When a bully isn’t a bully

Something’s been bugging me, and I’ve got to get it off my chest. And it’s going to sound crass at first, so hear me out before you start calling me insensitive.

I’m not sure there really is a bullying epidemic.

I know, I know. Just about every morning of the world, you can probably find a news story on television about some horrific incident linked to bullying. Kids have started cutting themselves, committing suicide, committing mass murder – you name it – because they’re the victims of bullies.

I’m 100 percent sure those kids were bullied. I’m not debating that.

What I do question, though, is the statistic put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-third of kids in the sixth through 12th grades has been victimized by bullies.

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. So what that means is that the bully is perceived as being more powerful than the victim, and the aggression happens again and again over time. This aggression can happen at school or at home, with relative strangers or family members. Some of the worst cases of bullying I’ve seen involved parents bullying their own children.

But during the last few years, as I’ve worked among elementary students as a social work student myself and now as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a pattern: Kids who have normal, everyday interpersonal conflicts with other kids claim that they’re being bullied. And I don’t always think that’s the case.

I think “bully” is a victim of its own success. Children and parents are so familiar with the term now, so well-versed in the horrific tales of bullying gone wrong, that they view any kind of disagreement or conflict as bullying. And that, I think, is wrong-headed.

Take, for example, an older elementary student I worked with last year. He was somewhat socially awkward but had some friends at school. However, he often didn’t perceive when he overstepped his bounds and intruded into other students’ space. He would get excited and impulsively hug his friends, or take a game of tag too far and tackle another student instead of merely touching his arm. When the student he hugged or tackled asked him to stop – sometimes not in the nicest of ways – he would run to the teacher on the playground and claim he was being bullied. In time, his cries fell on deaf ears, and he earned the reputation of a whiner who cried foul when things didn’t go his way.

I found it extremely difficult to work with this kid because his parents backed him up. They referred to his being “bullied” and never pointed out his own role in instigating the behavior of the other children. I was perplexed about how to help the child see the pattern of his behavior and his misuse of the word “bully.” Time and again in our weekly sessions, I attempted to challenge his use of “bully.” We talked about how friends act, how he wanted his friends to act, and how he could be a good friend to others. The child used all the right words, but he couldn’t differentiate between bullying and just plain not getting along well with others.

And there is a difference. We all have people who rub us the wrong way, people who routinely disagree with everything we say. Maybe we’re the cantankerous ones who always disagree. But when your co-worker doesn’t like you or disagrees with something you say in a meeting, does that mean he or she is bullying you?

Not in my book.

As a parent, it’s easy to assume our children are the ones being singled out for being different, being picked on by mean kids, being made fun of. Sometimes those things do happen. And when they happen routinely and are perpetrated by kids who hold power in some way over our own, that’s when our kids are being bullied.

But when our children, in course of their growing-up years, run into folks who think differently, who act differently and who don’t think our kids are the greatest things since the iPhone, they are not being bullied.

Instead, they are learning to live and deal with other people who are different from them, and that’s a valuable life lesson that I think too often goes by the wayside in this era of the bully.

It’s quantity, not quality

Way back in the misty, far-away time that was my early 30s, a slightly older friend gave me a bit of sage parenting advice.

I was debating whether to spend an upcoming holiday schlepping my little preschoolers to a fun family-oriented festival at the art museum or to let them run through the sprinkler while the hubs and I putzed around the yard and caught up on some chores.

I didn’t want to waste the day off, I explained, and I could make the case that I was with either of those scenarios.

“It’s quantity, not quality,” my friend said, turning on its end the parenting mantra of the day. (He was also locally famous for this assessment of our local Labor Day street fair: “The gene pool’s pretty shallow there.”)

Quantity, not quality. That flew in the face of everything I had strived for during my first five years of parenting, when I worked long hours as a newspaper reporter and my children spent their days in daycare. Back then, I slept little but threw the most outrageous birthday parties, if I do say so myself. Only now do I realize that the princess birthday party with the homemade castle cake and the pirate birthday party complete with a treasure the hubs and I buried were symptoms of my overfunctioning.

I wasn’t around much, but by golly, when I was on, I was ON!

