Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The lesson of "Candy Cane Boy'

This is a column of mine that was originally posted in the Argus Leader on Dec. 25, 2010. It's one of my favorites. 

Like many kids, my son, Josh, started making his Christmas wish list about 30 seconds after the Thanksgiving turkey was cleared from the table.

With every new toy catalog that came in the mail, he'd revise his list, cutting out pictures of his favorite things. Iron Man, Army guys, a BB gun and DS and Wii games top his list, but I'm pretty sure you could throw a dart in the toy store and, whatever it landed on, Josh would be happy to receive. (Unless it was pink, frilly or otherwise girly, of course.)

Today, when Josh rips into his presents and dumps out the contents of his Christmas stocking, he's likely to find most everything he wanted - and then some. We're fortunate enough to be able to make his Christmas wishes come true.

But Christmas is more than just about getting presents. It's about giving. And I don't want that idea to be forgotten. Nor do I want to raise a greedy, ungrateful kid.

So for the past few years, I've picked a candy cane from the Angel Tree at work with a gift suggestion that was similar to something Josh would like, with the plan to shop for the present together. Because we don't know any names, Josh always has called our Angel Tree recipient Candy Cane Boy.

The first year, when Josh was 3, he was more concerned with eating the candy cane than picking out an actual gift. Last year, at age 4, he was mad that I didn't buy him the same Lightning McQueen racecar.

Obviously, Josh didn't quite get it. But that's understandable. He was still pretty young.

So this year, I really focused on explaining why we were searching for Star Wars toys for the Candy Cane Boy. No one - Josh least of all - wants to wake up on Christmas morning without any presents under the tree. And sometimes, moms and dads, for whatever reason, just can't buy anything. If we can help, we should.

He got it - and added another Star Wars figurine to our pile. "Candy Cane Boy should have this guy, too," he said.

But then we started talking about Santa.

Now, most Santa-related questions I can answer. Usually, the "it's magic" response covers it without me having to get into too many fictional details.

This one, though, stumped me a bit: Why can't Santa Claus just give Candy Cane Boy a present?

I didn't want to say too much and inadvertently give away the Santa secret. Nor did I want to imply somehow that Candy Cane Boy was on the naughty list. So I reiterated just how important it is to help others and then promptly changed the subject. I know that I didn't really answer his question, but it worked for the moment. Josh is 5. He's easily distracted.

But someday, Josh will understand. Santa is giving Candy Cane Boy a present. It's just that Santa doesn't really live at the North Pole. He lives inside all of us.

Whether you believe in Santa Claus or not, that's the real magic of Christmas.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Son needs room to grow – and a few reminders

One Saturday, as we were rushing out of the house for my son's football game, I noticed Josh had left his helmet by the door.
Granted, he was pretty excited about the game. But forgetting his helmet for a football game is kind of like forgetting his head — which some days, if it weren't attached to his body, I'm sure he would.
I grabbed the helmet, of course, along with his water bottle.
"Think you might need these for the game?" I asked him as I handed him his forgotten gear in the car.
"Oh, yeah. Thanks, Mom!"
My husband just groaned. This isn't the first time Josh has relied on one of us to grab something he should have been able to remember.
"I should be happy," I told my husband. "He still needs me for something."
Because at 9, Josh doesn't need me for everything. I can't tell you how many times I've heard the phrase, "Mom, I'm not 6 anymore," in recent weeks.
We've never been the kind of parents who hover. We've always given Josh a fair amount of freedom. But allowing Josh to have the kind of independence he wants can be scary. Though the world is full of good, kind-hearted people, it's not completely devoid of evil. Kids get hurt. They get lost. Accident happen.
So naturally, I worry.
Will Josh pay attention to traffic when he's riding his bike to school and make it there on time and in one piece? Does he know not to accept rides from strangers? To not let strange people in our house?
But I can't keep him in a bubble. I don't want to. While it would be nice to embed some sort of GPS tracking device in his body so I could know exactly where he is and what he is doing at any given moment during the day, Josh is a smart, capable kid, so I have to trust that he'll make good decisions.
For the most part, he does.
We didn't send Josh to day care last summer, instead filling most of his days with some sort of scheduled activity. Basketball camps, swimming lessons, golf and fishing classes kept him pretty busy.
Other days, he was on his own and had to find ways to entertain himself. Sometimes, that meant finding some neighborhood kids to play with. Sometimes, he went to the pool. Sometimes, he just rode his bike around.
I wasn't thrilled when he said all he did was watch cartoons and play Minecraft, but I can't dictate every minute of his life.
Having the freedom to choose what he wanted to do taught Josh a lot — especially about time management.
One day, for instance, we told Josh he could go to the pool, but he had to be home by 3 p.m. because of evening activities. He texted me to say he was going to eat lunch and then head to the pool. But around 2:30 that afternoon, my husband was driving between two of the buildings he works at and saw Josh riding his bike in the direction of the pool.
Matt flagged him down. Josh said he didn't leave for the pool earlier because he got caught up watching cartoons on TV. Since he wouldn't have time to do anything but jump into the pool and leave, Matt sent an unhappy kid back home.
But I've also been pretty pleased to realize just how responsible Josh can be. A friend invited him to hang out after school one day last week. Nobody would have noticed if he weren't home right after school, but Josh borrowed his friend's mom's phone, called and asked for permission to stay at his friend's house for a bit.
Later that night, when we were all home, I reminded Josh of how proud I was of him for making good, independent choices.
"See, I told you mom, I'm not 6 anymore."
No, Josh, you're not. You're growing up.
But since the library books that are due back at school tomorrow are still on the floor and not in your backpack, you still need me for something — for the reminder, of course, and the cash to pay the fine if you still forget.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Center of attention: Sharing the limelight with my niece

