The Future is in Good Hands

A few weeks into this school year, my first-grader came home talking about a boy. It was a boy she had never mentioned to me before, and she told me that she loved him.  Before long, every story she brought home from her day seemed to involve Daniel* in some way.

“Mommy,” my daughter would tell me, “Daniel is new and he is just sooo cute. I sat next to him at lunch today.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel loves Sponge Bob. It’s his favorite thing in the whole world. I’m going to draw him one and give it to him tomorrow.”

Or, “Mommy, sometimes Daniel has a hard time following the rules during recess, so I help him”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel has the cutest smile.”

Or, “Mommy, Daniel is so lucky because he gets to have a teacher to play with him all the time.”

I was a bit bemused by her passion for Daniel.  As I have mentioned before, she already has a fiance, a backup fiance, and a back-up back-up fiance. She also has a best friend at school, who is the Diana to her Anne. And although she talks frequently about all of her friends, never before had one person dominated so many of our extracurricular conversations.

* * *

Then one day I finally met Daniel, the boy I thought I had come to know so well. It was during pick-up after school , which is always a crowded time of day. My daughter pointed toward the building and said, “Mommy, look! There’s Daniel! Isn’t he so cute?!” Looking around the group of children, I saw a blonde boy with a red shirt near the place she had indicated. I waved, and said hi, but my daughter just laughed. No, she told me, Daniel was the boy next to the building, who was holding his teacher’s hand.

And in that moment, I realized two things: First, that Daniel has Down Syndrome. And second, that my daughter has no clue.

My daughter has no idea — none — that there are many people in this world who view Daniel as being different, or slow, or limited. To her, Daniel is a boy who loves Sponge Bob and Scooby Doo, the one child in her entire class shorter than she is, the kid with the magnificent smile.

I don’t think I have ever been more in love with my daughter than I was in the moment when I had that realization, because it was such a powerful indication of the person she fundamentally is. When she was first diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum, I knew that she had superpowers. And one of those superpowers is the ability to see people without being distracted by the buzzing of social perceptions and prejudices that those of us who are neurotypical are so keen at picking up. My daughter sees what people show her, and in Daniel, she saw a friend.

* * *

The story could end here. It probably should, as far as good writing goes. But I went on a field trip with my daughter’s entire first grade class and I realized something else, something far more important, and I can’t end this post without mentioning it.

Those kids? They love Daniel. It’s not just my daughter, who is special in her own way. They all like him. They all wanted to spend time with him, to make him laugh, and to hold his hand and help him when he needed it. I can’t say whether they perceived Daniel’s differences or not. The point is, it didn’t matter. He was as much a part of their group identity as anyone else. And that, my friends, is beautiful.

My daughter doesn’t attend a private school. She isn’t in a rich school either — more than half the kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Our test scores aren’t fabulous, mainly because so many of our students are children of immigrants whose first exposure to English has been in their kindergarten classroom. GreatSchools.com rates us at a six out of ten.

But I don’t think I would want to send my daughter anywhere else. What her school offers goes far beyond what can be measured. There is a community there, an understanding that we are all in this together. She is being educated — and educated well — but more importantly, she and her classmates are learning what it means to be a part of a group, to value differences, and to respect what makes each of us unique.

So the next time you hear that our schools are in crisis, remember Daniel, and let yourself believe that the future is in good hands.

 

*We will call this young man Daniel, because I don’t like using real names, and Daniel is what I would have named a son if I’d had one.

 

Twelve Rules for Owning an Independent Preschooler

Those of us with young children who have entered into the “I do it MYSELF” phase have come to understand a great irony of life. We spend the first few years of parenthood imagining a future in which we don’t have to do every little thing for our children. We long for the day when butts will be wiped by hands other than our own, when we no longer have to force limp limbs into coats or kicking feet into shoes. We say things like, “life will just be so much easier when she starts getting dressed herself.”

Then one day, your child will decide to get dressed all by herself. And on that day, you will come to know the true agony of watching a three-year-old trying to remove her day clothes and put on underpants and a pair of footed, zippered pajamas with no help. At all.

And woe betide you if you do try to help. In fact, offering to help is such a rookie mistake that, if made a second time, you really do deserve the wrath your offer will ignite.

Unfortunately for us parents, surviving a preschooler’s attempts at independence isn’t as easy as just withholding your assistance. Oh no. There is a host of rules that you must follow in order to survive your day unscathed. I have broken these rules more times than I can count, and I have suffered accordingly.

