Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scrooge's Gay Heart and Dickens's Language Lessons

I guess it's no surprise that both my kids love to read. After all, their mom read the word "Tide" on the detergent box before she was three years old, and their dad was poring over high-school science texts in elementary school. At homework time, reading is the first thing the children want to do, and they don't consider themselves too old to have bedtime stories read to them.

So I figured this year would be a good time to introduce my son to the original "A Christmas Carol." It's got Christmas, ghosts and a classic villain - how could it miss? And though the language can get pretty dense - when you get paid by the word, conciseness isn't your primary goal - I refused to use the edited-down version created by a columnist trying to reach today's attention-span-challenged kids. An almost-9-year-old who's racing his way through the Harry Potter series should be able to handle a few run-on sentences about Saint Dunstan nipping the Evil Spirit's nose and low-browed, beetling shops with masses of corrupted fat and sepulchres of bones.

So we began with the first "stave." (Stave, Charles? Really? Surely they called them "chapters" even 170 years ago, didn't they?) Since it takes a few pages for the ghost-action to rev up, I did worry a bit that D would get restless. But when I finished for the night, he said - and I quote -

"That was the most powerful language I have ever heard. It's making a movie inside my head!"

Huzzah! He was hooked! My first attempt at a Get-Them-to-Love-the-Classics Momsperiment was a triumph!

And so we went for the next couple of nights. Marley arrived, yoked to his weighty cash boxes. Scrooge relived his boarding-school boyhood and Fezziwig's raucous celebration. (Now that was an office party.) The Cratchits had their modest feast of goose and plum pudding before reluctantly toasting the Founder of the feast. Then, right after the round of guessing games at cheery nephew Fred's house, we came to this sentence:

Uncle Scrooge had imperceptibly become so gay and light of heart...

"HEY!" cried my boy. "He used a BAD WORD!"

Whoa. I knew what was coming. And while I knew this discussion would come up sooner or later, I wasn't sure I was ready to tackle it right at that very minute.

Blast. Why do Important Teachable Moments always come at the most unexpected times? Couldn't this wait till, like, 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon instead of bedtime on a school night? Couldn't we just keep going and zip ahead to the part where Scrooge buys the Turkeyzilla for Tiny Tim?

Nope. I signed up for the full mom-package when I took on the job, and having deep talks about social issues is mentioned right there in the small print. So I jumped in.

" 'Gay' isn't a bad word," I said calmly. "At the time the book was written, it meant 'happy.' What do you think it means?"

"It's when guys kiss guys," D said succinctly.

"Well, yes, today it's come to be used to mean men who love other men. Is that a bad thing?"

"It's just weird," he said. "Justin Bieber's gay."

I sidestepped that part. "Okay, you think it's weird. And I understand - it's a new idea to you. But that doesn't mean it's bad. Isn't it more important to love someone and have someone love you, no matter who it is?"

"Yeah. But it's weird."

Deep breath. "Being gay is a difference, just like being black is different from being white. You're Jewish, so you're different from your friends who are Christian. It's just the way the world is, and there's nothing bad about it."

He nodded.

"But here's the thing. What's not okay is to call someone "gay" as an insult. That's wrong, and it's hurtful. You wouldn't want someone to insult your religion, would you?"

That he understood. "Uh-uh."

By now it was way past bedtime. Time to wrap this up - but not before making one final point. "You know," I said, "you actually know some people who are gay. Not your own friends, but friends of Daddy's and mine. People we care about very much - and who you like a lot, too."


"Yeah. So using "gay" to mean something bad is hurtful to them. And I know you'd feel really bad if you found out you were saying something that hurt them. Right?"

"Yeah." A pause. "Mom, can you turn on the Star Wars radio show CD?"

So much for that. Well, at least the ice was broken. Maybe he'll bring up the subject again soon, or maybe it'll just get forgotten in the crush of more important third-grade thoughts like LEGOs, Pokemon cards and winter vacation. Which wouldn't be such a bad thing; it'll give me more time to prepare for the next deep discussion.

But now we know that Dickens's language certainly is powerful.

God bless us, every one.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday Update: Just in Case You Were Wondering...

For anyone who remembers my previous posts and was under the impression that my household has since metamorphosed into a Utopia of order, cleanliness, promptness and strong work ethics, let me enlighten you.

- We still have trouble leaving the house less than 5 minutes before school starts. Sometimes it's a matter of staying in bed too long; sometimes it's an argument over the necessity of brushing teeth or hair; other times it's a blissful ignorance about time, despite reminders ("It's's's EIGHT-FREAKIN'-THIRTY-NINE"). And then there are the days when they simply don't see why they should interrupt their reading/LEGO-building/sibling-chasing/coloring just to spend 6 hours in an institution of learning.

- The Set-Your-Own-Homework-Schedule Momsperiment has had its ups and downs. Sometimes the kids will get down to business on their own and at a reasonable hour; other times the work is put off for more interesting pursuits - like playing with the neighbors - and finally done a little too close to bedtime for comfort. I admit I may be contributing to the problem by letting them play in the park after school (on a sunny 65-degree day, how could I deny them a little dose of exercise and vitamin D?); once the deep freeze of winter hits, it may be easier to get work done earlier if we go directly home.

- The forgetfulness issue?  I just flushed a toiletful of waste that's been marinating nicely for at least six hours. Homework sheets and school memos are often stuffed in my son's backpack, while the folder designated for those papers lies idly in his classroom desk. Books, pencils, crayons and little rubber toys get abandoned on floors, tables, chairs and sinks, picked up only after repeated requests (or until I get tired enough to pick them up myself).

- Nagging? Still do it, even though I hate it as much as the kids do, and it doesn't accomplish much other than resentment and halfhearted efforts. I want to stop it even as the words come out, but it's like a default setting that switches on when requests and reminders are ignored or blown off. What was that about insanity being defined as doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results each time?

