Tag Archives: parenthood

Here’s to independence

photo1 It’s been a few weeks, but I’m still thinking about the Fourth of July. I’m not alone. Tonight at bedtime Miles proclaimed, “Fourth of July is when I shoot Fluffy out of my bottom!” Fluffy is Charlie’s favorite stuffed animal, a white cat that survived my childhood but probably won’t theirs. Clearly, it’s going to be exciting here next year. Consider this an invitation to our potluck.

This year we decided to embrace the crowds at Seattle’s biggest Fourth of July event. More significantly, we opted to forego bedtimes. Fireworks are shot off from a barge in Lake Union at 10:15pm, while thousands crowd the shores of Gas Works Park for viewing. (My favorite comment of the night was Miles’, “Fireworks are rockets that shoot lasers!”) We forged our exit with the masses around 11, and then walked a couple miles to get home. Charlie stayed up past midnight, Miles conked out in the stroller somewhere along the way.

For years I would’ve rather gouged myself in the eye with a hot poker than keep them up late. Our exceptionally sleep-sensitive kids would undoubtedly attempt to continue partying throughout the night (the kind of partying that comes with wailing and the need to suck), only to wake at 5:30am for the day. This happened 99% of the nights they missed an hour or two of sleep. Lest you think this ridiculous night-waking would cease after one night, oh no. It would continue for at least a week, likely two, until we got them back “on schedule.”

For some perspective, these days Miles typically heads to bed at 7pm and Charlie around 7:30 or 8. They both usually rise around 6am, 7 at the absolute latest. Every time we’ve tried to push their bedtimes later, they’ve woken up earlier. So, while not worrying about the bedtime schedule was indeed fabulously freeing, the really magical part was that they SLEPT IN next morning. We considered opening a bottle of Champagne. It was 8am.

Until this year we’ve endured Seattle’s very late hours of darkness on Independence Day cringing with each firecracker that popped by our windows, hoping to Jesus that our boys would continue sleeping while simultaneously cussing (in our minds or with each other) at the teenagers setting them off at 2am. The trauma of years of significant sleep deprivation will make one a teensy weensy bit anxious about explosives detonating nearby. Even if the kids slept through the bangs, WE certainly couldn’t. No luxury of earplugs, of course. We needed to hear our babies cry! So, instead we lay in bed with deer-in-the-headlights expressions on our faces, patriotism dwindling by the second.

photo3 By the way, the next time you hear someone giving a parent a hard time about maintaining a schedule, recommend trying this:

1) Lay in bed at 9:30pm. Just as your eyelids start to droop and you fade away, have a partner yell loudly in your ear, simulating a wailing baby. They must yelp for at least ten minutes while you bounce them, pat them, rock them, or walk with them. To be fair, though, it really should be at least twenty minutes. Once they’re quiet, hold them and rock them for at least another ten. (It might feel awkward doing this with an adult. Use a dog or a stuffed animal if you prefer. Or simply remind yourselves, this is all worth it to build empathy!) Next, set them down carefully. Don’t sneeze, fart, burp, sniffle, step on a squeaky floorboard, trip over a toy car, or move your fingers away from their body too quickly as you gently lay them down. If make any startling noise or jostling body movement, start again from the beginning.

2) Repeat the entire routine again in two hours, this time taking time to warm up a bottle and feed the “baby.” (Unless you happen to be randomly lactating, which is odd enough that you should get that checked out.) Once the “baby” is asleep, set your alarm for 2:30am and try to fall asleep even though you know you’ll get two hours more shut-eye at best.

3) At 2:30 complete a half hour of simulated diaper changing, bouncing and shushing. The stuffed animal option is probably best for this.

4) You’re not done yet. Treat yourself to a final wail at 4am that continues until 5. At this point your mind will be racing because you know that you probably only have a half hour left to sleep. You’ll battle with yourself for awhile as to whether or not you should try to sleep more, thus wasting precious time. Eventually, you’ll convince yourself that this will be the day they’ll sleep later, and just as you close your eyes, your partner must babble loudly and immediately demand breakfast. (You now have two children. Just so this this experiment is highly effective.)

