Thursday, December 22, 2011

Sassy Pants

Tensions were high this morning in my house. The holidays are looming, as are homework and school project deadlines. Staying up late with visiting family members, and the unwelcome actions of younger siblings just add to the stress. Top it off with everyone having a head cold, and I could understand why things went as they did at breakfast.

"Jacob, it's late. You need to eat something before it's time to get the bus."

"I don't like any of the cereal we have."

"Then have a yogurt and a banana. You can't go to school with nothing in your stomach--you have a test today."

"Watch me."

Granted, backtalk like this is likely considered welcome dialogue in the homes of families with older teens. But I'm a beginner at this teen thing; indeed, Jacob is just on the hormonal cusp of 'the ugly years' and still shows his sweet and thoughtful side most often--especially to me.

So this was unexpected sass to my virgin ears, and I spun on the poor, unsuspecting kid and pounced like a cat.

"Don't you dare talk to me that way, Mister," I said right into his face, holding my finger up for emphasis. "You can save the sassy mouth for the bus because it is not gonna fly in this house. Now go eat something."

I admit it was probably a bit harsh, and I could give you plenty of excuses for it. But I also had to wonder what really sparked it. Was it because I was feeling sick and therefore out of control of my own body, so I needed to assert my control over my kid? Perhaps. That long-buried need from my own middle-school years to fight back when pushed rather than back down? Not impossible. But later in the day, I read an article about arguing with your teen and discovered that--surprise surprise--it can actually help them.

According to a study of 157 13-year-olds and their parents, parents and teens who were able to have a calm and civil dialogue about tricky subjects like school, friends and troubling situations--without the teen giving up early on--produced positive results later on. Those teens who held their own in these discussions were able to stand up to peer pressure about drugs and alcohol.

This was good to learn. Not because I plan to turn everything Jacob says into an argument. But what I will do is make sure our exchanges turn into discussions and not fights. Listening is just as important as stating your case, no matter how loudly, when it comes to any interaction. The main point of the study is that "each person in the discussion needs to feel that they are being heard and they are using arguments and reasoning to have a calm back and forth,” according to study co-author Joanna Chango, a graduate student at the University of Virginia.

In my defense, though, I also think letting Jacob know as I did this morning that he cannot talk to me the way he does to the kids at school, much as he'd like to, will maintain what respect he does have for me. And that will be equally as important as listening when things really do get tricky down the road.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bad Santa

I used to do my very best to avoid the mall at holiday time when my kids were younger, going only at night when they were in bed or on weekends when my husband was home with them. Yes, it was partly because shopping with kids in tow is a chore and half. But I was also avoiding Santa.

Unlike most parents I know, I was unwilling to stand in line to have my kid sit on a stranger's lap so I could get a picture. I never bought into the whole Santa farce, though I wouldn't deny his existence when my kids asked. In short, I did nothing to perpetuate or quash the possibility. I didn't so much weave magic as feel ambivalent about its swirling around our house, fed by others.

This worked great when they would come home from school and say "Mom, so-and-so said there's no such thing as Santa. Is he telling the truth?" Rather than commit either way, I'd turn it around: "Well, what do you think?"

But as they grew older and a bit more suspicious, I found the best thing to do to hurry along the inevitable dismissal of the Santa myth was to actually take them shopping with me at holiday time. Beginning December 1, Santas abound at virtually every store, and without a word I was able to let nature take its course.

"Mom, how can Santa be at Walmart when he was just at the mall with a line of kids in front of him?"

"Hey, Santa's beard is gray. Why isn't it white? Did he forget to wash it?"

"Mom, why is Santa so skinny? I thought he was fat and jolly?"

"Mom, why is Santa smoking?

Ultimately, I still leave the believing up to the kids. Deep down, I suspect they really *want* to believe, craving a bit of magic to help them escape from the commercialism they see on the TV all month long. And I won't be the one to tell them flat out that there is no Santa. If nothing else, they'll hold on to the notion and save a bit of forgiveness for Santa for his bad behavior. He may not be human, but he clearly works hard for an old guy.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Seasonal Shifts

It's the holiday season, so it only makes sense to talk about what's on everyone's mind: suffering.

I'll start with my own. There was a time when I worked a 40-or-more-hour-per-week, "part-time" job, which I loved. But it kept me away from my family and the money wasn't there. Leaving the job freed up time for both my family and my own writing, and I was able to feel selfish by writing for hours every day, and still spend time with my kids. But as any parent can confirm, no matter how much you give to your kids, it's never enough. They always want more and, wanting to make them happy, we do our best to give more. This meant sometimes not being able to write for long stretches, because I was giving my time to my family instead. But then my writing started to suffer, and I began to resent my family.

Welcome to the holiday mentality. And I'm not just talking about kids. Think about it. Every December, we hear about toy drives, food drives, pajama collections, fundraisers, donations for troops, the starving, the homeless, the cold and the orphaned. I'm not complaining that so many people exist in these horrible conditions. My gripe is that we only hear about them once a year.