So rest easy. The Perfect Mom Award is still up for grabs, and I'm not getting anywhere near the finalist list yet.

Oh, yes. We're still waiting for that Hogwarts LEGO set to materialize. Even Linus gave up on waiting for the Great Pumpkin after 24 hours.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Five Unexpected Perks of Motherhood

When women talk about how great it is to be a mom, they usually mention things like first steps, sticky kisses, crayoned pictures, piano recitals and misty-eyed graduations. But there are other terrific benefits that aren't acknowledged as often, so here's a nod to some of the ones you might not have realized. Thanks, kids - we owe you one!

You get an automatic excuse for everything. Nodding off at your desk? You can't help it - you were up with a fussy baby all night. In a bitchy mood? Who wouldn't be, after an hour of nagging the kids to pick up their rooms? Spaghetti for dinner two nights in a row? Sorry, but what with the parent-teacher conferences, shopping for the special jazz shoes your daughter needs for her 3:30 dance class, collecting your son from his playdate and getting homework done, there was no time to get to the market. If our politicians played the parenting card more often, they'd get a lot more sympathy for their political missteps. "I can't believe I couldn't remember the third cabinet department I said I was going to cut as president - but you try doing a televised debate an hour after your kid gets stomach flu and barfs on your shoes!"

You get parking lot privileges. More stores and malls are adding designated "parent parking spaces" close to their entrances for the benefit of moms and dads who have their hands full juggling kids, strollers and shopping bags. Granted, drivers without kids can try to get away with parking there too, but you're fully entitled to shoot your best glare at the college student sans car seat who pulls into the spot and offer your best wishes that one day she, too, finds herself trying to drag two tired toddlers half a mile to her car.

You can duck your civic duty. In many counties, being the primary or sole caregiver of young children makes you eligible for a one- or two-year deferment of jury duty. So don't freak out if you get a jury summons in the mail; you may not have to scramble for a sitter after all. And if you do have to serve and get put on a case? Just say that since becoming a parent, you assume everyone's guilty because you don't want to take the chance that any creepy criminals might be roaming the streets where your kid plays. You won't get past voir dire.

You get more stuff.  From the blingy push presents moms now claim as their due to the extra birthday and Christmas gifts that come "from the kids," motherhood can really pay off sometimes. Coupons fill your mailbox; contests offering sweet mom swag fill the parenting websites. And let's not forget that second Sunday in May. Presents, cards, brunch, maybe even an afternoon to yourself - all because you're a veteran of potty-training, mac 'n'cheese and SpongeBob. Not too shabby.

You meet some great people. By far, the best perk of all. The pediatrician who takes you seriously when your baby "just isn't acting like himself" and offers reassurance even when you call her service at 1 AM. The science teacher who sparks your child's curiosity about the way the world works. The moms on Twitter who host virtual "wine parties" every Wednesday night and share laughs and tips. The children's librarian who always recommends the best books and lets you know ahead of time when the new Mo Willems is going to arrive. They're a vital part of your world now, but you'd never have given them the time of day if the pregnancy test hadn't come back positive.

These five only scrape the surface. Let me hear from you - what unusual perks have you claimed since becoming a mom?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

5 Ways to Improve Chuck E. Cheese. (Please.)

Dear Chuck E. Cheese: 

First, let me praise you for being almost everything a kid could want in an indoor playspace: tons of arcade games, a party space, familiar food and trinkets to take home at the end of the day. And you're a godsend for us parents on a weekend or rainy day after books, sticker-intensive crafts and rounds of Monopoly Jr. have been exhausted.

But you're not perfect. (Hey, who is?) If you want to earn your place as the all-time favorite destination of families everywhere, you'll need to make a few little tweaks. Take it from a mom who knows - these improvements will boost your parent-cred so much you'll have to put velvet ropes in front of your door.

Reconsider your mascot. Outrageous, I know. But let's face it: The mouse market was cornered long ago, and to much more successful effect. You think corporate symbol, Mickey's your rodent. And why not? He's fun, he's an established actor - and he looks nothing like an actual mouse. CEC, on the other hand, is uncomfortably realistic, down to the gray fur, pointy nose and buck teeth. You halfway expect to find little Chuck E. Droppings on your pizza plate. Then there's the whole mixed-message problem. Chuck's depicted as an athlete who skateboards and surfs his way through his commercials - all in the name of enticing kids to sit in front of video screens, devouring fries and ice cream. I'm sure you can find a more appropriate spokesperson. Why not let plump, goofy Mr. Munch take center stage instead?

Lose the animatronics. Speaking of stages, the CEC arena isn't exactly Madison Square Garden. The Disney parks give us beautiful replicas of presidents, pirates and haunted-house ghosts, with movements so lifelike they probably let loose with a belch when no one's looking. You, on the other hand, can only offer a clunky robotic "band" that jerks and clacks their mouths out of sync with the corny patter and music videos playing on the video screens. Their clothes are faded, their polyester fur matted in spots from too much touching by curious young visitors. Between sets, their eyes eerily shift from side to side - clack, clack - as if to catch someone cheating at skee-ball. They don't offer original music, interact with the kids or do anything to enhance the experience. So retire them to the Smithsonian and put something more useful in its space, like a walled-off coffee bar or spa where the moms can duck in when the din of beeping machinery and squealing first-graders gets to us.

