A Climbing Wall: The Art of Parenting

“I need you to check in with me,” I said to the 9-year-old as he placed his foot on a ledge on the climbing wall. “I am what keeps you alive.”

In the boys’ endless quests for adventure, the climbing wall at the gymnastics facility was their next journey. There was fun and challenge to be had on the walls and in the attempt to swing up into a little “cave,” but the greatest fun was to descend into the pit, hook up to a harness, and scale the wall. My job was to belay them. My job was to keep them safe, to keep them alive.

This was a new adventure for me as well. I had no experience in belaying and it’s been way too long since I’ve tied any knots in Girl Scouting (“Form a guy, give him a tie, poke him in the eye.” – viola! – a figure-8 knot). I realized as a stood back, craning my neck, watching my fearless boy climb straight up that there was a great deal of learning happening in a short period of time.

Mr. Ornery was learning strategy of placement of hands and legs. With encouragement from the two men who climb each week, he was learning to focus on his legs to push him up higher. He was also learning to listen to others (even if he had just met them) who had more experience and thus could give him some guidance. If he could reflect deep enough, he was learning to respect his elders.

He was also learning to trust himself and develop confidence. The first couple times, the wall with an overhanging cliff loomed against his skill. Several attempts later, he fought to keep his toes in the footholds and extend his arms high enough to get the next rock. Scrambling over the edge, he shot to the top to ring the bell and joyously called out, “I did it.”

He was learning to trust his mother. “You sure you got me?” he’s asked several times as he reaches far up to the top. He knows he’s high enough that a fall would be devastating. He knows he’s connected to a rope, but he’s not so sure that rope is secure. He knows the rope is connected to me, but he’s not so sure this system is going to work. So, I remind him that he’s safe. I remind him that his mom has him. I remind him that he checked in with me at the start so that we’re in this together – he’s ready to explore, I’m ready to catch. Just as he used to walk off as a toddler and then circle back to check that I was still there, now as an adventurous third-grader, I’m still there. I’ve got his back in this life.

As I hold the rope, I contemplate this parent stuff. I’m responsible for keeping my kids safe, but also for encouraging them to try new things. Before clicking onto the rope, we review the knots together so that my kid thinks of safety first (helmets, seat belts, paying attention – whatever it is, safety matters). Before giving advice about the next possible step, I hang back as much as I can and let him struggle for a bit. Of course, I have an answer for him because I have a different vantage point (I’m not on the wall and I’ve already had a lot of experiences in life), but some of this he needs to wrestle with and I need to hold my tongue.

I am also reminded that part of what makes this parenting gig tough is that I don’t always have all the answers and new things (like belaying) come at me all the time. The great thing is that there are others, more experienced climbers, who can provide help – check the knots, teach me to hang the rope up at the end, provide soft encouragement. And there are more experienced parents who can give advice and share wisdom and provide soft encouragement when the going gets rough. There’s no way I could do this without them (and I’m looking for them as we approach the teen years!).

So, I’m learning to say “Go for it.” I’m learning to coach my kids just a little but hang back as much as I can so that they can figure it out. I’m learning to let others mentor and teach them skill sets that I don’t have. I’m learning to support but not hover. I’m learning to figure out what makes each boy tick and what they need on their journey. I’m learning the outward expression of the love withing.

Before you venture forth, my dear sons, check in with Mom.

And I will say, “Climb on.”

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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.

 

 

An Open Letter to the Coach at my Son’s Gym

Interestingly, Facebook just popped up “memories” of last year’s gymnastics Halloween party as I was writing this post and considering copying it into an email to the owner. Sadly, this year’s memories are of a much different flavor. Maybe I’m over-reacting. Let me know.

Dear Coach,

I am struggling with feeling so unhappy about how you treated my son during the Halloween Party at the gym last weekend. Yes, he was being loud and silly, wrestling IMG_3720with his cousin, as they got off the mat after the costume parade. But as he had rolled right over to my feet, I was about to correct his behavior when your booming voice and harsh tone sent my little four-year-old panicking into my arms. I comforted him and reminded him that he needs to be quiet, sit and listen, but I was a little surprised at your tone. When the owner of the gym came over to see why he was sobbing and if he needed encouragement to engage in the fun activities, I told her we were just taking a break, but the truth was that he was trembling and needed to calm down.

