Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Empty Threats (Or Lies I've Told My Kids)

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I took my girls to our local zoo. We have one of those unlimited attraction memberships that allows us - at no additional cost - to feed giraffes and lorikeets, ride the ponies and the carousel, climb a rock wall, watch a 3D movie, and take a train ride - over and over and over again, world without end, amen. (What ever happened to just looking at the animals?!?) But eventually hunger won out over the allure of free pony rides, and since I hadn't had to shell out $2 for a handful of limp lettuce at the giraffe feeding platform, I agreed to spring for lunch. The girls, with all the enthusiasm of kids who are rarely allowed to eat fast food, opted for the Kenya Cafe.

Two orders of overpriced chicken tenders and greasy fries later, we were seated at a window booth overlooking the alligator enclosure. (Yeah, THAT'S the perfect place to eat chicken. Watching a hand-fed alligator whose main diet is - of course - chicken. Smart.) It was a drizzly day, and still fairly early, so there weren't that many diners in the cafe yet. But one family stood out, and not only because they were sitting right behind us. No, this particular family could be easily recognized by the incessant screaming of their three young children and the shrill response of the adults as "Parents Who Make Empty Threats that Everyone in a Three-Mile Radius Knows They Have No Intention of Carrying Out."

Now, usually Slacker Mom is all about the love. Do what works for you; don't judge other parents; no one knows what is really going on in another family. But seriously, these parents were just about the most annoying adults I've encountered in a long, long time. Two little boys, who looked to be about 3 and 5, sat at the table with their parents. A younger child sat in the stroller, flinging food out and screaming at the top of his lungs. Great, I thought, lunch AND a show. Ignoring the screaming and the politely curious looks of the other diners (this is the South, after all, and no one would be outright rude), Dad kept pushing the chicken on one kid ("One more bite! One more bite! Then you can have a chip!"); Mom was pushing a sandwich on the other ("Please? Please? For Mommy?"). As she got more and more frustrated, and the kids got more and more vocal about their feelings regarding lunch, Mom's speech went something like this: "You asked for the sandwich so you have to eat it. You promised you'd eat the sandwich after you had the cookies, so now you have to keep your word. If you don't keep your word, you can't have TV or dessert all week." Dad's was along the same lines, but with a "no one will ever trust you again if you don't keep your word" twist. Pretty harsh for preschoolers, but hey, who am I to judge? I've been guilty of over-explaining things a time or two myself.

But after approximately 47 versions of the same lecture, I wanted to turn around and say, "Geez! What, are you new at this? You gave them the cookies first. It's over. Call it a day, and next time, lunch first and dessert after!" But just as I was about to give in to the urge to at least turn around and glare meaningfully at the parents (hey, I'm not from here - I have no problem being rude now and then), I heard a little voice behind me say, "So, if I eat another bite, can I have some more cookies? And watch TV later?"

And of course, the parents agreed, as everyone around them knew they would. The family packed it up and left, discussing what movie the boys wanted to rent on the way home from the zoo.

And as much as I wanted to sit in judgement of their poor parenting skills, instead, I started thinking: am I guilty of the same thing? Do I threaten my kids with ridiculous punishments? Do I bribe them? Do I fail to enforce consequences for misbehavior or for poor choices?

The short answer to that question is yes. The long answer is yes, but only when I've realized that my original punishment is too harsh, or will punish me more than the guilty party, or will take away from our valuable family time, or when I'm really really mad and not thinking as clearly as I should - or when I forget what I said in the first place (one of the perils of being an older mom). But still - the answer is yes. And I want it to be no. I really, REALLY want it to be no. I want my kids to know that when I say something, that's the way it is. I want them to know that they can count on my word as being true and final and reliable. I once heard someone say that if you don't follow through with consequences, you've lied to your kids. Sounds kind of harsh, but I understand what he means. If I say no playtime until chores are done, I need to follow through and check to see that things are done properly BEFORE I let the kids off the hook, rather than going back and yelling at them later. If I say, "Clean your rooms before the movie," I need to get off my butt, go upstairs, and check under the beds and in the closets before handing over the remote. And when I dole out justice, whether it's a natural consequence or an actual punishment, I have to make sure - beforehand - that it's something I am willing to enforce. If the consequence is more unpleasant for me to enforce than it is for the child to endure, what's the point?

