what a freaking bummer

Anyone else feeling a little bummed out by the news lately?

One night, while OUTBREAK was flashing across the bottom of my 24 hour CNN nightly newscast, I got to thinking: if the Ebola doesn’t kill me, than the Entrovirus 68 is sure to come my way, or at least come after my kids. And if we LUCKY enough to escape those two rogue viruses, than sure enough – it’s the start of the flu season. And between my two nose-picking-hand-wiping preschoolers, and my husband who flies commercial airlines every other week, I’m sure we are bound to end up with at least a good old flu/stomach bug between the months of October and March. SWEEEET. Bring it on.

And if, but some random act of God, we end up spared Ebola, the Entrovirus, the flu and the stomach bug, well…then there is ISIS. Or ISIL. Or whatever we are calling the WORST-OF-THE-WORST terrorists these days.  I’m pretty sure every time I see a map of the Middle East, that red spider-like-web of ISIL controlled-territory keeps growing bigger and bigger.

And while I’m not sure exactly why I – in particular – should be afraid of this ruthless militant group thousands of miles away, the news and our politicians do an exceptionally good job of making me want to shut my windows and lock my doors in case the ISIL RED-WEB-OF-DEATH spills over the atlantic ocean into my backyard.

And don’t even get me started on the Congressmen who is hypothesizing Hamas terrorists may INFECT THEMSELVES WITH EBOLA and sneak into the US.   WHAT?!?  I think we should just leave the United States right now and head to Canada.  It MUST be safer up there.

And lest we not forget Al Qaeda. Or Afghanistan. Or Ferguson. Or the incompetence of our political leadership (see above quote).  Or the massive fires and droughts in California, or simultaneous hurricanes that just swept over Bermuda and Hawaii.

And SO…this is why I’ve started to mute much of the 24 hr news and decided, for at least a few weeks, to get all my news from the ELLEN show.  Wanna join me?  It will put you in MUCH better spirits.

This is my important news from last week:

I found out about Devon Still, a Football player for the Bengals whose 4-year old daughter has cancer.  When he learned of her diagnosis this summer, Still was granted permission by the Bengals to leave organized team activities and minicamp in June to attend to his daughter.

The Bengals had no choice but to cut him in September. However, the team re-signed him to the practice squad so Still would continue to get a paycheck and health insurance.  

Since then, more than 12,000 of his jerseys have been sold, and fans across the world tweet messages of support with #StillStrong (including the Patriots Cheerleaders who wore his jersey during one of the NFL games).  As a result, the team is donating all $1 million-plus of profit to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.   GAWK.   

And yes, I started crying when I heard this story of FEEL-GOOD-AWESOMENESS-NEWS even in the midst of tragedy.  Humans are good.  Life is good.  People are really good to each other, despite what we hear on the news and often despite what politicians would have us believe.   So for now – and until I get tired of videos of puppies and small children – goodbye, CNN and hello, ELLEN.

on how to teach grace

There are only few things that give me confidence that I’m doing a good job in raising my girls.

Parenting is difficult that way.  It’s not quantifiable.  There is no blueprint for what’s getting better or what’s getting worse.

But every few days, 4-year old A. sits down for a meal that I’ve placed in front of her.  She starts to dig into her food, and then she looks up at me with her big blue eyes.  “Mommy,” she pauses and looks me straight in the eye, “Thank you for making this wonderful dinner. I love you. ”

I mean, gawsh.  You are welcome, kid.  And thanks for being SO FREAKING awesome.  Would you like cake with that dinner?

Teaching grace is a remarkable thing for young children.  In the midst of learning about superhero’s and princesses, numbers and spelling, they learn the importance of displaying every day acts of kindness and respect.

This is A.’s second year in a Montessori school.  One of the hallmarks of the primary year Montessori curriculum is learning what Montessorians call grace and courtesy.   They are taught through planned lessons to be considerate and respectful towards one another.