But by the time my friend suggested short spurts of quality weren’t enough, I was already past that stage. I had quit my full-time job a year before because I wanted to slow down and spend more time with my kids. And pretty quickly, I had realized that the days were l-o-o-n-n-n-g-g-g when you had to figure out something to do with a 3 year old and a 4 year old every.Single.Minute.

So a year in, I was running out of ideas. I feared I’d become one of those mommies who watched soaps all afternoon (they still were on then,) cracked open a cold one around 4 p.m. when Oprah came on and let the neighbors worry about my kids.

Quantity, not quality. What did it mean?

I really wasn’t sure, but I kept it at the front of my mind when I began stressing over whether I was enriching my children enough. Should I be teaching them to read instead of reading to them? Should I enroll them in a kiddie cooking class instead of baking cookies with them? What about signing them up for Ceramics for Children instead of letting them just play with the Play-Doh at the kitchen table?

Quantity, not quality.

And then we had a third child, and I really didn’t have as much time for my neuroses because the older two entered school. And life got busier. And frankly, the birthday parties became quite a bit less elaborate. And “quantity over quality” faded from my mind.

Until a few weeks ago, when I was driving my daughter, younger son and a niece home from the mall. My daughter and my niece began talking about a mutual friend who had been in their Girl Scout troop.

“Wait a minute,” my son said to my niece, “you were in Girl Scouts?”

“Duh,” she said.

“Why aren’t you still in it?” he asked.

Before she could answer, I piped up. “Because she had the worst leader ever. Didn’t even like kids, really.”

Then my daughter spoke up. “Mom,” she said, “you were our leader.”

“Exactly,” I said.

And then…

“I thought you were a good leader,” my daughter said. “I loved it when you were our leader.”

I was so stunned I almost hit the car in front of me.

“Are you kidding me?” I asked, flooded with memories of the dread I felt each week as I prepared for the Girl Scout meeting, my panic when the cookie money didn’t add up, the sore on my tongue from the many times I had to bite it to keep from snapping on a hyper kid.

“Yeah,” she said wistfully, “it was great. We had fun. I always thought you planned fun stuff.”

Quantity, not quality. My friend was right. 

Life on the launching pad

Our oldest is a senior in high school.

As the hubs and I navigate these uncharted (for us) waters, we find ourselves focusing on every “last” event. The last first day of high school. The last band show. The last back-to-school night.

We will drive ourselves batty if we don’t stop, but how can we? We look at our oldest, and all we see is the chubby little baby we brought home from the hospital 17 years ago.

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But now, along with the lasts, we’re dealing with the firsts, too. These are a little easier to handle, though, since with Joe, life has always been full of firsts.

He was the first baby. The first child we potty trained. The first kid to get braces.

Last weekend, the hubs helped Joe submit his first college application, to the University of Missouri, our alma mater. We hold no illusions that he’ll end up there; he’s told us it’s a little too big for his taste. But he humored us, as all good kids do their parents, and dutifully applied to Ol’ Mizzou.

After they completed the online application, Joe wandered off, no doubt texting a buddy or his girlfriend to tell them what dorks his parents are. Matt came into the kitchen, where I was folding clothes.

“I can’t believe our baby just applied to MU,” he said, a little emotionally. “Where did the time go?”

I felt the same. All those years when Joe and his siblings were babies and toddlers and preschoolers – while they were happening, they seemed so long. The nights were so long. Some days were, too.

And then – blip. They’re gone. And here we are.

I nodded sympathetically.

What makes this even more emotional for us, though, is that we know how much our boy has overcome. Not as much as some kids, to be sure. He’s not homeless. He hasn’t lost a parent. He’s not chronically ill.

But from the get-go, Joe was a sensitive soul, full of anxiety. I was, too, and I remember holding him as an infant, willing myself to calm down so my baby would be calm, too. But I didn’t know what I was doing, and I was scared I’d break him.

Childhood was sometimes fraught with peril for Joe. We watched as he navigated things that caused him angst, rites of passage that didn’t throw his younger siblings or his cousins for a loop. We sought professional help and learned to help him develop the calming skills he needed.

And we watched when he wasn’t always able to implement what he had learned. It’s painful to watch your child learn from natural consequences, even as you know it’s the best way.

Elementary school was rough at times, but with each passing year, Joe matured and learned from his past. And he paved the way for his sister and brother, who don’t share his disposition but who nonetheless benefitted from the trail he blazed.