On more than one occasion, my 11-year-old niece Eva has said or done something that has reminded my parents of me. Her independence. Her occasional bossiness. Her love for nacho cheese Doritos. You know, ordinary first-born traits. (Well, except maybe the Doritos. But the fact that we share a love of junk food is not lost on anyone.)

Those déjà vu moments, though, were strongest when Eva used to demand we all watch her sing or dance on some sort of makeshift stage. “The Eva Show” was her version of the wildly popular (at least in my mind) and aptly named “The Janna Show” from my childhood, when I, too, would entertain any willing audience.

“The Janna Show” long has been canceled — though not entirely by my choice. Even my 3-year-old daughter tells me to stop when I try to entertain her with a little dance in the living room. I get it. I am fully aware that singing and dancing are not my strongest talents.

But Eva still loves being center stage. Not too long ago, I got to watch her perform in her first school musical. She played an Oompa Loompa in her school's production of “Willie Wonka.” The show was pretty awesome, and I thought Eva did a fabulous job. After the show, we showered her with flowers and took about a billion photos.

Watching Eva on stage reminded me of the first performance of hers I attended when she was just 4 years old.

It was her first dance recital. She, along with three other little girls, twirled on stage for about two and a half minutes.

To be honest, I remember dreading the recital. “Dancing With the Stars” this was not, and Eva’s part was going to be over in a blink of an eye. For the remainder of the show, I’d be watching kids I didn’t know do ballet, jazz, tap and clogging. Yes, clogging. The Irish kind. Argh.

Surprisingly, the recital as a whole was really good and filled with wonderfully cute moments. But Eva’s performance (and I fully admit my bias) was the best. From the moment the stage lights went up, she was so proud, so confident. You could tell she loved every second of it.

But when we made our way backstage to congratulate her on a fine performance, Eva was visibly upset.

Did one of the other girls, jealous of her obviously superior talent, say something mean? Did an evil stage mom, afraid that Eva would upstage her daughter in a future performance, somehow poison her?

Hardly likely, I know, but my imagination tends to immediately jump to the overdramatic, made-for-TV conclusions.

I’ve seen enough movies on Lifetime — I know that terrible things can happen backstage.

“What happened? What’s wrong, Eva? Are you OK?”

Eva’s dad Jess just shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t know.

We offered up high-fives. We offered her hugs. We presented her with flowers. Eva still was upset.

It was kind of a bummer, because we wanted to get a few more pictures of Eva in her costume before we went home.

“Eva, do you want to go back on stage so we can take some pictures of you?” my mom asked.

These were the magic words Eva wanted to hear.

The tears dried up immediately, and we could hardly keep up with her as she ran back toward the stage.

She wanted more applause, more time to be the center of attention.

I totally understood then. And I’m not going to lie — it’s still true today, for Eva and for me. When you do something cool, you want to be noticed, to be applauded. Good thing our family is completely willing to indulge our egos every once in a while.

Like mother, like daughter?

In our case, it’s like aunt, like niece.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Like mother, like son

When you look at my son Josh, it’s easy to see where he gets most of his physical features. His skinny little bird legs come from Grandpa Rich. His big ears come from Grandpa Dave. And his smile comes from Dad.

Good looks, as they say, run in the family.

Sure, he looks a bit like me, too – maybe a little around the eyes and the nose. It’s harder to pinpoint those matching physical traits when you’re looking at a mother and her son instead of a mother and a daughter.

