Thursday, March 19, 2009

Unknown Devils

Right now, my sons are playing Nintendo DS (well, one is playing, one is rooting him on) and I am in front of my computer editing first graders' memoirs and updating my blog, checking my email, twittering, applying for writing jobs, entering contests.... you get the picture. We may all be wireless, but we're tethered nonetheless.

When I have nothing to feel guilty about as a parent (ha!), I reach back in time. Throughout my own childhood, I was just as tethered--if not more so--to the television set, as my children are to computer game devices. Mom had work to do, homework was finished, and Bugs Bunny was on. We would watch until dinner, sometimes watch through dinner, and watch before bed. Then I grew up, a member of the generation that was studied regarding such behavior, and learned that too much television is bad for kids.

So I limit my kids' television time. The shows today are not what they were in my youth. Slapstick cartoon comedy is gone (though have you noticed how incredibly violent Tom & Jerry is? Wow!), replaced with sass, crudity and boogers. Sure, boys find it funny. But for all we know, that's even more harmful than mousetraps on tails ever were.

Of course, I'm a mom, so I also always have things to do. Rather than let my kids sit open-mouthed in front of the television, I let them play animated computer games. But is there wisdom in replacing the devil you know with one you don't?

Some studies have emerged citing violent video games as being linked to aggressive behavior and hostility. Well, duh. But we're talking about bouncing, animated balls that are trying to go from town to town to save the slimes. Or something. Can that really be bad? As bad as hours of television?

My mom didn't worry much about television having harmful effects. Look. We're going to grow up and be exposed to all kinds of horrible, nasty, dangerous things, some of which we don't even know about yet. But does that mean we should live based on the potential future of illness and as-yet-non-present personality disorders? Or should I let them play a couple of rounds of Rocket Slime so I can finish some work for Ben's school and get a healthy family dinner started?

Such is the life of a parent. Nothing is ever black and white, no decision is ever cut and dry. It'd be nice if it was, but really the best we can do is go with what we're comfortable going with and let the rest work itself out. The way I figure it, no matter what I do, they're going to resent me for some things. At least this way, I have a chance of it being for the right things. Heaven knows I still love Bugs Bunny to this day. Thanks, Mom.

Grown Ups Behaving Badly

Hey humans! (I am specifically addressing shifty strangers here, reader.) I have a real problem with your ethical standards lately, and I'd like to know what has happened to the "it takes a village to raise a child" mindset. Anyone? Anyone?

When my kids and I walk the dog down my street, I find garbage strewn along the gutter. This is obviously trash that people have thrown out their car windows: napkins, soda cans and cups, bottles and paper bags. I am always teaching my kids how important it is to put trash in the trash can, recycle when we are able, and we even go out and clean up the roadsides periodically. Somehow, the trash continues to return.

Recently, someone sideswiped the passenger side of my husband's new car. This happened presumably in a parking lot, because he didn't find it until the other day. There was no note, no indication that the person even stopped to check the damage, which was substantial. (I hate to think they did check and left anyway). Let's just say these types of recurring incidents are beginning to leave a sour taste in my mouth.

My problem is this: while my children are young, they are still willing to listen to me about the importance of personal responsibility, being accountable for our actions, making good choices and fixing our mistakes. But they're growing fast, and can think for themselves. How long until they say, "Hey Mom, why are we working so hard to do the right thing when nobody else does?" My fear is, not long. And that's because I don't really have a good answer.

Parenting is hard, especially if you are very conscious of the type of adults you are attempting to raise. Sure, we can teach by good example, but ultimately, there are only two of us against a whole world of people who seem to be setting bad examples. I suppose most people today feel that if the children aren't theirs, neither is the responsibility to behave well around them. Though everyone seems ready to step up and complain when other people's children are the ones behaving badly.... But I digress.

For now, we do what we can. We take these instances of bad examples (lemons) and turn them into teachable moments (lemonade). My hope is that we will fill our kids' consciousness tanks with the right ideas. Maybe if we can teach them well enough, when the time comes to make choices, they'll make the right ones regardless of whether we're around. This hope is the only thing that keeps me from throwing up my hands in disgusted resignation.

So I'll keep at it, but all this lecturing is thirsty work. Please pass me another pitcher and some ice cubes.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Sowing Seeds

I think all parents have those topics that make them cringe a little, and we dread the day when our children will ask us about them. To save my own sanity, I've found that honesty is the best policy, even when I don't know the answer.

When Ben has asked about death, I have told him that no one really knows what happens after we die. However, I believe that our souls go on to become other beings, returning in another form: maybe a flower, a butterfly, a bird. Trying to explain the inexplicable mysteries of life is easier to do when you can relate them to what children know, and give them comforting ways to puzzle things out for themselves.

Ben seemed to like the idea of recycled souls, and it comes up every now and again. "Mom, I want to be a cat next time so I'll be allowed to jump on the furniture," or "Mom, I'm a boy AND a chow hound!" The other day, we watched an IMAX film about the wild coast of Africa. After a particularly visual feeding frenzy, where birds, sharks and dolphins went after a shoal of sardines, Ben whispered to me, "Mom, I never want to be a fish."

The Buddhists say that death is not the end of life, just the end of the body we inhabit in this life. Once the body dies, our spirit will remain and seek out attachment to a new body and new life. Where it will be born is based on our past actions, both positive and negative. This means awareness plays a big part in life, as how we treat others, the earth and ourselves will determine what happens next. I personally think this is a terrific view of things, as it teaches the importance of personal responsibility on many levels.

Some may object to teaching children things that we can't prove, or creating the idea that they may one day become something different. But isn't that what we do their whole lives? When we teach them to reach further when striving for their dreams, we are instilling in them the knowledge that they can become something more, something different, and impact the world in ways they are not yet able to imagine. Getting kids to think about what they want to be, what they don't, and why, gives them insight into their priorities. It will help shape them and their actions. Shouldn't that be the role of every parent?

