Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Sick of summer

So here we are on the home stretch of summer, tantalizingly close to the start of school. The kids have been healthy and active through the day-camp months, suffering nothing much more than a bad sunburn. And now, on this very week when illness will be of a maximum inconvenience, of course they're sick. My son was diagnosed with strep throat on Monday after a long whining weekend of high fever and careful swallowing. He's dosed with antibiotics and cold medicine now, and feeling pretty perky. As for me, I'm still recovering from the frustration and annoyance of waiting an hour and 45 minutes in the pediatrician's office for a two-second throat swab.

My daughter, meanwhile, has one of those strangely mutating colds that sometimes seem to have dire respiratory repercussions and sometimes fade away entirely, usually when there's something she wants to do. She now does pretty much want to go to school on Thursday -- or rather, she doesn't want to miss the first day and all the important instructions that will be given out -- and so with luck that means the cold will scram by then. My deepest fear is that she'll catch her brother's strep just past the point in which I can give her 24 hours worth of antibiotics and still send her to school. Worse still, I'll have to go back to the pediatrician. Do you suppose the nurses have forgotten yet the way I stuck my head out of the examining room door at about the hour and 15 minute mark and made a bit of a scene? They wouldn't just stick us somewhere and forget us for good this time, would they? Should I bring flowers?

Monday, August 30, 2004

More new stuff

On Mothers with Attitude: New to our Contributor's Corner is an excerpt from The Post-Adoption Blues: Overcoming the Unforeseen Challenges of Adoption by Karen J. Foli, Ph.D., and John R. Thompson, M.D. The excerpt is entitled "Your Expectations About the Emotional Needs of Your Child," an area in which it seems lots of new parents have problems. From my experience, I'd say it's best to have no expectations at all, and just sort of make it up as you go along.

On Parenting Isn't Pretty: See that little envelope down at the end of this post? That's a new doohickie Blogger has introduced so that you can e-mail one of my blog entries to a friend and comment on how funny/smart/ridiculous/absurdly overreactive I am. Spread the word.

Sunday, August 29, 2004

Quotes to enjoy, sites to see

I'm trying something new on the Mothers with Attitude home page: a Quote of the Day and Site of the Day. They'll both feature things that strike me as interesting in some way, whether parenting-related, general interest, or humorous. After their featured day, the quotes and sites will go live on another page on MWA for future reference. Whether I'll really be able to keep this going on a daily basis remains to be seen; but then, I managed to blog every single day in August, weekends included, and who knew I could be that consistent?

Saturday, August 28, 2004

What would Danny do?

My daughter has always had trouble understanding that the people in the TV aren't real -- that is, that they are actors and actresses playing parts, and the houses and schools are just sets, and the characters have no life outside the particular scenes we see. As her language skills have grown, her ability to appreciate abstractions has increased as well, but it's still not what you'd call strong. She doesn't ask anymore what Lizzie Maguire is doing to amuse herself during the commercials, but she does sometimes check just to make sure that a character's injury isn't really suffered by the actor. I try my best to explain, again and again, the disconnect between the appearance of reality and reality itself, but since piling more language onto a language problem often results in more confusion, I'm never sure how well I'm getting through. So this exchange earlier this week heartened me greatly:

I was talking with her about the hostilities that had broken out at camp between her and her brother, and after floundering around for a while, I made a reference to one of her current favorite shows, re-runs of "Full House" on ABC Family. "I wish I could say the words Danny Tanner would say in a situation like this. I know it would end with a hug, but I don't know what his advice would be. He always knows the right thing to say."

My daughter agreed, adding: "He's much better than you."

"Well," I countered, "I'd do much better if I had someone writing a script for me."

And to my surprise, she said, "Yeah! He has a script! Bob Saget is a cheater! Cheater, cheater!"

So at some level, she understands that superwise dad Danny Tanner is Bob Saget with a script. She still thinks he's a better mom than me, but hey, I grasp for encouragement wherever I can get it.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Get an A, eat an artichoke

The nutrition police have been coming down pretty hard on America's schoolchildren lately. It seems as though every day there's a news report on school lunches being brought into nutritional line, or fruit replacing chips in school vending machines, or sodas being forbidden from cafeterias. And now, this: school officials in Florida are fretting over a perfectly nice offer made by Krispy Kreme to give students a doughnut for each "A" they earn. Now here a kid works hard all quarter, earns those As, wouldn't you think he or she could just have a nice cruller or two or six? But no; with childhood obesity allegedly at epidemic proportions, nutritionists would prefer they have an apple, or maybe some Brussels sprouts. So now parents will have to go back to paying their kids to get good grades instead of bribing them with a trip to the nearest Krispy Kreme franchise. I've got an idea for the spurned doughnut-makers, though -- as a parent, I know I work hard with my kids to do their homework and write good reports and study hard. How about free doughnuts for the parents of those A students? I'm guessing their teachers probably wouldn't mind a few, either.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

