Why I Teach my Kids That the Most Important Thing to be is KIND

As per usual, leaving the children’s museum after a morning of fun has become a struggle and a half. Tears over the things we did not do on this trip. Tantrums over wet pants (despite reminders that playing in the water is both against the rules and, as evidenced, leads to wet pants). Full body, pregnancy aches and pains. The kids and I are tired, hungry, and over stimulated, but we make it to the parking lot via patience and promises of skittles.

A young mom approaches; her stress shows in the sweaty gleam of her makeup and the exasperated movement of swinging a toddler held for too long from one hip to the other.

“Excuse me, but do you happen to have jumper cables? My battery’s dead and we’re stuck.” I can hear in her voice that I am not the first person she has asked. Over her shoulder I see an SUV with the hood popped, a few cars down from my own. I flash from fuck, I really just need to get out of here to I would be so pissed if that were my hood up and my panic brewing.

“Yeah, I do. Let me just get my kids changed and in my car real quick.” She looks relieved and a little guilty (which she should not be) as she apologizes, noting that I obviously have my hands full. I tell her I do, but it sucks that she’s stuck and it’s really no problem to help out.

I can feel four little eyes and four little ears – all attached to the humans I created and am raising to be civilized – at attention for this exchange. As they stand in the back of our car, waiting for dry clothes and treats, I ask: “What’s the most important thing to be?” The response is quick from both: “KIND.” No further explanation is needed – they get it. Stalling our day briefly to help a stranger in need takes priority over our slight levels of discomfort.

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Why do I teach my kids to be kind, above anything else?

To counteract all the ugliness around us. In this shitstorm of a society filled with hatred, horror, and division, the only way to fight back is to create a little army of humans who will do better someday.

My kids need to be decent to each other, to their parents, to our dog, and to an overwhelming number of people with whom they must coexist daily. At 2 and 4, they are vastly selfish and need every possible bit of practice in kindness.

As they grow and form relationships, they should expect the same treatment from others. Accepting that this two-way street is mandatory will be a lot easier if they’re already following protocol in their own lanes.

It doesn’t cost or hurt anything. Seriously. 90% of the time, being kind takes absolutely nothing away from us.

The lesson reminds me to dish out compassion throughout my own day. I’m grumpy, and I don’t always like people. I go from neutral to irritated in seconds flat, and have to work hard to have a filter when I do. So I guess, at 38, I still need the practice too.

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The most important thing to be is kind. No day is left lacking in opportunities for this reminder.

When one of them is cooling off from hitting the other, of course, but also when one is basking in a compliment, a toy shared, or some other act of sibling sweetness.

When we bring dinner to friends, or when friends bring us dinner.

When we see a man sleeping outside and talk about how not everyone has a place to sleep, how a smile is better than a stare, how much we have come to like a particular homeless couple who we visit regularly with homemade lunches. Kind is the most important thing to be to all humans, no matter how different they may seem.

When someone holds a door open for us, remarks on a kid’s cuteness, moves their grocery cart to let us pass, or picks up one of the thousands of things that I drop and can’t reach – all small acts that could go unmentioned. Of course I model by saying thank you, but I also work to tell my kids explicitly “wasn’t that so kind?” or “that kindness made me feel good.”

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As an adult, I understand the complexities and nuances of life within a society. We often have to balance our idealistic qualities for protection. At some point, a person or situation may prove that our kindness has been exhausted and abused. It is possible for more than one thing to be the most important way to be. I want my kids (and myself) to strive for happiness, health, empathy, intellect, and success. But those all follow kindness, and my 2 and 4 year olds need to get that one down first.

So when an out of the ordinary circumstance – like someone asking for help with car trouble – presents itself, we choose compassion over convenience. That afternoon, on the way home from the museum, our conversation takes great turns. We talk about how it would feel to need help from a stranger – how it may be hard to ask, and feel upsetting to not know what to do. We talk about how it felt to stay calm and patient for long enough to figure out how to use jumper cables (or sit in the car quietly during the process, at least). We talk about how it feels when a little kindness that gets us out of a jam. We talk about how car batteries and engines work. For the last ten minutes of the drive, we listen to my son lose his mind screaming and crying, because it’s long past nap time. But the example of how to be a decent human is still more important.

My myriad of hopes and dreams for my kids, of course, doesn’t end at kindness, but it starts there. And so I drill it into their little minds:

“What’s the most important thing to be?”

“Kind.”

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Scooter Dude

It happened in the backyard, where there really is not enough room to ride scooters. The kids made a course anyway: up and down a strip of concrete between the house and lawn, then a loop around the patio perimeter – skirting the table and chairs, the BBQ, the playhouse, and me (barely).

