A Quiet Exploration or Why I Need to Shut My Cake Hole

Grown and FlownThis essay, about my decision to talk less and listen more, originally in the digital publication Grown & Flown.

I gave birth to my first child more than 18 years ago and it honestly feels as if I haven’t stopped talking since. Babbling to the baby, babbling about the baby, talking to the toddler, teaching the toddler to talk, pleading with the preschooler to stop talking for just five blissful minutes before my ears start to bleed, chatting with the child, preaching to the preteen, arguing with the adolescent. The perpetual prattle is exhausting. I’m utterly spent, and I think it may be time to explore a new state: quiet.

The concept isn’t entirely foreign. Quiet is how I started out, how I was before I had kids. I am naturally an introvert with limited extrovert capabilities. (There’s a sweet spot, between the first and second beer, when I’m chatty and hilarious before I quickly slip into brooding and drowsy.) Because I’m hard-wired for quiet and not a huge talker, I’ve always surrounded myself with outgoing people who can carry a conversation or at least provide me with plenty of runway for talking takeoff. Motherhood forced me out of my quiet comfort zone, and when I decided I never wanted to be the type of parent who answered a kid’s curious “Why?” with a lazy “I don’t know,” I really painted myself into a corner. Talking eventually became an irrepressible reflex, like breathing or finishing the entire sleeve of Oreos.

In addition to being a psychic drain, constant communication has caused some unpleasant behavioral side effects. I find myself talking over people during conversations and interrupting them with questions, a bad habit which may stem from the propensity to over-explain and repeat everything I developed in case my kids didn’t grasp what I said the first time. Ironically, over time, I somehow acquired that exact processing glitch: If I don’t understand something, I get stuck on it and can’t comprehend the rest of what’s being said or move forward in the conversation. My rude interjections are also the product of a nagging fear that I won’t be able to retain information that’s relevant to a conversation until the other person is done talking because my addled, middle-aged brain has trouble hanging onto that kind of detail while attempting to remember to pick up my kid after track practice, throw away that six-week-old quiche before my husband eats it, and call the vet about our vomiting dog.

I don’t think much will be missed if I cut down on the conversation because at this point, only about 60 percent of what I say actually makes sense and/or is of any value to anyone anyway. (I mean, do people really need to hear the specifics about how my meticulous system for unloading the dishwasher works or the reasons why I find Ice-T compelling as a detective—part of an elite squad—on SVU? No, they do not.) A solid 40 percent of my blather is superfluous and it is definitely time to just shut my cake hole.

Before I begin dialing down the discourse, however, I may need to prep my family so the diminished communication doesn’t get confused with a similar phenomenon that occurs when I’m super angry. Informal polling of my two children revealed that my rage-induced silent treatment is far more terrifying than the yelling that ensues when my husband is upset. I’m not looking to scare anyone or make a point, I just want to switch into energy saver mode and recharge a bit.

Yes, quiet will be a welcome respite, and if I’m not focused on talking, I can listen—really listen—for a change. In a state of quiet, without interruption, maybe I’ll notice my daughter working up the courage to admit that she hates track and wants to quit. Or hear my husband casually mention that he gave the rest of that quiche to the dog. Or detect the crackle of an Oreo package I thought I had sufficiently hidden in the pantry behind the oat bran. There’s no telling where my quiet exploration might lead, but it certainly sounds promising.

 

 

15 Ways to Know If You’re a Camping Parent

ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRG

This handy guide to determining if you’re cut out for family camping originally in the digital publication Parent.co.

Summertime is prime camping season, perfect for both novice and expert outdoor folk alike. Not sure if you have what it takes to tackle a camping trip with your family? Here’s a glimpse into the mind of a seasoned camping parent.

1. Your family’s marshmallow to vegetable intake ratio is 10:1 – and you’re okay with that. Come on! You’re on vacation and there are s’mores! We’re talking hot, gooey marshmallow with melty chocolate, people! You can force extra veggies on your offspring when you get home.

2. As long as the bugs in the bathroom aren’t big enough to clog the sink drain, you’re good. The outdoors gets indoors when you’re camping, and if you can’t handle a few (okay, a ton) of bugs, it may be time to reevaluate your vacation priorities.

3. You can instantly identify the sound of a game of horseshoes. Ah, the piercing clang of a metal horseshoe hitting a stake, followed by a quiet thud as it lands in a campsite pit. You can hear it anywhere in the campground, no matter where the game’s being played.

4. Your children’s shower schedule is determined not by the day, but by the intensity of their odor. Hauling towels and toiletries to the bathhouse becomes an exercise in futility when all the grime you wash off the little heathens returns before you make it back to the campsite.