Put down the Ajax and back slowly away

Well, glory be. Here's another study that indicates keeping a clean house can put your child's health at risk. Australian researchers found that fumes from cleaning products and other industrial-strength household chemicals could be contributing factors in children's asthma. Houses that reek of Lysol and air freshener may in fact be making the kids inside of them sick. And isn't that just what I'm longing to hear, as I look around at my dusty dressers and grimy countertops and moldy shower stall and industrial-strength dustbunnies. Now, instead of feeling guilty about the grubbiness, I can rest peacefully in the knowledge that, due to my lack of housekeeping skills, my kids' immune systems are getting a good workout battling such a fine variety of microscopic predators, while their respiratory systems are clean of cleaner residue. Could messiness be next to godliness? I'd sure be willing to participate in any study that proves that theory.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Gotta get the gear

My 9-year-old niece was over playing with my kids the other day when she went into my daughter's room demanding to see her school supplies. "Do you have all your school supplies? I have all my school supplies," she said, and proceeded to list every back-to-school goodie she'd gotten. When my daughter had nothing to show, her cousin was incredulous. "You don't have any school supplies? Where's your backpack? Don't you have a notebook?" It went on for so long that I had to go in and say, "Hey, we haven't gone shopping yet. Lay off."

So today we went shopping. We got the backpack, the notebook, the new sneakers (two pair -- laced for gym and laceless for the rest of the time), the subject dividers. My girl's all excited about school now that she's got her gear, so it was worth the trouble just to stop hearing "I hate school, I don't want to go back" for the next seven days. My son's got a new Scooby Doo backpack, and we'll get his notebook this weekend, and then -- well, bring it on, teachers, we're ready to rumble.

Of course, the first thing the teachers send home, their return volley so to speak, is a long list of all the school supplies they want the kids to have, some of which require the discarding or replacement of pre-purchased supplies that don't make the list. That's why I tend to drag my feet and try to get the kids wait until after Day 1 before making all our purchases. But I guess this year, a 9-year-old guilted me into getting school stuff while there was still time to get excited about school. Maybe it'll at least make my first-day after-school equipment-buying scramble a little shorter.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Unhappy campers

My kids are both at the same day camp for this last few weeks of summer, and each of them is having trouble with a particular peer. My daughter is complaining about a boy who keeps bugging her, sitting too close, hitting her, pulling her hair, and generally making her uncomfortable. My son came home all upset today because a girl called him stupid; it made him feel sad, and he had to go sit off by himself for a while to get over it. Normally, this sort of harrassment would send me running to the camp counselor and demanding some sort of consequences for the perpetrator. But maybe you can see my problem coming about a mile down the road here: The boy who is bugging my daughter is my son. And the girl who called my son stupid is my daughter.

And I'm playing Mom in the Middle.

On the one hand, I know that the reason my son is all over his sister is because he's excited she's there, and wants to be with her. So my normal advice that she should try to stay as far away as possible from somebody who's bugging her is a little painful, because I can only think about how her brother would feel to be so avoided by his own sis. On the other hand, for a teen who's trying to fit in and appear as normal as possible, having a brother who jumps and flaps and rocks and makes noises and doesn't behave like all the other kids is a heavy burden to bear. I can talk and talk and talk to her about compassion and selflessness and acceptance, but give me a break; this is a 14-year-old girl we're talking about, and one with some challenges of her own. Is it fair to ask her to openly embrace weirdness, even if it's weirdness that's related to her?

Not even fair, maybe, to expect any big sister to openly embrace any little brother, special needs or no. But fair to expect no name-calling, so that's where I've left it. And I've instructed my son to think about how Arthur would feel if D.W. was in the same camp, and maybe give his sibling a little space. How much he can understand that, and how much he can control himself even if he does understand it, is questionable. But the one good thing to come out of this is that he actually allowed himself to feel bad about something; handled the bad feeling in an appropriate way; and talked about it afterward. That's huge, huge stuff for him. I guess that's what family's for.