5) Repeat this routine nightly until you experience deep compassion for parents of babies who don’t sleep well. If it takes you more than a few nights, borrow someone’s kids to care for during the daytime hours, too. All screentime is off-limits. Grocery shop, do laundry, and cook at least once.

Now you probably get why I’m still thinking about the holiday. My husband and I gained a little independence this Fourth of July. It feels like we just might’ve made it through.

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Summer PSA: My scariest parenting moment to date

Generally one of the best ways for me to process a horrible event is to share it with friends and write about it. This particular one was witnessed by a friend, and I was comforted to have her immediate empathetic, non-judgmental response as my first. When I told my husband he also responded lovingly and graciously, understanding how this could happen. That’s the only type of response I can handle right now. Here, I’m requesting virtual hugs while simultaneously providing a PSA.

While visiting a friend’s pool today, a common summer event for us, I did as I usually do: walked into the courtyard, placed our gear and food on a table, and turned to help get the boys ready for the pool. But this time I turned around and my youngest was bobbing up and down, silently drowning. (I can’t yet write this without crying.)

I jumped into the pool, cover-up dress still on, and placed him on the side. I held him, kissing him and holding him for a long time while my hands shook. He was breathing. Thank God. He didn’t cough either, so I suppose he did a decent job keeping his mouth closed each time he went under.

I don’t know how long he was in. Probably just a few seconds, certainly no more than a minute. He had to walk down a couple stairs to get to the deeper part and he was already a few feet away from the stairs when I got to him. Given the outcome, it doesn’t matter. I can replay it all I want but I’ll never know exactly how it happened. I just know that he got in over his head.

For the past few summers he’s worn a puddle jumper to swim “independently.” He’s never tried to get in without me holding him or wearing that. I assumed, after several years of safe behavior, that he understood he could not float without assistance. Obviously, there was some cognitive shift in which he no longer understood that he wasn’t floating by himself. Or he simply didn’t understand the consequences. Even immediately after the incident he tried several times to get in the pool without me or the puddle jumper after we’d removed it for bathroom breaks and lunch. Having learned my lesson, I was vigilant at that point and didn’t allow him out of my line of sight, but I was surprised that he tried entering again so quickly.

I simply want to add to the chorus of water safety PSAs, specifically to remind parents of young children that our little ones may demonstrate safety over months of time, even years, and then immediately disregard the rules. (I certainly could’ve used a gentler reminder.) After it happened I recalled that my oldest tried to cross the street without me when he was four, also after years of always waiting for an adult’s hand. There just might be something about this age, as they shift from babies and toddlers to more independent little kids, that they overestimate their own skills. Don’t assume a history of consistently safe behavior will continue.

We will now establish a routine that prevents accidents. I will be putting his puddle jumper on prior to entering the pool courtyard. Or I will hold his hand until it’s on. Or I will not take my eyes off of him. But even writing that idea feels dangerous. Another kid falling or crying can be a big enough distraction to take my eyes off of him, just long enough for a him to get in the pool. So, I think I’ll stick with putting it on the minute we have access to the water.

Right after it happened I would’ve spent a thousand dollars for amazing swim lessons to get him 100% water safe. I’ve talked myself down a bit, but I feel increasingly horrible about it. I will never forget the look on his face. I couldn’t be more thankful that this ending wasn’t different.

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Onward

Lately I’ve had several friends inquire about the current state of challenges with our youngest’s behavior. While I wrote in brevity about our fall preschool drop-off challenges and how we dealt with them, I didn’t communicate the extent to which difficulties continued.

While I am often open here, I rarely divulge the deep struggles while I’m in the midst of them with anyone beyond my husband and a few trusted friends. I generally like there to be at least hints of forward momentum before sharing that we’re tripping on a daily basis, sliding back down to the bottom of a mountain that we’re not sure we’re going to summit.

