Elf, Schmelf

It’s 9:30 p.m. on Dec. 22, and what am I doing? Making a list of everything I need to buy to pull off our annual family Christmas morning brunch (well, after I write this missive, of course.)

I know I’ll be scrambling to find everything I need at this late date, but screw it – I’m a linear thinker, and I can only handle one crisis at a time.

Every night since I don’t know when has found me baking something or photo shopping something or ordering something or going to a holiday performance of something. That’s why there are no wrapped presents under the Christmas tree but why it looks like Christmas got drunk and vomited all over my house – because when I’m stressed out, I overcompensate somewhere. And this year, it was with the decorations.

So anywho, I’m completely up to my ears in the holiday, which makes me just so thankful that my hubs and I completely and utterly missed the Elf on the Shelf trend.

Not that I’m judging those of you who embrace the whole Elf deal – because I don’t. I absolutely do not judge. No way.

I mean, sure. I’m jealous of your little carefully constructed tableaus of the Elf getting into mischief while he spies on the kiddos to report any of their mischief-making to Santa, the Elf godfather, who apparently will have a sit-down with any kids not toeing the line.

I wish – nay, I yearn – for the time to thoughtfully plan and carry out the whole story line AND to keep my kids’ attention while doing so. That would really be a feat for me. As it is, we cannot even successfully conquer the traditional Advent calendar. We generally quit the whole thing by about Dec. 15 – a little later if it’s one of those chocolate-filled calendars.

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An example of a Christmas failure — it’s Dec. 22, but I’m two days behind.

And who am I kidding? The hubs and I were half-assed Tooth Fairies at best. Sometimes, teeth would be under pillows for entire weeks before the Fairy got around to finding spare change to slip under the pillow.

If we were responsible for maintaining the Elf myth, our kids would have given up on Santa and what have you years ago.

This year, the youngest of our little darlings announced that he no longer believes in Santa. As is our custom, my hubs and I neither confirm nor deny such suppositions. Our mantra is that, “If you don’t believe, you don’t receive.” So to my knowledge, the 19-year-old has yet to declare himself Santa-free. And it might be that the youngest is testing us, as is his wont.

I generally take a “less is more” attitude with my children on these matters and others of a delicate nature. As adults, we want to delve deeper into their questions and give them well-constructed answers when most of the time, they just want something more superficial.

I might be in the minority, though, judging by conversations I’ve overhead among younger mommies lately, as they worry about what to say when their second-grader’s best friend stops believing in Santa, or whether perpetuating the Santa story constitutes lying to your children.

That last one sometimes comes from folks who are wearing themselves out setting up their blasted Elf on the Shelf in fantastical poses every night.

Seriously, people? You’re worried that going along with a centuries-old story about a dude that visits children around the world once a year on Christmas Eve, delivering presents, is lying, but you’re OK with moving a creepy elf around your house and pretending that he spies on your kids and narcs on them when they’re jerks, as kids often are at this time of year?

So, yeah. I’m stressed out and way behind on my baking and wrapping and only half-way through this bottle of wine. But I’m raising a glass to the hubs and me and giving us a fist pump for eschewing that elf.

 

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.

Santa’s white? Yeahhhhhhh, right!

Megyn Kelly, your little mind is wrong. It has been affected by the pea-brained ideologues with which you surround yourself at Fox News.

You claimed a week or so ago on your show, “The Kelly File,” that Santa, along with Jesus, is a white man. You said it was a verifiable fact that we all just need to accept – kind of like acknowledging that if your dad and granddad went to Yale, you’ll go there, too, regardless of how you score on the SAT.

I’m not even going to touch the Jesus comment, but I’ll let you do the math, Megyn.  Jesus was born in the Middle East, and by all accounts (and by all I mean the Old Testament,) his mother’s people were from the same general area. And his Dad’s peeps – well, I mean, his Dad was God. So it’s pretty safe to say that Jesus looked more like Omar Sharif than Orlando Bloom (yes, I know Omar Sharif is Egyptian, but you get my point.)

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Omar Sharif in his younger days

And I know that rationally, Santa Claus no doubt is white. He’s from northern Europe, right? Well, not so fast, Ms. Smartypants Kelly. St. Nicholas, the third-century bishop who lived in a small town in Turkey and who is Santa’s forebear, was Greek. He no doubt looked like this ancient painting of him:

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St. Nicholas

So, yes. He looks a little like Omar Sharif, too.

Not black, I know. But closer than the lily-white, red-suit-wearing jovial red-cheeked Santa from the Clement Clarke Moore poem and whom you, no doubt, invoked in scolding writer Aisha Harris for pining for a black Santa.

I’m here to set the record straight. Yes, Megyn, there is a Santa, and he (sometimes) is black.

One December day in 1979, my family drove north from our little town in southeast Missouri, searching for snow on our way to my grandparents’ house. In tow we had my 16-year-old cousin, a Florida native who wanted to see snow for Christmas. No luck in our part of the Midwest, so we headed north.

