Big Brother is Watching

We were lingering at the breakfast table last Sunday morning when he said, “You know, I’m worried about Pea’s texting. Let’s check her phone, and if she has a boyfriend, we should drive to his house to talk to him.”

That precaution may seem a bit extreme for a pre-pubescent girl, but then again, it was her teenage brother – not her father – talking.

By all accounts, Pea is not yet texting with boys, and she isn’t chasing them around the playground, either. But Heaven help her when the hormones kick in, because her big brothers are watching. Very closely.

A few weeks back, Pea attended her first middle-school dance. She and her closest friends are on the reserved side, so didn’t flock to any of the Friday-night dances last fall. With the start of a new year, though, they decided to hit one together, and that threw them into a tailspin. Them being my three sons, of course.

“Do you think she’ll dance with boys?” # 1 son asked.

“I want to see her before she goes,” said #2. When told that she was getting ready at a friend’s house, #2 replied, “Okay then, she needs to send a photo of herself before she leaves. I want to check what she’s wearing.”

Number 3 son suggested to his ninth-grade buddies, who were re-fueling on pizza at our house, “Hey, let’s go up to the dance and offer to chaperone.”

Poor girl. And, poor any-boy-who-ever-dares-to-ask-her-out.

After the dance, my three sons all–separately, from wherever they were hanging that night—contacted Pea for the low-down. They were relieved to hear that she hadn’t slow-danced or otherwise tangled with any male classmates.

Having big brothers may have helped delay boy-craziness for Pea. She has witnessed the gritty underbelly of boys’ lives; sitting in the back of a mini-van as we picked up dirty, sweaty, stinky boys from sports practices, hearing the goofy way adolescent boys talk when they get together and witnessing the rumple-haired, bare-chested, boxer-clad look of her siblings every morning. No wonder she prefers crushing on squeaky clean pop-stars such as Justin Bieber.

However, the bros are definitely bracing for the inevitable, and they know all too well what she should watch out for.

After all, they are young men themselves.

I suspect Pea will appreciate her brothers’ watchful eyes as she grows older. I, too, was blessed with three big brothers, and my heart still melts whenever I think of them.

My own Brother #3 is just two years older than me, and it seems he was always nearby for support. When it came time to select a college, #3 and his best friend convinced me to attend their university. I think they had an ulterior motive — meeting and dating my friends — but (for the most part) the opposite worked well for me, too.

At college, I felt secure that #3 was watching over me. Early in my freshman year, at a party in #3’s frat house, an upper-classman invited me to his room, ostensibly to hear an ELO song played backwards (akin to the Beatles’ famed  track that states “Turn me on, dead man” when played in reverse). Within minutes of settling into this guy’s room, my brother opened the door to join us. I now realize how totally naïve I was, and I am grateful that big brother was watching.

Brother #2 was responsible for me when I was very young, as with six kids, my parents decided to go with zone defense. I always knew that kind-hearted #2 would help me with anything I needed. He taught me now to butter my toast and pour my Frosted Flakes, and later, drive a car and ride on a motorcycle. When I was a technology reporter in New York, I often called him for explanations; he’s a computer genius with the skill and patience to inform others. Now, my own #3 son often communicates with him (via Facebook, of course) in matters regarding computer and cars.

Brother #1, the alpha male, took me on the El train to the Museum of Science and Industry, drove me and some friends to our first rock concert (remember America and “A Horse With No Name”?), club-hopped with me during his visits to NYC and twice joined me on European jaunts. His intelligence and acerbic wit made traveling fun and educational, and once, in a mountain-top Italian disco, I was especially grateful for his watchful eye.

After our father died, #1 became more than just a big brother; he became the family’s patriarch. I made sure that he, and my other siblings, approved of Rich when we were dating. And then, when my wedding day approached, I asked Brother #1 to walk me down the aisle. When I look at the photos today, I note how seriously he took the responsibility of “giving me away.”