For at least six months, Little Monkey’s most common immediate response to upsetting stimuli was physical aggression. The range of triggers was wide. If he tripped and fell, SMACK! If I gave him too much verbal praise, WHACK! If big brother moved towards him and he felt threatened, POW! If I moved a toy from the place it was apparently intended to remain for eternity, BOOM! I was getting hit or kicked daily, often more than once. Frequently I steadied myself in pain, anticipating a black eye or bloody nose. Our oldest was also the recipient of many crushing blows.

We were scared.

This kid didn’t cry when he received his first shot as a newborn. His pain tolerance is unbelievably high. For his first few years of life he rarely shed a tear unless the injury involved blood. If he cried after a fall, I prepared for a trip to Urgent Care. After he dished it out, his hands and feet seemed to just experience a slight irritation. Like he’d been rubbed wrong. When he was hurt enough to cry, he often immediately lashed out at others. He would refuse comfort and hugs. He was Mini-Hulk, Super Sensitive Version.

For months his behavior seemed to only deteriorate and we questioned all our parenting methods. Worn out and desperate for change, we started to revert to ways we’d previously written off as disrespectful or humiliating, like isolating him in his room (in essence, a lonely time-out) or taking away toys unrelated to the incidents. We rarely acknowledged the emotions behind his behavior or talked through his motivation. We were caught in a downward spiral of stress, fear, anger and fatigue. We kept trying to get back on our feet and dust ourselves off to continue upward, not considering that we might need a completely new route.

I really couldn’t see straight. I told a group of friends over Christmas dinner that we were considering professional help (family counseling or child therapy). One friend asked, “What’s his currency?” and it hit me. As we talked through motivating factors for children, I realized we’d turned everything we believe to be true onto it’s back. I didn’t want toys, money or screen time to be my child’s primary “currency.” I wanted him to know himself well enough to manage his emotions without an external motivator or threats and punishment. I longed for him to inherently know that his opinions would be valued. His voice would be heard. I didn’t want him to feel alone with his sadness or anger. He needed to know that no matter how enormous his emotions felt, we would stay by his side.

Shortly thereafter, my husband and I recommitted to using emotion coaching as our primary way of handling Little Monkey’s outbursts. We tried to intercept him prior to his hits and kicks. Initially, we restrained him in our arms to prevent injuries to ourselves or our oldest. We would say, “I’m holding you until we’re safe.” He quickly learned that these restraints were actually comforting, and his anger would melt into our arms as his tears took over. We don’t have to do that anymore because he now willingly runs to our arms. If we’re at our best, we speak slowly and calmly, with pauses for all the inevitable crying. “You’re so angry. You really wanted this to happen and it didn’t. You are so frustrated. It’s not ok to hit and kick, but it’s ok to feel mad. I understand. I feel mad, too, sometimes. Just don’t hurt people.” (We don’t always do our best. I’ve yelled more in the past six months than I probably have my entire time as a mom. So, plenty of apologies and restarts, too.)

If he’s still on edge and posturing aggressively after the initial talks and tears, our next step is usually, “You are welcome to stay here as long as you can play respectfully and nicely. If you need to take a break, I can come with you.” If a toy was involved in the altercation we might say, “You may play with that as long as you can use it safely. Otherwise I will take it until you’re ready to be safe.”

Thankfully, once we changed course it got noticeably better. Not overnight, but within a few weeks there was significant weight lifted off all our shoulders. Add normal developmental maturation to improved emotional regulation and his current behavior feels almost miraculous. (I had my doubts this would improve much because of how big his temper seemed.) One of the changes I didn’t anticipate was that he cries more easily now after injuries. He’s seeking us out for comfort instead of acting out physically. He’s also exhibiting much more self-control during disagreements. Like all four year olds, he has plenty of communication skills to learn, but he’s quicker to take turns or share his toys. He’s not feeling as easily threatened. In general, he just seems more stable and secure.

There is residual trauma and it’s remains a careful trek. Some of his worst behaviors reappeared at a friend’s birthday party last month, when he was exhausted after a week of spring break activities and his own birthday festivities. Leave it to the gymnastics party people to put a stamp on his feet without asking so we can all watch the house come tumbling down! Wailing, hitting, screaming. Even a piece of cake couldn’t pull him out of his misery, because it was served with a SPORK, for the love! The kid wasn’t going to deal with alternative utensils on top of all the other atrocities from the past fifteen minutes. (He tried to throw the plate with cake on it.) Nothing could get him back. We had to leave the party early, at which point my oldest (understandably) freaked out, too. Two sobbing boys for the car ride home.

