Friday, July 29, 2011

Momsperiment Commandments on a Friday Afternoon

1. Thou shalt continue with thy vow to get thine act together, in hopes that thy offspring mayest see thine shining example and follow it like unto Patrick following SpongeBob.

2. In attempt to do same, thou shalt continue to be merciless in thine attempt to organize office space. If thou wouldst not want to pack it if thou had to pack up thy worldly goods tomorrow, it's outta here.

3. Thou shalt not dawdle in doing so, hard as it may be to motivate thyself. If necessary, thou shalt give thyself the old Mama Berenstain Bear "You'll feel so much better when it's done" lecture.

4. Thou shalt not, however, wear a polka-dot duster cap.

5. If thou shouldst delay, thou shalt keep this memory firmly in mind next time thou seest thine children yanking out all their Legos or setting up a tea party even as the clutter gathers 'round them. 

6. When necessary and convenient, thou shalt allot enough time in the day for adequate child-energy-burning. Thou shalt exercise patience and realize that in the eyes of the young, a day of swimming, playing games and painting murals in camp is considered merely a "good start." It doth not preclude 90 more minutes of scooter-riding and lightsaber-battling with the kids down the block, even as their dinner groweth ever colder.

7. Thou shalt not throw Mom Tantrums, even if thy children have just tossed a screaming and kicking fit of their own. Thou art the grownup, and as such must appear to be more in control than thou actually art. (Besides, adult tantrums don't even feel as satisfying afterward as childhood ones. Dang.)

8. Thou shalt not feel embarrassed about hanging on to old makeup sets. Thou never knowest when the visages of thy young may need to be covered in green eyeshadow for a space-alien party. (Purple eyeliner workest great for making extra eyeballs, too.)

9. Thou shalt remember the unearthed press release that emerged like a jewel under the piles of clutter and be grateful for clean desks, green eyeshadow, scooter rides and healthy children. (Thou need not, however, be grateful for polka-dot duster caps.)

10. Thou shalt not write another blog in pseudo-biblical language.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Clutter? UnBearable.

At our house, we're going through a big Berenstain Bears phase. You know the Bears: the literary ursine family that regularly tackles such nail-biting issues as fighting with friends, dining out, visiting the doctor, watching too much TV and - yes - nail-biting.

This week, we've been rereading The Messy Room. While the rest of the tree house down a sunny dirt road deep in Bear Country is in apple-pie order, Brother and Sister's room is a disaster area. Mama, sick of picking up after her sloppy cubs, is on the verge of tossing out all their belongings when Papa, the voice of reason, suggests a less drastic solution: organizing the kids' toys and sports equipment with the help of boxes, shelves and pegboards. The last page shows Bro and Sis playing amicably in the made-over space, proving the moral that a neat room is a more fun and relaxing place to be.

If this were my book, it would be called The Momsperiment Bears and the Rooms That Are Messy Because the Cubs Already Have Boxes, Shelves and Dressers, But Insist on Leaving Their Stuff on the Floor Anyway Even When Mom Asks Them to Put Their Things in Those Boxes, Shelves and Drawers.

Guess that doesn't quite fit on the cover of a paperback children's book.

Today, as promised, I started cleaning out my own untidy desk, on the theory that setting a better example might inspire my kids to follow it and reduce the need for nagging and reminders. (Also, the darn thing was so overflowing with paper that Tommy Gavin and the crew of 62 Truck were about to declare it a fire hazard.) It felt positively liberating to toss out the clutter, find long-lost items and see the workspace look like, well, a space for work. The last thing I found, like a little atta-girl hug from the universe, was a press release about writing a daily gratitude list, even when you don't feel grateful, to help you feel "conscious, aware and alive."

There's still a long way to go, but I did enough to make a difference. If this were a Bears book, I'd be showing off the neatened shelves to Brother and Sister and saying, "See how nice and organized the desk is? Now I can relax and focus on my work, and I feel good about what I've accomplished. If you try straightening up your rooms, I bet you'll feel the same way."