5. Any night you don’t end up sleeping in the car is a victory. If a flooded tent doesn’t drive you out at 3 a.m., a deflated air mattress or kicking toddler will.

6. Anyone driving over 5 mph through a campground turns you into a crotchety, fist-waving old man. The speed limit is clearly marked, mister pickup-truck-with-naked-lady-silhouette-mud-flaps-pushing-9-mph-on-your-way-to-the-dumpster. YOU ARE ON NOTICE.

7. The five-second rule extends to food that has fallen through the grill grate. You only have so many hot dogs in the cooler. Just fish it out of the coals, wipe off the soot, and call it “zesty.”

8. You can achieve an acceptable level of cleanliness, for any family member, with a single baby wipe. When you’re too exhausted to trek to the bathhouse, removing even the top layer of dirt feels remarkably refreshing.

9. Sweeping out the sleeping area makes you feel civilized. You may be living in the woods, but you are not savages!

10. You experience fire envy. You’re trying to ration a week’s worth of firewood – you really are – but screw it. That giant bonfire two campsites over is amazing!

11. You can lather, rinse, repeat, condition, and shave on one shower quarter. Oh, the bathhouse pay shower provides 15 minutes of hot water for 25 cents? Please. You’ll be clean, dressed, and out the door before the timer on the coin box stops.

12. You don’t complain about the drunken campers making noise during late-night quiet hours because you know your kids will be up for the day and screaming at sunrise. Yeah, it’s hard to sleep through loud nocturnal shenanigans, but revenge is a dish best served at 6:30 a.m., which is right about when your children’s inability to master their “indoor voices” will become evident to everyone – especially your hungover neighbors.

13. You know all the rules of cornhole. And you’ve said the word “cornhole” enough that it no longer sounds dirty. Even your juvenile, filthy-minded spouse can say it with a straight face.

14. When you get home, your house seems like an immaculate, cavernous palace. After spending a week with your family in the close, dusty, ripened quarters of a tent or RV, you won’t know what to do with all the extra space and…NOBODY SIT ON ANY OF THE FURNITURE BEFORE SHOWERING!

15. The sound of tires on gravel anywhere makes you nostalgic for camping. Even in the dead of winter, the crunch of 5 mph vehicles on small stones brings back that delicious campfire smell and memories of warm summer nights under the stars.

Academic Redshirting Needs to Stop

ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which argues against academic redshirting, originally appeared as part of the “Debate Club” series in the digital publication Parent.co.

My friend, Amy, needed some advice. It was April and her daughter, Emma, had just turned four. Emma’s preschool teacher had assured Amy and her husband that their extremely bright little girl was more than ready to start kindergarten in the fall, but Amy wasn’t sure if early enrollment was the right decision. She wanted my opinion.

“Don’t do it,” I told her firmly.

“Why?” she asked. “Do you think she’s too young?”

“She is young, especially when you consider the age of the kids she’d be in classes with for the next 13 years.”

“I know she would definitely be one of the youngest kids in her grade,” Amy acknowledged. “But she’s pretty mature for her age.”

“Even so, you have to be aware that if you enroll Emma in kindergarten this year, some of the kids in her class could be up to two years older.”

“Wait, what?”

“Redshirting,” I told her. “It screws up everything.”

For those unfamiliar with the concept, academic redshirting is the parental practice of postponing kindergarten for a child who meets the enrollment age requirement and, technically, could begin attending school. (The term “redshirt” originated in collegiate athletics as a shorthand designation for an athlete whose participation in a sport has been intentionally delayed in order to extend the length of his or her eligibility period, providing the player with more time to develop skills and mature.)

Academic redshirting is, without a doubt, the right and sensible choice for children who are genuinely not ready to begin kindergarten. A kid who has a late birthday or a disability, or lacks the emotional maturity to handle the more structured kindergarten environment, should absolutely wait another year. These are the very reasons – the very legitimate reasons – parents have always had the option to hold their kids back.

Like most policies that emerge from legitimate reasons, however, the option to delay kindergarten has been distorted and abused by parents who are essentially gaming the system. Instead of basing their enrollment decisions on valid developmental concerns, some parents choose to postpone the start of kindergarten for their children – even if they are physically, emotionally, and intellectually ready – solely so they can enjoy the long-term advantages that come from being older.

What advantages do older children have in school? Like the redshirt college freshman who got an extra year to hone his skills on the football field, an academically redshirted child has more time to develop emotionally and intellectually, which may translate into greater success in the classroom. Kindergarten teachers, meanwhile, must then differentiate instruction even more than usual to accommodate the considerable gap between the maturity and ability levels of five- and six-year-old students.

