Why the suburbs are all wrong for my kids

“LOOK. AT. THE. DEER!” I say this to my sons, 11 and 14, as we do our normal weeknight swing down the tree-lined driveway, home from what feels like their 10th basketball practice of the week. But my boys are buried in their iPhones, watching for their friends’ reactions/likes/comments on one of whatever social media apps of the moment.

Amazing things are going on around them – I mean, I am floored, every time, by seeing the deer just calmly hanging out a few feet away, staring right at me, not even running away from our car. But unlike many parents, I don’t think it’s social media that has led to my kids’ indifference. I’ve firmly decided to place the much of the blame squarely on the suburbs. Yes – having my kids grow up in the beautiful, sheltered, suburban world of the suburbs of Maryland is the problem.

I grew up in Chicago, in a vibrant neighborhood where the noise was my friend and nobody drove me anywhere. Sounds were all around me, and I walked everywhere, myself, alone. I fell asleep to the din of the Lunt Avenue buses outside my bedroom window, and the chatter of the second-floor neighbors talking with my mom because the windows were open. I woke up to the scent of blueberry muffins baking at Swiss Pastry across the alleyway, and the clanks of the first morning’s game of Kick the Can. From the moment I woke up, I was never lonely or bored. Sounds and people enticed me to go out and explore. Everything was outside, awaiting me.

I felt connected to all the neighborhood kids, shops, workers – even the caretaker of the pond at our beloved Indian Boundary Park, which was just a baseball’s throw away. It was at that pond that I saw my first turtle and discovered how they move and feel.

And that’s what I’m afraid my boys don’t have by living in the suburbs. That feeling of being connected. I bet my boys have never stolen or felt a turtle. They’ve probably watched animal tricks on the Internet and have likely Googled “turtles” when they needed to learn about them for a school project. My younger son does know the neighborhood kids, but my older one is always out at some structured activity or sports practice he gets to by car.

They don’t have the kind of life where they can walk themselves to activities and chat with store owners along the way. They don’t have to figure out bus numbers and routes or try new things on their own. The suburbs: The planned community where everything is available, by car. With a schedule. With parents in charge.

Sometimes, at night, as I look out our big living room window at the woods behind our house. It’s pretty, but unnerving. It’s too quiet. I’m looking for some activity – even the deer – and waiting for something to happen. The suburbs, with all of their supposed security and conveniences, and book clubs for moms and hectic sports leagues for kids, are pretty lonely.

Do my kids feel the loneliness of the suburbs? I don’t think so. I think it feels like their haven, their home. It’s all they’ve ever known. But when my son has an urgent request for candy or a protractor for homework, the need will pass that night, unfulfilled, unless he can persuade me to drive him to CVS. If we lived in a neighborhood like the one I grew up in, he could walk to the drugstore to get it himself. He’d learn responsibility, independence and redefine initiative.

And as for me, the mom in the suburbs: Sometimes I just don’t feel like driving over to Starbucks to meet a friend for coffee. I yearn for the way it was when I grew up, in that three-story apartment in West Rogers Park, where our French windows stayed open all the time, and my mom could yell up to her friend on the second floor, to come have an iced tea. It’s not  just that I’m a mother who wants it to be like it was “back in my day.” I wish for  my kids to experience some of the kind of childhood and independence I gained from living in the city.

It’s not just helicopter parenting, structured play dates and social media that have made their lives seemingly easier, or perhaps if not easier, lazier. It’s living in the burbs. I want my boys to experience how the little things in everyday life don’t always come so easy. I remember my mom searching for a parking spot on the street, carrying groceries way farther than across a porch, of trusting me to walk alone every day, make friends with the drugstore owner and actually talk to strangers.
I’m not saying that I wish I was a mom carrying groceries for blocks and blocks. I think that’s what I wanted to avoid when we first moved to the suburbs. I wanted the ease and convenience of a driveway, a front porch. But now all I feel is an anemic lifestyle. Car to the gym to home to school to home to work to the office to store to home again. Then the evening carpools start. For the kids, and I guess, for me, there’s no grit, no problem-solving necessary to get from Point A to Point B. And that’s what I’m afraid my children aren’t learning by living in this supposed utopia — a way of life that fosters self-reliance and problem-solving.

Why not just leave? Well, I can’t … literally and logistically. Legally, I’m divorced and couldn’t go even if I wanted to. But even if I could go, I wouldn’t want to uproot my  boys now, to take them away from their dad, school and sports teams, and this neighborhood they consider home. They’re living their version of childhood, and they think this suburban one is just fine. But will they one day look back on this childhood with a misty eye, like I think of mine? Will I?
The irony is, I created this situation. As much as I loved my childhood as a kid, once I was in my 20s, I envisioned having kids of my own and giving them a “nicer” and safer life. I wanted to grow up and get a comfortable house for my family with the extras that I never had. A real rec room. A yard. space.
I got married. I got the big house. I gave them a back yard and better schools and safer streets. The idea that all the stability I thought suburban life would bring them, and me, seems almost silly now.

I am restless here, and now there’s a longing for what I’ve lost, and for what they’ll never have – the buzz outside the windows, the sense of being part of something you don’t have to pay or try out for to join, expressions on real faces when they share exciting news with friends, not emojis from miles away.
I’d gladly give back their hoverboard and Xbox, Instagram accounts and carpools for a place and time that’s more of the childhood I had. Some would argue I had less. But I was happy. And decades later, sounds of the city still comfort me. Even when I don’t hear them, I can remember.
What will my sons remember? I don’t think it will be a sense of excitement, wondering who is outside, or which random people they will meet on their walk to school. They won’t learn how to make nice with shopkeepers or smell the bakery as they walk past. But perhaps they’ll remember the safety and predictability of the suburbs. And for them, if not me, maybe that’s enough.