(Little tangent here- Why do people put stamps or stickers on children without asking? Does this ever turn out well? Several months ago a grocery store checker asked if he wanted a sticker. After he answered affirmatively, she took it off the paper and put it ON HIS FOREHEAD. Again, without asking. He loudly yelled, “YOU STUPID!”, hit me a lot and wailed. Goodness, people. Have some respect.)

We have not hit the summit yet, but I can finally see it. All of us still brace ourselves when the road is bumpy. We trip and fall, reminded yet again that the new path requires much more careful footing and plenty of breaks for deep breathing. Once we’re standing on the peak we’ll take in the view and pat ourselves on the back for all the boulders we climbed (sometimes twice!). Then, we’ll head down the other side, inevitably beginning the next mountain.

Birth

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In a bit over a week my youngest son turns four. He understands enough about time to realize April is his birthday month, but not enough to comprehend that waiting NINE MORE DAYS means it’s also not his birthday tomorrow, or the next day, or the next. He knows it’s coming, but he can’t track it day to day. So, every morning we’re hearing these excited statements laced with doubt. “It’s my birthday!…?” “Today’s my party!?”  It’s all he’s thinking about, besides Legos and food.

The sentences flying out of his mouth these days could land him on Ellen’s couch or Bill Cosby’s lap. (Also, the principal’s office, but for different reasons.) Today he told one of Charlie’s classmates how old he was: “I’m three and three quarters. When I’m four I’ll be four and three nickels!” He is at that sweet spot of language development in which spoken vocabulary is incredibly diverse, but most multiple meanings remain confusing and misused. I hope I get to hear that one again since Charlie didn’t catch him and correct it. (What is it with first graders correcting EVERYTHING? And they’re so often wrong! Then I wonder, if I correct Charlie for incorrectly correcting Miles, does that make me as equally annoying to Charlie as Charlie is to Miles? Sheesh.)

Yesterday, Miles tried to playfully spit at me. Not real spitting, more like a directed air-zerbert. He explained, “I’m spitting sunscreen on you! My sa-li-va mixes with chocolate in my mouth and becomes sunscreen!” Spit, spit, spit. It was sunny, so the protection was quite appreciated.

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I began labor at 2am and continued slow and steady enough through the bluebird morning to walk the historic Queen Anne streets surrounding our previous rental. Under giant magnolia trees and alongside tulips, I chatted with Harry and my friend/doula between contractions. One of my elderly neighbors watched me leaning against a wall during one and offered to take me to the hospital. Very kind, but I didn’t mind laboring in public. We even strolled to the Macrina bakery, where I stood outside the store window having a contraction, while Kari and Harry got coffee and pastries. We sat for a bit, waved goodbye to my favorite workers with promises to bring a baby by next visit, and moved on to enjoy the beautiful day as much as possible until the real work commenced.

My memories of his birthdays are bound together with my favorite images from Seattle spring. Our ornamental cherry tree proudly wearing it’s light pink tutu, the skirt of little ballerina dreams. Our pear tree blossoms dripping with rain, sparkling in the bits of light that peek through the clouds. Our delicate plum tree flowers, whose sight always prompts me to yearn for a huge harvest.

Petals carpeting the sidewalks and streets, trees dressed to the nines in fancy blossoms and moss accessories, baby leaves emerging, pea vines popping out of the ground, little boys pleading for their birthday to arrive. Springtime and birth, woven together.

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Enter in

In my last post, I mentioned the (fading) tendency for many parents to avoid discussions about any topic that is potentially controversial or dangerous, apart from the obvious “Stranger Danger” talk, which is commonly accepted as suitable for young children’s ears. I have written about talking with kids about race and sex before, but I wanted to follow up. Partly because I keep hearing well-intentioned comments like, “Kids just need to know we’re all special and unique”, and partly because reading about the White Man March made my blood boil–writing here let off some steam. Hordes of parents thoughtfully, respectfully, proactively educating their children about differences among people is the march in which I want to participate.

