because life doesn’t fit in a file folder

Has "Stranger Danger" Gone Too Far?

Posted on

photo from Mr. T in DC @ flickr.com

I was in the epicenter of suburbia, standing in a Target store, holding up two bathing suits, and feeling a little indecisive. A little blond-haired girl who couldn’t have been more than 3-years old stood in her bright orange cart while her mother, standing one arm’s length away, sifted furiously through a rack of summer shorts.

“I like the pink one with the flowers,” the girl offered, unsolicited. “It’s pretty.”

“I like that one, too . . .” I said. “But I think I’m going to get the black one.”

Suddenly, the little girl’s mother swooped in, a deranged lioness.

"pink car" by hfb @flickr.com

“We don’t talk to strangers!” the little girl’s mother shouted loud enough for not only her daughter to hear but for everyone in the entire department to hear as well. Clearly, the message was more for me than for anyone else. But instead of smiling politely and wheeling her daughter away to speak with her privately, she made a big ole scene by shouting and pushing the cart (and her little girl) far, far away from (dangerous) me.

Heaven forbid, her daughter and I might have got to talking about shoes.

Okay, I get that there is this weird, American fear about strangers. I don’t seem to have that fear, but I know a lot of people do. That said, 99.99% of the world is composed of strangers, so I have always been of the mindset that one of my many jobs as a mother would include teaching my child about how to respond appropriately to strangers because – let’s face it – sometimes, a person needs to rely on other people. Sometimes even people we don’t know. In her book Free Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry, author Lenore Skenazy points out that Americans watch a lot of  television, and the news is always going on about some child being raped, abducted, or snatched. We hear about how “…this kid went into the bathroom and some guy killed him, and [we] become very scared someone is on the prowl for [our] children” (87). This kind of thinking is crazy-making.

At age 10, my son doesn’t have a cell phone. He can’t call me or text me for immediate rescue. So if, for example, we happen to get separated at the grocery store and he really can’t find me after searching the aisles for a few minutes, he has learned to go to Customer Service – to calmly state that his mother has gotten lost (ha!) and ask for me to be paged. Or, if we are at an outdoor venue, I have taught him to find a mother with children and ask her – this stranger – if she might use her cell phone to call me because we have become separated. He knows not to get into a car with someone he doesn’t know. He knows not accept anything from anyone offering him candy or kittens or balloons or free iPods. He knows not to go anywhere with a stranger asking for help, but instead to reassure that person he is heading home and that he will send help back as soon as he can. He’s known these things since he was small, and he’s actually had to put some of these things into practice.

I guess I’d rather have my kid feel he can trust other human beings. After all, at some point, he will need to know how to interact with people he doesn’t know, why not start early? I also think I have enough faith in humanity to believe that most people are not out to abduct or molest or kill my child.

And really, what did the mother in Target succeed in teaching her daughter by sweeping her away from me so violently? That people are terrifying. That no one can be trusted. That the world is a scary place, and that her daughter is utterly ill-equipped to function in it. She taught her daughter not to speak. That even casual conversation is dangerous. That mother didn’t teach her daughter a thing about safety. She taught her daughter about fear. As far as I’m concerned, she also taught her daughter a big lesson in how to be downright rude to other people.

What could be right about that?

Bullying: Please Don't Post This

Posted on

Yesterday, I posted a blog entry about bullying and received a few responses, but many more people privately emailed me with messages that said, “Please don’t post this, but we are having a huge problem with bullying…” or “Please don’t post this. My daughter is a terrible bully and I don’t know what to do about it…” or “I wish I could tell my kid to just punch her bully in the face… Please don’t post this”.

So there is obviously a lot more to say about bullying, and I kind of wanted to continue the dialogue by proposing a few quick scenarios about physical bullying and how parents handle it. Stay with me:

Scenario 1:

Your child comes home from school and reports someone kicked her during recess.

What is your response?

Scenario 2:

Your child comes home from school and reports that she kicked someone during recess.

What is your response?

Is your response gender-based, which is to say, would you say something different to a son than you would to a daughter?