Erin Mantz is a writer, marketing professional, and mother of two boys. She tweets @erinmantz.

Go call your mom. Science says it’ll make you feel better.

There are many days — okay I’ll admit it, all my days — when I get the urge to pick up the phone and tell my mom one quick thing. Or rant a little, or ask her advice. I’ll be blunt: I can’t actually do that because she passed away a few years ago. But the fact that I still feel my hand automatically reach toward the phone makes me think a lot about what it is with moms. Why do so many of us feel the need to tell them so much or ask them so much? Even when they are gone, or we don’t actually heed their advice?
As one researcher discovered, and many of us can attest to, moms simply make things better.
Haley Horstman, a professor at the University of Missouri, explains that there is a lot of research showing that when we experience something difficult, we often “storify” that experience. We create a plot, a setting, scene, and characters. Telling a story helps us cope with the negative experience. A “narrative scholar,” Horstman became interested how this storytelling between mothers and daughters impacts a person’s well-being. So Horstman invited more than 60 young-adult daughters to come into a lab and tell a story about something difficult that happened to them. The daughters wrote their stories and then answered questions about how they felt. Two days later, they brought their moms to the lab and had a conversation for about 15 minutes about that same story. Two days after that, the daughters repeated the first step, writing the story down again and answering the same questions about their well-being. The researchers then compared the first and last stories, noting the tone and other aspects, as well as the answers to the questions. The stories were overwhelmingly more positive after the women talked with their moms, even if their mothers didn’t have solutions to their problems or offer advice. One thing that impacted how the daughters felt, in the end, was if they had some back-and-forth with their moms. “We found when the mother and daughter take a lot of turns, have the same amount of time talking, those daughters had more positive stories by the end,” Horstman said.  “Generally, my findings show that if you can build a relationship with your kid where there’s a little more give and take, that will help the child in the long run.”
Of course, it’s not all butterflies and unicorns when it comes to communicating with mothers. We all have had our fair share of tough moments when talking to mom. (Some more than others.)
Carla L. Fisher, an assistant professor at George Mason University, studies communication between family members and how that’s essential to health, with specific attention to mothers and daughters who are dealing with breast cancer. “There’s something about mothers and daughters. We try to be there for one another, but as close as we might be, it can be fireworks,” she said, surprising no daughter anywhere. “It’s just such a profound relationship. And it’s complicated.”
Take, for instance, communicating about something like breast cancer. Mothers may be of a generation where health issues remained relatively private, whereas their daughters (Gen Xers, millennials) are used to sharing everything. Part of that openness is great and has pushed changes in health care reform, Fisher notes. But “there’s a healthy balance of recognizing that, for younger women, they might want to talk about it and talk about prevention, but older mothers might not want to.” That alone makes it difficult for both mother and daughter to get what they need out of those conversations, or lack of conversations. But even with that friction, why do mothers have such a strong hold? Why do we need them so much? They are our first inherent connection. For many, that’s physical. For others, it’s not, but there’s still an internal tie like none other, Fisher explains. “Mothers help us know who we are … she’s just the ultimate teacher, ultimate guide.”

Ultimate is right. Communication with a mother is the foundation of everything, says Michelle Miller-Day, a professor of communication studies at Chapman University, who studies mother-daughter relationships. “It’s the way we create bonds, sustain bonds,” she says. So how do we make sure, as parents and as adult children, that we create a place of good communication? It has to be reciprocal, Miller-Day says. “As parents, we say we need to be in charge. … ‘I am monitoring you because I love you,’ ” she said. But it shouldn’t be about control. Parents need to work on having their children be willing to share. Ask questions, Miller-Day suggests. Watch a show together and talk about the situation and listen to your child’s opinion. Instead of lecturing about what not to do, it’s important to weave conversations into everyday life, she says. “Ask for their points of view. Respecting their points of view doesn’t mean you have to go along with it. It’s about respect more than anything else.”

Which is just what Horstman’s study discovered. The more a mother listened to her daughter, even if she didn’t agree, the more that negative narrative turned a little positive. “Oftentimes, we don’t think of these daily conversations as all that important, but that conversation has the power to help us understand our life experiences,” Horstman said.
There you have it. Your mom makes everything better, so go give her a call. Science says to do it.

Three things parents should say to girls to help them build a positive body image

By Katie Hurley

“Hello, I’m a fat person, fat, fat, fat.”

Taken out of context, these words, from the mouth of a 6-year-old female toy tester at the Mattel headquarters, are a bit jarring. They are the kind of words you hope your child won’t use out in the world. They are words laced with hurt and judgment.

For her Time cover story on the new and improved Barbie, Eliana Dockterman observed young girls at play with the new dolls. While the first child referenced was direct with her body comments, another girl attempted to spare the feelings of the doll by spelling out the word, “F-A-T.”

How do very young children learn to judge others by the shapes and sizes of their bodies? Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. Between subtle messages in the home, the influence of media, peer interactions and the shrinking of childhood (many girls are growing up quickly these days), young girls consume and internalize countless messages about body image every single day.

Many parents know to be careful about the words they use when discussing their own bodies. We know, for example, that saying things like, “I feel fat today” or “do I look fat in these jeans?” sends harmful messages to young girls. Parents avoid those overt statements and replace them with comments about physical strength in an effort to teach young girls body confidence. But what about the most subtle statements that sometimes slip through the cracks?

