Thursday, March 28, 2013

Parenting Your Great-Grandmother Would Recognize

In his book "Food Rules," author Michael Pollan offers useful guidelines for healthy eating.  

One of them is "Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." It's such a simple explanation of what has happened to modern nutrition, and it's also a great practical guidepost for how to behave.

I mean, not that I'm giving up Oreos or anything, but it did make me wonder whether this same rule might prove useful for parents.

With that in mind, I offer you this list of things that my great-grandmother would not recognize as parenting:


I sometimes find myself uttering phrases like:

"What is it about these shoes that is making you so angry?"


"Tell me why peanut butter is so frustrating."

My great-grandmother would not recognize this as parenting.

I think it is great to respect our children's inner world, but with the great-grandma rule in mind I need to also remember that there are whole categories of things that kids just need to suck up regardless of how it makes them feel.

My grandmother's mother was born in 1864 (yes, the generations in my family are remarkably long). She gave birth to ten children, six of whom survived to adulthood. I did not know her, and yet I feel confident in telling you that she spent exactly zero hours of her life worrying whether or not her children "felt sufficiently heard".


Let's take, for example, DECIDING ON A KINDERGARTEN.

In the past several months I have spent countless hours researching school options, polling fellow moms about which teachers seem the most knowledgeable yet firm and loving, and (because I live in Los Angeles) comparing emissions levels for a myriad of campuses.

Would my great-grandmother recognize this as parenting? I'm going to give this a firm "NO".

In the 19th century, people had more kids. As those kids aged, they provided child care for the younger ones and then helped their parents with all manner of work.

In the 20th century, that formula flipped as people had fewer and fewer children and began focusing on how they could better provide for their offspring.

Both models have merits and drawbacks, but the 1800s one may help us gain some needed perspective. My great-grandmother was far too busy worrying about things like, say, cholera to spend much time on the minute details of her children's daily lives, and her children still managed to thrive in a world that was much more challenging than the one my children live in.

Which I think means it's possible (just possible) that my kid will probably survive and do fine at any of the schools I'm considering.

I think.


When my father was a young boy growing up in Brooklyn he was free to walk all over the neighborhood unsupervised. The one demand that was placed on him was that he never cross the street alone. And so every time he would get to a corner he would reach up his little hand to whatever stranger was standing there and say,

"Hey, cross me, Mister!"

And that stranger, rather than throwing him in the trunk of a car and driving off, would instead guide him across the street and then send him on his way.

My Mom, unknown then to my father and living two dozen miles away in the Bronx, would take to the streets each October for "Mischief Night". The event involved hundreds of local children dressed in black and armed with tube socks full of flour roaming through the night on poorly lit streets. 

The point of the evening, as my mother explained it, was to

"Bludgeon as many other kids as possible."

Kids got hurt. Older kids targeted younger kids in ways that were unfair. Kids ganged up on one another. Tears were shed. And each one of them came out again the next year excited to do it all again.

If I allowed my children to replicate either of these pieces of their grandparents' childhood, it would no doubt result in my immediate prosecution.

Of all the things about parenting that my great-grandmother wouldn't recognize, I think this one is the saddest. We live in a world where children are valued and protected in unprecedented ways -- which is GOOD! -- but the flip side is that our kids far too rarely get a chance to play, fight their own battles, or interact independently with the world around them without adults around.

I try to teach my kids that it is OK to turn to "strangers" for help, and I want them to have the confidence that comes from the kind of rough-and-tumble freedoms my parents enjoyed in their youth.

But it's hard.

When I let my kids get a bit behind me at the mall, helpful strangers shout, "You've got one lagging, Mom!" When I let my boys fight over a toy at the park as I feed my baby, secure that they'll eventually work it out, fellow mothers tend to cry, "Whose kids are these? They're fighting!" 

I appreciate that these women are looking out for me, but sometimes I want to tell them, "It's OK - I'm just rollin' like Great-Grandma today!"

