Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Eating crow, along with birthday cake.

In a recent rant post, I spent a lot of words snidely deriding the coddling parents who choose to give their children games with "no winner."  I rolled my eyes at the idea that kids would be undone by a small disappointment and that there was any need to shelter them from that.  My point: if we protect our kids too much from the "agony of defeat" they'll never learn resilience. I was feeling confident and sure of this logic.

Did I mention I came to this conclusion mid-party planning for my 4 year old's birthday?

I basically said: "Screw you, current wisdom!  I'm rocking it old school.  There will be winners and losers at Caleb's birthday party. They kids will deal with it.  It'll even be good for them."  I may have even said if I'm wrong, "I'll eat my words, and maybe that 'hot potato' along with the birthday cake."  

Well, there were winners and losers.  And you can probably guess who the big loser was?  


For my over-confidence in the resilience of 4 year olds hopped up on juice and party excitement.  For my need to prove a parenting point at my own kid's birthday party.  

I did say I'd eat that 'hot potato' if I was wrong.  But there was none.  We used bean bags for games. I suppose technically, beans are edible but... no one is making me accountable so I'll just sit here and humbly eat my words.  And left over party cake.  

We actually never got around to playing that game of hot potato after the carnage from Bozo Buckets.

I thought this game was a good middle ground.  Line each kid up to throw a bean bag into a series of buckets.  All of them would get prizes (the first bucket was a gimme), but just some more than others.  Not too brutal, but still a friendly competition.  

But I miscalculated. A bunch of four year olds barely have the capacity to wait their turn, much less patiently listen to instructions, what with buckets of lollipops and plastic junk, tantalizingly in arms reach.  Even as I was setting up the game, unwrapping the prizes and dumping them into the lined up buckets, the crowd of tiny sticky hands crept closer and closer.  It was intimidating.  I knew at that exact moment this was not going to go well.   

As I patiently and animatedly explained the rules, I looked down at their small faces and instantly understood that no information was getting through. It was blocked by their mind screams of: "LOLLPOPS!  PLASTIC TOYS!!"  
Totally ignoring my enthusiastic instructions, the children zero in on the buckets.
Still, it was the point of no return. I attempted futilely to line them up, but it never got better than an oblong mob of kids jockeying for their turn.  Caleb went first.  You know, to show the kids how it's done. 

He got the first bag in Bucket #1.  Cheers, victory, lollypops!  

Got it in #2.  Cheers, victory, crayons! 

# 3, he missed.  Tears, screaming and ugly spectacle of defeat.  A return to try and steal a toy from Bucket #4. Call for parental reinforcements. 

So, I guess that's "how it's done."   Or how it's undone.  

We got through the game with the older kids understanding the rules and taking their disappointment in stride.  But I had to fend off frontal assaults from Caleb's age-mates who kept trying to sneak prizes they hadn't won, or, failing that, appeal to my dislike of intense whining and fit throwing.  

But I stand by my original point. It's good for kids to learn how to accept defeat in stride.  Just maybe not 4 year olds, and maybe not at what is supposed to be a happy-making birthday party. I'm learning.


P.S. not ALL my parenting instincts are off mark.  The day before the party, panicked at our growing guest list and suspicious that my games might in fact flop, we hired a jumping castle. Best. decision. ever.
They might look vaguely terrified of it, but trust me: it was winning (even, especially?, for the little guy who looks like he's being eaten by the jumping castle)

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Am I inadvertently turning my child into a television junky?

Caleb is allowed to watch one TV show a day.  If he's good.  It's a reward he gets most days, which is, truth be told, more a result of my need for 30 minutes of silence than good behavior on his part.

I want to limit his TV intake for probably the same reasons as most parents: I'd rather him play outside and interact with the world.  I worry about what it might do to his brain development in some vague and not scientifically investigated way.  But the biggest reason I want to limit his TV viewing is because of the ugly display that happens each time he's forced to turn it off.  It's just a bad scene all around and an indication of a deeply unhealthy attachment.

This is how it goes down:  [Background: We don't have TV, so he watches DVDs and is always hoping to sweet talk me into another episode.] When I approach to turn off the computer, Caleb looks up to me with terror in his eyes and clutches the laptop like a it was a dying friend, begging, "NO NO PLEEEAASE MAMA NO" with the desperation you might reserve for pleading with an axe murderer to spare you.

If I can wrestle the thing from his hands without any major electronic damage, I get a final "MOM No!!" that sounds a lot more like "You BASTARD!" and he falls dramatically to the floor in final display of misery.

