Thursday, February 7, 2013

Not Only Diamonds Are Forever

There is an unfinished bit of parenting business rattling around my head that I just can’t lay to rest. My son would tell you it’s over, yesterday’s news. And in some ways, I am proud of the parenting I did. I remained calm(ish). I didn’t escalate the situation. For my son, it is genuinely settled. But I am not settled because I feel like I’ve neglected my dutynot to my son, but as a member of the larger parenting village.

Several weeks ago, my son received this message on Xbox:

The message, from a boy my son knows through school, was the first of several, all equally profane, angry and appalling (I've blocked out the worst parts and any identifying screen names, but you can get the idea). One thing you should probably know right off the bat is that both boys (the message sender and my son) are not African American (nor any other minority ethnicity, from what I can tell). Their school is in a suburb that is tied for the whitest town in our state. The jab, therefore, is not only hateful, it’s confusingly racist and also inapplicable. It’s as if the sender searched his memory for the foulest words he could think of, shook them up, and then poured them out in random order.

When I first read the messages, I was horrified. I began mentally planning meetings with the school principal and phone calls to the boy’s parents. I was a mama-warrior, and I wasn’t going to let this happen to my son without a fight.

When I showed a screen shot of the offending messages to my septuagenarian father, venting and expecting to be cheered onward into battle, he surprised me by laughing. He said it reminded him of when he was a kid and they would say a list of every really bad word they knew all in a row as fast as they could, which effectively took the meaning out of all of the curses. His laughter took a little of the bluster out of my reaction (thankfully), and I decided to change my approach. I would attempt to end this line of messaging without escalating the situation for my son. (We all know there’s nothing like a marauding she-warrior mother to collapse the social hopes of a junior high boy.)

The result was a reserved message sent from me to the young perpetrator on Xbox: “Hi. This is xxxxx’s mom. I have all of your messages saved. Please stop sending them.” (If you’ve ever tried to type with an Xbox controller, you will understand that my missive was a huge accomplishment.) The messages stopped immediately, my son was able to play it off by saying that I was in the room when the messages popped up onscreen, and the sideways giggling glances toward me at school events commenced. I've made a point to say a friendly hello to Xbox boy at those occasional plays and basketball games (but my eyes whisper, “I’m watching you”).

So in a way, I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. The stream of messages has stopped. The situation was no big deal among the social ranks of the school, and the kids have moved on to other daily dramas.

But in another way, I’ve completely failed that young man.

He deserves a chance to learn from this experience. His parents deserve the chance to help him learn from this. And, frankly, the rest of us could learn from this, too.

It’s not just the lesson that you might expect, either. If I were his mom, of course I would want to talk to him about the anger and the bitterness and the awful, socially inappropriate words he chose to use to convey his frustration at being a middle school boy navigating the waters of shifting friendships ("[mutual friend] does not like u bit@h"). But beyond that, I would want him to learn that his words are now out there…forever. We have reached an age where many of our statements are no longer just funny memories for our 70-year-old selves to laugh at decades from now over lattes with our own daughters. Messages that you text or Facebook or tweet or otherwise put out there into the universe now are out there permanently. Even if you jot them down the old-fashioned way, cell phone cameras and YouTube and Tumblr ensure that a forever-reminder may only be a few clicks away. These images and statements become a layer in the archaeological record that you leave of yourself for the world to unearth. What kind of record are your own kids leaving? What about you?

Do you want to be the boy I knew when my sons were younger whose Facebook page (at the age of thirteen) proudly proclaimed that his favorite quote was, “It’s not rape, it’s surprise sex”? Do you want to be the acquaintance whose f-bomb-littered status updates turn up regularly in my father’s Facebook ticker since he is also my “friend” online? What about the teenage girl from our local area whose boyfriend uploaded a video of her performing sexual favors and then shared the link with his friends? You can delete photos and videos and posts and ill-conceived messages, but you have to assume that someone, somewhere downloaded a copy or created a screen shot or somehow otherwise captured your moment of infamy forever.

As we each create the layers of our own archeology, we need to think about what they are going to say to the world about the kind of people we are. I sometimes swear like a trucker, but is that the side of me I want the world to unearth when they look into who I am online? How would I feel if the person who mined that particular layer was my best friend’s grandmother… a future employer or client… my own mother?

As a mom, I have always tried to drive home to my own kids how important it is that they never put anything out there that they wouldn’t want seen by everyone. This boy apparently thought his message was funny when he sent it to my son. I think it became a little embarrassing when he realized it had been read by me. I wonder how he’d feel knowing my son’s grandpa read it. (Not to mention all of you.) 

