Friday, April 29, 2011

Early Bird Special

Lately my girls' nights out are starting earlier and earlier.  A few years ago we would meet at eight for drinks and dinner.  Now we are catching the early bird special at the local Italian restaurant sitting along side the elderly ladies with blue hair and and motorized go-carts sipping white wine spritzers.  It is not that we get too hungry for dinner at eight, or are too exhausted to be out past sun down.  No, as always it's about getting away from the kids. 

When my husband and I have our occasional date night, and actually hire a $20 per hour babysitter, we always abide by a strict rule: we must leave the house while the kids are awake!  Isn't that why we are paying the big bucks?  I need a break from the brushing teeth, the forcing on of pajamas, and the endless Richard Scarry and Dr. Seuss stories.

Just to be clear, after four plus years of dealing with the dreaded witching hour, I have come to hate the bedtime routine. It usually results in at least three people crying, both girls and one parent.  Since my husband works late, often conveniently scheduling business dinners at 7:00 or two-day board meetings in New York, this monotonous time of day typically lies solely in my hands.

5:30-  On an average day this is the time our bedtime routine begins, and I start preparing dinner.  After bargaining with my children to eat a few green beans, Maisy will throw her food on the floor then cry because "Food all dirty!"  I then attempt to clear the table, wash the dishes, and sweep the floor while Elana begs for another chocolate chip cookie and Maisy attaches herself to my leg and whines "Pick me up!"

6:15 -This is followed by bath time, which can last anywhere from five minutes to an hour.  While Elana would spend the entire day in the tub, Maisy is more fickle and often needs convincing to participate.  The water play usually begins well, with happy smiling children, but ends in one of two ways:
  1. The girls get into a water throwing match and have simultaneous meltdowns.
  2. Elana splashes, pours, and/or dumps half the bath water onto the floor causing a mommy meltdown.
6:45- After the bath, my attempts to dress them in their pajamas begin.  This is a rather arduous task, as my children would prefer to live on a nudist commune.   More often than not I have to threaten Elana with a time out and physically restrain Maisy to accomplish this.

7:00- Next it is teeth brushing time.  For some reason each child has approximately nineteen different character themed tooth brushes, so Elana needs ten minutes to decide which princess will be polishing her pearly whites.

7:15- Now both girls are ready for stories.  I sit in Elana's big chair with one girl on each leg and spend the next fifteen minutes refereeing the argument over whether we read Pinkalicious or Elmo's Potty Time.  Of course we read both, and more. 

7:30- I then take Maisy to her room, kiss her goodnight and tuck her in her crib.  She will look up at me sheepishly and say "Good night mommy," before jamming two fingers into her mouth and sucking like they are made of candy.

7:35- Finally I head back to Elana's room for one more kiss.  Inevitably she will beg for just one more story to which I respond, "No Elana.  It's time for bed."
"Just one more?  Please, please please."
"Just one chapter?"
"Just a short baby book?"
"Just one page?"
"Oh, all right.  Just one page."  I grab Mr. Brown Can Moo Can You and read "He can go like a cow, he can go moo, moo," then shut it dramatically, turn off the light, and close the door praying on bended knees that neither will wake.

So, would you want to do this every night? 

To end this post, I want to give a shout out of thank you to Adam Mansbach for writing a much needed bedtime story, Go the F@#k to Sleep.  I have already pre-ordered my own copy on Amazon and am eagerly awaiting its arrival (  Here is a little sample to whet your appetite for this masterpiece of childrens' literature:

“The cats nestle close to their kittens.
The lambs have laid down with the sheep.
You're cozy and warm in your bed, my dear
Please go the f@#k to sleep.” 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

My Children Can't Read

My four-year-old daughter is illiterate.  She cannot sight read any words, has not memorized short board books, and can barely write the first two letters of her name.  I am more than fine with all of this. In fact, I am proud. 