No matter what we teach our children about the world and beyond, one thing is certain: their knowledge of our unconditional love is critical. This morning, the first words out of Ben's mouth were whiny and demanding. He pouted and complained through dressing, breakfast and brushing and finally looked up at me exasperated when he couldn't zipper his jacket. I smiled at him, and asked if he'd like some help. He nodded, and then the cloud over his head seemed to lift and he said, "I love you Mom."

Creating a safe garden, where children can be themselves, is how we sow the seeds of our budding adults. None of us has all the answers. But if we are careful to nurture our kids consciously, gently and lovingly, we may still reap far more than we could have imagined.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Art Imitates Life

I like to tease my friends that if they're not careful, they'll end up in my novel. After all, as Nora Ephron said, life is copy. Material is everywhere, and the experiences writers have, as well as the people they meet, help to feed the stories and characters they create. Now, it seems the tables have turned.

Jacob has started writing a book. He has a journal that I gave him, and this idea has been burning in his mind for some weeks. At first read, one would think, "it's science fiction. What's to worry about? It's not like it's a memoir." And before anyone gets upset that I'm surreptitiously invading my son's privacy and reading his journal, I should note that he asked me to read it. In fact, he asked if I'd be his editor, so he's obviously not plotting to out me as 'Mommy Dearest' or any such monster.

As the story unfolds, a boy in a far off galaxy is trying to have an earnest conversation with his father about impending galactic doom. Father, of course, is busy reading his holographic newspaper and answers with distraction and disinterest. What struck me about the story was the dialogue, that a 9-year-old could have such an attentive ear to inflection, tone and implication and convey it through words on the page.

I could flatter myself and say that he got it from me, but what indeed would be the point? The fact is, the distracted conversations portrayed are clearly ripped from our life together. And even though it's 'dad' in the story and the newspaper is virtual, the message is clear. Jacob doesn't feel he's always got my full attention.

Of course, if he were trying to save the galaxy and I told him, "Not now, I'm making dinner," I'd be a villain indeed. But what his story showed me was that when Jacob tries to talk to me about what's on his mind, it is just as important to him as his character's need to save the galaxy is in the story. Message to mom: you need to pay attention--I have things on my mind.

Stories like Harry Potter, where a young boy is destined for growth into greatness, are extremely popular. They fuel imaginations and teach children that, regardless of clueless adults, that inkling of greatness they feel inside is real and they should do whatever they must to follow it. Even Jacob's story begins to sow that seed from the very first page. His showing it to me was his way of telling me to sit up and take notice.

Kids need adults to guide them as they grow, but ultimately, the journey is up to them. Helping them to believe in themselves and aspire to greatness is our responsibility. We can nurture that seed by listening, asking questions and hearing what our kids have to say. Who knows? With a little help from us, they might just grow up to save the galaxy after all.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The View From Childhood

Ah, children. Through their eyes, we see all that is innocent, right and beautiful in the world. Or so the theory goes.

My kids like me to tell stories about my childhood, and it's fun to tell them the things my brother, cousins and I used to do when we were kids. Saving our allowance to buy comic books and bubble gum at O'Neill's Country Store; going for pizza and movies in town on Saturdays when the theater showed three straight hours of cartoons; waving to the trains as they went by our house until the engineers would blow the horns for us. Through my rosy-hindsight goggles, my childhood was idyllic and fun.

But my kids always ask to hear the bad stuff.

Most of the bad stuff that I remember from my childhood (I realize I'm probably in denial here) are stunts that my brother pulled. Telling my mom there is no mouse in the mousetrap under the sink for the fourth day in a row when, in fact, today there actually is something in it. Leaving the rubber snakes and spiders in the bathtub after you're done playing and closing the curtain so that the next adult to open it for a shower gets a shock. And of course, my all time favorite, peeing on the radiator in the bathroom so that it always stunk in there, even after mom had scrubbed the room top to bottom several times. (She eventually caught him doing it one day after he'd had a fight with her.) Talk about creative.

Now that I'm a mom, of course, I see why my mother had to lay down every afternoon with her eyes closed to "collect her thoughts" and why she was always encouraging us to go play outside.

One day, after telling my kids how great they are, they asked to hear a story about my childhood. To illustrate how much better behaved my kids are than their uncle Mike was, I told them the bathroom story. I am still incredulous at the mere idea of such a stunt, and told the story with awe and disbelief, making the point to ask my children, "can you believe he did such a thing?" just to underscore what a stinker my brother was to treat my mother that way.

Well. One parent's cautionary tale is, apparently, another child's brilliant revelation.

After weeks of insisting that the children flush the toilet after using it, to no avail, I was convinced this was why their bathroom smelled like a bus terminal. But the other day, my husband walked in there, the toilet was clean, and he was still gagging. He went to work scrubbing it--you guessed it--from top to bottom. And waddya know, today was a very cold day, and the heat came up. That's right, not long afterward, the sparkling clean bathroom smelled like a bus terminal again.

We finally figured it out: someone had peed in the baseboards. I'm not sure who and I'm not sure when, and I don't have the courage to tell my husband that it was my idea. What I do know is I'm going to start choosing my uncle Mike stories a little more carefully from now on.

So let this be a lesson to others who like to spin tales of their reckless youth for their offspring today. Keep in mind that they revere you and the fact that you're full of ideas. Also remember that we were a lot more creative than they are (less video games made for more plotting time). And finally, even if you think you're telling a story as a warning of what not to do, that may not be what they're hearing. State it categorically. You may save yourself a lot of scrubbing in the long run. And you won't have to learn a lesson from something you got away with decades ago.