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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Bits of Trauma

It was a couple of small pops followed by some strange noises that I couldn’t decide if they were animal or human. It was 9:30 at night and I was walking the little dog a few doors down from our home in the “townhome” side of our rental community. The next morning, my neighbor asked if I heard the gunfire as I greeted him while taking the dog out again. My fears were confirmed when a friend from the township police department called to let me know there had been gunfire, broken window, and argument, but no arrests. “Probably drug related,” he suggested.

Gunshots in the apartment side of the community. Gunshots fired in the building adjacent to the playground where my children swing and slide and jump their bikes off any possible knoll. Gunshots that could be a stray bullet piercing one of my precious sons.

I immediately put in a call to the property management office for the boss to call me and sent an email. He called back later the following afternoon. He had no concern and certainly had no plan to address the issue. “I can’t control who people invite over,” he responded. “No, we won’t extend the fence line; that would be expensive.” “The police do patrol,” he answered – “never seen them patrol,” I argued – “well, it’s at random times.” (Hmmm, nope, no one in the neighborhood has ever seen them patrol either.) Every suggestion I made, he had no interest in. “I’ll pass your concerns to my supervisor,” he concluded. I informed him that I was “tremendously disappointed in your clear lack of concern for the safety of the people who live here and for the children.” And then I left a message for the regional manager; and I’m still waiting a return call.

You see, last Friday we got a “letter” in our mailboxes saying that of all the nerve, there have been reports of kids riding their bikes on these dead-end streets and that from now on, all children must be supervised at all times when playing outside. I didn’t see on that letter that there have been any reports of people driving faster than the posted 10mph while on the same streets as the kids, but I pretty happily give these drivers the universal “slow down” hand signals when they come cruising along. I’m just wondering why management in their wisdom doesn’t want to put out a letter to help the entire community feel safer about the recent gunfire “incident.”

So this weekend, I took it upon myself to personally say hello to my neighbors, ask if they heard about the “incident” and let them know that “management” doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. I am therefore asking each of them to be more vigilant and keep an eye out for each other. I am asking them to call the police immediately if they notice anything troubling. I am asking them to speak up if they have a concern.

My boys have heard these conversations. We’ve talked about it many times. We’ve set new boundaries for where they can play and ride their bikes. We’ve reviewed safety guidelines. They seem to be coping better than I am. For they have the great perspective of a protected child; they can look at the adults around them and feel safe and loved.

Probably what was more “traumatic” to Super Tall Guy this week is that he twisted his ankle jumping on a “Jump Pad” at a local corn maze. He hobbled around for the foot-bootafternoon complaining that he couldn’t have any fun. He crawled around the floor the next morning until his aunt dropped off a pair of crutches. Finally he succumbed to my urging to get it checked and he walked out of there in a boot with a nondisplaced avulsion fracture in the ankle. Yes, he will likely remember this weekend of me downplaying his pain while my head and heart were wrapped around the needs of the community.foot-broken

It takes a village, they always say. We live in a small “village” here. Apparently our “leaders” are much more interested in collecting rent checks than providing safety, but we shall continue on and do what we can to protect each other and support each other. And we as parents certainly are looking out for each other’s kids.

And yet I shall continue to look for a new house….while also making sure that I land in another “village” to wrap around us all.

I Choose Love

It’s been an absolutely crazy week in the news and I know most of us are struggling with understanding what is happening and trying to figure out what we can and should do.

What’s most important, it seems to me, is to maintain hope. Just like we know that individual humans make mistakes, groups of humans and countries also make mistakes.

But it is the individual who has to hold the hope. The hope that there is better and can be better. And then collectively we can share the hope.

There must be enough of us to say, “I know you are hurting at this time and the world and the country seems bleak, but I will hold the hope.” For the time being, I will be the one to hold the hope.

