Five years ago I wrote a blog post discussing what I call “May Madness,” which I am fairly certain most parents with school-age kids can relate to right now. Here is how I defined this “magical” month when the school year winds down and spring catapults us toward summer...
This was no small task. Quite honestly, not posting pictures of my kids on social media has cramped my style a bit and has forced me to exercise a fair amount of restraint in this arena. To understand how and why I arrived at this Facebook turning point, read this post on Kveller, "Why I Will No Longer Post Photos of My Kids on Facebook." Please leave your comments (which I always love and appreciate) on the Kveller site. Can't wait to hear your thoughts on this one! Thanks for checking it out!
My Friday Faves is a follow-up to a recent article I wrote for Kveller about leading a Passover mini-seder for the 3rd and 4th graders at my children’s Episcopalian school. I am thrilled to report that it was an awesome experience. The Jewish kids in the group formed a fabulous “choir.” They belted out the four questions and led the rest of the students in Dayenu. The choir wasn’t needed to lead “Let My People Go” because all the kids already knew this song from singing it during chapel, and they sang it loud and proud. My heart jumped as I asked the kids questions like who was the baby that was found in a basket floating down the Nile River and almost every hand darted up as the kids had to hold themselves back from yelling out the answer, “Moses!” They knew the reason that Jews eat Matzah during Passover and why G-d brought the 10 plagues to Pharoh’s Egypt. They understood how much the Jews wanted and their freedom from their Egyptian oppressors, and they also understood how there are many people who still yearn to be free today. On each of the 25 tables set up in the cafeteria, there was a “freedom seder plate” that my 6th and 3rd grader s helped me decorate. The plate was basically a white paper plate with a six empty circles surrounding a middle circle labeled “freedom.” The kids at the mini-seder were instructed to come up with symbols that remind them of freedom today. The adult at the table wrote six of their answers in the empty circles. I had the chance to go around to each table, and one spokeskid at each table shared their top choice with the whole group. Once again, my heart danced as I heard such thoughtful responses like: school, food, the American flag, books and shelter; and I had a good chuckle as one 9-year-old revealed that their table’s favorite symbol of freedom was, “Raising the minimum wage to $8/hour.”
But my personal, stand-out favorite was “Love.” The freedom to love freely is certainly a freedom not to be taken for granted and I love that these children realized this.
I felt so grateful to be able to spend the morning with 125 open-minded, bright 3rd and 4th graders who took in the story of Passover and transferred its meaning into their lives today.
“The angry man should make himself like a deaf person who does not hear, and like a mute person who does not talk. If he must speak, it should be in a low voice and with words of reconciliation. Even if his heart is burning like fire, and his rage flames within him, he is capable of controlling his words.” (by Rabbi Eliezer Papo from his essay entitled "Anger")
This passage, which hit me like a ton of bricks, was part of my assigned reading for a Mussar study group I recently joined (“The goal of Mussar practice is to release the light of holiness that lives within the soul.” - The Mussar Institute). It forced me to reflect on how I often jump to anger when parenting my children, causing me to act from a position of reactivity=weakness, rather than from a position of proactivity=strength.
As I try to incorporate the Mussar principles into my life and find a more peaceful way to parent, I am committing myself to reducing the amount of time I spend feeling and/or acting angry.
When my teenager talks disrespectfully to me, my former reactive response looked something like this:
a) Quickly becoming angry, raising my voice, and telling him how disappointed I am in his behavior,
b) taking his behavior personally,
c) feeling like I have done something catastrophically wrong in parenting him,
d) feeling like I must CHANGE him immediately or he is going to disrespect his teachers and coaches, and will grow up to be a disrespectful adult.
(Note: b, c and d all exacerbate the anger.)
It has taken me only 19 years of parenting to realize that I rarely, if ever, feel good about myself when I slip into the pattern above. Even when I achieved my desired outcome, I felt a certain amount of shame whenever I acted in anger.
As I work to take a much more proactive, positive approach when facing a potentially upsetting scenario with my children, spouse or anyone I encounter, I need to embrace this idea: Anger is a choice. Perhaps I won't always be able to control the angry feelings that arise within, however, I can make the choice to not let them control me. I can choose to move away from anger, and toward something more productive.
In reference to the above-mentioned issue with my son, my new “working toward” pattern includes:
a) an understanding that his behavior is not about me—something could be bothering him (he had a bad day at school, at baseball practice, he lost in fantasy football or is nervous about his upcoming chemistry test).
b) trusting myself that I have indeed taught him the difference between respectful and disrespectful behavior, and that even with that knowledge, he is going to slip up sometimes.
c) accepting and loving him for who he is and knowing that he is a good person who is acting negatively at that moment.
d) talking to him calmly and telling him that I know he probably does not intend to talk to me disrespectfully but his tone sounds that way, and that I would like him to realize how it is unnecessary and inappropriate for him to speak disrespectfully to his mother, and there will be consequences for doing so.
The ultimate test for me is when my peaceful, anger-free approach toward him does not curb his level of disrespect but triggers more. This would be a good time to borrow from the Rabbi and “make myself like a deaf person who does not hear,” or literally walk away in an effort to thwart any rising anger that would cause me to be reactive.
It’s also important to realize that diffusing one’s own anger is the best way for a parent to teach children how to diffuse theirs.