We stopped in St. Louis to show my cousin the big city and to see the lovely decorated windows at downtown stores like Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer and Fuller. At Famous, we set out to find Santa. My younger sister was 7, my older sister a jaded 15. I was 11 and still a believer.

Famous-Barr’s Santa held court at the end of a winding path through Candyland, full of toy trains and beautiful automated displays. As we inched nearer, I remember, my heart pounded, wondering if this was the year I’d get that coveted Tuesday Taylor doll whose scalp swiveled, allowing her to change from blond to brunette in seconds.

When we hit the front of the line, we hit a fork in the road. A nattily dressed elf asked whether we wanted a photo with Santa, and my parents declined. Not sure why – maybe we’d already seen Santa elsewhere. But when we said “no photo,” the elf pointed down one hall and said we could find Santa there.

So we filed down that hallway, turned a corner and went through a door and came face to face with Santa – a black Santa.

I remember the look on his face – utter surprise. Maybe that was aimed at us, because I’m sure the faces of my sisters and me (and maybe my Florida cousin, too,) registered complete and absolute shock.

We lived in a southern town where sharecroppers still existed. Black people and white people didn’t live in the same parts of town. They didn’t even go to the same churches.

Yet there we were, three little white girls and their Florida cracker cousin, climbing onto Santa’s lap and telling him our Christmas dreams.  It was just like all the other times we’d sat on Santa’s lap, only this time, Santa looked like Flip Wilson instead of Mickey Rooney.

So that was that. We promised to leave cookies for Santa and a carrot for Rudolph and bid Santa good-bye. He told us to be good.

And we were. And I did receive the Tuesday Taylor doll, who took up residence in the sorority house that was the Barbie Town House in my room.

And I frankly forgot the incident until recently, Megyn, when your ignorance caused my brain to cough up this memory.

So yes, Megyn, there is a black Santa Claus. And probably a Latino one and an Asian one, and maybe a redneck one, for all I know.

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.

What should we do for MLK Jr. Day?

Last year, in an effort to make the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday count for something more than mid-January sales, the hubs, kids and I spent a few hours volunteering at Harvesters, the food bank. After a short presentation about food insecurity, we went to work boxing up food that would be delivered to food pantries.

Hey, we’re not saints, people. It’s a national initiative called the Day of Service. You’re supposed to keep Dr. King’s legacy alive, step outside your comfort zone and work to effect change in your community. Click here for more info.

My kids loved it, and the experience sort of led them to volunteer in similar areas over the last year. So this year, as the holiday approaches, they said they’d like to go back to Harvesters.

Only Harvesters told me today that it’s too late to sign up to volunteer there on Jan. 21. They’re fully booked, they said, but we could come back another day.

Well, we don’t have another weekday. So we’re looking for something else meaningful to do that day to commemorate Dr. King’s work and to expand our knowledge of the needs in our community. And we’re looking for suggestions.

If you’ve got some ideas — serious ones, please — leave them at the bottom of this post. I’ll let you know later this month what we end up doing.

And if you haven’t already, consider marking MLK Day yourself by doing something for others.

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.”

 

Mess with my kids and feel my wrath

A week or so ago, Maggie and I were in a take-out pizza joint on a Friday night.

It was crazy busy, and the place was pretty small. We queued to order our pepperoni pie, then waited against the back windows.

Pretty soon the door opened, and a couple walked in. They looked vaguely familiar, but I didn’t think much of it.

Then Maggie pinched my arm and whispered in my ear that the couple who’d just entered the joint was a former coach of hers and his wife.

Ahhh. I looked anew at the woman, who seemed to have put on a few pounds since the last time I saw her courtside. Her husband’s hair had grayed noticeably. I smirked.

Maggie shot me a sideways glance but didn’t say anything.

Pretty soon, a teen behind the counter called our name, and we picked up the pizza and headed for the door. Just as we got there, the coaching couple turned around and smiled, all Stepford-like.

“Hi, Maggie!” they said brightly.

Bless her heart, my girl has raisings. She smiled and said hello.

That’s my sweet girl…

I, on the other hand, felt that familiar motherly indignation rise within me. All I could muster was a glare, which probably looked more like a squint since I wasn’t wearing my glasses.

Out in the parking lot, I attempted casual conversation with Maggie.

“Man, she looked fat, didn’t she?” I asked. “Didn’t she look fat?”

Maggie just shrugged and smiled, a little patronizingly, I thought.

“Mom,” she said, “you need to let it go.”

“It” was an incident several years ago where the pizza-ordering fatties – back then considerably more svelte but snotty just the same – had conspired to kick my daughter off a sports team so their little darling could take her place.

But no one bothered to tell us that our girl wasn’t on the team until the season began and games started. Then, and only then, did we find out she had lost her spot on the team.

She cried. She cried and cried and wondered why she wasn’t good enough to play on the team she’d been on for several seasons. We had no reason to give, except that that the coach’s kid gets preference.

Then, adding insult, her new team had to play her old team once or twice a season. And the old teammates she’d joked around with treated her badly, led by the snarky mean girl who took her spot.

