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Parenting Advice from the Unqualified

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Bible Stories and Meat Pies

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We have a long and storied history of misfires when it comes to discussing issues of God, religion and spirituality with our daughter.

During our first real substantive conversation about God when she was 3, we managed to scare the bejeezus out of her and leave her thinking she had a little man living in her tummy.

Then there was the time she thought church was called “cheech,” which made our spiritual failings glaringly evident every time she said, “Hey, Mom, let’s go to cheech this Sunday.”

We’re doing better these days, mainly because she’s older and there are fewer risks of miscommunication when discussing the complexities of God and such. But, from time to time, things still get lost in translation.

Last night at bedtime when Daddy was reading to the child from a book of nighttime blessings, they settled on a story about Jesus and shepherds. She seemed to be paying attention, but when the story ended, she jumped up and ran around the house chanting, “Shepherd’s Pie! Shepherd’s Pie! Shepherd’s Pie!” We think she may have missed the point of that story. Either that or she was hungry for pub food.

Love at 21 vs. Love at 42

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I haven’t written anything in a long while; in fact, this is the first time I’ve opened my laptop in over a month for anything non work-related. We’ve had some significant life changes in our family, one of which I’m not quite ready to write about. The other was moving to a new home. It’s been rough–roughest, perhaps, on our barely 5-year-old who doesn’t understand what’s happening or why everything has changed and all her grown-ups aren’t smiling as much as they used to, and she’s launched into a behavioral nosedive of some kind. But this, too, shall pass, and we will get through it with the same love, support, consistency and gratitude that we try to apply to our family life in general.

These types of stressors can often drive a wedge between husbands and wives, but the mister and I have actually grown closer these past couple of months, spending most evenings after the kiddo has gone to bed checking in with the other, supporting one another and discussing ways to help ease our family through these transitions. We remind each other that the marriage we’ve worked so hard to build these last six years provides a sturdy foundation to carry us through any challenge we face together.

As we talked, I got to thinking of something I did when I was 21. One night in college while sitting around with girlfriends and bemoaning our romantic lives, one friend announced that if we made a list of all the qualities we were looking for in a mate, then put that list in a Bible, said perfect mate would show up on our doorsteps, or in our O-Chem classes or at Coffee Bean, somewhere, anywhere, and soon. After a few pints of Guinness, and who knows what else, everyone thought this was the best idea ever. As a former Catholic school girl, this might as well have been witchcraft, but I had a Bible on my bookshelf, so I was in! We got out some pens and notebooks and wrote furiously. I put my list in the Bible and I didn’t look at it again until I was about 30 and I came across my Bible during a move.

Continue reading “Love at 21 vs. Love at 42”

Conversations with My 4-Year-Old

Something strange was happening in our house this week. Nobody slept. Everyone was cranky. We cried for no particular reason. We yelled our conversations. Our bodies ached and creaked. We glared at each other from across the room. We were all tired, aggressive, sad and confused. At one point, the child collapsed into a heap of tears on our laundry room floor when I told her she couldn’t draw with a Sharpie pen. I asked her why she was crying. “I just don’t know!” she wailed. We just didn’t know. We had no idea what was going on this week. If I were one of those people who looked to astrology for the answers, I’d say that Jupiter was in retrograde. Yes, a planet had to be in retrograde to cause this inexplicable upset in our home. Or maybe it was El Niño’s fault. I’ll blame El Niño. Whatever the cause of this week’s chaos, it led to a few absolutely absurd conversations with my child. A few examples for your amusement:

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It’s December. I’m Supposed to be Happy, Damn It.

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I suffer from what my husband calls “a tendency to be dramatic.” I also suffer from what psychiatrists call a “high stress level.” Occasionally, these two traits collide and send me into a funk of epic proportions, the kind that makes me put my hand to my forehead and very dramatically and in the most obnoxious way declare, “The world is too much for me!” in the spirit of Greta Garbo or Gloria Swanson or some other old-timey, fabulous actress.

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A Lesson on Friendship

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“Are you excited to see your friends today?” I asked my daughter on the way to school the other day.