I once told my daughters that I would cancel Christmas if they kept fighting. Really? I LOVE Christmas, and I would NEVER do that. But I was at that breaking point where I just couldn't stand the bickering for one more second. A string of difficult mornings with kids who didn't want to get out of bed found me threatening to make them ride the school bus if they weren't ready to leave on time. (Now, before anyone gets upset and says that riding the bus is no punishment, let me say this: My kids aren't even up yet when the bus comes past my house at 6:36 each morning, because school starts at 7:40. We live 5 minutes from school. So yeah, it WOULD be a punishment.) But how would THAT solve anything? I'd be the one getting up even earlier! Yet another frustrated afternoon of jamming uncooperative little toes into ballet tights led to my empty promise to pull them out of the dance recital - after hundreds of dollars spent on lessons, shoes, costumes, and photos. Like I'd do that. All that time and money wasted, and for what? Because a 5-year-old had a hard time with the seam of her tights? How much better would it have been to make light of the situation, to say, "Tell your piggies to get inside those tights! Your ballet shoes are lonely!" and make her giggle rather than cry?

No, those empty threats and ridiculous comments say more about my frustrations as a parent, about my sleep deficit level, about my overall state of mind than they do about my kids' behavior. They're good kids, but they're kids. As my friend Jen says, you can't expect them to get in one day or one year what we've finally understood after 30-some years. They weren't born middle-aged, they were born brand-spanking new. They need time to figure out how to navigate the world. And let's face it, my mood determines the tone of the day, the mood in my home.

Slacker Mom Says... mean what you say and say what you mean. It's so easy to make empty threats, to give convoluted and unrealistic punishments that we know, as we say them, that we're never going to uphold. We all do it at some point, and we all know we do it. I'm vowing to stop right now. The next time I want to threaten to throw away all their toys because no one cleaned up the playroom, I'll remember that my agenda is just that: mine. Just because I want them to do something, it doesn't mean that they care at all about my timeline. A little patience and a sense of humor go a long way.

Friday, April 9, 2010

"Are We There Yet?" is a 4-Letter Word

A recent episode of "The New Adventures of Old Christine" showcased an ill-fated attempt at a family vacation. Delayed flights, crazy routings, lost IDs, snotty airline personnel, family tensions - it was all there. But what really caught my attention was this: Christine's 13-year-old son wanted to bring his Nintendo DS, and his mom wouldn't let him, saying, "This is a family vacation! We're going to talk and spend time together!" His response? "Talk? What? You ruin everything!"

Really? His life is ruined because he's not allowed to take his video game along on a family vacation? I thought this line was a little over the top - until I started asking around. Most of my mommy friends confirmed that when they travel, their kids have cell phones, iPods, DVD players, video games, you name it. The backseat of the family car has become a fully-equipped media center. No one needs to talk to each other. Kids don't even have to cooperate and decide which movie to watch, because most of their cars now have dual-screen DVD players. And Mom doesn't even have to listen to the soundtrack of the Hannah Montana movie for the 725th time, because each child has her own headphones, too.

This new concept of entertainment stands in stark contrast to the vacations most of us remember. Family vacations of my childhood were decidedly unplugged. My parents would put down the back seats of the station wagon, we'd all unroll our sleeping bags, and the party would begin. We didn't have electronic gadgets to divert our attention from the scenery. There were no dual-screen DVD players - in fact, no TV of any kind. No, we had to create our own fun in the backseat. The license plate game, Mad Libs, a rousing rendition of "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" (or something even less appropriate that my parents couldn't hear, like "My Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School"), negotiating for each other's Slim Jim or Bubblicious stashes, or even - gasp - READING a BOOK! Sometimes my brothers would introduce a super-fun game called "Roly Poly" - you know, the one where they'd sit on either side of me, and as we rounded a corner, they'd squish me in between them. Fun.

