As parents, it is our job to teach our children important life lessons. We teach them everything from how to treat others to how to tie their shoes. But in the midst of all this “being the expert,” it can be easy to forget that our kids have lessons to teach us as well. And I’m not talking about warm-fuzzy stuff like smelling roses and dancing like no one is watching. (Do not be fooled. People are always watching.) In a very practical sense, kids can teach us certain things that we tend to lose sight of as we age. Specifically, I’m talking about how to embrace creativity.
When it comes to creative pursuits, kids follow Yoda’s teachings: “Do or do not. There is no try.” They don’t try to finger-paint. They dip their chubby little fingers knuckle-deep into that paint and fling it like Jackson Pollock. They don’t try to write poetry. They just write it. They don’t let minor details like spelling, grammar, or coherency get in their way. When they tell you a knock-knock joke, they are a stand-up comedian. When they pick up a blob of clay, they become a sculptor. Have you ever seen a four-year-old transform into a mixed-media master while up to his eyeballs in construction paper and googlely-eyes? It’s a beautiful thing.
But this magical sprinkling of I’m-good-enough fairy dust usually wears off somewhere between five and eight-years-old. This is when kids start to worry that their drawing of the elephant doesn’t look like the one in the book. Or that the way they sing, “Roar,” sounds different from Katy Perry’s version. As a parent, you can see this change take place. It’s like watching a light go off. Whatever gatekeeper has kept the self-consciousness away walks off the job and doubt swoops in to take its place, all furrowed eyebrows and straight lines. Kids stop doing things and start trying to do things. And while this might be okay when it comes to sports or schoolwork (things that require mastery before advancement), when it comes to free-form creativity, it’s kind of sad.
Instinctively, we know this isn’t a good thing. We don’t want their light to go out. We don’t want them to hold their creations to someone else’s standard of perfection. We’ve been there and we know that is the surest way to run the imagination well dry. So we say to them, “Don’t worry about coloring inside the lines, honey.” But they still look at their picture like it’s a plate of boiled onions. Because even though we are saying one thing, too often we are doing another. How many times have we obsessed over wrapping a gift just-so. Or tried to make a project as perfect as it looks on Pinterest, only to ultimately fail and lament it out loud. Our kids see us try to be creative in the Right Way and they absorb it. They watch us judge ourselves, and since they view themselves as an extension of us, they apply those judgments internally. (Or completely rebel against them… but that’s a subject for another day.)
I think the best way to protect our kids innate creativity, is to do as they do. Turn our own lights back on and just do, without worrying so much about the outcome. Children know that creativity has nothing to do with being good at something. It has nothing to do with skill or talent or ability. And it certainly has nothing to do with Perfect. Creativity made up of 100% confidence. The confidence to do instead of try. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a painter, paint. If you want to be a dancer, dance. Even if someone is watching. Because they are – and chances are it’s your kids.
One of the great joys of parenting young children is getting away from them. At least for a little while. Be it a couple of hours or a couple of days, there is nothing like a little distance to recharge everyone’s batteries and make you grateful that you are legally/morally/financially bound to the little bloodsuckers darlings until the end of time.
The problem with getting away is finding someone to watch the kids while you and your sweetie are off guzzling margaritas and/or sleeping 16 hours a day. Trusting someone to watch your precious babies is not easy. Will they remember to use the dye-free detergent? Will they limit screen-time? Will they cut the hot dogs lengthwise and across?
No. No, they won’t. And that’s okay.
Years ago, my sister-in-law, Dawn gave me one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten from anyone before or since. I was about to leave my kids for a week for the first time with my in-laws, and I was a nervous wreck. I worried that favorite books would go unread, binkies would go unwashed, and (gasp) bedtimes would go unheeded. Dawn looked at me, told me to pull my shit together, and said, “As long as they’re alive when you get back, that’s all that matters.”
And she was right. Of course my in-laws weren’t going do things like I did. Or even like I asked them to. Did I really expect them to follow the 5 page, single-spaced, uni-bomberesque manifesto I’d left behind entitled, “A Typical Day in the Life of Fletcher & Ellie.” They probably had a good laugh before lighting it on fire, deciding instead to rely on what they’d learned in their 30+ years of parenting their own children.
