Artist • Author • Activist • Advocate

"frozen tongue" from http://www.preventfreezing.com/

If your child does something incredibly stupid, do you get angry? Scream? Lecture? Give the silent treatment? Or let it go? What do you do?

photo by baileyraeweaver @ flickr.com

Figuring out the rules about swearing can be confusing for ‘tweens. Up until about middle school, most parents teach their children not to use “bad words,” or at least try to discourage the use of profanity. But suddenly, around the end of 5th grade, kids start trying out their new understanding of these “naughty” words and begin to throw around a little language designed to shock teachers and impress peers.

My son tends to be a rule following type of guy. As an only child, he isn’t used to hearing the “s-word” or the “f-bomb” thrown around by older siblings. And frankly, hubby and I try to keep it clean when he is around. For a while, our son was expressing some anxiety when he heard his friends swearing, and he admitted that he was trying to rehabilitate his friends on the playground.

He said casually, “I told them, ‘Instead of saying ‘What an ass,’ I suggested they say, ‘What an asp.’”

Oh. My Gosh. He’s trying to fix his friends? I freaked out a little, picturing my child getting his “asp” kicked after receiving a super-atomic wedgie.

Hubby said, “Listen, I understand that you don’t like to swear, but it’s important that you worry about your own actions and behaviors and that you don’t police your friends. Let the teachers handle that. Kids who make bad choices eventually get in trouble.”

My husband and I tried to explain to our ‘tween that there are different types of swearing –- that there is a kind of subtext to each — and that he would need to understand them all. Mind you, we were not encouraging our son to swear, we just wanted him to understand it is not his job to police his friends as they try out the new words in their lexicon.

Here’s how we broke it down:

photo by meddygarnet @ flickr.com

1. The Frustrated Swear. You get to school and realize you’ve forgotten your math textbook at home. “In cases like this, someone may exclaim, ‘Oh shit!’” we explained, “It’s like a giant ‘Omigosh’ where you are talking to yourself more than to anyone else.”

2. The Filler Word. You say something funny or unbelievable, and your friend says, “You’ve gotta be shitting me!” Used in this context, the swear word is kind of a compliment. It like a giant, “No way! That’s awesome!” we explained. “It means you’ve impressed someone.” No harm, no foul. No one gets hurt.

3. The Whispered Swear. This one, we explained, is trickier. You could be in school, listening to a presentation when someone leans over to you and says something quietly behind a cupped hand: “I wish she was shut up with this stupid shit.” This one, we continued, depends on who is saying it and how it is being said. If you are both bored to tears, it can be camaraderie building. You share a quick little nod or smile, and it’s over. But if someone you don’t know well says this to you, they may be trying to get you into trouble, by getting you to respond with a comment or a more obvious kind of disobedience. We told our child he’d have to use careful judgment there.

4. The Threatening Swear. Again, this one can be confusing, as it is all about the people involved, the tone and demeanor. If a kid says, “You are a stupid piece of shit!” to another kid, it is up to the recipient of the comment to decide how to react. If the comment comes complete with a finger-poke to the chest – the recipient of the comment may feel the need to minimize contact with the chest poker, potentially tell an adult, particularly if there has been a history of bullying between the two. But if two good friends say the same comment and they are playfully giggling, it is probably safe to assume that it is not a threatening situation.

“Bottom line,” my husband said, “We don’t want to ever hear that you have been heard swearing in front of any adults. No teachers. Coaches. Friends’ parents. Or mom and me. Ever. Got it?” Hubby asked.

Child nodded.

Twenty-four hours passed and our family attended a fabulous gathering with a friends whom we hadn’t seen in a long time. The air was warm, the kids were getting along perfectly; the grass was emerald-green. The food was piled high and everything is delicious.

Suddenly, our friend (and former neighbor), Steve, came over and said, “Wow! Your son has quite a mouth on him.”

Hubby and I weren’t sure where he was going with this.

“He just told me I have a fly on my dick.”

“What?!” Hubby and I asked in stereo.

Within five seconds, we had our child cornered under a tree for questioning.

