Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way, Parenting Edition

Recently Ace offered up a useful piece of advice: “If you ever pick up a toad and it seems extra squishy, be careful, because that means it’s about to pee on you. I had to learn this the hard way.”

When Sonny nodded sympathetically, Ace asked him if he’d ever had to learn anything the hard way. He had. Specifically: “When you are really tired and your eye is bleeding, don’t ride your bike, because you will crash it.”

(It’s good to learn from others’ mistakes, so everyone take heed.)

My sons wanted to know what sorts of things I’d learned the hard way. I paused, wanting to select the most useful example among so many. It’s best to tell the truth the first time? People who gossip to you will also gossip about you? Do what is right despite what other people think? You can’t pull words back in once you’ve unleashed them?

While I considered, Sonny and Ace wandered away. Perhaps they’d already learned the hard way that my particular expression was a portent of a boring tale.

But now I was thinking about things I’d learned the hard way during my eight-plus years of parenting, and of the many more that will come. Some plant deep regrets. Others may not be as harsh, but they’re still worth tucking away so as not to have to learn them a second time. Here are but a few of those:

  1. Parenting books never include enough disclaimers and may tempt the reader to take false hope in particular formulas.
  2. Never let your vehicle to be without something that can serve as an emergency barf bucket.
  3. The child who is seemingly talking to himself in the living room for 15 minutes may in fact be talking to a toad. (May it not be an extra-squishy one.)
  4. Telling your kids that your name is not But Mom will send them to the floor in homophone-induced hilarity. Also, they will still call you But Mom but now will probably laugh while doing so.
  5. To mention that the entire household has remained exceptionally healthy this winter is to invite trouble.
  6. The kid crafting the paper airplane from the church bulletin may suddenly launch it over the heads of fellow congregants, even if he has always previously kept these airplanes grounded.
  7. Not all root beer is caffeine free.
  8. The longer you wait to respond to the Sign-Up Genius for the school event, the more likely it is that you will end up providing chocolate spoons or cheesecake on a stick instead of ketchup or paper plates.
  9. It’s unwise to take one child to urgent care with strep-throat symptoms early on a Sunday without confirming that his brother, who is still abed, does not have similar symptoms. Making two back-to-back trips to urgent care feels very inefficient.
  10. If you get pulled over for going a wee bit over the speed limit with a three-year-old in the back seat, that three-year-old will proudly and with great relish rat you out to everyone he sees for the next two weeks.
  11. Failure to warn your kids from the get-go that the Tooth Fairy keeps an erratic schedule may require you to scrape up early-morning excuses for her unpunctuality.
  12. Despite best efforts, sometimes the hard way is the only way to learn.

What have you learned the hard way?

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Shelving the Elf

“I know what I really want for Christmas.
I want my childhood back.” –Robert Fulghum

. . . . .

“Mom,” Sonny asked the other day, for the third year running. “Why don’t we have an Elf on the Shelf?”

“Oh, we just don’t,” I answered. I’m not opposed to Elf on the Shelf; in fact, it looks like a fun tradition. Whether or not it would serve its purpose as being a Santa spy, we’d all enjoy its creative poses. But the truth is that I don’t need one more thing to remember each evening, especially in December. The Elf would probably forget to relocate and would languish for days in one place and J and I would have to make excuses for his slothfulness. Who needs that? We already have to do that for the Tooth Fairy.

Part of me worries that the want of Elf on the Shelf will develop one of those small, secret resentments that kids harbor into adulthood—the kind that convince them that their childhood was incomplete. But the other part of me seeks comfort in the fact that those of us who grew up before Elf on the Shelf was a Thing turned out just fine (or, if we didn’t, it wasn’t because we didn’t have Elf on the Shelf). I wonder how Elf on the Shelf would have even ranked among my general memories of childhood Christmastimes.

The kitchen smelling of tangerines and wood smoke and cinnamon and butter cookies.

Church Christmas programs: Snaking our way up the narrow, chilly stairwells and into the sanctuary that smelled like old wood and furniture polish, the wave of relief after I’d recited my “line” and now it was Jodi’s or Amy’s turn or Michelle’s turn, the individual boxes of Bridge Mix distributed afterward.

Dividing said Bridge Mix into equal piles, one pile for each day until Christmas, and then eventually breaking down and pilfering the larger pieces (those with caramel and fruit and malted milk filling) from the piles so that by Christmas Eve there remained only one scanty collection of wrinkled little chocolates harboring raisins or peanuts.