Later when you returned upstairs and said to me, “Your boys are being too wild,” I wasn’t sure exactly what you were referring to. However, I didn’t get a chance to dialogue about it as you shortly thereafter yelled once more at my Little Guy. Having just exited the bounce house, he was unaware that you had proclaimed the tumble track off limits. Had you held your tongue, I would have walked over to my son and explained to him that that equipment was not to be used and we would have found another activity. Instead, it was clear to me that my family had been targeted in your mind as “trouble” and we weren’t going to have a good experience anymore. You certainly did not raise your voice to any other children or families – only mine and my sister’s boys. So, I gathered up my guys and we left early.

You see, my children may look like “normal” children and they often act like “normal and active” little boys, but deep inside the brain there is a shift in the neurotransmitters and the neuronal connections which leaves them struggling with hyper-reactivity and very poor impulse control. It’s not a physical disability that you might see and have empathy for, it’s a mental one and clearly you have no empathy for a condition that occurred before they were born. But it is precisely for this reason that I have my boys enrolled in gymnastics, to teach them the skills of strength and self-confidence and self-control, all of which your employing gym espouses so frequently. Yet, your direct and harsh yelling shatters the self-esteem, demeans the child and breaks the spirit.

Furthermore, your rapid discipline of my children when I am right there takes me out of the equation. I’m not sure if you think me too permissive or incompetent at parenting, but your actions were completely disrespectful. When my children are in class with you, then you have the authority. When they are at an event with me, I hold the authority. Unless they are in danger of hurting themselves or someone else, then it is my responsibility to handle their behaviors.

Here’s what I expect of a teacher and a coach – someone who treats all people with respect and dignity. Someone who encourages a child to do their best and reach new goals. Someone who celebrates hard work and dedication. Someone who models what it means to be a strong, competent athlete and decent human being. Someone who works with the family to reach out to kids with unique developmental “challenges” and develop self-confidence, increase self-esteem, and develop sportsmanship. If you are unable to be that great coach, then we will find someone who can.

Please let me know.

Thank you,

A tremendously disappointed mother

 

Cold sacrifices

People talk about the sacrifice you make when you become a parent. They talk about so many sacrifices for your kids. If was sounding pretty “yeah, yeah” to me…until yesterday. Until I sat in 42 degree weather with the sun pushing the clouds out of its way for miniscule moments of time before the darkness and gray returned and the wind whipped through tiny entrances of layered clothing to reach my very soul as I sat cheering for Super Tall Guy at his baseball game.

This, I thought, this is what “sacrifice” means. Every muscle in my body wanted to sprint for the warmth of the car. My head ached from the tense neck muscles as I hunched as far into the blanket as I could. I sat there wishing for just a couple more degrees of warmth and possibly for feeling in my toes.

I glanced at the coaches on the field, blowing on their hands to diminish the numbness. “Come on, kid, you can do it. We got a hitter here,” they would yell to the batter. These men, these fathers, were sacrificing their Saturday morning to stand in the freezing cold for what? For my kid. And for that kid over there. And that one over there. Sure the kidsbaseball were cold. Sure they were rubbing their hands. Sure Super Tall Guy asked if he could leave after the second inning (knowing it would take two innings to get to his turn at bat given his bottom of the line-up position). But the coaches coached and the parents huddled and froze so that the kids could play. And the kids played so that they could learn about sacrifice and being cold and persisting and being “tough” and showing up for the team and winning and losing….and well, because their parents made them show up in the hopes that they would learn some of those lessons.

It’s been nine and a half years since I turned over under the covers and slept past 7:30 on a Saturday morning. It’s been nine and a half years since I last woke up and said, “hmmm….what should I do today?” Going from single, carefree woman to “what am I going to do for and with you today?” has been a pretty dramatic adjustment. Learning to sacrifice myself and my desires and even my needs (like you know, to sleep, to eat (a warm meal), to get to the bathroom before desperation) has been a big change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy. I’m not complaining. I don’t mind leaving the movie theater right at the part I really wanted to see because the four-year-old can’t sit still any longer. I don’t mind staring at the huge painting in the dining room and wondering who shattered the upper corner of the glass. I don’t mind contemplating if the dampness seeping through my sock is urine or just water from the evening bath. I think it keeps me in shape to continually bend over and pick up those paper airplanes that missed their landing strip. I kind of enjoy slithering under the car to retrieve the soccer ball being melted onto the hot frame. I’d rather sleep on a narrow sliver of bed than spread out like an eagle and take up so much space. It’s keeping me limber and young and inquisitive, and so I really don’t mind….because I have three awesome boys…and I’ll get them back some day for all these sacrifices!