A study mentioned in NurtureShock’s chapter on “Why White Parents Don’t Talk About Race” shared that even in a liberal-leaning city like Austin in 2006, most white parents weren’t talking about race. Not because they didn’t believe it was important, but because they were afraid of saying the “wrong thing.” So, instead of commenting specifically on racial differences, these parents fell back on safe phrases like “everybody’s equal” and “we’re all the same under our skin.”

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One type of ornamental cherry tree blossom–feel free to help me develop my specificity here!

Not all families have the luxury of ignoring specificity. If you’re a family with two moms, it won’t be long before your child takes note that your family structure is less common and inquires about it. Or perhaps an older child will bring it up at the playground first, catching you off guard. Either way, those moms will talk thoughtfully with their child about all the possible combinations of people that may comprise a family. This conversation will continue throughout their lifetime, too, because it’s importance will grow. The same goes for families whose members are of a minority ethnicity, whose child has a disability, who practice an uncommon religion, who are vegan, etc… In fact, I would surmise that conversations about differences are common practice for families who find themselves in just about any type of minority group.

Parents in exceptional situations learn to speak directly to their children regarding the societal attitudes that impact them. This necessity for specifically educating children is even greater if their particular minority group is feared or hated. Those parents know there is an inherent element of risk in just being who they are. To be silent on the topic is to risk allowing their children to internalize the stigmas, face isolation and experience deep pain, let alone experience worst case scenarios like the Trayvon Martin and Matthew Shepherd tragedies. Black parents will have very frank discussions with their sons about how they must carry themselves to avoid danger. White parents do not have to do this. I would not worry if my husband or boys got pulled over by a cop. I would if I were black. Those in the majority groups have the luxury of deciding whether or not to enter the conversation. This is one of countless examples of how majority privilege plays out.

The problem with discussing race and other differences vaguely (“We’re all unique, like snowflakes!”) is that, like adults, kids are not difference-blind. Young children are quite observant of all human characteristics, particularly those that are different than themselves. Even babies as young as six months show they are sensitive to new facial features by staring at pictures of people from unfamiliar ethnicities longer than pictures of people familiar to them. Later, as children age, they become “developmentally prone to in-group favoritism.”¹ This is why by age five and six, most kids begin to prefer playing with the same gender, or at a minimum begin rejecting anything stereotypically associated with the other gender. “I don’t want the pink cup. I’m a boy!” The same goes for race. Even in racially diverse environments, children will begin to naturally segregate into their “known” group whenever possible. Again and again, this happens unless a specific conversation takes place.

Consider how babies and toddlers learn concrete vocabulary. Prior to speaking their first word, babies will understand many words and phrases. They are soaking in all the labels tossed at them during walks, story time, playtime and mealtime. The first time parents realize their child truly knows a word is magical. Baby might have casually heard the word milk and began kicking their legs excitedly and babbling. Parents naturally tune into their child’s ever-growing vocabulary base and begin to stretch it. “Milk? You’re hungry? Ok, time to eat!” Similarly, once parents realize their child understands the word for flower, they will begin labeling specific flowers. Meanwhile, the child’s brain is busy mapping all these new words, figuring out the semantic relationships–what is a category and what is a subcategory, what is a noun and what is an adjective? Eventually they understand that flowers have some things in common (petals, stems, leaves) but that their shapes and color may differ. The same thing needs to happen for kids to understand the differences among people. A tulip does not lose it’s beauty nor value by being labeled more specifically. Nor does a person lose their beauty or value by being labeled appropriately. Rather, understanding differences, and the reasons for them, provides opportunity for greater appreciation.

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Another type of ornamental cherry tree blossom (at the University of Washington quad)

So, I choose to enter the conversation.