“What did you just say to Mr. L?” I asked.

Without hesitation, Monkey confessed. “I told him he had a fly on his dick.”

“Are you kidding me?” Hubby looked up at the sky. “What did we just talk about?”

“What?” asks our son. “Dick isn’t a swear.” (Insert a long, confused pause here.) “Daddy goes to Dick’s all the time!”

“Dick’s, the retail sporting goods store, is not a swear,” I agreed. “It’s a place to buy golf balls and baseball pants and sneakers. Dick can also be a person’s name, and that’s not a swear word, either. But if you are talking about private body parts or what private body parts do, well . . . that’s not appropriate.”

(Call me a terrible parent, but it was soooo hard not to laugh.)

Our child looked embarrassed and completely baffled.

“Look,” Hubby said, “You’re going to figure it out.”

Boy looked doubtful.

I have every confidence that my child will figure out the swearing thing.

I am bracing for that day.

Shit.

How do you teach your kids about swearing? Or do you just let them say whatever they want?

This is the 2nd part of a three-part piece on why I send my child to overnight camp. Click HERE to read part I.

As I mentioned in my last entry, there are definitely parents who buy into the whole ethos of sending one’s child to overnight camp. This entry is not written for them, as that would be preaching to the choir. Really, these pieces are for all the people who have ever looked at me sideways, gotten all judgmental on me, and wandered off whispering to a friend after I have proudly admitted that I send my son to summer camp. And yes, he has been going since he was 8 years old and, yes – eventually – instead of a mere 3 weeks, he will likely spend his entire summers there.

If my last entry didn’t convince you, here are even more benefits to sending your child to summer camp:

6. A chance to be a little bit naughty. Some of my favorite camp memories involve being a little bit “bad.” We girls would raid the boys’ cabins, get all their underwear, and hang them on the flagpole in front of the dining hall. Then, they, of course, would get us back. We would stay up way past our allowed bedtimes (at home) and torment the on-duty counselors in the village, claiming there were ghosts in our cabin. (Really. There were. Three of them.) Sometimes we refused to participate in a particular activity – just because. We were kids exercising a little bit of control that we knew we probably wouldn’t have gotten away with at home. My son said that one of his favorite “naughty moments” happened one year when the counselors and campers threw rotten plums, mustard and ketchup  at each other. “It was like getting slimed!” he exclaimed. He mentioned that a few kids also “smeared shaving cream all over each other”; these are things campers all across the country do each summer, but to kids, these oldies but goodies are eternally new. And of course, all of this programming is created and orchestrated by a very capable staff who oversee everything and make sure no-one gets  too out of control.

7. A chance to get down and dirty. During the school year, kids worry so much about their physical appearance. They want the “right” clothes from the “coolest” stores. At camp, with the exception of a few special programs, campers can relax and not worry about their clothes or their hair. If it rains, they can cover themselves in mud, go mud-sliding, make mud pies, and then  wash-off in the lake. They can have a huge all-camp Color War that goes on for days and culminates in one crazy event like a giant colored water balloon contest and laugh as the inky ballons explode on impact. Heaven help me, but they can go to bed without brushing their teeth. They can even go to bed with dirty feet. Now I may be an extreme neatnik, but it’s hard for me to imagine even the most mellow parent appreciating a mud-covered kid lounging on the couches or dragging funky feet over freshly vacuumed carpets. At camp, anything goes when it comes to good, wholesome, messy fun.

8. A chance to make lifelong friendships. When people live together for extended periods of time – adopt the same schedule, perform the same daily rituals, sing the same songs, chant the same cheers, share the same inside jokes – a community is formed. And when people return year after year, this community becomes a kind of family. Many of the people I consider to be my closet friends are the people I went to summer camp with nearly 30 years ago. Some of them live nearby, some of them live farther away. These relationships ebb and flow, but I feel confident when I say that I have a core group of folks whom, I believe, that if I needed them, I could count on them to be there for me. To loosely quote James Taylor, I could just call out their names, and they’d come runnin’…