Even so, I can't regulate it entirely.  When I'm not looking he steals away to our neighbor's house to watch stare transfixed at Spanish soap operas.  I'm quite sure he has no idea why that buxom brunette is, yet again, screaming abuse at that mustioched cowboy, but there are people moving around on a screen, so it's winning.  I have to drag him home.

But now I'm starting to question my semi-firm regulation of his TV intake.  Here's why:

During a recent visit to South Africa, we spent a lot of time with our good friends who have a beautiful little girl just Caleb's age.  The TV is frequently on in their busy multi-generation household. But Kimberleigh doesn't seem to care. In fact, amazingly, she chooses to STOP watching the TV, on her own, to go outside and do something more interesting.  On. her. own.

Since it was vacation I had pretty much discontinued our TV policy, and Caleb had at it.  And he was completely unable to self regulate.  He'd watch the TV for hours and hours, even as Kimberleigh tried to entice him to go outside and ride bikes or play in the pool or jump on the trampoline.  Her A material. But Caleb, like a junky unable to tear himself away from a his habit, preferred the dark recess of his cartoon den.  It drove me crazy.
Seriously Caleb?  Mouth agape and everything.
All of this made makes me wonder if I've just made the TV even more appealing and special by limiting it.

I've polled some friends and the consensus seems to be that those who weren't allowed much TV as kids would go over to their friends houses in which TV was allowed, plant their butts in front and remain immovable.

When I was growing, my mom seriously limited our sugar intake and we were even on sugar free diets for a while (thanks pre-Ritalin cure for hyperactivity). We learned the horribleness of carob and diatetic hard candy.  And then we'd go to our friends house and there would be actual candy bars, the kind with real sugar and chocolate, just sitting there in a cookie jar in front of God and everybody, and we'd whisper conspiratorially to our friends: "Do your parents know?"  They'd shrug and say they weren't that into it.  Could take it or leave it. I'd go home and sneak baking chocolate from the cupboard and eat in under the kitchen table.

In fact, I still, as a grown adult with children and taxes, sometimes eat so much sugary candy that I make myself sick.  You see what I'm getting at, right?

I'm not suggesting a Lord of the Flies situation where the kids make the rules and hedonism wins out. I know they can't self regulate.

But I'm wondering if restricting something so much, makes it too appealing.  Will our children grow into binge TV watchers and screen interfacers because we limit it, in the same way American teenagers binge drink illegal alcohol, while their European counterparts politely sip at their completely legal wine.

I'm kind of at a loss.  How do I regulate TV watching without turning it into a hard to resist forbidden fruit?  Should I just take off all restrictions?  What do you do?

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Can a game of "hot potato" really crush your spirit?

I'm currently in the throws of Googling planning activities for my son's 4 year birthday party.  We want something low key, low stress and low budget.  No camel rides or clowns.  Strictly a cash bar. Except for kids.  Kids drink for free.

Seriously though, here I am perusing the options and noticing that not much has changed in 30 years.  Top recommendations include: duck-duck-goose, pin the tail on the donkey, hot potato and musical chairs.  Are those games just the absolute pinnacle of pre-schooler fun or have we really become so uninventive? (Says the woman Googling party entertainment)  It seems that, much like nursery rhythms, not much has emerged to supplant the classics.

Well, with one exception.  Much of what I've seen online recommends ways of avoiding having anyone lose, or even win, each game.  I've read about modifying "musical chairs" so that everyone stays in the game and finds ways to touch the remaining chairs until they form a precarious human sculpture on the final chair.  I've seen well meaning mothers advise you to give each child a small prize along with their otherwise shameful exit at Hot Potato circle of child self esteem destruction.
How can such a small tuber cause such trouble?
And so I ask: Is this what we've come to?  I understand you want to keep your party light, up beat and the children feeling good.  But do we really expect so little resilience of them?  Are we so afraid of crushing their little spirits with a minor setback? And how do expect them to learn resilience if they are constantly insulated from disappointment?

This may sound curmudgeonly, but I have these concerns for good reason.

I was one of those kids who these well meaning parents are worried about protecting.  I was sensitive, insecure and easily wounded. I took things too personally. It wasn't easy.  I remember losing, getting kicked out of games, seeing myself ranked behind other children.  But after each set back or perceived insult I developed thicker skin.  I developed strategies to soothe myself, build myself up, or just work harder for what I wanted.  I suppose we all did.  If you're used to playing lots games with winners and loser you don't take the whole endeavor so seriously.  You understand, maybe more than overly protective adults, that it's just a game.