Give us real pizza. Is Chef Pasqually too busy pretending to play his fake drums to get his rear into the kitchen and put together a decent pie? When we spend an afternoon at a playspace/restaurant, the last thing we need is to endure an assembly-line pizza that looks like it contains more artificial ingredients than a Kardashian sister. Shell out a few extra tokens for fresh mozzarella, a simple homemade sauce, locally grown veggies and imported pepperoni and make Chuck E.'s a destination pizzeria. We parents feel guilty enough about coming here more often than we do art museums or matinees of The Magic Flute. Let us have the satisfaction of saying, "At least we get to enjoy a fabulous margherita pie!" (While you're at it, give your chef the dignity of a true Italian name. Pasquale, please.)

Spare us the crappy low-end prizes. The average family with preschool- or school-age children has approximately 847 tiny tops, cartoon tattoos, clacker hands, crayon four-packs, vampire fangs, rhinestone rings, plastic parachuting soldiers, suction poppers and those miniature tubs of slimy goo that make a fart noise when you press your thumb into them. Every single one of those toys is now either lying under a sofa cushion, gathering dust under a bed, languishing on the minivan floor or hidden in the corner of a purse ("Here, Mom, can you hold this while I play another game?"). Trust me when I say that we don't need any more. Neither do the landfills where they inevitably end up. But the "better" prizes like dolls and electronics come with a price tag of 1,000 tickets or more - and when games give you only three or four tickets per play, it's hard to earn enough without emptying your wallet.

Do us a favor. Either adjust your machines to dispense more tickets per play, or give us something good for our 200 tickets. More tokens, maybe. Or donate a few bucks to help children who have more problems in their lives than a lost slap bracelet.

Two words: open bar. 'Nuff said.

I guess that's it for now. Please give these suggestions some thought. Next time I visit one of your fine establishments, I'll be keeping my eyes open for them. Clack-clack.

Love and kisses,
Mom E. Speriment

Friday, November 4, 2011

The Nigerian LEGO Scam

In this morning's email was a stern-sounding ALL CAPS message from "Special Agent John Edward" of the FBI, informing me that the agency had confiscated two boxes at JFK containing "a large sum of money...from federal government of Nigeria" addressed to me. Agent Edward informed me that I needed to contact him (at a non-FBI email address) "or you will be prosecuted in the court of law for money laundering."

Oh darn. Busted again.

I'm sure you've seen these emails, too. Sometimes it's a threat of jail; other times, it's an enticing offer of millions of dollars in exchange for a couple of thousand dollars in "processing" fees. And, like me, you dump them into the spam file without thinking twice. Unfortunately, enough folks believe them and send these Nigerian scammers enough money to keep them in business.

When I saw this latest attempt to separate me from the little money I have, I started wondering what kind of people are so gullible - or, perhaps, desperate - that they're willing to believe any promise of a prize, no matter who offers it or how unlikely the chance that it's true.

Then my son came home the next day and told me that one of his classmates had asked him for a piece of his orange at lunchtime. He gave it to her, but added, "You owe me a Hogwarts LEGO set."

She said no problem. She'd buy one right away and give it to him.

And he believed her.

The next day, she told him she had the Hogwarts set. But of course she couldn't bring it to school, so she was going to have it shipped to our apartment.

And he believed her.

It's been three days since that little exchange. No LEGO set, Hogwarts or otherwise, has shown up at our doorstep.

But he still believes it will, soon.

No amount of discussion or appeal to his senses will change his mind. He is firmly convinced that since his friend promised him the toy, she's sure to deliver. Never mind that it's unlikely she has that kind of money to spend. Or that it's unlikely she has the skills to wrap a box, address it to us and get it to the post office. Or that this friend's mother would be VERY unlikely to approve of a transaction like this.

He still believes.

Nor will he consider the argument that friends should do nice things for each other - like, say, sharing a bit of fruit - without expecting anything in return. To his mind, this casual lunchroom banter constitutes an ironclad contract.

And he believes with all his heart that the agreement will be honored.

Just like the poor souls who send hundreds of their hard-earned money to foreign post office boxes and sit waiting for days for the $4 million money order they just know is coming their way from the widow of a wealthy Nigerian businessman they've never met, who just happened to choose them as a worthy recipient.

I don't know when reality will finally hit for my son, but it's sure to hit hard. And a little of his innocence and trusting nature will be lost forever as he realizes that people can't always be counted on to keep their word.

The only difference between my child and the adult scam victims is that his loss is minimal - a couple of slices of navel orange. If this deal had actually gone through, he would have come out much better off than his friend.

On second thought, maybe there's a silver lining to all this. It looks like my kid's got the making of a good banker.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Halloween Party Tips from One Who's Been There

So it's not enough for you to plop a Stop & Shop gourd onto your porch and slap a couple of ghost and bat clings on your picture window? You want to go the full Great Pumpkin and throw a party for the little ghouls (drat, why isn't there a perfect Halloween pun for "boys," too?) in your life?

Good for you! Go for it! But if you're not yet wise in the ways of the Kid Halloween Party, let a hardened veteran offer a few words of advice:

Consider dates other than The Big Day. Is it the costumes? The candy? The thrill of being safely scared out of our wits? A yearning to relive those innocent days of homemade hobo costumes and pillowcase candy bags? Whatever the reason, Halloween is more popular than ever. And I'm talking popular. The National Retail Federation expects us to shell out some $6.9 BILLION on holiday gear and eats this year - including (yikes!) $310 million on pet costumes.

All this means that unless you get your invites out sometime around July 4, you're going to have a lot of competition if you schedule your party for the 31st...or the 30th...or any of the weekend days that immediately precede them. The parents on your list are already going batty (NOTE: Apologies. This will be the final bad holiday pun in this post.) trying to figure out how to coordinate all the Halloween events at school, church, Scouts, dance class, soccer teams and other social groupings. So do yourself a favor and hold your party a week or two earlier. People will still be in the Halloween spirit - heck, they've already had their orange lights hung since September, right? - and you won't spend sleepless nights wondering why you got all the "regrets" RSVPs while a rival mom has half the school at her place bobbing for apples.