And really, my fear had nothing to do with them. It was all me. As a stay-at-home mom, creating and protecting my kids’ routines was what I did. It was my job. My life. Whether it was a survival mechanism or simply my ego, I had to believe that those routines were essential to a peaceful existence. If not, then why the hell was I working so hard?
As long as they are alive when you get back… It was just the paradigm shift I needed! It helped me see that going on vacation would be a break for all of us. Just as Jimmy and I wouldn’t spend every day of our lives eating surf ‘n turf and drinking mai tais, the kids wouldn’t spend every day of theirs watching 8 hours of Thomas the Train and drinking chocolate milk by the gallon. The hard work I’d put in on sleep-training, potty-training, and don’t-think-throwing-a-fit-is-going-to-get-you-what-you-want-training, would still be there even if it went unenforced for a week.
The fact is that if you are going to reap the benefits of getting away (and they are many), you must get comfortable with the fact that whoever watches your kids will not do things your way. This goes for grandparents, siblings, friends, or hired help. I repeat: They will not do it your way. They will think your way is stupid. Over-protective. Unnecessarily complicated. Likely to turn the kids into entitled spoiled brats, who don’t know the value of a dollar. But that’s fine. As long as the kids are alive when you get home, it doesn’t matter if they’ve fallen asleep in front of the television 3 nights in a row. It doesn’t matter if they’ve eaten ice cream for breakfast every day. It doesn’t even matter if they missed that birthday party you’d RSVP’d to on Sunday. None of that is important. What is important is that you got some much-needed time to remember that you are more than just a mother/father, that you actually like your partner, and/or that you actually like your kids. Because time away provides one thing you simply cannot get while at home with your kids: perspective.
Would it be nice if the kids were well rested, well fed, and content when you got home from your vacay? Sure. But alive is all you should really hope for. If you set your expectations at “alive,” you will probably end up pleasantly surprised. After all, getting the opportunity to gain valuable perspective (read: sleep more than six consecutive hours) is luxury enough… you wouldn’t want to get greedy now would you?
Recently, my editor at Columbia Home asked me if I would write an article about how I came to live in Columbia. My first response was, “Are you kidding? 1300 words about myself? I’m in!” But when I sat down to actually write the piece, I felt a little stuck. It wasn’t that I didn’t have enough material or narcissism (I have plenty of both), but rather I felt a lack of momentum, of motivation, of drive. As I telepathically willed my computer to burst into flames giving me an iron-clad pass on the assignment, it hit me: I am basically a pretty lazy person. And then it dawned on me that my laziness was the very thing that brought me to Columbia in the first place! I just love it when things work out like that.
I was born and raised in Highland Park, a suburb of Chicago, and like so many others, I came to the University of Missouri to go to Journalism school. Writing was the only bright spot on my otherwise stunningly average high school transcript, so I thought I’d become a journalist. I liked the way it sounded. I’d practice saying, “Hello, I’m a journalist…” in the mirror. It made me feel very Lois Lane. Plus, to me “journalist” sounded better than “unemployed English major.”
The other reason I decided to go to Mizzou was that the application was one-page long. And ironically there was no essay. This pleased the lazy girl inside me and after a fun-filled visit, I had made up my mind. So much so, that I didn’t apply anywhere else. I knew what I wanted, and my mother’s anxiety over the fact that I filled out a single college application was mere icing on the cake!
When I first moved to Columbia, I experienced some predictable culture shock. I missed the little things about urban life, like people honking at you and giving you the finger when you hesitated a second too long at a green light. Or someone rapidly punching the “Close Door” button in the elevator when they see you coming. Nobody did that in Columbia. In Columbia, people made eye contact with you on the street. Some of them even said, “Hello.” Complete strangers saying “Hello” to each other? I wondered what black-and-white TV show I’d moved into.
