Parenting: The Science/Art of Prediction

When the boys were young, the day care center parking lot drove me crazy. Young kids are short enough that drivers cannot see them when backing up and every time I picked up or dropped off, I worried that a kid would be hit by a car in reverse. The new video technology is helping but it doesn’t guarantee anything. Kids in parking lots still stress me. This past weekend, the younger two helped me go grocery shopping. They eagerly unloaded groceries from the coveted “car-driving” cart into the back of our van. Without thinking, I stepped to the side of the van to put the “don’t-want-it-smushed” bread into the front seat. Then I heard a man yelling. The car beside me had started backing up at the same time that The Little Guy had decided to move our cart backwards to take it to the corral. The man’s yells stopped the driver moments after she had already bumped into the cart and into my son. He was fine. He was protected by the cart and by his angels. But the woman was in tears and I was in disbelief. I had failed to be there. Failed to predict my son’s movements. Failed to predict the driver’s movements. Failed to protect from harm. Lifting up thanks as we drove away, I reviewed the situation with the boys trying to reinforce safety.

Parenting, it really boils down to one’s ability to predict. Science or art….hard to tell.

And this starts early, shortly after the mesmerizing awe of the newborn look and smell. Soon, the parent is desperately trying to predict the infant’s sleep cycle. If the baby falls asleep at 9:00 pm, do you predict he or she will wake up at 11:00 and therefore there’s no reason for you to get to sleep yet, or might the little cherub sleep until 1:00 am and you can delight in at least 2-3 hours of peaceful rest. After a night or two, or a year or two, you realize there’s absolutely no rhyme or reason to a kids’ sleep cycle and you might as well give up trying to predict anything!

The toddler years are the nightmarish, desperate attempts at predicting the Tasmanian devil’s every movements. Is she too close to the steps and about to tumble down? Is he going to flush that Match Box car down the toilet or is he just happily driving it along the bathtub rim? Is she likely to choke on that piece of food? Is he going to bump his head on the glass table or duck just in time? Apparently at this age, unpredictability is the only predictable aspect of parenting.

You feel like you have a sigh of relief as they enter into the school-age years. Now they can dress themselves, feed themselves, sort-of toilet themselves, and sometimes even entertain themselves for practically an hour (if some electronic device is involved!). You start to feel smug and almost have empathy when you see the bedraggled parents of toddlers chasing kids down the grocery aisle. But then you rapidly realize that there’s a whole new level of prediction which is further complicated by trying to predict interactions with and influences of other children as well. “I’m sorry your friend just blocked you from Minecraft chat. It wouldn’t possibly have anything to do with the fact that you just blew up his carefully constructed building, would it?”

It’s a brain-spinning nightmare, really. The more experience you have with kids, the more adept you get at this game of parenting prediction, but really there is no level of perfection that any parent could ever attain. My life is full of little moments of failing to predict kid behavior (scribbles on walls, broken TV sets, holes in the bedroom doors, plumbing emergencies for toy extraction) interspersed with near constant mental energy trying to predict larger and more consequential situations.

For example, currently I’m trying to predict the likelihood that a guy who goes by the name James will continue to use my address as a meet-up point for people trying to sell electronics on an app. When they arrive, he approaches and then runs off with their item. Within minutes, he has it up on the app for sale. The local police seem unconcerned and apathetic. My neighbors seem to consider it “interesting.” Property management seems to be pondering what to do. I seem to be the one stressed that victims will eventually get fed up with “James” and come storm my townhome. The question is, will I and the boys be home then?

So, here’s my conclusion. There’s no way we as parents or as humans could possibly predict everything that would befall our kids or us. We get better with each experience, we rely on family and friends to lend advice, we pray and we hope, and that’s the best we can do.

For now, I’ll predict that my boys are going to be really excited about an upcoming surprise and that the first winter snow that is falling tonight. That’s about as much as I can predict. And that’s good enough.

 

 

 

 

 

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Doing Your Job: A Scooter Story

Not only does Mr. Ornery love anything with wheels, he loves anything that doesn’t involve someone telling him what to do. This, of course, means that he does not appreciate the four-walled brick building called “elementary school” in which he is sentenced to six hours each day.