Standing in line at Gap not long ago, I witnessed a mother-daughter conversation that sent a subtle, but powerful message about body image. A young girl, about 6 years old, ran up to her mother with a pair of winter gloves in her hands. “I found some but I don’t like them that much,” she stated, in that matter-of-fact tone kids of that age often use. “They make my fingers look too skinny.” She looked up her mom for confirmation. Her mother’s response took me by surprise. “That’s better than looking fat,” she uttered, without missing a beat.

Perhaps it was an isolated incident. We’ve all experienced impatient moments and bad days and sometimes we respond before we consider the potential impact of the response. But what if it wasn’t an isolated incident? What if that message was one of many?

For years, I worked with a young girl who struggled with body image, self-esteem, and anxiety. Her home life was defined by a seemingly endless discussion on weight gain, weight loss, exercise and fad diets.

Ever on a quest to find the perfect diet, her mother constantly removed foods from the house and talked obsessively about calories, sugars and “bad” foods. Don’t get me wrong; her mother had good intentions. Maintaining a healthy weight was a lifelong struggle for her, and she wanted to make the challenge easier for her daughter.

The body and diet talk was overwhelming for this young girl, however, and she developed her own coping strategy to combat the negative emotions she experienced almost daily: sneak eating. She saved her coins to purchase snacks from the school vending machine and ate them in the dark of night. In doing so, she lived up to her own carefully constructed self-fulfilling prophecy: a young girl powerless over the lure of junk food.

Recent findings show that kids as young as 32 months pick up on fat shaming attitudes of their moms, and a report released by Common Sense Media reveals that half of the girls and one-third of the boys between 6 and 8 think their ideal weight is thinner than their current size. It’s time to consider how we talk to kids about body image.

It’s easy to set a few rules around body talk, including removing “fat” from your vocabulary and not commenting on the size or shape of someone else’s body. Where it gets complicated, however, is when your daughter comes home with difficult questions. “Am I fat?” or “will I get fat if I eat this?” speak volumes about the inner struggle of a young child.

Cara Natterson, a pediatrician, and New York Times bestselling author of The Care and Keeping series has some great tips on talking body image with young girls.

“I have always felt that the most important thing a parent can do is, to be honest,” explains Natterson. “But when there is an issue – particularly around weight – it can be incredibly difficult to walk the fine line between protecting your child and being truthful.”

How should parents handle questions and concerns about body image? Start here:

Answer the question with a question

Natterson suggests using conversation starters to help children uncover the feelings beneath the surface. She suggests, “What makes you ask that question?” as a starting point. “This is seriously the BEST answer because it allows your child to explain where the concern is coming from,” Natterson explains.

It’s important to keep the dialogue open. When we jump in with solutions to “fix” the problem, we close down the conversation. To help young girls work through these difficult topics and overwhelming emotions, we need to listen more than we talk.

Watch your words

Words like “fat” and “chubby” are sometimes used in jest to describe animals in books, toys or other fictional characters. While that seems harmless at the moment, it can send mixed messages. Sometimes the subtle messages internalized early on can lead to negative thinking later on.

Emily Roberts, psychotherapist and author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girl’s Guide to Speaking Up and Being Who You Are, cautions parents to choose their words carefully. “Don’t fat shame, weight shame or categorize others by their weight,” says Roberts, “This sends the message that their weight is what you see, not their character.”

Talk about strengths

Children need to feel heard and understood. To that end, it’s important to listen to your daughter’s concerns about body image. Empathize with her and talk about what it feels like to struggle with the emotional and physical changes that naturally occur as children grow. Then steer the conversation toward the positive.

It is imperative that young girls hear body positive messages. Talk about physical strength and what their bodies can do for them (hanging from those monkey bars isn’t easy, after all). Educate them about healthy eating and playful exercise. Cook meals together and helps your daughters take control of their own health so that will internalize a positive message: They have the power to live healthy and happy lives. That’s a message worth sharing.

Katie Hurley is a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting educator in Los Angeles, and the author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. You can find her on Twitter and on her blog, Practical Parenting.

Autism: When to push and when to stop

By Lauren Swick Jordan April 1

TJ and the author. (Courtesy of the author)
My son, TJ, is 15 years old. He has autism.

When TJ was in elementary school, we worked tirelessly on so many issues. Sitting up for the entire circle time. Sitting through the entire lunch time without a meltdown. Taking turns and sharing. Accepting disappointment when something didn’t meet his expectations.

All things that every child must work on.

We also focused on more TJ-specific things, like his pencil grip. From the get-go in kindergarten, his grip was all his own. Nothing like that of the other children. His teachers tried many different ways to remind him to correct his pencil grip in hopes it would become a habit: notes on his desk with proper pencil grip pictures; verbal reminders; plastic grippers on his pencil that would forcibly enforce the correct grip.

None of them worked.

Finally, when he was in middle school, his team of teachers and therapists, along with my husband Sean and I, decided that since his handwriting was clear and legible, we didn’t need to enforce the “proper” pencil grip any longer. We let him use whichever grip he used naturally.

It hasn’t been an issue since.

As an autism parent, I frequently ask myself a big question:

What tasks and traits do we keep working on with him, and what tasks and traits do we let go of? What do we accept as being “naturally TJ,” and what do we think he will benefit from if certain things change?