For young children, learning how to work and play together with others in a peaceful and caring community IS the most critical life skill they can learn.  They learn everyday social customs, such as how to enter a room, not to disturb another’s work, how to ask if you may join in an activity and how to graciously decline an invitation, table manners, and how to offer an apology.  

grace-and-courtesy-montessori

When my daughter shows me grace and courtesy without prompting, I know I’m doing a good job as a parent.  These life lessons are THAT important for our children.  So why is it we place so little importance in adults acting the same way?

The news is riddled with instances of adults acting without concern or care for anyone else.  A little over a week ago, United Airlines Flight 1462 from Newark, New Jersey, to Denver was forced to divert mid-trip because two passengers got into a fight over legroom. Since then, not one but two additional U.S. flights have been forced to make unplanned landings because of similar in-air squabbles.  

I get it.  Airplanes are getting smaller;  travel is getting more stressful and people want their personal space.  Blah, Blah, Blah. I want my space too. Hell, I can’t even go to the bathroom alone anymore without one – or maybe – two small children, and a dog barging in on me.

But what is more important than personal space?  Respect.  In the young child’s Montessori classroom, children do most of their work on rugs they lay out around the floor.  Talk about personal space all over the classroom.  So as soon as they enter the classroom, children are taught to walk around the rugs, to respect their peer’s workspace, and to wait quietly for their turn.

Why then does it seem to adults that civility and manners are old school?   I’m always surprised (and slightly humbled) when my husband bothers to ask for and remembers the name of every person he meets.   I’m also constantly surprised when I introduce myself to other adults who apologize in advance for being bad at names; and will likely forget mine. Let’s be honest.  That’s not forgetful, it’s just rude.

Technology seems to have made things worse.  A few days ago, I was at a salon and a lady actually had her phone on speaker for a good 20 minutes blabbering away while her nails dried.  She had absolutely no concern for the other people around her.  Are we getting more and more rude? Have we forgotten everything we learned as small children?

And if so, how can we be surprised that our young adults are faced with challenges like bullying in our schools? How can we expect them to display acts of kindness when we model no better?

Teaching and practicing grace on a daily basis is a kindness we do for ourselves and our community.  Our children learn this as one of the first lessons they are taught in school.  Hold the door for your peers, shake hands and say good morning, say please and thank you, look people in the eye and wait patiently.  We would do well to remember and practice them as adults.

simple loving

We recently returned from a simple beach vacation with family.  Long, lazy days by the beach, pool, or ice cream stand and nights by a fire-pit.  For me, it was a snapshot into the idealized American summer.

One dark night after the kids had gone to bed, J. and I snuck out to listen to some music.  We walked along the beach and found ourselves by the local fire-pit.  We held hands while singing along to various renditions of Eagles and Bob Marley songs.  In front of us sat families with older kids, making s’mores in the fire, and cuddling with the parents.

And I gotta admit – it was really REALLY nice.  It was nice to imagine what our family may look like in a few years time; and it was nice to see different families enjoying the simplicity of a few songs, a moonlit night, and roasted marshmallows together.  No technology, no lights, no board walks, no roller-coasters.  Just the simple fire, a dessert, a singer and a guitar.

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So imagine my surprise when I was lulled out of my fire-induced coma when the singer (a Bob-Marly wanna-be) looked straight at J. and myself and declared:

Bob Marley wanna-be: “You two, man. I’ve been looking at you all night. You are SO in LOVE! Look at HER, man. SING to her!”

J: laughing.

Me: I’m sorry, are you talking to us?

Bob Marley wanna-be: “LOOK AT HER, MAN!” “SING TO HER” “I”LL ALWAYS LOVVVVEEE YOUUU” (proceeds to sing)

J: still laughing, but now looking at me.

Me: he really can’t be talking to us, right? I mean. Really? And is there any way I can sneak away from this fire-pit? Looking around into darkness, trying to plan an exit strategy.

Bob Marley wanna-be (still singing) “One day, man, I’m going to be as in love as you two are!!”

This goes on for a while.  We are awkwardly laughing, waiting for it to end.   And it finally does.  They move onto singing something a bit more upbeat.  And a few songs later we quietly sneak away.