Yes, we got on each others' nerves, but we quickly learned to get along and find something fairly quiet to do - or face the dreaded "if I have to stop this car..." threat. (I'm not sure what my parents would've done if they'd had to pull over, but back then, the threat alone was enough to strike fear into the hearts of children of all ages. We never found out, but we never WANTED to find out.) Sometimes we got bored, yes, but God forbid we say that out loud - our parents would start "entertaining" us with show tunes or long, boring stories about their childhood tribulations. (You know, walking to school, 3 miles, in the snow. Uphill. Both ways. You get the picture.) No, it was much safer to entertain ourselves and each other. But you know what? I don't have a single childhood memory that doesn't involve my brothers. Our family vacations? True family moments. We fought, and made up, and shared, and played, and interacted with each other. Isn't that what we want for our kids?

Now, I'm not advocating abandoning seat belts and booster seats here (or threatening your kids, although we've all been there), but why do we feel the need to constantly provide entertainment for our kids? Why can't they entertain themselves? And why do so many kids sit isolated, plugged in, during "family" time?

For my kids? It's kind of sink or swim when we travel. They'd better find a way to entertain themselves, because I don't want to hear the words "Are we there yet?" (Um, did I stop the car? Is the plane still flying? Then no, we're not there yet!) or "I'm bored!" (Really? I'm driving; you're playing. Who's bored? That's right. Zip it.) We don't have a built-in DVD player. (We do have a portable DVD player, but I can't figure out how to install it in the car - so my kids don't get to watch movies on long car rides. And I can't find the battery pack, so they can't take it on the plane. What can I say? I'm a slacker.) My kids don't have iPods, cell phones, or a DS. My cell phone has no games, music, or internet access. Nope, when we travel - by car or by air - my kids listen to CDs, audio books, the radio. And they are subjected to my singing along to their music. My kids read, color, play magnetic games. They make up elaborate stories. Color Wonder, Colorforms, pipe cleaners and beads, Polly Pockets - these are the staples of my girls' carry-ons. My kids talk to each other - and to me. Sure, I've had to get creative at times: Airsick bags make great hats for stuffed animals; stickers plus craft sticks equals instant puppet show. And never underestimate the power of a really good book. But bored? I don't want to hear it. If you're bored, it's your own fault.

Slacker Mom Says... let's all stop trying to play Vegas-style entertainer for our kids when we travel. They can find something to do! Let's bring back the family conversation, the license plate game, I Spy, and Twenty Questions. Let's find ways to truly spend time together, even on the long and boring drive to Disney World in the July heat. I'm not saying you can't pack the electronics; I'm just saying let's not rely on them totally. Families are so busy these days; let's take any opportunity we can to spend real time together. We're building the memories of a lifetime here. Besides, subjecting our kids to our singing and storytelling will give them something to complain to their friends about after they get back home.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

On Twilight and Marriage...

It's Spring Break! And you know what that means - yes, this week marks exactly one year since I became obsessed with all things Twilight. (You thought I was going to mention the beach, vacation, that type of thing, didn't you? Yes, we are going to the beach, and yes, it's nice to have the kids off school, but let's get our priorities straight, shall we?)

Resistant at first, I quickly fell under Stephenie Meyer's spell. It was Nina who first tried to recruit me for Team Edward. I'm not going to lie to you; I thought the entire concept was stupid. I'm not a teenaged girl; I'm not into vampires. No, I told her for weeks, I'm not reading a book that was a Teen People "Hot List" pick. And I've read enough of her "must-read" Nicholas Sparks books to know that we may be best friends but we do NOT share the same interest in books. (Before the Sparks fans get upset with me: he's a good story teller, I'll give you that, but his writing is repetitive, formulaic, and predictable.) But after weeks of daily phone calls, she finally wore me down. I bought the first book, Twilight, fully expecting to roll my eyes and make fun of her. I mean, really - teen girl falls in love with teen vampire. Whatever.

