Saturday, February 15, 2014

The "S" Word

Sophie and I had to re-up her supply before the big storm, so we headed over to the public library after school.

As we came down the stairs to the basement of the building modeled after Jefferson’s Monticello, Sophie asked:

“Mom, can I take out Junie B. Jones.  Please?  Anne brought it to school today and Ms. M read us the first chapter. There were no bad words in it.  Really.” 

“Soph, I don’t like Junie B. Jones.”  I don’t.  Junie B. Jones uses bad words.  It’s a gateway book.  Like the Berenstain Bears book about bullying.  It’s intended to teach children bullying is bad.  However, a research study cited in the book, Nurture Shock, which cleverly debunks the conventional wisdom on a number of parenting topics, found that The Berenstain Bears and the Bully actually has the opposite effect on children.  It teaches them how to bully. 

Just like Junie B. Jones unwittingly teaches children to use what I deem are bad words.

“I know you don’t like it mom.” We walk through the doorway as Sophie argues her case at full volume: 

“But every time I read the ‘s’ word, I can think of a different ‘s’ work, like ‘silly.’”

At this, the head of every parent in the children’s reading room swivels in my direction. 

This is what embarrassment feels like. 

I say very loudly to everyone and no one in particular, “The ‘S’ word, by the way, is not the word you’re all thinking. “  Now I realize I’ve gotten myself in a bind, because I can’t tell them which “s” word I mean without saying the “s” word out loud, in front of Sophie.  “It’s a word I consider to be much worse.  Synonymous with unintelligent.” 

No, this is what embarrassment feels like. 

The parents take their eyes off the crazy woman who just entered the room and turn back to their children, whispering unintelligible things (about me). 

I decided to give Junie B. Jones another try.  Maybe I haven’t given her a fair shake.  I walk over to her section, which is not far from the Magic Tree House books.  Number One is entitled, Junie B. Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus. 

Nope.  Can’t do it.  That….silly…book isn’t coming home with us.  

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Ahh! Creepy!

Gradually, the sphere of influence surrounding our children broadens.  At first, they seem to be made in our image, imitating our words, our expressions, our actions.  But as they grow older, strange phrases appear.  Things they couldn’t quite have invented on their own, and yet now it is their own because they heard it, it appealed to them, and they’ve made it so. 

At dinner, Kevin says to Sophie:  “What if you came down to my room in the morning, and it was very dark…”

“Don’t scare her,” I warn.

He holds up one finger and continues, “And you cuddled up against me, only to find that I wasn’t wearing a shirt.”

“Ahh!  Cr--eepy!” Sophie shouts with glee, but the way she says it—like a catch phrase on a sit com—indicates that she doesn’t quite get what the word means.

“That would be creepy,” I agree, smirking at Kevin.

I realized that he was trying to get her to say this for my benefit.  Every time she says it, I experience a strange joy.  She clearly associates “creepy” with a feeling of surprise or strangeness, and now overgeneralizes it to any surprising situation—whether she’s being tickled, or going upstairs by herself, or sees a spider in the basement.

But she didn’t learn it from us.

“Soph, who says that?” I’ve asked her, sure that she must have heard it somewhere else, and that it captured something for her, gave her language for a feeling previously unarticulated.

“We all say it at school.”  By we all she means the thick clique of all the girls and one or two boys in her Kindergarten class. 

In other words, it is a thing. 

I like it so much, I’ve started to use it…whether Kevin has snuck up behind me in the kitchen for a kiss, or I’m all by myself and hear a bump in the night.  And when I do this, I am charmed by the fact that it is now a two-way street. 

She’s teaching me the lingo.  She is becoming my portal to popular culture.  Kevin warned me the other day, that pretty soon, we will look to her as our technology consultant, our liaison to the post-millennial world.  We will need her to translate for us, as we once did for her. 

Ahh!  Creepy.  

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Hired Help

At six, chores are sort of like homework.  Fun, exciting, and a hallmark of being grown up.   Sure, Sophia hates to pick up her toys like every other child on the planet.  But tell her that she has a chore to do and she jumps up with enthusiasm.  Give her a whole list of chores, and she’s on it.  If I start cleaning, she practically begs me to join in.

I’m not being facetious.  She really does want to help.

And I wanted her to help too.  What got in the way?  My goddamn perfectionism.  Allowing her to mop the kitchen floor nearly drove me insane.

“Soph, you want to start off in the back and work your way out of the room.” 

“Let me do it my way, Mom.”