Going to my grandparents’ house during our no-TV years to watch Charlie Brown Christmas and Frosty the Snowman.

Collaborating with my sisters to make Christmas presents for each other.

Visits from my long-distance grandparents. Grandma brought everyone their own Cool-Whip container full of homemade caramel corn. She and Grandpa would sit quietly, watching the action and smiling at all their offspring.

Singing “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” complete with motions (don’t ask), at my uncle and aunt’s house on Christmas Eve. Then singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night” with my uncle holding out the phone receiver so my grandparents, if they weren’t visiting that year, could hear us three states away.

My mom waking us up on Christmas morning by playing “O Come All Ye Faithful” on the piano, and my dad singing along.

Walnut Whirl coffee cake for Christmas breakfast. That stuff is good.

Spending Christmas Day at my local grandparents’ house, the kids’ table rocking with laughter and mashed potatoes and Jello and turkey, and afterward the whole clan packed into what was, now that I think about it, a not very large living room for the afternoon.

The aroma of blue spruce and candles.

My grandparents’ tree adorned with a combination of big old-fashioned Christmas lights (the kind that burned you if you touched them), newer small ones (safe to touch), and a variety of ornaments of all ages—including an elf fashioned from a roll of Life-Savers that was eventually chewed open by an enterprising grandchild. Once, while decorating, my grandma asked my grandpa to put the angel on top of the tree. “Oh Marian,” he said. “I can’t lift you up that high.”

(Okay. Like Robert Fulghum, I kind of want my childhood back now.)

If Elf on the Shelf—or cookie-making, or carol singing, or tree decorating, or visiting Santa—is fun, why not do it, and enjoy? If not, don’t. Or if you forget or don’t have time, no worries. There will be something else—probably something you are not even orchestrating—that you will find yourself enjoying instead. There will be other things that your children will think on fondly someday when they want their childhood back at Christmas.

As Sonny was drawing the picture for this blog post, he suggested again that we get Elf on the Shelf. “We should get one. Why don’t we have one?”

“Well,” I said. “I don’t think we really need one right now. We can have Christmas without it.”

And we watched this together, because that’s what Christmas is all about.

Merry Christmas, all!

 

The Elephant of Brotherhood

Sonny was seething. “Ace is saying yes like a parrot! And h­­­e keeps saying it! Just to annoy me!”

“Yes. Yesss.­ YES!”

“Ace! Stop!”

“Yeesss,” squawked Ace, encouraged. “Yeess!”

Cognizant of the need for a tactical change, Sonny dipped into his own arsenal.

“Yawn,” he said. “Yawn!”

Ace, who hates the word yawn because it makes him yawn, erupted in fury. Explosive, yawning fury. But he did stop saying yes like a parrot.

Brotherhood: feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people. (Merriam-Webster)

One wonders how many sets of brothers Noah Webster researched before penning his definition. Or what they were doing at the time. Evidently they weren’t kicking the back of someone’s seat in the carpool, driving hard bargains in a Halloween candy swap, or splitting hairs over whose Lego that is and whose job it therefore is to pick it up. It seems that any number of definitions would fit the bill.

Sonny: You know I don’t like it when you call me “dude”!

Ace: Well. You know I don’t like it when you say you don’t like it when I call you “dude.”

Brotherhood: the rapid exchange of accusations.

Sonny: Can I look at your new book?

Ace: Yes. But just for a minute. And don’t read the words; just look at the pictures. You’re not reading the words, are you? Don’t read them! Just look at the pictures!

Brotherhood: needless tantalization.

Sonny: Ace, when we are grown-ups, you can come to my house every week. We’ll watch the ball game and have chips and cheese.

Ace: I will be there.

Brotherhood: shared dreams.

Ace: Sonny, in real life you will always be my sidekick, but in the movie I’m making you won’t show up until Episode 3.

Brotherhood: simultaneous injections of confidence and humility.

Ace, for 36 of the 40 minutes of the soccer game, very loudly. (Very.): “Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Why isn’t anyone else cheering? Go, Orange Dragons!”

Brotherhood: unbridled fandom.

Sonny: Ace, probably the reason he keeps pushing you is that he is frustrated that he doesn’t speak English yet . . . but he still shouldn’t push.

Brotherhood: wisdom and comfort.

Ace: My friends thought Sonny had been lying when he told us it was raining, but I told them he wasn’t.

Brotherhood: fierce loyalty.

Sonny: I miss Grandpa.

Ace: So do I.

Brotherhood: shared grief.

