Thursday, September 28, 2006

Mind Your Manners

Boston Globe reporter Barbara Meltz's recent column on manners is a topic for every parent to be concerned about -- the importance of manners, instilled at an early age.

Rude and obnoxious parents groom rude and obnoxious children. How many times have you overheard a parent telling their children to "Shut up!" or witnessed a child blantantly disrepescting their parents? We were recently at a family event where I watched an 8- or 9-year old boy start screaming at his mother, kick her, and then say "I hate you." She looked like she was ready to die.

If there is one thing my wife and I agree on and do our best to be diligent about enforcing, it's manners. Thankfully, our girls usually remember to say "please" and "thank you" and "excuse me" if interrupting. And we do out best to ensure they treat one another with respect while playing, and to try to resolve their differences with calm, nice words, not fists or feet. That one takes a little more persistence, but at the end of the day, they're both fairly well mannered girls.
When my daughter started kindergarten, we were thrilled to hear the teacher tell us in every conference that she's such a polite and respectful little girl, a pleasure to have in class.

Perhaps the hardest part of being a parent is dealing with other parents. Ever had to bite your tongue over how your friend is handling a parenting situation? Ever wished you child didn't play with so and so because they just don't have the same values as your family? It's important to remember we're not just parenting for our children, but for society. One rude child, on disrespectful student, can make a world of difference. Kids can be cruel if they don't have the right example.

Skylar just went through a period of not wanting to wear anything with a bow on it. And there was no reason for why she had a change of heart. We talked with her about it, and finally found out that someone in her class made fun of everyone who was wearing bows. 6 years old and being teased over a bow.

So we told her to tell the person she didn't like what he was saying and wished he would be more polite. She said she had already done that (and we were so proud that she tried to be rational and polite).

So I told her to "Tell him to look down at his sneakers...where he would find his laces tied in a bow."

She said "But he wears velcro sneakers."

So I said "Probably because he doesn't know how to tie a bow" with a wink and a smile. She laughed and agreed.

And now she's not so worried about bows anymore.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Overscheduling...Take Two

Daniel McGinn penned an interesting look at a yet to be released study that contradicts the popular notion that children are overscheduled in this week's Newsweek, as did Barbara Meltz in her column in the Boston Globe.

I can't wait to see the findings of the study, but apparently it reveals that children who have more activities scheduled do better in school, have stronger relationships with their parents and are less prone to substance abuse.

I'm a big fan of activities. So I grapple a lot with this idea of "overscheduling" and I think what it really comes down to is that no one can argue that having children participate in organized activities is bad. My own daughters spend hours per week in gymnastics, horse riding and soccer and get a lot out of the experiences, even if it is tiring and leaves less time for togetherness at home.

However, there are three important points that need to be considered regarding the topic:

1. Make sure your kids are plugged into the right activities. Schedule for schedule's sake is pointless. My oldest daughter wore out on ballet, and while we were prone to sign her up again, we realzied she had just lost interest in it, even though she was one of the best dancers in the class. She didn't care about it anymore. And to continue with it would have been wrong. My youngest loves to ride horses, but it's expensive. But she lights up like a bulb when we get to the barn. She's at her best around a horse.

2. Overscheduling is a real problem for families with more than one child. No, it may not be too much for child #1 to be in 2 activities, but if child #2 is also in 2 activities, then the wear factor kicks in. Even though one child isn't participating in all four activities, (s)he is likely being dragged to it and waiting it out, which is a commitment on their part and takes away from their free time.

3. Overscheduling can send parents over the edge. When you're the chauffeur, those mini van hours McGinn refers to rack up and take a toll. Not to mention the stress of getting out of the house on time, making sure we have all the equipment, hitting the bathroom before we leave, etc. All of that is mental and physcial stress on the parents that often is transferred to children through "Hurry up" and "We don't have time for this" statements.

More thoughts when the study releases, but in the meantime, how does it paly out in your household?