Last week when I picked him and the Little Guy up for their check-ups, Mr. Ornery skipped and jumped in the beautiful sunshine and said, “Yay! Thank you, Mom, for rescuing us from juvie!”

So, to encourage a better attitude during the school day, his teachers place great hope in a “behavioral chart” on which he receives a “star” for “following directions,” “staying on task,” and so forth. Mr. Ornery thinks this is a stupid piece of paper. Because I am also hoping to encourage him to shift more interest into academics, I recently decided to connect his behavioral chart with a monetary reward.

That he understands. As his allowance and earnings crept close to $40 one night, he came running upstairs to me hiding in my bedroom and exclaimed, “Mom, I can order a scooter now. Quick, get on Amazon. Please, please, please let me push the buttons and order the trick scooter.”

And so we did. Oh, how exciting it was.

This is all we talked about for the next forty-eight hours. “My scooter is coming in two days.” “When will it arrive?” “When is it going to be Saturday?” “Is it Saturday yet?”

And then the day arrived. We looked up “track package” on Amazon. It was to arrive by eight o’clock. We went to soccer and returned home right afterwards to see if the package had arrived yet. No. We out to play for a few hours at a friends’ house and returned home. No package yet. We had a late night soccer tournament and drove home at 9:30. “It’s got to be there,” Mr. Ornery said excitedly as we drove. “It definitely should. It definitely should,” I agreed, “but I would never say 100% on anything.”

Crushed. The boy was crushed.

No package on the door step. Checking Amazon, I saw that the USPS delivery person had marked, “Unable to deliver due to no access to the door.” What?!!? There is an 8-foot slab of cement patio in front of my door; that is it!

Nothing blocking the doorway (except an old scooter!)

I was on the phone with customer service pretty quickly (while walking the dog so that the boys couldn’t hear my intonation) to inform them of such foolishness. I was on for a long time regarding my displeasure at the clear lie of the delivery person, the fact that USPS would not be able to deliver again until Monday, and the sadness of my 8-year-old who had been waiting so eagerly.

The agent asked to speak to my sad child to ask him if they could send him a toy. “What would you like?” she asked. “A mini rocker,” he requested. I laughed. He wants a $300 “mini rocker” or “Fatboy” BMX bike. He wasn’t going to get that for free from Amazon, but they gave him $20 credit.

As Mr. Ornery lay quietly in bed that night venting his displeasure and sadness, we talked about how disappointments come in life. We talked about patience in waiting for the next opportunity. And we talked about the importance of doing one’s “job” to the best of your ability. The delivery man clearly did not do his job and gave a fake reason. We spoke of how people rely on each other to do their jobs. When you don’t, there likely is someone who will be sad or disappointed. We talked about school being the current “job” that Mr. Ornery has and it’s important for him to do his best at his job. We talked about how I try to do my best in my job. And as he drifted off to sleep, I thought about how challenging the job of parenting is, when the days are long and the years are short and you never really know how well you’re doing at this job. But I sure do know that my boys depend on me to try to do my best at this job. Their life, their love, their future depends on this job.

And then we waited another 48 hours until after school on Monday for the glorious scooter to arrive. I missed the joy while at work, but I did find out that the excitement lasted approximately 9.2 minutes until the glorious scooter was unusable — tiny ball bearings popping out of the handle connector.

Off went the glorious scooter back to Amazon….

Fortunately Target had one for sale!

 

 

Poverty as Seen By the 6 Year Old

The Little Guy was rapping in the back seat again. He does it often enough to make Super Tall Guy snap “shut up” more often than I like. I love hearing him play with words and sounds. I love listening to the boys experiment. And so I bite my tongue when I’ve had a long day and am tired of noise. And I shush the eldest to give space to the learning.

Last week, these were the words:

I got no money

I got no money

I got no job

I got no home

 

Help me

Help me

Please help me

Cuz I got no money

 

All I got is this piece of cardboard

Cardboard

All I got is cardboard

And I’ll recycle it

But can you give me some money

I got no money

 

Please help me

Won’t you help me.