Do not get me wrong, we do read to our children, daily.  They love books, and on any given day would be more than happy to spend hours lounging on the couch with a stack of Pinkalicious and Frog and Toad stories.
Photo courtesy of Amanda Dixon Leung.
However, I am not spending time teaching the girls letters, phonics, and sight words.  Elana does not practice tracing her name, and Maisy (the subsequent child) believes that all letters stand for "Elana".  We send our daughters to a play-based Jewish preschool, where the alphabet is not introduced until they enter the pre-k program.  Their days are spent experimenting with paint, sand, clay, dressing up in costumes, romping outside with friends, planting seeds in the garden, and singing songs about Hashem and Moses (this part is completely foreign to me).

Unfortunately, living in this supermommy environment, where all children are untapped tiny geniuses, I cannot visit the playground without overhearing a mother brag about how her three year old spends hours reading to herself and her younger brother.  And, as an overly self-critical mother, who's mommy guilt only swells with each BabyCenter milestone email, I am constantly second-guessing these choices.

For only $200 the Your Baby Can Read series (as seen on TV!) promises to give your baby "increased communication styles, enhanced learning ability, greater confidence, and future success!!!" The program states that parents can begin putting their baby on the path to literacy at a mere three-months of age.  Using their "scientifically proven" (and patented) instructional materials, parents need only to force their infants to lie in front of a TV screen for an hour or so a day, and let the magic ensue.  In a matter of months, your young, bald, slobbering baby, will be able to identify simple words like: dog, drum, boy, and car (even though she may not yet be able to say these words).  
How illiterate children spend their days.
As enticing as it may seem to brag to all the other mothers at your playgroup that little Max has memorized over fifteen written words, most experts do not endorse this program.  The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed a complaint against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that they use misleading marketing techniques and that the program teaches the babies to memorize, not read.  The CCFC alleges that this program is not only deceptive, but harmful, since it encourages abundant television time for infants when the American Academy of Pediatrics explicitly states that children under the age of two should be allowed no screen time.

More importantly, is that infants and toddlers have much more valuable things to be doing with their time: finger painting, running in circles, jumping on couches, pot-and-pan beating, and nose picking (to name just a few).  As we all know, children, especially at this age, are little sponges waiting to soak up any information we offer (even the stray four-letter-word).  They learn through everything they do; playing with dirt and water helps them discover and make connections.  There will be plenty of time for them to learn i before e (except after c) when they are sitting in school desks for the next seventeen plus years of their lives.

As for me and my girls, I know that I am instilling in them a love of literature without the pressure to read and write as toddlers.  By making books and story time an enjoyable and cherished part of our daily routine, I am sure that they will be able to read by the time they enter the work force. 

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Secret to a Happy Family- 2 Daughters!

When the ultrasound revealed that our second baby also had the XX chromosomes, I immediately began forecasting a dreary future filled with girl fights, battles over tangled hair, and endless nights comforting devastated tweens in the midst of girlfriend drama.  However, it turns out that this combination of children leads to the happiest families.  Who knew that my husband had the secret sauce all along?

Recently the British website,, surveyed 2116 families with two to four children in a variety of combinations.  According to their report, families with two girls "make for the most harmonious family life as they are unlikely to fight, will play nicely and are generally a pleasure to be around. Two girls rarely annoy their parents with too much noise, confide in their parents and are unlikely to wind each other up or ignore each other."

Hmm... they seemed to have forgotten to include my lovely family in the results.  Had Bounty been at my house this morning, they would have observed anything but a harmonious family.  No one was playing nicely together, and the noise level was above 80 decibels (without a vacuum in sight).  Elana and Maisy were taunting each other- Elana tried to commandeer Maisy's new Barbie and hide it in her bedroom, and Maisy responded by repeatedly whacking Elana on the head with her yogurt covered spoon.   Oh yes, two girls rarely annoy their parents!

It also turns out that families with four girls are the least happy of them all (25% of these families admitted to having difficulty coping with family issues on a daily basis, and may manage up to four fights per day).   This makes perfect sense to me.  As a former middle school teacher, nothing was more dreadful than a gaggle of girls ready to tear each other apart.  Four girls is more like running a sorority than a family. 

Here is the complete list of boy/girl combinations from happiest to most miserable:
  1. two girls
  2. one boy/one girl
  3. two boys
  4. three girls
  5. three boys
  6. four boys
  7. two girls/one boy
  8. two boys/one girl
  9. three boys/one girl
  10. three girls/one boy
  11. two girls/two boys
  12. four girls
There are a few critical points to note. First of all, the survey did not include families with only one child, since we all know that these families are even more content than the ones with two girls.  Nor did it it include childless couples (the most joyful of all).