I could barely watch when Maggie’s new team played her old. I was so angry, I clinched my teeth until my temples ached.

I was proud of the way Maggie made the best of a sad situation and made better friends on her new team, full of girls she’ll play with in high school. I even softened toward the girls on the other team, who I reasoned couldn’t help being the way they were if their parents were so devious they’d hurt an 11-year-old girl to further their own child’s fortunes.

But when it came to the parents, forget it. I give them no quarter.

I’m not proud that I can’t forgive and forget. I’m all the time preaching that the past is the past, that folks need to build some bridges and get over “it.”

Yet I can’t. I can’t in this instance or a few others where adults intentionally wronged my kiddos.

Mess with me, I can eventually give you a bye.

But mess with my kids, and you’re dead to me.

Jim Fay, please come live with me

And so finally, we have a 16 year old in the house, homies.

But we don’t gotta driver. What up with that?

Oh, sorry for the gangster-wannabe talk. I’ve been spending a lot of time with suburban white teens.

So anyway, the hubs and I hated to admit it, but we were looking forward to having a third driver in the family. We weren’t getting a third car, mind you, because that would be an entitlement, and we’re all about earning the finer things in life and possibly paying for them yourself. Plus, we just didn’t have the extra scratch, me being an unemployed graduate student and all. But we were anxiously awaiting having another family driver to help schlep around the rest of the brood.

The fateful day in June was fast approaching. Our potential driver had logged many hours behind the wheel with either his devil-may-care dad or his neurotic-white-knuckle-hyperventilating mom supervising.

Driver’ ed, check.

Night driving, check.

Parallel parking practice, check.

School got out in the middle of May, and our boy was cruising toward his 16th birthday on autopilot.

And then, one morning two days after school ended, I happened to come home from the YMCA to find my 15-year-old nephew literally wringing his hands on the sidewalk in front of his house. (Perhaps you recall that both my sisters and my parents live on our block.)

I got out of the car and approached him, asking him what was wrong.

“Nothing,” he said. “Well…’’

He looked toward the north end of our block. I did, too, in time to see a blue Ford van turn the corner from the west.  It was my sister’s van. But she was at work. And her husband was on a business trip to Atlanta.

“Honey,” I said, “that’s weird. Who’s driving your mom’s van?”

I stood in the middle of the street, looking toward the van, which crept ever more slowly down the street. And that’s when I had my out-of-body experience. It’s like I was up above, looking down as the scene unfolded. I saw me standing there, head cocked slightly to the left, as my brain caught up with what my eyes were seeing.

“I told them not to do it,” my nephew moaned.

Without my glasses, it was blurry, but I could make out the face of…my unlicensed 15-year-old son and his almost-13-year-old male cousin, who was grinning sheepishly. My son slowly but expertly guided the van into my sister’s driveway.

The van sat idle. No one inside moved. Finally, my younger nephew rolled down the passenger window, and that’s when I morphed into White Trash Mommy and yelled, “Get your asses out of that van!”

Is it any wonder the conservative neighbors next door to my sister’s house despise our family?

My younger nephew climbed out of the van and began slinking across the yard toward his house. “And don’t think I’m not telling your mom, Buddy!” I called to him.

My own progeny got out of the van and walked toward me, his hand outstretched. In it lay his driver’s permit.

I was seething but trying to remain calm. What would Jim Fay do? I kept asking myself. Love and logic. Love and logic. Do not threaten to kill him.

I held out my cell phone. “I should call the cops RIGHT NOW!” I hissed, aware now that the conservative neighbors’ windows were open, enjoying the fresh late-spring air. “Do you know how many laws you just broke?”

My son just looked at me. I realized I needed more information.

“OK,” I said. “What were you doing? Where were you going?”

He looked over at my older nephew, the one whose van my son had just hijacked.

“Um,” he said, “um, Wendy’s. We were hungry.”

I gazed blankly at him. “Wendy’s? Wendy’s? The Wendy’s that’s two blocks from here?” I said, pointing north. “Why, in Christ’s name, didn’t you just walk?”
He scuffed his shoe on the driveway. “We thought we’d get in trouble.”

Oh.My.Gosh.

“But you didn’t think STEALING a car would get you in trouble?” I slapped my hand to my forehead.

He just looked at me.

Turns out, my boy and his two teen cousins were hanging and decided they were starving. And between the three kitchens they had access to, apparently there was no food. So the nephew whose mom owns the blue van jokingly says they could drive to Wendy’s and get some food. He even grabs the spare keys. But then his Catholic guilt got the best of him, and he reneged.

Not so for his two cousins, who decided that because they’re Methodist, they don’t answer to the Catholic guilt and could go to Wendy’s anyway. So the Catholic nephew, while not condoning the trip, forked over some cash for them to buy him a burger.

And then I came home early. And the nephew left behind called the other two and reported that, and they left Wendy’s, dropping F-bombs all the way, without any food.

Not to brag, but I am proud of myself for staying calm. I knew that how I handled this was setting a precedent and that whatever consequence I handed down needed to be significant. So I bought some time.