Now he’s facing his first jumping-off point, and we hope and pray he’ll be able to use those skills he’s learned over the years as he takes his first steps into adulthood. He’s grown into such a great kid. I know all parents say that, and I hope they all mean that. I am proud of my son for the person he has grown into despite his parents’ ineptitude and because of the strength of his character. If he weren’t my kid, I’d still want to know him.

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When I think of him leaving for college in less than a year, all I picture is the little boy I took to kindergarten in August 2001. He was scared. I could see it in his eyes. But he was brave, mostly for his dad and me, I know now.

He found his desk that day and waved good-bye. I went out into the hallway and waited where he couldn’t see me. I wanted to make sure he didn’t cry.

His bottom lip quivered. He wanted to cry. But he stood tall as the principal announced on the intercom that it was time for the Pledge of Allegiance. He never looked back, even though I’m sure that he knew I was there watching, praying and crying just a little.

This time next year, he’ll be gone, having left willingly to spread his wings. But I’ll still be there, watching to make sure everything’s all right.

And I think he knows that, too.

Charms of the boating life

sun on boatWe are boat people.

Well, to be honest, one of us is a boat person. Or, to be more precise, wants to be a boat person.

That would be the hubs. He became the captain of his own one-boat fleet five years ago, and ever since, he and the kids have had a fairly good time about twice a summer, once the boat is unfettered by its trailer and me, the fun sucker of the family.

Hey, someone has to do it. And I can’t get the memories of previous voyages out of my head. Trips such as this one, which I blogged about several summers ago.

This summer, as usual, we took the boat to the northern Missouri lake we frequent infrequently. We generally make it there over Memorial Day weekend, when the rest of my extended family visits my parents’ farm in Brookfield.

Last summer, we actually took the boat to Longview Lake for Joe’s birthday, taking him and some friends tubing. Putting the boat in the water there is a little stressful, what with the large numbers of other weekend water crafters waiting to plunk theirs in, too. For the life of me, I could not back the Suburban and boat trailer down the steep ramp, having instead to rely on one of Joe’s buddies, a 16-year-old boy, to back it down for me.

This year, though, when we made it to Lake Nehai we were looking practically like pros. We didn’t inflate the tube until we got to the little country store across the road from the boat ramp. While the hubs filled up the three-person tube, the kids and I went into the little store and bought sodas, snacks and two bags of ice at highly inflated prices.

Finally, we were ready and headed for the boat ramp. Our timing was perfect – no one ahead of us, no one waiting. Matt backed the truck and trailer toward the water, put the Suburban in park and hopped out. He climbed into the boat and instructed me to back the trailer into the water. Like the good little boaters they are, the kids told me when we’d gone far enough. I turned off the trucked and hopped out, and Maggie and I unclipped the boat’s bow from the trailer.

We pushed it a little and waited for it to set adrift. Matt turned on the motor and revved it a little, but the boat went nowhere.

We were perplexed. What was going on?

“It’s like it’s still connected to the trailer,” I said. “That’s weird.”

Matt grimaced. “I forgot to unclip the belts on the back of the boat,” he said. “It is still connected to the trailer. Pull it out.”

So I jumped back into the truck and pulled forward enough for him to unhook the back end. I had to pull it far enough out that backing it in was a doozy. It took me two or three tries and stops to remember that I had to turn the steering wheel the opposite direction of where I wanted the trailer to go.

It was starting to feel like last year all over again.

Eventually, the trailer made it back in to the water, we unhooked the bow, and Matt was off. While he and kids docked the boat and attached the tube, I parked the truck and trailer.

Life on Lake Nehai
Life on Lake Nehai

Two of the kids decided to stay on shore and fish a while, so four kids and I joined Matt in the boat. Two of them hopped onto the tube, and away we went for a nice, leisurely jaunt around the little lake. It was a glorious 30 minutes or so, and then Maggie and her BFF decided it was their turn in the tube. My niece stayed into, too, but Tom jumped back into the boat.

He doesn’t weigh much, and with two teen agers in the tube, the boat had a hard time planing. Matt assured Tom we weren’t going to capsize, but he was scared. Petrified, really, as he huddled on the boat’s floor in the fetal position.

I didn’t much like the ride, either, so I told Matt to take Tom and me to shore, where Joe and his cousin were finished fishing (nothing was biting) and could take our places in the boat.