The Beads Spilling Test
Last week, my 9-year-old daughter was frantically getting ready for school, as she had come downstairs later than our agreed upon time. She hastily put her coat on and in the process knocked over a huge bucket of beads, turning our mudroom floor into a sea of sparkly beads.
All three of my kids stopped in their tracks and six eyes were upon me.
a) Yell at Jo, causing her to burst into tears,
b) make her pick up every last bead and cause all three of my kids to be late for school,
c) feel terrible for the whole day.
My new reality, which actually surprised me almost as much as it surprised the kids:
a) I took a deep breath and said, “You guys need to go. You are going to be late. Jo, I know this was an accident. Please come down stairs earlier next time so you don’t have to be in such a hurry. Have a good day, guys!”
b) I turned away from them and began to pick up the beads.
My kids continued to stare at me for a while longer, checking to see if there would be a delayed outburst. Jo’s eyes turned from panic-stricken to relieved. “Bye mom,” they called as they walked out of the house to pile in my son’s car. “Love you!”
I literally smiled as I picked up the rest of the beads and said to myself, "This was definitely the better choice. Remember this."
For the past three years, as most of you know, I have been working on a book about motherhood. The book has taken many different twists and turns. It started out as a book that was more of a "what to expect" book, which would guide moms through the motherhood journey from their child's birth to leaving the nest. I felt that this would be helpful to moms at every stage of motherhood, whereas a mom of a toddler could be able to peek at what age 16 looks like. Well, the publishers and agents I queried did not agree. "The subject matter is too broad," they said. "Moms want to read about whatever they are dealing with RIGHT NOW, such as, 'My infant won't sleep so I want to read about infants, not teenagers.' " Okay, fair enough. After I moped around in my rejection haze for too long, I decided to change my focus a bit. One issue that is universal to moms no matter what stage they are in with their children is self-care. This is also an issue that nearly every mother struggles with, so, my new and improved book angle, which is in its final editing and polishing stage, covers how moms take care of themselves personally, relationally and professionally while raising their children. I am really excited about the project and hope that all the mothers who read it will find that it provides them with the tools to live more authentically and happily as they journey through motherhood. Personally, the research I have done for this book has taught me so much and has helped me find strength during times when I felt that my life had begun to spin out of control.
But here's the catch. As I made the transition from Book #1 to Book #2, I had to leave a heaping amount of extremely valuable material on the cutting room floor... which leads me to my Friday Faves. I have decided that every Friday, I am going to share some of my favorite quotes or stories from the 400 moms I surveyed and interviewed over the years for Book #1. Some of you readers will see yourselves in these quotes and stories. But your identity is safe with me!
The following story is this week's Friday Fave:
A friend of mine, who we will call Ruth, explained to me how frustrated she was with her 10-year-old daughter who refused to pick up her clothes in her room after being asked to do so over and over again. One day Ruth walked into her daughter’s room and was furious when she saw her daughter’s clothes still covering the floor of her room. Ruth proceeded to take off all her clothes and drop them on the floor and said, “See, this is what it is like! This is my house and you are not picking up your clothes in my house, so I am going to leave my clothes on the floor of your room!”
And she stormed out of the room.
If you haven’t done something like this yet, you most likely will have moments when you will or will want to! Dramatic, yes, but surely Ruth’s daughter now thinks twice before she drops her clothes on the floor of her room. She may still do it, but she certainly will think about it differently. And at some point, she will have a great story to tell her own daughter when she won’t pick up her clothes in her room. “You’ll never believe what Grandma Ruth did when she was upset with me for not picking up the clothes my room.”
We moms have to give our kids some good stories to tell our own kids, don’t we?!
If you have any good, funny or memorable stories you'd like to share (and you can certainly request to remain anonymous), please email me at email@example.com. I would love to post them on my Friday Faves!
“It’s ok mom, we don’t have to go,” my 12-year-old son said as he dropped his eyes to avert my gaze. I promised him we would road trip to Milwaukee for one of his good friend’s Bar Mitzvah’s the following day but I had come down with a nasty cold (probably due to standing outside in the freezing cold and rain for a football game during my daughter's college Parents Weekend) and am still in recovery from a nagging back injury. An 11-hour round trip car journey did not sound very appealing to me…at all. Rushing around trying to get my other son ready to head to the airport for a baseball tournament and my daughter ready to go meet her cousin for her birthday dinner, I yelled in my 12-year-old’s direction, “Come on! We need to get going! Please get in the car! Now!” No response and no movement from the far end of the living room where he was seated. As I walked over to him, feeling annoyed and impatient, I was just about to yell at him again (I hate that I yell, but I do, especially when I am feeling rushed and discombobulated), but then I stopped myself. I saw his eyes. They were filled with tears. “Oh honey, I am so sorry,” I said. “I was just excited to see my camp friends but it’s okay because you don’t feel good, “ he said softly. “We shouldn’t go.” “We’re going,” I said with such a conviction that it sounded almost scary. And that was that. There are times when we do things for our kids that we know are not necessarily in our best interest. In fact, as I am in throws of writing my book on motherhood and self care, I talk a great deal about how mothers so often put their kids' and other people’s well being before their own, and end up neglecting to take care of themselves in the process. This is a perfect example of how and why this so often happens. We want our kids to be happy. We make promises that we completely intend on keeping and then life happens. Sometimes the answer does need to be no. Sometimes there is simply no amount of “give” available. However, in this situation, there was a limited amount of give available on my part and damnit, I was going to use it!