Expect guests to show up in street clothes. Some kids are Halloween purists. If it's not All Hallows' Eve on the dot, they won't so much as slip on a glove of their Captain America suit. Other parents, knowing the havoc parties can wreak on clothing, prefer to keep their kids' princess gowns and Star Wars uniforms intact until they've had their portraits done and trick-or-treat bags in hand. So despite the "Costume Party" note on your invitation, don't be surprised to see several holdouts. And even children who come in garb may ditch their masks or capes before long. If you want pictures of the happy crew, take them right when the party starts.

Don't stress over planning oodles of activities. Your guests may be less interested in playing Pin the Parts on the Skeleton, passing the Hot Potato Pumpkin and creating decorated photo frames and masks than they are in trashing your kid's bedroom or running outside in their costumes to see what the neighbors are up to. If all else fails, blast "Monster Mash" and let the young partygoers dance their feet off.

Remember that the classics still rule. Of COURSE you want to do the right thing by your young guests. And of COURSE it's nice to provide some alternatives to candy corn and caramel apples at this prime sugar-overload time. By all means, serve some treats that would pass muster with any pediatrician. Try these healthy snacks, courtesy of Life & Beauty Weekly. But we all know that the veggies and hummus will quickly be abandoned the minute the desserts hit the table.

Especially if they look like this:

And this one was created just for me:

Zombie Sock Monkey. Perfection.

Which leads me to my next tip: Don't be shy about getting help. If there's just not enough time or energy to do all the party prep by yourself, have a friend volunteer. Or, if you don't have the skills to make a zombie sock monkey cupcake, find someone you trust (like Cakes by Lee) to take the job off your hands.

But don't get too fancy. If you recall, pumpkin chocolate-chip cakes - even baked into darling pumpkin shapes - may sound good in theory, but the taste may be too exotic for the preschool set. Familiar snacks in holiday-appropriate forms are a better bet; I've had tremendous luck with Oreos and rod pretzels dipped in chocolate spiderweb and "witch finger" molds. "Push-up" cake treats like these are apparently soaring in popularity, so consider trying your hand at these rather than attempting to do something clever with whole-wheat red velvet cake and amaretto cream-cheese icing.

Don't double-dip birthdays and holidays. Maybe you're lucky enough to have a child born on or close to Halloween. This is a totally cool thing, and it makes for a good excuse for a theme party. However, it does not excuse you from your parental mandate to provide presents and cake on the actual birthday. (This also applies to children born on or near Christmas, New Year's, Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, Memorial Day, July 4 or Talk Like a Pirate Day.)

Hope this advice helps make your Halloween party a thriller! (Hey! You said there wouldn't be any more puns! That's it. We're getting the toilet paper and shaving cream.)

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Prayer for the Mom of a Forgetful Child

Dear Lord:

I stand humbly before you - though it may be a little hard to see me among the clutter in my child's room - to ask a favor. You see, my child is forgetful. No, let me rephrase that. My child has elevated absent-mindedness to an art. He can look at a list of five homework assignments in class and come home with nothing in his backpack but an old permission slip, a granola bar wrapper and a GoGo toy. He has yet to see a winter soften to spring with a matching set of gloves to show for it.

And yet he is your beautiful creation, and in your wisdom you made him this way and (for reasons yet unexplained) chose me to be his mother. So I'd like to ask you for a few extra tools for my parenting kit to help me with the job. Here goes:

Grant me the eye of a decorator to appreciate the wabi-sabi - you know, that whole "imperfection is beautiful" stuff - of a floor strewn with pajama pants, random socks and a Clone Wars comforter. Instead of thinking, "Why can't he remember to put his stuff in the dresser or hamper?", let me exclaim, "He's the Jackson Pollock of bedrooms!"

Give me the fortitude not to flinch or faint when I open my child's lunch box on Sunday night and find the sticky, rotting clump that was an orange on Friday before he tasted it, found it too stringy and spat it back into the bag to remain through the weekend.

Grant me the patience not to jump to conclusions. When I see a pungently full toilet bowl and a wet seat, it may indeed, as my child insists, be the work of an ill-mannered phantom pee-er who drops by to use the facilities without lifting the seat or flushing afterward.

Give me the clarity to understand that my child's forgetfulness is not a weapon. He didn't get up this morning thinking, "I bet if I leave my hat at school on the coldest day of the year, I can get Mom to really freak out!" Then again, he does get a kick out of seeing my eyelid twitch...

Bless me with the strength to resist the temptation to "fix" every problem that results from my child's absent-minded ways. How will he ever learn to double-check for his school supplies if I'm always running back at 10 AM to deliver a forgotten recorder or pencil case? More to the point, how will I ever finish a hot cup of coffee?

Grant me the humility to accept my own failings in this area. It's hardly fair to criticize a child for forgetting a simple task when you've been carrying around an unreturned rental DVD in your purse all day.

Infuse me with the insight to understand that when my child sighs, "Here comes the lecture," it means "You've become the Lecturing Mom you always swore you'd never be." Then nudge me to be grateful for a husband who can come up with brilliant solutions like a supply checklist notebook and a Gryffindor House points system.

Give me the wisdom to remind myself that forgetfulness can actually be a sign of intelligence and creativity. The "absent-minded professor" is a well-known stereotype because it has the ring of truth. "Absent-minded burger flipper," not so much. When he's accepting his Nobel Prize, I'll gladly overlook the fact that he's not wearing socks.

Most of all, when I'm at my most exasperated, please help me see that my child's mind may not be fixed on the mundane matters we grownups harp on so often because so many other thoughts - far more fascinating ones - are running through it. Such as plans for a birthday four months away. Or new LEGO-based inventions. Or "Mom, did you ever get the sense that, even if red is your absolute favorite color, every painting still needs a little bit of green in it?"