But when it comes to temperament, we’re almost identical. Josh and I both have a bit of a stubborn, independent side. We both like to do what we want, when we want – and we’re both willing to fight every battle. Couple that with the fact that he’s still a kid testing his boundaries, and we’ve got the potential to butt heads. Not surprising, we occasionally do – but not on the big things, like baths or bedtime. No, it’s the little every day things that cause us the most problems.

When he was younger, Josh would get mad when I wouldn’t let him eat cookies for dinner or take every single tiny tractor he owns with him on a trip to the grocery store. These days, we butt heads about the amount of time he can watch cartoons or play Minecraft on his Kindle. Depending on the situation, one of us isn’t happy.

Fortunately (for me), a good majority of the time, Josh will eventually back down and realize that he’s not going to get his way. But every now and then, he doesn’t. That’s when he’ll cross his arms in front of his chest and sulk. Every now and then he’ll throw in an eye roll for good measure. When I remind him that a crappy attitude won’t get him anywhere, he’ll stomp off.

Every now and then, Josh needs to tell his side of the story to Dad. My husband, the ever-patient mediator, calmly explains to Josh that he needs to shape up because whatever we say goes.

But this game of tattletale, is unfortunately, not just something Josh plays. Just because I’m the mom doesn’t mean I’m always more mature.

“Told you so,” I sometimes retort back.

That’s when my husband will groan and wonder (sometimes out loud) how he became the only parent in the house. With that, I’m whisked back to adulthood.

And I’m also reminded that while Josh and I might not have the same color of hair, we’re more alike than our physical characteristics suggest.

Don’t argue with me on that one. I’m always right, you know.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

First Chuck E. Cheese's, then the world

I don’t mean to sound overly dramatic, but my 3-year-old daughter Kate said something to me as we were driving through town recently that scared me a bit.

“Hey, look mom! It’s Chuck E. Cheese’s!”

Now I have nothing against Chuck E. Cheese’s. I like pizza and skee ball as much as the next person. But it’s always crowded. It’s noisy. And kids are running all over the place. It’s just not the first (or second or third) place I’d choose to go for dinner and a night of entertainment.

So like our vow to never buy a mini-van, my husband and I decided that we’d avoid taking our kids to Chuck E. Cheese’s as long as we could.

Eventually, we figured it’d be inevitable. Someone would be invited to a birthday party there or we’d forget the pact we made and decide to take him there on a whim some weekend afternoon. After all, doling out a small fortune for enough tokens so your child can win a few tickets to exchange for an eraser shaped like a heart or a handful of stickers is kind of a parental right of passage.

But I wasn’t ready yet. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of at the moment. I lied.

“Oh, you don’t want to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s. That’s not a fun place for kids.”

Kate wasn’t deterred. “But Chuck E. Cheese’s has games inside.”

Hmmm. She knows more about Chuck E. Cheese’s than I thought. But where did she get this information? We certainly weren’t singing the praises of the mouse and his overpriced pizza. I had to get to the bottom of this.

“Who told you about Chuck E. Cheese’s? Was it one of your friends from day care? Did you see a commercial on TV?”

I guess my interrogation scared Kate a bit. From the rear-view mirror, I watched her simply shrug her shoulders and say, “Chuck E. Cheese’s is cool.”

Whether she learned about the pizza and games from talking with one of her friends or it was some sort of wacky subliminal advertising doesn’t really matter. The point is, it was a great reminder that my husband and I can’t shelter Kate from the evils of the world – whether they’re as harmless as a noisy kids restaurant or as serious as the crime reported on the evening news. Sooner or later, she’s going to learn some things on her own. That means, it’s our job to make sure Kate has a good enough head on her shoulders to be able to separate the good from the bad.

What category she decides Chuck E. Cheese’s ultimately falls into, however, is to be determined.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Everybody poops

Before my son Josh was born, my diaper changing experience was very limited. That is, I’d only changed one diaper. It belonged to my niece, Eva, and it was a doozy. Let’s just say I threw away the kitchen towel I used as a changing pad and leave it at that. 
One more kid later and my diaper tally is somewhere in the thousands. To be fair, I haven’t changed all of those diapers. My husband’s changed at least two.

So clearly I’ve won the right to tell any of my kids’ disgusting poop stories. And let me tell you – there’s been plenty. A month or so after Josh was born, he had a diaper blowout while sitting in his swing. At first, I thought it was just dirt all over his shoulders. “That’s funny. I swear I gave him a bath this morning.” But in my sleep-deprived, new mom state, I figured I was wrong. I was – but not about the bath. And as my poor child sat in his own filth, I did the first thing any sleep-deprived, new mom would do. I called my mom, then my sister and then my husband to laugh about how horrible it was.