Secondly, the study emphasizes what early studies have already shown, that happiness levels decrease with each additional child.  Notice how the happiest families in this table have the least number of children and the least happiest families have the most children.

So the moral of this story, it's time for Ted to get that vasectomy that I have been dreaming about for two years.  Put a fork in us, we are done!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Bite Me!

Currently I have four colorful bruises adorning my pale Scottish skin- upper right arm, lower left arm, left hand, and left cheek.  I was attacked in the safety of my own home and my assailant was my two-year-old daughter, Maisy.  
My monster.
Recently Maisy has began to express both her frustration and excitement with her teeth, and I am her canvas of choice.  The scene usually begins one of two ways:
  1. Maisy is super excited about a game we are playing, and in her enthusiasm, plants her fangs into my flesh.
  2. Maisy and Elana are aggravating each other (fighting over a toy, personal space, or simply attention), and Maisy becomes discouraged with her inability to explain herself and chomps into the nearest piece of meat.
So far, she has only bit me and her older sister, but I am worried, and watchful, when she gets into a possessive battle with other children at the playground.  Yesterday, when I took her to the tot playroom at the California Academy of Sciences, I spent every moment of my time there watching her like a hawk and ready to pounce on her if she got into a heated debate with another toddler over a piece of plastic food.  Needless to say, it was not a relaxing afternoon, and after preemptively interfering for the fourth time, I carried her, kicking and screaming, from the toddler zone.

I know that biting is a perfectly normal developmental stage that most toddlers experiment with.  However, I am also highly aware of the intensely judgemental parenting environment that exists in San Francisco.  Each time Maisy got into a skirmish with another tot and started to bare her jowls in anger, the other mothers shot shocked looks of horror and disgust her way.  I could hear them whispering "My son always shares." "How horrible!  Little Olivia has never bit anyone."  Yes, I am sure that their sweet, darling, 16-month-olds are perfect little angels.  Maisy was sweet then, too.

Maisy is also the second, and god help me, last child in our happy home.  Children in this position of birth order tend to be risk takers, attention seekers, and more aggressive.  This is not shocking- with an overly dramatic and demanding older sister, Maisy has learned that in order to compete she must be bleeding from both ears.

So, what should I do so that my youngest does not get our family rejected from all Bay Area play spaces?  I desperately searched the internet looking for ways to tame the terrible biting monster.
  • No eye-for-an-eye, or bite-for-a-bite.  As appealing as this may seem, biting back does not help curb the behavior.  The child most likely already knows that biting hurts, this is why they did it in the first place.  
  • Time-outs or "time-ins" (the preferred new-age discipline).  Separate the offending child from the play area.  This can be a time-out in another room, or a "time-in" on your lap.
  • Model appropriate behavior.  Help the child to voice his frustrations and find alternative ways to express them.  Encourage speech such as "No, I am playing with this," and "You are really bothering me right now.  Would you kindly please step away from my personal space."
  • Rewards chart.  A friend's daughter had a rewards chart set up at preschool, and would excitedly come home to tell her older sister that she didn't bite anyone today!
This morning Elana began taking the discipline of Maisy into her own hands.  When Maisy was sent to her room for a time-out after biting Elana's ankle, Maisy began calling out "Sorry Nana, sorry Nana."  Elana marched into the room and said, "Maisy, I will forgive you if you promise not to bite anymore.  If you don't bite for the rest of the day, I will give you my Belle crown."  Maisy smiled and replied, "Ok Nana!"

Maybe I will just leave the parenting to the children.

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Case for Creative Tots

"We are all creative, but by the time we are three or four years old, someone has knocked the creativity out of us. Some people shut up the kids who start to tell stories. Kids dance in their cribs, but someone will insist they sit still. By the time the creative people are ten or twelve, they want to be like everyone else."  (Maya Angelou)

Every few months my husband and I have the same argument: while he likes a neat, clean, and orderly house and children, I allow the girls ready access to a wide variety of art supplies.  On any given day Elana may arrive at preschool with her face covered in water color paints pronouncing that she is a butterfly.  On other days she will "tattoo" her arms with Crayola markers, claiming that she is now Sleeping Beauty.  On a few occasions she has experimented with a permanent marker (which contrary to its claim, is not actually permanent). 