When we docked, Tom and I climbed out, and the two boys got in. Matt took off.

jumping off boatTom asked for the keys to the Suburban; he thought he’d left his iPod in there. I gave him the keys with a stern warning: Don’t lock them in the truck. The other set was in the Suburban in my purse.

He headed up the hill, and I sat down on the dock to sunbathe. Pretty soon a pontoon boat full of fairly inebriated folks headed toward the dock. Most of the five occupants disembarked to use the portable toilet near the boat ramp. We chatted amiably about whether a storm was brewing as dark clouds gathered to the north of the lake.

Then they left. And I waited. And I realized that Tom had been gone a long time. The city girl in me wondered if he’d been kidnapped, but the more practical maternal side had another foreboding thought.

I took off up the hill. When I reached the Suburban, I found Tom with a stick in his hand, trying to pick the lock on the driver’s door.

“Stop!” I said. “What happened?”

He hung his head and told me he’d locked the keys in the car. He’d been in the back and thought he saw a ginormous spider, so he jumped out and slammed the door shut, leaving the keys and forgetting that he’d already hit “lock” on the key fob so he wouldn’t forget to lock the truck when he left. Tears stained his dirty little face.

I just sighed. Was I surprised? Not in the least.

I headed to the guardhouse to see if they had a phonebook. For once, I gave thanks for my mobile phone. Eventually, I reached AAA Missouri, who promised me a) Tom wasn’t the first kid to try to pick a car lock with a stick and b) a guy with a Slim Jim would be there in 30 minutes to two hours.

It was more like 90 minutes by the time the country mechanic from Meadville, a town about 45 miles away, made it to the lake.

He had the Suburban unlocked in about 20 seconds.

I thanked him profusely and headed back to the dock to wait. Eventually, the boat returned, and the kids said they were bushed and ready to head back to the farm.

I’d been on the water all of 30 minutes the whole day.

But the Captain was happy, and his little crew of kids and cousins was worn out. And I guess that’s about all you can ask for when you’re a weekend warrior.

Community organizing: The power of working together

Man, am I ever glad that Snowmageddon didn’t happen LAST week.

That’s because on Valentine’s Day, fourth graders from Bryant Elementary School in Independence took Jefferson City by another kind of storm.

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Here’s a shot of the kiddos just after arriving in Jefferson City.

Thanks to all the generous folks who donated money, time and energy, fourth-grade parents raised enough funds to rent a charter bus (complete with a bathroom and DVD player!) from Arrow Stage Lines, buy each fourth grader a screen-printed T-shirt to wear to the capitol, buy snacks for the trip, purchase each child a souvenir from the capitol and treat each of the 29 students who made the trip to a buffet dinner on the way home.

In fact, let me just stop right here and say thanks to the Bryant parents who made the trip happen – Melissa, Stefania, Babette, Rod, Cody, Kristen, Erica, Frances – as well as Corporate Copy Print, Allen’s Banquet Hall, the Independence School District Foundation, Reps. Ira Anders and John Mayfield and the many other parents who allowed their kiddos to make the trip.

I couldn’t be prouder of this community of parents and their supporters, who demonstrated true community organizing as they planned this trip. It was textbook, just like something I’d learn in one of my social work classes.

In late December, parents met to decide how to solve their problem: They wanted their kids to visit the capitol, but the school said the trip wasn’t possible this year. Parents decided they wanted to see what they could do to make the trip a reality.

A meeting in early January attracted more parents and sealed the deal – the trip would happen if parents could just come up with the more than $1,000 needed to rent the bus. Suddenly, every parent at the meeting mobilized. Fund-raising ideas flew around the room, mingling with suggestions of how to get the word out.

Within a week, the rummage sale was on. Division of labor occurred organically, with parents taking on jobs that matched their strengths. It was a marvel to behold.

And at the end of a very long day, the parents had enough money to give those kids the best trip ever.

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The T-shirts were particularly awesome.

I’m not particularly prone to belief in the extraordinary, but this trip was meant to be. The weather was extra-perfect for February. Everyone – more than 50 people – was on time. We made it to Jeff without any hitches and made every tour with ease.

The kiddos met three local state representatives – Rep. Noel Torpey met them at lunch – and their Supreme Court tour guide, John Constance, told them he’s a product of the Independence School District, sewing that all-important seed of possibility in the young minds.

