Tag Archives: parenting

Very short stories II

A very short story about jetlag:

We have left Toronto and have just arrived in Berlin. The kids are six and eight and they are jetlagged. On the first night they fall asleep shortly after dinner. On the second night I fall asleep shortly after dinner while they stay up for hours ripping a tissue box into tiny pieces. On the third night she is too hot, he can’t sleep, she cries because she misses her friends, he spills water on their beds, and I drink most of a bottle of wine. They’re not just jet-lagged; they’re scared. They don’t know anyone in this city; they have to start at a new school and they can’t understand what the other kids are saying on the playground. After midnight I drag both of their mattresses to the floor of our bedroom. He snuggles in quickly. I drape my hand over the edge of the bed and she falls asleep holding it. After a few moments I start liking them again.

A very short story about being the new kid:

She is pouting and having crying spells and I tread softly not knowing whether she needs a hug or needs to be left alone. It’s always alone first and then hugs later. She doesn’t know why she is sad. After a week I lose patience with the crying and the tummy aches and start telling her to just go lie down if she feels sick. At the playground she climbs on my lap and lolls her head around, whining that she’s bored. Then she lies down on the bench and says “I think I need some friends here.” School starts tomorrow.

A very short story about friends:

It is the first day at the new school and the boy has made a friend. She is holding his hand when I pick him up. We hang around so they can play outside where he offers her sips from his lemon drink. I glance around wondering if her parents are going to show up just in time to see some sweaty new kid offering their daughter backwashed lemonade. The next morning he is nervous again and hangs on to me. The new friend is sitting in front of a colouring page. He doesn’t recognize her because she is wearing different clothes. She pops up from her seat and pulls him away by the arm. She shows him her paper and says should we colour this together? He nods and follows her. She is like a magical gift of a human being.

 

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playing with fire

My kids have found something new to play with. It’s cheap and accessible. It helps them develop their fine motor skills and their communication skills. It allows them to explore changing states of matter. It fosters cooperation and a sense of community and looking out for one’s peers. It promotes role-playing, imaginative play and self control. It is fire. My kids are playing with fire.

I asked them to light the candles at the table one evening and showed them how to strike the match. Later, when I saw them tentatively playing with the candle –  feeling the heat around it, poking it with the burnt matchstick – I offered to put the candle in the empty sink where they could play with it without sending our napkins up in flames. They pulled two chairs over to the sink and set to work. They burned all the matches. Then they burned the empty matchbox. They were careful. Like, extremely careful. No one got burned. No one got even close to getting burned. They squeaked and gasped and winced each time they lit a match. K and I stood behind them and held in giggles. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Are our kids boring? What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they better at doing bad stuff?

When I was 6 and my sister was 8 we bought cigarettes, telling the shopkeeper they were for our parents. We took them to the gulley and smoked them all (I didn’t inhale!). We then returned to the shop for caramels to soothe our raw throats. I’m not advocating this. I don’t wish my kids would smoke a pack. I share the story simply to convey that I’m pretty sure that striking the matches was not the biggest challenge that day. Getting money and hiding smokes was. We thought nothing of making a little flame.

We all know what happens when you play with fire: you get burned. And what happens when you get burned by a match? It hurts; maybe a small blister. That’s it. Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it preventable? Also yes. Is it so terrible that it must be avoided at any cost and therefore a wall of caution and fear must be erected around fire so that children never, ever try to investigate and control its allure and may forever doubt their own ability to approach and manage risk? No. No it isn’t.

Now playing with fire has become one of their favourite things to do. When Akka had a friend over and they were leaving Malli out I tried to occupy him for a while with card games but that quickly got boring (for me). “Hey,” I said. “You want to light some matches?” I set him up at a little table with a tealight candle and a book of matches. He set about burning them; holding them for a long as he could before blowing them out, then waiting for the tip to cool and holding the other end to the flame to turn the whole matchstick black. He was entranced; I was free to get other things done. He had a lot of questions about what things burn. Plastic, I assured him, was a bad idea. But sure, lots of other things burn. Like this wine cork from the other night! No, not the plastic one but the real cork one. First he asked for a cup of water to keep next to him (see? careful!). Then he burned it.

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A few days later both kids were set up for our new game: burning stuff. I gave them a baking tray to hold all their paraphernalia and they burned a whole box of matches, then the box itself, then some cardboard strips. I opened the windows to air out the apartment and wondered about the reliability of our smoke alarms which never objected during any of this. Must check those.

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Look, I’m glad they’re cautious. I’m glad I never glance up to find them walking the roof ridge-line or paddling the canoe out to open water without a life jacket. But I do think it’s fine if they burn small stuff to see what happens. And I don’t think it should be me who shows them; I think they need to figure this out for themselves. So maybe this winter they can make a small fire-pit in the backyard snow. Or maybe next summer at Poppa’s cottage – after a hard rain, when the forest fire advisory is low – I’ll carelessly leave a book of matches and some dry sticks and leaves in the sand while I go take a nap.