What are little boys made of?

Yesterday I pondered “Why don’t we let little boys be little boys anymore?”

My little boy is “misbehaving” in first grade. He is “playing in the bathroom” (no way?!? Really? He never does that at home.) He is “talking to his friends” (right – definitely a problem). He is “being silly” (Am aghast! A true offence indeed).

I mock. I mock because I struggle. I know, just as well as the teacher knows, that all of his behaviors are absolutely perfectly NORMAL six-year-old boy behaviors (and girls too!). The problem is that he is displaying these natural inclinations at all the wrong moments. Most likely when he’s supposed to silently wash his dirty little hands and line back up to return to the classroom. He’s chatting with classmates instead of sitting quietly on the rug for the Mystery Reader. He’s sputtering or spinning or bumping around when he should have both feet on the floor and tracing lowercase “h’s” for the 100th time in his short little life.

I was never a little boy. I do not understand all that goes on in my little boys’ brains. Their world is total insanity to me. They leap over couches and curl under dining room chairs. They throw each other to the ground and smack each other’s heads. They will never ever lift the seat before peeing. Rocks fall out of their pockets. Snakes slither across their hands. Boogers and blood go straight into their mouths…along with Lego pieces, plastic bottle caps, and marbles (and flower petals and miscellaneous bush berries and countless other potentially poisonous or choking hazards!).  There seems to be no rhyme or reason to their chaos or their constant energy. It is like a constant death wish thwarted by a vigilant (exhausted) parent.

But I do understand that we (as in all of us) are doing this wrong. We have exorbitant numbers of young boys with ADHD and medication to “quiet” them down.  We have young boys expelled from day care centers. Behavioral charts. “Reward systems.” Detentions, suspensions, expulsions.

Gone are the days, it seems, when they played pick-up baseball in an empty field. Gone are the adventures around the neighborhood which ended when street lights came on or the neighbor caught them red-handed. Gone are the times of recess, dodge ball and tag.

little boys

From Etsy: Expressive Sprouts

I don’t want to be stuck in nostalgia. I don’t want my boys to get hurt (too much). But I do want them to be the “boy boys” they were created to be. I want them to be silly, impish, mischievous, creative, brave, daring, strong, boisterous, adventurous, wild, rambunctious rascals.

For I know that there are precious few years for them to be boys and so little time before they are whittled into “grown-ups” who act “mature.” Oh, what to do?

Dirty fingerprints on once white walls
Purple stains on carpeted floors
Beaten and ratty leather couches
Broken knobs on unhinged doors.

 

Tennis balls behind the piano
Abandoned socks under the beds
Ripped jeans and stained pajamas
Random “treasures” under their heads.

 

Gouges on the dining room table
Rickety wiggly dining room chairs
Board game pieces strewn haphazard
Window curtains marred by tears.

 

Dirty dishes, scattered toys
This is home to three little boys.

 

(Complimentary ear plugs and hand sanitizer available at the door. Please sign your acknowledgement of the dangers inherent upon entering such a place. Alcoholic beverages available upon request, signaled by a wink and a nod. Or a scream, yelp or whimper. Whatever works best for you. Welcome to our home.)

