Saturday, June 04, 2011

6/4/2011 Harry Potter Day

A rainy indoors weekend, Dad is away, and cleaners are coming Monday and the house is a mess. This all adds up to : video incentives to clean up!

Today our one kid-outing was to go to Barnes & Noble, to get the remaining Harry Potter books I didn't already have (episodes 5, 6 and 7). The plan was also to get gift cards for Gabriel and Julian's long-suffering teachers, and thank-you cards for the kids to write in for their teachers. I forgot about the cards somehow, so we're in for another trip tomorrow (or make our own cards at home tomorrow), but we also went to Blockbuster to rent the first Harry Potter movie.

Mean old me, I insist on LOTS of cleanup and laundry before movies. Gabriel had the least to do of all the kids, and he has a point: why should I clean up after them? I hated as the firstborn being expected to do more and clean up after my messier younger siblings. Katrina makes by far the biggest toy-messes, but I tell Gabriel that since I have to help her clean up, then he's helping me, not her.

And Gabriel did help a lot tonight. He cleaned up parts of her room (things that are hard for her to do), he took out the garbage and recycling, cleaned up common areas of the house, folded and put away all his laundry.

It's tricky with him since all his toys were put away last week for his offenses at the CDC -- another subtle side-effect of the oh-so-NOT-simple consequence of putting all his toys away: now he's immediately the best-behaved about cleanup, since he has almost nothing to do. But he still was by far the best tonight anyway.

Julian and Katrina were on notice that there was no movie for them unless they helped, and both of them blew it off. And naturally, both threw major fits when it was bathtime and they realized they weren't going to get to watch the movie. Katrina accepted reality quickly, but Julian -- oh my, he screamed, and I mean screeched at the top of his lungs for no less than an hour (including a 5-minute stint out on the front porch in his pajamas). He was outraged and stunned at being stiffed the movie, insisting that he'd "done enough." He refused to listen to reason that he'd ignored me when I'd told him to clean up something, as usual blaming it all on someone else.

On the outside, it appears easy: "State the consequence, follow through, that's it!" In practice, having your kid SCREAM for an hour is extremely disruptive. It's not "that's it," though I sure as heck wasn't about to back down. It'd be worth it if he meant he learned his lesson and will comply next time, but I'm sure I'm in for the same exact painful hassle again.

There are good reasons I wanted a 2-story house in this 1-story ranch-house area, and tonight that played out. While Julian screamed his head off in his room, Gabriel and I started the movie. I'd planned to only watch half of it - it started way late after all, but he'd really helped me above and beyond and it was so nice watching together, that I said "eh!" and let him stay up really late watching the whole thing together.

I had the Harry Potter books 1-4 because I loved them, well before having kids. I remember thinking that they'd really appeal to kids, so what a treasure for me to experience that kid-appeal first-hand with my own kid now. It's about time Harry Potter fever swept this household!


Friday, June 03, 2011

6/3/2011 Neighbors

For the last 11-1/2 years, this is a sight that we've seen across the street:

far more often than this one:

In fact, we've never, ever seen no cars in the driveway or lining the street -- and often on the lawn.

Really, we've never seen fewer than 3 cars across the street, usually one or more not running. For many years there was a camper parked in the driveway, with guys living in it. Numerous domestic disputes (and one anonymous call from a nosy neighbor to Adult Protective Services) have summoned Sunnyvale's Finest here, the biggest assembly ever being this past Wednesday night with a fire truck, two ambulances and 4 police cars. All the disputes have been between men, and included a lot of shouting and pounding and cars screeching away.

Activity increased yesterday, with more cars, more guys hanging around, trailers attached to pickups, and a U-haul truck. And today, they're gone. The driveway is empty, and there are no pickups parked all down our street. We've never, ever seen an empty view from our own living-room window. It's been a very strange white trash outpost in the midst of an otherwise quiet family neighborhood.

I don't think the house sold though. The For Sale sign that had broken in half and was swinging in the wind is also gone now. What -- who is next?


Thursday, June 02, 2011

6/2/2011 Critical Thinking

Maybe I'm too sensitive or skeptical, but receiving this sort of catalog actually offends me.

Better Grades & Higher Test Scores - Guaranteed!
More than 100 National Award Winners!
Empower the Mind!

Oh Freakin' PLEASE!!!

And I say this coming from a job and career that very highly value critical thinking. (Well, except for Mr. Horrible who has no idea what that means.)

In my line of work, as in many others, being able to separate the noise from the signal, the wheat from the chaff, is very important. I have two coworkers off whom I routinely bounce ideas -- who might have little knowledge of the specifics but who are able to isolate, analyze, evaluate; ask the right questions and guide me to the right answer. I have two other coworkers -- hired by Mr Horrible with no interview or vetting, hired only based on their loyalty and ability to kowtow and say YES -- who are sorely lacking in stepwise, methodical, logical reasoning.