Growing Up Is Hard & Bullies Just Stink

Posted on
photo from Chesi - Fotos CC's at Flickr.com

My husband and I have always taught our son that it is important to be friend-ly with everyone. To us, being “friendly” means being kind and tolerant and respectful toward another person, even if you don’t like him so much. We have always been clear with our son that being friendly does not mean that he has to be friends with everyone. He seems to get it.

My son knows that friends are important to me. He understands that my closest friends are the people I can trust to help me when I need them, and he sees I am there for them just the same. If we are lucky (and I consider myself lucky), we have people with whom we can share our deepest secrets; folks who come over even when they know we are sick and barfing; they see us without our make-up on and don’t care that the house is a complete mess; they are the people we shop with, take walks with, or sit still with. I am lucky enough to have people in my life who keep little cans of Canada Dry Ginger Ale in their garages refrigerators because they know it is my favorite drink.

There is, of course, an ebb and flow to friendship. Sometimes one person gives more and the other receives – but friendship cannot be one way. Interactions may be brief or extended, but interactions with true friends should – in the ideal – leave us feeling filled up rather than emptied out.

photo of "angryboy" by bolinhanyc @ flickr.com

For kids, it’s harder. I imagine sometimes life must seem more like the reality-show Survivor where there are alliances that change daily. There are secret merges. One day you are in, and the next you are on exile island, alone. Or just voted out – excommunicated, without explanation. Blindsided. My son has been negotiating these waters for a few years now. He knows he has friends; it’s just that many of them don’t attend his school or aren’t in his same grade.

Last year, when my child found himself on the ground at recess, getting kicked in the nuts, he noted later, it wasn’t the being kicked that hurt so much (although it did hurt) but that the fact that a person he’d thought was his friend for many years stood by and watched it happen. That betrayal hurt him much more. He felt – and still feels – that if that person had intervened with a “quit it,” or a “leave him alone,” that somehow it wouldn’t have been so bad because he would have known he had that one person. That one friend.

These playground dynamics are also a terrible reminder of the ever-present social hierarchy, that author William Golding was right: It is Lord of the Flies out there, and everyday there are still perpetrators, bystanders, victims, and (sadly) precious few rescuers. And despite all the anti-bullying campaigns, no, we simply cannot seem to all just get along.

This year, things have been much better for my guy. Since he is heading for middle school in the fall, last week I asked him to tell me the biggest lesson he’d learned from elementary school. As we walked side by side, I was pretty sure he was going to say something about making sure to include quotes in his essays, or to try not to get hit in the face during dodge ball, or something about not eating Diet Coke and Mentos at the same time.

He thought for a good while and then said, “For better or for worse, one thing I learned while getting picked on last year is that the only person I can really count on is myself. And that the people you think are your friends one day may not be the next.”

His words seemed too adult, like he understood and has come to accept something dark about humanity that has taken me almost my whole life to understand. I’d be lying if I said I am more than a little sad that he understands it so well at 10 years old.

What is your experience with bullying? Would you rather have your child be the bully than the victim?

Be Gentle With Your Graduates

Posted on
photo by pixiesticks23@flickr.com

When I graduated from Hobart & William Smith Colleges in 1989, Professor Lee Quinby made a poignant speech and reminded audience members that another word for graduation is commencement and that commencement means “to enter upon” or “to begin.” She described commencement as a hopeful word, and it is. But she also went on to remind us that whenever there is a beginning, there is also an ending.

I have held onto these words for all these years because they have felt true to me. For example, I understand that when a man marries – while he adores his bride – he may simultaneously long for his bachelor days: the time he used to spend with his friends, unfettered by the responsibilities that come along with being a husband. When a woman gives birth to a child, she is no longer alone; she now must care for the needs of another person. And while she may revel in her child’s newness, she may simultaneously grieve the loss of her independence. When a child moves from one grade to the next, he may be excited about moving to another level of education, but he may be nervous about new expectations. Children may secretly mourn friends they know they will not likely see again; they may become silent and withdrawn or explosive and nervous.