Ace: My favorite part of staying at the cottage was building stuff on the beach.

Sonny: Mine too! And swimming!

Brotherhood: shared memories.

Sonny: Three cheers for that pumpkin!

Sonny and Ace, in unison and laughter: Hip!

Brotherhood: shared humor.

Ace: Do you like pepperoni or sausage better?

Sonny: Actually, Ace, pepperoni is a type of sausage.

Brotherhood: pedantry.

Sonny: Ace, do you want half of my treat? I think you would like it.

Brotherhood: generosity (albeit sporadic).

Sonny: The Green Bay Packers are the best team ever!
Ace: They are . . . after the Lions.

Brotherhood: smack talk.

Sonny: Let’s leave this where Mom will find it.

Ace: Yes! It will give her the heebie-jeebies!

Brotherhood: the homing in on a common target.

How does one distill brotherhood into one succinct definition? Is there even a workable definition or, like the Indian tale of the six blind men describing an elephant, does it depend on an isolated perception? Like humanity itself, it’s hard to sum up.

Brotherhood: a looming, extraordinary giant fashioned seamlessly from incongruent parts.

Brotherhood—loyalty, parrots, dreams, and all—it’s worth having. Keep it up, my sons.

What Surprises Them?

This past summer I was swimming with Sonny, Ace, and my niece and nephews at my sister’s neighborhood pool. After about an hour, Sonny issued a challenge: that I jump off the diving board, an idea well received by his cohorts. I had not jumped off a diving board in years (okay, decades) but why not?

Overestimating my level of trepidation, the five of them chanted “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in unison and shouted other encouragements as I approached the diving board. After walking the plank and stepping off, I surfaced to many congratulations.

“Good job, Aunt Laura!”

“Yay, Mom!”

“Wow!”

Huh. They seemed impressed. And astonished.

So against my better judgment, I asked the obvious: “Did you think I would be too scared to do that?”

Smiles and sidelong glances.

“Did you? You can tell me.”

“Well,” one of the kids said gently. “It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

I was much amused by their assumption. And touched by their encouragement and support when they thought I was trying something new and scary. Oh, and mildly chagrined that I’d evidently been presenting myself as wholly unadventurous.

Since then, Sonny and Ace have been surprised over many things I’ve done. Among them:

  • Singing along to “Take a Chance on Me,” a song they didn’t know.
  • Fixing the toilet.
  • Reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • Answering “Buenos tardes, Mom!” with “And good afternoon to you!”
  • Successfully and without hesitation operating a VCR (a.k.a. “old fashioned DVD player”). Bonus points for knowing at a glance that the tape had to be rewound. (And yes, I had to explain what “rewind” meant.)
  • Hitting a baseball.
  • Firing up a gas grill.
  • Identifying Bugs Meany as the antagonist in the Encyclopedia Brown.

And so on. Each time I was somewhat surprised at their surprise, although how could they know that any of these were in my wheelhouse if I’d never shown them?

Recently, after I was short-tempered all day for reasons that were not good enough, Sonny asked me for a small kindness. When I complied, surprise flashed briefly in his eyes. Given the day we’d had, his surprise was justified, but still . . . realizing that your kid is surprised by your kindness feels much worse than knowing he is surprised that you were not too chicken to jump off a diving board. Kindness, willingness to give a little time or to listen, patience—these should not be dumped in the vicinity of Abba lyrics, Encyclopedia Brown characters, toilet repair, and diving board mettle to be trotted out seldom enough to surprise others. Even on a bad day.

Know what’s disconcerting? To ask yourself whether your kids (or others) would be more surprised if you showed kindness or harshness, kindness or impatience, kindness or sarcasm, kindness or selfishness. Even on a bad day.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” – Mother Teresa

Best-Laid Plans for This School Year: Only Slightly Awry (So Far)

One day early last spring I waited for Sonny to jump out of my vehicle in the drop-off line. He hesitated. “Mom,” he said. “Are you sure that today is Pajama Day?”

“Yes!” I said, feigning certainty, because suddenly I was not sure—not at all sure—that that day was Pajama Day; why hadn’t I written it down? Was I sealing my place in the Annals of Incompetent Parenting by sending my kid to school in printed fleece and bright waffle weave on Not Pajama Day? As I watched him trot into school clutching his stuffed animal and pillow (recommended accessories for Pajama Day), I prayed that I would not very soon receive a phone call from an irate first grader requesting street clothes.

I lucked out. No phone call. It was, in fact, Pajama Day.