It happened in one single, unplanned moment. After six months of insistently pushing his scooter backward, Owen turned it around and finally rode the damn thing. Like a pro.

Addie – who never misses a detail of someone else’s life, yet remains unaware that her shirt is tucked into her underwear on the regular – noticed it first. “Owen’s riding his scooter the right way! Good job, bud!”

With his left foot on the scooter, right foot poised to push off the concrete, and toddler sausage fingers gripping both handles, he went for it. He became pure concentration: lips pressed together, eyebrows knitted, staring straight ahead. But his eyes revealed wild joy, recognition of fun, and a look that said: get some.

I truly thought he would never do it. I was about to put the scooter in storage, to avoid the frustration every time we tried it. This was the progression: after hours of Owen begging: “Scoo’ ride! Scoo’ ride!”, and then talking Addie the hermit into going too, we would set out. Along the way, I would casually suggest trying to ride forward and he would shake his head with a quick, firm, “mmm mmm”. No way – not interested in your conventional scooter ways.

Owen always had a predetermined route; at every turn, there was only one acceptable way to go. The problem was, we had to make our way home eventually and those 13-inchlegs max out at around seven blocks. Inevitably, we would end up too far away, tired, thirsty, and disgruntled. After bribes and reasoning failed to turn him around the right corner, I would end up carrying both the screaming boy and the scooter. Meanwhile keeping the tired girl from riding into traffic or stopping altogether.  And, often, pushing the baby in the stroller. While pregnant.

 

Like I said, I was one failed ride from putting the scooter away for good. My kids always know when they have pushed an obnoxious phase to the absolute limit, though.

We seized the moment, on that first day he rode around the backyard course, and set out immediately for a neighborhood ride. After a quick thirty-six minutes of sneakers, sunscreen, and helmets (Addie’s with flowers and Owen’s with flames) we were on our way.

 I could not judge who of the four of us was more proud on that first scooter ride: me, Kevin (who we passed working in the yard on our way out), Owen, or big sister. We made our way to the high school near us, with a big open blacktop for lots of practice.

Pushing off with his right foot he could not immediately get a stride or momentum.  His foot stayed up too long, knee bent behind him as though it knew it had just accomplished greatness and was trying not to blow it with more movement. Or else his foot went back to the ground too quickly, stopping forward motion.

His first big success came when he found a nice little slope leading away from the school’s gym. The kid has always loved a low ramp on foot. On wheels, it was just enough to get him a little speed without scaring him.  

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From that first trip out, he was riding along as though he had always been able to and was merely waiting for the moment he felt like it. Going from not-scooter to scooter happened for him in an instant, much like walking. There was a long time of not doing or visibly trying, and then suddenly charging ahead with little fumbling.

I feel pride swell outside of my body when I get to witness him master these milestones, so undeterred by difficulty. He knows exactly what he wants and is willing to put in the work for it. I admire (and envy) his beauty, determination, focus, excitement and then pride.

He’ll learn, like Addie did, how to balance and steer and other technicalities. He’ll find a whole new thrill when he gets some speed. He’ll eventually get over the stubborn need to go whichever way he wants at every turn (or maybe not – but we have lots of M&M’s). He’ll become overconfident, like Addie is now, and try fancy tricks that lead to skinned knees and tears. He’ll find only bigger and steeper ramps from here on out.

Hopefully I can curb my anxiety as I watch it all unfold, remember my pride and his joy first, and give him the freedom to take risks. With any luck, our emergency room visits will be infrequent.

 

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Things I Want to Tell My Daughter About Friendship

 

I steal every moment I can to observe my daughter interacting with other kids. I watch her at the library story time, the park, birthday parties, or play dates (which are rare – my personal parenting downfall). During the school year I could sometimes peek through the lunch room door (before another kid spotted me and yelled “Addie, your mom’s here!”).

I notice how she buzzes around kids who interest her, not quite knowing what to say. I see her whole body try to engage – rocking tentatively back and forth on her feet, hands half waving, leaning her face in a little too close for a chance to smile. Frustration often clouds her face though, furrows her teeny brow, and makes her walk away from another kid (or worse), instead of successfully engaging.

Even as a baby she has always turned into a ray of sunshine around others. Since she obviously lacks my social anxiety, I never thought she would struggle to make friends. It turns out there is more to it than fearlessness and longing.