 

“What does he know about poverty?” asked the ophthalmologist as I mentioned this song that was created on the drive to his 6-month eye check-up.

What does he know? We drove past a man holding a sign as we traversed a poorer section of town and I answered the Little Guy’s question.

No, he doesn’t understand the complexity of poverty. He doesn’t understand how people and institutions with power oppress over 45 million Americans. He doesn’t understand that kids go to bed hungry every night just miles from his home. He doesn’t understand that families don’t have running water and don’t play in the bathtub with goggles on their face any time they want to like he does. He doesn’t understand inequality and disparity. He doesn’t understand that the color of his skin will play a bigger role in how people approach him than the words that come from his mouth and the thoughts that come from his mind.

He doesn’t understand that life will beat people down. He doesn’t understand that the feelings of scarcity created by experiencing poverty in and of itself will alter the brain in such a way as to keep people in poverty. He doesn’t understand that the man holding the sign does not want to stand in the hot sun and humble himself to beg for money from people who might roll down their window and toss a couple dollars in his cup.

But he does understand that the man is asking for help. And there is something inside the heart of the Little Guy that hears that plea and responds to that plea. His innocence and youth allow him to connect on a real level with a man on the street, uninhibited by all the conflicting “science” of the “best” way to help people.

What I want him to understand about poverty is that it doesn’t have to be this way. What I want him to do is hold onto his heart and his innocence and develop the skills he needs to change the world.

“You really can change the world if you care enough.” ~ Marian Wright Edelman

Effective Immediately

“’Effective Immediately’ can be your team name,” replied a mom recently. I had just explained to her that I have this sense that any time I receive an email or a note in my mailbox from any “community” to which we belong that begins with the words, “Effective Immediately,” or “It has come to our attention…,” it can pretty much be assumed that my boys played some role in this new “policy.”

“Effective Immediately, children must now be supervised in the play area…” Community Pool.

“It has come to our attention that children are riding bikes in the street….” Townhome Community. Let’s be serious. It’s not really a street; it’s more like a parking lot road to the end of the row of townhouses. And it is already posted as “10 mph,” so maybe if you enforced the speed limit with the adults, there would be fewer near-misses of cars and kids on bikes.

My boys are not complete hooligans, but let’s face it, they are boys. They do enjoy removing large boxes from the recycling dumpster and building forts. They have been known to unwind a whole role of duct tape around a couple trees out back and then get distracted by the next game. They particularly enjoy careening down the slope of one parking area to see if they can keep the turn at the end tight enough to miss parked cars but not tight enough that they spill over onto the asphalt (smart guys). And they do march around with their shirts off and their Nerf guns in the ready position, like a reenactment of Lord of the Flies. They are boys – active, busy, exploring, socializing, negotiating, testing their limits.

It’s such a balance as a parent between hovering over them to make sure they don’t get too banged up and letting them figure out who will be captain of the adventure crew versus who is picking up the trash; who steers the swivel cart and who holds on for dear life; who chooses the next activity and who follows along. They climb, they jump, they roll, they speed, they play (and apparently they have jumped off the roof of my sister’s house onto the temptingly waiting trampoline below too!).

To me, the generated “policies” and “notices” hint at the loss of the “community,” the “village,” that used to surround parents in the neighborhood. Instead of Ms. So-and-So down the street just yelling at my boys if they were doing something stupid, she now sends me a text and tells me what they did. Instead of Mr. So-and-So just grumping, “Get off my yard,” he complains to management and every townhome with a human under 5-feet-tall gets a reprimanding notice.

Is it a shift in people turning more inward and taking less responsibility over others? Is it a shift in parents being more protective and getting upset if other people encroach on their boundaries of parenting? Is it a lack of engagement or a calculation of potential liability?

I feel like I have to practically beg people to be my village. Yell at my kids – they’re going to listen to you more than to me anyway! I want my boys to develop independence and take risks, but also learn respect and responsibility. I want them to know that others have expectations for them as well and that there is a community that surrounds them and cares about them. As I search for a new home for us, I’m also searching for that community; one that is not reprimanding the parents, but actually joining in the difficult task of raising up the next generation.