Whether it was because or in spite of Columbia’s friendliness, I had a great experience at Mizzou. After four years I grew to love so many things about this idyllic college town. But even still, my plan upon graduation was to head to Chicago, or Dallas, or Atlanta and get a job in Advertising (the lazyman’s sequence in J-School). I fancied myself a city-girl! But four months before graduation, fate, in the shape of a goofy guy with the best smile I’d ever seen, stepped in and changed my plan. All throughout college Jimmy Orr told me that someday he was going to ask me on a date. I’d roll my eyes and tell him that I’d be waiting. Well, one day he finally did. And I was. So that was it for Chicago, or Dallas, or Atlanta. Jimmy was going to dental school in Kansas City, and you’ll never guess where I got a job.
One Year Later…
After Jimmy’s realization that he, in fact, hated teeth; and my brief stint at an ad agency, we moved back to CoMo. Jimmy is from Columbia and the promise of rent-free living in one of his parent’s apartments was unspeakably alluring to two crazy kids who had just chucked their futures out the window. It was time to decide what to do next. I should mention that while I am lazy, I am also an excellent procrastinator. And nothing says procrastination like getting another degree! So that’s what I did.
I spent the next couple of years getting my Master’s in Social Work from the University of Missouri. This was the only period of time I didn’t really like living in Columbia, though it had nothing to do with grad school. Columbia is an amazing place to be in college or to raise a family, but not so much to be in between those two worlds. At least, it wasn’t for me. In my mid-20’s I wanted to go out to clubs and spend Saturdays shopping at trendy boutiques and go out for brunch on Sundays. (It was the late 90s and everyone wanted to live in an episode of Sex in the City.) The reality was that I felt old when I went to the same bars I’d been to in college; there was no Elly’s Couture or Girl yet; and through some deep, personal failing, I hadn’t yet discovered Ernie’s. Columbia felt really small to me, and not in a good way. So Jimmy and I spent many weekends traveling to St. Louis or Kansas City to visit friends. We saved up to take trips to both coasts. We got married. And then, for lack of anything else to do, we had a baby.
After I’d had my first child, Columbia suddenly became the perfect place to live again! I cannot stress enough what a lovely and supportive community I think we have for young mothers. I got my very own Parent Educator from Parents as Teachers who came to my house and “ooed” and “ahhed” over how gifted my one-month-old clearly was. We had drive-through dry cleaners and pharmacies, which meant I could go in my pajamas. And Hy-Vee even added two special front row parking spots for New and Expectant Mothers. My life was complete!
However, try as I might, it was very hard to be lazy and the stay-at-home mother of two young kids. It was hard work filled with what my father-in-law aptly called “combat fatigue.” They were wonderful, stressful years, and the only time in my life that I have ever been needed so completely. One of the things that got me through the hard moments were the friendships I developed in a weekly play group that we started under the guise of “infant socialization.” We were 3 Amy’s, a Beth, a Dawn, a Jill, and a Kaisa (she totally threw off our Popular Names of the 1970s motif). And these six women were indispensable to me as a new mother. We met once a week, sometimes more, for six years and together experienced everything Columbia had to offer young kids. Going Bonkers, Chuck E. Cheese, story time at the Library– if it needed anti-bacterial gel, we were there! Being a stay-at-home parent can be a lonely experience, but these ladies made it one of the most special times in my life. (I mean, in addition to my kids. Yeah, my kids made it special too.)
I wanted to mention this because I have many friends who live in larger communities who don’t have the same kind of close-knit support system that I have in Columbia. Maybe that has to do more with luck than location, but I like to think that Columbia has more than its share of kind, friendly, and supportive people. It’s one of my favorite things about this town.
Now that my children are in elementary school and gone seven hours each day, you’ll be relieved to know that I am once again back on the lazy-train! In fact, to procrastinate getting a real job, I’ve even written a novel. Because nothing says I Don’t Want to Get a Real Job like writing a book! And while it’s true that writing a novel in itself doesn’t actually bring in any income, it does give the writer the appearance of working – which ought to at least buy me some time. And who knows? If my book ever actually sells, then my laziness and procrastination can be reframed as my “creative process.”