Before preschool started last year, we talked to Addie a LOT about how to be a good friend: be kind, play nicely, share, use words, and to expect the same treatment from others. We gave her a script, a trick we have used since she started talking, to relieve any anxiety. She practiced with us, and Owen, and Penny Dog: “Hi, I’m Addie. What’s your name?” and “What’s your favorite color? I like pink and purple.”

She listened, but spent a lot of the year pushing, yelling, and hair pulling instead. Like I said, it turns out there is more to making friends than mere aspiration.

No big deal – at three years old, she has plenty of time to learn social skills, and the emotional control to employ them. It will take ongoing conversations and practice, but I have things I would like to teach her about friendship.

  • It should be easy to fall into a friendship, even though it may require a little work here and there to maintain it. It should not be the opposite – difficult and forced to start.
  • The very best kind of friend is one whose company is effortless. One you don’t have to try to be anything around. One who understands your silly jokes, and your silence, and also your deepest secrets. If you find a single person like this, you have hit the jackpot.
  • Not everyone has to be friends. It is fine – admirable even – to try, not have it work out, and simply be acquaintances. As long as it is all done with kindness.
  • Pick friends to whom you can (and want to) tell anything. As much as I would like to think otherwise, the time will come that you no longer tell your mom everything, and feedback can help you make the best decisions. Have friends who will listen and talk through situations with you.
  • Be loyal, and demand loyalty, but be realistic. Accept mistakes, flaws, and human nature.
  • Don’t be a sieve; don’t be molding clay. Admire different traits among your friends without feeling like you have to try them on for yourself. (Unless they are getting straight A’s and speaking kindly to their mom – feel free to adopt those behaviors as your own.)
  • Be part of a group of friends. Or don’t – have a few here and there. Both are perfectly good ways to go through life. Just try not to be lonely.
  • You have to be a friend to have friends. Show up sometimes, even when you would rather not. The time will come when you need them to show up too.
  • Have trust in your friends, but never blind trust. You are still responsible for your own thoughts and decisions.
  • Whoever you choose to spend time with, and however you choose to spend it, make sure your soul is happy. Friends are fun.

It took me decades to learn some of these lessons. Many I only know in retrospect, in light of their absence. But don’t we always want, for our children, the things we feel we lacked? Will it screw them up in the opposite direction – giving protection from some of my hardships, yet opening them up to alternative issues I never faced? (I am purposely leaving those questions hypothetical because I know nothing and choose not to guess.)

Addie still has everything to learn about socio-emotional skills and relationships, and she will. It’s tricky, but rewarding, business. Soon it will be a new school year, at a new school, and then kindergarten before we know it. Soon she will truly turn the corner from toddler to little kid. Soon her world will expand beyond the scope of our home and family. I hope to be ready to help her navigate friendships, in some ever changing form, for many years to come.

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Time: the Great Mindfuck of Motherhood

The entire floor of the house is covered. I sit trapped among train tracks, pattern blocks, matchbox cars, and couch pillows. To my right, the fireplace is surrounded by baby toys and books. To my left, the play area is vomiting stuffed animals, legos, books, blocks, capes and masks. Every single toy is out.

I close my eyes and take a deep breath to keep from screaming; when I open them I see again the happiness in the busy mess.

It’s hard not to feel like I have spent my whole life, and will spend the rest of my days, sitting on the floor playing with kids and toys. I’ll admit it: there are moments when I get bored, restless, irritated, and preoccupied with other things to do.

The second the words form in my thoughts I grow dizzy, knowing this will become a memory. It is all slipping past and I will long for this time when they have left the toys, the floor, the house. When they have left me.

Right now is such a fleeting moment in their long lives (and in mine), even though it occasionally feels tedious and endless.

Time never moves at the right speed. I try not to think about it too hard: how much I want some moments to end, even while I mourn for their passing.

I used to be comfortable with the passing of time. I loved to soak into memories (sometimes lingering too long). I anticipated the near and distant futures (with borderline obsession to details and scheduling). I loved the moments of now (mostly). I used to be able to appreciate it all, the natural procession of time.

Motherhood has fucked that all up, though, big time. Now it never passes in a way that makes any sense.

These days, Owen is talking in full sentences and exploding with new vocabulary every day. He runs around the playground like he owns it, exploring and climbing alongside the big kids. I want to write down everything, record all of him, and hold onto each moment of newness. It overwhelms (and relieves) me to know I couldn’t possibly if I tried.

Yet, when he bites me so hard it leaves a mark for days, when he throws an epic tantrum over not going on a train trip RIGHT NOW at 7 pm, or when he whines every time he opens his mouth … I count down the minutes until the end of the day. Until this phase passes.