But I can hear your protests all the way here in Kenya. "They have their whole lives to compete, do we have to start now?"  "Our culture is already overly competitive, can't we model cooperation instead?"  "Why should we willingly expose our dear children to disappointment and frustration; childhood is fleeting and should be enjoyed."  And, hey, my instincts run the same way.  My husband is the disciplinarian and I'm the softy. I'm the natural coddler and indulger.

Still, the more I read about what kids really need to succeed in life, the more I'm changing my tune.  Books like Nurture Shock and How Children Succeed, show convincingly that what really matters is not high IQ or high "self-esteem" but things like grit, determination, optimism, and ability to weather disappointments.  And forget about success.  Those skills can also make your child happier in the long run.

Some kids have more of these prized qualities from day one.  Some kids are less sensitive and thicker skinned in the same way that some kids are better at catching a ball or carrying a tune.  But that doesn't mean that we can't help them gain these life skills in the same way we'd help them learn an instrument.

The thing is, I'm not sure how to do this.  You could expose them to disappointment, as I seem to be suggesting.  But what does that world look like?

I think it looks a lot like the world I'm living in now.  Here in Kenya, not only are children exposed to winning and losing, they do it publicly.  School rankings are posted for all to see.  Certificates for "The Best... just about anything" are given out with ceremony.  If children misbehave in school, the whole class joins in in shaming them.  Instead of saying "you can do better" or "this could use improvement," a teacher will simply tell a child, "this work is poor."

This looks extreme to me and I naturally worry about the kid who, instead of learning a valuable life skill, has his spirit crushed by all this pressure.

But the adults I meet do not appear to have their spirits crushed. In fact, they seem to be able to laugh at themselves, to take a good natured ribbing in stride in a way that I find uncommon among Americans.  They don't appear to care so much what every person in the room might be thinking of them.  To make a huge generalization: egos here remind me of stones - small, tough and easily settling in next to others.  Typical American egos remind me of balloons - large, easily popped or deflated and constantly bouncing off one another.  

I know a lot more goes into a resilient ego and a strong sense of self than an unforgiving school environment.  I know I'm probably missing a huge part of the population here who might feel resentful and even mildly traumatized by this upbringing.  And I know I might not want something so extreme for my own kids.

Like so many parents I'm trying to provide the right balance of toughening them up to prepare them for the world and shielding them from too much hardship.  I'm not exactly sure what the right balance is, and living in a place that does things so differently throws me a bit off my axis.

Still, Kenya provides a good reminder that children are more resilient than we give them credit for.   At Caleb's birthday party, the first kid out of the circle in the game of Hot Potato, will probably have forgotten about it before we cut the cake.  But I'll eat my words, along with the cake and maybe even that hot potato, if things turn out differently....

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Misadventures in cloth diapering

It's a typical tale: you start motherhood with the best of intentions.  You're going to be kind to the earth, your baby and your wallet.  And given those high minded ideals, it only makes sense to jump into the cloth diapering trend.  You do the considerable research this seems to require.  You stock up on the colorful gear. You bask in your earthmama goodness.
See?  Enticingly colorful.  Like jelly beans.

And then you have a baby.  Who poops.  Runny, yellow, stinky, sometimes explosive infant poop.

At some point - probably after 5 public blow-outs, 3 laundry disasters, 1 too many condescending question from older relatives, and 6 months of sleepless nights - you find yourself staring wistfully at the disposable diaper display, wondering if this could be just the thing to give you a much needed respite from your now chaotic life.  At this point your the need to simplify a too hectic life trumps your once coveted ideals. You buy that gateway Pamper.

A lot of moms stick with cloth diapering through the years (and great for them) but I've heard of just as many who've abandoned the practice.

We were counting ourselves among that camp.  Until now.

With our first, we too wanted to be good to the earth, our baby and our wallet.  But we lived in a minuscule Boston apartment with a shared washer and dryer.  It was enough that we were going to add a screaming infant to the entirely childless complex, but placing human feces in a communal machine seemed more like a stunt a college prankster might pull than something good neighbors would do.  We wanted to keep our lease, so we settled on the "gDiaper" hybrid approach.  

The gDiaper has a reusable outer diaper and a biodegradable flushable insert.  You simply drop the baby waste along with the baby maxi pad into the toilet and voila!
Nifty, huh?  

Well, not exactly.  The gDiaper start kit came with a large wooden stick, which we looked at the  puzzlement cavemen might give an iphone.  Were we supposed to beat the poop out of the baby with it?  Did the makers of the gDiaper assume we'd need it for our next drum circle?  What?