“I’m taking your permit right now,” I said to my son, “and there’s going to be a consequence. But I’m not sure what. I’ll have to let you know after I talk to your dad.”

Man, for the next several hours, I had on my hands two of the most compliant teenage boys EVER. I could have asked them to do anything – wear a tutu, paint the house, pick up dog poop – and they’d have been happy to do it.

That night, after we’d finished dinner and the kids were getting ready for bed, I found my hubs in his home office and told him we needed to talk. I asked him to listen to everything I had to say before he asked any questions. And then I told him the story from beginning to end.

He was silent. Seething. I could see it in the set of his jaw. And then finally, he spoke. Of disappointment and sadness. Of mistakes that could have been serious. Of what the incident bodes for the future. Of our son waiting years before he could take his driving test.

But he never said a thing about his past. Or mine. Or his mother’s.

I cleared my throat. “I’m not 100 percent on this, but I’m pretty certain your mother took her brother’s car out for a joyride before she could legally drive,” I said.

He just looked at me. “So you see,” I said, “all this comes from your side of the family.”

He didn’t exactly think that was funny.

But we found out, as the story slowly leaked out, that most folks we know have a similar tale to tell – even our kindly pediatrician.

In the end, we settled on making the boy wait a month after his birthday before taking his driving test. And he has to make restitution to his aunt and uncle. This he’ll do by helping them work in their yard and around their house.

Some said the punishment wasn’t harsh enough. But my husband and I tend to think that people can learn from their mistakes and that the punishment shouldn’t be so severe that it overshadows the lesson.

And besides, I’m pretty sure the worst punishment was the dread our son felt as he turned that corner and saw his mother standing in the middle of the street, watching as he drove the “borrowed” van down the street.

 

Don’t eat me, Tiger Mom

Aren’t they cute? But I don’t think I’m a Tiger mom…

 What’s the opposite of a tiger?

I figure it’s a robin or something like that.

I started wondering last week. See, last week was the Scripps National Spelling Bee. And I heard a story on NPR about how South Asian-American students have dominated the spelling bee in recent years. True to form, this year’s winner was Snigdha Nandipati, an eighth-grader from San Diego. The NPR story reported that one reason Indian-American kids do so well at the bee is because it’s a point of pride for their parents and an activity the whole family can get in on.

In fact, Snigdha said that her father helped her prepare for her spelling competitions, which is not unusual.

I call parents like this Bengal Tiger Parents, not to be confused with Tiger Moms, made popular last year by the book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale law professor Amy Chua. You know, Chinese-American parents who demand excellence of their children, who usually end up neurosurgeons or what have you.

Hey, I’m not judging. It’s cool that their kids can spell words like guetapens, or play Beethoven’s entire  Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, by the time they’re 7. And it’s awesome that they don’t have to worry about how they’ll finance their retirement because their kids will be able to set them up in a nice condo in Boca.

I am, perhaps, a little bit jealous.

But personally, I’m more of a robin parent. You know, like the bird. I just let the chips fall where they may. I show the kids how to fly and then hope and pray they don’t get eaten by the neighborhood cat.

Sure, I’d like to reap the benefits of a child who can explain quantum physics when he’s 9 or can discover the cure for toe fungus as her eighth-grade science project, but you know what? I submit that those accomplishments are sometimes less kid-oriented, more adult-driven. For one thing, kids don’t even get toe fungus.

But I digress.

I once was on the path to becoming a Tiger mom, or at the very least, a Really Mean Domesticated Housecat Mom. I saw that my firstborn had innate intelligence, that he was a quick study. He was musical, too – showing great rhythmic skills at an early age and excelling at Kindermusik. That, as any first-time parent knows, is a sign of mathematical genius.

So we enrolled him in music classes and summer enrichment and various other cerebral endeavors.

And then we began working harder than he did.

He loved music and practiced grudgingly, but when our practice sessions started routinely ending with him in tears and me with a sore throat from yelling, I took a step back. All he wanted to do was play outside, and was that so bad? Did I really think he’d be the next Paderewski? No. I just wanted him to learn to play the piano.

I tell you, it was hard to dial down my expectations. I am a perfectionist by nature, at least in some aspects of my life. My housekeeping is about a B+, but when it comes to schoolwork, I was A+ all the way. I rarely can let myself get less than an A.

And for what? My college GPA was pretty freaking high. And look where it got me  — I ain’t working at National Geographic, folks.

So my husband and I backed off and decided to let our kids figure out what they wanted to be good at instead of projecting our own expectations. We expect them to do their best, of course. But they don’t have to be the best.

It’s kind of hard, at least in this day and age. The pressure to get your kid into lessons to make him or her the best at whatever they do – music, sports, art, you name it – is high. We sometimes feel like salmon swimming upstream.

So our kids are learning to play piano. And draw. And play soccer. And joining the high school band. But do we expect them to make a career of any of these? No. Our goal: To create well-rounded human beings who, as adults, can appreciate classical music as well as their own pop songs, to be able to visit an art museum and understand what’s going on, to develop a love for the theater.

