The One in Which My Son Attempts Origami Jujitsu and I Learn a Lesson

I spend a lot of time reminding my children to do things. Shut doors. Flush toilets. Turn socks the right way out before they go in the laundry. Brush teeth. Make good choices. Be kind.

Kindness costs nothing, I say.
To treat others with kindness, I say.
Be kind, I say.

And on an on.

The other day I was sitting with the ten year-old, he of the high anxiety and high self-expectation. He was attempting some ridiculously complicated advanced origami witchcraft. And, as usual, he was being incredibly hard on himself. There he was, frustrated to the point of near tears over this ridiculously stupidly complicated origami voodoo contraption that he couldn’t master on the first go–because you know, it wasn’t good enough to start with the origami equivalent of “is this your card?”.  No, it had to be some jujitsu paper engineering feat with moving parts. Whatever.

It suddenly became painfully clear I’d neglected something crucial in my kindness reminders.

I’ve forgotten to remind my son to be kind to himself.

Be kind. We teach it. We preach it. We speech it. We cross-stitch it on sweet needlepoint circle things. We put it on posters with cute otters. We repeat it, endlessly. Be kind.

But how often do we remember to teach the necessity of including yourself in the group you’re being kind to?

Be kind to the new kid, the awkward kid, the one who sits alone at lunch.
Be kind to the asshat who is not so kind to you, to the teacher, to old people crossing the street, to dogs, to frogs, to the environment.
Be kind, be kind, be kind.

We keep forgetting be kind to yourself.

Would you be so hard on someone else who couldn’t do this folding wizardry on the first go, I asked him? If a friend was trying to do something, even something easy, let alone an origami self-perpetuating motion machine, would you make fun of them? Would you tell them they were crap? Would you make them feel bad about themselves?

So why would you do that to yourself? I asked him. You need to be kind, not just to others, I told him, but to yourself too.

Cut yourself some slack, boy. Give yourself a break, son. Understand you’re not going to be a Jedi origami master when you’re still a paper padawan.

Did Luke give up and go home to Tattooine when Yoda was riding his ass? No.
Did Rey leave the rock in the middle of nowhere when she didn’t master the force right away? No.
Was there any real reason to bring Star Wars into this?
Correct answer: there is always room for Star Wars references.

I’ve spent so much time teaching and preaching kindness, but I forgot to teach him to be kind to himself.

There was no ice cream this time. But together we mastered the origami force. Or really he did while I sat next to him and reminded him to go easy on himself. And the ridiculously complicated paper engineering feat with moving parts worked. And he celebrated by making sixteen more and now my house is filled with them.

Be kind. Absolutely.

But don’t forget to be kind to you while you’re bending over backward to be nice to everyone else.

I may not be an origami Jedi, or even a paper padawan. But I’m getting pretty dang good at learning what this ten year old is teaching me.

 

Advertisements

Parenting In Between The Lines

Pick up any book about Mom-ing or Dad-ing and it’s usually full of the deep, dark, and diabolical bits of parenting. Temper tantrums and teen angst. Potty training and puberty survival tips (mental note: post idea). All important, but there’s a lot more that goes into this parenting malarkey than just the big stuff.

I want my teen to sail through the hormonal tsunami that is puberty…or wait..is it just menopause? Anyway I want him to be a grounded teen but I also want him to be able to tell a joke. I want my ten year old to use a knife and fork, but I also want him to know what to do or say when Great Aunt Betty gives him socks for his birthday.

This is parenting in between the lines.

Things like…

Telling a story. The other day my teen came home and told us a tale. And it was funny. Properly funny. And it wasn’t just funny because the subject matter was amusing. It was funny because he told the story well. He didn’t get hung up on every tiny little detail. It wasn’t peppered with “ums” and “likes.” My husband and I looked at each other over the silverware and one of us may have wiped away a tear.

Story telling, or how to keep your audience from stabbing their eye with their fork is in the style of Oedipus is something we work on with our kids. 3 salient facts and move on. And while we don’t have an actual gong or one of those giant, shepherd hooks to yank them from the dinner table, we have been known to make a buzzer noise and tell them to move the story along. Small, but important life skill. Not just with stories, but imparting any important information. Just like….