We read the instructions and learned that we were supposed to use it to swirl around in the toilet water to break up the biodegradable insert and the "waste."  You know, turning our toilet into some kind of fecal witches cauldron.  The reason:  the flushable insert is only flushable with a powerful toilet and a good stirring.  We could do the stirring, but our mid-century plumbing did not have the flushpower to eliminate the eliminations.

So, we sheepishly returned to good "old fashioned" disposable diapers, declaring: "These things are awesome!"   We gave a nod to our environmental ideals by buying the no-bleach Seventh Generation version.  But, honestly, the statistic that it takes 500 years for a diaper to decompose stuck in my head every time I bought a package.

Still, my too hectic life trumping my ideals - as per usual - coupled with inertia, meant that once we started buying disposables it was hard to turn back.

Then we moved to Kenya.  And had another child.

I'd like to say moving to Kenya, living in closer proximity to the kind of pastoral vistas which typical inspire environmentalists, turned us around to revisit cloth diapering, and that's part of the reason.  We are a lot closer to the waste removal system here in that trash is generally burned in the back yard or moved to the municipal trash dump, situated directly behind our favorite sandwich place.  We can no longer pretend that it is a sanitized affair.

But the truth is also that diapers costs twice as much here.  In Kenya, diapers are truly the luxury item something with such major environmental externalities should be.  And, just as my Econ 101 professor might have predicted, it was the price that ultimately tipped the scales and pushed us to revisit the cloth diaper option.

So, we did the research, sent for the colorful gear and basked in our earth parent goodness.

Only one remaining problem:  we didn't have a washing machine.

We had hired a lovely woman who washes and hangs out to dry our clothes by hand. Now, I have an uneasy relationships with the whole concept of house help, and I already washed out my underwear by hand for fear of inadvertently offending.  Could I really make someone else clean our poop stained diapers?

I polled my Kenyan friends who generally thought I was making way too big a deal out of this.  I'd hear, "We're used to it" or "We're not as squeamish as you about these things."  Though they probably didn't say squeamish.  They probably said "funny," which is a catch-all adjective exceedingly polite Kenyans use when they don't want to insult someone.

Still, I didn't want to just drop a bunch of human waste in a bucket, and make it someone else's problem.  So, we devised a system.  I'd scrape off the poop into the toilet (now, where's my gDiaper stick?), rinse off any remaining bits, and then soak it in a bucket of soapy water.  Then, I'd wash away any remaining guilt by giving Mary* a raise for the extra work.

So, for me, it's a bit more work than someone with an actual washing machine might have to do, but still far from doing it all myself.

I'm a lot more intimate with the poop (much of it does not scrape off easily) and half of the time I feel like a scatologist in training, but I'm actually getting used to it.  Instead of thinking guiltily of landfills, I feel a near smug sense of pride, mentally tallying the global and personal resources we're saving.

Still, I imagine that some Kenyans who understandably pine for the ease and convenience of disposables, might scratch their heads and wonder why we, relatively affluent foreigners, would willingly go back to the the labor intensity of cloth diapers.  I imagine them saying, "funny wazungu."

*not her real name

Monday, January 7, 2013

How to Soothe a Baby? Easy: Bembeleza.

There's a lot you can learn about a culture through its language.  For example, there's no word for "bored," as we understand it, in Kiswahili.  I suppose, in a traditional Swahili setting, if you found your self with little to do, you would simply be relaxing, "pumzika," enjoying the lack of work, not thrown into some kind existential malaise.  The modern world, and maybe affluence, have probably created boredom.

I love the window into another culture's experience that language provides.  And I love what it tells us about the human experience overall.  It can tell us that concepts, and even feelings like boredom  we once assumed were human universals, are not. It can tell us how much value a culture places on something.  Most of us have heard that the Eskimos have something upwards of 8 million words for the "snow" - the stuff of their life.  And it can show us wisdom we may have lost or struggle to understand.

My favorite Kiswahili word - bembeleza - has no exact English translation.  It's not really a deep concept, nor is it something very specific to East African culture.  It's a what you do when a baby is crying.  You "bembeleza mtoto."  

Bembeleza is something between rocking and bouncing and gently jostling a baby to comfort him.  There might be swaying and singing if it's required, but it's all in the repertoire of bembeleza.  I've seen Kenyans of all ages and both genders do this expertly and with confidence.  

The online dictionary translates it as: to soothe, or caress or coax.  But that's now how people around here understand it.  It's a specific baby soothing dance, one that everyone seems to know.