That should about do it, Lord. Thanks in advance for the help - and for blessing me with my brilliant forgetful offspring. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to clean the bathroom. The sloppy phantom's been here.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Epic Food Fails (Part 2 - guest post)

Sometimes even the simplest attempts to please a child's discerning tastes can backfire, as my friend Thea explains here, courtesy of her terrific blog, Nutgraf.

I only wish I could have stopped her before she prepared lunch that day. I would have told her of the time I put a whole banana into my daughter's lunch box and refrigerated it overnight before sending her on her merry way the next morning. When I looked in the box that afternoon, there was a black, mushy shriveled shadow of what was once a noble fruit.

I got the hint: Mom, there's a reason these things don't grow in Alaska.

Frozen Banana: Toddler lunch faux pas

Toddler lunches are one of the banes of my existence. Here are the questions that go through my mind each evening as I prepare Offspring’s noontime repast:
  • Is it too much?
  • Is it too little?
  • Is it nutritionally balanced?
  • Is it gross?
  • Is there enough vegetation?
  • Will she eat it?
  • Will it keep well?
  • Do they heat it up at all if it’s something obvious like meatballs?
  • Is the refrigerator there any good?
I admit to sneaking a peek at the other lunches that are lined up in the fridge at daycare, and I can’t identify any of it. Possibly because of my pre-coffee status at dropoff time. Naturally, there is a nut allergy in the vicinity, so no nuts are verboten. Removing peanut butter from the equation seriously impacts my lunchtime strategy.
The Tupperware divided lunch containers I bought are divided into one large and two small compartments. The big one, I use for chicken nuggets, fish sticks, turkey meatballs, pizza bits or pasta, sometimes with a supplemental string cheese thrown in for good measure. The two small areas will have some kind of vegetable and some kind of fruit – often strawberries because the kid is CRAZY for strawberries and I am crazy for the kid. Also of note (at least to me) is that none of the other kids have as comprehensive a lunch-containment solution in the daycare fridge. Perhaps because their parents aren’t obsessive.
I try to make a point of including fruit in each day’s offering, since a) she loves the stuff, b) fruit is good for you, and c) if I can’t obsess about something and make arcane rules for myself that makes my days just that much more complicated, what *can* I do? The other day I ran out of fresh fruit and decided to throw in some sliced frozen bananas I’d been saving for smoothies. Now I’d never used a once-frozen banana in its thawed state before, and had a bad feeling about how it might turn out, so I sliced more than she’d need and stuck the surplus on a plate in the fridge, intending to check on them around lunchtime to see what she would be facing.
This is what I did to my child.
Ugh. I am a terrible mother.
The next day when I dropped her off, I stopped the teacher to explain that I had no idea what happens to bananas when they thaw, and that this won’t happen again. Very gently, she expressed relief.
So now you know what happens to frozen bananas when they are thawed.
Note for future testing: Do the test overnight *before* sending experimental matter to school.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Momsperiments Gone Wrong: Epic Food Fails (Part 1)

For mothers, every new day brings a renewed determination to Do Right by Her Children in any way possible - particularly when it comes to food. But sometimes our culinary efforts fall flat, either because of the nature of the food itself or because of the nature of our children's individual palates.

Here, the first in a series of good food intentions gone wrong. A moment of respectful silence, if you please.

Epic Food Fail #1: Pumpkin Cakes
My daughter's birthday falls right before Halloween, so she has the advantage of a built-in party theme. The kids come in costumes, we blast "Monster Mash" and play pin-the-bone-on-the-skeleton - it's a beautiful thing. For her 4th birthday, I combined a recipe for pumpkin-chocolate-chip cake with a set of fun tins and came up with these whimsical edibles:

How I patted myself on the back when they came out of the oven. What a perfect idea! What a treat! What praise the kids would lavish on me! What a reputation I'd develop as the Perfect Birthday Planner!

What a flop.

It seems that when children go to a birthday party, no matter what the season, they prefer their cakes round, chocolate, flowery and heaped with sugary Crisco icing. Pumpkin, to their minds, belongs in pies or on the front porch - not in cake. The guests nibbled gamely at their dessert for a while, then left most of it on the black and orange paper plates.

So what was the hit of the party?


Or, to be more precise, Oreos coated in melted orange white-chocolate candy disks and pressed into spiderweb and skeleton molds. They took all of 15 minutes to make, and the plate emptied faster than you can say "Trick or Treat." My son ate seven of them and then ran to the bathroom in the middle of the night to urp them up. Between retches, I could swear I heard him say, "I regret nothing!"

So much for my Martha Stewart phase.

More Food Fails to come. Meantime, please share your best examples!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Update: Homework...Needs Work

We're just a few days into our Set Your Own Homework Routine Momsperiment. Here's how yesterday unfolded:

Let kids play in the park for 45 minutes after school. Checked Son's backpack. No weekly homework sheet, no homework folder and no math book. Copied the assignments from another child's schedule. before taking them home and giving them a snack. Tried to start Daughter on homework; Son tried to enlist her in a chase around the apartment. I broke up the game and told Son to stay in his room if he wasn't going to start his work yet. Got most of her work done before a late-afternoon doctor's appointment.

Home for dinner. After dinner, Son finally did as much homework as he could. Insisted that teacher hadn't given out the homework schedule to his class and that he was pretty sure she hadn't given a math assignment.

This morning, just before going through the schoolyard gates, he hugged me and said, "You might be getting a note home from the teacher if I'm on the homework list."

Clearly, adjustments need to be made to our plan.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"Mommy, a Man Videotaped Me!"