Rule #1: Do not offer to help. This is the most basic rule, and really should go without saying. But I am saying it anyway.

Rule #2: Do not attempt to provide child with items necessary for task completion. Don’t you dare give her those socks!

Rule #3: Do not look directly at items necessary for task completion.

Rule #4: Do not think about items necessary for task completion. They read minds.

Rule #5: Do not compliment child. They can sense an unspoken offer for help.

Rule #6: Do not provide suggestions or advice of any kind. Even though there is a nearly 100% chance that she will drop the entire bowl of Cheez-its into the toilet if she brings them into the bathroom with her.

Rule #7: Do not speak to child.

Rule #8 Do not make eye contact with child. Again, they read minds.

Rule #9: Do not look in child’s general direction.

Rule #10: Do not attempt even the smallest tug of the child’s shirt, even though her head is stuck and she is about to fall of the bed.

Rule #11: Do not breathe the same air as child. She can hear your frustration in every sharp intake of breath.

Rule #12: Do not exist in near proximity to child.

The consequences of breaking any of these rules will be that she has to do it. all. over. again. Including the part where she gets her head stuck in the shirt.

Basically, just leave the room with your eyes closed and your ears covered. Stand with your back toward the general direction of your child. Do not think about your child until she has completed the task and given you express permission to address her. Unless, of course, the child with her head stuck in her shirt does fall of the bed, in which case why didn’t you offer to help you terrible, neglectful parent?!

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See? She can do it all. by. herself. (It was 80 degrees and sunny.)

 

My Girls and Music

Last night, my husband was at a meeting, leaving me home alone with our girls. Because they were both entirely too devastated by the reality of having to spend an evening without their beloved, all-knowing, all-powerful daddy, I decided to be the cool mom and have a dance party with them. (I mean really, it was kind of insulting that they both professed the desire to go to a boring, childless preschool meeting rather than staying home with me.)

First, we danced to some CCR, because how can you have a living room dance party without Down on the Corner? Then I played Hesitating Beauty by Wilco, because I love that song and I have a Norah, and what kid doesn’t want to dance to a song with her name in it?

Of course, after playing a song about a Nora for my Norah, I had to play a song about a Michelle for my Michele. So I went online to find a video of Michelle, by the Beatles, and came across My Michelle by Guns N Roses.

Somehow, even though I have liked (the softer side of) Guns N Roses since I was a preteen, and even though I am both the daughter and the mother of a Michele, I had no idea that GNR had a song about a Michelle. So, of course, I decided to click on the video, just to see, because the band who gave us Sweet Child of Mine surely could not produce anything un-kid-friendly. Right?

So I played the video.

At 0:49, my 3-year-old looks at Slash, whose face is covered by his long, black, insanely curly hair, and she says, “Mommy, is dat YOU? When you played your gwuitar?”

“Yes.” I replied, deadpan. “Yes. That is exactly what I looked like in 1988. You have a gift my child.”

As the guitar intro continued, it became clear to me that my girls were doubting whether this video would ever turn into “real” music. I could see the look of doubt dawning on my Michele’s face. Things were not going in the direction she expected them to go. But then, Axel Rose himself appeared at 1:25, and her sweet little face lit up.

Ok, actually, she collapsed into helpless giggles. Our boy Axel was dancing shirtless across the stage with a microphone and my girl thought it was probably the funniest thing she had ever seen in her whole 6 years of life.

Mommy!” She howled. “Why is that NAKED GUY dancing with a microphone? He looks so silly!” So of course, I started to laugh too, because he really does look kind of ridiculous.

We gave up on Guns N Roses and we moved onto the more certain classic. I pulled up a video of Paul McCartney playing Michelle at the White House for our President and his wife (and their daughters, who look distinctly embarrassed  at the way their dad is singing along) and I showed it to my own Michele.

“This is the real song sweetie. The one I always sing to you,” I told her as I started the video.

She took one look at it and said, “Mommy… why is that guy so OLD?”

All in all, it was not a very good moment for classic rock and roll gods in our household last night. And I have come to the realization that, if Axel Rose and Paul McCartney seem totally lame to my young children, there is absolutely no hope that they will ever see me as anything but lame. Except for that time when I used to be Slash.

