Saturday, January 29, 2011

No Better, No Worse

Sometimes, when I hear the stories my friends tell about their kids, I feel a little envious. From the outside, there is something that appears more fun about having multiple children. When I step into their homes, there is always activity, lively conversations, and laughter. Of course, minutes later there is fighting, crying, and a plea for mom to intervene.

You can’t have it all.

My house is quiet. One night, our neighbor (with four children) came over to find Kevin and I nestled on the couch, working on a crossword together. It was a little after 7:30, and we had just put Sophia to sleep. The floor lamps cast a warm, orange glow in the room. “You two look so cozy!” she said. “It’s so quiet in here,” she noticed. And we all absorbed the silence for a moment. “You could join us,” I offered, “hide out here for a bit?” “No,” she declined, “I have to get back to my piles of laundry.” She dropped off a flier for a local 5K and headed back across the street, where her house was humming with the energy of three boys and a toddler.

There are tradeoffs for this evening calm. By day, I am the entertainer and adversary. Sophia plays and fights with me, instead of a brother or sister. I organize countless playdates and chauffer her all over New Jersey to ensure she is not socially deprived, missing out on peer interaction, and adopting my adult mannerisms, speech, and seriousness.

Sophia has filled the sibling void with an imaginary sister, also named Sophia, who is two years older than she and lives in California with her mother, Melissa and her father, Kevin. I note that even her imaginary sister is absent…living in a parallel universe, only to be thought and talked about, but not actually played with or talked to. This is how Sophie has come to terms with her only status. I admire her resourcefulness.

I am resigned to eternal ambivalence. Certainly, it was a wise decision to not have a second child. We don’t have the resources…financially, emotionally, temporally to embrace another infant at this point in our family life. It is easy to rationalize away the feelings that accompany this decision. But when I stop thinking about how much sense it makes, I do feel a little sorrow, a mourning of an experience I will never have. If one of my earlier pregnancies had survived, Sophia might have had that older sibling she longs for…I might not be so fearful of getting pregnant again, even at the advanced age of 40, and giving birth again.

But this is the way things happened, and this is the way things are. I could spend my time longing for what we lack or I could focus on my gratitude for what I have.

And so, I live vicariously through other families. I delight in their anecdotes. I offer unsolicited advice to help manage sibling rivalry, once again in the comfortable position of being able to offer ideas that I don’t have to execute. The other night I went out to dinner with Nan and our mutual friend, Pam, who we have known all of our adult lives. In a few transcendent moments, I pulled back and thought about how our conversations have changed over the years…from work (we were all teachers together), to marriage, and now to our children. Pam was telling a story about her two boys, E.J. and Ryan.

“Ryan ran into my room and said, ‘E.J. is slapping his butt at me!’”

“What does that mean?” I asked, trying to envision the situation.

“Apparently, he lay down on the couch, flipped his legs over his head, and was slapping his butt. At Ryan.”

“And this was a personal affront to Ryan?” I was confused.

Pam shrugged, “I guess.”

I thought about it for a minute. “It seems to me that in order for Ryan to have thought E.J. was being provocative, E.J. must have said something provocative. Like, ‘I’m going to slap my butt at you!’ After all, there is nothing inherently annoying about someone slapping his own ass. It’s weird. Maybe a little distracting. But Ryan felt bothered by it, because E.J. told him he should be bothered by it.”

Pam agreed.

“So, just as Ryan chose to feel bothered by it, he could make a different choice. He could choose to leave. Or he could choose to think it’s funny. You could walk him through his options.” We brainstormed a list of things that Ryan could do when E.J. antagonized him in this way. It was fun. The same as it ever was.

There is something about the difference between our situations, the distance I have from being a mother of multiple kids that made it so much easier (and enjoyable) than to generate ideas for how to deal with my own day-to-day tribulations. There is no better. There is no worse. There is only different.

Had I not been able to have any children, I think I would have forever felt this absence, just as I imagine, if I had a house full of children, I would long for the quiet life I enjoy now.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Virtues of Thumbsucking

When she’s feeling sleepy, she pops her thumb in her mouth and closes her eyes. Sometimes I find her alseep, her thumb still extended but having slipped out of her mouth, looking very much like she’s hitch hiked her way into a dream.