Choosing to enter the conversation means I didn’t dodge the awkwardness when my then two-year-old commented that our visiting black friend has “dirty” skin. Instead, I stepped right into the heart of it. (Remember, this is not a mean comment coming from a little kid. My white son knew his fingers got darker after playing in dirt. He knew that his skin is dirty when it’s dark brown, so he was simply applying his truth to someone else.) I said something like, “Oh, Natalie’s skin isn’t dirty. She has brown skin all the time. People have all sorts of different skin colors, and ways their faces and bodies look.” Since Natalie was in touch with what kids need, she asked him if he wanted to touch her skin. She rubbed it to show she didn’t have dirt coming off. By doing this, she invited him further into the conversation.

As my boys age, we talk with increasing detail about differences found in people. I provide my children with the proper labels for ethnic groups, for referring to people with disabilities, for talking about people who are overweight, etc… We began with the most common people groups of the United States and move towards deepening and broadening their understanding over time. They know that many of their friends are multi-racial and how that happens. They know that others were adopted from other countries. They know that some friends have gay parents. Having these conversations makes it acceptable to discuss that someone looks different, acts different, or has differences in their family. Because we all do.

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Sometimes knowing what term is correct can be tricky (black vs African American, Asian American vs Amerasian, etc…). Asking friends if they have a preference will quickly clear up confusion. Questioning politely, with your child present, models to your children that this is a safe topic when handled respectfully. It helps to keep stigma at bay and maintain open lines of communication. In general, stick with teaching your kids the most correct terms you know and be open to the understanding that they may change. Soon enough your kids will inform you if you don’t stay on top of it. (“They’re not Oriental! They’re Asian!” has been groaned by thousands of forty year old white children to their parents.)

Older kids can be invited even deeper, learning about how places of origin often determine skin color, facial features, height, etc… Every time we have this discussion, I find a world map and the internet quite useful. We have talked about how America was initially inhabited by Native Americans and then looked at pictures, read books, etc… We have talked about many people came to America from different places and that’s part of why we see so many different types of people, whereas some countries remain relatively homogenous. The lesson incorporates race, geography and history.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I share developmentally appropriate details about racism and how various people groups, including kids, have been treated poorly because of how they look. With my first grader, it means educating him on a handful of details about slavery and Jim Crow laws, as well as introducing him to a few key brave people who fought to change these laws. It also means letting him know that plenty of injustice remains and talking about how we can help.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I don’t rush my boys along when they pass someone in a wheelchair and stare or inquire about it. If the person in the chair appears open to converse, I will sometimes engage them in our conversation by introducing myself and letting them know my boys have questions (which is already obvious to them, but it helps break the ice). Once this led to one exceptionally friendly woman demonstrating everything her electric wheelchair could do, including moving it into a full stand. My boys thought she was bad-ass! She enthusiastically answered their questions. In fact, I think she was touched. She was seen. She was heard. Her differences were acknowledged as worthy of discussion. My kids weren’t shushed as she passed. We welcomed her presence.

Choosing to enter the conversation means that I talk to my boys about different family structures. Some parents are divorced. Some parents are both dads, some are both moms. Some kids are adopted. It means we talk about how some people don’t think all of these families are ok, but that we do and why.

Choosing to enter the conversation even means I don’t lie to my three year old when he sees a Diva Cup in it’s invitingly brand new bright pink and purple box on the kitchen counter and asks if he can have some candy. He says, “What is it? Can I suck on it? Does it taste good?” He thinks it’s some sort of cool lollipop! I don’t give him all the details, but I tell him it’s something women use to catch blood from their vagina. (Yup. I’m saying these things. To a kid under four feet tall. It was embarrassingly awkward the first time, but now it feels pretty easy and even quite comical.) “Women bleed every once in awhile because this is how their body works. It’s what allows them to have babies.” There is no reason for this to be an off-limits topic, so I enter in. (Random side note: Why does Diva Cup include a little lapel pin saying “Diva” in their box? Are we supposed to wear it while we’re menstruating so people treat us a little kinder? Should we also have one if we’re gassy?)

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Another type of cherry blossom, plus the incredible Diva lapel pin that you, too, can wear while menstruating! (Some restrictions may apply.)

