Thursday, September 27, 2012


As I opened the kitchen door, returning unannounced after my appointment was canceled, I heard scuffling in the living room. The door to the stereo/DVR consul clicked shut and a light went out. Little feet thumped up the stairs. I listened quietly and then set my keys down with a clunk on the counter. Kicking off my shoes I called a greeting to my lazy cat curled up on a stool at the counter. Mama’s home. (an hour too soon) 

I am well-aware that my children were doing something elicit. I could bust them. But I don’t. I’m not up to the scuffle tonight. Tonight I’m tired. Their father has been traveling for two weeks a continent away. I don’t have it in me to confront them, wiggle out the truth, and deal out the consequences. Not that watching a little illegal television drivel is so bad. Still. 

Later I tuck them in to bed and I say nothing about their earlier actions. They are more obedient than usual, kind of like how everyone on the highway slows down when they receive a pass from the cop with the radar detector. Count the blessings, and be very careful. At least for a little while. 

When I tucked my own self in to bed, I lay awake worrying. This isn’t the first time I’ve pretended not to catch them. There’s the missing chocolate chips and jello mix obviously eaten by the child with the sugar addiction. There’s the crumbs left on my desk right next to my open laptop that is still warm. And what about my dead phone battery run dry by Rat on a Scooter?  

I cut them a break on a regular basis, but is this the best parenting? Are they learning bad behavior is OK as long as they don’t get caught? This seems to be a universal condition. I’m just as guilty. I speed, turn illegally, park where I shouldn’t. When I do get a ticket, I hide it from my husband and appease myself by thinking I owe the state this fine since I’ve gotten away so many other times. 

There is a guilty pleasure in getting away with something. We’ve all felt it. Does it make us bad? I think that twinge of guilt, that moment of heat on our neck, proves that we are decent human beings. 

Calling my kids on their violation of the house TV rules tonight may have taught them something. Or it may have just reinforced that they need a better look out. I’ve resolved to bust them next time. If for no other reason than they need to be reminded that their mama always knows what they’re up to – eyes in the back of the head, as they say.  

Better they learn that now, so when they are 17 and tempted to host that keg party on an evening I’m out, they’ll make the smart decision.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What are you, Chicken?

It was time to let the chickens out. Every spring I coop them up in their pen for the duration of the gardening season, and every fall I let them loose again to eat the grubs and turn the soil. This past spring we introduced twenty new chicks to our brood. They had grown in to beautiful and interesting hens. This time around we ordered not only for egg production, but for aesthetics, choosing different colors, hair styles, even chickens that appeared to be wearing Ugg boots.  

When I opened the gate for the first time, late on a warm and windy afternoon, the old girls raced out and didn’t make it further than ten feet from the pen before applying beak to ground and getting right to work. The new hens watched from the doorway in a state of shock. There’s a world outside these walls? They clucked their concern and waited for the other hens to return. They even poked their heads out the door before scurrying back to the safety of the pen. 

The kids and I watched, calling, “Hey what’s the matter? Are you chicken?” The chicks were not tempted by our taunts and remained firmly planted in the safety of the familiar. 

It’s hard to leave what you know. Besides that, what’s the motivation? They had plenty of food, a soft place to lay eggs, a big yard to run around in, and a cozy house to roost in at night. Why leave? So they didn’t for the first four days that the gate was open.  

But then one ventured forth in to the wild blue yonder. The others cackled and fretted, but soon followed her out in to the world. Sometimes taking a leap of faith requires a leader. Or at least a guinea pig. Once you see someone else do it and survive, it doesn’t seem quite so impossible. 

This philosophy has inspired all kinds of creatures to do things as crazy as start a business, try out for a team, perform in public, marry, or have children. Others have done it before us, so we can do it too. 

But what about when the first one out of the pen is eaten by a fox? Or captured by a hawk? Or gets lost and can’t find its way back to the hen house?  

Amazingly, chickens, like people, don’t focus on these catastrophes. Chickens, to my knowledge, don’t have the capacity for imagination or empathy. They don’t care that the other chicken didn’t make it and they can’t imagine that a hawk might come for them too.