After we’ve had a fight, she wants to cuddle up—not with me—but with Snakey-pie, one hand stroking his flaming velour, the other up to her mouth.

When she’s scared…say, a cow appears on the horizon…her thumb retreats to the safety of her mouth.

Sucking her thumb brings Sophie comfort. It helps her transition into sleep. It calms her down in the absence of the self control that she has yet to develop.

I made a conscious thumb-over-binky choice during Sophie’s early days of existence. Though binky-use has been correlated lower rates of SIDS, I favored the thumb because it was 1) always available (i.e., I wouldn’t have to wake in the middle of the night to retrieve a thumb from the corner of the crib), 2) free, 3) doesn’t impact speech clarity, 4) is an early strategy for self soothing that the child can regulate him/herself…a parent pops in a binky, but a baby determines when he/she wants to suck his/her thumb, 5) though a thumb can get dirty, it won’t fall on the floor in a public bathroom and pick up god-knows-what.

Three years later, I realize that thumb sucking may soon begin to affect the shape of her mouth, the price of continuing resulting in thousands of dollars worth of orthodontia. At Sophie’s first appointment with the dentist, I asked how much time I had. She said Sophia should really stop by three or four (I heard four)…and even now, it should be restricted to bedtime. My heart sank…how do I take it away? Or, even greater a challenge, how do I replace it?

I, personally, was not a thumb sucker. Nor did I have a binky. But I did share Sophie’s predilection for soft things. I would hold a silky smooth fabric to my mouth and rub it gently, back and forth, across my lips. My parents called me, “Blankey Sucker Movie Star,” but it was a bit of a misnomer as I was not a movie start and did not actually suck the blankey. Nevertheless, my underbite required years and years of pricey orthodontia—chin cups, head gear, braces, retainers, positioners. You name it, I wore it. All this is to say, there are no guarantees in life.

I maintained my habit until I turned 12, when Hankey Blankey mysteriously disappeared. I had a strong feeling that my parents had a ritual blanket-burning ceremony one night after I went to sleep. And though--to this day--they vehemently deny having done any such thing, I don’t think they believed throwing it out would have sufficed. I was too far gone. Had they simply thrown it out, I would have found it. They had to reduce it to ashes; eliminate it from existence. Make sure that there was no chance I would relapse.

There are still times when I wish I had my security blanket. Well into adulthood, I have privately lifted poor substitutes to my lips, hoping to feel that same sense of well-being and comfort. But it isn’t the same. Sometimes, I can fill the hole with other things…focusing my attention on those I love and by whom I am loved…but other times I just feel empty and raw.

I believe we need to treasure the things that bring us comfort. I watch so many people…children and adults…struggle to self sooth. Without a method, we worry, obsess, become enraged, get depressed, can’t sleep, drink, take drugs. Sophie has a practice guaranteed to mellow even the foulest of moods, send her into the sweetest of slumbers. I can’t help but wonder: if we all had some thumb sucking equivalent…would we be happier, better rested, calmer human beings?

Following this line of thinking, what right do I have, really, to make her stop?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Playing Games

“Let’s play Candyland!” Sophie exclaims, retrieving the game from its hiding place underneath the coffee table. Obviously not well-hidden enough.

I inwardly groan. I used to like Candyland. In fact, I was the one who suggested my sister buy it for her in the first place. As a kid, Candyland held the same mystique for me that toy stores did. Now, when I walk into a toy store, all I see is tons of junk that costs tons of money. But when I was a kid, the walls were lined with possibility. I didn’t even need to buy anything to derive pleasure from a walk down the aisles. And this was before there were Thomas the Train tables and kid-sized kitchens available for the playing. All the fun existed in my head. Candyland was like that. Nothing on that board was edible, and yet the idea of it was delicious. The candy hearts, the gum drop mountains, the ice cream floats…I couldn’t wait to get to the next treat.

