My daughter has a sticker chart on the fridge that says, in her seven-year-old mix of capital and lower-case letters, “I was nice in the morning and controlled my anger!” The exclamation mark is dotted with a star.

Then there are ten hand-drawn squares, with shiny stickers in several of them. If all goes well, she’ll pick out a Playmobil at the corner toy store downtown, as a reward, in less than a week

This was all her idea. She saw a sticker chart of her brother’s and wanted a vehicle for scoring a new toy, too.

When I asked what she would do to earn a sticker, she didn’t hesitate. After countless talks and family meetings, she knows her early morning attitude problem is one of her biggest hurdles.

Read the rest of my post here, at Imp3Rfect Mom, the blog my friend, Jan Udlock.

At age thirteen I was a die-hard All My Children fan. People in my suburban hometown knew that Laurence Lau, the actor who played Greg Nelson (remember Greg and Jenny?), had a brother who worked the butcher’s counter at the corner grocery in my neighborhood.

Word got around that Lau would be making an appearance at his brother’s workplace, signing autographs and generally looking hunky.

I mentioned this to my mom. “Um, so Greg-from-All-My-Children-is-I-guess-going-to-be-at-the-grocery-or-something. Tomorrow.”

Read more in my guest post over at Motherlogue today, where I reflect on what it’s like to be (almost) 40.

 

Usually I write at my desk, but I couldn’t resist the light in the family room today.

A friend in my writing group made a suggestion a few weeks ago (she got the idea here): Pick three very simple goals for the week, related to writing or not, and give yourself a deadline. Then, pick a salary. Something small, like a plant for the garden or a favorite decadence (any Theo milk chocolate bar will do for me, thanks).

Setting goals isn’t anything new, right? But when was the last time you bought something for yourself for meeting – or trying to meet – those goals?

The mini-reward idea reminded me of our daughter. When she was about 18 months old, we started re-directing when her behavior hit the “disruptive” mark on our parenting tachometers. This led to a predictable push (“No!”), prompting a conversation between me and my husband about rewards.

I said using food or other enticing goodies as incentives for behaving sent the wrong message. In fact, I couldn’t understand how any reward would help her in the long run. I wanted her to be internally motivated to be respectful, not a product of bribes. He said it was a means to an end. Getting something (a tickle, a small toy, a few blueberries) for being agreeable would build internal motivation, so long as we included the right message along with the reward (“Look, you put on your shoes without crying! You must feel proud of yourself.”)

Even though it made sense to me at the time, it still makes my stomach churn a bit to offer rewards. Shouldn’t respect, kindness and a “calm body” offer rewards of their own?

The answer for a seven-year-old is no. I was reminded of this two days ago when my husband, sick of nightly tantrums, finally told her if she could take her shower and get ready for bed without screaming, running away or mean faces, she could watch a 10-minute YouTube video after her book and poem.

The girl was a darling. Positive. Helpful. Motivated.

Normally, this would bug me. Normally I’d give an internal eye roll, knowing she’s only working for the chance to zone out in front of the computer for a few minutes before bed. But now I see it as a tool: we’re using the bribe to help her build the habit of being agreeable. The habit of happiness.

“Daddy,” she told him after the video, “even though I said, ‘Yay!’ I didn’t want to get in the shower at all.”

“I know,” he said. “But don’t you feel better?”

“Yeah,” she beamed. “I do!” Ding, ding, ding!

Which is what happened when I signed on with my my writing buddies. I’d be treating myself to a pint of carrot juice at the end of the week, I told them, and attached three goals, almost as an afterthought. I got through my modest tasks and at the end of last week, I curled under a lamp with a novel and the juice. It was a treat. But it was also a motivator. As soon as I was done, I thought of a new reward and drafted more goals.

So tomorrow I’m buying myself an aloe vera plant. That’s something (along with greater discipline) I’ve wanted for years.

 

Image by Adrian Nier (Creative Commons license).

A few weeks ago I sat at a folding table in the dining hall of a conference center, sipped at a mug of tea and had a full, uninterrupted conversation.

Someone had convinced us to go on the annual church retreat. This meant painting and hikes for the kids (child care) and freedom from the clock for us.

I actually had many uninterrupted conversations over the weekend — with tea and otherwise — but the one I’m thinking of was with the parents of a high school student who excels at violin. I was picking their brains about how she got started because a certain someone in our house is angling for a violin for Christmas.