On the way home, we stopped in Columbia at a huge Chinese buffet restaurant that will never be the same.

I’m pretty sure each one of the 29 kids used the bathroom on the bus at least twice.

By the time we rolled up in front of Bryant, it was after 8 p.m. The kids and parents quickly dispersed to enjoy the rest of the President’s Day break, and my husband, 10-year-old and I headed for home. I asked our son if he’d had a good day.

“It was the best day of my life,” he said, “next to the day I was born.”

That’s pretty darn cool.

Jeff City or bust!!!

I have this dream.

It started two years ago, when my niece’s fourth-grade class at Bryant Elementary School in Independence did not make the trip to Jefferson City as the capstone of a months-long lesson about Missouri history.

I don’t remember the reasons Maureen’s class didn’t make the mostly annual sojourn, just that the kiddos were sorely disappointed. And so were their parents, who didn’t realize the trip was a no-go until too late to do anything about it. My sister and brother-in-law took Maureen to Jefferson City themselves that summer.

My dream grew in intensity last August, when my youngest child entered fourth grade. He’d looked toward the school year with anticipation after the grade ahead of him resumed the annual Jeff trip in May 2012.

And when I and other parents were told early last semester that the fourth grade once again likely wouldn’t go to the state’s capital city – this time because the trip would take away from prepping for the state assessments – my dream intensified, nagging, pushing through my other thoughts, needling me like a splinter stuck in my sock during a 5K.

My dream, folks, is that all Independence fourth graders get the chance to journey to the center of our great state for their first up-close glimpse of participatory government.

On the surface, maybe, it seems frivolous. What’s the big deal about taking a bunch of 9 and 10 year olds to Jefferson City? It means waking up before the chickens to get your kid to school to catch the bus, sack lunch in tow. It means a good three hours on a bus with a bunch of exuberant kids who know every line to several episodes of SpongeBob SquarePants. It means giving up a day of your own time to go see things you (hopefully) learned about years ago.

Yep, the fourth-grade trip to Jeff is all those things. But it’s also this: The chance to make a favorable impression on young minds still idealistic enough to believe that this great democratic experiment we have going in the United States is working.

The trip to Jefferson City offers a chance for jaded adults to see awe and wonder again as the children gaze upward at the beautiful rotunda of the capitol or look down upon the General Assembly as members bustle in and out of chambers, going about their work; as they listen to the stories of how one governor’s wife saved the executive mansion; as they think that they, too, could one day, if they worked hard enough, earn a seat on the state’s highest court.

But more than that, it’s a chance for us as adults to model for our children the importance of civic duty – of knowing who represents our voices in government, of speaking up when we don’t agree, of learning about how our country works.

This is our job. If we don’t teach them, who will?

Back to my dream. From 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. today at Allen’s Banquet Hall at 11330 E. Truman Road in Independence, a bunch of parents who share my dream are mounting a huge rummage sale to raise money to pay for their fourth graders to make that trip.

This year, it’s one school.

My dream? Next year, all 18 of them.

No, thanks. I don’t want to smell like I’m hung over.

So I’m in the throes of my yearly panic also known as “holiday shopping” when I hear on the morning news that Pizza Hut has come out with a fragrance.

Now, some lucky gift recipients on my list will be receiving some cologne or eau de parfum, to be sure.

But do I really want to give them something that will make them reek like they just got finished working an 11-to-7 at a fast-food pizza chain? That’s not exactly the mood I’m looking to evoke.

When I was a kid, my dad regularly gave my mom fancy perfumes for gift-giving occasions. She had a dresser-top full of luscious scents with exotic names like Opium and White Shoulders and Paloma Picasso. She had a bottle of Chanel No. 5 amongst the lovelies on her dresser, and each day that I was in high school, I spritzed something precious and expensive-smelling on my pulse points before I headed out the door.

To me, receiving expensive perfume reeks of specialness and decadence. So no. I will not be purchasing anything that makes anyone smell like mass-produced pizza.

Besides, there are so many choices nowadays. Have you been in the cosmetics department of any department store lately? Or how about an airport duty-free shop?

The choices are many, however, but the quality is meh. I mean, these days anyone can have a fragrance named after them.

Hey, who wants to smell like this chick?
Hey, who wants to smell like this chick?