Mat awesome

Suntan lotion fun with Super Tall Guy

I am doing that for my boys. They don’t even know that I am holding the hope for them. They don’t know that internally I wrestle with knowing that their brown skin glows and glistens and that beautiful skin will mark them and label them. They don’t know that I hold the hope for them.

They don’t know that I worry about them every day. Will they make good decisions or bad ones? Will they make poor choices in friendships or be surrounded in love? Will they thrive or flounder? They don’t know that I hold the hope for them.

They don’t know that I pour my heart and soul into thinking about them and what’s best for them. They don’t know that I sacrifice almost all my time and a (very) high percentage of my income for them. They don’t know that I’m desperately trying to get this parenting thing “right” for their sake. They don’t know that I hold the hope for them.

They don’t know that this world is huge and going through some crazy times right now. They don’t know much about the violence and racism and fighting and division. They don’t know that I hold the hope for them.

This week what runs through my mind over and over is “I choose love.” No matter what is happening around me, I choose love. For the sake of my boys, I choose love. For the sake of changing the world, I choose love. For the sake of those who need to hear it, I choose love.

If we respond in love,

If we react in love,

If we live in love,

the world will be better.

I hold the hope and I choose love.

prayer-of-st-francis

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Rescuing our kids with a secret “Extraction Code”

I would not consider myself to be a Helicopter Parent. In fact, unless you awaken Mama Bear, I’m probably more like Mama Bird – “here, honey, let me give you a little boot out of this little ol’ nest and see if you fly. Come on, kid, FLY!  Huh….”

I do, however, spend a lot of time contemplating the shift to a digital connected world, its affects on social interactions, and the very real dangers associated with the vast anonymous internet. My kids are not yet digital. Other than school, relatives and babysitters, my boys are rarely apart from me, so I haven’t felt the need to equip them with digital devices. That is all about to change as the oldest continues to push into more independence.

The past few weeks, as an Internal Medicine-Pediatric physician (trained to care for kids and adults), I have filled in more on the pediatric side of the medical office. And when sitting with 11-year-olds and 14-year-olds and even 17-year-olds, I’ve found myself giving each of them (and their parents) a little bit of advice.

To the kid:

That cell phone you have in your pocket is a very important and potentially very dangerous device. You can get reach out to friends, family, and a whole host of people, which is really awesome. But you can also get yourself into deep trouble with that phone by texting or talking to the wrong people or putting up photos or a whole bunch of things. But, the reason your parents got you that phone in the first place is most likely they wanted to keep you safe so that you could call them whenever you needed.

What you need to do – tonight – is sit down and talk with your parents about your “secret code.” Your secret code is a short phrase, known only to your family, which tells mom or dad that you need them absolutely positively NOW!!

For example, you might text your mom with the sentence, “Gosh, I sure am hungry for pepperoni pizza.” The minute your mom reads that sentence, she will stop everything she is doing (and I mean everything), jump in her car and drive immediately to where you are. She will make up some really stupid crazy parent excuse for why she has come to pick you up. “Dear, the cat is sick and we need to take her to the vet now. I’m so sorry, but I need you to come along.” (Don’t have a cat – make it your sister….but not to the vet….maybe to the doctor!). Then you will roll your eyes, text your friend “my mom is nuts!” and get in the car.

You see, I can tell you’re a smart kid. But every single smart kid at times in their lives gets into uncomfortable or bad or stupid situations. Maybe you’re visiting a friend and maybe another person comes over too. And maybe this other person starts to do something that you just don’t want to get into. Maybe it’s making prank calls. Maybe it’s lighting up a cigarette. It could be anything. If you find yourself in any uncomfortable situation, you pull out your phone and text your “secret code.” Your parent will read it and come. Right then. Your friends will read it and say, “Dude! That’s stupid. Are you really hungry? You want pizza?” And your parent is already in the car and on their way.

To the parent:

Now, we all know the reason you got the phone is so your most precious Jenny or Johnny fits in with the social crowd….well, and because you want to know she/he is safe and because it helps with managing our crazy busy lives and schedules.