So the moral of my story (note: having a “moral” is the laziest way to end an essay) is: Don’t ever let anyone tell you that being lazy won’t get you anywhere! It got – and has kept me in Columbia for the past 22 years. I can’t imagine anywhere else I’d rather live-lazy than in this friendly, supportive, drive-through-filled town.
Well French women, you have done it again. As if it isn’t enough that you stay slim while eating cheese-filled puff pastry and you can pull off short fringe bangs – now, according to Pamela Druckerman, you’ve bested us Americans at mothering as well. Merde.
In the book Bringing Up Bebe, American Journalist Pamela Druckerman makes the case that French women enjoy parenting more than American women do. This is not to say that French mothers love their kids any more, but rather that they find the task of parenting to be more pleasurable and less stressful than do most American women. Druckerman contends that the image of the “harried mom” so common in America, doesn’t exist in France. It would seem that French mothers parent the same way they smoke in public, handle marital indiscretions, or drink wine mid-day – with a restrained casual elegance that smacks of confidence at its best; indifference, at worst.
Here are some of the differences Druckerman noted between American and French mothers during the years she spent raising her kids in Paris:
- Where Americans orbit around our kids rushing in every time junior needs anything; French women set firm boundaries, but provide kids great autonomy within those boundaries.
- Where we construct elaborate “play dates” suffering through the indignity of places like Chuck E Cheese’s or Pump it Up!; French women sip coffee and chat at home or in the park while the kids play. By themselves.
- Where we kill ourselves trying to navigate the desires of our “picky eaters;” French kids eat what they are served during the 3 daily mealtimes and one 4pm snack. Because they are hungry.
- Where American children collapse into tears at the slightest disappointment; French children rarely throw tantrums or even whine.
- And my personal favorite: French mothers do not carry around the heart-stopping, soul-crushing guilt that American mothers do when we – gasp – do something for ourselves that has nothing to do with our kids.
I’m not saying I buy all of it, but Druckerman’s hypothesis is intriguing. In her essay in the Wall Street Journal she outlines some of the key points her book explores in more detail. The one that caught my attention most was the idea of delayed gratification and how ingraining the simple ability to wait can produce children who do not interrupt, whine, nag, kvetch, noodge, or otherwise pester parents the instant their needs are not met.
This is a problem in my house. My oh-so-very American children have to be reminded on a daily basis not to interrupt when I’m talking. At dinner, sometimes it is hard for my husband and I to have a conversation consisting of more than 2 consecutive sentences without one kid or other popping off on some unrelated note. Their non-sequiturs seem to scream “Hey! Did you forget about me! How dare you discuss something that doesn’t relate to ME!” It drives us nuts. And we always respond with some sort of impotent admonishment that is promptly forgotten and/or ignored.
So, what’s the secret to French women’s ability to not only teach their kids patience – but teach it so the kids actually learn it?
According to Druckerman: You have to mean it. Like, really mean it. When you lay down the law you have believe to your core that the limit you are setting is the actual limit. Not the “If you do that one more time…” limit. But the actual End. Of. The. Road. If you deem a behavior unacceptable, it must be unacceptable the same way it would be unacceptable for your 5-year-old to drive a car or crack open a bottle of Cabernet. In other words, it is not just something you frown upon; it is something that is not possible.
She says that French mothers divide things into 2 camps: possible and pas possible. When a kid wants to eat a brownie at 9am in America, a mom might respond with a reasonable, rational, 5-minute discussion about how, “We don’t eat sweets at 9am because it isn’t good for your belly. We eat healthy things like eggs and toast and soy milk! So you can grow up big and strong!” In France, the answer is “Ce n’est pas possible.” (It is not possible.) That’s it. End of story. And something about the way mothers deliver this line – their conviction, their certainty, their fortitude – conveys to children that it really is pas possible. In other words, “No means no. And don’t ask again.”
I’ll admit, I fantasize about having that kind of authority.
But here is America, I suppose we have our own way of doing things. Maybe it doesn’t lead to quiet dinners out or leisurely afternoons spent sipping coffee with friends – but I like to think it leads to kids who have spunk, if nothing else. Besides, Americans look downright French when you compare us to the Chinese Tiger Mothers, right? So, maybe the takeaway here is that there are thousands of ways to screw-up parent your kids, and you just have to find the way that works best for you.