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Birthday Surprise

So my youngest just turned 4. She loves horses, so we did it up barn style (and yes, bringing home five oversized helium filled horse balloons was both interesting and fun).

It seems like every other weekend we're carting our kids off to someone's birthday party. We don't mind -- it's fun for them and gives us a couple hours to relax or get things done -- but it can break the bank and there's also then the stress of hosting the party yourself. Ever mindful that your party activity speaks volumes (in the world of inflatable bounce houses in the backyard, animal experts visiting with snakes, lizards and small rodents, etc.), my wife and I went dirty old school and opted for the at-home party with hokey games like Pin the Tail on the Donkey, Birthday Bingo and, yes, the infamous treat-filled Pinata. And it was a blast.

Pursuant to my recent post on stifling creativity, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day came when we realized that every gift she got was somehow about creativity or role play. Nothing electronic (thank you!), no DVDs. She received dolls, arts & crafts kits, Polly Pocket (though we curse the little bits!), board games and books.

So I can't help but wonder: as we chart the course of endless birthday party gift shopping, are we unconsciously opting for the classics? Certainly when you don't know if a girl likes Barbie or Bratz or if a boy likes Spider-Man or Superman, Monopoly, arts & crafts and LEGO are natural, stress-free choices.

On the receiving end of a wealth of creative play opportunities for my daughter, I'm so grateful to our friends and family that we didn't end up with a bunch of trendy novelties that deliver more sizzle than steak.

The moral: consider giving what you want them to receive.

Taking a Lesson from the Little One

So over the weekend, tables turned, and I received my first tongue lashing from my little one.

I don't quite remember what happened, but apparently I had gotten myself into trouble with my 4 year old. It went something like this, with a haughty and troubled tone:
Her: "MICHAEL! Come in here."

Me: "Excuse me?"

Her: "I said, come in here, MICHAEL. Please."

Me: "Well I'm not sure I like your tone, and my name is not Michael to you, it's Daddy."

Her: "Well...ACTUALLY your name IS MICHAEL."

Me: "Yes, technically, but not to you."

Her: "Well it actually is."

Me: "OK."

Her: "Well...that was absolutely un not ceptible."

Me: "What was?"

Her: "Oh. I don't remember."

So my wife and I are now making an effort to turn down the volume, because the moral of the story, or as they say !CUIDADO! or CAUTION: children repeat not only your big words, but also your big tones.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Just What the Doctor Ordered

I returned from a 3-day business trip yesterday evening and my wife hadn't gotten home from work yet. The nanny went on her way and I asked the girls what they wanted to do. Suddenly they disappeared and I followed them up to our office, where I found my youngest sitting at the desk, scribbling on a paper and pulling the keyboard tray out, punching on the kayboard, then sliding it back in again. My oldest came in with a purse and necklace on, said she was there to see the doctor and my youngest starts giving her the drill:
"What's your name?"

(I'm not sure who Mallory is or where they heard that, but she wrote it down anyway: "Malure")

"What's your phone number?" followed by some dictation and "typing"

"What's your address?" followed by some dictation and "typing"

"Yes, yes, here you are, I found you. Go sit over there and wait."

It was awesome. I didn't intervene at all: played fly on the wall and watched it all unravel. They were incredibly regimented and completely convinced of the reality of their pretending. It continued for 30 minutes.

So I wonder if sometimes "spending time with children" doesn't necessarily have to mean interacting with children. Because they knew I was there and seemed pleased to be "performing" for me. But as the causal, quiet-but present-observer, I learned an awful lot about my little girls.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Stifling the Inner Child?

New York Times writer Michelle Slatalla recounts how her daughter surprised her in "8 Year-Old Finds Her Inner Child" and it makes me wonder: How can we be sure that we're raising children to follow their passions and inner callings and not simply to follow the crowd? And what role do we as parents play in fueling one or the other tendencies?

Slatalla's reaction to her daughter showing an interest in dolls speaks volumes about the kind of parents we all have probably become. Society pushes us forward, economy motivates us upward and technology accelerates our productivity in a time-crunched day. Automatons numb to the simple pleasures and joys? Are we programming our children to be the crazed mutli-taskers we have become?