Of course, I wanted Sophia to experience that. And because I practice sugar deprivation (I won’t let her drink juice, let alone eat a gum drop), I knew just how much she would love it.

So here we were setting up the pieces. “I’ll be red, because that’s my favorite.” (Not really, but it’s the closest approximation to hot pink.) “You’ll be blue because that’s YOUR favorite.” Playing along, I tell her, “You’re right!” I instruct her to put the pieces at start, shuffle the cards and set the pile face down. Because she doesn’t yet have the manual dexterity to slide the top card off the pile, I set it askance for her. “You’re the youngest, so you get to go first.” I’ve read the rules. I know how the game is played. Pleased, Sophia draws a card. “Double blues!” she practically shouts, and proceeds to place her red gingerbread boy on a random blue spot on the board. I patiently point out the path and count out two blue spaces. She slides her piece to the right spot. I go quickly, and it’s her turn again. “I want Queen Frostine!” she squeaks, and she’s digging into the pile turning over all the cards to find the picture of the princess with the ice cream cone…a marriage of her two favorite things in life. (Ice cream is occasionally permitted. It’s calcium rich. And, besides, it’s my favorite.)

This is not how the game is played. You can’t just go through the pile and pick out any old card. You have to pick the card at the top of the pile! I tell her this, and a struggle ensues! “I want the princess!”

“You have to keep taking turns and maybe you’ll get her.” This is apparently not good enough for Miss Unable-to-Delay-My-Gratification. She’s still flipping cards over and I feel my patience evaporate.

I try to remind myself that this is developmentally appropriate. That she is playing with the game in her own creative way. And what does it matter, really?

But it does. I know I’m being completely irrational, but it’s making me crazy. I tuck the cards back into a neat pile and urge her to pick the card on top. She pulls her first face card…the candy cane. Her expressive little face breaks into a huge smile. “I got the candy cane!” “Fabulous,” I tell her, “now move to the candy cane spot.” She does. I motion for her to place the Candy Cane card into the discard pile, and she grips it with her chest, her smile disappears into a scowl. “NO! IT’S MINE!”

All right. Well, it’s not like it’s going to affect the game. I let her keep it and take my turn.

It’s her turn now, only she’s too busy talking to the Candy Cane card to notice. “I want to eat you, Mr. Candy Cane!” she tells him, and pretends to gobble him up.

“Sophie, it’s your turn.”

“Oh! Okay.” She picks a card and moves her piece appropriately. I breathe a sigh of relief and go again. I get the Gingerbread Man, which sends me practically back to start. You’ve got to be kidding me. I make a mental note to take the Gingerbread Man out of all future games.

“I want the Gingerbread Man! Give him to me!” It also makes me crazy that every request is issued as a demand of late.

“Ask me nicely, please.”

“Give me the Gingerbread Man please!”

“How about, “may I have the Gingerbread Man, please?” She spits it back to me in an insincerely, sing-songy voice.

“Okay,” I relent and hand it over. The Gingerbread Man is introduced to the Candy Cane man. I can see this game is never going to end.

Nan calls, I pick up the phone. She has something serious to discuss, and I balance the phone on my shoulder, attempting to continue to play with Sophie as I listen to what she has to say.

“Mom? Is it my turn?”

I cover the mouthpiece. “Yes, go ahead.” She picks blue and promptly gets stuck in a licorice swamp.

“Yay! I’m on the licorice spot.”

“It’s not like it’s a good thing, Sophie. Now you have to miss a turn.”

“But I like licorice. I want to stay here!” Honestly. How can you play a game with a person who has no desire to win? With no competitive fire? Who wants to lose a turn?

I interrupt Nan to explain what all the racket is about. “I’m sorry,” I fess up. “we’re playing Candyland.”

“I REFUSE to play Candyland.” She tells me. “Reid always wants all of the blue cards. It makes me crazy.” I can always count on Nan to validate my experience.

Yes. I could just not play the game. Or, I could let it go and let her play the game the way she wants to…the way she thoroughly enjoys it at this point. There is plenty of time for competitive fire. To stick to the rules. To be a good sport. Not every moment is a teachable one. Sometimes, I need to just go with the flow.