Seriously. Consider an article I read last week in The New York Times. There, big and bold on page E3 of the Thursday Styles section, was a photo of Nicole Polizzi hawking her signature scent at a New York boutique.

That’s right, folks. Snooki has a scent.

Ewwww.

Guess who else has a fragrance bottled up? Lady Gaga. I’m thinking there might be a bit of a bacon bouquet to that one. And who knows what else.

How about Nicki Minaj? You wanna buy a perfume with her name on it? I’m not sure what that one smells like.

Kat Von D, the tattoo artist, has her own fragrance. Hmmmm. So does Paris Hilton.

Are these ladies known for their nice scents?

Even Ke$ha has her own perfume. It’s named after another word for a female dog. Nice. I’ll bet it smells like a meth lab.

Why can’t George Clooney put his name on a cologne? Or get behind a pefume, like his buddy Brad Pitt is for Chanel?

I digress.

These second-rate celebs think slapping their names on fragrances is the next step in their branding scheme. Consider Ms. Polizzi’s assessment of her fragrance, as reported in that New York Times story: “[Snooki] said her new scent has notes like apple blossom and so-called cashmere woods, ‘which I thought sounded classy.’ “

That’s “classy” with a “K.”

 

Enough already with the “greatest ever” schtick

OK, but these guys really are one of the greatest bands ever. Nothing to do with the Olympics, either, except they’re Brits. And I love them. Back off.

So I was huffing along on the treadmill today, watching CNN because you can only watch so much of the Olympics. And what were they talking about on CNN but — you guessed it — the Olympics.

Turns out folks are once again calling Michael Phelps the “greatest athlete of all time.” This time, however, unlike four years ago, some people are saying, “Hold on a minute.” One such person is Sebastian Coe, an athlete, English politician and head of the London Olympics.

Specifically, Lord Coe said to reporters, as detailed in the San Francisco Chronicle: “You can probably say that clearly, self-evidently, in medal tally he’s the most successful. My personal view is I am not sure he is the greatest, but he is certainly the most successful. That goes without saying.”

Bravo, Lord Coe, I thought to myself on the treadmill. Thanks for so articulately stating what I’ve been saying for years.

Four years ago, Michael Phelps was pronounced the greatest Olympian of all time. And I wrote the following piece. My sentiments haven’t changed since 2008:

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The Olympic hype totally turns me off. I haven’t heard that much hyperbole since, oh, I don’t know…last year’s college football season.

The worst was calling Michael Phelps “the greatest athlete of all time.”

Whoa. Really? All time? Better than Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, Eric Hayden, the Ancient Greeks?

Don’t get me wrong. The guy swims like a dolphin. Watching him mesmerizes even an Olympic cynic like me. His humble beginnings inspire us. He is a phenomenal athlete, and he seems like a nice guy.

But can we have a little perspective here? The greatest ever? That’s just over the top.

What makes Phelps better than Usain Bolt, another hyperbolic medalist they’re calling the “fastest man in the world?” Or Nastia Liukin, the gymnast who grabbed five medals at the Beijing games? Or how about Constantina Tomescu-Dita, the 38-year-old Romanian woman who won the women’s marathon in Beijing?  Who’s the better athlete? Who can really judge that contest?

And do we really care? They’re all unbelievably good at their sports. Let’s just say it. Why does there have to be one “greatest?”

I’m not knocking Michael Phelps, OK, so don’t start flaming me and calling me un-American. He’s awesome, all right? But this sort of overstatement drives me batty.

Even my daughter noticed it. Why, she implored me, are they saying Michael Phelps is the greatest ever?

I didn’t have an answer for her.

But I did tell her that just about anyone who makes it to the Olympics is the best. That’s what the games are all about.  And you’re not the greatest ever just because you win the most medals. I think there’s more to it than that.

Let’s just talk for a minute about Jesse Owens, one of my favorite past Olympians.

The guy was the grandson of slaves. His father was a sharecropper. He wasn’t pegged for his running speed until high school.  He had to work after school to help support his family, so he went to school early to practice with his coach. He only attended Ohio State University after his father found a job that could support the family.

So Owens was a track star at Ohio State, but he had to live off campus because he was black. He never received a scholarship from the university, despite winning eight NCAA individual championships, a record that stood until 2006. He worked part-time to support himself. And when the track team traveled, Owens and the other black athletes had to eat carry-out or in blacks-only restaurants.

