Santa’s watching….

I bet he trained the NSA on techniques….

We did the Santa video with our kids last week, and I put in parameters for our younger kid to be “on the fence” of naughty/nice. Our older one as well, since I knew doing otherwise would blow up in my face like an overfertilized watermelon. But child the younger was so distraught and worked up over it. Panic ensued, and we had to talk him down off the ledge, because I could see the temptation to just say, “Screw it, I’m goin’ down in flames!!!” written all over his tongue. Actually, he may have truly said something to that effect.

Instead, we promised to check back in, and went over a list of stuff he could work on. His teacher last year did that on a monthly basis – let each kid pick something to work on, like handwriting, patience, raising hand before talking – and they’d get a reward if they managed to do it the whole month. Think about it – that’s about 20 days – the period experts claim it takes for new habits to get established. Pretty smart, that teacher.

I’m not that smart. I keep forgetting that there is a way to establish new routes and to extract the bad. Otherwise, I would have “called” on Santa a month ago. But maybe we’ll try that heading into the new year. Younger the kid is a very persistent and passionate child – note that I’m trying to use the positive outlook on those traits (we all know what their negatives look like). But I keep at him, trying to shape and polish him, as I tell him in the words of Louis CK, “I’m not raising you to be a kid the rest of your life.” It’s true.

We don’t want to have them grow up to behave as they do when they are 2, 6, or 13. We pound them into molds of our shaping to form them into adults. We screw up along the way, as do they, but the determination is to see them be happy, successful in whatever shape that takes, and to have a sense of doing right, as opposed to wrong. One need only watch a handful of episodes of Intervention to see what can go so horribly wrong. It isn’t a mistake that half the families involved end up doing some kind of therapy/rehab so that they can STOP the destructive patterns.

But let’s face it. Parenting is terrifying. You can do all the best things for your kid, and he’ll still grow up into whatever kind of person he is determined to be. You can be neglectful and hateful and produce a caring prodigy (though it’s obviously not the majority of the outcome for those cases). You can lavish attention and find your child moving across the planet to get away from you. It’s hard. Really hard.

But I’ll tell you what not to do, because I’ve seen it, and it’s ugly

– humiliate your kid in front of others, even family

– fail to respect that there is a sentient human brain in that small head that is fully capable of judging you and your actions

– fail to respect your child, period

– be completely erratic in behavior and discipline

– not tell your child that you love him/her

Just plain ugly. Had a massive example of that whole thing play out in front of us this weekend, and I’m still having trouble with it.

On the other end of parenting, I’m reading Brain on Fire by Susannah Cahalan – and I really admire her parents who, divorced and not precisely on speaking terms, managed to cobble together a truce in order to fight for their daughter’s life. In addition to that, there’s a textbook-style volume waiting for me to pierce the mysteries of Rapid Prompting Method , in order to see whether I can make sense of it and start to help my son get another handle on a way to communicate to us. It feels like I’m waiting for a semester to start with that one, but there’s no prof, just online forums. We can’t swing the course yet, so I’m hoping that the book will click and make sense….

Anyone have any big reading plans or projects for the holiday break?

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When brains go bad….

Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?
Igor: [pause, then] No.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?
Igor: Then you won’t be angry?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.
Igor: Abby Someone.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Someone. Abby who?
Igor: Abby Normal.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [pause, then] Abby Normal?
Igor: I’m almost sure that was the name.
(Young Frankenstein)

My mother likes to tell a story about a time, when I was a teenager, that she came in to wake me, and swears that I mumbled, “Brain and brain, what is brain?” Like Spock, my brain had apparently gone on the fritz. Or on the lam. I don’t remember saying any of it, and I don’t normally somnambu-vocalize, but I used to be one of those people who didn’t function in the morning. I’d be up, late at night, drinking coffee after coffee, feeling fine, and have no trouble going to sleep.

