Monday, July 30, 2007

What's wrong with a little failure?

I bought Claire some Play-Doh this weekend. She loves the stuff and we already have a pile of it, but I was buying Jake a little car. I can get away with buying utilitarian items for one child and not the other - nobody screams about socks. But any fool of a parent knows that you can't get out of the store with one toy and two children without screams that can melt steel. So. Play-Doh to the rescue.

As soon as we arrived home, I opened the pack and showed Claire how to use her new tool. She played with it for about 20 seconds before abandoning the tool in favor of the little brochure that had been enclosed in the packet. I sat down to look at it with her. And then I saw it. "Perfect every time." It was in the description of a kit for little critters.

Isn't "perfect every time" in direct opposition to the whole point of Play-Doh? It's PLAY-Doh, not PERFECT-Doh. I want my kids to feel free to play with it. I want bowls made from coiled snakes, dogs with legs that are too short, and lumpy trees. I want my kids to have the freedom to make it the wrong way as they discover that art isn't about perfection.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine sat down to help her daughter with an art project. They had a booklet with various products and instructions for making fairy princesses. The mother dutifully read the instructions and showed her daughter the correct way to construct her fairy princess. There was even a moment of panic when the mother thought she might have to draw a circle by hand! She eventually found a round object to trace so that the pumpkin coach would be perfectly round. I've never seen a perfectly round pumpkin in my life - and I consider myself something of a pumpkin connoisseur.

I think we're stealing process away from our children in our relentless effort to protect them from failure. I have no doubt that it's done with love. Failure can be awful and we all know how it feels. I am an horrible artist. I still remember Mrs. Olsen, my fourth grade art teacher, sneering at my painting of Peary at the north pole. "This isn't a finished painting. It's just a red blur on white paper!" On my mama bear level, I'd certainly like to protect my children from that sort of scathing criticism. On my intellectual mama level, I realize that kind of shelter comes at a cost.

What I need to do, what I think we all need to do, is teach our kids how to handle failure instead of preventing it. Let's replace "perfect every time" with "perfect with practice." Let's teach our kids to tell the Mrs. Olsens of the world that criticism needs to be constructive. Let's teach them to ask about what's good, what's not good, and how to make it better. Let's give them the freedom of creative process.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

My sharp, Mommy

I've mentioned before that Claire helps me with dinner. I really do enjoy it although it can sometimes be a nerve-wracking experience. She likes to put vegetables into a bowl as I chop them. And every single time, I have the same horrifying vision. I'll be chopping happily along when I see a little chubby finger reaching for a carrot about a foot away from the knife. And then I see the knife coming down on the little chubby finger. It doesn't seem to matter that her finger is too far away for the knife to actually cut it. If I can see both her finger and the knife, I have the vision and I am left sick to my stomach. I always reiterate, "Sharp! This is sharp! OUCH! The knife is for Mommy! Not for you! Sharp!" Then I take a deep breath, ignore the nausea, and return to chopping.

The other night, Claire found a bag of toy kitchen paraphernalia in the basement. She carried it upstairs where she started cataloging the items. When she came across the toy chef's knife, she studied it carefully for a few minutes. Then she showed it to me and said, "My sharp, Mommy. MINE. NOT FOR YOU!" I don't know whether to be relieved by her innocence or peeved that she thinks I'm selfishly keeping the real knife for myself.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Bringing Up Readers

I took the kids to the library on Saturday morning. It's not an unusual event - we usually go two or three times a month. We have a whole bookcase filled with children's literature, but we get bored with the same books. Besides, our local branch has a fantastic children's section. There are so many books, toys, and activities, plus there are always other children milling around. I let the kids pick their own books while I select more books that I think are appropriate for them. We generally end up with a pile of books only slightly shorter than Claire which we read one after the other as soon as we arrive home. I spent much of my childhood reading and it seems that my children are happy to follow in that path.