You also know that the phone can be a very dangerous possession and I’m sure you’ve already talked with your son or daughter about the dangers. I’m also sure that you randomly confiscate the device and check all the texts, Snapchats, Instagram and whatever other apps and accounts.

What you will do – tonight – is sit down with your kid and develop a “secret extraction code.” (see above) And you will, at the moment that code comes in, drop everything you are doing (and I mean everything – your meeting, your treadmill run, your quick errand at the grocery store, your nice warm cozy bed) and you will turn on your tracking device, see where your kid is, jump in your car and drive over there.

The whole way your heart will be pounding in your ears and you will be scared about what you are about to walk in on, but you will take deep breaths and think of your stupid extraction excuse. “I’m so sorry, Johnny, but your little brother is sick and I need you home now.” And you will promise yourself over and over that these are the only words you’re allowed to say when you see Johnny.

In fact, you’re not even allowed to talk to Johnny when he jumps into the car. You’re not allowed to say a word except “I love you” until he begins to talk. And if he doesn’t talk for minutes or hours or even until the next day, the only thing you can say is “I love you. I am always here for you.”

Johnny needs to know that you’ve got his back. Johnny needs to know that no matter what, you are there for him. Johnny needs to know that you love him so much that no matter what he was doing, no matter what his friends were doing, no matter what – you will keep him safe.

Every parent has looked at me and nodded their head. They know. Deep down we all know the world can be a scary place. We all pray that our kids will make good choices and will never need their extraction code. But we also need our kids to know how to call for help in a way that doesn’t jeopardize their safety, that doesn’t embarrass them in front of their peers, and that doesn’t put the blame on them.

Our kids need to know that we love them so much that we will do whatever it takes to keep them physically, emotionally, mentally safe. No matter what. Mama Bear/Papa Bear will be there.

What’s your extraction code?

I would really like to trust you…

I really wanted to trust you. It’s my nature to start with trust. I’m not sure when my uneasiness began and the trust faded, but it finally started to bother my brain enough to make me jump in the pool shortly before the closing whistle to be nearer to my boys.

You had arrived just a bit earlier. I haven’t seen you at the community pool before though we’ve been there almost every sunny day. White man. Graying hair. Alone. No wedding band. As a single woman with hopes of someday changing that status, I pay attention to these things. You had a friendly smile. You noticed my middle child’s dive off the board and gave him a passing “Good job.” You swam. You were playful and went down the slide. You noticed the boys’ skill in swimming.

But then I noticed that you noticed my boys. poolSuddenly I noticed that I was noticing this notice. I peeled off my warm outer layer and jumped into the pool. We had a great time in the setting sun and the cooling evening. We splashed and raced each other around the pool. I caught the Little Guy over and over as he flew from the edge into my arms without his protective “floatie.” We played until the whistle blew and the pool closed. You said, “Thanks for sharing your pool with me” as you departed.

Leaving the pool, I tried to catch the manager but found him busy setting up for a private party. I made a note to call him later. I would like his help. I’d like him to remind his staff that the threat of human trafficking is real, even in this “safe” and seemingly small community. I’d like them to help me as a mother make sure that my boys never walk out of the pool area with anyone but me. I know they can’t keep track of everyone, but a gentle to reminder to keep an eye on kids and non-parental adults couldn’t hurt.

On the way home, I turned off the music in the van and asked for the boys’ attention. “Hey guys, I know that man we talked to seemed really nice today. And he may be a really nice guy. But we just met him and we don’t know him. So I need you to remember that you will never leave with someone or go to someone’s car unless you “Ask First” and I say it’s okay. Even if that man said to you, “Let’s go get a chocolate bar out of my car.” You would say, “I have to ask my Mom first.” Remember, you always Ask First.”