I remember Temple Grandin, a famous autism pioneer, author, public speaker and person with autism, saying something like this (I’m paraphrasing): “The best thing my mother ever did for me was to treat me like the rest of my siblings.”

This has always been in the back of my mind, ever since TJ was diagnosed with autism when he was just over 2 years old. In certain cases, it is very applicable, and I believe has led TJ to some great successes:

He and his brother both sort, clean, fold and put away their own laundry. They both walk the dog. They both have cleaning responsibilities around the house.

You get the idea. It has worked in these cases for us to have the same expectations of TJ as we do of his neurotypical brother, Peter.

But what about other things we want for TJ?

Take, for example, socializing. This has been one of our biggest goals for TJ and has also been the most difficult one to master.

I struggle with this goal all the time. Should we keep pushing? Should we let it go? It is the area where TJ’s skills are the most lacking, and at the same time, in our minds, one of the most important ones.

But for TJ, is it important? At all?

The back and forth is constant, but thinking back, so were so many other struggles we have encountered in the past.

I have to remind myself that just as we have found clarity on all of those other issues we have previously had, so we will eventually find clarity on this one. We just have to stick with it, for now, hoping for even a little bit of gain. And eventually, we will know when it’s time to stop pushing and let TJ’s own socializing self (or not) take its natural course.

And I have to remind myself that with each new issue that comes up, we will help TJ tackle it as best as we all can — challenging him where we can for growth, and stepping back where we need to.

Time will tell. It always does.

Lauren Swick Jordan is a frequent On Parenting writer and blogs at Laughing…like it’s my job.

How to be a better money role model for your child

By Kimberly Palmer

As a mom who writes about money for a living, I figured my 6-year-old daughter would learn a lot about personal finances from overhearing me talk about my work. She’s listened to me give radio interviews espousing the benefits of budgeting, and heard me talk at the dinner table about the importance of frugality.

The behavior I was modeling, though, was severely undermining many of those lessons. She noticed that when we went out for dinner, it was almost always her dad who picked up the bill at the end of the meal. (In fact, I often left my wallet at home, knowing he had his.) When she heard her father and me talking about bills and saving for college, she probably could tell that while I was handling many of the monthly bills, her dad was managing many of the longer term savings accounts. Until recently, I am embarrassed to admit, I didn’t even know some of the passwords.

As I researched my new book, “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” I realized that I was probably passing on harmful lessons to her and that the situation needed to change immediately. The dozens of smart moms I interviewed taught me how essential it is not only that I take more control over our family finances, but also that I demonstrate that behavior to my daughter, so she can learn from it.

A 2014 survey of parents, kids and money by T. Rowe Price found that boys are more likely than girls to say their parents talk to them about setting financial goals (58 percent versus 50 percent). The survey also found that boys are more likely to consider themselves smart about money and to say that their parents are saving for their future college tuition.

[Are we holding our own daughters back? 5 ways to help our girls become leaders.]

Those gender differences are pretty disturbing, and I can’t help but wonder if they are related to the fact that surveys repeatedly show that as young adults, women tend to save less, invest less and earn less than their male peers. One 2014 Wells Fargo survey found that women in their 20s feel less satisfied with their money than their male peers and that the women carry more debt.

The moms I interviewed who I admire most when it comes to money were in constant communication with their children about the financial choices they were making for their families. Those useful conversations include the mistakes that they made with money; how and why they earn money and what it pays for; and how they are saving for big goals such as a family vacation or college tuition.

I started trying to incorporate these money-related discussions into our daily chats. On the way to school, when my daughter asks for a story from my childhood, I tell her how I made a budget before my parents let me get a hamster, and about my first job running a neighborhood summer camp.

I could tell she started thinking more about money, too. She often reminds us now that we shouldn’t go out to lunch because it’s too expensive. Or she offers to share her piggy bank savings with us if we ever run into hard times (I really appreciated that one). After helping me pay the water bill one morning, she brainstormed ideas for how we could reduce our water consumption. When her 3-year-old brother bemoaned the fact that I had to go to work on a day he didn’t have school, she calmly explained to him, “Mommy has to work so we can live in our house.”

Like highly trained CIA agents, our kids are studying us all the time — even when we think they’re distracted. Sometimes it’s shocking to hear them repeat our words back to us; sometimes it’s adorable. One thing is for sure: In all things, from eating to getting dressed to interacting with our partners to paying for a restaurant meal, we are their models.

Kimberly Palmer is the author of “Smart Mom, Rich Mom: How to Build Wealth While Raising a Family,” from which this piece is adapted. She lives in the Washington area with her two children.

How letting go of anger has allowed me to be a better mom

I’ve been frustrated most of my life. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I am doing; irritation simply follows me. On the outside, I am engaging and good-humored, but beneath the surface is a pinched up shrew with the patience of a 2-year-old.

One of my many hidden talents is the ability to roll my eyes without splitting a nerve. It is a skill that requires equal amounts focus and fury, and one that I’m sorry to admit I have mastered.

Whether I am standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in the doctor’s office, my cuckoo clock eyes are perpetually in motion. For the most part, I keep the verbal anger to a minimum, which explains the pulsating vein on the side of my face and the reddish hue of my cheeks. But every so often I snap, causing a whirlwind of impetuous behavior.

We were living in Florida when I was eight months pregnant. It was mid-July and hotter than hell. I was on my way home from the gym when I saw an SUV in the rear view mirror speeding toward me. I assumed he would drive around since we were on a two-lane bridge, but instead he sped up and revved his engine directly behind my car.