People are not chickens. Truth. Our fears have nothing in common with poultry fears. Many of us are afraid to leave the pen because it could lead to failure or rejection or embarrassment. For some, those fears trump even the fear of boredom, mediocrity, or repetition.  

My three kids each fall somewhere different on the chicken and the pen spectrum. One of them never even notices what the other chickens are doing. He ventures forth following his own lead. He is not easily embarrassed and would consider boredom a failure. He tries all kinds of things while his parents are stunned in to submission. We are not like him. At least, I’m not. When I was a teen, I was never brave. I walked to my own drummer, but quietly while no one was noticing. This child of mine doesn’t concern himself with how he should dress or act or speak. His curiosity drives his decisions about his personal time. He would most likely be one of the first out of the pen, were he a chicken. 

Another of my brood is somewhere on the outside of the fence also, but she would not follow any other hen out. She would go out her own way, perhaps flying over the fence or tunneling under. She would not let expectations dictate her actions. She does wrestle with her own fears once free. She does not like to fail or lose or be made a fool. Lucky for her, she is a fairly competent chicken.  

What she does better than most is to lead. So once she has successfully scaled the fence, she will go back to help a few others get out too. She is very un-chicken like in this way. Chickens may stick to their flock, but they could care less about the individuals in that flock. Not my chick, she’s watching the others. She worries about their well-being, wants their company, and craves their support. 

My last little chick is still learning to trust his abilities. He needs to see the leaders go first. He is willing to follow and to learn from them. Next season, he will be the first out of the pen, I just know it. 

All of our children will leave the pen some day. Our children must learn to believe in their own abilities to handle what they may encounter outside of the comfort zone of their chicken pen. They must be equipped with confidence, competence, and the ability to ask good questions.  

We must encourage them to take risks, rather than shielding them from every danger. Helping them learn to trust in their own abilities by allowing them to use them. Mostly, we must teach them to be curious about what is outside the pen. 

How do we do this? I have a few ideas, but must confess right upfront that this is an ongoing experiment for me as my chicks have yet to truly fly the coop. 

I believe we must let them make their own decisions as often as possible. As a young parent I believed whole-heartedly with the “give them choices so they feel in control” parenting philosophy until it became ridiculous. Truly, children don’t need a choice at every meal. I finally hung a sign that says, “Dinner Choices: 1. Take it. 2. Leave it.”  

But I do believe we must let them make their choices (and endure the consequences) when it comes to school work, what to eat or not eat, and who to be friends with.  

My oldest child’s first grade teacher said something on back to school night that has stuck with me all these years. She said, “If you sit with them and make them do their homework now, you’ll be doing the same when they are in high school.” I’ve never sat with my children while they do homework. Now, I have been blessed with children with no overwhelming learning disabilities, so that helps, I know. 

I do believe that all kids want to do well in school. And I also believe that kids sometimes battle with parents just because they can. If you draw a line in the sand over homework, I promise your child will cross it. They don’t want to fail. Trust me, no one does. Now, does this mean I never mention the H word to my children? Nah. But I do restrict their computer time (Windows 7 makes this very simple), and provide them with a “clean, well-lighted place” in which to work. I told them all at the beginning of their academic career – “I will never nag you about your homework unless you give me a reason to nag.” And for the most part, they haven’t. 

Food can get trickier, it being my own holy grail of sorts. I prepare a dinner five nights a week and my two older children prepare one dinner a piece one night a week. In the beginning we helped them, but slowly we are backing away and letting them take the lead. What is served is the only option. If you don’t want to eat it, that’s your choice. You can help yourself to something else, but it must be healthy dinner-worthy substances. They choose their own snacks each day. This gets a little hairy when they snack on too much and don’t want dinner, but allowing these freedoms provides the impetus for us to discuss all sorts of food issues like snacking vs eating a meal, what makes a healthy meal, not getting enough protein, eating while distracted, eating because you’re bored, and why exactly your stomach hurts. 