In other words, we’re raising them to be cultured human beings. And whatever else they want to become beyond that is up to them.

But when I feel the urge to push a little too much, to make them devote their lives to something that’s important to me but not to them, I have to mentally tell myself, “Hey, you’ve already done this. Back off.”

I think it’s paying off, although not in the Harvard-full-ride way that many Tiger parents might experience.

On the last day of school, I walked home from the elementary school with our youngest, and my hubs greeted me at the door. He excitedly told me that the oldest, who’ll be a junior next year, tried out that day for the honors concert choir at his high school and made it.

Wow. He hasn’t sung in a school choir since the sixth grade. We had no idea he was interested in this.

But he was. And this summer, he’s taking voice lessons from the choir director, who asked last week what instruments my son plays.

“Baritone,” my son said.

“And piano,” I said. “And drums.”

The choir director seemed surprised. “Wow,” he said. “You’re musical.”

I guess this surprised him that my kiddo had this talent. We hadn’t pushed him to share it. But he did when he was ready.

And he did it on his own.

I think this is robin-parenting success.

A lesson learned

Sir Gilbert Goodfellow

I’m pretty sure God has a sense of humor. I’m talking along the lines of Tina Fey and Will Ferrell, maybe Mark Twain.

Because I have often been punk’d by the Big Guy, most recently a couple Saturdays ago.

I’ve been waiting to share my humiliation because it didn’t just affect me – it involved our whole family and its newest member, a black-and-white cocker-basset mix named Gilbert.

See, our beloved 12-year-old Lab mix, Sally, died in February of malignant melanoma. Our remaining dog, Lucy, was a little lonely and exhibiting species confusion, imagining herself a cat.

So one crazy Friday night, after a glass of wine or two, Matt and I filled out the adoption application on a local animal rescue group’s web site, bent on welcoming Gilbert into this circus troupe we call a family. By the next evening, he was visiting for a two-week trial.

The first week went well. He assimilated quickly, and it took all of about two minutes for everyone – even the cats – to fall in love with the guy. What’s not to love? He’s the happiest, least Alpha dog I’ve ever seen. 

At the end of that week, I received a new/old CASA case. My Friday was rough as I watched some kids go into foster care, despite their mom’s insistence that her transgression was a one-time occurrence.

That Saturday, after a busy morning, I headed to visit one of the kiddos. I ran an errand on the way back. Matt was in charge at home, where all three kids were hanging out.

I returned around 1:30 p.m., only to find some heartworm medication on the counter and a terse message on the answering machine from the rescue group, asking me to call. I did.

Well, it turns out, while I was gone, the rescue folks had stopped by to drop off some heartworm medication and flea preventative for Gilbert. And boy, were they ever surprised to find the little guy in our front yard, alone, scratching at the door to come in. Inside the house, looking out the door, was Lucy, the hound dog.

When they rang the doorbell, our oldest teen came to the door, removed his ear buds and asked what he could do for them. He didn’t seem surprised in the least, they said, to see the dog outside by himself. They said he half-heartedly tried to get the dog in, then accused them of having an attitude. They chased Gilbert into our open garage and brought him into the house, where the youngest kid and a friend were playing FIFA soccer on the xBox. Neither paid much attention.

Using my powers of deduction and razor-sharp mind, honed by years as a reporter, I realized the rescue lady was miffed. And I didn’t know what to say. I’d left home a few hours earlier, the house and its inhabitants running smoothly. I’d returned to find a complete CF.

The lady on the other end of the phone call paused, I guessed for me to respond.

“Well,” I said, “I know what this sounds like when I say it, but this is the first time Gilbert has been outside without a leash. I swear it. You can ask the neighbors.”

And I did know what I sounded like. I sounded like so many of the parents I work with, who claim they’d never left their 6-year-olds alone until the day the Children’s Division worker showed up for a random visit. There was no way to prove that what I said was true, either.

Later, I found out, Matt was not around because he’d taken his car to the car wash. He’d left the 15-year-old in charge. Our 14-year-old teen-age daughter never knew the uproar occurred because she was in her room, giving herself a manicure and listening to her iPod.

I asked the rescue lady to return as soon as possible so we could sort this out. Then I sent our youngest kid’s friend home and yelled for my kids to meet in the kitchen. They I proceeded to deliver a heartfelt, very loud, Come-to-Jesus, guilt-ridden speech. Did they know we could lose the puppy? How could they not know how he got out of the house? At less than 2 feet tall, there was no way he could open the door himself. And no, I did not buy the suggestion that the hound dog opened it for him because she’s jealous.

I particularly laid into the oldest. How could he be so rude to the rescue ladies? They were only doing their jobs.
“Mom,” he said, “you know how when I get scared, I can act like a jerk? They intimidated me.”

“Well, for crying out loud, what are you going to do when you get your license and someday get pulled over by a police officer?” I said, riffing into a rant about when he’d ever be able to get his driver’s license.

Matt, meanwhile, returned from the car wash and walked into the kitchen in the middle of my tirade, backing out pretty quickly. Then the doorbell rang, and the rescue group was back.