Letting them fail

 

First published on Huffington Post Canada (Parentdish), December 9, 2014

My kid came home from school the other day and announced that she was auditioning for the school’s chamber choir. I stifled my surprise (I hope) and gulped, “Great!”

She sings in the school choir — the one that anyone can join — and she loves it. Her little voice soars with all the others and she proudly sang at the school assembly just last month. But my precious daughter does not have a good ear. An unkind (but accurate) label for her might be tone-deaf. Without the piano accompaniment and the voices of her fellow choristers to keep her on track, her pitch can vary widely. (Naturally, I blame her father and he accepts all genetic responsibility.)

We’ve never told our kid that she can’t sing. Scratch that — she can sing; she just can’t sing on-key without support. She loves singing and I’ve been delighted that she’s in the choir because I know that musicianship can be taught. Her pitch has improved and she rocked her first piano recital this past weekend. So the kid has skills, but perfect pitch isn’t one of them.

When she decided to try out for the chamber choir I was uncertain how to react. My first thought was that she’s not chamber choir material. This is the smaller and, dare I say, more elite choir made up of the best singers from the senior grades. They get to do cool stuff like sing the national anthem at a baseball game. Indeed, missing school to participate in that event appears to be my daughter’s primary motivation for auditioning.

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My first reaction was to protect her. Maybe I could gently tell her she’s not a good enough singer to be in the chamber choir. We could abort the audition and with it, any further risk of disappointment. Mama bear wanted to protect her young.

My second reaction was to help her not fail. We could practice! I could train her to sing on key before Thursday! Tiger mama would not accept failure.

Helicopter mama wanted to control the audition process. Snow-plow mama wanted to eliminate chamber choir altogether and find clear a problem-free path for her kid.

But deep down I’m not really a mama-bear/tiger/helicopter or snow-plow parent. All I wanted was to ensure that my precious child didn’t go through the heart-wrenching experience of scanning a list for her name and having it not appear. The down-side, I quickly realized, is that my precious child wouldn’t go through the heart-wrenching experience of scanning a list for her name and having it not appear.

So I wised up. I’ve tried out for teams and not made it. I’ve auditioned for parts I didn’t get. I don’t remember my parents being involved or even aware of these experiences at all.

Yes, she should audition. Yes, she should feel nervous and scared and still go for it. Yes, she should have to wait until the list is posted to find out how she did. She should feel the elation of seeing her name on that list or the disappointment of it being absent. She should feel the mix of being sad for herself while being happy for a friend, or proud of herself while sharing a friend’s disappointment. All of things should be felt by a nine-year-old child and none of them should be mediated by her mother.

So all I did was nod my head and tell her it was great to try something new. I wished her luck. And whatever happens I’m already very proud.

Epilogue: She will not be in the chamber choir this year. She is taking this in stride. She can try again next year. She still loves to sing.

Learning from the Sneetches

This is not the first time Dr. Seuss has graced these pages. You may remember that the Cat in the Hat home invader did not survive his trip on the Character Assassination Carousel.

Today, however, I would like to acknowledge some beaked Dr. Seuss characters whose presence has been welcome in my kids’ lives: The Sneetches.

The Sneetches helped me answer this question that came my way from Akka last year: “Mama? When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

This post was first published on Parentdish Canada on November 26, 2014.

Sneetches

“Mama? You know when white people thought they were better?” This from my eight-year-old daughter one morning on our way to school. She had about a quarter of my attention.

“What’s that, babe?”

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

My partner and I knew early on that we were going to talk to the kids about race. We weren’t going to pretend that they wouldn’t notice their own parents are two different colours. I’d read articles suggesting that parents often think their kids are growing up colour blind. They’re not.

Kids develop ideas about race early. We’d do better to name the issues and talk about them openly rather than hope race is no longer an issue just because their class photo shows more diversity than ours did.

So we’d had conversations about skin colour. We had talked about how most people in Europe, and families like mine who had moved from Europe, had white skin. And people in Sri Lanka, as well as people who had moved from Sri Lanka like their dad, had brown skin.

We had also told them that white people used to think that people with darker skin weren’t as good as they were. And that there was a time when people with brown skin had to live separately and also when many of them had to work for no money.

We had talked about racism. They had witnessed the actions of customs officers in airports who told us to approach one at a time; not realizing we were a family. They saw their dad get held back and searched while I was waved through.

I thought we had been doing a pretty good job. I knew we couldn’t cover everything but I had hoped we were giving them the basic vocabulary to talk about racism and the understanding they would need to recognize and hopefully to fight injustices.