Then again, if this were a Bears book, the rest of the apartment would be spotless, my tulips would be well-tended, I'd be wearing a polka-dot duster cap and I'd have a hearty supper bubbling on the stove instead of wondering how to make a meal out of the orange juice, salsa and 10 strands of spaghetti currently in the kitchen.

Oh well. Good examples weren't set in a day.

(Random Thought: What's with the "Brother" and "Sister" deal, anyway? Were Mama and Papa so busy refereeing fights, cleaning the tree house and dining out that they forgot to consult their copy of Top 100 Cub Names?)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Preacher-Mom Ain't Practicing

"Why aren't you dressed?" I scold the kids as one lolls in bed and the other reads a book. "We're running late. Let's get going!"

Then I remind myself that one of the reasons we're running late is because I hit the snooze alarm once too often. Well, yeah, I tell myself, but at least I get myself ready quickly.

"Why can't you put away your things?" I moan, seeing the pajamas on the floor, the books slipping off their shelves and the toy accessories lying under the desk.

Then I walk into the living room, where unread newspapers cover one end table and a pair of my earrings lie on the other. Oops, I think. I'll put those away right after lunch.

"You can't find your new Lego figure?" I sigh. "I've told you so many times to put them in the box when you're not playing with them. Keep things in their place and they won't get lost."

Then I sit down at my computer desk, where papers spill out of every cubbyhole and I can't find the schedule I printed out the other day. I'll find it eventually, I tell myself. It's got to be here somewhere.

"No, you can't skip your homework today and make up for it tomorrow," I snap after watching them dawdle and play for half an hour without opening a notebook. "It's important to keep good study habits. Just get the job done now and you won't have to worry about it."

Then I look at the mail basket with its pile of unopened letters and bills. I'll get to them later, I promise myself - after I do other important things first.

Several times during Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, the congregation confesses as one a list of sins ranging from slander and false dealings to haughtiness and impudence. For all these things, we pray, forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement. In the Reform liturgy, the list also includes this doozy: "For condemning in our children the faults we excuse in ourselves."

Guilty as charged.

(And whaddya wanna bet my two little pitchers secretly think the same thing?)

I think it's time to set up a Momsperiment in which I clean up my own act and see whether setting a better example makes the kids more willing to follow it.  Anyone have any anecdotes to share along those lines?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Let Us Now Praise Jungle Gyms and Seesaws

The first playground I ever knew was the one in the apartment complex where I spent my first couple of years. It had big tubes for climbing and playing peek-a-boo, made of knee-scrapingly rough cement. From there, I went on to such playground delights as tall jungle gyms, wooden seesaws, roundabouts and a schoolyard with hard blacktop surfacing and a huge circular metal device on a pole that six or seven kids could grab and swing up and around till we were giddy with delight and vertigo.

The playground where my kids spend a sizable percentage of their free time has separate sections for toddlers and older children. The equipment consists mainly of swing sets and multilevel climbing units with ramps, ladders, monkey bars, swing bridges and observation towers, nothing higher than eight feet. The ground is covered with rubber padding, the better to cushion falls. There are no big roundabouts, tall slides or seesaws - I can't remember the last time I saw a teeter-totter - and certainly nothing resembling my school's old pole swing. Everything is designed with safety (and lawsuit avoidance) in mind.

I got through my childhood with nothing more than the usual bumps and cuts. My first ER visit was in junior high, but not for a playground accident. (Gouged open my elbow on a metal drugstore shelf.)

Last September, my daughter slipped off the monkey bars, landed awkwardly on the nice safe rubberized ground and broke her wrist. She celebrated her fifth birthday in a full arm cast.

Now it seems that the old-fashioned playgrounds may be better for kids after all. Psychologists say that thrill-seeking is a normal part of child development, and that learning to master tall playground apparatus and zip down speedy slides helps develop confidence. When play areas are too tame, kids get bored. Researchers have even found that children who are hurt in a fall before age nine are less likely to be scared of heights later on.

So I'll try to relax a little next time I see my son dangling himself over the edge of the playground tower or joining a group of friends in a game of Let's All Go Down the Slide Together. And when my daughter's wrist healed, I encouraged her to get back on the monkey bars. After a few nervous tries, she was swinging from end to end as if the accident had never happened.