These days…at the age of 35 (and my darling hubby a little beyond that) we find ourselves obsessing over sleep, whether we had enough, whether we got the right kind, and what the hell was up with those LOONY dreams last night? Seriously. We’ve actually had conversations where we wondered whether our house was built on a temporal rift, an ancient burial ground, something that would explain some of the wacko dreams we seem to have in concert with each other. I do wonder whether science can provide an answer to why it is that we both dream heavily during the same night, even though, obviously, they’re different dreams. Other nights, we’re both out cold and can’t recall anything.

There are reasons to stay awake at night, certainly. Number one is that your kids are hopefully asleep (although I see an alarming number of my friends who have insomniac offspring – I feel for them…not fun!). And if  your kids are asleep, your house suddenly becomes the adult playground. All the off-color language starts flowing like Prohibition has just ended. We look at movies we’d never dare to with small people on the loose. And, of course, the other thing, which is supposed to only get better as we get older, right?

I mean, the thing is that, with your kids underfoot, you just try to have a conversation. You can’t. Kids have a set of directives, I have come to see, that when they see someone trying to talk on the phone or to someone, that’s when they suddenly need everything that they’ve been putting off for the whole day. I get the “I’m hungry, I’m bored, I want you to read a story, I need to suddenly paint a portrait because I’ve been studying Da Vinci’s techniques,” every single time I pick up the phone when my mother calls. Right now, I’m getting the, “I need you, I want you,” from the wrong party, if you know what I mean.

I know I can’t blame them for everything, including for why I might be overtired (they have their flaws, but they certainly sleep), but it has to be a contributing factor. I have moments when I know I had a conversation with someone about something but I will be damned if I can think who the heck I was talking to. I think also that having kid in your life, with the parental-ADD that comes in the package, means that you have to be a little more careful about trying to remember. I have moments when I am certain I had a conversation with someone, only to realize that I was playing out a potential conversation in my head, or that I dreamt it….

When I write, and am distracted, or affected by my memory gaps as I write ~ well, you can imagine how well that goes from time to time. There have been things I wrote, and went back to read, and found that none of it made sense, or that I was evidently under the influence of aliens or rampant hormones (that’s a whole book on its own!). Brain and brain…. Not all of it makes it out there for everyone to see, thank goodness, but some of it does. I’m coming to view this as part of the territory, that I will stray, “speak” out of turn, irritate, or upset the apple cart a bit. I don’t plan on sharing huge swathes of personal detail, but yes, it’s still possible to mess up and say something that doesn’t sit right with everyone.

As I can’t fully blame my kids (at least not for too many more years…they are learning how to read now), neither can I just blame it on a faulty noggin. Mine is faulty here and there. I know I don’t have total recall. How much use it not to see a photographic image of a page and everything on it, but only a fuzzy photo of the page, and roughly where the thing you’re trying to think of is on that page? Only a tiny bit of useful, I can tell you.

Our brains are the single biggest asset we have…. I have lost one grandparent to complications from Alzheimer’s for instance, and my father’s parents are both slipping into the ether of dementia, right in front of us. My other grandmother, whom I don’t get to see very often, is also affected. It terrifies me. Of the four of them, three are college graduates. They were all voracious readers. The only thing I can see that was a risk factor they all had in common: they never really participated in any kind of cardiovascular exercise. I hope that as I go along (and I do exercise for that reason), and Generation X ages, we all can escape this fate.

But in the here and now, I have to say that I probably am going to screw up and/or have brain farts with the best of them. At least I am not like a Sue Grafton, who writes her crime books, envisioning her ex-husband as the murder victim in each one. Or Hemingway and Fitzgerald, who seemed to have written self-destructive prophecies. Or the Eat, Pray, Love author, whose ex was unhappy enough abut her portrayal of him that he penned his own book, apparently in response. And one does wonder what Jane Austen’s contemporaries thought of her mocking them quite blatantly in her books. It seems to come with the territory, in a way that not much of the other aspects of the arts seems to. Nor, in fact, that much else in this world seems to. The written word has a power unmatched, probably because it does come from the mind, the seat of intellect, origin of emotion; it is the reason our hands, hearts, and mouths move. Perhaps it is necessary to recognize that power and submit to it a little, so that we can understand how much it can affect and alter our world.