“Well, some of the kids in my class are my friends and some of them aren’t my friends,” she replied. “Do you get it, mom?”

She wasn’t being a smart ass about it. She really wanted to know if I got it. Do you understand the finer nuances of preschool social hierarchies, mom? she seemed to be asking.

Continue reading “A Lesson on Friendship”

Confessions of a Mad Mommy

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“Mommy, did God make Daddy funny because he wanted Daddy to be funny?” my daughter asked one day.

“I suppose so.”

Then, fishing for a compliment, I pressed further: “What did God make Mommy?”

“Mad.”

Keep reading.

Howe To…Weather the Storm of Childhood Anger

useI had to pop a pill the last time we went to Disneyland — the kind that makes you feel calm when you’re feeling anything but calm. Anyone over the age of 30 is not shocked by this revelation. The four hour waits so that your wide-eyed little girl can curtsy for Elsa and Anna, the 9,000 little girls dressed as Elsa, dodging strollers and personal people movers for nine hours, “It’s a Small World” on repeat in your head — it’s enough to have you rummaging through your efficiently packed backpack full of snacks and hand sanitizer to find your secret stash of sedatives and knock one back with a swig from a juice box.

But I’m a Disneyland veteran. I grew up in Southern California and have been visiting the park my whole life. And now we have season passes and visit both Disney parks frequently. I don’t usually mind the crowds, I can deal with the blazing sun and lack of shade, I’ve made my peace with the overpriced food and I dig “It’s a Small World.” So it wasn’t the Disney experience that had me self-medicating. Rather, it was the week I had been having with my daughter — and now we were having it among 40,000 people.

Hailey had been angry the week leading up to Disneyland — fists clenched, red-faced, screamingly — angry. Every task and activity sparked a battle, from brushing her teeth to getting her in her car seat, from dinnertime to taking her to school. I was worn out and confounded at this change in my normally easy going kid. Each day when I finally, finally won the car seat battle and strapped her in, I’d close the car door and rest my head against the window for a few glorious seconds of peace and quiet. As the week progressed, Hailey started lashing out physically towards Josh and I, kicking and hitting when she was frustrated. Bedtime was the worst; a routine that usually took a half hour was stretching to two hours or more a night and usually ended in tears. By the end of the week, Hailey, Josh and I were all hanging on by a thread. That thread broke on a Sunday night. Hailey’s emotions were so explosive she seemed frightened by them; she was lashing out at both Josh and I. We tried every parenting technique we knew, and even when we did get her to calm down, she refused to get in bed. Sometime after midnight that night she fell asleep from sheer exhaustion, curled up like a kitten in my lap, looking nothing like the raging 4-year-old she had been for the past three hours. Josh and I spent the next couple of hours consulting parenting books and discussing Hailey’s anger. Our Disneyland trip was scheduled for the next morning, a surprise early birthday gift to Hailey. We considered canceling the trip since Hailey didn’t know about it anyway, but grandparents, an aunt, uncle and a cousin were meeting us at the park, some of whom had taken off work to join us. So we got a couple of hours of sleep and headed to Disneyland the next morning — three exhausted, emotionally wrecked people headed to the happiest place on earth.

As you could imagine, Hailey’s behavior improved once she was at Disneyland having a grand time surrounded by her favorite people. She was still having many more meltdowns than usual, so Josh and I were on pins and needles all day, bracing for the next tantrum and trying to avoid anything that might set her off. When we waited in the long lines for rides, Josh and I would give each other pep talks, “We can do this!” “We’re good parents!” we’d say while rubbing the stress knots out of each other’s shoulders. Sometimes we’d just sit in a shady spot and grumble to ourselves as we watched Hailey ride the carousel with her Papa, all smiles. Oh Papa, if you only knew. I looked around at the other families, wondering if they had come to Disneyland under happier circumstances, but the parents all looked like we felt and the kids seemed overstimulated and exhausted. Perhaps all parents were just bracing for the next meltdown, I thought.

We’re now a month away from that Disneyland trip and my sweet, easy going kid has returned. It took a lot of patience and consistency on our part. We’re not sure if we ever identified the cause of Hailey’s anger; maybe she didn’t even know. Our best guess was that she was missing Josh, who has been working later and spending more hours on the road commuting. We consulted many books, moms, friends and a couple of professionals and below is the advice we collected and have been practicing consistently.