For me, any parenting model that involves more puff pastry is worth a second look…
Ah, innocence. I remember it well. Those glorious days of old when the air smelled sweeter (because there was no rotting food hidden under the couch cushions), the birds chirped louder and the sun shone brighter (but it was 7am and you were still asleep so you didn’t care). I’m talking about the days before you became a parent. The days when you didn’t walk around in a sleep-deprived fog and you still knew all the bands on Saturday Night Live. The days when you thought you had a clue.
If you have been parenting for any length of time, you now know that you don’t, in fact, have a clue at all. And you were a pretentious fop for ever thinking that you knew what you were getting into when you signed on to shepherd another life through this crazy world of global warming, online predators, and Ann Coulter. I’ll admit that I was one such pretentious fop. In fact, I was the worst kind. I actually tried to plan for it.
I remember when my husband and I were debating whether or not we were ready to have kids, I actually asked a guy who I worked with – who had kids – how sticky they were. I didn’t know many kids, but it seemed to me that all the ones I knew were always sticky and/or messy and/or dirty and/or had noses full of boogars. This was unpleasant to me.
What I didn’t realize at the time, was how little I would come to care about a snot-caked nose, and how it paled in comparison to your child, say, projectile vomiting. On an airplane. While simultaneously soiling themselves. And screaming bloody murder. At the exact moment when the plane has landed and everyone is waiting to be let out. After a 10 hour flight from Hawaii. This happened to me. Boogars look pretty good after something like that, let me tell you. (Believe.)
This is just one example of me thinking I had a clue. Sadly, there are many others. Below is a list of some of the things I said I would never, ever do when I became a parent.
1. I said I would never use TV as a babysitter.
Awwwww, wasn’t I cute?
2. I said I would never yell.
I had no idea that children who are watching TV, playing a video game, or eating a snack, literally CANNOT hear you unless you yell. I’ve tested this theory a thousand different times and it’s true. You can ask them 47 times to please hang up their coat, but until you raise your voice with something like, “HANG UP YOUR COAT THIS MINUTE OR ELSE!” it’s just white noise to them. Nobody sets out wanting to yell. They make us do it.
3. I said I’d never let my kid sleep in my bed on a regular basis.
My daughter wakes up at least 5 mornings a week in my bed with her feet pressed into my spine, an elbow in my gut, and 98% of the blankets covering 150% of her body.
4. I said I wouldn’t use baby talk.
I am a 38-year-old woman who in the past week alone has announced she has to “go potty,” has had a “tummy ache,” and who got a “boo-boo” on her foot. Enough said.
5. I said I would never care about how my kids wear their hair.
Let me be clear about this one: I don’t care about their hair being perfectly brushed, styled, geled, moussed, sprayed, or really even being that clean. But when the nice man at the grocery store asked me if “the little lady” would like a cookie while pointing to my ten-year old son, you better believe I drove us to the nearest SuperCuts, post-haste. I know long hair worked for The Biebs, but until Fletcher starts bringing home the million dollar paychecks – I want his eyes, ears, and shoulders hair-free. At least while I have any influence.
6. I said I’d never have a kid with snot caked inside her nose at all times.
As I mentioned earlier, I didn’t realize how little I would come to care about this. I’m not even sure why I don’t care about this. I should. It’s disgusting. But who has the energy for Kleenexes and the endless tutorials on how to blow one’s nose? It’s exhausting.
7. I said I’d never allow my kids to whine.
I actually thought if I had a “No Whining” policy and told my kids, “If you whine, I can’t hear you” that they would eventually learn not to whine. Hilarious.
8. I said I’d never ignore my kids while on the phone.
In my defense, I had my first kid in 2001. They didn’t even have smart phones back then.
9. I said I’d never lie to my kids.
10. I said I would never use food as a reward.
This is basically my entire parenting strategy right here. Without food bribes, I got nothing.
Now, who wants a chocolate chip cookie for reading this whole article?