Forever is a long time to have your mistakes out in the world.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tightropes and Wonder

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month here in the US, and I’ve been trying for weeks now to think of the right way to share our family’s story from the past year. Blogging about real children is a tightrope walk—you never want to share anything too painful or too raw, or anything that your child feels is too personal. But you do want to share those universal moments that might resonate with other parents and kids who are struggling. Because sometimes those shared moments weave together to form a net that catches people when they are falling, helping them feel a little less alone in the void. So here goes the tightrope walk (my son gets the final edit).
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

A little over a year ago, our family moved to a small town just south of the suburb where we had lived for all of my 12-year-old son’s life. We had lots of good reasons for moving, and both kids were ready for the adventure of a new beginning. Our older son already knew a handful of kids at his new school through sports, and he quickly acclimated to his changed environment.

Our younger son—who is delightfully quirky and enthusiastically intellectual—found himself in a country grade school where he knew no one, surrounded by kids who were nothing like him. He delighted in reading. They delighted in kicking him in the shins under his desk when he pulled out a book. He loved to grapple with difficult math problems. They loved to sneer and mock him for loving what they hated. He had a malformed, smaller left hand, and he was surrounded by kids who refused to tolerate differences.

Day by day, they peeled away his confidence and his well-being and his sense of self. They carved him with whispered taunts, cutting away at how he saw himself, until all that was left was a shell of the boy he had been. Tears. Panic. Daily heartache. And that was before the day last spring when he was attacked on the playground. A single punch to the mouth left him bleeding and stitched and swollen, unable to eat solid food for over a week. The classroom teacher truly ached for him and tried to help, but she and I agreed that the best solution for my son was to get away from there, to start over in a school with kids more like him.

We found our silver lining in a new school this year in a district not far from here—another year of being the new kid, but with much different results. My son has found his tribe. When he brings up questions about wormholes and time travel in science class, the other students mull over and discuss his ideas, never even considering that the concepts might be unusual. He passes notes with a friend coded via the Periodic Table. He jokes with his pals about his “lucky hand" and shares the hallways with a stellar athlete who has no hand at all. He has friends. He is happy. We are happy.

But what happens to those kids who came so close to destroying him last year? How do they grow past their brutish tendencies when the people who are different from them are chased away? How do they learn to be anything more than what they are? What will they do in the larger world when they are faced with people who are disabled, or gay, or culturally different from them? The thought makes me almost unbearably sad.

Yesterday afternoon, I read a delightful book that could be part of the solution. Wonder, by R.J. Palacio is an exceptionally written middle-grade novel that captures the pain of bullying so poignantly, so beautifully, that the story and its message resonate long after the last page is turned. If I were still teaching (grades 4-6), I would buy a class set of this novel, and we would spend the month of October reading and discussing it to lay a foundation for mutual understanding and to facilitate a culture of kindness. Even if you don’t routinely read children’s books just for the joy of experiencing the quality literature being produced in that category today, you should make an exception for this book. But have tissues handy. Really.

            “… in the future you make for yourselves, anything is possible. If every single person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary—the world really would be a better place.”
Wonder, by R.J. Palacio

Bullying is not just an October problem. It’s an everyday, everywhere problem that can only be solved when people consciously remove themselves from the neutral bystander camp and become protectors of the least of us. This month, and every day of every single other month, do what you can in your world to foster mutual understanding and compassion.

Please leave your ideas and comments below.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Political Powwow

Sorry I’ve been gone so long! I was going to spend this re-emergent blog talking about bullying and how it can affect a whole family to the point where other activities (like blogging) become just too much—and I will—but there’s something I’d like to discuss first. We parents need to have a little powwow about politics.

I’m not going to try to change anyone’s mind about what they believe or whom they admire or how they’re going to vote. Frankly, I’ve met very few people who ever changed their mind after a rousing debate with a proponent from the “other side.” My concern, parent to parent, is about what we’re teaching our kids about how to process political disagreement and how to respond to people whose beliefs are different from theirs.

I’m not really even advocating open-mindedness, to be honest. (I know that sounds odd, but hear me out.) While we do tend to think of open-mindedness as a positive trait, my own mind—while progressive—is actually pretty rigid. My beliefs about human rights and gay marriage and global warming and foreign wars are evolving, certainly, but they are set enough that I can’t honestly say I’d be open to changing my mind about them after hearing from someone who believes differently. What is open, though, is my heart. I believe that most people in the world, regardless of their politics, want many of the same basic things, and that we can agree to be gentle in our disagreements about the details. Passive? No. Yielding in our beliefs? No. But respectful? I think we can do that.