Then in 1936, he traveled to Berlin to compete for the United States in the Olympics. There, he figuratively spit in the eye of Adolf Hitler, whose Nazi party propaganda touted Aryan superiority and claimed ethnic Africans were inferior.  At “Hitler’s Olympics” Owens won four gold medals, a feat not repeated until Carl Lewis won four medals at the 1984 Summer Olympics.

Talk about the greatest. Owens was one of them.

So, in my opinion, is Lopez Lomong. I don’t even know if he won a medal in track and field at the Beijing Olympics, but it doesn’t really matter. The fact that he was there, representing the United States, boggles the mind.

As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong was abducted from his family and held in a militia camp, destined to become a child soldier. He escaped with some other boys and walked and ran for three days until they reached Kenya. There, he lived in a refugee camp, surviving for 10 years on one meal a day. To keep himself from thinking about how hungry he was, he ran and played soccer.

Eventually, he ended up in the United States, one of the Lost Boys, and a high school coach saw potential. He reportedly never lost a race, and he always ran with a smile on his face.

Lopez Lomong was a winner to begin with. Making it to the Olympics was just the icing, regardless of whether he won anything there. My kids are captivated by Lomong’s story. And they’ve never asked if he won any medals.

Is Lopez Lomong less of an athlete than Michael Phelps? I don’t think so.

See, I don’t think winning medals is the lesson of the Olympics. Which makes the whole “silver-is-just-another-word-for-first-loser” sentiment I heard bandied about so abhorrent. You’re not a failure if you don’t get the gold medal. No one who makes it to the Olympics is a failure.

I’m not encouraging mediocrity or everyone’s-a-winner kind of thinking. I’m just saying that doing the best you can do is worth celebrating, too. It’s not just about getting the gold.

That’s the lesson I want the Olympics to hold for my kids.

Touché

It all started with that Rihanna song, the one about sadomasochism.

I might not be able to understand all the words, but I know what that song’s about because it’s right there in the title – S&M. Not much gets past this chick.

So the kids and I were driving from one practice to the next when the song came on. I had heard bits and pieces but never the whole song. Hmmm. Maybe that’s because the kids never let me. Because, hoo boy, that is one nasty song.

Once I figured out what Rihanna was saying, I switched over to Oldies 95 real fast.

“Oh.My.God,” I said. “That is terrible. Don’t ever listen to that crap again.”

Maggie rolled her eyes as only a 13-year-old girl can. “Mom, come on,” she said. “It’s just a song. It’s not like I pay attention to the words. I just like the music.”

“Sorry,” I said, shaking my head. “I cannot, in good conscience, allow you to listen to a song about…that…you know…subject. Anyway. So, no.”

Yay me! Mom of the Year.  A regular Tipper Gore!

Except yeah, I’m not, which my kids were so happy to point out a few days later.                                            

Once again, we were driving to some practice or lesson or what have you. And a song came on the radio.

Only this time, it was Aerosmith. Rock on! And it was Walk this Way. And I was totally jamming, trying to play air guitar and drive at the same time, cranking the volume.

“This is a ‘bad’ song,” Joe said, smirking.

“It is not,” I said. “It’s Walk this Way. It’s a classic. C’mon.”

Maggie joined in. “Mom, listen to the words,” she said. “Seriously.”

Um, OK. Here’s a sampling:

“You ain’t seen nothin’ till you’re down on a muffin, then you’re sure to be a-changin’ your ways.”

So I guess when I was younger I didn’t know the context behind that use of muffin.

Point taken.

And now I’m listening to all my old faves with the ear of a mom. Snake in the Grass? Terrible. Fat Bottom Girls? Suggestive, especially the part about the naughty nanny. Don’t even get me started on any Beastie Boys or Violent Femmes songs.

The whole incident reminded me of my seventh-grade year, when my favorite song was Sexual Healing by Marvin Gaye. My younger sister and I recorded the song off an MTV video onto a cassette tape, and we played it day and night. My mom thought it was cool because she loved Marvin Gaye and was happy the guy had a new song – until one night when she actually listened to the words.

She was horrified. After that, we only listened to the song when she wasn’t around.

Which I’m pretty sure is what’s going down with that Rihanna song…