In other words, keep learning.

 

Surviving

We all grow up, eventually. If facebook has taught me one thing, it’s that the people we grow up around will all end up being ok with one another once we get over our hormones. The petty squabbles that you have with friends will fall away. The crushes, well, you’ll look back and wonder (in many cases) what you were thinking. If you’re like me, however, it’s a new journey in a) forgiving, b)letting go of old hurt, and c)trying to get out of old habits. I tend to worry a lot, I am always wondering if people think I’m…well, insert deepest fears here. I was one of those bullied kids, though I wonder if a lot of my peers from those days might not have thought so.

But let’s be honest: even as a child, I knew that the tormentors were acting out of their own pain. I could see it. Oh, sure, some of them were riding a bandwagon, or trying to get accepted by being nasty. Oh, and lest I forget, there was a culture of bullying that, to me, was fully supported by the teachers and administration in our city.

I’ve written about this before, but in light of recent events, I want to just lay out a couple of things for everyone who has kids now, especially for those who never experienced being treated the way that I was treated (and so many others who were as well).

You have to have some understanding of your child’s school, other than going for open houses and conferences. I make it a point to drop in whenever I have a concern, but in the town where we live, my fears are a lot less than they would have been where I grew up. From about day one of middle school, life started its downhill slide for me. I was in that stage of life during the rise of slam books, I was a gawky, shy kid with glasses and size 9 feet, a late bloomer for puberty. My parents were not really involved with school except for my dad to utilize his network of “spies” – to wit, his parishioners who worked at that school – so al he knew was whether I was “behaving” or not. He and my mom had no clue what was really starting to go on. And I was terrified to tell them. No, I don’t remember why. I just know that I felt like I couldn’t. Some of the teachers loved to openly mock the students who were not meeting expectations, something that had started for me back in grade school. Maybe they thought it would embarrass me into doing my homework – but that wasn’t going to help, I was classic ADD in a day before anyone understood it – but I think it pissed them off that I would score high on mastery tests and not be able to produce in class what they wanted. They also turned a blind eye to kids going after one another. In one case, a class I was in turned on a substitute teacher, and had her in tears. I was even egged one day, walking home from school, and when I finally got myself in front of the principal to lodge a complaint, he essentially told me that he felt it was my own fault.

Teach your child compassion, no matter what. Even through the worst of what was happening to me, I knew, as I said, that my abusers were in pain themselves. It’s hard to sell that to a kid who is getting threatened and broken down, but it’s crucial. It allowed me to forgive (even if I don’t forget). And it apparently comes through to the kids who are bullying. Some of my worst “enemies” in middle school found themselves in big trouble when a cheating ring was discovered. They’d picked the biggest dragon lady of a teacher in whose class to do it, too. I remember seeing them all lined up outside her room, one could almost hear a bell tolling, and one of the kids approached me. He had been pretty awful to me, even getting his younger sibling to mock me in the halls. He looked ill at that moment, though, and asked me what I thought he should do. I got that sick feeling, wondering why he was asking me of all people, but I told him to tell the truth. It couldn’t get any worse, and confessing might begin the getting better. Not that I was able to do it all the time, but I really thought it was the only option for his situation. I was telling him this, knowing that his father was probably more terrifiying to him than the teacher. For all I know, he got a beating for what he’d done. We understood each other in that moment, and I stopped hating him. I think I stopped hating anyone at that point, and decided to figure out a new way for myself to live. Not long after that, I think, was when I decided to take advantage of a program that allowed me to go to high school in a different town. I’m not sure what has happened to some of the kids who were so unhappy and so mean, but thanks to social media, I have “friended” a few of my middle school classmates and found that, indeed, we all grow up – not only that, that they thought differently of me than I might have imagined.