Ted is horrified by all of this.  He doesn't like real tattoos and is nearly as annoyed with temporary ones.  He thinks that crayons are for paper, and chalk is for the sidewalk- across the street.  However, I believe the power of self expression, and what better way to express yourself than through magic marker?

I love art.  For years I have been knitting, painting, throwing pottery, beading, and writing.  Doing this with my children allows me to play with them while keeping a sense of self.  I can sit at the coffee table drawing with crayons for hours (okay, maybe a 40 minutes) without feeling bored or exhausted.  The girls know that mommy will always eagerly paint with them, even before I've had my morning caffeine. However, a request for me to play Rapunzel will be met with an "After I do the dishes, wipe the table, clean the toilet, pluck my eyebrows, and fold the laundry."

Creating art does not necessarily mean drawing a picture of a rainbow, or sewing a functional garment.  For toddlers, art is the experience of feeling (or smelling, or tasting) the media.  Experiencing new textures allows their young brains to develop, and what better way to experience them than by using all the senses at once?  In my house there is never an end product in mind, that is why my children often look like this:

For all of the parents that are still skeptical of allowing their children free reign with some poster paint and a brush, remember that creativity teaches children to be independent, to find adventure in a room of cardboard boxes, and most importantly, to play on their own.

Art is an extremely crucial aspect of learning for toddlers. Not only does art teach children about colors (and that mixing colors creates new shades), shapes (which eventually lead to actual objects), and
fine motor skills, art allow children to develop problem solving skills.  Producing art requires that children learn how to make choices, think independently, utilize their imaginations, and explore nonverbal forms of communication (and I am always a fan of nonverbal communication!).  As Dr. Charles Fowler, a key spokesman on behalf of arts in education, said, "The arts invite students to be active participants in their world rather than mere observers of it."

Creative arts also offer children an opportunity to realize their emotional needs and find ways to articulate those feelings to others.  For centuries art has been used by therapists to help children express their worries, fears, and wishes.  Art also teaches us how to be empathetic- by allowing us to understand our own emotions we can better understand other people's feelings.

Shirley Brice Heath, of Stanford University, conducted a ten-year national study of children involved in community arts programs in under served communities.  She compared these children to a national sample and found that they were:
  • Four times more likely to win an academic award, such as being on the honor roll.
  • Eight times more likely to receive a community service award.
  • Three times more likely to win a school attendance award.
  • Four times more likely to participate in a math or science fair.
  • Likely to score higher on their SAT college admission test scores if they have been involved for more than four years of after-school arts study.

Now, you may be wondering how I store all these masterpieces my children create.  The answer is rather simple- I don't.  To me, it's all about the process not the product (and thank God for that, since the product is usually horrid!). I typically allow a new painting or play-doh sculpture to remain in sight for a few days, then I toss it into the recycling bin.  The kids rarely notice its absence; hell, they barely noticed when the cat left to the farm.

I do worry about how Ted and I will face the teenage challenges of body piercing and experimental hair color.  I foresee me cautiously approving all sorts of self expression, while Ted shakes his head in disgust.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Choosing Your Battles???

As a mother I battle daily with the struggle between choosing the battles I want/need to fight and sending a clear message about who is in charge.  My husband often adopts the earlier view, remarking "What does it matter if Maisy wants to wear her blueberry stained pajamas all day?"  And, to be honest with you, I don't really care if Maisy tromps off to the library lapsit wearing her hand-me-down princess nightgown with dried oatmeal hanging off Sleeping Beauty's face.   Still, at some point I would like my children to do as I say, because I say it.  Ideally I would like them to get dressed when I ask, finish their meals without prompting, and brush their teeth without tantrums.
Sans demons.
This morning Maisy, who is almost two, wanted a second serving of raisin bran when she saw that I had finished her leftovers (yes, my own breakfast often consists of what is leftover from the kids).  I had no problem pouring her another bowl and placing it at the kiddie table.  Maisy, however, had no intention of sitting at the small table in the corner of the kitchen.  She was determined to eat standing up at the kitchen counter (a bad habit that I have allowed because it makes the clean-up process easier).  With a hint of frustration, I placed the bowl on the counter and scooted over a chair for her to stand.