1. Notice I said “consistency” twice in the above paragraph. It is essential. Whatever your parenting style, practice it consistently. If you flip flop, it will confuse your child, and a confused child is an angry child.

2. Make sure you and your co-parent are on the same parenting page. If parent 1 enforces bedtimes but parent 2 is lax, again, you will have a confused child.

3. Don’t raise your voice. When asking your child to do something, say it lovingly but firmly.

4. Stick to the routine. Kids thrive on routine. Yes, things come up and kids have to learn to be flexible like we all do. But for the most part, try to stick to a routine, the bedtime routine being the most important.

5. Reward the good behavior. Reward, reward, reward. Hailey likes visuals so we put stars on a chart whenever we feel she has earned a reward for things like listening well, being cooperative or helpful, going to bed easily and on time. Once she has earned a certain amount of stars, she gets a reward we all agree on.

6. Have consequences for negative behavior. There is a sad face chart right next to the star chart. Fortunately, we put very few sad faces up, but if Hailey is doing something she shouldn’t be, she gets a sad face sticker. These represent a consequence that is enforced. Note: Dole out your consequences incrementally; you don’t want to take everything away at once because then you have nothing to bargain with. Hailey gets 20 minutes of iPad time per day. I used to take the iPad away as punishment until I was advised that I was taking away my bargaining chip. Now I take it away in five minute increments.

7. If both parents live together, your child needs time together with both parents, but he or she also needs individual time with each parent.

8. Never leave the room as a punishment for your child’s negative behavior. Time outs are one thing — a cooling off period for you and your child. But if you flee the room when your child is in the middle of a meltdown, they see this as you abandoning them at a time when they are experiencing huge emotions that are scaring them. Children need you to be there to tell them it is okay to have these feelings. Emotions are allowed. Bad behavior is not.

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Howe To…Prevent Your Kids from Spilling the Beans

IMG952133Hailey’s grandparents and aunt took her and her cousins to the aquarium yesterday. When they picked Hailey up in the morning, my almost 3-year-old nephew’s first words to me were, “My daddy farts. And mommy poops. A LOT.” Oh boy, I thought. His mommy will be thrilled to know this is how he greets people now. Then Hailey felt compelled to chime in: “My mommy…” “My mommy…” she began a couple of times. Where’s she going to go with this? I wondered, a little nervously. “I used to live in my mommy’s tummy,” she finished. Phew. I really dodged a bullet there. She could have gone any number of embarrassing places. At 4, Hailey is not yet able to filter the information that stays at home and that which can be shared with the world. Below are the five stories I’m a little terrified she’ll share in public someday.

1. Naked wrestling. Josh is really into MMA and watches UFC fights, mostly out of the house with his friends, but every once in a while at home after Hailey has gone to bed. Hailey is moderately aware of Josh’s interest. She knows what UFC is and she’ll peer over daddy’s shoulder when he’s reading highlights of the fights on his phone or laptop. Since the men are shirtless when they fight, Hailey calls it “naked wrestling,” and she’ll say things like, “I want the guy in the black chonies (undies) to win!” Or, “Is Daddy watching naked wrestling with Raul tonight?” Sometimes she’ll even challenge daddy to a naked wrestling fight. I’m very worried that someday authorities will show up at my door because Hailey shared with her teachers or classmates that she naked wrestles at home.

2. Where’s the chingadera? Josh and I refer to the remote control, or pretty much anything we can never find, as “the chingadera’ — loosely translated: that fucking thing. When Hailey started talking and Josh and I put our potty mouths on lock down, we forgot this one. As a result, guess what Hailey calls the remote: the chingadera. Example: “Mom, can I watch Strawberry Shortcake? I think the chingadera is on the couch.” I really should put the kibosh on this, but the Spanish speaking side of me chuckles ever time she says this and the English speaking side is none the wiser. But now Hailey’s reached the age where she could have a play date with a bilingual friend and refer to a soccer ball or a sand bucket as “the chingadera,” and that child’s parents will judge me. They’ll judge me good.