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe there is something to the Bottle-Flipping Insanity

The other night my older two boys sat in the hallway cheering and yelling and counting as they seemingly mindlessly twirled plastic bottles into the air. The bottle flip game. Every parents’ nightmare. Every teacher’s nightmare. Every coaches’ nightmare. If you work with kids, you are tortured by this new craze. There’s even an app for it – at least the app doesn’t involve spilled water or loud thunks or occasional property damage.

My constant diatribe fell on deaf ears. “Go pee, brush your teeth and get ready for bed,” I repeated endlessly. All they could focus on was whether they had “stuck it.” How many points the opponent had. Whether that flip counted or not. They were completely enraptured.

However, it didn’t take long for those bottles to be emptied out and thrown into the recycling bin by a slightly irritated parent.

You see, my boys flip the bottles in the living room. They flip them on the sidewalk. They flip them in the car. They used to flip them in the cafeteria at school, but apparently that’s been banned. Smart lunch staff! The game eats under my skin. It’s not just the noise, it’s the waste of resources that kills me. I already have a “thing” about plastic bottles, but to catch my boys cracking one open, pouring out almost 1/3 of the contents, and then leaving water bottles strewn ….everywhere….. It’s more than I can endure!

So in the manner of most things that irritate me about parenting, I try to consider what might be positive about this bottle flipping nonsense.

Persistence – If nothing else, the boys are learning to stick with something and work towards improvement since landing on the cap apparently earns more points than landing on the base. In general, nine out of ten times the bottle lands on its side, so they flip again.

Turn-taking – Social give-and-take is a constant learning need of the boys and although there’s usually a continuous argument throughout a “game” of bottle flipping, the boys are negotiating the rules and turn-taking.

Mathematics – Not only are the boys keeping score, but they are adding and comparing numbers. I’d love them to start calculating percentages, but that might be a bit too much to ask out of my 8 and 10-year-olds.

Self-entertainment – Teaching kids to be self-sufficient and able to entertain themselves is a constant struggle for parents. At least while bottle-flipping, they are not complaining about being bored or trying to spend time on an electronic device. And it is an activity amenable to a variety of environments, just not all the ones (like in the car) that the boys think it’s appropriate for.

Friendship – The beauty of this game is that anyone can do it no matter what the age or skill level. Thus, the boys can practice the skills of making new friends and initiating interactions with others by joining in this mutual activity or asking other kids to play with them.

Science – In essence, they are experimenting
with gravity, learning the differences in motion depending on weight or amount of fluid in the container, and learning about rotation of objects. I’m working to incorporate the lessons of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” though we haven’t gotten too far with that yet. It’s usually me picking up the bottles and tossing them in the recycle can.

In general, I’m trying to be a bit more patient with this fundamentally annoying game. Like all fads, I’m hoping it moves along soon….though it’s upcoming replacements (like the fidget toy) tend to be a bit more costly!

 

 

 

 

Building Wings

I walked away.

I might have peeked back, to be honest.

But I walked away.

My nod was the signal. I passed the middle child off.

What’s your name dude?

~Gavin.

Thanks for saying hi to my guy.

~I rode with him before.

They circled the course again, getting good air.

On deck, Gavin called Mr. Ornery’s name. He lined his bike up with the riders and sat.

A new tribe.

I walked away.

There is growth.  There is learning to be done.

Pump. Jump. Spin.

Confidence. Persistence. Technique.

That part is not my job.

My job is to let the little boy find his wings.

My job is to find the safe space and walk away.

My job…. is to hold myself in check and be able to walk away.

 

Seven Friends Every Mom Needs (Especially this Single Mom)

Skiing has always held a strange mystique over me. Having grown up in a non-snowing foreign country and transplanting back in my teen years, I could never understand the fascination of propelling oneself down a hillside on thin blades and hoping for balance. Yet, it has remained on my list of things I “must” do with the boys (it’s my own internal list, half the stuff doesn’t make sense and the other half likely will never get accomplished).