He couldn’t have been more excited or appreciative. We took in the beautiful fall colors as we blazed east from Minnesota into Wisconsin. I flooded the car with the sounds of Bruce Springsteen, Fleetwood Mac and even a few classic Billy Joel tracks. The poor kid had to listen to me sing every word to Thunder Road and Rosalita…more than once. I needed to explain to him that this was “real” music, and willed him to feel its authenticity and depth. Then it was his turn. He got to play Kid Cudi and B.o.B., which, according to my son, is actually really awesome music, “It’s just that some of the lyrics are inappropriate. Just listen to the music, Mom, not the words,” he explained. O.k., times have changed.
With a cough drop in my mouth, a box of tissues next to me to tame my runny nose and an ice pack on my back, we drove into the night. Conversations started and stopped with ease. We stopped for gas and junk food and I didn’t even freak out too badly when we stopped for dinner and my son exited the passenger side door and I saw it smothered all over the passenger seat. “Oh, I thought there were only three resee’s peanut butter cups in the jumbo pack, not four! I am so sorry, mom!” We laughed and then we laughed again an hour later when we saw the city sign Pewaukee. “Is that just a typo,” my son giggled. I realized that I was relaxed and happy, and so was he.
I was in the moment and wasn’t worried or talking about my older kids’ teenage stuff that often consumes my brain and my mood—AP tests coming up, boyfriend issues, college-related concerns, baseball training and scheduling, SAT tests and curfews—it was wonderfully, simply 12-year-old stuff. It was real and it was meaningful, and yet it seemed so refreshingly uncomplicated that I felt a huge sense of relief. Relief and gratitude that I still have two young children to remind me to laugh at the word Pewaukee and get excited about discovering “THE BEST” Mexican restaurant in the small town of DeForest, WI, where we could eat fajitas and quesadillas and watch the Miami Heat pre-season game with the locals who were downing their watered-down Margaritas. Just to be able to be happy, content and worry-free.
“I’m glad we are doing this,” I said to my son. “Me too, mom, and just think, when we get to the hotel, there won’t be any fighting to get anyone to bed and you don’t have to do any dishes or laundry, you can just go to bed. It will be nice for you,” my son assured me. And he was right.
The next morning, I walked my son into the synagogue for his friend’s Bar Mitzvah. We took two steps into the building and immediately heard a boy’s voice excitedly yell from across the room, “AAABBBE!!” Within seconds, the Bar Mitzvah boy, wearing one of the biggest smiles on his face that I have ever seen, grabbed a hold of my son and whisked him away into the stream of the guests entering the sanctuary. “Abe,” I meekly called after him, “Have fun.” But he didn’t hear me nor did he turn around.
This is the reason that sometimes we say yes to our kids, even when there are countless reasons to say no. Are we martyrs for doing this or just caring, loving parents? Every situation is different, but this time, the precious one-on-one time that I shared with my son, combined with seeing his joy and the joy he brought to his friend, assured me that in giving to my son, I also gave to myself.
There is no getting around it, even though you may try to shield them from it, and find ways for them to avoid it, your kids will at some point have to face the dreaded agony of failure. For most moms, myself included, whether we admit it or not, when we see our children experiencing failure or disappointment, it feels like the sky is crashing down on both them and us. And sometimes, probably more often than not, we feel the pain even deeper than our children do. In most cases, our children bounce back from their disappointments relatively quickly, and yet we often stay stuck in them for way longer than we know is necessary or appropriate. Furthermore, many well-intentioned mothers, in an effort to try to “spare” their children from having to deal with failure, will go to borderline crazy lengths to assure that their child’s “fall from grace” will be cushioned or avoided all together.
Question to ponder:
What does it feel like to witness your child experience failure?
And even deeper:
Do you feel that your child’s failure a reflection on you as a mother?
Lately I have heard so many moms talk about their successes or failures of their children in a way that it is difficult to decipher who’s is who’s. I recently texted a friend to see how she was doing and she responded that her daughter made the varsity soccer team and her son had lost his tennis match. I wanted to respond, "But wait, I really wanted to know how YOU are doing!" Can we, as mothers, separate our identities from our children’s?
Before I go any further, I have to write a disclaimer: Anyone who knows me knows that I am as guilty as the next mom of allowing my entire being to be directly and significantly affected by what is happening (or not happening) in my children’s lives. I ride the crazy train with my kids and have a first class seat on that well know parenting helicopter that so many of us ride. I obsess about whether they will make a sports team, do well on their tests at school, be asked to a dance or be admitted to their college of choice. Having said that, I am actually working on this issue within myself right now, so I have become hyper-aware of my own hovering and somewhat controlling nature, as well as that of so many of the lovely moms in my life.
As I dissect this issue of mothers being somewhat unhealthily enmeshed in their children’s lives, I start with a seemingly simple, yet extremely complicated question: Why? Sometimes when my husband has reached his limit on listening to me go over and over and over my worries and concerns about a kid-related issue, he will just stop me dead in my tracks and say, “Why do you care so much? Maybe it would be good if you try to focus on something that you can control, or go do something for yourself instead of obsessing about an outcome over which you have ZERO control. You gotta stop worrying about the kids’ stuff. It’s theirs, not yours.”
