a chunk out of the left toe.  Because Liam is "out of compliance," he is not allowed to touch the flags on the way in.  He can carry the boy scout flag on the way out.  

Fortunately, while we are trying to figure out the marching orders, another mom appears with a basket full of hand-me-down scout uniforms and we snag a hat, bandana, and slider.  If I had known about this basket, I never would have gone to the scouting store.  Since Liam is only missing his belt now, he is allowed to carry the American flag out, but he still can't talk.  The flag ceremony goes off without a hitch, but as soon as the boys are back in their spot on the floor, Liam and his friend John start wrestling.  Apparently John threw his slider in the air and it hit Liam, so Liam hid it and refused to return it.  So John tackled him.  It was a high point of the evening for both of them.

One den is supposed to perform a skit.  They’ve decided on the tooth-brushing camp skit where all the kids stand in a line and each brushes his teeth with the same toothbrush, rinses his mouth with the same water, spits into the same cup, and the last kids drinks it.  But, this is 2010.  We use antibacterial soap, Purell, and anyone who so much as sniffles in class is sent home until they are certified germ free.  So, the entire skit is mimed.  Only the parents understand what the boys are missing.  Definitely too low on the gross factor for elementary school boys, and a far cry from the skit where I licked peanut butter off the armpit of the guy I had a crush on.  Times have changed.

Finally, the meeting is over.  Liam carries the flag back.  The kid behind him clocks one of the dads in the head with the scout flag, but other than that, we are off the hook until the Pinewood Derby next week.  What, we are in charge of the Pinewood Derby?  Quick… an impromptu meeting.   But, the kids have been sitting for an hour and have to use the bathroom.  There are no bathrooms unlocked, but it is raining outside and there are plenty of trees.  Lucky them.

By the time we leave, Liam’s hat, bandana, and slider are off again.  He sighs when we get in the car, “Mommy, when do we sleep on the aircraft carrier?”