This week, a teenage girl from Ohio found herself in a media whirlwind after she tweeted, “Someone needs to assassinate Obama… like ASAP”—followed by a hashtag dripping with expletives. That impulsively hateful declaration resulted in consequences the young lady probably never even remotely considered. She is being investigated by the Secret Service and may face federal charges for threatening the president. Even though she is still a couple of years shy of being old enough to vote, her momentary lapse in judgment was actually a pretty big deal. I wonder what lesson she will take away from the experience. Will her parents sit with her and talk about how to appropriately share political frustration? Will the family discuss limits to protected speech and positive ways to channel a desire for change in the world? Or will they hold the investigation as further proof that their disdain for the current administration is well founded? Will they deepen the hatred that gave rise to this unfortunate public misstep, or will they look inward for places to begin making changes?

It’s not surprising when impressionable young people spew vitriolic insults when that is what they are fed—by their parents, by the media, and by their own political representatives. Do we, as parents, want to raise a generation of children who believe the only effective way to argue is to spew insults and eviscerate the other side? Facebook and Twitter are full of political venom these days, and not just from hotheaded teens. It’s all about Us versus Them and how awful The Other Guy is, leaving us needing to remind ourselves that The Other Guy is actually a dear friend or colleague or former classmate.

What can we do to re-set the tone of the public discourse? How can we, as parents and senior members of the society, best guide our children to be respectful and involved citizens? What do you think? Please add your (respectful) comments below.

(When we’ve got the kids on the right track, maybe some of us could get started on the grown-ups.)

P.S. Full disclosure here: I’m not claiming perfection on keeping the tone positive. The last time I did door-to-door canvassing for a presidential candidate, my then four-year-old son walked to the door with me and said in his sweet little voice at the door, “[your guy] sucks!” Respect is an ongoing life lesson. 

Friday, April 1, 2011

April Fools!

I have a confession to make: April Fools’ Day turns me into a bit of a conniving goofball. There’s just something delightful about a holiday that’s all about embracing silliness and childish pranks, especially when the rest of the year I’m locked into the role of Responsible Adult. I make the appointments and organize the bedroom cleaning and help the boys with their homework. I replace torn socks and and make sure the pantry and fridge are stocked with sensible and nourishing staples. I am The Mom.

But once a year I get a little goofy. I plan silly surprises and “gotcha!” moments for the boys in my world (well, except for the dog… I don’t think he’d understand). This year’s holiday tributes looked like this:
  • Last night, I sneaked into my 14-year-old’s room and discovered, to my delight, that his alarm clock has an “alarm 2” switch. So without disturbing his usual morning settings, I was able to program a surprise pre-dawn awakening by the Spanish language station set to full volume. ("Bueno, los campistas, la subida y el brillo, y no se olvide de traer sus botas. Es cooooold hacia fuera allí hoy!")*
  • Every year I find at least one fabulously freaky item while I’m surfing the web for Christmas gifts in the fall (check out sites like Last year, it was a toilet monster. This year, it was this fabulous shower curtain (see photo). The shadowy figure is a permanent feature! I see it as a perfect cross between Psycho and Poltergeist.
  • I switched the hand soap in the kitchen and the boys’ bathroom with canola oil, thinking the smeary experience would at least elicit some grudging boyish respect because of the grossness factor. The joke was on me, though, because nobody noticed. The boys just smeared oil on their hands and went about their business nicely moisturized. [Note: backfiring tricks are not unprecedented. When Caden was five or six, I tucked a second-hand Barbie into bed with each of my sleeping sons on the night of March 31st. When Caden came downstairs the next morning, he was stroking her hair and calling her Stephanie.]
  • Not wanting to leave Eric out of the fun, I sneaked out in the night and tucked bubble wrap under his rear tires, hoping that the resulting noise would give him a jolt as he wondered what he-of-the-perfect-driving-record had hit. It would probably have been more startling if the bubble wrap hadn’t been bright pink and the morning paper hadn’t landed right next to the rear of the car. Ah, well, at least he felt included.
  • While the boys slept, I covered the top part of their bedroom doors with newspaper and filled the resulting pocket with packing peanuts. When they opened their doors in the morning, each boy was greeted with a snowy avalanche. That was a short-lived triumph, however, since “Responsible Mom” is the one who had to clean up all of that drifting Styrofoam (that, and my older son returned the favor by covering my bed in the flighty stuff). Note to self: no messy pranks next year.
  • Caden’s lunch contained a “candy” surprise. I carefully opened the end of a bag of M-n-Ms and poured out (and enjoyed) the candy, refilling the package with dried kidney beans and gluing the end closed. The prank was perfectly undetectable! I think his friends at lunch were more amused than my M-n-M-less ten-year-old, though. I had to pony up an actual treat after school to make peace with the jilted candy-craver.
  • While the boys were at school, I changed the home page on their web browser to I mean, what 14-year-old boy doesn’t want to gaze at Justin Beiber as soon as he logs on?
  • The final twist to the day was the dinner, which I always try to make as “April Foolish” as possible. This year’s menu was a sort of course reversal. The “fish sticks” and “peas and carrots” on their dinner plates were actually cereal-coated wafer cookies and hand-shaped Jolly Rancher chews and Starburst candies. The “cupcakes”, on the other hand, were made of meat loaf topped with pink-tinted mashed potatoes. Yummy! 