"No," she cried, "this one."  Maisy pointed to the step-stool that I had already cleaned and put away after the first breakfast.

"Maisy, if you want to eat cereal at the counter, you can stand on this chair."

"No, no, no!" Maisy  stomped her feet searching for something to throw.  She then tried to drag the step-stool out of its storage spot behind the refrigerator.  I tried not to laugh as I watched the tiny toddler try to lift something the size of her own body.

At this point I was just annoyed.  I had said no numerous times, but she was unwavering.  We were in a battle of wills, and I was not about to lose.

I left Maisy alone on the kitchen floor, where she preceded to throw a monumental fit of despair.  Lying on her stomach she kicked her kegs, pounded her hands, and screamed as though I was shoving her lambie down the garbage disposal.  Tears streamed down her chubby little face soaking the neckline of her dress and snot poured from her nose like a running faucet.  I went about tidying up the house, all the while worried that she was waking up the elderly Chinese couple across the street.

Maisy's reaction to the situation was obviously ridiculous, we are talking about standing on a chair versus a step-stool.  However, why not concede to her demands- it would take only three seconds to reclean the stool?  Why should all of us, including Elana who was covering her ears and saying "Maisy is too loud!", have to suffer when a simple surrender could make all the demons go away?

On the other hand, if I concede to this, what will that teach her for the next time I say "no"?

In the end, I let her finish her demonic fit, picked her up, kissed her, and settled on the couch to read a few books.  The cereal was never mentioned again.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Family Dinners

If your household runs anything like mine, meal times are not typically a family affair.  At 5:30 I am desperately attempting to combine a nutritionally balanced meal that my toddler and preschooler will both eat. Erma Bombeck said, “In general my children refuse to eat anything that hasn't danced in television .”  This isn’t too far from reality in my household!
At 6:00, I am tossing the acrylic plates and cups in the dishwasher and wrestling the children into the tub.  By 8:00, the kids are in bed and I am too exhausted to even consider creating an adult meal.  I pour cereal into a large bowl, add milk, grab a piece of fruit and a glass of wine, and hibernate in the family room with my husband and the latest episode of Mad Men.
I know this is not ideal.  In fact it is completely against the advice of nearly all parenting experts.  Numerous studies show that frequent family mealtimes correlate with healthier eating habits, as well as better weight control and less substance abuse (not only for the parents, but also for the children as they enter their teenage years).  Children who eat with their parents consume more of the important daily vitamins, a greater quantity of fruits and vegetables, less sodium and fat, and fewer snacks than their peers who eat separately.  What’s more, according to a 1994 Lou Harris-Reader’s Digest Poll, children who regularly eat with their parents do better in school and have greater ambitions about their future.
My God, I didn’t realize that sitting my children at the kiddy table was not only destroying their health, but their academic future as well!  It was time for this family to attempt the 6:00 family dinner, and the kids were going to help. 
A few years ago, as the Bernal Heights Library was in the process of being remodeled, two local mothers gathered family friendly recipes from friends and neighbors and created Bernal Eats: A Busy Family’s Survival Guide.  To commence my new family dinner, I unearthed my copy of the cookbook (buried beneath the 40 other cookbooks I never consult) and browsed the recipes, searching for an easy meal that would satisfy my need and my husband’s need for food to actually taste good, and my children’s need for food to be beige.  I decided to attempt three recipes for this monumental meal: Sesame Noodles with Shredded Chicken, Microwave Bok Choy and Ice Cream Pie—to bribe the children to taste the first two dishes.
Since my youngest daughter is too young to be of any help in the kitchen, unless you consider dumping a package of Cheerios onto the counter to be useful, I invited a friend’s 4-year old over to help me and my own 4-year old prepare dinner.  The experiment started off well as we began by making the ice cream pie.  Elana and Poppy eagerly smashed graham crackers in a plastic zip-lock bag until they were crumbs.  We then mixed those crumbs with butter and smushed them onto the bottom of a pie pan.  As I spooned chocolate ice cream on top of the crust, the girls tossed in handfuls of chocolate chips and mini-marshmallows, then topped the pie with a huge swirl of gooey chocolate sauce.  They never knew cooking could be this awesome!
After placing the pie in the freezer to harden, we began the main course.  Needless to say, the girls were not nearly as enthusiastic, but still offered their “help.”  This “help” consisted of emptying premeasured spoonfuls of ingredients into a bowl, stirring the wet ingredients so vigorously they splattered the cabinets and fighting over who got to stand on the red chair.  By the time the dinner was ready to eat, the suggested preparation time had been doubled, the smoke alarm had been activated, and the kitchen was a wreck. 
At 6:00 we finally sat down to dinner—two 4-year olds, one toddler, two moms and one dad—it was like Big Love in my own dining room.  We started by passing around the bok choy, which neither 4-year old (nor husband) wanted on their plate.  The sesame noodles offered only slightly better results.  The children dug through the dish looking for pieces of chicken.  Once they ate all the chicken, they decided to try the noodles, if only in order to get to the dessert.  Lo and behold, they actually liked the noodles and the toddler even asked for a second helping, which she preceded to fling on the floor strand by strand.  When the dessert arrived, all mouths grew quiet and eyes widened with great anticipation.  As expected, the whole table agreed the pie was delicious.
At the end of the meal, I had six mostly satisfied humans, three pairs of sticky hands and one disaster of a kitchen.  However, we also had a lovely, relaxed meal together as a family.  The kids sat politely throughout dinner and participated in a real conversation.  Each child tried new foods, even if they did eventually declare “No like it.”  However, next time, I think I’ll do all the cooking for our family meal.