I could feel the blood boiling in my hormonal face when I glanced up and saw him pounding his fists on the steering wheel. He was testing my patience, which was destined for failure, but I rejected his challenge and gestured for him to pass.

When he pulled alongside my car with a mouthful of contempt, I exploded. It was the only time I had ever unleashed that kind of fury on a total stranger, and I let him have it all. I was so angry that my hands were shaking. There were two of them, and two of me; one of which was still in the oven, yet I couldn’t let it go.

We continued the charade until the next light, which happened to be red. There was nowhere for me to hide and no one around to witness the insanity that was about to ensue. I was trapped, alone, and very much afraid.

I could hear them screaming at me from their windows as I eased my way toward the light, and watched in horror as their car shook to a stop. When the driver stepped out, he slammed his door shut and began stomping his way over in my direction; by now my heart was beating out of my chest and I could not catch my breath.

To this day, I honestly believe he might have killed me right there on the spot had his friend not pulled him away when the light turned green. I had allowed myself to become totally unhinged for the first time in my life, and it easily could have been my last. What a foolish thing to do, particularly for an expectant mother, and I am thankful my child wasn’t around to see it.

When I got home that day, I could not stop crying. I felt like the worst soon-to-be mother in the world and was too ashamed to tell anyone what had happened, so I didn’t — until now. The thing about losing control is that it makes you realize how swiftly it can materialize.

Looking back, it’s probably a good thing that it happened before my daughter was born. It allowed me to see the dynamics of anger and taught me how to stop myself from taking it one step further.

I have a strong-willed child. She is the spitting image of her temperamental mother, minus the elevation. When she was little, every request was an invitation to push my buttons, and she picked at them with everything she had. If I asked her to do something, she would puff out her tiny body and challenge me to a verbal joust. If I told her not to touch something, she would ease her way over to it with the grace of a swan and throw a finger on top of it while giving me a side-eye. She was relentless, and I was beginning to lose control.

We had just finished finger-painting in the kitchen one afternoon when I asked her to help me clean up. As expected, she dismissed my request by running to her room for cover, but this time, I followed behind. I wanted to set an example for future behavior, and I wasn’t taking no for an answer. We bickered back and forth until the conversation became heated and a familiar feeling began to build up inside of me. My hands were shaking — just as they were on that hot summer day — and I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed.

I knelt down on the floor with tears in my eyes and hugged my little girl. I told her to stay in her room and think about her behavior while I went into mine to do the same. Then I ran to my bedroom closet, closed the door, and sobbed my way back to sanity.

It’s hard being a parent at times. Children can push you to the ends of the earth and all you want to do is scream. You repeat yourself 10,000 times a day as if no one is listening, but they are… and they hear everything. It only takes a second to reach the point of no return, yet finding your way back can last a lifetime.

When I lost my temper that day on the road, intolerance rattled my foundation and awakened self-control. In one thick moment, I learned the importance of keeping my cool and counting to 10: a lesson that could have come at a much higher price and one that we all need to embrace.

Lisa Rene LeClair is a writer, humorist, social media junkie and mom. She blogs for your amusement at sassypiehole and she tweets @sassypiehole.

10 lazy ways to intellectually stimulate your kids

Everyone says kids are like sponges. Because they’re germy and start to smell really bad unless you wash them well with hot water and soap. Also, because their little minds are growing and expanding at approximately twice the rate of the average American waistline, and that’s saying something. But before you get out the flashcards, and by “get out,” I mean “purchase for the first time,” why not see if one of these more lackadaisical approaches can serve equally well to stimulate your little one’s synaptic growth?

  1. Learn a new language. One good one is “slang from the 90’s.” Girl, that picture you drew is fly! Don’t hate on your sister, Madison. Learning that words have double meanings and that grammar is fluid can really enhance your child’s cognitive flexibility.
  2. Play tic tac toe. Yes, you can always win, but that’s the point. Always losing teaches your child humility, grace, and good sportsmanship — what?  How did you do that? Oh my God, now my four-year-old can beat me at tic tac toe. Before I had kids I was an intellectual powerhouse, I swear.
  3. Learn sign language together. Don’t worry, I’m sure you know some already. Like “Whatever” and “bye bye.” And “birdie.” Yes, I’m sure that’s “birdie.” What do you mean you Googled it and it’s “washing machine?” How depressing.
  4. Use math in real life. Yes, kids, math is super important. Like now, when I have to figure out how much money we can afford to spend on Mommy getting her hair done. It’s our monthly income minus our mortgage, minus our electric bills, minus the car repair bill, minus… you know what, let’s do science instead. Which brings us to…
  5. Baking soda and vinegar volcanos. No, I don’t know why. But I know they work because they can unclog your shower drain. There must be something you can talk about, with pressure, or gravity, or acid, I don’t know. Work with me.
  6. Create modern art. The key word is “modern.” There are no rules here, friend. Just do what you feel. Yes, two scribbles on a piece of paper is art, and it is stimulating your child’s brain like nobody’s business.
  7. Sculpt. Create a three-dimensional figure using only clay? What a wunderkind. No, dear, this thing here isn’t called “a cylinder made out of Play-Doh,” it’s called “pottery that allows your creativity to flourish without us even leaving the house, for the second day in a row.”
  8. Practice self-defense. Physical activity creates new connections in the brain and so does hand to hand combat. So stop telling on your brother for kicking the back of your seat, and go all Krav Maga on his butt. Here’s a YouTube tutorial you can watch on the iPad while I look at Pinterest on my computer.
  9. Guessing games. I’m thinking of an animal that starts with G and has a long neck. What do you mean, “turtle?” What are they teaching you in that Montessori school anyway?
  10. Geography. A cynic may just call this “Where did Mommy leave the car again?” but really it teaches map skills, geography, resilience, and grit. Especially when you’re walking around the parking lot for 25 minutes in the drizzle with a mother who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and you don’t even have a snack bag of Goldfish. Navy SEALS, here you come, son. Thank me later.