Although there is a little sting to his directive, I know deep down that he is right (darn it!). He is encouraging me to give myself permission to let go. To trust that the chips will fall where they may for our four kids, and most importantly to trust that they will be ok, wherever their chips fall. And if their chips fall the “wrong” way, and they feel sad and defeated, then my husband and I will be there to love and support them, and to help them regain their footing so they can put their chips back on the table.
We moms have such a tough time with the letting go piece. From the moment we hold them in our arms as newborns, we are programmed to “make it all better” for our kids. We make it our life’s work to make life good and safe and happy for them. But thankfully, Wendy Mogel (Blessings of a Skinned Knee and Blessings of a B-) comes along and beautifully teaches us how kids must fail in order to grow. She explains that we are doing our children and ourselves a major disservice by not allowing them to experience failures and disappointments. When mothers don’t set clear boundaries with their children, and take on too much of their children’s “stuff,” they run the risk their children developing this line of thinking:
“I don’t really have to care, or feel anything about whether or not I make the team, make a bad decision, or get an A or a D on my test because my mom is taking it all on. Therefore, I am not even really accountable for my actions or inactions, because mom’s got me covered.”
Some moms, (myself included, on a few occasions), will actually not only take on their children’s successes or failures emotionally but will go a step further. They will intervene. They will call a coach, a teacher or an admissions director and threaten, question, manipulate, and even beg or bribe the person in the decision-making position to give their child what she “ABSOLUTELY DESERVES!!!” Okay, this is probably a good time for mom to step back, be very honest with herself, and figure out whether this is about her or about her child. This type of behavior sends an even scarier and potentially hazardous message to her child, which could sound like:
“You are not capable of accomplishing your goal/s on your own and therefore you need me to step in and take care of it for you.”
This deprives your child of learning the invaluable, character-building lessons that one learns from failing or falling short of a goal, with resiliency at the top of the list. It also could lead your child to feel that:
- “My mom does not believe in me enough to let me figure things out for myself. I must be inadequate.”
- “My mom cares more about whether I make the team or get the grade she expects me to get than she does about me as a person. She doesn’t love me for who I am, she loves me for what I do. Therefore if I come up short of her expectations, she won’t love me.”
Confession: My daughter got a B- on a paper her senior year. She is a fantastic writer and that was not a typical grade for her on any type of writing assignment. I am friendly with her teacher and when I saw him at her school one day, I said casually, “Hey, why did you give Sophie a B- on her last paper?” He stopped, looked at me straight in the eyes and said in a very serious tone, “Because I knew it was not her best work. She knows she can talk to me about it if she would like.”
Yikes! I cannot even begin to explain the scolding I received from my daughter when I crawled out of my shame hole a few days later and told her about it. “Mom! I wasn’t really bothered by it. It wasn’t my best work. I can’t believe you did that! Why would you do that?!”
With helicopter parents attending job interviews with their children http://huff.to/18cx1PG and micromanaging their every move, it is hard not to get sucked into thinking that being overly involved in your children’s lives is a way of showing your children that you care. It’s difficult to draw the line and know when it’s ok to advocate for your child, and when you need to bite your tongue and/or detach yourself from their “stuff.”
Next time you want to step in and try to prevent your child from failing or facing disappointment, take a moment to sort out your own feelings, and ask yourself:
What am I afraid of?
My doctor told me that she was worried that my baby had stopped growing in utero at 37 weeks. She told me she wanted to do a C-section ASAP. She was due on May 15th. but on April 29th, my forth child, my second baby girl came into this world at 5 pounds 4 ounces, just 9 ounces lighter than her big sister weighed at full term almost 10 years years prior. Had she stopped growing or was she right on course to be the exact same size as her sister and me (I was another heavyweight at 5 pounds 14 ounces, full term)? We will never know but the fear that something was wrong with her made the 48 hours we waited before she was born almost unbearable. Thankfully, she was born healthy, and without any complications for her or for me. I only tell this story of her beginnings because I have found myself going back there over the years and wondering if her being brought into this world before she was “ready” has to do with a decision we made for her 8 years later.
My baby girl was and is very much the baby—the baby of our family of six, the baby of my parents’ six grandchildren and the baby in a long, long line of sibling-like first cousins’ children on my husband’s side. My daughter would be the baby of 20 cousins in that lineage. Needless to say, her feet hardly touched the ground for the first several years of her life, long after she was able to walk on her own. She didn’t have to speak a whole lot because everyone around her loved to cater to her every potential need before she needed to express one. And the fact that she literally was the size of an American Girl doll for a very long time (and is still not a whole lot bigger), and her voice was so high and squeaky that it made you smile no matter what she said, did not make it easy for people around her to transition to treating her like a “big girl.”
When it was time for her to go to preschool, she went somewhat willingly but often cried that she wanted to stay home with me. She was sick a lot; colds, fevers, ear infections, influenza, and countless unexplained tummy aches. But she learned and thrived in school; she made friends and she seemed happy and well adjusted.