Friday, April 1, 2011

I Paid My Daughter to Eat Breakfast!

My eldest daughter may be in the front-running for the pickiest eater in the Bay Area.  Although the foods in her repertoire are healthy (oatmeal and blueberries, peanut butter sandwiches, chicken, apples, carrots, and all forms of chocolate), the variety is small and her willingness to try new tastes is paltry.  

Will Eat
Won’t Eat
Orange cheese
White cheese
Frozen blueberries
Fresh blueberries
Plain, whole wheat bagels
Bagels with any embellishments
Chicken Fingers
Chicken Strips
Penne pasta
All other shaped noodles
(The complete list is slightly more extensive, but I think that the point is made.)

This morning, as usual, Elana asked for oatmeal and blueberries, which she ate two bowls of for dinner the night before.  Patiently I explained to her that we are going to have something different this morning.  Elana looked skeptically at me, then repeated her request.  With a a firm "Not today!" I began preparing the morning meal.

By no means was I trying to be adventurous, and force my tot into eating something exotic like Huevo Rancheros or a Scottish egg.  I simply melted cheddar cheese on a few organic, sprouted wheat hamburger buns, and added a handful of raspberries to each girls' plates. 

Maisy, my two year old, promptly sat down and began topping her fingers with raspberries, drumming them on the table, then sucking the berries off one-by-one.  When this activity was finished, she picked up her cheesy toast and ate it.  No fanfare, no fuss, no problem.

Elana looked at the plate, declared "yucky", and started negotiating.  "After I eat three raspberries, please make me something else."  In my mind I imagined my mother scolding me, "You are not a short order cook!"

"No, Elana.  You need to try this breakfast."
"But, I don't like this.  Please make me a bagel with cheese."

My attempts to persuade her that the whole grain hamgburger bun with melted cheese is not that different from a whole grain bagel with cheese were unconvincing and her requests turned into pleas, then begs, then ultimately a tiny tantrum.

At this point I didn't care if she ate breakfast or not.  My children are both a healthy weight and skipping a meal or two would not stunt their growth.  However, I am worried about the limited range.  So, with little forethought, I decided to bribe the girl. 

"Elana, if you eat half a piece of cheese bread I will give you two quarters."

After a brief negotiating session, we settled on four quarters.  She then sat down and ate the whole thing, and declared "I like it, just a little bit."

I know that this tactic is completely anti the advice all parenting experts give about food and toddlers, but it worked, and now she has enough money to buy that silly plastic flower ring at the corner store.  So, I ask you, am I horrible?