I understand the logic that tapping into people's spirit of giving during the holidays will likely reap the most results. But like an election year, here's what I think happens: everyone gives until it hurts, feeling they are going to fix the ills of the world. But instead of hearing about how much their charity has helped, saved and cured, they just get solicitations from *other* needy charities and causes. And what they feel instead is a sense of thanklessness that morphs into resentment, and the certainty that their help didn't really help at all. So where’s the incentive to keep on giving?

The flaw in this thinking is, as I said, like that of an election year. A candidate comes out asking for our help, our money, our votes. He recognizes all the problems plaguing our country. He rallies us all together, with ideas of how these problems can be fixed. He says yes, we can make a difference. We get behind him, get excited, and feel the potential for real change. We send him our checks; we cast our votes.

And then we go back to our lives, and the “we” in our candidate’s solution is forgotten.

We help out once a year or, in the case of elections, once every four years, and then get mad when we step back and all the problems aren't solved. It's like going to work and giving it your all one day a year and expecting a huge bonus. It's like writing one great book in your twenties and expecting to live off the royalties for the rest of your life.

In short, it's unrealistic.

We cannot affect a sea change in any aspect of our lives unless we work at it every day. The suffering of those who are hungry, cold, orphaned and poor is a constant state of being. So why does our acknowledgment of it only last for one month a year?

Because it’s overwhelming. We all have our own problems to deal with. There is always someone worse off than us. And to wallow in the sorrows of others every day is depressing and emasculating. At least it seems that way when we only think about it once a year.

I’m an artist, so I know from suffering. To make a difference, you have to suffer every day for your cause. It’s not wallowing, it’s allowing the pain to fuel your passion. As a writer, writing every day is a necessity. But many days, it hurts. The blank page stares you down. It keeps you from doing other things that can feel more productive. It makes you dig into places you’d rather not go. But you do it anyway. You have to.

And after a while, something wonderful starts to happen: your writing gets better. The words flow more freely. The ideas take shape more fluently. The daily commitment to suffering begins to make a real difference.

This is how we need to approach the problems of the world. Not by giving once a year and then sitting back and waiting for change. Not by voting every four years and then expecting paradise. And not by giving all of our time to our children and leaving none for ourselves. We need to give daily—of our time, our wallets, our minds—toward improvement. Only by changing how we approach problems can we solve them.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Winter Holidays: The Early Years

Here I go again, regressing to the 'good old days.' This time, I'm asking you to indulge me as I pull out a blog post from ten years ago. Back then, my now smart-mouthed, wise-cracking 'tween was a young innocent, just grasping the meaning of the holidays for the first time. As I spend this week with my fingers in my ears, walking around the house going, "la la la la I can't hear you!" to tune out his requests for Uber Strike and other M-rated video games, I will wistfully be remembering those days that seem to have happened both yesterday and a lifetime ago. This was originally posted on 12/17/2001.
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This week we celebrated Hanukkah with Jacob. This wasn't the first he'd heard of the holiday though. Last year, to celebrate the differences in my husband's and my backgrounds, our thoughtful neighbors gave Jacob two books for the holidays: My First Christmas and My Hanukkah Alphabet, which we have read all year. But Jacob's interest in letters dictated which book we would read more often, so even in August we were reading about...you guessed it. Hanukkah.

While I'm not crazy about the book's inclusion of several pages about presents, it's a pretty good reference. Even I learned a few things about Hanukkah, and Jacob has all but memorized the entire book. That a two-year-old would know the words menorah, latke, shamash and dreidel is pretty amazing to me, so I figured he was really absorbing what we read.

But he didn't really understand the concept of the holiday being a once a year event, so when it was time to take out the REAL menorah and light the candles, Jacob was psyched. As soon as we put it on the table, he knew what it was.

"That's a menorah!" he smiled proudly.

"Yes it is, and what are we going to put in it? Do you remember?"

"Candles!"

"That's right, and then we're going to light the candles and sing the prayer!"

At this point, I guess Jacob put the concepts of singing and candles together from what he knew and started singing:

"Happy birthday dear Jacob..."

"Well, we are going to sing, but that's a different song. We sing that on your birthday."

We proceeded to pick out candles with colors that looked nice in the menorah. Then Dad lit them and sang the prayer while Jacob watched, mesmerized, and David and I looked at each other, so proud that our little boy was learning about the things that had given my husband such happy memories growing up.

At the end of the prayer, Jacob clapped his hands and said,

"Make a wish! Blow out the candles!"

OK, so we still have to work on the Hanukkah candles vs. birthday candles concept a bit.

The best part of all of this was that each night as we lit the candles, Jacob got excited. He couldn't wait to be with us, to see the candles being lit, to listen to the prayer and then watch as the candles burned down. And it had nothing to do with presents; we didn't even give him a gift until the second to last night. By that time, it was just an extra perk, an added bonus to an already cool holiday ritual.

When we celebrate Christmas next week, we will be surrounded by my family, holiday lights, good music, a warm fire and delicious food. And Jacob is already looking forward to that too. It's nice to see the pure joy that comes from holidays without consumerism, expectations and wish lists. In Jacob's eyes, at least for now, the holiday season is all about family and traditions. As it should be, for all of us.