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A Sobering Reminder

My older daughter has been doing gymnastics for 3 years now, and she started team gymnastics last week, which coincidentally was also the first week of first grade. She's still adjusting to the full-day run at school, and has been a little cranky in the evenings as she works out the kinks.

My wife and I marvel every night over how it is that she has gotten so big so fast, and we're getting used to how to deal with a smart and savvy little girl who is adamantly trying to assert herself in every way. We've gotten past the angst of waving to our little girl as she hops on the bus, and we assume she's in good hands and all set for the day.

Team gymnastics brings a more advanced class, new girls and adds an extra day of practice per week. We took her to the first class, and things appeared to be fine from the glass observation room. She did the routines well and seemed happy.

Sunday night she came into our bed because she had a bad dream, which is usually a sign of something bothering her, but she didn't divulge anything Monday morning. She got off the bus from school that day and had a meltdown that she didn't want to go to's too hard...I don't like the class. She was actually worrying about gymnastics the next day without us knowing.

After some investigation, we found out that the first day she ended up in the wrong group for the first few minutes of the beginning of the new class and it really upset her.

And, like a brick wall, it hit us that our big girl still needs us. We've gotten so comfortable with the "go ahead, honey, see you in an hour" that we forgot on her first day with the new gymnastics routine, she needed a little "orientation" with mom and dad to help her get adjusted.

Just when we think we've got it all figured out and under control, we get a curve ball to keep us on our toes. But it's nice to know that while she doesn't like to show it on the outside all the time, our little girl still needs us just as much.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Homework Blues

I read an interesting story on homework and how it's stifling a child's love of learning. I don't have children of the age where homework is cumbersome or overwhelming, but I am conflicted over some of the messages and think there is a broader context that needs to be considered before we say "down with homework."

Today's teachers are no longer just teachers. Societal changes and diagnoses have created a world where teachers are also care providers, disciplinarians, counselors, mediators and negotiators. Should a teacher serve those role? Yes. However, when I was a student, the amount of time teachers spent doing things other than teach was far less than what it is today. Behavior is out of control. An increasing number of children have learning hurdles and require special attention. Home issues create out of home issues that everyone needs to deal with.

Let's face gets in the way and isn't always fair to everyone. We all have problems and things to work on, but today's classroom has become a place where everyone's issues combine and can create chaos. And in the process, we all want to chastise teachers for not being better at this, or looking out for that. And then schools are blamed for junk food in the vending machines that makes kids gain weight. And then parents complain about the reading list. And then we're not allowed to say the peldge of allegiance because it mentions "God." And now we want to suggest that kids shouldn't have to do homework? Seriously. I mean honestly, when does it stop?

When do we stop blaming everyone and everything around us that we live hectic and crazy lives? When do we accept responsibility as parents and do what generations of parents have been doing before us to be the best we can be for our kids? Homework stinks and there were plenty of times when I myself hated doing it. While I don't think any child should be overloaded with projects, I do believe it's a necessary part of the learning experience. It teaches responsibility. It fosters accountability. And for the applied, it also provides a chance for reflection and deeper understanding that can lead to stronger confidence, empowerment and accomplishment.

Perhaps instead of telling your child "Ugh, now you need to record all the books you read on this list, including title, author, publisher, etc." it could be positioned more constructively to engender some pride in accomplishment: "hey, let's keep track of what a great job you have done getting through the reading list by keeping a record of what you've finished." Then the list becomes "my accomplishments" instead of "my pain in the ass homework that I never should have been given in the first place."

It seems more and more kids are very quick to say "it's too takes too long...I can't do it." At the same time, you hear more and more parents saying "I don't have time for this...this is a ridiculous amount of work to do...I shouldn't have to teach my child math."

We need to stop modeling behavior for children that enables them to relinquish accountability for themselves and remember daily that when we decided to have children, we also decided to live a life of hard work.