However, the vast unknown surrounding the world of skiing has until now blocked my boys’ experiences. How do you even dress to ski? How do you put boots on kids’ feel? How do you navigate a ski lodge in which everyone walks around in the confidence of knowing where they’re going and what they’re doing – except you? It was too much to comprehend. Too much to attempt alone. Too much until a friend said, “Hey, my husband would be happy to teach your boys.” What beautiful joy.

This week, two very happy boys learned about clicking in ski boots, skicreating pizza or French fry poses, and the thrill of flying down the side of a little tiny mountain. Their brilliant faces and sparkling eyes spoke of their joy. I stood near the outdoor fireplace warming my toes and capturing moments on film and in my heart. Gratefulness overwhelmed me at one point as I thought about the joy that friends bring to one’s life and just how important they are to my parenting journey.

It seems to me that every parent needs at least seven kinds of friends. Clearly, one of them needs to know how to ski!

People who can do stuff you can’t Friends – There are things I can teach my boys like how to do the laundry, wash dishes, and say please and thank you. But there are so many things that I clearly have no ability to teach, like lift the toilet seat, flush every time, and how to ski. For this and so much more, I need friends who not only have skills I don’t, but who have a desire to spend time with kids and help them learn new skills. I’m very thankful for these friends.

Text Me Friends – In this digital age, it’s great to have these friends when you just want a little affirmation or to share a funny story that you know no one else except another mom would appreciate. The most important thing about these friends, though, is that when you’re stuck in a moment of parenting and just need a kind word, advice or empathy, but don’t have the emotional energy to actually talk, these friends are there for you in the pretty immediate response mode.

Call Me Friends – When you’re ready to chat about the little things in life, the surprise find at the grocery store or the cost of gas, or when you’re ready for a good heart-to-heart in-depth discussion, these are the friends you need. Though for us introverts, sometimes these are the Send Me An Email or Reach out on Facebook Friends! It’s pretty handy to have a friendly pediatrician in this category when you can’t figure out what that rash is or whether to grab the kid and run to the emergency room or just dole out some ibuprofen.

Dropping-by Friends – You need these friends to just come knocking or send a text and say, “Hey, watcha doing? Mind if I drop by?” And then you rush around picking up unmatched boys’ socks, doggie toys, and shoving the shoes into a pile so they don’t trip up your guest before opening up the bottle of wine. It’s going to be a nice evening and these are the friends you need.

You Got This Friends – The parenting journey is impossible without multiple moments of complete meltdown and desire to give it all up. You feel lost. You don’t know what to do next. You know you’re the worst mom (or dad) in the world. These friends pick you up, brush off the dirt, wipe off the baby drool, and push you back into the game. Listen to them.

Been There Done That Friends – Now these are key. When your eldest son refuses to talk to you on his first trip away from you in the ten years that you’ve known the dude, these are the friends who say, “Yep, boys are like that. Don’t worry.” You don’t believe these friends at first, but then you realize that they speak from experience and they actually are right! It’s also wise to listen to these friends as they rant or tell stories about their little ones, because pretty soon these “ho-hum” stories become your reality.

Meet Me Friends – It might be coffee. It might be a margarita. It might be a walk in the park or a bench at the playground. These are the moments when you pause and breathe and rest in a rhythm together. You smile, you laugh, you cry. You get together in the monthly M.O.C.K (Moms of Crazy Kids) meet ups. It’s really best to have these moments without the little ones around if you expect to put more than two sentences together in a conversation, but if that’s not possible, meet up anyway. Human contact is part of sanity.

Got-your-back Friends – Every once in awhile, the fine structure you’ve built up of how to make life flow smoothly crashes a bit and when your family is busy or is already watching your other kids and it’s midnight and you’re in the emergency room with one of the kids, these are the friends who arrive with a bag of every possible cell phone charger made in the past fifteen years so that you can plug in yours. No matter what, no matter what time of day, no matter what they are in the middle of, these friends drop it all. They’ve got your back. They will be there. (I know, this is technically the eighth type – but these friends are so crucial they are in their own must-have category!)

You need friends. That “village” that they’re always talking about. It’s not really for the kids…it’s the village behind the parent that keeps you going.

Build your village. I sure am thankful for mine – old and new.