By far the most able critical thinker I know is my dear husband, who never fails to strike me with his remarkable ability to think clearly and cut through a situation or discussion to its most valuable and relevant elements. This doesn't send your girlfriends into titters of "oooooh!" about your guy, but there's a solid reason I married him.

How do some get there and others not? I doubt it was from buying from catalogs like these.

As critical as I find critical thinking skills, I can't yet buy into the idea that they must be established in toddlerhood, or even childhood. I lean too far towards nature on the nature v. nurture argument. Some people are more inclined that way than others, and some just aren't -- thank goodness, because that's where out-of-the-box, creative, outrageous thinking and ideas come from. Some people are born with the inclination toward rational logical thinking, others are born with the inclination toward free random thinking; most of us fall somewhere inbetween. Each inclination greatly benefits from exposure and practice and experience in the other.

But selling "award-winning" "test prep" workbooks and toys oriented to paranoid parents who can't accept where their own kids fall on the art--science spectrum really irritates me. And that despite the fact that I tend to be a free-marketer: if you have a market for it and can sell it, go for it!

My life in a facts-ruled engineering department depends too heavily on critical thinking -- and the costs of its lacking -- for me to believe that this is important now, when my kids are still just kids. Maybe my thinking is rooted in the 1940s, or skewed by a firstborn who appears capable of little else besides critical thinking, but cripes, let kids be kids. Play, laugh, run, be silly, stare at the sky, cut a skein of yarn into 1000 tiny pieces as Katrina did tonight, be bored, draw random mazes, play for the hell of it and for no other reason. Not everything has to be "learning-oriented." I don't mean to be negligent in their education of course, but at this age (9-4), make it broad, make it cover the whole spectrum. The seriously critical thinkers and the seriously free thinkers will be so regardless.

Sell it if you can to the high-achieving set, but don't try to sell it to me.


p.s. I may have to retract everything I just wrote after noticing that this otherwise offensive catalog contains a "Moral Dilemmas: What Would You Do?" set of books. I'll bet they've never dealt with a kid who's so literal that he needs active training in empathy.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

6/1/2011 Coffee Night

Intensely stressful day, but mitigated with some sushi for dinner, relatively few kid problems (kicking Julian out to sit on the porch 4 times counts as relatively few around here) (oh yeah and Katrina had a rare meltdown but really that's in the noise), and some nice chatter with old friends. I'm REALLY psyched that one of those friends just got a new car -- she so needed and deserved it! All the kids she's always driving around will probably be grateful too. With my sister's family visiting soon, I've got to look into a minivan rental myself.

Some unwelcome excitement across the street tonight too: a loud domestic dispute (fight), lots of yelling, cars screeching around; then a firetruck, two ambulances and four police cars showed up. Usually our quiet block isn't a siren-magnet, but this one set of neighbors keeps 'em visiting every year or two. Their dump of a house is for sale; would someone PLEASE scrape up the $50K it'd take to demolish the place?

I'm very happy to put the last 24 hours behind me.


Tuesday, May 31, 2011

5/31/2011 Tough Love

I got a call from Dave today as I was driving from work to pick up the kids, and had to interrupt a precious call with my mother.

"Just to warn you," he said, "the boys are in SERIOUS trouble today."

When I arrived at the CDC, I talked at length with the CDC Director about (mostly) Gabriel's trangressions, trying to contain my increasing irritation and frustration. Gabriel had ignored a fire drill, threw rocks at another kid, and had threatened to take off and just walk home. Any one of those by themselves is a major transgression. Three together, and where do you even start?

Julian's offenses were more typical: disobeying and disrupting, but nothing as serious as throwing rocks at kids.

I keep hearing from other grownups about how they wouldn't have dared to defy their parents, because of the threat of The Belt. For the first time, I told Dave on the phone, "That's it, this time, Gabriel really needs it." This isn't the first time we've dealt with Gabriel disobeying during a fire drill, but it is the first time we've dealt with throwing rocks at other kids, and in the same day.

I didn't say anything to Gabriel on the way home, instead telling him in low, curt tones to put his lunch away, wash his hands, and meet me upstairs. Dave got home early to deal with this too, and we quickly formed a plan: while I talked to Gabriel in our room, Dave would put away every single toy he has. We agreed that my talk with Gabriel would include a demonstration.

Dave started emptying toys from Gabriel's shelves, while I confronted Gabriel in our room. I first asked him if what we'd heard was true, and he said yes, with concern but without fear. I have to hand it to him -- he knew he was in serious doo-doo, but he still didn't lie or try to duck out.