I especially treasure those wedding photos and memories, now that my brother #1 is no longer alive. I can only hope that Pea appreciates her watchful—and perhaps a bit annoying–big brothers as much as I did, for as long as they can peer over her shoulder.

Linda Williams Rorem, 30 Jan. 2012

Sh*t Moms Say

Sometimes when I have conflict with my kids, I have been known to utter classic phrases such as, “I don’t care what they do at your friend’s house, this is the way we do it here.”  If I really get going I might launch next with, “Wait until you have kids of your own someday…”

Recently, these pronouncements were delivered at home with higher frequency as Seattle was literally “snowed in” for nearly a week. After the initial fun and coziness of making snowmen and drinking multiple mugs of hot chocolate wore thin, cabin fever began to set in. While this unexpected week of togetherness created both fun and friction, it also provided plenty of time to explore the latest hits on YouTube. My kids introduced me to a series of videos called “Shit (fill in blank) Say.” It all started — way back in December 2011 — with Shit Girls Say, featuring Juliette Lewis and written by Kyle Humphrey and Graydon Sheppard.

Shit Girls Say is a parody that pokes fun at stereotypically female ways of talking. This minute-long video has now been viewed over 12 million times. Further, it has spawned hundreds of variations by gender and ethnicity. Some are funny; others might be viewed as insulting, depending on your point of view. However, my teenage sons could hardly contain their peals of laughter as we watched together, Shit Moms Say

I have to admit, the stereotyping of the mom in the video was mostly true. My kids loved the vignette of the mom’s tirade being interrupted by a phone call. She manages, in the middle of a huff, to switch her tone on a dime and sweetly answer the call.

I loved the lines, “Am I the only one here who does laundry?” and “You have got to be kidding.” The exasperation and resignation after the actress opens the door to her teenager’s room is spot on.

I asked my kids what some of my repeat offending statements might be.  According to the experts in this house, I say “Sign off.” Apparently, I say it frequently and apply it universally, whether referring to Facebook or even a non-electronic activity that I want to end. I had no awareness of my liberal use of the phrase but, you know what, I like it.

One thing is for sure, it was good to be able to laugh at myself with my kids and then tell them we were done, “Because I said so.”

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Carol Lewis Gullstad January 23, 2012

The Great Escape

So often, when you can least afford to take a break, you actually need it the most, so you need to force yourself to drop everything and take a breath.

This was true a few years back, when my co-author Carol and I took a weeklong trip during the hectic holiday season, and it was equally true last Sunday, when I made a great escape while preparing to host a family party.

My extended family, here in the Seattle area, numbers 29 people. We all feel fortunate, as every family member is considerate, interesting and intelligent, we enjoy each other’s company and in-fighting never occurs. The cousins absolutely adore each other, and my husband’s parents are young, energetic, generous and involved.

Because the family is so close-knit, we celebrate every holiday and birthday together. And, with all of those occasions to commemorate, our gatherings are frequent, large and a bit hectic. To spread the load, everyone contributes food to each event and we take turns hosting (although the grandparents take on the “big ones” – Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter).

Last weekend it was my turn, as my husband and third son were born soon after Christmas. Two other family members have birthdays close to that time, so their parents offered to pitch in, as well.

As usual, I started preparations a few days ahead: planning the menu, grocery shopping, de-cluttering the house and cooking.  On Saturday, I set out the utensils and serving platters, wrapped gifts, assembled the “Dirt Cake” (every child’s favorite) and baked the foundation for a chocolate mousse cake. (I had planned to finish the cake following a dinner party that night, but after a few glasses of champagne, I opted to watch “Saturday Night Live” with my husband instead.)

On Sunday morning, I hit the ground running; I woke early to start the Bolognese sauce for the home-made lasagna, boiled the noodles and whipped up the cake’s chocolate mousse filling and white-chocolate buttercream frosting. I hoped to make a quick trip to the gym, but the cake and sauce took longer than I had imagined, and other family responsibilities kept sidetracking me.