Monday, August 23, 2004

What a Mom Wants

I'll admit I'm getting inordinate enjoyment lately from the rather inconsequential teen movie "What a Girl Wants," starring Amanda Bynes (who we practically watched grow up on a variety of Nickelodeon shows) as an American teen who goes to London to meet her long-lost father, and Colin Firth as the aforementioned pop. The film seems to be on heavy HBO rotation lately, and as is my way with cable movies, I've seen the first hour maybe once, and maybe not in its entirety, and the second hour eight or nine times. It's something I'm happy to leave on whenever I channel surf past it, partly because Amanda Bynes is fairly adorable, but mostly because Colin Firth is, oh, considerably more adorable still. The guy can say more with a soulful look than with a page of dialog -- which, given the level of repartee in this particular script, is a very good thing indeed. There ought to be some sort of special Academy Award for Better Performance Than Was Really Necessary by a Star in a Movie for Children. Until there is, those actors who step up and give us moms something to swoon over will just have our grateful thanks.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

New on Mothers with Attitude

Ken Swarner's latest Family Man column examines the ways in which a so-called "day off" with the kids can be more stressful than a day at the office. ... Also new on our contributor's pages: Maura Conlon-McIvor tells what she learned from having a brother with Down syndrome in "The Power of a Clumsy Hello," an excerpt from her memoir, FBI Girl.

Saturday, August 21, 2004

Punched in the mouth

Took my kids to the dentist this morning, which I know you'll agree is about the most fun you can have on a Saturday. The dental hygeinist chewed me out for not making my daughter brush her teeth better, and more frequently. Gingivitis! More plaque in a 14-year-old's mouth than an adult's mouth would have! Scandalous, scandalous. And all my fault. I promised to make sure she brushes in the morning as well as the evening, and does so in an appropriately gum-strengthening fashion, and for two minutes minimum. Since my daughter's a super-organized morning person, adding brushing to her a.m. routine won't be a problem (though my supervision thereof almost certainly will be, since a super-organized morning person I am not).

When it came time for my son to take the chair, I confessed that he was also not a morning brusher, but that he brushed faithfully every night. I hoped she wouldn't ask how many minutes he brushed, because while the 10 seconds of enforced brushing I wrestle him into every night seems looooooong to the two of us, it probably wouldn' t impress her much. I tried to soften her up with tales of his sensory integration problems, and how he therefore couldn't tolerate me brushing his teeth for him. Then, of course, he sat down in the chair, laid back and remained blissfully still while she poked, prodded, scraped, and scrubbed his teeth. Clearly, his only problem is a lazy mom.

Why is it that just about any contact with a medical professional can leave me feeling so judged? I'm normally pretty secure in the way I'm parenting my kids. One of the central rules of our parenting strategy is not to sweat the small stuff, and so, yeah, maybe we don't attack tooth care with the kind of zealousness we would if there was nothing else to attack. I think we're doing a good job with the big stuff, and if the kind of micromanaging that requires leaves us too exhausted to legislate flossing, I'm not going to lose any sleep. Most of the time, I'm cool with it. But boy, put me in a room with a disappointed dental hygeinist, and I'm suddenly all, "Lady, after four hours of doing homework with my learning disabled daughter, endless struggles to get my attention-challenged son to finish his homework, meltdowns at the dinner table, battles to get PJs on, I just want those kids in BED, thank you very much. The last thing I have energy for is gum-rubbing." And don't talk to me about mornings -- if my son makes it through breakfast without spilling something on his shirt, I'm not eager to go double-or-nothing and hope he doesn't get toothpaste on it.

I thought that stuff, but of course I didn't say it. Professionals don't understand. I just nodded and said I'd get right on that brushing. And made a mental note to make sure we got a different hygeinist next time.

Friday, August 20, 2004

That'll teach you to talk to teens

Watching 16-year-old Carly Patterson do her round of interviews last night after winning the all-around gold in women's gymnastics, I had a twinge of sympathy for Bob Costas and the other question-askers. The whole thing reminded me so much of exchanges with my own kids, in which queries that involve any sort of detailed reply are answered with a few awkward sentence fragments, maybe a roll of the eyes, and a general impression that this whole conversation thing is just stupid grown-up stuff. Now, you don't have to be a youngster to find those post-victory questions eye-roll-worthy. Over and over again, winners are asked what they were thinking and feeling while in the heat of competition, and I have to believe that if they were taking the time to think and feel when they were supposed to be focused on pure physical exertion, they probably wouldn't have won in the first place. Nevertheless, most Olympians gamely attempt to come up with some sort of response to keep the interviewer from having egg on his or her face. Not our sweet 16 gymnastics queen, though -- she sounded like she was thisclose to saying "Whatever" and pulling a GameBoy from her pocket. Her interviews gave me that same feeling of annoyance I get from chats with my own inarticulate offspring; but I guess it's nice to know that under all that acrobatic prowess lurks an actual kid and not some sort of tumbling robot.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Back-to-school blues

We're at two weeks and counting down to the first day of school, and my daughter's in full whine. She's not as flat-out panicked about starting seventh grade as she was about starting sixth -- she has a year of middle school under her belt, and at least has an idea now of what it's going to be like. But this year she'll have to be changing classrooms after each class, and classes up and downstairs, and band for homeroom, and all manner of uncertainties. And so she doesn't waaaaaaaant to go back to school. She haaaaaaaates school. It's all very sad and pitable, and almost enough to make me forget how badly she whined back in June when school was coming to an end, and she didn't waaaaaaaant to leave school and all her friends, and she haaaaaated summer. What she loves, of course, is routine, and what she hates is any change of track. Give her a couple of weeks to get her wheels planted back on the academic rails, and she'll start complaining about leaving school for the weekend.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The ball is in her court