And I slip all the candy cards out of the deck and hand them to her. Sophie beams. “I love Candyland,” she tells me. And I am a little dismayed to realize that, though I do like to play, I am not a kid anymore.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

My Muse

The following is a book-inspired blog contribution to the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received the book from the publisher free-of-charge, however I was not compensated to write this entry. You can read what others had to say in reaction to the book here.

After reading Elizabeth Kostova’s absorbing novel, The Swan Thieves, I felt truly daunted about ever writing an accomplished work of fiction. When an author weaves together plot, literary allusion, lucid description and history with such facility that one is tempted to search fruitlessly for her fictitious characters (guilty) on Wikipedia, it fills the fellow author with admiration.

Literature has long served as a source of inspiration for me. Reading a turn of phrase that is particularly well-crafted, a character who is coaxed into being, an observation that is at once new and has always been true, inevitably leads to writing. (Not unlike how the art of others inspires—sometimes to obsession—the artist-protagonists of The Swan Thieves).

But these writings are rarely sustained and exist mostly in journals...thoughts tucked away. Many are never revisited until it is time to move them to a new place…and then I pour over them, marveling that I once thought this or said that…only to return them to obscurity.

For much of my life I have lacked a muse. Oh, there is inspiration everywhere. This I believe. But a muse compels you to write. She picks up your hand and suddenly the words flow out onto the page as fast as you can conceive of them. She is your reason and your source. Without her, you are trite, flat, uninspired.

In college, my writing was, at best, mediocre. I didn’t know how to be honest. I tried to write clever little stories. I tried to write from life.

Ultimately, I allowed myself to be crushed when, fresh from Latvia with several hundred pages of my experiences, I sat before my senior project committee and was told (by a bitter woman who hadn’t wanted me to go to Latvia in the first place, but to stay and write feminist literary criticism of Shakepeare as her apprentice) that my writing was sophomoric. That peppering it with Latvian words did not give it a historical context. That I better settle for a passing “P” over a “D” that was sure to diminish my GPA. (Never mind that my current advisor had never said a word of this to me in the five months we worked together.)

I set down my pen for almost 20 years.

I’m being melodramatic. I did write a dissertation. And a number of volumes of prevention curricula…but all of it was strictly professional.

Until Sophia. It was shortly after her birth that a friend, who knew I once wrote, encouraged me to join her at a story slam. Each writer had to generate a few pages on a theme and read them to an audience in a bar.

The theme was Cabin Fever. Having just given birth, I knew cabin fever. I sat down and felt Sophia, my muse work through me. The words came, without labor, without self-consciousness. That night, a glorious night when I was reminded that I could write, I went home with $17 dollars in winnings nestled in my wallet.

And now, I have faithfully continued to write at least one piece each week for the past three years. I may never write a great work of fiction, but my muse has led me back to a writing life. Every day she is there, fueling my desire to create, to articulate my experience, to capture and connect with whoever cares to read.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Snow Day

When we woke up, it was snowing. Not a driving, windswept blizzard, nor a paltry dry dusting, but lazy, heavy flakes that seemed to gather girth as they fell from the sky and covered the ground. Perfect packing snow. On this morning, with no where to rush to, no sense of imperative on my part, it was easy to cram Sophia into last years snowpants, next year’s snowboots, a hat and even mittens. I can’t explain why it can feel oppressive to dress a child to go out into the snow. It’s like making preparations to go exercise—always more onerous in one’s imagination than in reality. Or maybe it’s the having to do everything in double…as it is with all activities of daily living—brush her teeth, brush my teeth, give her a bath, take a shower, bundle her up, bundle me up.

It had been a full year since Sophia had played in the snow and already time has buried the memories of building a snowman in miniature at Grandpa Ben’s house or flying down the hill behind Grandma Judi’s house. She stepped outside and tilted her head towards the sky, opening her mouth wide she exclaimed, “I’m eating the snow!” She quickly moved from flakes to handfuls, her mouth glutted with white chunks turning transparent as they melted in her mouth. A lover of all things cold—ice cubes, popsicles, frozen fruit, ice cream, she was eating her way through our yard. I decided to let her. How many pounds of dirt is it that we eat each year? Let her consume it all in one sitting, if this is how she wants to take in her first remember-able snowfall.