I really wanted to trust you. Maybe I can. Maybe we’ll see you around this summer. Maybe you’ll eventually become a friend. Maybe you’re actually a really nice guy. I hate that I have to become paranoid. But that’s the way it is, sir. This world seems a bit too crazy. My boys are way too precious to me. The thought of them caught up in abduction or trafficking makes my heart pause and my breath stop. They are my life, my joy and my responsibility.

Stay away from my boys.

Thank you.

 

 

 

Surprise…again

I guess kids should surprise you.  I mean, why wouldn’t they?  They are their own little independent selves, interacting with a world from the perspective of adult knees and trying to make sense out of the chaos of noise, lights, movement and touch that surrounds them constantly.

They are naturally built to focus in on certain things.  They know to look at the human face to read emotion. They know to pay attention when enumeration begins, but that it’s possible to ignore for quite some time the word that’s supposed to signify their identity (ie, the eldest responds to “One….” much faster than he answers to “Micah….”).  They know that if they crawl into bed at 2 am and say they’re “scared,” the warm body there will accept them and drape an arm over them in protection. They know that the relationship between a mother and her child is vital to the child’s survival and they will attempt to repair it whenever needed.

But they also seem to know that it’s pretty unconditional – and that relationship can be pushed pretty far and stretched out and pulled and yanked… and yet the coil will still spring back. So my kids love to check the pull of this coil.  They love to see how loudly they can screech as they chase each other around the loop of the house.  They love to test how much water is too much water out of the bathtub as they splash gleefully. They like to explore the effects of cheerios flying through the air and scattering upon the carpet and then eating them up “like doggies.” They like to measure how frequently the word “no” can be said before it is followed by a long tirade of how and why “no means no,” or a distinct rise in the ending tone of the word, or a movement of a large parent towards them to block their original goal.

It still surprises me, though, when Micah has one of his really big blow-outs. Like this afternoon, when we decided to get into the car and go someplace fun, but he gets upset and starts the fight with removing his seatbelt as we’re driving 50 mph. This calls for an immediate pull off the road and a discussion on safety….and yet it’s followed by repeated hitting of his brother, taking off the seatbelt and throwing things in the car.  Each time, I pull over and remove him from the car.  I breathe deeply.  I count to 10. I try to remember all those tips from numerous parenting books (none of which has mentioned specifically how to handle a size 2 boy shoe thrown at the back of one’s head while driving…hmmm….). We work ourselves up to 4 hours of time-out upstairs by the time we’ve spent 40 minutes in and out of the car… going nowhere. I feel bad for the other two in the car. And when Micah and I finally talk about it later and I ask “why,” he says, “my brain tells me to be bad.”  Okay – what do I say to that?

Gosh, I’m glad he doesn’t surprise me too often with this. But it does stop me in my tracks. I start to wonder what’s going on…and if I’m supposed to be doing something else with him. Am I working too hard and ignoring my kids? Should we go back to therapy? Does this kid need something else? What sparked all that? Is this something I’m triggering or continuing? Is he starting to react to the stress of the craziness that is hitting our lives recently?tracks in the tub

I prefer the surprise of being called to “look what we did!” and finding car tracks encircling the bathtub. And sharing the joy of creating something new out of connecting toys. And smiling at the surprise of making a tunnel under a pile of snow. And giggling together over a video of funny cat tricks. I so often hear the phrase “oh, the joys of parenting” and there are many joys for sure, but the sarcastic tone that sometimes accompanies that phrase is also very true some times. There are some “joys” that are hard to handle. But the coil always snaps back into place….

It is a very tight coil built of the strongest material ever – love.

(8:00 pm addendum: Now I’m wondering if today’s blow-up was a harbinger of illness. Micah fell asleep on the couch at 6 after complaining of “being cold” which he never is and a headache. Sigh. Gotta love these viral-infested little guys!)

Can’t even imagine….

When you are a parent of young children, you can’t even imagine what it would be like to be called and told that there was a tragedy at your child’s school.  I have a hard time figuring out where to put the Connecticut shooting in my brain….and my heart doesn’t even want to begin to touch it yet.