One of the things I liked best about Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence, a chipper account of living with Asperger's syndrome by 13-year-old Luke Jackson, was a little glossary at the end on common idioms and what on earth they mean. Expressions have always been a matter of puzzlement to my daughter, who is not on the autism spectrum but does have a great deal of trouble with language. For many years she took words at face value, and would give up when she got to a phrase that made no logical sense. Now that she's learned a little more about the confusing ways in which people speak and write, she'll ask right out: "Is that an expression?" And then the speaker will be in the sometimes tricky position of having to explain what some well-worn metaphor means, and why it does.

Jackson's glossary was a nice piece of work, and I made a copy for my girl to have on hand when confronted with confusingly colorful speech. It's sitting on her dresser now, in about the exact place she put it weeks ago, and I think that although it could be immensely helpful to her, it's also somewhat intimidating -- lots of words, for someone to whom words are not friends. So I was excited to find today, during a quick scan of a bookstore's special-needs shelves, a book called What Did You Say? What Did You Mean? by Jude Welton and Jane Telford, which not only explains expressions and their origins but provides illustrations to make the whole enterprise more language-phobe friendly. I think we'll sit down and look at one page per day, and then keep the book handy for look-ups later. I hope it will help her, but who knows; you can lead a horse to water ...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

In the mood

Is bad jewelry a teen rite of passage? My daughter, like her mother before her, is now the proud owner of a mood ring. I remember my first mood ring; I bought it in a store on Olivera Street in Los Angeles during a school field trip somewhere in the early '70s. It was big and fake-gold and ugly, but it changed color, and more importantly, everyone was getting them. I don't know what ever happened to that awful bauble -- whether it turned my finger green, or just fell out of style -- but I will say that mood rings are a lot nicer looking nowadays. The one my daughter begged me to buy her in the gift shop at Bushkill Falls in the Poconos (perhaps there's a law that mood rings may only be purchased in touristy gift shops?) is a nice silver-ish band with the mood-substance running all the way 'round. Hers is holding pretty steadily in the blue range, which either means that she's a serene and happy kid or that her body temperature is remarkably consistent. She's been switching it around from finger to finger, which decreases the chance that it will turn her finger green but increases the chance that she'll lose it. Either way, given her past track record with jewelry and the faddish nature of mood rings, it seems unlikely that she'll still be wearing the thing a month from now. In the meantime, though, I'm kinda enjoying this blast from the past.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Beware of children's books

Boy, you just can't trust children's books. I'm reading a book with my son that his teacher gave him for Christmas -- Stone Fox by John Reynolds Gardiner, a nice looking adventure story about a boy who needs to win a dog race to save his grandfather's farm, and here we come to the last chapter and I peek ahead to see that the dog dies at the end. And he dies before the race is won, so I can't even try to trick my son into thinking that the book's really over before that. How can you end a book with the dog dying? I'm trying to motivate this kid to read, and I wouldn't blame him if he's afraid to start the next book. We loved that dog.

Meanwhile, I'm reading another "7th Heaven" book with my daughter -- you know, a written version of an episode of the nice TV series about a minister and his family -- and it turns out that this particular episode was all about sex. Rivals has a picture of Camden sisters Lucy and Mary on the cover, and may look like a simple sibling rivalry tale, but really it's about Lucy wondering whether she should sleep with her boyfriend, and Matt making a video for his Human Sexuality class, and their parents counseling a couple of pregnant teens. And really, I know, my daughter's 14, I should be talking about this stuff with her, and a book about characters she likes is a good inroad to that. All I'm looking for, though, is a little light summer reading here, and I'm knee-deep in sex and death. The kids are always complaining about my read-every-night regime, and I'm starting to feel a little reluctant to sit down to each night's chapter myself.

On the subject of books: If like me you have an insatiable need to buy parenting books, I want to pass the word that BarnesandNoble.com is having a big sale that includes some books on parenting and families. Offerings include "The Myth of Laziness: America's Top Learning Expert Shows How Kids -- and Parents -- Can Become More Productive" by Mel Levine for $6.98; "Should I Medicate My Child? Solutions for Troubled Kids With -- or Without -- Psychiatric Drugs" by Lawrence H. Diller for $6.98; "Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development" by T. Berry Brazelton for $4.98; and "The Parent's Guide to Childhood Eating Disorders: A Nutritional Approach to Solving Eating Disorders" by Marcia Herrin for $3.98. Happy shopping!