Addie’s toddler voice is changing, along with her toddler face and body and mannerisms. I long for more of her as an 8 month old, snuggling and laughing, playing with the discovery baskets I made her, learning to eat (with no teeth for months to come). I want more of her stoic, inquisitive, baby eyes. More of her sunshine upon entering a room (in my arms).

Then I see her at the playground with her friends, I watch her focus on a puzzle, or I praise her for asking to be excused from the table before clearing her dishes and washing her hands … and I swell with pride at her big kids ways. I wonder what she will be like a year from now.

Time is the great mindfuck of motherhood. I can’t think about it too hard, how it never has the right tempo, or I go down a rabbit hole of discontent.

So I keep sitting on the floor with them, the minutes going by too slowly and then too fast, getting lost in the work of play. I try not to worry about cherishing every single moment. I try to commit some of them to memory. I let go of the good and bad that slip away and brace myself for more.

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Trials & Tribulations & Art

I sit with my daughter in the backyard on a balmy Sunday afternoon, watching her creative side come to life with a paintbrush. Coming off of a week filled with less than desirable behavior, we both need a break from the trying and not listening and stressing and missing out. It’s a great relief to see her engaged and enjoying her little life.

The trouble my little free-spirit is having right now (always?) is not following instructions that allow her to participate. This issue comes and goes, and only concerns me when she misses out: leaving gymnastics class early, bailing on birthday parties, getting picked up early from school. She is 50% FOMO (fear of missing out), but 50% rebel. Because she’s human, it floors her when she misses something she wanted to do. Because she’s three, she cannot yet recall the upset and use it to change her pattern the next time.

It would be downright hypocritical of me to begrudge her non-conformity. Her will is strong and glorious and inherited from her mother. I rarely care if she behaves for the sake of behaving; she has plenty of time to learn about “the way the world works” and other valid but mundane concepts. I just want to see her happy. She has plenty of passions and hobbies that require few rules or other humans, though. She’s an artist, a reader, a chef, a storyteller, a make-believer, a lover of glue-based projects, and a dedicated snuggler.

I let out a breath held with concern for a whole week as I watch her paint. I admire the way she studies the blank paper with steady eyes and pursed lips. Her little hands work with ease to dip her brush into the clear plastic cup of water and glide it across a light blue watercolor paint until it has the right saturation.

“I’m making a blue sky …” she says absentmindedly.

Bouncing lightly from one jelly-sandaled foot to the other, holding the brush in front of her with both hands, she contemplates her next color selection. She reaches across to the palette of pearlescent paint.

“I need all these dark colors to make the clouds.” You sure do, kiddo – you need all the colors.

“See, it’s an island. Of beautiful stuff.”

By this point she’s filled the entire page with shimmery opaque neutrals, but sure enough, I see her island take shape.

“My island needs some water to drink” she says with a splash of aqua. “A thing for the sun to set on” with a dash of purple.

She works intently, chatting the entire time, pausing briefly to see what her brother is painting (nothing – he is dumping cups of water on the grass and cheering “dump it out!”) I offer her his untouched paper and she says “oh yes – will you help me make a rainbow on it?” My pleasure, sweet girl.

She stays absorbed in painting the two pictures (and a discarded piece of fence board) for an hour or so. By now, the freedom and flow have loosened her up, filled her needs, led her naturally back to cooperation. “Mommy, is it okay if I dump the water onto the wood?” “May I use this stick now?” These requests from the girl who looks me dead in the eye while refusing to put on underwear.

Whatever is making her temporarily (or permanently) adverse to structured group activities, she needs more of THIS now. The rest will follow. Or maybe we will all follow her when she becomes the boss of the world.

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One Dozen Fantasies I Have

Sometimes I pretend the mountain of sand my kids track in is a beach on a deserted island.

Sometimes I pretend we stick to 30 minutes of screen time daily.

I pretend I’m the one in charge here.

Sometimes I pretend if I close my eyes and can’t see them, then they can’t see me.

I pretend folding laundry is fulfilling.

I pretend I will always have babies.

Sometimes I pretend I’m developing a harmless and comfortable ailment that, nonetheless, will require an overnight vacation to the hospital.

I pretend I have it all under control, but really I’m 83% shambles and 17% nailing it.

Sometimes I pretend soaking my feet in my kids’ bath water is a relaxing spa treatment.

Sometimes I pretend I’m doing “work” on my phone, when I’m playing Candy Crush.

Sometimes I pretend I’m cherishing every moment, especially the one when my husband was out of town and my 2 year old, my 8 month old, and I all got the stomach flu.

Sometimes I pretend there’s no ache in my heart from raising happy humans, capable enough to leave me someday.