9. The opportunity to rediscover my spouse. During the year, husband and I tend to become so child-centered that we often toss our own interests aside. Even our connection to each other sometimes falls on the back burner. It’s always there; it’s just that sometimes it’s on a low simmer. While our boy is off enjoying himself at camp, we can refocus our energy and rediscover each other — which is nice. So after he is done with work, hubby gets unlimited, guilt-free golf; and I get to swim and write and write and write without interruption. We eat later than we usually do, and we talk about adult stuff. We go out with friends — often with plans made at the last moment — and never have to fuss about making sitter arrangements. We watch movies that we have been putting off forever, and we even have a chance to make plans about the future as individuals and as a family. We are dangerously free, which is kinda nice. Honestly, alone-time with the spouse is not to be minimized!

10. The Big Reunion. Unlike Alice who falls down a rabbit hole and unwittingly lands in Wonderland, or Dorothy from Kansas, who accidentally lands in Munchkinland after a tornado carries her house away, there is nothing accidental about our son’s departure. The week before he leaves, we create a “staging area” where we label all his clothes. We make a very intentional trip to The Dollar Store for glow sticks and decks of cards, whoopee cushions and over-sized sunglasses, and all kids of other goofy kid stuff that he can use while at camp. He packs his favorite books and magazines and a few packs of gum. And, believe me, that kid is psyched! That said, like anyone who has ever journeyed from home for a while, while one certainly appreciates the change in scene, the people, the opportunities to do things you have never done before – perhaps you never thought you’d ever get to do – at the end of the journey, it always feels so good to go home. We are all reminded of the meaning of the words “fortunate” and “grateful” and “love.” Our son remembers how comfortable his bed is, and we are amazed at how quickly children grow.

For a few days, I don’t mind when my son carelessly tosses his sneakers about or that he forgets to put his dishes in the sink; I realize he’s out of practice. I don’t mind the seemingly endless loads of laundry, the piles of important rocks that he’s brought home, and I actually enjoy washing a few extra dishes because I am just so happy we are together again. I kind of love that 80% of his sentences start with, “When I was at camp…” or “Did I tell you about the time at camp when I ….”

What can I say? It’s in his blood. He drank the bug-juice and loves it.

This is the 1st in a three part series about why I send my child to summer camp.

photo by Jill Butin Neuman

It happens each summer. People ask about our plans, and when certain folks learn that our child spends several weeks each summer at overnight camp, I am met with looks of incredulity and sometimes horror.

More often than not, people gasp and say things like: “I could never do that,” as if to imply that I somehow force my son to pack his trunk and duffel and get out of our house. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if I didn’t let him go, he would consider that the biggest punishment – ever!

Sometimes I get a variation on the theme: “I would never do that.” This response is extra excellent as it is packed with a little judgment, which I really appreciate. This response implies that I am somehow harming my child, perhaps inviting trouble into his life because I won’t be there to oversee his every move 100% of the time. (Can you imagine?)

When people respond this way, I sometimes get a little snarky and say, “At least this summer he came home with nine fingers.” (Insert a dramatic pause.) “Last summer was a disaster.” I know they are imagining pedophiles lurking around the showers or picturing their own children drowning, their heads being held under water by rowdy unsupervised troublemakers.

These are their issues.

For me, overnight camp was the greatest gift my parents ever gave me, and I feel fortunate that my husband and I are able to pay this gift forward to our child. Here’s what overnight camp gave me and continues to give children who attend each year:

1. Continued Independence. Each August, sonny boy and his posse of buddies hop on the camp bus and return with a kind of “we-can-survive-without-our-parents” vibe. I once asked my son if anyone ever gets homesick. He shrugged, “Usually, our counselors keep us too busy to even think about being homesick. If it does happen, it is usually the new kids – but once they get into it and get comfortable with the routine, all that homesickness goes away,” then he added, “Plus, we take care of each other.”

2. Benefits of Communal Life. Living in a bunk with 8 or 9 “summer siblings” affords kids the opportunity to develop some amazing problem solving skills.

If there is an argument, instead of a parent swooping in to the rescue, the boys generally have to work it out by themselves.