Professor Lee Quinby presenting, recent

Professor Quinby suggested that we consider allowing ourselves to grieve a little bit as commencement can be a scary time, an uncertain place, that middle place where one doesn’t know where one is going yet. We only know where we have been.

My advice to parents during this time of year is an echo of a lesson taught to me by Professor Quinby over 20 years ago: Be gentle with your graduates, whatever their age or grade. Some of them may be feeling a little disconnected – particularly if they will be starting at a new school, separating from old friends, starting a new job, or moving away from everything they have ever known. And while you may not be able to tell it from looking at them, on the inside, they may feel a little bit like lopsided, three-legged tables. Okay . . .  just a little unstable.

George Eliot wrote, “It is never too late to be what you might have been.” So don’t worry if you see your graduates begin to reinvent themselves a little bit over the summer: The rule-following boy who was so kind throughout elementary school, may become a little meaner as he enters middle school; the introverted girl who has always done everything her parents asked may suddenly seriously consider getting her belly button pierced, despite their protests. It’s okay, they are morphing, becoming, and this starting over can make all the difference in the world.

At one time or another, we all want to be someone else. The smart kid. The pretty girl. The cheerleader. The athlete. The guy with the cool car. It’s what children want – and what we grow out of, if we are lucky.

So let them change. Let the star football player put down his shoulder pads and try out for a play, if he wants to. Let the ballerina trade toe-shoes for track shoes; let the drummer try a little yoga. Feed their dreams. Help them discover all the various, untapped parts of themselves. Support them, but don’t rescue them from their jitters as new strengths will come from the discomforts of the middle place. Transition takes time. Give them time.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t baby them. And don’t buy them crap for graduating from kindergarten (“We’re so proud you can finger-paint!”) or elementary school. (Gag.) Instead, give the age-appropriate responsibilities as rewards for their new stage in life.

And trust me when I say that your graduates are going to be fine. Lee Quinby told me so a long time ago and, in my experience, she was right.

What do you remember feeling about graduation?

Tweet this Twit @RASJacobson

What Would You Do?

Posted on

Your child brings home a handout from school that is riddled with more than quite a few teacher errors (misspellings, grammar etc.).

In fantasies, what would you like to say or do? What do you do in reality?

When Parents Are The Problem

Posted on
From Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are

After winning baseball games, our team sponsor – the local Hess station – promised the players free Avalanches, those frozen drinks with the fun (artificial) flavors and colors. One night, my son’s team played particularly well. It had been a hard game, and even my kid made an out and (uncharacteristically) added three points to the scoreboard. Usually, I try to opt out of these kinds of mass-eating-crap-before-dinner kinds of events, but everyone was stoked, so we went.

Before we even left the field, I noticed one heavy-set kid eating a hot dog that his mother had purchased for him from the concession stand. I’m surprised I noticed him except it was hard not to. This kid was going at it, and he put away that hot-dog in three bites. I know this because I watched him: Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Bite. Chew. Swallow. Gone.

photo from horizontal.integration @ flickr.com

Later, at the Hess Station, while the boys were reveling in mixing their (artificially flavored and colored) cherry and cola and blueberry drinks, I saw hot-dog boy again. Only now he had a 64-ounce Avalanche in his left hand and not one, but two extra large Snickers bars in his right hand. At that point, I heard hot-dog boy say (actually, it was more like a loud whine), “I’m still hungry! Can we go across the street and get a hot dog?’ (I thought Snickers were supposed to “really satisfy you.”)

Hot-dog boy’s parents tried (briefly) to reason with their son, to no avail. He begged, he pleaded. He got louder, insisting on how hungry he was. In fact, he was not just hungry, he was starving. The word “no” was clearly not in their lexicon, and hot-dog boy and his parents were last seen walking across the street, presumably to get another hot-dog from the fast food joint across the way.

I’ve been thinking about this whole scenario for a while now. And I’ve been trying really hard not to be judgmental. In fact, I’ve been thinking of a million reasons to justify the allowances they made for their more than a little husky son.

