How to Reduce Stress in a Ten Year Old (And What Does He Have to Stress About Anyway?)

Braces, Round One, were removed from my 4th grader today.

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Exultation! But just for a while.

A second round is sure to come two years from now. That’s how they do it nowadays: Expand their jaw with a torture device that requires parental “cranking,” to make us complicit; smack braces on the widened mouth; remove braces; allow one week respite before a retainer that will become the subject of anxiety dreams involving naked dumpster diving (we’re always naked in anxiety dreams); after the last baby teeth fall out and adult ones grow in, apply Braces Round Two.

This is progress.

If you are my child’s grandparents or teacher please skip the next sentence. I intentionally scheduled today’s orthodontist appointment to start when recess ended. I let him miss instructional time instead of play time.

I have my reasons. One night last week, the 4th grader, lying on his bed in the honest hour, that twilight moment after lights out when truth is told to parents, said, “My body feels so much stress. My head and my heart are filled with stress. It’s not good for your heart, right?” Even his stress was stressing him.

What could a 4th grader (with one of the nicest teachers in the school, no pandering) feel stressed about?

Maybe it was transitioning from summer. Maybe it was the quizzes he had to catch up on after missing two days of school for a family Bat Mitzvah in Pennsylvania. Maybe it was missing his dogs, who live in Pennsylvania because they are actually his grandparents’ dogs. He does have a beautiful relationship with Bucket and Bumper. Like human long distance relationships, it’s all honeymoon, no day-to-day dreary logistics, like poop gathering or vomit cleaning.

So maybe he was sad or stressed by those things? I don’t know. What I do know is that he is a kid for whom “unscheduled” is the highest form of pleasure, that recess and lunch are his favorite parts of school, and that ten years old is too young to be consumed by stress. When given the option, it was an easy choice to protect recess.

Don’t think I haven’t reminded him multiple times of what I did for him. I get a lot of “meanest mom!” flung my way; I’m going to milk this as long as I can.

Hanging up the iPhone: An Apology, Some Praise, and Five New Rules

Dear A,

We need to talk.

First, I am sorry. When I wrote about throwing away your iPhone, I did not intend to equate you with a 2-year-old tantrum thrower. No way. You are the farthest thing from it.

I was trying to say that parenting gets harder as kids get older, and that a wise teacher once counseled that good parenting sometimes means changing your mind even in the face of strong resistance. I am sorry for how I wrote it. I’m not a perfect mom, or a perfect writer. It’s hard to end an essay. It’s hard to know the right parenting path.

Second, I am proud of you, and of how you communicated with me. You handled yourself with restraint and respect, telling me you were mad at me, and that you would talk with me about it later, privately. You said you worried you would be teased, and that because the story is on the internet, anyone could happen upon it.

Let me set the record straight. You didn’t cry, wail, or tantrum in the slightest when you read the article. You explained why you were angry with me with a calm dignity that most adults (myself included) can’t muster. I admire your maturity, your clarity and your patience.

Being a parent is soul-filling fun. I love being with you. And sometimes being a parent is hard, because you want to do what’s best for your kid and it’s not always clear what that is. So you check your values, you talk with friends you respect, you may even ask your own parents for advice, and in the end you go with your gut.

(Actually, that’s a good prescription for handling difficult choices you encounter at any age.)

I hope you will accept my apology and also my praise.

Now what did you think about the rest of the essay? Do you understand why I am concerned about the amount of attention you give your iPhone? Do you agree that it is super tempting to check Instagram?

I know I tend to be a worrier. But a lot of parents have the same worry. We worry that your generation is falling into an addiction still too fresh to be understood. Our gut tells us this is a problem. All of us are trying to figure out limits on them.

I know you understand some of the dangers. We have talked about the 15-year-old boy from our neighborhood who died because he was looking at his phone when he crossed the street. We’ve talked about the unknown effects of radiation on the brain. You have heard your baseball coach tell of how he helped an adult who fell because he didn’t notice the sidewalk end. We got some chuckles from watching this video of a guy falling into a fountain because of his phone.

But it’s not your physical safety I am most worried about. It’s that I look around and see people—young and old—not talking to each other. It’s that so many people go to their phones when they are bored, instead of anything else: write a poem, go for a walk, daydream. I don’t want that to be you, or your brother, or your friends, or me, or Dad.

So what should we do about it?