The two ladies entered the house, and the oldest apologized for his sassy mouth. The women accepted the apology but were a tad cold to me. They warned me that dogs can get hit by cars and that Gilbert is just a puppy.

I stood there and took it like a drug-court client. The one time the dog got out – one time! – had to be the time the rescue folks dropped by.

But rest assured, I told my family later, it wouldn’t be the last. They’d be all over us like flies on stink – drive bys, drop-in visits, reference checks.

I knew the drill. Oh, boy, did I know the drill.

Once I calmed down, I decided to find the positive in the humiliation. While the experience of adopting a dog in no way compares to having your children taken away, I think now I have a better sense of what parents feel.

And I realize that sometimes, things really aren’t as black-and-white as they appear.

The sting: Don’t try to fool Mama

The game was afoot.

I knew something was going on when I turned on the television in my room one day, and the TV was in a different mode. There’s only one way that can happen, and that’s by deliberate intent. And there’s generally only one reason the TV would be in a different mode, and that would be because someone was using the xBox on it.

Which is weird, because it was a weekday. And folks in these parts don’t play video games during the week. That’s a luxury reserved only for weekends because of homework and such.

So I took a straightforward approach and casually remarked to my three offspring that the TV was in a different mode. Did any of them have any theories?

They emitted a collective “nope.”

Hmmm. I posited the xBox theory. And they were aghast. What? “No way,” my oldest said. “I don’t know what happened.”

But you see, he protested a bit much. Because he is home by himself for a couple hours three days a week while I’m either at my internship or at grad school.

It was a curious situation, exacerbated by the daily updates from PowerSchool, that gift/curse that tells parents what their kids’ grades are. And the grades of the prime suspect were fair to middling. I smelled FIFA12, but I couldn’t prove it. And with the face of an angel and the pulse of a con man gifted at outsmarting lie detectors, that kid was telling a tale, I was sure of it.

I just needed evidence.

Not for nothing have I watched years of the various Law & Order franchises and NCIS. And that’s not even counting the dozens of Agatha Christie novels I’ve read or the five or so times I read Harriet the Spy.

And let’s not forget Oceans 11, 12 and 13.

What I’m saying is, I know how to get the evidence I need, capiche?  I just needed to bide my time.

So one Sunday, we all got up bright and early to go to church. But the oldest was exhausted from his busy social life and asked if this once he could sleep in a bit and then work on his homework, study for his finals.

Certainly, I purred. Just don’t play any video games.

“I won’t,” he said, all wide-eyed innocence.

The hubs and the other two kids were in the car when I ran back inside to get something. I tiptoed upstairs to my bedroom, where the xBox was sitting. I piled a few games on top of the console and put a controller on top. Then I sped back downstairs and went to church.

When we got home a few hours later, I went to my room. Surprise! The games weren’t on the console, and neither was the controller. The TV, too, was in the video game mode again.

I ran into the oldest kid’s room. “Aha!” I said. “You played video games!”

He looked hurt.  “Mom!” he said. “I didn’t do it.”

And then I explained the little trap I’d set. He narrowed his eyes, giving me a look that said, “I hate yo…” And then his look turned to one of – dare I say it – grudging admiration. He smiled sheepishly.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I did it.”

I sputtered, taken aback at the lack of indignant anger, that he’d better do his homework for the rest of the day.

I went back downstairs and shared the evidence with the hubs. The youngest listened intently.

“Wow,” he said. “You set a trap. How did you do that?”

Tsk, tsk, tsk, my young friend. Mama’s not going to reveal all her secrets…

Whoever invented the bathing suit is a misogynist

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a female over the age of 12 must be in want of a bathing suit that doesn’t make her look slutty.

Oh.My.Gosh. To say that I loathe shopping for swimwear is a gross understatement. That’s why I shop by mail order, ordering my swim minis from Lands’ End Overstocks and trying them on in the privacy of my closet.

But now I’m living the horror vicariously through my sweet 13-year-old daughter.

Maggie needed a swim suit for camp. Last year she made it through with a cute striped one-piece from the Target girls’ department, but no more. My baby hovers on the edge of puberty and all the joy it entails. She’s in-between – too big for girls’ suits but not quite ready for a juniors’ suit even, at least not some parts of her.

This is not a new yearly dreadfest – no, we first encountered it in 2009. Read about that here.

But it’s getting progressively worse, and frankly, it’ll never get better. Like the nice saleslady at Sears told her: “Honey, about the only thing worse than shopping for a bathing suit is shopping for a bra.”

Sing it, sister.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our first stop on the annual Trip of Shame was Target. Now, seriously, Target is my happy place. But not that night.

Maggie and I visited the juniors/women’s bathing suit department, and I was thrilled – thrilled, I tell you – to discover that Target now sells swimming suits made with Spanx, or at least a Spanx-like material.

I was giddy. “Maggie!” I hissed. “Come here! Look at this!”

I held up a black-and-white suit with a Spanx bottom and long fitted tunic top. My description doesn’t do it justice. It was really cute.

She eyed it critically. “These look like Mom underwear,” she said.