I’m thinking, maybe they didn’t want to make a scene, so they just went along, that they don’t usually behave like this – these parents – but this one time, this one day, they were tired. Maybe they didn’t have food in the house, so they shrugged their shoulders and gave in. I mean, we did, right? Usually, hubby and I take our son straight home after baseball games, but on that day, we said, let’s go buy crap and celebrate with everyone.

I wondered if it was a full-time working parent “thing”: I have seen that many times before, the guilt some parents seem to have in saying no to their children. They don’t want to be the heavies. On weekends, they want to have fun, not discipline.

I considered that maybe the parents liked keeping their kid stuffed. When his mouth was full, he was quiet. He wasn’t loud or obnoxious or demanding, so why not cork him up with some candy or gum or a hot-dog and get a little peace of mind. Truthfully, I don’t know the deal, and it doesn’t matter.

My husband and I have a guiding principle: our child is here to augment our lives, not control us. Granted, it’s easy to have this guiding principle when you have only one child. We have him outnumbered; he can never beat us.

I know others do not share our adult-centered worldview, and I see variations of this “child-running-the-show” theme all the time. I see kids screaming at their parents in the mall, demanding expensive name-brand clothing, shoes and accessories. These kids relentlessly work their parents, generally declaring they won’t be “cool” or have social lives if they don’t have the “right” clothes or purse or game system or cellphone. And that’s okay. That’s what kids do. They cry. They get dramatic. They stomp around. What surprises me is when the parents of these children-behaving-badly cave in to their children’s demands, thus passively accepting their children’s disrespect and assuring a repeat performance in the future.

When I witness these uncomfortable public displays, I often picture myself, a spectator at some weird circus. I can’t help but imagine the child standing center-ring in an over-sized red jacket, black chaps and tall boots acting as a ringmaster. The child is always holding a whip and a microphone. This child is a performer in a well-rehearsed routine. At the same time, I imagine the parents as white fluffy dogs, standing on their scrappy hind legs, being told to wait and then jump and run in a circle. It is a pretty pathetic show.

image by id-iom at flickr.com

You can be sure that as a kid, I asked my parents for all kinds of stuff. And guess what. They generally said no. No, you can’t have a pony. No, you can’t have those jeans. No, you can’t see that movie. No, you can’t sleep at your friend’s house on a school night. No, you can’t eat dessert before dinner. I heard a lot of “no’s” while growing up. I don’t hear too many no’s these days.

What I saw that night at the Hess station was a child masterfully controlling his parents. He knew how to do it. He’d clearly done it before. He knew just how long and how hard to push, and he knew his parents would ultimately jump. He was the ringmaster. Ick. What adult wants to be controlled by his children? It’s our kids’ jobs to push against the boundaries we set (which feel imposed and unfair to them), but it’s our job to remind our children where the boundaries are and to police the borders. To push the kids back, to remind them to be civilized, and to offer consequences to them when they have overstepped, to say no.

Why is it so hard for so many parents to say no?

Can You Leave Your Kids Alone?

Posted on
Muppet Feet by irreverentwidow @ flickr.com

My mother left me alone in our house when I was in 4th grade. She would sometimes make a quick run to the grocery store and I would watch (torture?) my younger brother for about an hour before she came back home with the goods. By 6th grade, I was making pretty good money as a regular babysitter to several neighborhood families. (When I say “good money,” I mean I was making $1/hour to watch up to 3 children – and sometimes even a dog with a bladder problem.) I would typically arrive at 6 pm, make the kids dinner, entertain them, feed the dog, help them get into pajamas and brush their teeth, get everyone into bed and have them sound asleep by the time the parents came home around 11 pm or so! Pretty responsible for an 11-12 year old, right?

Last year, my husband and I started leaving our (then) 9-year old son alone in the house for little chunks of time. We didn’t leave him for very long. Maybe hubby and I wanted to take a walk around the block after dinner or stop and chat with some neighbors. That kind of thing.

Since things went so well, we gave our li’l monkey greater independence this year. Sometimes he comes home from school, and I’m not home. He knows how to get in, how to make his own snack, knows to get his homework done. He might (or might not) practice his piano. He knows not to let strangers in the house. He knows what to say if someone calls on the phone. I’ve been feeling mighty good about m’boy who has morphed into a pretty confident and competent little person.