Sunday, August 15, 2004

New on Mothers with Attitude

In his Family Man column, Ken Swarner tells a tale of temptation, betrayal and ... children's soccer. Stories like this make me glad my kids don't participate in organized sports. I don't think I could take all the drama, the complaints of irate parents, the burden of being an irate parent myself. Our special ed department usually gives me enough to be irate about without need for extracurricular outrages.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Live-ish from Greece

Here we go again with the Olympics. Every two years I try to get my kids interested in watching the Summer or Winter Olympics -- always pointing out the excellence the Russian team, of course, to instill a little pride in the land of their birth -- and every year they watch a little and go "Eh." My mom used to make a big deal of watching the Olympics, rooting desperately for Americans to win and falling into a funk if victory was snatched from them, and I can still get fairly obsessed by the whole spectacle, tuning in at odd times of day to catch vital events like, oh, synchronized diving. My daughter seems a little more interested this year than she has in the past, but that's a mixed blessing: watching the opening ceremonies with her, and trying to explain what was going on -- or just that these things never actually make any sense, and you simply have to let them wash over you -- was a challenge that Katie Couric and Bob Costas were spectacularly unhelpful in getting me through. Way easier are her questions about the actual events: "Is that hard?" and "Do they practice?" Pretty soon another question will probably come around: "Do I really have to watch this?" And that's okay, really; it's easiest to let all this sport wash over me while I'm viewing alone.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Playground peril

I used to hate recess when I was a kid. Just hated it with a passion. I was bad at playground games, both the athletic kind and the social kind. All I wanted to do was sit off to the side somewhere, out of everyone's way, and read a book. Sometimes I could get away with it, and sometimes teachers would insist that I go out, run around and be healthy. Back then, I couldn't do much but stumble around and feel doltish. It makes me wish that reports like this one had been around when I was a kid -- proclaiming that, while running around and being healthy is still a good idea for kids, playgrounds themselves are a regular menace, full of undependable hardware and accidents just waiting to happen. That's sure the way I felt as a schoolkid, and if there was documentation around I could have, I don't know, filed a formal protest or sued or something. Of course, all these playgrounds that are falling apart now are probably doing so because they were new when I was a schoolkid. But they were hazardous then, too, I'm telling you. We jungle-gym wimps just didn't have the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons around to stick up for us.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

Something nondepressing about FAS

Here's something you don't see very often in the news, or just about anywhere, for that matter: a good news story about fetal alcohol syndrome. The report, from scientists at the University of Washington and the University of Michigan, doesn't say anything I haven't heard and embraced before -- early detection is good, stable upbringing is crucial, positive outcomes are possible -- but I've certainly corresponded and argued with people who haven't heard it, and so seeing it on AP and other outlets is awfully reassuring. After so many desperate and depressing stories and books about my son's diagnosis, it's nice to read something that doesn't make me feel stupid for feeling hopeful. Now if the word will just get out.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

My new motto

I'm taking a few minutes out from our family vacation, after playing Bingo with my son and before watching the movie "13 Going on 30" with my daughter, to share what I think is going to be my new motto. It's from Calvin Trillin's book Family Man, and it goes like this: "Sometimes, I find myself drawn to the simplest possible way of explaining what may count in rearing children: your children are either the center of your life or they're not, and the rest is commentary."

I like to think my husband would agree that this is what counts in our family, too; I'd ask him, but he's busy giving our son a bath, while I'm in the living room of our timeshare listening to my daughter's new favorite CD, which is rather louder than I'd like but not blatantly eardrum-busting or lyrically offensive. And, of course, I'm tapping away on the computer, which my husband would probably point out is not exactly putting our kids at the center of my life. Neither is reading bunches of books. I'd argue that putting our kids at the center of my blog should count for something, and that most of those books I read have something to do, at least tangentially, with children in general or children with special needs in particular. And that part of the reason he was so eager to supervise bathtime was to avoid having to listen to the CD and watch the movie. Maybe our children are really just the center of our excuses. But they're pretty vital at that.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

Dressed to kill

We did a little back-to-school shopping today at an outlet mall near our vacation spot, and my daughter about scared me to death. Bad enough she kept picking out shirts in the $40-$50 range (not much of a discount outlet was this, as I discovered belatedly), but she then selected a pair of jersey knit pants that left very little anatomical detail to the imagination. She's always been a baggy-pants kind of girl -- preferring loose sweatpants and long shirts to the tight hip-huggers and cut-off tops her peers seem to like -- so seeing her prancing about in front of the three-way mirror at J. Crew, thrusting her hips and singing about how cool she looked in her clingy knits, was rather a lot for my motherly heart to bear. I was able to talk her into looking around some more, and we finally found some non-hip-hugging jeans at the Gap that really were on sale, and that were both comfortable and cool enough (and modest enough, but we won't talk about that) to get her vote. The tops she finally settled on were mostly too expensive but not too too expensive, and nicely oversized. For the moment, then, I've dodged the teen bombshell bullet. But it was awfully close for comfort.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Where can I buy a little sensory overload?