When we considered moving her from the Montessori school she attended to the private school where my older three children attended, I remember feeling somewhat nervous. I knew she was bright, but she was often shy, reserved and somewhat “young” for her age. The first time through the admissions process, the school told us that she was not ready for the academic, social or emotional rigors of first grade at this college preparatory school. They did, however, offer her a spot in the Kindergarten class. We declined and decided to send her to the Montessori school that she loved for another year and re-assess the following year. She had a great year socially and academically and her teachers thought she would do fine in the grade she was “supposed” to be in. So, back to the private school we went to test her for admittance to second grade for the following school year.
Academically, she did just fine, and her classroom visit went relatively smoothly. We would have to wait to hear from the school about their final recommendations. The following day, after dropping my son off at school, I ran into the teacher whose classroom my daughter had visited. I asked her to tell me honesty how she saw my daughter fitting into this grade. She explained, “Your daughter was fine in my class, but I have to tell you that I had to take several of the kids out in the hall because I heard them whispering behind her back saying, ‘Why is a preschooler visiting our class?’ They couldn’t believe that she was 7, the same age as they were.” The teacher explained that the kids perceived her as much younger and treated her as less of a peer and more as someone who needed caretaking.
After much agonizing and deliberation on my part (my husband had much more clarity about the benefits of holding her back and the school had no question that giving her extra time would be hugely beneficial to her in every way), we all came to the consensus that it would serve her best to start as a first grader the following year instead of as a second grader, which is where her birthday says she “should” be.
But I worried. I worried that she would be teased for being older than most kids in her grade (in some cases more than a year older). That kids will ask her if she was held back, and will ask her why. I worried that it would seem strange that she will be 19 when she graduates high school and I even worried that her fellow college freshmen would give her a hard time for starting college at 19 and ask her if she flunked a grade. I worried about how she will navigate all of this, if it would bother her and how she will normalize her situation. I also had to look at how I felt about it all and find a way to reconcile all of this within myself. I also dabbled with some self doubt: Was it my fault that she needed extra time? Did I coddle her too much? Was I so overwhelmed with four kids that I neglected to help foster some of the developmental tools she needed early on?
But I realized that I had to let most of the above-mentioned insecure babble go so I could fully support her and empower her. I needed to find acceptance with the decision to give my daughter an extra year and look at all the benefits of this decision. “You are giving her the gift of time,” is what many trusted friends who work in academia labeled it for me. One extra year to be a kid! (And as I am preparing to send my oldest to college in a week, I certainly have a much better understanding of this!)
Fast forward two years to this week as my daughter is getting ready to start 3rd grade. “Mom, I know I am not the oldest kid in my grade because there is a boy who is older than me, right,” my daughter asks. “Right,” I say not quite sure where she is going with this. “Do you think there will be any other kids starting in my grade that will be older than me,” she continues her line of questioning. “I don’t know for sure but probably not,” I answer her carefully. “O.k. good. Because I love being the oldest. I also love being the smallest, which I will be this year because my friend Susie, who is a little bit smaller than me is not coming back this year.” “So you like being the oldest?” I ask. “I love it!” she says with a smile.
I can say now that I do feel that my daughter is in a good place and that giving her extra time is really what she needed and needs. Whether this has to do with how she came into this world, a bit premature, or how she was a bit coddled when she was young, we will never know. She is not in a hurry to grow up and that is okay. She sees her older siblings and how much more challenging and complicated life becomes. She is good with being a kid. And for me, I will get to have an extra year with her before my nest will be completely empty…but by then, I may be making room for grandchildren (if I am lucky)!
When your happy, well-adjusted 5th grader sends you a text messages from school saying, “Please come and get me. Everyone hates me. My life is ruined,” you know there is a problem.
Upon receiving these texts from my son a few weeks ago, my mind immediately raced back to my daughter’s 5th grade year when she first experienced bullying behavior by her peers. I explored the subject of bullying amongst girls and wrote an article in 2007 for Minnesota Parent Magazine entitled “Girl Swirl.” Six years later, and even after experiencing some relational aggression with my older son’s peers, I am still blown away by how incredibly mean kids can be to one another. Kids desperately want to feel included, popular and important and will go to great lengths to secure their spot in a group. When a group decides to pick on someone because he is a threat, isn’t following the leaders of the group, or the group simply wants to get their kicks or exercise power by putting someone else down, most kids will choose to go along with the group, rather than stand up to the group leaders. These kids are well aware that any one of them could easily become the next victim.
Recently, I got a call from the middle school dean who informed me that my son was punched in the stomach twice during a football game scuffle that occurred during recess. My son later informed me that this was the second time that he had been punched by the same boy. The first time happened during gym class when my son was sticking up for another boy whom the aggressor was teasing, and the aggressor punched my son twice in the face. This incident, however, was not reported, by my son nor the gym teacher. The boy who punched him was sent home after the second incident, which caused an uproar amongst a group of boys, many of whom were my son’s friends (or at least he thought they were). Since this incident, my son has been blamed for the boy being sent home and subsequently has been teased, excluded, and targeted as the guy to “hit” during touch football games, which often turn into tackle (which was against the rules but went unnoticed by the recess monitors). He has heard boys repeatedly talking behind his back and knows there have been disparaging texts being sent about him. Friends who he thought were his friends have changed their minds about him and have decided that he no longer requires even a “hello.”