Disclaimer: I feel I should say that even given all of the cynical ramblings above, I wouldn’t trade a minute of my time as a parent. Even the minutes I was covered in bodily fluids or my throat hurt from yelling so loud. But it’s just not that funny to write an article about how much you love your kids. It’s like writing an article about how much you love being carded when you’re in your thirties. It is – in the vernacular of my lovely children – “Like, Duh!”
Dear Car Companies:
I know the past couple of years have been tough on you. On behalf of Moms, the consumer group responsible for over 80% of household spending, I’m here to let you know we want to help. We really do. But you’ve got to help us help you.
It is a well-documented fact, that Moms spend over half our waking hours (and a fair portion of our sleeping hours) in our cars. And let’s be honest, the current choices for “mom cars” just aren’t getting the job done. (The Ford Focus Station Wagon? Really?) Many of our needs have been woefully overlooked. We want a car that simplifies our lives, lends a helping hand, and last but certainly not least, a car that is not the automobile equivalent of Mom Jeans. (I’m talking to you, minivan makers.) We are still women, after all, and our desire to be practical should not have to come at the expense of our desire to look cool.
So here is a list of suggested features you should incorporate into cars if you want to pull yourself out of your slump and really start selling some cars:
- Fold down Makeup Mirror on front visor with LED light, replacing currently used Itty-Bitty Book light bulbs that makes us all look jaundiced. Upgrade option: automated programmable make-up artist who advises driver when she has lipstick on her teeth.
- Automated schedule control. A feature that allows her to input her daily schedule and will give her an itinerary and timeline of when she has to leave A to get to B in time to get C to D. Upgrade option: automated voice will yell at her kids to ‘hurry up and get buckled’ for her when she is in danger of being late.
- Hidden, pop-up coffee maker complete with settings for cappuccino, frappuccino, mochas, and macchiato. Eliminates need for pesky coffee shop stops that make her late, but still address her need for caffeine. Upgrade option: Offer scones, low-fat muffins, and fruit-n-yogurt parfait with auto-spoon feeding feature.
- GPS tracking link for pizza deliveries for dinner on the go. This feature allows delivery guy to find her while she is en-route and throw the pizza, frisbee-like, into her moving vehicle, cutting out the need to stop or even slow down.
- A central vac should be standard. Upgrade: tiny robots that clean the car overnight in the garage.
- A retractable divider shield, like they have in limousines, between the front seats and the rest of the car. This feature would be controllable only by the driver for those times when the kids are sleeping and she needs to make a call; when Radio Disney is threatening to make her head explode; or when she simply can’t bear to intervene in one more argument about who touched who first.
- A push button “Cool-Car” hologram feature. With a discreet push of a button, this would project the image of a cool car for others to see while she is driving. This feature will come in handy during those moments when she is stopped at a light next to a car full of young, stylish, unfettered people reminiscent of who she used to be. (This feature should come standard on all minivans.)
- Auto-sleep/Save Her Sanity feature. This will gently rock, soothe, and sing lullabies to crying or overtired passengers in order to get them to fall asleep. Upgrade: option to continue this feature even after the car is turned off so kids don’t wake up immediately upon returning home.
- Robotic snack dispenser and conveyor belt to pass out snacks, without Mom even having to take her eyes off the road.
- Extra loud automated message that comes on and says, “Don’t even think about it!” when a child unbuckles while the car is in motion.
- Pre-stain coating. This option would eliminate the “new car jitters” that result in a lot of yelling and ultimately, guilt and shame when the kids inevitably color all over the interior with a blue sharpie, drop their strawberry smoothie, and/or vomit in the vehicle.
- Validation of Life Choice Feature: An computerized voice (similar to the lady on GPS but without the condescending quasi-British accent) who tells her she looks beautiful, that her jokes are funny, and that she did the right thing by choosing to sacrifice her body, her sleep, and often, her education in order to basically become an unpaid chauffeur, chef, nurse, maid, and therapist.
We appreciate you taking the time to consider adding these features to your vehicles. Should you choose to implement even just a few of these ideas, I am confident that word will spread quickly through our super-secret Mom network, and we will take you out of the current economic time-out you’ve been in.