The emotion this stirs in me is terror. My first thought is how to handle it when she wants to bail out. Because, believe me, she will.

This may sound harsh. But I know this kiddo. We’ve been down this path before. Something (soccer, swimming, school…) sounds fun. So she starts. She’s thrilled. She works hard. She excels. She hits a snag. She flags. She doesn’t want to go today. She doesn’t want to go ever again. She stomps around the house. She hates soccer, swimming, school. She hates us.

So I fear this scenario playing itself out. But even more, I fear bailing out myself. I doubt my ability to hold her to a daily commitment. Since I don’t play an instrument myself (required piano credits in college notwithstanding), I already know we don’t have the right culture in our house to support daily practice sessions. Plus, my attention to ongoing, non-musical tasks (dust, thank-you notes) isn’t outstanding.

But here’s what sticks with me. “I think she’s learned,” this girl’s father said, “that if she follows the reluctance and practices even when she doesn’t feel like it, she gets into it.”

Right. It’s about getting over that initial hump. Flip those negative emotions on their heads and they become guides. Fear, intimidation, hopelessness, worry — every one can become the next smooth phrase coming from an internal GPS system, “At the next intersection, turn right and continue straight to the place you least want to go.” Grab a rag and open the door to the cleaning closet. Sit down with a stack of cards and an address book.

Following our negative emotions can be almost like a game. What don’t I want to do today?

For me? I don’t want to price out lessons and instrument rentals (fear). I don’t want to write (discouraged) or vacuum (annoyed). But here goes.

Photo courtesy of A. Vivaldi (Creative Commons).

Every Friday we settle in on the futon with a bowl of popcorn or ice cream and watch a video with the kids. This is “movie night,” which is really a 30- or 40-minute video or portion of a feature length movie. (We’re not sitting in front of the tube for a full 90 minutes until we can’t avoid it anymore. Plus, our backsides can take only so much futon.)

Like every other parent, we care about content but lack the time or desire to screen every single video for violence, general stupidity and other offenders. We choose our Friday night fare based on suggestions from friends, comments online and the standardized movie rating system. Which means we’re sometimes surprised by the things that pop out of the cute little mouths on our flat screen.

We limit movies to those with G ratings, but there’s one thing (other than general stupidity) that escapes the raters’ red pens. Meanness.

Take this past Friday. Lacking any Reading Rainbows from the library, my husband perused the kids’ movies on Netflix and chose a 2005 movie with a sweet premise, Racing Stripes. A stranded baby zebra (aww…) is taken home by a down-and-out farmer/widower (sniff…) whose daughter (motherless!) takes the stripy, wobbly-kneed orphan under her wing. The zebra, Stripes, discovers a racing track (next door to the farm, as a matter of fact) and vows to become a racehorse. Our kids loved it. The animals talk, the action moves along and two fast-talking flies are so funny that we can’t even hear their lines for the cackling.

The movie is cliche but would be cute, even more than passably cute, if it weren’t for the fact that everyone is mean to everyone else. The crusty pony who coaches Stripes is a gruff old guy with nothing but insults for the other beasts (though Dustin Hoffman is one of my favorites). The antagonists, two thoroughbred racehorses, taunt the hero over the fence. The flies throw nonstop barbs at each other. Stripes himself throws around an “I’ll show them” attitude in almost every line.

The last time I came face-to-face with a meanie in real life, I was being cussed out through my windshield. I told my mom about the pedestrian, shaking his fist and yelling at me because my car was in the crosswalk (the light changed while I was waiting to turn right, okay?). She told me about two people who screamed at her for minor driving mistakes over the past couple weeks.

She lives in a more densely populated area, so I suggested tempers are topping out as traffic gets worse. She disagreed. “Politicians yell at each other, talk show hosts goad the public. I think we’ve turned into a society of yellers.”

Have we? Have we forgotten the truce of an upraised palm when another driver waves “sorry”? Have we forgotten all the times we’ve neglected to turn on a blinker or ended up a foot past the line at a stop sign? Are we poised to fight?

Yesterday, my husband turned down the music in the car so we could hear how a conversation in the back seat would turn out:

Daughter (6), to son (3): You know, people are not good and bad. They just make good and bad choices.

Son: Yeah.

D: Like, here’s a bad choice: stealing!

S: And smoking! Blech!

D: Yeah. *pause* And war!

S: Yeah…

D: War is like when one country says segregation is okay and the other says it’s not and then they fight about it. *pause* But I don’t think Santa has a good and bad list.