I'm more astonished that we don't have a word for it. I've seen new parents in the US anxiously hold their infant baby, sometimes like a porcelain platter, afraid to crush it or jostle it or shake to too hard. Afraid that the slightest wrong movement will cause the newborn head to fall off. 

Not quite sure what to do, we reach out for advice from professionals like Dr. "Happiest Baby on the Block"  who invoke this ancient wisdom and repackage it in nifty heuristics like the 5 S's (shushing, swaying, sucking....).  We buy devises, like swings and bouncy seats and vibrating chairs, which are all designed to.... what?  Soothe, yes.  That's the end result.  But, in essence, they are bembeleza-ing your child.

To be fair, Kenyans are probably better at this baby-soothing business because they are generally part of more deeply co-dependent extended families, and are simply around more babies -- babies they are all expected to hold and soothe.  And there's usually not decades of non-child centered existence in which to forget the baby care and enthusiasm of their younger years before they get around to having their own children.

But, it also might just be because have a word for it.
This little "bembeleza-er" is barely out of baby-hood himself, but he soothes like a pro.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

NYE Time Capsule Could Be The Best Thing We've Done All Year (2013)

I've never been a huge fan of New Years Eve.  I mean.. the pressure!!

At first, when I was young and single, it was the pressure to have a "fabulous evening" in a momentous way.  The pressure to have the epically romantic kiss at the stroke of midnight like some kind of neo-Cinderella.  The pressure to simply be at fantastic party looking your fabulous-est.

And there's always pressure to look back at your year and remember the highlights.  I can barely remember what I did last weekend, much less perform some kind of mental year end retrospective.  And I haven't even mentioned the pressure to turn your year end review into a list of inevitably broken resolutions to live a better life the following year.  I mean, I'm Jewish. It's been 3 months since the New Years promises I made during Yom Kippur (the Jewish New Year).  3 months is exactly the amount of time it takes to realize your failure at following through on self-improvement plans.

Now that I have young children it's just the pressure to stay up past 10:30 PM.  And to somehow make it fun or at least mark the occasion for them.

Explaining the concept to Caleb was a struggle. I told him it was a holiday, and he looked around for the presents.

I painstakingly tried to explain the passage of time and the duration of a "WHOLE YEAR" to him.  ("Remember your last birthday?  That was a YEAR ago.  It was this many - flashing 10 fingers over and over again - sleeps ago.")

But I'm not sure he got it.  Earlier this year I told him that his birthday was in "January."

"It is!?!"  he responded excitedly, and with no knowledge of the concept continued jumping up and down saying "I  want to go to January!! Can we go now mom?" And even. "Do we have to take a plane?"

But he's jut a bit older now so I thought I'd institute something he might be able to get his head around.  Stealing the idea from the brilliant Momalog, we institute a kind of wish box/time capsule tradition. We'd put our resolutions on paper and in a box and then open it the following year.  For us, it would keep our promises concrete (none of this "be less judgemental" or "keep in touch more" vagueness, but real benchmarks, like "call grandma once a week") and keep us accountable knowing we'd look at this later. For the kids it would just be fun to look back and see he kinds of things they wished for themselves a year ago.

We bought a small plastic box, along with stickers and markers and the like to decorate it.  So, even if the concept is lost on kids, they'll have some fun with the art project part.

We asked Caleb to think of things he'd like to "learn" this year ("accomplish" or "improve upon" seemed like burdensome concepts that a child should be free from).  He got very excited about this idea and said "I want to learn how to draw.  A monkey.  Oh... and boat!"

Wonderful idea!  We wrote it down and put it in the box.

And then he asked me to promptly teach him how to draw a monkey. Or a boat.  So, I continued to try and explain that he'd have a whole year to learn these things.

So, he settled on "learn to ride a bike" and "learn to draw letters."  Completely reasonable (and adorable) wishes from a near four-year old.

Caleb, just as proud of his "artwork" as his wish.    
We also let him add "learn how to drive a car" to the box, figuring it'll be a stellar opportunity to teach him about disappointment.

Not to be left out, Emmet got in on the action:

Totally doable.
So, at least for the kids, we're hoping we're creating a fun and momentous tradition.  They'll be able to see how much they've learned in the last year and take a moment to congratulate themselves.

Colin and I, on the other hand, face the terrifying prospect, of starting NYE 2013 opening up a piece of paper that reminds us how we've failed.  But there's a small chance this could be the kick in the pants we need to keep those pesky New Years resolutions from fading away by Valentine's day.  Either way, we've "sealed the box" and are jumping in!

Happy 2013 to you all!