Then I stepped it up and told him sternly that throwing rocks at kids and disobeying during fire drills is absolutely, completely, totally NOT ALLOWED. With no opportunity for explanation or excuse, I went into my closet and emerged with a belt. I explained that this is what parents used to do all the time to disobedient kids. I smacked it across a bench and told him that it would hurt. I then told him I was going to show him how it felt, and instructed him to pull his pants down and lie down on the bed.

Gabriel's face clouded over with anger and upset over what he saw was going to happen. "OK MOM," he said defiantly, "I'LL SAY I'M SORRY." I didn't waver -- appear to waver -- and repeated my instructions. He lay down, I told him to move his hands protecting his rear end, then raised mine with the belt, and then smacked the end of the 1" leather across his bare rear end. He didn't react at first, then he leapt up suddenly and screamed at the top of his lungs.

It was an out-of-body experience for me. Did I really just take a leather belt to my son's bare bottom?? Am I that kind of parent? Or am I a regular parent who's been pushed too far? What will the alternative crowd say? What will the traditional crowd say? Has either ever actually been pushed this far?

In truth, the actual impact was pretty minor. The real impact was in the shock value, and with that, I think I succeeded. He was really shaken.

But I succeeded in reaching him even more after leaving him alone for a few moments, then returning to explain to him firmly that all his toys were being put away. He was horrified, but still calm from the overall shock if the situation.

I sat down next to him with genuine dejection. "I don't know what to do, Gabriel. I just can't teach you that you must do what you're told sometimes. Maybe a military boarding-school camp can help, because I just can't seem to do it."

I told him how much I hate to waste our precious time together talking about his bad behavior, instead of hanging together. I told him that there's nothing I love more than being with him and talking to him, but instead here I am talking about his throwing rocks at other kids. I told him that I'm responsible for him, and that sometimes means doing things I hate, like whacking him with a belt or being apart from him. I told him I'm responsible for his behavior and responsible for how the other kids' mother feels.

I sent him to his now-empty room, locked myself in a bathroom, and cried.

It occurred to me that everyone I know who's remembered The Belt as a child hasn't actually used it as a parent. Even those that did in the Olden Days did so because that was just what was done -- not because they were dealing with a truly difficult child.

Most modern parents couldn't dream of resorting to The Belt -- but if do you try to dream it, first dream of months of notes from his teachers, countless apologetic complaints from the after-school care director, numerous explosive conflicts at home, and then -- just by itself -- imagine hearing that your child threw rocks at another kid, and then dream how the other kids' mother must feel.

Gabriel stayed in his room crying and threatening to kill himself (threats I shrugged off but in fact did make me run up and check him frequently) while I made dinner. I guess his crying that his life was horrible and not worth living means we got through to him tonight. It certainly got through to me.

Dave and I also dealt with Julian, who'd also had his problems today but much more on ordinary lines. Julian took keen note of how Gabriel's toys (except books, which are shared here) were all gone, and appeared wide-eyed and concerned when we warned him that he was next.

I see no benefit to depriving a kid of food, so Gabriel joined us for dinner, where he sat sadly for most of it. He cried at one point: "What could be worse than not spending time with you (me) and losing Bear?" I talked to him calmly and persuaded him to eat, after which he relaxed. I told him that if his behavior was PERFECT tomorrow - at school and at CDC, then we'd talk about how to start getting his toys back. I told him how much I love being with him and how it sucked that he had to choose rock-throwing over me.

To my amazement, he agreed without the usual massive resistance to write a letter of apology to the CDC director, who's gone WAY WAY out of his way to accommodate our special cases. He got sadder at first at Katrina's talk of Truckee and skiing, then got happier when I told him November was plenty of time for him to get his act together.

I actually don't believe The Belt is the answer. It's a piece of the answer to deal with immediate severe problems -- a "timeout" just doesn't cut it anymore. Tonight's demonstration was designed to lend weight to future threats, without the intent of employing it on a regular basis.

Still, Gabriel seemed far more deeply affected when I told him how sad it made me that we couldn't hang together and talk. He tuned out about how bad that the other kid and the other kids' mother must feel, but there was no doubt his demeanor changed when I told him how disappointed and sad he'd made me.

Like his father and grandfather, he's not one to form relationships lightly or with many people. He'll have very close long loyal relationships with a few people. Family is built-in for long close relationships, and none moreso than your relationship with your mother. Gabriel's father didn't have a particularly close relationship with his mother, but times were such that people accepted those things back then and didn't examine them, but I'm determined that not be the case with us.

