Social Beings

My son, Sam, wakes up every morning and asks, “who’s coming over today?”. We always have people over to our house. On a daily basis, we have at least two therapists who come to work with my son, Jack and at least one other child that I babysit. Sometimes it is a neighbor, or even a former neighbor for that matter who stops in for a quick visit. I also have friends, who live near and far, who pop in whenever they have a chance. I haven’t even mentioned any of my family members who drop in, either announced or unexpected. Some may think of these visits as impositions but we just think of it as normal life.

Growing up, my family was very social because my mother could start a conversation with anyone. When we went to the beach, which was almost daily in the summer, we would inevitably make friends with other beach-goers. At home, ur neighbors stopped over frequently for tea with my mother and of course, all the neighborhood kids would play together. We never had fancy, organized parties but we would get together with my mother’s friends on a whim.

I have always found it easy to make friends. I can talk to just about anyone. I think my kids will be able to as well. They are not shy children and when they hear a door open or a knock, they instinctively yell a cheery, “who is it?”. I think it is important to teach children, by example, how to be social member of their community. I have often thought that signing kids up for organized activities may not be the best way to teach out children socialization skills. And surprisingly, I think when kids feel comfortable around other people they also feel more comfortable being alone.

Audrey Adds:

Sharon and I are neighbors. When I visit her home, I feel instantly welcome. Her young children are shy for about 30 seconds and then they are showing me their toys and sitting on my lap to have me read a book. Usually, while I'm there, one or two other friends or neighbors or extended family will drop by. There is such a sense of ease and welcome.

I hope that lots of kids are growing up in this kind of family. It seems like a great way to show children that the world is, by and large, a friendly place and that most people are worth knowing.

Someone asked my opinion about helping children to understand and cope with events like the recent Amber Alert in our locality. I think that Sharon's family is a great model of how to innoculate your children with open friendliness towards others. We need to protect our kids from so many damaging forces, one of which is irrational fear itself.

Blackberry Surrender

It started a few years ago. I think a songbird dropped a single poop in our flower border. In that poop, the seeds of destruction were hiding. A shoot emerged the following year. Nothing to worry about, right? I donned a pair of kidskin garden gauntlets and yanked the offending shoot from the ground. It broke off suspiciously easily. A few days later, dozens more sprouts made their appearances in it’s place.

Now, at this point, I must admit that I am a weed gardener. By that I mean that the only plants that survive in my flowerbed are basically weeds. Echinacea, liatris, daylily, tickweed. I planted loosestrife before I realized what havoc it was causing in our wetlands. I look longingly at Joe Pye weed and aesclepias, knowing full well they would take over whatever ground they are planted in.

So I am not averse to weeds in the garden, but I want them to be there in my terms. The blackberries were pushy. They shot through the sweet yellow flowered bush my Italian neighbor gave me as a cutting. They bullied their way through the weedy flowers I had haphazardly planted. They marched across the shady spots, the sunny spots and everywhere in between. And every year I tried to pull them up, dig them out, catch them before they blossomed and bore fruit…. Because God knows if they drop seed, we are in trouble. The whole neighborhood will be taken over.

But this year, I got side tracked and the canes began to blossom before I got to them. And then I realized that they were heavy with unripe berries. Hundreds of them, bright red, waiting to ripen in the sun. So, against my better judgment, I left them to ripen.

Today, the harvest began. How much trouble can they cause if we are eating them, right? My 7 year old and I went out with a plastic container and collected the first cup of berries. We washed them when we noticed tiny green creatures crawling around on them. Tomorrow we’ll see if more are ripe. Then the next day. Then the next.

In the mean time, I have my gauntlet gloves ready for the final attack at the end of the summer. But secretly I wonder if a blackberry border would be such a bad thing after all.

Making Memories

I am writing this from the road. We are a day into a trip halfway across the country to see my in-laws. My family just indulged me with a stop in Shaker Heights Ohio, the place where I spent my middle school years. It wasn’t even my idea; it was my husband’s, which made it even more enjoyable. We drove past my old house, saw my Catholic grade school and had lunch in the little town I rode my bike through countless times. I was completely overwhelmed with wonderful memories of people and places from a time in my life that I remember most fondly.

