Sunday, October 30, 2011

So I finally read "Free Range Kids"

Book review time. Our topic today is a recent book whose mere title alone has become a new catchphrase in the parenting vernacular: "Free Range Kids" by Lenore Skenazy.

I really wanted to love it. Really I did. I had heard both good and bad things about this Free Range concept everywheres. The whole idea is pretty polarizing - and falsely dichotomous, I might add. As though most of us are either these Overprotective Ninnies or Risky Child Endangerers. Dr. Laura doesn't like it, so I figured that meant I would probably love it. Yeah, not so much.

Now that I've finally read it, allow me to share my shitty opinion. DH read it too, and he was a lot less charitable than I'm about to be, so I'll go ahead and share his shitty opinion, too. I'll try my best to be brief.

What I said to myself after finishing it and returning it to my local library: "Ouch. The author has a lot of unresolved hurt feelings about the way she was treated and mis-labeled in the media when she published her account of putting her 9-year-old son on the NY subway alone. I sympathize with her. Sucks to be judged like that. And she is clearly not over it, nor should she necessarily be, however let's not forget she CHOSE to put her shit out there with her real name and her son's real (?) name on it, so honestly, whatever did she expect?." (BTW, I love that she put "America's Worst Mom" on the front cover of the version I read. I chuckled every time I saw it.)

Let's be real for a moment: if folks suddenly started going around calling me "America's Worst Mom" you bet your ass my memoir posing as a parenting book would come across as more than a bit defensive of my various parenting choices. That, or I'd have to spend a crapload of time and money with my therapist. And therein lies my basic problem with Skenazy's musings in "FRK" - taken together, they lack a sense of intellectual, research-based rigor free from this sense of painful, righteous indignation about how she was personally hurt. Yes, she was the victim of media bullying and unfortunately, her book read like she was lashing out, grasping at straws trying to prove those mean bullies wrong. As a result, I didn't find her arguments terribly convincing. Let me give you a flavor.

Among many other helpful hints, Skenazy suggests parents let their school-age kids walk alone to the bus stop, or all the way to school. She cites lowered rates of violent crimes against children, and mentions the increasing dangers of having more cars on the road when parents drive their kids to school. She says if you look at the numbers, we have nothing statistically-significant to fear about strangers who abduct children. Our kids are getting fat, antisocial, and vitamin-D deficient because we keep them inside all the time because we're scared of kidnappers. Conclusion? Just let them walk to the bus stop alone like we did in the proverbial good old days, you overprotective parents, you.

Then she goes on to say, (I'm paraphrasing) "Well, actually my own sister was often bullied on the way to school by older kids, and neither she nor I ever told our parents about it, so the bullying continued and she was maybe scarred for life, but you parents today can overcome that by being close to your kids and asking them if they're being bullied!" Um, no. Read the research on kids who are bullied. News flash: they don't usually tell their parents!

I'm with Skenazy on the 'don't irrationally fear the strange adult' bit. I say read Gavin de Becker's "Protecting the Gift" - teach your kids never to leave anywhere with an adult they don't know - do teach them to talk to adults they don't know, especially women with kids, in order to ask for help. However, we part company in one key area. For my kids' sake, I actually do fear some of the other kids they'll encounter. That, to me, is one of the biggest dangers to my kids' well-being. Raise your hand if you've never been teased or bullied or worse. Yep. Both DH and I have. Luckily nothing too traumatizing though. And no surprise, we didn't tell our parents either. I'm digressing. Where was I? Oh yes, it irked me that Skenazy didn't fully analyze and process the account of her sister's bullying, and put it in context. Really, what are the best practices for helping our kids thrive despite bullying? That would have been really helpful reading, way moreso than making fun of parents who buy baby knee pads and shopping cart covers.