I don’t like every kid my kids are friends with. Who would? I’m not Mother Theresa, I don’t like everyone. I do talk to my kids about the friends they choose. I ask what they like about their friend. We talk about the interactions they have with their friends, and I tell them about the people I encounter. I’m open about my frustration with some people or my disappointment with others. I also tell them what I love about my friends and sometimes offer comparisons about my relationship with a particular friend and my child’s relationship with one of their friends. “She’s like your Linda,” I might say to my daughter when talking about a friend you can tell anything to because my daughter knows how close I am to my oldest friend Linda.

These seem like such small details of parenting – homework, food, friends, but truly they are the building blocks of life. They are the training ground for work, well-being, and love. Three things that can make or break the happiness we all seek for our children. If we control and dictate their behaviors when it comes to these areas of their lives, how will they have the confidence or competence to survive outside the pen?  

I want my children to step out in to the big wide world confident in their own abilities, knowing they can handle all that life throws at them. I also want them to know I believe in them and I trust them to lead their own life wherever it takes them. Even if it is far away from the hen house.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Active Kids

I reeled off the list of all the places I needed to have my three kids within the next there hours. My friend sighed and said, “I’m glad my kids don’t like to do anything.”  

It’s a blessing and a curse having three active kids with lots of hobbies and interests. A blessing because it’s so good for their minds and souls and bodies; they will be much better rounded than I ever was. They will explore all the possibilities. And even if they never play bass guitar in a famous rock band or fence in the Olympics or dribble a ball down a college basketball court, they can say they’ve tried.  

I think back to my younger days and I wish I had tried a few more things. I wish I’d tried field hockey or volleyball back when my body was more cooperative and agile. I wish I’d learned how to sketch a face or play the harmonica or tap dance. Sure, I could pursue those interests now, but when would I have the time? And just how ridiculous would I look in a leotard? 

So I offer up these opportunities to my kids and explore every idea they throw out. When my 10-year-old wanted to sword fight, I found a swordguild that would let him try. And five years later, he still has a blast each week bouting with men old enough to be his grandfather. When my middle child wanted to sing in a rock band, it was only a matter of months before she was posting her exploits with a local music studio on YouTube. Then she wanted to play the bass guitar and we found ourselves learning more than we ever wanted to know about used guitars and amps. My oldest wants to be a writer and this past summer he rubbed elbows with some real writers at a writer’s conference and attended a college writing camp. My youngest decided he loved soccer more than all the other sports he’d tried, so we found our way to Travel Soccer tryouts. 

The curse part of the equation is the logistics of all this. And the expense. We don’t eat out or take fancy vacations, we invest the money saved in these daily endeavors. I spend hours in my car driving and driving and driving. Then I spend more hours waiting and waiting and waiting. It’s an investment in their souls. They may quit any or all of these endeavors next month, but I won’t lament the money and time spent. They’ve gained greatly from the people they’ve met, the skills they’ve honed, and the knowledge they’ve gathered about their own abilities and what makes them happy. It makes what they don’t want clearer. It narrows the focus. We are incredibly blessed to be able to give them these opportunities. 

And one of these days we will hit upon the thing that makes their hearts sing. I don’t think they will find it staring at a screen, no matter how redeeming the program or website. They need to go do. They need to go be with others who are also doing.  

Tonight there is rock band, voice lessons, soccer practice, and a newspaper meeting. Tomorrow there is fencing, more soccer, and bass lessons. I live for the white squares on the calendar. They are few and far between, but when they arrive I breathe a sigh of relief and soak in the calm because tomorrow we will be back at it, whittling away at their dreams.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Rules of Life

Lately I’ve done a lot of listening. I’m deep in the heart of tomato season and with over 100 pounds of tomatoes canned and at least that many to go, I don’t dare predict a finish line. My legs ache and my feet throb from standing for hours at a time peeling, seeding, chopping tomatoes (and herbs, onions, peppers, etc.).  