You know it always comes back to Santa, who leaves a tin of raspberry candies even in the stockings of chain-smoking, warmongering thieves. Well, dang. If Santa can be generous to a wretch, so can I. And I can also marvel at this: despite my sometimes Hannigan-esque exasperation at home, my oldest is showing a capacity to understand that right and wrong are not, like Stripes, black and white. And recruiting her brother, to boot.

Movie makers: kids understand nuance. You don’t have to rely on a snarky line for a laugh or a character with an attitude for emotional impact. Kids understand backing out of a fight, making up after you’ve misspoken and a panorama of choices that go beyond fight or flight.

Self: pay close attention. Don’t be afraid to turn a video off if it’s not working. Take a deep breath when that man yells at you and say to the kids, “Honey, I don’t know why his face is purple,” instead of pinging half-voiced, petty jibes back at him from behind your closed car windows.

And double check those movie ratings. Racing Stripes? It’s–oh. It’s rated PG. That explains it some, though I think older kids could handle some nuance and kindness, too.

Photo courtesy of wwarby (Creative Commons).

Nebraska - Colorado 218 by Asbestos Bill.

A few weekends ago I stole away with my favorite girl. The one whose teeth are dropping out. The one who wears jeans that float up past her ankles. The one who corrects me when I say she’ll be in first grade in the fall. “I already am in first grade.” The one who thinks romantic kissing is snort-laughing hilarious, who exaggerates almost as often as I do and says, like every minute and a half, “Mommy? I love you.”

Catherine Newman‘s description of her six-year-old daughter in a recent essay resonates: “…the big eyes, the helpless littleness, the wobbly dependence.” Exactly. I forget, since my girl is growing up fast, that six is actually pretty little. Poor kiddo. Being the oldest, she’s the one who gets stuck with spontaneous be-a-good-example-to-your-brother lectures and you-know-better-than-to-wipe-that-jam-on-your-shirt looks. So what if she spouts similes and her favorite poem is by Thomas Hardy? She still uses arm-length pieces of Scotch tape, looks like she’s going to hyperventilate when we suggest she try riding the bigger bicycle and checks her pillow for fairy dust.

We spent the special weekend with my mom, the better to lengthen the maternal bond. On Saturday, the zoo made the agenda, as did the giant indy bookstore we visit every time we’re in town (acquiring a copy of the sequel to The Penderwicks was non-negotiable). We ended the day with a dramatic evening that included blood, Andy Gibb and a tooth wiggling marathon, but not a visit from the tooth fairy.

After she finally went to bed, I stayed up to have a glass of wine with the grown-ups. The subject turned to freeway driving and near-misses so I shared something that happened on the drive down the day before. A motorcycle pulled ahead of me in the left lane. I checked my mirrors and my blind spot. Empty. Putting on my blinker, I checked again just in time to see a second motorcycle right next to me. I didn’t even need to swerve, but the possibility of sideswiping the bike buzzed in my head as it passed.

My mom’s friend, a motorcyclist, asked how my mirrors were adjusted. They’re not supposed to be redundant, he said. The rearview and side mirrors are supposed to work as a team, handing off the reflection like runners with a baton. You don’t say.

On the way back home, I followed his advice and pitched my side mirrors away from the car. It worked. All these years and no one ever told me this? I’ve been looking at the same car behind me in all three of my mirrors, instead of adjusting the angle so I can see the vehicle right next to me. And that’s the one that’s most important, and dangerous, right? The one that’s too close, moving in sync.

Which is, you’ve probably gathered, where I’m going with this girls’ weekend story. With all the hoopla of the first year of school (I’m free! they shouted together), I’m out of the habit of paying attention to my girl and who she’s becoming. Suddenly she’s wearing those highwaters and making kissing noises whenever I mention going on a date with her dad. Begging me to play with her and so sad to leave my mom’s house where the two of us get to (slumber party!) snuggle in the same bed.

Is it cloying to say that I need to adjust my parenting mirrors? Because I do. This girl is becoming someone a little bit different every day. Right next to me. And that’s not dangerous at all. But it is too important to miss.

Photo courtesy of Asbestos Bill (Creative Commons).

P.S. I feel obliged to settle your mind. I’m not going to start driving like my grandfather, who was notorious for scaring the daylights out of the family whenever he barreled into the left lane with barely a glance in mirror (in one of the old tank-like Suburbans, no less). I’m not, in case you’re worried, going to stop turning my head to check my blind spot.