“Honey, your way is going to get this side of the floor all wet and then you won’t be able to get to the other side without walking all over the clean part.” 

“Okay, okay.  Like this?”

“Yes, only take a look where you’re mopping.  You missed a huge spot right there.” 

She gave the area a brief swabbing, still missing a large swathe.

“Here, let me show you.” 

“No I want to do it!”

“And I want you to, but I want to show you how first.”

“I already know how!”   I wrestled the mop from her, and demonstrated.

“Hey!  You’re doing the whole thing!  Let me have a turn.” 

“There is plenty more to do,” I assured her.  I rinsed the mop and handed it over.

She ran the mom back and forth over the area I had just mopped.  Within a few minutes she stopped.

“What’s the matter?”

“I’m tired.  Can I go read now?”  I’m not sure which she found more exhausting—the mopping, or me standing over her, making unwelcome suggestions.

Perhaps it wasn’t merely a matter of my impossible standards.  Maybe I was selecting the wrong tasks.   I saw a list of “age-appropriate chores,” on the Motherlode, the New York Times parenting blog, a few days ago, originally posted on Maria Montessori’s posthumous Facebook page:

Yes.  She could definitely be doing more, I concluded.  Starting now.  I was not going to raise an entitled, dependent, shiftless post-millennial who leaves a path of Legos and drawings of penguins in her wake.  

So at breakfast, I proposed that we come up with a list of weekly chores that she would be expected to perform.

Sophie loved the idea.  “Okay, mom!” she said, springing from her seat.  Thirty seconds later, she had fetched me a blueberry-scented marker and a sheet of paper from my printer. 

“Write at the top, ‘Sophie’s Chores,’” she instructed. 

I did, and then paused, the marker hovering over the paper and the sickening smell of artificial blueberries filling the air, “How many chores do you think you should do, each week, Soph?”

“Seven.  Write the numbers one to seven.”  Seven seemed like a lot to me, but who am I to squash such ambition?  Together, we composed the following list:

  1. Bring my dishes to the sink.
  2. After school, put my things away.
  3.  Fold my laundry, take the basket upstairs and put my clothes away
  4. Set the table.
  5. Dry the pots and pans.
  6. If I play with something, I put it away.
  7. Make my bed.

“Can I get started on it right now?” Sophie asked eagerly.  “I’ll go make my bed.  Will you come with me to watch?”

“Hold up a sec, Soph.  We have to discuss the terms of the agreement.”  I don’t like to dumb it down. 

“What do you mean?” 

“I mean, if you’re going to do all this work for us, I think that you should receive compensation.  Money.  An allowance.   That way, if there’s something that you’d really like to have, you can save your money and buy it yourself.” 

Now, I know that it’s generally not a good idea to reward children for things they are already intrinsically motivated to do.  But I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of an incentive.  I’d really like for her to start to learn the value of a dollar and the virtue of saving. 

But what to pay her?  A quarter was my first thought.  She has no sense of value yet. She would be pleased to earn this and watch her shiny coins pile up.  But then I thought about how very long it would take to actually be able to buy anything.  Even a pack of gum is a $1.50.  Kevin and I settled on a dollar.  If she did everything she agreed to do.  Payable on Sunday. 

As a child, my own allowance was sporadically paid.  I’m not sure if this was because I was an entitled, dependent, shiftless Generation Xer who didn’t hold up her end of the bargain (likely, I can recall trying to duck out of my duties to clear the table and rake the lawn, claiming stomach aches and allergies) or because my parents simply forgot to pony up (equally as likely).  So, I knew I would have to be on it, if this was to work…and continue to work over time.

So would she.  Well, it’s only day one, but Sophie has been holding up her end of the bargain.  Today she joyfully:
  • Took her dishes to the sink
  • Made her bed
  • Folded her laundry, took it upstairs and put it away
  • Took out the compost
  • Put away her trains when she was done playing with them.  Ditto for Twister.
  • And began to set the table of her own volition, before we told her that we were going out to dinner.

I have no illusions that she can keep up this pace.  But it was a banner day.  Tonight, as I tucked her in to her freshly made bed and she promised, “I’ll make it as soon as I get up in the morning, Mommy.” 

“You did good today, kid.”  I told her, and together, we took inventory of her hard work. 

“I think you did about a week’s worth in one day.  Tomorrow’s Sunday.  You’ll get your first dollar.”  Immediacy is key.

Her face brightened.  “Then I’ll give some of it to you, Mom.” 


“I’ll share it with you.  Because you helped me.”