Even in a safe environment, our children need a little danger.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Ten Lessons Learned From a Day at the Amusement Park

Alas, we don't have the time or the limitless finances to conduct an extended Momsperiment on various theme parks and their management techniques, but I did pick up a few handy tips the other day that seemed worth sharing - and keeping in mind for our next outing.

1. PopChips are the perfect en-route travel snack. They're pseudo-healthy enough to ease the Mom Nutritional Guilt, and light enough on the tummy to withstand thrill rides.

2. Even if the kids insist they don't need them, bring extra clothes anyway. Plus several pairs of shoes. The thrill of damp sandals wears off quickly after the seventh round on the log flume.

3. Pairing off parents and children and splitting up is a fine strategy, especially if your kids are of varying ages. That way, one child can explore all of Tiny Tot Tamesville while the other accompanies Dad to The Upchucker.

4. Translated, "I want to ride the Ladybug Coaster!" really means, "This ride looks cool, but I've never been on a kiddie coaster like this, and I might freak out even if you're right next to me. Please talk me out of it if you don't want to spend 90 harrowing seconds consoling a wailing child as your car zips around a curve, then enduring the disapproving you-shoulda-known-better-moron-lady looks of fellow parents."

5. It is perfectly okay to shut your eyes through most of a spook-house ride when you're 8. Even if it's the cheesy pop-out-skeleton variety that's less scary than an average Mad Money broadcast.

6. It is also perfectly okay to admit to your child that the same ride that makes him feel like Superman soaring through the air is making you feel a wee bit white-knuckled. However, you may have to endure the scornful reply, "Really, Mom? You're scared of this?!"

7. Everyone needs a break from the sensory overload of lights, noise and twirling vehicles. A scavenger hunt - parent/child teams scour the park to see who can find certain items first - is a fun diversion. Particularly if the hunt involves monkeys. (See below.)

8. There are more interesting pastimes than watching little ones ride the same car/motorcycle/caterpillar/three-toed sloth around the same circular track again and again. Focusing on their delighted smiles, however, helps a lot.

9. So does the thought of being able to remind them of outings like this in years to come, when Page Six announces that your darling is writing a tell-all memoir that promises to make Joan Crawford look like Carol Brady next to you. "See these pictures of that happy child on the merry-go-round? The one clutching the stuffed Angry Bird in one hand and the cotton candy in the other? That's you, kiddo. Now tell your editor to take out the chapter about how you spent your entire childhood eating bread crusts in a moldy basement."

10. Giving in to pleas to stay well past bedtime for the sake of "Just one more ride, pleeease?" ensures you get the very most for your amusement-park buck. It also gives you an express pass to the Stuck in Nighttime Weekend Traffic with Tired, Cranky and Tearful Kids ride.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Kid-Free Restaurant: A True Happy Meal?

I guess this is Restaurant Week over at the old Momsperiment homestead. Today's headline: a new no-kids policy initiated by a Pittsburgh eatery.

Children under 6 are just too noisy, owner Mike Vuick wrote in an email to fans of McDain's Restaurant and Golf Center. So out of consideration for patrons who'd rather not have their meal interrupted by tantrums or choruses of the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song, he created the ban.

Of course, there was a public outcry - but instead of crying foul, people are saying, "It's about time!" The 2,000 emails Vuick has gotten so far have been overwhelmingly positive, and a local poll supports him, too. One regular customer, mom of a toddler, canceled a family party she was planning to hold there, but she's by far in the minority. Seems diners think a child's rightful place is at McDonald's, not McDain's.

Now, I enjoy a quiet dinner as much as the next person. I also know how frustrating it is - both as a patron and a parent - when a child acts up in public. But a total ban? Pretty harsh. It suggests that the entire pre-K set is a nuisance to the world at large, and that all parents are irresponsible jerks who can't keep them under control. Even the North Carolina restaurant that established a no-screaming policy last year doesn't shut out toddlers; parents are simply asked to take the unruly one outside for a cool-down break.