It made me think that this is what I want for my children: wonderful memories. I want them to remember times when it was just the 6 of us, exploring and trying different things. All of us working together to make the trip happen. Staying up later than we should, eating things we shouldn’t and loving it! I want them to remember times when it wasn’t all about work, schedules, studying and scrimping money. I want them to notice how well they all get along without any outside influences and how happy we all are just to be together. Because we really are a happy, lucky, and blessed family. I want them to recognize that and realize it while they are in the midst of it. And if I am really lucky, someday they will drive their family thru our little town in Rhode Island……

Feed the Birds

Now that we're all trying to figure out how to have fun without driving anywhere, may I suggest a bird feeder? No, it's not a solution to the energy crisis, although I am wondering if there might not be a way to use the copious amount of bird “doo” which has accumulated below my feeder.

Bird feeders come in all shapes, sizes, and methods of hanging so there's probably a perfect bird feeder for your budget and location. Bird seed is now available at the supermarket, in the pet food aisle. There's all kinds but I buy the black oil sunflower seeds which are reputed to attract songbirds.

Bird feeders are the easiest, cheapest, most convenient way to watch real wild life. If you've got little ones who are entranced with dinosaurs, you can explain to them that birds are the living link to those long extinct monsters. And the way the finches fight at my feeder, they put veloceraptors to shame.

I am really sorry that I didn't have one of these when my kids were growing up. As it is, when my daughter came home from the Peace Corps last summer, we really bonded over finches and hairy woodpeckers. We got ridiculously excited over whether we were seeing an oriole or a goldfinch. We accumulated a library of books including the bible of bird watching; Petersons Field Guide to Birds. Peterson's not only has lovely illustrations and all the information you could wish about the birds of your area, they also have a life list which is how true birders keep track of which birds they've seen throughout their lives.

Do you have a couple of competitive children? Have them start competing life lists, posted conveniently close to the window nearest the feeder. Offer a prize to the kid who sees the first Tufted Titmouse or Red-Breasted Nuthatch or whatever cool bird flies through your part of the world. A pair of binoculars is a nice investment, in order to discern those more subtle markings, but not necessary.

Birds don't need humans to feed them, they get along fine on the foods they've eaten for millennia. But children, all of us, need to understand more about these intrepid travelers. It's one thing to see a cute little bird, it's another to learn that your feeder is a brief stop on what may be a 5000 mile journey. Sure, the zoo is a great place to see “wild” animals in their own “habitats” but the finch at your feeder is a truly wild creature. And, filling the feeder is a great chore for your nine-year-old.


Noah is off to overnight camp this week. He will be spending a week at the summer camp our Diocese runs.

I remember my mother telling wonderful stories about her experiences at bible camp as a kid. We learned all about the little practical jokes, the stories they learned, the cheesy Christian songs. “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the bible tells me so...”

Because we weren’t church goers when I was a kid, we seemed to miss the whole overnight camp thing. Maybe we could have gone to a secular camp, but they are much more expensive. So my brother and I had a few skirmishes with day camp, but never did get to toilet paper the camp director’s cabin. Sigh.

Driving to Noah’s camp yesterday to drop him off, I felt such joy at the fact that he was going to get to experience this. The place is simply wonderful. All the councilors were friendly. Noah spent about 3 minutes feeling nervous before his cabin councilor, Andy, asked him what he wanted to listen to and started playing some pop songs on the ipod hooked up to speakers. When we left, Noah was playing frisbee with a bunch of other boys. He barely looked up to see us go.

The truth is, he probably wouldn’t have agreed to go if we hadn’t invited one of his friends to go too. Plus a couple of the councilors are teens from our church and one of the chaplains is a friend, too. I feel sure that Noah is going to feel right at home this week.

Yeah for camp!

One Cuts, The Other Choses

One Cuts, the Other Choses

I was delighted a while ago, when I caught a commercial on TV, on which a mom told one son to cut the last piece of contested dessert into two pieces and the other son would then chose which piece he wanted.

I loved discovering this technique as a young mother of two pre-teen children. This not only gets the parent out of the fight, it fosters a sharing attitude. And I'm pretty sure it gave my daughter the precision of judgement she's using at law school and my son the keen vision that has led him into art. Brilliant.

It really cools the emotional temperature of a battle over chocolate cake when the slicer has to slow her breathing and steady her hand for the important cut. Meanwhile, the choser is readying himself for an all-but-atomic level examination of the 2 pieces. This is serious stuff!

Actually, after 3 or 4 sessions of this the older child realizes that there are many more important matters, and the younger child takes her cue and adopts a more casual attitude to what previously had been a life or death power struggle.