Samantha Rodman is the author of How to Talk to Your Kids About Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. Rodman is a licensed psychologist, founder of DrPsychMom.comand a happily married mother of three.

What to do when your kid can’t fall asleep without you in the room

Q: My two girls, ages 3 and nearly 7, share a room but will not go to sleep unless each has a parent by her side until she passes out. Anything less, and it’s complete waterworks and screaming, with the little one forcing herself to throw up. How on earth do we break this awful habit? It’s been going on for about a year, and we have had no energy to fight it. We hate ending the days with them hysterically upset, so we’ve just given in to this ridiculous ritual.

A: You feel utterly alone in this struggle. And I get it. It sounds so exhausting. But I want to tell you that I receive daily calls and letters from sleepless parents who are in the same boat. So, try to take some comfort in the simple fact that you are not alone.

But we have some problems here, don’t we? To begin to understand how you came to this place, it is useful to understand why children prefer to sleep with you and will fight so hard to stay with you, night after night.

Almost every parent knows that when a baby is born, that baby wants skin-on-skin contact with a parent or caregiver 24 hours a day. In fact, the very survival of newborns depends on a caregiver strongly and physically bonding with the baby. Cuddling, strong eye contact, loving speech and skin-on-skin contact are a critical part of the maturation process for babies.

As a child grows and becomes more mature, more distance can be tolerated between this child and her caregiver. You will see that the toddler toddles away, and the 4-year-old will run down the block, and the 7-year-old will spend all day in school. Because they spend more time away from you, however, nighttimes can become especially fraught.

Children can really become needy for their parents’ attention at night. Why is this? At night, the work of the day is done and it is time to relax. What brings children the most relaxation? Being physically close to their parents. Even older children want to feel close to their attachments. At night is also when the worries begin for many children, when the room is dark and things look like scary monsters. Worrisome thoughts may enter their brain, and it is completely normal for children to be troubled by fears of death, losing their parents or some other terrible thing. Children can feel unprotected and scared, and these feelings compel them to come find their parents. (These are the children who are hopping out of bed constantly.)

I am guessing that your children showed normal signs of this nighttime worry and anxiety, and in order to make them feel better, you began to get into bed with them. The “crawl into bed with the kid” trick has an almost 100 percent success rate of sleep . . . for the child. She instantly feels safe and relaxed. But as for long-term solutions, getting into bed with the children has turned into a nightmare.

So, this has been going on for a year. I would love to give an easy solution that involves no crying for them, but I don’t see that happening. A solution will happen, but it will require a great deal of patient, gentle persistence, a good sense of humor and not rushing anything too much.

Here are some ideas:

Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld suggests “turning into the skid,” which here means that you can let the children know that you are going to help them sleep in their beds. Alone. Say that they might cry, be scared, worry and miss their parents terribly. Go ahead and expect all of those feelings. Welcome them. Tell the children that these feelings make total sense. This is “turning into the skid,” because rather than fighting or rationalizing these feelings away, we are making room for all of the feelings that will occur.

Keep the nighttime routine structured, gentle, loving and moving along. Don’t ask too many questions or give too many choices; that will just create more insecurity. Be sure to focus on the next meeting and tell them, “I will see you in my dreams” or “I will be in this room first thing in the morning!” And before you leave the room (if they are not yet freaking out completely), let them know you will be coming back to check on them in less than one minute. Show them the timer.

Now here is where it gets really rough. If you have a child who is throwing up because she is so upset, the amount of time you leave the room may be only 15 seconds. I know, this sounds ridiculous, but her young mind may be able to tolerate only small amounts of separation. And because your older child is also upset, just keep checking on them at the same intervals. Be quiet about it, loving and firm.

I don’t know how long this will go on.

The hope is that the children will relax when they realize you are keeping up your end of the bargain and returning for another kiss. The length of time between the visits will get longer. But because this has gone on for a year, it may take a while. Just be emotionally ready for how long and painful this will feel in the moment. But night after night, bit by bit, you will get your time and your shared adult bed back.

And no matter how bad the night before was, greet the children with smiles and hope in the morning. “We are doing it . . . you girls are really sleeping so well!” Yes, of course this is not how you feel, but someone has to be the beacon of hope. And that is you, the parent.

Whatever you do, do NOT:

•Lock the children in their rooms or keep the door shut, blocking them. This will increase their worry into a traumatic panic. It is not only unkind but will also hurt any progress you have made.

•Punish the children for crying. You created this dynamic with them; it is your responsibility to help them.

•Bribe them to stay in bed. You will be broke in a month, and you will still be sleeping with them.

•Beat yourself up if you give up and get into bed with them. You are human. Just begin again the next day.

•Lose hope. Beyond reclaiming your marriage and sleep, you are helping your children to feel and accept your boundaries. This is how resilience is built in children. It won’t be pretty, but better now than later.

And again, you know your children best, so take my ideas and make them work for you.