I had an experience yesterday that gave me a better understanding of what it might feel like to be inside my son's head. I was already on edge because of my ingrained Check-In Anxiety (see yesterday's post), and although our check-in had gone fine, I was mistrustful of any apparent well-being -- maybe the way my son feels about any transitions, however small. We went to gather some groceries at a Wal-Mart Supercenter, and from the moment I set foot in the place I had an almost visceral need to get the heck out of there. It was crowded and noisy. The aisles were too narrow. There were incredible amounts of stuff laid out in patterns that were indecipherable to me. They say that kids like my son experience the world as frightening and fragmented and aggressively disorderly, and they have to build elaborate structures around and inside themselves to cope. For 40 minutes or so, I knew how they felt. Perhaps Wal-Mart should provide sensory challenge courses for parents of kids with special needs. They seem willing to sell just about anything else; how about a little understanding on aisle 4?

Sunday, August 08, 2004

Vacation stress

I have a bad track record with the administrative part of traveling. It's the check-ins and check-outs that get me. Probably my worst behavior in this area involved screaming at the top of my lungs one early morning in a London hotel when the slugs at the check-out desk kept holding us up until it appeared we would miss our cab to the airport. It was the end of a much-too-long trip to Europe following my sophomore year in college, and I wanted nothing more than to leave foreign soil and go home, and everything I had tried to do to expedite our exit was now being blocked by people who would ... not ... hurry ... up. I behaved badly, although probably in a way they expected from Americans.

Other times it has seemed very clear to me that the bad behavior was on the other side of the counter, and yet I got the blame. Like the time the car-rental agency did a blatant bait-and-switch, delivering a car so much smaller than the one we'd contracted for that our entire party wouldn't even fit in it, but the sarcastic remark an employee made to my husband on the way out indicated that standing up for one's rights as a consumer is the sort of thing that nice people don't do. Two years ago, the time share we visited in Virginia bopped us around from one unit (with a broken bed) to another unit (too far from our co-travelers); when we finally got settled, I realized that we'd left my son's stuffed animals in one of the rejected rooms, and I tried so hard to retrieve them so he wouldn't have a meltdown that I wound up having a meltdown myself. On the one hand, it was clearly a mess-up by the management to have given us so many rooms in the first place; but on the other hand, a friend who accompanied us on that trip hasn't spoken to me since, so my reputation for bad travel behavior has apparently grown.

All of which explains why I sometimes dread going on trips, and my dread increases with each level of bureaucracy: airports and limos and rental cars and hotels and activities. This year, we've kept it about as simple as can be, driving our own car to a resort a couple of hours away. If I can keep my cool through one check-in and one check-out, I should be pretty much home free. I'm certainly dreading it less than I do the trip to Orlando we have planned for next year; but you never know, I may find an opportunity to tick somebody off yet. We leave today. I hope the time-share folk don't already have a picture of me behind the desk, with a circle and a line over my face.

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Dinner as defense

Want to look out for your teen's emotional well-being and guard him or her from the temptations of substance abuse? All you have to do is make that young person sit down for a meal with you. That's the advice from researchers at the University of Minnesota, who surveyed more than 4,500 adolescents to glean their family-dinner and risk-taking habits. Among their findings:
"Frequency of family meals was inversely associated with tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use; low grade-point average; depressive symptoms, and suicide involvement," the study authors wrote. "We found family mealtimes to be a potentially protective factor in the lives of adolescents for nearly all of these variables, particularly among adolescent girls."
Now for our particular adolescent girl, family meals seem to be an especially fertile venue for eye-rolling, attitude-throwing, and pained tolerance for the aggressively uncool behavior of parental and brotherly units. More often than not, our cozy family dinners are interrupted by time-outs, by silent treatments, by sarcastic comments or by heavy, heavy sighs.

But who knows. Maybe having a nightly opportunity to express contempt for so much of what her family does releases that particular need to distance herself from us, and so she won't have to find more dangerous ways to do that. I don't know, though. As an adult, I've observed that having meals with my own extended family generally makes me more inclined to drink or to contemplate violent acts. Maybe the University of Minnesota needs to do a follow-up study of folks in their 40s.