This is an example of my favorite type of parenting technique, one that supports positive sibling-to-sibling interraction, lowers the emotional temperature of the situation, and provides a little entertainment to the onlooking parent. Obviously young children should not use any sharp implements without adult supervision.

Rachel adds:

Audrey, my parents used the 'one cuts the other chooses' technique when my brother and I were growing up. Eventually, we had to alternate who got to choose because that role seemed to have the advantage!

Sharon adds:

My children are just starting to argue, now that my daughter is two and everything is “mine, mine, mine!”. If they argue once, I remind them that they need to share or take turns. If they argue twice, then they get separated and have to play alone. It only takes about five minutes for them to realize that playing together is way more fun than playing alone. It usually solves the problem for that day, anyway. Plus, it’s an extra bonus for me to see them hug each other like they’ve been separated for months when I finally agree to let them play together again.

Party On

As my daughter’s second birthday is quickly approaching, I was thinking about how children’s birthday parties have changed. As a child I did not have big elaborate parties with bouncy houses or a petting zoo in the backyard like some, or dare I say, most kids do today. Instead, I had paper streamers, musical chairs, and pin the tail on the donkey. Let me add that a simple party was just fine because everyone had a good time anyway. I have been to a few parties at bowling alleys, cake shops, and the local Chuck E Cheese, but they are usually so scheduled and nerve-racking that I don’t really enjoy them. So I have decided to have a party that falls somewhere in between.

Anyone who knows me knows I like a party with a theme. Because Nicole is turning two, I have planned a tutu-themed party. All the little girls will have fairy princess tutus and the boys with have foam prince swords. I am making the no-sew tutus from a pattern I found on the internet for less than three dollars a piece and I was able to order the foam swords on-line for less than four dollars a piece. Having this theme also eliminates the much dreaded, waste-of-money “goody” bags that I usually give out because the tutu and swords are the favors.

The menu is equally as simple. I am serving chips, dip, and pizza strips. I’ll serve the cake, which I’ll make so that it will match the theme, along with some Hoodsie cups (this is ice cream for all you non-Rhode Islanders) for dessert. As for the games…we’ll play musical chairs and pin the tail on the donkey. Why mess with a good thing.

Kathy Adds:

Is it me or are things getting to be way too extravagant for our children? You wouldn’t believe some of the children’s parties I have been too. The amount of money spent and the indulgence is ridiculous for an adult, not to mention a child. I couldn’t justify spending that kind of money even if I had it. If we are taking our 5 year old daughters to a spa with all of their girlfriends for mani/pedis, what are they going to expect when they are 12 or 16?

I recently had a party at home for my 6 year old and it was fantastic! It was a treasure and scavenger hunt. We started out by breaking the kids up into small teams of about 3-4 kids. Each team had a cooler and much bigger brother and his buddies in charge of the group. (One poor group had to go with me and didn’t have nearly as much fun.) The teams each had a paper bag with a list of items on it and they had to go throughout our neighborhood and find them by asking neighbors to help them out. Among the items on the list were…a golf ball, paper clip, pen, nickel, yarn, and a stamp. I am sure you get the idea. The kids ran themselves around our neighborhood for a half and hour and came back hungry and happy. They were then served a gourmet delight of pigs in a blanket, (Why don’t you make these all the time my boys asked?) and sent off again in search of the treasure chest, which was hidden in my best friends yard in a wheel barrow. It was filled with candy and small toys and the kids then made their own treat bags. I made the birthday cake myself and it was one cheap party. Most importantly, it was exactly what my son wanted and everyone enjoyed themselves, even the teenagers!

The Safe Childhood

I'm reading the second book in Alexander McCall Smith's excellent series, 44 Scotland Street. Mr Smith is at his wryly observant, compassionate best in this series. It's about a varied group of residents at the eponymous address. One character is little 6 year old Bertie. Boy, does he have a bad time with his perfectly awful mother. She's a concerned, committed mother in all the worst ways. She uses her very bright little boy to play out all her own pathetic fantasies of accomplishment. And she shelters him terribly.

I grew up walking alone a mile through the woods to a lake where I, like my sister and brother before me, swam for hours in the summer.
I shudder now to think about it. My brother went scuba diving in that lake, by himself. He also hunted in the woods with a shotgun or a bow and arrow. He constructed rafts that invariably sank. Amazing! We were all young teenagers when we went on these adventures; 14, 15 years old. Would I have let my own children hunt and swim by themselves with no adults around or any kind of rescue available? I don't think so.