 

Three Things I Learned on my Summer Vacation

Summer is over and fall has begun and I know this because people on Facebook are talking about pumpkin spice. But before I embrace sweaters and falling leaves and the extra holiday pounds, I would like to reflect a little on what I learned during my vacation under the sunny skies of Virginia Beach.

1. My Older Daughter Cannot Be Trusted Around Boys

One day I will write a post about my six-year-old’s romances. But for now, let me just say that she has a fiance, a boy who proposed to her when they were both three. And although she has remained steadfast in her plans to marry this boy for nearly three years, she also has a back-up fiance and a back-up back-up fiance. The girl likes boys, and boys like her.

She might be a bit too into boys for my liking, but she has always picked the sweet, smart boys. Her fiance (the main one) first won her heart by offering to take one of the big-wheel bikes from their preschool and ride it to find me when she told him that she missed her mommy. Her back-up fiance was reading at a 3rd grade level and building DNA models in kindergarten. And her back-up back-up fiance stuck up for her when she was being bullied by a girl in their class who is bigger than both of them.

And then, we went on vacation. On our first day there, my husband took our girls to the beach while I went shopping for groceries. When I joined them later, I came upon this scene: my six-year old, bobbing neck-deep in the ocean, talking to an older boy with sun-kissed skin and shiny golden hair. When they came out of the water, I saw that he was not only handsome in the surfer-boy style but that he also wore an actual shark-tooth-on-hemp necklace. This child was the Benjamin-Buttoned version of my teenage fantasy and he was chatting up my baby girl.

She told me later that she was talking to him because he wanted to see her beautiful seashell. So, she gave it to him and they talked and then he gave it back and they just hung out in the water afterward.

I have to admit that after she told me this story — about how the strong and shiny surfer boy talked her into sharing her precious seashell, I was sorely tempted to grasp her by the shoulders and tell her that no boy — ever —  has the right to have her beautiful seashell if she doesn’t want to give it to him! But I resisted because maybe (just maybe) I was reading a little too much into the situation.

It's too soon for this!

It’s too soon for this!

2. If You Put a US Coast Guard Approved Flotation Device on my Younger Daughter She Will Swim ANYWHERE. 

My three-year-old is tiny. I weighed her today and, for the first time ever, she has broken 25 lbs. She is a small kid.

But if you put this little half-pint of a girl in a life vest, there is no body of water that she won’t try to conquer. She was wearing her Puddlejumpers out in the waves where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean and she was owning them. If you give her a boogie board along with that life vest, she will wrap her little arms around that thing and ride the waves like she was born in them. Not only is she unafraid of the bobbing of the water, but she was actually managing to propel herself through it. She was swimming in water that I was afraid to go in. In the wave pool at the water park, she positioned herself in the deepest water, where she could be sure that she would get hit by the waves at their most powerful.

There is a certain amount of pride that you feel when you see your own personal tiny person out in the world doing brave and difficult things. In fact, the feeling is almost overwhelming. I can’t stop myself from scrolling at random through the pictures I took of her, marveling at how my fierce little toddler is taming the ocean.

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3. Beauty Is in The Eye of the Person Who Believes She Will Find It

Like most beach vacations that take place with children in tow, I spent a good part of ours walking along the shore line looking for seashells. I focused on finding the ones that were whole, with the traditional opened fan shape. I was looking for the pretty, perfect ones. I only found a few.

My daughters, on the other hand, picked up shells indiscriminately, or so it seemed to me. Their buckets were full of the broken bits and pieces that were everywhere, the ones I overlooked when I was looking for my perfect specimens.

But when they were showing me their finds after we finished, they were as enthusiastic about them as if they had found true treasure.

My older daughter would hold up a battered-looking  piece of shell and say, “look, mommy, at how this one has bumps and holes all over it. Isn’t it beautiful?” And then she would grab another broken piece, saying “and look at this one! Do you see the color? It is so shiny. Isn’t this one so beautiful too?” And so it went, with each and every shell she found. They were all broken up bits and pieces, but to her they were all beautiful.

And they were beautiful not because of any intrinsic sign of hidden beauty she saw within them. They were beautiful to her because she had set out to find beautiful seashells and so — she did.

The magical thing is that when I was looking at the shells on my on later that night, I no longer saw their brokenness. All I saw was their beauty. And I realized that sometimes, finding beauty in life and looking for it are the same thing.