As I've already mentioned, DH also read the book, then said: "You know, fun ideas to think about here. I enjoy the novelty of it all, but when the main thesis doesn't really pass the sniff test, I'm not buying it. 'Let your kids ride public transit alone! Give them a note for when police and conductors will inevitably stop them that reads 'My mom knows where I am!' - Huh? I don't think so. I guess it all depends on the context, sure, like the kid who grew up riding the Manhattan subway since age 2 would be fine to do it alone at 9 perhaps, but not with my kids living in Podunkville who did not, obviously. If you're so passionate about wanting kids to roam free like chickens why live in a large city where that's arguably hardest to accomplish? There just have got to be other ways to teach the values she holds dear - independence, confidence, freedom from fear - letting the kids take calculated risks without resorting to gimmicky, headline-grabbing shit that just doesn't ring true as a smart thing to do."

Amen, DH, he made me laugh. So did various parts of the book actually. I can see why Skenazy was a successful newspaper columnist; she writes with an urban, sophisticated flair. In summation: "FRK" was a memorable read, capturing an interesting slice of the cultural zeitgeist; though I'm glad I didn't shell out any money for it; this is not a book we are going to parent by, but I suppose it is good food for thought.

Has anyone else read it? Or not? I'm tossing around a few other intentionally polarizing-tastic parenting memoirs/how-to guides to review here, pending availability at my local library. Tiger Mom, I've got yours in my sights.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Octopuses, not octopi

It's not everyday you read something that instantly makes you feel like a kid again. This delightful article on the minds of octopuses totally transported me back to being about 9-years-old, feeling full of wonder about the cool possibilities out there in the natural world.

I also learned a new grammatical point: "Octopuses, not octopi, is now considered the correct plural among the octopus intelligentsia. Octopi has been discarded as the plural because of its Latin ending on a Greek word."

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Two October Birthdays, One October Anniversary

October is a very big month here at Casa hush. First comes DD's birthday, followed a week later by our wedding anniversary (7 Year Itch, anyone?), then DS's birthday, then Halloween.

If we had known then that we'd be so fertile around Christmastime, we probably would have re-thought the whole fall wedding idea. That said, I remain a huge fan of fall weddings. We got married in a large-ish Midwestern city, on one of those unseasonably warm, sunny October Saturdays. It was something like 70 degrees outside. We were such lucky bastards.

Every year on our anniversary we break out the photo album. This was the first year the kids really noticed the photos, and seemed to enjoy looking at them. I have to pat myself on the back a little bit: my wedding gown has aged really well. It was a form-fitting, lace-embellished gown, in the style of Monique Lhuillier. I think some of our guests thought it looked very conservative and maybe even a bit grannyish back in 2004, but it would fit right in with today's bridal fashions. Of all people, it was my mother who convinced me that it was, in fact, The Dress. She urged me not to go with the type of strapless, poufy skirt number that was all the rage circa 2001-2005. That was the first and only piece of fashion advice my mother ever gave me. And 7 years later, I still have to say: Hey thanks, mom. You were right.

So, DD is now 2 and DS is now 4. We no longer have any children in diapers, nor drinking from bottles, nor sleeping in cribs. Mostly we all sleep fine at night - if they wake up and get lonely, the kids just crawl into our ginormous bed. We seriously thought this time would never come. It is so good.

Halloween is the last of our Big 4 October events. We have 2 parties to go to this weekend, and on Monday we'll do some trick-or-treating in our friends' neighborhood. We live too far out in the country to ever get any trick-or-treaters ourselves. DS wants to dress up as either Iron Man or Captain America. Bummer. The days of my son in cute, cuddly Halloween attire are apparently over. DD is going as a bumble bee. I know it won't be long before she asks to be a frickin' princess. Gah. My friend who is Halloween-obsessed and also has a 4-year-old, was lamenting the fact that her daughter chose a "racy kitten" costume this year. Major bummer.