And then I read the entire series in eight days. The entire series. All four books. All 1,690 pages. In e-i-g-h-t days.

Once I started, it was un-put-down-able. My kids were fed and clothed and (relatively) clean, but I was completely obsessed. I read while I ironed, while waiting in the carpool line, while my kids and husband watched TV; I stayed up hours past my bedtime every night. I devoured each and every word, bought the next book well before I finished the previous one, and rented the movie version of Twilight - which I'd refused to see when it first came out. Compelling, mesmerizing, captivating storytelling, along with good writing, good dialogue, good imagery.

Yes, they're vampires. Yes, it's teen love. But it's so much more than that. I think what draws women, adult women, to this story, is the fact that against all odds, against all common sense, against the rules of society and science and nature, two people feel so strongly for each other that they are compelled to be together. What speaks to women, the young and the middle-aged alike, is the idea of a love so destined, so magnetic, that nothing can keep them apart. Not the fact that she's the police chief's daughter and that he's a danger to society; not the disapproval of their families and friends. They would rather die than be without each other. They would do anything to protect each other. Despite the odds against them, despite the challenges they face, they are compelled to be together, drawn by a love so deep it feels out of their control. Nothing can keep them apart. It's more than passion, or attraction, or mere lust - no, Bella and Edward are meant for each other, destined to be together, regardless of what happens around them, to them, because of them.

What woman wouldn't want a man to feel that way about her?

But though I love the books, and am currently on my fourth reading (hey, the movie version of Eclipse is coming out soon and I need to be prepared), I can separate fact from fiction. I may be fairly obsessed and have an old-lady crush on Edward, but I also know that real-life love, married love, takes time, effort, work. The books may be marketed at teen girls, but I doubt any teenager can truly understand a love so deep. All of us have experienced crushes, first love, puppy love - but what Bella and Edward share is so much deeper than that. And hopefully, what we have with our husbands is much deeper than that, too. It's mature love, a love born out of shared experiences, a love that comes from facing trials and troubles together. It's the kind of love that holds your hand in the delivery room when you are certainly not looking your best; the kind of love that gets a man up in the middle of the night with a scared child so you can sleep a little longer; the kind of love that lets us know this man would literally lay down his life for his children and wife. It's grown-up love.

A marriage is a give-and-take, an ongoing compromise, between two people who have committed themselves for life. Sometimes things are good; sometimes things are less good. Sometimes things are just, well, dull and staid and boring. But that's real life. Real life isn't always exciting, invigorating. Paying bills, driving carpool, making dinner - this is not the stuff of romance. But it's the stuff of life, of family life; it's what bonds us together. Yes, it's important to have those "grand gestures" in a marriage. But it's the small things, the little daily gestures, that speak to a deep, meaningful life together. As my friend Janet (whose husband introduced me to mine) says, "Attraction is important, but that initial passion will fade. You have to work to keep it alive. And in the end, I'd rather have a man who will wipe the baby puke out of my hair than one who'd buy me diamonds but sleep through the stomach flu." Well-said. Me, too.

Slacker Mom Says...real life is not a movie or a book. Real life isn't always exciting. A marriage is what we make it, after all. I may be obsessed with Edward and Bella's love story, but I still make time for MY love story. I'm not sure I believe in destiny and fate, but I do believe in forever, and in my husband, and in our love for each other. We'll keep working at it, keep challenging each other, keep loving each other. He's no vampire, and I'm not a teenaged girl, but we belong together.

And besides, when I'm in full Twilight obsession mode, he reaps the full benefits of my Edward-induced, romance-fueled attitude. When I read or watch anything Twilight-related - well, think about it. I'm just sayin'.