On this particular visit, the librarian on the children's floor asked us if we had signed up for the summer reading program. Jacob replied that he had indeed. Then the librarian looked at Claire, looked at me, and asked if Claire would like to sign up as well. What??? Why on earth would a two year old child need to sign up for a reading program? For that matter, I'm not sure that a six year old child needs to sign up for a reading program! Jake did sign up and after he reads his first five books, I'll take him to pick up his special pencil (I'm the mean mom who is only counting books that Jake reads himself, not the books that I read to him) and so on until the program ends. But after the request to enroll Claire in the program, I'm beginning to wonder.

In kindergarten, part of Jake's homework every night was for a parent to read to him for 15 minutes each night. We dutifully filled out the sheet with the books we read and Jake carefully colored a star for every book. But we both resented the intrusion into our reading time. Five minutes spent filling out a sheet was five minutes that we had to tear ourselves away from our book. On top of that, we had to fill out a different reading list with ten books we read over the course of the month in order to qualify for a free pizza. Again, we dutifully filled out the sheet to prove that we were reading - which we would have been doing anyway - and received our coupons. We only used the coupon one time out of the nine that Jacob "earned."

I can't help but wonder if all these programs are detrimental. At what point do literacy programs turn into bribery? Do kids really learn to love literature if they're just reading to earn a pencil or to enter a drawing for baseball tickets? If kids love storytime anyway, are we cheapening the experience by essentially putting a price tag on it? I can see the advantage of these types of reading programs if they are actually bringing new patrons to the library, or encouraging parents who do not love reading themselves to read with their children anyway. But for families like ours, where storytime is an activity as normal as bathtime, are the programs accomplishing anything?

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Overblown Underwear Incident

I used to loathe the saying "boys will be boys." I thought it was used to excuse poor behavior. Oh, Johnny beat up Joey? Well, boys will be boys! Oh, Johnny is pressuring Janey for intimacy? Well, boys will be boys! And on and on ad nauseam.

Yesterday, Jacob got in trouble at day camp. When I walked into the room, he shuffled over and mumbled something. After a few tries, I finally managed to understand him. "I took out my underwear and sniffed it." The camp counselor, an older woman, walked over toward me. I approached her in confusion, and asked for clarification because I had to be missing some information.

She explained that the children were waiting to change clothes after returning from the pool. A group of boys were trying to gross out a group of girls. The boys took their clean underwear out of their backpacks and sniffed it, causing no small amount of shrieking and squealing from the girls. Since the girls were "highly offended," the boys were soundly lectured and punished with a loss of recess.

It took me a few minutes to digest the story. Then, I had to stop myself from laughing. I suggested ever so tactfully that perhaps, just perhaps, the counselor had overreacted a bit. Boys sniffing clean laundry is hardly harmful behavior. Mildly inappropriate? Sure. Worthy of a dirty look? Sure. Worthy of a lost recess? Absolutely not. My criticism was not well-received, to say the very least.

At any rate, I'm sort of thinking this is an example of boys being boys and girls being girls. Boys sometimes like gross things. They sniff underwear - and not always clean underwear. Girls sometimes like to be offended. They squeal and shriek and create drama. While I think that inappropriate behavior should be corrected, I wonder about our definitions of inappropriate behavior. For that matter, I wonder about our definitions of correction!

What do you think? Will boys be boys? Is that a problem?

Monday, July 16, 2007

Ordinary Courage

The kids and I stopped at McDonald's during a longish drive yesterday to take advantage of the air conditioned play structures. Jake played hard and eventually, Claire wanted to join him. I sent her toward the steps and asked Jake to keep an eye on her. The play structure was crowded and Claire hasn't learned how to watch out for herself yet.

After a while, I heard Jake's voice ring out. "That's my sister!" I started scanning the tubes and slides, looking for trouble. Then Claire came shooting out of a slide, unperturbed. Jake was right behind her. He saw me, screamed, and ran toward me crying and shaking. A big mama bear hug eventually calmed him down enough for me to get the story. Two boys had targeted Jake and Claire. They followed along, right on my kids' heels, and threatened Jacob. The older one, who was probably 8 or 9, told Jake that they were going to keep after him. At that point, Jake started to panic and protested that they should leave Claire alone. He pushed her through the tubes until they found an exit.