Learning to make room for a sibling

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 5.43.18 AMI clutched my 3-year-old’s fingers as we prepared to walk on her school stage. When we waltzed on with 75 other Nutcracker dancers – Zelda in her minuscule Victorian slip, me with my 38-week pregnant belly – the auditorium burst into laughter. What was I doing here? But as my daughter and I chasséd in sync, my racing heart melted. This show was our last hurrah, just the two of us.

That night, my husband and I sat by Zelda’s bed. I touched my stomach where a can-can session was in progress. This would be one of the last times Jon and I would sit together with Zelda at night, give her this unified mass of charged attention.

I’d been ambivalent about having children, as my own relationship with my mother was difficult. Born on my grandparents’ route after escaping the Nazis, my mom was a depressive hoarder who barricaded herself in between walls of Kleenex boxes and VHS tapes. Her Montreal den’s maelstrom of Dollar Store clocks and old newspapers swallowed my report cards forever. Her bed was stacked with old clothes. I couldn’t reach her if I had a nightmare. She worked at a government job, leaving before I woke up and asleep on the sofa when I came home. Mom loved me as she could, but was increasingly moody and unreliable. Always on guard, I hid among the clutter. When, at 19, I moved to another country, we connected by phone, an easier umbilical cord. On her good days, we analyzed books and later my romantic exploits. But my visits home were ever more fraught.

When I found out I was pregnant with a girl, I panicked, worried I’d lose my hard-earned independence, not to mention the white-walled, nearly-empty apartment I’d created with Jon. I was afraid I had no idea how to parent. Yet once I had Zelda – named for Mom’s mom, who raised me day-to-day – I nursed and cared for her with ease and pleasure. I was determined to be the opposite of my mother: organized, on-time, clean, calm. I hand-scrubbed the floors and maintained elaborate play schedules. I took Zelda to school and back every day, creating for her the security I never knew myself.

My kinship with Zelda – this chance to redo the mother-daughter dynamic with affection and attention – was healing for me. I learned to be patient, less anxious, more open. We discussed our days over frozen yogurt. I taught her to express emotions by revealing mine. I knelt by her tantrums and yawned calmly through her sleep-regressions. Sure, I made mistakes, like sanitizing the highchair instead of reacting to Zelda’s gentle attempts to feed me, but her life filled me with confidence.

Once I had one child, I wanted two. Growing up, my younger brother had been my ally, the person who most understood my messy reality and saved me by playing imaginary characters. We hadn’t lived in the same country for two decades but were in touch almost daily. I wanted to recreate this sibling bond, the longest of one’s life. My girls would be three years apart, just like my brother and me.

Zelda constantly asked questions. Why is she a girl? Will she always be a girl? Was I always Zelda? How does she pee if she isn’t wearing a diaper?

I laughed but wondered if her desire to understand emerged from a deep anxiety. Her life would undergo so much change as she lost her position, my attention. I feared transitions, having witnessed my mother’s progressing mental illness, her personality leaking from her like a deflating balloon. I did not want Zelda to lose me.

I attended a sibling seminar for second-time moms. The leader reiterated the accepted wisdom: keep Zelda’s world intact. Talk about the baby a bit. Do not hold the baby when Zelda visits after the delivery. Bring gifts for her from the baby. Make her feel involved by teaching her to swaddle her dolls. Do not make any major household changes. Certainly don’t tell her you’re transforming her toddler bed into the baby’s crib. I followed the advice. I threw Zelda a birthday bash, inviting 29 toddlers to our apartment. I upheld this fragile, ice-castle world in which she was the special star.

I badly wanted a second child, but now could only focus on protecting Zelda from this kicking invader who would steal her innocence, her place – her mommy. Was I greedy to want more, stockpiling fortune like my mother did junk? Was I also a hoarder, collecting distractions instead of committing to what I already had?

I’d grown up among stuff, but feeling empty inside. I spent three decades filling my void, learning to love. Now I’d already poured my memories, passions, my milk into my first — what if I was depleted.

I was afraid there was no more room in our 2-bedroom apartment or in my heart.

The next morning, I hobbled Zelda into preschool. I’d reached the point where people were afraid to get close, worried I’d explode at any second. I showed the school director photos of the show. She laughed at the image of me, less Sugar Plum, more Winnebago. Then I explained that after two weeks at home, I’d be bringing Zelda to school again. “I’m keeping everything as normal as possible.”

As I chatted with the director, she put her hand on my shoulder. “Everything Zelda knows, everything she’s relied on as constant will shift,” she said, as I nodded, dizzy. “This is emotionally cataclysmic.”

“The worst thing you can do is pretend it’s not.”

Wait. What?

“I’ve seen parents try to keep everything as-is, taking children to swimming class in the middle of labor. But your family will be in turmoil. Let there be chaos. Zelda knows what’s going on.”

Let there be chaos jolted me in its simple directness. In Zelda’s future, she would be second-place, she’d be jealous. That was why I wanted her to have a sibling: to practice the hard stuff. I reminded myself that Zelda had been asking questions to cope.

I also had to practice the hard stuff. I’d have to learn to divide my attention, to find new pockets of affection. I had to admit the gravity of the change and help both of us manage the transition.

Billie was born big-eyed, robust, hungry and large – entirely different from her lithe ballerina sister. Jon was home with Zelda while Billie and I stayed at the hospital for five full days, a new mom-daughter cocoon. I was confident, smitten and giddy, full of old tricks, trusting my instincts.

