Thursday, November 13, 2008

Brotherly Love: The Best Medicine

There's an old saying about motherhood: "The days are long, but the years are short." As the mother of (seemingly overnight) a nine-year-old and a six-year-old, I can fully attest to the statement. But one of the things that can make those looooong, long days a bit shorter, I've found, is laughter.

This is a problem for me. I have known for years that I take myself far too seriously, and often worry that it is rubbing off on my kids. A University of Maryland Medical Center study suggested that a good sense of humor and the ability to laugh at stressful situations helps reduce the damaging physical effects of distressing emotions. And we've often heard that laughter can boost immunity. But doesn't that kind of thing have to come naturally? Sure, we all laugh at jokes and silliness, but for some of us, when we are *in* a stressful situation, laughing is the last thing on our minds. What's a mom in need of tantrum-diffusing tools to do?

Outsource. This is one of the best benefits of siblings, in my humble opinion. Take, for example, the other night. Ben had a great day at school, finished his homework and we'd even had fun looking at some train crossing videos together on YouTube. But about 15 minutes before dinner was ready, he melted*. I gave him veggies to nibble on, thinking it was hunger-induced. No good. I asked the boys to wash their hands and pointed out we were having their favorite dinner. More tears. I was extremely proud of myself as I continued to talk in a soothing and low voice, offering suggestions, help and hugs while I waited for this episode to pass, but 45 minutes later, I was nearing the end of my rope and resources. Time to send in a pinch hitter.

Actually, Jacob took it upon himself to step in. An incredibly empathic child, he is the one who knows best how to annoy his brother, because he knows all of his triggers. But for the same reasons, he knows how to help him as well. I turned to the stove to take a deep breath, and behind me I heard a typical, 9-year-old boy (read: disgusting) sound come from the table. Then silence. I held my tongue for a minute, just long enough for the laughter to erupt.

Next Jacob sang a silly song, accompanied by bizarre, goofy dance moves. More laughing--excellent. But as the grossness level rose and the noises got louder, I thought it was time to step in and calm things down. I walked over to the table and said, "OK, guys, let's relax and finish dinner, please." Looking at me, Jacob crossed his eyes and gave off one of the largest belches I've ever heard come out of a human. Benjamin all but fell off his chair, howling. Realizing that, not only was I outnumbered, but about to shoot myself in the foot, I bit my tongue against the impending reprimand, and instead gave Jacob a hug and a kiss.

Parenting is hard. There's no doubt about it. But my kids have taught me so much about how to do the job, and have made it rewarding on so many levels, that I can't imagine a life without them. Yes, there is always sibling rivalry, and of course, we are not always at our best--and are often at our worst when our kids need us to be at our best. But holding on to that regret, and the feeling that we're always doing something wrong is unhealthy. Better to laugh at ourselves and let it go. After all, when they're grown and gone, all I'll remember are the good times anyway. Wouldn't it be great if that's all they remember too?

*melted: had a complete, emotional breakdown for no apparent reason and became inconsolable.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Yes, Virginia, Santa Has a Drinking Problem

I have a hard time remembering the world before the Internet, but every now and then I miss my insular little bubble of ignorance. Remember when kids were only influenced by their school friends, family, scout groups and neighbors? When they could only venture as far as their bicycles and legs would take them? When there were only seven channels on the t.v.?

Jacob loves computers. He has a few sites he likes to visit where he plays online games, and I've checked them out to make sure they're not offensive or showing too many (or inappropriate) ads. Whether he ventures beyond these sites, I do not know, but we have talked about the rules and I trust him, so I don't believe he does.

While I understand that computer games are a growing business, and that they are pretty much everywhere, I have forgotten that what I consider to be a kids' game is likely to be different from what someone else (who is not a family member or fellow mom) might consider to be a kids' game. Especially if the someone else includes the people who write the games.

Today I was searching around for some imagination-building games for kids online. I stumbled onto, a software-sharing website, and clicked on "games" and then on the category labeled "kids." And it was here that I found a cartoony little game called Sober Santa 2. More disturbing than the fact that this is a sequel to an already-existing game was the description:

"It is unbelievably funny to play this great free game. You are the Santa and you want to pick up as many glasses of booze as possible. Each glass of booze you take will make this Santa shakier. His feet will be dragging, his balance will worsen and after a couple of drinks this Santa won't even be able to stand without stumbling. This game is incredibly realistic in showing the effects of alcohol abuse. You have no idea how fun it is to play the Shaky Santa on Booze free kids game."

This leads me to presume that the first game was called Shaky Santa on Booze. Can someone please explain to me why this is considered a children's game? And what's funny about alcohol abuse? And where the children are who are playing it?

Call me old-fashioned, but this is not my idea of fun. And, while I'm no child psychologist, it also does not seem like an effective way to teach children about alcohol abuse, especially if it is considered "fun and funny" (since this would not really portray alcohol abuse as negative).

What this discovery taught me was that as parents, we must be vigilant. While the games we buy in stores for our children are required to have ratings on them, free games online are completely unrestricted.

We don't need to know everything that's out there, nor do we need to block our children from everything available on the computer. That would be like never letting them leave the house. Rather, we need to teach our kids how to make good decisions, we need to remain open to dialogue, and we must stay on the lookout. Not to prevent our kids from finding inappropriate games, but for the teachable moments they present.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Living History

Every one of us has been a part of history in some way or another. Through individual memories of where we were during historical moments, we share their passing with others and these moments bind us together.

My own such memories have been few and tragic. 9/11. The crash of TWA flight 800. Princess Diana's death. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Mine are the kind of memories spoken of in hushed tones, with eyes lowered in respect for those who died. Until now.

Yes, the election of Barack Obama is meaningful in terms of the image the world holds of our country, the statement it makes about where we want America to head in this new century, and how far we've come as a nation in so short a time. But it is more than that. It is proof to my children that anything is possible, that greatness can come from anywhere and that they are on the cusp of something wonderful.

In February just last year, my son was reading about civil rights, slavery and the Underground Railroad. He's learned about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and the impact they made on American history. He has seen how things used to be and has been taught why racism is wrong. He knows that a few decades ago, unfair laws and practices were being fought so that everyone's civil rights could be established. But until now he has not seen more.

Today, he learned more than just that it is unfair for society to keep people down because of the color of their skin. Today, he learned that our society is strong enough and open-minded enough to raise people up and follow them when they possess all those traits we hold in high regard: intelligence, strength, integrity and courage.

After 9/11, everyone said we will never be the same. Now we can say it again, but this time, say it with pride.