In other news, there is an older girl at DS's school who has a major crush on him. She keeps drawing him notes with stories and pictures depicting their future together. It is really too funny. The girl's mom approached me after class yesterday and joked about how we're going to be future in-laws. DS seems oblivious to it, and simply says "yeah, she's my friend." I think it's his utter nonchalance that keeps her coming back for more.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Proper Responses?

Sometimes I just don't know what to say in a particular situation. I wish I were one of those people who can think clearly on their feet, and who immediately knows *exactly* what to say in response to something someone says that is outrageously off. (I generally think of a good response several hours or days later.) Anyway, twice this week I found myself on the receiving end of 2 very awkward comments from 2 different people in Podunkville. Allow me to share them and get your feedback.

The first outrageously odd comment, to which naturally I didn't know at all how to respond, came from my neighbor, a woman about my age who has 2 kids about my kids' ages. Our kids were playing when suddenly she brought up the local elementary school close to our homes and said the following: "Now, I'm not a racist or anything, but I'm not comfortable sending my son to a school where he'll be the only white kid in class and will have no friends." She mentioned that several white families she knows have opted out of the school in fear of the putative majority Latino presence there.

Wow. First of all, whenever anyone prefaces any statement with the assertion "I'm not a racist or anything, but..." it means they're about to say something crazy racist!

Secondly, on all of the basic educational metrics people usually like to examine in order to make such school comparisons, it's not even close: our neighborhood school has been nationally-recognized for excellent test scores; and also has the benefit of small class sizes, and an extremely cohesive team of teachers using an educational model proven by peer-reviewed research. Yes, my neighbor is correct - there is a sizeable Latino population at the school, however the numbers show that her white son would certainly NOT be in the "minority."

I'm appalled that she thinks that the racial make-up of a potential class even matters - that is, it seems to matter to her if whites are not the super-majority. Because she hates the very idea of her kids associating with Mexican-American kids so much, she's planning to send her children to a different school that is mediocre on every measure - with lower test scores, larger class sizes, and where she'll have to drive them and have a longer commute. Seriously, I give up.

When someone says something racist, and moreover, doesn't even have their basic facts straight about the topic, where do you even begin? Ugh.

My actual response was something borderline incoherent, followed by "Well, have you actually visited the school or talked to any of the teachers or the administrators? I can also give you the names of several parents with multiple kids who go there and absolutely love it...."

WTF, right?

Moving on to the 2nd awkward Podunkville comment of the week. If you're still reading, it's not nearly as awful as the first comment, it's just irritating. I'll be brief. In fact, I'll just paraphrase what was said.

Bottom line: when someone you know earns upwards of $300k/year after taxes, and their only debt is a reasonable mortgage on a home they got for a steal (it's their only debt because their father is uber wealthy and paid for all schooling/professional degrees), and yet they routinely mention how "poor" and how "on a really tight budget" they are, and how they simply can't afford to pay for new clothes for their kid, and get all 'woe is me' when the bill comes? Um, yeah. Not getting a lot of sympathy from me. But what does one say when presented with icky comments about it, that have zero basis in economic reality?

Ok, so, obviously, I have a problem with 1) statements made from a place of racism, and with 2) people not bothering to get their basic educational facts straight before turning their backs on a perfectly good public school, and also with 3) objectively affluent people bitching about things they think they can't afford, when really they're just cheap and probably extremely selfish. Good to know these triggers about myself!

How do you handle your triggers when they come up in a conversation? Do you know what to say at the right moment? Do you say anything at all?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

American Horror Story, and a play dough obsession

Anyone have too much time on their hands and need another TV show to start watching? Want to be scared shitless by a TV show with only a mere TV-MA rating?

Then you need to start watching American Horror Story on FX. It debuted on Oct 5th, so catch the second episode tomorrow night, Oct 12. It stars recognizable-faced Dylan McDermott, Vera Farmiga's little sister, the fabulous Ms. Jessica Lange, and one of my personal favorite character actors in the history of ever, Mr. Denis O'Hare (aka Russell Edgington from True Blood).

