Wednesday, June 15, 2005

June, 2005 Summer vacation

On one of the first days of summer vacation, my sister called. She had known the boys had swimming lessons in the morning and was wondering what they did in the afternoon.
            “They bickered,” I said.
            “All afternoon?”
            “Pretty much.”
            Maureen found this funny, partly because she doesn’t have kids, partly because I made it sound like it was an actual activity. Time to swim, then lunchtime, followed by a period of incessant bickering.
            Now, a month later, we are in the middle of summer and while the boys still bicker occasionally, it doesn’t seem to be the full-time sport it was in early June.
            If the first week of school is takeoff, the first week of vacation after the school year is reentry. For astronauts, reentry is the most dangerous time. As they pass from space into the atmosphere, the temperature outside their spacecraft can reach three thousand degrees. Without the proper equipment and the correct maneuvers before and during reentry, they will perish.
            Summer vacation means reentry into the family. No longer is everything in the boys’ world set up exactly for their age and developmental level.  For six-year-old Liam, reentry heat is turned on as he tries to keep up with his brother, 3 years older. For Jacob, the heat comes through frustration with a little brother who asks too many questions and doesn’t always understand everything on the first try. And both of them need to deal with the thousand-degree toddler, who is apt to scribble on their pictures, take apart their Lego creations and generally pull away Mom and Dad’s attention.
            To avoid what felt like an inevitable crash and burn, I found myself giving my boys the equivalent of the ceramic tiles put on the outside of the spaceship to resist the heat. For the first part of the space age, scientists didn’t think reentry without burning was possible. Because of this, they didn’t even man the first flights. As they learned more about how to manage the reentry process, they developed spacecrafts that were better and better able to handle the heat. I’m sure each parent has developed his or her own “tiles” that help with reentry and cut down on bickering. My tiles can be boiled down to three sentences. The first week of vacation, I found myself saying each several times a day. Now, it seems that the boys actually internalized them somewhat, and I don’t need to say them as often:
            Tile 1: “Find something he’s saying that you agree with and talk about that.” This is especially aimed at 10-year-old Jacob. Too often, Liam would make a statement about something, and Jacob would find the one thing about it that was incorrect and point it out. To prevent a conversation from escalating to an argument over small points, Jacob needed to see that the object of conversing wasn’t to find every error in what Liam was saying. His job was to find Liam’s main point and build on that, rather than tear down a smaller point.
            Tile 2: “No one can talk until the next stop light.” When it seemed that every car ride was a trip to Bickerfest, I began instituting whole blocks of silence when I heard an argument was starting. At the stoplight, they could talk again, but if the talk goes back to the same old argument, then it’s more silence until another landmark. They soon learned that if they have any hope of doing anything in the car besides listening to NPR, they needed to talk civilly to each other.
            Tile 3: “You’re arguing over the computer? You’re lucky to have a computer.” This is my social justice tile. I noticed that a lot of the things the boys argued over wouldn’t even be available to the average kid in a third-world country. Early in the summer, I explained (and re-explained) why kids in another place would be so happy to take turns with whatever my boys both wanted to use at once. I found I could apply the lesson to just about any material thing. “Do you know how lucky you are to have a ___?” (basketball, turn to choose the TV show, bike.) I’m not sure if they now have internalized this message or just don’t want me to start the third-world lecture again, since it does tend to be long.  Regardless, they are not fighting as much over objects.
            I have been able to write this whole essay as the boys played whiffle ball in the front yard. The first week of summer, I wouldn’t have been able to get through the first paragraph.
The reentry is successful, Houston.

And I’m going to enjoy it until we need to once again prepare for takeoff.

Sunday, June 5, 2005

June, 2005-- Bragging parents

No one likes to hear a mother bragging about her kids. While every parent has moments of thinking his or her child is the smartest, cutest, most athletic, kindest kid in the class (and perhaps the city or even the nation) we all know there are limits of how much others want to hear about our kids. I would like to brag as much as the next mother, but I hold myself back, and expect others to do the same.
The other night, we were at a fund-raising dinner for a local charity and were placed at a table with a couple we had never met. Their children were about the same age as ours, and we soon learned the mother was home schooling. She spent the first course of dinner going on about how brilliant these kids were because of her home schooling.
            “Our kindergartener just finished Treasure Island,” she gushed across the table.
            “Really,” I said, reaching for the rolls. “The real Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson, or an abridged version?”
            “Well, an abridged version, but still, it had chapters,” she said.
            “It was 164 pages long,” her husband added.
            “Now that would be something, if he could read the actual Treasure Island, wouldn’t it?I said.
            As a former teacher, I knew as well as anyone that it is a feat for any kindergartener to even be able to read the words “treasure” and “island,” let alone an abridged version of the classic novel. Truly, anything beyond Dick and Jane is considered quite advanced for kindergarten. Yet, somehow, I could not give this mother the satisfaction of an amazed reaction. I needed to downplay her son’s achievement.
            My husband teased me about it later on the car ride home.
            “The REAL Treasure Island?  Oh, just the abridged version. Well, then.”
            “I couldn’t help it,” I said. “It just popped out.”
            The desire to brag about our children is not all bad. In fact, when done to the right audience — the child’s other parent, grandparents, even aunts and uncles — it can be a wonderful thing. Some of my favorite conversations with Bill have been when the kids are gone for the weekend and we have a chance to catch up with each other and talk about great things they’ve done lately. (Of course, the fact that we are alone for the weekend always helps us think fondly of the kids.)  Grandparents never recognize parental bragging for what it is-- they call it “news” and soak it up. And aunts and uncles — especially childless ones — tend to be their nieces and nephews’ biggest fans.
            When kept within the confines of the family, or even within close friendships, telling of our children’s accomplishments helps us to appreciate them even more. One example of Liam’s creativity, told by me, often sparks his grandmother to think of another example, and soon we are basking in the glory of Liam-ness. It’s a nice place to be.
            The difference between boasting inside and outside the family circle has to do with how full a picture the listener has of your child. In the case of close friends and family, a proud parent’s comment about a child’s accomplishment is just one piece of the puzzle. Grandma heard about how Liam hit his sister yesterday, but today she’s hearing about the elaborate popsicle-stick crucifix he made at school. Both are parts of Liam. She sees the whole picture and delights in the good.  In the case of the Treasure Island reading kindergartener, though, that’s all I know about him. His mom is providing a one-sided view, and while I know it can’t be all that there is, I can’t very well ask, “Yes, but what are his bad points?” so I choose to diminish the one good point I do know about. Was it nice of me? Not really. But it did just pop out.
             Our vast parental love for our children propels us into wishing that everyone could love and appreciate our children as we do. Our mistake is thinking that if others could just know of our child’s gifts and strengths, they too, would love our child. The irony is the opposite is true. The people who love our children most are those who know their wobbles as well as their triumphs.

            Swapping stories of missteps-- whether our own or our children’s-- is an important part of telling the parenting story. It’s a way of making sure we don’t puff up with pride in our own accomplishments. Acknowledging imperfections keeps us grounded and true. It releases us from the fear that either our children or we need to be perfect in order to be loved. Telling of foibles as well as triumphs allows us to take one step further away from conditional love. At the same time, it brings us one step closer to love without condition — love even through faults and failings. And that brings us one step closer to loving as God does.