That means using their mouths to directly communicate their feelings. Sometimes they aren’t so great at expressing the subtle nuances of their emotions, but – again – they have each other to lean on. If things ever escalate, they have counselors and Unit Heads to help them.

There are other benefits of living in a large group. The boys learn to respect each other’s property, tolerate each other’s quirks, and appreciate each other’s boundaries. Everyone sees each other at their best and their worst selves. Summer camp goes a long way towards undoing that horrible “entitled” attitude. The spoiled girl quickly learns when her peers have had enough of her whining. Kids are patient to a point, but when an entire bunk is angry at you, it is time to take a look in the mirror. Campers quickly learn that despite the fact that a person cannot always get what he wants, everything usually turns out okay in the end.

3. Time Away from Technology. Okay, so when I was young, there was less technology, but I still missed Wheel of Fortune, Jeopardy and General Hospital. These days, chances are that your children know how to do things on your computer and cell phone that you had no idea could be done. During the school year, older kids are addicted to their social networks (Facebook and MySpace), their email accounts, their Apps, the Internet, and IMing. They are used to the constant buzz-ping of each new text message as it arrives. Being unplugged from most technology allows kids to connect with each other, a valuable skill that seems to be getting lost a bit these days. My son reminds me, “We’re not totally cut off. We can have iPods (there is no Wi-Fi access), so if someone needs some alone time, he can just pop in the ear buds.” But staff members have told me that after a few days, many kids begin to prefer people to gadgets, and rather than tune out, they start to look for other campers to “hang out with.”

4. Connection to Nature. While our family is fortunate to live in an area with plenty of access to great parks, during the school year, many children just do not have a lot of spare time to go outside and play. My son says, “At camp, we are kind of forced to appreciate nature. It’s easy to forget, but once you start walking around, you can’t help but remember.” Camp Seneca Lake has over 200 acres to explore. Trails to blaze. There are squirrels, field mice, lots of ants and millipedes; there are raccoons and skunks and deer. There is a beautiful lake with a beach that consists of zillions of flat shale rocks, perfect for skipping. What more could a kid want?

5. Opportunity to Try New Things. I like to think of CSL as a “liberal arts” camp.

Unlike sports camps where kids learn the skills necessary to specialize in one venue, at CSL kids have the opportunity to try new things simply because they have access to so many opportunities they may not have at home.

The “non-jock” can try floor hockey or excel at Ga-ga, a weird game I’ve never seen played outside of summer camp. There are plays in which kids can perform; an art barn where children can make jewelry, throw on the potter’s wheel, batik, make candles, draw, paint, make just about anything. (A far cry from boondoggle – although they have plenty of that, too.) At Athletics, they can practice archery, basketball, tetherball, softball, tennis, ping-pong – and any other land sport you can think of. The waterfront offers canoeing, wakeboarding, waterskiing, sailing, banana boating — even opportunities to swim-the-lake! Picky eaters might even try something new because the kids work up a real appetite trying all these incredible activities.

There is more to say, and I will, but I would also love to hear from you.

Would you allow your child to attend overnight camp for an extended period of time? Why or why not?

photo by thetechbuzz @ flickr.com

A few entries back, I wrote about how I got my son through a mini-freak out session when he thought he lost a 544 page hardcover public library book. I explained how I had pulled out all the stops and used my best parenting skills to talk him off the proverbial ledge and to teach him perspective.

Last week, something happened to my stupid iPhone which resulted in the voice activation feature to accidentally turn on. I don’t have a clue as to what series of keys I may have pressed, and I’d like to know so I never do it again, because suddenly this computer generated female voice – let’s call her iJill – is shouting all kinds of commands at me in her terrible and very unstoppable voice: “Settings. General. Settings. Settings. Settings. On. Settings. iPod. Email. Settings…”

I fiddled with my phone, which made iJill furious and the screen locked up on me. I tried turning the phone off and doing a soft return. It was all for naught, when the phone turned on again, iJill was still shouting at me, my screen would not move and, I started to lose it. Here, I’d just come home from a fabulous vacation where I’d seen elk and bats and fox and lizards and butterflies; I’d climbed rocks and ridden horses; I’d flown in a 6 person airplane over the Colorado River and then floated down the Colorado River on a pontoon raft. Suddenly all that serenity disappeared because there was unpacking to be done, groceries to be purchased, laundry to be cleaned – and, frankly, I just needed my phone to stop shouting at me.