But that morning I was reminded of how little we as parents understand what is going on in those little heads. My kids and I had been walking to the train platform and talking about a story that we like: The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.

In Sneetch society, bearing a star on one’s belly is a mark of privilege, and the star-bellied Sneetches impose all kinds of indignities on the starless ones, like excluding them from their frankfurter parties.

A stranger comes to town and offers to stamp stars on those without and then to remove stars from those so endowed. The Sneetches spend all their money but learn that sporting a star or not is a feeble mark for the worth of a Sneetch. Good lesson.

The kids said the star-bellied Sneetches were silly for leaving the starless ones out; just like when white people thought that brown people weren’t as good as they were. Silly and wrong.

This was the story that had sparked my daughter’s question. What would happen if a star-bellied Sneetch and a starless one got together beyond the reach of the frankfurter party firelight? What sort of Sneetch would result from such a union and how would it be received by the others?

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

We were crossing a busy street. Our train was coming soon. We were rushing to school the way we rush to school every morning. This was one of those conversations that you have with your kids one sentence at a time in between saying “come-on!” and “look-both-ways” and “you-can-fix-your-sock-when-we-get-there.”

So I answered quickly. “It was bad,” I said. “The white people didn’t like the mixed people, either.” Because I’d reasoned that she was thinking of apartheid in South Africa (we had been talking about it after Nelson Mandela’s death). I said, “the mixed people also had to live separate from the whites and couldn’t have all the things that they had.”

My daughter stopped. I glanced down at her just in time to see a look flash across her face. She was surprised. Shocked and hurt. I cast my mind back, wondering what might have upset her, and I suddenly realized that she had not seen that answer coming. She hadn’t known.

When we had talked about the times and places when racist rules prevailed, it had never occurred to her that people like her had suffered. I had just watched her find out that there was no star on her belly.

Perhaps she had thought she was going to hear something different. She knows that she is both Canadian and Sri Lankan, both white and brown.

She and her brother are doted on and adored by families on three continents; families that have little in common besides these two children. Perhaps she had thought that I would tell her that mixed people are loved and accepted by both sides in divided, racist societies. As part of both sides, they are the bridge between them; the proof that the divisions are arbitrary and hurtful and wrong.

Maybe she had thought I might say that the white people loved the mixed people because they were part white and the brown people loved the mixed people because they were part brown. Doubly-loved.

Instead, without pausing long enough to really hear her question, I’d told her that people like her were treated badly. I had inadvertently opened her eyes a little wider than I had realized. She knew now what is both surprising and obvious: being part-white is being non-white.

I regretted my answer. I should have waited until we were having a conversation face-to-face where I could have asked her more about what she was thinking. I wish I could go back and explore the world she had in her mind before I told her that life had been (and therefore could still be) hard for a mixed-race person. I had taken the wind out of her beautiful little sails and longed to blow some air back in.

We caught our train. She changed the subject. She didn’t have any more questions. And she seemed fine.

Growing up, our children will have many moments when reality displaces a firmly held but false belief. First, their childhood fantasies were reasoned away: they cannot fly and the dinosaurs are never coming back to life. Now they have to contend with uglier truths being revealed: life isn’t fair and racism really does hurt people very much like them.

Leah Birnbaum is an urban planning consultant and a parent in Toronto. She blogs at Chapter Four.

Embarrassing my kids at the cross-country races

I expected to be the subject of much eye-rolling during my children’s formative years but I didn’t think it would start so soon. My boy is only seven but I can already be an embarrassment to him. Yesterday was the kids’ cross-country meet. Hundreds of kids from all over the city running together along the beach of Lake Ontario, then through the park to the finish line. The kids were nervous but I was just hoping I could acclimatize myself to the joyful vision of small children running in time to stop welling up before either of my kids ran past me. Yes, children’s sporting events make me cry (for the record, no, I’m not surprised I’m an embarrassment).

I watched the early races while my kids waited in line for their age groups to run. I stood about 100m from the finish line and cheered as kids ran past, walked past, held hands with their friends and jogged past, lost their shoes and went back for them, or just ambled to the finish line watching the birds. But whenever a kid seemed to run out of steam I’d yell “Keep going! You’re so close! The finish line is just around the corner! You can do it!” And most of them did.

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Malli ran his whole race without walking and I managed to cheer him on without weeping which means we both won. Then he came to watch with me while the bigger kids raced. I kept up my enthusiastic cheers and encouraging yells until he pulled on my jacket and rolled his eyes towards the tree line. “Mum…,” he said. “What?” I asked. “You don’t want me to cheer?” He shook his head.

Ok, fine. I stopped yelling quite so much. We still clapped and we still shouted “Go! go! go!” and tried to snap photos whenever we saw kids from his school go by but I toned it down while we waited for Akka’s turn to race.