I’m not going to throw away your phone. I acknowledged from the start that it has some fine social attributes—like making plans for a pick-up basketball game, or hanging out at the Pier, or just saying Hi. But it can’t take over.

So here’s what I suggest.

1. You may continue to take the phone with you to school in your backpack. I know you like to play games, or take photos, or whatever, on the bus ride home. I’m cool with that. It’s fun. Be sure to text your grandparents and aunts sometimes, too. They love hearing from you.

2. When we are in the car together, turn it off and put it in your backpack. I like to talk with you. And if you don’t feel like talking, we can listen to music. We’ll be sharing the experience.

3. When we get home, put it in the closet, not out on the counter. Out of sight, more out of mind.

4. After dinner, you can check your phone, let’s say for 20 minutes, if homework’s done. Then say goodnight to your phone and put it back in the closet.

5. Here’s the good part. I will put my phone away, too. I want to break the habit of checking for new e-mails every twenty minutes (or more). After the work day is done, mine is off.

I’m not saying this is going to be easy. But I trust that we will get used to it and maybe even be grateful. We will keep each other honest. You are a reasonable and wise person, and I’m guessing you will find these guidelines reasonable and wise as well.

One more thing. When we go on a loooong road trip, you and your brother can turn on the phone and play some games, but if I find you guys looking at the screen instead of Half Dome, we’re gonna have a problem.

I love you to the end of the universe,

Mom

Little Guy, Big Ideas

I took Emmett out of school a little early last week. We were heading to a major orthodontist appointment: At long last, he was getting an expander. “It breaks your jaw,” his father explained to him last week, smiling wickedly. I blanched and gave him an “are you insane?” look, but Emmett’s into gruesome-ness, so he was okay with that.

Have you seen these contraptions? They attach with rings around a top molar on each side of the mouth, with a metal brace kissing the roof of the mouth. We have to crank it wider, about a millimeter or two, twice a day, so that our baby’s jaw will spread out and make more room for his huge teeth, also courtesy of my husband. Meals and snacktime are now accompanied by repeated “chaack!” sounds from Emmett’s throat as he tries to clear food out of its tangled wires.

This expander has felt like It’s been a long time coming. His older brother Aaron had one in the third grade, three years ago, and since then Emmett knew his day would come. He mostly looked forward to the day or two of pudding and smoothies and jello that would accompany it.

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Now the day was here. We crossed the empty schoolyard, Emmett’s pace slowed. He was nervous. He spoke then, so quietly that I had to lean down and cup my ear to hear him.

“It feels like it came so fast. And it’s going to be so fast until I’m off.”
“What do you mean, ‘off’?” I asked. “Until the expander is off?”

He answered without looking at me, looking straight ahead into his future.

“Off to college.”

I don’t tell you this because it’s cute or charming or precocious, but because my gut sank so deeply when I realized, he was dead right. I took his hand and walked through the school door, on our way to the next thing.

 

Read between the lines

My sister and I had a favorite sight gag as kids. Hold up your middle three fingers toward someone, palm facing you and say, “Read between the lines.”

This is something different.

Our eight-year-old is assigned to read 20 minutes every night. And every night, as we open a book to read, he rolls over and says, “You read. I’m too tired.” We try gimmicks – “I’ll read one page (or paragraph, or sentence) and then you read one!” Mostly he refuses, and mostly I give in and read to him. With his school reading scores pretty strong, I justify it thusly: it’s a wonderful thing to be read to, we are building cozy memories.

But still I worry (of course I do). “He must do the assignment! He must improve! He could be reading at an even higher level!” (Trust me, as I write this I am even annoying myself.) I continue to pester him about reading, and he continues to resist.

Then, this morning, a most inexplicable turn of events. On the drive to school, the little guy agreed to help his brother practice lines for the balcony scene in Romeo & Juliet. Motoring along the palm tree lined Ocean Avenue and San Vicente Blvd., my son who balks at reading The Hardy Boys aloud, eloquently read aloud the immortal words, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art though Romeo?”

He did the entire scene, until he bumped with embarrassment over the word “breast.” It went downhill from there, screeching to a halt at the word “marriage.” He had a problem with saying he would get married to his brother. “Daddy,” he said with no room for negotiation, “you have to say the M-word, cuz I won’t.”