Sometimes while I work, I listen to Pandora, but this is a maddening exercise because my hands are too covered in glop to press the thumbs down button when a song I don’t like comes on. My musical tastes are sporadic and varied and creating my own station is a lengthy progress. Somehow, my channel skipped on to a whiny woman/man (couldn’t tell for the nasally voice) and I had no choice but to endure. Now that lovely sound is entrenched and the station is nearly ruined. 

When I turn the music off, the house becomes my entertainment. I can hear my daughter in her bedroom playing her guitar and working out a new melody. I hear the cats arguing over the lounge chair that is my laundry basket. I can even hear one of the new young hens when she makes the distinctive “I’ve just laid one!” announcement up in the chicken house. 

Mostly I hear my younger son and his friends in the living room discussing the rules before they begin their latest nerf battle. This intrigues me. They spend easily twice as much time arguing over the rules as they do actually shooting each other. And then the game has frequent pauses while they argue even more over who is actually dead and who is just “gassed”.  

I can’t help but giggle. This seems like rehearsal for future congressmen. My older son comes in the kitchen and asks why I’m laughing. When I tell him, he smiles and says the rule making is part of the fun. We listen together and laugh conspiratorially at the ridiculousness of the whole activity. Finally, I can take it no longer and call a halt to the war with the peace offering of lunch. Seems food trumps fighting. At least for now. 

After they are fed and dispensed to the woods to begin a new battle, I have time to reflect upon their behavior. It’s very human. We seem to thrive on rules and regulations. Keeps everyone and everything in its place.  

I was talking with a friend from a neighboring state about taking treats in to our children’s classrooms for a birthday. I told her I was going to make “magic wands” (pretzels dipped in chocolate and sprinkles) and she was horrified at the idea. How can anyone be opposed to homemade chocolate anything? It wasn’t the product she worried about, it was the idea of taking something “not packaged”. What if there are germs? I’m sure there are. But I’m guessing that the germs on my magic wands are much better for children than any kind of artificially flavored and colored concoction that comes in a package. 

Seems other states have rules about these sorts of things. They don’t allow unpackaged food to be brought in to the classrooms. Thank God, Pennsylvania hasn’t thought of that rule yet. 

I believe that men have a larger propensity for rule making. Take sports. What man can’t argue for hours about the rules of his favorite sport? And sitting at any organized ballgame, be it professional or amateur or even little league, who hasn’t listened to men debate an umpire’s take on a particular rule or a coaches ability to interpret a rule. Frankly, it’s exhausting, all this rule making. 

As a mom, I get to make rules on a daily basis. My rules, for the most part, are bendable. I am a fair dictator. I must admit having rules makes my life easier. It’s much less taxing to say, “That’s the rule” than to listen to the explanation and make an exception.  

But exceptions to the rules are what make life bearable (and interesting).  

I think we must be careful when we make rules. I believe the less rules the better. All encompassing rules are the best ones. Rules like “Respect each other,” cover a multitude of situations. It is not respectful to shoot nerf darts at your sibling when he is still sleeping. Telling your brother he is an idiot as the parting phrase of every encounter is not respecting him. Playing your drums or your bass guitar at 7am is not respectful of slumbering family members. Monopolizing the bathroom for longer than 30 minutes, borrowing shoes without asking, forgetting to give a phone message – all not respectful. Putting the empty milk container back in the fridge – again not respectful. (OK, maybe that’s stretching the rule a little.)  

I think the Respect-each-other rule should be a world-wide rule. Think of how much better things would be. There would be no invading of other countries, no suppressing rights, no intolerance, no discrimination. I think we should make it the 11th commandment. Although when Jesus said, “love thy neighbor as yourself,” I think he was basically saying, “Respect each other.” There’s no such thing as love without respect. It’s a basic ingredient. 

A little later in the day I found the boys playing a game of Blokus in relative peace. Sometimes it’s nice to have all the rules laid out in black and white. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from arguing over who ate the rest of the cheezits or who cut the last fart, clearly stated rules can only take you so far.