Then Malli pulled on my sleeve again and pointed, shyly. I looked and saw a little girl in a red shirt slow down to a walk. She looked exhausted. “What?” I said to Malli. “You want me to cheer her on?” He nodded. So I’m embarrassing but I’m not entirely wrong! Is there a name for this stage? Where I can mortify my kids while still being needed?

“Keep going!” I yelled while Malli clapped. “You’re so close! The finish line is just around the corner! You can do it!” She glanced at us. She looked at the trail ahead of her. She narrowed her eyes. And she ran.

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game theory

About a year ago we had a good stretch of time when the kids were into playing checkers and snakes and ladders and go fish. They’d sit down after school and play for ages while we delighted in their wholesomeness and cooperation and general fabulousness.

But something has changed. Now, more often than not, board games end with one child flinging a small and un-findable (but obviously irreplaceable)  piece of plastic behind the bookcase with tremendous force while screaming “Fine! I’m not playing! You’re a cheater!!” I’d either ignore it or go investigate to find that no one had cheated but that one child’s legitimate setback in the game was deemed to be the result of underhanded tactics by the other.

Finally I relented and played with them myself – an invitation I decline on principle while pointing out that that’s why I made two of them. Akka and I played a for a few turns; then I had to get up to check something on the stove and asked Malli to take my turn for me. Out of the corner of my eye I could see them whispering, shooting me glances, and counting game pieces. Finally Malli made a decision and played my turn. They both erupted in giggles that brought me to realize that the other pot on the stove also needed a good long stir. And perhaps the inside of the cupboard needed another long glance. Malli continued to take my turns for me and they continued to delight in fixing the game so that I would lose. When I wandered back to the game I was dismayed to find that Akka had accumulated almost all of the pieces and was about to triumph. Never mind. I didn’t scream. I threw nothing. We had an immediate rematch and once again the pots on the stove urgently needed my attention after my first turn.

They played on. Game after game. Making me the loser made them both the winner even though Malli was working to sabotage my side of the board. No one threw pieces behind the couch. No one screamed “cheater!” (although perhaps I had the right to). I lost very gracefully and tried to conceal the fact that anything unelectronic that keeps them engaged and relatively quiet is a huge win in my book.

Conspiring to make me lose evolved into them playing against each other the next morning. So far no shrieks or projectiles. Shhh. I win!!  I totally win!!

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thumbsuckers (still)

It has been more than two years since I wrote about my children’s voracious thumbsucking habit. I’m sorry to report that their enthusiasm for their thumbs is no less voracious today. Or am I? Therein lies my latest parenting dilemma.

They tried to quit. Then they stopped trying. The little thumb puppets were thrown from the bed. The sleek thumb-mittens were stretched out of shape after being repeatedly yanked out of the way of a needy mouth. Every few months I’d bring it up again and we’d try a new regime of sticker-rewards or check marks for each recess or dinner hour spent thumbless. Check marks could be collected and exchanged for gum or erasers or a pack of pipe cleaners. They built thumb-sandwiches out of tongue depressors and medical tape. Then they wrapped themselves up only to cry out ten minutes later to be set free.

It was all crap. None of it worked. Not even a little bit. It turns out they didn’t really want to quit – I wanted them to. I loved seeing their little faces without a fist in the way. I hated the idea that they’re making their jaws grow askew or setting themselves up for all sorts of invasive orthodontic treatment. I also hated how disappointed I’d be when each quitting method failed.

So we went to see an orthodontist. And he said it’s no big deal. He did say their jaws are messed up. Cross-bite, open-bite, they’ve got it all. But he didn’t seem to think the thumbs were making these conditions worse or that pushing them to quit would do much good. He also said they’ll quit when we start putting stuff in their mouths to correct those bite problems. The dentist, however, says that stopping the thumbs now while they’re still growing will prevent their bites from getting worse. So which one is right? And whose advice do I follow?

Will we cement bars across the roof of their mouths to prevent the thumb from fitting in? Don’t look shocked – I was this close to doing it. But can I handle the anguish and stress they’ll feel if their source of comfort is so blatantly blocked? Oops – I mean – can they?

I have no idea. Today we went to our regular dentist appointment. Akka has four cavities. Malli has two. We had to book three more appointments to get those fixed. The dentist is cool with not putting the anti-thumbsucking-bars in for now but she says that if I talk to ten different orthodontists I’ll get ten different answers. Upon hearing that my first thought was who has the time for more appointments!?

So, I remain uncertain. And they remain thumbsucking. And maybe that’s fine. I need to stop thinking about it for a while. I’ve decided to focus instead on the one small triumph I managed today: I found a tube of raspberry cupcake lip balm after it had been through the washing machine but – and this part is crucial – before it went in the dryer.

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