That said, I’ve been catching a little grief from people who seem to think that age 10 is simply too young to leave a person “unattended” for any length of time.

Most people have heard of Lenore Skenazy. The author of Free Range Kids, she’s the chick who let her 9-year old son Izzy ride the train from Bloomingdales in the middle of Manhattan to their home in Queens without a cell phone (and she wasn’t even secretly following him or anything. She simply believed he could do it.) Was Izzy too young to take the Subway? Hell, he did it!

I’m not even putting my kid on a train or a bus! He’s happy to have a bit of time alone in the house. And I’m seriously wondering, what could happen to my kid in our home? Why is everyone so worried about him? About me? About my parenting skills? After all, my mother trusted me to stay at home and watch my 6-year old brother when I was 9 years old. Think about the first time you stayed home alone? How old were you? Chances are, if you are over 40, you were about the same age.

So I’m curious: When is it okay for a child to stay home alone for the first time? And would you hire a 6th grade babysitter these days?

"Just-a-Minute" Syndrome: Have We Caused It?

Posted on

This entry is courtesy of my dear friend, former high school teacher turned full-time parent, Betsy Whitehouse. If you’d like to pipe in about a topic pertaining to parenting or education (or a place where these world’s collide), please feel free to let me know! I’m glad to shut up from time to time!


photo from joleenieweenie @ flickr.com

I never said boo to my parents. When they told me to do something, I may have slumped my shoulders, but it never occurred to me to reply. I do not mean I wanted to object but showed restraint and held my tongue instead; I mean, the thought of disobeying a parental command never floated across my synapses. How has this tradition not been repeated?

When I ask my son, age 11, to put down his book and come to dinner, I first get silence.

I say, “Please come to the table,” and then I get, “Just a sec, Mom.”

Me: “Fritz!”

Ungrateful child: “I’m coming!” Then silence, followed by no movement from the couch.

Some people will no doubt snicker as they read these words because the child I’m complaining about is reading and not playing video games or texting friends or screwing around on Facebook, but my frustration level is the same, and my dinner is congealing. My mother would whistle up the stairs at me like a dog, and I’d come running.

Why are kids different this generation?

Because it takes work to give kids consequences. We often think that the grounding or the taking away of the hand-held video-game or the cell phone is uncomfortable enough to be a deterrent for the child, but really, it’s uncomfortable for us. We want to teach our kids the right way to live, but how far out of our way are we willing to go?  Not far enough. We are slow to react to bad behavior because it’s disappointing for dad to come home to a child who’s unavailable, banished to her room; because – without a cellphone – it’s inconvenient for us to be unable to call the kid to tell him you’ll be late at pick-up; and, let’s be honest, it can be distracting to have one’s pre-teen PSP-less and yammering while you’re trying to clean, cook, manage. Setting consistent limits for our kids means parents have to suffer the consequences, too. We have to be willing to live with, and be strong with, whatever punishment we mete out.

I never really wanted to turn into my mom; maybe I could just have that one, confident, in-charge, diligent piece of her.

Please Don't Give My Kid a Trophy

Posted on

Little League was in full swing over Memorial Day weekend, and my son had two games. On Saturday, I watched my boy get up there to bat three times … only to strike out on three separate occasions. It was painful. I could make all kinds of excuses: The 14-year old umpire made a bunch of bad calls; the sun was in my child’s eyes; he was really tired after a late night get-together the night before. I could make excuses, but what is the point?

The reality is my kid is not a ‘ball boy.” He never has been.

My kid is cerebral. At 3-years old, he could easily build elaborate structures out of LEGO’s by following the often complicated instruction guides. These days, he has graduated to K’Nex and creates working shredders, beverage dispensers, even guns with working mechanisms. Granted, these devices shoot rubber bands or other K’Nex pieces, but still they are incredibly complicated little inventions. And the world needs engineers, right? That’s why they make pocket protectors.

So why am I all bent out of shape over his poor performance on the field?