Ten reasons why foster parenting is so hard

  1. You just have no idea when your phone is going to ring and a caseworker is going to ask if you’d like to take on a kid. Sometimes you’re just waiting and waiting eagerly. Sometimes you’re crossing your fingers saying “I’ve got three right now, I’m feeling a bit busy, thank you, but….” And sometimes they ask if you can pick up a kid within 15 minutes!
  1. You just have no idea how long a kid is going to stay with you. It might be three days for a “shelter hearing” when a relative or someone else is found to take the foster child, or it might be 6 months and 2 days, or 18 months and 9 days, or at least 18 years and the rest of the kids’ life once you’ve adopted the child.
  1. You just have no idea when they are going to schedule a “visit” for the child to see his or her biological parent and once the child goes off in a stranger’s car, when the child will return to you. If the parent shows up for the visit, it might be a couple hours. If the parent doesn’t show, it might be just a round-trip in a car. You just have no idea how truly irksome this is to have little control over your schedule.
  1. You just have no idea whether to get rid of some of the 3T boy clothes you still have in boxes or whether you should keep them just in case another kid comes along. Do you take the carseats out of the car or shove them in the trunk?
  1. You just have no idea how much paperwork you’re going to have each time the caseworker stops by for a visit. And when one agency decides to stop their foster care services and you have to switch to another agency, you have another thousand and five pages to complete, and clearances to run, and home inspections to prepare for.
  1. You just have no idea how each child is going to respond to arriving in your house. You can’t predict if they’ll cuddle right in or scream for hours. You don’t know if they’ll throw punches at the wall or help with the dishes. You don’t know if the other children are going to be thrilled with a new “friend” or wish that they were gone. The uncertainty is huge because everyone is reacting to a major unexpected change.
  1. You just have no idea how painful it is to have a child leave your house with only a few hours notice and realizing that you likely will never see that child again in your life, despite being the one and only parent the child has had in the past 10 months. The empty space hurts.
  1. You just have no idea how protective you can become of a child, caring for them the best you can and wanting so badly to advocate for their well-being.
  1. You just have no idea how frustrating it is to not really have a voice for a child. You provide the 24-hour a day love and care but have no influence over the bigger picture. You wash and feed the child, watch them grow, encourage their development, treat the fevers, but no one wants to hear your point of view.
  1. You just have no idea how quickly your heart is going to fall in love with the child in your home as you rock them to sleep and kiss their scrapes and bumps. You tell yourself that you’re keeping a distance, that you’re not really attached, that this is just “foster love,” but your heart never listens to that anyway.

You just have no idea how your love and your hugs and your home can make all the difference in a child’s life, comforting them in a moment of chaos and giving them layers and layers of love to buffer them through life’s future troubles. They may stay with you. They may return home. They may more on. But your touch is always written upon their life.foster

You just have no idea how wonderful it can be to be a foster parent.

Think about it.

Some kid somewhere out there needs you to be brave enough, strong enough, creative enough to say, “I just have no idea….and you know what? That’s okay.”

 

 

Why getting to know each other matters (based on a horrific example)

There is such a sad story from my neighboring community this weekend – a 22-year-old mother was found dead on her bed and her 10-month-old baby dead nearby in the living room. Her cause of death is unknown and his is suspected to be a result of dehydration and starvation. The story is not yet complete and details are still unfolding, but the family and the neighborhood is reeling. And the neighbors who live in the same apartment building are wracked with guilt.

My soul aches since hearing the news. I fall asleep thinking of a little boy crawling around on the floor searching….searching for food….searching for water…searching for his mother….crying out for someone to help him. And though his cries were heard, the incredible weight of them, the life and death significance of them were not known until too late.

“If I took the time to get to know her I probably could have helped her” said a tenant in the same building as quoted in the newspaper story.

His remorse hit me. We have gone too far. We have let too much distance exist between us. When parents are afraid to reach out for help, we are letting them down and we are putting children at risk. When people worry that their neighbor will “call child protective services” against them, we are pitting family against family. When we lose a sense of community and of watching out for one another, we become isolated and lonely and we cannot thrive.

We need to change. We need to reach out to each other. We need to carry each other’s burdens. We need to take the time to get to know each other.

I am parenting three young boys. I’ve made a point of meeting my neighbors. I let a nearby friend know that she’s number one back-up call in emergencies since she’s the one closest to us. I’ve talked to my children about what to do if x, y or z. I sincerely thank friends who offer help whenever needed and I reciprocate the offer, pausing to look them in the eye to solidify our agreement. I frequently think about the community that surrounds my family and whether I’ve built up enough of a buffer base for my children.

Last week, my middle son turned six years old. His birthday party was attended by three

Cupcakes decorated to match my son's typical drawings.

Birthday cupcakes decorated to match my son’s typical drawings.

boys from his day care center, one boy who used to attend day care with him, two boys from his prior kindergarten class, one boy from his new kindergarten class, one boy from the neighborhood, and two boys from friends of the family. I looked around the room with a smile as they sang Happy Birthday To You, off-key. My son’s net is wide. There are many connections. There need to be for him to know that he is loved, that the world is full of good people, and that there are people who will come if he cries.

Every child needs love and protection and a wide, wide net.

Take the time to get to know one another. It just might matter.