The school is aware that he is being targeted, and I made some calls to some of the moms of the boys who are involved, with whom I am friendly. But not much has changed. My son, for the last few weeks of school, has felt much like an outcast when he walked into school. Thankfully, the school year is now over and my son does have some loyal and kind friends who were/are not afraid to stand with my son during this difficult time, even at the risk of falling victim themselves.
My hope is that over the summer, the boys will have a chance to cool off, forgive and forget, and that my son’s fear of starting 6th grade as a target of hate will not be realized. As my heart aches for my son having to experience these feelings, I find myself wondering, do all kids get a touch of this at some point during their adolescent years? Does anyone get through these years unscathed? And what is our role as parents to help our kids deal with these difficult issues surrounding friendship, group dynamics and social hierarchy…and bullying.
My son is not perfect. I am sure he is guilty of saying something mean to someone. I know he has changed his mind about certain friends and decided to create some distance. But to my knowledge, he would not go out of his way to deliberately hurt or exclude someone.
Actually, I take that back. He did try to exclude a friend/turned non-friend once, and I knew that as a parent I most definitely needed to take an active role to help guide him through some of his choices and refuse to allow him to act this way. A few months ago, when my son asked me if he could have a big group of friends over on a Friday after school, I was happy to comply. When I asked him whom he was inviting, I realized that there was a good friend of his who was not on the list. “I don’t like him anymore,” he responded when I inquired about him. “Ok, he doesn’t have to be your best friend but you are not going to exclude him from this gathering. It will be very hurtful to him and I am not going to let you do that,” I told him calmly. “O.k., then I won’t have anyone over,” he said. I told him that I was fine with that.
He did end up having the gathering, and he and the boy he wanted to exclude (but didn’t) reconciled their differences and are now very close friends again. As parents, we have a very important job to do when it comes to dealing with our children and bullying. We need to play an active roll in helping them manage their behaviors and their relationships, without trying to micromanage their every move. Their friendships will indeed ebb and flow, and feelings will undoubtedly be hurt sometimes, but it is essential that we as parents are aware that bullying is different than the having a falling out with a friend or changing friend groups.
Here are some important points to consider when dealing with your child and issues around bullying:
- If you get a call from your child's school or another parent who says that your child is acting overly aggressive toward a peer or peers, or if you see signs of this kind of behavior in your child, take it seriously. It is not a joke or a game or “just kids being kids.”
- If your child denies any wrongdoing, continue to have conversations with your child about your expectations of him, and be very clear that you expect him to be inclusive and to treat others with kindness, respect and compassion, and that it is not okay for him to do or say hurtful things to anyone, or to participate in any sort of “ganging up” behavior.
- Be a good role model and make sure that your own children are treating each other respectfully in your home.
- Check your child’s phone and social media outlets for evidence of bullying behavior. If you find that your child has been engaging in cyber bullying, give them appropriate consequences like taking their phone or computer away, and encourage and empower them to stop the bullying cycle amongst their peers.
- Explain to your children that bullying is serious, will not be tolerated and there will be consequences for this type of behavior. Make sure that they understand the kinds of effects that bullying can have on kids like the fact that “at least half of suicides among young people are related to bullying.” (http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/bullying-and-suicide.html)
- If your child is being bullied, monitor him closely and watch for signs of depression or even suicidal behaviors.
- Advocate for and empower your child and teach him how to advocate for himself. Contact the school and other parents, and make them aware of what your child is experiencing. Allow the “mamma bear” to arise in you, and do what you need to do to try and make sure your child will be safe.
- Encourage your child to reach out to kids who are consistently kind. Even when you are beyond the stage when you can arrange play dates for your child, it is still okay to contact a parent of a child whom you feel would be a positive, supportive friend to your child and arrange for the kids to do an activity or a camp together.
- If you do these things and still feel that your child is not safe in his school environment, it may be necessary to make a change. Even when tormentors are threatened and disciplined by authority, there are so many cases wherein individuals or groups of kids will continue to find a way to make other kids’ lives miserable.
It is extremely painful to watch your child endure tormenting and exclusion by their peers, and it is also uncomfortable to know that your child is a tormentor (although, unfortunately these behaviors are often ignored or denied by parents). And it is very difficult as a parent to know what your role is in managing these issues. But whether you are the parent of a victim, an aggressor or quite possibly both, make sure your are dealing with these issues head on and that you working with your child to help him develop the tools he needs to constructively manage his relationships throughout his formative years.
“Mom and dad, you are the ONLY parents of my friends who won’t let their kid get a cell phone! You are don’t trust me, do you?! You are being over-protective and unfair!” Well, it’s a good thing Bill Gates isn’t his dad (hmmmm…actually, not so sure about that...) because Bill Gates has heard all that from his own kids and still makes them wait, by today’s standards, a very long time to get a phone.
Today was a big day for me. As I was doing some research on the “right” age for kids to get a cell phone, I came across an interview with Bill Gates that made me feel much better about "torturing" my children by making them wait longer than the majority of their friends to get a cell phone. Bill Gates told Matt Lauer on the Today Show (very end of the interview) that the appropriate age for a kid to get a cell phone is 13. Yes, 13!
But as you can probably guess, Mr. Gates is most certainly in the minority. According to a 2010 National Consumers League survey, “Nearly six out of 10 (56 percent) of parents of “tweeners” (children aged 8-12) have provided their children with cell phones.