Yesterday was one of those mellow early-fall afternoons that demand to be embraced and savored. A perfect day to let the kids run around the park playground across the street from school and, for once, not worry about rushing them back into the drab world of homework, laundry-folding and chicken in the oven. My two wasted no time in finding friends and launching into adventures while I found a bench to bask on.

"Mommy! Mommy!" Breaking into my reverie, my daughter came running, almost tripping over the grass in her excitement. "A man just took a videotape of Sam and me!" She grinned and clasped her hands together. "He says we're going to be on TV!"

 A stranger videotaped my daughter? So much for a placid afternoon.

I wouldn't call myself an obsessively cautious parent. I side with the Free-Range Kids philosophy that children need a measure of independence to help them become confident, self-reliant people. I don't see the world as a cesspool of evil where villains lurk around every corner, just waiting for a mother to drop her guard for a nanosecond. Statistics show that crime is lower now than it was decades ago, when it was much more common for kids to wander their neighborhoods unsupervised. And though I live in big bad New York City, the little segment of it where we hang our hats is about as peaceful and suburbanesque as they come.

Yes, of course the bad guys are out there, and tragically, unspeakable things can and do happen to children. But what we tend to forget is that the terrifying news stories are just that - news, brought to our attention because these things don't happen every day. We also forget that children are more likely to be kidnapped or hurt by someone they know than by a random stranger. The world grieved when little Leiby Kletzky was abducted and murdered by a mentally ill man just blocks from where his parents were waiting for him to return from his Brooklyn camp. No one batted an eye when two more New York children were killed mere weeks later - one a young teen beaten to death on her own front porch by her stepfather, the other a baby shaken while under her parents' care.

So I try to maintain that tricky balance between realism and paranoia. I give my kids freedom to explore familiar territory like our block or the playground, and I don't dial 911 if they leave my sight for a minute or two. We've gone over the basic safety rules: never go anywhere, accept food or get into a car with someone they don't know. My son even scolds me if I strike up a conversation with a shopper: "Mom, you're talking to a stranger!"

And yet, when my daughter told me about the man with the camera, reason gave way to panic. A stranger videotaped my child!! And he did it while I sat just a stone's throw away, with my back turned. What was this person doing getting footage of 5-year-old girls? Had he touched them? Made them pose? Was he sending his footage to YouTube or to some beyond-sickening pedophile site?

Instantly, I turned into Lioness Mom. This creep wasn't going to get away with this on my watch.

My daughter's excited face fell as she saw that I wasn't as thrilled about this video incident as I was. "What did he look like? Where did he go?" I demanded.

She pointed to the bike path a few yards away. Grabbing her hand, I ran in that direction - leaving my son under the watchful eye of parent-friends - and soon spotted a figure walking slowly round a bend. "There he is!" she yelled.

In full frenzy mode, I sped to his side. The guy was 70 years old if he was a day, white-haired and calm, but yes, holding a video camera. Crime knows no age, I guess. "Excuse me!" I said. No response. "EXCUSE ME, SIR!"

Finally, he turned in my direction and smiled. What?! How dare he be pleasant at a time like this?

"Did you just take a video of my daughter?" I demanded.

He smiled again. His accent sounded Slavic. "No English. Sorry."

I pointed to his camera and then to my girl, who by now was clinging to my leg and probably wondering why Mom was so upset with this nice old man. "DID...YOU...TAPE...HER?" I asked in the time-honored Let's Talk Loudly and Slowly to Foreigners fashion.

"!" He pointed to a younger and an older woman a short distance away. "Here...daughter."

Women confronted. Situation explained. The older one - his wife, no doubt - didn't speak English either, but the daughter understood enough to assuage my fears. She let me look at the saved videos her father had taken, as well as the photos on the camera she was carrying. Nothing remotely suspicious, and no images of my child or anyone else's. Just a happy family posing in front of flowers and walls and otherwise enjoying a visit to the park - until a strange crazed woman started accusing them of exploiting her kid, that is. My guess is that Dad must have passed by the girls, they pointed to his camera and he said "TV" because, well, that's the one word everyone knows.

I'm sure many parents hearing about this will nod their heads and say I did exactly the right thing. "Better safe than sorry," they'll say. "You just never know." True. But while I would have blamed myself if I'd done nothing and something unsavory had happened, I do feel a bit embarrassed for freaking out quite as much as I did. A cooler head and a calmer talk with my daughter might have brought out the whole story and avoided the drama that put a damper on a glorious fall day.

But what's done is done, and now I'll do what I should have done in the first place. I won't tighten the parental reins at the playground, but I will add a new rule to the safety list: don't let a grownup photograph or video you without getting clearance from Mom or Dad first. Like bath time, personal images are a private thing and not for general sharing without parental knowledge and supervision. Our neighborhood is a safe place; the internet is another matter.

Besides, if the videographer is looking for subjects for a new reality show, I want to know about it. Now that Kate Plus 8 has been cancelled, there's an empty spot on the TV schedule...

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

No-Nag Homework Plan: Day 1

All homework materials were brought home.

Homework began shortly after dinner - after that full afternoon of playtime.

Homework was completed.

So far, so good.

But will an all-play-and-no-work-afternoon policy continue to work?

I'm about to find out. School's letting out.

Monday, September 26, 2011

This Week's Momsperiment: The No-Nag Homework Plan

If my son had a personal theme song, it would be "My Way." In his view, the world would be a much nicer, fairer place if only he were allowed to choose all his meals, watch TV and play video games at will, leave his room a veritable obstacle course of books and LEGOs and bathe only when the cloud of flies around his head became too thick to see. If his friends want to play tag on the playground when he wants to have a pretend lightsaber battle, he storms off and sulks. At birthday parties, he'll eat several cookies and a piece of cake, then protest when I tell him to save the candy in his goody bag for another day.