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Three Phrases That Will Change Your Life

Communicating with other people is always a challenge.

Which is why today I am going to present you with three phrases that have truly changed my life. I invite you to master your own non-ironic use of these expressions in hopes that you will find them equally useful.


My husband and I call this "the phrase that saved our marriage." Use this wonderful set of words whenever someone offers you any sort of unsolicited advice.

For example:

Has your husband recently proffered the idea that it might be more efficient to do a single load of laundry each day rather than trying to do seven at a time, thus ending up with piles of unfolded and wet clothing scattered about the laundry room?

At this point you have two options: you can hurl piles of damp drawers at him while threatening imminent bodily harm OR you can simply whip out your new favorite phrase.

"What a helpful suggestion!"

And don't stop there!

This beloved phrase is equally useful on the child who gives you detailed instructions about the alternate dinner they desire, the friend who insists that dropping white flour from your diet will "change everything," and the saleswoman who tells you that "high-waisted pants are hot right now."

"What a helpful suggestion!" 


Oh, the uses for this phrase are as endless as they are satisfying! My best friend taught me this one after it was suggested by the teacher of her highly expressive six-year-old daughter. 

As many of you know, spending a lot of time around small children puts you on the receiving end of a whole lot of emotionality.  There are lectures on the injustice of your refusal to serve ice cream for dinner, there are diatribes on the wrongness of the length of brother's turn with that truck, and there are screeds about how it cannot possibly be bedtime when it is so clearly instead time for the 96th airing of "Caillou Cooks".

Before I learned the wonders of this particular phrase, I'd often respond to such outbursts by providing lengthy explanations of the well-thought-through reasons behind my choices. Not surprisingly, these rationalizations had little effect on my offspring. So now, instead of engaging I simply use this trusty phrase.

"Thank you for letting me know how you feel."

The applications of this expression go well beyond children. It can be equally directed towards people who lecture you about your mistaken political convictions, strangers who scream at you for "being in their way" at the grocery store, and spouses who "just don't think they should be made to watch The Real Housewives and would really prefer to catch the basketball game."

"Thank you for letting me know how you feel."


My cousin Jack had a youth hockey coach who would respond with the same phrase whenever a player would confide in him about a personal problem. Kids would come to the guy and tell him about all sorts of issues -- difficulties at home, girlfriend problems, and general life angst -- and the coach would always fold his hands in front of him and intone sincerely,

"I hear you, and am concerned."

My husband has particularly fallen in love with this phrase. Like my cousin's coach before him, David can at times become flummoxed when confronted with emotional or "feelings-based" conversations. 

But now he has a go-to phrase of sensitivity to respond with.

"I hear you, and am concerned."

The important thing about this expression is not so much the words, which will likely come off as insincere if uttered verbatim, but in the sentence construction.  

The bones of the phrase are



Husband types, I urge you to embrace the simple genius of this. The ability to listen to a woman's feelings, recognize the source of the problem, and respond with empathy covers a VERY HIGH percentage of successful marital interactions. 

"I hear you, and am concerned."

This template can also be a total winner when dealing with children.

For example:

"I see how upset you are that your brother looked at you during dinner twice. Clearly, it really bothered you and I'm sorry to see that."



"What a helpful suggestion."

"Thank you for letting me know how you feel."

"I hear you, and am concerned."

Learn them. Use them. Expect results.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

In Praise of Mark

This Monday was one of those days. I'd slept terribly the night before due to the onset of Daylight Savings Time, and the whole day had just been completely off the rails. By mid-afternoon the boys were busy playing the newly invented game "Let's throw dirt from the garden through Mom's bedroom window", my husband had recently announced that he'd be home late, and my baby was suffering from a wicked case of diaper rash. 

I was busily applying dollops of diaper rash cream to the baby's aching backside when the boys burst through the front door, dragging with them several cubic tons of dirt. I left the baby with a toy in the living room while I carted the boys into the bathroom to hose them down. 