Engaging in these conversations takes some thought and practice. It felt very uncomfortable at first because it hadn’t been modeled to me. Even now, every time I encounter a brand new topic I feel awkward and fumble quite a bit, especially if a stranger is involved (“Look, mom! That person is ROUND!”). My ability to formulate bites of information appropriate for their level of language comprehension has improved with practice, but I’m also growing more comfortable with the novelty of these discussions and feeling embarrassed in public. (“Mom, what’s that on her face?” “Mom, look at that person’s bottom!”) There is room for fumbling, asking questions, figuring it out together. My primary goal is to respect all the people involved.

As strange as it feels in the beginning, these conversations are best started with kids as young as two and three, because by five and six kids already have clearly divided categories upon which they’ve placed their own labels. Simply by observing the world, those older children have already divided people into groups. Having the basic knowledge of proper vocabulary can also help them understand what holds all these groups together, as well as what separates them. This allows them to have a conversation about them in a respectful manner. They can begin to connect the categories that were once divided because they now know how they fit onto their vocabulary map. It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s true.

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1 NutureShock, pg 53 (forgive my lack of APA documentation--this is my lazy footnote attempt)

First graders and “The F-Word”

Mom stirred a steaming pot while I anticipated our spaghetti dinner. My older brother joked around on the phone, his speaking range limited to within-kitchen-hearing-distance because it was the mid-1980s. (You know, cord phones!) During my brother’s friendly argument he loudly exclaimed, “BS!”, which was followed by my mom quickly shooting him a look that signaled to me with her eyes. She clearly wanted him to pay attention that I was around. Intrigued, I began pestering. “What does BS mean?” Mom tried to dodge it, “Oh, Kathleen. You’ll find out soon enough.” Dave cut in with, “Bologna stuffings” and my mom laughed. Initially doubtful, I questioned them further, but they banded together and held strong. Probably because I was six, I believed them.

Naive and gullible, I vehemently defended myself ALL THE WAY TO JUNIOR HIGH. One day while confidently standing by Bologna Stuffings, the laughter from my group of friends pushed through my wall of certainty. I realized they were right. My stomach sank with embarrassment and anger. I had been duped.

I’d guess that it was a common American belief in the 1980s among suburban white families that young kids shouldn’t be exposed to the details of potentially threatening aspects of life, including sex, alcohol, racism, and cussing.  As a preschooler and elementary school child, the only social topic I remember being explicitly taught was “Stranger Danger.” (Did you also hide behind bushes when all vans without windows passed?) All of the other topics remained off-limits, though we were inevitably exposed to them on television screens, bathroom stall walls, bus rides, and playground conversations. Among parents and children, though, silence reigned.

With each passing year of parenting, my conviction grows stronger that silence leads to stigma and taboo. The absence of a conversation about any potentially awkward, embarrassing or painful topic makes my children think that it is not to be discussed at home. If I’m not willing to share my embarrassing moments, my child won’t either. If I am not willing to engage in conversations about race, my child will not either. If I won’t talk to them about sex, they won’t either. I believe that a very important part of my job is to not only field these questions and enter a developmentally appropriate conversation, but to also bring topics up should the kids not do so. (Not all kids are inquisitive out loud. Some are so naive they don’t know what they should know. Like those who believe in Bologna Stuffings. Or Santa at age twelve.)

So, when Charlie asked me what “the F-word” was while walking home after just days of being in first grade, I knew I didn’t want to dodge the question. Miles was with us at the time, though, so I told him we could talk about it when we were alone. (Miles was three and showing far too much pleasure in testing boundaries for me to risk him knowing the word fuck. We recently took a walk around our neighborhood lake and he called a passing old man a “blockhead.” Miles was tired and hungry- apparently one wrong look was enough to send him over the edge. “Welcome to Seattle, sir! He’s the three-year-old welcoming committee!”)

I forgot to continue the conversation after Miles went to bed, and a few months passed before Charlie brought it up again while we were alone. I knew it was time to seize the opportunity, so I proceeded slowly with some thought and care. Knowing his tendency to follow rules was comforting to me. He wasn’t the kid who would use the word willy-nilly, nor use it against us in a power play. Because he is more cautious, I wanted to make sure that the primary message was that he could come to me with these things. I was trusting him, and he could trust me.