Thankful to have dodged a bullet, I vowed to be more organized. Maybe I’d start keeping one of those acclaimed master calendars.

A few weeks later my cell phone went missing. I’d had it earlier in the morning and hadn’t gone anywhere where I could have lost it. I called it a few times from the land line, hoping to track it by its ring, but no luck. Eventually a Facebook message arrived from someone at school. “Your phone is in Ace’s lunchbox.”

Well, that wasn’t embarrassing in the least. (PSA: When you are hastily packing your kids’ lunches, do not pick up your phone—or anything else of importance, presumably—while doing so, lest you drop your phone into the lunchbox along with the apple that you are holding in the same hand. In my defense, it was 6:30ish o’clock and two kids were holding separate conversations with me at the same time.)

And I vowed again to be more organized.

These were not necessarily isolated incidents. But the 2015-2016 school year would go more smoothly—I was sure of that.

Fast-forward to July, Sonny’s and Ace’s school supply lists, which had arrived in the mail a month earlier, were waiting for attention on my desk. Recalling my earnest vows, I decided to shop early this year. Why wait until two days before school started? Why risk having to (again) make an eleventh-hour stop at an office supply store to hunt down that one elusive supply that Target didn’t have on hand? I stuffed them in my purse, and we headed to WalMart, feeling much affinity with those people who finish their Christmas shopping before Halloween.

Crayons: Check!

Twelve pencils (sharpened): Check!

Dry-erase markers (at least three): Check!

Water bottle (leak-proof): Check!

Pencil box: Check!

And so on. Until . . .

Yellow plastic two-pocket folder: WalMart didn’t have those. Red, green, or blue plastic folders—yes. Yellow paper folders—yes. But not yellow plastic. Oh well. We had plenty of time to avoid a last-minute stop at the store on the way to school.

At home I went to sort the supplies into separate bags for Sonny and Ace. Evidently the school supply lists had been left at the store, however. Which kid’s list included Kleenex? Which included fat markers? Child-sized scissors (labeled with initials)? Finally I consulted a friend, who directed me to the supply lists buried deeply on the school’s web site.

I sorted the supplies accordingly, well before the deadline, just like Organized People would. And couple weeks later, when we found ourselves in the vicinity of Staples, we ran popped in and purchased a yellow plastic two-pocket folder. School shopping: Complete, weeks ahead of time!

Since we will be unable to attend the school open house this year, we arranged to drop off the supplies last week. When it was time to leave I quickly checked the supply bags against the lists one more time. Everything was accounted for, except the yellow plastic folder.

“Sonny? Where is that yellow folder for school?”

He had no idea.

I had no idea.

We headed out with our incomplete stockpile and stopped at two stores before finding a yellow plastic two-pocket folder.

School starts the day after Labor Day. Despite my vows, this year will probably go much like other years—which means we will make it through despite inevitable kerfluffles. But I’m writing down Pajama Day this year, just in case, and keeping my phone away from lunch-packing. And next time I see yellow plastic two-pocket folders in a store, I’m stocking up. They can be hard to come by.

Sixteen Insights from Children’s Books, with Apologies to the Bobbseys

I loved my grandparents’ house for many reasons. Crafts, Boggle games, the pond, the swings, strawberry plants, the cookie jar (thoughtfully located in a lower cupboard, accessible to even the youngest child), croquet, the purple tandem bike, and, of course, Grandpa and Grandma. I also loved the book stash. Grandma was both the church librarian and a school librarian, and, as such, inherited custody of the cast-off books. Although most had achieved their “withdrawn” status by becoming almost too tattered to read, they were still readable as long as one kept track of the molted pages. Walter the Lazy Mouse, Pippi Longstocking, the book about the bunnies and the weasel (I forgot the title): I loved them all.

Well, almost all. Love doesn’t describe my opinion of the elderly copies of The Bobbsey Twins. These books held enough of my interest for me to scan them, but little more. It wasn’t the adventures I found so implausible (although for a family from the early part of the 20th century they were suspiciously well-traveled) but the four protagonists themselves. Such goody-goodies. Seldom was their behavior inappropriate, and when it was, they repented immediately and with great remorse.

These “four youngsters” were what teachers would call “a good example to others.” They often smacked of a lesson. Let’s just all acknowledge that few books that trot out lessons are enjoyable literature.

I much preferred Pippi.