I packed a fistful of snow together and rolled it around the yard. The snow came up in sheets, as if I was rolling up a rug. I had to keep turning the growing mound to keep it from looking like a jelly roll, bits of leaves and grass dividing each spiraled layer. “Look!” I said to Sophie, “I’m making a snowman!” And it was the first snowman I could remember making since I had left home for adulthood. Sophia glanced up from her frozen feast with brief interest. “Come on,” I begged, “help me!” The snow was so heavy and the ball so large that she could only push it a few inches. “Too hard!” she told me. I felt the micro-tears forming in my biceps as I took over, erasing the yard of snow.

A five-year-old neighbor, Travis, came over to join us carrying a carrot and box of raisins in one hand, and an umbrella in the other. “It’s my force field,” he said, by way of explanation. He, too, spent a few minutes of his time helping me roll the second snowball across the yard before abandoning the task in favor of stockpiling snowballs. As I worked on my snowman and Sophie sat in the driveway now (as I had cleared much of the yard) moving on to dessert, Travis updated me on his progress, “I have four!” “Now I have seven!” Growing worried, I took a break to generate my own small pile of artillery. Travis shot me a taunting smile, and I held up a snowball threatening, “Throw it!” he ordered me, crouched down on the ground and hopeful I would hit him. I threw my snowball and it landed just short of his feet, “Missed me! Missed me!” he cried gleefully, “And now I’ve got ANOTHER snowball,” he announced, scooping up the broken snow at his feet. “Eight!” Sophie then started packing her own and I took a couple shots at her, too, before completing the snowman’s head. I could barely lift it and it landed at a precarious angle on top. Not pretty, but done. Travis thrust the carrot into the middle of the snowman’s face, quickly returning to his snowballs, while Sophie begged to have an umbrella like Travis’. Okay, okay, I said going into the house and fetching her a force field. I wanted to be finished with the snowman, but they wanted to be doing. It was a difference, I noticed. Their engagement in process, mine in product. As I shoveled the walk, they moved to snow angels, and as I cleared the driveway, I dumped shovelfuls on top of Sophie, burying her. Soon Travis had to head home for lunch…we never did have that snowball fight. Sophie and I headed into our house for Snow Princess decorations—jeweled flip flops, a plastic lei, a feathery tiara and a magic wand. Sophie set the flip flops at the Snow Princess’s feet while I decorated the parts out-of-reach. Once we were finished, Sophia threw her arms around her and declared, “she’s my best friend!” I realized that we had been out for about two hours. I had forgotten to go to the gym, forgotten to thrown on the wash and was nowhere but here, in my denuded front yard with Sophia and the Snow Princess.

We headed inside to warm up with a bath and hot chocolate. Later we peeked out at the Princess. She was still there. And the snowballs remained on my porch, growing smaller as the afternoon sun rose higher. This is who I want to be.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Guilt List

The following is a book-inspired blog contribution to the online bookclub, From Left to Write. I received the book from the publisher free-of-charge, however I was not compensated to write this entry. You can read what others had to say in reaction to the book here.

M.F. Chapman’s Take the Cake: A Working Mom’s Guide to Grabbing a Slice of the Life You’ll Love is a quick read that offers practical suggestions for moms to achieve a more “balanced” life. Chapman eschews the “mommy wars” and avoids any discussion of staying and working at home v. working outside the home, which allows this book to be relevant for all moms.