Over the past six months, my 11-year-old has launched a campaign to be included in the 56 percent. He has begged, pleaded, cried and added on to the above-referenced sales pitch, “Mom, Dad, I HAVE to get a cell phone! Every other person in my grade has one except for like one or two kids! I REALLY NEED to get one! PLEASE!! I will work to pay for it and will get straight A’s in school! I promise!”
It was not the first time I had heard this speech. He must have borrowed the script from his older sister and brother, who both gave us the same Oscar-winning performance when they were around his age. What I have come to realize over the years is that even though Mr. Gates mandates that 13 is the magic number for his kids and I too agree that waiting is better, this is a very complicated issue for parents and children.
The reality for kids today is that they do feel extremely desperate when it comes to owning a cell phone. They are either “in” or “out” of the ever-so-powerful cell phone club—a club that is not necessarily linked to money or status, as cell phones have become much more affordable for families. So why does this club have so much power? This power is about connection. Kids have an increasing, almost frantic need to be in constant contact with one another. And furthermore, the various forms of social media provide a multitude of avenues for kids to feed this somewhat addictive need.
Whether they are texting, face-timing, instagramming, facebooking or vining, they are connecting with one another at the speed of light. This power of communication and the instant, almost incessant connectivity with their peers keeps kids in the know. To be outside of this circle of knowing is a dreaded, isolated place to be.
All three of my children were probably one of the last of their friends to get a cell phone. My oldest was almost 13, second was 12 and now my third is 11 (and yes, we did cave, sorry Bill, but resisted getting him a smart phone). My youngest daughter, who is 8, is already starting in, “But I am going to have to talk to my sister when she is at college next year, and some of my friends already have them.” I remember when she was in kindergarten and a few of her 6-year-old friends had phones because both parents work and they wanted to be able to be in touch with their kids.
While I do understand that many parents purchase cell phones for their kids at young ages for safety reasons, and it is very convenient to be able to communicate with your kids via cell phone, I have been/am in no rush to make this purchase for my kids for a few reasons. One, we did not want to indulge our kids just because everyone around them is indulging or being indulged, we needed to feel that our kid was ready for the responsibility and that we were ready to give him that. The second and biggest for me is that I was/am in no rush to have them spend more time with their heads bowed, eyes focused downward and have them choose to connect with the screen they are holding in their hand instead of making eye contact with the people who are physically around them. No, I am not a big fan of this typical behavior exhibited by cell phone-bearing tweens/teens (and many adults, including myself sometimes). I am happy to report that even though we did allow our 11-year-old to have a phone, he is not really that into it (yet), does not carry it around with him all the time and actually often forgets it at home. My teenagers...well, that is an entirely different story!
I want to say to them and to their teenage counterparts, "Hey kids! Disconnect! Look around you! Look up at sky! Look at people in their eyes. If you want to talk to someone, call him or arrange to meet her in person!" The Pew study found that half of 12- to 17-year-olds sent 50 text messages a day (I think this number is probably much higher now) and texted their friends more than they talked to them on the phone or even in person. To me, this is sad and I wonder how this is affecting our children’s ability to talk to other people in person, face-to- face, eye to eye.
As parents, no matter what age we decide to give our kids a cell phone (and there is no real right or wrong). we can continue to emphasize the importance of in-person communication and to limit their time with and their dependence on their phones. Here are a few simple rules that I try to enforce with my kids:
1) No phones in the car. Let’s talk to each other.
2) No phones at the dinner table. Let’s talk to each other.
3) We keep my younger son’s phone charger in the kitchen so he leaves it there to charge when he goes in his room to study or to sleep.
4) If and when I feel that they (or I) need a BREAK from their cell phones, I simply say, “Hand it over, please.” (Sometimes I forget the "please.")
My husband and I were both born and raised Jewish. We both identify strongly with our Jewish faith. Our children attend/ed Hebrew and religious school and all four will be Bar/Bat Mitzvahed (two down, two to go). Yet, for many reasons, the most prominent being that we had family members attending, we made the choice to send our children to an Episcopalian school. A school that explains in its mission statement: “Our goal as an Episcopal school is to nurture the spiritual development of each person and to welcome everyone to our community.” And for the most part, we have all found this to be true.
I truly believe that the anti-semitism which two of my children experienced at school has nothing to do with the school they attend. Anti-semitism can happen anywhere. I remember the shock I felt when my dad told me that he was called a “dirty Jew” in high school. I had not experienced anything like this until I was in the work force, attending a trade show for a public relations client. I was working my client’s booth with a salesperson, who during a conversation about sales, casually said, “Yeah, you do have to be really aware of those people who will try to Jew you down.” I stood there in silence, feeling like I had just gotten kicked in the chest and had the wind knocked out of me, and took a moment to think about how I would respond. I thought about saying nothing and just letting it blow over, but then I felt a very strong force pushing me to speak. “What do you mean by that," I asked. "I am Jewish.” The look on this man's face was one of shame and regret, and he quickly engaged in some frantic back-pedaling while I just stood, stared and let him attempt to squirm his way out of this very uncomfortable situation.