It's already not the case -- Gabriel and I are very very close, and every day we have wonderful moments together. I'm completely sincere when I tell him that I think about him all the time, and that I love him completely, through my bones and my blood, no matter how mad he makes me. It's completely true that he's been there for the happiest times in my life -- not just the exciting times like skiing or camping, but even just our one-on-one yaks together after dinner when Dave is getting the younger two ready for bed.

I know I'm the key. I can get through to this extraordinary child. He really really needs me. I just don't know what lock or set of locks to use the key in, or which way to turn the key and how hard. I can't seem to find the way to influence him before the crisis happens. This is Tough Love for me.


Monday, May 30, 2011

5/30/2011 Real Kids

Productive weekend! All weekends should be 3 days long: 2 for detox, then the 3rd to get something done.

I'm delighted that in addition to some indulgent gardening yesterday, I actually made a dent in our heaping garage project today. To the uninitiated eye, today's product still looks a major junkpile -- and it is -- but that little bit less means oh so much to me.

And I got a huge, out-of-control, rolling-on-the-floor laugh out of Gabriel when I found a box I'd labelled years ago as "Plumbing Crap." Dave also made a tremendous effort not to wince every time I proposed throwing away a torn rubber band. Getting rid of Stuff in a Garage is soooo hard for guys, but he did great.

Not all the day was so productive though. Our "fake" children -- deemed so by their absence of the self-identity-creating video games -- discovered another common childhood pursuit, thereby re-affirming their reality as children. I'm relieved it finally happened.

Yes folks, Gabriel has finally discovered Harry Potter!!

I didn't get a photo, but Julian (arguably the "family reader") was also absorbed for hours today in Harry's adventures in Book 1 (which mercifully we have two copies of -- I'm a fan myself!).

Katrina is never one to be left out of the action, and also spent a lot of time looking at the words, though there was no indication she was following the story. Katrina can read really well for her age, but her comprehension is about where you'd expect for a 4-1/2-year-old, and that's well below Harry Potter.

Lest you all think our children are too electronically deprived, each was allowed an hour on the computer today (after laundry of course), but children being children there was no delay of gratitude -- the boys chewed up their time early in the day. So it was up to good old Harry and Hogwarts to entertain them for the rest of the day.

That and Mom's sarcastic comments on box labels in the garage.


Sunday, May 29, 2011

5/29/2011 Gardening

I was pretty wiped out today despite a great start: meeting my friend Betsy at Rancho San Antonio at the ungodly hour of 7am to run. We ran to the farm, where I peeled off to tackle some hills -- I hated to miss the company of a running partner, but I also couldn't resist my beautiful Rancho and seeing some of the trails I haven't seen for months. It's so hard to park there on weekends, I don't even try anymore at decent hours. At 7am, there are still spaces.

Still, my chronic gastric issues bothered me on the run and had me lying down most of the rest of the day. But I had to get some plants under control today! Also, yesterday Katrina and I had gone to a home store to get some better pruners, but we also came home with some blue flowers, at her request, and it needed to be planted.

So though I really wasn't feeling very energetic, I had a great afternoon working with Katrina on the landscaping. We'd also gotten her some "Katrina-sized" gloves and kid-sized pruners. She was great at pruning, easily following my instructions about snipping something as far down as possible, and only the super-long ones. Not only was she great company, but she really helped! Her nonstop anthropomorphic chatter is delightful: "There, plant, now you can BREATHE again after your haircut!"

On another note --

Usually I don't pay much attention to Katrina's schoolwork, but for some reason I went through some of this Friday's preschool papers, and I was blown away to find this.

Dave said "Oh sure -- also, did you know about her homework file?" She'd put together her own "homework file," with a title page that says "," and her own "math homework."

I guess I shouldn't be too surprised that a 4-1/2-year-old preschooler would be doing subtraction workpages, but I can't help but to be really amazed that she then comes home and does it on her own?!

A recent article in the NY Times talked about how Connecticut is considering moving its kindergarten age cutoff date up, so that 4-year-olds don't go to kindergarten. California recently did the same thing, but is phasing it in, so Katrina is still old enough for kindergarten this year (in 3 years, her October birthday would have held her back a year).

I'm definitely on the side of social readiness being far far more important than academic readiness for kindergarten. Fortunately, all agree that Katrina is socially ready for kindergarten too, though she'll be on the young side.

But if she weren't socially ready, we'd have something of a dilemma because though normally I dismiss academic readiness for kindergarten, I think this level of readiness would have to be considered. I can't imagine sending a kid who understands subtraction to another year of pre-K! Unfortunately, if she doesn't get past this "leaking" / accidents problem, that might well be what happens.

Meantime, I'm so glad to have such a pleasant and cheerful gardening companion!