 

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My Girls, in Church

I walked the Walk of Shame this morning. Or, at least, I walked the 35-year-old Catholic mom version of it. My family was at Mass, and of course it was a quiet moment because it’s always a quiet moment, when my littlest little person announced to everyone who could hear her (at least half of the congregation) that she had to go pee pee. She pretty much does that at every Mass we attend, so it wasn’t as embarrassing as it could have been. But this time, she decided to expand the discourse on her pottying needs.

“Mommy!” she shouted. “I have to go pee pee. But ‘dis time, I gonna close my legs so I don’t get pee pee everywhere. Ok, mommy? OK?”

I wanted to laugh; I wanted to cry, but I was so frozen by embarrassment that I all could do was furiously whisper for her to use her (bleeping implied) inside voice.

To which she replied, loudly, “I talkin’ loud like ‘dis Mommy… I talkin’ loud like ‘dis… I TALKIN’ LOUD LIKE ‘DIS, MOMMY, BECAUSE I WANT TO TALK LIKE ‘DIS!”

At this point I had almost reached the door, where safety lay, when I sensed the presence of my older daughter jogging up behind me. I looked over my shoulder. She was holding her crotch.

“Mommy!” she shouted. “I’m holding my crotch because I have to pee too!”

So I grabbed her hand, hung my head, and made my ignominious exit.

We completed our pottying exercise almost without incident. I say almost because just as we were approaching the doors  to go back into Mass, my younger daughter broke away from us running, looking back at me to shout, “Mommy! Dere’s a girl here with PINK HAIR! It should be BROWN, Mommy!” And then she sprinted away toward the open doors of the sanctuary, with me yell-whispering for her to freeze while I ran after her dragging my older daughter — who was agog at the pink-haired girl — reluctantly behind me.

Our very noticeable return was, fortunately, at the tail end of the service. So people hardly even noticed when my younger daughter started singing “Peace and harmony, in all the world! Peace and harmony, in all the world! Pe-eace and Ha-armony!” It’s a good thing people didn’t hear her, or they might have gotten the mistaken impression that she had actually benefited from the homily which was about, well, peace and harmony in all the world.

Instead, she was just repeating a song from one of her favorite TV shows, Peppa Pig.

 

A Milestone Moment

Last night this blog hit a milestone moment: I got my first thoroughly negative, personally insulting comment. It was yesterday’s post that brought it in, and I’m looking at it as a good thing — first, because it means that people other than my relatives and friends are reading what I wrote, and also because it means that I’m touching nerves and writing about important things.

My comment was from a person who called himself Cliff, and this is what he wrote*:

“Thankyou for nothing, I am a grandfather, I do watch kids at the park, have even picked them up when they have fallen from the play aminities. Big deal, if you think that every grand father is a sick sod well thats your life, but dont taint us all with your warped mind. just because I enjoyu watching kids have fun, should not open me up to your tirad. not all men are out to harm children. as for your icecream man, poor sods wondering if a complaint from you will end his job.
Do your self a favour, go back to the doc and tell him your sick of the meds you have been buying on the street and you need help.” 

I am going to ignore his unkind personal remarks about me and respond to what I think is his point — that he is offended by the idea that, as a perfectly innocent grandfather who enjoys being around children, he might be stereotyped as a pedophile. Fair enough. I can see where he is coming from — people tend to consider pedophiles to be the scum of the earth and I can’t imagine that anyone who isn’t one would want to feel as though he or she is being classed as one.

To clarify my own point, however, I don’t think that all older gentlemen who find joy in watching children play are pedophiles or weirdos. In fact, I generally welcome kind words from men (and women) young and old when they compliment or show benevolent interest in my children. It wasn’t my intention in yesterday’s post to suggest that I feel otherwise.

Still, “Cliff” has a point, which, though I don’t think he realized it, highlights the sort of internal conflict that I was trying to convey. I don’t want to stereotype people. I don’t want to think that all old men are untrustworthy and I don’t want my children to think that either.

But I am my children’s one and only mother and it is my job — my most vitally important job — to keep them safe. And I won’t apologize for the times when I become overly cautious because someone, man or woman, young or old, black, brown, or white, human or non-human, makes me feel uncomfortable.