Older, redshirted kids who had another year to grow physically also have a clear advantage on the athletic field. Physically larger boys or girls who are stronger, more intimidating, and have a better cognitive grasp of strategy often stand out in youth athletic programs at a very early age. Stronger athletes tend to get more playing time, better coaching, and more opportunities to play on elite teams.

While offering numerous advantages to some kids, redshirting, a kind of a luxury available only to families who can afford to keep their children out of kindergarten and in preschool for an additional year, puts other children at a distinct disadvantage. Children from low-income families who enter kindergarten with no previous school experience, for example, must then compete with redshirt students who have at least 12 months of additional educational and cultural experiences.

Still don’t think redshirting is a big deal? Think ahead to the vulnerable 14-year-old girl in class with 16-year-old boys, or the underprivileged high school athlete who needs an athletic scholarship to attend college, or the college graduate losing a year’s worth of earned income to a decision his parents made when he was five. Academic redshirting skews the American education system, increases disparity among students, and alters outcomes for all kids – redshirted or not – with consequences that can extend well beyond the kindergarten classroom.

Your Grade-Schooler Doesn’t Need a Cell Phone

ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which argues against giving cell phones to young children, originally appeared as part of the “Debate Club” series in the digital publication Parent.co.

It happened nearly a decade ago: My third-grader had just climbed into the school bus and as I watched her take a seat from my spot on the sidewalk, I noticed another child gazing vacantly out the bus window as he chatted on a cell phone. Who’s on the other end of that call? I wondered. And what could possibly be so important that a 10-year-old needs a phone – at 8:30 a.m., no less?

I thought about that boy all day. While I could envision situations where it might be handy for a child to have his or her own phone – a kid is hurt or needs a ride home, a parent wants to convey an urgent message – I couldn’t find a way to justify purchasing a cell phone for a child that young. I still can’t.

As adults, I think we can all admit to a certain level of addiction to, or at least heavy reliance on, our phones. We use them for everything from calls and email, to maps and shopping. They make life infinitely easier. Though my husband and I were late adopters who didn’t succumb to mobile phones until the mid-2000s, I can no longer imagine trying to navigate life – both literally and figuratively – without a smart phone.

Sometimes, however, the convenience of phone ownership begins to feel more like a burden. There is stress attached to checking incessant call, text, email, and app notifications; monitoring data usage to avoid overage charges; and protecting devices from loss, breakage, and theft. Are those concerns kids need to manage while they’re still learning the ropes of life in elementary school? I don’t think so.

In addition to being unnecessary worries and distractions, cell phones are also viewed as status symbols, expensive devices that contribute to low self-esteem by highlighting the division between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” When she saw that boy on the bus with the cell phone in elementary school, my daughter immediately assumed he was wealthy and we were poor because she didn’t have a phone. In reality, cost didn’t factor heavily into our decision to postpone her phone.

While there are benefits to having round-the-clock access to our children, there is no realneed for it, especially during school hours. We all grew up without individual phones and our parents had no trouble getting messages to us in the classroom. School staff and teachers are still happy to communicate information between parents and their children. If you’re sending a friend to pick up your kid at school, someone from the office will let her know. If your child gets sick and needs to go home, the school nurse will find a way to get in touch.

When young kids aren’t at school, most parents know exactly where they are and all of those places – home, a friend’s home, after-school programs, sports programs, etc. – offer landlines and/or supervising adults with cell phones that children and their parents can use to communicate.

Some might consider withholding immediate access to parents or caregivers via cell phone as unfair or even cruel, but it actually allows children to think independently and become more self-reliant. If, for example, a student forgets his homework and his teacher won’t let him call someone to bring it to school, that’s unfortunate, but turning an assignment in late provides a valuable life lesson about responsibility and preparedness.

When should kids get cell phones? That’s obviously up to their parents, but in my experience, middle school seems to be about right. School work, athletics, and activity schedules tend to ramp up in middle school, and teachers, coaches, and program administrators begin relying more heavily on electronic communication. When my daughter played field hockey in eighth grade, for instance, her coach shared information through email and a team Facebook page. If after-school practice was changed or cancelled during the school day and my daughter didn’t have access to the internet, her only hope of getting that information was from a teammate with a phone.

There are exceptions, of course, but in general, I believe that giving mobile phones to grade-schoolers benefits adults, not children. Young kids may think it’s cool or fun to have a phone, but it’s unfair to try to alleviate our own parental anxieties by burdening our offspring with additional, undue stress and responsibility. I say we let children be children, as carefree and unencumbered as possible, for as long as we can.

When Being a Foster Parent is the Most Heartbreaking Love

ParentCo_Badge_WriterLRGThis essay, which offers a glimpse into one of our foster parenting experiences and challenges assumptions that are often made about parents with children in foster care, originally appeared in the digital publication Parent.co.