Naturally, homework falls into this category as well. He's a good student, enjoys school probably more than he cares to admit. But having to write five sentences in a social studies journal and work a couple of pages in his math text is a chore he puts off as long as possible. There are far more important things to occupy his post-school time: running around the playground, hanging out with the kids down the street, playing with his toys, reading Harry Potter, putting on an old Halloween cape and becoming a magician or bullfighter.

Barely a month into school, the Homework Wars have already begun, a tiring and tiresome routine of reminding, nagging, sighing, procrastinating, checking in, complaining and - eventually - completing. And both Son and Parents are at the fraying point.

So yesterday I proposed a new plan. Son is now solely in charge of his work schedule, responsible for bringing home all materials (no more embarrassing trips back to the classroom to retrieve a forgotten notebook) and doing all his work before bedtime. I promise to offer help when needed and make suggestions to help keep him better organized, but otherwise, it's Hands Off, Mom. No nagging, lectures or quietly slipping a neglected folder into his backpack in the morning.

The deal: If this system works, super. Nagging will be a thing of the past, and some important lessons in responsibility, self-reliance and accountability will have been learned. But if too much work is left till the last minute, done slapdash or neglected altogether, we'll have to adjust the plan.

It's 5:30. We came home from the park half an hour ago. As soon as he hopped out of the car, Son went over to play with a neighbor. I'll be starting dinner soon. The backpack has not yet been opened. Naturally, Daughter has followed suit, because it's totally not fair that her big brother gets extra playtime while she doesn't.

So is this a Brilliant Anti-Nag-Pro-Independence strategy on my part? Or an Epic Mom Fail? Any predictions? Any suggestions? Anyone got a bottle of something to share while we see how Operation: No-Nag Homework plays out?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You Deserve a Sanitized Play Space Today?

And you were worried that today was going to go by without a new addition to the ever-growing list of Stuff to Get Moms Paranoid About. On today's Early Show, psychologist Erin Carr-Jordan announced that her investigation of fast food play spaces in 11 states revealed everything from dirt and rotting food to a host of germs that could potentially make young visitors sick.

So parents, don't let your kids anywhere near those slides and crawl-through tubes at the mall or burger joint. Just say no to playdates and birthday parties involving indoor play spaces or giant animatronic mice serving pizza.  It's not worth the risk.

If they want to burn off some energy, take them to your local park playground instead for some good clean fun. Oh, wait. Guess we forgot about this morning-news report a few years ago where swings, slides and climbing walls across the country were tested and found to have salmonella, shigella, hepatitis and other bacteria, not to mention fecal flora - fecal as in poop.

On second thought, better keep your family safe at home. Just make sure you don't prepare their meals in the kitchen or serve it on plates you washed in the sink with a sponge. According to the public health organization NSF, 32 percent of household countertops, 45 percent of sinks and 77 percent of sponges are crawling with coliform bacteria, which can cause food poisoning. Sponges and fridge door handles are also breeding grounds for the superbug MRSA.

Instead of getting some exercise in a filthy play area, let your little ones play a game on your cell phone or iPad. Oh, wait. Turns out phones have more germs than the average toilet handle. But of course your kids never touch a dirty surface and then rub their eyes or reach for a snack, right? Same goes for computers, remote controls, doorknobs and pretty much everything touchable.

And once you've handcuffed the little ones to make sure they don't come in contact with anything in your petri dish of a home, you'll want to keep them away from school, too. Why bother having them protected at home if they're going to spend 35 hours a week sitting next to snotty-nosed classmates and doing their multiplication problems on bacteria-laden desks?

Okay, you get the idea. The point is that dirt and germs are everywhere, and touching an icky surface doesn't necessarily guarantee a trip to the hospital. In fact, our immune systems benefit from having something to fight off; children who catch lots of colds in daycare tend to get sick less often once they reach elementary school. Going all clean-freak isn't the answer, either; epidemiologists warn that overuse of antibacterial soaps and cleansers is killing off the less harmful bacteria in our environment and leaving behind the more dangerous antibiotic-resistant bugs.

My kids have been going to indoor and outdoor playgrounds since they were big enough to stagger up the stairs. I wouldn't want them climbing on an apparatus that was obviously broken, filthy, food-strewn or had, um, evidence of fecal flora. But if the equipment doesn't look any dirtier than their bedroom floor, I let them go to it - and make sure they wash their hands with good old soap and water afterward.

By all means, follow your own instincts and avoid those play areas if reports like these make you skeeved. Me, I'm more concerned about what these restaurants put into our children's tummies than the germs they might put on their hands.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Toddlers, Tramps and Tiaras

You're going to want to sit down for this one. Have the smelling salts ready. All set? Here goes:

This week's People cover story breaks the staggering news that the kiddie beauty pageants featured in TLC's Toddlers & Tiaras might be (gasp!) sending the wrong message to their sweet young contestants and the girls who might want to be just like them.

Bad enough, say child development experts and critics of the show, that these girls have to be subjected to spangled dresses, spray-tans and waxing, heavy makeup, hair additions and "flipper" false teeth in order to stay competitive. Now they blast the moms of recent episodes for pushing the limits of taste when it comes to costumes. For a celebrity look-alike pageant portion, one mother dressed her daughter as Dolly Parton, complete with mini-boobs and a padded rear.

Another "outfit of choice" featured 3-year-old Paisley strutting her stuff in a "Pretty Woman" getup:

"I would never, ever do that to my little girl - ever," sniffed the mom of a more modestly-dressed competitor. "It's outfits like that that give us a bad rap."

But when the crowns were handed out, guess who walked away with the Grand Supreme title?