I started losing my mind. I think I was actually pulling my hair and screaming at the phone to shut up.

“Mom…” my son said placing a hand on my arm.

“Not now, Cal…” I said, pretty emphatically.

“Mom…” he continued relentlessly. “…I’m going to give you the worst case scenario…”

I looked up. Because, honestly, how could I not look up? He was using my lesson against me!

“Mom,” he said, “Your cell phone is broken.”

Oh. My. God.

“You have food and clothes. We have cars that work and air conditioning to keep us cool. Plus, we just took a great vacation and no one is sick or dying. And a lot of people love you. We have other phones, and you always say that you didn’t even get a cell phone until you were 32 years old…”

Ooh. Snap! He got me. He played every card. Basic needs. Check. Health. Check. Luxury items. Check. Love. Check. He even played the cell-phone card.

Instant perspective.

And honestly, I had to giggle a little because iJill was still babbling nonsense on the table, “iPod, iPod, Accessories. Settings. General. Settings. General. Settings. Settings…” and the world just seemed a little bit funnier. My son grinned at me, his freckled-face tilted to the side. Sometimes the student is the teacher, and my li’l guy continues to teach me near daily.

(NOTE: Child also reminded me that I have the Apple Protection Plan on my iPhone and that the Apple Care people are there to help me 24/7. And he was right again. So after one quick phone call, within 10 minutes, iJill was silenced and all was right in the world again.)

What are the best mini-lessons you’ve learned from a child/children?

photo by Narith5 at flickr.com

Yesterday, I went to the mall. (What can I say? I got one of those free panty coupons from Victoria Secret, so I made the trek.) Of course, I wound up in one store and then another, and somehow I found myself inside Abercrombie and Fitch for kids. I confess, I had never been in that particular store before, but my son’s 11th birthday is coming up, and I was lured in with the promise of a BIG SALE inside.

Once I made it to the back of the store (where they apparently hide the BIG SALE items), I met a blond-haired, 13-year old boy who was also shopping the sale rack.

“These are a good deal,” he said enthusiastically pointing at a brownish pair of distressed shorts with a thick belt. “Only $19.99,” he continued. “It’s, like, unheard of in here.” I told the boy – let’s call him Spaulding – that I’d never been in the store before and he took me under his protective, scrappy, teenage-wing and showed me what he considered to be the best deals.

After Spaulding happily made his purchase, he received a lovely, thick bag with substantial navy fabric handles. He also received $0.79 cents in change.

“You can keep the change,” he announced, grabbing his bag.

“I can’t,” said the cashier. “I’m not allowed to put it in the drawer. It messes up accounting at the end of the day.”

“Well, just keep it then,” insisted Spaulding.

“I’m not allowed to do that,” the employee protested, placing Spaulding’s coins on the table in front of her.

Spaulding grabbed the coins and looked around. He quickly located a tiny garbage can near the check-out desk – where people who have sprayed samples of cologne toss their tiny unwanted paper squares of fragrance, and he threw his change in the garbage.

photo by wellohorid @ flickr.com

My jaw dropped.

I could not believe that I had witnessed a kid throwing out a few dimes short of a dollar.

Once, when I was about 10 years old, I made the mistake of tossing out a few pennies while emptying out a junk drawer, and my father gave me a lecture that I would never forget. It started generally – how people come to this country with big dreams and nothing in their pockets – and moved to the specific at which point he explained that he worked his ass off every day to make sure that our family had everything that we needed, and he’d be damned if I was going to be so ungrateful and selfish (*insert in a few million more shameful terms here*) as to throw away money, even a penny, when there were people starving all over the world, people who would love to have my pennies. Let’s just say, the speech made a major impression.