Before this threatens to become a trend, maybe it's time for us parents to make a formal agreement with dining establishments that could be posted in the window in place of the "No Kids" sign. We'd promise to do our part to keep misbehavior to a minimum: not dining out too late at night or if the kids are sick or cranky; discouraging silverware wars and milk-bubble-blowing; taking an outdoor time-out at the first sign of whining and leaving if Meltdown Mode seems imminent. The restaurants, in turn, would vow to inform us of unexpected delays, provide options like bread baskets or serving the kids first, and remember the difference between happy child-chatter and outright screaming. (It's only fair; we have to put up with the diners at the next table arguing on their cell phones and sharing intimate details about their spleen surgery.)

Too formal? Too impractical? Maybe. But if it means not being limited to eateries with plastic utensils and nugget-intensive cuisine until my children go to college, I'm willing to give it a try.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

IHOP Broccoli? No Kidding

Hold the fries; pass the apples.

As part of a campaign called Kids Live Well, 19 fast-food chains are adding healthier options to their typical burger-and-shake fare. Each participant has vowed to offer at least one low-calorie kids' meal with no fewer than two servings of veggies, whole grains and other good stuff. Burger King will stop automatically putting fries and soda in their kiddie packs in the hope that parents will opt for apple slices and milk instead. IHOP brags that its kids' menu already includes a dish of tilapia with a side of broccoli.  (Not participating: McDonald's. They're doing a little Superior Dance and scoffing, "Nyah. We've been doing the apple thing for years.")

Sounds good at first glance. After all, moms are hard-wired to nourish, and feeding children is a Momsperiment we all conduct: what to serve, when, how much. It's also jam-packed with angst. From the breast-vs-bottle debate onward, we worry about every meal we serve - even the healthy ones. (Are those veggies sprayed with pesticides? Does the sugar in this cereal cancel out the whole grains?)  Most of all, we secretly feel judged. If our grocery cart contains more mac 'n' cheese boxes and ice cream cartons than brown rice and peaches, we can almost hear the bad-mom thoughts of fellow shoppers. So this initiative may help ease some of the guilt we feel over hitting yet another chain restaurant because we're too busy to make a pot of soup from scratch.

But let's not get too excited just yet.  Most of the eateries have just two or three "healthy" options, most along the lines of spaghetti with marinara sauce. Friendly's has only one low-cal entree; the rest of its Live Well list consists of ho-hum side dishes like corn niblets and applesauce.

Then there's the mixed-message problem. If you're going to order grilled salmon and baked potatoes for the youngsters, you'd better not chow down on the triple cheeseburger unless you're prepared for wails of "That's not fair!

Finally, there's the big question of what we honestly want from our family-dining experience. Yes, we want the service quick, the food cheap and tasty and the atmosphere tantrum-tolerant. But do we want it healthy? Let's face it: You don't go to IHOP because you're craving tilapia and broccoli, and adding carrot and celery sticks to a supper of fried chicken fingers and a Snickers sundae doesn't make it nutritionally sound.

So if we're serious about feeding our families well when we're traveling, tired or on a tight schedule, then we shouldn't settle for this half-hearted effort. Let's demand more healthy kids' and adult entrees on fast-food menus, imaginative side dishes that might actually get children to enjoy their veggies, and perhaps bonuses like organic produce and meat from humane farms. Then let's show our appreciation by choosing these eateries over ones that try to appease us with a few steamed green beans, even if it costs more.

But if deep down, we don't want to give up the grease, salt and sugar when we go out - or ban it totally for our children - then let's indulge without guilt (as long as it is, indeed, an indulgence and not a regular habit) and stop trying to make fast food anything more than it is.

When it comes to kids' meals, let's not kid ourselves.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Camp, Day 2

The outcome of yesterday's camp crisis: Both children came home tired but happy, talking about new friends, nice counselors, runs through the sprinkler and a screening of Kung Fu Panda. "Tomorrow we go to the pool!" announced Formerly Reluctant Son. "I love camp!"

However, lest you worry that my rep as a poor parent has been tarnished, I can proudly say that I still hold the Worst Mom Ever Award. Both children assured me of that fact shortly after we left camp.


I didn't buy them potato chips right before dinner.