So, when my friend Azie sent a text asking, “M:I-GP at 1:30?” my first reaction was, “Wrong day, wrong time.” Then, I reconsidered. I still had one gift to pick up at the mall, and the movie theatre was right across the street. I really wanted to see Mission: Impossible, and didn’t know when else I might squeeze it in. In the end, I replied: “Gr8! C u there.”

I skirted out at the last minute, grabbed a high-octane coffee in the theatre lobby (I have a habit of sleeping through films; you know, dark lights, comfortable seats, a rare moment of repose…) and found Azie just as the opening credits started rolling. I wiped the sweat off my brow and settled in.

The good news is that the film was so thrilling, I didn’t even begin to doze off. The bad news is that it’s so long, when it neared 4 pm and I still needed to stop at the mall, assemble and bake the lasagna and put together the cake before the 5:30 party, I started feeling anxious for it to end.

Back at home, with little time to spare and a shower still on the agenda, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much my husband had helped. And, although I had to click into high gear to get everything ready in time (the coffee – which I rarely drink – certainly helped), I didn’t regret taking the movie break.

My inlaws are forgiving, and don’t expect everything to be in perfect order when they arrive. Really, what relative or true friend would?  Plus, I realized that no one would notice what I didn’t get done; my own high expectations are always my worst enemy.

Martha Stewart might not advocate escaping for a few hours before hosting a party, but the brief break ensured that I didn’t spend the entire day standing in the kitchen or scurrying around the house picking up after the kids (and continually nagging them to help).

Because of my great escape, I was able to relax for a few hours, enjoy a wonderful, action-packed film and spend time with a good friend. It was time well-spent when it seemed I could least afford it.

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–        Linda Williams Rorem, 16 Jan. 2012

Making Your Kids Smarter?

Last week my 11-year-old son smugly announced to me, “I have been reading an article on ways to make your brain smarter. Guess what one of the items is?”

“Um, reading?” I replied.

“No. Guess again.”

“Eating your fruits and vegetables?” “ No.”

“Minding your manners?” “No!”

At this point he could hardly contain his glee and cut off the guessing game with, “Playing violent video games makes you smarter!” Oh yeah, I am not kidding. I asked him for his source.

He trotted out the latest issue of Newsweek.

As I was paging through the magazine to verify his interpretation, he added slyly, “There are things you can do too, like drinking red wine and eating dark chocolate.” Hallelujah, my secret stash of chocolate in my desk is not only medicinal but brain food.  I have to give the kid credit for cleverly co-opting my compliance by pointing out that there was something “bad” in it for me. I hate being outsmarted by a 5th grader.

Sharon Begley’s Newsweek article, Buff Your Brain, stated that “Various studies have found that videogames quicken reactions, improve multitasking, and reduce hostile feelings after a stressful task.” Who knew? Maybe after a tough day I should try playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare 3 or Skyrim instead of swearing to myself. I’ll be calmer and smarter at the same time.

I admit that allowing my youngest son to play “M for mature” rated games has left me a bit uncomfortable. Entries such as Modern Warfare have enough swearing to make a sailor blush. When the kids disappear into the basement we know they aren’t leaving to find a quiet place to study. As a way of assuaging our own guilt we usually euphemistically holler downstairs, “Are you saving the world again?”

Although seeing a Shakespeare play and doing word games also made the list of brain-enhancing activities, I don’t think my sons will see them as viable replacements for video games. But now, lucky for us, we can just ask if they are “getting smarter” next time we hear the click of the controller.

One more noteworthy item, the list said writing by hand engaged more sections of the brain than typing. Thus, while I am met with an icy stare when I point out to my kids that they don’t always need a laptop to write a paper, I can now advise that it is for their own good. My neurons are jumping for joy.

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Carol  Lewis Gullstad  January 9, 2012

Starter Kids

I used to chuckle when young couples acquired puppies, announcing they were “starter kids.” Since I was definitely not a “dog person,” I couldn’t imagine what those needy, slurpy, stinky creatures could teach about parenting.

Now that I’m the parent of a two-year-old dog, I understand.

I never wanted a dog. With four lively kids, including three boys born within three and a third years, as well as a husband who travels routinely for work, I figured a dog would push me over the edge. And, despite my kids’ pleads and promises, I knew that if we acquired a dog, I would be saddled with the lion’s share of the work. My days seemed busy enough already.

Two years ago, I broke down and agreed to the dog. And, yes, despite my kids’ promises, I really am saddled with the lion’s share of the work.

Surprisingly, I don’t mind. In fact, my dog Bauer has become one of my best buddies.

Last week, during a trip to Whistler, BC, Bauer kept me company while my kids, husband and friends skied, as a knee injury kept me off the slopes. As we took our daily walk in the woods, I realized that one of the reasons I adore my dog, is he reminds me of my boys…in their younger years.

Young dogs truly have lot in common with two-year-old boys, and similar “parenting” strategies work with both breeds. I now realize that those couples starting out with dogs were on to something. So, here are 12 tips for dealing with two-year-old boys and dogs:

  1. All you need is love.
    When our puppy arrived, I had no clue what to do. My wise friend Tena advised, “Just give him lots of belly rubs.” Bauer and I start each day with that, and so far, so good. As for dealing with toddlers, another friend once counseled, “Try not to be angry all the time.” So, amidst the chaos, I repeated those three important words often, and with meaning. My three teenage boys still end every phone call and text with an “I love you.”
  2. Keep commands simple.
    Apparently “smart” dogs and two-year-old boys have similar vocabularies. Experts state that both are capable of understanding one- or two-word commands, and will tune out anything longer. I took that advice to heart, and once stunned a friend when I shouted “Boys! Door! Now!” at his home. My three boys magically re-appeared; the friend called me a drill sergeant.
  3. Be clear about expectations.
    When I put on my running shoes, Bauer leaps for joy, and continues doing so until we exit the house. If you tell a toddler you’re going to the park, he, too, can’t focus on anything else until you leave. If you want peace in the present, limit talk of the future.
  4. Give them room to run.
    We all know why dog parks and playgrounds stay in business: both puppies and little boys need room to run. Often. When my boys were younger, I would even select flights with layovers so I could run the kids through the airport corridors between segments.
  5. Positive reinforcement works.
    This sage advice appears in every dog manual and parenting book, and it’s true: praise is effective.
  6. Bribery works even better.
    While praise has its place, most dog owners and parents aren’t averse to a little bribery. After all, what are dog treats for? And, more than one friend has reported that her son’s grades magically improved when an iPhone was held out as a carrot.
  7. Time-outs help two-year-olds and moms regroup.
    Sending my kids to their rooms gives me time to regroup and think about what I want to do or say. My dog gets time-outs, too. In fact, when he escapes, plays in the neighbor’s creek and returns covered with mud, he heads straight for “his” room on his own.
  8. Don’t expect them to want to share their toys.
    At a playgroup gathering, I once voiced frustration about my son’s reluctance to share toys. Another mom asked, “How would you feel if a stranger came to your house and drove off in your car?” It’s true; we don’t come by sharing naturally. And dogs, like kids, need toys to call their own.
  9. Keep their bellies full.
    Many behavioral issues could be avoided with a big, healthy meal instead of a sugary snack. It’s just that simple (for adults, too).
  10. Don’t trust them with chocolate.
    Most people know that chocolate could kill a dog. It probably isn’t a good idea for young kids, either. Just don’t try to keep it from me.
  11. All you really need for a good day is a ball, a beach and a body of water.
    Because my husband’s job requires travel, his frequent-flier miles and hotel-loyalty points have enabled some fabulous family vacations. But no matter where we have traveled, the kids’ best memories are of time spent on beaches. The same is true for my pooch: his happiest days involve sea and sand.   
  12. A good romp in the snow can lift anyone’s spirits.
    Who wouldn’t smile after making a snow angel or engaging in a friendly snowball fight? Last week, Bauer and I both enjoyed our daily walks in the snow. The fresh powder and time together certainly took the sting out of being left behind.

Linda Williams Rorem, 2 Jan. 2012

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