Meanwhile, back at the mall, I couldn’t help myself. I retrieved Spaulding’s coins and prepared to go on a hunt to find him.

He hadn’t gone far as he was, in fact, sitting on a bench right in front of Abercrombie & Fitch for kids.

“Excuse me,” I started. “I don’t mean to be all stalker-y. . . but I got your change for you.”

Spaulding looked bewildered.

“Oh,” he said, “I didn’t want it.”

I must have looked at him as if he had grown a second head because he added, “I don’t have a place to put them,” he shrugged. “I mean, no pockets or anything.”

He explained he’d brought his $25 to the mall stashed in his left sock.

I asked him if he received an allowance, and he said that he did.

“Ten dollars a week,” he said for making his bed, putting his dishes in the dishwasher, and doing his homework. He added that sometimes he didn’t get the full amount if he didn’t do everything he was supposed to do, but most of the time his parents just gave him the full amount because it was easiest to give him a $10 bill rather than have him argue with them, which he would inevitably do.

I couldn’t help myself.

I lectured him.

I explained to him that our economy is a train-wreck, that people have lost their jobs and their homes and cars; that folks can’t pay their bills or afford to send their kids to college. I told him that in extreme cases people are eating out of dumpsters, that they would have loved to have had his loose change.

“I get that you don’t have pockets, but how about you just put the change in there,” I pointed at his new A&F bag and noisily deposited the coins inside.

Spaulding shrugged. “I didn’t think about it,” he said in earnest. “Honestly, I just don’t like change.”

“Listen,” I said, trying not to get all preachy because I work with students and I know that preachy tone doesn’t work, but – again – I couldn’t help myself. “I’m guessing that your parents work really hard for that money and they would not be thrilled to know that you are throwing away your allowance. When you go home, get a mug or a bowl – some kind of container that you like – and just start throwing your spare change in there. You’ll be amazed at how fast it adds up. And if you really don’t want the change, make a wish and toss it in one of the fountains because that money goes to charity.” I paused dramatically. “Just don’t throw your money in the garbage, okay?”

I turned my back on Spaulding or Trevor or Hunter or whatever his real name was and returned to the store where I asked the cashier is she had ever seen anything like what had just happened.

“Like what?” she asked absently.

“Like kids choosing to leave their change behind rather than take it? Like kids literally throwing their money away?”

“Oh that,” said the cashier, looking more than a little bored. “It happens all the time. Probably every day.”

I was horrified, and I made it my mission to ask a few more cashiers to see if what I had witnessed in one store was just a weird anomaly to be discounted or if it was truly as commonplace as the bored Abercrombie girl made it sound. I wish I could say it was a one-time thing, but I was astounded to learn that every single checkout person reported that he or she had been in a situation where people had elected to leave their change behind rather than take it.

What is going on? Spaulding doesn’t like carrying coins? You’ve got to be kidding me? I’m telling you, this boy was a kind, decent boy. But he is obviously also a spoiled, entitled boy who has grown up with little sense of gratitude or appreciation. He receives $10 a week for doing things some folks would consider expected household chores. And he gets his money whether he does them all or not. Young Spaulding clearly knows how to work his parents.

I’m worried. These young people are making their way into our work force, ill prepared for its realities. They expect praise and rewards for performing routine tasks. I see them in my classroom at my community college already; they expect A’s, even if their product is mediocre. A colleague recently remarked that today’s young people expect “a trophy for simply showing up.” Clearly, many children of this “gift-card” generation do not understand the idea of saving one’s coins, or delaying gratification. How could they when their parents have given them everything they could possibly want? In fact, they have been given so much, they don’t even need to keep the change.

What have we done? Why did we do it?

photo from evelynishere @ flickr.com

Do you let your kids completely unplug over the summer, or do you keep them reading?

If they are reading, what books are they enjoying? Please include the age and gender of your child/ren.

And for even more fun, tell me what books you enjoyed reading as a kid and what you remember liking about them.