Of course, talking about poop is almost never appropriate. “Guess what guys! I had nasty diarrhea last night. Totally left skid marks on my underwear.” Nobody needs to know that much information about their friends and co-workers.

But when you’re in the company of other parents, it’s just natural to talk about what comes, well, naturally. Or, in the case of Josh’s exploding bowel movements, also taking a picture. Gross? You bet. But it turns out, I’m not the only one.

A friend of mine – I’ll call her Jen – had a similar story. She was giving her son a bath in the tub, saw some bubbles and thought it was cute. When she called her husband at work that night, he was thrilled. (“Like a typical man, who thinks farting is hilarious,” she added.) “But then, I hit him with the kicker. His son rolled a log in the tub!” Naturally, Jen’s husband thought this was awesome, mainly because he wasn’t home to be in on the clean-up. “But he did request that I take pictures.”

Our poor children. We’re not only talking about their poop – we’re documenting it. They have no idea of the humiliation that awaits them when we pull out their baby photo albums at their high school graduation. 

Still, once you get started on the subject with other parents, you can’t stop.

I remember trying to sleep in on a Sunday morning when Josh was about 2. Josh, for the most part, was happily chattering in his crib and we were able to catch a few more minutes of sleep. Well, until he started yelling, “Owie! Owie!” When I got into his room, he was holding his hand up in the air, fingers all curled, like he’d pinched them somehow. “Did you hurt your finger? Mommy’ll kiss it and make it better.” I was only millimeters away from putting my lips on his poop-covered fingers. He went into the tub immediately. I brushed my teeth twice for good measure.

And then there’s the time that Josh peed on the dog. He just stood in the hallway and peed on Kolby. Thankfully, that didn’t involve anything other than pee. But my son “marking his territory” on the dog is just too funny.

Nothing, however, tops the story my friend Jess just told me about her son’s loose stools. One morning, her husband was changing his diaper on their bed. Everybody had just woken up, so there’s an element of drowsiness here, but even the most wide-awake dad couldn’t have predicted what was going to happen. Kory carefully pulled the dirty diaper off, swapped the new one in and was in mid-wipe when their son decided he wasn’t quite done. Poop shot all over Kory (who was only wearing boxers) and their bed. “We washed our sheets three times that day,” Jess says. “I still don’t like to use them on our bed.”

Poop stories, it seems, are the great parenting equalizer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a stay-at-home mom or a working mom or if you’re breastfeeding or you give your kid a bottle or whatever else the media’s “mommy wars” would have parents fighting about. Everybody poops. And everyone’s got a story to tell. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

An offer my daughter can't refuse

If you’re in business or politics, the last thing you want is to be associated with bribery and corruption.

But as a mom, I’m here to tell you that despite what the parenting experts tell you, a little bribery is not all that bad – at least, not when you’re dealing with a 3-year-old like my daughter, Kate.

Doling out bribes – maybe we should just call them rewards – is an art. Offered too often, at the wrong time or in jumbo sizes can give kids the wrong idea – and they’ll turn the tables on you and won’t do anything unless they’re given something in return. After all, kids will learn to depend on rewards in order to cooperate. So I’m careful not to get too carried away. But bribery (without the corruption, of course) is a daily part of my parenting toolbox.

At breakfast: “If you eat your cereal, I’ll give you some gummies.”

At the mall: “If you’re good while we’re shopping, we’ll stop at the play land before we go home.”

At bedtime: “If you brush your teeth, we’ll read a story.”

Right now, Kate hasn’t caught on to the fact that what I’m bribing her with isn’t all that special. The gummies in the morning? Well, those are actually gummy vitamins – something she’d get anyway. Letting Kate burn off some energy at the mall play land before we go home is my chance to relax for five or 10 minutes before heading home. And the bedtime story?  I love reading him stories at bedtime. The fact that Kate will happily brush her teeth without much of a fight if I offer it to her is just a bonus.

Of course, there are definitely times I up the ante. I bought Kate a little necklace at Target the other day so she’d stop whining and sit in the cart long enough for me to get all my shopping done. I let her watch three episodes of “Sofia the First” so I could read a magazine in peace and quiet. Last Saturday, I groggily told her that she could eat a Nutty Bar for breakfast if she’d let me sleep for 30 minutes longer (and yes, it worked).

Does this make me a bad parent? Heck no. I’m sure the parenting experts will tell me I’ll traveling on a slippery slope. But you know what? Those parenting experts don’t live in my house. And kids, like anyone, tend to respond to bribery – or, if you prefer, rewards or incentives.

Now if someone wants to offer me a large sum of cash, diamonds or a new car, perhaps I’ll rethink my stance on bribing my daughter.