This whole embarrassing escapade got me thinking about love and the simple life.

Why was I so astonished that he thought J. and I looked in love?  I mean, yes, we were sitting by the fire.  Yes, we were holding hands. But most days I feel like we are a million miles away from the romantic “in love” of 10 years ago.

Love changes when we become parents.  It grows bigger, better, and more fuller to accommodate all the difficulties life throws at us.  It’s not easy or constant.  We work at it all the time.  It’s damn hard.  It’s not a simple love-song by the fire-pit.  And frankly, that’s ok with me.  I think we moved from “in love” to “love” a long time ago.

And our marriage (like most marriages of people we know) is egalitarian, committed, and focused on children.  We are jointly dedicated to raising our children AND creating satisfying lives for ourselves.  That’s a lot on our plate.  So romantic love?  Where does that fit in? When do we find time to sing to each-other, Bob-Marley-Style without texting on our iphones?

I’m not sure I have an answer.  However, after my immediate awkwardness with the situation, I decided that I was glad that it was clear that I love my husband.  That’s a good thing, no matter where we are in our relationship.  And I’m glad I can imagine sitting with our older princesses 5-10 years from now near that same fire-pit.  Them enjoying the same music we did.

And if every once in a while, between diaper changes and school runs, work trips and ballet recitals we get to hold hands – well that’s pretty good too.

 

is raising children a low-risk business?

Growing up, I lived on a quiet and affluent street where the houses were spaced at least an acre apart.  The houses were nestled in the woods and each backed up to a park.  So when I made best friends at the tender age of 5 with the little girl up the street, I knew I’d spend much of my childhood trekking back and forth between our houses.  And when we weren’t walking back and forth between our houses (a good .25 mile), we were hiding out in the woods, building forts – complete with a “tree” – named in honor of my large yellow labrador retriever.  We would walk down to the stream behind my house, and even when we were a little bit older (10 and 12  – maybe) cross a rather large street to go buy candy at the gas station a good mile away from either of our houses.

No parental supervision involved.  I know – SHOCKING!

Now, I know what you must be thinking: negligent parents. Didn’t someone call social services? Am I right?

Or perhaps, this sounds something like your childhood, too?

It is hard to understand how much childhood norms have shifted in one generation.  The Atlantic recently published an excellent article on the subject, The Overprotected Kid.  “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting. One…study…conducted in urban, suburban, and rural neighborhoods in the U.K., shows that in 1971, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone. By 1990, that measure had dropped to 9 percent, and now it’s even lower.”

Why have we gotten so risk-adverse when it comes to parenting that we won’t even let our kids walk to school by them selves?  It’s no longer socially acceptable, and potentially illegal? And why has is seemed (especially recently) that the government has something to say in every situation?  A few examples: working mom arrested for letting her chid play at the park and a woman whose kids were taken away by the state (and subsequently returned) after she let them stay at home.

This has really started to bother me since I view a large part of my job as a parent to teach my children to be independent, resilient and ultimately strong little people.  You fall down; brush yourself off and get back up.   No one has given you anything to do; make your own fun.   You see there is work to do; pitch in and help.  As a kid playing in the woods, I had massive freedom at a young age and learned responsibility.  I didn’t depend on my parents for fun nor were they apt to sit around and provide it for me.

Last week I took A., C. and our dog to my parents house.  I convinced them to go on a “walk” around the house with me (basically amounts to tromping around the woods).   We all took a big step and stood on a cliff that looks down towards a ravine into the aforementioned stream.   A. shouted “MOMMY!! LOOK OUT!! YOU ARE GOING TO FALL!”  I calmly reminded her that I wasn’t going to fall, and if I did, it would only be about 4 feet.   I also pointed out the stream to her, and told her when I was a little girl I used to walk down there.

“How did you get there?!”

“I walked”

“But HOW??” Incredulous.

“I just went through those trees in the woods” (there was clearly no path)

“Oh.” pause. “Who did you go with?”