It is hard to explain to kids how to handle such ignorance. Like when my daughter, several years ago, came home in tears and told me how a boy had approached her at school around this time of year and announced, “Hey, it’s Hitler’s birthday today!” How do you explain to your child why someone would say something like this, let alone be connected to this type of information or feel the need to share it with anyone, especially someone Jewish? Or when she sat down at a lunch table next to a group of kids who started chanting, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” making sure that she could hear. How do you explain the “why” to my son who, during the Holocaust unit in his history class, was targeted by a boy who made horrendous remarks to him including, “Why don’t you go put yourself in an oven?” There is no explanation for why people hate for the sake of hating, or discriminate for the sake of discriminating. Did they learn this at home? From the media? We won’t know. I am sure they wouldn’t tell. But hate is out there. It bubbles under the surface, and unfortunately sometimes children are the victims as well as the perpetrators.
As parents, all we can do is to teach our kids tolerance, kindness and respect, but also give them the tools to stand up for themselves and for others if they experience or witness such injustices. I grew up in a home where all were welcome. Any person, of any color or any religion were welcome at our Passover seders, Hanukah dinners, or just to visit. My kids attend a school, where, all children are welcome, and the school does make it a priority to assure that every student actually feels this way. However, unfortunately, very unfortunately, for reasons that I still don’t comprehend or have the ability to explain to my children, anti-semitism, bigotry, racism and just plain hate will surface and distribute its poison, even in environments where tolerance is taught.
We talked about the tragedy in Boston at the dinner table tonight and how sad we all felt that a child and two others died, and that so many others were injured. I thought that maybe my younger children would ask, “Why?” But they didn’t. Maybe they already understand that there is no real answer to why people hate and why people hurt others. There simply is no justifiable explanation.
This past weekend, my husband took our two boys to Champps for burgers without the bun because it was Passover and they couldn't eat the bread. Our younger son was, according to him, "STAAAARRRRVVVIIINGGG because there is nothing good to eat during Passover." So, they get to the restaurant and order their burgers and wait in anticipation. As soon as the food arrives, the boys (and their dad) dig into their cheeseburgers with bacon. (Hmm, they couldn't eat the bread because of Passover, but had no problem eating the burger with cheese AND bacon, which, if you know anything about the Jewish tradition of keeping kosher, is about as unkosher as you can get). After chewing his first bite, our younger develops a "I'm-not-feeling-so-hot" look on his face. His big brother asks him what's wrong. "I don't know, I guess I just don't feel that hungry anymore," his little brother responds. "You know that if you burp, you can make room in your stomach so that you can eat more food," big brother explains. "Really? O.k., I will try that," his younger brother says with excitement. He then takes a huge gulp of his Sprite and pauses. At this moment, their waiter approaches the table. "How's it going," he asks. At that point, our 11-year-old son, who is not a very big guy, lets out a ginormous, table-vibrating burp that literally emerged from the bottom of his belly. "That was a good one," the waiter said with a smirk, and he, my husband and older son erupted with laughter. But our younger son was not laughing, and just as the waiter was about to leave their table, our son opened his mouth, seemingly to let out another, guttural, big guy burp. However, instead of a burp, he released a heaping pile of vomit onto his plate. "Not such a good one," the waiter said, trying not to gag himself. Needless to say, my three boys quickly left the restaurant and when they walked in the house, I saw our son's ghostly complexion, and my husband and older son just said, "Have we got a story for you!"
"I am afraid to go back to school tomorrow," says my 8-year-old daughter after being home for spring break for two weeks. "Why, honey," I ask. "Because I am afraid we are going to have a lock-down. And I am afraid that someone is going to come into our school with a gun and start shooting. And mom, you know that anyone, really, can just walk into our school, any kid for sure. And the windows in our classroom aren't bulletproof, you know, and we have shades on our windows but there is a little crack in one so someone could for sure see in and shoot us all. Mom, why do people even buy guns? What do they need them for? I don't really feel safe anywhere cause there are lots of crazy people who have guns and shoot people." It was hard for me to even find the words to respond. I told her that the adults in the school would keep her and her classmates safe and that she need not worry. And that they need to have lock-downs because they need to make sure that everyone knows what to do if something happens. "Can you please just homeschool me," she pleaded. "Honey, you are safe at school. Really, you are," I responded trying to sound as convincing as I could. But the truth is, as much as we want to believe this, we don't this to be a fact. The families at Sandy Hook thought their kids were safe. And they should have been. Because school should be a safe place for our kids. (This is not always the case for children/schools in war-torn countries, but America...is this really too much to expect?) Children reach a certain age when they start to make some difficult connections: there are school fire drills because a fire could actually happen, and subsequently, they understand that there are lock-down drills because some lunatic could enter their school and start firing away.
And this is the visual that is keeping my 8-year-old up at night. What a sad reflection on our society.
"Honey, you need to go to sleep, it's late," I try to soothe her. "But when I close my eyes, I see scary things," she says. "When you close your eyes, just picture the sun in the sky, the bright, happy sunshine," I say. "That's just what I was thinking, Mom, that I will try to see the sun with my eyes closed," she says as she starts to relax. I stayed with her until her breathing became more steady and she drifted into what I hope would be a peaceful sleep. As I reluctantly pulled away from her, I whispered in her ear that I love her and will always do whatever I can to keep her safe.
Please keep her safe. Please keep all of our children safe.