3. Any information about our dogs. Our dogs Bella and Chewie are our fourth and fifth members of the family. And when your pets are so integrated into the family you have ample opportunity to witness nature in all its glory and all its grossness. In the last year I’ve had to have a frank but nonthreatening talk with Hailey about dog erections, which inspired a shadow puppet show. We’ve discussed why dogs don’t use toilet paper. I’ll let you arrive at your own conclusions about how that conversation went, but I will say, Hailey’s reaction was, “Are you serious, Mom?” We also had an impromptu conversation about why puppies come out of dogs’ butts vaginas. Still considering getting that puppy for your child?

4. Poop. We talk about poop a lot in our house. We say the word “poop” a lot in our house. Both Josh’s family and my family are afflicted with various distressing gastrointestinal conditions. Hailey did not hit the genetic jackpot in this respect. Someday she will talk about poop a lot with her own family. Already, she has picked up on our lack of discretion about poop talk. I had to censor her four or five times on our last play date.

5. How we feel about our neighbors and a couple of other folks. We have nice neighbors on one side of us and jerks on the other side of us. Sometimes when we’re talking about our nasty neighbors or anyone else we don’t happen to care for, we forget that Hailey sometimes overhears us talking and is taking it all in. Every once in a while she’ll distinguish our neighbors as, “the ones we like” and “the ones we don’t like.” I’m a little afraid that she might spill the beans on this one, not because she’ll offend the neighbors — I’m sure they know how we feel about them — but because at 4 she isn’t ready to feel the emotions associated with telling someone, “we don’t like you.” Also, it’s inappropriate for a 4-year-old to divide people into “like” and “dislike” columns. Let’s save that for middle school.

So how do you stop a 4-year-old from sharing the family stories with the world? Do you do as my mom did and put the fear in your children that you NEVER talk about family stuff outside of the house? No, I don’t think so. I will often gently remind Hailey that some things are okay to talk about at home but not at school or at the park. Just the other night we were saying prayers and she said “poop” (of course she did), and we took the opportunity to talk about the moments when it is important to be respectful. Does it sink in? A little, I’d say. Keeping the conversation short and sweet is key. You cannot harangue a preschooler. I think so much depends on us as parents too. Josh and I will have to encourage Hailey to rename naked wrestling and confine our complaints about the neighbors to the hours after her bedtime. I think, sadly, we might even have to rename the chingadera. I suppose you eventually have to let go of some of the things that make for cute stories in the home once your child ventures out of the home. Cute stories they may be, but kids grow up and parents have to grow up right along with them.

Howe To…Lie to Your Child Without Remorse

Fremont Troll, Seattle
Fremont Troll, Seattle

I believe in having an honest dialog with my daughter about almost everything. Dog erections? I think I handled that Q&A candidly and quite nicely. Jesus? God? What is everything all about? Well, that’s an ongoing conversation. But we address Hailey’s questions with honesty as they arise. There are some things, though, that I don’t mind flat out lying to my child about. I call it lying with love. Below are the biggest and most frequent lies I tell Hailey. I hope someday when the truth is revealed, she’ll look back at this post and know that these fallacies were my attempt to keep her childhood as innocent as possible for as long as possible.

Everything will be okay. This is a common refrain among mothers. A favorite toy is lost, her best friend chose to play with someone else during playtime, she’s going to have new teachers and classmates next year — everything will be okay. At some point in her life, there will come a time when something will not be okay, but my 4-year-old does not need to know this. For now, she needs to know that the small obstacles in her life are just that, small, and she has the strength, resourcefulness, intellect and humor to navigate these challenges.