Ana’s joyous screeching carries through the house and wakes my 16-year-old from her afternoon nap.

“You suck,” the surly teen growls at the boisterous infant before bending down to kiss her downy head as it bobs up and down in the Exersaucer.

Both of our daughters, our biological children, have been remarkably loving and accommodating with this baby – far more so than they were with the puppy they promised to care for when my husband and I relented to their begging five years ago.

“If we’re going to become a foster family, we have to be all in,” I told them when the discussions began nine months ago. “Everyone has to help, especially if we get really little kids. If any one of us has doubts about this, then we just can’t do it.”

Our girls have made good on this promise.

She is perfect, this smiley little Ana with the enormous blue eyes. Though the fatigue that comes from waking at night to attend to a six-month-old has confirmed my belief that babies are a young person’s game, the awareness that she will eventually return to her parents offers a sense of relief that is both optimistic and wistful. The thankless drudgery of caring for a tiny, helpless human won’t drag on for years, but neither will the pure delight.

Ana’s parents, Sandra and Tim Thompson, are always in the back of my mind, like a low-grade headache. Did she sleep through the night for them? Would her dad take her out in this cold? Will her mom like this outfit? For some foster parents, particularly those interested in adopting their charges, I imagine a tepid or antagonistic relationship with a child’s biological parents might offer a protective emotional barrier. My husband and I are not looking to adopt, however, and I bear no ill will toward Sandra and Tim. I want to do right by them.

Every Wednesday, I take Ana to the Children and Youth Services office for a one-hour visitation with her parents. I am humble and gracious when I see them, always striving to make sure they know that I understand this is their baby, not mine.

The Thompsons sent a good-sized wardrobe along with their daughter when she was forcibly, unexpectedly removed from their home, but the seasons were changing and she needed warmer attire. I purchased several new outfits with a clothing voucher from CYS, but when I’m getting Ana ready for visitations, I always make sure to dress her in something Sandra and Tim sent so they don’t think that I think their clothes aren’t good enough.

One Wednesday, as the Thompsons and I rode together in the elevator to the third-floor CYS office, a stranger inside the cab was fawning over the infant in my stroller and asked her age. I consciously stopped myself from replying and allowed Sandra to explain that Ana would be six months old the following week.

That day, answering questions about the cute baby in the soft, floppy hat was her mother’s privilege, bragging rights she hadn’t enjoyed for weeks. I have plenty of opportunities to gush about Ana, but on visitation days, I’m just the stroller jockey.

The Thompsons lost custody of their baby because CYS found evidence of drug use in their home — what types of drugs and how much, I’ll never know. Her caseworker initially told us that Ana would be with our family for at least a month, when her parents had their first custody hearing. If the Thompsons attended scheduled visitations, passed their regular drug tests, and received substance abuse counseling, they could regain custody of the child after the hearing. If not, Ana could remain in our care for an additional six months.

This is the story I repeat to friends and acquaintances I encounter when I’m out with the baby in our town, a sleepy suburb west of Philadelphia. My words are often met with a sad, sympathetic gaze at Ana and an eye roll that silently conveys disgust at the child’s situation: How could her parents be so irresponsible? How could they choose drugs over their baby? The response often smacks of hypocrisy.

While our family has provided care for the children of individuals making bad life choices or failing to put the well-being of their children first, it’s wrong to assume that every child in foster care is there because his or her parents don’t love them or aren’t trying. Sometimes, there’s a lot more to the story.

When the Thompsons, a low-income working family, asked for assistance from CYS, they willingly opened themselves up to a kind of scrutiny that the financially secure parents of our community don’t have to endure and would certainly never tolerate. The fact that there was evidence of drugs in their home doesn’t necessarily mean Sandra and Tim are bad people or incompetent parents; they clearly love their daughter and took great care of her, despite their substance abuse issues. When their baby came to us, she was in excellent condition: alert, healthy, and above average weight, with the disposition of an angel.

The privilege enjoyed by the residents of our community doesn’t make them better or worse parents than Ana’s. They are not saints (neither am I) and I bristle at their blind assumptions. Though I am not a religious person, I’ve had a single phrase stuck in my head since the day I first met Sandra and Tim Thompson: There but for the grace of God go I.

“Will it be hard to let this little girl go back to her parents?” people always ask me. “Don’t you want to keep her?”

My answer is always immediate and unequivocal: No. When the time comes, we will happily surrender this baby to the Thompsons. They are decent people and competent parents, and I have no reservations about returning their child to them. Though we will miss Ana’s joyous screeching, downy head, and enormous blue eyes, she was never ours to keep. Ana was always a borrowed baby with a strict repayment schedule, here with us for a little while before returning to live out her own unique story, separate from ours.

Note: All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals.