Teaching My Kids To Fish

…give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish
and you feed him for a lifetime.**

Picture No. 10172009Sometimes in the dead dark of night I worry. I worry about a lot of the same things most mothers worry about. Whether I’ve peeled enough carrot sticks for lunch. Whether I’ve remembered to sign the field trip permission form. Whether I’ve forgotten some major life event my kids will be traumatized by me not remembering. But mostly I worry I’m not doing a good enough job of teaching my kids how to fish.

Forget fishing. Sometimes I worry they couldn’t even order take-out sushi.

Like most, I started out with the best intentions…and like many, I usually fall into less than ideal habits along the way. My kids have chores and responsibilities, not to earn money, but because I believe they should contribute to the upkeep of their home. I expect them to do their part to ensure our place of residence does not resemble a hovel. Or something out of an episode of Lego hoarders.

But then….

It’s the middle of the afternoon and the dishwasher needs to be emptied…so I empty it. There are teetering towers of boy boxer briefs threatening to suffocate us all…so I put them away. It’s late after football training and they need to do homework…so I clear the table. They look weary under the weight of their backpacks…so I carry them on my bike.

It’s easier if I do it, quicker if I just do it, they’ll do it wrong and I’ll need to redo it so why not just do it right myself the first time?

I’m doing myself a disservice of course. They are more than capable of doing the things I ask, of them. More than that however, I’m doing them a disservice. Because by doing it all for them, I’m not teaching them how to fish.

It took me a long time and a lot of muttering to realize I don’t need to play Mama Punkawallah to my kid’s Lazy Lordships. It took me a long time to realize my kids aren’t going to sue me for motherhood fraud if I don’t get them every glass of water they ask for or acquiesce to every play date, if I make them clear the plates or sweep the floor or assume responsibility for themselves, their things, and their lives.

And that’s when the idea of teaching them to fish really became a bit of an obsession.


It’s possible I’m slightly more gung-ho because I’m raising boys and I want them to be well-rounded (and my definition of well-rounded includes knowing the working end of a mop and how to do a load of darks.)

More than simple household chores however, I want my kids to be able to do things. By themselves. Without me. I realize I’m outing myself as a quasi-free range mother, but I want my kids to go places and do things and make choices and decisions and have experiences. Without me. Without me advising or rescuing or informing or being on the other end of a text or packing a sandwich and a baggie full of Goldfish in case they get hungry.

I want the little buggers to feel confident enough to fish for themselves. To go out and catch their dinners. To cook them up and clear up the plates afterward and go to bed with a full stomach.

That kind of personal responsibility, the kind that leads to being able to take care of yourself?  It  starts at home. Making beds and clearing plates seem like minor things, but a kid who knows how to clean up after himself will eventually carry those lessons through into his adolescence and adulthood. Cleaning up your messes becomes a dirtier job as you get older. It’s one thing to pick up the Lego off the toy room floor, it’s another to pick up the pieces of a heart you’ve broken. But in the end, they are all part and parcel of the same lesson.

Learning how to speak up for yourself, taking responsibility for your belongings, not just the physical ones but the mental ones too, looking after yourself, physically and emotionally, all of those are fishing lessons. They are the stepping-stones between dependence and independence.

1950s-boy-plaid-shirt-sailor-hat-fishing-pole-dog-pulling-on-tail-of-caught-fishTeaching my kids to fish means giving them the skills they need to make toast without burning it, but it also means giving them the tools to be independent. To go forth. To ask, to question, to stand up, and yes, to fall down and screw up as well. To navigate their own lives without my constant intervention. Without me to always carry their burdens and fight their fights and clean up their messes.

They’re still young. I’m not going to push them out into deep waters and leave them to fend for themselves. I’ll be waiting behind the counter at Mom’s Live Bait ready to offer tips, to help untangle their lines, give them advice on lures. But as young as they are, the more I step back, the more I notice how capable they are, even at untangling the tough knots.

Eventually, if I do my job, they’ll be able to fashion their own custom rods. My hope is that one day, sitting out on the dock of their own bay, they will be able to confidently cast their rods, sure that they can handle whatever it is they reel in.

I hope I’ll have done enough to teach them how to fish. And at the very least, to order sushi without my help.

**I’d always assumed the fishing proverb had a Biblical source, but it turns out I was
wrong. Most sources cite Anne Isabella Ritchie, daughter of William Makepeace Thackeray as the original mid-20th century source. 


Why the Movies of My Youth Could Never Happen Today

maxresdefaultI’ve seen E.T. at least a dozen times. No matter how many times I watch it, I still get a little thrill every time Elliot and E.T. fly across the moon. I weep with little Gertie as she holds out her flower-pot parting gift. I snuffle and gulp down a sob every time E.T. holds out his glow stick finger to Elliot’s forehead and tells him,”I’ll be right here.”

I watched it for the first time with my boys the other night. It took some convincing on my part. They are used to Marvel and Galaxies protected by Guardians. Special effects and CGI. The family adventure dramas I grew up with are too slow-paced for them. Not enough stuff gets blown up.

Even though I know E.T. backward and forward, watching it with my kids I was struck by something new this time. Maybe it’s been on my mind. Maybe because I now have a kid around the same age or older than Elliot.

E.T. could never happen today. I’m not even talking about the extra-terrestrial part of E.T. In fact, the sentient alien being part would likely be more believable than the fact that for the most part, kids were left alone. For long stretches of the afternoon and evenings, after school, on weekends, in the mornings, alone. Alone. Without adult supervision.

If E.T. were made today, Michael and his friends would have been lined up on the couch playing Minecraft on a server, too busy to order a pizza. Elliot never would have tracked down E.T. because Elliot never would have been allowed outside on his bike by himself. His access to sugar and Reese’s Pieces would have been strictly managedHe would have had to lure E.T. back to his home with kale chips or fruit kabobs. Gertie was left on her own in the house, Michael was backing cars out of the driveway. Kids were drinking unlimited cans of Coke. Grade schoolers were encouraged to use scalpels and given access to chloroform. Kids were allowed out on Halloween by themselves.

It was just like I remember.

If E.T. was made today, he would have simply used a phone home app.


The Goonies? They would have all been in sanctioned after school programs. Data would have been in Chess Club and Early Engineers. Chunk would have been on Weight Watchers. Mouth? Mouth would still be Mouth. There’s a Mouth in every generation. But no treasure hunts, no long stretches of time to go exploring or spelunking. Not without grown-ups hovering nearby.

How about Home Alone? Child Protective Services would  swoop in faster than you can say aftershave to take Kevin into custody. Some neighbor surely would notice; not the increase in activity at the house mind you, but a ten year old kid walking outside by himself. This is the stuff that gets noticed nowadays.

The Karate Kid? No way Daniel-son would be allowed to hang out with Mr. Miagi. An unmarried middle-aged man? Are you kidding? Hello! Pedophile Alert!  If Daniel of today showed early promise in karate, he would be signed up for classes. The travel team, club tournaments. There would be no classic “Sweep the Knee!” for the win because everyone’s a winner!

The Princess Bride? No thanks, Grandpa, you don’t need to read to me, I can binge watch Netflix or YouTube videos to learn how to strengthen my archer queens.

The Breakfast Club? Over-involved parents would call meetings to discuss their child’s detention and threaten to sue if the decision isn’t reversed.

Back to the Future? Skateboarding without a helmet? NO way.

All those things we took for granted because it was the norm. Biking around for hours, swimming unchaperoned, roaming and hanging out. Smoking in the woods. Ok, ok, smoking in the woods wasn’t such a good idea. But I never thought I would look back on the movies I grew up with and feel sad for my kids because they’re growing up in a time when most of those things seem more unbelievable than coming across an alien from another planet.

There’s a reason why the blockbusters of today take place between the pages of a comic book, or increasingly, in a postapocalyptic world. It seems the only place where kids are free to roam around un-supervised is in Sci-Fi.

etKids haven’t changed, not really. John Bender was surely a Dauntless the same way Data was an Erudite before there was Divergent. The Outsiders were the rebels of District 9 before The Hunger Games. And before the Age of Ultron there was a simpler extra-terrestrial named E.T. and a movie about a boy who was free to grow up with the magic of possibility.

My kids prefer their own generation’s movies, as they should. The movies I grew up with have a rawness they aren’t used to. Sometimes the emotions are too real for them, too overwhelming, especially for my older boy who shows the same sob swallowing tendencies I did. (I do.)

I promised my son I would try not to cry too loudly and snottily as we sat together on the couch the other night. Of course I failed, though I tried mightily to stifle my sniffles. I watched out of the corner of one glistening eye as he cried too. We were probably crying for very different reasons, but he got it. He has a heart light.

There’s still enough magic in those movies to hit home, even if the world they take place in is almost as unrecognizable to my kids as the Marvel universe is to me.

Growing Up is Hard to Do

sprinklerRemember when you were young and the clock seemed to snail walk around the hours of a school day? How about the way time seemed to stretch and elongate when you were waiting for a birthday or Christmas morning to come around? Do you remember the explosive breath of freedom upon stepping out into the first rays of summer vacation? Those hot-house days were bottomless; ice cream trickles melting down an arm, a rainbow prism seen through the arc of a sprinkler on a sweltering August day. A bit of child magic.

Viewing childhood from the banks of adulthood is like traveling through a magical time warp, a rose-tinted wormhole. Because in and out of those breaths of freedom and ice cream sundaes, outside the nostalgic hopscotch box, there’s a whole lot of confusion and flailing and mistakes. There are the gut-wrenching hairpin turns of adolescence. There’s heartache and betrayal and feelings that get splintered and broken.

It ain’t easy growing up.

We fall all over ourselves to make sure our kids have only the good bits. The ice cream and the sprinklers. But the truth is, there’s a lot of bad and ugly that goes along with the good, no matter how much whipped cream we use to cover it up. Even if we put a cherry on the top.

I worry at times we are trying too hard to blunt the edges of childhood. I worry we are filing down the sharp corners of growing up in an effort to protect. I worry we are over thinking, over-analyzing and over-sanitizing childhood.

When I was ten, the boys in fourth grade called me Jello Buns one gym class. I was a stick insect at ten. No back, no booty, no bass. I can’t think there was much ass to quiver, but whatever there was apparently wiggled and jiggled enough that for weeks I was Jello Buns in gym.

When I was in high school, the highest status symbol of girlfriend-hood, of couple-dom, was wearing a boy’s class ring. I remember carefully wrapping yarn around the underside of JP’s* ring so it would fit my finger. Then I went and did something sophmoronic and in a fit of misguided honesty, broke his heart. I returned his ring and never wore another, though many around me did. From my goth-flower perch I watched notes get passed in class, conversations taking place behind locker doors, couples tucked under stairwells. I witnessed nervous boys asking girls to one formal dance or another, shy girls lighting up with delight at being asked to prom. No one ever asked me. I spent most of my high school years watching one boy after another trip into love with my best friend.

prom queens

All of those things bruised. They cut deep and stung and made my heart ache. They also turned me into a writer. Nothing spurs creativity more than ostracization and heartbreak.

Everywhere I look these days I see extreme examples of trying to shield kids from growing up, from experiencing any sort of pain, any sort of awkwardness. We’re trying to spare their feelings. We’re trying to, as my husband so eloquently put it, democratize childhood.

As much as we try, we won’t succeed. Because kids are mean and childhood is vicious. Not all the time, but sometimes. There is a reason why Lord of the Flies resonates with young and old. More than it is vicious however, growing up is confusing. It’s awkward. It’s eighteen years of trying to figure out what the hell is going on. No matter what we do, no matter how fair or safe or cushy or blunt we try to make it, no amount of rules or policy is going to make everyone feel welcome or invited.

No amount of sanitizer we dump on childhood is going to make it any less messy. No amount of bubble wrap is going to protect my son’s heart the first time it gets broken. No policy of inclusion is going to guarantee getting asked to prom. No matter how many coats of rose-colored paint we slap on the idea of childhood, there are going to be black spots that seep through.

Acknowledging the black spots exist is as important as offering a soft landing place when they fall. Sometimes more so.

arthur_leipzig_red_rover_1953As fond as my memories of sherbet cannonballs and Red Rover are, there were lots of things that broke me too. But those heartaches and heartbreaks, the ribbing and the meanness, those things also pushed me out of the tiny confines of what I thought I was capable of. Would I have flown as high or free if I had gone to the prom? Who knows. Would I be able to tap into the pangs of those teenage affairs of the heart as easily as I do? Doubtful. All things being equal, I’ll take the person I am. All the teasing and the heart cracks, the banging into doorways and the befuddlement—all of those things are the capillaries which lead to the veins which lead to the very heart of me.

Life is full of experiences, good and bad. Childhood and adolescence are too. We can’t make it fair. We can’t make it all rosy and creamy and good. No matter how hard you try, your children’s memories of childhood are going to be just as mixed and matched as my own.

We need to be careful we don’t dump too many anti-bacterial confines on the whole mess of it. We all need a little dirt in our guts to build up resistance. To get stronger. To make us who we’re meant to be, even if it takes us a few decades longer to figure it out. Even if you don’t get asked to the prom.

*not his real name.


There’s a writing tag on this one because one of the main themes of the novel is the messiness of growing up, of trying to figure out how to get though it all without too many bruises and scars.



You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think It Means.

kiss 2Every generation of parents adds its own entires to the Great Dictionary of Parenting. In the 80s it was “latch-key kid”, in the 90s, “play-date” and “time-out”. The naughties saw a slew of them: BPA-free, uber-boober, attachment parenting, free-range kids, sancti-mommy, inappropriate.

Inappropriate is one of those words parents started using instead of bad. Because apparently (there’s another one) it’s not good to judge things by labeling them bad. Or good. So I guess what I really mean is that it is inappropriate to label things with modifiers like good and bad. Or something like that. What it really means is that behavior which used to be considered bad was….well, it is still considered bad, we just call it something else.