So what books do your kids love? Are they the same ones you loved? Or is everybody taking the summer off?

photo by bigdrumthump @ flickr.com

When I was in the third grade, I totally wanted to play the drums. But back in the 1970s, girls were not encouraged to play percussion instruments. Nay, the “banging” instruments” were reserved for the boys. I was, however, presented with a shiny flute and told that if I was ever good enough that, one day, I would be able to play the piccolo. Whoop dee doo.

Years went by, and while I may have played well enough, I just never felt anything for the flute. In fact, at one point, our house was robbed and I actually prayed that the thieves had taken my flute. They did not. In middle school, on band days, I used to look back at the strawberry-blond haired drummer, Kevin Eastman, with a kind of longing and wish I was the one doing the boom-tap, boom-boom tap thing. (I used to look back there so much, I think I sent Kevin the message that I liked him more than a little bit. But I digress.)

My parents basically made me stick with the flute until I entered high school, at which point I was allowed to drop it.

"keys" by MiiiSH at flickr.com

Fast-forward thirty some odd years. My son has been taking private piano lessons for just over a year now. He loves the piano. I mean, I think he loves it. I have never had to ask him to practice; he just goes and does it on his own every day, and I assume we would have epic wars if he didn’t like to play because I really want him to play an instrument.

This year, boy had the opportunity to try another instrument through school. He was given three choices. Like me, he ended up with his last choice: violin. Unlike me, he rarely practiced. And while he diligently made it to orchestra and lessons, truth be told, he didn’t care if he ran out of rosin. He didn’t care if he was in the last seat (and he was), and he didn’t really care if my car accidentally ran over his violin (which almost happened once). I wasn’t surprised about his attitude. He was assigned an instrument for which he had very little feeling from the get go. And I allowed him to slack with his violin because he had the piano. By April, after one orchestra concert and another on-deck, he decided he was “totally done” with the violin and, frankly, I couldn’t wait to return the standard-sized rental along with its hour-glass shaped case.

In May, my husband and I attended our son’s piano recital, which was held in a beautiful, intimate room at a nearby college. The children played their pieces, one after the other, on a gorgeous Steinway up on a stage in a room with perfect acoustics.

Before the concert started, the piano instructor, Ms. Esther Wadsworth stood and addressed the audience, welcomed everyone, and then read a piece of writing composed by one of her students, Nick Conley, who would soon be graduating from high school and, I assume, would not be continuing his piano studies with her. I am not certain if Nick wrote this piece as his college essay or just as a kind of thank you note for Ms. Wadsworth, but his words struck me. He wrote:

Nick Conley

I cannot imagine my life without piano. But this was not always the case. I was only six years old when my mother forced me (literally) to take piano lessons. I was not having fun with Piano and desperately pleaded with my parents to let me quit. The negotiations did not go as I had planned and was told I had to finish at least my first year. My piano organization held an annual recital for all of the students to perform. I was to play first. After my cue, I approached the highly glossed Steinway and seated myself. I honestly don’t remember playing anything; it all seemed like a haze.

As the recital continued, the pianists got better and better. The final musicians played Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Billy Joel, Shubert and Elton John with ease, making the piano come alive. By the end of the recital, I had lost all eagerness to quit and was filled instead with a lust to learn more. And so I did not quit piano and stayed with the grueling theory work and played songs that I did not enjoy. Now at the age of seventeen, I am ironically the last chair in that same recital. Piano has become my outlet, and I use it to channel my emotions into melodies instead of bad habits. If I am lucky enough, maybe I can prove to some kid sitting in the first few rows that all the hours of energy and dedication are worth it.

So after the violin was gone, and after hearing Nick’s essay, and after hearing the students perform in the recital, I wondered: Should I have made my child stick with the violin? Isn’t one instrument enough? And what if one day he says he wants to quit piano? Or (gasp) fencing? How do you know when it’s time to let an activity go? When (if ever) do you override your child’s desires and force them to stick with an activity?