Still, many beloved children’s books do contain a bit of wisdom—not that which clobbers kids with the sense that they should emulate Freddie and Flossie and their ilk, but a gentler variety, subtly woven into the story. They offer insights that I hope penetrate my kids’ outlook on others, themselves, and life in general.

Insights such as these:

1.  “The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking.” The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.

2.  “All children have gifts; some open them at different times.” Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.

3.  “You can be happy and sad at the same time, you know. It just happens that way sometimes.” The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster.

4.  “Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae.

5.  “‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

6.  “[May] understood people and she let them be whatever way they needed to be. She had faith in every single person she ever met, and this never failed her, for nobody ever disappointed May. Seems people knew she saw the very best of them, and they’d turn that side to her to give her a better look.” Missing May by Cynthia Rylant.

7.  “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.

8.  “Olivia’s mother gives her a kiss and says, ‘You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.’” Olivia by Ian Falconer.

9.  “They were two close friends sitting alone together.” Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Loebel.

10.  “’I like it better here, where I can just sit quietly and smell the flowers.’ Ferdinand’s mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.” The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

11.  “I’ve heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

12.  “How can we feel so different and be so alike?” Stellaluna by Janell Cannon.

13.  “Talent is something rare and beautiful and precious, and it must not be allowed to go to waste.” The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.

14.  “You never fill your own bucket when you dip into someone else’s.” Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.

15.  [On the closing of a library] “There will be consequences!” Aunt Chip and the Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polocco.

16.  “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Inspired by these and similar quotations worth pondering, I asked Sonny and Ace what they had learned from books. Surely one of their favorite stories had offered some epiphany on the human experience. Surely they had not only subconsciously internalized wisdom such as the aforementioned but even consciously reflected on a worthwhile message or two.

And they had. Both spoke up promptly.

Sonny: “I learned that before the Lions were a Detroit team, they played in Ohio and were called the Spartans.”

Ace: “I learned that Zane, the White Ninja, is also known as the Titanium Ninja.” *

Fair enough. Read on, everyone, and learn what you will. Enjoy your books.

*He then proceeded to deliver a Ninjago quiz, which I failed miserably.

 

My Circus. My Monkeys.

“Another rule for when we get a pet monkey is that if it’s ever sitting on the ceiling fan, we shouldn’t turn on the fan.”

Sonny added this rule to the list that he and Ace, ever the optimists, were evidently formulating, while I tried to even fathom such an idea. Pet monkey? What? No! No pet monkey, ever!

At the same time, I wasn’t sure that the acquisition of a pet monkey would alter our household as much as one might expect. This is probably not a good thing to admit, but it’s true. Just to check, I asked Sonny and Ace how they thought a life might be different if we acquired a monkey.

“A monkey would mess up the bathroom!”

Have they seen our bathroom lately? (I will spare you the details. You’re welcome.) Just last week I told J that cleaning the bathroom was the exemplification of futility.
“We would have to buy a lot of bananas.”

The large bunch of bananas I purchased five days ago lasted less than three days. Except, of course, the one with the squished top, and with our luck any monkey we adopted wouldn’t deign to eat it, either.

“It would play tricks on us.”

Yesterday Sonny called me over to (ostensibly) check out one of the perennials he was watering, and when I approached he gleefully sprayed me with the hose. The day before, Ace crouched in quiet wait behind the couch until I settled in with my book, at which time he leaped up and yelled “Boo!” Whenever we are waiting for a visitor, repairperson, or package delivery, one of the boys sneaks outside to ring the doorbell to prematurely lure me to the door.

“A monkey would make weird noises.”

This from the kid who talks like Minion for hours on end? His definition of “weird noises” must be much narrower than mine.

“A monkey would get dirty. All the time, it would be dirty.”

This summer’s go-to pastime is digging in the barren patch between the driveway and the flower bed. Sonny and Ace have carved out a large river system, complete with an island (with its own lake), and fill it with water almost daily. Don’t think for a second that my kids try to sidestep the resulting mud.

“We could teach it to do chores. But . . . maybe it wouldn’t want to do them, always.”

Ahem.

“We’d have lots of fun this summer if we had a monkey.”

Swimming lessons, days with cousins, VBS, camping, biking with friends to the park, visiting grandparents, the ice cream parlor, the library, Little League. Legos, Nerf guns, Elephant and Piggie, helpless laughter. Roasting marshmallows. Scooters, bikes. The beach, the splash pad, duct tape. Tickling contests. Digging in the dirt, spraying Mom with the hose.

My circus. My monkeys.

And they don’t even sit on the ceiling fan.

I’ll keep them.