Teach moral courage. Another not so easy sell, because this one means standing up and making noise when we see something that’s not right. I was friends with every type of person through all my school years. It never mattered to me whether someone had a “disability” or was different – I looked for good-hearted, funny people to be around. After a while, it became obvious that I had to speak up and tell someone to shut it when they were being cruel. But that was only after I felt empowered to do so. A big part of that came from my high school principal, an amazing man who told me that I was allowed to feel safe at school. He was serious about it, and knew that I was a good kid who needed an ally. He gave me my life back at that moment. I would really beg of school administrations to decide to be bulldogs for their kids, and tell those kids that they are allowed to feel safe. It was my first time feeling like anyone had my back, and I cannot express enough how much things changed for me after that. When I started as a freshman, I was in basic level classes, getting by with C’s, still picked on, unhappy, alone. By the time I graduated, I was in honors and AP classes, making honor roll, captain of the track team, maybe not belle of the ball, but much happier (stupid hormones and teenage angst aside!).

Be honest with your kids. If you were bullied, you’ll probably share that. I say lay it all out, even the stuff that is embarrassing to you still. I will tell my kids that I got egged, had pennies and gum thrown at me, the names that I was called, that one girl told me she would kill me…and I’ll talk about how I handled it (not well at times – I did try to run away, after all). But if you were one of the mean kids, yeah, maybe that’s not so easyto confess. But you should. If you feel bad about how you acted at that age, say so. And say why you think you acted like that. You don’t really want your kids repeating that behavior, I know you don’t. here’s obviously more of a zero tolerance policy, and more of a huge reactionary mentality after these situations have spiraled into tragedy, but don’t wait. Sit down now with your kids and talk. “Do you get picked on?” and “Are you ever mean to other kids?” It’s as good a place to start as any. I try to stress to my younger son (our older one is autistic, and we deal with that differently) that kids are sometimes going to be mean and angry. They’re going to say things because they hurt inside (like his one friend who kept saying mean things to him – this boy’s dad had lost his job, and they had just bought a house – you do the math), or they’re scared, or they’re just doing what other kids do to try and be liked more. Not everybody will like you. That’s ok. It’s more important to like yourself, because that shines through, and people are attracted to that.

I admit that I still have trouble socially – but my family was more about making fun of one another than teaching how to laugh at ourselves – at looking for someone to blame and pointing out others’ mistakes, rather than taking the blame and admitting that we’d screwed up. Teach your kids how to laugh at themselves. I can’t stress that enough. I wish I was more able to do that. I’m still learning that skill at 35. Let your kids screw up, and then talk to them about what might be learned, and how to avoid it next time. We’re too much in the way these days as parents, as far as mistakes go. We’re there to catch them before they fall, but not to teach the lesson that might have been learned. Our younger son was roughhousing with my husband, and knocked his little noggin into daddy’s eye socket not that long ago. It resulted in a black eye for my husband (who had to put up with all sorts of cracks from his coworkers), but also in several lessons for both of them. For our little guy, he learned that we can unintentionally hurt people we love, that his head is as hard as granite, and that it’s ok to get ribbed about beating up daddy. My husband learned that people think he secretly goes off to do UFC fights. And that he’s not as thick-skinned as he wants to be.

The biggest thing to repeat is the refrain I keep hearing now, “It gets better.” It does. It really does. Life is so much broader than middle or high school. You might have to put your head down and bulldoze to get through some of it, especially if  you want to get out and be any kind of success, but someday, after the caps have been tossed in the air, we all walk out into the real world. And your time will come where you will have kids, or maybe you’ll be a mentor to a child in your life, and you must try to be honest, have courage, and teach a child the same. We can survive, we have made it through the terror tunnel of teenage years for eons. Believe me: I lived through it, and so can you.