While trying my best to maintain a calm tone because I was uncomfortable with the novelty of saying fuck in front of my six-year-old son, I told him that it’s another word for sex (which he knows about) but that it’s most often used to be mean or express anger. My words went something like, “People say “Fuck you” when they’re really angry but it hurts people’s feelings. People also say it when they’re upset about something.” He asked a few questions and then tried to use it. That was funny. Even funnier when he tried it a few weeks later while giggling about jokes with Harry and I (after Miles went to bed). He uttered the most innocent, cute “fuck” I’ve ever heard. He hasn’t used it since.

Of course, our discussion came with warnings. I told him that because it’s a word that upsets many people, we have to be very careful with it. I told him that until he’s old enough to use it appropriately, he shouldn’t say it anywhere except when he’s alone with Harry and I. I also admonished him to never, ever, EVER say it in front of his brother, the King-of-Stupid-and-Blockhead-Name Calling (thank you, Charlie Brown). The last thing I needed was Miles regularly saying “Fuck you!” to the cute old men strolling the lake.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not currently feeling the need to introduce all cuss words to Charlie. We certainly don’t have a checklist that we’re working through. (He is also not ready for conversations about the many horrific, violent acts that occur in the world!) I imagine he’ll bring swearing up again shortly, and certainly be exposed to to plenty of the world’s horror soon enough. We are tackling these topics one developmentally-appropriate bite at a time. But I am thankful that along with sex and race, he knows he can talk to us about swear words.

I realize that we might offend a few people by having this discussion so young. He might even teach a few classmates about these topics. He certainly wouldn’t be the first kid to break such news to another kid. At least he’d be sparing them from it happening in middle school. (No child wants to be defending “Fiddlesticks” in the halls.) Either way, it’s a risk I’m willing to take to maintain open lines of communication in our home.

Giggle therapy

This morning I enjoyed time with a friend and her absolutely scrumptious ten-month-old girl. That’s a dangerous age. If “we” weren’t “fixed”, we just might’ve made an impulse baby tonight. I received those precious uninhibited smiles, chubby hands repeatedly hit my hat off my head, and about every five minutes she let me hold her for two seconds.

I find it sadly ironic that we can summon our creative, silly side best when we’re refreshed, yet parenting young children almost guarantees you’re rarely not exhausted. Parents desperately need humor after a night of hourly wake-up calls. We are far more likely to resemble Frankenstein than Barney. Well, maybe that’s not sad after all. At least not for us.

Anyways, this post is dedicated to those of you who are bone tired and in need of some inspiration for connecting with your baby. A few giggles just might help you remember how fun and cute they are (or will be soon!) even if they’re not allowing you an ounce of shut-eye.

Peek-a-boo, with yourself or toys, probably works so well since babies don’t have object permanence in the early months. (When penguin is gone, she’s gone. Oh no. But, look! She magically appeared again!) You can shake it up by not being predictable with your actions. Babies love suspense! Make them anticipate with your pauses, eye contact and body movements. Next, pair silly noises and you’ve hit baby giggle jackpot. By the time both boys reached toddlerhood, we probably accumulated fifty versions of peek-a-boo games.

While you watch the clips below, you may notice that my husband and I often wait for the (incredibly adorable) baby to make eye contact. We’re checking in for interest and fatigue level, but also allowing him to control the routine a bit. If we wait until he looks, we’re ensuring he’s interested. He can give himself breaks, too. Or completely call it off.

These links all take you to videos on vimeo. (I wish they could be embedded, but I’d have to pay extra for that, which isn’t happening at the moment.) The videos presented show forms of peek-a-boo and building suspense with eye contact. Since I’m done having babies, if you have one that needs a laugh or your back is tired, I have open arms! This ranks up there with spotting orcas for me.

Hiding, ball-spitting hand

Tummy time peek-a-boo

The crazy disappearing cow

Squeaky thighs

Suspenseful leg eating