“Friends.”

Silence. As if contemplating how I would dare to make such a treacherous journey with friends.

We walk a fine line between over-parenting our children and teaching them to be independent self-reliant individuals.   At the playground, I let my kids fall.  I let my almost-2 year old climb to the top and follow her sister down the big slide. And I don’t hesitate to let my children go un-watched in our house (parents, of course, still in the house – just not actively watching).    By allowing my children to take reasonable risks, I allow them to gain experience that builds confidence (C. doesn’t even let me help her any more) and instills resilience which is essential later in life.

My parents allowed me to take those same reasonable risks as a child.   No one called social services on my parents because they lived in a nice house on a nice street.  And  it was a different time in parenting.  Kids could play outside for hours at a time unsupervised at a reasonably young age.  Many parents don’t have options for quality child-care in the summer; and they have to work. Period.

State law in South Carolina – where the mother was arrested for leaving her 9-year-old unsupervised on a playground – criminalized leaving a child at “unreasonable risk of harm affecting the child’s life, physical or mental health, or safety.”  But the law doesn’t say what unreasonable risk is.  Is that risk leaving a child unsupervised at a playground? Letting a child eat three big Macs a day at a McDonald’s? Letting the child drink a super-large soda in New York city? Letting her ride in a car?   

Has parenting gotten too risk-adverse?  And who is to decide what a reasonable risk is for a child?  Me or my government?

What do you think?  What was your childhood like and how do you, did you or will you raise your kids?  I’d love to hear your comments below.

 

 

prison pressure-cookers, literally

A few days ago I heard a story on NPR about Texas inmates suing to force the Department of Criminal Justice to bring down to temperature in their prison to a balmy 88 degrees.  According to the suit, filed on behalf of four prisoners near College Station, it is often so hot that inmates have to put towels on scalding-hot tables in order to rest their arms down.  The small windows in the cells provide no air; and often it is hotter inside the cell than outside in the summer Texas sun.  This isn’t new, because in most cases, Texas prisons are not air-conditioned (only 21 of the 111).  The Houston Chronicle reported that there are more than half a dozen other hot-prison lawsuits in Texas, and inmates have died from the heat.  Whaaat? 

Here is the story if you haven’t read it.   I recommend it.

There are a few reasons that this gets my blood boiling.  And not just because I have gained a particular affinity for the US prison population after watching two seasons of Orange is the New Black, and am now on a ACLU-like crusade for justice.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the US has incarcerated 2.4 million people on any given day.  Chew on that for a second, and check out this graph.  It’s insane. IN-SANE. We lock up more people, per capita, than any other nation.  And it makes me think we lock up people for too many things, like children running away, or immigration offenses, and really technical, or other? What does that EVEN mean?

Now, I’m not a fancy lawyer.  But I know two things: that can’t be good when being a prisoner in the US is more common than being a high school teacher, and it must be really freaking expensive (upwards of $50K per year/per inmate according to the Economist).  Is that really good value for money?

And here is my real grudge.  Ready? Eventually most of these prisoners are going to be released back into society.  And hopefully they will seen the error of their ways, and lead well-meaning lives, and not reoffend.  But how likely is that if we can do no better than treat them like less-than while in prison?  Or provide inhumane conditions? Now, prison shouldn’t be summer camp.  However, shouldn’t it be a place of both retribution and rehabilitation?  Isn’t that the point for most offenders?

The problem is that we, our politicians and our prisons aren’t doing a very good job at providing a place of rehabilitation.  According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, an estimated 68% of prisoners released in 30 states in 2005 were arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison, and 77% were arrested within five years.   

So it particularly irks me when I see this:  State Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston and chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said he was concerned about the inmate deaths [in Texas] but wanted to examine the circumstances of each. “Texans are not motivated to air-condition inmates,” he said he was not sympathetic to complaints about a lack of air-conditioning, partly out of concern about the costs, but also out of principle that offenders were not a priority.

 

And so I end with a quote from the great Nelson Mandela: “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”

Amen, friend.