A week later, Jon had to travel – my first time alone with my two girls. At 7 am, I nursed, staring out the window at the sleet storm. I was feeding constantly, the ground was slippery. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t take you to school,” I apologized to Zelda. Here I was, sacrificing her education because I couldn’t figure out a nursing scheme. I felt her world crashing, slipping away for the sake of her little sister. But then I remembered the director’s words and breathed. I had to improvise, create our own messy pas-de-trois.

Zelda shrugged and brought her favorite books into my bed as Billie began to cry. “I know it’s frustrating,” I said, “but I need to feed Billie. Afterward, I’ll read to you.”

“Can I hold her?” she said. “I’ll use hand-itizer!”

Zelda tickled Billie’s toes, initiating their lifelong rapport. Zelda sat on me, and I held the baby in her lap, a Babushka-doll pose, and there we were, we three, on my bed, room for us all.

Judy Batalion is an author and performer living in New York. Her first memoir, White Walls: A Memoir about Motherhood, Daughterhood, and the Mess in Between published this month. You can find her atjudybatalion.com and on Twitter

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8 things this mom will do in 2016 to set a better example

A few weeks ago my sons pulled out the bathroom scale, which lives under a dresser in my bedroom gathering dust, and took turns seeing how much they weigh. They wanted me to join in the fun. “Mommy, your turn! Let’s see your number!”

The next 1.3 seconds inside my head went something like this: “Noooo way I haven’t stepped on that in forever I don’t like scales they don’t like me my shoes are on should I take them off I’m wearing too many layers I just ate lunch the number would be wrong what if the boys say my weight when we’re in public I shouldn’t be weird about this don’t let them see how scared you are,” all while a slightly embarrassed smile, masked as amusement, was spreading across my face.

And then I declined. Stupidly. For no good reason. “Nahhh,” I said as casually as I could as if the tone of voice I used made a difference in the way they understood my refusal.

They didn’t understand it and pleaded a couple more times before moving on to a new discovery, leaving me there in the bedroom staring at a dusty black scale and thinking about what I might have inadvertently just taught them – or missed out on teaching them – by what I didn’t do.

We don’t just learn from words and actions. We also learn from silence, refusal, inaction and disregard. Those lessons are perhaps scarier than the ones we actively, knowingly teach our kids, because we’re not really in charge of them. Sometimes we’re not even conscious of them. They’re just happening, right there in the middle of an ordinary Tuesday, because of space we leave open to interpretation when we freeze, or stay silent, or appear oblivious, or say “Nahhh” with no reasonable explanation.

The realization bothered me so much that I came up with a list of things Idon’t do very much that could very well be affecting the way my boys view themselves and the world around them. So this year, in a twist on the traditional New Year’s Resolution, here is a list of eight things I don’t do – or don’t do enough – that I will aim to do with both intention and frequency in 2016. Join me?

Pick up trash. I always thought I was pretty good at this one until I went for a half mile walk with my kids last summer. That’s when I noticed that I picked up easy target items – an empty Gatorade bottle, a discarded plastic grocery bag – while my kids picked up every tiny piece of trash they saw. Everything. It must have taken us 40 minutes to walk that half mile, and that empty plastic bag I’d picked up was stretched full of straw wrappers and gum wrappers and receipts and broken pieces of godknowswhat. There is no difference too small to make in the world.

Say the compliment I am thinking. Everyone wants validation and words of affirmation. I’m pretty good about doling out compliments to the people I know, but not the people I don’t know. If I want my kids to be observant, kind-hearted and sincere, I need to start modeling that, which means not just noticing someone’s pretty bracelet or well-behaved child, but telling them.Every time you think something positive, say it.

Work toward my dreams. The other day my boys asked if I’d read them a children’s story I wrote long ago, which they love. So I brought my laptop over to the couch and opened the Microsoft Word file that houses my dream. Why is it still on my laptop instead of in the hands of a publisher or agent? I have envisioned the day I could hand them a hardcover version of it, and they’d see their names inside and their mom’s on the cover, tangible evidence not just of imagination but tenacity. Don’t let your kids become the only dreams you work on.

Read. Not counting what’s on my laptop or iPhone, my kids rarely see me read. I have stacks of books I’d like to get to but don’t make the time. I don’t like what that is subtly telling them. Sometimes clichés are true: Knowledge is power, and reading is fundamental.

Put myself in the photo. When I look back on an archive of photos that document my kids’ growing up years, I want it to be apparent that I was there enjoying it with them, even when my hair was in a ponytail and I didn’t have lip gloss on. They do care about your appearance – but not your looks.

Cross traditional gender lines. My kids routinely ask me if my favorite color is pink, and are always shocked when I say “No.” Someday they’ll understand the subtle power and unseen strength in all that women do and are, but for now, they see whether or not I hand the hammer to a man when it’s time to hang a picture. If you don’t want them to believe in stereotypes, don’t become one.

Pray out loud. I want my kids to grow up turning to God in times of gratitude and distress. How are they going to know how to do that if I don’t show them? Since they can’t hear all the silent prayers I send up – for them and others – I need to pray aloud, not just at the dinner table or at bedtime, but when I receive good news about a loved one. Or when we pass the aftermath of a car accident. Or when they tell me a friend is sick or hurting.When you get the urge to call on God, do it out loud.

Step on the scale. The fight against our culture’s barrage of messages that suggest women are largely imperfect (and objects to conquer) is a daunting one, yet frowning at the mirror or refusing to get on a scale only reinforces those lies. I want my sons to believe all women are beautiful and deserve respect because they love and respect themselves. There is no numeric value attached to who you are.

Robyn Passante is a journalist and writer. Find more of her work atrobynpassante.comShe tweets @robynpassante.