I ignored that. “You don’t understand what a miracle Spanx is,” I said. “When I was kid, there was no Spanx. We just had to suck in our guts and lie on our stomachs a lot. We’d tie beach towels around us if we had to go to the bathroom or the cabana for a drink. It was positively Stone Age. This,” I shook the black bottoms, “will keep you all in.”

She sighed. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll try it on. And this one, too.” She grabbed a polka dot tankini.

We headed for the dressing room. Like a dog in a fire hydrant store, I lost focus a few times on the way there. Target does that to me. That’s why I usually go in for one thing and end up with a new shower curtain, six tubes of toothpaste and some super cute shoes.

So I found some cute dresses on sale that I wanted Maggie to try, too. Because I really like disappointment, apparently. I know that the child only wears dresses under duress, but they were SO CUTE. And I knew she’d look awesome in them.

I made it to the dressing room just in time to hear the primal sound of a woman squeezing into a swimsuit. It’s a lot of grunting, exasperated sighs, light weeping, and then a few choice curse words. I knocked on her door and implored her to let me in.

She did. I slipped in.

She glared at me. “I hate this,” she said. “I hate everything about it. I hate my stomach and my thighs. I can’t wear anything.” She crossed her arms over her chest.

I tried to explain that no normal woman likes it. I mean, what is a swimming suit but basically underwear made out of Lycra and Spandex? Are we a society who likes walking around in our underwear? No, we are not, not really. Oh, sure. There’s always the exhibitionist who enjoys baring it all and usually has a YMCA membership, or the super-skinny skank with various Chinese-like tattoos on her nethers who looks good until her skin starts losing its elasticity.

But most of us would rather not walk around vast bodies of water with nothing but a thin layer of nylon keeping our saggy parts from breaking out.

“Here,” I said, handing her one of the dresses. “Try this on.”

“Mom,” she groaned, “no.”

“See,” I said, “in the old, old days, swimming suits looked like this dress. They covered everything from your neck to your knees.”

Suddenly, inspiration hit me. Next year, no camp that requires one-piece swimming suits for all female campers.

Next year, it’s Amish camp. I think that dress’ll work just fine for that one.

Where did this kid come from?

PowerSchool is such a double-edged sword.

You know PowerSchool – it’s the nifty electronic grade book that allows parents to know at every minute of the day how their kids are doing in school. It’s both a gift and a curse.

The gift comes because no longer are we surprised when the kids bring home their grades, good or bad. The curse is that every flipping day – if you’re neurotic like me and have the high school e-mail you daily updates of your kid’s grades – you’re faced with the reality that while your kid said he understood his biology assignment, more than likely he didn’t.

A couple days ago my oldest told me I’d ruined his day, and it wasn’t even 7 a.m. That’s because I checked my e-mail at 6:30 a.m. and saw the daily PowerSchool update. And lo and behold, his bio grade had fallen an entire letter since the previous day’s update.

I didn’t rant and rave and talk about wasted potential – not then. I didn’t want to ruin his day. I don’t live to ruin the days of my kiddos, but good luck convincing them of that.

But I asked him why he’d received a big fat zero on an assignment I was pretty sure I’d seen him working on. He didn’t know, he said. He’d turned it in.

“Did you really?” I asked, knowing even as the words left my lips that I was edging into the danger zone. But I couldn’t help myself.

“Mom!” he moaned. “Why don’t you trust me?”

Hmmm. I don’t know. Why don’t I trust him? Could it be because of his sometimes creative massaging of the truth?

Except that I was 99 percent sure he had done this assignment. So I told him he needed to ask his teacher about it. Maybe she’d made a mistake.

You’d have thought I told him he’d have to take it up with Dolores Umbridge. He looked stricken. Couldn’t I ask?

“Look,” I said, “it’ll be weird if I get involved. You don’t want people to think your mommy has to fix your problems, do you?”

Actually, that’s OK with him.

And that’s what I don’t get. Neither his dad nor I is a shrinking violet. We face our issues head-on. We don’t take getting stepped on lightly. We advocate for ourselves.

And we do it in front of our kids. I mean, we’re not going around raising hell all the time. But many’s the time my husband had argued with someone about an overcharge. The kids are always rolling their eyes behind his back.

Myself, I take the “good cop” approach until pushed to defend myself, which I’ve also done in front of the kids many times.

But our oldest – he sort of takes a Zen view of the world, at least this part of it. There must be some reason his grade fell a whole letter grade. Who is he to question fate? The grade is but one step on his path to enlightenment, blah blah blah.

Let him get slighted by the xBox while he’s playing FIFA soccer, though, and hoo boy. There’s hell to pay, xBox. And if his siblings short him a cupcake or donut or eat the last Little Debbie cake, watch out!

So I’m puzzled. Is this his way of rebelling against his dad and me, by becoming passive? I am a little worried.

The school bus: Not for the faint of heart

Momonthedge is swamped this week with a group project for a class in which she’s learned nothing except that she’s still got the ability to fake it when the teacher asks who read the material. So here’s something I wrote a couple years ago about the school bus.