Friday, August 06, 2004

Penny projects

We've started a new incentive plan here at home -- like buying a new datebook or a new purse, starting a new motivational strategy with the kids is something I have to do periodically to keep myself organized and interested. This time, instead of tokens or checkmarks or stars, I'm giving my children pennies when I catch them doing something good, whether an assigned chore or a random bit of cooperation. It's a sign of my kids' emotional immaturity that they're at all motivated by pennies, I guess, but we've made little banks from old tennis-ball containers, and that along with a promise to take the pennies to the cash-in machine at the supermarket when the containers are full seems to be enough for them. If they ever do need an extra little boost, I'll have to show them this site so they can see what a few pennies can do. Well, more than a few: the site uses pennies to provide concrete examples of enormous numbers. Hey, kids, why bother with the cash-in machine? Let's collect enough pennies to fill the Empire State Building! Now that's some good behavior.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

School pride

I think there needs to be some sort of etiquette guide printed for people who move from one school district to another, to guide them in sharing their enthusiasm for their new educational set-up without trashing the old one in the presence of those who still attend. My daughter's friend moved, mid-school-year, to another town about 15 minutes away, with smaller schools that his parents have been very happy with. Very, very happy. So happy that, every time we see them, they have to tell us that the schools are so much better than the schools in our town, they're so glad they got their kids out of our terrible overcrowded bad-programmed schools. And that's fine -- I'm happy for them, really -- except my kids are still going to those schools, and we're actually pretty happy with those programs, and would sort of rather not have them dissed so resoundingly. It seems like bad etiquette on my part to say, "Hey, I don't know what's wrong with your kids, but my kids are doing just fine in our schools!" -- but at the same time, isn't it bad etiquette for someone to run down the schools my kids are attending without at least first ascertaining that I hate them, too? I can carp about special-ed glitches and short-sighted policies and imperfections with the best of them, but I gripe because I love, you know?

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Moving on up

Well, I guess this is something of a milestone: I took my daughter to the bookstore today, and the books she wanted turned out to be in the "Teen" section instead of the children's. Now, of course, she is a teen, so that shouldn't be any big deal; but her reading level has never been up to her chronological speed. She's still into the "Magic Treehouse" series, which is about a second-grade level, and the most recent standardized tests they gave her (and we all know how reliable those are, right?) showed her reading level hovering around fourth grade. She's two years behind in school, and had mixed success with sixth-grade reading materials last year -- good comprehension of stories with strong plots and characterizations, poor comprehension of mood pieces with lots of figurative language. The times we've plucked promising novels with teen themes from her school's Scholastic Book Fairs, they've proven to be way over her head. Yet there we were today, in the Barnes and Noble, being directed back out of the children's room and into the teen shelves. Yee-haw, we're age-appropriate.

Or maybe not. The books she was looking for were "7th Heaven" books, novelizations of the TV series, re-runs of which she watches obsessively on ABC Family. We found one at the library (yes, in the children's room) and she liked it enough that I thought I'd pounce on any small sign of reading enthusiasm by buying her a few more. According to amazon.com, the reading level of these books is in the 9-12-year-old range, which is about right for her. Maybe they're filed in the teen section because the show's first-run episodes are on the WB, and someone thinks that means teens? Maybe the themes are considered too mature for kiddies (although they're certainly less traumatic than the death-themed books my daughter keeps getting assigned, and they're in the children's room)? Whatever the reason, I'm glad for the little morale boost that comes from picking out big-kid books. Now if I can just get her to read the books instead of watching the TV series, we'll be getting somewhere.

The titles she picked today will eventually make their way onto my Summer Reading 2004 page, but for now, for other parents who may want to be taking advantage of TV tie-ins, they are: Sisters Through the Seasons, Secrets, and Nobody's Perfect.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Contact sports

Yesterday was a rough day at camp for my kiddos, with both coming home from their respective programs with injuries. My son ran to show me his wound as soon as I came to pick him up -- "My friend Luke scratched me!" he said, all excited, and apparently none the worse for wear. His teacher came up solemnly and handed me an "Ouch Report," in which the injury received an official write-up:
"Your child received the following injury at day care today: scratched on the left arm by peer. The first aid administered was: soap and water."
I guess this level of reportage is necessary nowadays, and his teacher was clearly concerned that I would be concerned, but here's one of those terrible secrets of being a mom of a kid with impulse-control and personal-space-respecting problems: barring really serious injury, you're always a little relieved to hear that your child was the recipient of aggression and not the perpetrator. I assured the teacher that these things happen when kids play and I wasn't planning on pursuing litigation of any sort, and home we went to show off the scratched arm to Dad.