I was furious, of course. I had Jake point out the boys to me. I couldn't find a parent for them in the crowd. The older boy avoided my gaze, but the younger one looked at me. I stared at him until he averted his eyes and shuffled off. I really wish that I had been able to find a parent. Then again, perhaps if the parent had been present, the boys would not have been bullying kids in the tubes.

I am proud of Jacob's response to the incident. He had the courage to face those boys down until his sister was safe. He held himself together and took care of business. He could have abandoned Claire, screamed for help, or even fought the boys. But instead, he swallowed his fear and took care of his own.

Extraordinary courage is easy to see and admire - and is certainly worthy of admiration. The ordinary courage of everyday life is easy to overlook, easy to dismiss. But everyday courage like Jake's is the bedrock of an ethical life. It allows us to find dignified responses to undignified situations. It gives us the strength to live by our own convictions while facing those who would have us abandon them. In such a small incident, I can see a bit of the man Jake will become. I am so, so hopeful for his future.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Five Slaps

I was chatting on the phone with my mother yesterday evening while cooking dinner and dealing with an over-tired toddler. I half heard her start a story about a patient. Then I heard, "Five slaps a week!" followed by raucous laughter. Of course I had her start the story over. This patient has a job working with particularly thick people. Mom asked him how he was dealing with the stress. He replied, "Well, it would be a lot easier if I could just get permission for five slaps a week."

Having dealt with the same boneheaded error at work twice in one week, I was pretty attracted to the idea. Of course, I don't really advocate slapping people. And five slaps a week is a bit excessive - I think I could make do very nicely with five figurative slaps per month. I've been trying it out this morning. It's similar to Elaine Benes deciding if a man was sponge-worthy. Someone irritated me, so I wondered if the irritation was worth spending one of my slaps. It wasn't, but the decision process made me laugh out loud.

Special note to Derrick: I don't know if you'll be back, but your comment made me laugh hard. Thanks! And no, that wasn't me with the mouthful of cookies.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What? What? I said WHAT?

I took Jacob to a birthday party at Monkey Joe's yesterday evening. It's one of those indoor play businesses filled with giant inflatables. There were bouncers, slides, some sort of weird inflated rock climbing wall, and a giant monkey-adorned inflatable chair for the birthday girl. I am quite proud to say that I did not pop the chair, in spite of a strong urge to drive my knitting needle into the leering monkey face.

I'm not too proud to admit that I took my knitting because I wanted to impress people. I'm knitting a lace sock at the moment. I saw another woman knitting a bulky garter stitch square in the adult seating area. I shoved Jacob in the general direction of an inflatable (No, son, that giant purple monkey isn't scary at all!) and perched next to the other knitter. "Ha! We had the same idea, I see!" I grinned at her ready to pull my complicated sock out of my bag.

"What?" she replied with a blank smile. I'd been foiled by the roar of dozens of fans that were keeping the inflatables inflated.




She gave me a polite nod, then turned her chair away from me. I spent the rest of the evening knitting by myself. The parents all gave up on conversation beyond "hello" and "been a long time!" And I didn't even get a piece of cake.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Be Prepared

Nick: When we go to Colorado, we aren't going to be stopping for the bathroom every half hour. We're going to have set stops ahead of time.
Jacob: Well, I guess I better bring a bucket or two.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Every Little Thing

Nick and I went to see The Police yesterday. I was ridiculously excited about it, telling pretty much everybody I've seen in the past week. A surprising number of people raised an eyebrow and asked me why on earth I have business with the police. Perhaps my image is not quite as meek and mild-mannered as I believed. Perhaps I give the impression of hiding an illicit hobby beneath my earnest demeanor. I like the idea that people think, even for a moment, that I could have secrets. I don't, of course. I'm exactly what I seem to be. But, BUT! The possibility exists.

We got the kids all squared away with their beloved Grandma Joyce and headed off to the show. And it was good. But more than that, it was good to be with Nick. I like feeling him move next to me, not quite on the beat. I like the way he leans over to tell me the upcoming song after the first notes are played, "It's Walking on the Moon!" too excited to wait for me to figure it out myself. I always know that I love Nick - that's never a question. It's nice to be reminded sometimes that I really like him too.