Troy Davis Vigil by javacolleen.

For those of you following the case, Troy Davis is in court in Savannah today.

Listen to the NPR story here.

The Savannah Morning News story is here.

Photo courtesy of javacolleen (Creative Commons).

Prius Rear by Beige Alert.

There are two things I need to do more: work out and blog.

Yesterday, after my first workout in quite awhile, I thought, why not combine the two?

So, I bring you the first (and perhaps only) edition of The Gym Archive.

At the Y where I work out, there are metal racks attached to a couple of load-bearing posts near the elliptical machines. They’re sometimes stuffed, sometimes meagerly occupied with old magazines sloughed from members’ coffee tables. Everything from The New Yorker to Northwest Travel to Men’s Health is represented. Usually nothing strikes my fancy. These magazines are old and, minus the literary essays, the titles have the worn, out-of-date feel of those bumper stickers that say Go Organic! when everyone knows the hip, green thing to do is to buy local and seasonal.

Speaking of which, my read yesterday from the Y’s magazine archive was a May, 2008 article from Wired magazine on “slaughtering the sacred cows” of the environmental movement. Ooch. I couldn’t help but read it after seeing the provocative cover: “Attention Environmentalists: Keep your SUV. Forget organics. Go nuclear. Screw the spotted owl.” Whaaa?

The article makes some valid points, though I felt some of the facts were positioned to play up the cheeky title. Chief among the claims is that the organics movement, though undoubtedly encouraging a lesser intake of pesticides, has gone Big Ag. Trucking organic milk or heirloom tomatoes to your local store is a bigger carbon hog than buying local. And methods of organic farming mean a lesser volume per acre so that means a larger footprint, too. Okay. This one’s not too hard for me to swallow. I already buy a lot of local stuff and it helps that I live in a place where local produce and products are abundant and growing more available every day.

But air conditioning? I was sure that was evil incarnate. You know, sprawling suburban New Mexico McMansions with giant A/C units cooling their vaulted entryways? But apparently A/C has a smaller carbon footprint than its cousin, Furnace. It’s more green, per degree, to cool a space than to heat one, the article says. And that includes the utopian woodsman in the Northeast, heating his meager cabin with a wood stove. Seriously?

The Prius we want to save up for (the one with working brakes)? It seems that our yet-to-be-driven dream car waiting for us on the lot has already garnered carbon demerits — the equivalent of 1,000 gallons of gas before the first turn of the key push of the power button. Oy.

Things aren’t always as they seem.

On Facebook, I linked my last post and got a few responses from friends who suggested my perception of the flotilla incident has been influenced by “the mainstream media.” Mmm…maybe. It’s good to be reminded to broaden my perspective. We’re all in danger of believing propaganda and need to, beyond anything else, read widely and consider the other point of view. Especially if that other point of view is held by the underdog. (And this is also a matter of perspective: in my view, the flotilla participants were standing up for an oppressed minority; my Facebook detractors would say Israel is the perpetual underdog, fighting for its very survival against a hostile world.)

The take-away from my quick read and my flotilla Facebook debate? It’s human nature to place our pet causes in neat little boxes. Instead, question everything. Twice. Then question again.

But I admit: I hate doing that. If I hear a persuasive argument that’s aligned with my belief system, I’ll swallow it whole. I know it’s best to retain elasticity in my belief systems, but old habits die hard. And, anyway, this one article shouldn’t be my new lubber line for greening my life. If my choices were to (a) feed my kids the popular, luscious strawberries from a local farm that uses pesticides or (b) feed them organic strawberries shipped in refrigerated trucks to the closest Costco, I would, as distributor of summer berries to owners of growing bodies, rule Costc0.

And an SUV? Sorry, Wired. No way.

The Wired article is here.

Image courtesy of Beige Alert (Creative Commons).

Gaza Flotilla Protest -- San Francisco -- Jewish Voice for Peace by Michael 1203.

Just two days ago, this article noted irony in the fact that “a quarter of Israel’s Navy has been mobilized to ensure the aid flotilla does not get through.” In 1947, a similar group of ships bound for Israel was raided. Three were killed, many wounded. But the occupants of the ships were Holocaust survivors, their attackers, Britain’s Royal Navy. The refugees were forced back to Germany, to the great horror of the world.

Click here for a New York Times slide show of the raid on the flotilla, attacked yesterday in international waters, and subsequent protests.

Photo courtesy of Michael 1203 (Creative Commons).

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