This from a kid who has no qualms spouting words more commonly known by their first letter. Which reminds me, I think he’d enjoy our old sight gag.Image

 

Obama’s Reelection, Prop 30 and Legos

It wasn’t only the candidates who put on turbo-powered overdrive in the last hectic week. My kids got in the game.

Saturday brought us to the Obama HQ in Santa Monica. We made phone calls into Iowa that no doubt gave Obama the decisive edge there. The boys grooved on the energy in the buzzing room filled with volunteers, diving into the experience pumped up on abundant bowls of Halloween candy. Were it not for a small case of the stomach flu, we would have been back again Monday after school, Aaron enjoyed it so much.

The campaign talk was heavy among second graders at Palisades Elementary school, with Emmett reporting the following high level debates at the cafeteria tables:

  • Friend A said “Romney care means ‘Love of America’ and Obamacare means ‘revenge.’ (Someone’s got Fox News on at home.)
  • Friend B said “Obama’s going to win because everyone in China is going to vote for him. I told him, ‘Dude, only people in our country can vote.'” Dude, how’d you get so smart?

Emmett wasn’t always an Obama fan. Even earlier this year, he told me he didn’t like Obama. I’m happy for him to have his own opinions. Curious about his reasons, I asked him why. He explained, “Because he wants everyone to go to school.”

Indeed, my second-grader was conflicted about Prop 30, the measure to raise taxes in California so that our schools wouldn’t lose 6 billion dollars this year. He couldn’t process the notion that having summer vacation begin in April was a bad thing. He couldn’t bring himself to pull that lever, and left his brother to vote with me yesterday, while he went off with his (Romney-supporting) buddy to play Legos.

I’m not sure exactly when he decided to support Obama, but last night at 8:30 he shouted, “I’m so glad Obama won! BOOM!” It might have been the friendly competition with aforementioned Friend A.

The truth is that both of my children can like whomever they want. I explain the reasons I vote the way I do, and I do hope to instill in them my values. But the most important value I hopeto instill in them by bringing them to campaign offices, and taking them with me to vote, is the value of participation. I want them to know that their opinion matters, their voice has value, their one vote can make a difference, elections are important, and that these kids have so much to offer the world.

I Voted!
Next time, thoughts on raising boys to be feminists…BOOM!

The (Great Big Parenting) Book

As some of you know, I’ve become something of a Torah study geek of late. Weirder still – my sister is now hooked, too.

It’s something I never ever never pictured myself doing. I thought it was for people who, you know, believed that Torah is the word of God, and that we’re supposed to do things because the Torah said so, unquestioning. Not me. Never me. I am a Reconstructionist Jew who sees divinity in the miracles of the universe — like the tides, sunsets, and the way my brain is telling my fingers how to move so I can express my ideas to you. I can get a little spiritual, but don’t begin to tell me that God wrote us a story or that, come Yom Kippur, he is taking names.

So how did I become a Torah Study groupie?

Read all about it in this week’s Jewish Journal, available in print for you traditionalists, too.

 

 

A Bad Idea Gone Good

Q: When four adults confront a 5-day forecast that includes thunderstorms Monday afternoon and sunny skies the rest of the week, what activity do they choose for Monday?

A: Floating down the Delaware River for three hours in innertubes.

Emboldened by our rain-free bike ride yesterday, and with a mantra that “those forecasters are always wrong,” we set out for Frenchtown, New Jersey, site of Delaware River Tubing. Leaving no margin for error, “we” (by which I mean, of course, not me) reasoned that if we started by 10 a.m., we’d be out before the predicted storm.

The friendly kids at Delaware River Tubing gave us an innertube, a smile, and a ride to the river.

Our floating parade began under sunny skies, moderated by clouds that kept us thankfully cool. The river was as lazy as they come, making me laugh at myself for thinking this might be a dangerous endeavor.

Then the thunderstorm caught up with us. Suddenly no one could remember whether it was safer to be exposed in the middle of the river, or sheltered near the river banks and all its trees. We strenuously paddled to a happy medium, appreciating that the storm added drama to what otherwise would have been an uneventful pleasure ride. What better than a brush with danger to sear a memory into permanence. The lightning caught especially caught Emmett’s attention.

Tonight, however, safe at home, rejuvenated by warm baths, soft pajamas and a delicious dinner of corn, tomatoes and chicken any locavore would love, Emmett stated his opinion of the day in simple but clear terms: “Let’s do it again tomorrow.”