Dealing cards. Someone had to teach you to always deal to the left, didn’t they? Bet you never thought of it before. But it’s one of those things you realize how wrong it is when you’re kid starts dealing willy-nilly across the table. You have to learn skills like that, mostly so that you don’t make an ass out of yourself the first time you pretend you know how to play poker. Skills are important. As are facts. Facts like…

Where food comes from. A while back I read a statistic which blew me away. 7% of Americans think that chocolate milk comes from brown cows. After I picked my jaw up off the floor and cleaned up the coffee I spat at my computer screen, I finished the article and realized something I’d never thought about before. Someone has to teach you where food comes from. No wonder kids think chicken comes from Market Basket and ground beef from Netto. If that’s all they’ve ever seen, heard, or known. There’s no a priori knowledge about the fact that your juicy double bacon burger was once Bessy the cow and Peppa the pig. Someone’s got to teach you that milk comes from cows. And that chocolate milk comes from Nesquik. Teach your kid where food comes from. If for no other reason than to avoid being an embarrassing statistic. Speaking of embarrassing…

Joke pacing, another not so crucial but handy life skill. Knowing how to pace a joke, how to read your audience? It takes practice. Practice with your kids. You know why? Because no one finds “knock knock who’s there turtle poop in a tree” funny after the age of three. After three you can also work on teaching them things like…

How to get out of eating a meal you don’t like. We keep trying to tell our kids that politeness and compliments may not get you everywhere, but they’re going to get you pretty far. So, if you ever have one of my kids round to dinner and you hear, “Wow, this looks delicious, thank you so much, you must have worked really hard,” there’s a good chance they’re trying to tell you thanks, but no thanks, I hate fish.

I’d say I’d like to teach them how to know which one is a fish fork and which one is a shrimp spoon, but well, I don’t know myself and it’s hard to teach something you’re pulling out of your own ass at any given moment. But luckily there are plenty of things I do know. And not just that chocolate milk doesn’t come from brown cows.

Now, let me tell you a story…

 

Lessons from Scandinavia

walk-dont-walkA few nights ago I stood on a street corner near my apartment. It was a little before midnight. The air was crisp, the sky was bright, fir garlands twinkled with Christmas lights. I stood alone, nary a car in sight…and waited for the light to change from red to green.

Shit, I thought. I’m practically Danish now.

Five years in Copenhagen has almost completely erased twenty years of proud NYC jaywalking. In a fit of civil disobedience, I crossed against the light. But the fact that it took a conscious thought to do so made me realize how much living in Scandinavia has changed me.

I’m less competitive. As an American abroad, I didn’t have to explain the notion of American exceptionalism because it was evident in everything I did–or did not–do. But five years in Scandinavia has taught me that competing with myself and those around me? All it does is exhaust me. My kids don’t have six activities each. A day. The older one doesn’t play an instrument. Neither one of them is on the chess club. If there is a future checklist of extracurricular activities they need for college acceptance, we’re failing. And after five years here….that’s ok with me. In fact, if they choose not to go to college, that’s ok with me too. They’re kind. They’re happy. They drive me nuts but they are good, inclusive, thoughtful kids. No amount of piano or extracurricular Arabic lessons are going to enhance those qualities. I don’t always succeed and it isn’t always easy, but I’m learning to place those qualities above grades, above awards, above percentile and rankings.

I’ve admire the way Scandinavians look at the world. Scandis are loosely guided by the social principles of Jantelavn, which places the value on the whole rather than the individual. In fact, those who attempt to stand out above the fold are often looked down upon. It’s pretty much in direct opposition to the way I was raised, the way most Americans are raised–in a culture that demands and encourages you to stand up and shout. I hated it at first. I mocked it. They are striving for mediocrity! There’s no innovation! There’s no competition!  There’s no ingenuity! And it’s true. There’s not a whole lot of that. (Or rather there’s plenty, just not by super-sized American standards). What there is though? Contentment.

I’ve seen how social programs can work. Contrary to what many Americans seem to  think, ‘socialized’ health care doesn’t result in people dropping dead on the main drag on a daily basis. Will you get the same level of health care you’d get with a top-tier US insurance plan that’s costing you or your employer $3,000 a month? Nope. Do you need all those bells and whistles? 95% of the time, nope. Will you ever go bankrupt in Scandinavia because you get sick or are in an accident? Nope. But more than the very real benefits of tax money which pays for everyone to have decent health care is the pride the Nordics have in taking care of one another. They all contribute and they all receive. They are proud of the way they’ve structured their economy to look after one other. Nope, it’s not perfect. Yes, there is fraud. But there is a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction which comes from knowing that not only are you taking care of, but you are taken care of. I admire it greatly.