Enough, cry the experts. Stop sexualizing our innocent girls. Stop telling them their value as people is directly tied to their looks. Stop pitting them against each other in contests where appearance and cuteness is all and prizes are won or lost on the brightness of their smiles and the style of their shoes.

Fine and dandy. Right behind you.

But don't waggle a disapproving finger with one hand and then dig into your wallet with the other to pay for the trappings of a very mixed message.

Why is it terrible to decorate a girl's room with trophies and crowns, but not with Disney princesses? Why is it wrong to spend tons of money on beaded pageant gowns, but not on T-shirts that say "Her Highness" and Halloween costumes of Rapunzel and French maids?

Why, yes. There's a huge difference here.

Why do we tsk-tsk over 5-year-olds in full competition makeup, but post pictures of our own girls getting their nails done at birthday parties? (Nearly half of all 6-year-olds wear lipstick or lip gloss, by the way.) Why do we scream at the moms on the TV screen when "Toddlers" is on, but say nothing to our children when they watch commercials for dolls with pouty red lips, elaborate wardrobes and hair-styling paraphernalia? Why is frill-loving Fancy Nancy a better role model than Fancy Paisley?

For that matter, why put on the I'm-shocked-shocked! act over a girl dressed as the ultimate hooker with a heart of gold, when we were part of the audience who made Julia Roberts a star because of that very role? Why are we suddenly squeamish when a child wears a belly shirt, short skirt and boots? Don't we see similar separates in the juniors section of the mall every day?

How about this "lingerie for girls" line from the French company Jours Apres Lunes?

Speaking of the mall, let's not even get started again on the Forever21 T-shirts that proclaim, "I'm just a girl - I don't need to bother myself with silly things like math and school."

"Oh, but that's different," you argue. "What we really object to is the whole idea of competition and parading these girls around in public."

Mm-hmm. And you'd never enter your daughter in a soccer match or a dance recital, either. You've never made a fuss over a girl dressed in her holiday best or exclaimed to a trick-or-treater, "What a beautiful princess you are!" Your local high school has to beg its female population to try out for the cheerleading squad - no Cheerios here! Nope, it's the kiddie beauty pageants that are wrecking our girls' self-esteem and tarnishing our otherwise spotless ideals of femininity.

As Peggy Orenstein points out in her excellent Cinderella Ate My Daughter, girls are bombarded by the pretty-pink-princess culture virtually from day one. But while parents can't avoid the exposure entirely, they can monitor what their children watch and wear, talk to them about what it means to be a girl and be aware of their own language when they talk about women, beauty, sexuality and self-worth. We can encourage our daughters to follow their own paths and discourage them from the negative messages.

What we can't do is get outraged about a show while still watching it often enough to make it the topic of magazine covers. And if we're truly serious about changing our society's fixation on beauty, let's examine our own behavior before we cast the first rhinestone.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sexist Messij T-Shurtz Suck

My first-grade daughter can count simple groupings in her head. Last year, she zipped through her kindergarten math workbook problems with a confident cry of "This is so easy!" On road trips, she begs me to give her addition and subtraction questions to solve.

But in a few years, she'll be hitting the mall with her friends and finding shirts like this at Forever21:

Last year, she got glowing remarks on her report card. Her science teacher smiled as she told me, "Sarah is the kind of student who will do well in any subject."

Maybe not for long, once she starts seeing shirts like these around the halls:

Swell. It's cool to hate both school and spelling.

Forever21 isn't the only store selling this crap. JC Penney had to eat a lot of product and bad publicity when the blogoverse started campaigning against this beauty of a message shirt:

Seriously? I mean, seriously? Didn't anyone in their R&D, design or marketing departments feel a qualm for even a nanosecond that this sentence might just possibly be offensively sexist? Heck, the guys on staff would know what a nanosecond is or how to spell "qualm," right?

Why are we still so in love with the girls-are-dumb stereotype? Why do we insist on perpetuating the idea that math, science and technology should be men's domains? The statistics on women in these fields - we hold just 31 percent of medical careers, 25 percent of all mathematical and computer science jobs and a mere 11 percent of engineering jobs - are nothing to laugh about, on clothing or otherwise.

We're anything but "allergic" to these subjects. One study from Cornell found that girls scored as well as or better than boys in math all the way up through college. And we're not necessarily trapped by a glass mathematical ceiling: the Cornell psychologists found that women were actually slightly more likely to be offered tenure-track science, technology and math positions. But somewhere along the line, women stop thinking of math and tech as a calling. Some switch over to more organic professions like biology and veterinary medicine (where we do outrank men); others, notably math professors, find it hard to maintain their demanding careers once they have children.

And maybe, just maybe, some internalize the message that women aren't meant to excel in traditionally male professions. Why bother trying when, as Barbie notoriously said not long ago, "math is hard"? Being a smart woman is only acceptable if you're also cute and pick a glamorous profession. We admire Natalie Portman's Ivy League degree, but we wouldn't gush over her as much if she were merely winning a Nobel in astrophysics instead of an Oscar. We give Hillary Clinton props for her political accomplishments, but unsheathe our claws if she wears the wrong pantsuit or looks a trifle jowly.

Ironically, Forever21 also sells shirts with far more empowering messages - "Believe in Me" and the like. Several are Christian-themed, cross and all. Would Jesus tell girls that they didn't have to worry their pretty little heads over algebra and spelling?

This isn't meant to criticize girls who do find math difficult, or who choose more artistic professions. Guilty as charged on both counts. But my mother-hackles bristle when I see retailers selling negative messages about education to girls with developing minds and ideas, all in the name of humor and profit.

I see my daughter skip down the street to school every morning and run out smiling six hours later, talking about the "awesome" day she had. Her joy in learning is every parent's dream.

Maybe the geniuses at Forever21 should visit her skool school and see what real girls think of math.