"Little League Baseball" from metzgarpaul at flickr.com

I think it is because I am an athletic person, and sports have always come easily to me. I guess I’d hoped that by now – his 5th year in the League – he’d be more assertive in the sport and that those skills would transfer to his real life. I imagined he’d regularly hear his teammates praise him for catching a pop-fly or hitting a double or (dare I dream) a triple. I could hear them screaming his name as he slid into home, and as he stood up – his white pants brown and dusty – his teammates would smack him on the back and tell him of his awesomeness.

Bottom line: the fantasy didn’t happen. My child’s team got clobbered two days in a row, and he didn’t help much.

A friend of my husband’s recently commented, “The geeks rule the world,” and I guess I believe it to be true. I know everyone struggles somewhere and that adversity builds character; luckily, my child doesn’t define himself as a baseball player so his self-esteem is intact. Nevertheless, I think about these things as my son prepares to enter middle school. Perhaps I remember it all too well – the social hierarchy, and I know that no matter how cool computers have become in the last decade, sports are still important, and it is still easier to be a jock.

I hope they don’t give him some kind of trophy for “showing up” at this level of play. Frankly, he has more self-respect than to accept a bogus trophy for “participation.”


Stealth-Mode Purse Texters: OMG!

Posted on

As if The Mosquito Ringtone isn’t enough (see a few blogs back: 5/22/10), teachers also have to worry about making sure students aren’t texting in class. At Monroe Community College, once in a while, I’ve seen students swishing around in their backpacks and purses for extended periods of time. I usually approach these students and quietly tell them to turn off their cell phones. I want my students to know that I notice what they are doing, that their behavior matters to me.

In “How to Successfully Text During Class: Using Your Purse,” Laura Mae instructs students on how they can master stealth-mode texting. She writes:

First, [get a big floppy purse]. Instead of holding your purse in your lap, try laying it sideways on your desk. Keep the opening … facing toward you. Place your phone near the opening. … Your teacher won’t be able to … see your phone … because he/she will be at his/her desk. So you’re good there. If they suspect something and get up to walk around, casually, without looking, push your cellular device back into your purse with your finger just enough so you’re [sic] phone is covered.

If you have a Qwerty keyboard, you can text, but not as easily as if you have an original keypad. If you do have an original keypad, … memorize how many times you need to press each button for the desired letter. I believe every phone has that little bump in the number 5, so that should be easy to navigate to the letters if you find it. Example: While your [sic] not looking, move your finger to the number five. Move up one key. Press three times. Wait a few seconds. Press once. Move back to the center. Move down one key. Press once. I just spelled “cat.”

The dozens of grammar errors in Laura Mae’s article make it clear to me that Laura Mae has not been listening to her instructors for a while. How could she possibly be paying attention when her brain is expending so much energy on composing blind messages as well as thinking about where she has to place her fingers and how many times she has to tap-tap-tap in order to send her messages so that they will be coherent upon receipt? Or maybe it isn’t so much that she isn’t paying attention, but that she seems to care more so much more about her social life than fine-tuning or editing her ideas, important skills which she will need to draw upon in the future.

The pervasiveness of text-messaging in class poses problems for teachers, particularly in the area of  test security, as students can send answers or hints to fellow students via cell phones, destroying the integrity of an entire test with a few keystrokes. Obviously, cheating damages classroom culture, but this is not really the main issue in my essay driven classroom. More annoying is the fact that instruction is interrupted when someone is caught texting. Then the problem extends beyond breaking the rules and not paying attention because instructors have to stop teaching to handle the situation, disrupting the learning environment, wasting time and tuition.

Some people will give me their best Darwinian argument: Students who honestly pay attention will do well on their tests and papers and end up doing better in life then those who are screwing around with their cell phones in class, so let the texters text and grow up to be ditch-diggers. I’m sorry, but I just can’t buy into that argument: Not at the college level and not at the high school or middle school levels either. And my reasons only partially have to do with concern over future skills. I’m genuinely concerned with civility and respect: Two other important values Americans seem to be eagerly flushing down the toilet.

Is it really so much to ask to turn off the technology and respectfully tune-in to and engage with other humans for 50 minutes?

idk.