When you get rid of one, two more take its place
When you get rid of one, two more take its place

I’ve learned to worry less. Kid number one goes to Tivoli with a friend on his own. Kid number two walks to the toy store two blocks away by himself to buy Pokemon cards. The 12 y/o rides public transport alone. They go to the park near our house on their own, they stay home by themselves while we do the grocery shopping. And I don’t worry. It’s not that I don’t worry because bad things could happen. It’s that I don’t worry because I’m not immersed in a culture which is so obsessed by worry it that it dictates every action, reaction and counter-action. And by virtue of marinating in a more relaxed atmosphere for five years, I’ve absorbed it. And quite frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve learned not to look for answers to problems that don’t exist. I realized this the other day sitting in a meeting which was peppered with ‘what ifs?’. It took some scrawny Danish guy from the bus company who shrugged his shoulders and said, “if it becomes an issue, we’ll address it.” And suddenly…it made sense to me. For most of my life I’ve demanded an answer to ‘what if?’. The problem with demanding answers for issues that don’t exist is that once there is one problem, three more follow. It’s like the Hydra. It turns out when you free your mind from could be-maybe-what if? problems, there’s a lot of room for something like…well, happiness.

scandi-nationsScandinavians have it right about a lot of things. Not everything. But a lot of things. They have it right about the work-life balance. They have it right about vacation time. Scandinavians–scratch that–Europeans think Americans are nuts. Oh, and they don’t give a fig if overworked Americans think Europeans are lazy and entitled. You know why? Because they’re sipping drinks on a beach somewhere enjoying their vacation time. Americans take a perverse pride in just how much they are being screwed over. There is a bizarre sense of I must be heartier, stronger, better because I work more and harder for less. It took me eight years of living outside of it to be able to put my finger on that. And I still don’t understand it completely.

I don’t know where life will take us next, what the next chapter will hold. But I hope that the lessons I’ve learned after five years in Scandinavia come with me, wherever we end up.

The Forgotten Homework Lesson

homework-1950sDear R,

I’m sure you were cursing me yesterday because I refused to run home and get the homework you’d forgotten. I know you were frustrated. Understandable–I would have been too if it were me. I saw how hard you worked–even after football practice and getting home late–to get it done. It must piss you off that after all that, you’re still going to be marked down for not handing it in.

I’m sure you thought I was just looking for a way to say “I told you so.” But what you don’t know is that it hurt me to see you upset and frustrated and unsure. What you don’t know is that I had to remind myself more than once that interrupting my plans to go and get it for you was the worst thing I could do.

Why? Because this is one of those stupid little life lessons that suck to learn. It’s one of those little things that suck even more because it’s not that you didn’t do the work–you just forgot it. And let’s face it, we all forget things. Heck, I forget what I went to the kitchen for at least five times a day.

What you don’t know is that the “I told you so” part of remembering to put your homework in your backpack is only one small part of this sucky little lesson. That’s the easy part. Another part? Realizing it’s ok to make mistakes. Realizing that no one is perfect. Part of the forgotten homework lesson is learning how to own your mistake. Part of the forgotten homework lesson is not looking for someone else to blame.

What you don’t know is that I’d be doing you a disservice if  I swooped in every time you forgot something or had trouble with something or had a difficult decision to make. What you don’t know is how much I need you to realize that my time is valuable, that it is not ok to assume I will drop everything simply so the you will not have to be in an uncomfortable situation.

These small sucky lessons? They teach you how to hold your head up and admit you made a mistake. They teach you how to handle disappointment, from within and without. They teach you how to accept accountability. Today it was only a piece of Spanish homework, but eventually it’s going to be someone’s feelings, or someone’s heart.

franklin_d-_sergent_who_is_13_years_old_and_in_the_fifth_grade_does_his_homework_-_nara_-_541349I didn’t bring you your homework because you need to learn to rely on yourself. You’re still young, but these little responsibilities add up to bigger ones. Looking after your homework now is looking after your body later. It’s making sure you have a condom in your wallet. It’s making sure you have an out if you need to extricate yourself from a tricky situation. It’s making sure you if you hurt someone you take responsibility, if you screw up, you accept it, you learn from it, you fix it and move on.

Who would have guessed there were so many lessons to be learned in a piece of forgotten homework, eh? But the biggest one is this: There’s no shame in messing up now and again. The real shame would be if I never let you do it.

Love,
Mom