Although a written report seemed a little over-the-top for a playground scratch, how I would have loved to have one for my daughter's camp injury, since it would have shown that someone in charge was paying attention. She reports that she was playing ball with some kids, and she and one boy went after the ball, and the boy pushed her out of the way. The place he pushed her was her chest, and there may or may not have been some intentional chest-groping. It happened fast and when my daughter realized in what body part the pain was, she mentioned to a girl she'd been friendly with that day that the boy had touched her "private part." The friend then ran off to tell a counselor this juicy piece of news, and the counselor promised to talk to the boy. At about that time my husband came to pick our camper up, and so we won't know until this afternoon whether there are any repercussions. She's pretty much made up her mind that it was just an innocent push, and I've tried to reassure her that she was right to speak up while simultaneously pointing out that sometimes when you're playing with boys stuff is going to happen that isn't deliberately private-part touching. These days, with so much training in schools about good touch and bad touch, kids are drilled to be so hypervigilant, I wonder if things don't sometimes get blown out of proportion. On the other hand, with some of the contact between boys and girls I've read about going on in middle school and high school, I wonder if we've taught girls to be vigilant enough.

It's a narrow line to walk, isn't it? As the mother of a daughter, I want my girl to respect herself and not feel she has to let boys take advantage of her to be popular or loved or just a member of the mainstream. On the other hand, as the mother of a boy, and especially as the mother of a boy with impulse-control and personal-space-respecting problems, I hate to think that we'll get to a place of such zero tolerance that a brush in the hallway or a push on the playing field will automatically become grounds for charges of sexual harrassment. The years ahead in middle school and high school are going to be full of these sorts of quandaries with my daughter, I know. But after this week and our vacation next week, she's going to finish the summer at my son's camp, where they give "Ouch Reports" for minor skirmishes and the teachers have eagle eyes. Allowing me to save up some Mama Bear energy for September.

Monday, August 02, 2004

In the swim

Planning on going swimming in a public pool this summer? Here's a story you don't want to read. Just like those "you're not as clean as you think" commercials, the things that other people's children are putting into those pools may make you want to stay ashore. (And I say "other people's children" here with all due disapproval, because of course I've never put a baby in a pool in a Pamper, nooooooooooo, of course not, never happened, nope, not me.)

Of course, this news comes just as we're preparing to go on vacation next week, and the item on the top of my son's "to do" list is swim, swim, swim. Hotel pools are particularly notorious for contamination; according to a spokesman for the Florida Swimming Pool Association, "We're dealing with a population who are enjoying themselves on vacation; they're not as worried about things as they might be if they're in their own back yard." Tourists aren't used to being around pools, the spokesman said -- and certainly, if you've not been around swimming pools much, you couldn't be expected to know that you shouldn't pee in it, right? Or anything else: one health department in Kansas has had to put out an advisory stating: "Don't swim if you have diarrhea." Glad we're not going to Kansas on vacation.

It's a little worrisome to think that my kids might pick up a bug in the pool, but that's not my biggest concern. Certainly fear of sunburn is bigger, since if my daughter's face gets much redder it's going to explode. And then there's the constant nagging fear that my son, Mr. Impulsive, Mr. No Cause-and-Effect-Thinking, will splash the wrong person or steal somebody's pool toy or spit water at a stranger. He knows not to pee in the pool, but does he know not to jump in the deep end without adult supervision? Not so much.

Sunday, August 01, 2004

Bank on it

Here's a fairly horrifying concept that turned up on a postcard from my bank the other day: checking accounts for teenagers. "Has your teenager turned you into a human ATM?" the come-on blares, and then proposes a solution: giving your teen his or her very own debit card. You transfer funds from your checking account to theirs, and they can charge, write checks or pay bills online (what bills, exactly, do teens have to pay online? Maybe for all those cell phones parents seem to be buying them.) Do kids really have so much disposable income now that they need plastic to handle it all? Do we want them to spend that much money without Mom or Dad looking over their shoulders? Could be, I guess. Certainly if a teen has a job, it makes sense to give them a way to manage their funds. And if a teen refuses to be seen with a parent in public, giving them their own account is probably safer than loaning them your credit cards.

Yet it seems to me that a major rite of passage is being lost here. I remember getting my first checking account when I went away to college, and it was a Big Deal -- a tangible sign that I was moving up and out and on my own. Does it pack the same punch when you're still in high school, living at home, and your folks just don't want to have to keep passing you $20s? The bank would say that it's a good way to teach kids how to manage their money and operate in a grown-up financial world ... but then, the bank would think this is a good idea, since it's charging a fee if your kid makes more than five transactions a month, and you can't tell me you can give a teen a debit card and a bunch of checks and they're only going to buy five things. Learning how to manage a checking account may be a good life skill, but so is learning how to pay cash, and I wonder if we're not raising a generation of kids who won't know how to make change. My daughter has huge problems figuring money out -- we have to give her exact change to buy her lunch every day, or she has a panic attack -- and I'm sure she would love to just have an electronic account somewhere and never have to handle actual paper and metal money again. Sadly, however, she does not have parents who believe in checking accounts for teenagers, no matter how much our bank prods us. I'd rather be a human ATM than a human Direct Deposit.