You other mothers will have to work much harder to strip me of this title.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Camp WannaBeaBadMom

If you've been worrying about how you rate as a mother, I have good news for you. You are not the Worst Mom Ever. That honor goes to me.

What, you may ask, did I do to earn this dubious distinction? Did I serve my children my patented Cream of Brussels Sprout Surprise? Make them study their times tables or write a report on War and Peace? Shut them in their rooms with a command them to clean until they passed the white-glove test? Please. That's amateur stuff.

No, what I did was far worse. I sent them to summer camp today. My daughter was excited; now out of kindergarten, she'd be joining the "junior" group for the first time. my son, however, has been bestowing the worst-mom label on me ever since he found out - last winter, mind you - that this would be part of his vacation schedule.

Now, before you judge me too harshly, they've been going to this place for the last couple of years and had a fine time every time. It's a day camp just blocks from home - no fears of sleeping away or being in the woods - with activities and field trips galore. But Son was adamant that this was not how he wanted to spend five weeks of his precious vacation. For weeks, every time I brought up the subject, it was, "I'm not going. I don't care what you say."

I thought perhaps time would soften his view, but it only made it harder. This morning, when he was still in bed at 8:00, I knew we were in for a fight.

"I'm not going," he announced again, glaring at me from his pillow. "I don't care what you say."

I could have given a command or dragged him out of bed by the ankles, but I suspected that would do more harm than good. "Is there something you don't like about camp? Something you're worried about?"

"No, there's nothing."

"Then why don't you want to go? Your sister is all dressed, and she's had her duffle bag on her back for the last half hour."

"It's so boring! It's the same thing over and over again!"

"Boring? Trips to the pool and indoor playgrounds? Running through the sprinkler? Making crafts?"

"I just don't want to go! I want to do my own thing."

"Well, why don't we talk to the counselors about that and see what they have to say? You have to come with me to drop off your sister anyway."

He exploded. "I'm still not doing it! Don't I get a say in this? You never ask my opinion! You never asked me if I wanted to go!"

Now it was clear. This wasn't about arts and crafts or boredom; it was about respect and autonomy. At eight, he knows his mind pretty well, and it frustrates him that not only does life not always conform to his expectations, but that he doesn't have as much say over his plans as he'd like.

I sat him down. "I understand. You feel like you're being railroaded into going to camp, that we didn't ask if it was okay before we signed you up. Maybe we could have done a better job of talking it over with you beforehand."

"Yeah," he agreed.

"But there's something you need to understand, too," I went on. "Much as I love being with you and doing things with you, I also have to work for a living, to earn money to pay our bills and to treat you to things like books and toys and amusement parks. And my work happens to involve writing on the computer at home, which takes time and concentration. You may be on vacation, but I'm not. I need time during the day to get my work done, not to mention running errands and cleaning and cooking - and that's hard to do if I'm also busy watching and entertaining the two of you."

Wham! New justification for that Worst Mom Award. I just said the thing no mom likes to admit out loud: There are times I don't want to be with my children. What message was he hearing? Would he now think of himself as an inconvenience, secondary to work and clean bathrooms? Was I being unreasonable in asking him to go along with plans he had no part in making?

"I can entertain himself," he offered.

"I know that you'd try. But I'd hate to think of you staying in your room on nice summer days like today. I wouldn't be able to take you to the park or the beach as often as I'd like. And -" I paused before the final blow - "when I'm working, I can't concentrate with the TV or xBox on, so you wouldn't be watching shows or playing games."

He considered that for a moment.

"Wait...they show movies at camp, don't they?"

"I think they do, later in the day when the campers are waiting for pickup."

"Okay, I'm going."

And that was the end of it. He was dressed and ready to go in no time. He even put aside his big-brother grudges to stay with his sister while they waited for their group assignments in the junior division, saying, "Don't worry, Sis. I'll show you the ropes."

I can't say I'm thrilled that the deciding factor was the promise of TV time every day, but at least the war seems to be over for now. There'll be time later for discussions of future summer plans. And maybe a little part of him was gratified that Mom took the time to hear him out.

I won't surrender the Worst Mom title just yet, though. They still have to clean their rooms.