I got my older boy fully de-dirtified (well, as much as is ever possible with a four-year-old) and sent him on his way. I was almost through wiping down his brother when I heard laughter from the living room.

The sound of children's laughter is so rarely a good sign in our house.

I rushed towards the hilarity and heard my son announce,

"Oh, Mommy! Look what the baby is doing!"

...and discovered that what the baby was doing was happily devouring A&D ointment directly from the tube.

I snatched the stuff away from her and confirmed that there was indeed a large sheen of white on her tongue. I flashed back to the myriad of doctor's office questionnaires where I checked "YES" to the question, "Do you have the information for Poison Control handy?" while promising to rush home and tape the number to the fridge and then promptly forgetting. Thankfully, a quick Google search brought up the number. I dialed and was quickly connected to Mark.


I started with a white lie...

"Well, Mark, I turned my back for just a minute...."

Mark gave the non-commital grunt of a man who'd heard this line before and then encouraged me to go on.

"'s possible that my daughter may have swallowed either not any or what may have been several tablespoons of diaper rash cream."

I paused, fearful on some level that the moment the phrase was out of my mouth a carful of Child Protective Service agents would swarm my house to whisk my children away -- or at the very least affix a large "THIS MOM SUCKS" banner to my front gate.

Instead what happened was that Mark, in a lovely and calming tone, said simply,

"You're fine, Mom. It's not going to hurt her. She may get some diarrhea, but that's about it."

My only regret at that moment was that I was not pregnant with a boy whom I could name Marky Mark Markson in tribute to this amazing human being. 

I scooped up my baby and cuddled her in my arms for a blissful 45 seconds before I needed to jump up in order to stop my sons from sticking forks in the toaster. 

Maybe the CPS folks shouldn't cancel the order for that banner just yet.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Brothers in the Night

Parenting is a series of trade-offs.


  • While it's great when your kids finally get out of diapers, it also means that you now need to acquaint yourself with public bathrooms on family outings.
  • Sure it's easier when the baby starts to feed herself, but it also means you'll be washing peas out of her hair several times a day.
  • Naturally you've longed to hear your child utter his or her first precious words, but it also means you'll soon be hearing the words "Mommy! Mommy! Mommy!" shouted at you ninety-six thousand times a day.

My husband and I are currently staring down yet another trade-off in regards to our boys' bedtime.

Having finally emerged from three-kids'-worth of sleep training, we now proudly have all three kids sleeping through the night!

*cue angelic chorus of Hallelujahs*

The kids are even napping regularly, which brings us to the trade-off... because this means they are not ready to go to bed at 7:30pm anymore.

Folks, for years I had made it through the days by repeating the mantra, 

"They go to bed at seven-thirty...they go to bed at seven-thirty..."

when suddenly I found that calming absolute to be in jeopardy. 

All of which gave birth to a time in our house that we now call, "LIGHTS ON LOW".


Baths still happen at 7pm, followed by PJs and stories. Then at 7:30pm, the baby heads off to her crib in the playroom and the boys head into their room, where we dim the lights and leave them to their own devices for exactly one hour...

...behind a closed door.

Yeah, it's pretty much as bad as it sounds.

The two of them proceed to begin their rampage before the door is even fully latched: they empty the drawers; they try on all the clothes; they jump from the changing table onto the beds; they stuff each other into the closet; they throw toys at each others' heads; they put diapers on their feet and dance around; (Why do they do this?  I beg you not to go down this road...) and they generally destroy the room and pummel each other until they become exhausted.

At 8:30 I return to their room, I take stock of the damage, I yell at them to get in their beds, and I turn out the lights.

An hour later my husband returns to the room, picks the boys up from wherever they've passed out, (locations have included under the bed, asleep on a shelf in the closet, and in one of the drawers of the bureau) and he and I head off to bed ourselves.

The next morning we hover over both boys as they put their room back in order, threatening to deny them breakfast until they comply.

It's become our daily ritual, and while I couldn't exactly say it's working for us I will say this ---

it's a trade-off.