This speech was delivered by Melanie Ward, Principal of Mendon Center Elementary School on June 22, 2010 on its annual Moving Up Day Ceremony which occurs on the last day of school. As in any good speech, the speaker’s words have resonance not only for the graduates but for all audience members, and I asked Mrs. Ward for permission to share her words here, for parents to consider: How well do we, as adults, heed the advice of an elementary school principal to her graduating students?

I am pleased to be able to say a few remarks, and share some of my thinking with you on this, your last day at [our school]. As we prepare to move you up to the middle schools, it is natural to think a little bit about your experiences in elementary school. You have worked hard and accomplished much in your time here.

You have learned how to read and to write; you have become proficient at math, learned how to think like scientists, and have become acquainted with many of the world’s regions, customs, and history in your social studies lessons. You have created beautiful pieces of art, performed musically, and learned much about physical fitness and wellness. You found the Gingerbread Man and set butterflies free. You played games at the Math Carnival, punched tin, made bread on Pioneer Day, and came through Ellis Island as immigrants. You participated in International Day and Science Day, donated Halloween candy, collected soap and canned goods galore.

Along the way, you have made new friends, and have been taught by many wonderful teachers.

Most importantly, I think, you have learned what it means to be a responsible and respectful people – good citizens of your school and your community.

No matter what subjects your teachers taught you over the years, what they were most concerned about was helping each one of you to become the best person you could be.

Our job here is done – we’ve taught you all that we have the time and the days to teach you and – for the most part – you have learned our lessons well. Before we let you go, however, I hope you will allow me this one last opportunity to give you some advice to take with you to the middle school.

1) Work hard. Things won’t always come easily to you, and they shouldn’t. What is worth learning is worth working hard for. Don’t let frustration get the best of you – persevere, ask for help, keep trying. The payoff will be great.
2) Be humble. Yes, you are smart. You are talented. You are athletic. You are a lot of great things. But so are a lot of other people. Be humble about your accomplishments and be quick to compliment others’ on theirs. You will be respected and appreciated by others for this attitude.
3) Smile. That one seems silly perhaps, but it is important. Maintaining a positive attitude – or faking it when necessary – will go a long way towards helping you to make new friends and feeling good about yourself. You’ll be amazed at how much better the world looks – and how the world looks at you – when you have a smile on your face.
4) Be courteous and respectful. Towards adults, towards your peers, towards yourself. Good manners and a respectful attitude will take you far in this world.
5. Get involved. Find extracurricular activities that you are interested in and get involved. Don’t worry if you are the only one of your group of friends interested in joining a particular club or activity. If that activity truly interests you, go for it. You are likely to meet new friends who share a common interest with you – and have some fun along the way.
6. Follow the “golden rule” – do unto others what you would have them do unto you. There is no more important rule to live your life by. It is also a very general rule, so here are some more specifics to help you as you continue your journey:

If you open it, close it.
If you turn it on, turn it off.
If you unlock it, lock it up.
If you break it, admit it.
If you can’t fix it, call someone who can.
If you borrow it, return it.
If you value it, take care of it.
If you make a mess, clean it up.
If you move it, put it back.
If it belongs to someone else, get permission to use it.
If you don’t know how to operate it, leave it alone.
If it’s none of your business, stay out of it.
If what you have to say will brighten someone’s day, say it!
If what you have to say will hurt somebody, don’t say it!
If something isn’t broken, don’t try to fix it.
If you think you know it all, look around and see how little you really know.

Fifth graders, you leave here having learned a lot, but you have much more to learn in the years ahead. Be willing to keep on learning – from your teachers, coaches, parents and friends. Maintain a positive attitude, a helpful disposition, a willingness to try new experiences. Keep reading, be helpful, clean your rooms, practice your instruments, be good to each other, and keep smiling.

What advice would you give to kids entering middle schools/Jr. High schools in the fall?

"Locked & Loaded" by Phae at flickr.com

With which are you more comfortable and why?

Your 11-year old child having a Facebook account? (Note: According to Facebook policy: “In order to be eligible to sign up for Facebook, users must be thirteen (13) years of age or older.) Or that same 11-year old owning and using an air-soft gun?

Do you find the question ridiculous? Do these things concern you at all?

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