Last night Micah had one of those difficult nights in which he refused to follow anything I asked.  It started escalating into a series of his “swear” words….”you’re an idiot; you’re stupid;….” all aimed at me.  I kept trying to remain calm and asking him to come upstairs to bed, starting to layer on consequences as the battle continued.  We had reached no Mommy-sitting-in-bed-with-you, no TV times 3 days, no Mommy iPhone when you wake up at 6am, and had just moved to “you-will-not-sleep-in-bed-with-me-tonight when you come crawling over around midnight.”  I stood yelling at him that he was not going to treat me like that – calling me names….for I am his parent (despite the fact that I was so clearly not acting like a very mature adult at the time).  (Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out where the “line” is ….do you let them be rude or do you draw some strong expectations? Is this the time for the lesson or is it better to wait for another time?)

He finally slinked into bed.  I sat in the hallway rather than lying beside him with my arm around him.  And yet, I didn’t really feel justified in my punishment, sitting there on the hard wood floor as he tucked himself in.  He quickly fell asleep and it was hours before I did….I lay in bed last night feeling the sadness of the recent deaths of so many young children wash over me.  Crying that I had just yelled at my own 6-year-old….as tender and precious as he is (much of the time)….and realized that I was listening for every sound that might say that he was waking up and was coming to my room….so that I could say “I forgive you and I’m sorry for yelling at you” and wrap him into my arms.

And that’s what I did at 11:45 at night – sat up on the side of the bed and held his face and said, “I’m sorry.  I love you.”  He climbed in and slept in such a way that my back was terribly sore in the morning and yet I was so glad that he was there.  Knowing we don’t remember much in the middle of the night, I repeated my words in the morning with a hug.  He said something about whose fault it was….and then bounded out of the room asking “what does fault mean?”

What a world these kids have to figure out.  Just a few days ago Micah asked “what does love mean?”  How do I explain these concepts to the young child….. I have not talked to any of the boys about Connecticut.  We did talk about the death at the Pittsburgh Zoo last month, because that is near to us.  But the killing of young children would just be such a big burden to them. How would I explain that?  So the grief for the families, I hold in my heart.  And I hold within me the grief for the children who survived that terrible experience.

Tonight I read the words of a Buddhist monk who said, “A five-year-old child is always vulnerable, fragile and he or she can get hurt very easily, so I have to handle a five-year-old child in a very gentle way. A five-year-old child as a flower get hurt and the wound will stay for a long time. And most of us have been five year old and the inner child in us is still alive. And the little child in us, in you all, may still have wounds within.” (Brother Thay)

So I wonder about those children in Connecticut.  And I wonder how to make sure I do not wound my child with my words or my action.  And I wonder how I can make a difference in the world to protect children.  And I thought to myself last night that every night when I talk to the boys as they fall asleep, that I would tell them of at least one thing that I loved about them that day.  (Tonight I told Micah that I loved seeing how he was learning to wrestle “gently” – that he was taking care not to hurt Noah and Ryan while they bounced around on the floor, body slamming each other and sitting on each other.  If you know our house, this is a huge accomplishment and I hope it will last longer than one day!)

An elderly man stopped me on my way out of a coffee shop yesterday after Micah’s basketball game.  He wanted to tell me that Micah had such a beautiful face and it made him think of all those kids who were hurt.  And he wanted to find ways to make a difference – in fact, he was going to call the principal of a school that had recently just let him walk right in to “drop off a package”!!  And, he thanked me for doing so well with parenting Micah.  He probably doesn’t know how much those words touched me.  I may slip.  I may fall into the abyss of yelling at my boys.  I will make tons of mistakes in parenting.  But I am committed to every day being the best parent I can be in loving and protecting my boys and praying that God will fill in when I fall short….again this morning…and I know again tomorrow.