Seems timely, considering that current story about the school bus driver going all Jersey Shore on the middle school kiddo…

I’ll be back with new meaningless drivel next week…

Happy Easter and/or Passover!

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We live just around the corner from our elementary school. But the middle school’s clear on the other side of town. So my kids don’t ride the bus until middle school.  

That school starts a good hour before the elementary, and it doesn’t make sense to my small-town-girl mindset to spend 30 minutes or so driving to and from the kids’ school when the bus stop is literally steps from our front door. And at best, that’s a 25 minute ride. What could go wrong, I figured. 

Once again, I figured wrong.  

Two years ago, when Joe was the first to take the bus to school, he and his naïve walker buddies became convinced the bus driver had it out for them.

He seemed like a nice guy to me. He explained how the process worked to my sister and me when he picked up the kids on the first day of school. This guy had a system. Eighth graders sat in the back, seventh graders in the middle, sixth graders in the front. He joked around with the kids but tried to run a tight ship. 

However, he was a little sarcastic. And his sarcasm didn’t go over well with the sixth graders, none of whom had ridden a bus before.

One day, a bunch of them mutinied, and the guy had to pull the bus over to regain control. Some kids were crawling under seats, and others were asserting their rights to be treated with respect by the driver. My sister saw all this on the school bus video a day or so later, when she investigated her own daughter’s involvement. 

Joe called me on a borrowed cell phone during this incident, and I could hear the pandemonium in the background. I’m sure it sounded just like the Bounty. 

I hung up with him, called my sister and asked her to drive toward the bus and then called the transportation department and told them the bus driver needed help. By the time my sister got the six blocks to the bus, it had started again. But my niece and three other kids were walking home. 

My son, however, got off at his regular stop. He would have walked, but he was bringing home his baritone and didn’t want to lug that monster six blocks.  

Later, when the dust cleared, I told Joe that he was going to have to ride the bus to school. For 30 minutes twice a day, I said, you can stick your iPod earbud in your ear, look straight ahead and grin and bear it. 

He did. We’ve had no problems since.  

But now, Maggie’s the newbie. She knew about what happened during Joe’s sixth-grade year. There’s a different driver now, a woman. Maggie likes her, calls her by name, knows some personal details. She doesn’t have any issues with her. 

No, her problems revolve around a boy a year older whom she’s known since she was in kindergarten. If what she tells me is right, this kid should be in the Navy. “Potty mouth” doesn’t even begin to describe what rolls off his tongue.  

I can’t even type here the things that he’s said, mostly about other kids. And Maggie (and Joe verifies this) says he sits at the front of the bus, not the back, where such obscenities were uttered in my day.  

When the boy started picking on Maggie’s friend, whose mother’s reputation was unjustly defiled by this foul-mouthed kid, that was the last straw for my little social-justice activist. She took up for her friend. And now, she’s the mean boy’s target. He’s called her some bad stuff.

Now, I know this kid’s mother. Part of me wants to talk to her about this. But in the past, she’s tended to think he’s been wronged, picked on, misunderstood. She generally believes what he says. I don’t know that speaking with her will do any good. And the kid might just focus even more on Maggie. 

So on Tuesday, after Maggie came home telling me the heinous word he called her, I called the transportation department. I told the discipline officer there my dilemma, and she said she’d review the bus videotapes and see if she could tell what was going on. 

I just hope to heaven that Maggie didn’t say something equally bad or worse back to the kid. That’ll be embarrassing. 

And where was Joe during all this maligning of his sister’s character? Sitting there with his iPod earbud in his ear. He claims obliviousness. 

Maggie and I were talking about it tonight, and I told her she needs to move away from the boy and to tell her friends to do the same. It’s only 30 minutes twice a day, I said. You guys don’t need to prove any points, you just need to make it home. 

And then I told her about my own horrific school bus.

It was the 1980s in a small town in southeast Missouri. My bus driver was about 105 and wore glasses as thick as Coke bottles. He was as sweet as he was blind and deaf. And his bus was a rolling hellhole. 

I went to Catholic school through the fifth grade, so sixth grade was my first year on the bus, too. But in those days in that town, all the routes were kindergarten through 12th grade. The big, bad nasty kids sat in the back of the bus. I tried never to go past the middle to find a seat. 

My older sister was supposed to ride with me, but she always managed to avoid it when her friend Victor, who drove a Chevelle convertible, pulled up to the bus stop and whisked her away from all that.  

In my memory, the back of the bus was a hazy, pot-smoke-filled place. There may have been kids having sex back there for all I know. A few rows in front of Gomorrah sat members of the Murray family, a particularly mean-spirited bunch who would spit in your face if you made eye contact. 

I cowered in fear at the front of the bus from the sixth grade until early high school, when our ancient bus driver retired, only to be replaced by a stone-faced mechanic who demanded silence on the bus so that he could hear the engine at all times. What a relief. 

That was almost 30 years ago, but apparently nothing much has changed on the bus. And you can see I’m no help to my children. At least Maggie has more guts than I ever did.