Now, I’m not a big fan of the word “balance.” I think it’s one of these “pie-in-the-sky” ideals that goes along with being “guilt-free” and “perfect.” I prefer terms like “less-harried,” reduced-guilt,” (except when it’s applied to food) and “increasingly comfortable with imperfection.” But as my mom always says, if you can take away one thing (from a book, a training, a talk, etc.) it hasn’t been a waste of time. And Chapman had more than one strategy in her book for improving one’s quality of life. I could easily have addressed her chapter on television watching, “unplug,” playing outside, “fresh air,” or nutrition, “eat well,” but those are all things that I feel fairly good about. I thought it would be more meaningful if I mined what is, perhaps, my greatest struggle as a parent:


The Guilt List
Chapman recommends that you: 1. Brainstorm all the different aspects of guilt you feel in relation to your child, spouse, friends, work and most importantly, self (I will focus on “child” here—otherwise this could reach novel proportions.); 2. Determine which truly have negative consequences and delete any that are “moderate or inconsequential when thinking about the big picture.” 3. Examine the remaining items and determine whether you can live with the guilt because the item is in service of something larger or you can’t live with the guilt and what you are going to do to change it.

So here goes…my guilt list (in no particular order):

1. Letting Sophia lounge in bed a little longer while I try to grab a couple extra minutes of sleep. Particularly since she has to go to the bathroom when she wakes up.
2. Not wanting to pretend with, read to, or complete a puzzle when I do fetch her from the crib. Particularly pre-caffeine.
3. Getting impatient with her as she dances around the room and I need her to get dressed so we will be on time for whatever comes next that day.

That’s three pangs of guilt before breakfast.

4. When we are out and about I feel guilty about underutilizing our post-diluvium basement playground. When we are in I feel guilty about not taking her somewhere fabulously stimulating and engaging that day.
5. Checking my email/hit count/FB on my iPhone (when I could be interacting with Sophia).
6. Setting Sophia up with a pile of books while taking a shower (when I could have taken one during her nap, but was too busy responding to emails, writing, etc.)
7. Not involving Sophia more in my household chores (cooking, laundry, cleaning, etc.) and letting her fend for herself while I do them.
8. Not giving Sophia a sibling.
9. Making a phone call or simply receiving one when Sophia is around.
10. Missing a “bath day” (because, as it is, I only wash her ever other day)
11. Playing with Sophia too much (not letting her have enough independent time).
12. Not playing with Sophia enough (see #8 not giving Sophia a sibling).

I detect a theme here. Okay, so my list is mostly about attention and active engagement and the constant question that plagues me: Am I giving her “enough” of me? I am fairly certain that this would be true whether I was working 16 or 60 hours/week (though I’d definitely be feeling it more if I was working full time). It never feels like enough.

Of course the minute I start doing playing with Sophia out of guilt and not genuine enthusiasm, it becomes inauthentic, to which I’m pretty sure all kids are fairly attune. In fact, I would venture to say that it is far better to let her play by herself (which she does enjoy) than to have me doing it out of guilt (and either neglecting my own needs, which breeds resentment, or neglecting our household needs, which creates a whole other host of problems) just to assuage my guilt. The right amount is probably whenever the spirit moves me (which it often does; I like to play), and not when it doesn’t. But I tend to ignore all evidence in support of this (that Sophie happily reads while I’m taking a shower, that Sophie is not deprived—she has plenty of opportunities to play with other children through playdates, school, outings, that Sophie is becoming increasingly independent and creative on her own) and only listen to this nagging inner voice that constantly berates me for not doing more.

To return to Chapman’s task: The fact of the matter is not one of these things would have a negative consequence…well, maybe if Sophie wet the bed that would kind of suck. But I don’t think Sophia is going to be sitting in therapy one day talking about the fact that her mother never paid any attention to her. In fact, what could happen instead is that she finds herself talking about how I didn’t give her enough space, how I wouldn’t give her opportunities to be bored and create…or worse…how I poisoned our relationship with leaked resentment that stemmed from my perceived need to constantly attend to her.