Aramintha, it is inappropriate to pour sand on that boy and then hit him on the head with your shovel.

Of course, it was really meant for situations when you wanted your child to stop doing something that was totally normal, but perhaps socially uncomfortable.

“Zephyr, it’s inappropriate to play with your penis in public. That’s something you save for your private time.”

I did it too. Joined the parade, jumped on the bandwagon. But I’ve stopped for the most part because like most parenting trends, what started off as a seedling of good intention blossomed into a redwood of ridiculousness.

I find myself walking around channeling Inigo Montoya. “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

When it comes down to it, inappropriate behavior is a broad and subjective range. While there are things most, if not all of us, will agree are to be discouraged, we are usually comfortable labeling such things with much stronger language, like unacceptable. What we really mean of course is bad, but the idea of using the word bad around kids died around the same time Michael Jackson started singing about it.

Inappropriate, for all intents and purposes, is a stop-gap. It’s a word we reach for when we don’t know what to say. Instead of saying to junior:

I don’t like it when you touch my boobs because it makes me feel uncomfortable, or I don’t like you being that close to me right now, or I don’t like the way it feels when you do that, or don’t get up so close to my grill, child.

We say:

It’s inappropriate when you touch Mommy that way.

So now instead of having a generation of kids wandering around wondering if they’re bad, we have one wandering around wondering if they are inappropriate.tumblr_n1uea0QxU91r4ueyro1_250

And if something can be labeled inappropriate, Newton’s Third Law of Language dictates that there must be an equal and opposite range of behaviors deemed appropriate.

The fun starts when you try to figure out who gets to decide. The pope? The president? Tipper Gore and the PMRC? Parents?

Last year I chaperoned a field trip to a dance performance about bodies. Two young adults stood on the stage, dressed in sweats and tank tops. The piece, which explored non-verbal communication, was attempting to convey the physical differences between the young man and the young woman. At one point, both pulled their sweats away from their body and looked down their own pants, then back up to the each other as if to say, “hey, do you have one of these too?” Apparently a few kids went home and told their parents that the show was inappropriate.

I do not think that word means what you think it means.

I think, what they meant, is that sitting in a dark theatre with a body full of budding hormones watching two very fit people non verbally communicate about bodies made them feel…different? uncomfortable? tingling? curious? confused? Perhaps it even made them feel awkward when the lights came up and they confronted their own bodies. But is any of that inappropriate?

Unless we have reached a point where we are shielding our kids from the fact that they a) have bodies or b) are a different sex than half the population (and honestly, some days it wouldn’t surprise me if that was the case), then I don’t understand how it could be construed as inappropriate. If anything, I would argue the feelings it aroused in some children were entirely appropriate for their age group.

It came up again yesterday when a friend was seeking guidance on what is considered appropriate public behavior for a budding tweenage romance. The school her son attends has a policy about inappropriate behavior.

There’s it is again.

When I was in 5th grade, we were coupled off. By sixth grade we were playing spin the bottle and other kissing games. Some of my parenting peers were visibly upset this year when the boys and girls in 5th grade were asking one another to the school dance. It caused a lot of stress. These confusing feelings that go hand in hand with growing up usually do. Did some children feel pressured to ask another student to the dance? I’m sure they did. That can be a pretty confusing emotion for a child who is not prepared for it. In fact, I’m pretty confident that’s what influenced my own son to ask a (girl)friend. But…labeling that exploration of maturity inappropriate?

kissTo me, that is well within the range of appropriate. Exploring budding feelings, putting a toe in the water. Not all kids are ready for that, including my son, but some are. Who are the rest of us to say that their behavior is inappropriate? Does inappropriate mean any behavior that makes someone else uncomfortable? Because hell, that can be expanded to include just about any behavior short of breathing. Is hand-holding appropriate after a certain age? Hugging? Kissing? How about playing violent video games or watching James Bond films? Wearing makeup? Short skirts? Baggy jeans and a hoodie? How about shooting a rifle? Any of those behaviors is going to make someone else feel uncomfortable.

What’s appropriate for your goose may be totally inappropriate for my gander. And vice versa. If ganders and geese can be viced and versed.

Yes, we need to reinforce boundaries of acceptability with our children, but they should remain fairly broad. Across the board respect? Definitely. No means no? Yes, always. But children also need to be allowed and encouraged to find their own personal boundaries as well—not necessarily the false ones we create for them, or worse, the ones they don’t even know they are crossing because they have no idea what inappropriate means.

Because they keep hearing that word. And I do not think it means what they think it means.