The premise? A therapist's family getting over some late-term miscarriage and infidelity trauma moves into a haunted house in L.A., and of course all hell breaks loose!

Don't say I didn't warn you - it's SCEERY!

In other news, I take DD to an organized playgroup one morning a week. It is so precious to hear her call her new little playmates by name, and ask for them repeatedly after we go home. I love how she adorably mispronounces some of their names.

DS is apparently obsessed with play dough at Montessori. So much so that his teacher approached me to talk about how we might encourage him to branch out into trying some of the other works available to him at school. I replaced all of the off-brand play doh we'd been using at home (which DS told his teacher was too hard,) and that he liked the softer dough at school better. Then we encouraged DS to play with the new dough all weekend, which he did, happily. We'll see if this helps him get over his obsession, or whether it just continues to feed it. His explanation? "I just really love it."

Makes perfect sense to me.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Sitters Who Just Can't Handle Vegas

My DD turned 2 yesterday. Wow. I can't even begin to put into words how blissfully happy and how incredibly sad that makes me. She is our last child. Loads of "womb wistfulness" just like @caramama says. Amen.

We had a fantastic, fantastic, much-needed trip. We ate the shit out of the Big City. Saw my flaky, yet golden-hearted BFF and her new baby. Glad we could make that happen. I feel great about it. I also feel great about my marriage. Hard to believe we ever needed counseling (boy, did we though.)

Came home to an odd conversation from the woman who watches one or both of my kids a couple days a week so I can work. Apparently, her third daughter, who just started Kindergarten one month ago, is having a hard time 1) adjusting to leaving her house for school in the morning, and 2) eating lunch at school without her mother present. Let me clarify: her daughter loves her teacher, loves what she is learning in school once she actually gets there, but throws a tantrum and locks herself in the bathroom every morning that her mother is not there to personally escort her to school. Neither her aunt nor her 2 older sisters have been able to reach her. And she is apparently losing weight due to not eating at school unless her mother is there. The actual food quality is not the issue, it is just that she won't eat it unless her mother is there. Can you say 'Holy Manipulation, Batman!?' And she's been to the doctor with a lot of what I think is 100% psychosomatic stuff going on this month. I get it: this is a little, 5.5-year-old kid who Just Can't Be Without Her Mother. And a mother with Good Intentions But Very Poor Boundaries.

What I don't get is our sitter's chosen response to the behavior. Instead of finding some way to deal with the child's behavior, and actually work with her on it, she thinks she needs to acquiesce and just quit working so that she can be present at her daughter's school every day at drop off and lunch. WTF? This is the thought that apparently entered her mind when she told me about it: "Hmm, I'll ask my employer to give me 2 weeks off, and then I'll finally decide if I'm going to come back or not."

Um, it doesn't usually work that way.

Unfortunately, we don't live in a place with any decent daycare, nor with any sort of nanny placement agency. Sitters are all found via word of mouth, which actually works quite well in a small town with a strong rumor mill, but the lead time is very long. Ugh. Wish us luck, please. Because there is no work/life balance happening at my house right now!

I know what you're thinking. "Fire her! This is some unprofessional shizz on top of some other unprofessional shizz!" But seriously? I simply can't right now. There is no one else to replace her. Work-wise I'm so screwed if she leaves now. So I need her to hang in there for just a few more weeks. I need good help - a known quantity who I can trust both with my kids and my valuables. You'd be shocked at how hard that is to come by in Podunkville. We've tried. Say what I will about her choices vis-a-vis her Kindergartner, and her predilection for Too Much Honesty with me, her hapless employer; I know my kids are thriving in her care, and we're better off with her in our lives at this time.

The logistics of life really, really suck sometimes.

I just need someone who will show up for just 11 more months! Then DD can go to the Montessori preschool, and I can BREATHE.

Am I the only one out there with sitters who just can't handle Vegas?
P.S. Bonus points if anyone knows that movie reference.