Now our children are constantly linked to us by cell phone. Many suburban parents do not let their young children play in the front yard without adult supervision. Unscheduled time is usually spent watching television or playing under an adult's eye on the safety-minded equipment in the backyard. Tom Sawyer would go stir-crazy!

It seems that the time for childhood adventure has past. Is this a bad thing? What do we sacrifice when safety is our highest priority?

Kathy responds:

This whole topic makes me sad. I too have tremendous memories of adventures with my sisters that just wouldn’t happen today. I suffer from the apprehension that many mothers’ feel when their kids are out of eyesight for a half an hour. I am constantly reminding myself to let my kids play, get dirty, go exploring. But there is occasionally this underlying fear of what if?

I then read a great book that helped me get over it, to some extent. It is called “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin de Becker. It is all about how the feeling of fear is a gift that helps protect us, and how in American society we have gone way overboard to the extreme side of fear and protection of ourselves and our kids. It is a self help book that reads like a novel and I couldn’t put it down. Once I finished it, I recommended it to every woman in my life, because I thought it was that important for those I knew and loved to read it. His follow up book, “Protecting the Gift” deals specifically with how to protect our children, whereas the “Gift of Fear” helps us protect ourselves. Both books really changed how I handle myself in difficult situations and how I teach my children to protect themselves without scaring them to death.

Most importantly, they empowered me as a parent. These books helped me let my children make mistakes while they were with me, so that they had that experience to draw on when they weren’t. When we travel, I subtly teach them how to navigate the city we are in, and make it fun. When shopping, they wander. In an airport, they can go to the news stand and buy themselves something without my assistance. We have a plan if we ever get separated and I am confident they know what to do. Am I irresponsible? I really don’t think so.

There is someone in my life who I have watched over the years protect her children diligently. These kids always have choices, but it is between a great option, a better one and the best one of all. They very rarely fail and everything is carefully orchestrated so no that mistakes are made. A move was even contemplated to prevent their teenage driver from having to turn left when exiting their subdivision. In the end, it was decided that a series of right hand turns was a more cost effective option, but boy was there agony about that decision! Teaching the driver how to turn left at a dangerous intersection wasn’t even an option, because after all, that’s dangerous.

I want to do the best I can to keep my kids safe. Rather than limiting their experiences, I am teaching them how to handle the difficult ones when they are young and with me. They frequently fail, which is painful to watch sometimes, especially when I could have prevented it! But I hope that by doing this, when they are away from me, they can think for themselves, make good choices and be safe.

Sharon says:

I too, played in the woods with my sisters and we rode bikes in the street unsupervised (and without helmets!). Would I let my kids do it? Absolutely not! In my neighborhood, one parent, usually the mom, stayed home. Even in households where the children had long since grown and moved away, the woman continued her role as homemaker. I knew if I did anything dangerous or stupid, someone would see me and call my parents. Likewise, if I strange car pulled up and asked a group of us children for directions, a neighbor or two would be by our side in an instance. With both parents working and many single parent homes, there is no one to keep a watchful eye over the neighborhood kids anymore.

Breakfast for a crowd

This week, my 2 nieces and my nephew spent the night. We had 4 hungry kids the next morning! Rather than make individual pancakes and slave over a hot stove, I decided to bake my pancakes in a jelly roll pan. I have a stoneware bar pan from Pampered Chef. If you are using a steel or aluminum one, I would spray it with non-stick coating and then line it with parchment paper to keep the pancake from sticking.

I used a whole grain pancake mix. For the 10 x 15.5 inch bar pan, I used 2 ½ cups of mix, 2 ½ tablespoons of oil, 3 eggs and about 2 ½ cups of water. Your mix might vary a little, but I think you want to start with about 2 1/2 cups of dry mix.

Spray the pan with cooking spray. Pour the pancake batter into the pan and spread it evenly with the back of a spoon or spatula.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. The duration might vary if you are using a metal pan. I’d check it after 10 minutes.

Spread a bit of butter on the top and then cut into squares and serve with syrup.

The kids LOVED the square pancakes! Even the most finicky one went back for seconds.

Next time I will try adding some cinnamon and applesauce, chopped bananas and pecans or even ham and cheese chunks. Because the batter isn’t sweetened, I think just about anything will go with it.

Easy, quick and good for ‘em. What could be better?