Death is just a visit to the van down by the river. After reading a few Disney books to Hailey, we realized that they use death as a plot device A LOT. Within the first few pages, parents die and children are orphaned. This seems overly tragic for children’s bedtime reading material. I don’t know when the time is right to have the death talk with Hailey, but I know that she is not emotionally ready to learn that her parents will die someday. She knows that some relatives are no longer here and live in Heaven, and in her mind, she has interpreted this to mean they live in outer space. Sometimes she will say to random people, “My grandpa Bruce lives in outer space.” I’m okay with this for now. It’s part of her strange charm. But when we read  Disney books or any other morbid children’s literature to her (Secret Garden, I’m looking at you), we replace any mention of death with the old Chris Farley bit about the van down by the river. It goes something like this, “Cinderella’s mother died went to the van down by the river, so her father married a wicked woman who became her stepmother.” Similarly, having two dogs, and one that’s getting up there in age, we have told Hailey that when dogs get very old they go to a lovely place called Puppy Lake. Sometimes she threatens to send them there early when they misbehave. This makes me feel bad for them because I know that she’s unknowingly wishing death upon them.

Trolls live under bridges. I don’t know, people. I lived in Seattle briefly and there’s a statue of a troll under a bridge in Fremont and I loved it…so I always associate trolls with bridges. So one time Hailey and I were crossing a bridge and I told her trolls live under bridges and she was fascinated. Now she looks for trolls every time we cross a bridge. She gets a kick out of it; sometimes she thinks she spots one and sometimes she asks why we don’t see more. “Because they’re shy and they mostly sleep during the day,” I explain. She’s satisfied with this answer, but still hopes to find one awake and about during the day. I think childhood should be whimsical and full of make believe. Some kids can read at 4. My kid hunts for trolls under bridges.

Everything will be fine in the morning. This is a lie my mom used to tell me. And although I’m old enough now to know it’s not true — 8 hours of sleep doesn’t solve your problems — I still find it to be good advice and partly true. In my experience everything always seems worse in the middle of the night. A good night’s sleep and looking at your problem with a fresh perspective in the morning does often help and does indeed make your problem seem less dire. So, sleep on it, my dear. Always sleep on it.

Fruits and veggies make you big and strong. I’m not disputing that fruits and veggies are good for your overall nutrition and health, but Hailey is obsessed with growing taller and stronger. I imagine her height will have more to do with genetics than anything and her strength is likely impacted more by her protein intake and exercise. Nonetheless, every time I put a new or less than favorite fruit or veggie on her plate, I ask her to try it because it will make her big and strong.

Mommy will always be here. Hailey is attached to mommy and this can cause her a bit of anxiety when she is separated from mommy for a long period of time. These situations usually require a pep talk, and the pep talk always ends the same way: “At the end of the day, mommy will always be here. Mommy is never going anywhere. You will always come home to mommy.” With these words, Hailey holds her chin high and marches into the great unknown. Each time I say it I wonder, what if I have an emergency someday? What if I get called away? Go out of town? Surely, I can’t be here all the time. What happens when I go to the van down by the river and break my promise of always being here? I hope by then she will be much, much older and wiser and telling loving lies to her own children.

Santa is real. The Easter Bunny is for suckers. When I was 5 I had a friend whose parents’ parenting philosophy was to never to lie to their children. Thus, their kids were never allowed to believe in Santa. The problem with this is that kids have big mouths, and this friend broke the news to me about Santa when I was 5. I barely got to lucidly believe in Santa for more than a couple of years. My kid believes in Santa. Santa is magical, and as I said, I think childhood should be full of whimsy. From Thanksgiving through New Years, Santa, reindeer with red noses, snowmen who talk, elves — they’re all real in our house. Now, the Easter Bunny…I’ve done a shit job of explaining that guy, mostly because I don’t understand him myself. “Why is he giant?” Hailey asks. “I don’t know.” “Why does a bunny have eggs?” she asks. “That’s a good question. It makes no sense,” I say.

Mommy’s iPad only works for 20 minutes at a time. Praise the Lord for YouTube parental settings and its glorious timer or my child would be lost in a trance of Hobby Kids TV, Disney Collector BR and Peppa Pig for hours at a time. And mommy can’t stand those little Hobby Kids. So when the timer shuts the iPad off and Hailey snaps out of her trance and yelps in protest as the fog lifts, I say, “Sorry honey, mommy’s iPad only works for 20 minutes and then I have to charge it. You can earn more iPad time for tomorrow.”

I’d love to hear the lies of love other mommies tell their children.

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