I know I need to chill out, back off, and deal with the anxiety that pops up as a result. I wish making dramatic changes in one’s psychology was as simple as making a list, but alas, it’s not. I take some comfort in knowing that awareness is an important first step in the right direction.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Other People's Kids

Other People’s Kids

You’re on the playground and another child throws sand in your kid’s eyes. His/her mother is across the playground changing her second child’s diaper. Do you:

a. Reprimand the child, “No throwing sand!” and/or instruct the child, “You need to keep your shovel low….”
b. Talk to your own child about the other child’s behavior, “That was naughty. He shouldn’t have thrown sand in your eyes. We never throw sand.”
c. Find the parent, “Your son just threw sand in my child’s eyes…”
d. Tend to your own child and say nothing. Maybe praise your own kid for not throwing sand.
e. Do something else: ____________________________________________________

Maybe it’s the psychologist in me. Maybe it’s personality-driven, but I often find myself in a position where I am tempted to modify the behavior of someone else’s child—not because I think I know better or I believe the parents of these children are lacking in skill. In fact, I typically get the urge when I witness a child doing something parents generally wouldn’t want their child doing i.e., posing a danger to himself or other, but the parent is out of sight/earshot. I feel a strong duty to communally parent. I do think it takes more than Kevin and me to raise Sophia. I want other parents looking out for and helping my child become a kind and considerate human being. Therefore, I feel the imperative to do the same.

But…and here’s a big but…I realize that not everyone feels the same way that I do about this. And even if I did the exact same thing that they would in that situation…it makes them uncomfortable that I’m the one doing it. So what to do, what to do? Every child is different. Every situation is different. I try to evaluate the kid and the situation as quickly as possible, which requires making some informed assumptions about his/her motivation for the behavior, and make my move. I have shot withering looks, but not said anything. I have gently suggested an alternative behavior. I have quietly scolded. I have redirected. I have modeled a new and improved way to act. I have done nothing, but felt remiss.

But you never know when another parent is going to take you to the mat on this. Or simply express discomfort.

Even with friends. Good friends. People you have known a long time, extending your parenting to their children can be complicated. I can think of at least one occasion on which a parent was annoyed with me—not for reprimanding the child in question, but for trying to help him down from a height so that he wouldn’t hurt himself. The parent felt that he should experience the consequence of his actions. I didn’t agree. Not in this case. I kind of believe that if you can prevent pain and suffering…you should do it.

I understand others may think I’m being over-protective. And they may be right.

My friend Nan and I have a deal. We have each explicitly given the other permission to discipline our kid(s). Meaning if I, hypothetically, catch one of her boys throwing rocks in the other’s general direction (be it intentional or not) I am allowed to redirect, reprimand, and/or remove said rocks. And, by the same token, if my daughter rips something from her daughter’s grasp, Nancy is allowed to rip it right back out of her hot little hands (and redirect, reprimand, etc.) It is such a relief to have this agreement. I don’t have to worry about stepping on her toes or holding my tongue. Granted, Nancy and I have VERY similar parenting styles and generally “correct” our children for the same offenses in the same way. I imagine if Nancy took out the wooden spoon each time Sophia had a property rights issue I might feel differently. But how we parent has always been part of our conversation. And because we struggle together with these questions, we have a deep understanding of the frame of expectations we have for our kids.

But it’s not a conversation I’ve had with every parent of every child I know. Sometimes, it’s less explicit—more intuitive.

The other night, when over at a neighbor’s house and I caught myself saying, “no,” to her son, I checked in with his mom.

“I realize that we’ve never had this discussion, but is it okay if I say no to your kids?” I asked, albeit a little late, but fairly certain of her response. I have watched, with gratitude (and only mild embarrassment that I wasn’t doing it myself), when she has encouraged Sophia to couch her demands with a “please” and “thank you.” My neighbor’s children are, hands down, the most polite kids I have ever encountered, and it’s all due to her consistent encouragement that they mind their manners. Something I could work on.

“Of course!” she called from the other room.

“I thought so. But I wanted to be sure….” And it felt good to be sure.

But one mother told me about a similar conversation she had with a friend didn’t go quite as well. “You know, you can discipline my kids if you see them misbehaving,” she offered to her friend.

The friend was appalled, “Oh no. I just couldn’t!” She insisted.

“And she wouldn’t—even though I gave her permission,” the mother was surprised by her friend’s reaction.

“You know what that probably means,” I said, “she doesn’t want you disciplining her kids.”

“Oh!” The mother acknowledged that this was very likely the case. And though she could respect that, she didn’t think she’d be getting together with her much in the future.

At least she knows where she stands.