From the other comments I have received, both here and on my Facebook page, I can see that most other parents feel as challenged as I do when it comes to developing both confidence and caution in our children. But I have also seen that, as these very wise people have pointed out, the most important thing is that we foster communication about these issues with our kids. There is no single path to follow. We will always be challenged with the task of keeping our kids safe. I’m 35, and I can tell that my own father has been worried about me ever since I posted about the shady contractor trying to take advantage of me and my husband. I suppose we won’t ever have all the answers, but, thanks to those of you who have shared your insights with me, I now understand two of the most important things we can do for our children: constant — and compassionate — vigilance paired with constant, and two-sided, communication.

 

* I copied his comment directly. You won’t find it with the other comments on my earlier post because he wrote it on my Contact Me page.

 

Secrets and Pedophiles

I got you with that title, didn’t I? It’s bold, but this post isn’t about making a statement; it’s more about asking questions.

Last Friday, I found myself in a situation that got me thinking, and wondering what other people would think  or do if they had been in similar circumstances. Here is what happened.

I took my daughters to a local playground that is situated right across from a lake. The view is beautiful and it always feels peaceful to me there, so I take my girls whenever I can.

My daughters were the only children on the playground, although there were several other adults sitting at the picnic tables between the playground and the water. One of those people was an older man with long, sort of shaggy white hair and a baseball hat shading his face. He sat with his back to the lake, facing the playground and he was watching my kids the whole time we were there.

At least, that’s what it seemed like to me. It felt odd that he was looking in the direction of the playground and the street behind it instead of at the much more attractive view of the water. And whenever I looked in his direction, his head seemed to be turned toward my children. I was picking up child molester vibes and my mommy genes kicked in. I instinctively began hovering around my girls far more than I usually do. I showed obvious and exaggerated affection. I found myself thinking — this guy is going to know that these girls are loved, and watched, and protected and there is no way any creepy old men are going to lure them away from this mama bear.

It was a hot afternoon and I already felt uncomfortable with the situation so we didn’t stay at the playground for long. We headed out to Trader Joe’s to pick up some summer essentials, like ice cream and tortilla chips, and as they usually do, the girls were attracting attention from other shoppers. (They can be very cute together when they aren’t being rotten to each other.) As lined up to check out, my younger daughter was playing peek-a-boo with an older couple behind us, and then they were both smiling and blushing for the teenage boy working at the register.

As the young gentleman was ringing up my groceries, I overheard him say to my three-year-old, “Don’t tell your mother. It will be our secret.” I saw him smile and I smiled and laughed back, assuming that I had just missed what he had said before that. But then, maybe because I already had a case of the creeps, I thought to myself — that is exactly the kind of thing pedophiles say to the children they are abusing. Don’t tell. It’s our special secret. So I stopped smiling.

Some of you reading this might be thinking, holy cow, is this woman off her meds? These are perfectly normal social interactions. The guy at the park probably wasn’t even looking at your kids. Or maybe he was someone’s grandfather, missing his own grandkids and feeling closer to them by watching other small children play. Who knows? The poor kid at the check out was just trying to make a joke. There’s nothing to be seen here; nothing at all to worry about.

I was thinking the same things as I was reflecting on the events of the day and my own internal reaction to them. But I still couldn’t silence that nagging voice in the back of my mind, the one that seems always to be echoing the words, “constant vigilance!” Vigilance of my surroundings, yes, but also vigilance over myself as I react to the things that I see as representing potential danger for my children.

I want to instill a healthy sense of security in my children, but I also need them to know that the world isn’t always a safe place. So basically, I guess what I am saying is that I want them to not be afraid, but also to be afraid. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? And I know that my own reactions to life are the model they are following.

Since I actually am on much-needed (and moderately effective) anti-anxiety medication, trusting myself and the way I perceive the world as it affects my children is difficult.  I don’t want to overreact, because I don’t want my children to become fearful, but I also don’t want to laugh off circumstances that could lead them into real danger. The question of how to strike that balance between healthy confidence and healthy wariness is a challenging one for me.

So if you are another parent reading this post, I must as you this:  How have you have been able to nurture both of these qualities in your children? Have you faced circumstances similar to mine — where you perceived danger in a situation that could have been (and probably was) perfectly innocent? And how did you react if you did? And for those of you with older children — have you managed to teach them how to discern a safe situation from an unsafe situation? How? What do you suggest parents of young children do to help them navigate a world that can be both so wonderful and so terribly frightening?