How does the rest of the family respond to this annual frivolity from Mom? My ten-year-old looks forward to April Fools’ Day almost like it’s Christmas. He giggles his way through the day, glancing suspiciously around door frames and asking frequently if there are more tricks on the way. My older son—at least this year—suddenly finds the whole thing embarrassing and mildly contemptible. (“Oh great, Mom, ‘April Fools’. That’s hilarious.”) But I persist. I’m hoping that when my kids are older, they’ll remember that once a year (at least) Mom was more than just that person who made them brush their teeth.

So... what should I do next year?
* Apologies to actual Spanish speakers if Google Translate mangled the DJ's line from Groundhog’s Day. My son, a first-year Spanish student, couldn't help me on this one.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Beef Stew, Tragedy & One Dumbassdog

I live in a part of the world that’s mossy and green, slicked in mud and dampened by an almost constant drizzle from October through June. Our rainfall is the stuff of legend, and this past winter has more than matched the region’s reputation. Even for here, it’s been uncommonly cold and drizzly.

So this morning, I set out to make myself a simmering pot of pure comfort food: beef stew full of tender meat, onions and potatoes. As I’ve mentioned before, I'm not much of a cook, but through the power of Google and a back-of-the-cabinet dusty old crock-pot, even I can make something that smells and tastes like a big warm culinary hug.

By three o’clock, the house smelled savory and delicious. I couldn’t wait until dinnertime. By five o’clock, the boys were asking if they could just have a bite of a carrot. By seven o’clock, though, the potatoes were still rock hard even though the pot had been simmering away on high for almost seven hours (the recipe said 5-8 hours, I swear!). By seven-twenty the natives were about ready to throw me in a pot to stew for dinner. So I punted.

The stew continued to cook while I whipped up a quick substitute meal of pasta for my hungry family. Just before bedtime, I gave the potatoes one last jab and realized they were finally about ready. It was time to let the feast cool so that we could eat it tomorrow—technically left-over, but maybe even better for the wait. But first I decided that I deserved a little tiny serving while it was still fresh. I mean, it smelled so good.

I pulled a small glass bowl out of the cupboard, not realizing its twin had grabbed on for good measure. As I stood watching in disbelief, the lower bowl fell and shattered against the side of the container I’d put the stew in to cool.

So now my stew had steaming chunks of long-simmered beef, tender carrots, onions and potatoes… and about 5000 shards of shattered glass.

Gah! Maybe the universe is telling me that I should stick to spaghetti.

I put the whole ruined mess in the laundry room sink to cool overnight so I could throw it away in the morning. I didn't want to wait up for it to cool, and I was sure that if I left it in the kitchen, our beloved dog would find his way onto the counter to feast on beef stew and broken glass. (He totally would.)

While I was securing the glass-infused death stew (conscientious dog mama that I am), that same beloved dog found his way into the boys’ playroom, which I have just reorganized and am in the process of painting. He proceeded to shred a huge bag of garbage, dragging nasty boy-cave detritus all over the area I have been so busily trying to renew. When I took him downstairs to put him outside while we cleaned up the garbage, he peed in a line all the way across the kitchen floor. That dog knew he was busted, and he was trying to tell me I was the boss. Gee, thanks, Dumbassdog.

So my evening ended up with a big pan of glass-filled stew, a huge shredded plastic bag of garbage, and a long swath of pee. 

Tomorrow has to be better, right?

Yes, that's a glass iceberg, right there in the middle.